Once I was.

Chapter 14/ 2008

Once I was.

For reasons I do not understand, I get up off of the couch a week later.  Maybe the  worms beating against my skull need to get out of the house for the afternoon.

I attend once again to my Holocaust patient.  Twenty-five years ago, I worked in the hospital he has been transferred to.  I know the place well, he will be a lucky man if he gets out alive. 

The flat screen in the corner of his room screams out the new mantras: “Times are tough,” “You’re blessed if you have a job,”  “We’re all in this together.”  

And my favorite, repeated several times a day: “One of the only sectors of the economy not shedding jobs is healthcare.” 

Really?  I am making a few dollars more than I did when I last worked in this hospital, in the shoulder pads and big hair days of “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing.”  The pimps running the agency on Sunset claim they are not reimbursed enough by Medicare, Medical or private insurance companies to pay their nursing staff a decent wage.  Interesting, in that they all drive Mercedes, wear Prada, sport Rolex or Raymond Weil watches on their well-fed wrists, go out to lunch every day and scream into one of their two or three iPhones.  

We’re all in this together.

My patient’s youngest daughter and her husband enter the room, the savagery of their unblinking eyes slapping my face on both cheeks.  I guide their balled up fists into the sleeves of bright yellow isolation gowns, mandated by my patient’s tanked white blood cell counts.  

“Why didn’t you ride home in the ambulance with him?” the husband asks.

“I wouldn’t have had a way to get home from his condo.”

“You could’ve taken a cab.”

“I don’t have the money for a cab.”

“GET ON A BUS.  If you’d gone with him this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’m taking off,” I spit out with the venom of Brooklyn born Barbara Stanwyck.  “I’m sure you can find someone else to take care of him.”

I chose not to continue the scene as Stanwyck would have, employing instead the humble voice of a little boy lost, lovingly slipping my copy of “The House of Mirth” into my 1950s medical bag, its cracked black leather skin in need of a few shots of Restylane filler.

“No,” the daughter says.  “Daddy’s comfortable with you. Why wasn’t his caregiver here? Shouldn’t you have coordinated the trip home with him?”

“He didn’t answer his cell when I called.  Actually, he never answers his cell when I call.”

“None of this would’ve happened if you’d done your job,” the husband says.

The bone white scleras of their eyes hurt my skin.  My balls are killing me, the groan in my stomach is waking up for the day, as are the worms.  The straight boyfriend is right, this is like sewing together a sleeve that is ripped open at the elbow, only to split apart when my fingers point the remote at the curved glass screen of my television.

The daughter and husband smile at the man in the hospital bed.  I sit a few feet away, reading the tale of Lily Bart, a woman whose cup is most definitely half empty.  The man I have bathed, massaged and groomed that morning closes his eyes the moment his daughter approaches, all ears unable to hear the new mantras being mouthed on the flat screen by a meshugge Ali Velshi, my fingers having muted his song when the husband and his wife entered the room.

♦♦

“Their botox is fierce,” the charge nurse, whose Louise Brooks bob reveals an unlined neck, says after the daughter and her husband leave.  

How did I not spot that?

The nurse mimics the way the daughter’s fingers pound into her BlackBerry as her lonely green eyes and immobile face stare down anyone in her way.

Time for the lucky man to lay off Garbo and Stanwyck and start watching “America’s Next Top Model.” 

 ♦♦

At 6 AM a week later, the pimps on Sunset call to tell me my patient is back home.  I arrive at his condo in Westwood early, a surprised sounding kid buzzing open the garage’s black iron gate.  The car behind me, piloted by a young man, follows my unwashed 69 Chevy Malibu into the dark hole I find myself once again descending into.  As I listen to Chet Baker’s breathy “My Funny Valentine,” I try to imagine having the energy to hose my car down when I get home.  The young man, turned out in well tailored new brown scrubs, exits his Honda.  This building sure seems to have its share of sick tenants.  I watch as the young man’s feet tap dance over the smooth grey concrete floor, his body bouncing to the lobby door, white teeth and blonde hair gleaming in the underground darkness.  He appears to be, at tops, twenty-one, the skin on his thin body no doubt feeling every soothing caress breathed out by the heavy air seeping in from the street.  

He is a sweet, funny valentine, alive in the City of the Angels.  

Did I move like that when I started nursing thirty years ago?  Did my eyes look without fear at what was in front of me?  Was my smile welcoming?  My stomach woke me up this morning an hour before my alarm was set to.  Balls swell in pain beneath my years old green scrubs.  I have an apple and an avocado sandwich for my daily meal.  Maybe the Cuban will fix me a coffee after I have folded my patient’s freshly washed bed linens.

The condo is quieter than my apartment is at noon.  The Cuban spots me from her perch at the kitchen table and walks into the dining room, leaving me unable to see her from where I stand.  I walk down the hallway to my patient’s room.  The young man from the garage is at my patient’s bedside, the kid is demonstrating how to suction the trach.  Neither wears gloves, neither gets the catheter in deep enough or pulls it out fast enough.

“This is rich,” I say.

“It’s not me…the daughter…he make the decision” the kid says, his dirty bare feet leaving long grey streaks on the white carpet.  “He say you cost the too much.”

I fix the kid with the look I gave the Armenian.  He fingers his rosary.  It will not save him.  

I look at the young man.  

I did move like that.

♦♦

While executing a flawless turn on to Beverly Boulevard, I use my cell for the first time in over a month to call my iPhone wielding procurers.  Much to my cynical surprise, they are clueless about the young man, offering to pay me two hours show-up time.  It amounts to groceries for two weeks, but if I stretch it, I can also buy GoPhone minutes.

I call the boyfriend.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Real light.  Whatever was pressing down on me is gone.”

The boyfriend is vacating his office to work out of his condo in West Hollywood until things as he somberly states: “…pick the fuck up.” 

I offer to help, but as usual, he wants to do it alone. I head to the his office with a plan.  Now, it will be my turn to keep the boyfriend off the zebra skin of his Crate & Barrel couch.  I will pound on his chest like Stanwyck does whenever she wants a man to do things her way.

I make a left to get off of the always slow moving Beverly Boulevard and take Melrose Avenue to the boyfriend’s office, my fingers touching the steering wheel’s warm plastic, as I smile with the realization that when I start teaching in two weeks my lost year will finally be over. 

Such a lucky man, with so much more to lose.

I do not have to pound on the boyfriend’s chest.  Our eyes looking out on to Highland Avenue, he smiles and surrenders the duct tape to me.  I work on my list of what is going where, then line up rows of sealed numbered boxes in front of his live/work space’s floor to ceiling wall of windows.  The street is quiet, the sun so bright it blanches out the gummy grey layer of film hugging the windows’ exteriors.  In the still air, a man pushes a fully loaded shopping cart up Highland toward an empty donut shop across the street, the baker behind its counter waving the man and his cart away before it reaches his door.  The gas station at the corner gets a customer every few minutes, each purchasing gasoline in odd denominations, seven, twelve or three dollars worth.  I have been feeding my Malibu like that for the last year.  

The boyfriend and I stand at the parking spaces in the back of his building, its burgundy wall deflowered by graffiti, whose elongated lettering and huge terrified faces have never been painted over by the landlords, despite their promise to do so over a year ago. 

“Remember the party you helped me with at the Chateau Marmont?” the boyfriend asks.  “It was so totally your style, guy.  You’ll be living there when your book sells.”

“We slept here because you were afraid someone would break in and steal the gift baskets.”

“Stupid office…I always had to up the volume on the phones when the cars raced by to Wilshire.”

The sliver of red paper I have attached to the floor lamp sticking out of his trunk waves at us as a transitory breeze blows through the alleyway.  The boyfriend’s tears come and go as quickly as the breeze, his head rests on my shoulder a bit longer before he pulls out for the last time from the parking space, his company’s name stenciled defiantly over the nervous colors splashed on to the brick wall.  

♦♦

The boyfriend and I drive the empty streets of the City of the Angels to homes we suddenly can not afford to own or rent.  I head up Gower, watching in the rearview mirror as my lab coat blows in the breeze, its collar secured to a hook above the back seat’s passenger window. Whenever I have left empty rooms with labeled boxes, irreplaceable yard sale bought tchotchkes and beloved pieces of furniture, I was moving to somewhere better, to a place I wanted to be.  I am lucky the streets are empty.  All four of my tires are bald, causing my car to do a wicked shimmy whenever I drive up the ramp out of my garage or make a sudden turn on to Santa Monica Boulevard.  I have noticed many tires like mine lately, SUVs, BMWs, pickup trucks and even school buses, all with  their bottoms bulging out on the insides.  I stick my arm out the window, my palm facing ongoing traffic, my fingers splayed open.  

I still can not feel the air.  

Like the indifference hovering behind the placid faces of my patient’s daughters, I never once tried to open myself up to him, to take him in, to imagine what was going on in his head after watching hours of Filipino soap operas or to have our days together give him some degree of refuge from the diseases slithering through his body.  Lucky man, I was able to forget the kid and the unthankful daughters by the time the magnet of the boyfriend’s round delts pulled my car on to Beverly Boulevard.  My eyes stare at the blank wall in front of me as my tires slide nervously into my parking space, the dead stillness of my lab coat making me realize that for the first time in my thirty years of nursing, I never once entertained the thought of getting close to this patient.  

Everything ends so quickly.

What’s the point?

♦♦

My abandoned lab coat hanging in the closet next to the restless vintage suits I plan to wear when I teach, my jaw drops as I watch the Republican convention. This Sarah Palin is going to throw a wrench into it.  

I have covered the rent for September, leaving me to choose between paying the minimum payments on my credit cards or buying food.  With two full bags of rice in the cupboard, I make the payments.  I eat rice sprinkled with cumin, dill or basil for my one daily meal.  It tastes lousy, like I am eating rice every day.  To keep hydrated and without money to buy fruits or vegetables, I fill up empty three gallon Arrowhead containers with water from the sink, my newly shrunk stomach unable to tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

Gazing straight ahead at the Republican gladiators before them, Levi Johnston holds his pregnant girlfriend’s hand.  I say let McCain win the fucker.  Things will fall apart quicker, maybe then people will hit the streets to change all of this.

♦♦

I apply for unemployment.  First week is a waiting period.  No payment.  They will be in touch for a phone interview to determine if I am eligible. When I call to speed up the interview date, I am bounced around in a voice mail labyrinth whose final destination is hold.  I press the phone to my ear as I wash the dishes and look for my cat, only to have the line disconnect after a few minutes.  I hit redial and rearrange glasses and dishes on shelves lined with faded white paper, its smiling sheen having faded months ago.  I call Monday through Friday and, when not being disconnected after fifteen minutes, wait on hold for an hour or two, never managing to get through, not even at 6 AM.  

♦♦

Thinking it will be easier to write in a tidy apartment during the two weeks before school starts, I decide to organize the piles of books, newspapers and magazines I have not read in the past year.  Instead, I begin with the movies I have recorded but never watched.  What can they tell me that the worms slithering around in my brain have not?  Forget it, I will clean.  Not having the money to buy paper towels from even the 99¢ Only Store, I use old dish towels and rags I have made from torn nightshirts to wipe down table and counter tops, before moving on to the soiled areas around the knobs of once industrial white doors.  Two minutes into running the vacuum cleaner over my carpet, the floor rollers snap after  eating up the lone black nylon sock my cat has been playing with when I am not around.  Lacking the skills required to resuscitate this machine, I affix an upholstery nozzle to the long black flexible attachment hose.  Vacuuming takes a bit longer, as I have to run over everything twice, still it sucks up dirt pretty well.  I have the time, but the exertion makes me hungry, leaving me to wonder if I am cheating by eating two bowls of rice.   

I sit down to write, stomach churning in protest, balls laughing in defiance, my neck tightening to stone.  The truth of my life remains stuck in my fingertips, their refusal to tap out what is real on to the keyboard seducing me, along with the silence of my building, to lie down on couch to read the “New York Times.” 

I fall asleep pages before reaching Paul Krugman. 

♦♦

To save on gas, I walk to the Staples on Sunset to buy the mandatory supplies my instructors at the Teacher Training Academy told me I will need as a substitute.  I show the checker my LAUSD ID and ask for the ten percent discount on supplies the always smiling instructors told me teachers receive.

“No such thing,” the checker says.

I ask to speak with the manager, the customers in line shifting their weight and letting out loud deep breaths.  As the man behind me sighs painfully, the manager tells me there is no discount for teachers, never was.  I charge one hundred dollars for pens, pencils, transparencies, felt tip markers, rubber bands, reams of paper, post-it notes, clip boards, paper clips, manila folders, index cards, chalk and crayons.

The Beachwood shuttle to home, leaving from the Pantages Theater, next to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, costs twenty-five cents.  

A quarter. 

I walk.

♦♦

The afternoon is quiet, my cat sleeping on the couch, stretched out and dreaming.  

I can see, but not feel, the warm air and caressing heat of the City of the Angels, its arms refusing to hold me as they run their fingers over the hedges in my courtyard.  I wear a wife beater and boxers, sit at my writing table and pour hot water over the orange mango tea bag I used this morning.  My fingers scroll through pages of my novel, my eyes smiling as they take in my words, which are not half bad, they are good words, strung together by the invisible chains encircling and pressing in on my heart.  When was it that I last sat and wrote until my fingers were numb?  When the hot air of an afternoon like this held me to my desk straight through to the cool stillness of early morning?  

My fingers rest on the keyboard, forgetting that my way into writing is to edit the words I last worked on.  

Where will I pull the hundred dollars for the school supplies from?  

My eyes move to the chipped yellow paint of my desk.  

I should be able to recoup the money my first week teaching.  

My back pushes into the wood of the chair I sit on, my feet wrapping around its legs.  I have been fired for the first time from a job.  Replaced on the other by what appeared to be a teenager.  Everyone can see who the lucky man is behind his curtain.  The students I will be standing before in two weeks will not listen to anything I say, my co-workers will roll their eyes when I walk past, they will  smirk and tell me about my attitude when I sit with them in the teacher’s break room. 

I turn the computer off and sleep for a day, which is a good thing.  

Lucky men do not eat when they sleep.

♦♦

For the next two weeks, I give up Garbo and Stanwyck to review teaching strategies and rehearse lesson plans.  During my worm imposed naps, I dream I am in front of a classroom taking roll.  I wake up to peruse the passages I have highlighted in “The Substitute Teacher Handbook”  and re-read “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.”  To prepare myself for my new hours, I go to bed every night at ten and wake up at five in the morning.  

To avoid the drama of my computer’s five to ten minute boot up time and the ten to twenty minutes to get online, I set my silver Sony Viao to hibernate, Mozilla opened to Google Maps on the Sunday night before my first on call day.  I will shower while the printer takes its customary five to fifteen minutes to eject the one page of directions to the school I am assigned to.  It is my belief my computer was crippled early last year by the berserk machinations of MySpace’s out of control graphics. 

To compensate for the fact I can not sleep with my phone, its battery so old it will be dead by morning if I remove it from its base, I go to sleep with the ringers of both my landline and fax machine set to loud.  At 5 AM, I turn the television on to something called “Morning Joe,” my ears waiting for the ringers, who have not uttered a word for weeks, to break their silence.  This Joe guy is a serious loser, the bitterness of his smiling cynicism putting to shame the best of my stand up routine.  The ringers have not yet spoken when Joe signs off at 6 AM.  My stomach heaves, my balls tighten and push against my upper thigh in the stillness of the next hour as the light blue of early morning fades into a grey mist.   It is my first day on call.  Tomorrow, I will be working.  

I will write today.  

I switch the channel to CNN, where the red shoes, pencil skirt and tight blouse of Sarah Palin whip her crowds into a frenzy, their cheers screaming for Obama’s blood.  

Tomorrow, LAUSD will call, I think as I check IMDb to see when Leni Riefenstahl died.  I take a nap, eat rice and look at the one can of cat food I have left before falling back to sleep.

♦♦

For the rest of the week, I float in the blue silence of 5 AM, watching Joe and his sidekick, the off the hook and beyond controlling Mika, my only thought being: what retraining camp did MSNBC find this woman in?  

On Tuesday, I feed my resume into the void of Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com and Craigslist.

No response from anyone.

On Wednesday, I call the agency on Sunset.

No work.

On Thursday, I call the 800 number for my insurance assessor gig.  

People have stopped buying insurance,” the voice whispers to me.  It must have something to do with the economy.” 

On Friday, I call LAUSD.

“It’s the beginning of the term,” the voice says.  “Give it another week or two.”

I do not tell any of the voices my bag of rice is getting low or that the cat food can is half empty.  

The worms put me to sleep on the couch, chanting into my ear: “It’s going to go like this now.”  

I wait to be lucky.

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5 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

5 responses to “Once I was.

  1. Phyllis Hylie

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!

  2. hospital lancaster

    I wish to express appreciation to the writer for this wonderful post.

  3. computer services boston

    That was clever. I’ll be stopping back.

  4. Frank Bartlett

    You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. I can’t believe you’re not more popular because you have the gift.

  5. Evan Baldwin

    Awesome job on this post.

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