The Strange World of Elevens
The orderly’s name was Rich. He’d come to fill my mother’s water pitcher. Rich had eyebrows like steel wool and eyes that seemed focused anywhere but here.
“My dad used to scrunch his face up all the time, just like that,” I said. “You shouldn’t frown so much.”
“My wife tells me that, too,” he said, and went on frowning.
“When my dad died, the lines went away,” I said. “His face relaxed.”
“That so?” Rich said.
“My dad worried about everything,” I said.
“Lots of people do,” Rich said. He jiggled the ice pitcher. He was careful to look in my direction, just not at me. He aimed for a spot above my head. I recognized his technique because I’d used it myself, many times.
“Can I ask you a question?” a woman on the street in New York asked me once.
“Sure,” I said.
“Shave or wax?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Your legs, your parts,” she said. “Shave or wax?”
The question seemed important to her.
“Shave,” I said.
“I thought so,” she said. “I sure as hell thought so.”
The woman didn’t look crazy. She wore a ponytail and a suit. She carried a briefcase. Everything about her was pulled together, except her mind.
“Another Number 11,” my friend June said, and she laughed.
There’s a theory in numerology. If the number of letters in your name adds up to 11, you attract negative personalities. In other words, crazy people on the bus feel inclined to talk to you. They will seek you out and tell you their panty size. They will give you details about their sex lives and bowel habits. They will tell you where they keep the remains of their childhood pets.
I’m an 11. June is an 11. Many of my closest friends, in fact, are 11s. I’m not sure what this means. Maybe 11s seek out one another. That way, we always have someone who understands why the guy in the kilt with the imaginary bagpipes finds us irresistible.
“There’s one of us,” June says when she sees someone cornered.
“They see us coming,” she says.
For years I was on the receiving end of crazy talk, and then something happened.
I blame it on age and grief and loss, but who knows. Whatever it was, around the time I lost my father and my mother was sick, things had reversed. I caught myself trying to make eye contact with strangers. I caught myself saying things.
“My father worried his life away,” I told Rich. “I’m trying not to be like him.”
“Well,” Rich said, and he plopped down a few cups and straws, “good for you.”
I spent the night in the chair in my mother’s room. When Rich floated in, I tried to keep things straight. I said hi. I said thanks.
I’d been re-reading Hemingway, which was what I did whenever I was having a bad time. I loved the man, his books, his code. Grace under pressure. I’d tried to live that way and thought I was good at it.
An old boyfriend put it this way:
“It wouldn’t hurt you to have an emotion once in a while.”
I’d put it this way:
“I’ll let you know when I have one.”
But now emotion seemed bent on taking me, no matter what. I wanted grace, but here in the hospital, with my mother scheduled for surgery the next morning, I was afraid. I was doing my best not to act out.
* * *
The receptionist was the only other person in theroom. It was 7 a.m. and she looked tired. She had a huge coffee mug that read, “Coffee. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” She held onto it with both hands.
I thought the mug was wonderful, and in questionable taste, considering. I wanted to tell her this. I felt like talking. I felt hearing my own voice bounce off another voice would help. It was quiet in the waiting room, with only the beep and buzz of the hospital intercom to break things up. I wanted to ask the receptionist her name. I wanted to count the letters. But she had learned something I hadn’t. This woman had boundaries.
“I sure could use some coffee,” I said and felt pathetic.
She stared at her switchboard.
“That’s a great mug,” I said, and felt worse.
She shuffled paperwork.
“Do you know where I could get some?” I asked. “Coffee?”
“Front lobby,” she said and pointed over her shoulder.
Before this, the doctor had been in to see me. He wore surgical scrubs and a pair of safety glasses. When he walked, he made a rustling sound, like tissue paper. All the times I’d been with my mother in his office, I never noticed how small he was, how delicate, like a boy. Doctors always seem tall to me, and I’m shocked when I see them out of context, at the mall or in the produce aisle. In the world, with their wrinkled clothes and mussed hair, they look normal-sized, powerless like the rest of us.
Maybe it was the open space of the hospital, all that white light, or maybe it was everything else. Whatever it was, when he sat down, the doctor, the man who would either save or not save my mother, seemed small and pale and breakable. He took off the safety glasses. His eyes were pale blue, the same color as his scrubs, a color brewed in a test tube.
He handed me a picture. The paper was thin and shiny and there, in black and white, was an image of my mother’s heart.
“You can see here,” he said, and made a circle with his finger. “And here. The arteries are closed off. The old stents are blocked. We need to go in and open things back up.”
In the grainy image, my mother’s heart looked like a satellite picture of a desert. The landscape was slashed with tunnels and roads. It looked like a dark and violent place. It reminded me of pictures generals show to reporters during a war.
“Here,” they’d say, and make circles with a pointer, “was a bridge. And now here there is no bridge.”
The generals don’t talk about people. They don’t talk about human casualty. They say things like “target” and “mission.” They call war an operation.
“The operation won’t take long,” the doctor said. “It’s best to do it now. Otherwise.”
His finger circled a bottlenecked road, the only open artery.
I stared at his finger. It was beautiful, long and squared off at the tip.
“You can always tell a good surgeon by his hands,” my mother said.
The doctor put down the picture. “All it would take would be for this one to close, and that would be that. Understand?”
“So we’re good then?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ll be out when we’re finished,” he said. “Just sit tight.”
He patted my leg, then shuffled back through the double doors that led to surgery, where my mother was waiting.
He’d left the picture. I picked it up and looked at it until it felt like a violation to go on looking. Then I folded it in half and put it in my bag.
The receptionist was busy playing solitaire on her computer. In front of me were magazines—Time, Newsweek, Modern Maturity. I couldn’t concentrate to read, and so I pulled out a list my mother had asked me to make. It was a list of people she wanted me to call—her sisters, neighbors, friends—when this was over.
Through the years, I’d gone over this list a few times—whenever my mother was very sick or in the hospital, and when my father died. Everyone on the list was good and kind, but there was no one I felt like talking to, and no one else I could think of to call.
What Number 11s have always known is this: it’s easier to talk to strangers because it’s likely they’ll never show up again. There’s no follow up, no aftershock.
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche Dubois said as she leaned on the arm of the doctor who couldn’t save her. Tennessee Williams and Hemingway had a lot of the same ideas about the world. Here’s what was left of my Hemingway code: I wanted to talk to someone. I had a list of people to call. I put the list away.
“I’m going for that coffee now,” I announced to the receptionist, who kept on playing.
At the coffee cart in the lobby, the coffee smelled strong and burnt, but it was hot. I picked up a newspaper and thought maybe later I’d feel like reading it. Behind the cart, the wall was metal and glass and I caught a reflection of myself. I looked electric—my hair frizzed, my face shiny, my clothes wrinkled from the night before. I tried to smooth my hair without being too obvious. I wished I had some lipstick. It seemed wrong to care about what I looked like, and I didn’t want anyone to see me fuss, but I didn’t want to look like I was falling apart, either, even if I was.
“Excuse me,” a voice behind me said. It sounded scabbed over with whiskey and cigarettes. “Can I just get in here?”
I moved over and made room for the woman, who I think may have been a man. She was very tall, with large hands and thick fingernails gnawed down to nubs.
“I just need a little sugar is all, hon,” she said. “It’s been a hell of a night.”
“I know what you mean,” I said.
“We all look like hell, don’t worry,” she said. “Nothing a little coffee can’t fix, am I right?”
Her hair looked like a wig. It was permed and sprayed and teased, and an odd shade of red that was cheerful against her pink track suit. She looked like an oversized Valentine.
She poured sugar from the canister. She kept on pouring until her coffee looked like syrup. Then she stopped and held the canister mid-air.
“Can I ask you something, hon?” she said.
“Do you love your mother?” she said.
The question, its precision and randomness, cut. There is still no way to explain it.
“Yes,” I said.
“My daughter,” the woman said, “she doesn’t know how to love. She learned that from my ex, that bastard.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know, hon,” she said. “I’m sorry too.”