You know people like me. I'm the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom, but never going -- even though in the late sixties only nerds went to proms. But I would have gone. I would have happily gone; I would have been so happy. I wanted the phone call with the rough voice asking "Would you...?" I wanted to finger row after row of pastel dresses in silks and chiffons -- their sweetheart necks, their wide ribbon ties. I wanted to have some shoes dyed; I thought it was a miracle they could do it. I wanted to put a wrist corsage in my refrigerator, lock the bathroom door, and bathe in perfumed water with rollers in my hair and the transistor at the edge of the sink blaring "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." I wanted to allow an hour for the application of all my new Maybelline, suffer the flash-bulbs of my parents' eager camera, stay out all night, and eat breakfast before I came home, bleary-eyed and in the know.
I didn't get asked. I never once got asked. Not to proms, not to lesser dances, not to movies, not to parties, not for shopping with the girls.
I would get talked to, though. I mean beyond the "Hi's!" in the hall, beyond the preoccupied chatter in the lunchroom. I got talked to a lot. They would call me on the phone, the pretty girls. They would call and talk to me about things that were serious: their parents' alcoholism. Their hidden scoliosis. Their possible pregnancies. They talked to me because I knew how to listen, and I gave good advice. I didn't have a lot of personal experience, but I knew things, because I read and I watched. That is what there was for me. Those girls talked to me -- and a boy, once, too -- because they knew I would never betray them. Of course they betrayed me constantly. But they didn't really mean to. Probably they didn't know. They didn't think about it that much.
I'm the one everybody liked, Myra Lipinski, oh yeah, Myra, she's nice, the one that everybody liked and no one wanted to be with. The odd shape. The socks, those socks -- well, her parents had accents. The face, unfortunate, with its too small eyes, its too wide mouth. The hair mousy brown, too thin and straight, greasy after half a day, no matter what. Even as a five-year-old: the aunt and uncle who once came to visit, sitting with my mother at the kitchen table, chatting quietly in Polish, and smiling over at me. "What are they saying?" I asked my mother, coming over to stretch myself out across her lap and shyly smiling back at them. "What are they saying about me?" And my mother finally breaking into English to tell me, "They say you look like...your father. And now we are not anymore talking about you." I lay still in her lap, contemplating the yellow-and-orange pattern of her apron and forbidding myself my thumb, until she crossed her legs and dislodged me.
So. I sold the tickets and I decorated the gym and I helped win the volleyball games and I sang a good alto in the choir and I lent my notes to anyone who asked; and if people wanted to copy from my test paper, I let them do that, too. I did not become bitter. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't think I had the right.
After graduation, I stayed here in Ashton, venturing no further than the twenty-two miles necessary to get to Boston College, where I earned my BSN. I went to nursing school because I knew it would be a way for people to love me. And for me to love them, too. This happens in illness. The sad plates of armor separate; the light comes in.
At first, I worked in the intensive care unit. I wanted the challenge and the prestige of working in the hardest place. You're eating lunch in the cafeteria, wearing your scrubs, your high-tech stethoscope around your neck, a hemostat clipped onto you somewhere, tourniquets tied onto it. You know a long list of lab values cold; you could intubate if you had to; you can rate heart murmurs and evaluate lung status and draw blood and start IVs better than most of the attending physicians. You see a burst of ventricular tachycardia race across a monitor screen and you save the patient and let the doctor know about it when you get around to it. You can give a lot of drugs that nurses on other floors can't. You can decide when to get certain kinds of tests performed. When you call down to any other department in the hospital and say, "This is ICU," they pay attention. You come first. When you say stat, it gets done stat.
Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Berg
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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