The Power of Astrid
by Dianne Rees
part 1 of 2
The first time it’s fear.
Standing by the window of her room, Astrid blocks the sun. She turns at my entrance and leans forward, her long black hair sweeping the sill which is none too clean. Her thin fingers scry nervously through the strands as if to divine answers to her murmured questions. Her words are slurred from the medication, their rising and falling intonations both lyric and code.
I don’t focus too much on what Astrid is saying; everyone who listens to her hears different things. Instead I note the bed that isn’t made, the gray stained sheets, the thin mattress, the absent pillow. I thought I remembered that at least she had a pillow. I run my fingers through my newly cropped hair and see that Astrid is watching me through lowered lids.
I run through a list of questions, “How are you? Are you sleeping okay? Do you like it here?”
Discarding them all as impossible, I say her name instead.
She tilts her head like an animal trying to catch a scent and continues with her invocations.
I remember that when Astrid was younger, she didn’t speak much at all. She’d duck her head and listen, a nervous smile on her face. I’d often have to throw my words her way. I told myself I did it to keep her from being such a target, but at the end of the day, my words were a hungry thing with needs of their own. I’d get sent to my room, unable to shield her and guilty for loving the solitude I had won.
Here and there, the code surfaces, as Astrid continues her muttering, “Stop. Take it. Fly. Stupid haircut.”
I flinch. This is what it’s come to. In the old days, Astrid was always the one who flinched.
I am dying for a cigarette, but don’t want to bring an orderly bustling into the room at the first smell of smoke. I fought traffic all the way coming down here and haven’t gotten rid of all the bad work karma that’s still in my head.
I sit on the extra cot, bring my knees up, fold into that corner of the room and look around. Hard to believe — right now Astrid’s lucky. She has the room to herself. But I don’t have the money to keep it that way. I am afraid of what will happen if they put someone else in here. Will she be bullied? Will she withdraw even further?
My head leans against the wall and my scalp immediately feels itchy. But something about the rhythm of Astrid’s words and the closeness of the room gets to me and I fall asleep. I dream I see Astrid — she’s walking to the edge of the roof of the house where we grew up. She turns to me and says, “This is power. You can take it if you like.” Then she shrugs and takes an extra step, disappearing as she falls.
My head jerks, some disturbance in the air signaling me back to consciousness. I wake up with this awful crick in my neck. Astrid is sitting in a corner of the room rocking, picking invisible things off her shirt.
I get up, joints creaking. “Astrid, I have to go,” I murmur guiltily.
I drive back home to the Bronx; the traffic’s died down. When I get back to my apartment I unlock the triple-bolted door that anyone could kick in if they really wanted to. The hardwood floor creaks its welcome. I survey the sparse furnishings as if they belong to someone else – a discarded sofa I’ve claimed from the street, a creaky card table with accompanying folding chair, plywood bookcase, mattress (no box spring).
To get them out of my sight, I move to the refrigerator and open and shut the door a couple of times. Open, a bottle of beer. Close. Open, a can of tuna fish. Close. It takes too much effort to call any of it a meal. I sit down on the sofa and wait for the darkness to come and slide inside me. I remain there for a while, not moving. But I get up — I always do — to turn on the light.
I decide to go outside and walk the three blocks to the pizzeria, because decisions are a human thing and I need to feel human right now. I stand a moment at the door, brush my fingers against the doorknob, rap the walls with my knuckles, rap my knuckles against the locks: one, two, three. Unchain the chains, draw back the bolts, draw blood, bring my knuckles to my lips and pull the blood back inside me.
The air slices through me as soon as I step outside. It’s one of those nights when the sky is purple from the city lights, cloudless, with no memory of stars. Ducking my head, I propel myself forward, avoiding eye contact with people. I am conscious of my stride. As I think about it, the act of walking no longer draws from instinct. What other habits will I lose?
At the stoop at the end of the street, I see a group of men crouching and glaring, and talking trash to each other. It’s too late to cross the street and I see one of them swing his head towards me, nudging the guy next to him, the menace spreading like a crack in an iced-over pond. One of them stumbles in front of me as I try to go by. Another laughs, watching me with yellow-stained eyes. The guy blocking my way bares his teeth, and yips. They all start laughing at this.
I look up and think that I should be running.
I stand there. I wait.
I remember that when Astrid and I were kids and we were sick, we’d be put in the basement. The basement was a dark room with enormous flowers on the curtains framing the one small window that let in a wan, cold light. The flowers seemed to turn into demons in my fevered dreams. The small cot, where I lay tossing and turning, was right next to a water heater, which loomed like a menacing giant over me.
Astrid always crept downstairs to see me when I was banished there, those early years when I was prone to every ill, every influenza, every infection. With her cool hand on my forehead, she’d speak then, whispering to me that I could take myself away with a brave song, with a story. “Make a story with pictures,” she’d tell me. “See it in your head.”
So I tell myself a story now, making it with pictures. I picture the one in front of me falling to the ground, his knees making a cracking sound as they hit the pavement. I picture slamming the heads of the ones laughing into the cement until they bleed.
Instead I fall to my knees, retching. In the hot liquid that’s spilled to the ground, I see it glinting, a razor-edged blade of steel. I pick it up – this thing new born that comes from me. I get to my feet. Then the one in front of me pushes me. And I push back.
* * *
I’m in my apartment, sitting at the edge of my bed, looking at my hands. I stand up, tottering. I see the red message light on the phone blinking and move to answer it, because that’s a normal thing to do after all. It’s a message from the hospital, they’re asking me to call about Astrid. There’s been an emergency. When I call, they won’t give me a straight answer. I dart across the street and back into my car, not looking left or right. I drive the whole way back into Manhattan to the hospital.
When I get, there, the nurse at the reception desk looks at me like I’m clearly high or something and tells me to wait for the doctor who will be coming to talk to me, when he has a moment. She speaks to me slowly, telling me that I should be quiet now and wait for the doctor.
I sit down on a rickety chair, trying not to act too fidgety, feeling that if I’m not careful, they’ll be admitting me. An old man is sleeping in one of the chairs, his mouth open, a trail of saliva laced across his chin. An old woman, and her daughter, I’m guessing, speak to each other quietly in Spanish. The old woman is knitting while the daughter flips absently through an entertainment magazine. They don’t look at each other as they speak. There’s a TV on a monitor high above our heads that’s tuned to a late night news show. A cleaning guy is mopping the floor, reaching under our feet so we don’t get too settled here. I catch him frowning at us, each in turn. I feel guilty because something terrible has happened to my sister and I’m bored out of my mind.
After a couple of hours, a thin, nut-brown man in a white coat comes over. He introduces himself.
“Dr. Ravi Pal,” he murmurs, his hand lingering only lightly in mine.
He tells me Astrid’s had a seizure, that they think it may be from the medication she was on, but that she’s resting now (from some new medication) and I should come back tomorrow if I want to see her.
“Can’t I just go in and look in on her?” I ask. “If I can hold her hand, sometimes it makes her feel better.”
“She is not feeling anything right now,” he says, somewhat impatiently. “Go home. Go home. You should not have come tonight. You can do nothing.” He turns away and says something to the nurse at the reception desk, who laughs.
I wait there about fifteen minutes more, staring at the linoleum. I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow but I am running out of sick days. Maybe they’ll let me work overtime. I feel in my coat pocket for my car keys, rubbing them nervously like rosary beads.
I wonder what Astrid will be like tomorrow.
I get up, wanting to move to get rid of this dreamy feeling that I can’t seem to shake. The electric doors by the ambulance bay won’t open at first and I have to stamp my feet to trigger the motion sensor.
I’m parked at HI which is all the way down at the end of the lot. A frozen rain starts to fall and soon I am soaked to the skin. I stand there for a moment, hunching my shoulders, allowing myself to get soaked. I run to the car.
I drive back to the Bronx and there’s all these ambulances blocking my street. I have to park ten blocks away. I ask an old guy standing by my stoop, in what very well might be his pajamas, what’s going on. He tells me about these boys in the neighborhood — “punks” he calls them. He tells me they were attacked, their faces all sliced up. “Like a punishment,” the old guy says with relish, making chewing motions with his grizzled jaw.
I shake my head, not at what he’s said, but at the fact that it seems natural to me, like some order has been restored. I wonder if they were the same guys who were bothering me.
“Do they know who did it?” I ask.
The old man laughs. “No,” he says, “they don’t know. Or they won’t tell.” He taps his nose with his forefinger twice and winks at me.
The next day when I go see Astrid, she’s in the critical care ward, hooked up to an IV. She looks small and childlike, and I have to remind myself that she’s older than me by a couple of years. I sit by her and her eyes flutter beneath her blue-veined eyelids. I take her hand, which feels cold and lifeless in mine.
I turn at some noise in the hall. A volunteer is clanking by with a cart of some nasty food, flirting with an orderly.
When I turn back, Astrid is watching me.
“How did it feel?” she asks.
“How did what feel?” I’m getting a little panicky.
“To be powerful,” she smiles.
I blink and Astrid’s eyes are closed again. She’s sleeping.
I know she can’t have spoken to me. She hasn’t strung words together in a clear sentence in about five years. The mind plays tricks.
I push back my chair and mutter a goodbye. I touch her hand timidly. Touch a relic.
Copyright © 2006 by Dianne Rees