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Portland, Oregon. 1988
What if he never came home? It was 3:00 a.m. James had gone to a party, on the houseboat. He hadn’t minded my staying home as he went off. Relief! Any time I didn’t have to leave the house was a bonus, a plus. But why wasn’t he home yet?
When I heard the VW pull into the driveway and the front door open, I slipped downstairs nonchalantly, acting as though I had just woken up from the noise. Wouldn’t want him to think I was that afraid. James passed me without a look, without a word, and headed to the first floor bathroom in the back of the house. When he came back into the kitchen, he was white-faced and wobbly.
“Take me to the hospital. Take me to Emergency.”
What? What was wrong? The hospital? Me? Leave the house? In the middle of the night? Drive in the dark? I had feared I might have to do this someday; might be called upon to act. My heart pounded at the thought. How could he do this to me? He was supposed to take care of me.
“Why? What’s wrong, James?”
A flurry. Jeans. Sweatshirt. Shoes, sneakers. Purse, keys. I was behind the wheel in a moment. James folded himself into the passenger seat, holding his palm to his shin.
“Hurry.” Perhaps this was the first time I heard any fear in his voice. Ever. It frightened me.
James had fallen. At the party, on the houseboat. Tripped, ripped his flesh, through his pants. On the jagged edge of a piece of wood? He wasn’t sure. He had known something had happened, but didn’t check himself until he got home. He had felt something, but not much. He had kept drinking and eating and smoking and only hours later he noticed the damage. In our bathroom.
“I looked at my leg and it was bloody and split open. I saw something white and I realized: That’s my bone. It’s my fucking shin. Hurry. Take the freeway.”
Take the freeway? I’ll die if I take the freeway.
“I’ll get you there. Just be calm. I’ll get you there.”
“Speed up. And take the freeway!”
Not my fault you couldn’t take care of yourself, drinking and drugging. Be grateful I’m helping you at all. Staying out all night and giving me this grief in the middle of the night. My resentment was finding a foothold, and I didn’t fight it.
My first visit to an emergency room. Ever. How many times had I even been in a hospital? Two, three? To visit friends after surgeries. Yes, Dave had had a back surgery. 1972? I was a good friend; I visited. Dave was on the phone with Thelma. The next day I visited Thelma, in another hospital, after her own back surgery. As I sat at her bedside, she took a call from Dave. Took two phone calls from him, as I waited. Dave and Thelma, on the phone. They scheduled their surgeries to overlap, to minimize their time apart. My jealousy fought to surface, but I kept it tamped down. Grow up! When else was I ever at a hospital? I couldn’t remember.
At Admissions, they ask who I am. “Relationship to James?” asks the Admissions nurse. I hesitate. Why did they ask these tough questions?
I didn’t anticipate the medical visits becoming routine. Trips to the emergency room Sunday afternoons. Midnight, any day of the week. Hospital visits in the aftermath of car accidents, surgeries. Home infusion sessions. Trips to the ER when infusion lines failed. ER visits for infections, for allergic reactions to antibiotics to treat the infections. Men, boys, children equal medical emergencies. Who knew?
This wasn’t what I had in mind! I was to be the mistress. The erotic partner. The muse. The fantasy.
But, here I am: the make-believe wife and the make-believe mother who does what is necessary to take care of her make-believe family. I rose to the occasion. The children needed me; I could love them and have purpose. I was grateful for that. But James and I weren’t married, so it wasn’t real; I was playing house. I was a stand-in for the real thing, for the real mothers. Somehow, in this make-believe life, I am in the Emergency Room, and it is real. I am being called upon to act. Like a real person. A real adult.
My mind couldn’t reconcile it all. It creaked and cracked under the strain.
I consoled myself. Now James would see the risks and he would stop the parties and the drinking and the pot smoking. At least, an accident like tonight wouldn’t happen again; he would realize, I was sure, the risk to his health was too great. If he stopped those parties, I could depend on him. He was better off staying at home. With me. And now he would realize that.
Relief. I breathed out relief. His leg was bandaged, but functioning; James would be fine. He even insisted on driving us home. Macho man. I relaxed into the passenger seat, a safe place. Another disaster averted. If only my heart would stop its gallop and be at peace; if only my hands would lie quietly in my lap instead of fumbling, looking for a place.
I lit a Marlboro with the end of the last one. Breathed in the reassuring smoke. Deeply. Breathed out the rarefied remains. Let the smoke do its job. Get home. Crawl into my bed, the safest spot on the planet. Let this all pass over me. Let it pass . . .the panic, the fear. Let it pass.
I knew if I could stop living a lie, I could stop the panic attacks and fear and I could function again. The solution: legitimacy. We would marry. But first, James would have to be acceptable to my family. Otherwise, I would still have to lie to them.
“James, you once said you might convert.” I reminded him.
James was at the oak table in the dining room, working the NY Times crossword puzzle in ink. This feat continually impressed me. He didn’t look up.
“Convert to Judaism.” Like he had said. Like he had once said.
He almost looked up, not quite.
“Why not?” A bitter taste was on my tongue now. He had said! Otherwise, I never would have let it get so far.
“Join an organized religion?” James said. “Never.” He didn’t look up.
And that was the end of that. I was condemned to a life of jagged pieces. If only I could find a way to make it work. But I couldn’t think straight, adrenalin had drenched my body for so many months. I went upstairs. To bed. To resign myself. If I could.
If only I could give up and not care. If only.
. . . to be continued
Also — Stalker, the Music
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.