For four weeks she had been living in her parents’ big bed—a king-size bed, extra long because her father was tall and had big feet. She stared at the ceiling and remembered lying on the bed as a child, groaning with impatience as her mother put on lipstick or talked on the phone. Every morning, before it was really light, she had trailed her father around the bed, stepping in the enormous talcum-powder prints he left on the carpet. She followed him to the closet where he kept his big shoes, to the bathroom where she listened to the buzzing of his electric razor, to the dresser out of which came the shirt cardboards he gave her to draw on. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit ba-a-a-a-g,” they sang with the radio.
* * *
“Am I delirious?” Alice asked.
“Feverish,” said her mother, dipping the washcloth into a paper cup filled with lavender water.
“I thought I might be delirious.” A delirium would at least seem romantic. “You’re sure I’m not delirious?”
Her mother said she didn’t think so and wiped Alice’s forehead with a washcloth. The lavender water smelled prim, like a biddy’s drawer of nighties.
“Drink lots of fluids!” her mother reminded her a minute later, handing her one of the soggy paper cups from the bedside table.
Alice put the cup to her lips. I have suffered brain damage, she thought listlessly. This water tastes funny. It tastes like …
“Oh, Mom! This is lavender water. Ugh, it’s disgusting.”
“I’ve poisoned you! Oh, my God, I’ve poisoned you!” her mother cried, kissing Alice’s hands.
* * *
The pain came in hot waves, like acute embarrassment. It started in her hips and flowed in almost rhythmic bursts to her knees and feet, then to her whole body. She moaned loudly and wanted to stamp her feet in rage, but sometimes she couldn’t move them at all.
The night, the wet summer heat, and the strange pain would all hover and then slowly intensify at once. I must be delirious, she told herself. The nights were the worst, and her mother would stroke her forehead. A walker, somehow shabby in spite of being brand-new, stood by the bed; it was shabby the way only aluminum can be shabby. When she looked at it, she knew she was not delirious. The bathroom loomed six feet away.
My mother told me you finally went into the bin. Is it awful? I know I haven’t spoken to you since the day you threw the plate at me, but I have thought about you. Anyway, since that day—and you know all I said was “Hello,” I don’t know what you were so mad about—I seem to have gotten sick too.
About two weeks after I saw you, after I’d gone back to Sarah Lawrence, I was babysitting and I stood up to get the little brat a glass of water, and I fell down! I just fell down. Pain, pain, and more pain in my legs. The kid’s father helped me home, even though it was only across the street. I literally crawled—like a cockroach—into the bathroom, into bed, to the phone the next morning when it rang. Luckily it was a friend of my mother’s who wanted to know if I wanted a ride to Westport. She came and got me and helped me down to her car and drove me out, and I stayed there for a month, in bed.
The doctors had no idea what was wrong. First they thought it was an infection and they stuck a needle in my hips to see if they could draw pus out. They tried it twice: No pus. Then they put me in this rinky-dink traction. It looked like a late-night TV-commercial contraption—“It slices! It dices! It mashes! It whips!” They hooked me up in my own bed. Actually, my parents’ bed—my room is really damp. One of the walls is crumbling too (bad drainage, I think). Anyway, my poor parents alternated sleeping in the guest room and on the floor next to me. It was very odd because they had separated about three weeks before. My father therefore thinks the whole thing is psychological. He feels very guilty. Of course, he feels guilty anyway for dumping my mother. But I’m glad they finally got a separation. They’ve been fighting for ten years, so what’s the big deal? But I can’t say that to them. At least not to my father—he’s so solemn.
So I slept for a month in the soggy bed. It was so humid there. And I sweated a lot because I had a fever. I used to get mildew on my shoes in the closet, so I thought I might see some green moss growing on my legs, but it didn’t. I probably have some kind of arthritis—that’s what they tell you when they can’t find pus and they really don’t know—so the damp probably made it even worse.
The bathroom was four steps from the bed—I know because I counted—and I had to use a walker to get there. Sometimes I put heating pads on my hips and knees, and then, since they didn’t work, I put ice packs on, and then, since they didn’t work, I put the heating pads back on. It helped to pass the time, and improve hand-eye coordination.
My father snored on the floor and jumped up yelling, “Whah? Who?” every time I made a sound, and every time I moaned, my mother flew in from the other end of the house. I don’t know how they heard me.
I’ll have to take incompletes in all my courses, and I was supposed to go to Florence with Cindy this summer, but that’s obviously off. She felt guilty, too, because she’s still going, so she came and spent a weekend. She tried to entertain me by dancing around wearing only ice bags and singing Carmen Miranda songs. She was moderately successful.
I had a fever—about 102—the whole time, so the doctors decided I better go into the hospital. The ambulance looked like a station wagon. Very painful journey on stretcher to station wagon. Felt like groceries when stashed in the back. Screamed a lot.
Everyone thinks I’m a hysteric. Except my parents, of course. I guess no one can really imagine being so sensitive to pain. It does sound excessive—I mean, the cracks in the floor between the linoleum tiles hurt me as the stretcher rolls over them.
So here I am in the hospital. In New York because the doctor is supposed to be good. There were cigarette butts in the corner of the room and they still don’t know what’s wrong with me. They won’t give me any drugs because I’m a teenager.
I’ll write again when I have some more cheerful news. Will you write to me? I know this is a very self-centered letter, and centered around a not tremendously interesting self at the moment—I mostly cry, scream, and try not to pee since it hurts to walk to the bathroom—but it is a letter nevertheless.
Curtains hung around one of the beds like sheets drying in an alley. One woman stared at her suspiciously from inside an oxygen tent. Another sat up in bed, suddenly shy, arranging Kleenexes and glasses on her bedside table as if she were tidying up for an unexpected guest.
Alice was afraid someone would vomit or die. She tried to smile politely. What if they snored, or coughed all night? She felt intrusive. She hated them.
“Isn’t the view magnificent?” the lady next to her asked, pointing down to the street. It was clogged with traffic. Faint honks occasionally drifted up. “I’ve just had surgery. Well, I never was robust.” She sighed. She began describing her dead husband—pink skin, sparkling blue eyes, white hair—and then began to sob.
“Oh,” she suddenly cried out, “my friends have tried to fix me up with a few dirty old goats in Florida.…” Her accent, which had been full-blown genteel, like a posturing homosexual, suddenly assumed a leering quality and Alice wondered with horror what this frail old lady might go on to recount. But “none of them measured up to my darling,” she declared loyally in her former tone.
“That’s good,” Alice said respectfully.
The woman on the other side had fallen asleep. The lady in the oxygen tent was obscured by the reflection of the setting sun, but Alice was sure she continued to stare at her with uncompromising suspicion.
Alice rang for a nurse. When a great big woman stomped up to her bed, Alice asked for her shot. She waited in the dark until she realized it had been a long time since the nurse had left and then rang again.
“Okay, okay,” said the same big nurse. She handed Alice a little pill.
“Shot,” Alice said, groaning and writhing. “My doctor prescribed shots.”
“Shot? You can’t have no shot. You asked for a pill. You don’t get no shot.”
“Shot. I get a shot, I want a shot.”
“Do you see a needle here? I don’t have a shot, I have a pill. And that’s what you’re getting.”
“Don’t you tell me,” said the nurse. All Alice could see in the gloom was her beefy hands. Hands holding a small paper packet and a paper cup. “I opened the paper this pill is served in. What do I do with it if you don’t take it?” demanded the nurse.
“I’ll take it later. Just get me the shot now. I haven’t had one all day. I’m allowed to get one every four hours.”
“We will have to throw it away,” declared the outraged nurse, dropping the white pellet in the wastebasket. It made a tiny ping, and the nurse left. She brought back the shot, which she administered with vigor.
The woman with the dead husband vomited all night. It seemed to Alice that she dramatized the incidents a little, making loud retching noises long before and after the actual event.
Then the woman in the oxygen tent died, discovered by the male nurse when he came to take the five-o’clock temperatures. Stone cold. Alice wondered if they would really carry the corpse out feet first, but the aides pulled the curtains around her bed and she couldn’t see.
She moved to a private room the next morning.
“Lie down,” said Dr. Witherspoons that afternoon. Alice was sitting, dangling her legs off the bed as her doctor in Connecticut had told her to. This in preparation for the long journey behind the walker to the bathroom to brush her teeth. A little numb from the pain, she had been delaying.
“Lie down,” Dr. Witherspoons repeated. He was tall and tan and looked as if he’d be cold to the touch. He took care of famous football teams and was famous himself. “Lie down this minute.”
“But my doctor at home…”
“Lie down.” Dr. Witherspoons lived in Westport, and Alice’s neighbors knew him. They had told her that he changed his name from Wittstein, drove a Mercedes, and had a horrible wife. “Your bones are inflamed. They must be kept still. I don’t ever want to see you sitting up again.”
“Okay, okay,” she said as he turned and walked out.
* * *
“The stroke in nine-fifteen wet her bed,” Alice heard a voice in the hall announce. “And I could not help but notice that Mrs. Pulman is sprawled across the floor.”
“Huh!” answered an indifferent voice.
“Oy gevalt,” slurred a third scrawny voice. “Oy gevalt, Johnson.”
“Huh!” grunted the indifferent voice. “I ain’t Johnson. You ain’t Johnson. You Mrs. Pulman. Nobody here named Johnson. And why can’t you keep still? Fussin’ and kickin’ and we have to truss you up with sheets and you slip right out, skinny as you are.…”
“Oy gevalt, Johnson,” answered Mrs. Pulman. “Oy gevalt, Johnson.”
Alice’s door opened and hefty Miss Darty came in carrying a bedpan.
“There’s only one of you?” cried Alice as the nurse walked toward her. “You know I need two. Please don’t try it yourself. It hurts this way. Please…”
Miss Darty was silent, but her breath was sharp, her nostrils flared, her hands poised like a movie strangler’s.
“Don’t touch me!” Alice cried as the nurse approached. “Don’t come any closer … Owwwwwwww…” The bedpan was pushed under her as Miss Darty held her up with one arm.
“You’ll be sorry,” said Alice as her left leg leaped up in an emphatic spasm. “I hate you,” she said as her right leg jerked in silly arches that threatened to overturn the bedpan.
Miss Darty gave a sudden cry. “Oh! It’s going to overflow!”
Miss Darty ran off to get another pan and pushed in the empty as she pulled out the full.
“Disgusting, inconsiderate, imagine voiding only once a day. And with all those IVs!” she muttered and walked out of the room, leaving her charge whimpering, fists pushed into her hips, trying to hold down the spasms that were rocking the bed and turning her face pale.
* * *
It still took her a few minutes each morning to recognize the touch of all the equipment. Unfamiliar, ludicrous, and slightly sinister, it surrounded her, touching her in uncustomary ways: the matted sheepskin beneath her, the sheepskin booties attached to strings attached to weights that she couldn’t see, the tight white elastic socks with no toes, the cold plastic tube dripping antibiotics into her arm. Sometimes the traction clanked.
She held up a hand. Her nails were as long as a mandarin’s. The life of leisure, how ironic. If only I could reach that itchy sore on my coccyx, she thought. A month ago I didn’t know where my coccyx was.
A pretty Filipino nurse had given her a manicure and painted the shapely nails a bluish purple that her friends found unwholesome. Hands, she apostrophized silently, you look lovely. Pale and delicate, decadent and dangerous. Old people look at their hands like this, she thought. And ugly people with pretty hands.
She pulled the large red plastic mirror out of the drawer next to her bed. Her complexion was grayish, pale, and circles as dark as caves surrounded her eyes. She let her lids droop and tried to look vampy. Her lips looked a little blue, but at least they weren’t chapped. There were hollows beneath her cheekbones, which she rather liked, and a small spray of pimples across her forehead. She watched two tears swell over her eyelids to slide dramatically down her pallid cheeks. Pain pounded through her body. I know I don’t deserve this, she thought.
Copyright © 1983 by Cathleen Schine