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I am fifteen when my boyfriend asks me to keep our secret.
My mother doesn’t want me near the diving board. Lately, she’s been visiting a psychic who promised to upgrade her luck. Lady Mari’s latest vision involved a loved one drowning.
If she finds out I went to watch my boyfriend practice his handstand dives, and his kid sister pushed me in, I’ll be grounded and he’ll be banished. We want to keep seeing each other, so we pretend nothing happened. A tall blond lifeguard yanked me out, performing artificial respiration on hot cement. For weeks, I had scrapes on my back and an ache in my chest where the chlorinated water was forced out.
“You’ll get better, crybaby Sue,” Joey says, playfully wrestling with me. His muscular, gladiator arms make me feel safe, though my mother often reminds me that being good at high school sports isn’t enough to guarantee a bright future.
What I excel in – ancient languages and classical literature – won’t make me a millionaire either, though my tutoring does fatten my college fund piggybank. My straight-A grades and scholastic awards have given my mother bragging rights. “Genius,” she whispers over the phone late at night, when I’m supposed to be in dreamland.
After the Fourth of July, when the pain starts to recede, a stiff whisker pops up on my neck. When I mention how funny it makes me feel when I touch it, Joey says to leave it alone. I’d die of embarrassment if my mother caught on to this routine of caressing a prickly, itchy sprout, so I let my ponytail down even when the weather is in the nineties.
Two secrets now: the afternoon I almost drowned and this strange blond whisker. Stroking it makes me feel warm, slippery between my legs. As soon as I get into bed, my fingers instinctively go down there and I give myself to this unfamiliar urge. Afterwards a deep sleep comes.
One morning, feeling ashamed of my new habit, I grab my mother’s tweezers and pluck it. Days later, two blond bristles erupt in its place. I start wrapping my neck in a red and white bandanna. When my mother asks, I plead a joint stiffness. Maybe she thinks I’m hiding a hickey.
Joey has left for a special high-bar meet and I’m reading one of his magazines, filled with garish ads promising strength, health, and Viking-level vitality. One article, “No Pain, No Gain,” discusses a woman’s gym routine, her split sessions, and how she got ripped. If she had a helmet, she’d look like Pallas Athena, warrior goddess. I doubt that Miss Muscle would cough when trying to catch a bus. Since secrets would be spilled if I complain about aches after a lifeguard’s forceful chest compressions, I’m hoping the discomfort will fade by itself.
Lady Mari wants to read my cards, my mother announces, ushering me into the front seat. As she’s lighting a cigarette from the dashboard gizmo, I worry my crimes will be detected.
At last, a customer leaves and in we go. The room is cluttered with crystals, candles, Tarot symbols, and celestial charts. Lady Mari, her hair hidden by a turban, wears so much jewelry that I wonder if it’s real. My mother and I wear plastic wristwatches and no other adornments. How much of our grocery budget has she spent here? She borrowed from my piggybank twice last month, and I hope it wasn’t for a stupid horoscope.
Insisting I go first, my mother watches me shuffle the deck and pause to consider a question.
“Let the querent take her time,” says Lady Mari with the exaggerated elocution of a bad actress.
As I handle the Tarot cards, I’m trying to look calm, though I feel weird. My cotton tee is damp and sticky under my arms.
Commandeering the deck, Lady Mari sets out fourteen cards in a particular pattern and studies them. Suddenly, with catlike grace, she rises and stands over me, caressing my head, then snaking her fingers downward to my ears, my cheeks, and my guilty neck. I know she’s found the two blond whiskers because she stops there and begins to chant in another language, a low guttural speech that gives me goosebumps. It’s not Greek or Latin. What is it?
As if nothing happened, she takes her seat and waves her hand, glittery with heavy rings, across a grouping on the table. “A doctor is in your daughter’s future.” For some reason, it’s hard to pay attention. I keep worrying about my secrets and wondering what Joey is doing right now, wishing I was with him instead of going through this charade. A waste of money. When this thought crosses my mind, I look at Lady Mari, who doesn’t seem to notice. Falsus, I think. A fake.
In the car, my mother looks delighted. “A doctor! I can’t wait until you meet him. That Joey is not what I call college material.” She turns on the radio and seems preoccupied.
Supper is a smelly bone soup boiled with herbs from Lady Mari. My mother dries the leftover greenery and braids this with a thick red thread into three bracelets for my right wrist.
I’m rereading Xenophon’s Anabasis – the part when he laid awake asking himself: “What age am I waiting for to come to myself?” A mosquito is circling our lucky red candle. I inch my right wrist closer and it zaps the insect dead. Intrigued, I angle my bracelets opposite a housefly hovering near a begonia and it goes into a nosedive. Now I really can’t wait for Joey’s return to show off my own version of Wonder Woman cuffs.
By bedtime, my mother’s superstitious mind is in high gear. She’s been stinking up the house with incense and scented potions that ward off evil spirits. Now she puts a gold chain around my neck with a charm – a hunchback man. When she turns out the light, I explore my neck.
The stiff blond whiskers are gone.
Relief is mixed with alarm. What does Lady Mari think she is protecting me from – or who? Do I have enemies at school, students who are jealous that I earn money by tutoring? What about that girl Jenny, who didn’t win the Athena medal because my grades in Classical Mythology were higher, and my book reports were better researched than hers? Jenny gives me dirty looks in the locker room but does she really hate me? Enough to put a hex on me?
The more suspects I think of, the more surreal it is. Do I need “protection” now? I remember how Athena protected and helped Perseus when he had to kill the Gorgon Medusa.
I draw my special Athena medallion from its red velvet case. I fasten it inside my pajama pocket. Anytime I took a trip with my mother, especially when she was still drinking, I brought it along. The one time I forgot to carry it, we had a fender bender. Now I sleep with my lucky charm, the goddess of wisdom.
Two weeks later, my mother wakes me by yelling about running errands. I’m tired and annoyed that I have to get up. When I try to stand, I go Sleeping Beauty stiff and collapse. While I’m lying there, my mother gets her Polaroid. I’ll find out later how my head and throat looked, grotesquely swollen and bluish, my face wrinkled as if I’m 2,000 years old.
My mother’s sister, who works for my former pediatrician, drives over twice a day to aim monstrous needles below my tan line. All pain, no gain – as it turned out – and yet my horizontal condition seemed less ominous to me because it was “only Auntie” popping in, smelling of Chanel No. 5 and cigarettes, kissing me before and after my shot. Her visits are all I remember because, for about a week, I float in a dreamy delirium brought on by fevers that spiked at 105 degrees.
When I overheat to 106, Auntie’s physician-boss orders my mother to rush me to the nearest hospital, which happens to be a rickety place that specializes in eye and ear disorders, though there’s been no official diagnosis. My mother visits with Lady Mari, who touches my feverish face and swollen throat and says she suspects my malady is linked to malocchio, the evil eye.
“How do you know this?” I try to say as my mother hushes me. To shield me from malefactors, Lady Mari insists on secrecy. Anyone who inquires, even Joey, must be told I went to Canada with cousins. Protests about making an exception for my boyfriend cause my mother’s lips to tighten. No use. Socially, I will be invisible for now.
I look around the ward, where twenty-three other patients are getting visitors, along with balloons, gifts, and showy get-well cards. Obviously, I’m not contagious, but even my mother is cautious, touching two fingers to her lips and planting a brief long-distance kiss on my forehead before she leaves.
I’m like a leper. Maybe one of my rivals is already with Joey. Just the thought causes a sharp pain in my heart.
When the supper trays arrive, I stick a finger in my pajama pocket and poke my travel companion, Pallas Athena, who wore the cap of invisibility – Haidos kuneēn – when she had to. I remind her to stay out of sight and not desert me when, according to my mother’s fortuneteller, malefactors might be closing in.
Time in an overcrowded women’s ward passed oddly with ever-easier access to nightmares. Since I doze a good deal during daylight, sometimes I’m restless after “lights off,” tuned into a sad serenade of mezzo-soprano moans, alto groans, and haunting slumber-fed screams.
In my worried state of mind, concerned about my undiagnosed ailment and daily fever spikes, I produce delusions much scarier than any horror movie I’d seen. I frequently relive my drowning trauma – except no one in my nightmares yanks me to safety. Instead, I am claimed by the dark, disruptive Deep: a menacing, murky water world where sharks switchblade my skittering limbs, and rusted wrecks keel over to crush me into bone-meal. When I awaken, clawing my bedsheet in terror, my lungs ache as if they’d taken in the entire Atlantic Ocean and I cough and sputter.
Several times a day, technicians take blood from my sore, tender fingertips. Conclusions are drawn, although my flinty physician never enlightens me. Silver-haired and stony jawed, Dr. “O” – who thinks he’s Omnipotent – conveys the impression that I am beneath him, tedious, stupid … or all three. Since my teachers often praised my intelligence, his attitude is mortally insulting. Little does he know I have friends in high places – like on Mount Olympus.
One day, my feverish delusions lead me into the camp of Xenophon, who encourages his soldiers to march north across barren deserts and snow-filled mountain passes, toward the Black Sea. Totally exhausted, we reach the shores of the mountain passes, toward the Black Sea at Trabzon. My fellow warriors are joyfully shouting, “Thálatta, thálatta!” (“The sea, the sea!”)
Then Dr. “O” appears, challenging me to a duel. I’m dizzy from the journey, too weak to do battle. When my rapier drops to the ground, he pokes me with a scalpel as long as a sword, slicing off my sweet seashell ear, then cutting out my heart and holding it up like a maraschino cherry.
I scream myself awake and touch my ears. Both are pierced, something my mother said I was too young for, and I’m wearing earrings. Earrings? My magical herbal bracelets are gone, along with the gold chain and the hunchback man.
I can’t call my mother because this old, low-rent hospital only has public phone booths in the hall, and I have no money. Panhandling, I think for a second. No, too suspicious.
Then I flag down Nidia, the Puerto Rican nurse with the patience of a goddess, and trot out my pocket-sized Spanish vocabulary, hoping to build a bond and win a uniformed ally. Pointing to my ears, I say, “Cómo hacen le gustan mis pendientes?”
“Tus arêtes?” she asks me with a smile.
Having no mirror, I can only guess what my ears look like, with alien attachments sewn like buttons into my skin.
Nidia gives me a cheerful thumbs-up and quickly moves away to answer a distress call further down the aisle.
Is this a plot? Am I the only victim? Maybe they think I’m an easy mark, the youngest patient in this ward, friendless, with not even one droopy get-well flower on my nightstand and probably the only pagan.
I’m engaged in a serious consultation with the mighty Pallas Athena when my aunt appears, her face as agitated as riptide. My mother is in a clinic near work. They’re not sure yet if she needs an appendectomy. Meanwhile, she’s temporarily relinquished her power of attorney.
Somehow I have no good feelings about this. The patient next to me has such a clutch of noisy visitors around her bed that I can barely hear my aunt’s explanation about what this means to me. Papers! She signed the papers this afternoon.
“Yay! I must be going home.”
She kisses my forehead. “Not yet, my Suzie. Soon. The surgeon, he is going to make you all better. Then I’ll take you home with me. Or your Mom might not need them to remove her appendix and she’ll…”
“What! What papers?” I shout. But it’s become obvious. The sinister Dr. “O” has fooled my family into signing a medical release and I’m about to explode, when suddenly there’s a tug on my pajama pocket… Athena advises me in Greek to, “Keep your counsel, Parthenos.”
“Listen, sweetheart,” my aunt says. “I have to drive over an hour to the clinic to help your Mom. If she can’t be here tomorrow, I promise I’ll be waiting when they wheel you out.” She’s already on her feet, poised for flight.
“How do you like my earrings?” My question is designed to test her, see if she’s in on this sinister scheme of Dr. “O” or not.
“Fab!” She blows kisses over her shoulder and leaves, trailing the scent of tobacco that clings to her like a veil. A normal aunt would’ve asked, “Where did you get them?”
They’ve all been suckered, I think. I’ve always been suspicious of this physician, despising the way he waved away all my questions and barked orders, treating me like an idiot, and commanding me to use a bedpan and stay put.
Dr. “O” never bothered to tell me the real reason I shouldn’t move: that my spleen is perilously enlarged and exertion could rupture it. Had he explained, I probably would have obeyed. But he decided I was just a dumb high-school kid. And I decided to ignore him.
My spot by a wide sunny window is at the far end of a parallel row of twelve hospital beds, and our bleak restroom was in the hall – a long walk not to be attempted under lightheaded, feverish conditions. Anytime I feel briefly better, I enjoy the privacy of the stall, as well as a chance to stretch my unshaven, skinny legs. I also keep an eye on the chart hanging at the foot of my bed, like a license plate on a broken-down jalopy.
As soon as the orderly leaves our ward, I climb out of bed, knowing that my aunt’s signature must have changed my chart. Dr. “O” makes his notes in medical Latin, a cinch for me. This tight-lipped eye and ear specialist has reached a diagnosis: a massive mastoid infection behind both ears. Tomorrow in the O.R., when I am totally at his mercy, this bloodthirsty shark is planning to scrape off my treasured ears, as if they are merely barnacles on a lifeboat, condemning me to instant uglification.
Removing my ears? This is insane. I go over his handwriting again, numb with terrible knowledge. Dizzy, I climb back in bed, pull the blankets over my unwashed, unkempt hair and weep. Intuition insists this is a poisonous mistake. He’s wrong! This old bottom-feeding lurker must be wrong!
One touch of the Grim Doctor and I am doomed, I convince myself. I’ll never make it to Sweet Sixteen, never see my mother or Joey, never go to college, never win another medal for academic achievement, never go to Athens to the Parthenon, the Temple to Athena. Everything I want stretches out before me, a tantalizing buffet evaporating before I arrive.
My useless youth, I already see, is stuffed with ether and drugs, drifting out of the real world as this mad scientist displays me, his latest trophy, on a gurney, lecturing med students circling the operating theater on how to be Dr. Omnipotent, above the law. Together, they will recite the Hypocrites’ Oath: to be high-handed and underhanded.
Athena is rapping on my bosom. “Sopa, Parthenos!”
“Okay, I’ll shut up! What’s the plan?”
Eerie mist hovers over my bed, and a pale blue being from the other side emerges with a message: Break the fever to break the spell.
I manage to get my hands on three hot-water bags. Occasionally, the faucet in the lavatory runs scalding hot and, fortunately, today is one of those torrid times. Layering myself with these heated red-rubber bags feels like being grilled. Out of nowhere, an extra blanket floats over me. I fall into a semi-conscious state, my right hand over my pajama pocket, pledging allegiance to my virgin goddess.
Many hours must have passed because my window indicates it is night.
Disoriented, I fumble in the dark for my right ear and finally locate it burning on a soggy pillow. The peculiar earrings are gone and everything is wet. Have I reached the Black Sea with Xenophon? Or maybe I had been floundering in that saltwater pool. That makes more sense. Explains why I am exhausted. I drowned for real this time. This is death, but not the harps and angels kind. Not even clinically cool death. It’s steamy and oppressively Dantean hot like those mineral baths Joey and I saw on the boardwalk, where old people went.
Someone sponges me down with methodical strokes. My face is drenched either from fever or this stuff in her basin. Groggy, I decipher the nurse’s nameplate: Mercedes.
“Esta afortunada, senorita!” A motherly hand pushes damp curls out of my eyes. “The fever: she broke – tjene buena suerte! We thank Santa Maria, heh?”
Lucky? I begin ranting, raving about Dr. “O”, mandamos. Bigshot. How he wants to rip off my ears and kill me.
“Tch, tch.” Nice brown eyes frown at me. “A mistake it is, no? Loco. Loco de atar. How you say such a thing?”
“Por favor, senora.” I jerk my thumb at the chart. “Si me hace el favor: read it. It’s true. I swear.”
Mercedes slips on reading glasses and brings the clipboard closer to the light. Her expression confirms I am right, though all she says is, “Please never to read your chart, senorita. It is only for nurses.” Then she leaves the room.
Within the hour my whole family turns up, well after visiting hours. My mother confidently leads the procession, like Cleopatra boldly entering Rome. Her surgery is cancelled, and so is mine. A new physician, a G.P., will examine me tomorrow.
My grandparents draw Mercedes aside to question her privately, then hand her a gift, a box of chocolates.
Joey troops in with his parents and hugs me close. “I didn’t know, Sue. They said you went to Quebec.”
We exchange our first public kiss and it feels amazing.
When my visitors leave, the staff surrounds my bed and shares their snacks – pork rinds and plantain chips. A candy-striper, who sometimes plays Gin Rummy with me, approaches with something behind her back. It’s a large homemade card with an owl, Athena’s mascot, on the front, and, inside, good wishes from the nurses.
I never find out who stole my herbal bracelets or my chain with the hunchback man. But tonight, as I look out the window, it seems that all the other 98.6-ers have left their lights on to welcome me back.
Placing the owl card near my pocket, I draw out my medallion so the goddess Pallas Athena can see her sacred bird. I stroke her helmeted face, to her thank for guiding me.
Native New Yorker. Writer. Poet. Playwright. Drama Critic. Memberships: Lifetime Member, The Dramatists Guild of America; SFPA Editorial staff of L'Idea Periodico; The Poet Magazine Most recent books: Elgin Award nominee "A Route Obscure and Lonely" (Wapshott Press, Dec. 2019); "Concupiscent Consumption" (Red Ferret Press, Feb. 2020) Poet profile on Wapshott Press: https://www.wapshottpress.org/poetrylandia/a-route-obscure-and-lonely/