Tiff Holland ~ Candy Striper

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.