Mom always said Daddy was a good man. They got married in the forest, built themselves a home and decided to have a baby. Daddy did a lot of building. He had very strong hands. She said they were beautiful hands, with one big vein that stood out on the back of each one. They were hairy, though. She said Daddy had a lot of hair.
When he died I guess she didn’t know what to do. She loved him a lot, anybody could tell even if just from the way she remembered his details. Her memories painted my portrait of him more than any photograph ever did.
Claud was a different sort of man. The skin was thick on his neck and face, and he shaved it all twice a day to keep the prickles back. He had some white spots on his arms that he always said were from the sun, but I found them one day on the internet and learned they were a type of fungus: a mold, sort of, burrowed under the skin.
His arms were thick, usually crossed. His fingers were rough from dryness and daily use of a keyboard. His mind was sharp, he was good with numbers. An accountant. Loved golfing. I don’t think he ever loved Mom as much as he loved golfing. Then again, I don’t think he ever loved Mom much at all.
He loved me, though.
He told me so often, as he cupped his big hand over my entire shoulder, pressing his fingerpads into my arm. That hand would later cup an entire breast, and the first two fingers would reach all the way up inside me so I could feel them hit my pelvic bone. Then his cock did the same, from behind. It happened in my bedroom every night for years and years. It’s how I knew that sleep would be coming soon along.
Mom forgot a lot of things very often. This was no different. Sometimes I would tell her the truth and she’d be shocked, infuriated. Sometimes she’d try to throw Claud out of the house and he would lock her in the hall closet with a key. I would sit on the carpet by the door and cry when she was in there for a long time. I never tried to ask for the key.
But there were many other days when Mom didn’t remember any of it. She would keep saying, Honey, I don’t understand. Honey, what are you saying? On those days she would tell me that none of it was true. Sometimes when Claud was away she would make a bed for me on the couch and put a hot towel on my forehead. She would sit by my feet and we’d watch Jeapordy or Wheel of Fortune. She never wanted to talk about Claud. I think for her it was easier to just pretend he wasn’t there.
Then one day a man named Alan arrived at our home. Alan was a lawyer, and he said he had come to take me away. He said one of my teachers at school had contacted him on my behalf. He had a kind face. Mom was on her knees and crying and squeezing me tight in the entryway, her hands wrapped around and under my backpack. It held four of my school books and a change of clothes. Alan said they would have the rest of the clothes sent to me. It was best if Mom stayed away for a while, he said, so that I could orient myself.
Alan brought me to a hospital where the doctor’s name was Dr. Lambert. He had glasses and a prickly white beard. His hands were warm. He pressed on my belly, listened to my breathing and shined a light into my eyes and ears. Then he put a mask over my nose and told me I would be very sleepy for a minute. A fog came and left me as I blinked up at the ceiling lights, cold and white. In the hospital almost everything was white.
My room was white, too. With a white bed and a white blanket. There was a little white table and chair and a window very high that let white light in. The door was white as well, and made of metal. It locked from the outside.
Alan the lawyer asked me many questions. He visited me once a day, except for Sundays. On Sundays there was a church service in the brunch room of the hospital, then we would go out to play in the gardens. They were simple gardens with bright green grass and shrubs that were pruned to have a curve. Sometimes there were yellow daffodils.
On the other days we would have school, classes in math and reading, sometimes science. The teachers often changed, as did the students. Some would come and some would go. It was normal. Sometimes we helped the cooks make lunch, at least those of us who were able. Some of the residents were unable to help much, so they stayed mostly in the break room. It had a large window, a record player and some books and toys for children. There were a few round tables, all white. The chairs were white, too.
Mostly Alan came to ask me questions about Claud. Alan was kind, but he didn’t listen well. Many times he asked me what Claud looked like, so I had to repeat his description over and over again. It was not difficult for me to talk about what Claud did at night, or that Mom would often forget all about it. But it made me very sad to talk about Mom. I sometimes asked to see Mom, but Alan said it wasn’t a good idea. He would just nod and write, nod and write and ask more questions.
Dr. Lambert said the same thing when I asked him about my mother later on. I began to see Dr. Lambert more and more after my first two years in the hospital. Like Alan, he asked me questions about Claud – but he was more forceful, his voice was louder, his look was more direct. He would fix my gaze and say, Honey, is that what you remember? I always said yes, because it was the truth. I had no reason to lie.
I was seeing Dr. Lambert twice a week when he told me he wanted me to start taking a small pill every morning. He explained that it was to help me experience my surroundings better. I didn’t understand, as I felt that I experienced my surroundings perfectly well. But still I took it, every morning when the nurse brought it to my door with a paper cup of water. She made sure I took the pill, then she smiled and took back the paper cup. She told me not to worry, that lots of people take pills in the morning. “It’s normal,” she said.
At first the pills had no effect on me. I felt the same as I always had, neither happy nor sad. I went to my classes and daily activities. I contributed. I spoke with Dr. Lambert. Alan almost never came to visit me anymore.
Then I began to notice things, details I hadn’t seen before. The paint was chipped in many places on the hospital walls, and often it was scratched or scuffed. The tables in the break room were sometimes dirty, before the nurse cleaned them with a cloth and some Windex. I always volunteered to help her, because I liked the smell of Windex and the blue splatters on the white tables and scrubbing the dirt away.
I hadn’t seen Alan in three or four months, so one day I asked Dr. Lambert if he was too busy with his cases to come see me anymore. Dr. Lambert said I could
talk to Alan any time I wanted, and to just ask him myself. “Ask away,” he said. He folded his hands and leaned forward, smiling. I suddenly felt very ill, so I asked to go to my room. “Of course,” said Dr. Lambert. “I’ll see you tomorrow, honey.”
I had been in the hospital for two years or more. I had not seen Mom since I arrived, though Claud had visited a time or two. I shuddered to think of them alone together but I knew Claud wouldn’t hurt her like he hurt me. He had told me many times he only wanted me that way, not her. He said it was different with me. Sometimes he put his fingers in my mouth and I tasted myself on them. Sometimes he left the lights on during. Sometimes he turned them off.
Dr. Lambert’s questions came to be more direct. He began saying things like, “I want you to be more specific. I want you to be certain. Tell me more. Describe that again. Tell me more.” He began to repeat himself. He was displeased with my answers. He’d lean in and gaze into my eyes. “You know the truth,” he’d say. “You know.”
One day he told me: “Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. You invented him. I’m sorry if this comes as a shock but deep down I believe you must know this.” Dr. Lambert’s eyes were clear. My stomach ached. “You know this, honey. You do.”
I asked for my mother. He said she couldn’t come. “Claud is real,” I told him. Dr. Lambert disagreed.
In his office I sat in a special chair. A soft plastic clip was placed on each of my pointer fingers, which tightened and vibrated when Dr. Lambert pressed a small control button. He pressed the button every time I said it: “Claud is real.” Buzz. “He exists.” Buzz. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt. I read the nameplate on the desk: Dr. Alan Lambert. He asked me again and again and again: Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Yes,” I would say. “Claud is my stepfather. He is real.” Buzz. Buzz.
As the months wore on my memories were crumbling, falling from my mind in chips and blocks. I remembered the taste of Claud’s thick fingers in my mouth, pressing down on my tongue, as I remembered biting my own thumb so hard it drew thick bubbles of blood. I remembered being crouched by the closet with Mom locked inside and I remembered being inside the closet without her. I sometimes remembered her screaming and banging, but I wasn’t sure from which side of the door.
Dr. Lambert’s tone had changed. “This memory is falsified,” he would say. “This memory is untrue. This is a projection. This did not happen in physical life.”
All the white was still there on the walls, but now the scratches stood out to me. I knew the patients were disabled, mentally. I knew that I was one of them. I didn’t know what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was always very tired. I missed my mother very much.
Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Claud is my stepfather.” Buzz. “I… made him up.” A pause.
“Good,” Dr. Lambert said. “Very good, honey. Very good. You’re progressing.”
Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. Claud’s not real. I made Claud up.
That’s good, honey. Great, honey. Good, good, good.
The day finally came when Dr. Adam leaned to me and said the words: “Looks like you have a visitor.” I turned around and there she was, like a ghost or a dream, in a dress and a robelike shawl, hands to her mouth, nervous. She looked at me through downturned eyes, wet with tears.
“Honey,” she breathed, and she opened her arms.
Mom brought me back home in her red station wagon. It had been several years but my bedroom still looked exactly the same. For days we didn’t speak to each other; there was too much and too little to be said. We settled into the house in silence.
It lasted weeks, perhaps, but time had lost meaning anyway.
The little house Daddy had built was chipped with wear and tear, but Mom had kept up good care of it on her own over the years. We spent entire seasons cleaning up the surrounding land and putting up fencing for goats, soft white lady goats for shearing and making wool yarn. Mom taught me to knit hats, then socks the next year, then gloves after that. We planted a vegetable garden and collected mushrooms in the refuse under the dry pine needles of the forest bed, saving them to cook later on.
In the kitchen one night the unspoken monster ripped itself out of me, sudden and ugly. “Was he real, Mom? Did Claud exist?” I felt weak, body heavy and collapsing, mouth wrenched and set in a silent sob from someplace deep down in my gut. She rushed over, embraced me, sat us down together backed up against the kitchen cabinets, humming to me as I cried into her lap, tears pooling on the linolelum. In low tones she told me, “Honey, whatever you remember is real. It’s all real, honey.” She held me that way for a long while, silently, pushing locks of hair back from my face.
Then, as if in a breath, she was gone. She was 47 and it was a Tuesday morning. She refused to wake up for much longer than usual. At first I was awed by her; she had achieved this brilliant, perfect stillness like what the soul longs for in life. I sat on her bed with my hand on her forehead until shadows stole over the room in late evening, as night darkened and bluish light filtered down through the open blinds.
While holding her there in the dark a desperate force suddenly tore through me, like a seizing orgasm of loss and rage, and I clutched tighter the limp head in my arms. How was I supposed to do this? The thought of relocating my mother’s body terrified and overwhelmed me. A wild panic set in, my skin burned hot and I intensely feared my own being. Then suddenly, with a heavy presence, a thick- limbed, light white man occupied the bed beside me. With a large hand he reached out and cupped my kneecap, pressing his fingerpads lightly into my thigh. The other large hand tipped up my chin between thumb and forefinger and Claud murmured into my mouth, “Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll take care of everything now.”
read the back of the
label: it will tell you
your sins for the day
but there will be no
advice for repenting provided. do
it yourself with slimy digits
coughing over the toilet. be
discreet: the sound of a
splintering facade is harsh on
young ears and of course
apart from slim you must
also be strong.
Vienna. Wien. Wiener. Ha ha.
A pulse in the dead heat. Espresso with cream.
Who are you reading? (Hustvedt and Foer.)
Gothic churches, pointed spires, Flak towers that fired 8,000 rounds a minute at Allied forces, including my paratrooper grandfather. Did you know, he would say, that I went up in an airplane twenty-one more times than I came down in one?
Wind. Lots of it.
The fading gloom in Fabian’s massive modern office-turned-flat and his cologne, clearly he has spruced up. He talks of schnapps, good for a stomachache.
A dim, colorfully lit Hungarian café, a nude female mannequin wearing the head of an unknown antlered mammal with eyes on the wrong side of its head — “probably some art piece,” says Fabian, and shrugs.
Onion soup and tea and a seconding of the schnapps notion from the owner of the restaurant (did I ask?), a thin, dramatic woman with spiked bleached tips and a long brown skirt. Fabian drinks three beers and uses Facebook on his phone.
Café Kafka (real), Café Jenseits (smoky 1920’s), Café Sperl (just old), Café Europa (three levels, each one murkier than the last — here Fabian orders a Frankfurter, tells me to “punk up” and drink more Fernet Branca), Café futurgarten (predictably trendy, as a name without capitals will always indicate), Café Phil (for sophisticated hipsters), Café Espresso (a dim bar packed with cool chainsmoking millennials: all seats taken, so Fabian decides to lean up against the doorjamb. I make eyes with a fella in the window. We watch each other, then he watches me walk away.)
Fabian, now drunk, launches upstairs into the swanky wine-and-cheese event of an elite facial reconstruction academy. It is quite small, private, a suit-and-tie affair. Fabian bursts in, raincoat dripping, and shouts (in English, for my benefit) about wanting to eat their “tiny breads” (appetizers.) I am behind him, an actual homeless person. The man who chases us out wears a beige paisley suit worth more than any dwelling I might ever aspire to own.
Hi, I’m Viennese. I study architecture. My grandparents were Nazis, but I’m a vegan socialist. I climb mountains effortlessly, speak English fluently, and my university is paid for. Now you decide, who won the war?
For those too ill to eat:
Sobriety: an unreasonable choice.
Jägermeister: a solid choice.
Fernet Branca: a safer choice.
Averna with lemon: a poor choice.
Café Kreisky and vomiting discreetly into the bright red toilet, Café Bukowski with Charlie himself gazing out from all angles, daring me to do it again (but this time with gusto!) Hey ladies, I think perhaps we should take a cab home. No worries, I’ll pay for it! I’m fine, just going to the toilet. Just real quick.
Small red flecks in the water. Scheisse.
Only one night in the Wien ER (Wiener. Ha ha.) I have become an avid hospital tourist. Thricely stabbed before anyone can locate my artery, as usual, then the waiting room until I’ve been bleeding backwards into the empty IV bag for a while. I sleep in a chair because my friends have to sleep in chairs. We’re there from 1:30 to 5 AM. Stomach virus, Gastritis, the docs tell me. Non-fatal, in spite of the blood in your vomit. Take some carbon. Where shall we send your bill, Miss Worley?
A couple of shows: DOA, a handful of unknown Viennese punk bands at Venster99, Midnight Priest from Portugal way out at Erdberg, me jogging through the industrial district to catch the metro before midnight as I’m still too ill to crash on an addict’s living-room floor. Sometimes I still feel like a phoney — not dirty enough, certainly not a satisfactory alcoholic, sometimes I walk into vintage stores — sometimes I even buy jeans at H&M. Gasp, don’t tell the punks that. But look, I gotta buy pants somewhere and fitting this ass ain’t easy.
One failed departure from the city leading to a short campout at the Westbanhof station and a re-assesment of my mental capacities (Westbanhof is not Hauptbanhof, whether or not you speak German, you scheisskopf.) So back to the house I trudge, and as I am “well” it is high time for a drink — make that three beers — during a Quebecois film about two lovable virgins aspiring to bone each other in public places — 3x4cls of Jäger for 7.50€ (bargain) on the steps of the Volkstheater with Lia and her lipsticked Viennese friends — then one last café to top it all off, tucked under the Gurtel, blacked out on all that Jäger, a couple hours of Actually Dancing to an American swing playlist, and a trek home that I do not remember.
I catch a ride out of the city the next day with a sculpture artist and an atheist physicist Syrian refugee who’s into heavy metal. We listen to the Cypress Hill Black Sunday album on repeat.
That was my Vienna.
“Life is too short to learn German”
After several more hours bedridden in the ER hallway I set into a panic attack, not unaided by the realization that a bout of bloody screaming might get me some information and/or a room with walls. This suspicion turned out to be true – and I received not only these things but also a young swoopy-haired boy who tilted me haphazardly around in the hospital bed, wrestled a bedpan under my naked ass and skedaddled with naught but an awkward murmur of “good day”. The next nurse that walked in asked me urgently “Qui a fait ça??” “Who did this?” but appeared unamused when I told her it was the lead singer of One Direction. She ran back out and was promptly followed by a male nurse, whose only addition was the classic English “Shit shit shit” – never trust Harry Styles types when there are bedpans involved, folks. You’ve been warned. I soon got my Elaine back and more information than anyone could ever want – namely that the L1 and L2 vertebrae of my spine were broken and that I might need back surgery. Then, as punishment for the hallway screamfest, I was taken off pain medication for three hours to reflect on my discretions in hot raw hell, where I half-died.
My shattered half-corpse and broken spirit were together transferred to a neurological hospital and remained there for six days, a constant flurry of morphine, sweat, sponge baths, catheters, really engrossing drug-induced dreams and one stupidly sexy cleaning guy named Armande (like actually), whom I consistently flirted with but faltered mostly due to catheter-based self-consciousness. You know what they say, it’s not easy to woo the cleaning guy when you’ve got a sack of hot urine dangling off your waist. I spent most of my time otherwise arguing with a particular male nurse who was always on me about not shitting enough, probably because I wasn’t shitting at all. But he vanquished me when, on The Eighth Shitless Day In A Row, as it is written, this happened.
Two nursey types pinned my sweaty shelled lobster body against the tiled bathroom wall while a third (pictured) ceremoniously injected The Mega Enema. The Mega consists of no lube, a type of plastic tampon plunger up the ass and three (3) repeated helpings of mysterious butt sauce, each providing prime graphic audio and a very curious sensation of being anally injected with mayonnaise. I remember screaming the words “What fresh hell is this,” which of course nobody understood.
I was released yesterday and will not have to undergo surgery. I will wear my corset brace (soon to be painted as battle armor) for three months, during which time I am strictly prohibited from commuting any way but on foot, including metro, tram, bus, car, bike, and even wheelchair. I can currently walk about thirty feet providing I can sleep for 20 hours immediately afterwards, and will be bed-bathed daily by a home nurse as I am forbidden to take showers.
In short: life of luxury.
Did you know that catheters really do make it impossible to know if you’re peeing? I can’t feel this shit even a little.
To the stout young nursing staff who have been charged with hauling me from stretcher to bed to stretcher to scary full-body x-ray table and back again, I have repeated one sentence more times than I can count: J’ai monté un arbre. I climbed a tree. The grammar’s okay, but people always blink a couple times in confusion. The French just don’t understand this tomfoolery like backwoods Oregonians would. Regardless of whether it’s a decidedly Oregon trait or just my own personal adrenaline fixation, it is something that I have done, do frequently and will continue to do until I am too ancient or too boring, in spite of where I am now: in a French hospital bed wearing thigh-high circulation stockings and a catheter.
Four nights ago I was in good company, rabbling about the gold-dusted cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon after midnight, when lo! thern Orgun kids didth spyieth yon climbin’ trees. I leapt on with gusto and monkeyed about in joy, swinging from branch to branch and watching the twinkling lights of the city beyond. On coming down, I swung from a branch intending to catch myself on one just below, but this here branch was weak as one particular ex-boyfriend’s bad excuses. The tree became the second thing in a month to let me down hard.
The first night here was an utter shitshow. Riding in an ambulance over cobblestones with a broken spine is not something I would particularly recommend; the pain was so blinding that I fantasized a serial killer/armed vagrant/angel of mercy would appear behind me and blast my head through with a small pistol. This seemed at the time to be the easiest, cheapest and most sensible option for everyone.
Unfortunately the medical staff did not agree, opting instead to shoot me with copious amounts of morphine and other drugs and prepare me for a full body scan, which I would wait three hours to go through. My only vision was that of the immediate ceiling before my face, which was falling into various stages of decay. One might say that the sole downfall of the socialist healthcare system lies within its decrepit graffitied hospital buildings (I asked my attendants whose throwups graced the elevator but they had no idea. I’m imagining some feisty in-patient with his bare fesses dragging a leaking catheter and marking his shattered-rib Picasso insignia with a paint can he found in a supply closet next to the rubbers.)
The other notable downside to the socialist healthcare system would most certainly be the waiting times. After my body scan I was left very close to the room it was performed in by a set of double doors for a number of hours, after which I was wheeled back up Graffiti Elevator and into a hallway running alongside patient rooms, where I was left to rot for several more Xanax-muddled hours without any notice of my condition or the whereabouts of my dear friend Elaine, though at this point I was feeling somewhat uncertain whether or not she had ever even existed to begin with.
More to come.