This was a story that got rejected, but I didn’t feel like looking at it again so I’m self publishing it on my blog. Enjoy!
By Denise Ruttan
Suzi did not think of herself as a strong woman.
When people talked about strong women, she didn’t know what they meant. Was that like calling a woman bossy, or feisty, because she expressed an opinion? Suzi didn’t express her opinions often, unless it was to say that she found it gloomy when it rained. She didn’t like confrontation. She hated to argue. She was, in fact, what they used to call “mousy,” back in the old days. She thought of herself as a pushover. Maybe she really was “petite” and “feminine.” That was what her mother called her. Those words did not sound strong.
She had, in fact, just left her house, and she was going for a walk to let off some steam. It was dark out, but not quite pitch black; it was that time of twilight when the light almost seemed blue and fragile. The clouds amassed in the sky, and it smelled like it was going to rain. Her husband, Brad, was a mean drunk. He had just wrapped up his latest tirade, crunching his fifth can of Natty Ice in his fist and glaring at her. “You’ll never be a registered nurse,” he said, his eyes glowering. “You’re not even smart. You never graduated high school. What are you doing up late studying, when you should be cleaning the house? Look at what a mess this place is. I don’t have the time to do it. I’m the one who should be providing for our family.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him, “But you’re not.” She would have done so, if she was a strong woman, maybe. She would have told him that he couldn’t hold down a job because of his drinking problem. She would have told him about the bills that kept piling up on the kitchen table. She would have told him that they could have more than beans and rice, if he could stay sober at work. She would have told him that she would gladly stay home and clean, if he could hold down a job. But all those things would have really made him mad, so she held her tongue. She said, “You’re right, Brad. I was stupid to ever think about it.”
“That’s right, woman,” he’d said, and that’s when she’d grabbed her coat and hat and umbrella, and stormed out the door, slamming it behind her as he hollered after her to get him more beer. She ignored him. But strong women would not just go for a walk to escape the fight. Strong women would leave a man like Brad.
Suzi didn’t know how she was feeling. She thought she was angry, but she was too tired for rage. Anger was for strong women. She didn’t have the strength to keep it simmering. Anger ate her from the inside out, hollowed out her core, frayed her edges. She was, in truth, exhausted. Her bones were tired. She didn’t know what she was doing either, going back to school to become a registered nurse. She first had to get her GED, so that was why she was studying. Then she would have to go to college for four years. She was 40. She worked as a janitor, cleaning the hallways of the hospital where she dreamed bigger dreams than making the floor gleam. She watched the nurses doing their work, rushing from patient to patient with purpose and light in their eyes, drawing blood. She wanted to do that. She wanted to help people.
But maybe it was too late. Maybe it was too late for someone like her. Maybe she wasn’t smart enough.
She sighed, and kept walking. They lived in an apartment complex in a suburb, and in the dim light she saw everyone’s manicured lawns and their houses painted to HOA specifications and heard the sprinklers running. She thought of the families who lived there whom she’d never meet. Maybe the husband was a doctor and the wife was a lawyer and because they were both busy people they made sure to sit down with their two children every night for supper. She wondered what it was like to fulfill your dreams.
She kept walking. There was nobody on the road. It was strangely quiet. She could not even hear birds or the wind. The sky did look threatening, though. And she really did not like rain. But she did not want to go back to Brad yet. The thought filled her with dread. She couldn’t, either, just walk away, go to a shelter, like some women did. She couldn’t do that. She needed money. She relied on Brad. He really wasn’t that bad of a guy, actually. He never hit her. He was not violent. He was just an alcoholic with no ambition who put her down all the time. That was what guys were like, wasn’t it? That was what her father was like.
Lost in thought, she crossed the street at a crosswalk. She didn’t even look both ways. She didn’t see the car coming. Suddenly, she heard the whine of insects buzzing. Her eyes filmed over with mist and midnight. She held her hand in front of her face and it became a stranger’s hand, translucent in the crepuscular light.
The car kept going. It never stopped. Maybe the driver was drunk. Maybe the driver just didn’t care.
No one emerged from their beautiful middle-class houses to help Suzi. But she stood up. Her bones and the sinews of her muscles stretched with heat. She wiggled her fingers and toes. She was not hurt. Miraculously, she was not hurt, other than a shot of pain in her neck.
She curled her hand into a fist. Her heart pumped blood through her veins. Iron blood. Her eyes blazed fire. She straightened her shoulders and stood up tall. Her skin felt hard. No longer soft flesh, feminine curves.
Not in the same way that you used to think about death, as if it were an existential threat. Those times that you do not tell anyone about when you would sit in traffic waiting for the red light to change to green and you think about what it would be like to be involved in a car accident and you want, for a brief moment of absolute and startling clarity, to die. You blink. You have never thought this before. (Maybe you should see a counselor, you consider in a moment of panic.) You wonder if you would feel pain. You wonder which of your friends and family would come to your funeral. You wonder which songs your family would choose to play at your funeral and who would provide the eulogy; if they would organize a religious service, or a secular one.
You’ve never been particularly religious, but you like to think of yourself as a spiritual person. Sometimes, however, you think God is dead and magic is just for fairy stories. You wonder if you would go to heaven. You wonder if there is an afterlife. You think that you would still keep going day after day even if there is no afterlife, because the alternative is ashes and rot and dust motes swirling in the sun. Then the light changes to green, and someone honks at you from the car behind, and you step on the gas and the car lurches forward and you forget about the moment when you wanted to die. What a silly thought. You like your life.
Those were the Times Before. The times when you could brush against someone in a public space and not feel your heart climb into your throat and squeeze like someone had their fingers wrapped around your larynx.
Now you think about death in a different way.
You think about your mother. If your mother is not alive you think about her when she was alive. If you are estranged from your mother you think about someone else who plays that role in your life. You think about your mother on a ventilator and nurses in their scrubs and their sheer plastic visors and their hodgepodge makeshift masks like something out of a sci-fi movie. You think about your mother dying alone. You wonder if your mother picked up COVID-19 when she was out on a walk in her neighborhood and she says she stayed six feet away from everyone but maybe she touched the button to go across a crosswalk because she didn’t want to jaywalk but that button has been pushed by hundreds of people and the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hours.
The virus is like a living, breathing thing, an alien, an invasion, a menace, a parasite. Are they bacteria? You don’t think so. You don’t think the yeast in the sourdough culture you are starting because you are bored is bacteria, either, but you can’t be sure. You didn’t pay that close attention to that part of biology class in high school. All you know is that viruses spread. You think about death and sourdough bread in the same thought because that is what your brain does when you are alone for a period of time.
You don’t want to think about your mother dying. You don’t want to think about anyone dying. So you tell yourself it is just like the flu. Only a 3 percent death rate. Nothing, really. Only high-risk groups need to worry about it. Why do you need to stay inside, cooped up like a prisoner, afraid of your own shadow? You want a haircut. You want a hot meal at a restaurant and you want an iced tea on a summers’ day and you want to make small talk with a server even if you can’t stand small talk. You want to talk about the weather with someone you don’t know. “Hey, man, what are you up to today?” they would say, back in the Times Before.
Before, you would mumble something nonsensical to get out of the conversation and mold your face into the impassive look of someone who does not want to talk. Or you would be chatty and tell them a lie. Just like when people would ask you “How are you?” And you would say you were fine but not really mean it. No one wants to hear that you are anything but happy every day of your life. Now you want to be fine. You want to be fine so badly it feels like when you were 12 and wanted a puppy, a real live one, with all your heart, and your parents got you a stuffed dog instead and you were so disappointed you put it in your closet and didn’t look at it for a year.
Now it is a 6 percent death rate, or is it? You can’t keep track anymore. But you thought about your mom dying alone and you feel bad so you want to see her for Mother’s Day because you haven’t seen her in two months and you stand six feet apart from her and you think this is okay, you’re doing okay, you’re keeping each other safe. You wash your hands and you wear your mask even though you can’t breathe but you just really wanted to see her.
You watch the President on TV. Maybe you voted for him and you will vote for him again no matter what anyone says about him. Maybe you think he looks like a Cheeto-head and the image of him on your TV screen makes you want to vomit in your mouth. Maybe you wonder if our country will always be so divided. Maybe you blame other people, like the President. Maybe you remember marching in the Women’s March in a small town and everybody was crying and angry and there were Pussy Hats and you wanted so badly to believe then that things would get better, that things would be okay, that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. You watch him struggle with empathy, incapable of it even, and never mention death or the dying or dead people because it will make him look bad and you think maybe, maybe I can give him a little empathy, he is so in love with his own image and his ego that he cannot bring himself to grieve for the dead, and maybe there is a part of you filled with rage and grief that wants him to get it too, that wants him to know what it is like to suffer. Part of you is not ashamed for feeling that way because he is not ashamed. He never admits responsibility, never confesses his mistakes, he is never wrong. You do not want a president who is never wrong. People die when a leader is never wrong.
Then you wonder will the people who voted for him and the people who hate him ever see eye to eye on anything? They are breathing the same air to which the virus clings and the virus does not care about one’s politics or about how one feels about masks or who anyone voted for. The virus is a parasite. It just wants a host.
You wonder how many people have to die for people to take this seriously.
You wonder if perhaps people are overreacting and it’s not really so bad and you just really want to see a movie again and you miss concerts and the gym and popping over to the store when you wanted M&M’s. You miss touching things without wiping them down.
You wonder, maybe death just comes to us all and death is a part of life and we have to sacrifice a few for the many so the economy can reopen. It can’t be like this forever. People losing their jobs and their homes and the long lines snaking around streets leading to the food bank and the cloying desperation and the sad piano music in the TV commercials. You saw a TV commercial the other day in which people hugged and nobody was wearing masks and the music was peppy and they were talking about supporting small businesses. It was so bizarre to you that you felt sick. To see people hugging. You want to support small businesses but you don’t want to die. It is the uncertainty that clings to your skin like water droplets after you emerge from the pool from a long swim. You remember swimming pools. You miss swimming.
You want to go out but every time you go to the store, much less often now, there is always someone who doesn’t care, someone not wearing a mask, someone oblivious to spatial awareness who brushes against you as if with sheer belligerence in their denial of reality. It is just like H1N1, they say, were you affected by the swine flu personally? Freedom is an uncertain thing, the shape of feathers and dust, full of responsibility and thrift and also carefree joy, a small Japanese car racing in the street with its engine sounding like a rocket. You imagine most people would waste it, take it for granted. It is those people who make your heart thump in your chest hotly and angry sweat run down your armpits. It is those people you think about when you lie awake in bed at night when it is hot and muggy outside and the fan is clacking away and the neighbors next door are playing a video game and their children are yelling and you think about those people who don’t care about your mother dying alone. “Excuse me, I just needed the milk.” You try to have empathy for them because all you can control is your thoughts but you think your reserves for empathy are running so low these days. So low. Kindness shouldn’t be so difficult. You remember when kindness was easy, like relieving a stranger of the burden of how you’re really feeling when they want to know how you’re doing.
But you go on because you have to. You go on because you care about someone’s mother whom you don’t even know. You go on and on even though it feels like you can’t any more and your heart is crushing you and is that shortness of breath anxiety or COVID-19? You bake cakes and sourdough bread and drink too much alcohol at noon and you try out sobriety and you do yoga and you Zoom with your friends and you feel an overwhelming sense of despair but you keep going moment by moment because you have to.
Not because you are thinking about that moment at the stop light when you once thought about what it would be like to die.