Jenny Andersen


They think I don't understand.

They lead me to this room, this institutionally perky room, and plop me at the table, the same table, the same seat, every meal, every day. And then the tray. Plunk, on the table in front of me, its surface covered with plates and bowls, little dishes and packets, everything covered so there's no way to tell what they hold.

"Ready for breakfast, Lorrie?" the attendant chirps. "Ready for lunch?" "Ready for dinner?" "Hungry, Lorrie?" Every day, every meal. Only the identity of the attendant changes.

I stare at the tray. Yes, I'm hungry. But not for a little box of cereal, a single-serving box of milk, and rubbery scrambled eggs. I want steak. I want homemade apple pie. I want my mother's macaroni and cheese.

I want my mother.

I want a comfortable chair. I want real people to talk to. I want to be able to get up and go to another room instead of congealing in this uncomfortable chair waiting for an institutionally perky attendant to lead me around.

Dutifully I take the spoon and plunge it into the nearest pile of food. "Yes," I reply. "Hun…gry." And I smile. Dutifully.

The attendant leaves. I sigh, grateful for the moment of peace. But she returns, leading a tall, cadaverous woman with vacant eyes. "Here you are, Miss Hanson. You sit with Mrs. Ledunne. Ready for breakfast?" Chirp, chirp, chirp.

I sigh again, this time without gratitude. Miss Hanson talks. Interminably. At first I couldn't understand her, but gradually I came to realize that she talks about going home.

Every day she talks about going home later that afternoon. I eat my breakfast and let her words wash over me.

Home. Somewhere I have a home. And a husband. He comes every day to sit, to walk, to talk. Amused, I watch the gazes of the attendants and nurses follow him as we pace the endless corridors. Yes, he's handsome. Yes, he loves me. Yes, he'll wait for me.


Miss Chirpy Enthusiasm decides I've finished eating and leads me back to my room. I sink into the chair beside the bed and fumble with the TV remote.

I don't turn it on. I look at the bed, its beige blanket pulled smooth, with longing. I could sleep. Maybe if I could sleep enough, this would be a dream.

But no. Physical therapy includes staying up all day. "Have to get your strength back, dear." So I sit in my chair. I look at my flowers. I wait for Mike. I try to think of ways to make them understand. To make my body do the things my mind tells it to. Today, Sharra, the therapist, comes with a stranger. "This is Jeremy, Lorrie. He's our Recreational Therapist."

I hide a grimace under my social smile, wondering what these people consider to be recreation.

"Hello, Lorrie," he says. "We have a treat today. We're going to go bowling."

My head snaps up. Bowling? I can do that. I stand, pretending it's easy. Pretending I did it quickly, the way I used to. Jeremy grabs my arm to steady me. Sharra wraps a safety belt around my waist and the three of us trudge along the pale green hall, the mottled grey carpet soft underfoot, like any suburban couple walking their pet on a leash.

We turn left into the long corridor that runs past the therapy rooms. At the far end, I see a plastic sheet with ten plastic bowling pins sitting on it, and my enthusiasm drains away. Just another therapy session. Not a trip outside.

Five people wait at the end of the hall for us. I recognize two women from the dining room with two more therapists hovering over them. An elderly woman in a volunteer's uniform holds a plastic bowling ball.

How exciting. I can't wait. I shuffle to a chair and try to sit, but Sharra's grip on the belt stops me.

The volunteer hands the ball to one of the others. Jeremy positions her about ten feet from the pins and shows her how to hold the ball. She flings it at the pins, missing completely. The next player knocks down four pins and the volunteer sets them back up.

They wobble.

Eventually, it's my turn. I grip the ball. It's battered black plastic, hollow and light, punctured by half a dozen different sets of finger holes. Nothing like my own, customdrilled ball with its shiny black surface and dazzling turquoise marbling. I'm wearing runners, clumpy and sturdy and so unlike my own perfectly fitted black leather shoes, but I take the ball in both hands.

"Like this, Lorrie. Like this!" The enthusiasm of the therapists is annoying.


I take a few steps, swing my arm back, and…

"Let go, Lorrie. Let go of the ball."

I told my hands what to do. They know, but I told them anyway. I see the command dissolving into tiny firework sparks as the neurons hiss and crash and die on the long path from brain to hand.

Jeremy helps pry my fingers from the ball. It dribbles a few feet toward the pins. One of the other therapists kicks it along, and two pins topple.

The game goes on forever.

When it's my turn again, I cradle the ball in my hands, sighting down the alley toward the pins, visualizing a polished wood lane instead of dusty, institutional carpet. My body knows what to do, and I move lightly into an effortless approach. As my arm goes back, I sink toward the ground, one knee bent, the other skimming the glossy wood.

The ball meets the smoothness of the alley as gently as a lover's kiss and whirls toward the pins in a spinning wonder of black and turquoise.

The crash of the pins goes on and on, reverberating over the fallen carcasses of all ten pins and my teammates cluster around me, in a frenzy of cheering congratulations. "Another strike!" "You did it!" "Oh my God! A three hundred!" "Good job, Lorrie." "Good…job…Lor…" The shiny wood, the cheering, the voices fade, until there are only Sharra and Jeremy and the lumpy plastic sheet with its wobbly tenpins.

"Let go, Lorrie. Let go of the ball. You did great. We're all done for today." Sharra gently takes the ball from me and leads me back to my room.

I sink into the chair and search my mind, search those unfriendly neural highways, for ways to get past the impenetrable wall of my body, to make them understand.


*Originally ublished in the anthology (Dis)-Ability, edited by Emily Dorffer


Jenny Andersen has been a field camp cook, mineral museum curator, soda jerk, geologist, materials analyst, antique dealer and rehab patient. Writing is better.