Why I Like Solving Puzzles
My Ngoc To
I had not touched a puzzle in eleven years. Now, here I was, perched on a red and cream striped sofa next to the window, slowly sorting my way through a five hundred piece jig-saw of a beach scene: a wooden boat beneath two palm trees. It was about 9:30 in the morning. I had just finished interviewing with my team, which consisted of Laila, a social worker, and Dr. White-Bateman, a young, thin doctor who wore fancy silk blouses and pronounced every word with care in her tiny, raspy voice. They repeated their list of questions. How have you slept? How is your appetite? Do you hear any voices or have speeding thoughts in your head? And, of course, the Biggie: Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself or others recently?
Have I been thinking of suicide lately?
Of course not. I have a puzzle to do.
I ran my hand over my cheeks. They were a bit dry, but smoother than ever. Everything here at McLean was clean. The ventilation system sucked everything out of the air, including the moisture.
This is a safe place, I thought, as I flipped over the pieces.
I hate this part. Whenever I pour out the pieces I want to fit them all together immediately. I have to force myself to turn them all over before I can start.
Soon, I had the border finished. I started working on the sand at the bottom – the light pieces were easiest to spot. From there I worked my way up, watching the picture slowly form itself.
On the first morning, I asked a nurse if I could use my makeup. He came with me to get my leopard makeup bag from the closet and walked with me to the restroom. While he waited outside, I stood in front of the mirror, the door open behind me, and rummaged around my bag. The little bottles clinked against each other, loud against the silence of the hospital. I skipped some of my routine—I did not put on liquid black eyeliner because it took too much time, and I did not put on as much eyeshadow because I did not want to keep the nurse waiting behind me. I stepped out of the restroom, my face freshly covered in powder and my eyes smothered with purple eye shadow. I shyly handed over the bag and scurried away.
The next morning, I asked for my make- up again, only this time, the nurse didn’t have to accompany me. One successful night in the hospital had raised my privileges up. They had erased the “s” next to my name on the whiteboard in front of the nurse’s station, which meant I could use sharps without supervision. I walked down the same corridor towards the same bathroom. On my way I passed a patient talking to his nurse. They spoke in low tones, seated across from each other. “How are you feeling today, Tom?”
He stared at her with the look of the dead. “Good.”
“Have you been sleeping okay?”
The same blankness. His muscles didn’t seem to attach together correctly. “Yes.”
“Have you been having any thoughts of hurting yourself?”
A pause. “Yes,” quieter than ever.
I felt bad for listening and slipped into the bathroom. I did the same procedure again. Dab on the nose. Dab on the cheek. I started to put on my eyeliner, but paused and stared myself down in the mirror. I washed off all makeup from my face and decided then that I would store it away for good.
When I left the bathroom, the room was empty except for all that remained.
I made some friends. Five kids about my age. There was Sarah, a pretty young blond who has panic attacks; Neil, a cheery, chubby high school drop-out who was temporarily homeless, and is now taking courses at the Courdon Bleu to be- come a chef; Jess, a BU student who voluntarily came to readjust her medications, which had suddenly stopped working; Tom, a Tufts senior who woke up one morning and swallowed too many pills; and James, a college student who drove his car eighty miles an hour into a tree and emerged from the accident without a single scratch.
We found ourselves idling in the kitchen at around 8:30 in the evening. Someone suggested that we play a game.
Breaking the hesitation, I suggested hide and seek.
Ten minutes later, I was hiding behind a curtain, giggling. The last time I played hide and seek was on a farm in Argentina. And before that, when my family had just moved to America and I was but a tiny toddler prancing through the crumbling apartment buildings of our refugee complex. Ever since I realized my childhood deeply lacked attention, I filled in the years of solitude the best I could in random places, even if it had to be a psych ward.
I had been there for almost two minutes when my nurse came through the door to my side and shrieked when she saw me hiding behind the curtain.
“My Ngoc! What are you doing?” she screamed.
My answer didn’t satisfy her.
The game quickly broke up as we tracked down all the participants. The five of us collected in the hallway as the nurses told us in strict, maternal voices that we cannot play hide and seek because the staff would not be able to find us for the fifteen minute checks. We hung our heads low, but we were all smiling, eyes, mouths and all. Looking back, I was pretty sure we were the best patients to have graduated from McLean.
We gathered on the bed and held hands. My oldest sister, Julie, asked if she could pray for me. My middle sister, Kellie, started to sniffle. When the prayer finished, we all looked up and around. Something special had just happened.
Julie rose and put her hand on my head. She had not flown in almost a decade but left her three young children behind to visit me here. I hugged her, placing my head on her stomach. She felt so warm and calm. When I looked up, I saw her smiling down at me, the gentlest of smiles. There was something about the white light coming through the window and how it hit her face. Something about the bright fluorescent lights of the room. She looked like an angel, and I told her, “I think I believe in God.”
When they left, pattering down the hallway, I sat down on my bed and starting writing. In an instant, I began to cry. My ears heated up, my face went flush. My entire body felt warm, as if blanketed. In that instant, I felt all the good things in this world at once. They poured into my body like nectar. I’m still not sure what happened.
I called my father with the last five minutes I had left on my track phone and told him that I loved him and that I was sorry. He didn’t ask me any questions, and I told him I had to go because my phone was about to die. My phone had only two minutes left.
After that, I took a long shower and then fell asleep.
I told my nurse for that day that I wanted to write a book about my depression. I didn’t tell her about thinking that my sister was an angel, however. I didn’t want them to think I was psychotic. Her eyes bulged and her voice oozed out with joy. “Oh my God, you need to go to the creative writing workshop we have today!”
I told her I would. After we talked, I retreated to my little cozy and worked some more on the boat.
Soon the same nurse returned. The workshop was starting.
“I want to work on this puzzle, instead,” I said. I received my medical record a few months
after I was discharged. Towards the end of my report was a line that read, “several of the nurses had reported that My Ngoc sometimes has grandiose thoughts about her writing.” I grunted, laughed, and then filed the paper away.
Patients often stroll around the ward as a form of exercise. Nick came by and sat down beside me. As he approached, I felt like an animal, watching another come from a distance. I eyed him up and down, watched his body movements, and found no harm in him coming. We chatted, shared a few sex jokes. “Are you purposefully not looking at the box?” he asked. I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but after he left, I made a conscious effort not to look at the solution. I liked suspense. It seemed more like real life.
Tom came by soon afterwards. He offered to help with the puzzle some, jamming pieces together. We then started making animal noises and awkward tunes together. He didn’t really contribute much, only trying to squeeze together pieces that didn’t fit. I solved the rest of the puzzle, and let him place the last piece. He looked very proud of himself. Two days later, he was discharged.
William came that evening. He entered my room slowly and saw me lying in bed. He dropped his bags next to my bed and lay on top of me, with his cheek on top of mine. We stayed like that for a long time. I told him what had happened earlier that afternoon and showed him my journal entry, but we didn’t talk much. A nurse came by and saw us, and quietly left. His cheeks were wet now from being on top of mine. After a while, he lifted his head and cradled my head in his hands. “I’m just glad you’re doing better,” he said. “I knew you wouldn’t get better in just a normal way.”
My sister came an hour later. She had just finished dropping off Julie at the airport. I finished rehearsing my story to her. Like William, she didn’t say much. “I’m glad you’re doing better.” A pause, and then “I’m exhausted.” She lay down to take a nap. William had already been sleeping for a while. His back was curled at an uncomfortable angle. He barely fit on the bed. Even in his sleep, he was clutching my feet in his hands. I looked at both of them and lay down too. Snuggled between the two of them--my sister, who made up so much of my past, and William, who is such a big part of my future--I knew I was exactly where I needed to be--in the present. This time I knew what the feeling was. I fell asleep.
I did little the first month I was home. When I felt it was time, I emerged from the house and bought three puzzle sets of disparate difficulty. When it was late at night and I was too tired to write anymore, I went to my desk and sorted out puzzle pieces until four in the morning. Some people prefer mornings. I prefer the late nights, when there is nothing, not even sunlight, to disrupt my thoughts.
Now that I am back at school, I don’t really have time to do puzzles. One night, however, I saw passed a girl in the dining hall working alone on a circular puzzle. She was gone by the time I came back, but I was glad to see that the puzzle was still there. The circular borders had just been pieced together.
Slowly, I put away my coat and sat into the chair, feeling like a traveler who had just arrived home. My goal was to finish the entire puzzle. By midnight I had put together a third of it, but it was time for me to go. There was an anatomy quiz tomorrow, and I had a far bigger and more complex puzzle to study before the morning came. Besides, the night guard would have sent me to bed by this time anyways if I were back in the hospital. And so I left, patting myself on the back for all those pieces I managed to put together.
Two days later, I saw that someone else had finished the puzzle in the dining hall. There was something wholesome in seeing the circle in its completion. I smiled and wondered if it was the same girl who put in the last piece. If it was her, I hoped that she found whatever she was seeking and that when the final picture came together, it was beautiful.