Three Hots and a Cot

“You can’t wear that,” the guard says. “It shows too much skin.”

“Wah? I’m not showing no skin,” the girl says. She raises her arms in protest and flashes her midriff.

The guard points at her bare skin with the electronic wand. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “We told you last time, too. You have a jacket?”

“Over here,” the guard at the desk calls, pointing to the jacket jumbled at the end of the table on the other side of the metal detector.

The first guard picks up the jacket and holds it out the girl. “You have to wear this.”

“No way! It’s too hot!”

He doesn’t budge. “Wear it or go home. Your choice.”

She snatches the jacket out of his hand and, grumbling, puts it on.

“Don’t even think of taking it off, either,” he says to her. “This is your last warning.
Next time, dress right or don’t bother coming. I’m getting tired of telling you.”

She stomps off in a huff and flops into one of the sofas in the waiting area.

I’m next. I’m not showing any skin. I wouldn’t dare break the rules, or argue, or stomp off.

“Step up, ma’am,” the guard says, and points with the wand to a spot in front of the metal detector. His tone is entirely different to me, but signing in, emptying my pockets, having my coat examined, walking through a metal detector, stepping out of my shoes, being wanded—all of this makes me feel like a criminal. I’m not a criminal; I’m just the mother of one. Which, to a lot of people, is pretty much the same thing.

I step up and place my feet in the black shoeprints painted onto the floor. In my peripheral vision, I see the desk guard check the pockets of my jacket then fold it and place in on the table. His face looks beyond bored.

“You’re good. You can have a seat,” the guard says after wanding me. “We’ll get going in a few minutes.”

I pick up my jacket, zip my keys in the pocket, and hang it up. I have a seat in the small waiting area. Hot air blasts over the bright orange vinyl sofas. For a minute or two, it feels good. I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison. Every time someone came in, a frigid blast whipped through the space and all the women, simultaneously, shivered. Now, the hot air blasts hard, and I’m almost sweating. I don’t envy the girl in the jacket.

We’re all women. It’s a men’s prison, but it’s also the middle of a workday. Not that lots of men show up on the one weekend day prisoners are allowed scheduled visits. I haven’t been at this long, but I’ve already learned: If you go to prison, there’s a good chance your sole visitors will be your mother or your grandmother. Maybe your sister. Maybe your wife. Maybe your girlfriend. Maybe your brother. Maybe a male friend. In that descending order of likelihood.

I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison.

Somewhere in the mix are lawyers and cops, but they don’t count. They’re not visitor-visitors. I also don’t count kids. They don’t get to choose whether or not they get to see their relatives who are imprisoned.

We wait longer than a few minutes. I wish I had a book, but we’re not allowed to bring one in. I think of the work piling up at home. It’s a twenty-minute drive here, a thirty-minute wait, an hour visit, thirty more minutes before I get home. The whole thing should take roughly three hours, but the truth is, the day will be a wash. It’s too emotionally devastating to be creative after going to visit a loved one in prison. I’m losing income every second I sit here. I will lose a whole workday.

And more. I think of people complaining about prisoners who get free cable TV and exercise rooms and Internet and a law library. Three hots and a cot is the expression. None of those things applies to this place.

If I was allowed to bring my checkbook in—which I’m not—and used the sitting time to balance my checkbook, this is what would factor in:

$20 a week for the money order so he can buy extra food, vitamins, pay for a health checkup, get stamps, a pencil and an envelope, buy a warm sweatshirt. Prison prices are exorbitant. He confessed last week he spent a dollar on a small candy bar. He sounded apologetic.

$50 a month for books, ordered through Amazon only, five books of less than 1,000 pages, paperback only, so it can’t be used as a weapon. Nothing lewd or inappropriate. The prison has no library. Having a book to lend out is a good thing, I gather.

$25 increments to a telephone service so he can make collect call to us. Each nine-minute call costs about $5. If we’re not home and the answering machine picks up, there’s still a charge. When we leave home, we have had to disable the machine and voice mail.

I hear some states are starting to charge families for visit. $15 per person for the privilege of seeing your loved one for an hour behind a Plexiglas partition. That hasn’t happened here, yet. Give ‘em a chance.

I don’t expect any sympathy—maybe because I know there won’t be any—but it feels like someone is putting the screws to us. I try not to think of the college fund we used for lawyers and bail, for counseling and rehabs, for—

Stop. I make myself stop. It’s not about the money; that’s not important anymore. People who have never been here don’t know my son, a growing teenager, goes to sleep hungry every night. People who have never been here probably think he deserves that. And maybe he does. But he’s still my son. Going to bed hungry.

It’s all material, my writer friends say. You can write about it someday.

They’ve never been here, either, I think when I hear this advice. As if I’d ever write about the shame that has fallen on our family. Why would I do that? For whom?

Despite these things, I don’t dare complain, not out loud, and certainly not here. It’s as intimidating as hell, and we’re still in the waiting area.

“You all right, baby?”

The lady next to me is probably younger than I am, but she looks worn out. Poor. Her jeans are worn, her dark red sweater dull from washings. Her face is full of sympathy, and for a minute I get choked up, which is not allowed. Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. That’s the worst thing you can do.

“Thank you, I’m okay,” I say. Lie.

She puts her hand on my arm anyway, and pats it. “You stay with me, you’ll be all right,” she says. “You here to see your boy?”

I wonder if she’s seen me before. Who knows? I tell her yes, and her face lights up.

“Me too! I couldn’t come last week, I had to go see my mama up in New Jersey. She had surgery. I had to take the bus to get here, but I couldn’t go two weeks without seeing my boy.”

I don’t understand how she can be so excited, how she can smile. We’re in a prison. It is terrifying. Every time I visit, my son and I can barely look one another in the eye through the Plexiglas that is scarred, worn and dirty, and God knows I don’t want to think about how often, if ever, the phone I hold is cleaned. The first thing I do, every time, after every visit, is get in my car and douse my hands with Purell. I feel like drinking half a bottle of it, too.

“Is your mother all right?” I ask, because I don’t want to ask about her son. I don’t want her to think there is something wrong with me because I dread being here, instead of being excited.

Before she answers, the guard unlocks the first gated door and says it’s time to get going. There are about a dozen of us. We stand and get in line. We know the drill.

The lady stands beside me. “You’ll be all right, you stay with me,” she says again. She hooks her arm through mine. We walk together into the elevator. It’s crowded. The lady leans toward me, speaking low. “At least you know where he is. When my boy was home, I never knew where he was. At least you know where he is.”

She means them to be words of comfort, and I am touched beyond anything I can express. I can’t speak. Literally. I am left speechless by her kindness.

That does not stop me from feeling terrified. Yes, I know where he is, all right. He’s in prison. There’s a part of my brain that still can’t wrap itself around that reality. But it is reality, because I am here, too, going up one floor in a stone building where nearly 2,000 adult male criminals are housed. I try not to think of every prison movie I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it’s not a genre I’ve ever liked very much. I can’t imagine, now, ever watching one for entertainment purposes.

We leave the elevator and stand in a small interior room with no windows and another locked gate on the other side. I try not to feel claustrophobic. The lady next to me is jiggling with excitement.

“I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I’m gonna see my boy,” she chants. Even the guard, when he opens the gate and waves us through, smiles a little when she goes by.

He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

I take a seat at one of the cubicles. The room is painted green and is shaped in a semi-circle of three-sided cubicles. On the other side of the Plexiglas the wall is orange. There’s no one there now. After a minute or two, we hear a clanging. A guard walks swiftly by, and then the prisoners start filing by. Each one peeks at the cube—not mine, not mine, mine!

My son sits down. He’s dressed in a white jumpsuit. His hair is very short. He’s very thin, getting pasty now. He’s been here a few months and it’s starting to show. He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

He picks up the phone. The last thing in the world I want to do is hold this sticky, grungy black telephone receiver close to my mouth, but I do it anyway.

“How are you?” he asks.

We talk for an hour. It’s hard to come up with things to say. He doesn’t ask this time if we are going to pay his bail. We’ve already said no a million times. He asks if we got him a money order. I say yes. He says he’ll pay us back someday. We both know this will never happen.

We don’t talk about anything of substance, because anyone can hear, or maybe our conversations are recorded. It’s just like letters; I write once a week and though I write for a living, after I put together a two page letter to him, I feel like I need a blood transfusion.

He asks about relatives. I say everyone is fine, which is true, but if it was not true, I’d say fine anyway. Why say that Grandma went to the hospital with the flu, or his brother caught the cold whipping around his dorm at college? My son would have to be deathly ill, I think, to be sprung to go to a hospital, and college…we don’t talk about college anymore.

He tells me he’s learned to cook some concoction with Ramen noodles. I’m not sure I want to know where or how he does this, but I let him talk. He gets animated talking about food. I look at his wrists, so thin, while he does a stirring motion. Having money in the prison store account is cachet, I know. I’m glad I didn’t scold him about the candy bar.

But I also don’t say that I have started shopping at a grocery store out of town, so I don’t have to run into people we know who saw his mug shot in the newspaper. Or that the day it appeared, I returned home from shopping and found the newspaper, folded with the police blotter blurb about his arrest, circled in black marker and stuck in our front door. As if we’d want an extra copy for our family scrapbook, so one of our longtime neighbors put it where we couldn’t miss it. Or maybe it was some friend of his who thought it was funny. Or perhaps that cop he stupidly kept calling “Baldy.” Or who knows, it could have been a victim aiming his anger at my son at me.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

I pay taxes, too, I could say. I could add that I was a homeroom mom and stayed at home during his pre-school years; that his father and I were married and gainfully employed; that we did PTA, Boy Scouts, Sunday School, and soccer camp; that we never missed a school open house. That we vote, volunteer, and respect the laws of our nation. I myself have never even received a speeding ticket. Somewhere in a bookcase is an accolade from the Board of Education for my hours of service and good deeds. Good Citizenship Award the certificate reads. It is signed, dated, and framed. On paper, we should have been the perfect family. But here I am—here we are—anyway.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

Not all things are as they appear on paper, and not everyone is as kind, or forgiving, or understanding, as the lady who took my arm in the waiting room.

The visiting hour feels like it lasts for days. He’s told me, more than once, that the thing prisoners crave more than anything is a visit. It’s the only thing that breaks up the long days of sitting locked in the cell with two or three cellies, even though there are only two beds and the cell was built for two. Going to sleep early because there’s not enough to eat. Being locked in all day if the staff is short-handed. Having nothing nothing nothing to do.

I don’t tell him that I almost have to take a Valium just to make the phone call to schedule the visit, that the first time I went, the minute I got home I threw up. That this hour is like torture to me. That I want out of there so badly, my skin is nearly crawling with it.

So many things I don’t tell him. So many things I don’t tell anyone.

I hear the other lady laughing. I lean back and sneak a peek at her. She’s hugging the phone to her face, holding her hand to the glass. She’s laughing, happy to see her boy, comforted by knowing where he is, even if here is here.

I envy her. But she’s not me.

Finally, the hour ends. My son asks if I will be back next week. “Me, or Dad,” I say. I must sound unsure because he looks disappointed, so I add, “Me. I’ll come, I promise,” reassuringly.

He leaves. The other women and I go back the same way we came in: gate, room, elevator, gate, waiting area.

I get my coat. The lady is next to me. Her excitement is gone, and she is quiet as she pulls a heavy black cardigan, nubby with age, off its hanger and slings it around her shoulders. I touch her arm.

“I hope your mother gets better soon,” I say.

“Aw, thank you, baby,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you next week?”

I say maybe. We walk, side by side, past the guards who don’t say goodbye, into the very cold but sunny day. She goes to the bus stop and huddles into her coat, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm.

I head to my car. I want to run as fast as my feet will carry me and never come back. Instead I walk into the wind that bites the tops of my ears and makes my face go numb. It feels good, though. It feels clean.

I didn’t bring gloves. I slide onto my seat and turn on the ignition, and let the heater run until I can flex my fingers again. I open the glove box and pull out my purse and cell phone. In the back is a journal I tossed there long ago, for reasons I can’t remember. I pull it out now and move my seat back as far as it will go.

I set it on the seat beside me and glance out the window, and I wipe my hands with a disposable, antibacterial tissue. The building is gray, with thin slats of windows cut into it, and razor wire looped over the edges.

It’s all material.

I shut off the engine and open the journal. I dig into my purse for a pen, rushing before the cold seeps back in. I don’t want to write about the cost, real and mental, or the fear, or who broke what rules and why. I want to put down on paper not what we should be, but who we really are as a family. I want to write about other mothers like me.

For other mothers like me.

I write about the kindness of a stranger. About the touch on my arm. About the question, “You all right, baby?” About my promise to be here next week.

RamonaLong-landscapeRamona DeFelice Long was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Creative Nonfiction in 2013. This piece is from a collection of essays about writing, work, women, and… some other things.

Kaleidoscope Mind

I am not your stereotype. People often have a preconceived notion of what Attention Deficit Disorder looks like. They imagine little children running around like wild animals, having temper tantrums, not paying attention, lacking the desire to learn. When I explain that the scene they imagine isn’t anything like my life, they don’t believe me. Possibly they imagine me running around my house when I get out of work like a madwoman—arms flailing, jumping from sofa cushion to sofa cushion. (I don’t have the energy.) They assume my house is in shambles—dirty dishes in the bathtub, car keys in the freezer, dog food on the nightstand. (It can get disorganized, but nothing like that.)

ADD manifests in people differently, although the term suggests a problem with attention, mine is with memory. I can’t remember what I am thinking. I can’t recall what I should be doing, or what my priorities are. I could tell you what I was wearing on Columbus Day in seventh grade when Jason Almeida asked me to be his girlfriend—light blue, ripped jeans and a periwinkle baby-tee with a pink heart sewn on the chest—but I can’t figure out what training I attended yesterday at work, or, mid-conversation, I may have to stop and ask the person I’m speaking with what point I was trying to make.

I can’t remember whether I fed my dog, so I feed her again. I can’t remember whether I returned a friend’s call, so I call again. I can’t remember whatever it is I am trying to remember. This means that bills are never paid, tasks are not completed at work, and people feel neglected. I forget friends’ birthdays; I forget to put gasoline in my car. The alarm doesn’t go off because I didn’t set it, and I wake up late for work. Once I am already on my way, I realize the tank is empty, and I need to turn off the highway and stop at a gas station so that I don’t end up on the side of the road, with the lever resting on empty. My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

I know I have the ability to find my thoughts. I just can’t figure out how. The thoughts are lost, and I always feel like I’m bordering on panic. It’s similar to losing a piece of jewelry while swimming in the ocean. You had the ring on your finger, yet when you emerge from the waves, your hand is bare. You didn’t even feel the metal slip away while you let your hands crash into the waves and move your body along the water. Like my thoughts, the ring can’t be found. You know where they both are—the ring sinking somewhere in the ocean, my thoughts trapped somewhere in my brain.

Sometimes I see the glint of a thought in the murk, so I push deeper, concentrate harder. This is what it feels like most of the time. Forgetting something, pausing to remember what it is I’m trying to recall, the sudden feeling that I might be headed in the right direction, but unsure of the exact location. Forging through, I spend much of my day in limbo. There are moments of clarity, times of unknowing, but between the two, I sort of float in the indeterminate state of uncertainty. A constant reminder that I am misplaced.

When my thoughts are not lost, they are unpredictable, and I’m unable to grab at them. When I was depressed a few years ago, this was much worse. It was like an amusement park ride, the merry-go-round, where thoughts circle around and around and around. I try to keep my eye on just one horse, but it rides away, blends into the others. Almost being able to reap the reward, but never being prepared enough to get the prize.

I am supposed to remember to take my medication. After two years of missing doses, I’ve finally started to remember to take the pills every morning. Before, I only took them every two days, or once in the morning and the next day in the evening. Never with enough regularity to make the medication work.

I complain about not being able to think and having jumbled thoughts, but I have the opportunity to do something to make myself better, and I don’t do it. I won’t feel better if I don’t take the medication, but if the medication wears off, I just don’t remember that I need more.

Most people might envision a simple solution: Remember to take the medication. They might suggest I find some way to set up a reminder system that will force me to take my medication. That, in fact, is correct. I need to set up a foolproof system that forces me to take my medication. I have tried putting my pills on my sink so that I take them when I brush my teeth in the morning. I forget, or I knock them down the drain by accident. I have tried taping them to my calendar. I forget to look, or it takes me a minute to figure out what day it is, and by the time I’ve sorted that out, I can’t remember why I am staring at the calendar. I send myself automatic emails at work: “TAKE YOUR DAMN MEDS, ERIN!!!!!!!!!” That worked for the first week. Then I forgot to keep sending the emails.

I used to be opposed to taking medication, especially because Attention Deficit Disorder is medicated with controlled substances. I grew up believing I could handle all of my problems without any outside help. To be unable to handle thinking makes me feel like a failure. Failing and forgetting do not make for a successful brain.

Even now, when I can feel the effects of the medication, I’m still ashamed. Prescriptions for controlled substances can only be dispensed in thirty-day sets, so every month, I need to contact my doctor and ask for a refill. Then, I need to pick up the prescription from her office, which is twenty minutes away, and travel the twenty minutes back to my hometown pharmacy. I need to wait in line, have all the documents ready before it’s my turn. I need to present a form of photo identification. The pharmacy clerk takes my ID, looks at me, looks at my prescription, and looks back at the ID before writing my birthday and license number on the prescription.

There is always a second glance. Once, while handing over my ID, the pharmacy clerk told me that his daughter takes the same medication. He asked me whether I have a boy or girl, and then he realized the name on my ID is the same name on the prescription.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have assumed. You just look so professional and, well…,” he says, stammering, “you just don’t look like you’d need this.” I’m not quite sure how to take his comment. Do professional people not need medication? And if they don’t, does that make me less of a professional? And if, because I rely on a medication to help me stay focused, and I’m viewed as less than professional, who am I? I wish I’d asked him.

I tend to fill my prescriptions on Saturday nights, after I leave my second job, where I work as a psychiatric case manager for adults with mood and personality disorders. I’m exhausted because by this point, I’ve been working every day without a single day off in weeks. I’ve driven the forty-five-minute trip home; it’s almost midnight. I need to be back at work by 8:00 am, which means I need to leave the house by 7:00. I want to get in and out of the pharmacy as quickly as possible. At this point, I’m lucky if I’ll sleep five and a half hours. More than likely, I’ll only have four or five.

I usually see the same pharmacist every month. He’s an older man, and he’s always busy when I show up, but he stops what he is doing as soon as he sees me and always fills my order in less than ten minutes. He’s nice, always makes me smile, and remembers my name.

My mother tells me he used to be friendly with my father. The next time I see Bruce—whether that’s his real name or not, I can’t be sure, but that’s what I’ve taken to calling him—I wonder what he thinks when he fills my orders. As a pharmacist, you know all of the medication prescribed to every member of a family, but you don’t have access to any of their medical records. You don’t know whether Wellbutrin is prescribed as a method to help someone quit smoking or to alleviate their depression. You don’t know why a person needs the medication you are preparing for them. You can only speculate. Now that I know Bruce knows my father, I wonder about him. I wonder if he’s only been nice to me because he is familiar with my family or because I’ve actually developed a rapport with him. I wonder if he knows my name because I stop and talk to him whenever I’m in the store or because he sees Corriveau on the prescription and remembers who my father is. I wonder if he ever looked at my prescription history and thought, Wow, what the hell went wrong with her?

I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t.

Either way, Bruce does his job well. Recently, my doctor changed my medication from the capsule to the pill form. Before he even looked at the computer, Bruce asked me if there was a change. “I thought you got the suspended release not the long-acting,” he says before I walk over to the seating area. I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t. I just smile and tell him that yes, a change was made, and thank him for being so cognizant.

 *     *     *

I don’t realize how much I appreciate Bruce until he isn’t there one late Saturday night. Traffic is heavy, so I don’t arrive at CVS until about 11:55 pm. I don’t look as presentable as usual. I haven’t put on any makeup that day. I am more tired and worn out than usual. One of my clients was suicidal today, and I spent the entire night talking to him about what was bothering him, making him sign a safety contract, taking away all the possible tools he could use to hurt himself out of his apartment. These included: all knives, forks, letter openers, any rope or twine, his belts including the one on his robe, can openers (in case he opened a can of tuna and used the serrated top to cut himself), razors, plastic bags, duct tape, car keys, medications, light bulbs, bottles of house cleaner. It would have been much easier to just lock him out of his apartment than to take almost everything out of it. Fortunately, nothing happened. From the way he was talking, I suspect his suicidal claims were just a behavioral outburst, his way of searching for attention. But I’m not a mind reader, and I didn’t know what he was thinking. If he tells me he is feeling suicidal, I am not going to question him; I’ll trust those words. By the time I arrive at the pharmacy, I am tired, physically and emotionally. I want to sleep. I don’t want to have to go back to work in the morning.

There is no one in the pharmacy section of CVS besides the pharmacist and me. He looks flustered, we make eye contact, and I decide to just wait patiently at the drop-off station. Two minutes go pass.

“I’m busy,” he shouts, with his back turned to me. I don’t quite know how to respond, as I never expected him to say this. Should I just turn around and leave? Stand there silent or begin an argument? A moment later he turns and says, “Oh, you’re still there?”

He grunts and, with much exaggeration, stops what he is doing, and drags his feet over to the drop-off window. “Yes?” he asks, looking at me. I already have the prescription and my identification in front of me. I push them closer to him.

“I just need one prescription filled,” I say to him. He pushes my ID back to me.

“What are you giving this to me for?” he asks, and I start to second guess myself. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you don’t need to provide an ID when you drop off a prescription for a controlled substance, just when you pick it up. I put it back in my wallet. “Ritalin!” he exclaims, “I’m not filling this now, sweetheart.”

“Excuse me,” I ask him. “Why can’t you fill my order?”

“Oh, so now you’re getting sassy with me, aren’t you? Waited until the middle of the night to fill these controlled meds, and now you just want me to stop everything I’m doing because it suits your needs.” He waves his hands in the air as he says this, and I have a hard time not laughing because he reminds me of one of my clients who circles his hands in front of himself when he’s nervous.

I know there are a lot of rules about filling controlled substances, but I’ve been here before at this time of night. That can’t be why he doesn’t want to fill my meds.

Yes, I think, I do expect you to stop whatever you are doing behind the counter and fill my medication. For all the years I’ve taken anything, be it birth control or antibiotics, I’ve always had the order completed while I wait. It’s like going to a restaurant and having a waitress confront you about your interest in food. He is a pharmacist. It’s not like I showed up at his house at 1:00 am, a drug-sick little puppy looking for my next fix.

I don’t have the patience to argue with this man or even converse with him any longer.

“Is Bruce working tonight?” I ask, hoping he’s just taking a break, that I can wander the store until he returns and helps me.

“Listen, sweetheart. I’m here to help you, and like I said, I don’t have time to be filling your drugs right now.” He emphasizes the word drugs. “You can come and pick it up tomorrow, maybe.”

I’m furious with his ignorance, yet too tired and frustrated to even come up with a response. I stand there and stare. He shifts his feet. Fidgets with my prescription paper, and looks away from me, then back at me, away again, and finally says, “What do you want from me?”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and when I open them, his brows are furrowed, slanted toward his eyes in irritation. I think for a minute about how my grandmother used to tell me that my face would permanently be stuck like that when I pouted as a child. I imagine this man’s face being stuck like that, and how he’d interact with people in happy situations like weddings and births if he always looked like he was so miserable. Then I started thinking about the women who have so much Botox that their faces retain a look of excitement for days afterward. Their skin is so taught that they always look youthful and excited. Even now, my ADD distracts me.

“Here is what you are going to do,” I start. “You are going to look up my insurance information in the computer. Next, you will put in this current prescription. As soon as it is approved, you are going to go behind that counter over there, and count out thirty pills. When you’re done, you will put them in a little bottle, place my identifying label on the bottle, and then I will meet you over there by that counter with those registers, and I will pay you my $30 copayment. Understand?”

He looks at me, blinks his eyes once—twice maybe—and then backs away, goes to the computer, and begins entering the information necessary to fill my prescription.

I’m proud, I realize as I sit in the waiting area. I never stick up for myself. Always too shy to create conflict, I let others have their way and shove my needs further back until they are unrecognizable.

“Don’t expect me to get this quickly,” the pharmacist says, interrupting my thoughts.

I close my eyes again, take another deep breath. I’m zoning out, not paying attention at this point, because with ADD, you either make the choice to obsess about the little details you have available to you—the irritating, rude man, the way his voice sounds when he says the words drug and Ritalin—or you fall into a vapid void of thoughtlessness. I’m in the void now; it’s safer there. If I were to obsess any more, I’d be more miserable.

Some time goes by, and I notice the pharmacist laughing, talking to the man who is leaning against the counter where I stood moments ago. “Those Yankees are going to do it this year, I’m telling you. I’d put a thousand dollars on the Yankees winning the series.”

Now, it is one thing for a person to have no customer-service skills. I can handle that, even if it drives me crazy. It’s another thing to stand there joking and gossiping with a stranger while blatantly making me wait. And to do so while celebrating the New York Yankees? That is crossing the line. I refuse to sit, being purposely forgotten, while an ignorant, rude man roots for my Red Sox’s arch nemesis. I will not stand by and watch this happen.

I rise from my seat and walk with serious intention over to the cash registers. There is a clock behind the register that wasn’t in my view when I was sitting down. 12:39 am. It has almost been an entire hour since I stepped foot in this building. All I need are thirty pills. Thirty pills. That’s almost two whole minutes that could be dedicated toward putting each single pill into a container. Two damned minutes for each pill, and he has not even stepped away from his counter to begin counting.

“Excuse me,” I say, interrupting their conversation. I begin my rant. “I have been here for almost an hour waiting for you to do the job you are paid to do. You have berated me and broken HIPAA regulations by shouting out my medication. If I do not have my pills in my hand in five minutes, there will be consequences.”

I want to smash this man’s head against the counter a few times. I want to watch it bounce like a basketball against the floor, but I just stand there.

“Listen, sugar,” he begins. Sugar? Honey? Sweetheart? Not only is he violating medical record laws, he’s bordering on sexual harassment.

He continues, “If you don’t stop your violence, I’m going to call security.” I actually turn around and look behind me. Violence? Was someone behind me threatening this man? I might be direct with my words, but I’m a five-one petite, blonde girl dressed in work clothes. I’m exhausted, and my body language reflects my fatigue. I don’t look threatening.

Mr. Pharmacy Jerk continues, looking at me, “I can see why you need these drugs, sweetheart. You’ve got no patience. You can’t wait five minutes for me to talk to another man while you sit in your little chair. You’ll never make it in the real world.”

I miss Bruce.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication. I don’t like knowing I will be reliant on a substance my whole life simply to function. Even though I take the meds, there are still life skills I need to practice.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication.

I rewrite lists. Over and over again. There are many reasons I do this. I do it because if I don’t keep looking at the list, I will forget what it is I need to accomplish. I do it because once I start crossing items off of the list, it starts to look messy, and I don’t like to look at a messy list. My life needs to look clean and organized in order for me to feel clean and organized. So when the overwhelming list starts to look disordered, it blocks me. I feel like I can’t control it, and instead of pushing ahead full stream, I retreat. Because that is what I do when my brain feels overwhelmed—I make the conscious decision to retreat even farther.

So I make my lists and then I remake them. And then I make them again. I do this because list making has been consistent in my life. It might fail me here and there when my brain retreats, but in terms of consistency, I’ve always been able to rely on my lists. They’ve been with me since before I even considered ADD as a possible diagnosis. They’ve been with me for as long as I remember. College, definitely. High school, yes. I spent more time writing notes to my girlfriends and boyfriends than actually list making, but it was the same type of distraction. I listened with my brain in class as much as I could without feeling overwhelmed and then utilize the rest of my brain to creatively distract. If I stay attentive and distracted at the same time, I succeed. I take in the information that’s being given to me, and I release the information that’s bugging me.

Each of my notebooks has much more in it than class notes. My blank pages are covered with shopping lists and reminders and drawings of tattoos I might want in the future and directions to the closest gas station. I need to take the time to write the random thoughts floating in my head. I do this to make more room for the lessons.

I’m known for being a great note-taker, which is partially true. Even though only about six-tenths of my focus in class is on the lesson, I’d never succeed if I didn’t try to write everything down. It can be a bit of double processing, but as my boss says when she wants me to increase my documentation, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” This is especially important when it comes to my lists.

Tasks that seem ridiculously simple for some people to remember will not get done unless I create a to-do list. If “take out the trash” isn’t written down, the full bags will sit in the bathroom and the kitchen. The same goes for laundry. If I don’t write down that I need to wash and dry my clothes, I am not going to do it until I am completely out of every last outfit. This could be why I own so much clothing. I will be in the bathroom and notice the full trash bag every time I sit down on the toilet. And, yes, I will realize I’m running out of underwear, but, no, I will not be motivated to act unless it’s an item I can cross off a sheet of paper.

Welcome to the world of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

It is a disease of piles. Everything in my life is a problem with accumulation. Physical piles, including laundry on my floor, bills on my desk, photos on the coffee table, empty packets of Sour Patch Kids and plastic bottles on the floor of my SUV. There are piles everywhere I turn. One trick that does not work for me is writing notes on Post-Its or scraps of paper—another accumulated stack. The notes disappear. Not all, but some. Some notes that were supposed to go together become separated, and while one note says, “Call the insurance company and get rental coverage added to your policy,” makes sense, I can’t call if I lose the other sticky that has the number written on it.

You might think I could just look up the phone number on the internet or call 411 for information, but I can’t, because I don’t remember the name of my car-insurance carrier, the same place that has insured me for the past decade. I try the internet, even though I have no clue what I’m looking for. I type in “insurance company, Fall River, MA” and see a list of possible agencies. Almeida Insurance sounds familiar, until I look at the address and realize the only reason the name sounds right is because it is down the street from my house, and I pass it on my way to work—not because I am their customer. I think to look at the addresses on the Google list in order to find my agency. I know it is off of Eastern Avenue because it’s also close to my house, and I used to order Italian grinders from the diner across the street. I scan through the list, but there are no insurance companies listed on Eastern Avenue.

This does not make sense. I can picture the building. It’s on Eastern Avenue. Wait, it’s on the corner of Eastern Ave. What is the name of the other street? I scan the list of address again. Many of the streets sound familiar. I’ve lived in this city almost my entire life; all the streets are familiar, I just don’t know which one is correct. I spend more than an hour looking at the list, clicking through all the websites, trying to sleuth my way to an answer. I call 411, ask the operator if she knows what insurance company is on the corner of Eastern Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts. After I hang up the phone, without any more clues, I can’t remember why I need to call the insurance company. I go to a meeting, but I’m distracted the whole time, thinking about my insurance company. The next day, I’m looking at my computer screen trying to figure out what number is on the Post-It I taped to the screen yesterday. It’s my insurance company: Lapointe Insurance.

Now, if I could only remember why I wanted to call them.

erin corriveauErin A. Corriveau is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life. Keep in touch with her @ReinventingErin

End of the Line

“A woman like that is not a woman, quite I have been her kind.”
Anne Sexton

For my first appointment at the fertility specialist’s office I wear all grey except for my boots; these are shiny, cherry red. The four-inch heel makes me look tall and lean, as does the loose grey wrap I’m wearing. The other women here are all with men—their husbands, I assume—but I’m alone, and the only one, it appears, who knows how to pull herself together. It is only when I see the other women in their sensible shoes and faded Disney sweatshirts, their bulging purses and doughy, vulnerable faces that I think about what I’m wearing. Then I see what I’ve done, how I’ve dressed all steely and hard as if it can protect me.

 *     *     *

To get to the specialist’s waiting area, I’ve had to pass through a women’s clinic.  Its waiting room is raucous with young mothers in tight jeans, their newborns wailing in pink and blue. A two-year-old in a silver parka flails on the floor, while her mother, grim-faced, flips through a dog-eared magazine. There are no fathers here. Behind their desks, the receptionists don’t smile. I wonder if they have children, if the crying and noise gets to them.

The next room is the ultrasound and imaging waiting room. Women in various states of pregnancy sit in the pink chairs, their bellies propped before them. Pregnant women have always looked smug to me, satisfied, but this is perhaps unfair. Some of the women look past due; they have dark circles under their eyes. They are probably up every hour to pee at night. One woman paces, her hand cupping her belly.

At the end of this room, there are glass doors I must pass through, and then I am in the waiting room of the fertility clinic. A reverse trip from baby to pregnancy to what?  To hope, perhaps. To the glimmer of an eye? No, nothing glimmers. There are no sparks.  Here, tucked away from the bustle and business of life, sit the infertile ones, the sad, the lonely.

It is quiet and dimly-lit in the waiting room. Plexiglass partitions prevent the overhearing of arriving patients’ names or needs. A sign indicates privacy is a priority.  The other patients don’t look up as I take a seat near a low table where pamphlets from special fertility pharmacies are fanned out. There are no children here. There are no children.

But wait, I want to cry out, I have a child, a healthy beautiful seven-year-old daughter, the child I always imagined I’d have—affectionate, verbal, funny and creative.  The quiet in the waiting room, in fact, calls to mind the atmosphere I strived for while she napped as an infant. So what am I doing here, wearing kick-ass boots, in this western New York fertility clinic?

 *     *     *

If you tell people you are trying to get pregnant, you open yourself up to a vein of advice both ancient and technological. Try sex in the morning when sperm counts are higher, someone says. Or take up belly dancing, eat the nut of the Ginkgo Biloba or swallow Robitussin at ovulation, stand on your head after sex, wear jade or malachite, bloodstone to ward off miscarriage. What I need is acupuncture, a full moon or to give away all my baby stuff—that always does it. “Clomid,” an acquaintance says. “Two of my friends took it, and now both are expecting twins!”

 *     *     *

My name is called, and I’m led back to a nurse’s station, weighed, my blood pressure measured, before being directed to a room with an examining table, some chairs and a desk. I wait for Dr. Lewis, lucky to have this appointment. When I first called the clinic in September, the receptionist told me there weren’t any appointments.

“Ever?” I asked.

The receptionist laughed. “No, just not until the new year,” she said, “and we don’t have January on our computers yet.”

I don’t mention that I’m not getting any younger, that three months—a trimester!—is an incredibly long time to wait when one has already waited so long. The receptionist tells me to call back in a couple of weeks, and when I do, an appointment has opened up.

 *     *     *

“Nice boots,” Dr. Lewis says, as she enters the room.

I like her immediately. She smiles as we shake hands, and then sits to examine my chart. What story will she make from all those pages and reports? The facts are these: One healthy pregnancy. A miscarriage five years later. Another a year later. As a short story writer, I want an ending to this story. I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending. I’ve been suspended in this plot for several years now, and I crave the gentle slide into denouement. I even believe, at this point, that any ending is better than this limbo, this suspension, this—dare I say it?—aborted action.

I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending.

I imagine I’m sheepish when I answer Dr. Lewis’s question about the five years in between Maude’s birth and my first miscarriage—the waning years of my fertility, it will turn out.

“I thought I was done,” I say, and then clarifying, “I thought one child was enough.” This never sounds right to me—I sound cold or stupid or greedy, or all three.  “Then,” I push on because she is waiting, “we found ourselves pregnant.”

“Ah,” she says, “I see.”

How genuine is my desire to have another child, someone might ask, if I didn’t even intend to have one? Dr. Lewis doesn’t ask me this. Her manner suggests she’s heard it all before. She is in the business of giving women what they want regardless of their previous hemming and hawing. Because here’s the thing, I hadn’t planned another child, but neither had I entirely ruled it out. I watched how friends had a second child or a third, saw how tired they were, how chaotic their lives. I loved my daughter so much, loved how she would join me and my husband in bed in the morning—my little family all under the same covers, all breathing in the same sleep-filled air. What more could I ask for?

Dr. Lewis explains how we will proceed—tests, blood work, the interpreting of the results, likely a prescription for Clomid or an injectable alternative. “At what point,” I blurt, “would you tell someone to give it up?”

She smiles at me kindly. Perhaps I sound desperate, hysterical, but I believe I’m asking in the abstract. Does anyone ever say “enough’s enough already”? And it seems like a logical question to me, too, rather like asking about departure and arrival times were one taking a trip.

“That would depend on the results of the tests,” she says, “but if in a year, you still haven’t conceived, I’d think it would be time to reconsider.”

I nod. How can I explain myself, my lingering ambivalence and skepticism? Perhaps it’s all defense. Here I am, after all, for all intents and purposes already aboard.  Voting with my feet, as they say. She tells me to make a follow-up appointment and then sends in a nurse.

The nurse leads me to another room with a conference table and asks me to wait while she gets the materials. On the wall across from me, there is a large faux Impressionist print of a round table draped with a pale blue cloth. A bowl of lemons sits on the table, and a cobalt blue pitcher. Behind the table a window is open to the sea. A chair is pushed back welcomingly. It’s pretty enough, but eerie too—I can’t help but notice the absence of people. Imagine the same scene rendered by Mary Cassatt or Degas, a rosy-cheeked infant and calm Madonna nestled in that chair.

“I’ve got homework for you,” the nurse says, entering the room with a big binder.  The cover has a close-up of a baby’s face. The spine says Fertility and Reproductive Science Center Patient Manual.  Homework?

Seeing my look of distress, she takes the photo of the baby out of the plastic front of the binder, turns it around so it is blank. “There,” she says. “Better?”

“I’m okay with babies,” I say. “I have a child.”

“It’s hard for some of them,” she says, “so I just flip it around.”

She’s efficient and fast-talking, so I’m glad I’ve got a pen to take notes. There are certain days of my cycle for certain tests. On the pages that describe these tests, she’s attached post-its labeled in loopy, girlish handwriting. There is a test for my husband to take and this is complicated too, because he must make an appointment with the lab and then bring in his specimen. She gives me a specimen cup—a small plastic cup with a lid.

I’m tired suddenly, overwhelmed, and I wish she’d just say, “Your husband has to jerk off and fill this up with his sperm.” Why not call a spade a spade? I get that in this place of fraught conception babies are off-limits, but is sex too, and the sticky realities of the body? And who is served by this sterile language? In its hollowness and half-truthfulness, it reminds me of the clichés that surround new motherhood. Bundle of joy, for instance, a phrase that made me want to argue. I loved my infant daughter, found her presence miraculous. Still, joy is only part of the story.

When I leave, my big binder in my arms, the waiting room is inhabited by more quiet couples. I pass through the other waiting rooms and into the hospital lobby, and then out into the cold October late afternoon.

 *     *     *

Serophene is the brand name for the drug called clomiphene citrate or Clomid.  Clomid is the first stop for many of the infertile. I know so many people who have taken Clomid, you’d think it was candy at Halloween. It works by stimulating the ovaries to produce an egg—or in the case of all the Clomid multiples—eggs. It is said to make you bitchy and emotional—a kind of hormone-induced craziness. It has other unpleasant side effects too:  my sister-in-law knows a woman who took Clomid for several years in the late eighties, before it was understood that extended use could cause ovarian tumors. She has twin daughters—15 years old—and she is dying of ovarian cancer.

 *     *     *

My second trip to the fertility clinic is five days before Christmas, almost a year since my last miscarriage. I take my husband this time, because I am learning the rules of this place and because I expect bad news. I’ve spoken with the nurse twice regarding my tests, but I can’t get any details out of her, nor will the doctor speak with me on the phone. “She likes to speak with patients in person,” the nurse repeats, as if I’m slow as well as infertile. Again, there has been a long wait between the phone calls and an available appointment. I know this clinic serves much of western New York, but still. Why are there so many women who want babies and can’t have them? A pamphlet I leaf through says six million Americans confront infertility.

When we are all seated in the examining room, Dr. Lewis tells me that the blood work shows that I have diminished ovarian reserves. The phrase calls to mind something military, a regiment after a losing battle. What it means, though, is that my eggs are damaged because they are old. Later I will think about my eggs as my awkward adolescent self, hopeful and waiting, as kickball teams were chosen. “Pick me!  Pick me!”

Poor little eggs, I find myself thinking, poor old gals.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

Together, my husband and I say no, and then look at each other in surprise. We haven’t discussed how far we are willing to go, but we are in agreement that this is too far. End of the line! Let us off! In response to my husband’s questions, Dr. Lewis talks numbers for a while—chances of pregnancy if we don’t try treatment: 5%, chance of pregnancy with Clomid: 6-7%. I’m not really listening anymore. I have the ending to my story.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m happy to answer questions for you as they come up,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m done,” I say, as we leave the office.

“Okay,” my husband says. He puts his arm around me as we pass through the hospital lobby festooned with decorations. Christmas carols play softly. Outside it has started to snow.

 *     *     *

Earlier this week, in Skidmore, Missouri, a town near the one where I grew up, a young pregnant woman is found dead in her kitchen. She’s been strangled, her belly cut open and the eight-month fetus kidnapped. A witness at the murder scene said it looked like her stomach had exploded. It will turn out that the murderer, Lisa Montgomery, had been feigning a pregnancy. She will claim to have given birth while shopping.  She names the baby Abigail, which means “gives joy.”  Montgomery dresses her in pink and shows her off at a restaurant, the Whistle Stop Café, in her Kansas town, before being tracked down by police and the FBI.

The nation is momentarily obsessed and outraged. Montgomery is called a female Hannibal Lector, a womb-raider and worse. A Christian blogger wishes her a long, torturous stay in hell. As horrific as this crime is, it isn’t a first. The women—and it is always women—who perform this crime are desperate for a baby and to fulfill a childbearing fantasy. They also hope the baby will cement a relationship between themselves and their partner, who usually knows nothing of their plans.

Winter in that part of the Midwest doesn’t mean the clean whiteness of fresh snow, as it does here in New York. Winter in places like Skidmore means dried brown yards, bare trees against a stark, colorless sky. The light is bright, but not warm or golden. More like the intense lighting used for mug shots, the sharp light reveals all the blemishes and bruises of these sad towns—listing porches, chipping paint, buckling sidewalks, boarded up storefront windows on Main Street, grit and dirt and grime. Lisa Montgomery worked two or three shitty jobs and pretended she was pregnant. She also raised rat terriers, which is how she met her victim. She couldn’t afford the fertility treatments available to women like myself, nor would she have access to a foreign adoption, which would require travel and money. A domestic adoption costs plenty, too, and couples wait up to five years for a child.

None of this, of course, excuses Montgomery’s brutality and violence. Her motives are harder to comprehend when one learns she already has four children—though nearly grown—from a previous marriage. Still I can’t help feeling that Lisa Montgomery didn’t act alone. I lay some blame on a culture that persists on viewing motherhood as a woman’s greatest calling, on Baby Gap and Babies R Us and on all the mail-order catalogues specializing in quaint nursery furnishings: Pottery Barn Kids, The Land of Nod, Company Kids. And on People magazine and their covers with celebrity moms, proclaiming the joys of motherhood. “Of all the roles I’ve had,” says one star, “motherhood is the most rewarding.”

At the crime scene in Skidmore, the local sheriff said, “Someone was wanting a baby awful bad.” What amazes me about Lisa Montgomery’s story is that she knew how to perform a C-section without harming the infant. By this point in my journey, the desire and desperation—that huge wanting—doesn’t surprise me at all.

 *     *     *

I spend the next month telling friends and family that I won’t be having any more children. At the same time, I start having fantasies about boarding a plane to China or Guatemala or Korea and adopting a baby girl. In theory, it seems easy and perfect—no morning sickness, no refraining from coffee or wine, no need to buy maternity clothes, a kind of reproductive outsourcing. I think about the ads I’ve seen in the campus paper, couples looking for knocked-up college girls who might give them their baby for adoption. All medical expenses paid, a loving home, the ads promise. I think about finding one of those students and making the same promises, and more, anything–I will promise them the moon. And yet, when I set out to research adoption, I don’t get very far.  I’m travel-weary, unready for this endeavor with its attendant uncertainty and waiting and expense. In Barnes and Noble, and then later at the public library, I can only stand before the bookshelves noting the many hopeful titles and bright spines.

At first I resist the impulse to pack up all the baby equipment from my basement.  There are plenty of other things I might do—work on my novel or my collection of stories, plan my classes for the upcoming semester. But nothing is as compelling as clearing out that stuff, making way for the future. I give away boxes and bags of baby clothes, puzzles, games, books, tucking away only a few of our favorites.

*     *     *

Despite the good doctor’s statistics, I will get pregnant two more times. Each time, I feel a certain smugness and surprise. And each time, the pregnancy ends in miscarriage. The calendar is littered now with a jumble of birthdays gone wrong, due dates I failed to meet. And there will be no answers from the doctors, no explanations.  There is no ending to this story it turns out, just as there is no baby at the end of my pregnancies, something I—foolish girl!–should have understood. Instead of a baby, this is what I have in the end: a list of unused names (Clara, Ruby, Gabriel), a pair of buttery fleece booties with the tags still on. And this: an ache that hits not when I hold other women’s babies, breathe in their milky new smell, but instead when a recipe fails, keys are lost, a carefully planned trip gets cancelled.

photo(8)Rachel Hall’s short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, Water~Stone and It’s A Girl!: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press). In addition, she has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and Ragdale. She lives in Rochester, NY with her family and teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

The Call

Tonight I lie here, mostly awake, sometimes half-asleep, praying the phone doesn’t ring.

It’s the early ’90s. In my second year of college, I’m volunteering with the local women’s shelter. Tonight I’m covering the sexual assault help line. I usually cover domestic violence and have received a few calls on that line, but never on this one. I’ve been trained extensively and supposedly know what to do, but I never sleep on these nights. I just wait.

I don’t kid myself. I know that just because the phone doesn’t ring, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in trouble—it just means they aren’t calling for help, at least not on the phone. I lie here awake, staring at my digital clock, which now reads 12:15 a.m., two hours since I crawled into bed. The burning smell of kerosene still stings my nostrils from the space heater I shut off before feigning sleep.

I wonder how many girls or women are out there who at this moment should call, need to call, but can’t because they’re ashamed or feel unworthy of help. Then I doubt and demean myself with each thought: How can I help them? What can I say or do that will make a difference? I know the words I’m supposed to say by heart, I know the forms to fill out, the procedures to follow. How can I help them when I couldn’t help myself?

So I lie here and tremble, trying to convince myself it’s only the cold. But that’s not it. Yes, it is winter in Iowa and my piss-poorly insulated bedroom is directly above our garage. But it’s the fear and doubt contracting every muscle that’s making me shake, not the cold.

3:34 a.m. The phone rings, and it wakes me from the place where my mind has crept, that day almost ten years ago when I was sixteen, the place it goes on these nights, on many nights, even when I’m not on call. I answer on the first ring because I know it’s not a wrong number, even though I hope it is. I know the longer I lie here, the more time I have to remember my own call.

*     *     *

At the doctor’s office, the one where my mom worked and I would work a few years later while in college, I sat in the worn, orange polyester chair opposite the doctor’s composite-wood desk. The desk and I were surrounded by paneled walls and bookcases filled with medical textbooks and various anatomy models. I stared at the family photo on his desk: his slightly obese, mousy brown-haired housewife and his two dark-haired kids, all of them smiling. The boy looked exactly like his dark-haired, bespectacled father who sat across from me. All four looked so happy.

“Please call them—they can help you,” he said as he slid a piece of paper across his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They’re trained for just this kind of thing. You don’t have to press charges, but you need to have evidence in case you decide to take action against him at some point.”

Evidence? The good doctor obviously didn’t get it. There aren’t any bruises, at least none that can be seen. He didn’t have to drag me to his room; I went willingly. There may be fingerprints, but they’re in all the places I let him touch me. My clothes aren’t torn; they came off mostly by my own hand. There is no evidence.

I stared at the piece of paper, not touching it. The corner was oil-stained, probably from the sandwich he had eaten at lunch; there was the sharp odor of onions coming from a garbage can I couldn’t see.

I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to have to explain, again, what happened. I just wanted to go home and pretend everything was okay. Something I told myself I could do until I had to see him at school the next day.

The doctor reached across the desk, slid the paper back to his side and dialed the number (the one I would know by heart some day). He told the person who answered that there was a girl in trouble who needed their help.

Trouble. That’s exactly what it was. I had done something bad and now I would be punished.

“They’ll have someone waiting for you at the hospital. Good luck,” he said, as he guided me out his office door and down the hall toward the waiting room.

My mom, with her curly, dyed-red hair and big round glasses, was perched on the edge of her chair behind the glass pane of the reception office. I had called her from my friend’s house where I’d gone after leaving the boy’s house. She had told me to come to the office right away.

“Do you want me to go with you? I will. They can handle all this by themselves,” she said with a sweep of her arm over various insurance forms and patient charts.

“No. I’ll just go by myself.”

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move. She pounced on the pause.

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move.

“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m coming with you,” the tone of her voice insisted an argument would not be had. She was never a large woman, only about 5’4’’ and 120 pounds, but she looked massive to me at that moment, ready to take charge even though she was plunging into an unfamiliar world. She used to work at the hospital we were going to, so the location was familiar. But I was her only daughter and the only person she’d known in this “situation.”

As we got ready to go to the hospital, I watched her striding toward me from behind her glass-enclosed office, her big purse and white sweater secured over her arm like a shield and sword, I felt safe for the first time that afternoon.

She would tell me, years later in an email when I ask her about that day, “I wish I had been better with you, and I will always regret that.” But on that day when I was sixteen I didn’t know how much better she could possibly be.

*     *     *

“They have someone waiting down at Mercy,” the woman on the other end of the sexual assault line says to me. “I don’t know if she’ll talk to you or not. Call me when you get back.”

I put on the clothes I laid out especially for this (jeans and a sweater), as if they were a fancy dress and corsage for senior prom, and creep out my door, trying not to wake my brother in the next room. I tiptoe into my parents’ room and gently nudge my mom into a semi-state of consciousness.

“I got a call,” I say.

“Be careful,” she mutters, “and wake me when you get home.”

I put on my coat and gloves, and head out the front door, locking it behind me. The cold January night, or maybe rising panic, pulls the breath from my lungs. I get into my car and turn the key in the ignition, praying it won’t start. It does, so I sit there waiting for the car to warm up. (“Never drive a car with a cold engine,” my dad’s frequent admonishment resounds in my ears.) But the car is just fine—I’m the one stalling.

As I wait for the frost to melt from the windshield, I think about where I’m going and the girl waiting for me at the hospital.

I pull out of the driveway and inch up the street, convinced it’s because I’m a cautious driver. But what I want to do is race over every icy patch on the road and never make it to the hospital.

What am I going to say to her? I mean I know what I’m supposed to say to her, what I’ve been trained to say: “It will be all right. It wasn’t your fault. You aren’t to blame.” That doesn’t mean anything, and I know it.

I know she feels like shit already. I know she thinks it will never be all right. I know she thinks it was completely her fault and that she’s the only one to blame. What can I possibly say to her that will help? What can I tell her to make her believe that what matters most is that she survived, at least initially?

What did the woman say to me?

*     *     *

The rape crisis counselor was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. As she walked toward us, I could see she was a little younger than my mom and had short brownish hair, not unlike the color and style of my own. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved, yellow polo with the collar turned up.

When she reached us, she grasped my hands and looked into my eyes. We stood there for a moment, staring at each other.

“Are you okay?” she asked me in a near-whisper.

She didn’t ask the question like you’d ask a person you hadn’t seen in a while and could care less if you ever saw again (“Hi! How are you?”). She asked as if this obligatory question was more for my mom’s benefit than mine, like she already knew the answer but had to start somewhere.

Instead of saying “Yeah, I’m fine,” the standard reply, instead of telling her what I thought she wanted to hear because we were strangers and what do you say to someone when this has happened, I said “No” and started to cry.

I glanced up at her and saw that her brows were furrowed and her eyes squeezed shut. She stayed like that for a second or two, like she was preparing herself, and then she opened her eyes. She was crying too and pulled me into her arms, wrapping them around my bony teenage frame while my mine hung limp at my sides. And then, almost imperceptibly, she started rocking from side to side. Her gesture didn’t just comfort me—it gave me a sense that this embrace, this coming together of two strangers, was as much for her as it was for me.

A nurse approached us, a blur of white through my watery eyes. “It’s time. Come with me,” she said as she directed us into an exam room. She followed us in and shut the door.

“Have a seat on the table.”

She grabbed a clipboard and pen from the desk near the door. And then she began to ask the questions:

What happened?

Do you know him?

Did you have these clothes on?

Did he hit you or physically abuse you in any way?

Was there full penetration?

Was he wearing a condom?

Did he ejaculate?

Are you using any kind of birth control?

Did you urinate immediately after?

Did you wash, shower, bathe or douche?

 And with each answer I gave, she checked off the appropriate box on her form, never looking at me, apparently not even curious or concerned if I was the one giving the answers. I wanted to punch her in the face.

“Now you need to completely undress, put this gown on and lie down on the table. We’ll do the exam as soon as the doctor gets here.” I did as I was told.

A few minutes later there was a soft knock at the door and the doctor walked in. He glanced in my direction and gave a slight smile, the corners of his mouth flicking up. He reached into a drawer and grabbed paper bags, labels and a sealed package of sliver instruments.

“OK, miss, please lie back on the table and put your feet in the stirrups,” he said. “We’ll be done soon.”

And then he raped me all over again.

*     *     *

At the hospital, I walk through the emergency-room doors. There is a nurse sitting at the triage desk; she appears to be the only one here tonight. I can’t see her face—her head is drooping and all I can see is the top of her white, double-pointed cap reminding me of the ears of an albino cat. I clear my throat and she slowly lifts her head, her lazy eyelids look like raised roller shades.

“Hi. I’m from the women’s shelter. I’m here to see the girl who was brought in a little while ago.”

“They just started the exam. It shouldn’t be much longer, and then you can go in and talk to her,” she says as she lowers her head to stare at the paperwork on the desk.

“Does she have anyone in there with her now, a friend or a relative?”

“No. She came in alone—she’s by herself.”

“Can you please let her know I’m here and ask her if she’d like me to be with her?”

She slowly raises her head again and glares at me. I want to punch this nurse, too. I open my mouth to repeat what I said, just in case she didn’t hear me. Then she pushes away from the desk, the wheels of her chair squeaking as they roll across the pristine white floor. She stands and plods off in the direction of the exam room.

As I wait for her to come back, two police officers walk down the hall toward me. I stare at the ground as they pass. They pause a few feet from me and I hear a bit of their conversation.

“She came in here ’bout half an hour ago saying someone raped her. I think it was her boyfriend or some guy she’s dating. She didn’t seem too upset, though. She wasn’t crying or anything.”

“Yeah, kinda makes you wonder. You know, you push a guy too far, get him all worked up, and you’re just asking for trouble. God, I hope we’re not here all night.”

“Yeah, me too.”

*     *     *

“Lady, I understand you’re with the sexual assault place and all that, but we really need to question her alone. We tend to get more truthful answers when there aren’t a bunch of people standing around listening to the alleged victim’s responses,” the officer said to the woman.

“Officer, you get the answers you want from these ‘alleged victims’ because there is no one in the room with them. You either question her while I’m here or you don’t question her at all,” the counselor retorted, her arms bound tight across her chest.

After what just happened at the hands of the doctor, I couldn’t imagine anything worse was possible. While I laid there with my legs spread open, he pulled out strands of my pubic hair and used a huge plastic syringe to collect the boy’s cum. He bagged and marked my clothes as evidence and drew blood to test for STDs and pregnancy.

But worse was possible.

But worse was possible.

While I sat there wearing nothing but a crinkled paper hospital gown and a starched sheet tossed across my battered bottom half, these officers made me regurgitate every detail of the afternoon. They asked me the same questions the nurse had, only they weren’t as sympathetic. Instead of the nurse’s indifference, they flung the questions at me with an accusatory tone and a fixed idea of who did what. They didn’t see me as someone’s daughter or girlfriend, but as a girl who led a guy on, a girl who asked for trouble.

“I’m sorry young lady, but you’re going to have to try and stop crying. I’m having a hard time understanding you,” one of the cops said a few minutes into questioning. I’m going to have to stop crying. When? When is that supposed to happen? After I can’t see his familiar face looming over me anymore, his eyes and mind shut tight to what he was doing to me? After I can longer hear him telling me how sorry he was, but he couldn’t stand me talking about his best friend anymore? After I can no longer see his smug smile as he asked me through the open window of my car if he can call me later, while I frantically try to get the key in the ignition? Just when am I supposed to stop crying?

*     *     *

I’m sitting in the lobby of the emergency room watching some stupid late-night talk show when the nurse comes out of the exam room and walks over to me.

“She doesn’t want anyone in there with her, now or later,” she says, her hands fixed defiantly on her wide, white hips. “She doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else. She just wants to be left alone.”

I look at her face, void of any care or sympathy, the product of years of seeing broken, bloody bodies represented only by a name on a chart or a tag on a toe. An angry blush rises to my face as I ball my fists.

“Please give her this information…it has the crisis line number in it,” I say, as I shove a pamphlet toward her. “Tell her if she needs to talk, anytime, to give me a call.”

She swipes the pamphlet from my hands, turns and stomps away. I walk out the door and drive home. Once there, I slip into my parents’ room.

“I’m back,” I whisper to my mom.

“Mmm, good, honey. Everything go OK?” she asks, her voice syrupy with sleep, my dad snuffling beside her.

“Yeah, just fine. ’Night.”

“’Night, honey. See you in the morning.”

Back in my room, I call the crisis line coordinator and tell her about my unsuccessful trip. I change into my sweats and collapse on the bed, wrenching the blankets up around my neck.

Random, angry thoughts careen through my head holding back the ones I know are waiting to take their place, like eager understudies: It still smells like goddamn kerosene in here—it’s probably in the curtains and sheets. Why do I have to be stuck in the room above the freezing garage? Why can’t I change the stupid purple-flowered wallpaper? I’m not twelve years old anymore. I’m a grown woman in college, and I’m still living with my parents. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here. Only two more semesters, and I’m gone.

And then I start to cry. I cry because I couldn’t do anything for the girl tonight and because she wouldn’t let me. I cry for the woman at the hospital who held me together and helped me walk forward into the world of “after.” I cry for all the other women who can’t find the courage to dial the phone, tell a friend, or forgive themselves. And then I close my eyes and wait for another call.

*     *     *

People say girls and women (and boys and men) are “survivors” of rape. But years after the “incident” happened, I had convinced myself it wasn’t that bad because I knew the person who did it to me—it wasn’t a stranger who jumped out of the bushes on a dark night. It wasn’t that bad because he didn’t really hurt me; I didn’t have any visible injuries. It wasn’t that bad because I wasn’t a virgin at the time. What was there to “survive”? People survived a lot worse.

But then I remembered what it was like to see him at school after it happened. Every day.

I remembered what it was like to hear from other girls that he’d done the same thing to them and to hear from my best friend that he’d tried the same thing with her—when we were in 6th grade, years before what he did to me.

I remembered feeling like I was the bad, dirty one and having that confirmed every day in school when people would whisper “slut” as I walked by.

I remembered having to see him at our five-year class reunion, trying to avoid him later at the ten and fifteen-years and the conscious choice I made never to attend another reunion.

I remembered what happened with my first husband. One time when we were wrestling around on the floor of my bedroom, he pinned my arms above my head. I started screaming and crying, telling him to stop, to get off me. I curled up in a ball and sobbed. I stayed that way for more than an hour. He walked out because he didn’t know what to do.

And after all that remembering, “survival” didn’t seem like such a strong word any more.

There was another day in my senior year of high school, when I was riding the bus to a choir performance. The boy was sitting directly behind me with his hand resting on the back of my seat. When the bus went over a bump, his hand would “accidentally” brush up against my shoulder. I had just heard from another person what he had done to them. I turned around in my seat, looked directly at him and said, “I know what you did. I know how many people you did it to. If I ever hear that you’ve done it to anyone else, I’ll go to the police.” His normally pale face went even paler, almost translucent. That was quickly replaced by a tomato color that started from his nose and seeped out to the edges of his hairline and under his jaw. He swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

And when I thought about that day and how victorious I felt even though I knew then that I would probably never go to the police, I knew I had survived something.

*     *     *

Years later in my early forties, I was sorting through books on the shelves in my home library and I thought about him again. Normally when he came to my mind it was in flashes—his fleecy blond hair and blank blue eyes; the way he sauntered down the halls at school; how the window above his bed funneled a broad blade of sunlight down the length of his half-naked body, smothering mine. And all I’d feel was rage, at what he did and what I didn’t do. But this time, something different came to my mind.

His dad.

Physically, they were complete opposites: The boy was about 6’2’’ and 200 pounds, all muscle, more like a man than a high school kid. His dad was barely 5’9’’ and had a dense, mangy beard and the gut of a woman about to give birth. But what I remembered most was how he treated his son.

His son played many sports and played them well. But no matter how well the son did, he could never please his dad. I remembered his dad would regularly stand on the sidelines and bellow at him, calling him horrible things I couldn’t imagine hearing in my own home. One time the boy drifted off the football field after the night’s defeat with his head hanging almost as low as the helmet in his hand. His dad barreled toward him and struck him hard on the top of his head. The boy cowered.

He didn’t look so powerful then.

Through this memory, I saw him as I never had. Remembering him in this new way way, I accepted one, plain fact: He was as much a victim as he’d made me into, on that afternoon years ago. And as victims often do, he fixated on the smaller, silent ones, snatching power however he could—just never in his own home.

Until the day I was there.

Kelly RobertsKelly Roberts received a BA in English from the University of Iowa. After years of writing creative nonfiction, she’s decided to give fiction a go. Kelly lives in Waukee, Iowa with her adoring husband Chris, clever daughter Amelia and rescued wire fox terrier Maisy. By day she works in Human Resources, which provides her with more writing material than she could ever hope for. Cooking, reading and popping bubble wrap—one bubble, one row at a time—are her passions. This is her first published piece, and she is grateful.