The Lady Vanishes
In the early hours of a late-August morning, two weeks before I began my junior year at Trinity and a month before my seventeenth birthday, Mother shook me awake by the shoulders. For three days she'd complained of a pain in her abdomen, and a feared overdose of birth control pills. These complaints had escalated in alarm as, throughout the night, Mother began to bleed heavily from her feminine parts. "Robert, get up," she yelled. "You've got to get me to the hospital. My thing's still bleeding. I need you to drive me into Houston. I called the doctor's office; they're expecting us any minute."
I threw on stray clothes and rushed downstairs. Mother had the car waiting, with her overnight case packed and stashed into the backseat. And though I was afraid I wouldn't get Mother to the doctor's office in time, and afraid she'd bleed to death in the passenger's seat, it was the sight of her overnight case that frightened me the most. It suggested Mother believed her condition to be serious, and that her stay in the hospital might be a long one.
The road was still dark as we drove away from Petunia, but corners of the sky were already streaked with bright, wet patches of pastel light. And though the dim Interstate was beginning to fill with people heading for work, I was able to keep the car going almost eighty by veering wildly through traffic, the hazard lights of Mother's Jaguar blinking fire. At sixteen, this was the first time I'd driven recklessly for the sake of emergency. I all but hoped we'd be pulled over, so that I could scold the offending traffic cop and commandeer him as our escort.
Mother held her stomach and moaned and clutched her armrest, saying things like "Oh, the pain. My god, the pain." And "I sure do hope we make it in time, Robert. Jesus, please let us make it in time." I wrote off Mother's wooden speech to pain and slight delirium, and responded in kind with "We will, Mother, we will. Rest now, and listen to the radio." But even as I said it, and dawn slowly rose beyond the crowding Houston freeway, the idea did occur to me that our situation seemed less like illness than like illness in the movies.
Once, when I was in the second grade, I'd tried to see how far I could walk blindfolded in an absolutely straight line, using the barbed wire fence in Papa's back pasture as my gauge. I'd made it almost ten feet before feeling a small prick against my neck, and opening my eyes, I realized I'd turned, and walked into the barbed wire. Because I wasn't in pain, I couldn't quite recognize the bright red smear on my white shirt, until I touched my fingers to my neck to see if I might be the source of it. As I drew my hand away, it too was covered in blood. Color spots flashed and twinkled about my head as I ran to my father, mending the same barbed wire fence about a hundred yards away. Seeing me, Daddy made a hysterical gulping sound, something between a hiccup and a laugh, then took off my T-shirt and tied it around my neck to slow the bleeding. After scooping me into his pickup, he sped me to the emergency room, where it turned out my cut wasn't very serious, though it could have been. I'd come within centimeters of puncturing my jugular vein.
What I remember most about this experience was not being able to believe that what was happening to me was real — I never felt any pain, and I wasn't particularly frightened — not until it was all over, and I realized how close I'd come to being badly hurt. I remember Daddy gunning the engine of his truck, frantic to get me to the doctor, and being surprised I wasn't more upset. It seemed like everything — Daddy's fear, and the gravel and dirt flying from the bumpy roads leading off the ranch, even the blood on my T-shirt — was harmless, and like it was gliding past.
Now, driving Mother to the Houston Medical Center, I was the frantic one. But even still, I felt a certain failure to connect what was happening to reality. Mother pointed me toward Skylark Towers — a complex of offices connected to the Methodist hospital through a series of long, white underground tunnels, telling me her doctor was on its twelfth floor. "Valet-park," Mother instructed.
"You really are sick," I said. Only neither of us felt like laughing as I pulled into a hedge-trimmed carport, where a Puerto Rican valet took the keys and gave me a claim ticket, and Mother jumped from the car and ran into the building. She stood holding an elevator in the gray marble lobby. By the time I cleared the elevator's sliding doors it was just past eight o'clock, but the hospital still seemed drowsy, and a smattering of nurses with black-rimmed eyes shuffled across the lobby wearing green scrubs.
As soon as we reached the twelfth floor,Mother hurried me toward the only office that seemed open. A television was tuned to the Today Show in a small room with salmon colored vinyl love seats. Al Roker was giving the weather forecast.We were the office's first patients of the morning. Mother began speaking frantically to a woman behind a fogged, sliding-glass partition, who handed her a clipboard, and asked her to sign the register.
I sat down and tried to distract myself from Mother's pacing across the linoleum floor by concentrating on the weather report — something about record temperatures and midwestern farmers — but I couldn't focus my attention.
Mother's high heels made the tile floor sound hollow until she suddenly stopped pacing and turned to me: "I have got to go to the bathroom, Robert," Mother said.
"I've got to go to the bathroom real bad. I'll be right back." Mother grabbed her purse and overnight case, and rushed out the office door to the ladies' room down the hall.
"Should I follow you, Mother?" I called after her. "Do you want me to wait outside the door? Just in case?"
But Mother had already rounded the corner. So I returned to the office to wait, on the off chance that while Mother was gone, her name might be called. And a few minutes later, it was — by an ash-blond nurse in a too-tight uniform. "Jessica Wilson," she called.
I took the nurse's hair color as a bad sign. For years, Mother had shared with me her grandmother Eugenia's wisdom about The Ways of the World: "Never dance with a man with a pencil mustache, Jessica," Eugenia had warned Mother as a little girl. "And always beware of ash blondes." "Why?" I'd often asked Mother. "What's wrong with ash blondes?"
But Mother had just shaken her head and stared into the distance, as though the truth were too terrible to speak. There were moments when I suspected that Eugenia's advice to Mother had not been entirely grounded in common sense. However. This particular ash blonde did indeed seem like someone to be wary of — she looked cranky, and her uniform kept riding up on her. "She's in the ladies' room," I said to the nurse. "She'll be right back. I'm her son."
"She a new patient?" asked the nurse.
"I'm pretty sure she's not," I said.
"Well, we don't seem to have no record of her. Or of her appointment, neither." There seemed to be some bacon wedged between the nurse's front teeth.
"Well, that sounds like a mistake to me," I said, remembering that Mother had come unhesitatingly to this office, having called in advance. "My mother spoke with someone from your office on the telephone early this morning. The doctor should be expecting her."
"Yeah? What seems to be the problem with your mama?" the ash blonde asked. Her head was slowly tilting backward, until she stared at me over her nose.
"My mother is hemorrhaging." I said. "This is an emergency." My voice cracked in concern. "And since she's been in the ladies' room quite some time now, I think somebody ought to go check on her." I eyed the ash blonde in such a way as to make obvious that that somebody was her.
The nurse grunted and headed reluctantly down the hall, her hips lazily shifting. She returned before the door seemed to fully rest in its frame. "There ain't nobody in that bathroom," she said.
I pushed past her in a cold sweat and ran to check the ladies' room myself.
It was, indeed, empty. Though I could have sworn I caught a faint hint of Mother's perfume.
Rushing from the bathroom, I fully expected to find Mother collapsed somewhere on the hallway's industrial carpeting. A fluorescent light flickered and buzzed as I walked slowly back to the doctor's office. It was still early in the morning. I didn't yet feel fully awake, and it crossed my mind that I could be making some awful, groggy mistake.
"I just don't understand," I said to the ash blonde nurse leaning in the doorway. "Is there another ladies' room on this floor? Could she have met some other nurse in the hallway who's already taken her into the examination room? Is there a different entrance to this office?"
"There's only one way to get into this office, and that's walking right through this door. And you're looking at all the nurses this office's got."
"So there's no one else who works here? You were the person Mother talked to on the telephone this morning?"
"I said I'm the only nurse. I don't answer phones. That's what the receptionist gets paid for."
"Then I want to speak to the receptionist," I said. My voice sounded thin and wispy, like it was made of smoke.
"Fine," she said. "Wait here." Like she was grateful for any chance to shake loose of me.
The nurse was gone a long while, and I could barely hear someone talking behind the glass partition.On TV, two English ladies were showing Katie Couric how to make cucumber salad. And when the nurse finally returned, the receptionist, a pillowy woman in a faded silk jacket, followed her. "Son," said the receptionist. She sat down beside me and put her hand on my knee. I crossed my legs in order to take her hand off my knee. "I hear you're havin' some trouble finding your mama." As though I were a toddler found wandering a shopping mall.
"My mother," I said, "is hemorrhaging from her feminine parts." I leaned forward, attempting to impart the urgency of our situation. "She must be a regular patient of yours because she called you before coming here. I'm absolutely terrified
she's collapsed somewhere in your facility, and I think it's your responsibility to send somebody [I briefly glanced at the ash-blond nurse] out looking for her." I tried to imagine myself testifying in open court regarding the lack of professional concern I'd confronted in this office, hoping some small trace of this thought colored my tone.
"But, hon," the receptionist said, like she wasn't sure whether to be frightened of or for me, "this is a podiatrist's office. What I don't understand is why your mama would come see us when her pretty's bleeding. Unless. Nothing's gone wrong with her feet, too, has there?"
The ash-blonde chortled.
I shook my head to clear my ears. The whole morning had rushed by me, but now I had the experience of time grinding still. My stomach felt like that machine that stretches salt-water taffy at the rodeo. I felt like anything I might say to this woman would sound totally insane. Like that moment in The Lady Vanishes when the hero keeps insisting that there really had been an old lady on the train, and she really was kidnapped — but the more he keeps insisting, the crazier he sounds.
I stood up and walked to the door. An etched plastic plaque identified the office as belonging to Dr. Stanley Bartlestein, DPM. Which I'd noticed before, but hadn't read, and even if I had, I wouldn't have known that DPM meant Doctor of Podiatry.
I walked slowly back to the salmon vinyl love-seat. I must have seemed too prissy to be a lunatic or prankster. Seeing how deeply she'd chilled me, the pillowy receptionist once again placed her hand on my knee, except this time I didn't brush it away. "Honey, if you'd like, you can come around to the office, and I'll check for her name in the computer one more time."
"I guess so," I said. It wasn't much of an offer, but it was the best I was likely to receive.
I followed her behind the sliding-glass partition, to her desk, where she offered me a seat in a swivel-chair and typed mother's name into the computer. And retrieved nothing.
"Would you mind trying her married name?" I asked, remembering that since Daddy left us, Mother's surname had fluctuated with her moods.
"Jessica O'Doole" also retrieved nothing. The computer gazed back at me, unblinking.
"I just don't understand," I muttered again, now feeling like a toddler deserted in a shopping mall."Would you mind if I just sat in your reception room for a little while . . ." I managed to say before my voice trailed off. Because at that moment, I didn't truly believe I would ever see my mother again. I hadn't seen Daddy since he'd disappeared from my life a couple of months earlier, and it crossed my mind that it was within the realm of human possibility that Mother could disappear, too. That she might have just chosen some random podiatrist's office to leave me in forever, after stringing me along with some loopy story about her vagina.
I mean, sure, now that I thought about it, it didn't seem likely that taking too many birth control pills could result in a vaginal hemorrhage.And even if it did, Petunia's local emergency room would probably have been a wiser place to seek medical treatment than a downtown doctor's office.
But Mother had acted with such direction, and I'd gotten up so early, that it hadn't occurred to me to question her story until now.Which was a fact that offered little reassurance regarding my future performance on the SATs — although in my defense, and though Mother and I often pushed the conventional boundaries of the mother-son relationship, I did not, even under peculiar circumstances, wish to delve too closely into Mother's vagina. Which was, I concluded, exactly what made it a ripe field for deception.
But realizing this brought me no closer to an explanation of what I was really doing in Dr. Bartlestein's office. I still had Mother's valet-parking ticket, though I supposed it was possible to retrieve a car without it. But the fact that she'd let me keep it in the first place suggested to me that Mother must have intended to come back. And that, whatever was going on, there must have been some reason she'd wanted me to remain at Dr. Bartlestein's. Mother had been pretty frenzied lately, about money and remarriage. But I still thought she was functioning as a fairly rational human being. Since I didn't have anybody to call and ask for advice, and I was far away from home, I decided to check and see if Mother's car was still parked downstairs. If it was, I'd return to Dr. Bartlestein's, and wait on one of his vinyl love-seats until Mother came for me, or until the ash blonde nurse kicked me out, whichever came first.
Throughout the morning, and then the afternoon, the receptionist, whose name, I learned, was Gladys, plied me with peppermints from a green glass bowl and Dr. Peppers so cold from the specimen freezer they were tissued with ice. Gladys told me to make myself comfortable in front of the TV — and between shows, I made odd dashes downstairs, to check with the car-park, and make certain Mother's Jaguar was still in the lot, afraid that the moment I left Dr. Bartlestein's office would be the moment Mother chose to return. Each time, the car was just as we'd left it that morning.
A fat police officer patrolled the hospital's entry on a golf cart, and every time he puttered by, I thought about asking for help. But I felt pathetic enough already, and while, thanks to Gladys's sympathy, I was being allowed to quietly wait out the day at Dr. Bartlestein's, I knew if I involved anyone else, I'd end up trying to explain my mother to one stranger after another, which was a thought that made me miserable. So mostly, I watched TV and allowed myself to be soothed by Gladys's Dr. Peppers, filling out Cosmo quizzes as hobbling fleets of old ladies stumbled through the day complaining of bunions and trading folktherapies for ingrown toenails. I felt strangely in context. It's pretty hard to get kicked out of a hospital. As an institution, it's used to its odd stragglers; people who're intent on waiting forever if they're put to it, and others who aren't sure when to give up and go home. The cracks in the vinyl seat pinched me, and pulled the hair on the back of my legs. I waited there for hours.
I waited in Dr. Stanley Bartlestein's office from Katie Couric through Oprah Winfrey, until I felt crazy for waiting; and until I started to believe that my earlier suspicion, when Mother had suddenly stopped watching Breakfast at Tiffany's, had been correct, and that she was having a nervous breakdown. Or that she'd run off with some Republican surgeon she'd met at the Baptist church, and thatSkylark Towers was just a convenient rendezvous point for their elopement to Mexico, and that maybe Mother had left me her Jaguar as an apology. If this last alternative was what had really happened, I decided, it was, all in all, a reality I could live with.
Then, halfway through Oprah, at almost three-thirty, Gladys waved me towards the sliding-glass window, to tell me she'd received a phone call from someone who'd instructed me to report to an office on the third floor, number 305. "Good luck, hon," Gladys said, seeming in equal measures curious and embarrassed for me. I felt dazed by the events of the day. It was another of those moments when everything seemed unreal. I proceeded to the elevator. The door to office number 305 was unmarked, except for a shining brass crucifix nailed into its linoleum paneling. And as soon as I saw that crucifix, I knew exactly where I was. This was a plastic surgeon's office. An Evangelical plastic surgeon's office.
The lights in the office were elegantly dimmed, and thewalls were covered with pictures of women with faces like well-made beds and Jesus holding hands with the little children. The mauve carpet was so thick it felt like you were walking on the moon. As I walked toward the receptionist's kidney-shaped desk, the door to an examination room swung confidentially shut on a swollen, bandaged body that I recognized as my mother. Eddie, Mother's new church girlfriend, sat cross-legged in a black leather chair. I hadn't seen Eddie at first on account of the room being so elegantly dimmed. She batted cigarette ashes into an empty Coca-Cola can, and looked at the receptionist, and pointed her cigarette at me.
I started to introduce myself to the receptionist, whose face was stiff and waxy, but Eddie interrupted me: "Please have your mother's car parked at the hospital's side entrance, and make sure the top's raised."
"I'm afraid I'm not quite crystal on what's going on here," I said.
Eddie looked slowly up at me from the Coca-Cola can and handed me a parking validation form in a talon of pink, opalescent fingernail polish. The age freckles on her hand looked like leopard spots. Eddie hadn't liked me from the start of her friendship with Mother, because she saw herself as Mother's Indian guide in the hunt for a new husband. In this capacity, she'd encouraged Mother to appear as young and girlish as possible. Eddie had made it clear that being seen around church with a sixteen-year-old son aged a woman in the congregation's eyes. "Every time you bring your son to church," she told Mother, "you just ruin your chances of marrying a good Christian man." So far, this wasn't a piece of Eddie's advice that Mother had heeded, and this irritated Eddie.
From The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, by Robert Leleux. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.