Vincent Scarpa

The Sound of Silence

The thing I do remember is what I said to the woman playing the hand-held harp. This was as I was falling under the cloak of ketamine, the anesthetic of choice at Carrier Clinic, a psychiatric hospital outside of Princeton, where I was undergoing a series of what would ultimately total eighteen rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment discouraged from being referred to as a last-ditch effort or a last resort but, as is almost always the case where there is institutional resistance to language employed by patients, is very much how the treatment was regarded by those of us undergoing it. Though I saw the treatments greatly improve upon the lives of some of my colleagues in the hospital, as for myself, the improvements were minimal and the side effects — primarily memory loss — undesirable and lasting. I mention this as something like an admission of guilt, or else an attempt at self-exoneration, or else a commentary on the dodgy epistemics of writing the self-forgetting, the forgetting self. There is no way for me to quantify nor satisfyingly provide the latitude and longitude of the blast: I have forgotten more than I’ll ever know, and with every day I’m made aware of new forgettings. Blanchot says: “You will not discover the limits of forgetting, however far off you can forget.”

There were a wide variety of us who were awakened each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning for the treatment, and among our number were: a recently-divorced woman who went from nearly catatonic to something just shy of bubbly in two weeks, to the amazement of even the doctors; a retired police officer with PTSD, two sons the court was barring him from seeing, and a great deal of bitterness; a schizoaffective grandmother who had little faith the treatments would work and said as much whenever you talked to her; and me, a bipolar twentysomething who may have once held promise as a writer but who was struggling, three years out from finishing a prestigious M.F.A. program, to find each day just one reason to stay among the living.

Though I remember their diagnoses, though I saw them every day for weeks, I do not remember their names. What I do remember is what I said to the woman with the hand-held harp. She was sitting on a stool in the bay where the procedure is performed, a space set apart from the prep room where Karen or Montana or Anne-Marie would settle me into a gurney, position me such that I could enjoy the Roseanne rerun playing on the television, monitor my vitals, and steer into my system succinylcholine (to eliminate the risk of musculoskeletal injury), atropine (to inhibit the production of saliva), and a double dose of Toradol as a preemptive strike against the migraines and muscle pain that had attended my first few treatments. Having been moved from the prep room to the bay — that bay is most likely not the correct word is something about which I can only shrug; I did not attend medical school, and I never thought to ask what they called it — I saw the woman with the hand-held harp though not — and this is essential information — for the first time. Because I was being kept inpatient on the ward for the first two weeks of my treatment, I had had occasion to come across the woman before; a pocket-sized woman of perhaps eighty with a cobweb of long white hair. I learned that she was a volunteer who came in regularly to play for the patients, though those among us who might possibly have benefited from such a thing numbered zero.

But that isn’t quite right, and to say so would collapse a portion of the story I’m trying to tell. I was someone who benefited from such a thing, insofar as I was moved one afternoon, waiting for the cigarette that was waiting for me on the other side of the doors soon to be unlocked, by her instrumental rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” It sounded even more eerie without the words, as played by New Jersey’s kindest and most elder upholder of the social contract. The song had no special meaning for me beforehand, but it was something recognizable, something I knew from before the treatments that were increasingly leaving me doubtful about the veracity of my recognition. I didn’t say so to the woman, didn’t say that I was grateful for the temporary brightening, and it was only until she was already gone that I realized I’d wished I had.

Something like an opportunity to thank the woman came just as the anesthesiologist was about to have me start counting down backward from ten. The woman with the hand-held harp came closer to the gurney — the electrodes, as well as the wires for the EEG, ECG, and blood oxygen monitor ramified in a tango across my face and chest — and, gesturing to the harp, asked, “Any requests?” She showed no signs of recognizing me, because of course she could not recognize one who had failed to thank her a few days prior and because of course what she saw most everyone wearing most of the time were nondescript gowns that made us appear and move like packs of narcotized angels through the hospital’s corridors.

“Any requests?” she asked.

And what happened next, the thing I remember despite all I’ve forgotten, is that I responded in an uninflected voice, one that made no room for the possibility of sincerity or the transmission of desired meaning, and made a request for the sound of silence.

I was out before I could explain, almost certainly having hurt the woman’s feelings. Not to my knowledge did the woman return during the remainder of my stay in the hospital, and I kept watch, so I’d know.

Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers whose work has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingStoryQuarterlyIndiana Review, and other journals. He lives in New Jersey.