I Would Go Out of my Way to Step on That Crunchy-Looking Leaf
By Yael Wiesenfeld, 15
When I first heard the question I thought it was rather ridiculous. “Would you go out of your way to step on a crunchy-looking leaf?” It seemed so… strange. Really, who but a child would? Of course I replied in the negative and received a look from the man in return that was somewhere midway between pity and disappointment. I don’t see what made me deserve that response; how does he know that I’m just not a leaf-crunching kind of person? Maybe the sound of leaf-crunching is my pet peeve. It isn’t, but that’s not the point. Apparently I can’t possibly enjoy life without stepping on crunchy leaves. I suppose I wouldn’t know, but that man doesn’t seem too experienced in life-enjoyment either, as he always acts as though he’s got a stick up his a*#.
I was probably destined to be miserable and non-leaf-crunching since birth. To start, my name is Epiné, which means “thorn” in French. Of course, my mom didn’t mean to name me thorn; she just heard the word somewhere or another and thought it sounded pretty. It was fine until high school, but then everyone started to learn French and they thought my name was quite comical. Immature if you ask me, but then I was the one they were picking on. My mother’s name is Vivian, but she likes to spell it Vivienne, like Vivienne Westwood. She thinks it’s wonderfully mysterious. My dad is nonexistent, as far as I know. They’ve been divorced since the beginning of time, and he is even less interested in me than I am in him. Vivienne is not fond of talking about it and I am not fond of talking about anything with her, so I know very little about my father.
So it’s not like he would care that I’m here, penned in at New York City Hospital. When my stay here is done, I expect Vivienne and I will have even less to talk about. She does not like confronting issues or, in fact, anything more complicated than why I left my boots next to the couch instead of putting them in the closet. So there was little chance that we’d be discussing things like my little “accident”. I don’t have a problem with this- I’m sick and tired of discussing it anyway.
My accident was “accidentally” swallowing a bunch of pills when I was home alone a week or so ago. Unfortunately, my suicide attempt (if you haven’t figured out what it was by now) didn’t work; I just got sick and ended up here. So now I’m stuck here seeing five psychiatrists a day until they decide I’m normal enough to go home.
Anyway, so after the stupid shrink appointment, I dropped a heavy book in the room next to mine and slipped out of the mental patients’ ward while the lady at the front desk ran to make sure nothing had happened. I will have to think up a new way to do that because they are bound to figure it out soon. Technically, I’m not allowed to leave without an escort. I think they don’t want me to be in close proximity to any sharp objects. It’s pointless though- I wouldn’t try again, especially not in here. I’d rather not prolong my stay.
I was walking down the hall towards the grimy old neon exit sign when some guy about my age whistled at me. I’m pretty used to that; last time I punched the guy in the face, but I decided that was not the best idea in my present situation. I often appeal to the less Ivy-League kind of boys, if you know what I mean. I’m attractive, but not in a blond-hair-pink-miniskirt way like the “popular” girls. I have really weird grey eyes, which I consider to be my best feature, and short, pin-straight, jet black hair. There was probably someone Asian on my dad’s side of the family or something. My chosen wardrobe is rather attention-getting as well. It usually consists of jeans, a white tank top that Vivienne deems provocative, and black combat boots. I’m also a fan of the grungy eyeliner look, but I prefer silver or blue over black.
I pretended to ignore the boy as I walked past him but I knew he’d be checking me out as I walked away, so I put my hand behind my back and gave him the finger. I was expecting him to jeer at me, but he was silent. I almost turned around but made a conscious decision not to. No use encouraging him.
When I got out of the hospital, I just walked around the city for a while. The warm summer breeze enveloped me as I breathed in the antiseptic-free air. I bought a necklace with a long chain and a miniature silver dagger on it from a pawn shop. They’d probably explode if I wore that in the psycho ward. I stayed out until eleven so I would be tired enough not to stay awake for hours doing nothing when I got back.
They were kind of angry at me when I returned. “Why, Epiné? We were so worried about you!” The nurse said. Yeah right. Worried about legal prosecution if I had killed myself while I was gone, more like. “We’re going to have to lock you in your room from now on, I’m afraid…”
“What if nobody knows that I left? I mean, I didn’t hurt anyone, did I?” I said tentatively. “It can be our little secret.” I smiled when I saw the look in the old nurse’s eyes.
“You mean… you won’t tell your mother?”
“If you don’t, I won’t.”
“Okay. But you have to keep your end of the bargain.”
“Absolutely.” I grinned. Obviously, I got the better half of that deal (especially since I wouldn’t have told Vivienne anyway), but my escape trick wouldn’t work anymore.
My friend Thomas is only a year older than I am but he looks about twenty-four, so I asked him to bail me out for a few hours the next day. We had coffee and talked about my issues and his new boyfriend. Then he went to hang out somewhere nearby and I was out on my own.
I went to a local music store and bought a new copy of Abbey Road (the old one cracked in my suitcase on the way to psychoville) and a Nine Inch Nails CD. The Beatles is my favorite band. People automatically assume that I like “emo music” because of my appearance. It is ironic what “emo” has come to mean in slang, apart from the music genre, but I guess I basically fit the current “emo” description: black nail polish, cynical disposition, suicide attempt. But honestly, I’m not as abnormal as people think I am. I’m just a teenager who likes clothes and jewelry (albeit not what other teenagers may wear) and music and hanging out with friends. Maybe I’m not “happy,” but I don’t think any teenager is.
Anyway, after I paid the Mohawk-and-eyebrow-piercing-clad guy at the counter, I left the music store and sat down in Starbucks to listen to my walkman and read a random French novel while sipping an iced black coffee. It was awhile before I realized that someone had sat down across from me. I looked up quizzically to meet the eyes of the guy who whistled at me in the hallway.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“Nothing. I saw you in the record store.”
“So you followed me? Stalker. I’m not going to start making out with you, so fuck off.”
He didn’t move. “Sorry for whistling at you. My name’s Caleb James, by the way.”
At least he didn’t attempt to put over the whistling as a compliment. I’ve heard that one before.
“Epiné.” I noticed a smirk as he recognized my name. “Apology not accepted… but we’ll see.”
“Good enough for me. So…” There was a long pause. It seemed like he hadn’t yet thought through what he wanted to say to me after introducing himself. I wondered what he was doing at the hospital; it isn’t exactly the hottest place to hang out. However, that was certainly a touchy subject for me and I wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. Finally he broke the silence. “What’d you buy?” he asked, gesturing toward the CD store bag on my left. I pulled out the albums and pushed them in his direction, looking back down at my book. He smiled.
“I love the Beatles,” he said, tracing the outline of the yellow VW bug on the cover with his index finger. “Did you know that this album has some of the most obvious Paul-is-dead clues?”
I raised my eyebrows. “You believe that sh*#?” I asked, testing him.
“No,” he replied, “but I do believe that they were planted there as jokes and they’re fun to search for.” I let my gaze soften a bit.
“I’ve got to go,” I said, gazing at my watch.
“Same time tomorrow?”
I met Thomas at the hospital entrance and he escorted me in as if he’d been with me all day.
I took a day off from the whole escape artist act to up my image as a good mental patient, but the following day I slipped out the back door (after taking the keys off Mrs. Front Desk’s tabletop while she was dealing with another patient) and left a note reminding them of our agreement.
There was Caleb at the same table at Starbucks, waiting. I sat down. “You know this makes you look really desperate.”
“Hey- you came back, didn’t you?” He had a point. He looked down at my stubborn plastic hospital bracelet (you know- the kind you need scissors to get off) and then back up at me . “Why—” he began. I tugged down the sleeve of my leather jacket and looked at him. He seemed to get the message.
“Want to see a movie?” he said.
“I hate movies. They all suck nowadays.”
“I know just the place.”
He showed me to an ornate but decrepit movie theater that showed old movies and we saw Casablanca twice. The theater was empty except for an old woman in the back row who looked as though she might have been sitting there and watching for years without moving. We sat in the middle and basked in the feeling of our own little theater. I would never have admitted it, but I laid my head on Caleb’s shoulder and felt happier than I had in a long time.
I kept sneaking out to see Caleb. After I was presented with about a dozen opportunities to kill myself and didn’t, the nurses realized that I was okay and started letting me out without excuses. They seemed to pretend not to notice my absence.
Caleb and I returned to the little theater very often after that. We listened to the Beatles in Starbucks and shared our other CDs and we went to the little bookstore on Prince Street and read the same books. I also saw him in the hospital sometimes, as he paid frequent visits to his grandfather in the cancer ward. That was one of the few topics he never discussed, probably for my sake as much as his own. But after a while, he seemed to get tired of waiting.
“So, why were you in the hospital?” he asked me one day, “also visiting?”
I decided to be honest. After all, he’d already seen the bracelet.
“No. I’m a patient- in the psychiatric ward. I attempted suicide.” His reaction to this news was rather unexpected.
“Oh,” he said calmly, “Why?” His unfazed response gave me courage. I told him about my lack of a father, the financial trouble that my family (if you can call it that) was going through… everything. Finally, when I was finished, he spoke.
“Would you try it again?”
“I- I guess I don’t know.”
“Don’t. I know this is clichéd, but life is precious. And the way you live your life is up to you. You can be your own person and choose to live the life you want even if the people around you or-” he hesitated, “even a part of yourself isn’t cooperating”. I wondered what that last bit meant, but decided to leave it. It wasn’t important enough to press, and he looked unsure of himself while saying it.
From then on, we took little random trips every day. We tried the lottery for Broadway tickets and ended up seeing Beauty and the Beast. We went to the park and fed pigeons and sparrows. We ate cotton candy and snow cones at a street fair. But mostly we just talked. We had fun, but we also had serious conversations. That’s what made Caleb really different from my other friends.
Caleb: “It’s the little things in life that count. That way, if the big things aren’t so great, it’s still worth it.”
Caleb: “Let me be your guardian angel. You are my gem in the rough- a gift that some people don’t understand because it’s not polished and cut.”
I got a pair of tiny wings tattooed inside my wrist. “This is you,” I said. Caleb got a circle: my gem, uncut and unpolished.
I left the hospital. I think Caleb made me normal enough to leave.
We held hands in the street and hugged our goodbyes. We spent nights together in a motel room. But we were never more than friends. Neither of us needed a lover. Our relationship was not that complicated.
Sometimes we didn’t meet for a long time. We didn’t mention these periods; we just saw each other later and our lives flowed together as though we had never been apart.
We rode the subway for an entire day and swung around the poles, changing trains whenever it got too crowded. We went to a carnival. I won a giant stuffed dog for Caleb and he won a giant stuffed snake for me.
Our lives were blurs of excitement and, well… life. For the first time, I had a best friend- more than that. Almost a brother, but with no sibling rivalry. For the first time, I felt like I was living.
My mom took me to shrink appointments twice a week until they decided I was “not a danger to myself or regular acquaintances”. I didn’t have to go anymore. I wanted to tell Caleb.
I hadn’t seen him for a few days and I wondered if he could be visiting his grandfather. I went to the counter at the cancer ward, hoping that his grandfather’s last name was the same as his.
“Is 206 Mr. James’s room?” I ventured, naming the room I had so often seen Caleb outside.
“Yes, my dear,” said the kind-looking middle-aged nurse in a pitying way, “may I ask your connection with the patient?”
“Distant cousin,” I lied.
She led me to the room and knocked. An unfamiliar voice answered softly and she opened the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Caleb lay on the white hospital bed, tubes leading from his body into various machines. A dark-haired man and woman- his parents- stood by the bed. They stared at me, confused. Caleb turned his head from his parents to the doorway in which I stood.
“Epiné…” he said weakly. I stood in shock while he began to explain. “I’m the cancer patient, not my grandfather,” he began, “my grandfather died of the rare stomach cancer I have, but he passed away years ago.
“I’ve been in the hospital for my own treatment, not to visit anyone. But it’s getting worse. Epiné… I’m dying. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you…” he trailed off. I dropped into an armchair next to the door, shocked. Nobody said anything. Caleb’s parents looked from me to their son. They seemed to recognize my name as one they had heard before, as opposed to the meaning that people usually recognize.
“I didn’t want to tell you the truth because I hate the way people treat me like a delicate piece of glass when they know. Besides, it’s not what matters. I wanted to find you, though. I didn’t want you to look for me and discover that I was… gone.” He closed his eyes, looking so different from the Caleb I knew; so lifeless. I knelt by the bed and held both his hands in mine, watching his labored breathing. After a few minutes it struck me that I should leave him with his parents and I began to get up.
“No,” his father said suddenly, “he told us about you- you can stay if you want to.”
I knelt again and laid my head on the bed until I could no longer feel his hot breath in my face.
I didn’t cry, not even during the funeral. Afterwards, I hid on the other side of the cemetery until I saw Mr. and Mrs. James drive away. I walked to the fresh mound of earth and stood in front of it and the tears finally came. I dropped down and cried, sitting alone in the dirt. Finally, I picked up a handful of white pebbles from the path and began to place them carefully over the grave. In stones, bright against the chocolate colored earth, I wrote a simple message:
YOU SAVED MY LIFE
I understood what Caleb said in the hospital. It wasn’t his illness or his death that mattered. It was his life.
The cool fall wind blew my hair off my face as I left the cemetery. Across the street, I spotted a golden-red pile of freshly raked leaves. Staring at the pile, I stepped across the road and started walking towards it.