Sometimes, someone who doesn’t look crazy walks through the door. Like the woman who walks across the room and sits down on the couch next to me.
“I don’t believe in youth in Asia,” she confides.
I look at Mark, who sits beside me. He stares at the white bandages on his wrists. When he moves his arms, blue and green dragons slink across them. I’m not going to get any help from him. I turn back to the woman.
She looks like a young woman who woke up one morning in a fifty-year-old body. She looks as if she’s still surprised by the transformation. Her eyes are exclamation marks. Her gray hair hangs over her shoulder in a thick braid. Her hands clasp each other tightly atop her scarlet peasant skirt. Her straight back never touches the back of the couch. She smells like sandalwood. She smells like smoke.
I try to decide what to make of her comment. Is she protesting some sort of Asian political movement? Does she hate young people? To be polite, I smile at her. Encouraged, she continues, “They can’t make you sign anything.” I nod. “How did you get here?” she asks. I blink. She doesn’t seem to expect anything from me. She pats my knee. Slow motion. A child’s hand. Smooth pink palm against denim.
“Are you waiting for your family?” I ask.
“I lost them.”
I look at Mark again. I start to ask him what to say to this woman, but I stop. Whether or not I am here, whether or not the world has ended, makes no difference to him. His wrists are ice. His dragons feed on his sinews. His eyes are periods. The first time, you come here to visit a friend who challenged life to a bloody battle. The second time you come it’s because you aren’t sure you don’t belong here yourself. You’ve sat alone at a dark window, shivering against winter’s dead gaze, one eye on the television, one on the sky, before the wall fell, after Lebanon exploded, and you’ve wondered when it would end. You’ve buried yourself in a lover’s thigh and weren’t sure when it was over that you weren’t over too. You come because these people touch you. The architect who checks himself in every few years when his life explodes in his brain. The woman who flies out of the ward, thrilled because she’s not insane. It’s only her frivolous heart, beating out of rhythm. The girl in the padded room, whose eyes you can see through the tiny window behind the nurse’s station. Who screams “I’m free! I’m free!” The middle aged woman who pats your knee while she watches out the window for the next atomic bomb.
“I don’t believe in euthanasia,” she repeats. This time, I understand.
“It’s okay. They don’t do that here.”
She points to the air vent. Matter-of-factly. “It’s coming in. They can’t stop it.”
“What’s coming in?”
Later, a nurse tells me that they found her on a corner, screaming at cars. They don’t know who she is or where she came from. She’s Alice, nibbling a giant mushroom and staring at the cloud while the world shrinks into nothing. She’s living all our nightmares, inhaling Dr. Strangelove’s poisons, the smell of incinerated flesh and excrement. She has a choice. She can go through the door where the doctor in the white coat stands waiting, where the rooms smell sane, mint antiseptic, and pine forest clean, where a needle prick ends it. Or she can claw her way through the rest of her life, one step ahead of the green gas that slips in through the air vents. She chooses to fight.
Mark’s dragons sleep now. He’s past thought. Nobody can awaken him. He’ll go down again, into the pit of his own stomach. He’ll let the bile eat away at his mind, at his feelings, until he’s ready to feel blood on his wrists again. Then the dragons will feed. He will consume himself.
But she will endure.
Allene Rasmussen Nichols lives in Arlington, Texas. She recently completed a Master of Arts in Humanities at the University of Texas, Dallas. You can read some of her poetry in the September 2003 issue of Philament. “Armageddon” was inspired by a woman who truly believed that the end of the world was at hand, and by how “normal” she seemed, even with her delusion.