(from Famished, a memoir in manuscript by VCS)
(September 2003) 1714 E. Del Rio Dr., Tempe, AZ
Millions of tiny throated blossoms waved with wind outside girlhood’s window, had already begun to die as I clipped them into vases, purple and white everywhere, full blown lilacs glorious in their brief bending. Love-drunk bees so stuffed with passion that they toppled down the chimney, crawled on the living room carpet to die. You listened. Did you hear their faint whirring?
The gypsy fortuneteller was in her glass cage at the carnival, illuminated only by quarters. Money spent, she jerked to life, flurry of red and gold scarves, enormous baubles on her fingers. She dealt you a card that contained your secret---were you passionate, indifferent or cold? Then the glass grew dark again.
In the new century, old romantic poems were lost to me. I still remembered a smudge of sentences, images, line breaks all wrong, but each was true to its own fragrance. I was writing love poems—should I have asked the obvious questions? I was drifting on the edge in my new black dress, slashed low to my electric cleavage, an underskirt of red tulle. How it shivered, so lavish that someone must have said beloved.
Perhaps I spent all day in bed, my lovely skin, beautiful still, tangled in a sheet of passion. Did you write a couple of lines on a card, slip it under my front door? I didn’t want a sonnet or rhyming couplets. I wanted a love poem, just a word or two like “oh, love” or,” finally, you.”
(April 1967) 945 Rosemary Terrace, Deerfield, IL
Even as I trudged my fat and uncooperative body past the one mile mark on the way home from eighth grade unhappiness, I heard them. They were rowdy drunk. They bellowed their limited conversation through the screen door and down the street. I was a block away on that deliciously and unseasonably warm spring afternoon and their richly delighted voices didn’t give a damn about what anyone in the world thought of the din.
“Gorge,” Aunt Nan yelled at Mother as I headed up the front steps. Their wrinkled laughter rang through the webbed wire like crumpled paper tossed away, rescued and smoothed open.
Inside the living room, they didn’t care that it was a splendidly blue-skied day. Neighbors had flung their doors and windows open to capture the breeze, already scented from flowers that had just shoved their way out of the still-chilly earth. My mother’s and Aunt Nan’s voices were vaguely muffled, like the tulips, not yet blooming, flowers still hidden in early greenery, ready to be teased open by another blast of sun and wind.
Gorge, my mother shouted, then collapsed into laughter. I witnessed a snippet of her rare happy voice, the laughter from somewhere deeply hidden in her throaty chest. It was a sound that I hardly ever heard but when she shrieked her highly-pitched yodel, everyone else had to laugh along. Mother had that kind of remarkable charm and she sometimes surrendered to it and shared with all near-by.
Those were the times people said “You must have such fun in your house. Your mother is hysterically funny.” And I always nodded, though it wasn’t true. Mother was usually stinking drunk, but insisted her children express good manners, no matter what.
A racket cackled above the stereo where Peggy Lee’s buttery voice asked is that all there is? Still, the music was cranked up pretty high, records piled on the floor, scattered as Mother or Aunt Nan had rustled through them and another female singer had been selected, settled onto the turntable.
Mother and Aunt Nan sat knee to knee on the old yellow couch, sticky highball glasses in hand. Metal tins of cashews and mixed nuts were half-empty on the coffee table in front of them. A bowl of chips was still intact, along with an open bag of pretzels, Mother’s idea of snacks and presentation to a more-than-welcome guest.
Mother staggered to her feet, both glasses in hand, and wavered into the kitchen. There was the click of the freezer opening, a clatter of metal ice cube trays as they wrenched open. Then the cap on the bourbon bottle clicked off, booze tumbled into the glasses, and cubes snapped beneath the weight of warm liquid. I heard Mother as she rummaged around the kitchen, no doubt searching for more substantial food to go along with the new drinks.
“Hello kiddo,” Aunt Nan said, suddenly noticing me. She smiled, half-cocked, dressed in a gray cashmere twin sweater set and dark pencil skirt along with black high heels. I knew she didn’t like or dislike me. I was simply part of the package that came with Mother, along with my younger sister and currently out-of-town father.
It was a lengthy trip back to the living room. Mother clutched both drinks, filled to the brim. Some alcohol slopped over the rims and onto the beige carpet. Mother was having too much fun to care. What did another spatter on the rug matter anyway?
She carefully eased into the couch’s daffodil yellow hand. Lipstick smears identified the correct owner of the cocktail glass. Aunt Nan wore a dark shade, almost plum, compared to Mother’s deeply rouged red. The huge green ashtray was filled with butts, stained with their colors.
“Here you go, Gorge,” Mother affectionately bellowed and they saluted one another with a clink.
Gorge was shorthand for Gorgeous, their pet nicknames for one another. And why not? Aunt Nan had a tall, rangy body, dark hair cut very short though a few tight curls poked out. She always wore conservative, dull colors that didn’t hide her slender attractiveness. And Mother was beautiful with her luminous skin, hazel eyes, pretty face, orange-red curls and rounded body. She wore suits, deep pastels, jazzed up each day with different strands of colorful beaded necklaces and matching earrings. A mass of jewelry tangled on her dresser, spilled out of her black lacquer jewelry box.
Aunt Nan wasn’t my real aunt at all. Mother was an only child and my father had one sister, a strict tee-totaler Methodist in Indiana who knew nothing of those afternoon parties. Mother and Aunt Nan had met a decade ago, back in St. Louis where we’d lived for many years. They both worked at the same junior high school—Aunt Nan taught gym and Mother taught English. My sister and I were instructed to call her Aunt because of her especially close relationship to my mother. At some point, Aunt Nan moved away to the Chicago suburbs and into a high school job. When my parents lost their greenhouse business not long after, we moved, ended up in the same town, and Mother got a teaching job at the same high school as Aunt Nan. And Aunt Nan had moved from gym teacher to college counselor, a job with more prestige than wearing shorts and shirt to work, a whistle poised near her lips.
Once a month, when my father was on the road selling plants to nurseries and garden centers, they got together. They snuck out of school early, like a couple of kids. Aunt Nan followed Mother’s old red and white convertible as it ambled the mile home in her sexy sports car. It was a race to get to our house and get loaded as fast as possible.
How did they manage to take up so much space in the living room, while sitting so closely ensconced on the sofa? And their juvenile drunken silliness. How their too-loud voices rumbled out the screen door and out into the street. Used to closed-door secrecy, Aunt Nan’s visits had them careening with gossip and praise, unafraid for once of clean air and nosy neighbors.
Mother looked plenty pie-eyed, suit jacket tossed to the floor, her blouse half-unbuttoned and untucked while Aunt Nan was still formally dressed. One hand feathered her short hair up the back of her head; the other held a cigarette and the wobbling glass. Mother lit up another Camel, inhaled down to her toes, released the smoke with a flourish. Reached for her glass and took a deep swig.
“Those little bastards,” Aunt Nan called out, referred to their students.
“You’re godamn right,” Mother countered, tilted her glass again.
They’d forgotten me, if they’d even really noticed me. I headed upstairs, arms filled with school books and notebooks. On my bed in my room, where I only half-heartedly did some homework, I couldn’t help but listen to their racket. No one on the block could miss their noisiness.
“Gorge.” Muffled but still perfectly clear, the chorus had enough juice to slide upstairs, squeeze under my door. I knew how they fell into one another’s arms, Mother completely content. She didn’t notice the clutter of spilled nuts, wadded up cocktail napkins, broken chips. Mother didn’t care that they emptied the bourbon bottle every time they met, had to crack open a second.
There was glory in one word: Gorge to Gorge. How they admired one another’s beauty. How they had their boisterous fun, but only when my father wasn’t around. He never approved of their relationship, felt they got too drunk and too close to one another for propriety. How Aunt Nan disliked my grumpy father and never made an appearance when there was even a chance he’d show up.
Unchaparoned and punch-drunk, what an uproar the two women made in the house. Mother screamed her out-loud happiness. Alone in my room, I imagined glass after glass of bourbon, handfuls of salty treats. A bottle of sticky maraschino cherries on the kitchen countertop, another round or two of Gorge. Then when it was dark, long past dinnertime, Aunt Nan roared her decidedly loaded way home. Mother stuck a couple of frozen TV dinners into the oven, fried chicken for my sister and roast turkey for me, then stretched out on the sofa, popped beer nuts into her mouth and sighed along with the less-than-joyful noise that now sang from the hi-fi.
(November 2001) Del Amo Hospital, inpatient psych program, Torrence, CA
“Do you hear the cart coming?” Windy, my former roommate asked from the doorway. Her face bright with anticipation, smiling. She looked out for me, gave me information about other patients and nurses. In her own way, she eased my life on the unit. Patients weren’t allowed to go into one another’s rooms so she hovered. I was stretched out in bed, alone in a room made for four, staring at the ceiling beams. Not doing a thing but reliving how difficult the day had been emotionally with participation of group after painful group therapy sessions.
“Please come and play with us. You’ll have such fun,” Windy called over her shoulder as she lumbered away, all of six feet tall and nearly four hundred pounds. She headed down the hallway to the open area near the nurses’ station where new patients ate their meals and where the next group was set up.
The almost-sticky scent of sea-salt ransacked the air, billowed through the unit like draperies tacked to the walls. Strayed down the long green hall and into patients’ rooms. And the salt puffed floor-to-ceiling, created old-fashioned curtains past the nurses’ station and the Safe Chair. It was dense, yet fine as lace that might have fluttered in the TV Room. That door opened to the outdoors only briefly between sessions during the day and for limited time in the evening. Salt-spray surrounded our patio, half a ruined tennis court where the smokers always gathered.
The ocean was only two blocks from our locked psych unit. It was a unit for survivors of sexual and other kinds of severe childhood abuse. From my bed, I wondered if today was still a near-perfect Southern California day, the sky a sweet blue, nothing like the wide-open blueness four hundred miles away at my Arizona home. Back home, I’d still be stretched out on the couch, drugged out of my mind to prevent me from hurting myself. Suicidal for months, my shrink and therapist had finally refused to help anymore, urged me to go to a long-term facility where I could deal with the flashbacks and painful memories of severe childhood abuse. I hadn’t had a choice about Del Amo. I was forced to go, my clothes and books and even pillows packed up as my husband drove me so far away to the specialized hospital. I felt like a prisoner, trapped.
Outside, a few clouds must have prettied that sky, wispy and vague, only to doze away. Non-smoker, I missed the weather, visible only through the TV room’s door. I missed out on so much each day though I tried to work on my painful memories of incest, emotional and physical abuse, make progress, confront my terror. I had always said life growing up was like the four of us in an egg. It rolled around a lot but never cracked open. The deep secrets had remained hidden until my huge weight loss following gastric by-pass surgery. Once-suppressed memories sent me to the hospital for the first time in August, then twice more in October. Now I was in Del Amo, trying to face my fears, knock them down and triumph. That meant I had been there for several weeks.
Reluctantly, depressed because I hadn’t any new answers, I rose to my feet, decided to join the low-key group. Windy’s good humor and excitement had gotten to me, made me feel obligated to check it out. I joined the collection of seven women staged around a large round table. I took an empty seat and Windy beamed at me.
Nancy, tall and thin and always in a good mood, was the art therapist on the unit, conducting Wednesday’s late afternoon bingo game. It was the chance to let loose a little trapped energy with other like-minded patients, and there were prizes, too. A choice of candy or soda for each game’s winner. For a lot of patients, this was their sole source of any kind of treat. Mostly they were friendless, rejected by family because of debilitating mental illness and revolving door hospitalizations. Many suddenly arrived at the hospital, with just a couple of changes of clothing and a few toilet articles.
Windy and Debbie each had four bingo cards spread out in front of them.
“At least do two,” Windy instructed. “You’ll have a better chance of winning.” Dutifully, I placed the cards in front of me. They were yellowed with age and the little cellophane sliding doors that covered the numbers were cracked. Surely the hospital could afford to buy a new bingo set, I thought. Actually, I knew we were lucky to have any kind of art therapy at all. Many hospitals had slashed art therapy from their budgets.
The day had been grueling for everyone, as usual. We’d had Trauma Group in the morning, always difficult and painful to sit through as women talked or screamed their pain that still felt very real from their abusers from years ago. It was like a steam bath in the room, patients barely visible with all the sobbing . People scrambled to leave when something was particularly painful, afraid it would trigger a memory or flashback. I never left the room, listened to everyone’s stories, perfectly discouraged. Since it was a group that patients were highly encouraged to attend, there had been at least twenty bodies in the room. But I couldn’t be sure, the mist hung in front of my eyes.
There were more groups throughout the morning and early afternoon. Each one I found to be emotionally heartbreaking, though the content could have been useful if I learned how to apply it. Usually, late afternoons meant art therapy, which consisted of making ceramic figurines. It was a long process from cleaning the molds to pouring the slip to the firing, decorating and firing again. It was supposed to keep us busy and relaxed. And as for the lengthy timetable from first step to the final product, most of us had plenty of time to play with clay or make projects.
I hated to get dirty and I didn’t want any souvenirs of my stay so I just made a walk-on appearance, signed my name to the group attendance sheet then watched others. A popular choice was a pair of praying hands. Others were vases, cups or animals. Because they could be broken into sharp pieces and used to harm oneself, we weren’t allowed to bring finished projects to our rooms. They had to remain in the art room in a cubby. Several patients worked diligently and had a number of finished projects. My therapist, Juanita, knew how I felt so she often came to find me for our three times a week therapy sessions, saved me from ceramics, laughed about my reluctance to participate.
Everyone was in a good mood, piles of candy and sodas were visible in Nancy’s special traveling cart. She set up a little cage with all the lettered and numbered pieces and began spinning a shiny silver handle like mad. There was real tension in the air but it was positive, more like anticipation than depression.
All of the women had Disassociative Identity Disorder, also known as DID, and shifted personalities frequently. I suspected that they had allowed their children alters out for this session, let them play the game and have riotous fun. Just a group of happy kids and me, the only Bi-polar patient.
“B30.” Nancy announced and then rapidly cranked the handle again. There was a rush of numbers and letters, the little cubes circling crazily.
Suddenly, Windy yelled “Bingo!” And everyone at the table took a cleansing breath. As Nancy recited the cubes back to Windy in her cheerful voice to double-check, women chatted. They sounded a little goofy, like a bunch of kids at a birthday party, not that I’d ever been invited to one. I was always the outsider because of my weight and extreme shyness. I’d never heard this laughter on the unit before. Usually so wrung out after groups, patients didn’t want to talk. And since we weren’t allowed to discuss our
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