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On the Twelfth Floor

December 28, 2017


‘He wrote on a piece of paper with his pencil. 
Psychosis: out of touch with reality. 
Since then, I have been trying to find out what rea
lity is,

so that I can touch it.’

— Jeanette Winterson



Are you still hearing the music?


Yes, but it does not bother me.


What other symptoms have you been experiencing since the last time we met?


Not many really, not the unpleasant ones; no delusions or apparitions. Those disappeared a few weeks after starting the new medication he prescribed. She rummages around her cluttered brain. Well, there is that:


My memory is fuzzy.


That is probably a side effect.


Of the antipsychotic, yes she had been warned. Does it bother her? No, not really; memory is overrated, even detrimental, when one has been alone so long.


Alone, but not lonely; she has her dog, Ferdinand, her one-room home on the twelfth floor, and the music. It took her years to finally identify it as Schubert’s Schwanengesang, and that because she had never heard it before. Or of Franz Schubert.


Before the music and schizophrenia the most she had listened to was the radio, in the background, in the morning while peeling potatoes and carrots in the old kitchen. Pot-au-feu: one large onion, six leeks, turnips, parsnips. Simmer with thyme and parsley sprigs. Odd, she remembered the recipe but not her wedding day.


Her knowledge of classical music back then extended to that which trailed blithely in commercials, and the one or two pieces her daughter had played at a piano recital one year. The poor girl had practiced, hammering the melody on the keys relentlessly for weeks. The result had been mediocre, but acceptably so. What year had that been?


She also could not quite remember when she started hearing the Schwanengesang, mostly because the first few times, she thought everyone around her could too. She assumed it was just a melody the cafés and shops on Charles Street were fond of, playing, replaying on loop… till it started playing in the street, in the train, in the stairway as she climbed twelve floors up. Then it started playing when she was in bed, through through her sleep and when she woke up.


An auditory hallucination that probably developed around the same time her other symptoms did. Those fell into two categories: positive and negative. Both, she would learn, are not good.


Negative symptoms were what she lost as schizophrenia took over: interest in people, the ability to talk to people. Gradually, the ability to talk. Other negative symptoms: her husband, her daughter, her sense of purpose, her job. Her friends and sense of time, but by then she was losing memory too, so she did not miss them.


The positive symptoms were new and more noticeable, to those around her anyway: paranoia, delusions of persecution. Crying behind her bolted door. Crying in the supermarket when the cashier refused her payment with a library card. That last one, the psychiatrist explained, was disorganized behavior: leaving Ferdinand and the stove on in the kitchen, taking the pot-au-feu for a walk.


Do you feel isolated? Lost?


Yes. And often, yes.


Sad? Hopeless?


Not all the time.


Not when the music plays.


Does it always play?


Yes, except when I read. I do not read anymore.


What about when you sleep?


Oh no,


she smiles,


It is magnificent then,

so beautiful it makes me cry. I can see it, touch it.


What does it look like?


She cannot describe it.


Colors …


Visual hallucinations,


he writes.

They are quite real to me,


she protests. But that is just the problem, isn’t it?



Most of those symptoms belong to the past; life is different now. Now, every morning, she puts on her green coat and takes Ferdinand on a walk. Twelve flights of steps down, and out onto Charles Street, where no one looks like they might hurt her. In fact, no one speaks to her or seems to see her. Then twelve flights of stairs back up.


Alone but not lonely, she peels the potatoes and carrots while Schubert plays. To the length of the Schwanengesang she prepares lunch for one, and a half, in the earthen pot. She eats at the kitchen counter, to piano, violin, and the tenor. No more colors flash around her but at least the pills have not muted the song.


We could try another medication within that same category,


the psychiatrist suggests. She shakes her head.


But isn’t the music distracting?


I suppose. I do not concentrate on much else. I do not have much to concentrate on. The music keeps me company.


Does it keep you awake?


She tries to remember:




Would you like me to prescribe some melatonin?


Oh no!


The old lady cries,


No thank you.


But aren’t you tired the following day?


She gives him a sad, quiet smile.


I am tired, Doctor. Just not of the music. Do you know what Schwanengesang means? Swan Song, like the sound swans make before they die.


Swans don’t sing before they die.


She shrugs:


In my head they do.


He does not debate further, eye on the clock; her hour is almost up.


Well, we can discuss a new regimen next time, if the music starts bothering you. Why don’t you schedule a follow up appointment with me in three to four months?


But the old lady is at the door and from there, she is the one looking down.


No thank you, Doctor. That will not be necessary.


Her hand stops on the doorknob.


Did you know that Schubert died before he could hear his own Swan Song performed? I get to listen to it every day. And I have my twelve floors, and my dog.



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