Mika never became anything. He managed to finish only his first year
of college in Geneva and then shifted from place to place, odd teaching
jobs to support his travels. His letters ceased to describe the places.
Nothing was really worth noting anymore, he said. They were all the same.
If only I would go with him, he suggested, perhaps he would be able to see
Visit me, I wrote back. So it went on and we never saw each other for years.
Compassion is a sickness, he wrote once. After that, I did not hear from him for two years. Then, out of the blue, I recieved a small note from Anna through my mother. Mika was sick; he was in a small town outside of Brussels. While working in a fluorescent lighting factory, sporadic bouts of sickness occurred amongst the workers and it was finally discovered that there had been hushed up incidents of mercury poisoning: a young boy of fifteen had actually died four years before. Mika was the second person to be so seriously ill but the doctor said that it was from complications involving TB as well; Mika, apparently, was a carrier. For some reason or another, he was at a mental hospital called St. Maarten's. She wanted me to clear up the issue and bring him home. I spoke French. I would be able to persuade them. She was clearly mad.
If they were trying to hush up the matter, I, as a foreigner, would hardly be able to dissuade them. It was she who was in the diplomatic circles. Why was she appealing to me? She had sent a plane ticket for 7 A.M. the next morning, a large check. This was Anna at her worst and most efficient.
At that point, I was finishing my doctorate thesis during the day, and supported myself by teaching at an adult education center every night. I taught first level French. I would have to find a substitute within twenty hours, pack and go to the airport at five in the morning. I found I was so agitated that I couldn't prepare a proper lesson.
What would you do, I said tentatively, if your spouse--that is, your wife or husband----has grown ill, mentally ill. I had spoken aloud. I could not take it back.
The students stared, not wanting to answer in either language. To answer would be to entertain the probability, to entertain was to invite disaster.
"Monsieur Hertzsprung, pourquoi avez vous demander un question comme ça ?"
"Parce-que je veux apprendre l'idee de la dommage ". To 'provoke' conversation, prod sadness out of their implacable features.
An older student raised his hand.
"Je viens elle á un île calme---is that the correct expression ?" A calm island. A island dissolving like a heap of sugar in water.
"et l'hopital et des docteurs?" I ask.
"Non. Je pense que l'hopital et le docteur ne peuvent aider pas les choses comme ça. C'est entre nous."
"Rien?" I persist. I am astounded. We are living in a century of anesthetics, treatments, shock
"Je prends elle á île calme. Apres ça, j'attends "
"You wait for her to become healthy or recover---- "
"Oui. J'attends pour elle." This man is in his forties and yet, I have no doubt, that this is what he would do.
I closed the textbook and dismissed the class. Mercury poisoning. But he had been admitted to an asylum, not a regular hospital. Anna wanted me to intervene and tell them that mercury poisoning had nothing to do with mental health----that they were mistaken.
St. Maarten was only two hours away for her but she wanted me to go instead. She wanted me to clear up the issue.
I wait for health.
I get out of the airport. It's cold and busy here, a mixture of French and Dutch fills the air and I can hardly follow the French; it's different, sharper, quicker; the people look like they're half-German. I change currency and hail a cab to the train station. From there, they drop me off at the town of St. Maartens. I quickly check into a small inn that's small, threadbare, filled with gasoline fumes. At this point I feel nauseous. I want to sleep. I want to find a nicer hotel and sleep. However, I leave my bags behind and follow the small map the concierge has given me. The asylum is on the outskirts of town, overlooking it. I can see it even from the hotel: it is a white facade hidden by trees. St. Maarten's is on top of a hill. It's a castle. I tumbled forth into a nightmare. Someone hands me a small wormeaten bunch of violets. I don't know why, but I take out my wallet and then I realize that I haven't changed any money. She pushes it in my hand. I don't know what to do with it. I have no water to put it in. I have no vase. And suddenly, I am distressed, immensely distressed that such things happen.
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