While a patient at Putnam Memorial Hospital’s Special Management Unit (which had been converted into a psych unit) I, at 25, developed a crush on the charge nurse, Heide Merecki, age 43, and upon hearing about my adoration for her, Heide became quite embarrassed and flustered, saying, “I have never been in a situation like this, certainly!”
I could think of nothing to say immediately, so I stared into her green eyes, flaked with a bit too much make-up, and then, feeling myself blush, finally blurted out, “I think you’re, you’re beautiful, and Louie, me and him–he and I, that is–call you Dragon Lady, that’s because you’re strong, and I love you, and–”
She stomped off in her inch-and-a-half heels. Hearing her heels tap on the hospital floor normally excited me. But this time, that familiar sound brought me to tears.
“PIX 106 PIX 106 PIX 106!” It was Louie. “C’mon, Little Kitty, don’t cry. Let’s smoke. Don’t cry.” Louie was 15 going on 7, and he was the only person that had ever called me “Little Kitty.” I could have counted every freckle on his face, if I’d wanted.
This crush, which perhaps you could call love, with a stretch of the imagination, began to extend to all nurses, and eventually, the field of nursing in general, until finally, after I left the hospital, began taking Lithium and was somewhat recovered from my malady, I decided to apply to nursing school. The paperwork and testing were a cinch–I placed in the 99th percentile in everything except reading speed (55th)–and I was happily accepted into the Putnam Memorial Hospital School of Practical Nursing in Bennington, Vermont for the fall term. For the occasion, I quit smoking–in part because Heide was a passionate ex-smoker–and on the second day of school I showed up at the “unit” decked out proudly in my yellow uniform dress, to show the nurses at the Special Management Unit that I was not the loser they first saw dragged into their doors some year and a half ago.
“Well, well,” said Heide, rounding the corner of the tiny nurses’ station in the center of the unit. The two fat LPN’s were filing their nails behind the desk. I wanted her approval. I wanted her to say, “You finally made it. You overcame adversity. You tried and succeeded. You recovered,” and most importantly, “I’m proud of you.”
“Well, well. One of the yellow ladies, I see. Did you want to become like us?” Heide gestured at the two LPN’s, whose attention had shifted to a shampoo commercial. Their heads bobbed stupidly. “Or did you simply want to stay here with us?”
Heide looked at her watch, then turned to one of the LPN’s. “Pat, it’s near the end of the shift. I need to do report. Will you keep Ms. Greene amused while I go write my notes?”
I bolted. I didn’t even bother to wait for the elevator; I took the stairs. Down to the ground floor, down to freedom.
Then I thought of Louie. Where was he? He was the only one who knew of my special feelings for Heide. He alone understood. Christ, I couldn’t even remember his last name. I had no way of contacting him. He could have graduated high school by now, and moved to a different town. Or he could have been in the state juvenile prison.
After I was kicked out of nursing school, for the reason that–the school director explained, “People with mental illnesses have no place in nursing,” when she found out–I transferred my entire obsession with nurses and nursing to an obsession with smoking. I wrote poems about cigarettes, smoked several brands at the same time, smoked clove cigarettes. I smoked marijuana cigarettes when I could get my hands on some, and hung out with men that smoked. I collected ashtrays of various sizes and shapes. In one poem, I referred to smoking as “restrained pyromania.” I refused to go any place where I wasn’t allowed to smoke, sometimes declining invitations that would have been advantageous not to pass up.
And so I found my place in smoking. Here was something I could do that didn’t take much effort to succeed at, that relaxed me, that reduced the symptoms of my illness somewhat, that at the time was relatively cheap. Smoking gave me something to do with my hands and mouth. It was a palatable accompaniment to coffee and television. There wasn’t much to do except watch TV, drink coffee, smoke, and let my head bob stupidly, anyway.
Right now, I am sitting here at my desk in the corner of nonfiction, near the auto repair manuals and gardening books, and I hear him show some couple the books on breast-feeding, and then his voice, saying, “C’mon, Little Kitty.”
Of course. I’m imagining things. Who?
“Little Kitty. I knew that would get your attention.” He still has that toothy grin and the freckles.
“Can you stream in PIX 106 on your laptop?” This is really happening. I am not making this up.
“Never mind. Hey, how are you?”
But his movements are stiff and deliberate. Readers, I’ve been sitting in the library too long and my mind isn’t quite right. Louie isn’t really here; he’s lost to me now, and I don’t think I’ll ever remember his last name.
He, or what I perceive as Louie, wavers, like a candle flame. “Let’s go smoke.”
“No, please. I wanna show you my new Gameboy stuff. Pretty please? Let’s go smoke. I got a new pack of those Marlboro 100’s that you like.”
So he’s caught up with the times, but hasn’t grown up. “Louie. No. I won’t go with you. I can’t.” I try to lower my voice. This is a library, after all.
“Look, I knew how you felt about Heide Merecki.”
“Shh. You did?”
“It was wicked obvious. A lot of things were obvious. The way you looked nervous whenever she walked by. The way you stared at her. You’d blush when she talked to you. I’d even see you sweating. I haven’t forgotten. You haven’t, either. But let’s go smoke.”
“I know. You quit. You quit smoking, you quit a lot of things. You quit watching TV, you quit marijuana, you quit obsessing about nursing and sleeping with men you hardly know.”
“Yes, I quit a lot of things. I got better and grew up, Louie.”
Louie flickers again, then turns into the library stacks, somewhere between the travel section and women’s studies, disappearing as he rounds the corner.
Dumbfounded, I type the last few words of my entry, and post it to all of you, my readers. Heide, if you are among my readers, know that I have not forgotten you. You were not the first woman to touch me the way you did, nor were you the last.