by Helia Rethmann
The day I gained access to my other lives, I was relaxing by my brother’s pool after a horrible week at work. Brian let me use his pool for stress relief, and I had felt stressed enough to deal with the one-hour bus drive and Brian’s contempt. What I did not expect was Brian’s pet donkey ambling up to where I lay snoozing in my lawn chair and kicking me in the head with her hind hooves. The donkey’s hooves were small but very hard.
Brian insisted that I must have provoked the donkey. Or else she (the donkey) didn’t see me, and I startled her. When he told me this, Brian avoided my eyes. He was looking instead at the display behind my head, monitoring my vital signs.
“Don’t worry,” I told him, “when the numbers get out of whack, a long beep sounds and the nurse comes in.”
From Northcrest Health I was released into the care of Brian’s wife, Maureen.
I could tell she didn’t enjoy being my nurse. We had always struggled to find things to talk about, with me being a part-time ESL instructor and Maureen being a Republican married to Brian. We were mostly silent.
Then one day, we were walking along the creek with Maureen’s Labradoodle, Bonnie. I thought how good it felt to be upright again. This was two weeks after the accident, a coolish day in July, the ground wet from all the rain we’ve had, and Bonnie sniffing every bush and tree. My head still hurt a little, and my teeth itched in a terrible way. I felt a fierce need to chomp down hard on something, preferably bone. I looked around for solids, but the sticks were all soggy and decomposing. I picked up the most decent one and was about to bite into it when Maureen told me to quit doing that thing with my jaw.
“You are clenching,” she said, “Clenching and unclenching. Please stop it. It’s repulsive, and it scares me.”
I hadn’t even noticed! I threw my stick into the creek and resisted an urge to sprint after it. I yearned to roll in the creek mud alongside Bonnie to absorb its fecund smells, but Maureen held on to me by my sweatshirt and said earth didn’t smell like a delicious cake but like dirt, and that’s when it hit me: I was channeling Rufus, the dog I’d been. I knew my name was Rufus because just then a low voice called to me. The voice was magnetic and pulled me in. I started running towards it, running and running and then panting with my mouth open to cool me down and I felt happy, so happy, and then I found myself lying flat on the ground in my human form once again, with Maureen peering down at me over her designer glasses.
Maureen said I had passed out, that I still had a concussion and needed to take it easy, and she walked me back to the house and into the guest room where she made me lie down and brought me a mug of raspberry tea. She brought a mug for herself as well and thinking how nice it was of Maureen to make time for me in a time of need, I told her about Rufus. Maureen’s expression was one of doubt at first, and then of fear. “Sally,” she said. Nothing else. But when he came home, she told Brian.
I would have had to move back to my own apartment soon anyway. Maureen needed to return to her life of shopping and nail appointments, and Brian, well — Brian was such a cheapskate that he had locked the liquor cabinet, and every bite of food I ate in his presence caused him visible pain. Still, he looked sad when he told me that I seemed a lot better.
“Your cats must miss you,“ he said.
On the way home, he stopped at the convenience store and bought enough Ready Meals to stock my freezer and cat supplies to last a week. He could not have done that.
My cats were happy to see me. A neighbor had fed them and changed the litter, but the neighbor had been bad about the litter changing part. Every room smelled of cat pee, and I found hardened little turds in the bathtub and on the kitchen counter. I washed things off as well as I could and sprayed some spray. Lying in my own bed that night, I tried to relive the joy of being Rufus, but the sensations were gone.
Hertha, a German-speaking garment worker, was next. I don’t know the exact time I lived as Hertha but it was before sewing machines were common.
All of us seamstresses had calloused fingertips and back pain and frequent headaches from squinting. We met in Margarethe’s front room because it got the most light. We all lived in the same tenement building in New York City, and we spoke German and had similar challenges, so there was that: companionship — a whole building and its people smelling of cabbage and wet wool.
I accessed Hertha by coincidence. My iron had burnt out, and I needed to get back to work in unwrinkled clothes, so I went to the Dollar General to purchase a new one. This was week three. The sales associate perked up when she saw me. She was an older African American lady who followed me through the store, chatting. It being midmorning and a weekday I was her only customer. We discussed buying iron-free clothing because we both loathed ironing and neither of us could figure out how we had ended up with so many shirts that needed attention when there were plenty of nice looking sweaters to wear, some as elegant as blouses. Sweaters one could just fold and be done with, but maybe, my sales lady cautioned, the really nice ones needed dry-cleaning? We settled on an iron ($14.98, made in China) and Thelma, my sales lady friend, urged me to try it out before buying it, because a lot of stuff didn’t work once you had paid for it and gotten home. We unpacked the iron and plugged it in at the checkout counter, and after a minute or so I touched my fingertips to its bottom to see if it was heating. Ouch! My fingers clung to the surface, and it took effort to pry them away.
Thelma tells me that I cannot have been out for more than the 30 seconds it took her to fetch the Neosporin, but that’s time for you: relative.
I was Hertha, and I knew I was Hertha right away. I was talking to Margarethe and Frieda about our no-good men in Margarethe’s partially shady front room. My husband Edgar, a violinist who worked as a longshoreman, was a decent person. I loved him but I also liked commiserating with my women friends and did not want jealousy to come between us. Frieda, whose husband beat her, showed us a new embroidery technique from Japan. It was useless, of course (we didn’t embroider for piecework) but pretty, and we enjoyed learning about the greater world. Japan! Imagine! Margarethe said Asians had invented personal hygiene and she wished her husband Norbert knew of it. We laughed. We all agreed that living in America was strange enough, never mind Japan, and Laura, who was usually quiet, told us that New York City was now officially bigger than Philadelphia and the largest city in the United States, maybe the world. Frieda wondered who it was that counted the people, and we all thought about it, our fingertips throbbing again from stitching together the rough piecework, and it was then that I looked into the kind face of Thelma.
“Feeling better, honey?” she asked.
“Was ist passiert? Wo bin ich?”
“Let me put some ointment on, it takes the sting out. But maybe you ought to go to a clinic?”
“Keine Klinik. Kein Arzt.” I was adamant about that, and I very much liked being adamant about something. I could have told Thelma about the hospital bill which had arrived that morning and claimed that I owed the hospital more than half of what I earned in a year. The large number in bold font at the bottom of the page represented my insurance deductable, and listed on top of it were even larger, scarier numbers that had somehow accumulated around my unconscious person in the course of five days.
I told Thelma about channeling Hertha instead.
“I thought you sounded German,” she said.
Turns out, her brother was briefly married to a woman from Wuppertal. The marriage didn’t last, but he kept her Strudel recipe and at family gatherings he entertained everyone with the long German words the ex-wife had taught him. “Reissverschlussverfahren,” Thelma said, “Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih.”
Being Sally again I didn’t know what the words meant, but they sounded authentic so I smiled and nodded and we agreed to meet for coffee the next week.
Back at the English Language Learning Institute, they were still doing their blasted observations. My supervisor’s face was paralyzed by Bell’s Palsy, and he half-smiled and half-frowned as he told me that I used too much TTT (Teacher Talking Time), asked too few CCQs (Concept Checking Questions) and was, overall, falling short of applying the PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) method of teaching. For $15.75 an hour, he said, one could expect a more detailed lesson plan. Of course everyone was hugely relieved I was ‘back in the saddle’. He had personally prayed for my recovery. His facial expression made it hard to gauge if he was putting me on.
My students liked me. I offered them insights into the culture. Example: When people ask you how you feel, they don’t care about the answer. A person says you must visit again, but what she is really thinking is never. And on the phone, I should let you go, means ‘hang up already, I have a nail appointment’. Becoming a US American, I told my students, was like learning to be a politician: Smile, smile, don’t let the real you show.
Besides teaching them words they needed, I practiced useful skills with them, such as giving firm handshakes and sandwiching all sorts of criticism. And yet here I was, ignorant of my teaching acronyms. Surely, younger whippersnappers were already with the program, cheaper, etc.
“Do you think you have it in you to improve?” the supervisor asked.
“Actually, I think I have reached the end of my line,” I said, and it felt good, saying that.
I thought that by deeply inhaling the cooking spices caught in my students’ hair and clothing during our last class I would be able to access at least one other life (Guatemalan, Ghanaian, Mauritanian, Korean, Chinese, Burmese), but nothing happened.
I called the insurance and the insurance person explained how every monthly payment I could afford was tied to a deductible I couldn’t. I cancelled the policy, because why pay for nonsense? I called the hospital and their financial person agreed to let me make monthly payments of $250 for the next four calendar years; after that, she cautioned, the interest would kick in. I had to be on hold a lot while we figured it all out, and I guess because I was thirsty and stuck on my old landline two rooms away from the kitchen, I channeled my time as a Hydrangea bush.
My flowers were mostly purple, with some pretty blues mixed in, and the time I was remembering was the drought of 2019. A very bad time. No rain for five weeks – zero precipitation during the hottest time of the year, July to late August, in my growing zone, Zone 7. I gave all I could to my flowers, but they were quietly dying. My leaves turned brown around the edges and then they just fell, fell. I was exfoliating and it was agony. The thirst! The pity. My newly grown intricate spidery roots died right away. Then the older, hardier ones, further below ground. How I wished to save them! But the idiot who had planted me had forgotten to mulch. When she remembered to water at all, she did so in full sun and from the top, leaving the water droplets to magnify in the direct sunlight, and causing my remaining leaves horrible burns. Death by thirst and burning is a slow and unpleasant way to go. Can death ever be pleasant? The hospital financial person on the line, whose name was Karen, said she didn’t know but hoped so. I wasn’t embarrassed about having thought out loud. At least I wasn’t Karen, juggling money all day.
Thelma said she would gladly put in a word for me at the Dollar General, but I wasn’t ready to give up on teaching yet. The fliers I had put up at the K&S International Market had yielded several phone calls — if only people didn’t have such a hard time understanding that they needed to pay me for lessons.
“You should not have quit that school,” Thelma scolded in her sensible way, “ you should have made those folks kick you out and collected unemployment.”
“You are right,” I said.
“You know I am,” she said.
We were watching some trash float by in the alley next to the coffee shop. The day was blustery, and then the wind lifted me up, and I was an abandoned Styrofoam cup, tossed ever so lightly this way and that. It was mostly a pleasant sensation, being windborne and weightless, but I also felt a gnawing at my empty core. This was the future. I foresaw hitting rocks and shrapnel of all kinds, and a piece of me coming off from the rim. But most of me, I knew, would remain unchanged for a very long time; getting filthier, coarser, with bits flaking off and leaching, slowly. My atoms would remain bonded to each other and resist degradation until sunlight and other forces would fragment and rearrange them, and then small parts of me would dance through streets and through storm drains out into the oceans and through birds and turtles who would die mistaking them for food, and we’d reach darkness.
But just look at the earth from the distance of space: It’s beautiful. So blue.
Helia Rethmann grew up in Germany where she worked as a journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Breakwater Review, Black Elephant, and Intrinsick Magazine, as well as in anthologies published by Pure Slush, Virgins, and Between the Lines (‘Fairy Tales and Folklore Re-Imagined’). Her winning story ‘Blood’ was included in the First Annual Anthology published by Two Sisters (October 2018). Helia lives on a farm near Nashville, TN, with her wife and too many animals.