Chapter 23, “Mental” by Marie K Johnston






Chapter 23
So, to borrow the words of A.S. Byatt, Eve wanted to be “a poet and a poem.”  Her head was overflowing with romantic ideas of the world; I guess it was just a matter of time before it exploded.  She didn’t see that experience is one basket. She had two—one for ‘good’ experience, and one for ‘bad.’ It is hard to keep filling up two baskets when you only have two hands. Luckily for me, my hopes were dashed before they became too strong.  Ironically, I don’t even remember what happened to help me see that good and bad are always in balance, whether we can see it or not. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, and maybe Eve was the one who taught it to me because it seemed from such an early age that she didn’t get that. Or, better yet, that she did but refused to believe it. She was always smarter than me, that’s why she was always so interesting.

Divorce can do funny things to a child, maybe far worse things than we’ve discovered yet.  But it’s not our mom’s fault—she did the very best she could. The only reason Eve couldn’t process the divorce as well as me wasn’t because she loved my parents more or because she loved their marriage or our family more than the rest of us did. It was because she was still tripped up by the simultaneous existence of good and bad, and unable to see that in the balance between good and bad sometimes what you think of as ‘bad’ is really ‘good.’ I know that the divorce taught us two lessons: the first is that we are truly not beholden to anyone but ourselves; and the second, that what you think you see is not everything there is to see.  A third lesson, derived from the first two, is that nothing lasts.  The difference between me and Eve was in what we did with these lessons. She refused to accept them because she only saw them as being negative, but I was different and looked at them as an opportunity to help me avoid divorces in my own life. Even the word ‘divorce’ is so interesting. Two things that used to be one are now again two things. I saw in my life that I had already experienced many divorces, from my parents, my friends, from myself. Learning how to be alone and how to be with others is a lifelong lesson.

No one is perfect, not my parents, not me and Eve, no one. Eve thought this was terrible, I just thought it was the way it was (and didn’t think about how I felt about it). I guess that I should be grateful for learning these things before leaving home, even though I didn’t know at the time that they were lessons or that I had learned anything. I was still open enough to absorb them into my worldview before it became more solid, before I was more resolute in my ideas of things.  Unfortunately for Eve, our parents’ break-up came at a time that broke her sweet ideals of life into a million pieces.  She was always more strong-headed and definite than I was, maybe because I was so slow to make decisions and such a procrastinator. She thought she knew what she liked, whereas I never knew if I was going to like something new or not. She was the Hare, I was the Tortoise. She was the City Mouse; I was the Country Mouse. She couldn’t wait to move out of the house, and wanted to go straight to Austin. I stayed home for two years after high school and worked at a bookstore, living sometimes with our mom and sometimes with our dad before I felt ready to move to Austin where she was and college was and change was. That’s part of why we needed to be so close to each other, even though we sometimes drive each other insane. We were trying to understand ourselves by understanding each other’s differences. Her sickness is no one’s fault, really, but hers. But, I’m beginning to see that it was also inevitable at the same time, in a way that was not her fault, even though she was making choices the whole time. She didn’t understand dichotomy. It was just a word to her, one that she couldn’t even remember the definition to because she could not apply the word to an example from her own life. She was too smart for her own good, but that also meant that she would be smart enough to see how she had gotten tangled inside her own web. It also meant that she would figure out how to get out of that web, too, if she could also learn patience.

I think the whole family knew that something in her snapped back then.  We could sense it; we thought it was natural.  I think that our parents just thought she’d get over it, they couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t.  They think that Eve hung the moon.  We all do, I guess.  Anyway, I remember thinking one day, after the divorce was finalized and Eve and I were sitting in our high school parking lot waiting for the car to warm up because it was winter and freezing, I remember thinking that day that something in her had died and might not be coming back.  It was such an overcast day, drizzly and dreary, and at the time I wished that the weather was influencing my thoughts and that they weren’t true, but I was pretty sure they were.  That thing in her was just too taunt and over-stretched, it couldn’t withstand all of the pressure.  It had to break.  



Maybe you’re wondering why she didn’t actually commit suicide.  It wasn’t because Jeremy found her up there, not exactly anyway.  She won’t tell me anything, but he will, so I think I’ve figured it out a little.  I just don’t know how much longer she can stand to keep doing this to herself; something’s got to give. Watching her exhaust herself is exhausting because it is ironic that someone so strong can’t just yell out “uncle!”

Part of her problem is this nihilist thing: it reminds me of this thing that Nietzsche wrote, that people who have lost their ideals are worse off than people who never had any to begin with. He thought that losing your ideals negated the joy of having them in the first place because the experience led you to believe that the world sucked and that there was no point. The most interesting thing about Neitzcshe to me is that I used to think he was so negative, with his whole “God is dead” stuff, but he’s really a combination of idealist and realist. The interesting part is that when you read biographies about him, he had to struggle so much and might not have noticed all of the progress he made personally by writing for the progress of the rest of us. Eve’s like that—she can’t get out of her own way.  I can see that she is both idealistic and realistic, but she can’t admit it. She’s about 70% idealism and %30 realism now, and I know that to her it seems like she’s becoming pessimistic. It feels that way to her because she is out of balance. That’s why I feel hopeful. As she approaches a better balance between idealism and realism, she will find peace. It’s the way things work. It amazes me how lost we sometimes have to become in order to be found. I think that she also feels at a loss to keep developing herself; she doesn’t know how to see herself anymore.  I wonder what she thinks she sees when she looks in the mirror? Can you imagine hating your own reflection, or seeing something so distorted that it looks like some kind of monster when everyone else sees something pure and struggling? We who love her are transfixed by her inevitable growth. It is painful for her, it is painful for us. She was so one way, and we always knew she’d become a different way. But all the chartreuse buds on the new spring branches are also the brown crispy leaves that blow to the ground in the fall. It’s natural. It’s the way life works, and no one is strong enough to win against the way things work.

Anyway, Jeremy and I have been hanging out a lot lately, since that day.  He is doing much better.  He likes to talk about what happened up there, every time telling me something more or something different.  He seems more solid now, older.  He says that it started raining up there, a light rain, a kind of mist.  He says that for a long time before it started raining, the two of them were just sitting there—he was crying, she was just staring at the ground three stories down.  Neither one had said that they were there to jump.  He could tell she was though.  He couldn’t be sure that she knew he was. She kept throwing her cigarette butts down to the ground, watching them fall, laughing a little when they hit the ground, and saying “splat!” when they did.

This rain distracted them a little, and they started talking.  Jeremy said he was worried that it was going to start pouring, and they looked up to scan the sky for thunderclouds.  It was so dark, though, they could barely see.

It was one of those nights, Jeremy said, when you weren’t sure if there was a moon because it was so dark.  They started looking for the moon together.

Eve scanned the sky in front of her, turned her head, looked all around.  She thought the moon was there somewhere, behind a building or something.  Jeremy looked all around, too.  They started sharing the bottle of vodka that Jeremy had brought with him, looking for the moon.  They started sharing Eve’s cigarettes, even though he hated menthols, because he had run out of his own. They didn’t still didn’t see the moon.  They got up, standing on the roof carefully, trying to maintain their balance but the roof was slanted and they were drunk—when he gets to this part of the story, it just kills me.  I can see them up there, with their arms out for balance, with their heads thrown back, talking to each other—“do you see anything?” “no, do you?”—it’s kind of sad and sweet and funny all at the same time. It’s also ironic that they came up there to jump off the thing that they were now trying not to fall off of.



I didn’t understand why it was important to find that moon.  Jeremy says for him it had something to do with hope.  He says he and Eve haven’t talked about it since, so he doesn’t know if she felt that way, too. It was really early in the morning, and Eve had said that she was  afraid that the moon might have set.  They started talking about how weird it was that the moon set, just like the sun did, and how some nights it did and some nights it didn’t.  Jeremy asked me why that was, the first time he told me the story.

“You’re into science.  Why does the moon only set sometimes, and not every night?”

I could see that he was serious, so I told him that it has to do with the position of the earth and stuff.

“Oh,” he said.  “That makes sense.  I should tell Eve; she’d like to know.”

So, there they were, moon-hunting as Jeremy calls it now, in the mist and the dark.  Eve started talking about the phases of the moon, telling Jeremy that there were four phases, and that if they couldn’t find the moon tonight it was because of the phase it was in.

He asked her what phase that was, and this is where he starts to get excited when he tells you the story.

“So, I said, ‘What phase is the moon in when you can’t see it?’

‘It’s called a new moon.’

‘That’s weird…It’s new, but you can’t tell it’s even there?  Why would they call it that?’

‘I don’t know.  I guess because it’s about to be there, about to be a moon again.’”

Jeremy says that he remembers thinking how wonderful that was, that people had named this phase “new” instead of waiting to name the first visible stage that.  That people even recognized it as a phase was cool because it looked like nothing was happening up there but something was, you just couldn’t see it.  

I wonder if the people who named those phases imagined what the moon was doing in its new phase.  I can see them thinking that it was up there gussying itself up, in the bathroom with the door closed, taking a long bath to get all of the cosmic dirt off, polishing itself up, getting ready to shine again.  It kind of makes me laugh because it seems like such a childish way to look at things; it kind of makes me want to cry though, because it’s such a pretty way of seeing things.   

Anyway, after Eve told him that he says he just didn’t feel like jumping much anymore.  He asked her if she would drive him home.  She said she would, and they both climbed down.  She says she doesn’t remember being up there, or moon-hunting, or driving Jeremy home.  She actually didn’t drive them, they found Jacob before they found Sam and Jacob was going to take us all home.



This was as it should have been. Sam was wise, but Jacob was wiser because he not only knew the things Sam knew, he could actually apply them in a consistently calm way. Sam and Eve butted heads, because Eve couldn’t see what Sam saw and Sam couldn’t stand it. Eve wanted Sam to be happy, and she thought she had to help him see things the way she did, and he wanted her to be happy and thought she would be if she saw things the way he did. Their love was big, but it couldn’t prevent them from getting in its way. The relationship she had with Jacob was different, though. They had been broken up for around two years at this point, but their love was stronger than ever. He had probably understood Eve because he had already been where she was. And he knew she was stuck, but he knew she’d figure herself out in her own time. But the interesting part was that the fact that they were in different places never caused either one of them any dissonance. To the point, I think, that Eve never even realized that she thought Jake was where she was. He knew better than she did, though, and probably recognized that she felt this way, that she couldn’t help it, and that she would grow out of it. Eve told me once that the reason they had split up was because they didn’t want to keep each other from growing—they loved each other that much. Even after the break up, though, they continued to love each other more—deciding that they were like brother and sister, deciding that being family to each other was better than being in love. Sometimes Eve preferred Jacob to Sam, but she didn’t know why then. She just knew it was okay, even though it was confusing to her. Jake had been the closest person to her for the past 3 years, and beyond their sexual love they had cultivated a huge, no-matter-what kind of love that could soothe her in some of her most difficult moments because she saw it as a testament that some things can remain pure and good forever. Even though they sometimes talked about the merits and difficulties of getting back together, the decision to not make a decision about that was the only decision in her life that she had been able to succeed in suspending. It didn’t matter to her whether they were ‘together’ or not. They couldn’t love each other more, and that was the most important thing anyway. It’s a good thing that Jacob was there, and much more sober than the rest of us.  It is a good thing that he could almost always be counted on when something really important was happening in Eve’s life. They found me half-asleep on the stairs, and put me in the in the backseat with Jeremy.  

I remember Jeremy telling Jacob how great Eve was, how smart she was.   I remember Eve was real quiet all the way to Jeremy’s apartment, so quiet that from the backseat I thought she had passed out.  She was just listening, unable to figure out how to say ‘thank you’ to Jeremy, or to tell him that she thought he was great and smart, too. Once we dropped Jeremy off, though, she sat up in her seat and started talking.  

“That Jeremy, I love that guy.  He’s so sensitive to everything; he’s so fragile.  Y’all should of seen him up there, worried that it was going to pour down raining.  He was worried that the streets would ice over and people would get into wrecks.  He’s funny,” she said.  She stroked Jacob’s hair, leaned back, smoking her cigarette.  That’s all she said, but I remember thinking that Jacob and I had missed out on something by not being invited to their rooftop soiree.  Jeremy seemed different because of it.  Eve did, too.

She passed out before she finished that cigarette, I know because Jacob yelled at me to wake up in the backseat (I had been awake, but just thinking) and throw her cigarette out the window.  She didn’t wake up when we pulled up in the driveway at home, either, and Jacob carried her inside.  It made me think of being really small again, coming home late at night from being out with our parents.  We’d both fall asleep in the backseat, but I’d always wake up as we pulled into the driveway.  Eve is the heaviest sleeper I’ve ever seen; my parents always said that she wouldn’t even wake up if a parade was marching through her bedroom.  Dad used to carry her inside until she was about twelve and finally got too big.   I opened the door for Jacob, and watched as he walked to Eve’s bedroom.  He carried her with her head on his shoulder, with his arms around her waist, and she looked like a little kid up there with her eyes closed.   

She looked almost free of that thing that held her, almost peaceful.  I told them goodnight, and sat out on the porch for one more cigarette before bed.  


This morning, I woke up to the sounds of kitchen cabinet doors slamming shut, and the rattling of pots and pans.  It was early.  My pounding head and dry tongue reminded me that I should have done the water and aspirin thing before hitting the sack last night.  I slowly got out of bed, and made me way to the kitchen.

Eve was in there, dressed, making breakfast.  She was smiling.  Her hair was still a little damp from the shower, and it stuck a little to the sides of her face and her forehead, but she looked fresh and clean.  She asked me how I wanted my eggs.

I just stood there.

Then she said, “You know, it hit me this morning.  ‘If you’re not going to get busy living, then get busy dying.’ Do you remember who said that? I can’t remember.”

I didn’t.  I just smiled at her.  She seemed like herself again.

“You know what else?  Let’s switch names for the day, just for fun. Like we used to. Call me Lillith from now on, wouldja?” She told me.

“Okay, Eve,” I said.

“You mean ‘Lillith’, Lilly.  Right?”  She handed me a glchrissakes of orange juice and we sat down at the kitchen table together.

“Yeah.  I mean ‘Lillith,’ Lillith.”

“Cool.”  She took a big bite of scrambled eggs, and bit off the corner of her buttered toast.  

I started eating, too.  The eggs had melted cheese in them, and a few pieces of shell.  I started laughing.  

“What?” my sister asked, smiling.

“These taste like the eggs Dad used to make us before school,” I told her.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Hey, Eve?  ‘Lillith’ sounds weird to me.  I’ll just call you ‘Lilly,’ cool?”

“Cool,” said Lilly.  We smiled at each other.


“Hey, Eve, I was thinking about going for a walk after we eat.  Wanna come?” Lilly asked me.

I nodded.  Here we go, I thought. I understood why she wanted to switch names again. She wanted to be somebody else for a little while. The problem was we couldn’t pull it off anymore because now we had our own personalities. I played along, hoping it would help.



Well, that’s not the end of this story, unfortunately.  I told you earlier that I wasn’t sure if it would have a happy ending, and I turned out to be right about that.  When I said it, though, I meant at the time that I wasn’t sure how to write one.  I assumed that in real life there’d be one, though, obviously.  I meant that I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough writer to craft an ending at all, one that seemed satisfying and complete.  But, here’s the next real life part: Eve, I mean Lilly, did try to kill herself again. Two weeks after that breakfast scene.  I’m just on my way to the hospital now to visit her.  Everyone will be there, and everyone will cry.  No one understands it, not even me.  I thought that writing this stupid thing would help me understand her, but it didn’t.  Oh well, what do I know anyway?  I’m only twenty-two, for chrissakes.  There is so much in general I need to know. I don’t even know what I don’t know.  


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3 thoughts on “Chapter 23, “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

  1. It’s better to not everything, yk so that the longing to know more doesn’t die out and this longing makes you feel really alive until the moment when you know everything. I don’t really know if this makes sense, but I loved this piece. Pain is so artistic, appalls me every single time.

    Liked by 1 person

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