The day you hear on the radio about the woman in west Texas who drowned all her children in the bathtub is the day you think about the end of your own rope. You don't have five children under the age of four and you don't have post-partum depression, but somehow you don't think you need all of that to know how she feels. If you funnel the differences between you and her, the one thing that keeps refusing to go through the neck is that she was born with the brain cell that allowed her to do this, and you weren't. There but for the grace of God, go you.
Somebody from the back of the Ride Share van whispers, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee . . . "
The Jewish biologist on your right says, "Wasn't the youngest child's name Sarah, not Mary?"
People are always asking you big questions, in search of small answers. How are you? How's it going? As if you know. How can you take it? What strength do you draw on? Some people stare at you with faces dimpled as golf balls. Gosh, what keeps you from letting go of the end of your rope?
You tell them "Nothing." As in, if you do that, you have nothing, but you know they don't hear it this way.
"If I were you," they go on, their head pivoting left to right on their collective neck, "I couldn't take it. I'd put a gun to my head."
At this point in the conversations you shrug. You must have some sort of immunity.
You know this much. Let go of the end of your rope and you'd go caterwauling into the abyss. You know something else. For you it wouldn't be caterwauling. It would be slow motion, the sound on mute. Like falling headlong and silent, chute-less into the rest of your life.
You know some of the really awful things aren't the big loud events; they're happenings small as microbes. You think even the Virgin Mary must have found herself reduced to one inane thing following another. Maybe it was the mindless sweeping of Jesus hairs that fell from his head every day. Or her reflection in the river where she beat her and Joseph's garments against rocks; there she could tell that light blue wasn't really her color. She might even have said on occasion, "I'm sick of tidying up the place while he's out turning bread and sardines into a buffet for thousands. This is not the life I imagined for myself." Then she'd take the sheets off the line and fold them into beatific squares.
Or something like that. The accumulation of resentment too often looks like the certainty of coping.
So when people offer you Jesus as an elixir for your life, it goes somewhat cottony in your mouth. The first therapist you saw after the funeral said, "It's really no miracle or mystery. Some things are just plain hard to swallow."
So now you have a plan you follow religiously, if you will. You put up your hand between you and the random well wisher, and, in your best Diana Ross and the Supremes voice, suggest, "Stop in the name of love, before you break my heart. Think it oh over." And they do. They twitch or retract their arms from the ready-to-hug position and stop.
You stand there calm as a crossing guard. They laugh nervously and you don't. You're at the end of your rope, and you know by now it is best not to fidget. It throws odd shadows on the wall.
Out in the yard one day you step on something that crackles. You push aside the poppies, see a snakeskin coiled tight as a lasso, and stare at it as if it's a vaccine for cancer. God damn, you think. What a great idea! Exfoliate your thin skin and get another better suited to the climate you're facing. After all, you have had it. You are so full, so up to here with tragedy, that something has to give. If you could lose the thin skin, you think, the hair-trigger on your emotional catapult, for crying out loud, then you'd lose the shackles of grief. It makes perfect sense.
Maybe second-degree sunburn would help speed things along. You adjust the chaise lounge into the oncoming path of noon rays and promptly fall asleep until the neighbor's dog Kiki licks the sweat from your toes.
In the shower, the water on your chest feels like hot wax. It's your body against a thing too hot to touch but impossible to pull away from. You hum into the spray of water the way she used to say, "Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream" into the breeze from the box fan in the window, her laughter thudding into the pillows under your head.
Trying to say her name aloud is like trying to haul a dumb waiter up 100 stories with your vocal cords. You can not do it. The sound just won't travel vertically. You decided one night that if you didn't say her name at all, her entire image would vaporize less. You'd wake up tomorrow and there'd be less of her gone.
It's a neat trick you've been pulling off, that's for sure. You go to sleep in your room and wake up in hers, unable to account for how that happened to be. The therapist says it's hard to believe you sleepwalk, rational as you are. Yet there you are mornings, feet angled under the stuffed hedgehog collection, some of them still wearing the boas made out of maxi pads. You wonder when, if ever, you'll feel like putting things away.
It seems almost silly to keep the high-rise apartment building she constructed out of Kleenex boxes. For nearly a year now, popsicle stick people have reclined on washcloth couches under a thin layer of accumulating dust.
Moments like this you feel you could actually crumple, your skin only a tent of bed sheets and broom handles leaning precariously in on each other. You think of your internal organs as doll-sized and hollow, all the room inside you diminished to maybe one errant brain stem cell that just doesn't know any better but to keep on firing. You feel so small inside, the cartography of your bones visible in fluorescent lighting. You've been avoiding all forced air vents and have put duct tape over the switches for ceiling fans to keep from being scattered by that final, unexpected exhaust.
The way out dawns on you when you are getting your Hepatitis booster. Vaccinate yourself against tragedy.
Because you had a life sciences minor, you understand the basic principle of this. Get your body to recognize the enemy and build antibodies against it. Take on other people's tragedies in microscopic form. Molecules of tragedies, you tell yourself, only tiny bits. All you want is a vaccine to prevent whatever is coming next from getting into your life. You have to stop it from consuming you like some kind of flesh-eating bacteria.
After your daughter's death, you stopped getting sick. You never got the flu again, and when other people were crippled by colds, hunched into kleenexes and over aromatic teas, you wore tank tops in winter and forgot how to spell echinasea. Brazen white blood cells patrolled your veins.
But now it turns out your own stubborn, vibrant health is like a sneer in the mirror. Nobody else sees how it makes you wonder who you are. Maybe you missed something. Maybe there's a stone you left unturned, something more to know.
The sperm bank is sorry, but they cannot reveal the donor's identity; they simply have to rely on truthful self-reporting of family medical histories for cancer, and with this donor there was none. Um, the donor was 25 at the time of collection. There was some asthma, she reminds you, and a sibling with a possible peanut allergy. "Those can be life-threatening," she says, like this is a party favor.
What you need is about 10 cc of some completely objective tragedy. Someone else's undoing, for a change, a pain entirely removed from you as if grown in a petri dish clear across town. Something you didn't want and can't have and won't get.
Here is what you'll do. First thing in the morning you will snag the very corner of the first thing that takes your breath away. Start with the obvious. Skip the part where you open your eyes to daylight, the sky wide open just outside your window. Instead, keep your eyes closed when you resurface. Find the doorway, grope your way down the stairs, feel the wall along the stairwell until you get to the bottom. Then walk like Frankenstein, at a diagonal with your arms stretched out, before you get to the front door. Open it and nudge around for the newspaper with your foot. Bend down and bring it up to your face as you roll the rubber band down its inky, smudged back. Snap it open.
The headline news. Just what you need. Mother, four children— 10, 8, 6, 5—brutally murdered. Boyfriend in custody. There is a glamour photo of the dead woman, the one they will show on the evening news later, the one they will put on top of the casket, where she is smiling and looking out the tops of her eyes as if she has years left in her to break the hearts of a series of men. She is dead now at what would've been your age five years ago.
Too close. Don't read the whole story, just culture the details from the picture. Change it to one taken at a family picnic the day before, where you imagine the woman in her backyard wearing a shirt with a button missing, the fourth one down, maybe, the one she meant to sew on after ironing, but the first few neighbors were already over for the barbecue, and she was standing at the ironing board in her bra, so she just put the damn shirt on. That shirt. One with a ketchup stain 20 minutes later just to the right of the third button. The ketchup from the mouth of her youngest, the five year old, about to start kindergarten, who kissed her there on that shirt after she excused herself from the rest of her hot dog, into the last six hours of her life. No make that 8-10 hours. It says the boyfriend allegedly shot her after the kids went to bed.
You are having no reaction. Good. It might be working. Find another headline. Drive-by shooting kills 9 month old in family kitchen. There is a photo of an empty walker in front of a refrigerator with an alligator magnet on it.
Honeymooning couple attacked by shark, groom feared dead. Big surprise, you think. What next.
Farm accident rips arms off budding violinist.
Stuff that makes other people's body temperature drop, or call in sick to work, hug their children more often, this doesn't even make you blink. Accidents happen, you think.
You drift out the back door, sit in the sun, and nearly levitate in the chaise. You've got to love immunity. You feel nothing but your skin heating up, slowly darkening. Kiki smiles at you through the hole in the fence.
One month later, you're at the credit union and still symptom-free. You're in line for the next available teller, whose voice is coming from behind a giant tissue pumpkin." Can I help the next person in line?" and you're thinking she probably can't. Another teller you can see has done something truly awful to her hair. You're wondering how long it takes her to look like that, when you hear a girl, the young girl who has budged in front of you and is talking to another eye-lined teenage girl.
"So my boyfriend's parents are being really nice about everything and they're going to give me part of his ashes."
"Freaky," says her friend.
You look at her directly, at the tufts of pink hair escaping her beige bandana and you ask, "Ashes? Your boyfriend's ashes? He's dead?"
"Uh huh." She nods. "Two weeks ago." She looks so serene, she could be ceramic and wearing a light blue robe and standing with palms open among somebody's zinnias.
"Is your name Mary?" you ask. Two weeks ago. Jesus Christ.
She shakes her head just like a real girl.
"Could you please pass me a deposit slip?" You gesture toward the black plastic slot in front of her on the counter.
What she says next is either "car accident" or "bar accident" or maybe even "tar accident," but you have already stopped listening.
Your hand is up. Stop. In the. Before you. My heart.
You try to decide what is really tragic here. The single-sized serving of the dead boyfriend, or your dwarfed emotional reaction where you should be having none at all. You tidy up the stack of deposit slips and jiggle the pencil holder to settle the pens and pencils into the bottom of the matching cup. Look at how stunned she is. A dead boyfriend. Her life is starting over and she's sluggish out of the blocks.
You take the deposit slip and pretend to be writing something valid on it, but then she says it. She names him "Andy—" before you can clamp your ears shut again and you watch your hand write 1/4 C of Andy on your check stub. You see fine powdery boyfriend dust in an acrylic measuring cup.
You look at the girl who strikes you, suddenly, as an emotional anorexic. She is pale as notebook paper and doesn't rustle much when the breeze from the oscillating fan waves by. You wonder if she has considered sprinkling some of Andy on her toast every morning, like cinnamon sugar, to somehow digest what is happening. If she went lightly, he could last for quite some time.
The teller raises her voice, "NEXT?!"
You lurch forward and drop your wallet. "I need to withdraw. I need to make a withdrawal," you say.
"But this is a deposit slip," she answers, smiling, "Care for some candy corn?" and she pushes a little cellophane packet toward you with You're Business is Sweet written on it.
"The thing is," you tell her. " I don't know how much I can take."
"We're only allowed to give one treat per customer." She smiles more insistently.
"Never mind," you mutter. You can hardly believe your bank is trick-or-treating. "I want to deposit half of this," and you push your check forward, cram the cash she hands you into your pocket. Christ almighty. Treats at a time like this.
Outside you look around at everything that was familiar before you stepped into the bank. Now you feel like whistling for your car. Maybe it'll come galloping to you from wherever the hell it has parked itself. Who's that saint you're supposed to pray to when you lose things? Oh you forgot, you don't pray.
On your second trip back down the block you see the boyfriendless teenager sitting in the passenger seat of a blotchy orange Vega. There is nobody in the driver's seat. It looks like a sunset, diagonally parked.
She looks used to waiting. You stare at her and she stares back, her eyes heavy in her face like a bassett hound.
Without knowing why or expecting to understand later, you walk over to her side of the car, rummage around in your pockets and clamp half your cash, along with the first grade picture of your daughter from your wallet under the windshield wiper. She is wearing the itchy sweater you made her wear because your mother spent $75 on the wool, and by God she was going to wear it at least once if Nana worked that hard to make it. You had also made her turn off the TV so she could finish her breakfast and have time to brush her teeth before school. "It's almost over," she'd whined. "You won't miss a thing," you'd promised. In the picture she looks like she is prepared to be sad for the rest of her life.
There is nothing else to say. Not even this.
You wish for the teenage girl that instead of an accident that extinguished her boyfriend into a pile of ashes, it might have been a natural disaster, say a tornado. That he might have been sucked up into a funnel cloud and blended with the side of a barn and then rained down upon her like confetti. That she might have a piece of his femur embedded in her skull, instead of his whatever in a jar. She needs something hair can grow over or be combed against it. He should be something she won't have to explain to future lovers unless she absolutely wants to. Ashes of Andy on the mantel are hard to ignore.
On the drive home you accidentally run over a cat and all the time, in your rear view mirror, you think it is just a tire, just a piece of a tire, somebody's lone athletic shoe, something black, a black tumble, end over end. Until you are able to make out arms.
In the middle of the night you flip on the light in the bathroom because you have to pee and there is a dark mass against the lime green of the rug. Instinctively you raise the small plastic garbage can full of tampon casings and smash the thing. It turns out to be the hugest cricket you've ever seen in your life. Its hind leg remains behind in the shag of the carpet as you lift its carcass with a Kleenex. It is a huge hind leg. It could feature as a close second to one of those barbecued turkey legs they sell at the state fair. The turkey legs you cannot bring yourself to eat, ever since you saw that one cartoon of double amputee frogs in wheelchairs, working the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant where the specialty is frog legs. Or the greeting card of the boneless chicken ranch, where boneless chickens are scattered around the hills like polka dots.
You used to think these things were funny, now you just get back into bed, pull the covers up to your neck and shiver yourself into something that approximates sleep.
It is Thursday and the deposit slip with 1/4 cup of Andy on it is still tucked in your pocket from Monday. Why didn't you recycle it with the newspaper, or trade it in for the 19 year old who ran the stop sign and was broadsided after leaving his parents' anniversary party? Or the triplets who were all three killed when a semi-truck rear-ended the family's van? Or the yet one more ex-husband who violated a restraining order and shot his ex-wife dead before turning the gun on himself.
Turn on the radio. Some early morning djs are interviewing a comic from the Me Generation whose routine includes this question, "No seriously, what's the worst way to die?" Something besides the obvious is all wrong about this.
You pull open the bottom drawer of that green lacquered armoire that was huge when you were a child and now looks like a Barbie wardrobe. There is the squashed pink shoebox with random photos in it, and there is your daughter standing on that rock at the edge of Lake Superior with the spray of the next wave still two seconds away from giving her the shock of her life. That was before, way before Stage IV neuroblastoma meant anything to either one of you. Far before it mattered at all that Herbert Hoover's grave is just a stone's throw from Baby Me Me, what she used to call herself when she couldn't say her name. Funny that now Herbert has become your landmark to Me instead of the other way around. Funny too how all these people walk around breathing and you're still waiting for her to exhale, before that last time she didn't. You often wonder where that last pocket of air is holed up. "Hey, Me," is the only thing you say when you go to visit her down the row from Herbert.
It's Pam's turn to drive the Ride Share van and because she is always cold, she has the heat on and the fan turned to blow-dry. Camille is in the front seat. "Jesus Christ, Pam, I can feel my bangs baked onto the back of my neck. Can we turn the fucker off?"
"I wish you wouldn't use the lord's name in vain," says Albert.
"Prophet's name," says Sarah from the back seat.
"I'm not using it in vain," Camille responds. "I have a definite reason. Turn the fucking heat down!"
"Middle ground, people," says Sarah. "Let's find some middle ground."
Albert turns up the volume on the small TV he brings with him every morning and plugs into the cigarette lighter. It's enough to make you want to smoke. He doesn't want to miss a thing.
The morning news anchor, the one who looks like an adult version of your daughter with her smooth brown hair and the cowlick in the same place in her hairline, is reporting a road rage incident where some woman's poodle was flung into traffic by the irate motorist who cut her off.
There is a still photo of a man shrugging outside the police station and suddenly your heart rate hammers in your ears. He is being released on his own recognizance, wearing his unruffled malice like a badge. He shrugs his shoulders, takes a hit off an inhaler and holds his breath.
Your aortic valve opens wide. Your heart empties itself, blood rushes to all your extremities, makes them so very heavy, impossible to flail. Your throat fills with bile.
"Stop the van," you tell Pam.
"It's a green light, Sleepy," she says.
"Just stop. Stop! I need to get out. I'm going to be sick."
She looks at you in the rear view mirror, and puts her blinker on, eases over onto the shoulder. You don't even like poodles.
Albert opens the door quickly and you get out just as the anchor is saying, " . . . a wrongful death suit has been filed against the man allegedly responsible for the poodle's death."
"I'll be fine," you lie and slide the door between you and Albert's worried look. "Just go on. I'll walk the rest of the way."
The van pulls away slowly, all 12 pairs of eyes inside watching you walk over to the picnic table chained to the north side of this ice cream stand. Frost thick as upholstery covers the bench, still you sit on it. Chances are you won't be able to feel anything other than what you're feeling anyway. The sign in the window says, "Sweetie's is closed for the season. Please come again."
You lift each of your 100-pound hands up to your head and swallow over and over until the sunrise is done. You manage not to vomit by controlling your breathing. This takes the good part of forever.
So much for immunity.
Two days later in a restaurant a guy at the table behind you is relating the road rage story to the other guy he's having lunch with. He is laughing as if he can't help himself. He says "So I guess the guy reaches in and grabs the chick's dog—y'know, one of those yappy ones and—get this—throws it . . . " he pauses to laugh some more, "into traffic and the damn thing gets run over."
A voice comes from somewhere inside you that's done with keeping quiet. At first it doesn't feel at all right. It is like trying to get out of your clothing in the deep end of the pool so that you can pass Life Saving 101. Or maybe it's heavier than wet denim and harder to maneuver.
You wonder if this is what deaf people sound like to themselves, saying a thing just to say it, knowing they can't hear.
You turn around and stare. The storyteller looks at you but does not pick up on your fiercely hoisted eyebrows. "Excuse me!?" you begin and fling your look at the side of his head. It ricochets off his temple and pings around the restaurant. "Ex-CUSE me?!"
His head turns. His eyes rub you out. He hands you the ketchup and keeps talking.
"No," you say. "The poodle. Pass the poodle, you stupid fuck!"
He looks at you over the sandwich he is collapsing into his mouth. Still his expression doesn't change.
"You think road rage is funny, Asshole?"
He rolls his eyes. There is mayonnaise, like hydrophobia, at the edge of his lip.
You lean toward him and hiss. "Let me reach inside your car and toss your kid into traffic. Let's watch his braces puncture the tires of an SUV. Let's shrug about that."
He eyes appear to wiggle. "Lady," he says. " It's a dog."
"Which is more than I can say for you, you fuck," you answer.
The guy's friend at the table frowns. "Ben, let it go," he whispers.
"What? I'm wrong?" you ask him. He shakes his head. You stand up and ask the whole restaurant. "What, I'm wrong?" Nobody answers. "What about the person who loved the dog? You think about that?!"
Somehow you manage to score six weeks disability leave from work. Your reason is that you are too sad to work. You call in sad to work. This alarms everyone because not only are you never sick, but you are never sad. What you do not tell them is something that's been true for so long it has displaced your entire history. There is more sadness in me than there even is me. You know if you say this the secretary will flip out.
To her you cannot say, "Look Corinne, everything finally got to me," because you already know she counts on this not being true. She would keep her mouth in a thin straight line while your words hung between you. She would wait for you to make a lame joke. She would wait for your next move. She would have the patience for this.
Then she would say, "So back to where we were. How do I code that? Is this a personal day or a vacation day?"
You leave her a message on her voice mail. "Corinne, I'm sad. I'm taking a sick day."
After two weeks, when you're sure nobody will be there, you stop in at 6:00 to look over your mail with no intention whatsoever of opening a goddamn thing. Corinne stands up from behind the main desk where she is giving the plants haircuts. She rewinds the long strands of ivy around the macramé hanger, snips the air next to the bromeliad, clears her throat and walks past you with the aloe to a new spot in the west window. "Uh, please provide a doctor's note for why you're still out," she says as she passes, staring intently at the vermiculite in front of her.
The lid to the trash can doesn't squeak when you push it open wide enough for your stack of envelopes. They land on a neat pile of leaves. "Sure thing." You've got 1,863 sick time hours you've never used.
This is no problem. You've spent two of these six weeks of leave volunteering at the hospital, job shadowing various medical personnel. They have tasks they complete. You admire this. They, unlike you, don't stall between the toothbrush and the toothpaste, water running unchecked down the drain. You liken them to super heroes and imagine them with capes on.They find you odd. Oddly antiseptic. And they mean your personality.
The phlebotomist lets you help with the femoral artery draw on a comatose patient. She tells you she could lose her job, but you answer, "Like he's going to talk?"
"Have you accepted Jesus into your life?" she asks you.
Because you are not making eye contact, you can't tell if she is serious. You are palpating this guy's vein, looking for a pulse in his inner thigh. You can't be thinking about Jesus. "Look at all the people who've lost Jesus and end up finding him at the laundromat." You shrug. "Jesus is like lint."
"That is sick," she says.
"That's the point," you answer. "Everyone here is sick. I'm camouflaging."
She looks puzzled and she's wearing too much dark purple eye shadow. Her face wrinkles up like a prune. "You're a sicko," she repeats and gives your shoulder a little tap. She stretches her mouth into a temporary smile. "I hope you know that."
This makes you wish she were highly contagious. Hope. That single syllable canon ball toward the future. Hope. Now there's optimism. Reality-based hope is probably like a religious experience. Hope that's not blind, that isn't wavering on pure bullshit, anything to keep you from pitching brain-first into despair.
You are walking that serrated edge, the one between laughing and weeping. You're on a recumbent emotional stairmaster. How many steps so far today?
Maybe all of this, your whole adult life, is a long dark joke, inching itself toward a punch line you can't imagine. Your therapist sighs and says, "Try to remember—all's well that ends well." That might be, but it's taking too long to get to the point where you laugh without echoing.
You've been reassigned to an ultrasound tech who says she heard you have a weird sense of humor. She has a funny story to tell you. Once when she first started, she told a pregnant woman who had her head turned toward the wall, "There are two heads," when it was really two distinct people, twins, on the screen. Everybody laughed afterwards, especially later, after the one twin's heart surgery was successful and the mother was told the infant could expect to lead a reasonably normal life. "Better than a two-headed baby," the sonographer says, the same way other people say, "Better than a jab in the ass with a sharp stick." She elbows you for effect.
But you don't laugh. You think of the two-headed blue monster on the "Sesame Street" show, the one who converses between its two heads in honks and squeaks, the one your daughter thought was way too scary, even though she knew it was designed to make her laugh.
You imagine the fallout in that pregnant woman's skull the moment the tech said, "See? Here's one head, there's the other" without adding that there were an equal number of bodies to match. She must have thought, even for the briefest moment, that she was having a two-headed baby.
Don't disbelieve the unbelievable, you're always telling yourself. A mortality rate of 1.2 per 100,000 means everything if you're the 1.2. It isn't as if 100 story buildings can't melt like cheap candles, or monster waves can't extinguish hundreds of thousands of lives. Tragedy is forever going to try and best itself.
The mother of the multi-baby was a non-native speaker of English, which somehow adds to the humor of the story for the sonographer telling it. She is wearing a small button on her white lapel. It reads United We Stand. "The woman's English was very good," she manages to add.
Still, you know the mother must not have understood. She had every reason not to. The thing maybe she cannot forget is what her first thought was. I cannot have one babies. I cannot live this nightmare.
Of course, she didn't have a two-headed baby. She had two babies, but for the very long moment that it was a two-headed baby, she had a valid reason to fear what her life had become. But then it was two whole babies and she was twice blessed, not twice damned. But once the fear was lit within her, it never fully extinguished. Some things you can't unhear.
Nobody ever says twice damned. You think maybe somebody should.
The sonographer is waiting for you to laugh. "Two heads. How much baby?" she repeats.
You unbutton your lab coat and show her your t-shirt This is What a Radical Feminist Looks Like.
"I'll bet you're lots of fun at parties," she answers and pops in a new tape. "Next patient has an awol testicle," she continues. "Urologist wants me to find it. Ten bucks says it's holed up in the canal." She locks eyes with you.
"I've got a quarter," you answer. "But you're the pro."
"Lighten up, Honey." She shakes her head. "We've got a small room and a long, long day here."
You get reassigned to Radiology where you actually like the feel of the lead apron. It's familiar somehow, comfortable, even. You also enjoy the way everyone but the patient has to step out of the room, the satisfying buzz of the x-ray machine, like a correct answer on Jeopardy. But the best part of all is the relief on people's faces when they hear something inside is broken, and their simultaneous belief that it can be fixed.
This is how you vaccinate yourself against tragedy.
Never get born.
The only sure way to avoid contracting tragedy is if the possibility of you assigns itself to slow-swimming sperm or if the potential for you is actually an egg with a particularly impermeable membrane.
A lot of good that does you now. "I never asked to be born," you told your mother when you were 13.
"That," she answered, "is a flat out lie. I used a diaphragm. And a bucket of spermicide and you lived through that just fine. This right here —" You can still feel her index finger rapping on your collar bone"—is the life you just HAD to have. I figure you got everything coming to you after you insisted on getting here."
This is what happens when things that shouldn't get said, do. They resonate, like auditory tattoos and become the mindless dance steps you have to complete, as you lie sandwiched in the sheets in the mornings, before you get out of bed. You have become a person who steps back, braces herself for everything, then toes the future to see if it shifts or lurches. You approach Do you want fries with that? or We Interrupt This Broadcast to Bring you Breaking News with the same hedged response. "Maybe."
Then you take whatever you get.
"I remember you from the E.R.," says the hospital Volunteer Coordinator, whose name is, not surprisingly, Ms. Place. She has asked to see you after your first day with the radiology tech.
"I haven't been in the E.R. yet," you answer.
She has a delicate face and looks at you with opalescent blue eyes. "I mean when you were in with your daughter, a couple of years ago. Her name is Claire?"
You stare at her. At her garnet lipstick.
Ms. Place nods. "I remember. Her name is still Claire, right?"
Now you nod. "True enough."
"Well one thing I've learned from working here," she says, "besides remembering people's names, is that pain is relative. So is joy."
You nod again. After all, who can argue with that. "Excuse me, Ms. Place, but am I here for a lesson?"
She smiles. "I'm sorry, no. We need help in the neonatal unit. Specifically with the babies who are born with addictions. They need a lot of body contact, a lot of rocking."
"I like Radiology. It works for me." You smack your lips in a satisfied "Yup." You don't want to have to remind her that you're volunteering your time, after all; you're doing them a favor.
"I appreciate that, "she tells you, "but we actually need you more in Neonatal."
"I'm not looking to replace my daughter, Ms. Place." You drive your chapstick around your mouth like a pace car. At this point you can sniff out a do-gooder from a mile away.
"And I'm not suggesting that," she answers. "The infants need to be held whether you do it or not. And to be honest—" Her smile widens. "They don't require the same social skills that the adult patients do. You don't even have to speak."
A noise comes out of you that you recognize as a laugh, though it sounds like the whicker of a mule. "Well, thank God for small favors." You shift in your chair. "So. What would I be doing?"
"Just some skin-to-skin holding, rocking, mindless humming. Hearing your heartbeat helps them sleep better. Things like that." She stands up and extends her hand, which is warm and steady. "They'll train you. I'm sure it'll work out," she says, "Really. You'll be pleasantly surprised."
"We'll see," you answer. After all, you don't want to promise anything.
You walk to the back Exit, the one adjacent to the Emergency Room entrance, and wait to put your coat on until you can gauge the weather through the long glass doors. You might not need it, but when the sky is clear at night, the temperature can drop rapidly. It is almost dusk.
Something about the whoosh of the doors opening and closing and the going from warm air to cool is oddly soothing. The Valet Parking teenager stands up to get your car, but you tell him you'll walk.
Somewhere somebody is burning something sweet. It moves past your nose slowly. Leaves, maybe, or the last steak on the grill until spring. This is what you like about the way Indian summer concedes to fall. The attenuated length of light, the world tucking itself in.
You put your coat on, slip your hands into each opposing sleeve, wait to cross the street until the signal changes. You could turn and look up at the fourth floor windows, where the OB floor is, but you'll see it soon enough tomorrow. Right now there are other things to note.
For example, the way one color shields or bears another. With lavender behind it, the oak tree missing half its leaves is less a dark thing. A tangerine smudge on distant hilltops presses the last of daytime into night. Maybe, if you're lucky, there will be hoar frost in the morning, branches blunt with milky tassels too compelling not to touch.