Sunday, September 26, 2010

Incremental Improvements in GETTING FIXED, for Short Story Class

When I met her, Corina was bald. Not chemo-patient bald, but male-pattern-baldness-bald; as though a tidy, even line had been drawn around her skull, temple to temple, separating shiny, tan skin from coarse, shoulder-length brown hair.

"Leigh, this is Corina, and Corina, this is Leigh", said Prego, the tiny, pregnant houseparent.

Corina's dark lashless eyes looked me over and then away as I set my bags on the empty bed. She wore a nightgown, a baggy, long-sleeved purple thing and laceless fake Keds. The pale yellow room smelled of Windex and musty feet.

"It's too bad that you're arriving during shut-down", Prego said, "but that's how it goes." She moved toward the closet, jingling the keys that she wore on a rubbery spiral at her wrist. With my back to Prego and Corina, I stripped down to undies and pulled a men's extra large t-shirt over my head, my current version of a nightgown.

"Corina knows the rules,"Prego said. "No talking and no leaving your side of the room. You'll eat meals at your desk", which she indicated with her chin, "and ask permission to use the restroom", which she also pointed out; a single closed door across from the two closets.

Corina was looking at me again, eyes round and observant as she noted the clothes I stuffed back into my bag.

"Remember, no talking", said Prego as she locked my things into the closet with a click of the dead bolt and jingle of keys. Two locked closets, side by side. One full length mirror bolted to the wall. "We'll send a menu around soon, though. We're having Mexican take-out for lunch, since we can't go to the cafeteria."

Alone with Corina, I sat on the edge of my bed, bare feet planted on the brown linoleum floor. I gave the mattress a test bounce and then pulled back the thin girly comforter. If I fall asleep, maybe I'll wake up some place else. As my head hit the lone, flat pillow, a piercing screech snapped me back up.

“Corina! No talking allowed! You know that,” yelled Prego from down the hall.

I looked over at Corina, her shoulders and head visible above the desk. Her naked eyes blinking back at me, staring.

If Corina's disorder had a name, we didn't know it. If we had known it, we would have used it. There were eight of us, who became a variable version of we during our time on Nelson cottage. Eight residents, requiring a rotating staff of about eight. Not that we required a 1 to 1 ratio, it was a standard rezy ratio of 1 to 4, give or take.

Nelson Cottage was the younger girl's cottage, as opposed to Scarborough, the older girl's cottage (right next door) and Moody, the boy's cottage, (catty-corner from Scarborough). Inhabitants of all three cottages ate lunch and dinner in the cafeteria, each with their designated corner and designated six foot, family-style round table.

Corina was not alone in wearing her problems on the outside. We had cutters, eaters, pickers, washers, barfers, kleptos and those who loved to starve themselves. But Corina was my roommate, for awhile, and in the beginning, mesmerizing.

Her hand, usually the right one, would meander up to the dividing line on her head, finger a few strands of hair, select one and then pluck it out. She would study the hair, span its length with her fingers, check for split ends and then fixate on its minuscule white root, her eyes slightly crossed with concentration. Once satisfied, she would hold the hair root to her teeth, nibble it off and drop what remained to the floor.

I now understand that Corina was lucky, in one sense at least. Had she consumed the entire strand of hair, one hair at a time, instead of just its root, she might have developed a trichobezoar, which is a fancy word for hairball. Unlike cats and cows, humans don't have a natural mechanism for handling hairballs; cats barf them up and cow stomachs are numerous and big enough that the hairballs just accumulate until the cow dies of other, unrelated causes. Humans who develop hairballs usually need repeated surgeries to survive.

To end up in RT (rezy, or residential treatment) usually meant at least a dual diagnosis. Depressive and obsessive-compulsive or maybe oppositional-defiant and anorexic. Though staff tried not to focus on our labels, most kids who lived in rezy long enough eventually developed extensive, esoteric vocabularies. We practiced our vocabularies in daily group therapy, weekly individual therapy and as a source of perpetual peer support. Since four girls shared a bathroom, it wasn't uncommon to hear us jockey for the mirror, “You OCD-narcissist, let someone else have a turn."

"Trichotillomania, TTM or 'trich', is defined as "hair loss from a patient's repetitive self-pulling of hair"[2] and is characterized by the repeated urge to pull out scalp hair, eyelashes, facial hair,nose hair, pubic hair, eyebrows or other body hair, sometimes resulting in noticeable bald patches.[3]

Had I known the name of Corina's disorder, I would have enjoyed telling her that she would never, ever turn a real trick if she continued to be a 'trich'. Or , “Why don't you 'trich' like a magician and disappear?

needed: back story, astral projection scene w/Corina the more back story

Once, on a Saturday evening, my favorite house parent Mo, gathered those of us who were stuck at the cottage for the weekend. By this time Joy was my roomate, not Corina anymore. She led us to the bar, which divided the dining room and kitchen. It was just dark enough to notice candlelight flicker on the walls and ceiling as we passed through, but the flickers vanished in the florescent glare of the kitchen.

Mo, squat and squinting, stepped into the brightness and stood beside a stack of large stainless steel bowls. “This evening, we're going to play with food. No, she said, not a food fight. Listen, we've all eaten food", she started handing bowls around, "cooked food", serving spoons followed, "and cleaned up after making food, but what about healing with food?”

She turned to open the fridge and cabinets, poking and looking around. She found cereal, potato chips, coffee grounds, flour, coco, rice, mini-marshmallows and salt. With each find, she pulled out the package, handed it around and instructed each of us to pour some into our bowls . It was our job to feel, smell or taste each item- if we wanted to, only if.

We started with small dashes and tidy spoonfuls. Then Rosemary, standing next to me, took a huge, messy handful of flour, dusting and splotching me with her tailings. She plopped it into her bowl and giggled at the flour cloud exploding, then settling around her. Flour was soft and silky. Granola was tough to break up with it's sugary hardness; crunchy, but with your fingers. The coco went round and Corina tasted it first, expecting milk chocolately sweetness, getting bitter dustiness instead. Her face registered the surprise.

Then the wet stuff; first came the eggs. “Can you crack it without breaking the yolk?", Mo said. "Like this? Feel the yolk in your hand, squish, squeeze and pop it. You can also crack the whole thing in, eggshell and all.” Next came milk, then fake maple syrup, and peanut butter too. And last, the frozen stuff. Waffles, corn, ice cubes. All of it went into our bowls, and by the end we were squishing and mixing with our hands as Mo poured a little more here and little more there, all of us too messy to touch anything or help. It was a raspy concoction. Gooey, rough, sticky and cold. In the kitchen, along with everyone else, I rubbed the mixture from my hands up to my armpits; a glob of it stuck on my right cheek.

Mo gave us the option of taking the mixture back to the privacy of our rooms for a full body scrub; our legs, shoulders, feet, face, hair. Where ever and everywhere. It was the weekend, and the cottage was emptier than usual. My current roommate, Joy (of the pendulous breasts), was having a weekend visit with her mother, so I had the room to myself. So, why not? It was strange and naughty, a houseful of girls, collectively touching our houseful of bodies. I picked up the bowl from the counter feeling pleased and curious. Was this really therapeutic? Was this even good for my skin? I walked into my room, flipped on the light and then kicked the door shut behind me. I leaned against it, then set the bowl on the floor in front of the bolted, full-length mirror. Where to begin?

I laughed at myself and thought about my watcher, thought about Kelly (Moody Cottage boyfriend) peering into my bed room window. The weight of their observation made me suck in my belly, stand a little straighter, push out my breasts. What if there's a video tape running behind the mirror? Maybe this is just a test. Pass if you resist, fail if you don't.

With that, I grabbed the hem of my shirt and yanked it over my head. Bits of granola and rice hit the brown, linoleum floor in a spray. I unbuttoned and unzipped my shorts, let them fall to the floor and kicked them over into a pile. White cotton panties and a bra. A bra that fits and is stuffed with me now, not toilet paper. Hips that jut out of a waist, now beginning to curve. A summer tan just on the verge. I stepped out of the panties, and then unhooked the clasp of my bra, pulling first the right and then the left strap off. Nakedness and a bowl of slimy, crunchy goop. I picked up the bowl, swirled its contents, set it back down and reached in with both hands. With chin stretched up, I smeared, crushed and rubbed the mixture from my neck all down my body, trilling, stooping for more to cover my butt, then legs and feet. This handful is for my watcher, my ever-present companion. At least I'm never alone, I thought, as I circled and scrubbed each of my breasts, gently pinching and staring at each of my hard nipples in turn. I smiled and mashed some of the mixture into my hair, shellacking it away from my face. The space between my legs was the only spot left, so I scraped the the bowl clean and spread it there too. Touching, but not touching.

I looked down at my body and back into the mirror. Now what do I see? A squinting and naked mud wrestler? Yes, a wrestler, but with textured, formerly edible mud covering my entire body, nothing like the smooth stuff you see on TV. What I really need right now is a long, hot shower. But first, exercise. Arms out to the side, parallel to the floor, fingers lightly touching the temples, I moved my elbows open and shut, back and forth as I repeated, mantra-style: “I must, I must, I must. I must increase my bust.

needed: more back story

Being female in foster care, in addition to hitting puberty made touch really touchy. Apparently everyone who works with girls knows they will cry rape or sex abuse or something if a proper hug is given. So instead of regular hugs, I spent years getting side hugs, where you stand side by side and give a quick squeeze. Or hollow hugs, where you bend at the waist, and hug front on, but the only things touching are your cheeks and hands which rabidly pat on shoulders and back.

Skin hunger. Who doesn't need to be held or hugged? It's important to experience our bodies sensually, without sensuality always being tied to sexuality. For most of us on Nelson Cottage, our bodies were not places of happiness or fun; our bodies stored histories of abuse, hunger and fear. We were all 'over-sexualized', whatever that meant exactly. Maybe boy-crazy was the age appropriate term. Most of us were menstruating, having hormonal shifts and cravings. Cravings which weren't bad or unnatural. But cravings which were still somehow taboo and not talked about helpfully, even in residential treatment.

That summer each of the three cottages were supposed to pick theme songs. The song had to be something we all agreed on and something we felt represented us. We talked it over in group, brought up names of a few songs, and unanimously agreed on George Michael's I Want Your Sex. The house parents argued with our choice, but in the end passed it along to Helen the cottage supervisor and therapist. We loved that song, blasting it while we vacuumed and polished our way through chores. Helen announced in our next group therapy session that our official cottage song was Greatest Love of All, by Whitney Houston.

Group eye-roll. Group groan.

Compare this short story with the October 2009 post: first day of residential treatment.

I'm working to piece scenes and exposition together in an understandable way and do a better job integrating dialogue with action. Didn't deal with tense issues this time around. Next draft.

Some questions that came up for people in class:
Where is Corina's voice, was she terrified of the place?
"If I fall asleep, maybe I'll wake up someplace else." Where does this attitude go? Do they change, grow stronger? Did the experience teach a lesson, provide strength?
Why was Leigh there? What happens to Leigh? Where did Corina go? The watcher appears suddenly. Why resentment for the watcher? Are the houseparents the same as the watcher?
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