Near the Unbalanced Aquarium

One morning in July 1954 I sat in my bedroom on the third floor of the Payne-Whitney clinic of New York Hospital, trying as usual to get my picture of myself straight. I was recovering from a violent manic seizure, an attack of pathological enthusiasm. What I saw were the blind white bricks of other parts of the hospital rising in my window. Down the corridor, almost a city block away, I heard the elevator jar shut and hum like a kettle as it soared to the top floor with its second and last allotment of sixteen of my fellow patients going to Occupational Therapy. My mind, somewhat literary and somewhat muscle-bound, hunted for the clue to the right picture of itself. In my distraction, the walls of the hospital seemed to change shape like limp white clouds. I thought I saw a hard enameled wedding cake, and beside it, holding the blunt silver knife of the ritual, stood the tall white stone bride—my mother. Her wedding appeared now less as a day in the real past than as a photograph.

The hospital was a blending of the latest and laciest Gothic-and-skyscraper styles of the Twenties and Thirties—arch, groin, coign, and stainless steel. I thought for a moment of that island in the Seine, a little Manhattan with river water on both sides, the island of King Louis’s SainteChapelle, all heraldry and color and all innocent, built to house a thorn! Under its veneer of fragile white bricks, how merely geometrical this New York hospital was, how securely skeletonized with indestructible steel, how purely and puritanically confined to its office of cures. Counting the tiers of metal-framed windows, I myself was as if building this hospital like a child, brick by brick or block by block.

The mornings were long because, after breakfast and bed-making and informal lounging and television-news period, we were all expected to walk for some forty minutes in the courtyard. It was a formal, flowerless place covered with bright gray octagonal paving stones, like some unaccountably secluded and clean French place. Two by two, we walked round and round, and without any props or screens or diverting games, we tried to make conversation. It was thought uncooperative and morbid if we walked with another man. The women were terrible to me. Some were concave and depressed, some worried endlessly about their doctors’ feelings and remarks, some flattered, some flirted, some made fierce well-expressed sarcastic thrusts—they all talked. Distant, thorny, horny, absentminded, ineptly polite, vacantly rude, I walked with the ladies. They were hurt, and I was hurt. The men were almost as bad. I had my cronies, but I had soon exhausted their novelty, which mattered little to me. What hurt me was that in a matter of minutes I used up any strength I had to be new or fresh or even there.

Then there were the student nurses, crisp-fronted, pageboy bobbed, pale-blue-denim bloused, reading new Herald Tribunes and eyeing watchfully the strategic angles…

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