A Danger to Herself and Others

A Danger to Herself and Others

Alyssa Sheinmel




When I first got here—when they brought me here—a man with blue pants and a matching shirt, both of which looked like they were made of paper, asked me questions. As I answered, he took notes, balancing a clipboard against his left hip and holding a pen in his right hand. I’m left-handed, so that’s something we didn’t have in common.

“What’s your name?” he began.

I considered saying: What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

I was sitting; he was standing. The clipboard was level with my forehead, and when he cocked his hip, the clipboard swayed dangerously close to my face. He smiled tightly. His teeth were yellow and crooked. He said, “Don’t be difficult.”

Do you find Shakespeare difficult?

“What’s your name?” he repeated.

I closed my eyes. I suppose your name is the first thing that ever really belongs to you, but when you think about it, it’s not yours at all. Your parents chose it. A million people might have had it before you. Maybe even a specific person, if you were named after someone. My name begins with an H for my mom’s late aunt Hilda because that’s something Jewish people do, carrying the dead around with us almost from the instant we’re born. Plenty of people name their children after a relative who’s passed away, but as far as I know, we’re the only ones who require it. And my mother told me we’re absolutely not supposed to name our children after someone who’s still alive, though I’ve never actually seen her go to temple so I don’t imagine she’s an expert on the rules. Nonetheless, Mom insisted I be named in honor of Hilda, who died while my mom was pregnant, and to whom my mother was apparently really close. Mom told me once that she never considered actually calling me Hilda. She thought the name sounded too old.

So: Hannah.

A sweet name. A good girl’s name. Even more traditional and old-fashioned than Hilda, when you think about it. I mean, I don’t think there’s a Hilda in the Bible.

Hannah is nothing like Agnes.

Hannah wanted to play games that Agnes thought we were getting too old for.

No, not getting too old, Agnes said. We’ve been too old for these games for years now. We’re going to be seniors in a couple months! But she was laughing, so I knew I’d be able to make her play.

Back to the man with the clipboard.

We both knew he didn’t really need me to tell him my name. Someone must have told him before I got here. He scribbled something on my file. The corner of the board dug into his belly, and I wondered if it hurt or if he was numb beneath his paper clothes. I couldn’t see what he was writing, but I guessed he wasn’t smudging the letters because he wasn’t a lefty.

Maybe left-handed people should be taught to write right to left instead of left to right. (And in languages that already read right to left, right-handed people would get to write in the opposite direction, too.) It’d be more fair that way. In kindergarten, my lowest grades were always in “penmanship”—not that they were real grades back then. Where I go to school you don’t get A’s and B’s and C’s until seventh grade. Anyhow, comparing my penmanship to the right-handed kindergarteners wasn’t remotely fair when you think about it. I was the only lefty in my class. My teacher had to procure special left-handed scissors for me, but I could never make them work. I ended up using the right-handed scissors instead. I read somewhere that every year, twenty-five left-handed people die using products designed for right-handed people.

Maybe even scissors.

The man with the clipboard led me up the stairs (two flights) and down a hall to this room. I wanted to ask about Agnes. I wanted to know whether Jonah was with her. She’d been in the hospital for nearly a week by the time they brought me here, plenty of time for Jonah to come. Maybe he was holding her hand. Maybe he’d lean over and kiss her forehead. I never saw them really kiss. Jonah said Agnes was shy about doing stuff like that in front of me, even though she and I were roommates and best friends.

Agnes’s parents arrived less than forty-eight hours after Agnes was admitted to the hospital. I was sitting by her bed when they got there. After that, the doctors wouldn’t let me back into her room because I wasn’t family. At the time, I assumed that since her real family had arrived to sit at her bedside, the doctors didn’t feel the need to bend whatever rules they’d bent so that Agnes wouldn’t be alone. Though she was in a coma, so it was impossible to say whether or not she knew she wasn’t alone. Agnes was still in the ICU when her parents arrived, and the hospital only allowed visitors into the ICU two at a time, and Agnes’s parents almost never left her.

With Agnes gone, I spent a few nights by myself in our dorm room, where we’d been living together since the summer program started nearly two months before. I took taxis back and forth to the hospital each day. (I considered checking into a hotel closer to the hospital, maybe the same hotel where Agnes’s parents were staying, then decided against it.) But they never let me back into Agnes’s room.

I can still picture how she looked the last time I saw her—that is, before her parents arrived: one tube going down her throat, tape over her lips to hold it in place. An IV stuck into her left arm that was attached to a plastic bag full of liquid (medication? fluids? nutrients?) hanging on a hook above her bed. She’d told me once that she hated needles; at least she’d been unconscious when they stuck her this time. Her blond hair was only a shade or two darker than the white sheets on her bed.

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