Mom had already signed me up to be a candy striper by the time she and O’Toole picked me up at Robinson Memorial.
“You need to think about those less fortunate,” she said, as I scratched at the stitches on my wrists. “You need to think of someone other than yourself.”
I knew that what she actually meant was that I needed to think about her. She didn’t know just how much I thought of her, her nightly calls during my depression in which she presented theory after theory regarding what was “wrong” with me. When I wasn’t studying, all I thought about was other people: people I’d let down, people who were sure I could do better, people who wanted me to dress, speak and act differently, my ex who wanted me to drop out of college six months before graduation so we could buy a house for a family we wouldn’t end up having.
“You’ll have to volunteer at Barberton, of course. I could never find my way back here. Thanks, Toolie,” she said and then kissed him on the cheek.
“I can drive myself.” I said.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how you feel.”
O’toole peered back at me and raised his faunetic eyebrows letting me know he understood but was helpless, then put his old brown Fleetwood into gear. I spun around so that I could lie down. The car was so wide, I didn’t have to scrunch up at all. Mom grabbed the rearview mirror while she freshened her lipstick. O’Toole didn’t bother trying to grab it back the way my father would have. O’Toole always went with the flow. He probably wasn’t much worried about an accident either, knowing that anything less than a tank would come out on the losing end of an encounter with the solid steel monster. Besides, he’d survived two tours in Nam, perfect training for living with my mother.
O’Toole’s eyebrows danced as he drove, as they often did, as if he were listening to a song he liked, even though the radio was off. I wondered where he was, really, in his head. Vietnam? San Diego? Hawaii? He’d lived along the Ala Wai before retiring from the Navy. There was a framed picture of him, shirtless, in a foxhole in Nam, with his pet monkey perched on one skinny shoulder. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, I wish I knew how to get there. Mom caught sight of me as she swung the mirror back in place, or rather, she caught sight of the empty seat and turned around, making sure I hadn’t disappeared myself as I’d come so close to doing. She pulled herself up slightly on the middle of the bench seat so as to seem taller, and gave me the eye.
“Sit up and put on your seatbelt!”
“I don’t believe in seatbelts,” I told her. This was true in general as well as since what she referred to as my “breakdown” that I considered more of an existential crises or maybe, poetically, a visit from the Black Dog. At twenty-two, I considered all accidents to be fatal or maiming and I preferred the former. Also, there were no seatbelts in the Fleetwood, which I explained to her. She didn’t believe me. So, I sat up and, with a game-show flourish demonstrated the lack of buckles and straps.
“How about some burgers and shakes?” O’Toole asked.
“What? And reward her?”
“No, it’s lunch-time and I’m hungry,” he answered, pulling onto Route 8, an interstate, the very thought of which made my mother so nervous that she turned back facing forward and lit a cigarette, immediately smearing her lipstick. Pointless. Her fresh lipstick, just the sort of thing that made me want to kill myself: apply lipstick, smoke a cigarette, smear lipstick with first puff, fix lipstick, have another cigarette, repeat and repeat and repeat, leaving ashtrays full of coral tipped stubs in her wake.
“I’d love some Swenson’s,” I told O’Toole, knowing that was where he was headed.
“She needs good food,” Mom told him.
I stretched back out across the seat, roughly the size of the inside of a coffin, I thought, the length perfect and three inches left on each side. I fingered the vinyl and imagined wedding dress white satin cushioning me, like in the coffin Mom picked out for Dad before I reminded her that since the divorce I was his next of kin. I chose a gray urn. I wanted both of us to be portable.
“If we don’t fatten her up, she’s going to look like a peppermint stick in one of those candy-cane outfits,” O’Toole said, pulling a wide, graceful left into Swenson’s parking lot, then turning on his lights so that one of the white shirted hop-boys who ran, were required to always run, Dad had told me, would know we wanted to place an order.
I sat back up as the car came to a halt, looked around at the strange gray asphalt of the lot, the world so dreary after a week on the fluorescent ward.
“They wear dresses?” I asked, unable to picture the uniform, despite so recent a hospitalization. I wasn’t against volunteering in general. I’d often considered reading to the blind.
There were no candy-stripers on the psych ward, although that’s where they should be, really, I thought. I was sure they could cheer up some of the guys I met in group, although not the one who was clearly gay, based on the looks he gave the guys on the ward, and me, until he realized I was, if only in current biological fact, female.
Years later, I would realize how much Three South was like corporate America, the group therapy meetings with a white-board for us to take turns drawing our feelings not much different than the white-boards we used at the insurance company to determine, along with ammeliorization charts, the value of an injury or a death, based on life expectancy, projected earnings, the loss of “conjugal” abilities and expectations. That day, according to all the variables, my life was worth little, despite general good health and a magna cum laude degree. My own recent losses: my father, a near-term baby, a failed marriage, negatively affected my worth. It was a big shock when I discovered that my “worthless” philosophy degree was actually a positive factor in the insurance biz. Charts or no charts, insurance depends upon analytical, human minds, and existentially inclined minds are even better as they are less prone to sentimentality, which I gave up for good the day I was loaded into the ambulance, along with dresses.
“I don’t wear dresses. No more. Ever.”
Mom was always saying life was short. That was one of the reasons she had admonished me for trying to kill myself during her first, angry, visit to the hospital. She was convincing. Regardless of how long I lived, I decided that day that there was no time or need for ridiculous clothing. Dresses. Ridiculous. Legs always having to be shaved and crossed, the hindrance during running, and the ridiculous accessories, ankle-twisting shoes and suffocating panty hose.
I could feel Mom’s scowl even though she didn’t turn around.
“I donated your books, all those damn books. They’re what did this to you,” she said, expecting a rise.
I didn’t need the books; I’d read them. I knew the world was a squishy, rotting place of Nausea, as Sartre had written, that no matter how many scenarios Kierkegaard spun there was always Fear and Trembling and Abraham would have to be willing to sacrifice Isaac if there was a God. “Being” was different than being, and I wasn’t willing to go with the little “B”, although none of this mattered to her. She lived in the beauty shop, its thick atmosphere of hairspray and cigarette smoke. She ate cold food between doing “heads.” She could no longer smell well and therefore over-applied perfume.
I put my head out the window like a dog and breathed in the grease and sugar smell of Swenson’s, as famous for the sweet buns as the burgers themselves. The sweet and salty worked together, enhanced each other. I realized I was really, really hungry. I pulled my sleeves down as the cute Swenson’s boy in his white polo, my age, probably working his way through college, appeared panting slightly at the driver’s side, his cheeks pink, his breath visible. Although I didn’t know him, he nodded slightly back at me as he rested his order pad against the front driver’s-side window which O’Toole had already electronically adjusted to just the right level to accommodate the tray when the food appeared.
Tiff Holland is author of the novella-in-flash “Betty Superman.” Her poetry and prose have recently appeared in Frigg, New World Writing, New Flash Fiction Review, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. Tiff lives in Kaneohe, Hawaii and teaches at Windward Community College.