The Madwoman on BART

by Jacqueline Doyle

On the BART train to San Francisco one night, no notebook at hand, you’re writing furiously on a yellow pad of Post-it Notes, a lyric riff on Zelda Fitzgerald and the hundreds of paper dolls she made and how she died in a mental asylum fire. And while you’re writing, a red-faced old woman, white hair frowsy and wild, walks down the aisle screaming and gesticulating. You’re absorbed, you don’t look up, you barely notice her until your husband touches your arm to alert you. Alarmed passengers have hurried to your end of the car but she keeps pacing and screaming, louder, getting nearer. They shrink back in their seats, avoiding eye contact. She stops and reaches inside her purple velour sweatpants, pushing her hand down to her crotch in a slow, elaborate pantomime. “Do you know what I have here?” she yells.

What? What does she have? Does she have a knife? A gun? She wouldn’t be the first mentally ill rider to pull a weapon on BART, or to use it.

A real madwoman has interrupted your scribbled reverie of madwomen and for a long moment you’re afraid you may have conjured her. You wait. She pulls out her hand. There’s no revelation, nothing in her sweatpants. Or is that the point? That she’s a woman too?

She continues to yell, a steady stream of incomprehensible angry words. You’re afraid to look at her. Will she come after you if you make eye contact? Are you afraid that she’s you? You’ve been that crazy before. But you were in the hospital, not on the streets, you had medical insurance, doctors. Where would you be now without medications, without your husband, who holds your hand and whispers in your ear, “Watch out.”

And now she’s quieted down, muttering to herself as she walks by your seat in her dirty gray sweatshirt and purple sweatpants. You can’t quite catch what she’s saying. You should have been paying attention. Because isn’t that what you’re writing about? Aren’t lunatics your subject? Isn’t your own madness your subject? It’s too late. She’s moving on to another car.

The sliding door between the cars bangs shut.

You turn your head away and all you can see is your reflection in the dark window. You barely recognize the woman you are, she is, they are, we are, I am.

Author's Note

For my hybrid work-in-progress The Lunatics’ Ball, I’ve been reading biographies of Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald, along with the forgotten histories of lesser-known madwomen who also died in mental asylums. They haunt me. Possess me. It’s difficult to articulate the complex exchange of identities implicit in this project, but I keep writing my way into what I want to say. I wonder if I will ever finish.

Jacqueline Doyle is the author of The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). In addition to flash in matchbook, Wigleaf, and CRAFT, she has published on “lunatics” in The Collagist, Sweet, F(r)iction, Passages North, and Sonora Review (forthcoming). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on Twitter @doylejacq.

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