See Dick . . . Less (1)
The water pressure at the condo made the hospital showers feel like insipid watering cans for delicate flowers. This shower subverted them; it pressure-washed her shoulders and even drowned-out the Jimmy Buffet CD playing in the other room.
Steam rolled against the ceiling above the stall. Janie didn’t turn on the exhaust fan, though, as she was supposed to, like he always said to. Mold and mildew, dumbass; that’s what Richard would say. Richard said a lot of things. For eight years he addressed her with gems like: Hey, how about getting your stupid shoes off the floor? You want me to break my fucking ankle?. . .; I like my shirts folded top to bottom, not side to side. . . .; Great, dumbass! You ruined another perfectly good piece of steak with one of your goddammed new recipes. Do you think I’m your personal, fucking money-fountain? And then the classic: Did you take your stupidity pills again today and miss the fact that there’s no toilet paper in the house? The words made her cringe like a cornered mouse. They made her put her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and hope that the person on the other end didn’t hear how he treated her—or worse, that she tolerated it. Richard’s a real charmer. That’s what Janie’s mother would have said. Janie had heard enough.
Water trickled off the tip of her nose, and she smirked. It doesn’t mean a goddamned thing now . . . all things considered, does it. Janie turned her back toward the faucet and lowered her head so the hot tendrils of water massaged her neck and shoulders. A clear, plastic knob stuck out from the center of the vinyl wall. It was one of the pull for “on,” and push for “off” knobs, cut into facets like an absurdly enormous diamond, as if to suggest that a shower is a priceless privilege. It really is priceless, she thought. But she relished the privacy more than she did the hot shower. In the hospital you didn’t get genuine alone-time in the shower. You’d be lucky to get a partitioned stall let alone privacy. Even those pretend jails for rich people probably have individual shower stalls. I’ll bet Martha fucking Stewart had a shower stall. But it still wouldn’t be real alone time because there was always someone there. There was always some monitor standing nearby, some asshole leaning against the wall thinking about their next smoke-break saying, “Turn the fan on, dumbass! Mold and mildew, you know?” whether it was that burly bull-dyke in nurse’s scrubs named Phyllis (that everyone called Phyl, of course) or some undiagnosed obsessive compulsive cock-slinger that shared your bed for fifteen years.
Not anymore, though.
She watched a line of pink suds slither down her inner leg and curl into the drain. She imagined a frothy snake exploring a mouse’s tunnel. The sweet, coconut-scented steam of the shower soothed her. She missed the smell of her own body-wash. They didn’t have that kind of stuff in the hospital. There, she got worn-down bars of Ivory soap and some generic shampoo that came in a big white bottle with no label. It was a medicine-smelling liquid—real scalp-raping shit--probably for dandruff and lice, that the hospital, no doubt, purchased in bulk and distributed in generic bottles to its generic residents. They don’t say “patients” anymore, either; too degrading. Now everyone is a “resident.” It’s all ridiculously p-c. Whether you shit yourself every five minutes because you like the smell, or whether you feel the need to stick your fingers in everyone else’s noses because you’re dead-sure that aliens camp-out in them, you’re still a respected “resident.” But Jesus, don’t say “patient” or you’ll make someone feel like an outcast.
Finding the coconut body-gel stowed away in the cabinet under the vanity would have been a pleasant surprise, except it wasn’t hers. She chewed at her upper lip and considered how Richard ended up with a woman’s body cleanser in his cabinet. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Must be a leftover from one of his whores. The shower water tasted a little like her fingers did when she’d bite her nails after fishing coins from her purse. She had never noticed a metallic tint to the tap-water before. Is it the water? Or is it the blood? It occurred to her that she hadn’t actually tasted anything for months. Since she was put on the medication at the hospital, she didn’t even think about the foods she loved, as long as she was provided with her paper cup of colorful little appetizers before each meal. It made her cringe to realize she hadn’t had an orgasm in the same amount of time, either. And even those were self-induced, at best, for the past eight years since moving to California. Being on the medication left her empty, passive. She felt as though she observed her world through a blurry window and traveled more like an unwitting passenger in a car rather than as the driver. But not today. She felt like the driver today. A driver with road rage. She turned her chin toward the shower-head and rubbed her face with the washcloth.
The house showed no indication of her having lived there. All representations of her presence had vanished, and it had become decidedly bachelor-esque. So quick. It was difficult not to think of it still as her house. Only six months now she’d been gone, but the condo spoke nothing of her eight year decorating investment. All those little feminine touches that made that cookie-cutter condominium their home were gone. Even the curtains. Why the hell didn’t he keep the curtains? Was it because he didn’t like them? He chose them, for Christ’s sake. Or was it because we picked them out together? That’s it. It was spite. Nothing more. Because he wouldn’t budge on the one’s he wanted since he felt he was going out of his way to humor me with buying the curtains in the first place. “With all that home-makeover shit you watch all day, you’d think you could make some frigging curtains by now,” he would say while flipping through the mail.
“What an ass,” she said aloud in the shower stall. Her voice sounded intrusive within her wet, vinyl cocoon. She squeezed more body-gel onto the black washcloth—not one of her washcloths—and scrubbed her arms a third time. That meticulous son-of-a-bitch got rid of it all; he didn’t miss a thing. And he certainly didn’t miss me, either. How could he? With so many “business” trips overseas and around the country—a woman in every port . . .? How would he have time to miss me? He was far too fucking busy after all!
The water felt cooler upon her back. She adjusted the diamond knob so the arrow on the edge fell toward the ‘H’ on the wall plate.
She leaned forward and soaked her graham-cracker-blonde hair, warming her scalp again. The warmth seeped into her skin, down her neck, and into her spine, soothed her spent muscles. It recharged her.
She no longer cared about those “business trip” images in her head. At least she told herself she didn’t care. Her mind conjured lurid scenes of faceless female bodies straddling her husband on some International Inn bed upon sheets held together more by the glue of bodily fluids than by fibers of cotton. The visions only annoyed her before, in the same way those indiscriminate phantom itches do that you can never seem to scratch. She used to believe, used to wholeheartedly trust, that all of it was impossible. He may be a miserable bastard but he wouldn’t do that! a voice in her head would say. She had to believe it. To question his fidelity would be to suffer his answer, and Richard Strictland was more of a doer than a sayer—a man more of actions than words.
How naïve, her new inner voice snapped.
A phone call one evening made it real to her with merely two words: I’m sorry. That’s all Janie heard on Richard’s cell phone, an intrusive voice that came out of nowhere like her own voice in the shower. She remembered he was already deeply invested in sleeping that night. He was exhausted after returning from Spain. Jet-lag, he’d said. When his cell phone rang from the pocket of his jacket, which he’d laid over the kitchen chair, Janie was Googling recipes in the next room. In retrospect she realized she had been making an attempt to make things better, to add some spice to both the table and the marriage by trying new things. She thought nothing of the fact that his phone was ringing at eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night, either. His phone rang all the time, as demanding as a needy newborn. She even pleaded with him to turn off the electronic leash on the rare occasion that they went out to dinner, or when they rented a movie on the weekends. He usually did, but he was always reluctant. Now she understood why. Then his bitches couldn’t call because I was making him spend time with me.
Fur Elise was the ring-tone he chose. She thought the electronic rendition sounded cheesy—whiney like a robot with a sinus infection; a real friggin’ tribute to Beethoven!--but she would never say that to Richard. She remembered shuffling to the kitchen that night and fishing through his pockets so she could answer the phone and not disturb his hard-earned rest. Poor baby. Poor big infantile son-of-a-whore’s-bitch, she thought and gritted her teeth while rinsing conditioner from her hair.
She found the phone, flipped the cover back and said, “hello?” She had expected to hear Jerry’s voice--Richard’s work partner—respond: “Hey, Janie; it’s Jer. Is the old man right there?” he would say. But this voice, a woman’s voice she didn’t recognize, chilled her skin and burned her insides with those two words: “I’m sorry.” It was such a sweet, lilting Spanish accent that it made her stomach heave, then the connection vanished. That’s when something heavy dropped off the top shelf in her mind, way in the back behind boxes full of all those feminine touches, and crashed to the floor in her heart. The shrapnel of humiliation, disbelief, and panic imbedded her soul. The rage would come later. The rage was today.
As soon as the woman with the lovely accent hung up the phone, Janie’s mind indulged itself with a peculiar placement of faces to supplement those flawless naked legs and that perky, plump-melon backside she’d envisioned, riding her husband at the International Inn. She didn’t picture the face of the girl on the phone, of course--unless Richard was banging J-LO or Eva Longoria. They were simply the first familiar Latina faces that came to her in the moment that it all clicked together. They also happened to be figures that most men worshipped but most women despised for being so categorically beautiful, more perfect than she would ever be, and her mind needed something--a catalyst--to bring together the fact that her husband had a very dark and secret life. The face finally completed the puzzle, like a missing jigsaw piece discovered deep inside a floor heating-vent. Eva or J-LO would fit just fine for now. At least the woman on the phone was real, and Janie knew that. The rest was cosmetic.
Janie stopped scrubbing for a second and placed her hand on her own buttocks. She pressed a little, as if testing a tomato’s ripeness, her eyes closed against the raining tap-water. She made a mild grunt of satisfaction. It’s not that bad, she told herself.
The water felt cool again. She turned the diamond more so the little arrow barely tapped the ‘H’ on the head now. She rubbed her eyes and pushed the water back over her face and hair. It was so nice to smell like a girl again. She didn’t find her apricot shampoo, though--he’d long gotten rid of that, she was certain. He hated that smell. Too sicky-sweet, he would say with a disgusted wrinkle in his nose when she’d walk by him. Now she smelled of Aveda cloves--apparently Richard’s new shampoo preference--but far better than the caustic-smelling dandruff and lice crap. Yet the aromatherapy and the warm, soothing water weren’t really the purposes of the shower. They were only fringe benefits. Getting clean was the point. Getting him out. Still, it was a hard earned reprieve. For the short time she had before they would come, this shower was a warm cozy womb safe from anyone, disconnected from the world. It was ecstasy to finally be alone. Well, possibly. She wondered if she was truly alone yet.
The last of the pink suds slithered away. She held out her hands and scrutinized. They were clean now, but still trembling of residual adrenaline. The hot water caused her two wounded fingers to continue bleeding through the bandages. But that was a trivial thing now--as diluted as the blood being washed away. She rubbed at a pale band at the base of her finger below one of the wounds, a haunting tattoo leftover from an absent wedding ring. She tried to massage the stubborn stain out of her finger, but the phantom ring crept back. Anyone else would have to study her finger to find it, but she could still see it.
Janie noticed some crusted blood caked under her nails. She picked at it. They were short these days, too. Long nails didn’t serve much useful purpose in the henhouse, and she never liked them anyway. But he did. Richard liked the way they looked because, “women should have long, sexy nails,” he said. He didn’t say she should have long, sexy nails—but women. Really, she knew he liked the way they felt on his back while he was driving himself into her. As far as Janie was concerned, they were a hindrance that instigated nothing but displeasure. Besides, they would usually break so far down into her nail-beds that it hurt more than it was worth.
But now, her concerns are all that matter.
She finally escaped from him, but not like she’d tried to with the pills. She now regarded her attempted suicide as pathetic. That was a cop-out move like a frightened animal playing dead, or an abused dog running away. Janie felt that this endeavor was entirely more effective, and as for the sadistically disturbing satisfaction of it all . . . she could live with that. She no longer possessed the tether of emotional obligation. He possessed no leverage on her soul. She had escaped him just like she’d escaped from the hospital. She considered the irony in the similarity as she rubbed the stubble on her legs. It was an irony in method as well as in madness.
She considered shaving but thought better of it. Who cares if her legs are as hairy as a gorilla’s now anyway? They served her purpose today, even went above and beyond to get done what needed to be done. Now they are strictly utilitarian, for transportation and for reaching the television set at the hospital. So who gives a shit? At least now my socks will stay up.
It was easy to leave the hospital because it was just like Patty said: “A man could go out in public and whip-out his tool, and just about any woman would scream rape! and leave him eating dust. But if a woman went out and lifted her skirt,” Patty would nod in a very matter-of-fact way here, “ . . . she has power. It may be a man’s society, girls, but it’s a goddamned woman’s world. Any man’s a sucker for a nice piece of ass.” The cigarette in Patty’s mouth would bounce like a little diving board when she laughed. She always had a cigarette, too. Janie realized she couldn’t picture Patty at all without seeing that little white phallus hanging out of her mouth and her stringy, bottle-blond hair draped down like twisted tree roots over a bosom suffering a losing battle against gravity and age. And she’d finish off her lecture with, “Hell, any man’s a sucker for a any piece of ass for that matter! Men are goddamned infantile pigs!” and she’d laugh that hoarse smoker’s laugh, cigarette diving-board bouncing away as if some doughboy had just jumped off doing a cannon-ball.
Janie put Patty’s theory to the test today—twice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all. Her mother would have said that, too.
Brielson-Tave Psychiatric didn’t have any maximum security, nothing that severe. The staff consisted of orderlies and nurses. But even under the little name badges there was skin, and under some of those orderlies’ trousers, there were penises. Alarmingly easy, she thought, impressed with herself.
Patty hated men. She wasn’t a lesbian, though--she loved to screw men--she just hated them as a faction of the species. She was Janie’s inspiration, her mentor. Her own frumpy personal-trainer groomed and polished at some local trailer park or two. Patty preached about being in control, never letting anyone walk all over you or treat you like shit. She was all about grabbing a bull by the horns or a man by the balls and letting him know that she could keep her pants on just as long as she needed to, even though she probably couldn’t. But they didn’t know that, and it was only important that they believed she could. She was good at making people believe things. That was, at least, one of her talents anyway. Maybe that’s part of why she landed at Brielson-Tave Psychiatric instead of Darlington Penitentiary. Thanks to the devilishly persuasive charisma of Carlton Bloom, esq., an attorney with a tongue as slick as the rear of a southern, backwoods pig, Patty had beaten a murder conviction with a Temporary Insanity plea. And she certainly didn’t give anyone else a reason to believe it was a bogus plea.
Patty buddied-up to Janie pretty quickly for reasons that Janie didn’t comprehend. She didn’t much care either. Patty was at least entertaining if not infectious with enthusiasm. Patty had been in the hospital for two months before Janie arrived and took her under the proverbial wing. Maybe she saw something familiar in Janie. But Patty and Janie came from different worlds, different walks of life, and Janie hoped that it wasn’t true. But when she considered the crusted blood under her nails, she had to admit that it probably was.
Janie’s introduction to Brielson-Tave followed the bottle of pills that she had downed like a neat Scotch at a bad Christmas party. But now she was back at home taking that bull by the horns, the man by the balls, and showing him that she didn’t take any shit. Although this really wasn’t home anymore. Come to think of it, home was nowhere—unless you count the hospital. But she wouldn’t stay there forever, would she? Home used to be her parents’ farm in New Hampshire, where fields of corn comprised her yard, and her mother and sister were forever at yard sales, while she and her father would go fishing on the weekends. But she hadn’t even spoken to any of them since her mother died. Richard wouldn’t have it. He felt she needed to cut those apron strings and act like a proper woman, not like some hick, redneck girl who’d never been more than a mile from cow-shit. Then she found herself whisked to California. She’d called Jessica once, but her sister wouldn’t speak to her.
Janie rubbed the water from her eyes and hung the black washcloth on the shower-caddy. Poor Jessica, still angry, always able to hold on to a good grudge. She wished she could talk to her father right now, though. More than anything she wished she could go home and vanish into those rows of corn as she and Jessica used to do when they were little girls. But Frank Trupper was a proud man. He probably wouldn’t have anything to do with this heathen disappointment of a little girl ever again.
Pushing the bulbous plastic diamond on the wall and stopping the shower nearly broke her heart, but she had to get ready. It couldn’t last forever, she knew that. Nothing could, “not even the Earth, stars, or sun,” her father would say. She accepted that. If she’d learned anything over the past six months it was how to be realistic. She’d spent, no, wasted too much time being naïve. Not anymore, and they would be coming soon, anyway.
She twisted her hair and wrung it of water. Tears that she had anticipated but no longer expected went to the drain, lost in the slurry. Janie slid open the shower door, and clouds of steam tumbled out around her. She’d wanted a bath--that would have been ideal--but it wouldn’t have accomplished the same thing as the shower had. A bath would mean stewing in the blood, not washing it away. The shower suited her needs. It was still a good escape.
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Copyright © 2006 J Rychwa