personal trauma outside of Trauma Group, conversation was mostly difficult if not impossible. At night the TV blasted and nearly everyone gathered around the set, needed mindless entertainment before nighttime meds.
Then Windy shoved back her chair and with her arms flung wide overhead, she did a spontaneous victory lap and went breathless back to her seat while we all laughed and cheered her win.
“I want the peanut M&M’s,” she said firmly. “It lasts longer this way,” she said to me as she opened her little bag of treats, shoved a red candy into her mouth.
The clickety-clack of the rolling cage sent us back to our cards. We flipped the windows open for the next game. I found I often missed what was called but if it was on my cards, Windy always pointed it out to me, still managed all of her own.
“Bingo!” Sandy bellowed and just like Windy, did a little dance around the table after checking letters and numbers with Nancy. I’d never heard her utter a word before and there she was, chattering about which snack to choose. She went for the Snickers bar, promptly opened it and took a huge bite. A little girl, she was beaming.
Finally, I understood the rules. We played until everyone won once. If a patient had bingo a second time, it didn’t count. But that didn’t stop the game. No one left just because she’d won. Every winner stayed and played some more, tallied how many wins she had.
When I won at last, slowed by doing only two cards, I was too self-conscious to do the victory lap. But I did stand to acknowledge my win and took Windy’s advice and selected M&M peanuts. Ripped open the bag with my fingers and eased out an orange candy. She was right. It did last longer than choosing a candy bar.
The table was a mess of open soda cans---which we weren’t usually allowed to have on the unit because a cutter could really hurt herself with the tab. It was a real privilege and everyone was responsible, even if they were a group of joyful children. Balled up candy wrappers decorated the playing field. And a couple hoarders were like Windy and still had candy.
“It’s early. We have time for a second game,” Nancy announced over all the noise after we had all won once. I found myself joining in the mass cheer at the plan to continue, raised my arms over my head, pumped them, and chanted “yes, yes, yes.” It was like a big party with overjoyed faces and side conversations about what prize to take with a second win. Everyone had an opinion, and the merits of the assortment of candy and soda were feverishly discussed. Hershey bars with nuts, Reese’s Pieces, plain M&M’s, Baby Ruth, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Coke, Diet Coke, 7-Up. Duplicates of each kind were in Nancy’s wagon so when a choice was made, no one was disappointed.
The games whirred on and we all won again. And then it was time for Nancy to collect soda cans, bingo cards and discarded wrappers. It was such a festive atmosphere and never had I seen patients have more fun than that afternoon. The absolute joy of winning, along with being able to select a prize, had boosted everyone’s spirits. It was immediate happiness and giddiness and camaraderie between the seven of us. And cynical as I was, still I had a terrific time playing, though I was too shy to race around the table. Outside in the real world I never would have spent a couple of hours playing bingo. I’d have been scornful and walked away from any invitation.
The only game I’d played recently, before I came to the hospital, consisted of endless computer solitaire. I played without paying any attention; just let the cards slip into the next game. I spent hours on the laptop set up on the dining room table. It was all I could do. If anyone came to visit, I just kept playing hand after hand. I didn’t care about the hundreds and thousands of games. It was an attempt to hold onto my sanity as best as I could until someone finally took the laptop away from me. I had played up until the night before I’d come to the hospital. So prize-winning group gaming was new and exciting and I felt thoroughly entertained. It was intoxicating, the joy swimming around the room, and the lack of boredom as we waited for the last patient to win a second time.
When the group broke up, about an hour before dinner, I thanked Windy for including me.
“We were roomies and roomies look out for each other,” she said, brushed off my gratitude and wandered down the hall towards her room.
Several patients had stopped to get crayons and coloring books to make pictures to hang on the unit’s walls. The last few, like me, headed down the long green hall to our rooms. The desperation I had felt before bingo was gone and I was calm and stuffed with peanut M&M’s. I finished eating the last candy just as the final winner was announced.
“Lord,” I thought. “Windy knew how good this would be for me.” I pictured her and her unruly head of medium brown hair. How she scared some patients because she had so many alters, trapped in severe DID. She was thirty-five and still a virgin.
“Do you think it’s because I have male alters,” she’d asked me, back when we shared a room, back before I moved out because her nightmares terrified me, kept me up for hours. And a couple of her male manifestations were menacing.
“It’ll happen when the time is right,” I had answered, convinced that her gentle character and the sweetness of most of her alters would bring her to some guy’s attention.
She stopped my journey back to my room, called me over to her door.
“I knew it again, didn’t I,” she said, justifiably proud of her contribution. I was so glad she had my back, overjoyed at the magical afternoon. All my depression had vanished for a couple of hours and I’d actually joined the only fun hospital group activity. It was impossible to feel anything but triumphant, not once but two times a winner.
(Spring 1961) 850 N. Central Ave., Deerfield, IL
From the white head and footed wooden bed, identical to my sister’s across the room, where I slept for a long time, nearly eight years, where my father sometimes came and smoothed into me, that was where I found such beauty that I staggered.
Faking a stomach ailment---nothing too specific, nothing too vague-- I stayed home from school to remake myself from fat girl to princess-on-the-run. In my parents’ bedroom, I rummaged my mother’s lingerie, stuff she wore for dress-up evenings. A black boned bustier, twenty hooks and eyes down the back, snug enough to tighten my thick body into almost an hourglass. Over that, a black taffeta nightgown, low-cut bodice, reached almost to the floor. Fastened chiffon scarves of blue, pink, lavender to cover my own short brown hair, imaginary waves that simulated length and texture.
Jewels were plucked from her vast collection, layers of beaded necklaces laced my throat, heavy on my chest, longest strands to the waist. Cuff bracelets slid a little and
I pulled a flowered sheet from the linen closet, fitted it around my waist to make a gown with a train.
A princess in need of a horse, I raised my skirt and rode sidesaddle for a time on the bed’s footboard, dissolved deep into imagination, pursued by unknown and terrible bandits. I rode harder and harder, yanked one naked leg over the footboard for a better seat, now astride. Slow little spasms kept me locked into place. As the dark man who chased me grew ever closer, I rocked and rocked, sheet bundled to my waist. Legs and thighs and hips moved in one agreeable fluid motion until the man reached for me and I surged, then tossed myself onto the bed for imagination’s ravishment.
It seemed like forever I was spread across the mattress, willing sacrifice. Jewels askew on my neck and chest, scarves unpinned in my body’s ferocity, an amethyst ring slithered beneath my sister’s bed. Shaky legs. Body’s automatic thrash and moan. Such beauty in response to what the mind and body collaborated.
The brain created surfaces, reasons that kept me home two or three days a week. Blinded in the bedroom again, helpless for every second of joy I squeezed from my decorated and fat body. Over at last, I had much work to do. One foot on the floor at a time to make it right though it had not been right in years. But I looked at myself in all my bittersweet finery, astonished at that secret burning. It jangled me so much I needed a little luster, a little bit of splendor, another day to live it once again.
(Winter 1976, Fall 2006)
Listen: shush as the slip unscrolled down my bare arms held high, then again as it traversed the body. That shimmering piece of night-black taffeta whispered, glistened on rounded breasts and belly, even murmured like a song to my back and ass and thighs. Thin satin straps tugged into my shoulders and my body tussled the fabric a little—the slip a size too small--with a hustle. Best of all, four-inches of hand-tatted black lace dusted the hem, made the garment shimmy beyond sexy to star. Tiny seams, baby-sized stitching held the pieces in place. Threads and fabric moaned, ached for explosion.
Already vintage with my first awareness, Lady Lush Style 1453, designed in the thirties, echoed the past. Paid homage with the swaying hem that shivered in the breeze like fringe on a dress of some twenties flapper girl.
The body changed. The garment, at last brought forth again, drifted from a padded hanger. It experienced the former embrace between cloth and skin another way. So many sizes too big, it collapsed past my eager upraised arms like a giddy tumble down summer’s tallest hill. Swished past breasts, belly, actually passed the body by. Without flesh to catch it, the fabric nearly reached the floor. Slender straps slid down my shoulders.
First was design, then factory. Ultimate underpinning. Someone in a blue uniform folded each slip in white tissue paper and into a pink box. Loaded up and carted away. Purchased at last, an original, untouched, still in packaging from twenty-five years or more ago. I discovered it in an old store in Vermont that carried useless things, forgotten finery on dirty shelves.
What a surprise when I wore it as a gown to parties and it bloomed like slippery black ice, deception beneath a faded moon. With paper flowers pinned in my hair, forties-style canvas shoes, I swirled the dance floor. Then one day I put it away.
So smaller, smaller, I wanted to give it another chance, thirty years later. Not to show my body gone fat-to-thin or voluptuous-to-average. But I wanted its glamour, taffeta slip still a showgirl. Forever wanton and lusty. Excavated for another go-round, it no longer fit my body. Perhaps a bit slack-jawed, it was no longer up-to-the-brim in temptation. But it still cried wonder, no matter that it didn’t clutch my body but pooled.
How unlikely that it breathed again onto my shoulders, pushed a little, anxious to be freed from decades of closets and hangers. Once it was gently shoved into a drawer. Generations had come and gone in its lifetime.
The slip dripped memory. Just one of many from the same factory, all with the swag of lace that made them truly remarkable, fresh-faced and new. Packed up and sent from store to store, shelf to shelf forgotten, until I opened one box, inhabited it. Put it on. It held the body. Gave me swing and swoosh. In a full length mirror, I saw I was someone desired, that slip like rare black earth before planting. Robustly ready. It anticipated. And beauty was still apparent decades later, adoration not with a saucy head toss but with consolation. Faded almost brown, smeared color, the inevitable muddied decline of fabric and stitchery.
I had to put it on again. Glorified unmentionable, still it gave song. It didn’t have to squeeze my body, steam every swell. It settled. Perhaps all the better to admire. It never forgot style as I twirled a circle, pinched soft trim’s flare. Still proud ownership from the long-ago snap of the old pink lingerie box and paper yellowed like butter too long in the sun, then as it danced at parties, worn to entice a man’s body. How through the wrinkle of time it traveled beyond classic.
Humble beginnings---thirties’ shivering style, then merely a leftover stacked on a rack for decades. Until the seventies when I wandered past, and curious, flipped the lid, stepped back with “Oh my.” I made it treasure for a time. Then the body’s decline, how it emerged a different shade, the color of sadness. But I put it on anyway. Preened. Admired the body I once owned, so different than the present, as I whirred not once but twice in front of a full-length mirror.
Seventy-plus years. Not such a bad life though most of it was spent waiting. Still, it was grand. Conceived to conceal, festooned with intricacies. Reveled in costume when its cousins were tatters. Rescued again, it finally understood as my body’s landscape resonated like art. How I would go back, if I could, to the evenings it was gown as well as slip, what I wore as exterior to the world though it was also smooth interior like skin. Body and slip as they shimmered inside and out at the exact same time.
(July 1968) 945 Rosemary Terrace, Deerfield, IL
In the new house, weeks before we moved from our cross-town rental to real ownership, I sat on the attic stairs with my sometime-friend Jackie Hansen as we ate deliciously forbidden food.
First, I carefully unsealed the grocery store sweet from its cellophane package, removed one of the small cakes which I gently placed on the top stair behind me. Pulled the crinkly wrapper to my face, I licked every bit of white frosting from the paper. Then I began the serious work of ritualized eating. The first Suzy-Q revealed, I sucked away white frosting from each side of the dry dark sandwich. Slowly, slowly I ate it, each bite a treasure, dense cake with soppy interior. Frosting on my fingers, cake crumbs on my chest, I sucked every bit from my fingers, determined not to miss a single minute speck.
Beside me, willing to be my friend when there wasn’t anything else to do, Jackie was deeply involved in a similar process with Hostess Cupcakes. It was as if we’d practiced our snacking routine for years, our identical, often reverent manner of eating. Our hands squeezed the pleasure of cake and filling with each measured bite.
Jackie was twelve, a year older than me though we were in the same class. But then I was always a school year ahead of everyone else. She was as skinny as I was fat. She wore blue denim shorts mid-thigh, tennis shoes without socks and a dark blue pullover sleeveless cotton top. My shorts were knee-length with s stretchy elastic waistband that had reached its limit. My shirt was a violent crazy-quilt pattern, something my mother selected from the Montgomery Wards catalog where she bought nearly all my clothes. Too ashamed of my fat upper arms to go bare, I wore a shirt that had sleeves that reached almost to the elbow. Barefoot in sneakers, a move I seemed to have gotten right, my feet were sweating.
Our new house was a 1928 two-story brick Georgian with uncarpeted floors, three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom, all upstairs. Inside the closet door of what was to be my sister’s room, another door revealed a full staircase to the attic where someone had once planned to remodel into a third floor. But it was just a huge empty space, smoky with dust. The house was the secret place where Jackie and I rode our bikes for a temporary hide-out, unsupervised and alone.
After we slowly inhaled the secret food, we read true confession magazines purchased at the National Grocery Store a few blocks down the street where we also bought our snacks. We adored the sort-of-dirty magazines, turned pages with sticky fingers, loved the cheating women and the door-to-door salesmen, the weeping lonely women who picked up men from seedy bars only to regret their actions. We read about unwed mothers and the delicious stories of their furtive conceptions. That each story also contained a predictable moral didn’t bother us in the least. We blithely skipped the preachiness as we dove into the next story.
Of course we could have read and stuffed ourselves in any location in the empty house. Inside the large kitchen perhaps, or down in the grubby basement or in the living room. But we liked the half-dark mystery of the attic. We caught just enough light from the tiny windows on either side of the attic to read and eat and talk.
Every story, every bite of food was freedom. Jackie’s mother was divorced, almost unheard of, a working woman with two daughters and a son. She was exhausted when she was home and her children were growing up alone. I wanted to get away from my family too, my invisible father, my sister with her own cadre of friends, my drunken mother. Jackie and I were part-time friends because we arrived from loss and isolation, and though Jackie was almost popular at school due to her skinniness, and I was a silent entity, she needed my friendship a little that summer.
We hid and giggled and ate and talked a lot about sex, especially the kinky furtive kind we read about in our cache of confessional magazines. No witnesses to our crimes since no one knew I had a spare key to the empty house.
At afternoon’s end, we stuck empty wrappers inside the smutty magazines and slid them deeply under the eaves where they remained undisturbed for over ten years until my parents finally divorced and the house was thoroughly cleaned and sold. Our secrets were safe that long.
How lovely, those long afternoons, uniform bites of lovingly familiar treats, those premade little cakes and their gooey wrappers. Each day we spent twelve cents for food and while I remained true to Suzy-Q’s, Jackie was more of a rebel, experimented with Twinkies and Snowballs along with Cupcakes.
The air on the attic steps was humid and very warm. Sometimes we nearly gagged and sweated through our clothing. But we never moved from that spot, high at the house and dim enough to hide in. That was our secret, an adult adventure, safe as mice squeaking across the floorboards, rustling in the abandoned wrappers. We were bound to the intimacy of friendship, forbidden food and sexual moments, empty hours. The trial of sticky hands and crumbs, those dirty magazines all marked our nearly grown-up selves, and for a time at least, a half day of friendship.