Seven in the morning and I hadn’t slept much. A different bunch of nurses were on duty trying to get some big old guy across the hall out of his bed and onto a commode. I saw my hospital roommate for the first time, coming out of the bathroom. She wore a robe and slippers, and as she passed, I hid my head under my pillow to avoid her. My face had a horrible hospital film on it that I couldn’t wash off; though I tried, in the bathroom, to rid myself of this filth, with the soap provided, it did no good.
A knock on the door. I jumped. “Julie? Julie?” I struggled to answer. “Julie?” Speech seemed forbidden. “Julie, are you okay?” The door opened. A flood of light that blinded me, washed over me and shot at me like dozens of bullets. “Julie? Julie? It’s only me. I’m checking on you.” Check check check check check. “What are you doing? It’s okay. It’s just the nurse. It’s okay.” No it’s not it’s not oh my god it’s not oh my god help me I’m falling– “Just relax, honey–Hey, Margaret, I need some help in here. Julie?”
Another nurse’s breathless voice. “What’s going on?”
“She seems to have collapsed.”
“Panic attack, maybe.”
“Something like that. Get Margaret.”
“Right-o. She’s coming.”
“Julie, here’s my hand.” Oh my god I’m dying– “Take my hand.” I couldn’t take her hand a thousand times–a thousand times I couldn’t take it– “Hold onto my hand. Let’s get her on the bed. C’mon, Julie. Stand up. You can do it. Out of the bathroom. C’mon, stand up.”
“What’s going on?” Another nurse.
Shit shit shit shit help me shit shit–
“C’mon, Julie, stand up. Stop screaming! Julie! Julie! Laura, where’s Margaret?” It was running out of me now, running like an oil spill, running onto the floor, a gushing flood of non-verbal “help me” emoting from my mouth cavity.
“Julie, we can’t help you if you scream like that.”
‘We’ll help you walk. Here’s your bed. Open your eyes. C’mon. Laura, help me lift her onto the bed. Margaret–Julie, stop screaming–We can’t just let her go on like this–Look at her now. She’s genuinely scared–Margaret, what do you think? Call Scully?”
“Scully was supposed to have his ass up here last night.”
“He says he won’t talk to her until she talks to us.”
“He’s a piece of work.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Go back to sleep.”
I hadn’t realized I’d been asleep. My roommate, looking refreshed and much different than she had earlier, peered at me as I lay on the bed. Rugged-looking, late thirties. “I’m Vivian. I’m here for depression. Is that what you’re here for, too? You can’t even talk. You look so scared. Listen, if you need anything–shampoo, conditioner, whatever–” She sat down on her bed and pushed the dividing curtain open– “Whatever–just, you know, ask. Christ, they treat you like shit in here and then expect you to talk. Who’s your doctor? Oh, never mind. Mine’s Scully. Sent me up North the first time, you know, State–I managed, though, but my kids–you didn’t eat breakfast, did you? They have fruit in the other room. I’ll grab you a piece. Just nod your head. No? Okay. Just thought I’d ask. They allow us real coffee here, and we can smoke in the dining room area. Hullo?”
“It is Heide, the charge nurse.” The nurse stepped into the room. “How are you two getting along?” I quickly sat up.
“Fine,” Vivian retorted.
“Just checking.” Heide held several notebooks in her arms. Unlike the other nurses, she wasn’t wearing a uniform, just a lab coat over her clothes. “Julie, I expect you to get dressed and look presentable. This isn’t a pajama party.”
It suddenly occurred to me that today was my 25th birthday. I giggled.
“Cat got your tongue, Ms Greene? What’s so funny?” Her stare was like the hot flashlight beam the nurses had flashed at me at intervals during the shivery night. She turned and left.
“I don’t like her,” whispered Vivian. “I don’t trust her.”
Heide came back into the room when I was alone, saying, “I expect you to take a shower. You have your menses.” She tap-tapped back into the hall, and barked, “Where are my charts? Vickie, where are the charts?”
Damn stain. Must have started last night. Shit, forgot.
Heide appeared in the doorway again, followed by her henchwomen, Vickie and another one. The three of them drew closer. “Shower, or tub bath, which will it be, Julie?”
Shower. Tub bath. Tub bath. Shower. No. I shook my head. They towered over me. My breath quickened.
“Which will it be?”
I backed away.
“Well, then, it has been decided. Run the tub, Vickie.” The two nurses scampered off.
“Now, Julie, we’re going to have a little talk. And I get to do all the talking. Have you heard the expression, ‘The silent waters are the deepest’?” I shook my head. “Well, you’d better start thinking about it.” Heide stared at me. Creases under her green-hazel eyes had filled with turquoise eye shadow; in fact she was heavily made-up around the eyes. Perhaps she’d been freckled as a child and those freckles had faded. I guessed her age at 45.
Heide sat on the bed. She was so close to me that I could smell her breath. “Have you had a shower or bath in the past week?” she asked. I hadn’t. “In the past two, three weeks?” Again, I shook my head. “Why? Why? Neglecting personal hygiene–why?”
The bath was ready, but I did not intend to use it.
I didn’t budge.
“Go on. We’ll be waiting right outside.”
“Ms. Greene, proceed to the bath! Now!” After a minute, Heide said, “Okay, Pat and Vickie, I’m not wasting my time waiting for this patient. Let’s get her into the tub.”
With one of nurse on each side and Heide barking orders there was little I could do, though I struggled at first. Their arms locked into mine, they dragged me from the bed, white sheets trailing behind us, while I dug my bare heels into the floor, though doing so did little to stop the progression toward the bath. I screamed. Of course I screamed. I screamed for all the children in the world that had ever been forced into the bath; I screamed for all the patients that had ever been forced to do anything against their will; I screamed for my fellow Jew, whose kipah fell off his head as he was escaping the Nazis, yet he turned to pick it up–he was shot dead–I screamed for myself, for my future, which would unlock and reveal time after time the act of force, the act of entrapment, the act of belittlement, the act of shaming–in the name of saving my life–I screamed, as Pat and Vickie, under orders from Heide, ripped my bedclothes off of me, stripped me completely, pushed me into the tub, and with white hospital washcloths, washed me, while my menstrual blood flowed into the bath and mixed with the splashing bathwater and tears and mucus and spittle, bodily fluids all splashing together, swirling in this great sea of force, they washed me, and I wept.
Heide stomped into my room later on with a paper bag, saying, “Your roommate brought some clothes. We won’t let her visit unless you talk to us.” Heide dropped the bag onto my bed, put her hands on her hips, and said, “What. You don’t want her visiting, do you. I can tell. Something’s going on with her. She looked like she was going to barge in here and usurp you. I don’t miss much, you know. Well,” she said, “you’d better get dressed. Clean clothes.” She started to stomp off, then turned back. “Second shift is coming on. Try to talk to them.”
For some reason, I didn’t hate her anymore.
I emptied the bag of clothes onto my bed. Irene had chosen well. There was an envelope at the bottom of the bag, which I opened, to find a letter enclosed:
You’re not a very good friend because you didn’t share with me how badly you were feeling. I’m so lonely here in the apartment that if you don’t come home soon I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.
Damn her! Damn Irene and damn this whole situation! Damn Scully and Heide and my parents and the whole world and God, too! Yes, this was all God’s fault. God had damned me, God had shamed me; I had brought shame upon myself in God’s sight; I was a sinner! Oh dear God I was a very bad sinner, the worst kind, the kind that would not be forgiven until all kinds of tortures were put upon me, tortures I would have to endure, torture by fire, torture by sword, by water, by bitter herb, by wind, by the hand of God, and by God’s word! I knew I had to pray.
I got down on my knees on the floor by the bed. The floor was cold and my knees bare but that was better, I knew, for prayer. It was good to suffer! I needed to suffer more, even more than I already had. I clenched my hands together and began the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father, who art in Heaven–I wiped a tear from my eye–Our Father, who art–what good is He in Heaven when I need Him in this hospital room, right here, right now? Need to pray harder. Our Father, who art in Heaven and in this hospital, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done–God, I need You right here right now in this hospital, kneeling here right on this floor–On earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, which means a sin, as we forgive those that trespass against us. Give us now–Give us our–oh shit I can’t recall. Hallowed be Thy Name Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done! Done! Done!
I began to weep, kneeling by the bed, dressed in only a johnny surrounded by sheets and hospital bed-blankets and a couple of hospital pillows. I hugged one of the pillows close to myself while I cried, wiping my nose and eyes with the sheets. I needed to talk to a nurse.
I dragged myself to my feet, pulling one of the blankets around me for warmth, and slipped on the blue hospital slipper socks the nurses had left for me. Though my body may have been clean, I felt filthy, contaminated. I stopped at the doorway and peeked into the hall. An elderly man sat strapped into a chair in the hallway, drooling. An open area lay beyond the hallway; a TV flashed in what looked like a day room adjacent to the nurses’ station. To the right was a table and chairs. I slowly made my way toward the nurses’ station.
Only one nurse sat at the desk; otherwise the room was empty. The TV was turned down. I saw on the nurse’s ID badge that her name was Lynn. She caught my eye and held contact. “Julie, how can I help?”
I took a deep breath, and said, “I forgot something.”
“What did you forget?”
I tried to say, “The words to the Lord’s Prayer,” but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, I turned and shuffled back to my room.
Later in the evening, I lay in bed and listened to the chatter among the nurses: “She talks now.” “Scully’s coming tonight.” “She hasn’t eaten all day.” Periodically a nurse would check on me and ask if everything was okay. Lynn came with medicine, which I took without protest. Later, Lynn came into my room and said, “You have a phone call. Over here.” She pointed to a pay phone in the hall, its receiver off the hook. “It’s for you. Pick it up. I think it’s your father.”
The proud parents. What did they think of me now? Would they ever realize that I spent years of unhappiness living under the same roof with them? How many times would I have to stumble before they woke up and discovered I had fallen? They were never there to catch me. They were years off the mark.
“Julie, don’t worry, darling.” It was my mother. “Everything’s been arranged. We’re coming for you tomorrow.”
“Not so fast,” I said.
My father was on the other phone. “Now, Julie, we’ve talked to the doctor, and he thinks it best that you come home with us.”
“Please don’t come,” I said.
“Irene said we could stay at your apartment,” said my mother. “She was very nice about it, but we didn’t want to impose, so we’ve made arrangements at the Ramada.”
“Cancel them,” I said.
Adrenaline. “Dad? Mom? I’m an adult. My home is no longer the place where you live. My home is here in Vermont. Because I am an adult, you no longer have any say in my care. Irene told the people at the hospital that I didn’t want them contacting you, and they did anyway. They violated my confidentiality. They broke the law. Do you understand?” I began to cry. “You weren’t supposed to know about this. I didn’t want you worrying. It’s not your concern.”
They both began talking at once. “But you’re our daughter–we care about you–we want to know what’s going on–it is our business–the doctor said–“
I interrupted them. “Please don’t come; that’s my final word.”
“What will you do? Where will you go? How will you survive out there?
“I’m an adult, Mom, I don’t need you people anymore.”
“Alan, let her talk.”
“I can’t have her speaking to us like that!”
“This is preposterous. Julie, you can’t stay there. Come home.”
My mother said, “What about the hospital bill? What about–Julie, you don’t have insurance!”
“Irene told me about–” I was expecting an interruption, but I got none, “about this law, anyway, they have signs in the emergency room, you know, that say a hospital has to treat people regardless of their ability to pay. The Hill-Burton Act, she said.”
A moment of silence, then, “So what do you have planned?”
“Planned? Planned? Mom, this wasn’t planned,” I said. “This wasn’t fucking planned. I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do. I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen to me. I’m fucking scared and I’m fucking losing it, and my whole life is fucked up–“
A tap on the shoulder. It was Lynn. “Julie, if you can’t stay in control, you have to get off the phone.”
“Okay–Mom, Dad, I have to go. Bye.” I hung up.
“Do you want more Kleenex? Here, have the whole box.” Lynn sat in the chair by my bed while I wiped my eyes and nose, only to burst into tears again and again. Neither of us said much; I just cried. When I used up that box of Kleenex, she brought another; the boxes were small; they didn’t last long. After a while my tears dried up and she said, “Maybe you should come out of your room, and be with the other patients.”
“When is Dr. Scully going to come?”
“What time did he come last night?”
“He never came.”
“He wrote a note in your chart.”
“I never saw him.”
“You’ll see him, later, when he comes. Come out and watch TV with us.”
I sat in the day room and watched the news then headed back to my room and slept, and didn’t wake up until the middle of the night shift.
The room was dark except for a slant of light coming in from the door. I heard the nurse’s footsteps tap-tapping away from the room; she must have only now come to check on my roommate and me. I slipped out of bed and into the bathroom, peed, and washed my hands; my watch said 2:58 A.M. I headed back toward my bed but then heard murmurs and laughter from the nurses’ station; I peeked back and saw several nurses and a man in a suit and tie standing among them. They didn’t see me; I squinted and tried to focus my gaze. There he was. He stood about five foot ten, had scant, reddish hair, and was beardless, with large, square glasses and thin lips. Scully.
He turned and saw me; our eyes met, but then he turned away. Asshole. I know it’s him. I know. For months this man avoided me: he postponed and finally canceled appointments, referred me to social workers, or sent me home without an explanation; I had never met him, never seen him, never spoken with him, and now he was standing before me, about 20 feet away.
Scully pivoted and walked toward me with deliberate steps.
“You!” was all I could bring myself to say. This man had humiliated me; this man had masterminded the whole scene and had caused havoc with my parents, yet I could only muster one word.
He turned to me as he walked, gave me a witchy grin, then walked off the unit.
My advisor had issue with the word “witchy.” She had a lot to say about it. This continues….