GRIEF
marylou fusco

You Start Your Journey Blind

In the hospital, Jolie lied and said she couldn’t remember the accident. She told a nurse that her brain was wiped clean of everything that happened after Bill took the car keys and said, “I’ll drive. I know you don’t like to drive in the rain.”

The nurse smiled and it was the careful smile reserved for victims of tragedies who haven’t yet realized the full extent of their tragedy. The nurse said, “Well, maybe that’s for the best.”

But Jolie could remember the accident.

The rain, the curve, the deer. That was the order of events. Bill went off the road and their car was upside down. Their car was upside down, but she couldn’t tell that at the time. Inside the car, the world was right side up. She could smell the rain when the wind blew in through the smashed windows.

“Bill?” She poked his shoulder. She turned.

His face was a punched out hole with jagged edges. When Jolie peeked into the hole, she could see the back of Bill’s skull. How she used to tease him, half joking, half serious, about keeping secrets, for not sharing every thought with her. Now that she could finally see inside of him, she felt embarrassed. She felt embarrassed because everything was presented so plainly before her—everything captured in that fragile rim of bone.  She saw that Bill was right; he was right. Some things were meant to be kept private.

Someone eventually found their car. Machinery was brought in to saw and peel the metal away from their bodies. A young paramedic with a vast and colorful tattoo of a parrot on his forearm examined her in the ambulance. “Whoa,” he said after he was done. “They’re gonna make you stay overnight in the hospital, but I can’t find anything wrong with you. You are so lucky.”  

He was right. She was perfectly intact, not a drop of spilled blood. She blinked and finally asked, “Where’s Bill?”

“Um…” the paramedic said. He started organizing bandages. His movements made the parrot on his arm shiver. Its eye squinted at Jolie’s predicament.

                       

A Possible Solution to a Complicated Problem

A few months after the accident, Jolie moved back to the city. One afternoon, while on the train, she saw an injured woman. The woman held on to the overhead rail with one hand, while the other hand lifted the coil of brown hair off the back of her neck. Underneath her hair was the white edge of a thick bandage. The woman’s fingers compulsively stroked the bandage, but she didn’t wince or seem to be in pain.

Weeks passed before Jolie saw her again. The woman was sitting this time. Every time the train jerked to a stop, she grimaced. It was the smallest movement, the tightening of the muscles around her eyes and mouth. You had to look hard to catch it. Whatever pain the woman had, she carried it deep within herself. Jolie admired that.

The last time Jolie saw the woman, it was on the street in a mostly residential neighborhood. Out of curiosity, Jolie followed her for a few blocks. She watched as the woman rang the bell to the door of an office building and disappeared inside. When Jolie investigated the building, she saw the words Pain Management Clinic stenciled on the heavy wooden door.

Jolie went home, searched the phone book, and made a call.

“Actually we usually just refer to it as ‘the clinic,’” the receptionist at the Pain Management Clinic told Jolie over the phone. “Let me tell you more about us and then you can decide if you want to come in.”

Three weeks before her first session, Jolie received a package in the mail. Inside the package, she found a consent form and a formal letter of welcome. There was also a huge questionnaire. Some of the questions only required a “yes” or “no” response like: Do you wish to meet your practitioners before your session?

Jolie’s response: No!

Other questions required a more detailed response.

One of the questions asked: Do you have a preference as to what type of attire the practitioners wear during your sessions? If so, please be as specific as possible in describing the attire.

Jolie’s response: I request that the practitioners wear surgical masks and lab coats during my sessions. Underneath this specific attire, practitioners may dress as comfortably and casually as they choose.

She mailed back the filled questionnaire and consent form almost immediately. A few days later, a counselor from the clinic called Jolie to confirm her appointment.

 

Ways of Managing the Unmanageable

The clinic was bland and sanitized, like an ordinary office inside any ordinary building: a dentist’s office, a vet’s.  Pictures of sailboats and flowers hung on the walls in cheap frames. The receptionist sat behind a desk situated near the main door. Her dark hair was pulled back, her lips dabbed with pinkish-brown lipstick. A wooden bowl with the remains of a salad sat next to her keyboard.

She pulled out Jolie’s forms and reviewed them quickly. “Okay. Everything seems to be in order. Anything change since we last spoke?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Great. Have a seat and I’ll tell you when they’re ready for you.”

Jolie sank into the couch. There was no one else in the waiting room. In front of her was a wide, glass table with recent issues of Time and Ladies Home Journal. There was also a small Zen sand garden complete with a tiny rake and several different-sized stones. Jolie used the rake to make slashes and lines in the sand.

The phone rang and the receptionist answered it and spoke in hushed tones. “Okay,” she said to Jolie after she hung up. “It’s the second door on the right. They’re all ready for you.”

The walls of the room were beige on cream. In the center was a high, polished operating table covered by a thin sheet of white paper.  Off to one side was a large steel cabinet that Jolie would come to realize had different shelves and compartments cleverly built into the metal.

There were three of them in the room—two men and a woman. They all wore long, white lab coats and their masks revealed only slices of their faces. Although Jolie did not specifically request that they cover their hair, she was pleased to see that they all did. The taller of the two men had brown eyes and thick, straight eyebrows. The woman also had brown eyes that seemed a little red and irritated from allergies or contact lenses. The other man had blue eyes and sandy eyebrows.

First they showed her the taser gun. It was a crude rendering of a real gun, bulkier, with a patch of black and yellow stripes running along the muzzle. They let her hold it to test its weight.  

The woman spoke first. “Would you like us to explain what—”

“No,” Jolie said and shook her head. “Please.”

“Right,” the tall one said.

Jolie handed the gun back to the woman. They seemed to be waiting for her to say or do something. She smiled nervously and licked her lips. Then the woman zapped her shoulder with the gun.

A clang inside her head and every bone in her body reverberated, every bone infused with metal and iron. The falling seemed to take a long time and just as the floor approached her face, one of the men caught her roughly under her armpits. When Jolie opened her eyes, she was laying on the operating table. Her arms and legs were slack, disconnected from the rest of her body. The inside of her mouth was flooded with the taste of greasy coins.

 The practitioners would only let her leave when they were sure she could walk without assistance. First she had to show them that she could sit up by herself. Then she had to stand by herself. Baby steps. Their hands were steady and cool along her trembling, heated limbs.

In the waiting area, the receptionist was waiting for her. “I’ve called a cab for you. How about you just have a seat and relax.”

Jolie stared at her. Her tongue felt too big, too slippery to form the necessary words.
“How was it?”

“I…. They were really… I mean…” Jolie stammered.

The receptionist smiled. “Yes,” she said. “They’re our best.”

Rearranging the Face in Clinical Settings

This was an extreme but necessary function, because Bill’s death had refined Jolie’s features; it had given her a vague but marked appeal beyond the squinty, pinched look of concentration that’d previously defined her. She wasn’t sure what a grieving widow’s face should look like, but she knew that hers wasn’t it. It was eight months after Bill’s death and she was exuding health. Her hair shone. Her skin had taken on the rosy glow of a newly pregnant woman.  She radiated mournfulness, yes—but also a sexuality that had nothing to do with the size of her breasts or jut of her ass. It was the look of someone who carried a delicious secret deep within her flesh.

A man wearing a slightly rumpled business suit and clutching a grease-spotted paper bag stared at her on the bus. When Jolie got off at her stop, he craned his neck to watch her walk up the street.

A furniture salesman slid his pinky across the counter to touch her pinky.
She caught a bike messenger, his knees scraped and bleeding from a recent tumble, riding close to her on the street. His eyes half-closed, nostrils flared, riding close as if trying to inhale whatever scent, whatever chemical she was releasing.

Jolie learned that the clinic had online counselors that were available 24-hours a day. When she emailed them inquiring about what type of scarring might be appropriate for a widow’s face, she received a response a half an hour later. The counselor strongly encouraged her to seek alternative treatments. Permanent disfigurement was not an option for clients at this particular clinic.

Approaching the Second Appointment with Less Fear and More Anticipation

Jolie’s mouth watered. The receptionist sensed her cautious optimism. She gave Jolie a big smile and told her to have a seat. “They’re just about ready for you.”

The room smelled of pizza. The practitioners must have just finished their dinner. The woman was holding a small mallet. She said they wanted to break one of Jolie’s smaller toes.

Jolie glanced at her feet, snug in their sensible navy pumps.

“Is this something you’ve done before?”

The tall one cocked his head. “No,” he said. “No, we haven’t done a toe in a while.”
When they gave her the mallet to hold, she inspected the handle and tapped the oversized rubber head lightly against her palm. It was brand new. She’d never broken any bones. As a kid she was hopeless at sports, couldn’t catch or throw; she’d never had any sport injuries. Once she fell on an icy sidewalk and sprained her wrist. That was the closest she’d ever come.

“Is this one of the worst things you could do? Can you think something else?”

“Not the worst thing,” the woman answered “But it’s a good place to start.”

Married Life

Married life was a place to start. This is why it all mattered so much. She’d been married to Bill for two years, three months and seventeen days. They were fixing up their new old house room by room. She’d started an herb garden that somehow managed to thrive, even under her uncertain care. The line of flourishing plants on their windowsill gave her courage. They made her think of babies.

Bill began running in the early morning. His thighs developed long lines of defined muscles and he would try to bribe her to come running with him, promising French toast and freshly squeezed orange juice. She just shook her head and wound the sheets tight around her legs with their undefined muscles.

After the funeral, Bill’s mother came to stay with Jolie for a few days. She was a tiny woman who smelled of violets and face powder. She felt bad for Jolie, who had two dead parents and no one to comfort her, but then she caught Jolie emptying Bill’s side of the closet and folding all of his shirts and pants on the bed.

“What’s this?” her mother-in-law asked. “Jolie?  What’s going on?”

“Oh, you know,” she said. “I was going to get rid of all these things, donate them to charity. No use having them here now.”

Her mother-in-law gave a small cry and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh Jolie,” she said and left the room.  Jolie knew what she was thinking. She was thinking: If you loved him, really loved him, you wouldn’t act this way. Would you?

Grief as Someone You Need to Get to Know

Jolie hopped onto the operating table, the paper sheet crinkling beneath her body. Underneath the pizza smell were faint traces of perfume or aftershave.

“Do you want us to tell you when?” the woman asked.

“No. Surprise me,” Jolie said.

Two of them stood on either side of her body and strapped her legs into the restraints. She closed her eyes and wondered if they would stretch it out, if she might actually doze off, when the mallet came down. Hard rubber met bone and bone cracked under the force. It was the precision that amazed Jolie. It always amazed her, and now it blew her out of this universe and into a punched-out hole of red pain. Grief announced itself, shouted so loud against her head that her ears rang with its noise.  Grief said: You really wanted to know? Okay. Here I am. Let’s sit down and get to know each other better. This is going to take a while.           
      
     

If You Are Lucky, True Healing Will Come in Time

That’s what the books and therapists and priests don’t ever tell you. In time. If you’re lucky.

Because of her broken toe, she had to hobble around her apartment and office with a cane.  Male co-workers smiled at her and said, “Jolie” in sweetly sympathetic voices. “Can I get you anything?”

At the clinic, the practitioners were considerate of the healing process and steered clear of her entire right leg. For Jolie’s next two sessions, they concentrated on other parts of her body. When the practitioners cut and bled her lower back with a sterile knife (small horizontal marks that left barely noticeable scars) she remembered Bill in the shower, soaping his hair and singing an Air Supply song in his funny, off-key voice. When they burned her stomach (first degree burns, superficial and easily healed) she recalled the pressure of his fingertips along the back of her neck. The way he could easily clasp her anklebone with one hand.

And this Grief was slippery and fast moving, hard to pin down. Sometimes Grief zinged through her skin the way the first electrical jolt of the taser gun did; it left her aching and breathless. Other times it crawled through her skin in lurching half steps.

Then one day she found herself facedown on the operating table, listening to the practitioners quietly debate the best way to bruise her kidneys. Blunt trauma. This would be risky, this would require follow-up. After this session Jolie would need to check for fever and immediately report any abdominal pains. She would need monitor her urine to make sure there was no blood.

“Don’t move,” the man with the blue eyes said. “It’s important. Don’t move an inch.”
She thought of her kidneys all innocent and glistening, doing the complicated job of processing her wastes. They never gave her a moment’s worry. Now she imagined them cringing inside of her body, drawing themselves up and away from the anticipated blow.

“Stop” she said.

“What’s that?” the tall one asked

“Stop,” she shouted this time. “Stop.”

A few days later she called the clinic and cancelled her session for the following week. The receptionist asked if Jolie wanted to reschedule.

“Well, I’m not sure,” she said. “Let me think about it and get back to you.”

“Sure thing.”

One week passed and Jolie didn’t call the clinic. Another week passed and still she didn’t call. There were moments when she accidentally hit her elbow on the edge of her desk or stepped into a too-hot shower and the pain broke the seal on Grief. After the pain had receded, she felt scooped out and hollow. Like she’d brushed past Grief, and had settled instead somewhere outside of true heartbreak.

Jolie never called the clinic to formally cancel her sessions. Some afternoons, after work, she would walk to that section of the city. She would sit on a bench in the tiny park across the street from the clinic and watch the trickle of people coming and going from the building. Some of them hurried out, eyes on the pavement, clutching their wounds. Others left the clinic defiant. Their eyes were stark and heated and they brandished their injuries as weapons.

All Jolie could do was sit on the bench and watch them. All she could do was hold up her own hands, highlighted blood red by the setting sun. The tendons, veins, even the slightly chipped fingernails reminded her of her own wholeness. The smooth intactness of her own body. Her body hummed and she felt a secret universe rushing deep beneath her flesh.

 

Marylou Fusco's work has appeared in Carve, Rumble, and So to Speak. When she's not teaching, she's wrestling with her first novel about reluctant saints and resurrections. She's lived in Philadelphia so long it feels like home.