When my friend, Sandy, asked if I considered myself a feminist, I was dumbfounded. I mean, here I was in the hospital, wallowing in the aftermath of congestive heart failure, and she wants to discuss feminist ideology? Maybe it was because I was not wearing a bra. My more than ample breasts slopped down my sides like twin landslides.
“It’s not about trying to fit into a man’s world,” Sandy said, “but opening it to our wants and needs.” She rolled up the magazine in her hand and tapped it against the bed rail. “Have you thought about what you want and need, Janine?”
I pointed at the heart monitor, and the pound of flesh that dangled from my arm sloshed like a chicken’s wattle. You lack willpower, my father had often said. He weighed in at 360 himself, but it was his parental duty to tell me these things.
“I mean after we get you out of here,” Sandy said. “What’s your passion? What makes you want to get up in the morning?”
The heart monitor pings came faster.
Sandy set the magazine down. “Don’t get yourself into an uprile.” Drama queen, her eyes accused. She placed her hand on my stomach as if she thought I might sit up. In truth, I was trying to recall a dream: George Clooney in a terrycloth bathrobe coming toward me bearing a tray of strawberries topped with whipped cream. Somehow I knew it was my robe he wore, though it made no sense. It would take a half-dozen Clooney’s to fill out a robe of mine.
“If this topic upsets you, we can move to something else,” Sandy said. “Aren’t you just sick to death of this rain?”
Now, I did sit. Sandy’s hand was quickly covered by my untethered breast. Looking disgusted, she disengaged. I tried to recall whether George lost the bathrobe before or after we ate the strawberries.
“Something has to change,” Sandy said. “You almost died.”
“Almost doesn’t count,” I mumbled.
Sandy adopted her stern expression. “Don’t get morose with me, Janine Hemple. We’ve been through thick and thin, you and me. There’s an answer to this, believe it.”
“They had to winch me out of the apartment,” I said. You should be embarrassed, Mother’s voice wheezed from the back of my mind. You should be mortified. She clearly was the time she took me to meet the gynecologist. It had taken the nurse and receptionist to help me onto that cold table.
Sandy touched my hand. My wrist was purple where they’d inserted a needle at one point or another.
“I have more staples in my gut than a stapler,” I said. “Nothing works. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless.”
“Oh, that’s just not true, Janine. You have so much going for you, you really do.” I recalled in a foggy, half-conscious way, faces slanting up to my second floor landing as the crane hauled me out, eyes wide with wondrous revulsion. And yet it was beautiful too. They were rooting for me, wanting me to live.
“I found a man for you,” Sandy said, “a recovering alcoholic. He understands. He’s been sober for five years, and I just know you two will hit it off.”
No, I thought. I shook my head. “That’s just another way of sealing myself in, don’t you see? Why should my self-worth be bound up in some social construct? I don’t need a man in order to feel complete.” The dream with George made me less certain on this point than was optimal, but I soldiered on. “From this day forward, I am a force, not an object.”
Suddenly it was George at my bedside, eyes creased as if the light from his luminous irises had sucked the moisture from his desert skin. He offered me a strawberry, then pulled it back. Do something. Do something worthy of you. I felt a welling inside me, a new and vital force. The heart monitor’s chirp grew distant, unimportant beyond the wall of my strengthening pulse.
“I want to climb mountains,” I said. “I want to scuba dive the coral reefs. I want to stay up all night and write spy novels.”
“Well, that’s great,” Sandy said, “especially the scuba diving thing–buoyancy, and all–but are you sure you’re up to it? Shouldn’t you focus on losing weight?”
“It will come off,” I said. I grabbed the rails and lifted myself marginally. If George had been real, I would have pulled him into my embrace and licked the whipped cream from his mouth.
Sandy edged toward the doorway. A young man in scrubs came into the room. He was no George Clooney, but not bad, not bad.
“I think the pain meds kicked in,” Sandy said.
The man moved to my bedside. I grabbed his forearm. He stumbled, caught the rail, and tried to pull away.
But I was not to be denied. With a strangled grunt, I hauled him over and pressed his face to mine. Our mouths mashed. He struggled. I held tight. I felt his resistance weaken. And then we were kissing, vulnerable, as opened to each other as any man and woman have ever been.
“Doctor, doctor, doctor!” Sandy’s voice retreated down the hallway like a siren leaving the scene. I settled back, content to experience this moment, to feel the weight of this beautiful young man sink into my girth.
Tomorrow I will skydive.
Stephen V. Ramey‘s work has appeared in a variety of places. He also edits the Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and trapeze, a twitter zine. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river.