Thursday, March 4, 2010

Constellations Visible and Invisible

The year she was raped Hannah learned to make lists. The very night it happened—while it was happening, actually—she had named to herself at least fourteen constellations visible and invisible in the Carolina blue night sky while a man stained her with the smell of gas. Orion Little Dipper Big Dipper Taurus Scorpio. Stars and the light of a Texaco sign stop nobody.

Tonight, driving from Chapel Hill to Clayton, the highway a long, lean path for a mind to just lie down and stretch out on, she thinks again of stars. How even the universe—chaotic, infinite, and uncalled for—can be ordered and listed, quantified and named. How the trees, thick as her hair and blacker, curtain off the brightest city lights and sheet each side of the highway like surgical draping.

There was a girl in Inpatient this morning, overflow from the hand clinic, the girl’s usual therapist taking a personal day for some or other crisis. Fire flood pestilence. Both the girl’s hands had been sutured and splinted. Hannah picked words like berries from her charts, scratches, slashes of doctors’ writing. Strawberry raspberry mayhaw blackberry. Battery. Assault. Multiple traumas. Tendon lacerations, both hands, volar and dorsal surfaces. Rotten berries, bee-stung, sour, and bruised.

What had happened to her? Jesus wounds—both palms split open and through. Hannah noted her meds, contraindications. Motrin Valium Percocet Darvocet. Preven, the pill for the morning after.

She retrieved the girl from the waiting room. “Joelle Pickering?”

The girl looked faded. Her skin the color of clouds.

“Hi, I’m Hannah.”

The girl followed her into the treatment room. She was thin, her eyes heartbeating— too-full and pulsing—across the machines, the adaptive equipment in the room. She’d landed in the first chair from the door and pushed herself back to the wall hard enough to make sound, a sharpness echoing in the wide-open room.

Adaptation was Hannah’s job. A skill she taught, the law of nature she drew from her patients—the vestigial made necessary and exterior. Hannah picked a chair of the same size from the therapy table, faced it toward Joelle. When she sat, their knees nearly touching, their legs made a work surface.

“How are you today?” Joelle looked at the door.

“Your pain?”

Hannah took the right hand, the one that needed her most, braced herself against the quick gasp of tearing Velcro as she removed the first splint. It sounded like a choke, like the tearing of clothes.

Not being able to breathe. The lights were too bright for this to be happening. She had picked the most brightly lit station. How was this happening? What if someone pulled up, saw her here, naked and naming stars? Andromeda Orion Haley.

“Glad to be out of those splints, to be sure.”

To be sure. Joelle’s eyes had rolled over and through her, reaching like surf and then drawing back as quickly. Hannah had to be careful. The undertow of her patients’ trauma could suck her right under their sea. Pacific Indian Arctic. Their clawed hands scarred and reaching. A hospital was no place for sympathy.

“You normally see Liz Baileycroft, don’t you?”

Joelle still looking at the door.

“She couldn’t be here today. I’m sorry. I’ll be filling in just this time. She has kids? I think one of them has strep.” Joelle’s hands were locked, flat, fingers splayed in each direction from weeks in splints. The wide stretched fingers of the sleepwalker, the magician, the traffic cop. Abracadabra. Slow down. Wait. Hannah noted the condition of the scars, the degree of swelling in each hand. “That’s the worst part about working in hospitals. You become a carrier, and everyone you live with gets exposed.”

She loosened Joelle’s hands of their frozen gestures, flexed each finger toward the scars that lay coiled and raised as snakes. Moccassin garden cobra. Good range of motion.

“I want you to take my hands now and squeeze. Good.” Poor muscle strength for six weeks post-op. Joelle let go and placed her hands in her lap without looking at them.

“Tell me how you’ve been feeling. Have you noticed improvement? In your hands?”

“Most of the time I just want to die.”

Joelle’s hands lay slack in her lap, palms up and welcoming no one.

“Have you told, have you told anyone else about these feelings, Joelle? Your parents? A, a counselor?”

“I can’t handle bullshit sympathy. Look, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I can talk to your doctor, if you want. Get you a consult? There’s a lot of help out there.”

“Whatever. Has it been an hour yet?”

“We have a lot of work to do. I need you to help me. Try to get the most out of your session today. So…let’s start with some light exercises.” She handed the girl a putty ball. “Squeeze.”



“No,” she said, but she did.

Hannah watched her patient. Her eyes had fallen, her whole face washed away and collecting like silt at the corners of her mouth. She had been pretty.

Hannah took her right hand, the one that needed her most, flexed and massaged each digit, pinching the end of each fingertip for circulation. “Tell me if anything I do hurts you.” Hurt. Joelle had been hurt. Her hand in Hannah’s lay heavy and dead.

The road skinnies down to two lanes. Hannah merges right, sets the cruise control as she passes 54. Twenty-three miles more. She names to herself each exit from the hospital to the house. Page Road fifty-five Durham Freeway Cary Parkway Jones Sausage Walnut Gorman Wheeler.

She scanns the dashboard. She can make it to Forty-Two with this much gas.

“You’re going to need these hands again. Don’t you want to be able to write checks? Hold a baby? Make a phone call?” Hannah pulled a flexor ball from the drawer beneath the therapy table. “Liz has given you one of these, right?” Joelle nodded. “You’ll need to do this one three to five times a day. You just squeeze the ball with as much pressure as you can,” Hannah demonstrated for her, “ten to fifteen times.”

Joelle was looking at the door again. “The other lady, she already showed me all this.”

“And I can tell from your scars that you’re not doing your exercises. The ball, the tendon glides, they keep your hands flexible, make them stronger. If you don’t do them, scar tissue will begin to adhere to your tendons and your fingers will become immobilized.”

“I don’t care.”

Hannah thought she would talk to the doctor in Inpatient, see about some meds. Zoloft Xanax Prozac Serazone.

“Are you sad, Joelle?”

Joelle didn’t answer.

“Irritable? Sleepless? Do you cry often?”


“What did you like to do before—before you hurt your hands?”

“I liked to fuck.”

God. “I know this is painful, Joelle. I know it hurts.”

She had been hurt.

“Do you know what happened to me?” Joelle asked.

Assault. Multiple traumas. Counting constellations and the smell of gasoline. A gun and a dirty bandanna.

“You have a lot to look forward to, Joelle. One thing I know—everybody heals. I promise.”

“Don’t you know what happened to me?”

“Let’s work on the pegboard. Have you done this with Liz?” Hannah retrieved the handmade board and pegs—a gift from a veteran patient healed with pine and an awl. She sat down again, set the board in Joelle’s lap and the pegs in her own. “I want you to try at least one of the pegs with your left hand, okay?”

Joelle’s hands worked like claws, four fingers seamed at the knuckles and struggling to grasp the skinny pegs. Finally she pincered one. It fell to the floor on the trip from Hannah’s lap to hers.

“Fuck it. This is stupid.”

Hannah resets the cruise control to seventy-four. She’d botched the session. She worked in Inpatient—not Psych—most of her patients were hip-replaced geriatrics and car accidents. She wasn’t used to patients like Joelle. She’d worn her jeans so low on her hips that her panties showed. She didn’t wear a bra. Her mouth hung slack and open. Asking for something.

Hannah led Joelle to a seat at the paraffin table. She dipped Joelle’s hands in the warm wax. “Doesn’t that feel wonderful? Sometimes when—”

“Please don’t—” Joelle said.

Don’t touch me.

“I’m sorry—I—”


“Don’t touch me.”

“It’s okay, Joelle. You’re okay.”

PTSD. Insomnia fear of crowds and the smell of gas, nightmares and invasive thoughts. A touch was a punch and a red bandanna, devastating.

Hannah raised her hands, palms out, an offering. A blessing. People needed to be touched. Hannah remembered a patient—fifty-something, female, divorced—she’d lost a foot to diabetes. Ursula. She’d wept when Hannah took her hand, excited by some small triumph. No one’s held me in years. People needed to be touched.

He had come from behind. She’d felt his hand where it shouldn’t be before she ever heard him. Smelled him. Tasted sweat in a mouthful of red bandanna.

She placed Joelle’s waxy hands in loose plastic gloves to seal in the heat and moisture. There was time enough now get a Diet Coke—come back in ten minutes to finish the session. She looked at Joelle not looking at her hands. The high, artificial arch of her eyebrows, the black pencil fault line on her lids, the tracks and pits in the skin of an otherwise pretty face. She had been pretty. It would be hard to put on makeup with both hands splinted and heavy.

The therapy room was empty and cold. Quarter to four and everybody gone. An empty doughnut box on the table and none of the usual shuffling and grunting and false, false cheer.

Sometimes I just want to die.

“How do those hands feel now?”

“Good, I guess. It’s warm. What is this stuff supposed to do?”

“Relaxes your muscles, your tendons. It helps, too, to soften the scars.”

She held both of Joelle’s hands at once, massaging each palm, feeling the knots of thick, pink scar beneath the plastic gloves, the tissue-paper skin. What had happened to her? “Do you want to talk about it?” Hannah asked. “Your injuries? About what happened to you?”


“Have you talked to anybody about it?”

“People will think I’m a slut.”

“You’re not.” Shut up. Shut the fuck up. “Have you talked to your mother?”

“She can’t stop crying. She can’t talk about it.”

“Your dad?”

“Not my dad.”

Hannah ventured a smile. Iknowithurts. “You can talk to me.”

Joelle looked away.

“Victims often feel responsible for what happened to them. They feel ashamed—like it was their fault.”

It was her own fault. The interchange, the gas station, the choking and the stink of sweat. She should have gotten gas in the morning. She should have seen him coming—the red bandanna on his neck, his dirty blue jeans.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I shouldn’t have been there. I shouldn’t have been so drunk.”

She should have paid attention to what was around her.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I know where you live, honey. You tell anybody, I’ll kill your puppy, your baby, whatever you got around.

Fourteen constellations and dirty blue jeans.

The girl’s lips were big on her face. Her eyes too wide and wanting. Hannah wanted to stop talking about it.

“There wasn’t a gun. Doesn’t that make it my fault?”

Her fault for wearing perfume that day. Gardenia orchid rose magnolia. Scented flowers attract bee stings.

“I stopped fighting him. I was scared.”

She’d been scared.

“Sometimes I wonder if it even happened. I mean, the way I remember it. I think maybe I made it up in my head. My dad says I just did it for attention, you know?”

What had happened?

“Like, maybe I dreamed it.”

Hannah fit a splint back on the girl’s right hand. The one that needed her most. The girl’s fingernails were ragged and thin, torn paper edges.

Hannah knew what had happened to her. This girl, her heavy makeup and skinny clothes, her nipples showing through her shirt. She had swelled and crested among the boys, bobbing in the sea and sunlight of her own drunkenness. Black Caspian Mediterranean. Asking for it.

“I never asked for this.”

Asking for a fight, for the one act play that would make her tragic and watched. She would have hit him first. He’d have pushed her—into a fence, onto broken glass. Torn her hands.

“There was this party? At Kaylie Shockley’s? We were drinking grape juice and Everclear. After a while, like, I got pretty drunk. I crashed in Kaylie’s room. Everybody else was still downstairs. Pretty lame, huh?”

Hannah said nothing.

“There was this guy—from another school, I think. I didn’t know him, anyways. I woke up and he was just—in the room with me. He just started hitting me like out of nowhere and the music was so loud and nobody heard me from up there and he kept telling me to shut up.”

I said shut the fuck up.

“There was a bottle. A broken bottle.” She turned her face to the window. A purple line, puckered and raised, slithered from behind her ear and down. “He raped me.”

“We’re through now,” Hannah told her.


“Liz will see you this time next week? All right.”

Sometimes the lifeboat goes down with the rescued. In their panic, the drowning drown the lifeguard. The water pulls her. She tires of treading. She passes the Texaco, thinking on the names of stars. She can make it home on vapors.