Out of the Garden

Randy Osborne

Randy Osborne

We planned to attend the San Francisco Symphony that weekend for the first time in our three years together, but my girlfriend got arrested, and it was a felony, so she wouldn’t be out anytime soon.

The black mood that had gripped her for more than a month had lately begun to lift, as mysteriously as it arrived. Sarah was cooking again. A brilliant chef, she worked with only the finest ingredients from our farmer’s market.

She laughed more—a lot more—at my jokes and her own, funny or not. Her laughter wasn’t always laughter, but more like a wheezy expulsion of air, sometimes in the face of a stranger, who jumped back.

Sarah marched around our little town, earbuds blasting Mozart. She wore a bright red beret, visible from blocks away. Later, I found out the distinctive headgear helped Mill Valley police keep tabs on this erratic woman—white, early 30s, dark hair—bound to misbehave in a more serious way eventually.

The sleep that had flattened her before hardly seemed necessary now. Full of zest after short naps, she phoned long-lost friends at odd hours, not all friends, maybe, but people she had known. Some didn’t remember her. When one said, “Sorry, it’s late. I really gotta go,” she moved to the next on her list.

A musician played guitar under the streetlamp in town square. After-dinner amblers made a wide circle around him. His fingers flew over the strings, a flamenco rhythm. Sarah undraped her long white scarf. She stomped and twirled across the bricks, trailing the scarf above her head like a stripper’s veil. She leapt ballerina-style, stumbled and fell, lost a shoe. She started again with a Bojangles jig, then attempted a tap dance that she soon gave up on. More stomping, twirling. People laughed, and I could see she was oblivious to the tone of it. The uneasy musician channeled worry into his instrument, put his head down and kept playing. Sarah gleamed with sweat.

*

On the north wall of our apartment building, our landlord had strung potato vines. They grew to form a vertical carpet of what’s better known as jasmine nightshade. It’s in the same genus as the potato, but a different species.

Sarah asked if she might do some light gardening, a little trim and prune to burn off energy. The landlord said yes. Days later I heard shouts in the yard and ran out to see everything torn down, the vast snarl of potato vines at Sarah’s feet, and the landlord’s furious daughter, who had planted them.

Sarah said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

At the hospital, by the time the first nurse had gone to fetch a second, from the psychiatric ward, Sarah had swept the books from the shelf in the exam room, flung a coat rack into the hall, and kicked over a chair.

She hated me. She wanted out. I was not helping.

Nurse number two took me aside. “We can’t hold her unless she’s a threat to her own safety or the safety of others. State law. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

She sent us away with a prescription for Ativan. On the ride back from Walgreens, after taking one pill, Sarah tossed the bottle out the car window. “These things make me sleepy. I can’t do my job if I’m sleepy.”

At home, we fought on the doorstep. She threw her purse into a bush and raged away.

Gone.

The next morning, I had two voice mails. One from Sarah, through clenched teeth: “Get down here and pay this tab. It’s the last thing I’ll ever do for you.” The other from a Mill Valley police sergeant: “We just wanted to let you know she’s safe, in custody. Call for details when you get a chance.”

Jack Finney set The Body Snatchers in Mill Valley, where he lived. Movie makers tacked on “Invasion” for the box office and changed Mill Valley to “Santa Mira.” In the novel, published the year I was born, spores drift from the galaxy and infect the townsfolk one by one, replacing them overnight with false replicas of themselves—pod people. Only close family members can tell the difference, and soon they’re infected, too.

At a fancy French restaurant, Sarah had ordered the most expensive bottle of wine, a huge dinner, and dessert. Because the check was over $400, what she did qualified as a felony. Defrauding an innkeeper.

*

Wedged into a grassy hillside, Marin County Jail is almost entirely underground, connected by a tunnel to the massive civic center that the New York Times likened to “a vast stucco spaceship.” If inmates could gaze out, they would see the farmer’s market where Sarah and I shopped on weekends. But not this weekend.

“She needs a full evaluation,” the jail psychiatrist tells me on the phone. “Do you understand what’s going on?”

Sarah whisks into the visiting area, shaggy and wild on the other side of the glass. The guard posts himself behind, hand near his holster. Sarah grins and snatches up the phone.

Her face is lively but mask-like, radiating a fierce yet empty cheer. With a shock I realize I’m happy, too. Happy she is locked up.

“The food is terrible in here,” she says. “I’m supposed to say that, right?”

After accepting a plea bargain, she’s transferred to the psychiatric ward at Marin General Hospital where Finney died of pneumonia in 1995. She will be released in about a week with a medication plan she will refuse to follow.

*

I start seeing a therapist of my own. We dig into me. We consider the dreary likelihood that my parents’ divorce hindered my capacity for intimacy, as shown by two failed marriages. We explore what, by my unwillingness to let Sarah go, I am trying to prove.

At the airport, boarding the plane, Sarah begins to cry. “I’ll never see you again, will I?”

From her sister’s house in Virginia she leaves dozens of rambling messages I don’t answer. Her room is bugged, she says. Her favorite dress was stolen, but nothing else. She got fired from another job. Secret Service men are following her in cars with tinted windows. The government wants to tap into her capacity for miracles. I try to congratulate myself for following my therapist’s advice. From him I learn more than I ever wanted to know about mental illness, and that few relationships survive it. “Don’t blame yourself,” he says, though of course I do.

Finney’s other well-known novel, Time and Again, was published in 1970. The feds recruit advertising man Simon—Si for short—Morley to help with a time-travel experiment. Si has reason to cooperate; he wants to solve a historical mystery. By self-hypnosis, he transports himself to New York in the late 1800s. “When Si falls in love with a woman he meets from the past,” goes the jacket blurb, “he will be forced to choose between two worlds – forever.”

I cook single-man meals, experimenting. I channel my worry into the instrument. The recipe calls for potato, and under the sink, behind the jar of dish soap and the box of detergent, I find one. All but forgotten, it’s covered with spiky albino nodes, rubbery points—an alien potato. I wonder how long it’s been down there alone, in the dark, growing eyes.

1 Comment

  1. Poignant and honest. You hit exactly upon the vulnerability of mental illness and its devastating effects on family.

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