In which Jane's past meets her present.
(read previous chapters here.)
Mrs. Helston passed through heart surgery with flying colors and was promoted out of the ICU in record time. A real trooper, the surgeon said. It takes a lot to impress a cardiothoracic surgeon. I hear Mrs. Helston eliciting Grace’s bubbling laughter when I arrive. Christie sits at the desk wearing her usual glower.
“So you saved that woman’s life last night. Look at you go.”
“The surgeon saved her life.”
“What I heard is he wouldn’t have discovered the aorta fast enough going through all the checks. Your little insight sped things up just enough to get her stable in time. Maybe they’ll create a new award: Savior of the Month. Then you can have your picture up twice.”
“Did you have a chance to finish Libertines on Trial last night?”
Christie turns pale. “Don’t talk about that here. Are you crazy? I don’t watch that show. I was just passing the time on Facebook and happened to see it.”
I smile like I’m keeping a secret. It’s so rare to see Christie embarrassed I can’t help but toy. In actuality I’m crabby and can’t wait for Christie and her bad attitude to vamoose before I tell her what I really think of her. Last night I slept on the couch in the living room with blinds that don’t keep all the light out because I found a spider in my bedroom, fuzzy and black, its body the size and perfect roundness of a quarter. After I recovered my scare enough to attempt to kill it, I was too slow and it dodged my shoe and made for the bed, hiding in the clutter of storage. There was no way I was going in after it, thus there was no way I was sleeping in the bedroom.
In order to keep up the façade of my good mood, I try to decide if my fear of spiders outweighs Christie’s fear of being found out as one of those Trial fans who secretly like the violence. They could care less about the Vanguard’s mission of purifying America. These fans grew up watching the Saw series and its copy cats. Violence as entertainment.
Another of Grace’s infectious giggles ruptures out the open door of Mrs. Helston’s room.
Christie rolls her eyes. “She’s been in there for like, half an hour. I wouldn’t be that talkative if I’d nearly died last night.”
“Did her sons make it in to see her?” Part of rocking the ‘I’m in a good mood’ thing is being able to ask this question like it’s a normal question without revealing any of the very important implications the answer could have on my twilight zone, sleep deprived, psyche.
“No visitors, just lots of flowers. I think every time she makes a phone call to tell a friend the story, another delivery shows up. How do you know she has sons?”
“I called the emergency contact last night in case the OR forgot.”
“How nice of you. You could probably run this whole hospital single handedly, couldn’t you? Grace will fill you in. I’ve gotta run.”
I listen to Brooke nearly run into Christie at the elevator.
Brooke thinks she’s coming down with ‘something.’ On the desk, she lays out an impressive array of drugs to fortify her for the night ahead: antacids, anti-nauseas, Dayquil, Advil, the works.
“I guess Grace doesn’t have to rush off to the daycare today?”
I shrug. Every department in the hospital I’ve run into someone who has this attitude about Grace, a kind of condescension that isn’t commonly used among coworkers unless the audience is a gossip clique with condescension as their career goal.
Leaving Brooke in charge of the desk, I enter Mrs. Helston’s room, announcing myself with a knock on the doorframe. Despite a few new lines of tubing running through her gown, Mrs. Helston looks remarkably well, energetic, and ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound as soon as her leg is out of its cast. Actually, I wouldn’t put it past her to make an attempt with it on.
Grace checks the monitors and charts vitals, setting the record for the longest vitals check in the history of modern medicine. The good thing she likes me, and knows I’m not bothered if she takes her time, especially since she’s off the clock.
“Look who it is! My savior. Do you want to come look at my battle scars? I’m told they put staples in the sternum after they sawed it open.” Mrs. Helston unties the top of her gown so I can look at the fat square of bandages on her chest. This woman is comfortable with her body. She’s also high on painkillers.
Grace beams at me over the clipboard. “Jane, it’s been ages. Have you seen Shayla at all? You know she stopped coming to Bible study.”
“I was just telling Grace what an exciting night we had. I can’t even remember what we were talking about when I went out. Did I tell you how much I like your necklace? You must wear it every day.”
“It’s a nice necklace,” says Grace, reaching forward to touch one of the beads. “Hey, speaking of which I have a new phone so I need your picture for when you call. Don’t say no. You look great today so it’s not like it’s going to be a bad picture.” She whips her phone out, poised to point and click before I manage to protest.
Grace bubbles. She’s like a fountain of bubbles. At first you think it’s amazing to find someone so excited to know you. After that you remember bubbles are gobs of trapped air ready to pop at any moment, fragile, dangerously-emotional for people like me who like to keep things on an even keel. I’ve known Grace three years. I’ve seen her cry over a dozen times. This is Grace, zero to sixty in less than a minute.
In our small group Bible study, some of her story came out. She left an abusive marriage to be a single mom. At some point she lived in her car for a month because she couldn’t afford rent. The church’s Mission to the Homeless saved her. The fastest way to becoming friends with Hope is to tell her you love Jesus, too.
“How’s the leg?” I do a cursory check on the toes and upper thigh for circulation.
“Can’t really feel much of anything. Hopefully that fucking doctor wasn’t putting the gloss on when he said I’d be as good as new in three months. One gimp in the family is enough.”
Fucking. When a pleasant, older woman wants to make an impression that’s a good word to use. When I return to the desk I discretely look up the name of the surgeon, just so I’ll know for future reference.
“So about Shayla. She just dropped off the face of the earth. I’ve tried calling.”
“Her boyfriend dumped her.”
“Oh no.” Grace’s face falls into an almost-tearful def-con four. I should have lied about Shayla. I forget Hope is especially sensitive to love problems. She went all in for Shayla and her boyfriend, a wedding was even in the works.
Please don’t cry. I can’t handle you and your emotions today.
As though she can hear me, Hope’s face almost immediately brightens into its usual animated self.
“We saw your post yesterday,” says Brooke. “You a big Trial fan, or what?”
“Did you watch it? Wasn’t that woman horrible? I couldn’t believe how far she fell at the end, begging them to be tolerant. Doesn’t she realize its tolerance that got us where we are in the first place?” Grace leans over the desk and lowers her voice. “Just between us, I’ve started emailing one of them.”
This is worse than the prospect of Grace bursting into tears. “You’re what? With which one?”
“Mirt. He writes the sweetest emails. I just think it’s so great how he doesn’t have to be the center of attention on the show. He’s content being in the background, supporting his team, a true servant.”
Brooke braces the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger, cringing as though Grace is giving her a headache.
“I think I’m getting the flu.” She examines her homemade pharmacy for the best starting point.
Grace is falling in love via email with my little brother. What are the chances? My still small voice says, while there may be chance involving spider invasions, God directly manages the matters of the human heart. This has me worried. The last thing I need is a coworker with my brother ordained by God’s will to bring me home again.
Mirt, aka Tommy, is a really sweet guy. It’s easy to imagine any girl falling in love with him, especially someone like Grace. Funny, I haven’t been around Tommy in years. But I can see him and Grace fitting well together. She’s emotional. He’s very touch oriented. He comforts by touch. She would respond well to that, I think. Not sure how she’d handle the hunting thing. Californians aren’t big on hunting in my experience. Tommy lives for hunting.
When I was around at home it never seemed like Tommy had time for girls. He was always with me or with the guys. We were the only children close enough in age to actually grow up together, and being the youngests made that bond tough. We each had a partner to hold us steady and cling to childhood whimsies and games and toys while our older siblings teased our innocence, our reluctance to join them in ‘adult’ activities. I never had the chance to explain why I left. But then, Tommy never quite knew what to do with me as a married woman. We hadn’t been trained for those roles. I’ve always thought he would have helped me if I’d asked.
Grace doesn’t ask to take Brooke’s picture. Probably she forgot. Or maybe she just needs mine for some reason and made up the excuse of a new phone. Grace wouldn’t do that. I need to stop thinking the worst about people.
After the sun sets I retreat to the rec room, my fingers itching. The city glow provides just enough light to read the notes. I go through a ritual bending and creasing of the spine to make my new Elton John book stand up correctly. I sing in my head while I test opening chords, looking for just the right song to mark this new phase of mine and Elton’s relationship. I have placed my fingers on his notes; it’s become personal and there’s no going back.
While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters…B flat. Turn around and say good morning to the night…resolve to C. E7 into A minor, For unless they see the sky, but they can’t and that is why…they know not if its dark outside or light…resolve to C.
Coming from a background of Beethoven’s rigorous scales, and Saint-Saens’ finger acrobatics, playing rock ballads is at bit of a letdown for excitement. Emptied of their words, the chords give only a shallow texture to the darkness. Of course I start with a quiet song, one that relies more heavily on words than others. The isolation of the chords brings sadness from the night, reaching into that seamless void beyond the city where my family lives. This song is about New York. The tone fits my feelings for the city, the beautiful sadness of lost childhood and failed expectations where rose trees never grow.
Tommy liked to sit on the floor beside the piano stool with his head in my lap while I practiced. Even when we were older he liked this position. But there were only a few things acceptable to do with one’s sister after a certain age so our time together moved behind closed bedroom doors and to our play fort where Mom sometimes let us take our schoolwork. I liked that he wasn’t afraid of touch like our father and brothers and the other boys I knew who poked me and pulled my hair. We weren’t a hugging family. My parents never kissed us goodnight. It simply wasn’t done. I see it so often in movies and TV now, and I’m astounded to think people might actually live like that, all sandwiched together on a couch comfortable with each other.
Brooke leaves a trail of tin foil pill tabs along the desk when she goes on break. The AC switches on, rustling the construction plastic with its invisible breath. If the AC wasn’t so old and noisy I’d feel like someone had snuck into the hospital from the construction site. The first noise to alert me to his presence is the parting of the plastic, followed by the soft squeak of stolen shoes on the linoleum. He carries a knife. It will be over before I even know what’s happening. The swiftness brings some comfort but these imagined instances, these false nervous alerts waiting for something that probably won’t come, have bothered me for years.
To shake off the bugs in my imagination I do the ten o’clock round. Everyone is asleep except Mrs. Helston.
“There you are!” she exclaims. Her eyes have an unnatural light, a little glossy. Usually morphine makes people sleepy. “Come and keep me company until my son arrives.”
“Mrs. Helston, the hospital does not allow visitors at night.”
“He’s not visiting. He’s checking in. He’s been working overseas and I haven’t seen him in months. Come sit. There’s nothing on TV but news. It doesn’t tell me anything except who has been caught having sex with who, and why it’s impossible for Congress to get along. And then there’s this poor woman…” Mrs. Helston waves her hand with exasperation towards the wall mounted television. “She was kidnapped by the Vanguard a few years ago and now she’s doing the talk shows to give insight into the Annie Maybe case. Insight! She’s a reality TV star whose show has been cancelled. So now it’s a good idea for her to come around and talk about being kidnapped. If it’s so easy for her to talk about it, it obviously left an impression. Ha!”
I check Mrs. Helston’s vitals and keep my thoughts to myself. The woman on TV is one of the few trials where the target was found innocent by voters. It was a close margin, but a definite innocent verdict. Jason privately agreed with the voters, saying stupidity is not sin. The others didn’t agree as fully but that’s why there are voters, so the people decide what happens rather than the Vanguard.
“We keep being interrupted but I’ve wanted to ask where you bought that necklace. It’s so suitable on you.”
“Hawaii I think, but it was a gift.”
“From someone back home, that’s right. And you tried to love him.”
“I did love him. We just didn’t match.”
“There’s no shame in that. My husband and I, we fight whenever he’s at home. Now he’s never home and we have the best marriage of anyone I know.” She laughs.
“Mrs. Helston, I like talking with you, but you need to talk less …vigorously. You’ve just had a very serious procedure.”
“I’m fine, dearie. You don’t know what this body can do. I have more scars than a Florida manatee. You know they’re always getting run over by boat propellers. Some scars you give yourself, some are given to you, those poor lumps. Do you have any?”
Mrs. Helston appears disappointed or else she suspects me of lying. I do have a bit of something on the knuckle of my big toe where I wiped out on my bike once. It doesn’t feel a worthy addition to the conversation.
“May I ask you something?”
“I’m dying to have you talk to me. You’re such a quiet thing, aren’t you? Ask me anything.”
“Why did you get married?”
“Why?” She turns off the TV. “The tax break I suppose. Then we decided for raising children it gave them stability. They need all the help they can get in those early years. And God knows I wasn’t one to enforce any kind of discipline on my babies, so having Jim around was a necessary balance. Its more than love though, is that what you’re wondering? Love outside marriage—it happens all the time, sex outside of marriage—all the time—we are human after all.” She pauses with a smile; she’s caught me blushing.
Where sex is concerned I always blush. I can’t help it. I wouldn’t call it embarrassment, at least not in the usual way, more embarrassment for the person talking about it, referring with such complacency to the most intimate action people can share.
Mrs. Helston pats the blank space on her bed for me to sit. This conversation has crossed the borderline of distance nurses require in order to do our jobs well, but I realize I don’t care. I’m a little tired of following all the rules.
“You seem old for someone so untouched. Hasn’t there been anyone to seize you out of your life and sweep you away?”
“That sounds dangerous.”
She laughs. “Yes, very dangerous. Life changing, a lightning strike of insanity.”
“I met someone once at a park in New York. I was in college. There’s no way it would have worked but I still think about him sometimes.”
“Why wouldn’t it have worked?”
“We were too different. Besides, my family doesn’t like his kind of people.”
“A racial problem?”
“No, he was an actor.”
She leans forward, as far as she can with her leg still propped up, and gives me a closer look. She eyes my name tag, my hair. “I knew you would be interesting. When I get out of here you’ll have to come visit me at home. I’ll be very, very bored. Don’t say no, you have to come.”
“Come on, Mom, are you inviting nurses over now? Don’t tell me you’re that desperate.”
I jump to my feet for a quick exit but Mrs. Helston grabs my hand. “Don’t run away yet. You must meet my youngest. He’s been in Europe promoting his new movie.”
Before she said, ‘new movie,’ I’d been focused on getting out of the room and doing my job, remembering my responsibilities, stepping back from that nether region of questionable ethics where I sat on Mrs. Helston’s bed for a heart to heart. Probably you haven’t forgotten the earlier speculation Mrs. Helston could be related to the famous acting brothers Steve and Daniel Helston, one of whom I met in Battery Park eight years ago. You haven’t forgotten so you’re less surprised than I am to find him standing two feet away.
In plaid flannel and a full beard he looks more like a mountain man or a logger than a movie star. The sunglasses and baseball cap make the impression slightly sinister, a criminal mountain man or logger serial killer. The glasses stay on even as Mrs. Helston introduces us. I can’t tell if he knows me. I’m pretty sure without the suggestion of Mrs. Helston, I would not recognize him.
“Daniel, this is Jane.” She puts special emphasis on my name, an embarrassing intimation creeps the rose red back onto my cheeks.
“Nice to meet you. I’d like some privacy with my mother if you’re finished.”
I practically run from the room.
The desk is vacant. Brooke has fallen asleep on her break. If I wake her I’ll have to keep up with a conversation. Silence is better. I rearrange the tabs of Brooke’s cold meds. I pick up all the stray pens. I wipe the dust behind the computer tower. Once I saw a daddy longleg crawl out of the vent of my brother, Peter’s, tower. Since then computers with undisturbed dust have always made me nervous of spiders, especially spider egg sacks. Imagine turning on a computer and having dozens of daddy longleg babies pour out.
If Daniel recognized me, he has no reason to be excited about it.
I keep one eye always on Mrs. Helston’s door. So far I’ve only told you about the good part from that day at Battery Park. It’s a nice ending to say we went on our separate ways and never saw each other again, or that we returned on Monday only to discover that magical connection had disappeared. If only.