She shifts in the bed, moving closer to the magic fingers of her lover. Still half asleep, her dreams mix in with this sensation of warm pleasure. She has never felt this before, not with the many boys and men who preceded this lover, not felt this comfortable, unguarded, pure physical joy. And finally, she has let go of the idea of this being unnatural, has now understood that the difference is not what she feared. The real difference is that she is now in love, for the first time. And so it no longer feels unnatural to be here, with her, Janet’s lover, Alejandra.
The stroking between them intensifies and all conscious thought deserts her. After, they sink into that warm bath of mutual pleasure to cuddle. Before dozing again, Janet remembers how they arrived here. She blesses that day, exactly one year ago, that had set this ship sailing.
. . . . . . . . . .
One year ago …
Janet lives life like it is going to run out early. Full of energy, with a strong constitution, she just isn’t blessed by good sense. Been diagnosed, she has, with “a marked lack of executive function”. That just means that she can’t plan ahead. She can’t “anticipate”, the shrink says, unlike “neuro-typical” people. Her brain doesn’t work that way. That little area in her frontal lobe grew in haywired.
But that hasn’t stopped her from waking up each morning, blowing on the dandelion and following the fluff. But still, as an adult of almost 30 years, even after more than half her childhood spent in foster care, she hasn’t gotten the hang of fitting into any kind of schedule.
She is funny looking, too, but in a good way. Like a little mouse, her face has all its expression gathered in the center. The eyes always look like they are trying to lift themselves away from the gravity pull of the nose. Every time those close-set eyes widen, her puckered mouth moves up toward the nose. You find yourself watching to see what those four pieces on her face are going to do next. Yet when she smiles, all of her features celebrate.
This morning starts out no differently from most of her days. Disconbobulated. There she is, hanging out her third story window, a bite of onion bagel, dry because she forgot the cream cheese again, crammed into her mouth. She shouts down to the action on the street, “Mornin’… mornin’… morning.” Heads tilt up and shout back, “Greetings, girl…come play with us, Janet…get going.” Little ones from the block and their parents call out to her. A pied piper to all, she often leads the parade of “her” people to the newest, most fun thing to do in this big city.
As a matter of fact, Janet is going to a parade today. Commemorating… hm, well, something. Her best friend, Margie, is on the way to go with her. There is time for a quick run, Janet thinks, and then off to the festivities. She always thinks there is time for one more thing before the next.
Janet leaves the window open and walks from the kitchen toward her tiny bedroom. Her bare feet kick away obstacles, unmindfully, ignoring the mess. She picks up yesterday’s sports bra and stained T, pulls on her jogging shorts, skipping the panties. They will have to be taken, all of them, her Sunday through Saturday panties, to the Laundromat when she gets back from the parade. No putting that off again.
Bending down, Janet feels a sudden sharp spike in her forehead. The pain bands her head, pulling at her hair roots like a tight ponytail. She sits, then lays down on the pillow provided by her dirty clothes pile. Closing her eyes, she listens inside her head.
No worries, Janet thinks, Margie will know what to do. I’ll just listen.
From the street, snatches of conversations walking by come through the open window:
“Before the kids were born, you used to cook all the time, and it was awesome.”
“Just tell him not to take the Viagra, because you’re on vacation too.”
“I can’t believe a man of your age can’t walk the dog the right way.”
“Look, I don’t think Dad has dementia. He’s just fed up.”
Too soon the sounds from outside start to fade. Janet’s brain, the frontal lobe, is following its predetermined genetic path. A cavernous angioma, present since her birth, formed while she was in her drug addicted mother’s womb, that little mess that has always wreaked havoc on her planning and forward thinking, that bundle of blood vessels…has burst. Her brain, with all its crevices and caverns, is swelling inside her skull. And as it expands and flattens, memories leak out, emerging from the grey folds:
A woman standing over her and patting her back, slowly, rhythmically…the smell of salt water and seaweed …the small crying yaps of the new puppy under the Christmas tree at her first foster home…the soft feel of a red cashmere sweater …the face of the girl who sat next to her in 5th grade…a street person’s voice singing Get Back Jack…neon colored fish swimming right up to her at the aquarium…sun on the back of her neck… staring into his icy blue eyes when he enters her.
Pain overtakes the memories. The sounds stop.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Later, Margie arrives, knocks and knocks on the door of the apartment, then turns away. Just like her, Margie thinks, flaky about keeping a date. Darn it, I’ll sure miss her company.
Halfway down the stairwell, Margie turns around. She really needs to go and knows where Janet hides the key. Up the stairs, she reaches for the crack over the sill and retrieves it. Entering the apartment, she spots the pile of clothes and then stares at her friend on top of them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
10 months ago …
The rehabilitation is long and painful. Janet’s good nature is being sorely tested, again and again. Thankfully, she forgets between times how hard the next physical therapy session is going to be. Today they are doing leg strengthening exercises.
“Come on, sugar, you can do it. Lift that right leg…no, the other one…right leg…yes, that’s it, more, more…now hold.” Alex, the physical therapist urges Janet, using the bar above the hospital bed as leverage for this exercise. “Great. Now relax. We’ll work on the other side in a minute.”
Alex, short for Alejandra, is coming in daily now, even on her off days, to coach Janet in the fine art of walking. Alex punctuates her cheerleading with Spanish phrases that translate, “The only difference between trying and triumph is the umph…Good is as good does, and you can do it good.”
Janet, having completed speech therapy as far as it could take her, shows her appreciation for the help with a hug and smile. Alex nods encouragement right back at her. Their silent language has no accent.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
4 months ago…
“Cancer doesn’t take this long to get over,” Janet tells Alex. Well, Janet wants to tell Alex that, but it comes out more like, “Can ner do loover.” Somehow, Alex gets what Janet means and stifles a laugh while frowning at her.
“Just help me here, love. Don’t talk back. Callate. We are going to get this together, I promise.” Alex is wrestling Janet into a jacket and some ski pants, in preparation for their trip back to Janet’s apartment. Six months in a rehab facility, many extra sessions provided pro bono by Alex, Janet is ready to go home. Communication is still an issue, but Alex is a mind-reader.
A little more difficult is the matter of finances. Janet’s job, a weird one to be sure, has of necessity, ended. She can no longer sell the panties that she has worn to perverts that order through an online porn site. Her “pimp”, his word, not Janet’s, cut her loose after the first week in the hospital. He brought over a box of spanky white panties (the type much preferred by the creeps) and found out about Janet’s problem. Of course he hadn’t paid into workers’ comp, surprise, surprise. Janet, being an independent panty consultant and paid under the table, so to speak, did not qualify for unemployment.
But Alex, along with the social worker, had helped her access all the freebies that they could find for her for social services and medical care. Her apartment was sublet and now could be vacated, but she clearly needed a roommate for money and for help.
Thanks also to Alex, they have plans. Alex can do that, she can plan and plan and plan, so she takes over for Janet’s natural lack in this area.
There is only one thing, and he really is a thing, that stands in the way of their plans. Alex’s “boyfriend”, Pedro.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alejandra has always been a big girl, big boned, big hair, big voice. The oldest of 6 kids, her mother an undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua, her father, a Mexican born in East L.A. Her father left seven years ago to pay his dues at the State Penitentiary. He doesn’t plan to be back anytime soon.
Alex has always been the protector in the family. She grew up in the barrio, learned street smarts very early, and made alliances where she needed to in order to keep her Mom and the younger kids safe. She has also always been really book smart, hiding that fact when she needs to, but has used her natural intelligence and skills at planning to earn a community college certificate as a physical therapy assistant, a PTA. That was a joke within her circle of friends, who kept insisting that it wasn’t PTA but P.U.T.A., the street name for whore. She laughs as loud as the others when they say it.
Part of her has always known, as has had this reinforced since her father was hauled away, that it is critical to have a male figure in your corner. So, she picked Pedro early in adolescence, and has been his woman since she was 14. Nine years. She has lived with him since graduating from high school, in an apartment near her mother’s, and has resisted early motherhood, despite Pedro’s harassment to the contrary. His attempts to convince her otherwise has gotten physical too many times to count, but often Alex gives it back as good as she gets. What Pedro doesn’t know is that she has taken care of that whole thing, permanently. If he ever finds out, she is sure he will kill her.
.. . . . . . . . . . . .
2 months ago …
Alex hurries to get her mother and three younger sisters on the bus.
“Andale, Mama. We have to move out of here faster. The bus to San Diego leaves in less than an hour. Do you have the tickets I gave you?”
“Si, si. Are you sure you will be okay? Can you find somewhere safe for yourself after we go?”
All this was said hurriedly, in Spanish, as Alex hustled them out the door. Pedro would be here soon, the first place he’d look when he found their apartment empty of clothes and Alex’s small accumulation of household goods all gone.
“It is not a problem, Mama. Just make sure that you get the girls and yourself to Nicaragua as we planned. I will find a way to help you return when things settle down.”
“Don’t go back to your workplace either, hija. You would not be safe, even in the hospital.”
“I got it covered, Mama. He’s not going to mess with my life for another day. Now, just get into this cab.”
They clutched at each other and separated reluctantly, “Vaja con dios, Mama.”
Alex was watching the cab disappear around the corner when she felt t hot breath on her neck, and whirled around to face him.
“Where is all your stuff, Puta?” Pedro said this while grabbing her arm.
Shaking him off, Alex looked around to see who was on the street with them. She looked to see if there was anywhere she could run. There were lots of people nearby, but no one would look at them even as they heard the raised voices.
“Let’s just calm down. Let my arm go. Let’s have a cup of coffee and talk about this calmly, Pedro.” Alex was taking gulps of air now, trying to sound reasonable, letting him steer her along the street with his steel grip on her arm.
“Let’s go on back to our place, Puta. Let’s ”talk” there, shall we?”
“No. Please just let me go. Let me get on with my plans, Pedro. We are done. You know that. I know that. Just let me go.”
“You want to leave me? For that freak gringa that you are queer for? That will never happen, because you are my woman. This is unacceptable.” Pedro spits that last word at Alex as he twists the wrist he’s holding.
Alex was just about to give in, to take her chances upstairs with him, when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. Then she hears it. A short parade of sorts is marching toward the two of them. There are lots of kids, a few adults with horns and banging pots and pans. There is also a rough looking dog, a Rottweiler, maybe, straining against his leash. And leading the parade, a tiny lopsided majorette, a baseball bat instead of a baton, heads right at them.
Janet put her little mouse face right up to Pedro. “Want to join our parade, Pedro? We need a wild animal to complete the look.” Of course, it doesn’t make much sense the way Janet enuciates, but Pedro gets the intent. Two men, neighbors of Janet, walk up to stand on either side of Pedro.
Pedro looks at them, then at Alex, and says in Spanish, “Good riddance, you nutcase.” He drops her arm and walks the other way.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
2 weeks ago
“I talked to my Tia Louisa on the phone today and it sounds like everyone is really enjoying Nicaragua. Mama has gotten the girls into a good school there and the money I am sending goes a lot farther there than here.”
Looking up from the bench where she was doing the exercise shown to her by Alex, designed to help her balance, Janet just smiles.
“We are invited down whenever we can make it. Now let’s go shower.” Alejandra lifts Janet from the bench and holds her close.
On their way into the tiny bathroom, Janet removes her bright white “spanky” pants and tosses them at Alex. “No sweat, Chica,” she says as she throws. This comes out loud and clear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Your language center shows improvements, Janet. But there doesn’t seem to be much firing in the frontal lobe, where you do your organizing and planning. Can you see this MRI, how the places light up? Can you see the difference here?” The neurologist is pointing out the brightly colored images hanging on a light board above Janet and Alex’s heads.
“That is nothing new, Doc. But we got it covered.” Though a little garbled, Janet’s tone makes it clear that this is not a problem. She squeezes Alejandra’s hand.
Alex smiles and responds in kind. “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, doctor. No triumph without the ‘umph’. We ‘plan’ to plan together for now on.”
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