"White is for Compliant" by Megan Wildhood

Megan Wildhood

Megan Wildhood

Megan Wildhood is an erinaceous, neurodiverse lady writer, social work student, cyclist and unique-earring collector in Seattle. She helps her readers feel genuinely seen as they interact with her dispatches from the junction of extractive economics, mental and emotional distress, disability and reparative justice. She is the author of her poetry chapbook, Long Division, (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yes! Magazine, Mad in America, The Sun and elsewhere.

White is for Compliant

Kim walks everywhere with eyes at half-mast: looking up makes her feel like she’s plummeting. Same feeling as when she’s high. She’s been trying to knock it off. I like this. Her brow wrinkles as she repeats it angrily to herself. Maybe she won’t be wasting her life being too gone to function for most of it if she’s gotten something out of all that time, even if it is mere enjoyment. But she’s plummety now, her eyes adhere to the slowly passing concrete, her stomach clenching as she tries to like falling more than she needs to hate it.

She wakes up. Did I think last night that this was going to happen? She looks around. I didn’t plan to. She has now walked to the emergency room by force of habit. Well, the overgrown hedges presiding over the ambulance driveway, anyway. Every injury she’s ever had throbs like a rave, especially that damn ankle she fell on and twisted in middle school but got up and ran on to finish the two-mile track-meet race anyway. Her coach was always yelling run through the pain but never bothered to clarify the kind of pain. So now, she runs from pain wherever she finds it.

The sun’s preemie rays need permission from even the weak wisps of cloud to hit the deck. Kim’s not as hesitant as the baby beams of light. She’s walked the mile and a half from her shoebox of an apartment and it’s turned out to be two and a half miles because being under the influence means regularly taking the scenic route to the hospital. That’s where you go when you’re trying to quit but have had too much of your chosen substance for the rehab center to take you. Liability reasons.

When you’re trying to quit, just a hit is too much. Anyone with real worth would quit. Kim, like any veteran user, knows when too much is by feeling it stronger in the morning, hours after ingestion. The hospital finally pops into view. You need it, she hears in her mother’s/sister’s/ex-boyfriend’s/former boss’s/drug court judge’s voices in unison as if they are hell’s choir. Catching that stern hunk of sewer-water-colored structure brings her no relief.

Her black corona of rickrack hair whooshes little puffs of air around her cheekbones as she looks around. Someone is following her. It’s raining, which sometimes sounds like the clap of shoe heels, but someone is following her. Her clattering jaw causes her sight to go bouncey. Her jaw and tennis match of thoughts about how to check into what will probably end up mistakenly being the psych ward again shake her head. Will I get a phone call this time? Will they tell me that 'eating wheat is what’s been blurring my thoughts and giving me side stitches is all in my head again'?

She should run. Everyone knows by now that people admitted to the hospital have more recovery to do after their internment, not less.

Sometimes Dotty follows her when she thinks about running. They met fifteen years ago on JV high school track the season after the ankle injury. Kim and Dotty and Kim’s younger twin sisters made sled ramps in the street every time it snowed. They would play sardines. Dotty explained it to Kim the first time as “reverse hide and seek,” which Kim thought meant that, instead of hiding, you let yourself be fully seen.

“You’re cute, Berly.” Dotty thought “Kim” the name was too garden-variety for Kim the person; she dubbed Kim “Berly” within a week of meeting her and still occasionally puts on her own clever irony of giving the scrawniest girl in town a nickname meant for a bully. “But no. One person hides and whoever finds them hides with them until there is only one person left.”

Dotty always wanted to play “crime scene,” even though it was too scary for Kim’s sisters. Kim never quite got the hang of the game; she just knew it involved one person lying face down on the concrete until the others came up with a sufficient explanation. Kim began to suspect after just a few rounds that “sufficient” meant “most vile.”

Dotty became the best cop in their evangelical enclave of white Suburbia. Won her first aware—Meritorious Police Commendation: Integrity—her first year on the force.

Kim stares hard down at the cement just in front of the main entrance. Pins and needles in her chest signal you’re falling but she’s not falling.

Dotty saw the sludge in Kim’s life congealing together to make Kim into whatever she is now, weaving sodden in the rain outside the only place she knows to go because all she knows of help is that it hurts. If there was an award for most suicidal people saved, Dotty would have won it way before she joined the force. Especially if saving the same person on multiple occasions can count more than once. Kim counts it because she was a different person every day back then and Dotty rescued them all.

A shiny new fit of raging shakes knocks Kim down just outside the ER. First her knees hit. Then elbows, thighs, stomach, chest, nose, teeth, crash on damp, cold gray. Zoomed in as Kim is on it, the sidewalk’s full of holes. Dotty has probably held people’s heads down like this on purpose, maybe even pushed. Maybe Dotty was trying to keep substance-using shitheads from sailing away, far away, from cheek-shredding sidewalks and damp-as-hell clothes and friends who become cops.

It’s like someone is holding Kim down now. She can’t release the right thought in her brain that would kick off the standing-up procedure. She can’t lift her head enough to keep the convulsions from forcing her cheek down into the concrete; and she isn’t sure if she should activate the worrying process. The sprinkler heads jut up and bloom, tsking like peeved moms. She feels cool little kisses on the bottoms of her threadbare-socked feet. Where the fuck are my shoes?

Several crisply hued hems swish by. Scrubs. Something gritty, coagulated blood or a chunk from the last time she ate something—scalding Cup of Noodles, beef-flavored, two days ago?—nests at the base of her tongue. She tries not to cough so she doesn’t chip away more at her cheek on the concrete. An ambulance, with lights and siren engaged, pulls out, one of its huge tires aimed to graze Kim’s skeleton hand. She just manages to drag it back toward herself by tilting up onto her side slightly just in time. She catches a skinny, yellowed moon, stuck in the dawn like a hangnail, before slumping back down on heaving torso and stinging cheek.

Abruptly, the sun is out, coming down like a pestle on her back. More people—parents walking arm in swinging arm with kids tricked out in back-to-school fervor—pass. Light-up shoes, backpacks, lots of cheerful jingling and singing—the only words Kim could make out, from a doll of a kid: “Eat my NGO, eat my NGO, eat my NGO and Bingo was his name-o!”—at least one coat, the only one she saw (it was dropped in all that arm swinging), a sick-pale purple with a plastic Andy Warholish cartoon face ironed onto the front of it whose age-cracked lips turned blue in the cold.

Another kid, close behind the girl with the face on her jacket, is complaining about swimming lessons. “Every time I go, it feels like my ear swallowed a mouthful of water.”

It must be an elementary school that’s nearby. She’s lived in this neighborhood on and off since being kicked out of her parents’ house and having a subsequent Internet-arranged roommate situation disintegrate, so now she’s mostly only familiar with the community’s dourly lit parking lots and privately funded—so, sparse—nonprofit rehab centers. She’d only be to a few—obligatory visits to appease her mother/ex-boyfriend/judge/boss—but they were all the same: repurposed warehouses with remnants of machinery or abandoned buildings with crumbly facades and stairs that are almost certainly not up to code. There was always this little roped-off area at the front with a sign welcoming you to the “community zone.” With no exceptions, they are for people who actually want to quit.

Bucket chairs and stacks of crusty issues of magazines like People and National Geographic always spotted the waiting areas. Pictures of mountain ranges and limber deer leaping through high, bleached grasses hung ruler straight at even spacing on Easter-green walls. Snaking off the community areas were wide hallways with very small treatment rooms protruding off their sides. Kim always found that the teensy studio she’d managed to hang onto, not knowing each month if it would be her last one, was easier to get along in than all that billowy good will and pity.

She tried to explain it once to one of the dependence counselors, the only one who ever actually asked about her story: “I’m not out of my mind,” she said. “I know every thought in it. I have to know, grab, touch, follow, wring out every thought in there. So, no, I’m not out of my mind. It’s actually that I can’t get out of it. I can’t get out of my head.”

The colors were bright, the other patients were solid, the counselors were clueless, which meant they didn’t know enough to do lasting damage, but the confines of total abstinence felt just like the mechanical restraints just on the other side (and three floors up) of the walls of the hospital.

Kim, still on the pavement in the bushes, blinks to the rhythm of the joggers now out in flocks with dogs. Many of them are in white. White. White shoes, with their dogs—who don’t have white paws, for the most part—and it seems like the humans are louder than the dogs. Everyone’s in shorts and everyone is tan. They all wear white duck head socks revealing sun-dried skin or parts of teenage-rebellion tattoos. Once or twice, the raised, pink evidence of surgery. The dogs’ tags make Christmas sounds as they trot at their owners’ sides.

Is all this staged?

After the pack of dogged joggers passes, people in various permutations stroll to the many coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants, as if cued by the smell of over-roasted coffee and boiling sugar Kim is now gagging on. Or she maybe hasn’t stopped gagging since just before she collapsed.

There’s so much heat Kim can see it, waving up from the asphalt, stuffing the air, painting every inch of exposed skin—all lighter than hers—she can see and feel, combining forces with the clammy concrete to steep her white top. The single siren she hears seems to catch in the air and loses steam before she can see the vehicle it’s coming from. She doesn’t know if the flapping in her stomach, which throws off the little timpanist in her chest, is relief or disappointment.

Dotty was making her first arrest about the time Kim started tying her shoes together and hanging them on telephone wires. It was now Dotty’s job to look for people like Kim—not like high school, when Dotty would worry about Kim and search for her to keep her out of trouble. Kim was a good kid. Good enough that even hard-ass Dotty would have vouched for her. But this is why she went down so fast. It wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd or a traumatic childhood but sneaky things adults don’t direly warn kids about, like curiosity or boredom, that started this whole thing.

Kim’s first line freaked her out. For three years after her first line, she followed every rule so well that her friends, didn’t even bother inviting her to parties or ditch class and hang out in a haze by the creek behind the school, if they even did any of these things. They all hung out enough that it didn’t occur to her that they might be doing more than sneaking into the occasional R-rated movie or egging someone’s car. Which she also wasn’t invited to.

Thank the good Lord for that. She was so afraid of loneliness she would have said yes to whatever her friends were doing. She experimented to see if she could get back into her body any other way than the rush: when the people next door to Dotty’s family started harassing them, it was Kim’s idea to TP the neighbor’s house and mix molasses and maple syrup to write a choice phrase in their lawn. It turned out the irresistible pins and needles were not a one-off experience but the exhilaration of breaking a rule.

The boiling sugar tinge is thinning out with the morning humidity, which is like being in a dishwasher—too warm for Kim to still not be able to feel her hands and feet. Have I finally become as invisible as I’d wished so hard to be? If you had the kind and amount of power needed to render yourself invisible, you’d really use it to make yourself invisible? Not, say, find healthy relationships or solve global hunger or rescue all abused animals? You’d disappear? She strains to make fists and point her toes, her ankle twinging in the bad-pins-and-needles way and her calf muscles seizing.

She sees you walking your dog. Leading the next round, walking rather than jogging. All the dogs have springs in their feet still, but she knows it’s slower because she can’t hear the panting like the earlier round. Or maybe it’s that the wop-wop of her own heart in her ears covers outside sounds and it has nothing to do with the dogs. Sun or something pinpricks the back of her neck.

The sun warms your hair, too, which you feel on your neck. You tug at Lucy’s leash; you should be getting to work and need to leave time to dry off her soggy paws, which she always fights, so she doesn’t leave prints of dew all over the new hardwood floors in your apartment. You turn from the woman on the concrete just outside the hospital doors—she’s close enough that someone will surely see her soon, though should you drag her out from the bushes a bit?—and wonder if the sun will be strong enough to dry her clothes through all this heavy heat. You wonder how long she’s been there; you hope her periodic shudders are her breathing.

An ambulance, lights on, sirens off, crests the hill and heads for the driveway. As soon as Lucy sees the woman on the ground, she pulls on her leash and you look at it slipping through your fingers, your face sickly then furious, sickly, furious, sickly, furious in the silent, switching light.