bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Perimenopause and Scanned Documents

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

I’ve reached that time of life when my new experiences are beginning to insist on entwining with my more familiar ones. Two important examples of this phenomenon are: the changes caused by the monthly sloughing off of my uterine lining and the changes caused by my weekly attempts to update my understanding of computer accessories.

Per the former, I’m now, in a good eye, part of the “over fifty” crowd. That certain differences would occur, in my physical function, was expected. Early adolescence, young adulthood, pregnancy, the post partum years, lactation spans, as well as the middle of midlife all brought with them anticipated variations in my reproductive tendencies. Some things got bigger, others smaller. Some energies intensified, others diminished. Women’s bodies, mine included, are anything but static.

Per the latter, whereas I remain an unwilling participant in the media revolution, I allowed myself, for the reasons of earnings and sanity, first to be dragged through the conveyances of mass media and then to be pulled along the shoots and ladders of convergent media. The liminal stages of those explorations, all the same, were disagreeable despite the fact that they wrought necessary transformations.

In the first instance, somehow, although I had previously experienced many corporeal alterations, perimenopause surprised me. Wellness, at its best, is a free fall that creates no G’s worth of health challenges. Yet, as honest older gals will testify, the mid decades’ fluxes frustrate order, hindering even those economies of time, space, money or energy that have been in place for just a brief measure. More specifically, simultaneous with my accepting that nooky would never again generate progeny, I found myself facing multiple false alarms.

In the second instance, my word count, font issues, and efforts to avoid hincty language, aside, nothing equaled the equilibrium problems I stumbled upon when interacting with machines that buzz, click, or burp. All of a sudden, editors were insisting on electronic connections. If I wouldn’t or couldn’t Skype or to IM, I stood to lose contracts.

My husband and I exhaled a lot, counted to twenty-five, and otherwise made do with my erratic hormones. My inner chemicals pinged and ponged more than they had during my premenarch years, my fecund years, and the occasions when I lapsed in my exercise routine. Like New Englanders who accept the inevitability of northerly winds, we braced ourselves during my shifting patterns.

I, personally, also attempted to get along with the more popular new conduits for broadcasting ideas. While remembering to format my works according to submission sheet instructions and making sure to trim my pages’ size according to individual outlet’s strictures stymied my creative process, decades of experimenting with not abiding by publication fads proved, in balance, that any urgings I manifested to resist the winds of the media might as well, alongside my writing aspirations, be flushed. Without a means to cultivate an audience, an author has few reasons to generate manuscripts.

The upshot of going along with, instead of fighting against, my physical changes is that my husband and I smiled and still smile more. Loving, in the sixth decade, seems to be an agreeable matter.

The most singular result of my retrofitting my instruments for offering up my work has been my ongoing enjoyment of having my name in print. Other benefits have included my intermittent pleasure in learning to place dark backgrounds behind pictures meant to be scanned, my periodic delight in developing a website, and my seasonal joy in learning to differentiate among data storage devices (albeit, I’ve still not tried parking my information caches on multiple viral servers, i.e. on cloud storage devices).

I never would have believed, had someone bothered to predict for me, that my perimenopausal years would be juicy, invigorating and downright fun. There continues to be a great discrepancy between my lived days and nights, and the concepts floated out by our information sources about the physicality of middle-aged women.

Similarly, if anyone would have suggested, twenty or thirty years ago, that I would be tolerant of, if not somewhat comfortable with electronic publications, audio publications, print-on-demand vetting, or other extremely contemporary aspects of getting writing to readers and to listeners, I would have laughed. I am an old school, palpable card catalog, Big Six publisher, footnotes ‘til ya drop, sort of person. Clicks and whirs never figured on my professional horizon.

Nonetheless, change can bring unexpected goodness. In determining that I will have to remain obsequious to my body’s rhyme and rhythm, similar to determining that the nature of publishing’s progression is beyond my control, I find myself freed. Explicitly, instead of fretting over my long past youth, I celebrate my matronly methods. Equally, instead of getting unsettled about the shrinking numbers of readers that bother with paper-delivered notions, I glean my satisfaction from wider, more diverse, and often younger groups of respondees than my traditionally transmitted writing ever scraped together.

At the same time that having to empty the dishwasher, having to take out the trash, and having to feed any and all visiting, though invisible, dragons remain constants, my ways of having to transport my exuberance to others, whether in intimate climes or for the public eye, have fluctuated a large amount. In all, I’d espouse that my sudden weaving together of comfortable manners of acting with new forms of being present is serving me well.

KJ Hannah Greenberg has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice, helps out as an Associate Editor at Bound Off and at Bewildering Stories, and has two new books launching, a full-length poetry collection, A Bank Robber's Bad Luck with His Ex-Girlfriend (Unbound CONTENT), and an assemblage of short fictions, Don't Pet the Sweaty Things (Bards & Sages Publishing).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Traveling Salesman

by Loukia Borrell

            I’ve had sex with nine guys. There were others, with nudity and some kind of sexual act, but no intercourse. If I include everyone, sex and almost sex, I might be closer to twenty men.
            I began my sexual resume at age nineteen, with a mild-mannered college guy from Richmond. I moved on to newspaper people and cops, and retired at age thirty-two with my second husband, an ambitious, edgy, green-eyed Philadelphian whose hands are always warm and comforting.
            The one person I didn’t really know was the second guy. Our paths crossed when he was in town on business and after spending a grand total of two hours with him, he left town. I felt the itch and motivated myself to follow him across the country for sex.
            It was 1985, and we met when I was working as a waitress during my summer break from college. He came in for dinner and caught my attention right away. I thought he was very handsome. He reminded me of Kurt Russell, the way he looked in “Escape From New York,” except without the eye patch. He took notice of me and carried on about how               I looked like Anne Bancroft. He loved the dark hair and bedroom eyes. He told me he was in computer sales and in Virginia for a convention. He asked me to guess his age and it turned out he was ten years older than I. Cool. 
            During his two-hour stay at the restaurant, he was like a wave. He flirted outrageously, as did I. Before he left, he gave me his business card.  On the back side, he wrote his home address and phone number. He asked me to meet him at his hotel the next day, so we could get to know each other.
            The next morning, I arrived wearing crisp, white shorts and my matching sorority shirt. I walked into the lobby like I was a movie starlet on set. We sat on a sofa and talked. I giggled constantly. I went back the next day, carrying flowers, and hoping my hair looked the way Madonna’s did that year–messy, sexy, and unlike a virgin. He kissed me on the bed in his hotel room. I felt his body through his clothes. We made plans to meet at his house in San Diego before I went back to college for the fall.
            He flew home and within days, wrote to me. His letters were filled with adventure stories: Biking trips, watching a mesmerizing city skyline, eating lobster and drinking beer in Mexico, driving along endless miles of beach on
Pacific Coast Highway
. The frequency and detail of his letters depended on how sure I was about making the trip. The more anxious I sounded on the phone, the more letters came.  He told me to make a stand for myself, not to miss a chance for closeness and fun. He thanked me for making him feel things he hadn’t felt in a long time.

            I spent my summer working and shopping for nice clothes. Everyone at the restaurant knew what was going on. They all thought I was crazy, especially Big John, the owner. One afternoon before my shift started, he asked me into his office.
            “I hear you are planning something crazy for a guy you don’t know,” he said.
            “Yes?” I said.
            “Do you really need to go all the way across the country to get a boyfriend? There are guys working here,” he said.
             “The busboys?” I shifted my weight and leaned up against a filing cabinet. “I can get those at college,” I said. “This guy is different, older. He’s got a life.”
            He stopped counting money and looked at me.  The office was quiet.  
            “You’re crazy. After you have sex with him, he’s going to drop you. If he likes you so damn much, he’d walk back here from California. Tell him to come here to get to know you and your family,” he said.
            I knew that would never happen. I adjusted my cummerbund.
            “Well, I know what I’m doing,” I said, “It’ll be fine.”

            All of this was happening as I tried to forge my own way and make decisions for myself. My older brother didn’t say anything. My father took an observer’s position, but my mother was outspoken and furious.  She fumed whenever I got a letter or call. She complained that I was tying up the phone too much. She threatened to disinherit me. At least once, she called him at 3 a.m. Pacific Time, so he implemented the “Mother Project,” urging me to find ways to manage her until my departure. She finally stopped talking.
            It was the summer of 1985. I was just realizing that AIDS was something that could threaten me. Before that year, I thought it was a disease for gays, hemophiliacs and people who spent their time shooting heroin. Then, I woke up when Life magazine did a cover story on AIDS and the headline said something like, “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.”  About a week before I went, I called him.
            “Do you have any diseases?”
            “No, no way.” I didn’t ask him to prove it.
            “Jesus Christ. I’m sorry. I just have to stop listening to everyone and thinking so much.”
            “Good girl.”

            His place was up on a hill. It was a small, bungalow-style house with two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and kitchen. I felt like I was in Beverly Hills or something.  The floors were hardwood, the furniture well-placed and neat. There were a lot of windows that you could sit in front of and see the city’s lights at night. We slept with T-shirts on and were naked from the waist down. I used a spermicidal diaphragm I hoped would kill any viruses he might have. I didn’t have any orgasms but I felt close to him, anyway. I daydreamed about transferring from my North Carolina college to a university near him.  We could live together, get married and have kids.
            He worked during the days and I rode a bike to the waterfront or walked around his neighborhood. I cooked meals, dusted furniture, and shopped at a corner market. Everything seemed brighter, bigger. The plants seemed huge, the flowers tremendous. The trees seemed taller. The sky was always blue and the nights were cool. Some days he took off work and we went places together. We drank wine by the ocean, took a ferry to Catalina Island for the weekend, and drove to hole-in-the-wall restaurants for great Mexican dinners. I called my mother and told her she was wrong.
            About a week into the trip, I met some members of his family.  We planned a cookout for them. When they arrived, I could tell his parents were money. They wore nice clothes and jewelry, spoke of their travels and easy lifestyle. They were nice people, but I felt awkward around them. They knew he picked me up in a restaurant and that I came out without knowing him. I felt embarrassed, thinking they might know something I didn’t.  While I was in the bathroom, I overheard his mother talking about how I was still in college. She kept telling him I was too young. After I told his father how much of a struggle it was for me to get there, and that people had tried to stop me, he looked at me point blank and said: “If you were my daughter, I would have chained you to the bedpost.”
            The next day, we fought. He wanted me to leave a week earlier than I planned.
            “Change it. Call American and tell them you had a death in the family and have to be back sooner,” he said.
            He was impatient and distant.
            “OK,” I said.
            He left for work. I sat in his living room, by the computer, and spent most of the morning on the phone trying to convince a supervisor for American Airlines that someone in my family was dead. He made the change and I apologized for the trouble. When I hung up, I sat and stared at the furniture. I began to look through cabinets, drawers and closets, for papers, bills, proof.  I found a lot of pictures of girls in the back of the guest room closet. Most of them were dark-haired, like me. A lot of Latina and Hawaiian girls. There were letters in his desk. One of them was from a girl who was coming over from Vegas to see him for his birthday. I studied the postmark on another letter, and then opened the envelope. It was from someone he met during the same trip he met me.
            I confronted him. He said I had no business going through his things. He was angry. I relented. The trip was ending and I didn’t want to leave on a bad note. The morning I left, he dropped me off at the airport curb. He gave me some cash to cover the ticket I had purchased to visit him. He told me it was a thank you gift for helping him prove to his friends he could get me out there.
            My brother picked me up. My parents didn’t want to talk to me or know anything about the trip. About a week after I got back, he sent me picture prints, but no negatives. He said he needed to keep them in case I got mad at him someday. There were no nude shots, but I did let him take pictures of me in my underwear. I was too sad to argue with him. I planned to buy a photo album, but ended up putting my pictures in a brown envelope with his letters.
            The next week, I went back to college. I felt safe there, away from the summer’s disappointment and my mother’s silence. I called him a few times during those months, and there were some letters exchanged between us. Our contact was infrequent, impersonal and brief. His letters were thin, double-spaced and written on small pieces of paper. I graduated in December and got an internship that put me in a new city.
            About a year after I went to California, I started getting sick. I was renting a room from an elderly couple, working at a newspaper near Washington, D.C., and feeling tired all the time. I got different things: Urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, fatigue, weight loss. I was working a lot of hours and put down my poor health to stress. I also wondered if it might be AIDS, which by now, with Rock Hudson dead, was the biggest story out there. I told the doctor about my trip and asked for an AIDS test. During those months, I would stand in front of the mirror every morning, naked, and look for unexplained rashes and lesions. I looked at my reflection and imagined thorns all over me. What a dumb broad.
            After the second negative test, I stopped taking them and tried harder to put that summer behind me. That trip hurt me and ruptured my relationship with my mother. She took it personally and was ashamed at the lengths I went to for a man. Eventually, I moved on, but I wasn’t the same girl. I was different. I had less faith in people and viewed them skeptically.
            The last time I called him was in 1989. I don’t know why I did. I think I was just making sure he was alive and that his life wasn’t too different from when I visited him. He talked to me and said he was serious with a girl. He said something about getting married. I told him I was a journalist. He said he was sorry for acting the way he did toward me. I told him he was fine.
            I never spoke to him again. Years went by and bigger things happened. My brother died of cancer. My mother got dementia and quit life. I married my second husband and we had three children. My husband tells me the same things every week: I am beautiful, entertaining, and interesting. He is obsessed with his wife, he says. He says the first time he ever saw me, he felt a cord unravel itself from deep inside him and attach itself to me.
            He does silly things. He’ll go grocery shopping with me and wander into different aisles, waiting for me to come around. He likes to pretend he has never seen me before and imagines what he could do to introduce himself. He writes letters to me, on his way somewhere, 30,000 feet above the United States, telling me about his incredible life. He says he could live in meager surroundings, in any city in the world, as long as I live there, too. Things get bumpy from time to time, but we have great passion, mutual understanding and a good life together.
            Now and then, I think about my trip to California. It comes to me the same way you think about being in a car accident. You were there and it happened, but as time goes on, it fades, and you don’t want to bring it into focus anymore. But I can. I can bring it back, razor sharp, anytime. I can find the pictures and the letters. They are valuable to me because I have daughters and a son, and you know, life moves around in circles.

Loukia Borrell has been writing for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Virginian-Pilot, St. Petersburg Times, New York Times Regional Newspapers, and in various other magazines and newspapers. She has authored a book, Raping Aphrodite, a fictional work based, in part, on the 1974 invasion and division of Cyprus. A native of Ohio, Borrell was raised in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and their three children.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Childhood Concrete

by Ruth Lehrer

            Squatting on New York City pavement, I was queen of jacks. Onsies, twosies, my red ball bounced until it cracked white and crumbled. We huddled in little girl packs, sitting tirelessly on school playground rock. We hop-scotched up the numbers and back. We sang slapping, smacking songs until they were ground into our brains like multiplication tables.  I still know seven times six, and one middle-aged clap still triggers every word of “Miss Lucy had a Steamboat,” dirty parts and all.
            How did chants about asses and shards of glasses get past the recess monitors? Maybe schools cared less back then, the real world in such a turmoil—Vietnam and Malcolm X and Nixon saying it wasn’t him. Maybe the teacher’s aide was worrying about her draft-evading son in Canada and she didn’t notice we were singing about steamboats bound for hell.
            I have visceral memory of failing at double-dutch—a twist, a slap, a fall. I was teacher-less, since all the great double-dutch masters were black girls in fourth grade and I was only in second, my friends only white or Puerto Rican. I could skip to one hundred, but the flip-flip of two ropes evaded me. Something about turning your knees in and your feet out.
            Boys didn’t play jacks and didn’t clap songs. I think they played marbles but I didn’t care about boys. I just wished I could be hopping double-dutch, up by the chain-link fence where girls sucked on cigarettes that friends poked through crisscross metal mesh.
            Then we moved upstate and there was only green grass and no concrete. No one cared I was queen of jacks. My hopscotch skills withered without chalk and cement. There were no double-dutch athletes.
            Now, I am almost fifty, still double-dutchless. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, when I drive out of the hills, down the north-south highway to a concrete urban school, I will look and see—do they still twist ropes on city pavement?
            Maybe a ten-year-old girl will notice me, watching, and take the time to teach what I missed the first time around.

Ruth Lehrer is a writer and sign language interpreter living in western Massachusetts. Her poems and fiction have been published in Meat for Tea and Wordgathering. She received third prize in the 2009 Hampshire Life Short Story Contest and Honorable Mention in The Binnacle 8th Annual Ultra Short Competition. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel, I Love You More Than Cinnamon Toast.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Formation

by Nancy Graham

Four thousand Air Force cadets stand at parade rest in sky blue and navy rows on a cloudless August day. On the emerald grass behind them, a handful of men and women in desert camouflage lounge next to large backpacks. From my vantage point among the tourists, the contrasts in uniform and posture are striking. Are the slouching soldiers being sent home in disgrace? Are they meant to remind us how wars are really fought these days?

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of standing in formation dressed in a crisp uniform.  I picked up recruiting brochures at the post office and pestered my father while he polished his National Guard boots and brass bars. His weekends with the Guard seemed to my child’s mind like exotic trips. While he was gone, I practiced my marching skills.

Was it on one those weekends he first thought of leaving us? I imagine my father slumped on a folding cot after a day of drills, taking deep drags on a Camel. Perhaps there was some joshing in the barracks about the burdens back home. He was not much older than the airmen-in-training below me. 

My musing is interrupted when two of the camouflaged figures take off at a dead run toward the ranks of cadets and pull one of them back out of formation. For a hazing ritual? A special assignment? Because a response hadn’t been barked with sufficient enthusiasm?

When the trio arrives at the backpack, the camouflaged figures lower the cadet to the grass and hand him a bottle of water. The woman in camo waits until he takes a deep drink, and then pushes the cadet’s head down between his knees. Once he is in the desired position, she snaps back up. Her weight shifts onto the forward leg; she is ready to run.

A female voice comes from behind us. “The people in camouflage are EMTs. Sometimes if you lock your knees, even if you stay hydrated . . .” I turn to see the shrug. The speaker is a cadet in the same sky blue and navy uniform. She has been assigned to answer our questions but no one has had any.

A tourist finds his voice, “Do the cadets get in trouble? For fainting?”

Our cadet smiles. “Not anymore.” 

Her shoulders are squared, but there is sweetness in her voice. She seems, for lack of a better word, nice. Standing there in her uniform, this young woman appears to be both confident and compassionate, just the sort of person who should command troops and weapons someday. I can see why she was chosen for this public relations assignment.

My father started leaving us for traveling jobs when my younger sister was born. Eventually, his visits home came at greater and greater intervals. My mother retreated back to her hometown. But she was a husbandless woman and we were fatherless children and we were not greeted with open arms.

Down below, more cadets are swaying. The EMTs prowl like coyotes around a herd of cattle, eager to cull the weak. Soon there are five or six cadets reclining on the green lawn. Will they suffer punishment later at the hands of their peers? Or will the shamed cadets just cry silently in the shower tonight?

I thought I could win my father back. I just needed to march with more crispness, earn more Girl Scout badges, capture more academic awards, read more impressive books, create more order in the world, and be more charming and witty. He would see my accomplishments and reward them with his presence. The family would be miraculously reassembled.

The cadets below are raising and lowering flags on command. A parade. That’s what this type of military assembly is called, I remember. The word we use for the passage of clowns and convertibles has military origins.

Until recently I thought my father’s leaving was selfish; he was too absorbed in his own search for happiness to give a thought to ours. If so, it didn’t work. He was never satisfied with his life and deeply disappointed to have been born too late for the real wars. He drifted and then he died at a young age.

Now I see that his departure must have been an act of desperation. My parents were too young when they married; they were certainly too young to be parents. Deserted, my mother, sister, and I loved each other as much as we could. My father dropped by from time to time. We were all permanently shaken, but I now think that he paid the highest price. Perhaps with time this insight can become forgiveness.

The tops of my shoulders are burning. I have no cardigan, no sunscreen, and no parasol to shield me from the Colorado summer sun. Visiting the Academy had been a whim, the parade a surprise. While I do not feel faint like the cadets sprawled on the grass, I will bear physical evidence of being here even for a short time.

This year I left my husband after a twenty-eight year marriage. Our tall, confident daughters will never be fatherless or motherless. But we are no longer in the same formation. Do I begin to see my father’s path as courageous because I want to view my own departure in the same light? Or do I think I earned the right to go by staying so long? I don’t know; I was merely certain that it was time to leave.

The tourists who flank me on the viewing platform seem determined to stay until all four thousand cadets march past on their way to the dining hall and the brass band lowers its instruments. But I am thirsty and turn away from the spectacle. I’ve seen enough. I smile at the young woman cadet as I pass and she smiles back.

Nancy Graham lives in Colorado.  Employed for many years in corporate America, she now writes full time, mentors a high-risk high school student, and serves on the board of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.  Graham has degrees in English and Political Science.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pre-Med Primer: 1960

by Claude Clayton Smith

            I turned sixteen during March of my sophomore year in high school and several days later began searching for a summer job. I needed to save money for college. I intended to become a doctor. So I put on a coat and tie, brushed back my crew cut, and caught a bus downtown to Bridgeport Hospital, where I soon found myself in the narrow, out-of-the-way office of the Housekeeper, Mrs. Ogilvie.
“Mrs. O.,” as she was called, was a short, trim woman in her fifties, who dressed all in white like a nurse but wore no nurse’s cap. Her small mouth was a perfect oval of bright red lipstick. She studied me for a moment with her piercing dark eyes, before quietly informing me that there was currently an opening in her department for a wall-washer, and if the position were still open when school let out, it would be mine. It was only after several weeks on the job that I realized why the position had not been filled—Housekeeping was the lowest department in the hospital, and wall-washer was the lowest job in Housekeeping.
But it was mine—my very first job, the gateway to my future—six days a week, eight hours a day, a dollar and five cents an hour.
When I reported for work, Mrs. O. showed me how to punch the time-clock, then sent me to the laundry for a uniform—a khaki shirt with long sleeves and a pair of khaki pants with wide cuffs, folded flat and starched as stiff as cardboard. The uniform was to be exchanged for a fresh one every Monday and Thursday, just when it had become comfortable enough to work in.
Then I was sent to the foreman, “Mr. Steve,” an immigrant or refugee from behind the Iron Curtain, whose long last name hardly contained a single vowel. He was a thin, anxious man with thick-framed black glasses offset by a tidy white moustache. In what he called “the old country” he’d been a lawyer, but the difficulty of learning English at an advanced age—he appeared much older than Mrs. O.—had kept him from practicing law in America. I later learned that when he began working at the hospital, Mr. Steve had been twice his present weight. A heart attack, plus the strain of supervising the men of the Housekeeping Department, had reduced him to a nervous wisp.
Mr. Steve prefaced all announcements, orders, or small talk with a quick “Ahem, ahem …,” a verbal tic more throat-clearing than intelligible. He wore khaki, as did all the male housekeepers, but his pace was triple that of anyone’s. Except mine. I kept right up as he escorted me down the long corridors and flights of stairs to the men’s locker room, a cramped area in the very bowels of the old hospital, where I had to duck beneath the heavily bandaged pipes.
And as he assigned me one of the battered green lockers, Mr. Steve somehow discovered that I was studying Latin in high school. “Arma virumque cano,” he recited proudly, lifting his eyes to the insulated pipes. I would need two more years of high school before I could quote Virgil to Mr. Steve in return, but he seemed more than
satisfied with my sophomoric offering from Caesar: Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes.” Latin, Mr. Steve reminded me, was the language of the legal profession.
“And medicine,” I added brightly.
The dingy locker room had a few benches and half a dozen barroom-style chairs at a round wooden table in the corner. As I was putting on my uniform these quarters suddenly filled with the Housekeeping crew—African-Americans (then called Negroes), Puerto Ricans, and a contingent of short, sullen, broad-faced men whom I soon labeled the “Mushka-Pushka Men,” for that is how their language sounded to me: “Mushka-Pushka! Mushka-Pushka!”
It was 9:15. Time for a coffee break.
Very quickly, as if it were understood, the Mushka-Pushka Men occupied the table in the corner, and from their wooden circle came only one word I ever understood, a word that rose heatedly during every coffee break: “CommuNEEST! CommunNEEST!”  The Mushka-Pushka Men—Mr. Steve spoke their language—came from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, perhaps Poland. But my geography was weak, my interest in history even weaker.
            Then Mr. Steve was standing at the door, tapping his finger on his wristwatch. “Ahem, ahem … Gentlemen.” Coffee break was over. Time to get back to work.
            As the locker room emptied—more slowly than it had filled—I lagged behind to wait for Mr. Steve, who was always the last to exit. I had been on the job since 7:00 a.m. and was yet to lift a finger. Before long, however, I found myself in a dim, windowless corner of the basement in which rows and rows of Venetian blinds were suspended from the ceiling like so many room dividers. Mr. Steve neatly rolled back his sleeves, drew a pail of hot water from the sink on the wall, added liquid detergent like a waiter pouring wine, and demonstrated how to wash the blinds on both sides, dampening the rag just so, careful not to get the drawstrings wet. When he returned at noon I had completed the job—had been standing around, in fact, for an hour, watching the Venetian blinds dry—and Mr. Steve seemed confused by my efficiency. I think he had expected the task to take me all day. Now he was stuck with finding something else for me to do.
            “So this is what it’s like to work in a hospital,” I remember telling myself. But what about wall-washing? I had been hired as a wall-washer.
            As we returned to the locker room for lunch—I had to be shown the way, still disoriented by the hospital’s subterranean maze—Mr. Steve muttered something about seeing Mrs. O., then he’d get back to me.
            I took my lunch, as became my habit, upstairs. The cigarette smoke in the locker room burned my eyes, the African-Americans frightened me, and the Spanish of the Puerto Ricans was as annoying as the chatter of the Mushka-Pushka Men. Any laughter, I assumed, was at my expense, so I trotted my brown bag (two peanut butter sandwiches, one apple) to the cafeteria, a room as big and bright as our high school gymnasium. Here a hundred or more diamond-shaped tables hummed with the conversation of the staff—nurses all in white (except for the rims of their caps, which, I later learned, identified the place of their training), technicians in long lab coats, Operating Room personnel in loose-fitting green coveralls, silver-haired volunteers in pink pinafores, and their counterparts, the young candy-stripers, as pert and pretty as cheerleaders. And then there were the doctors—haughty and harried—in green surgical garb or, on certain days, Madras sport coats, bright pants, narrow ties.
            At a far table I noticed Mrs. O. in animated dialogue with a nurse twice her size. I noticed, too, that I was the only one in the cafeteria wearing khaki. Fortunately, Mr. Steve came through the cafeteria line and, catching my eye, joined me. “Ahem, ahem ….”
            Picking at his lunch, he began talking about his wife, Bronislava, whom I imagined as a short, square woman with a babushka and dust mop. Apparently she was seriously ill. Then he talked of his coming day off, which he planned to spend at the local park, a pathetic patch of green not far from the hospital that had once been the showplace of Bridgeport. But before our allotted half-hour was over, Mr. Steve excused himself, emptied his tray, and hurried off. He had to rouse the men from the locker room at exactly 12:30. On his way out, however, he stopped for a brief word with Mrs. O.
            Later that afternoon, relieved of Venetian blind duty, I followed Mr. Steve out a rear door of the hospital and across a narrow parking lot to a row of duplexes—housing for the resident doctors and their families. Several units were empty, awaiting new tenants, and I was to clean them in the meanwhile.
            “This is more like it,” I told myself. There was room to move—kitchens, hallways, bedrooms, baths—and windows to open for looking about. Mr. Steve issued me a scrub brush, pail, sponge, and jug of detergent, and demonstrated how to do the walls. I was not to touch the floors. The Mushka-Pushka Men would do the floors.
            After Mr. Steve left, my euphoria turned to depression. The apartments were filthy—grease on the ceilings, stains on the walls—and this was where the doctors lived! Bridgeport Hospital, as I would learn, was a teaching hospital, but unlike Massachusetts General and similar institutions, it could attract only foreign doctors for residencies and much of its staff. They came from Latin America, India, Turkey—the educated elite of their respective homelands—but if these empty apartments bore accurate witness, they had brought the squalor of their homelands with them.
            Later that summer I was sent to clean the dormitory of the unmarried male interns, a barracks-like arrangement on the hospital roof, where unshaven young men of all colors lay about on narrow cots, thick textbooks propped about them, small electric fans riffling the hot air. Not many were American, and it saddened me to see how they lived. But I was earning money for my own education, so … scrub, scrub, scrub.
            By the end of my second week in Housekeeping I had finished the apartments and returned my scrub brush to Mr. Steve, its bristles worn to the nub. He showed it, in turn, to Mrs. O. as she inspected the apartments, shaking her head and smiling sadly as if there were something I didn’t understand. She had given me that same sad smile my first day on the job when I answered “Yes” to her initial question: “Well, did you make all A’s?”
            What I didn’t understand was why the men of Housekeeping (the men of the
world?) hardly worked at all, but spent their days hiding in broom closets and toilet stalls, listening for the click of Mr. Steve’s heels. I had discovered that time passed quickly when I was busy, so I stood there like a soldier awaiting my next order.
            The following week Mrs. O. herself took me to an old, high-ceilinged ward that had been out of service for years. Removing the padlock from the heavy swinging doors, we pushed our way in. “This,” Mrs. O. announced in a rare moment of drama, “is going to be the new ICU.”
Bridgeport Hospital        Photo Credit Brian Smith
            Intensive Care Unit. Even with the initials translated, I couldn’t imagine anything
in that ward except a flophouse for the homeless. The yellowed shades were drawn on the
tall, narrow windows, cobwebs laced the overhead pipes like camouflage netting, U-
shaped metal rails, like shower-curtain rods, arched from the walls at head level, above empty spaces once occupied by beds. These rails were tilted and bent, the metal rusty.
At the far end of the ward a rickety scaffold of boards and pipes rose to the ceiling.
The abandoned ward was the cause of the vacancy that I’d filled. The former wallwasher had flatly refused to work there. But, Mrs. O. informed me quietly, as if to prevent my own defection, she was hiring a second wallwasher to help me. We were to “have at the ward,” and once we finished, the painters and plumbers would follow. It was a job that would take the rest of the summer.
The new wallwasher—Roberto—was a Puerto Rican about my own age. Born in Bridgeport, he knew English as well as Spanish, and he laughed readily when I told him the old joke about a Spaniard hearing the national anthem at his first baseball game: “José, can you see?” And suddenly I had a pal in Housekeeping.
Short and slim, Roberto was deceptively strong, and a good worker. He was
trying hard to grow a moustache—“to impress the señoritas”—and had a ripe sense of fun. Once, when I was perched on the very top of that rickety scaffold of boards and pipes, snapping a wet rag at cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling, a soapy sponge smacked the back of my neck. Ten minutes of wet warfare followed, after which—the boredom of our enormous task dispelled—we returned to work with renewed vigor.
Roberto made it easy for me to be in the locker room, which made the coffee breaks, finally, enjoyable. The turning point came soon after he was hired, at the expense of Lester Mirfin, the oldest man in Housekeeping, and, except for the Mushka-Pushka Men, one of the few whites. “Leslie,” as he was called, was a frail specimen whose job was to sweep the stairs about the hospital, which he did with a broom and long-handled shovel. I used to think that, if he ever had to bend over to do his job, he would never straighten up.
One day during the coffee break, slipping into the locker room after the crush of men that would have otherwise trampled him, Lester leaned against the doorframe and lit a cigarette as if it were his last.
“Hey, Leslie,” I called out, surprised by my own boldness. “Does your mother know you smoke?”
Roberto translated and the Puerto Ricans exploded with laughter, silencing the Mushka-Pushka Men at the table in the corner. The African-Americans laughed, too, confirming my status as one of the crew. . . .
I spent two more summers at Bridgeport Hospital, getting myself promoted to oxygen technician in Inhalation Therapy, where I wore a smart gray tunic and white duck trousers and assisted a doctor with pulmonary function tests. As it turned out, however, I would abandon pre-med during my sophomore year of college, discovering that I had no real love for the requisite sciences. But I did return to Bridgeport Hospital a few years later, driving in a panic all the way to Connecticut from Washington, D.C. to visit my father in the ICU—the very unit I had helped to establish as a wall-washer—where he’d been admitted with a blood clot on the lung.
I found him in an oxygen tent, looking shrunken and immensely old. And suddenly the hospital and everything to do with it seemed utterly foreign.

Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, Claude Clayton Smith is the author of a novel, two children’s books, and four books of creative nonfiction. He is also co-editor/translator of The Way of Kinship, an anthology of Native Siberian literature (University of Minnesota, 2010). His latest book is Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010). A native of Stratford, Connecticut, he holds a BA from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon. His work has been translated into five languages.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Faith and Hope

by Sheila Morris

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
---Hebrews, Chapter XI, Verse 1

            Whenever I speak on social justice issues, someone invariably asks me about my religious beliefs.  Some people opt for a subtle approach and others want to make sure I clearly understand their perspective.  Last year I participated in a panel discussion on memoir at a book festival in South Carolina, and the moderator called attention to the three authors’ different backgrounds, including a remark about my life as a lesbian activist.  Following our discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions.
            We took turns responding to typical inquiries regarding memoir as a genre, difficulties in the publishing world, and whether our books provided cathartic experiences for unresolved issues in our lives.  It was a lively interchange, and I enjoyed the questions and listening to the other panelists while I added my own opinions.  As time for our session was about to run out, the moderator asked for one final question for any author.  I saw a hand raised in the back of the auditorium, and a microphone was passed to a man who stood up and reached for it.
            I sensed this was my question before he said anything.  He was a tall man with vanishing silver hair and nicely dressed in dark pants, white shirt, and a tie that was an indistinguishable color from my seat onstage.  He did, indeed, direct his remarks to me.
            “Miss Morris, I was wondering how you reconcile your life with what the Bible says about homosexuality.  I know that God loves you, but He hates what you do.  Why don’t you change?”
            I was prepared for the question since it was a familiar one to me, but I paused to assess the restlessness of the audience before I spoke. Yep, everyone was ready to move on.
            “The few Bible passages that refer to homosexuality are typically taken out of context and require deeper discussions than we have time for here,” I said.        “Change is a word that implies choosing.  My life has involved many choices, but my being a lesbian is not one of them.  I’m not sure that anyone really knows how God feels about my life—including me.”
            You get the picture.  For those of you who ask these questions, and I think you know who you are, I want you to know that I appreciate your concerns.  I usually answer with as much candor and humor as time allows and direct the conversations to other topics.

            In real life, when time is not an excuse and levity and brevity beg the deeper questions, my journey of faith has no glib explanations.  I am surrounded by the ghosts of generations of family members who relied on their convictions about God during the difficulties they faced throughout their lives.  One of my eighty-three-year-old mother’s favorite sayings to this day is, “God is on His throne.  No matter what comes, we know that God is on His throne.”  This phrase comforts her in the confines of the Memory Care Unit where she lives and assures her that everyday problems are temporary and serve some greater purpose.  It also relieves her of any personal responsibility for outcomes that aren’t suitable.  It’s an expression she’s used frequently in her life when someone contradicts her opinions and she wants to end discussion.  After all, what else is there to say when she declares that an omnipresent and omnipotent Deity reigns over us?  In some deep inner place, my mother’s faith sustains her.
            Certainly this core belief system came partially from her mother, who lived a life of constant struggle as a single mother in the Great Depression.  Left with four children when her husband died, my grandmother waged wars against poverty and, ultimately, herself when she fought the more difficult battles of loneliness and depression.  A letter to her sister in 1954 following the death of their father illustrates her convictions that surely passed to my mother: “I know Papa has gone to heaven, and that is where I want to meet him.  The Old Devil gets a hold of me sometime.  I slap him off—and pray harder for the Lord to help me be a better Christian.  I realize more that I need the Lord every day, and I want to love the Lord more and try to serve Him better.  He alone can take away these heartaches of mine.  I want to have more faith in Him.  I have been so burdened, and I want to be happy.  Serving God and living for Him is the only plan.”
            My grandmother’s belief that faith was the only solution to the multitude of problems she faced and that there were higher levels of faith beyond her grasp was reinforced by the teachings of the little Southern Baptist church she attended every Sunday.  The sweat, and often, tears of pleading preachers for more trust and more commitment stirred their listeners' emotions and created an environment of permanent unworthiness, or as Paul writes in the New Testament, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans, Chapter III, Verse 23).  My grandmother’s efforts to “have more faith” included a daily ritual of reading Bible passages using the rudimentary skills she acquired during a schooling that was limited to a third-grade education.  I can still see the outline of her sagging body framed in light through the thin partition separating the kitchen from the enclosed porch that served as our bedroom while she sat at a small table and I lay in the darkness wishing she wouldn’t get up so early.  But, there she would be, struggling to read godly guidance in the ungodly hours before dawn so she could be dressed and ready to walk to work by 7:30 a.m. six days a week.
            Shockingly, my grandmother on my daddy’s side glossed over the deeper issues of faith in favor of a focus on hope.  You may remember the famous quotation from the Bible in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians: “In a word, there are three things that last forever, faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them is love.”  For this paternal grandmother, the greatest “thing” that lasted forever was hope.  She wasn’t concerned with the intricacies of faith nor did she exhibit excessive “love” toward others outside of her immediate family, but she attended the same Southern Baptist church faithfully every Sunday.  Her hope was for humor, however.  Her belief was that in every Sunday church service she could find something or someone—or, preferably, both—that she could use to entertain her family at the dinner table later.
The preacher was irreverently skewered on a regular basis.  “Brother Latham is such a handsome man, but his sermons bore me to tears.  Same old talk about sin every Sunday.  Everybody knows he’s against it by now.  He needs to come up with a new position or a new topic.  And, did you see those poor little children of his?  They look just like their mother, bless their hearts.  God didn’t answer any prayers there, if you ask me.”  The pious friends who seemed to take church so seriously were open season for my grandmother as well.  “Did you see old lady Shead?  Her face was twisted in such a tight knot it looked just like all that hair she has wadded up on her head.  She must have fifty hairpins holding it together.  She looked like God gave her some secret bad news this week, or maybe He put a burr up her butt.”  And she was off and running as my grandfather and I laughed hysterically at her assessment of our churchgoing experience.  No one, and nothing, was sacred at that table.  She was a woman in charge of her home and family and most of the conversations that took place within both.  I worshipped her.
            And so, this was the faith of my mothers.  The church was the teacher, the Bible the textbook, and the interpretations ranged from the holy to the inadvertently profane.  I listened and watched these women for as long as they lived and, throughout my childhood, absorbed their diverse values that blended with the Sunday school teachings and preaching of the Southern Baptist churches my family attended.  I learned to sift the messages and keep the ones that appeared to lessen my likelihood of going to hell when I died.
 Since I knew from the age of five or six that I had what the Bible called “unnatural affections,” I also understood the threat of eternal damnation that could be my fate, unless God wrought a miracle and transformed me from my evil thoughts and desires.  During my teen years I felt particularly wicked as I lusted after the girls in church and after my favorite female high school teachers.  In 1963, when I was seventeen and felt the flames of hell licking around me, I read a small pamphlet called a Statement of the Baptist Faith and Message.  I thought I had discovered my saving grace, a distinctive Baptist teaching called “the priesthood of the believer.”  While this doctrine produced volumes of theological intrigue, my simplistic interpretation at that point in my life was that no one stood between God and me.  What a relief.  No need for confessions to a priest or, necessarily, to trust the ravings of Baptist preachers.  I was redeemed.  It was a doctrine that kept me tied to the church and allowed me to censor its bad tidings for more than forty years.
It carried me to a Southern Baptist Seminary where I, rather ironically, had my first lesbian relationship when I was twenty-three years old, a seven-year relationship mired in our guilt and my infidelity.  It carried me to a small Southern Baptist church where I had a lesbian affair with a married woman who was the Youth Director and another one with the preacher’s wife.  God and I didn’t consider this to be adultery.
            To say that my faith odyssey took a zigzag somewhere during the past fifty years is an understatement.  With a genealogy of six generations of Southern Baptists and a family tree that includes a great-great-great-grandfather who was a minister during the Civil War in a rural North Carolina Baptist church, it's no surprise that I surrendered wholeheartedly to the faith of my forefathers.  I served as a minister of music and youth for five years in two Southern Baptist churches in South Carolina in the 1970s.  Even after leaving the ministry, I continued my membership in the church and its music programs for more than twenty years.  As the Southern Baptist denomination abandoned the doctrine that supported direct communication between the believer and Creator in favor of a collective acquiescence to a pervasive ultra-conservative leadership that led to the restructuring of its institutions of higher learning in the 1970s and '80s, I stayed.  When the boundaries between church and state blurred and the denomination took right-wing political bent, I stayed.  When the sermons of the ministers in the churches became a royal proclamation of morality as they and their leaders deemed it in the 1980s and '90s, I knew my favorite doctrine was in trouble, but I stayed.  Yet, eventually, that faith turned to heretical unorthodoxy—a seismic shift in my core belief system.  Why?
            My work as a paid staff person exposed me to the inner power struggles of church leaders and the budget requirements of doing “something great for God,” as one minister explained to me in the midst of a burgeoning capital campaign.  I overlooked the hypocrisy of rancorous Wednesday night business meetings with the harmonious Sunday worship services.  After all, the music was what God and I had in common.  I didn’t forgive the preachers for their tirades against homosexuals, but I ignored them because God and I knew better.  The “priesthood of the believer” was such a comfort—until it wasn’t.  I was forever changed by a personnel matter, a blip on the radar screen of Important Events.  When the church pianist, a close personal friend, was fired for being gay, I ran out of excuses for God and me.  If God didn’t want my friend, I was sure He didn’t want me, and the feeling was mutual.  I was done.
Charting that journey on a blackboard entails an array of colored chalk that begins with white for the innocence of childish trust to green for the color of money in the church to red for the anger of betrayal by believers to gray for the edges of doubt and disbelief in the Deity of my mother.  “God” and “throne” are words that summon visions of clouds and enormous golden chairs from a Cleopatra movie in the '60s—not a bad image, but not a convincing one either.  My maternal grandmother’s duel with the Devil also evokes strong feelings for me, but they are feelings of sadness for her inability to achieve that higher level of trust she desperately wanted.  She never could be quite good enough, and I can’t believe in a Deity that inspires fear and irrational guilt.  As for my dad’s mother, her irreverence was an early confirmation for me of my introduction to the doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer” and gave me permission to begin to overcome feelings of shame when I faced the puzzles of sexual identity that were my life.  My grandmother definitely had a unique relationship with her God.  Her words and sense of humor helped free me from the somber sermons of damnation in my youth and encouraged me to think for myself.  I wonder if she knew.
 All paths lead somewhere, and mine returns to where the journey began.  My faith is in the rising and setting of the sun each day—with hope that I’ll live to see them, and with love for the laughter that makes each day worth living. 
Sheila Morris was born and raised in rural Grimes County, Texas and describes herself as an essayist with humorist tendencies.   She is the author of two memoirs, Deep in the Heart – A Memoir of Love and Longing and Not Quite the Same. She and her partner Teresa live with their four dogs in South Carolina and Texas.   Her author’s website is

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Strange Truths

by Aimee Henkel
We shared a ward together, he and I; the kind of place you find homeless junkies, schizophrenics, shell-shocked wanderers, drug abusers. They called it a dual-diagnosis unit. The hospital complex was in the center of Westchester, NY, across the street from Macy’s and the Galleria. I could see it from the windows. It was beautifully kept: emerald lawns, pearly white buildings with bright red roofs, lots of flowers and shrubbery. Inside, our ward was septic, strange. There was a padded cell in detox. The night I arrived, they brought in a pregnant heroin addict who screamed for eight hours straight. No one slept. We stood at the edge of our doorways in the dimmed halogen lights and watched the door, listening to her scream. Every hour or so an orderly or a nurse would go in and through the brief opening we’d see the poor thing on the floor, curved around her belly, her legs kicking.
It was a locked mental ward. Orderlies watched our every move.  Doors locked automatically from the outside. There were call buttons on the walls and “take down” lights on the ceilings. There were doctor’s rounds each morning: three white coated men asked questions, nodded with the answers, and wrote them down. There were meds, lots and lots of meds. And then there were the people. My roommate was a prostitute from Yonkers who had three kids, all of whom she lost to Child Protective Services. She had no idea where they were. She was on a lot of Thorazine, and she was touchy. The food made us all gassy, and she was particularly offended by the smell of her co-patients on the ward.  Other people came and went, some to other parts of the hospital, others just refused treatment.
James wasn’t the kind of person who belonged in that kind of rehab, although it was clear he was an alcoholic. He was the kind of guy I liked: jolly, open, friendly. Short and squat, he was Italian and Irish, his face pocked with little scars I assumed were acne or early chicken pox. He wore a moustache and I wondered what his face looked like without it. He was rotund, which I figured was from all the liquor, but then, I didn’t know much about his life before he got there.
We connected right away. He smiled and joked with everyone, but we shared a strange sense of humor. Being the only alcoholics on the ward, it was easy to latch on to each other, somewhat like drowning cats to a stick of wood. Outside during smoke breaks, we talked, but he was reserved. He listened to me, wanted to know what my life had been like before rehab, was I with someone—all that. It was easy to tell him my girlfriend was in the eating disorder ward across the quad and that we had been nude strippers together until she tried to kill me.  That I had graduated from NYU summa cum laude, and worked as a corporate writer until the booze got me. My best idea had been to take my clothes off for money so I could drink full time. It was like letting my breath go. The strange part about telling him all of that was he understood. He got that I wanted to drink all the time and that I wanted nothing more to do with men. I told him I wasn’t going to drink again ever. Just for that day.
He agreed with me. We had a lot to agree upon. When the Narcotics Anonymous speaker came and admitted he woke up one morning with another man, who said to him: “Good morning, papi,” we laughed so hard we cried. And when we had to pretend we were animals in therapy, we egged each other on because someone willing to stay clean and sober “would do anything.”  And when we were finally allowed out to roam the grounds, he told me about his English bulldog that had to be delivered by Cesarean section because their heads were so big, they couldn’t be delivered naturally anymore. I wondered if eventually that would be true of people; would our heads be so big that no one would have vaginal births? He didn’t answer.
He and I liked to play trivial pursuit, although he was much better than I. We sat around the day room at night, the summer Olympics blaring, while he beat me over and over. The only questions I got right were entertainment. I was terrible at history, sports, geography. We were inspired that summer, watching the athletes struggle and win. Working as hard as we were during the day, trying to get it right: the steps, the therapy, the family entanglements, the reasons, reasons, reasons; these nights were part of a routine I needed more than anything else. We joked and teased, and nothing got too serious.  Until the therapists got serious about us.
I was called into the head counselor’s office on a Thursday. I remember because it was AA day, and we always liked their speakers.
“You and James are too close.” She said, opening my file. She wrote something in it and I thought for sure I was going to be thrown out. I wondered if it was anything like getting suspended from high school. Would I have to do this all over again if I was? “You two need to separate. His treatment isn’t going to work if he can get out of himself with you.”
I looked at her as if she had two heads. I thought his treatment was going just fine.
“No. He needs to address what happened.”
“What happened?” I asked. This was a new element in our relationship. What hadn’t he told me?
“James was married up until a year ago. Then his daughter died.”
“You’re kidding?”  I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t tell me about this. “How did she die?”
“He and his wife had been out at a party, drinking, and they forgot to close the baby gate all the way.  She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Died instantly.”
“He had a daughter?”
The therapist nodded and closed my file. “You two need to separate.”
“But I need to talk to him about this. It’s not fair he didn’t tell me.” I think I cried then. “I told him everything.”
“Good distraction for him, I guess. Being a stripper and all.” She raised an eyebrow at me, kind of smirked. I didn’t like that little observation one bit.
I left her office with strict instructions not to talk to him. It seemed strange, to know so much about a person, who they were, what made them laugh, what sports they liked, what they did for a living, and not know about the hole in their lives. It was as if he had danced around it in every conversation. There had always been something but I never knew what it was; words on the edge of his tongue, a thought never expressed. Perhaps he had wanted to tell me, but I hadn’t let him get a word in edgewise. I beat myself up for not knowing, not giving him the room to say the words.
That afternoon, he must have gotten his talking to as well. He didn’t avoid me at dinner, just sat two seats away instead of next to me. I leaned over and asked to talk to him on the walk back.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Tell you what?” He smiled and handed me a necklace he’d bought me from the gift shop that morning.
“About your daughter.”
He looked crushed. The person I knew disappeared in an instant; his expression collapsed. “She fell.”
“She went down the stairs. She was two. Our townhouse had steep stairs. She got up in the middle of the night, fell and broke her neck. I don’t know who forgot to close the gate. I think it was me.”
“Oh my God.”  I cried then. At the time, I was sad for him, because of the broken expression, the empty eyes. The jolly man I had known was gone.  But later, I realized I had known something else. He would never stop drinking.  We knew it then, but neither one of us had the courage to say it.
All of a sudden an orderly was between us. “Let’s get going.”
He was discharged a week later. We tried to laugh, make jokes, but they fell flat. Nothing was funny, now that we had to face the real world. I never saw him again, although fifteen years later I can still see him saying: “I don’t know who forgot to close the gate. I think it was me.”  I want to believe he got sober, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I’ll never know. And that’s how it is sometimes when you stay clean this long; you learn to live without knowing.

Aimee Henkel studied fiction and poetry at New York University, Manhattanville's MFA program, and the Sleepy Hollow Writer's project. In a previous life she was a corporate communications professional, published anonymously in national and local newspapers and trade journals. In her current incarnation as a writer of fiction and poetry, she has been published in Poetry Motel, Beginnings, and most recently,