In the Ether
You see me here, don’t you? Laura G.? You think you know me. You see my outline in flesh and bone and blood. Yes, I’m real, a corporeal body, you think. Is corporeal body redundant? Maybe you think I’m redundant. You see my streaky hair, my brown tired eyes. My dress droops over thin hips. My heels are run down. You think I’m a poor housewife, don’t you? That I have to work to make ends meet, that I’m part of a family just scraping by?
You see me at the market, pushing a cart in front of me, piling in cans of soup and tomato sauce, quarts of sour cream and ricotta cheese, boxes of pasta, bloody steaks and congealed chicken parts in shrink wrap. OK, I’m no longer fastidious about the fruit I pick. So what if there are blemishes on the tomatoes and pockmarks on the Granny Smiths from the stems of neighboring apples? Do you think my kids will notice? No way. They couldn’t be bothered. They’d much rather eat the pizzas we order in or the McDonald’s hamburgers I pick up on the way home from the office when I work too late to cook.
You see me here, you see my body, but that’s not who I am. The body you see isn’t the real me. I don’t live in this world. I live in a world of becoming, not in the world of the now. The now is not what I meant it to be. It just happened. So I live in the future, in the good luck or good fortune or good will or the willpower that I will exercise to get there, to become. To be how I was meant to be, how I wanted to be.
There’s Charlie, of course. My husband, poor thing. He’s stuck in the Now and can’t come with me into the To-Be. He sees the sides of the box he’s in and thinks that’s all there is. He believes in the definition of us, of our small house, our two kids, our two meaningless jobs. I’m out of the box, you see. Up here. In the ether. Can you follow me? You know, up here is magic. Up here, I wonder with amazement that planes don’t fall from the heaviness of their own weight.
I mean, it’s magic, isn’t it, when you think about it. How do the planes stay up?
We may appear to be a poor two-income family with run-down heels and tired eyes, but we have managed to travel some, mainly to Florida to visit Charlie’s parents. The last time we flew to Miami, when I looked out the window, I couldn’t tell if we were in the sea or in the sky. Serrated clouds, like surf, stretched back to the horizon, white-ridged ripples extending to the invisible line where sea and sky met. And there was I, strapped into a metal container with other fleshly bodies, insulated in this metal cocoon, warm and snug, hurtling at five hundred miles an hour through the wet coldness of clouds. A miracle.
Charlie and I married young, just after college. Heather was conceived right away. Too soon, too soon. Charlie wanted to go to law school, but instead he got comfortable at Allstate. Health insurance and retirement benefits and vacation pay and small promotions and small pay raises propel him along, give him a sense of movement and progress. He’s strapped into fatherhood and husbandhood and beancounterhood and security. His eighteenth floor office overlooks Midtown.
Sometimes when I’m soaring in the ether, I see him lean over his desk, shoving aside the endless pile of insurance claims. He covers his ears with his hands, while the wind squeals and the cold dampness of the clouds seeps into the pores of the skyscraper.
Charlie’s and my sexual frenzy lessened after Heather was born. Instead, we fell totally in love with our daughter. The back of my neck ached for months from bending over to marvel at her tiny face as she laid nursing in my arms. Her tiny fingers curled around mine, clutching as if holding onto a life preserver. And that’s what I became. I – the I who floats in the ether – was totally lost in serving Heather. Feeding and bathing her, washing her tiny pink stretchies, holding her over my shoulder and patting her back for that little reassuring burp, changing diapers, powdering her peachy little rump, pureeing solid foods in the blender. I was much more careful then about blemishes on fruit.
Just as Heather became a little person, Jeremy came along. He was colicky from the start, a more difficult child. And I was exhausted, wrung out, an automaton who moved mechanically from sunup to sundown. Sleep was fitful as I tried to shield Heather and Charlie from Jeremy’s nighttime outbursts. Jeremy’s colic subsided as the months went by, but he had a weak respiratory system and succumbed to every bacteria and virus his sister brought home from nursery school. Heather might be sick for a day, but Jeremy’s reactions lingered on. He was a sponge that retained sickness like greasy soapsuds.
I got a job as an admittance clerk at Lenox Hill Hospital after Jeremy’s third birthday. Heather was in first grade. At first, it was exciting. I was out of the house every day, working and talking with adults. I took coffee breaks and lunch in the hospital cafeteria, seeking out companions. But all seemed unapproachable. There were two kinds of people, those who clumped together forming a group wall and those who sat alone, eyes downcast. I felt even lonelier than I had at home with the children.
The Mir station was launched into orbit that year. And that’s when I started floating into the ether. What was it like, being an astronaut and staying in space for months at a time, looking down at Earth?
Every day anguished people sat in front of me across a wide Formica-covered desk. Mothers whose children had fallen down the stairs and broken a leg, fathers who had drunk too much and gotten into a bar fight, teenagers who’d had a knife thrust in their arm or streaked across a cheek, middle-aged men laboring for breath and clutching their chests, runny-nosed infants coughing in their mothers’ arms.
Day after day, I performed triage, deciphering and decoding the symptoms, the broken English and other languages, screening out the emergencies from the sit-and-waits.
One day the police brought in Walter. They had found him curled up in the fetal position on Lexington Avenue, lying against the southwest entrance to Bloomingdale’s just as dawn broke. As I looked at Walter, I could see what he saw when he awoke – dawn bursting over the horizon spilling chips of golden light down 59th Street. I could feel Walter’s grin spreading happily across his face as he greeted the police, as happily as if his mother had awakened him for a special Sunday breakfast of Swedish pancakes and lingonberries.
The Walter sitting across my desk in the cocooned cubicle grinned happily, although moaning and holding his head. He rocked back and forth in the swivel chair, his whole body thrusting around as if on a Coney Island ride.
“Looks like he’s been kicked around some,” the female officer said. “I’d have his ribs checked. He’s been cut with a knife too.” She reached for his arm and pulled back a torn jacket sleeve. “See?”
When I bent toward the wound, the foul odor of Walter’s clothes shot up my nostrils, sending warning signals to my brain. My mind automatically catalogued the scents – vomit, beer, cigarette smoke, feces, urine, and strangely, cheese – even as I fought the urge to recoil, and moved closer to see. Blood had already congealed in a line from the crook of Walter’s arm to his wrist. There was no evident seepage, and I concluded that Walter must have been sleeping off the attack for some hours.
“And hit on the head,” the male officer added. That was obvious from the blood and bruised mess on Walter’s temple, under the hand that was lamely trying to protect it from further harm.
“We’ve got to complete the paperwork on this guy, so we’ll sit in on your triage,” the female said.
“Sure,” I said, doubtful that Walter would be coherent, yet somehow already knowing everything about him, fellow traveler in the ether.