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The Flight of Mary Todd Lincoln

Miah was an actor, not an actress. I didn’t recall asking what she was or wasn’t, or for how long we’d been talking. I’d been too busy licking the residue from the corners of my lips, courtesy my Sahara-grade dry mouth. And maintaining a slack pose to guard against conspicuous muscles tremors. And fiddling with my shirt so the gaudy skin rash didn’t edge above my collar. This was my problem with conversation: side effects.

An actor, she explained, is someone who studies the Alexander Technique and Stanislavski’s system and the cannon of dramaturgical theory in pursuit of elevating the human condition. Whereas an actress is a model who meets a director at someone’s penthouse and auditions for his next movie by way of fucking him in the Jacuzzi.

Her gaze splintered, homing in on the directors and actresses surrounding us. It was that type of crowd: patrons of the arts shopping for vessels to patronize. I expected as much from my ex-brother-in-law, Raymond, a techsomething who revolutionized computative linguistic whatever while a senior in high school. After selling his whatever for a sum capable of eradicating world hunger, he’d spent the last fifteen years indulging his ever-evolving appetites—the latest of which being a hotshot theater producer—in lieu of attending college or holding down a real job. Minus the wealth and computer savvy, we had virtually identical resumes.

Miah kept talking, though her eyes remained on tour. I considered leaving, but Raymond was holding court between me and the door to his penthouse. He’d probably shoot off an email to my sister before I reached the lobby: Did my best, but you know how he gets around people. Then I’d have a message waiting when I got home, Parker voicing her disappoint from thousands of miles away, guilting me for not trying harder. For not keeping my promise that this time would be different.

I licked the corners of my lips and asked Miah how she knew Raymond.

She grew bashful. “I was an understudy in his last off-Broadway show. The whole cast was invited.” It sounded like an admission. “But now I’m preparing for Abe’s Last Days.”

I shook my head.

“Raymond’s upcoming Broadway production. I’m auditioning for the lead.”

“The president?”

“The first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s set during the week leading up to the president’s assassination.”

I tried to cobble together a joke, something about staging a play about a man who was assassinated at a play, my mental fog densifying. The silence expanded. Finally, Miah intervened and asked my connection to Raymond.

“Family,” I said.

She squared her stance and reeled in her eyes. “You’re related?”

I grin-shrugged, unsure how best to characterize my relationship so my invitation didn’t come off more pitiful than hers. Raymond had called me that afternoon—not an hour after a phone call with Parker, who was in Corsica at the beach house they once shared, in which I made clear I would be spending New Year’s Eve solo—and begged me to attend his “cozy shindig.” I had capitulated for Parker’s sake. “He’s my brother-in-law. Was, actually. But we’re still close.”

Miah nodded measuredly. Or maybe she wasn’t looking at me like that at all, and I just couldn’t help recall the last moderately attractive, semi-tipsy woman to spend time with me. The secretary of Parker’s investment broker, who told me I was funny and charming. Who made out with me after tapas in the East Village. Came home with me, gobsmacked and frisky as we roved through Parker’s penthouse. Got naked. Unbuckled my pants. Tried to charm life into the dead slug of my penis, graciously leaving before I started to cry. The next day I went cold turkey. Three weeks later I was in four-point restraints and under observation. Six months later and here I was. But things were different now. For one, the side effects—I could already feel the prickle of blood around my crotch.

A look of bemusement slowly crossed Miah’s face. “Wait, the lingerie model? She’s your sister?”

There has never been a better gauge for how people view me than when they learn I share genes with a perennial favorite of Rollick magazine’s annual ‘Top 100 (Wet)Dream Girls.’ I was about to point out that Parker modeled swimsuits, not lingerie, and that when we were kids we looked so similar people constantly told our mother she had the two most beautiful children they had ever seen. I was about to, until I felt the hot flush of Miah’s attention lock on me.

“God, apparently she’s all he ever talks about. He dedicated his last show to her.”

It didn’t surprise me. They had met at a charity event and got married in Honolulu two weeks later. The tabloids compared them to every famous, physically lopsided couple from Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller to Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. After six months of relentless public scrutiny, my sister couldn’t take it anymore. They had stayed friends, or something, though she refused to be seen with him.

Waiters glided through with trays of champagne flutes. Miah handed me one, along with a cocktail napkin. She gestured at something on my lips. I furiously wiped it off. As I did, her eyes drifted over my neck. Shoulders tensed, I yanked up my collar and blurted out the first words to come to mind: “I’ll put in a good word for you with Raymond.”

Her smile was shrewd. “But you’ve never seen me act.”

Through the fog I discerned the outline of a witty, bold reply. “Then you should come back to my place for a private performance.”

Her expression straddled mercy and disgust, and she turned her attention back to everyone else. Someone announced one minute to the New Year. A massive TV screen descended from the ceiling. Over a million jolly people clogged Times Square, and I concentrated on them. As many as I could see, salved by the realization of how easy 15 it would be to annihilate the swarm. One person at the epicenter of the festivities, primed to ring in the New Year with a party horn and a test tube of extinction-level pathogen. A reprieve set in as the camera panned across endless faces. Faces I saved by virtue of not being a terrorist. But the sensation was fleeting, evicting me from the lavish digs of my fantasies and into the gutter of reality.

That was the problem with my new meds: they worked. Even when I needed them not to.

The countdown began. Miah was inching away, her renewed detachment joining forces with Dick Clark’s cryogenically-secured visage to remind me that in all my life I’d only ever kissed one girl when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s. The cousin of a friend of a friend during my senior year of high school, months prior to my first psychotic break. Sharon. Or Cheryl.

Well-wishes rained through the room. Skulking toward the coat check I spotted Miah fake-laughing at the anecdotes of a liverspotted producer with a frame more bloated than mine, who I imagined she’d go home with and be pulverized mid-coitus under the raw tonnage of his girth and name-dropping. The reverie lasted until the coat check girl asked for my ticket. I scavenged my pockets and then hunted through the apartment, getting all the way to the bar before remembering I hadn’t worn a coat to the party. For appearances’ sake I ordered a Sprite, and then left without saying goodbye to Raymond.

Far as I was concerned, that was that; the night merely another chapter from my memoir-in-progress tentatively entitled Shmuck! But the next day, in the midst of a ‘true-crime’ marathon, the phone rang. At the sound of my sister’s voice I muted the TV and settled in for a twenty-minute rhapsody on the majestic glory of Corsican promontories that would make me feel like a blind person listening to Bob Ross narrate his paintings. To my amazement, she immediately steered the conversation to the party.

“Heard you met a pretty girl.”

I told Parker it was nothing.

“That’s not what Miah told Raymond,” she said, the sound of Miah’s name making me shudder. “She was really interested in you. Asked a lot of questions.”

The thought riled me. Any question I loathed being asked—what do you do? Where did you go to college?—I doubly loathed having asked about me.

“Raymond told her you’re amazing, obviously,” Parker said. “And that you’re a freelancer.”

“Freelance what?”

“The point is she liked you. She hasn’t lived in the city long. You should show her around. If nothing else, make a new friend.”

If nothing else. The phraseological equivalent to buying a lottery ticket, sold alongside such fated scratch-offs as Worse Comes to Worst and All Things Being Equal. For there to be nothing else, there must first be something. But Parker didn’t understand that. She had everything, and I wanted back to days we shared the same precious nothing.

“Are you watering my plants? Keeping on top of all your other stuff?”

Stuff like doctors’ appointments, prescription refills, disability paperwork, social services meetings, treatment plan statuses, sleep cycles. Stuff Parker couldn’t deal with anymore. It’s not fair to say she gave up on me. More like she gave in. To the seven hospitals I’d been involuntarily admitted to over twelve years, paparazzi photographing her sneaking in and out of each one. To the battalion of doctors and thousands of treatment plans and the mint she’d spent to get me the best care available. Most of all to the buffet of diagnoses that over the years labeled me schizophrenic, and then bipolar, and then a borderline personality, and then some witch’s brew of the three. My professionally gorgeous sister. To me, still the willowy, dimpled girl I defended in elementary school when kids teased us for walking with umbrellas on days our mother distrusted the sun. The person who had loved me longest and missed me most.

I told her the plants and stuff were fine.

“You’re the best. Okay, stay by the phone. Good things are coming. I can feel it…oh, I ordered a tanning bed and had it shipped from Italy. Silvio will install it when it arrives.”

The TV was still muted when I hung up. Grizzly photographs of butchered coeds flashed on screen, followed by an interview with an FBI profiler likely explicating the killer’s MO. It wasn’t as if Parker explicitly forbade me from watching these shows, though avoiding them arguably fell under the header of “stuff ” to keep atop of. She worried they planted “bad thoughts” in my head. If anything, the opposite was true. I would watch the police on the trail of serial killers and hitmen and husband-poisoning, insurance-hungry wives and re-envision the scene, what would have happened if I had been there, the lives I would have saved and evil I would have vanquished. That’s the surest way to reap someone’s love: protect them. I had had that once, but then Parker grew up.

The forensics team discovered a flyspeck of blood on a boot in woodlands miles from the crime scene. I struggled to focus on the investigation, my thoughts consumed by Miah. The longer I mulled it over, the more sense it made. She hadn’t been revolted but overwhelmed. By my charm. My wit. Just like the broker’s secretary. I began to map out the tour on which I’d take Miah. The Frick and Yankee Stadium and Le Bernardin, places Raymond took Parker to court her during the whirlwind of their pre-nuptial two weeks. A date worthy of a second date—worthy of repeating to commemorate an anniversary. I was finalizing the itinerary when my watch beeped and buzzed. Afternoon meds.

The orange circle treated mania and delusions. The blue oblong mitigated depression. The purple square alleviated the joint pain and occasional tics caused by the blue oblong. The white diamond helped curb my appetite in an attempt to offset the weight gain caused by the circle, the oblong, and the square. Like pieces in a game of psychopharmacological Tetris, where the object wasn’t to form straight lines but block neurotransmitter receptors. Siphon off my fix. That’s all antipsychotics do: plug the source. Gastric-bypass surgery for insatiable neurons. It’s the mechanism of every drug cocktail I’ve ever taken. And like any diet, I’d stuck with it until I got hungry again.

I washed down the pills with Cherry Coke. Puttering around the apartment, I handled the phone like the president’s nuclear football. I watched five more investigations before my watch beeped again. All of the afternoon pills, plus two more to knock me out. I didn’t get up, tuning out the beep and the buzz. I wanted to be as crisp as possible when the phone rang.

What Parker didn’t understand, what I knew better than to admit to her or any doctor, was that the only time I felt truly sick was on my meds. There’s me and then there’s this other me. One confident and indefatigable, ideas pinwheeling forth like a thousand Independence Days; the other subdued in the captivity of a chemical haze, suffering through the tacit judgments of those around me who fear my better, natural self.

It was late, then very late, but still not too late for people like her— people like the people she thought I was. An exoneration episode came on, DNA evidence freeing the wrongly convicted. Toward the end of it I gave up on Miah and downed my pills. A man was led toward the prison gate to be reunited with his family after thirty-two years behind bars, but I passed out before he got there.

I woke up in the afternoon, phone in hand and no missed calls. I would’ve slept the entire day if not for the power drill raging through the apartment. Silvio was uninstalling the bathroom vanity to make room for Parker’s tanning bed. “Good afternoon, my friend!” Silvio’s overemphasis on friend made me want to lop off my eardrums. Unbidden, he detailed the jobs he had completed in the last few hours. As he spoke, I scanned the bathroom walls for unnecessary drill holes in which a perverted building superintendent might lodge a webcam. “One thing I gotta tell you, there was an accident.” Silvio grew sheepish, salvaging two hunks of ceramic from his overalls. “I bumped into your sister’s dresser as I was changing the light bulbs.”

One of my mother’s old pottery pieces. Silvio jammed the shards together, as if puzzling out its prior function. But functionality never appealed to my mother. Whimsy, sure. Spirituality, often. Beauty, always. Twenty-one years old, single with two kids. She’d lose entire days at her potter’s wheel, throwing globs of clay into larger globs that she convinced us were Formula One racecars and Pinto ponies, spinning her wheel and our imagination. The spell breaking with the metallic snap of the mailbox, at which point our mother bolted to the door, checking the mail and then chasing down the mailman, cursing him out for pilfering her child support payment. Checks that, even on those rare months they arrived, bounced.

Only after the mailman stopped his deliveries did my mother stop waiting for money. Within days, she was parading my sister and me through modeling auditions and distributing wallet-size photographs taken in a Walmart kiosk to local retail chains operated by rotund men who might as well have served on the board of the Pedophiles’ Guild. I was handsome but Parker was special, at least that’s what my mother was told repeatedly as I was turned down and Parker was pimped out to national ad campaigns for everything from dresses to American cheese, Barbie Dolls to Disney World. Everyone wanted that perfect face—the staggering demand enabling agents and publicists to overlook my mother’s increasingly peculiar behavior, capitulating to meetings in pitch-black rooms, changing hotels when she accused a bellhop of having been contracted by the parents of another model to go Tonya Harding on Parker, granting her access to a closed roof pool at the peak of a manic episode. News outlets reported that my mother jumped off the eighty-ninth floor, but she would’ve told you she flew.

I started to pacify Silvio with assurances Parker had hundreds more pottery chunks in a storage unit neither of us visited. I started to, but then my watch buzzed and beeped, and Silvio’s brow arched. A solemn, expectant flicker in his eyes. For the millionth time I contemplated that Parker gave him a key and busywork simply to spy on me.

Ask a doctor the most common side effect of their favorite antipsychotic. They’d tell you weight gain, excessive sweating, blurry vision, muscle spasms, murdered libido—and they’d be wrong. At one point or another, I’d been glutted with whatever drug they’d been thinking of. That’s how I know that the most common, most The Flight of Mary Todd Lincoln 20 J Journal unforgiving, side effect is familiarity. The neighborly condescension of people who had heard or read about me on blogs devoted to my sister. Condescension I never felt when I was “sick,” only when I was “stable.”

“Our mother made that,” I said, daubing my eyes. “Parker’s going to be devastated.”

Silvio panicked. “Jesus…listen, I’ll take it to my workroom. Little Krazy Glue and paint, abracadabra. Super Silvio to the rescue.” He hastily collected his tools. I almost felt guilty. Almost. But the way he looked at me. Not as a freak or invalid, but a person of consequence. Exactly how I deserved to be seen.

After he left, I watered Parker’s plants and ordered a pizza. With the disappearance of each slice, I grew more uneasy. The only reason Miah wouldn’t call was she had heard or read something about me. I went to the computer and googled my sister. A photograph not ten-minutes old presented her, jubilant, on someone’s palatial yacht, arm-in-arm with a famous Spanish football player. The blogosphere was teeming with speculation as to their relationship. I added my name beside hers in the search bar. The first link was from five months earlier, a lumbering shot of Parker, tear-stricken, leaving the hospital after visiting me. The comment section was glutted with sympathy and praise for her struggles of having a sick family member. One person suggested she write a book about me. Another insisted it should be a movie. A third chimed in to urge the movie be a porno. I flagged that comment and refreshed the page periodically until it was removed. It didn’t make me feel any better. I went to her Wikipedia page, ready to scrub it clean of my existence for the umpteenth time. The only mention of me was in her Early Life section, where it stated Parker grew up in the suburbs of New York City with her mother and brother. I tried to delete everything that followed, but the site wouldn’t let me.

I finished the pizza and was dozing off in front of the TV when the phone rang, Raymond’s voice like a barbell dropped on my ear. I told him Parker was still away. “On a yacht with some beefcake football player,” I said.

“That was just a picture. Dirt for the gossip rags.” Raymond’s laughter was strained. “But I wasn’t looking for her. Actually, I’m not really the one calling.”

A brief silence ensued. “I’m so sorry” were the next words I heard, Miah’s lilting tone instantly nullifying my hours of self-doubt. She explained she had lost her phone at the New Year’s party and had to wait until her casting meeting with Raymond to get my number. She spoke hurriedly, anxious and embarrassed. I played it cool, taciturn, saddling her with the dead air.

“Am I interrupting you?” she asked.

“Why? Wanna come over? I was thinking about ordering pizza.”

“I have to work on my audition tonight.” Miah went quiet. “What about Saturday?” She suggested we meet at her favorite cafe.

“Sure,” I said, wondering how far it was from the Frick. From Le Bernadin. From Yankee Stadium, only then realizing it was the off-season.

“Really looking forward to it,” she said, and I felt the best I had in longer than I could remember.

Raymond came back on the line. “Good man. Be sure to tell Parker—” were the last words I heard before hanging up.

The next few days consisted of appointments with my psychologist, psycho-pharmacologist, and twenty-five-year-old caseworker who had never heard of The Smiths or Apartheid. Different faces, same questions: How’s your mood?; Are you following your treatment plan?; Are you maintaining proper sleep cycles?; Are you socializing?

To the last question I supplied more than my routine hemming and hawing, boasting that I had met someone who really liked me. They were varying degrees of skeptical, but then I detailed Miah and my itinerary for Saturday, relishing as their skepticism alchemized to encouragement, even jealousy. My confidence magnified through as I went to appointments Parker arranged for me with her hairstylist, manicurist, and personal shopper, who dressed me in an outfit that played down my waist and highlighted my eyes.

Saturday came and I was ready. Silvio looked surprised to find me awake when he let himself into the apartment. Two porters walked in behind him, heaving a colossal box with the dimensions of a family-size coffin. “Good news, my friend. The tanning bed’s here.” Silvio had a plastic bag in his hand. “More good news…” Triumph seeped through his face as he produced my mother’s ceramic nothing. “What I tell you? Abracadabra.”

The crack was indiscernible. It looked like it had never been broken, and I wondered what it was supposed to be. What Parker had seen until she reached a point she had to accept it for the lump it was.

“Maybe we can watch some hoops this afternoon, after I install this thing.”

I told him I had plans. “A date,” I clarified. “I have a date.”

He smacked his hands together. “That’s what I like to hear. She one of your sister’s friends? Gorgeous like Parker?” Silvio gestured to a framed magazine cover on the wall. A kneeling Parker sinking into tawny wet sand, clad in a bikini so skimpy it might as well have been theoretical. Wild-eyed and slack-jawed, he entered a trance of his own design, chartering a dreamscape where his value to my sister extended beyond laborer and informant. I told him my date was more beautiful than Parker. That she was an actress on the verge of stardom and centerfolds. Silvio’s face ridged with a sly keenness. I briefly savored it before brushing him off and heading out the door, because there was someone expecting me.

The coffeehouse was packed. Mostly couples, it seemed. Ending their Friday night on a Saturday afternoon. When a table finally opened, I pounced. A ratty server came over to take my order. It bothered him that I was waiting for someone. He was a man whose Friday nights always ended on time, and looking at me he felt alone. Looking at him, I didn’t. Even as I waited for Miah. And waited. And waited. He was circling back to pester me again when she finally walked in, lugging a tote bag brimming with books. Her eyes roved between my newly-styled hairline and my designer outfit. She was jittery, and I was grateful.

We ordered and she apologized for being late, blaming it on the crowded library. I told her not to worry about it, but she continued to recount her hellish morning. The tribulations at the library evolving into a diatribe on an actor’s obligation to immerse herself in the culture her character inhabited. “And when it’s a real person, there’s no excuse not to learn everything about them.” She preceded to rifle off Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite color (white), favorite accessory (gloves), favorite food (almond cake), the outfit she wore to the Ford Theater the night of her husband’s assassination (black and white striped silk dress).

“I know a bakery that makes a killer almond cake,” I said, barging in on her oral report, pretty sure I’d never eaten almond cake. “We can walk through the park.”

“Oh. I’d love that, really,” she said, “except I can’t do more than coffee. I’m going to a friend’s art show in Beacon. I have a train to catch.” Before her words registered, she resumed narrating the life and times of Mary Todd Lincoln. From birth to meeting the future president, to their long stretches apart as he pursued his judgeships, to the deaths of three of their children, to the night she donned that black and white striped silk dress. “The toll it took on her mind,” Miah said, unimpeded by my obvious disappointment. “It’s tragic. She became severely paranoid. Claimed that her son William, who died from typhoid, visited her nightly, staring at her from the foot of the bed. Get this, she tried to auction off her wardrobe out of fear everyone she knew wanted to run her into the poorhouse. And then no one bid on it.” Miah snatched a book from the tote bag. “Check this out, she wrote a letter to her sister. It’s the same sentence fifty times: ‘There is no ground.’” Miah went quiet. Pensive, she tilted forward. “What do you think of that?”

My chest cavity collapsed into my stomach. She was no longer looking at me but probing for something in the space I occupied. Spend time with him, Raymond must’ve encouraged, and you’ll have a leg-up during auditions. Pay close attention to him; you’ll gain insight into the part no other actor will offer. I wanted to know exactly what he said about me. Precisely who she thought I was. Disprove it, and reveal her to herself. The actor who didn’t realize she was a secondrate actress.

“I’ll call Raymond later. Let him know how much fun we had.” I motioned to the waiter for the check.

“I don’t have to go just yet.” Miah was baffled. “Anyway, Raymond flew to Corsica this morning.”

“Corsica,” I said, an answer that ricocheted off my tongue like a question, my false hope collateral on Raymond’s false hope of reuniting with Parker. “Think he’s got a honeypot waiting for him. He spent most of our meeting on the phone with her.”

My gaze trained on her purse, making out the distinct contour of the phone that, on some level, I never believed she had lost. I wondered when I became someone not to trust with a phone number. How many hospitalizations ago? How many diagnoses? How many milligrams? I knew zilch about Mary Todd Lincoln, except everything she would’ve wanted people to know about her. Starting with that there was a time in her life when she wasn’t a fuckup. When she was intelligent and witty and remarkable. A person people needed instead of a person people needed to stop. Who, the more of her mind she lost the more she wanted to lose it all—lose it until nothing felt beyond her.

We walked in silence toward the subway. Dismay creased Miah’s face. Perhaps she didn’t believe I would make good on my promise. Or she didn’t believe Raymond would make good on his. Or maybe she had lost faith in the promise of promise, and realized there was no other, better Miah.

“Your mother was an artist, right?” she said.

I nodded, surprised. “A potter.”

“Raymond showed me a piece she did, that your sister gave him.”

“Most people don’t understand her work.”

“I love abstractionism.” Miah bit her lip. “Listen, if you’re not doing anything, you’re welcome to come to the museum.”

“You’re really going to a friend’s exhibition?”

Miah didn’t pretend not to understand what I meant. “A friend of a friend. The friend of my old roommate, actually. I don’t really know the person, but it looked like something to do. Free beer and cheese.” She shrugged. “No pressure.”

The trip to Beacon would be a couple of hours each way. We wouldn’t get back until late at night. Possibly early in the morning. The offer was genuine, though I couldn’t tell if it stemmed from pity or guilt or opportunism. Whichever it was, I didn’t care. So long as I didn’t see it in her face. So long as I could tell myself she genuinely liked me and be spared any evidence to the contrary. That was all I needed for now. That was freedom. A freedom I would bask in on the long train ride and while strolling through the museum. Admiring the exhibition. Meeting acquaintances of Miah who would see me at her side and assume what people assume when they see a couple they know nothing about. People who would hear the beep and buzz emanate from my wrist during a lull of conversation and think nothing of it. Who probably wouldn’t notice me eyeing my watch with fading ripples of apprehension, until I disregarded the alarm altogether and eased in to my better self.

And even if they did notice, they’d simply think I was checking the time.


Douglas Silver’s work has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Rumpus, The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, The Cincinnati Review, Callaloo, Epoch, and elsewhere

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