The happiness of six slow women is dependent upon me. That is what I tell myself, while driving to work, where I provide succor to tired families responsible for the full-time care of their mentally challenged adult daughters, dropped off at the home for a few afternoons a week, or Saturday, depending on the severity of the case and the financial reserves of the family. The service we offer is called respite.
Providing respite is, for me, a career.
My morning pep talk is in direct confrontation with what I have been taught in Program, however, and this makes me anxious.
I once tried to explain the jist to my friend Liz.
Think diabetes, I said, while we lounged by her condo pool. Think Lou Gehrigs. Do not think Bad, or Mean, but when they’re throwing furniture and calling you bad, mean names, before escaping through the window with your taser, call the cops. Do not cushion their fall: cushioning makes the next fall more painful and prevents them from hitting bottom, which is salvation disguised as suicidal despair. Your Loved One(s) suffer from a disease that is cunning, baffling, and powerful, but you did not cause it, you cannot cure it, and all your attempts to control it will result in yet another whirlwind sex/booze/drug binge for which you will be blamed.
You Drove Me To It, You Stupid Nagging Bitch? she said.
Exactly, I said. You should come with me sometime.
I’ve been to a few meetings, she said. They told me I was puny, and my attempts to resolve desperate situations using my own wits were futile. ‘Haven’t they been before?’ they said. ‘Why else would you be here?’ That pissed me off, so I split.
Understandable, I said, having at my iced tea.
My Higher Power, most days, is my calendar.
* * *
I pull into the driveway of the home. I see what I always see: Marsha and Elizabeth on the wraparound porch, playing checkers, and Sophie sitting on the porch steps, holding the resident cat, a plump tabby named Max. Sophie make a loud noise, somewhere between “caw,” and “grrr.” I gaze down at her—a beautiful, if apoplectic human being who wants my attention—take her hand, and lead her inside the house.
Hey, Renee, I say to the aide whom I am relieving.
Hi Maureen, she says. You’re early.
Just by a few minutes, I say.
Twenty, she says. On my watch.
O.k., I say. I’ll sit in the kitchen with Sophie. I lead Sophie into the kitchen and pull out a chair for her. She begins to yank at her hair. Sophie, I say. Everything is connected. The weather, the humans, the animals, the stock market, the habitable countries, the barely habitable countries, the ones with a lot of goods to go around, and those in which scarcity is the law of the land. When you hurt, I hurt, Sophie. So please don’t pull your hair.
She sits down.
I try to think of a 15-minute craft that doesn’t involve Play-Dough, which Sophie likes to eat. I run out of the room, hoping Renee doesn’t see me, as Sophie is not supposed to be alone, and run back in, with a hand mirror, a piece of paper, and a pen. Sophie, I say. Do you want to draw a picture, of your face? It’s called a self-portrait. It’s a very popular style of drawing. All the famous artists do it, at least once in their life, and for many of them, self-portraiture is at the center of their oeuvre. I know what you’re thinking. What a bunch of narcissists! But really, it’s not like that. Really what they’re trying to do is penetrate into the depths of the human experience, through the lens of the self. It’s disinterested, is what I mean, Sophie. It’s not to be confused with the egoism of toddlers, who only say me, I want, and now, over and over.
Sophie rubs her eyes, then slams her forehead on the table.
I know, right? How charming. God bless all mothers. God bless America.
She tilts her face to the side not facing me and begins pounding the table.
Self-portraiture is art, Sophie. Art is not selfish. It’s art.
I place the paper and pen in front of her and prop up the mirror so she can see herself. It’s not about trying to make yourself look prettier than you are in real life, Sophie. Nor is it about drawing exactly what you see. Art is not about accurate depiction. The mediums vary, and so do the modes. That’s where individualism, or anti-statist artistic “freedom” comes in.
She flops her head to my side. Her mouth spindles drool.
Sophie, I say. I am your mirror. Just look into my face and draw what you see, reflected in my compassionate eyes. Sophie picked up her pen, stole a quick glance at my face, and writes the letter B on her paper, very neatly. Then she starts scribbling very hard, until she breaks through the page. She hoists it high in the air, stabbed by the pen, as if balancing a flank steak. Plap, she says. Snowman. Kyrie Elison.
Sophie, I say, smiling tenderly. You crack my shit up.
Renee walks in just as I spoke and wheeled around to face me.
Is that how you talk to our residents? she says. She is angry.
Sophie laughs. When she stops, her mouth stays open, vulnerably so, like a dentist victim. I ignore Renee. Sophie, I love you, I say. And yes, you are loveable, which helps, but even if you weren’t, even if you had 101 defects, and no assets, not even one, I would still love you.
Maureen, says Renee. I’m leaving.
Have a nice afternoon, I say. No, evening. It’s past five.
You’re wack, she says, and walks out.
I’m wack? I say, to Sophie. I’m wack? You know what’s funny? I think she’s wack, and the whole world thinks you’re wack beyond the point of no return.
Lurch, says Sophia. Animosity.
You are a sweetheart, I say. I hope you never change, unless you want to, in which case I would support your efforts wholeheartedly, and love you in your new form.
* * *
After work I run an errand at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles; after an hour in line, I advance. I’m here to renew my license, I say. It’s been seven years. I hand the lady the old one. She types my information into a machine, then scowls at me.
Hello! Earth to— she glances down—Maureen! You’re three years late. Operators licenses need to be renewed in the state of Oregon every four years.
Jeez, I say. Sorry.
Take a seat over there, she says, pointing. LaVita’ll take your picture, and when she does, you come back over here, pay me the renewal fee, and you’ll be on your way. Would you like to make an anatomical gift?
In the case of vehicular death, would you like your organs to be donated to those in need?
Yes. Give my cadaver to the state.
Alrighty. Now go see LaVita.
* * *
My apartment is a converted fire station: the fireman’s pole goes right through three apartments, and mine is at the top. After a year of jokes involving bachelorette parties, I finally decided to host one for my friend Bridget. The party is tonight. After the DMV, I spent the next two hours cleaning my apartment and making chip dip.
The stripper is a surprise: everyone knows but the bride-to-be.
The girls start trickling in at ten past seven, and we drink like it’s nobody’s business until eight, because it isn’t. So there! We are carefree single women, with the exception of Denise, who is married, two-months pregnant, and openly regretting both the marriage and the pregnancy to all of us, but discreetly, because Bridget’s freedom ship is sinking fast. We limit Denise to one glass of wine.
She had two, and is starting to eye the bottle.
You love it, says Nikki. Admit it. You love being a man slave, and a baby slave, and all that hot shit. You and your monogrammed Christmas cards with the golden retriever and the dimpled baby! I can totally see it! The stroller! Jesus God!
Denise grabs the bottle. She doesn’t drink from it though, she just cradles it, like a gun without ammo. The doorbell rings at eight on the dot. I answer it, and there stands a young man, no older than 20, wearing flame-resistant fireman apparel.
Was I supposed to treat this guy like a stripper? Probably, but I have no idea what that entails. Me casa, su casa, I say, politely. What’s your name?
What do you want it to be? he says.
I want it to be what it is! I say.
Tony, he says.
Tony it is, I say. No going back now. Girls! Meet Tony.
Ton-y! Ton-y! And so on. Beyond embarrassing.
Tony, I say. Would you like a soft drink?
He whips off his fireman coat, twirls it around, and flings it into outer space. It lands on Denise’s head. She freaks. Don’t you dare throw your grimy stripper clothes around my friend’s apartment! she says. Put them in a fucking pile, all nice, by your feet! She looks around for response-justification.
Yeah, says Nikki. A pile.
He strips down to his boxers, red silk, and proceeds to fold his fireman suit, each pant leg and sleeve. It takes a solid, excruciating minute. Then he just stands there, in all his stripper glory. The lights in my apartment are bright; I can see that he’s painted a six-pack onto his abdomen with ladies’ foundation, or maybe an orange marker. He jumps on the poll and does some tricks.
After five minutes, Bridget says Go Home, Tony. He leaves.
Well, I said. How about that! I give Tony props. That took guts.
We did it for you, Bridget, says Meredith. We wanted you to see what you weren’t missing, so that tomorrow, you would dive passionately into Brandon’s arms.
Brenden, says Bridget. Brenden.
Yeah, says Meredith. Your man.
O.k. who’s ready? I say. Bridget, put on your veil. We hit the bars. Bridget perks up after receiving undivided attention from several drunk men who wanted to feel her up while dancing. This is so fun! she yells to me, between dances, at the bar. This is crazy! Are you having fun? Misery, I thought.
I’m glad you’re having fun, I yell back. That’s what we’re here for! To send you off in style! While slumped against the bar, I met another user. I could tell by his eyes: penitential, insane. He gestures toward the back of the bar; I follow.
Coke? he says, once we found a spot against the wall. I nod, shy. Then I take a closer look.
You were my meditation partner at Inner Bliss! He hangs his head. Oh boy, I say. Back of the bar coke deals with the town vampire. I’m going places now. I sigh. I shouldn’t anyway. I’m in Program.
Which meeting? he asks.
Expect a Miracle, I say.
Downtown, on Mondays?
I used to go to that one, he says. Don’t anymore.
I hear a shriek and turn in time to see a group of men hoist Bridget off the ground and carry her horizontally around the room, mosh pit style. Nikki walks over just then and puts her arm around me possessively. Nikki is a user too.
Do you know her? he asks me.
She knows me, I say. Do you?
Virginia Konchan's poems have appeared in Best New Poets, the Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and her fiction in Drunken Boat, Spork, Joyland, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. Co-founder of Matter, a literary journal of political poetry and commentary, she lives in Chicago.