Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Culture Cult, Remembered Arts, Cloud Women, and Dr. Eckleburg.
The gate, almost invisible, camouflaged within the fence.
The fence, fine metal mesh tensed across tall poles—a stretched sharp-toothed mouth—wraps the entire perimeter of the grounds.
The grounds, huge—a world of their own. Only the upper half of what the precinct hosts is visible above its protective belt. What we see is neatly drawn, nice and delicate like a picture from a children book. Tiled roofs, turrets and old-fashioned gables. Curtained windows with freshly painted shutters. Fancy weathervanes, gaudy banners. Treetops scattered among the constructions—pines, fir trees, cypresses, cedars of Lebanon—a triumph of conifers.
Such enchanting sight, severed of its lower half, looks incongruous. Even more as it clashes against the surrounding landscape (a sunburned, barren industrial district punctuated with bars, garages, liquor stores and gasoline pumps). All is wrong with the pretty scenery floating atop its strait jacket of wire, architecture and flora… neither these pointy roofs nor this foliage belong.
Was this once a wealthy someone’s estate, imitating a foreign décor, importing exotic plants? However the graft happened, eeriness is what remains—a sweet absurdity.
As we enter, the gate slides back in place and locks behind us. From now on my colleagues and I will be escorted wherever we’ll go, included the bathroom—each door we pass unbolted to let us in, then bolted again.
Not a jail, not namely. Just a Mental Illness State Hospital, so wide I wonder how many inmates/patients it contains. My colleagues and I are dancers coming for entertainment. We have done many such places. This is plain routine. Many such places and seen, met, known many such inmates/patients, and each time a lesson to learn. But we haven’t visited yet this location, which strikes me as peculiar.
Two disparate elements (they could not be more strident) contribute to a same result of estrangement. The unusual charm of the grounds, gardens, buildings, brings about a kind of paradoxical irony. The extreme security measures create an aura of danger, doom and fatality. With each locked door further removing the outside world, strange décor and segregation sum up to conjure a sense of unreality—as if we had inadvertently embarked on a spaceship and sailed off, bound to a planet unknown.
It is hot and we perform Hawaiian dances outside, scantly clad with sarongs, shells and flowers—hands drawing sensuous and caressing shapes as they tell stories, hips unleashed. We sweat rivers and our muscles work hard as we focus on two goals so embedded in our bodies, they have become automatic, unconscious. Faint not and look beautiful.
While the sun drums its beams on our bare skin, the audience is shaded under canopies and refreshments are served. I don’t know if these sherbets and crackers bring the spectators any sort of relief, as for those here reunited pain belongs to the probably incurable sort. Like for us the performing rituals, pain manifestations and patterns, labors and ceremonies, have become inherent to the residents of this so-called facility. Desperate, irrepressible screaming fills the air. So does wailing and crying. Jerking and repetitive motions contrast utter, hopeless immobility. Faces are either twisted in spasm or instead betray suffering by sheer emptiness, pure void of expressiveness.
We are used, I said, to ‘unusual’ audiences. Institutions of various sorts are among our clients. We are accustomed to spectators so absorbed by their immense plight to make our presence and exhibit ridiculous—so inane to be offensive.
Entertainment, though, is a required feature of all institutions, as a part of fair and human treatment. As for fruit punch and cake, I wonder if it brings even a drop of relief, and if yes of which kind. Distraction, perhaps, and it doesn’t matter. Ours is a paid job, not an exercise of philosophical speculation.
We are accustomed to this kind of setting, therefore we strive to produce as much grace and liveliness as we would on a glamorous stage. Lack of interest on behalf of our audience doesn’t impact our artistry. Or does it? In case, it improves it. For two reasons, again disparate and contrasting yet leading to the same outcome.
On one end, the divide between us and our spectators, so uncannily pronounced—their drab, sad, untidy attire, the unease of their bodies, movement limitations, blatant suffering, visible or invisible wounds versus our festive masquerade, shiny make-up, physical adroitness, display, versatility—brazen freedom splashed in the face of tragic constraint…
Such divide induces us to abstract from our audience and uniquely focus on our numbers, skills, accuracy, excellence. Then we dance for dance sake, so to speak, with enhanced concentration.
On the other end, the unattainability of the audience can’t help fostering our subliminal wish to go overboard, on a vain, unconscious attempt at reaching the opposite shore. If landing on such remote islands seems impossible, our bodies (unknown to our minds) try to at least weave a flag, crack a firework, send a smoke signal, throw a message in a bottle hoping to evoke an even-so-faint reaction. Hoping to leave a trace.
Who knows? Maybe a pleasant memory will emerge summoned by a particular gesture or sound, maybe an incipit of desire, relaxation, perhaps the hint of a smile—hands slowly, slowly gathering as if for applause then stopping in mid-air, then collapsing as if they had lost their way.
Therefore, unnoticed by our conscious selves we dance better, with an edge, with an extra-measure of enthusiasm slightly injected with despair. We don’t notice, but our bodies do. Our sweat, our muscles know. When the show ends a special exhaustion kicks in, which betrays a special effort.
That is when he comes near, as I toss my most encumbering adornments and gather my props. That is when audience members come by even in velvet-lined theaters, of course. There, we are more prepared to receive them. We don’t feel an urge to leave the premises. We stand nicely in brightly lit halls or in the cozy chaos of the greenrooms. Briefly, a different setting cushions post-show vulnerability.
Not here. Yet at this point spectators come, all the same. At least one. Even here. Out of hundreds, at least one feels compelled to express something personal, break the fourth wall, bridge over the gap.
Therefore he is expected, as he deftly maneuver his wheelchair towards the very place where I squat, shedding my flamboyance, fitting my various implements into my case. And he proffers no more than a formula of polite appreciation, made significant by proximity—by his wheeling his chair through the maze of bodies and contraptions all the way to where I’m crouching.
Why me? I am not young and beautiful. I am a dancer, that’s all. I embody beauty and youth in a symbolic manner—perhaps it is enough. He isn’t lured by my attractiveness, I’m sure. He came to honor the graces I borrowed, carried, held, displayed over myself.
But he lingers. I have noticed how well built his body must have looked, before being struck by whatever caused a massive paralysis—partial and asymmetrical, as it twisted him as well. The ghost of past fitness also sits on the chair, layering, thickening the impact of his presence. The transparency of his former self is so vivid it slaps me in the face, somehow accusing or instead singing a siren chant, melancholy lullaby.
“I had an accident,” he says. Such statement seems abrupt but isn’t. It completes his expressions of gratitude with strict logic and perfect economy. We are not here (he and I) for leisurely conversation—just a brief, concise confrontation. Which doesn’t mean conflict.
This is you, he meant, moving for my enjoyment. Thank you dearly. This is I, and once I could move as well. Now I can’t and I’ll tell you why.
His gaze is uncannily sharp, as it concentrates all the energy once spread throughout his body—limbs, joints, muscles and nerves. His gaze betrays extreme intelligence and wisdom. How did he land into an Acute Mental Illness Ward? What do I know? The human landscape we glimpse at in this kind of facilities is as various as it is mysterious. People arrive here through the most laborious paths. What counts is the convergence, alas.
His gaze, now his only vehicle of expression, is unbearably intense but I stand it. It doesn’t embarrass me. On the contrary, it’s a gift I am glad to receive, and it humbles me.
“I had an accident,” again. I am not surprised by his insistency. He has not forgotten what he said half a minute ago, but he needs repeating it. First, because it summons it all—it is the whole story of his life, the defining element. Then, because the accident didn’t happen once—it keeps happening, never ceased since its very explosion. Irreversible events have such property. Since the crash keeps detonating, it needs to be re-expressed.
Speaking costs him great effort, as he barely controls his jaw. He profusely drools.
We are used to it. Fluids. Spilled. As we enter these pain-containing institutes—hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, all secluded societies for the wounded—we relinquish common rules about separating and sealing secretions. Care facilities are spilled and spilling all over—tears, blood, mucus, spit, sperm, urine, feces aren’t packaged, or as ineffectively as if all lids of the Tupperware in the house had been switched around. Leaking is unavoidable—we have adapted to such diffuse incontinence, so opposed to social taboos. And it is just fine.
He profusely drools as he repeats he had an accident. “But you will get better,” I say. I am aware of a question mark affixed in the deep of my eye. I know he sees it. I don’t intend to fool him. I don’t know if his present state is passible to modification. Maybe he doesn’t know either. I am asking if he still hopes, whishes and foresees that he could get better. I don’t know why I am asking. I am aware of the question mark at the bottom of my eye—faint, a shadow.
He has seen it. He nods affirmatively. Doesn’t talk, only nods. Tons of spit form a rope down his chin, his chest, impeding his speech. His eyes do not flinch. They can take over talk.
He must have swallowed some because he resumes thanking me, sounding more convinced than he did before. Now he is not only appreciating my dance—also this addendum, this nothing, these few minutes of precious time I am devoting to our conversation/confrontation-that-is-not-a-conflict. I hope.
“I will see you again,” he says. This must be a good bye. “Yes, we will see each other again,” I reply, “because I’ll come back”. Which is true and false. Verisimilar. It means I may come back if this administration buys another show, if I’m hired again and assigned to this location, if you aren’t soon transferred to another ward, other facility, if you keep alive.
Technically I could come back. Hypothetically. Why do I make it a promise? Because we are in the symbolic domain, as we both know. We are not making plans for next week. We are not exchanging phone numbers. We are discussing something of a different order—not quite the mundane one.
“I will see you again.” Translate. I’ll remember you. You remind me of someone I knew well. Maybe you are she, or the equivalent. All has slid so far away, identities have become relative. I feel I have always known you. We are so close, we are kin. Your destiny could have been mine and the other way around, do you know? I am related to you no matter how different our stance looks, right now, from an outside viewpoint. Don’t you feel the same? Do not worry. I don’t hold it against you, what occurred to me while it spared you. This blatant unfairness of luck isn’t your fault.
“Yes, I’ll come back, for sure. You’ll get better and we’ll meet again.”
Forgive me. What befell you wasn’t my fault but I beg you, forgive me. There is nothing I can do to fix this ugly mess. But forgive me.
“We will meet again,” he insists as he wheels his chair backward. He is taking his leaves. “In another world,” he specifies. No, please, no. I don’t like his summoning death, bidding farewell to the present. Don’t like his renouncement, though it sounds so adjusted and calm, accepting and cognizant, realistic, mature. I protest, “We will meet again in this world but outside, out of here, as soon as you will get better”. What am I saying and why? True and false? Verisimilar? Will he ever get better? He most probably wouldn’t be here if he had the slightest chance.
This is not an interim station. It is a final seclusion. Who knows how long ago the accident happened, how obsolete are his prospects of recovery. If an accident truly happened, or what did. Who knows which trajectory brought him here. Accidented. Accidental. As I accidentally and fleeting merged in, converged.