I will never forget the first time I saw him.
I was changing sullied sheets, keeping my head down to avoid eye contact with the 54-year-old culprit. They were yellow and pungent, and the vaseline under my nose did little to prevent the stench from creeping into the hollow cavities tunneling through my head. The patient was pallid and cold, but sweat dripped down his temples in little streams reminding me of the Seine. My papa used to take me there when we visited Paris.
I missed my papa.
I dropped the sheets into a bag and dropped the bag into a chute, then contemplated jumping in myself. I hated the job. I hated pitying people who themselves could not understand pitty, hated thinking of the word I used to describe the patients and the word I used to describe myself.
Crazy, truly, could mean anything: bizarre, like an unexpected event; enthusiastic, like how I used to feel about my childhood love; or the crazy I found myself choking on in the morning when I tried to clean my teeth and my hands and my conscience. I had seen crazy, when mama used to dig through the rows and rows of shoes at Costco to find a color she knew they did not carry, when my sister jumped out of my moving car at a sudden memory of my Papa, red and shaking; when I stared into the mirror, combing my hair back and wondering if perhaps I felt guilty because I inherited the same mania.
My Papa worked in the sciences, before he and mama moved here, traded in the flag of red, black, and yellow for stars and stripes and disappointment. My papa had a difficult time finding a job to continue his work, so he stayed home with my sister and me as my mother learned English and learned to clean. Mama liked to clean because it distracted her from the anger that randomly surfaced. Papa sat on the couch and read the newest journals from Gesellschaft für Ökologi. He would drink while my sister raided our pantry for a makeshift meal. I used to think Papa didn't like my sister and me; now, I wonder if he blamed us for the sudden halt in his work.
Papa used to talk about people as if they were animals.
"What do you think happens here, girl?" He asked me once when I told him my frustration with classmates who failed to understand my German. "You must adapt yourself or find yourself extinct. There is selective pressure, there is a mutation, and you become a completely different species." I did not like the idea of changing my tongue. Now, I forgot what my tongue felt like before.
"The Competitive Exclusion Principle states two species cannot occupy the same niche; the realized niche of the least adapted must narrow, or the better will outcompete it," he had said after I told him Cindy Kingsley started to wear her hair like mine and steal my friends. My mama translated, telling me I could adapt to outcompete Cindy or continue to wear my hair the same and find new friends. I told Papa he was crazy. Mama told me he was a genius.
As I got older, Papa started to forget things. He forgot my sister first, forgot the handprints he'd left on her skin. My sister, however, did not.
He forgot me next, although I could tell he missed our conversations about Social Darwinism and economic mobility and Twinkies.
It took him the longest to forget my mama. I believed he held on to her the tightest, perhaps because she could translate his wild musings and biological metaphors into lessons about the human experience. I think it became too hard for him, though, because the day he failed to recognize her, his face looked less twisted, less pained. His breathing slowed.
That night, on a bed next to a nightstand next to an empty bottle of Aspirin, my mother's stopped.
I looked up from the chute, deciding not to jump. And I saw him.
He sat cross-legged on the tile floor in the middle of the hall. He had a black marker in between is thumb and index finger, and he chewed the lid absentmindedly. I asked him where he was supposed to be, and other than a glance in my direction, I received no response.
"Sir," I said, " you need to get up now, okay? We must take you back to your room, or you'll miss today's round."
"Medication," he scoffed. "I don't need medication. Stabilizing selection, dear girl."
He returned to the pen between his fingers and began to write on the wall. I began to walk toward him, to take the pen away but decided instead to find his chart.
"Girl, they think I am crazy. They think the same. They progress in one direction, let their minds become the same. All the same. They pick off the extremes, the extremes of thought, the extremes of beauty, the extremes of belief. Stabilizing selection, my dear girl. They become the same."
I did not need mama to translate. Neither did he.
I looked at the wall in front of him. There was nothing. So I drew a long, straight line.
He told me he could not speak.
I thought of my tongue.
I believed him.