The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
An Hour Every Day
Six Months before, she wouldn’t have had the courage to stay alone in a public building so late at night. She had been afraid of everything.
Without students, the university looked like any other institution: green, cement brick walls, floors of scuffed linoleum, the harsh fluorescent glare and intermittent darkness of bulbs burnt out along the hallway. Francine was happy here. Finally.
Everything was different now.
She told herself she was capable of being a woman, alone, late at night, in a public building. She loved walking through the halls; the click of her heels, as she walked, was comforting.
She remembered when she was not even allowed an hour of privacy a day. She was forced to sit in the television room with the lady who painted her face like a clown, and kept repeating, "You're the one who needs Shock. It's you. Not me. It's you." That woman followed her around throughout the day. After the painted lady beat her, she was given an hour of privacy every day.
What a privilege it was to go into that room she shared with an old lady in diapers. She would cover herself with the robe Jacob brought from home. She would open the drawer beside her bed, opened the poetry book she had published, after years of submitting her manuscript, and getting rejected. She could not focus on the words, while she was there; only the shapes on the page. Now she not only read. She was writing again and was hired as a teacher. She was no longer Frankie. She was Francine Armbuster, PhD., who graduated from Berkeley. Her hair was graying now, her face was wrinkled. But being here, on her own, alone, at night, was a miracle.
Her office was lined with books; piles of student papers were on every available surface. The musty smell of old paper pervaded the air. This is the atmosphere she imagined when she decided to teach.
Francine knew it was time to go home but she dreaded her roommate, her oncelover, who let her stay after their breakup. Living with him made her feel the deep ache of loneliness which threatened to enclose her.
She remembered the ambulance, the paramedics, and Jacob, standing in the corner, whispering to strangers.
“She barely has a pulse,” she heard from a distance.
* * *
Her back was sore from sitting so long at the desk. It didn’t make sense to sit any longer.
There was a sofa in the office. It was covered with books and papers. She carefully piled them on the table and lay down, covering herself with her coat, beige and stained. She hugged it to herself.
She slept. She never slept in the office before.
Francine woke up to the clatter of the janitor, mopping the hall. She jumped up, looked into the cracked mirror on the desk. She looked like an old woman. She dug into her purse, pulled out a lipstick, quickly applying it, found a mint, popped it in her mouth, hoped the janitor would think she came in early. She opened the office door and walked out the back; the scent of lilacs made her think of some part of her heart that had never been touched.
She could see Jacob in the parking lot, walking towards her. He felt very distant from her. She wished he hadn’t come.
“I was worried sick,” he said. “I had no idea where you were. I called your doctor.”
“No!” Francine was tired of doctors. She was tired of meds. She was tired of fearing another breakdown. She couldn’t imagine that Jacob still cared about her.
“Mel is so upset. She wants to know where her mother is.” Francine imagined Mel throwing one of her fits, throwing CDs against the wall, complaining of her fate. Jacob was always alluding to the damage the breakdown had done to their daughter. It was always about their daughter, never her.
“So she was worried,” said Francine. “Not you.” She felt the weakness of her words before she spoke them.
Jacob pulled out a cigarette. Francine no longer felt she had the right to ask him to put it out.
Francine saw Ben. He waved as he approached. She wondered how she looked.
“Francine. Good morning. You’re here early.” He walked quickly past them.
Francine waved back, as he left. “Hi.”
Jacob grunted. “Who’s that?
“What do you care?” Francine was becoming more confident that she might, somehow, find love with another man. She wanted to move out of her room but she feared losing Mel. Mental illness is never acceptable. It didn’t matter what else changed in the world. Gays could marry, addicts could go public, but anyone hospitalized on a psychiatric ward was unacceptable. Jacob would get custody of Mel if Francine left.
“There’s no such thing as a nervous breakdown,” Francine said to Jacob, thinking out loud. “It’s more of a fade out. No one seems to understand that.”
“What are you talking about?” Jacob tossed his cigarette on the grass, stomped it out with his tennis shoe. “I asked you who that guy was.”
“Why? Are you jealous?” Francine felt ridiculous, asking this. She knew she was no longer beautiful.
“Are you sleeping with him?”
“He’s my boss,” Francine wished she could be with a man like Ben. “He’s married.” It felt strange, saying this to Jacob.
* * *
“Are you coming back to the house any time soon? Or do I have to tell Mel that her mother is sleeping at work now?”
She thought of the way the homeless smell. “I’ll be home after school. Tell Mel I’ll be there.” Francine knew if she didn’t comply, Jacob could hospitalize her again. Jacob had power of attorney over her health care.
Francine thought of Mel, wearing her jewelry, wearing her clothes, sixteen years old.
“Pretend we’re strangers,” Francine said. She started to cry.
"We'll never be strangers," Jacob said, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Please, Frankie, don't cry.”
He called her Frankie.
She covered her face with her hands.
© bobbilurie495(at)gmail.com - June 2012
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