BY RENEE EBERT
Copyright is held by the author.
IT HAD been raining on and off through the day but the sun was light in the sky at 3:30. That washed-over look was everywhere, the buildings, the lawns, the windows. The trees were heavy with big drops of water and if the wind blew, I could be wet from all they held. I walked down to a stand of very tall, large leafed silver maples. There was a Gazebo as well just in case the rain started up. Charlie and I agreed this was where he would pick me up. The Gazebo was whimsical, like someone’s last minute afterthought, what Overbrook Psychiatric Hospital needed to offset the impersonal and imposing buildings. There were gingerbread carvings in the lattice work around the structure; all painted a golden yellow which the sun now threw further light on. I was deep in my thoughts again without saying the words even to myself, running through the conversation with Dr. Stein. Grateful that he took an interest in me professionally and promised myself I would call NYU for their course book for the fall semester.
A sound I didn’t recognize came from one of the buildings. The windows were all thrown open because the steam radiator heat had not been turned off yet. It must have been like an oven in those wards. A slight drizzle began. I covered my head with my sweater and darted quickly into the Gazebo. I settled my books on the railing and shook my head to get the dampness out of my hair or there’d be more curl than I wanted. The sounds persisted and at first I thought they were the sounds of animals. I stretched my neck and body to see around to the side of the building where the rain was now coming down in thick streams. Maybe a cow got loose from the barn down the hill, it sounded more like braying. There was no sign of animals. Now the sound was more guttural, like someone clearing their throat, a man’s voice said words I couldn’t understand amid the louder grunting.
A face followed by several others appeared in the window. There was one scrawny man, another with a red beefy face and a reddened bulbous nose like W.C. Fields. Only this man’s smile had long ago left his face or eyes as he scrutinized me, holding onto the bars so that he could see me.
“Cunt, you stupid cunt. That’s what you are, you fuckin cunt.” He heaved one shoulder to keep someone else from taking his place. Later I would think back and realize they all had chairs pushed up against the high windows so they could see out. How many young women had been stuck in this same Gazebo for a reason much like mine? How many had to hear the vilest language, listen to the hatred and revulsion that was spat out at them? The sounds grew to shouting and screaming and all for me, violating most of all my inner peace. I had nowhere to go. The rain was heavy now with lightening preventing me from leaving. There was no other shelter close by where I could catch sight of Charlie. I kept my eyes focused ahead of me on nothing in particular trying not to hear the hatred.
“Your mother tasted good last night bitch. How do I know?” A space of silence, then a screaming,” How do I know? Because we all had her.” Spaced through this horror were moments when men cried and others who moaned with midsentence ecstasy as they mimicked sexual release. But I knew, I knew. I knew there was nothing fake about any of it and my empty stomach churned bile that wanted to come up, felt it hot and bitter in my throat as it finally forced itself out of me. I turned and stepped out of the Gazebo to vomit into a bush, to avoid someone seeing what I was doing and become as repulsed as I was right now. The men could see it all too, and one of them shouted out at me. “You think you’re throwing up now? Wait till you have my cock down your throat. You skinny, ugly bitch!”
My breathing came in ragged gasps, trying to quell the heaving stomach. I held a tissue out in the rain and pressed it, wet, against my lips and mouth. With all that I could muster, I slowed my breathing. Mercifully, the rain was coming down so hard now, the voices became muted, weaker. I looked at my watch, though I knew the time. It was already 4:15. Charlie was either on time or very late and I feared which he would be today. And so, I stood leaning against one of the porch pillars and the railing, not caring whether my white student nurses’ apron would require washing and ironing when I got home, thinking the pillar would hide me from some of them. Even if I wanted to smoke a cigarette it would fuel their hated vision of me, as loose and wanton, and I feared what else could possibly be shouted out at me, what accusations whether real or imagined that they were lobbing at me, the mother, sister, wife, daughter, or girl down the street that they knew, and perhaps for whom they may have held one tender thought for the briefest of moments.
Then the deep throated sound of Charlie’s car engine came to me, faint then growing as it all but roared displacing what was left of their curses and the air grew still again. I jumped in and all but screamed. “Go, go, get out of here fast. Just go.”
I was quiet all the way home. Charlie never asked what happened at the hospital. And I didn’t offer anything. Instead the memory of the event got shut out, all of it melting into some dark place in me as each mile away from Overbrook spun on the odometer, and we got closer to home. A light drizzle started up again as the Mustang came to a stop in front of the house. I looked over at Charlie and a caring smile framed his mouth and eyes. He has always been a good brother, and today he was more so. Though not cutting him a break and not wanting to repeat today, I muttered to him, “don’t be late next time.”
He nodded and I asked, “you coming in?”
“Nope, going to see my girl. Tell Mom, okay?”
I swung my legs out of the car and almost ran up the walk, not because of the rain, there were not more than drops now. I just wanted to get out of the damp clothes and sponge my sweaty body off and brush the bitter bile taste out of my mouth. I ducked to go around the side of the house to the kitchen, but the blue jays were elsewhere, or their fledglings were safe and dry in their nest. No dive bombing us tonight. Mom wasn’t in the kitchen, so I softly called out. I always did that if she wasn’t right there. I think it had to do with jarring her out of some one of her reveries, which were legion. Mom daydreamed out loud, so that the family, Charlie, mostly me and sometimes Dad would hear her. My father tried to make light of it, saying in a wise cracking way, “Who you talking to, Anna? Yourself? Getting any answers?”
The door to the basement was open and I was thirsty for a Coke. We kept them in the little fridge, the one we replaced with a self-defrosting type upstairs. God forbid we get rid of the old fridge as long as it had life in it. Depression era parents were generous people, they would feed you at a moment’s notice, yet I don’t recall them ever giving away a stick of furniture or an appliance except to family or real close friends. Whatever it was, if it still worked, they would find a way to continue to use it. I knew we had half a dozen six-ounce ice cold glass bottles of Coke in the fridge.
I punched the button on at the top of the stairs. The light bounced off the slippery linoleum steps my mother furiously scrubbed and waxed. She was going to kill us all someday, especially anyone walking in stocking feet.
“Nicola. Don’t forget to turn out the light when you get down here.”
I breathed out heavily. There was a need in me for the absence of sound, of even responding to a few questions least of all, how was my day. I didn’t want to answer that question. Being alone was impossible now that Mom was down here. As I got to the next to the last step, I switched off the little light but not before I looked up at the small framed poem neatly nailed into the wall above and in front of me.
I do not care how wild the night
If friends but share my firelight
And the cheer of its yellow glow
Corny sounding, even then, I would always remember that silly poem.“I didn’t hear you come in.” Mom was pulling clothes from the washer and placing them in the dryer. She looked at me and assessed what she saw. I hoped the wild and rain-soaked hair would not prompt too many questions.
I grabbed a bottle opener, reached in for a Coke and opened it before Mom could complain that it was too close to dinner; did I want to ruin my appetite, my figure, or my stomach because everyone knows that Coke can take the finish off a good end table. I wondered why she kept the stuff on ice. The cold bite in my throat, the taste of the drink encompassed me, relieved me and for a while, washed away the sickness I had witnessed.
Mom shivered vicariously experiencing the cold Coke in a cool basement. For my part, I just enjoyed. I saw her studying my face which later I would see in the mirror looking pathetically frazzled.
“Nicky. Your hair is a fright. And your eye makeup is smeared. Did something happen?” Mom’s alarm was up and running just fine.
“I’m okay.” I tried to sound one step up from casual because this house, this basement, and the warmth of my mother’s musty and warm perspiring body smelling faintly of her beloved Chanel were rapidly replacing the recent memories. Mom wasn’t buying any of it. Her most constant concern from the time I was eighteen months old, I knew her radar for catastrophe was finely honed, nothing would get past her, not blood or bruises or scratches, not unwanted attention from criminally insane men, many of whom had souls burdened with the rape and murder they contributed to other people’s nightmares; women and children maybe in wars far away from here, men who thought they would forget, throw it all away and come back sane and whole. But didn’t.
She tried to smooth my hair and I moved away, perhaps a little too quickly, which she took as a rebuff. I moved, close for her hug. “I’m fine Mom, just got caught in the rain. It was pouring when Charlie picked me up.”
For one heart beat my mother measured my voice, my mascara smudged by tears, not rain, then let it go because I was all in one piece in front of her. She bent into her work, methodically folding the towels. Without words, we each took hold of a sheet on the ends and folded it together until, getting smaller and smaller, it was a square, the way the soldiers fold a flag before offering it to a relative at the gravesite.
“What happened? Is it just that place is getting to you? Aren’t you tired of it yet?” This last question came on the heels of my shaking my head, no, while guzzling the last of the six delicious ounces of Coke.
“Today Dr. Stein gave me some course schedules for NYU where I can get a degree in psychology.” I spoke rapidly to prevent her from objecting. “I’m looking them over, they’re interesting.” Then I just dropped the whole load on her. “I like the work. The women I interview, I seem to help them.”
“Only women there?” She picked up another towel and began to fold one, then another, piling them on the back of the old sofa. “No men?”
I thought for just a slice of a moment about the Gazebo and shoved it back where it belonged. “We see the men at group therapy soon. That therapy is mostly out- patient mixed groups of people . . .”
“Who tell all their business to strangers.” She finished my sentence, interrupted me, and sat on the edge of the sofa that faced the stereo.
“Sometimes telling your business to strangers is a better way to look at things.” This was close to heresy and I thought of a foolish zealot and the stake on which I, like her, would become ash. “Mom, it’s not like what you think. People have great pain, mental pain; they need to unburden themselves.”
“When you first came in tonight, looking so disheveled, I was sure something bad had happened. That maybe you were attacked.” She took my wrists in her cold hands and held them while she looked at me. “Nicky. Please. If anyone hurt you, that way, you would tell me?”
I wanted to be furious replaced it instead with impatience. “Mom. For crissakes. It’s always the same damn scene. Someone attacks me. Someone tries to take advantage of me. Why are you so afraid all the time?”
She studied me once more and gently let go of my wrists with fingers I swore were freezing, and she shuddered as though she had caught a chill.
“You’re always so cold, Mom.” I pulled her lightweight sweater closer around her. Only my mother would wear a sweater in the middle of a heat wave, and still be cold.
“I know I told you this once when you were just entering your teens. You remember, don’t you? About how, even in that little coal town that I grew up in, bad things could happen to a girl. A girl alone? I was walking home from an errand for my mother and a bunch of boys I knew and who knew me, and my family were driving past. They asked if I wanted a ride home. I was so innocent. I said, sure. I never for one-minute thought anything about consequences. They all knew my brothers, my father, all of us. But they were like a pack of wolves, when they are all together, they were pigs, worse, much worse.”
“I took the ride and they had me sit in back and then they tried to take advantage of me. They tried to move my clothes out of the way. They tried to . . .”
Her voice had grown quiet, like she was winding down to a horrible death. I reached for her and rubbed her cold arms and shoulders. “Mom, you okay?” I was half in her story all those many years ago, when she was 15, and half in the present.
“They didn’t do anything because I fought them. I screamed and they tried to stop that, but I moved so fast and with such strength. I hated them.” Her last words were drawn out, long, hard, through gritted teeth. I knew that if they were there now she was capable of killing them.
“Mom.” I whispered. “Mom.” I had heard pieces of this tale over the years, as she relived it, with each telling she always told me more. Today she told me they’d ripped her dress. How could I tell her about Overbrook?
“We should start dinner.” The mental cloud retreated, the way the men must have moved back away from the iron barred windows.