April 17, 2014
*This is a series of semi-biographical short stories. I have taken creative liberty with my memories and there will be some aspects which are completely fictionalized. The point is not to share the absolute PHYSICAL truth, but to portray the EMOTIONAL truth. To gain knowledge of how another human being feels on the inside is the only truth that really matters*
“To Wash It All Away [7-7-13]”
The stench was unreal. It illuminated the much-too-small bathroom like a soiled blanket, filling my nostrils and throat as it engraved the stale air. This is how she came into my life. Disheveled and fierce, like a wild animal, who had been forced into submission one too many times.
She sat on the accessible toilet to provide enough room for us both. Near her dirty feet lay a pile of urine-soaked clothing—a pair of blue jeans with an elastic waist, lavender panties, a pair of socks—one ankle and one high top—which seemed fitting, come to think of it. I moved toward her with a wad of toilet paper clenched within my fist, bracing myself against her alarming energy. Her hand shot between her bare legs. “I got shit on me,” she cried, just before frantically smearing the source of the foul odor across her thighs. Her long, thin fingers had painted over her spider veins and aged scars with this new, fresh layer of shit.
I tried to calm her; I tried to tell her everything would be okay. I pleaded with her, but my words were too foreign. “It’s no big deal,” I told her reassuringly.
“Please, just let me help you clean up…”
“I WANT OUT! LET ME OUUUUT!” she roared, over and over. Her voice was strong, yet held no balance. She felt rage; she felt fear; she felt true suffocation, almost as if that tiny stall had coiled itself around her neck, pressing tightly against her vibrating vocal chords. “I promise,” I spoke to her slowly, “it’s going to be okay.” She suddenly ripped off her T-shirt and sports bra as she swiftly jumped from the stained toilet seat. Her voice, still echoing, slashed through the fumes in the small institutional bathroom. She began to charge toward the door with only me in her way. In her eyes, I held her captive.
I repeatedly yelled down the empty hallway for assistance, struggling to block the door and dodge her hands at the same time, which were still caked with feces, flailing in all directions. Courtney, one of my coworkers came to a halt beside me, out of breath. Her mouth now parted in disbelief as she peered in at the mess, trying to get a grip on the obvious.
“Oh, fuck,” she whispered, “is that…”
It was everywhere. It was in her hair. It was on her pale belly. It traced its way along her forearms. It attached itself with purpose upon the bottoms of her filthy feet, making its way across the cold tile floor, giving it access to squeeze in between the sealed cracks. Her fingertips applied it to the safety railing and then to the swinging, polymerized stall door. Her hands danced across the white, claustrophobic stone walls.
“Yeah, we had an accident, ” I finally replied, trying to muster a smile without taking my eyes off the hysterical creature who had been placed under my responsibility. At this moment, standing before her, I didn’t see a woman. She was old enough to be my mother, yes, but she was a rattled child. She was locked in a world full of pretentious, overpowering adults. She had known men with vile, red-blood coursing through every vessel in their repulsive bodies. A situation like this was nothing new to her. This was her life and she knew it well.
She never missed a beat as she continued to sing in repetition: “I WANT OUT!” “OUUUUT!” “LET ME OUUUUT!”
I ran for more help while Courtney tried to keep her from leaving the bathroom. Rebecca, our second shift RN, had been buried in clinical charts when I burst into her office, informing her of the chaos which had erupted on my end of the building.
She gave a halfhearted laugh. Standing from her endless paperwork, shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh, expecting to find the worst. Rebecca locked up the exam room and we hurried back in the direction of my hall, crossing the entryway where Morgan, the switchboard operator, was stationed. Morgan was amused by the way I had always handled the unexpected.
“So, chick, do you still love your job?” she jokingly asked.
“Always,” I replied as Rebecca and I passed her. She began to laugh and I spun back around, holding up my middle finger, making her laugh even harder. Morgan was one of the only friends I had in that place. She never understood my ways—no one did—but her jokes were different from the ones made by everyone else.
We could already hear the woman’s elevated screams before we even reached the hall. “Thank God!” Courtney exclaimed when she saw us approaching. The last thing she wanted was to be touched by shitty hands. Her manicured nails and well painted face was too good for that.
The three of us knew a shower was the first thing we had to take care of, we also knew this could bring quite a few challenges. Courtney stood to the woman’s left and me on her right, and we started to guide her as quickly as we could toward the door Rebecca held open.
“LEAVE ME ALOOOOONE!” she cried, jerking her arms above her head and adding more feces to the grimy tile as she dropped herself to the floor. “I WANT OUUUT! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Courtney and I locked our arms back in place under her armpits as we began again. Rebecca moved before us to shut our hall door—which shown straight to the men’s end—before the woman’s naked, streaked body, flew out into the open. Her movement—both graceful and dramatic—was almost beautiful in its own painfully sad way. It was like she was consumed by a fire that she had spent her entire life trying to put out. Maybe that was how she felt—like she was stuck in a blazing fire and we were were the ones fueling it.
Halfway to our destination, Courtney suddenly let go of the woman, holding her hands out in front of her like a shield.
“Ewww!” she shrieked. “Oh my God!”
“Did she touch me? This is so disgusting…”
I moved my hands above those of the woman, placing my fingers around her bony wrists, no larger than my own. Courtney moved to stand behind her left shoulder, placing her hands at the woman’s sides.
“Oh boy,” was all Rebecca could say as she stood on the inside of the shower room, once again playing door-keeper for us as we bustled the woman in.
I immediately re-entered the hall, heading to the woman’s newly acquired room. I flicked on the blinding florescent lights, flung open the double doors of her wardrobe, and searched for the plastic-tub which should have held the products we needed. It had been carelessly thrown to the back, where half of its contents were randomly strewn about, while the other half was missing. Grabbing only her shampoo, I left the spillage and switched to the matching dresser. I yanked opened the top drawer, which housed a few dingy pairs of underwear, one fuzzy green sock and three pull-ups. I reached for the least ragged pair of her Fruit of the Loom panties, then slammed the drawer, moving to the second, choosing the first nightgown I came to.
After stepping out of the room, I saw the girl assigned to work on that hall. She sat in the living room, staring at the phone held in front of her face, BET blaring in the background. I called out to her, advising that she escort the ladies to a different bathroom if needed and not to let them near our end of the hall. She nodded her head, never looking up from the screen which held her attention.
By the time I had made it back to the shower room, the woman was back on the floor, still screaming her same lines in repetition. Rebecca turned toward me. “We’re going to have to stand and move her to the shower, but be careful with her hands,” she warned. “She got me just a minute ago.” She raised the left sleeve of her fitted scrub top, exposing two red marks—one of which had broken her skin, providing a portal for the little beads of blood that had already started to surface.
I felt nervous about the way the woman flung her body as she did. It was only a matter of time before she would end up smashing her head against the tile, or concrete wall. I sat down behind her, on my knees, attempting to provide support to her head as Rebecca and Courtney grabbed beneath her arms, preparing to lift her again, despite her resistance. We only needed to move her a couple of feet. In one swift motion, the three of us shifted her into the shower area.
“You’re not my mama anymore! I hate you! I hate you!” she continued to scream. “LEAVE ME ALOOONE! I want my daddy! LEAVE ME ALONE!” She was now curled in the fetal position, desperately wanting it all to stop—she wanted to crawl into herself, to sink through the floor, below our feet. She wanted to become invisible. She lay there, this woman—still covered in her own feces— her chest rising and falling with a quickened beat. She didn’t understand why we were doing this to her; she didn’t understand why everyone always did this to her.
Reaching for the extended shower-head, Rebecca turned the knob to red as far as it would go. She held it away from the woman to make sure it was warm. Courtney placed a stack of bath cloths into reach. We wanted this to be quick.
As soon as the woman felt water grace her body, she lunged forward. Her words had stopped. Now you could only make out her desperate screams. She screamed as if she was in agonizing pain. She screamed as if each drop of water pierced her skin like a blade.
Courtney took the bottle of Herbal Essence shampoo and distributed it along the woman’s naked body, onto the top of her head, down the backs of her shoulders. I positioned myself behind her-as I had done before-this time letting her back beat against me rather than the hard surrounding surfaces.
Feces began to descend from her shaken body and onto the floor below us. It swirled amongst the dirty water and soap. I watched the pieces of shit as their pace began to ease. I watched as they were sucked onto the drain cover. I watched as they tried to follow the rest of the filth, struggling, without success, to escape. I watched as some of the shit refused to let go of the woman’s skin.
She began to swing her arms a forceful motion. I grabbed hold of her hands, wiped them clean and held them, best in could, within mine. Courtney scrubbed the woman’s hair. She then ran a bath cloth vigorously across the woman’s shoulders, down her back, under her arms, along her forearms. She moved the cloth swiftly across the woman’s chest, stomach, calves and feet. No one wanted to approach her from the front. Rebecca aimed the shower-head toward the woman’s thighs and between her legs, but it was still on her.
With the woman upright and more stable, I moved from my spot and took Courtney’s lathered cloth. Courtney now guarded the woman’s hands and arms while Rebecca continued to direct the water. I carefully eased myself in front of the woman’s body and bent down at an even level, still trying to keep a distance between the two of us. I started at her thighs—running the bath cloth along the top of them, then her inner thighs, washing her body clean, one place at a time. I asked Rebecca for another cloth, handing her the ruined one.
“I hate you! You’re not my mama anymore!” she started again. “LEAVE ME ALOOOONE!” and with that, the woman shook herself loose from Courtney’s reach and began to weave her fingers, each one now pruned, through my hair. She was angry. She told us to stop and we didn’t. She just wanted it all to end.
She clenched her two fists, with all her might, onto either side of my head, half pulling, half pushing the bones of her knuckles into my skull. We were both sprawled across the shower floor, my body directly on top of hers. I leaned into the woman’s grip, the right side of my face pressed tightly against her breasts.
“The water! Stop! Cut it off!” I incoherently yelled to Rebecca.
“No, cut the water off!”
Water ran from my head, down into my ears, eyes, nose and mouth. I felt as if I would drown as the woman held me there in her naked embrace, both of us laying drenched on the cold shower floor. The woman must have felt this, too, I think.
In the midst of the excitement, Rebecca had aimed toward the back of my head, forgetting she was the one in control. “Oh goodness!” she said, panicking to switch the shower knob to the off position. “I’m so, so sorry!”
One finger at a time, they pried open the woman’s hands and separated my hair from her fists. Courtney extended her arm in my direction, helping me to stand.
The woman stayed there on the soaking wet floor. She was alone again. When I looked at her, I saw the same child as I had seen when this all started and I hated myself for it. I hated everyone who had ever hurt her. I wanted to wrap her up and somehow make her feel safe; I wanted to love her for the emotional pain she felt—the pain that haunted her and continually seeped from her pores because I, too, knew how that felt. Her pain was like those stubborn pieces of shit—you couldn’t just wash that kind of filth from your body without also receiving lacerations on the inside.
After making a trip home for a fresh shower and a dry change of clothes, I arrived back to work at 9 o’clock, with only an hour and a half left. Morgan stared at me with curiosity as I neared the entrance. I just laughed and shook my head. “It could have been worse,” I said, replying to the question I knew she was dying to ask aloud.
I eased open the woman’s door—she was dressed in her kitten nightgown, snoring softly. Inside of the darkness, Courtney and two other workers were talking to each other. Most of our men and women were asleep by then, which gave a lot freedom to the workers—as long as they had a place to hide, I mean.
Assuming they would leave since the woman had been assigned to me, I crossed to a vacant corner. The three of them only glanced at me. It was like them to prefer her room now that the screams had stopped. That was the only time they could stand to be around her—when she was silent.
I sat down on one of the bedside tables, and leaned against the wall, closing my eyes and pressing the back of my still damp head against the coolness of the concrete. I sat there for a moment like this until I heard the workers laughing. I didn’t think anything of it at first, and wouldn’t have, had I not heard one of them mention Miss Johnson, another one of our patients, who lay asleep several rooms away from us.
They were laughing about something that had happened to her earlier that day. They were laughing about how one of them made her cry. She had sat outside in her wheelchair, along with everyone else, waiting for the bus to carry them to dinner. She was an 83 years old woman who had a soft-nature and was very timid. She was always adamant about keeping her jacket on—it was a type of survival mechanism for her—but no one cared about that. She didn’t want anyone to take away the few possessions she had, so she kept them with her. It was that simple.
This worker was a condescending woman, not much older than myself, with skin the color of bitter chocolate and red braids swirled upon her head. She had made Miss Johnson remove her jacket. She raised her voice and ordered Miss Johnson to do as she said. Miss Johnson did what she was instructed to do, moving her lips, unable to form the words to match how she felt. Miss Johnson had tears rolling down the blemishes and wrinkles of her kind, aging face as she struggled to pull her frail arms out of the thick sleeves. This is what they laughed at.
I stood from the table, tried to compose myself, and stepped toward them. The ringleader, the one with the red braids, didn’t give a damn about the people she had vowed to provide with care. The bitch didn’t give a damn about the suffering that any of them felt.
“How dare you!” I said furiously. “How dare you mock her as if she’s completely worthless!”
She crossed her arms and smirked. Her eyes looked me up and down, judging me inch by inch. “How would you feel,” she asked, “if that had of been your grandmother out there?”
“What if she had had a heat stroke?” she continued. “Wouldn’t you want someone to keep her from getting too hot? Wouldn’t you want her to take her jacket off?”
“I guess I don’t speak to my grandmother the way you do yours,” I replied as calmly as I could. “There’s nothing funny about making an old woman cry. You can’t justify something as damaging as what you did to her.”
She came toward me, stopping right in front of me. She looked me hard in the eyes, showing the amount of disgust she felt toward my presence. “That’s exactly why you got your ass beat in that shower,” she said slowly. “You’re too fucking sensitive.” I could feel her hot breath as she began laughing, with satisfaction, right in my face. She shook her head and continued to laugh as she walked across the room, out of the door, followed by her two friends.
As I stood there, the numbness sinking deeper into my body, I looked over at the woman. She was still snoring, curled up under her pink polka-dotted comforter, completely oblivious. She was perfect—this woman—now that she had finally escaped her reality. I watched as she lay there, cradled in this dreamless sleep, knowing for the next few hours, the world would no longer exist for her. She was at peace and that was all she wanted. That was all she had ever wanted.
“Do Not Be Afraid, For I Will Protect You”
“Do not be afraid, for I will protect you. I call you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I am with you; when you pass through the streams, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not harm you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.”
We didn’t always have bad days—Jenny and me…
That was her name. Jenny. We had just finished singing her favorite song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed-Reindeer”—which we did frequently—when the giggling finally started to subside. For quite some time, Jenny lay curled up in bed, with her brows furrowed, not saying a word. Her moods, when solemn like this, always took me by surprise. Seeing how badly she wanted to understand her thoughts and emotions sent a pain into my own heart.
Speech showing great care, she finally spoke again:
“Mama?” she called out to me, as it was a title all women on staff were christened with. “Can I ask you something?”
“Oh course!” I replied.
“Why… why do people die?”
Why do people die? I felt like time had stopped around us. It was only she and I in this moment. We were both afraid in ways the other would never comprehend. I wanted to help her understand that it was okay to believe in beauty rather than fear:
“That’s just a part of life, I’m afraid…”
“Well, at first, everyone starts off as a baby—I did, you did—and each year we all get a little older… Like when you have your birthday! But then one day, after we’ve lived our lives and we’ve used up all of our birthdays, each of us will have to die, but dying isn’t a bad thing.”
“Will I die, too?”
“One day you will… But not for a long time.” I replied, taken aback even more by the seriousness of her question. “You’re going to be a very old lady before you die.”
She contemplated my response for a moment, then asked: “Will I die and go to Heaven?”
“When it’s your time, I promise, you will go to Heaven. You just continue to be as kind as you know how to be, okay? Just try really hard to always be a sweet girl and never, ever worry about the rest. You are so loved by Jesus already. Nothing else matters. The bad people are the ones who aren’t allowed into Heaven and you, most certainly, are not a bad person.”
“But I’m scared…”
I got up from my chair, just a few feet away, and knelt down next to her bed.
“I know you are, and it’s okay to be scared, because it scares me too sometimes. I think most people are at least a little afraid.”
“But you don’t have to be,” I reassured her. “When you die, you will go to Heaven and you will be so happy! Do you know why?”
“Why?” she asked, as her jade green eyes, full of complexity, bore into mine. With those eyes—I still wonder—what all had they witnessed during her life? What all had been forced upon her? How many times had she clenched them shut to block out the horror of the world around her?
I only hoped she wouldn’t sense the depth of my own fear and confusion as I searched desperately, within myself, to find the right words. I brushed the loose strands of auburn and gray hair away from her face, tucking each one behind her ears
“Because Heaven is a perfect place,” I said to her. “You see… that’s what makes it so special. You will never feel sad there because once you’re in Heaven, no one will be able to hurt you ever again.”
“Did you know that?” I asked.
She shook her head no.
“It’s true because once you’re there, God will protect you. He’s going to make it to where the bad stuff won’t be able to find you anymore. And, guess what else…”
“What?” she asked, her eyes lighting up a little.
“In Heaven, every day will feel like your birthday, but even better! And, I bet God never runs out of chocolate cake, either!” I said, tapping her nose with my finger, pushing her back into her fit of giggles.”It does sound pretty cool, huh?”
For Jenny, it was as if her heavy thoughts evaporated just as quickly as they came, while I was left, still trapped, under all of the weight—a weight that returns each time I think of how her voice sounded that day. The hint of sadness it held hit me in a way that I had never before experienced. I wanted to make her see that this life was not all she had to look forward to. I wanted her to know that one day, her wounds would heal and she would gain control over her past. I wanted her to believe that one day, she would be able to feel as if she were enough.
For the first time in years, I forced myself to speak aloud about God. I forced myself because she needed me to. The one thing that could soothe her, was the one thing I feared most—a fear I had tried my hardest to hide. It took all I had to fight back my desire to lower myself to her bedroom floor and crawl within my own uncertainties. I often wonder about the connection made between the two of us on that day—who was it truly meant for—Jenny or myself?
“Secrets From the Past”
We sat off to the side in the living-room, as it was the easiest way, when needed, for me to keep her calm. At times, it was also a good idea to provide a safe distance between her and the other patients. I remained close as she slumped down into her usual rocking chair, her knees drawn to her chin. She stared blankly ahead as the television screen flashed again and again.
My co-worker, Ty, sat alone at one of the tables, absent-mindedly flipping through channels. Though the patients would have preferred cartoons, she settled on BET before tossing the remote aside, making her final choice clear.
“Why are they doing that?” Jenny asked. “That’s bad! Where are her clothes?” she started to yell.
On the screen, a man and a woman were lying together in bed. The man was on top of the woman’s body, his mouth pressed against her skin. The volume of the woman’s breathing flowed rhythmically through the speakers. It was a sound that demanded to be felt as much as heard. It was an emotion that forcefully wrapped itself around the soul, as it reviled: Don’t you remember our secret? Don’t you remember? Keep your fucking mouth shut, bitch! I said don’t move, you fucking bitch! Don’t you remember? You do remember, don’t you?
“She has her nightgown on. You just can’t see because she’s under the covers,” I said, lying.
“I don’t want to watch this,” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head.
“Well, good! I don’t either. How about we go to your room?”
“Okay, mama,” she said, as she gave her husky laugh and rubbed her hands together, as she often did when excited.
“You’re a silly girl!” I told her. She continued laughing as we both stood to leave the room. I grabbed her hand and we walked, swinging our arms back and forth, all the way down the hall.
Jenny’s room was the last one on the right. Each room held two beds, though she was the only one without a roommate. Most days it was just the two of us. Most days I think we both liked it best that way.
She crawled onto her bed to reach for Annie, one of her favorite baby-doll’s. She held Annie out in front of her, giggling as she made her dance through the air. “Look Tammy!” she said, between her laughter. Jenny never called me by my real name. When she wasn’t calling me ‘mama’, it was ‘Tammy’. I was her Tammy—even from the very beginning. I belonged to her and her alone. Everyone knew this.
Jenny sat up on the side of her bed and grew quiet.
“My daddy made me take my clothes off. That’s not nice, is it, mama?” she asked, a few minutes after she had settled down. Her words still echo in my mind, That’s not nice, is it, mama?
I sat down next to her on the bed. I leaned against her shoulder with mine. “No, you’re right, Jenny,” I said. “That was a very ugly thing for him to do.”
I fed her these words, knowing I could never free her from this burden. No one will ever be able to, as no one will ever be able to do so for me. It was clear what ran through Jenny’s mind when she saw those naked bodies moving across the screen because it was the same thing that went through mine. Both she and I had been held down and branded by people we trusted most. If only she knew just how much I understood her fears. If only she knew I too shared her same scars.
We belong to this shit-hole, Jenny and I. A shit-hole that bloodies our fingers each time we try to crawl out. She and I walk through life with our blood stained fingertips because once you’re forced into this place, you can’t just leave. We will never leave. But we will never give up our fight, either.
“I don’t like that. Why did my daddy do that?”
“Oh, baby… I know you didn’t like any of it. But none of that stuff had anything to do with you, okay? Your daddy,” I started, “your daddy—he’s just not a good man and I wish I could make all of the things he did to you go away…”
But you know as long as you’re here, you don’t have to worry about that happening, right? I would ask, knowing it made no difference.
Yes, mama, she would respond. It was always yes, mama.