A Place to Belong

My name is Dahlia.  When I was a little girl I told my mother, “I want to be a ballerina.”  She said, “You can’t do that.”  When I was a teenager, I told her, “I want to go to college.”  She said, “You can’t do that.” Later, I got a job in New York City.  By that time, I had learned not to have any conversations with her about my future plans.  I just left.

I was twenty years-old.  I had gotten a job at an advertising agency as an assistant producer.  I got the job because I had strong organizational skills and was a good speller.  I also knew somebody who knew somebody and I was pretty, although you would never see me with a lace thong higher than my waistband when I bent over.  The first team that I worked with was made up of John, Alan and Josh.  Our job was to create television commercials.  John was the senior producer.  Alan was the art director and Josh the copywriter.  “Hey ‘D,’” Alan and Josh would say when I came into the room.  John said, “Hello.”  Our account was an air deodorizer.

John was my boss.  He was sixty-two, tall and grey-haired and well known for his excessive attention to detail.  His conversations would drone on, with lots of eye rolling and attempts by his co-workers to get away.  As for me, I listened patiently, all the while, fantasizing I was his daughter.  Every morning, I photocopied the crossword puzzle from The New York Times and placed it on his desk.  I made sure he had his favorite jam to go with his toasted muffin.  One morning he became very upset and disoriented.  There was no more jam left.  “Blackberry,” he sputtered.  “Blackberry.”  I left work to go to the supermarket to get his jam.  I didn’t mind.  John was kind.

Alan was fifty, with thick silver hair and a small moustache.  He was a jokester.  Once he asked me to deliver a phony subpoena.  Josh was twenty-eight.  He was henpecked.  His wife came to the office, one morning, to show off their new baby boy.  “Only a special woman like myself can raise a good man,” she said.  On purpose, she dangled the baby over my head, too far away for me to hold him.  It made me think of my mother finding pictures of brides I had cut out from magazines, under my bed.  She said she was cleaning.  The brides wore white fluffy gowns, floor and tea length with beautiful beaded veils.  She said to me, “You won’t do that.”

Part of learning how television commercials were made was sitting in on creative meetings.  Alan and Josh would talk about concepts and directors, pre-production needs and editors.  John would talk about how much it would cost.  I never said anything.  I ordered the lunches.  One afternoon, John said, “Leave the wrappers.”  He continued,  “My trusty sidekick let me down.”  He began repeating, “Leave the wrappers.  Leave the wrappers.”  Then he added, “Gumbo.”  He looked confused.  Josh and Alan got him into a cab and took him to Bellevue Hospital. They wouldn’t let me help.

Within twenty-four  hours John was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He was sent home.  Whenever I asked Alan or Josh how he was, they said, “He’s fishing.”  John liked to fish.  They told me he had radiation to his head through a halo.  He had chemotherapy and I was told, “John is fishing.”  John fished and then John was dead.  It stinks to be a junior member of an advertising team.

By Leon Ephraïm

By Leon Ephraïm

The three of us went to John’s funeral together.  Alan rented a van for the drive to Connecticut, where John had lived.  He told me to get muffins and coffee.  The way he spoke to me made me feel like I was living at home again.  John had never made me feel that way.  Josh drove.  I sat in the back.  Alan chatted about a scene in a movie where two women kissed.  “It gave me a boner,” he said.  Josh chatted about his new baby boy.  He and his wife were carriers of a rare genetic disease.  They had made a commitment to bring the baby into the world, although it might, later in life, choke to death on its own mucus.  What he said next, he whispered.  He was in love with another woman.  I guess I wasn’t supposed to hear.

At the memorial service, the minister spoke about John’s military service, his years as a dutiful employee, and the courage with which he met death.  If I had been asked to speak, I would have mentioned getting frustrated while adding numbers as I estimated the cost of a commercial and John placing a hand on my shoulder.  “You can do this,” he said.  John’s son played the guitar and sang a song he had composed, all the while weeping.  I felt embarrassed.  He sang off-key.  I looked across the aisle for Alan.  He looked back at me, but I couldn’t see his eyes.  He was wearing sunglasses.

It seemed to me, people were dusty and starving, dying everywhere.  I didn’t say anything, though.

There was lots of food in the social hall of the church, where everyone gathered after the service. I said how sorry I was to John’s wife. She wore John’s wedding band on a chain around her neck.  I felt terrible.  She was a nice lady.  John couldn’t speak.  She told me she sat on his deathbed and stroked his cheek.  She said she stroked his forehead.  While he was still alive, she used to come down from Connecticut and have lunch with him in the city.  They left the office holding hands. After the funeral, Josh, said, “I should hurry.  My wife expects me home.”  The three of us got into the van.  The more time that went by, the slower he drove.

It was Alan who should have died.

When we first met he said, “Ten years ago, during the course of a regular physical exam, my doctor discovered I had a rare form of blood cancer.” I guess it was still on his mind.

Over lunch Alan told me he flew from New York to Nebraska for an experimental treatment to save his life.  The hospital sent a rabbi to his room.  He had checked “Jewish” on the intake form.  The rabbi gave him a new name in Hebrew.   “I shall call you by this name from now on,” he said. “In that way, the Angel of Death, when he comes looking for Alan, will find someone else and leave you alone.”  It worked.  He went into remission.  The doctors told him in ten years he’d get cancer again.   It was from all the radiation.  Alan had picked a really nice restaurant.  I was relieved when he paid the tab.

I started spending a lot of time with him.  It just kind of happened.  I don’t know why, except, maybe, it had something to do with John being gone. Alan told me after he returned home from the hospital he and his wife gave up alcohol and snorting cocaine. They stopped the sex parties with neighbors.  He was sure the rabbi would have wanted it that way.  After that, he said his wife was driving home one night and her car was run off the road.  “Our neighbors were angry with us when we stopped the partying.  I always brought the cocaine.”

The accident left his wife, Stella, mentally impaired.  “She can no longer tell time,” he said pointing at the clock.  “When she buys something she holds bills in her hand, helpless.  She no longer understands the value of money.”

Stella was an artist.  Alan gave me a tour of her home studio. “Her artwork,” Alan said, “since the accident, has become more vibrant and alive.” There were large canvases of pastel portraits of women in broad brimmed hats and children.

I told Stella her pictures were beautiful.  She said,  “He is so angry all the time.”  The cancer had come back.

Alan was hospitalized.  After John had been hospitalized, I never saw him again.   I made up my mind not to let that happen a second time.  We were a team, although other than Alan, I was the only one left.  Josh had left the agency.  His wife had forced him to quit and move down South so she could be closer to her family.  I don’t know what happened to the other woman he was in love with.

I stopped at the hospital gift shop and bought a newspaper, a book of word games and a power bar.  Alan had a really nice room.  It looked out over the East River.  He looked relaxed and healthy in a white tee shirt and sweatpants.  He told me he was going through another experimental treatment.  He was optimistic.  He still had his Hebrew name.

I thought briefly of the remark about the boner when we were driving to John’s funeral.  “I forgive you,” I said.

He acted normal, chatting with nurses and answering phone calls.  He selected food from his meal plan.  He didn’t ask me to order it for him.  The newspaper I brought had an article about limited water supplies and drought.  He wanted to talk politics.  Alan was fully convinced there was enough food and water to feed the world.  In fact, he was pretty intense about it.  I wasn’t so sure.  It seemed to me, people were dusty and starving, dying everywhere.  I didn’t say anything, though.  Out of the office, I didn’t talk much either.

When I came to the hospital again, Alan was lying in bed.  He had a lump in his arm.  The nurse hovered.  She was concerned it was a blood clot. “Does it feel hot?” she asked.  A doctor came into the room.  He looked at the lump. Even though I was in the corner, I felt I was in the way.  I stood there awkwardly not knowing what to do with my arms.  They just kind of hung there.  Alan was pale.  The doctor said, “Don’t worry.  I’ve got your back.”

The room emptied.  Alan said to me, “I have one son who is an artist.  I pay his rent.  My other son lives in the Midwest.  I made my two sons very competitive with each other.  I held up one boy’s accomplishment as an example of the other’s failure.  Why did I do it?  They’ve never shown any kindness towards each other.  Neither of them speaks to me very often.  I guess it made me feel like a big shot.”

Alan was shivering under the bed sheet, when I next saw him.  He was bloated with antibiotics.  “You have come to visit me more often than my two boys,” he said.

They had fired Alan after John died.  There were a lot of rumors in the office.  “It was his temper,” someone said.  “It was his weird sense of humor.”  I knew it was his gray hair.  Alan laughed it off saying, he was just doing “pension time” anyway. I went to human resources and spoke up.  “You can’t do that,” I said.

I took a train and then a cab to visit him at his home on Long Island, after he was discharged from the hospital.  Alan had lost his hair and his ears pulled away from his head.  Oxygen was fed up his nose.  Before he pulled the blanket up, I caught a glimpse of shriveled testicles in white underpants.  He took my hand, “I want to ask for your forgiveness,” he said.  I thought briefly of the remark about the boner when we were driving to John’s funeral.  “I forgive you,” I said.

He dozed.  Then he woke and said, “I had a bad childhood.  I beat up a landlord, who harassed my grandmother for money.  I used my fists on his face.  Take up dancing.  Stella and I took tango lessons.  Travel on a plane to New Orleans and listen to jazz.  These things will ease the sadness and push back the memories.” At the office, Alan had once given me tickets to a comedy club.  “You need to have some fun,” he said.

“Since the accident, Stella is crazy.  Still she finds ways to be happy.  When I told her I only had a month to live, she said, ‘It will be the best thirty days of our lives.’  We still sleep in bed together.  It comforts me.  Stella will need a hired companion after I’m gone to tell her how much money she has spent. ” He whispered, “When her head hit the windshield, her brains came out of her ears.”

He dozed some more.  I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there.  He woke and told me he was taking Xanax.  “Death,” he said, “Makes me nervous.”  He reached for my hand again.   “White light, black light, I don’t know what to expect.”  I felt pressured to say something.   Finally I said, “I love you,” feeling like a complete phony. “I love you, too, Dahlia,” he said.  He called me by my full name.

At the funeral, Stella wore a tam at an angle, dipping over her eye, and flirted with a guest.  Alan had told me it was another symptom from the accident.  At the end of the service, she started to walk away with him.  It was painful to watch, her helplessness, nobody to protect her.  I steeled myself, turned my back and walked away.  She had two sons to take care of her.  One of them would have to pay his own rent now, like I did.  She told me Alan died with one eye open and one eye closed.  “He was always joking,” she said.

Months after the funeral, I received an announcement from Josh in the mail.  His wife had given birth to a second child.  After that, I never heard from him again.  Someone at the agency later told me he had had a heart attack.  One night after dinner he had gone to lie down.  He was nauseous and had the sweats.  The pain started in his left jaw.  He was thirty.   At John’s funeral, he had given me his hanky.  He always tried so hard to be a good person.

I left the agency.   There was no reason to stay.  Everybody that mattered to me was gone.  I went to another advertising agency. Over time, I became a senior producer. I knew I could do it. Josh had taught me not to be so scared.  Alan had taught me not to take myself so seriously. John had taught me to pay attention to the details.  At night, I dream about John and while I’m dreaming, it seems like he’s still here.

Laurel Sharon is a psychologist by day and writer by night. She has a background in the arts, first as a classical pianist and then as a modern dancer. A longtime native of New York City, she looks forward to writing more short stories.