When we first meet Michael, the narrator of “In Judy’s Room” by Ben Goldstein, he has just arrived at a hospital in the Berkshires to receive treatment for an unspecified mental illness. We learn that, to Michael, the onset of his illness is inextricably entangled with both love and heartbreak, a memory of a violent sexual rejection that he believes led him to commit his own monstrous act. The story's tension comes from Michael's journey between the past and present, his struggle to decipher the real from the unreal. One of the pleasures of reading this story for me came from Goldstein's gorgeous descriptions of the natural world and the town itself. As we navigate Michael's emotional landscape, he simultaneously moves through a setting so idyllic that it too feels dreamlike and magical—a place where the townspeople have a “yearly tradition of recreating a famous Norman Rockwell painting” and where Judy Garland “once dressed up in a gleaming ball gown and heels right out of The Wizard of Oz.”
The hospital didn’t look like a hospital but more like a quaint hotel, covered in snow up in the Berkshires. Our blue Volvo station wagon wound its way up to the main building, a bright white structure set off from the road that nearly blended in with the snow. It was a trick of the eye that allowed the tourists of the tiny town to stroll by and pretend the hospital wasn’t really there. In truth, the town was famous for it.
“Out,” my father said, and jerked a thumb to the door.
“Take care, Michael,” my mother said, and patted me on the hand.
Then, the car was gone.
They put me in the room where Judy Garland had stayed more than fifty years ago, when her addiction to alcohol and barbiturates resulted in a nervous breakdown. The nurse assigned to do my intake told me the legend: when Garland was a patient, she dressed up in a gleaming ball gown and heels right out of The Wizard of Oz, minus the sparkles.
“She painted the room a deep, stunning purple,” the nurse said, handing me a binder filled with information. “Anyway, you’ll find Pleasant Valley is an open place. You can leave the hospital whenever you like, as long as you attend individual and group therapy. You’ll find you have a lot of time here.”
“Time?” I said, as if pronouncing a word in an ancient, forgotten language.
She gave me a look that was meant to be comforting. “You’ll see what I mean.”
The first days passed, and her meaning became clear. Everything slowed. It was an illusion, of course, but it was powerful and hard to shake. I sat in the front hallway and flipped through magazines while a grandfather clock ticked away the seconds. A few times, I wondered aloud what I was doing here. Another patient overheard and gave me a sidelong smile, flashing her eyes dramatically. Meanwhile, the staff wandered about with drowsy expressions on their faces.
One night, over a dinner of flavorless baked chicken and colorless mashed potatoes, a boy with red dreadlocks and a ruddy beard took a seat next to me. He smelled of week-old body odor and filterless cigarettes, and his baggy hemp sweat suit didn’t quite hide his lean physique.
“And what brings you here?” he asked with sarcastic interest.
The terrible oneness of the world, I wanted to say.
Instead, I kept my head down, and shrugged.
The boy seemed not to notice. He introduced himself as Connor, explained matter-of-factly that he was admitted to the hospital after he was found running naked on the Interstate, trying to go as fast as traffic. “I wanted to fly,” he said. As he told his story, I couldn’t help but imagine the pale flesh of his ass churning in the headlights of every passing car.
As if beamed in from a distance, I realized what it was. I was attracted to him.
That night, we decided to take a walk through the tiny town. There was a Main Street with a diner and a hardware store, a couple of side streets which turned into two highways, and nothing to do. But Connor knew about a path that led across a small bridge to the base of the hill that rose above the town. We reached the bridge and stood for a while staring up into the darkness of the woods, water running smoothly beneath us. Even in the darkness, I could see him twirling a dreadlock between his fingers.
“I’m not crazy,” he said, without looking in my direction.
“Nope,” I said. “Me neither.”
Beyond the murmur of the stream and the soft hooting of an owl, silence.
The moon appeared from behind a cloud, bright and clear, and Connor’s eyes mirrored it, his inky pupils deepening.
“Well, sometimes, I’m a little crazy,” he said.
“Yep,” I replied.
We started back. When we reached the path that led back into town, two foxes emerged into the open, breathing rapidly, their eyes refracting in the dark, immense golden discs of color.
“Mountain lions,” Connor said.
“They’re foxes,” I said.
“Foxes.” Connor nodded his head and bit his lower lip. “You know what,” he said. “We’re like those two foxes.” And as soon as he said it, I knew he was right. That is to say, I wanted it to be true.
Later, after we had returned to our rooms for the night, I lay in bed thinking about the only boy I had ever kissed. Three years earlier, I was a senior at a private liberal arts college that leaned so far to the left politically, even the jocks came to question the heteronormative mores of society. I was a five-foot seven philosophy major with moppish hair and glasses with frames too big for my face. Everett wasn’t much bigger than me, but he was popular, and an athlete. He was small and skinny for a baseball player, with long wispy blond hair. His hair hid a scar that jutted across his left temple, which he fingered when he was anxious. I think it was his anxiety, and his scar, that drew me to him.
One night, after a frat party, he invited me to his dorm room. I can’t remember who made the move, but we ended up kissing, a drunken squirming of lips on lips. I pulled away for a moment and gave him a gap-toothed grin. When he saw my face, he pushed me away. I was a little surprised, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised at all.
“You’re a queer,” he said, eyeing me nervously, an uncertain undulating effect in his voice.
“I don’t ascribe to labels,” I said, so he punched me in the mouth. I staggered backwards and put a hand to my face. A hot pain seared through my jaw and a run of warm blood trickled around my gums.
“I’m not gay, I’m just fooling around,” Everett reasoned. “I have a girlfriend.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, steadying myself. “I don’t feel threatened.”
Everett took another swing, knocking over empty beer bottles, and I fled his room.
After that, we ignored each other. At graduation, we made eye contact from a distance, but only for a moment.
Post-college, I moved across the country to San Francisco, swore off men and women. I had little interest in sex, refused even to masturbate. But then I began to have trouble doing other things, little things, like mailing a letter or picking up spinach for a salad. The bright lights and the soothing music of the supermarket terrified me.
Around Christmas one afternoon, Connor and I decided to take a walk along Main Street. The town where Pleasant Valley stood had a yearly tradition of recreating a famous Norman Rockwell painting, one that the painter had held especially dear. He’d lived just outside of town for most of his adult life.
When we reached the main strip, a baby-blue Ford wagon that looked like it had been one of the first ever constructed idled in the street in front of a confectionary, which sat between the diner and the hardware store. It was exactly how we might imagine small-town New England in the ’50s. It was the memory of a memory, a neon sign of nostalgia. About fifty people gathered in the street, huge numbers for the tiny town, taking photos and buying their kids candy canes while snow swirled down from a sky blotted with grey.
“Wow,” said Connor, pulling his parka tight around his shoulders. “Americana in its purest form.”
“Don’t make any sudden movements,” I said. “You might scare off the townsfolk.”
Connor chuckled. We stood at a distance from the children and their families, as if we were threatening or dangerous. They took little notice of us, of course, but I couldn’t help but feel that somehow they knew we were patients from up the street.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s keep walking.”
We wandered along one of the side roads toward the path that led up the hill. As we walked, we told our stories. Connor told me about his time before his stay at the hospital. He had been living out of his van in West Virginia, at peace with the rolling hills, smoking pot everyday and believing he was Jesus. I told Connor how I had stayed at my parents’ house in the suburbs for years after college, how some days I couldn’t manage to sleep or eat, how I couldn’t hold down a job or cook myself meals.
We reached the bridge and decided to follow the path through the woods. Connor stomped ahead of me. The trees enveloped us, the ground before us speckled with sunlight over white snow.
After we’d trudged a few feet up the hill, Connor slowed and then stopped altogether. Turning, he pointed a finger at me.
“You know, plenty of people our age can’t hold down a job for very long, and some end up moving back in with their folks.” He looked at me, as though searching for something. “I mean, you seem normal enough. So, what’re you doing here, anyway?”
A branch fell from a nearby tree, sending up a flurry of powder.
I decided to tell him the truth. “I killed somebody,” I said.
Connor stared at me dead in the eye. Then he whooped with laughter, yanked on a dreadlock, an unbelieving expression crossing his face. “You killed somebody.”
“I mean, I killed somebody. With my mind, you know?” It wasn’t something I had ever mentioned before. I felt the heat rise across my face: shame, confusion, dislocation, panic.
Connor took a step back. “Maybe you are a little crazy, Michael.” A sadness crept into his voice. “I can see it now.”
I didn’t know what to say. We walked home in silence.
A few months before he punched me in the face, I met Everett, the man with the jutting scar, in philosophy class.
We were reading the Phaedrus. Our professor asked if anybody could explain Plato’s theory of the madness of love. I raised my hand and explained that Plato divined human nature as a chariot led by two horses, one spurred by sexual instinct and erotic desire, the other by truth and beauty. The horses warred with one another at the sight of beautiful boys, one horse wanting nothing but sexual satisfaction, the other pulling back for a glimpse of heaven. It was the balance between the two, the light and the dark, that yielded a perfect blend of madness and love.
The professor seemed impressed.
After class, Everett approached me. I had never spoken to him before.
“You’re really into this stuff, huh,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful text,” I returned.
“Beautiful,” he scoffed. He ran a finger over the scar on his forehead. “Listen to yourself. Plato is a total perv.” But even as he said it, he looked up at me with a kind of longing. There was something soft and tender on his face, a vulnerability he couldn’t quite hide. In that moment, I knew.
Then the party, the kissing, the punches, the rest.
Everett stopped showing up to class. We didn’t see each other again until graduation. When I saw his face beaming out from beneath the peak of his graduation cap, our eyes met briefly. In that moment, I despised him. I couldn’t help it: I felt hatred coming out of me, stronger than anything I’d ever felt before. It was only much later that I realized even this was a kind of attraction, a darker brand of love.
I didn’t hear from Everett after I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t expect to, really. I often wondered how he was doing, if he was still dating his girlfriend, how he was managing in the world.
A few weeks after I moved, I heard the news. Word got around that Everett had drowned in the lake behind his parents’ house. I showed the proper amount of sympathy, told my friends from college I had been in a class with him, but that I didn’t know him well. At the same time, a strange realization struck me: I was responsible. A storm began forming in my mind. I could hear the faint murmur of voices pronouncing me guilty of murder.
It was the look I had given him at graduation. In that moment, all the hatred came out of me, and surrounded him like a spell.
Was it an accident? Had he drowned himself? No one was certain.
For the next ten days, wracked with guilt, I went without sleep. I tried everything to get some rest—pot, liquor, exercise, melatonin—but nothing worked. Nights flipped into days. The world turned on its head. Somehow, I managed to board a plane across the country. When I came to, I was back in Boston, in my parents’ house, my mother hovering above me.
“Honey,” she said. “You’re awake.”
It was true. But nothing was the same.
I was in a new place, a changed place, a place where one breathes differently. Shadows slinked around me in broad daylight, voices called my name in foreign accents. Sometimes, I smelled smoke where there was no smoke, like my insides were burning up. Demons appeared by my side and casually discussed the bleakness of my future. I was living in two worlds simultaneously: the real one, and one that seemed even more real.
The friction between worlds was too much to manage. My skull felt like it might burst. The weight of what had happened to Everett slowly receded in a sea of nonsense-rhymes, a fluttering of bizarre thoughts that alighted like birds and then took to the wind.
I met with psychiatrists. They prescribed meds, which I dumped in a trash can near the park by my parents’ house.
In spite of everything, the truth is, you begin to depend on madness. Like the dark horse, you love it.
When I told Connor what I did, something between us shifted. We still occasionally ate together in the dining room, and he’d nod to me in group therapy. But we didn’t go on walks anymore. It was as if he’d seen something in me he couldn’t unsee, as if what I’d said revealed something too difficult to digest.
And yet, something shifted within me, too. When I told Connor what I did, when I said it out loud, I wondered if it could possibly be true.
I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I took long walks through the tiny town. Sometimes, I ended up at the little public library. I looked for books on madness. There wasn’t much available, just a few paperbacks by Freud and Jung, which I couldn’t comprehend.
Then one day, on the table with new releases, there was a display for a biography of Judy Garland. I took it to the small reading room and absorbed the entire thing. I read about her family. Garland’s father, Frank Gumm, when he wasn’t on stage with his vaudeville act, was a demure, unhappy man. He had a long, black moustache that he waxed when he felt unwell. After his vaudeville shows, he would hit on the ushers, men from the various towns where they stayed, and invited them back to his room. He tried desperately to keep this secret from his family, but because of his actions, they were forced to relocate to different towns many times over.
I put the book on my lap. I thought of Frank Gumm’s black moustache, of Everett’s jutting scar, of Connor’s long dreadlocks. I thought about myself, and about Plato. I thought and I thought, and it seemed it was all I’d been doing for ages.
Group therapy had just ended, and I stood with a cigarette in hand outside the main building of Pleasant Valley. Connor came outside and nodded to me. I offered one to him. He smoked his cigarette in short, quick puffs, while I blew long plumes of blue smoke in and out of my lungs.
It was the camaraderie of smoking that broke the spell.
“So, what have you been up to?” Connor asked.
“I’ve been reading a biography of Judy Garland,” I said. “She used to be a patient here. I’m staying in her old room.”
“Really,” I said. I wanted to tell Connor everything then, about love and hate and madness, about secrets kept too long. But I couldn’t find a way to say it. So instead, I told him everything I knew about Judy Garland. I told him how she was discovered early, about her skill as an entertainer, her struggle with alcohol and barbiturates, and her eventual decline. I ended with the legend the nurse had told me.
“Purple,” Connor mused, running a hand through his beard. “An odd choice. But probably beautiful, in its way.”
Time passed. One evening, I took the bus to the next town over and picked up supplies. When night fell, and all the nurses and doctors had gone to sleep, I brought in the cans of paint. I pushed all the furniture to the middle of the room. I began to coat the walls in broad, wide swaths the color of eggplant. When I’d finished, I placed candles in little glass holders on the bed posts, on the end table and the dresser, and lit them one by one.
Then, I said a prayer for Judy Garland, which really, was a prayer for myself.