Meeting Ethel

As I attempt to meet my 2014 resolution of writing (more/at all) I’ve turned to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge for help. Last week’s was Collecting Detail and I’ve decided to drag an old piece out of the draft file to help jump start my goal. Cheers!

I am following signs through a winding series of corridors that point to the “Women’s Cafeteria.” Outside, in a valley between hospital buildings, everything exposed is still wet from the torrential rain that has just subsided. After finding the room my orders were to “get your grandmother coffee” and a passing nurse, when asked, instructs me to “turn right and follow the signs.” I’m told that the coffee is free, but it couldn’t possibly matter, I wouldn’t dare to return without it, regardless of the price. The idea of a “Women’s Cafeteria” has me thinking about some strange world wherein men and women are formally separated, as through the days of the parlor and drawing room had never passed, but instead evolved into female-only eating rooms in hospitals.

A large family greets me at the door, bubbling over with toddlers juggling stuffed bears. Inside the room is cavernous, bright and ochre, harshly sterile, and eventually it dawns on me that there is nothing on the walls. This cannot be a public place. The tables, like the cafeterias in middle school, are shaped like picnic benches and populated with chattering girls in uniform, eying me as I pass. I am clearly lost, circling a behemoth coffee machine in a futile quest for coffee cups. There are cafeteria ladies, but they have been helping the ungrateful all morning and are in no mood; I don’t even attempt eye contact.

I find a machine that makes what the hospital charitably calls “cappuccino” and contemplate buying some just for the cup. $1.55 for french vanilla, hazelnut, but then I hear her voice crackle into my head, “I don’t like perfumed coffees,” my grandma announces at my Christmas gift. Her accent has survived nearly sixty years in the states, but is still recognizable. Clearly British, it has granted her voice the gift of making ever word italicized. “I. Don’t. Like. Perfumed. Coffees.” the voice says. At the end of every conversation I want to throw up my hands and shout, “I know! I know!” and I think the accent is to blame.

I break away from the cappuccino machine with a cup in hand. The back of the free coffee stand is overflowing with sloppy piles of tumbled over lids, but I don’t want to circle around for a third time so I steal a matching lid from the cappuccino machine and slip past the indifferent cafeteria clerk. I fill up the cup, but all that comes out is boiling water and I can immediately feel it burning my fingertips through the flimsy walls. I dump the water through the grate and try the next nozzle, which mercifully works.

I was told to bring back cream and “lots” of sugar so the circling has started up again. I make my way over to what might be the world’s most depressing condiment stand, packed with some strange brands that I’ve never heard of, and that I fantasize are hospital only. Balancing the coffee and my purse in one hand I stuff my right pocket with cream and sugar. I know, instinctively, that I have not gotten enough, but I just want to leave, there’s something awful about the cafeteria. I don’t want to look at the walls because I don’t want to see them empty, I don’t want to look at the cold cases because I know there are no pictures of ice and soda on the tops, I want to leave, the room feel so soulless it’s almost filthy. The paper cup itself is completely white, and I wonder why I had never realized how comforting logos were until now.

Back at the door I clumsily buzz myself in, or, I try to. “One twenty,” I say into the speaker; the coffee is burning my hand now, “I’m sorry, what?” the speaker replies. “One twenty, one twenty,” now self conscious of my speaker-lisp, “I was just inside.” The lobby that I am in is locked and completely barren, not a soul in sight, the lights are off, it makes no sense, the beds are full, where are the families? My voice rises audibly at the end of my plea and the nurse must sense that I’m slightly frantic to get back in because the lock clunks open.

I power walk back to room 120 where my mother and grandma are arguing about lunch in front of a male nurse. It’s just turned noon; they’ve given grandma Bobbie what they’re calling chicken Parmesan and she’s wildly upset. “It’s tough!” she yells at the nurse. We must be blood relations; when she yells I can feel it in my bones. She was barely around when I was growing up, it must be some trick of evolution. I talk about dad loving hospital food and the nurse laughs, I can only imagine how horrible grandma is being, she definitely has opinions about men being nurses and she feels privileged to express them. Not because she is dying, but because she is herself. “Bobbie,” dad always says, “has been senile since I met her.” That would be over thirty years ago now. She is a perpetual elderly women, though only recently terminal. After he leaves mom encourages grandma to eat the cereal bar and banana that we smuggled in, but her voice is more forceful than before I left for coffee. Mom speaks to grandma Bobbie like she is a child and, in turn, grandma childishly pretends not to understand her. I can empathize with both of them.

“Is this a black hospital?” grandma Bobbie suddenly belts. A man has walked next to her ground floor window, triggering the outburst, “There are so many of them here!” My mom whispers that she can’t say those things here, though I’m not sure if “here” means the hospital or the world in general. “A Chinese woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me stupid questions!” grandma Bobbie retorts. We silently assume she is talking about a nurse. “A Chinese! Or Japanese or Vietnamese,” usually racist old ladies are much better with nationalities, but my grandmother is the exception to this, “but she woke me up and 1 AM and asked me stupid questions!” Even when calm her eyes have a wild, frantic look to them, as though she’s always on the verge of a panic attack. In recent years grandma Bobbie’s eyes have turned milky blue and I can’t stop staring at them, set inside skin that has the look of crumpled paper, soft and brown from a lifetime of habitual sunbathing. There is a large, black scab on her skeletal forearm from a gash ripped open by a young nurse removing tape; they had screamed in unison.

Mom is talking to Hospice through a cheap cell phone . “I’m calling about Ethel A-,” she repeats, needing details about a hospital bed for the house, though I don’t know what help it will be. “Ethel,” I say before she hangs up the phone, “Who is Ethel?” but I know the answer. “Ethel is your grandmother’s name,” her voice is friendly enough, but she doesn’t look over. The room is dark, but I’m staring at the wrist band by the enormous black scab. “I thought your name was Bobbie,” I say to the milky blue eyes, and I feel like an eternity passes in the dim, cold hospital room. “That’s just a nickname,” she says, motioning for the coffee.

First draft 9/10/11
Revised 1/1/14

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