When Vivien opened her eyes she didn’t recognize where she was. It was a small room, in a small bed, not the queen size she shared with her husband of many years. Her left arm touched the wall, an unfamiliar feeling. Directly above her was a large window through which the sun shone. The curtains and the comforter were white with tiny purple flowers, something Vivien would never have purchased.
When she looked to the right she saw a small, cheaply made table and a worn orange upholstered chair, its legs scraped clean of any stain. After that a built-in closet, painted white. At her feet, a small television was bolted to the wall. And next to that, an open doorway.
Vivien had to go to the bathroom, so she sat up. Her head spun for a bit and her body felt clumsy and heavy. She swung her legs over the edge, then stood. At first she feared that her legs would buckle, but once she was solid, she slid her right foot forward. Then the left, slowly, slowly until she was able to stick her head out the door. To her left was a bathroom, so Vivien headed that way.
Inside she went to pull down her underwear, but found she was wearing a diaper, taped at both sides. She ripped it apart, then sat, just in time. Finished, she looked in the mirror. Her hair, which she always kept short, hung limply to her shoulders. It was greasy and matted. And she smelled as if she hadn’t bathed in weeks.
Vivien turned on the shower, removed her stinky nightgown and stepped under the spray. It felt fantastic to have water streaming over her head and down her body. She found shampoo and scrubbed her hair. Conditioner. Soap. When she turned off the water, she heard pounding.
“Vivien, open the door.”
She didn’t. She pulled a stiff white towel from a rack and dried herself. The towel left her skin pink and barely dry. She hung it back up, carefully folded and even at the bottom. Vivien opened the medicine cabinet and found deodorant and lotion, which she happily applied.
“I’m coming in,” the voice said as the knob turned. A small brown-skinned woman came in, an angry look on her face. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I was dirty. I took a shower.”
“You have to ask for help,” the woman said as she pulled Vivien, naked, back into the small room. “Sit.” The woman pushed Vivien into the chair and began opening drawers. “Put this on,” she said as she handed Vivien a blouse.
Vivien had a little difficulty getting her arms in the sleeves and her fingers wouldn’t cooperate with the buttons, but she got it done by being patient. That’s one thing Vivien admired about herself: she was a patient person. “Why am I here? I want to go home.”
“Don’t ask silly questions. This is your home,” the woman said. “Lay on the bed.” She pulled Vivien up, moved her to the bed, and pushed her down. “Lift your butt.” She slipped a plastic-sounding thing under Vivien.
“Stop,” Vivien said. “No diapers.” She tried to pull it off, but the woman slapped her hands. “I want to wear panties and a bra.”
“Okay,” the woman said as she removed the diaper. “Let’s see how long you go before peeing your pants.” The woman rummaged in the drawers and came up with a beige pair of underwear. “Put these on.”
Vivien loved the feel of the material. It was slippery and smooth. She put on her panties, and then when the woman handed her a pair of slacks, Vivien refused to take them. “I want to wear jeans. I wear jeans every day.”
The woman tossed a pair of jeans at Vivien and then huffed out of the room.
Vivien finished dressing herself. After a bit the woman returned carrying a brush. The woman was a bit rough, not seeming to care when the brush tangled and pulled.
“I need a haircut,” Vivien said. “I wear my hair short.”
“Stay here,” the woman said as she left the room.
Vivien found a TV remote on the table and pushed the red button. The news came on. She had always like listening to the news, knowing what was happening in the world, so she watched. So much devastation! Wars. Famine. Drought. Floods. Snow storms and tornadoes. Arguing about laws and decisions and statements. It seemed as if the world was crazy, but she felt compelled to watch, as if she hadn’t seen the news in a long, long time.
The woman returned with a small table and a tray. “Eat.”
Vivien tasted the pancake and it was cold. The eggs were gooey, not firm like Vivien preferred. Limp bacon and tasteless toast. She was hungry, so she ate as much as she could tolerate.
When the woman returned, she scooped the food remnants into Vivien’s mouth until the plate was empty. “You have to eat all your food. We’ve been over this.” And then she left, caring away the table and tray.
Vivien went into the hallway, turning to her right, and soon found herself in a sitting area in which four woman stared at a blank television screen. Vivien first sat on the couch next to a woman wearing a huge flowery dress, but the woman stank, so Vivien got up and moved to a wooden chair.
Vivien smiled at a woman, but the woman stared ahead, no reaction on her face. Vivien said, “Hi” to another woman, but that one looked at Vivien then brought one finger to her mouthed and shushed her. Vivien asked if she could turn on the TV, but another woman told her no, so she didn’t. It was boring sitting there with nothing to do.
Time passed. When Vivien had to use the restroom, she took herself. She used the toilet without incident. “I don’t know why that woman wanted me to wear a diaper,” she thought. When finished, she returned to the small bedroom room and turned the TV back on.
“Time to go,” the woman said when she came into the room. “We’re going to the park.”
“I want to go home and be with my husband,” Vivien said. “I don’t want to go to the park.”
The woman grabbed Vivien’s arm and pulled her to a standing position and out into the hall. Altogether there were three women wearing some kind of uniform who led the silent women down the ramp and onto the sidewalk. Even though she wanted to wait for her husband to come, Vivien was happy to be outside. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and birds were singing.
They walked two blocks down to a main street, waited for the light to change, then crossed. The group walked a short distance to a park. It was a huge place, with two baseball fields and a playground. Small children were swinging and climbing up and sliding down. Vivien smiled, remembering when she used to take her son to the park and how much fun he had.
“Sit,” one of the uniformed women said as she pushed Vivien toward a picnic table.
The women sat at the table. No one talked. No one looked at Vivien. All of a sudden Vivien knew where she was. She knew she was on Dyer in Union City. All she had to do was walk down Dyer and turn right on Whipple. East on Whipple, then north on Ithaca. A left turn, then a right, another right and she’d be home. Back to her husband, whom she loved and missed.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Vivien said. One of the women took her to a bathroom behind a baseball field. Vivien noticed that the building backed up to the scorekeeper’s shack. Suddenly she knew how to get to her husband. All she had to do was sneak out of the bathroom, squeeze between the two buildings, and hide there until she could find refuge some bushes in a neighbor’s yard. Stay there until they stopped looking for her, and then walk home.
When she was finished in the bathroom, Vivien looked outside. The woman’s back was to her, so Vivien slid around to the back, moving as quietly as she could. She brushed away cobwebs that tickled her face and arms. She waited there, breathing as quietly as she could.
She heard the woman calling her name and when the sound seemed further away, Vivien took that opportunity to scuttle around the baseball field and into a front yard, where she found large bushes that were perfect for hiding behind. She sat on the ground, amidst ants and bugs and dirt and waited, expecting to be found, but thankfully no one came.
Early evening came. The sun lost its brilliance and the air cooled. Cars zipped down the street, but still no one came for her. When it was nearly dark she left her hiding spot and headed north. She realized that there was no hiding places on this side of the street, so when she came to a crosswalk, Vivien went to the other side.
She was careful now. When she heard a car coming, she ducked into the darkness. When it was safe, she walked, further and further along. She crossed Alvarado Boulevard, then Alvarado-Niles. When she tired, she’d rest on fire hydrants. It seemed like she had to rest more and more often as she walked past a restaurants that her husband liked and then past Walmart where she bought her birdseed. She acted as if she belonged there, believing that no one would challenge her if she stood straight and moved swiftly.
Traffic eased from the evening rush to a trickle of cars. After the train tracks, Vivien turned north at the Seven Eleven. Left at Geneva. Right at Carroll. Right at Gresel. Right on Gerald Court. Two houses and she was home.
Vivien wrapped her arms around herself and admired the front yard and the stucco and the windows, but most of all, her car, sitting right there in the driveway like it always did.
Vivien went to the front door and turned the knob, but it didn’t open. She knocked and heard shuffling, then the door opened a crack. Her husband’s face looked at her. She smiled. “Steve,” she said. “I’m home.”
He opened the door and pulled her inside. “Oh, Honey, I’ve been so worried. Why did you run away?” His arms felt strong and good, even after all these years. He smelled of Dove soap and coffee and felt like love. He brought her into the bathroom and asked if she needed help.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she had difficulty pulling down her pants, so he helped. When she was finished, he pulled them up for her. Then he took her to the dining room and sat her in a chair.
“I bet you’re hungry,” he said. “I’ll zap some spaghetti for you.”
Vivien admired the beautiful house. The pictures on the walls. All scenes of Native American life. The dolls in the display case, dressed in the traditional clothing of various tribes.
Steve put a plate in front of her and handed her a fork. “I don’t understand why you ran away.” He brushed her hair back from her face.
“I wanted to come home. I woke up in a strange room. I smelled and got yelled at for taking a shower. The food was soggy and cold. I wanted to be with you.” She tried scooping up the spaghetti, but it slid off her fork, so her husband fed her.
When she was finished, he led her to the family room and settled her on the couch.
He ran his fingers over her head. “I love you,” he said. “But I can’t take care of you. That’s why you live in the home.”
Vivien stared at her husband. “I can take care of myself just fine,” she said.
Steve kissed her cheek. “Today maybe. But most of the time you can’t. You need more help than I can give. That’s why you live in the board and care home.”
“Please let me stay here,” Vivien said, tears running down her cheeks. “Don’t make me go back there. They’re mean to me. Please let me stay here.”
He got her a tissue and wiped her cheeks and then he went into the kitchen. She heard him talking to someone and thought it was her son. That maybe he was telling her son how happy he was to see her. He returned and sat next to her. He pulled her to his chest and held her tightly.
“If only it could be like this. It would be wonderful.” And he sobbed.
He held her until the doorbell rang. A woman and a familiar looking man came into the room. The woman said, “We searched all over for you. We even called the police.”
Vivien tried to remember where she’d seen the woman before. The man smiled at her, then held out his hands and pulled her up. “Come on, Honey,” he said. “Time to go.”
The woman held one arm, the man the other as they walked her through the building and out the door. They helped her down some steps, then put her in a van and buckled her in. The woman started the car and pulled away. The night was dark except for a few streetlights shining here and there.
Vivien stared out the window, watching as buildings sped by. The van stopped and the woman turned off the engine.
“We’re home now,” the woman said. She opened the door and said, “Get out.”
Vivien did as she was told. The woman pulled her into the building and then into a small room. “Lie down,” the woman said as she pushed Vivien onto a bed.
The woman washed Vivien’s legs. “You’re a mess,” she said and then put a diaper on Vivien. Took off Vivien’s top and slid a soft nightgown over her head.
“Get under the covers.”
Then the woman pulled a blanket up to her chin. “Go to sleep,” the woman said and then turned off the light as she left.
Vivien lay there for a long time, trying to figure out where she was. She closed her eyes.