“Calming the Beast” by Natasha Williams

They didn’t get out much, but on the occasion of Dad’s fiftieth birthday he and Barbara, his fellow schizophrenic partner of the last ten years, met me for dinner and a concert. I was waiting at a corner table at MaryAnns, a popular Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side just blocks from where my father lived as a young Beat jazz musician.  I was relieved when they arrived well-dressed; Dad was clean-shaven in a navy blazer that brought out the blue in his eyes, and Barbara wore a formfitting dress, pink lipstick, and gum wedged in place to hide her missing front tooth. We had tickets to hear my cousin David play viola in the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lincoln Center. I imagine it was Barbara who encouraged Dad to “wear something to make you look like my handsome prince.”

Despite the recent loss of their daughter, Jackie, there remained something childlike in their love for each other. They met in the psychiatric hospital; my father suffered from a messiah complex and Barbara was his most dedicated disciple. It was out of what he called a nobles oblige (an obligation to spread his seed) that they had brought three children into the world. In and out of the hospital and unable to care for their first two babies, they’d been convinced to give them up. But they had birthed their youngest, Jackie, at home, social services none the wiser. They attempted to care for her until the previous year, when my father accidently drove off the pier with Jackie in the car.  “She wouldn’t go to sleep so I drove her around in the car and then headed out to the docks to see the city lights when she finally fell asleep,” he told me later.  I can picture this view, just blocks from where I grew up, fifteen years before the World Trade Centers would implode. From the abandoned piers across the bay, the luminous Twin Towers still rose up over the tip of Lower Manhattan like beacons of civilization. In the dark of night, my father said he didn’t see the yellow caution tape that warned that the pier had been demolished. He later claimed there was none. With reflexes made slow by years of medication, he didn’t brake in time, and the car plunged into the freezing cold New York Bay. 

In the aftermath of her death I was so very struck by how their delusions kept them from attaining life’s milestones, but couldn’t shield them from the devastating reality of losing their child.

Barbara held my father’s arm tightly as they entered the restaurant, as if bracing herself for the onslaught of name-calling she perceived in every glance and overheard comment.

“You two look so nice,” I said, instinctively trying to sooth her. We ordered margaritas and I asked about their commute.

“They don’t even let you smoke on the ferry anymore,” my father complained as our drinks arrived. Barbara tossed hers down quickly, for the warm sense of wellbeing that comes when her senses numbed and the voices in her head are temporarily muffled. When the waitress returned, Barbara asked for another.
            “Would you like to place your food order?” the waitress asked. And in the blink of an eye Barbara was defending herself from some disembodied assault, transfigured back to the fixed trauma of her schizophrenia.

“Just because you think you’re better than me, doesn’t mean you have to call me a whore!” Barbara blurted, raising her eyes to the waitresses like an assailant. I imagined the way Jackie, if she were here, would be hiding under the table to get away from Barbara’s paranoid shouting. How even though she was my baby half-sister I wanted nothing to do with her when she was alive. I expected our waitress had seen it all, we were in New York City after all. But she didn’t make nice or even excuse herself. She just turned on her heels and walked away.

“Barbara, she didn’t say anything,” I scolded, hoping my anger would regulate her. I assumed my father understood what went on in her head. That he might sooth her the way he soothed my existential angst as a child. But he looked lost, as if her insanity was as confusing to him as it was to me.

“I’m going to find the waitress to apologize,” I snapped and stood up from the table. I found her by the kitchen, a slight, amber skinned woman my age. “Hey I’m sorry. My stepmother has schizophrenia,” I said, making Barbara my family. I expected the waitress to be sympathetic. Instead, she said coolly, “So is my mother. You don’t have to tell me,” and walked away as if she could care less, as if we didn’t have something in common. I returned to the table. Now I was ready for a second drink.  I assumed the waitress was protecting herself. I recognized myself in her defensive callousness, but I also felt shunned. I wanted to shout at her when she came back to wait on us.
            “Just because your mother’s schizophrenic doesn’t mean you have to act like a bitch.” But it was a different waitress who took our order. I have no memory of how we got through dinner, what if anything my father said or how Barbara recovered.

When we finished, I paid the bill and looked Barbara in the eye. “If you can’t act reasonably at the concert, I will put you in a cab for the ferry now. Your call,” I said, hoping she could pull it together.

“No, I don’t want to go home. I want to come,” she said, taking Frank’s arm. We left the restaurant together, relieved for the fresh air and momentary anonymity of the street. I put my hand up to hail a cab. I felt a mixed sense of dread and anticipation for how difficult it was for them to be in the world and how much they wanted to be part of something bigger than their lives allowed. Being with my father elicited a confusing mix of empathy and anger in me.

We had third row orchestra seats at Lincoln Center set aside by my cousin. Dad headed off in search of his seat while Barbara and I went to find the ladies room to freshen up. “Barbara, you look lovely,” I said looking at her reflection in the mirror. Some of our best moments had been spent putting makeup on each other and painting our nails in the bathroom of Dad’s family home when I was young.

“Really? Oh, you’re just saying that,” she said, swatting my arm like a child while ladies in floor length gowns and rhinestones washed their hands, keeping their eyes to the sink.

I took her elbow, and we walked arm in arm to find my father. Self-conscious about Barbara’s broad smile with her missing front tooth, no longer filled in with gum, I worried that she would feel the need to defend her honor again as people watched us walk down the red-carpeted aisle. But we made it to our seats without incident. There was no yelling, no storming out onto the street, no trying to convince her the voices she heard weren’t real.

They played a heartrending Chopin piano concerto that was bold and beautiful and lifted us out of the insecurity of our lives into the transcendent space of the music. At the end of the first movement, out of the pin drop silence when you can hear every crinkled program and muffled cough, Barbara exclaimed loudly, “That was beautiful! Everybody in the world should listen to music like this; it calms the beast inside.” My father looked at her the way he did when people appreciate good art, like she was the best thing since sliced bread. Then he put his thick fingers to his lips and shushed her gently, sh –sh- sh-, like you would calm a baby.

There are studies on the effects of music on hallucinations in schizophrenics. Through magnetic resonance they have shown that music therapy increases the connectivity of the insular cortex, ironically known as the “Isle of Reil,” resulting in reduced hallucinations. Many interventions used classical music, but in Turkey traditional music has been prescribed since the time of the Ottoman Empire. I wonder if any studies have used Jazz, which was my father’s favorite refuge. Relieved it was the music and not voices she was hearing, I sat next to my father and wondered if the musicians could hear us too, if David heard her call out? I might have been embarrassed except I understood the power of their unfettered love

When the piece was over my father clapped louder and longer than anyone. He stood calling “Bravo, bravo!” and I basked in the way he could celebrate another’s accomplishments despite the magnitude of his losses.  I imagined David’s wide smile was in response to his uncle’s applause. These were my people. Barbara was right; we had found refuge in the music. Liberated from what separates us, we felt, for a moment, the way lyrical melodies were thought to have created the world and healed the ailing.

Natasha Williams has worked as an adjunct biology professor at SUNY Ulster in the Hudson Valley of New York and a consultant for the International Public School Network coaching science teachers. She recently made writing her primary job. In summer of 2020, she accepted a spot with the Bread Loaf School of English. She has also taken classes at Grub Street, Fine Arts Work Center, Sarah Lawrence and Sacket Street Writers.