I traipsed in after a man whose buttocks were exposed by a hospital gown. It was a little disheartening. We were headed to the same waiting room as each other, as it turned out.
I hate the smell of hospitals. They smell so clean, I can’t trust them. I know there are terrible things happening right through the building. But if the floor has just been bleached –I wait around enough these days- I start wondering who just spilled. What room have they been put in now? Or have they been taken downstairs until someone comes to claim them? And everyone is just a body to the people who work here. Frankly, it disgusts me. It sounds callous doesn’t it? I’ve earned the right to be, I’m older than you would ever care to be. I’m exhausted. And I’ve put up with more than most. Run from more than most. Dealt with more than most. Truthfully, I thought I’d be dead by now, everyone else I’ve ever known has dropped around me at some point. I don’t mean to sound depressing or anything, its just how I feel, and I don’t pity myself. It’s not that I dislike having been alive this long, plenty of people would be grateful for that. Nor am I ancient. More to the point is I have spent these years watching as humanity slowly turns to rot. I was one of the first to be born this century; it feels ridiculous to know that I was born a Victorian. This is the nineteen eighties– this is the future everyone has been anticipating, and I am a relic from the age of industry, corsets, the blissful naivety that preceded the wars. I was a Victorian, just. I suppose that is rather comical.
I was always the same age as the decade. It made it easy to remember my age, I suppose, through all those sordid months that became years without us even knowing. Those sordid hours of dank darkness, those sordid days of labour. This is what I was born into; born a Gypsy. It could have been worse, I suppose, if you really want to push it, I could have looked like a Jew. Well I never did look like a Jew. Perhaps when I was bald with the rest of them, you could have mistaken me. Queuing up to turn over my valuables. But even to those bastards in warm uniforms, there was an order, I was not treated as low as the very low. Those centuries in Auschwitz, those millennia of dark, endless toil, were still run through with endless rules. Endless hatred. Endless unnamed ritual.
Later, when the walls (which held us upright against the ache; the hatred of the world), were torn out from around the wreckage we were then, I heard someone say that the bastard shot himself. I remember feeling cheated. He had not suffered enough. Indelible hurt had nestled beneath the skin of my forearm, from which the flesh hung without dignity. I was branded. I was forbidden from being anyone else again. My hair grew back. Gradually, I remembered how to eat. The nightmare became less real. But the number was there, underneath my skin. Sometime I catch sight of it and wonder if I could teach myself to be left-handed. I could take that arm right off and learn to do everything with my other hand. That number proved the demons had decided not to kill me straight away. The need they had, to carve it into my skin, so when I die (and my clothes are taken), nothing would part me from my number. It was all so rational; it took such order, such forethought, and such structure to conjure such a thing. We were livestock. We were valuable, and were treated just well enough to work, but never well enough to live. We were given as little as could sustain us. And I was given an extra digit. I was given a ‘Z’ for Zigeuner.
In the waiting room I thought about my sister, Jann. She is coming to visit me in three days, and I haven’t told her yet. She and I are good friends now, but I sometimes feel like we will never be close. She went with her father to America when she was nine, so I was then twenty. There was a long time I never thought of seeing her again, but after the war she came and got me. She picked up the pieces and took me home with her, to the land of the free. Her life there was unrecognisable. She had done all the things that American women have the liberty to do. She had permed her hair, and dyed it. Married an American. She owned a washing machine. Made beautiful children, and her husband was building them a tree house in the garden. On Sundays after church (church!), Jann’s family would drive down to the sea at Montauk, taking a picnic and their fuddy uncle in their big car. The children would bubble and giggle, and I would be sat in the back with them, looking out of the windows all the way. Sometimes we played games, it wasn’t a long journey. We would sing to the radio, my sister loves to sing. Buddy Holly. Jerry Lee Lewis. June Carter Cash. She was just June Carter then. I can sometimes play the songs through in my head while I sit here. I can sometimes hear the beautiful hum of the transistor radio playing it, even in my head. And of course the song cuts short when the disc jockey begins talking again.
The woman at the hospital desk calls out my name. She is box-shaped, and wears a name badge which reads “Marie”. For no reason at all, I think of my mother, a slight woman called Edith who bore no resemblance. ‘Marie’ leads me by the arm, into the room, and when I arrive, they –Marie and a doctor- sit me in a couch chair, before coming at me with something monstrous they want to feed me chemicals through. Right into my arm. I flinch when I see it. I feel nauseous when I tell them it’s okay.
The sixties, my sixties, were the perfect time to become anonymous. It was no longer conspicuous to grow ones hair, which I did because I could. In sixty two, I caught a greyhound bus to Washington and hung around the city waiting for something to happen. Jann was upset when I took off. But to be honest, the kids were much older now, and they wouldn’t miss me anyway. I always paid my way and I kept to myself a lot of the time anyway, so I don’t suppose it took long to get used to get used to me being gone. I met a Ugandan woman one day in Anacostia park. She was plump and bright. For a time we needed each other intensely. I almost began to tell her things about the war. She’s the only one in the world who knows as much as she does about what happened to me. I was going to marry her, so she could stay here, I would have liked that. A quiet life, a good woman, a steady world to live in. Someone to keep safe, and to feel the warmth of at night. It fell through. Nothing much I’d like to talk about really, but her brother came by and got her one night. It turned out she was married back home too. Nothing either of us could have done.
She left that week and I heard from her once in a letter. I remember being scared to open it, in case it didn’t sound like her. I only read the last line, and saw how she’d signed it. It was her. She was fine. It’s in a drawer now, it hurts too much to think about her some days.
I have had other women since, but mostly my life is not too populated. My sister comes by- I ended up staying in Washington and getting a job in a bookstore here. She’s not been up to see me in a while. I haven’t fancied making the journey since I found out about this cancer either. There we are, the C word. Vulgar isn’t it? I hadn’t said that yet. That is why I’m here in hospital. That is why I have been branded again, with a tag not a tattoo this time. Still I am poultry. This time they’re trying to keep me alive, and it feels like they are trying to kill me. Ironic, everything that happened before was to kill me, but felt as if they wanted me to just about survive. Life’s a funny thing when you’ve had as much of it as I have. I even thought about writing to Nabulungi, but it wouldn’t really be fair to her. She went back to her husband, I can’t just drag her out of that, expecting her to write back. Any response, or none at all, anything would break my heart. And if she came to see me, she wouldn’t recognise me, with all my hair pulled out by drugs. There’s venom in my veins that gets the cancer and the life out of me. I had such thick hair when I knew her. I wasn’t even grey yet, it waved down my back like a mane on a horse. She used to love it and run her hands through it. Nabulungi would sing to me in some other tongue, and I’d fall asleep with her thighs beneath my neck, I’d forget I’d ever lived in Europe. I cannot ask her to come now, it would be selfish, and Jann will be here soon. All of this, everything; a random factor of my birth. I sit endlessly in queues. I stare at the words tagged on my wrist, searching them for something that defines me. The number branded above it just as useless. Once again I am bald and alone. Weak and fading. Nothing about me remembers the man I tried to be in the middle. I have gone back to those days in that hell. Any moment now someone in a starched jacket, clean and neat, will come to get me, and escort me to the next invasion of my body. When Jann is here I will love her more than she can know, when Jann is here I can die quietly and nothing worse will happen to me.