Chapter 46. The End of the Bad Project/Crystal
Crystal walked down the long, grey hospital corridor looking for room 234, carrying cards for Marianne from her friends, wondering how she could talk with Marianne about what had happened. Halfway down the hall, sunlight streamed through a window. On the windowsill sat a bright red apple. Someone had taken a single bite out of it and left it there. Crystal stopped and stared; the fruit looked like it was glowing from within. The Bad Project had glowed like that at the start. And Marianne had seemed almost immune from negative results of the project for a long time, but then…. She shook her shoulders and walked on, entered room 234.
Marianne’s eyes were closed. She looked tiny in the hospital bed, her hair straggled over the pillow. Her face was pale and her skin was contracted over her bones. Crystal had finally been allowed to come up to her room, now that her condition had improved to “good”. She reached out to take Marianne’s hand. A tear escaped from the corner of Marianne’s right eye and ran down onto the pillowcase.
“It’s great to see you, Marianne,” Crystal said, feeling how inadequately that phrase expressed what she felt. Thankful you still exist. It was very close.
“Oh, Crystal. I have been so bad. Fucked my life up so much. Far beyond the Bad Project. I don’t deserve anyone to care what happens to me.” By the end, Marianne whispered, as if the words hurt her.
Crystal was overwhelmed. She had to hug her, but tried not to press too hard. Marianne looked so fragile. After their hug, Marianne gave her a watery smile. “Shit, I grew up. Back in August, I didn’t know diddly. The Bad Project was so messed up from the start. So much pain. I acted like a complete butthead. But you stuck with me through it all.” Her voice sounded stronger.
“I’ve been so worried about you. You’ve been here three days, do you know how rare that is these days? Hospitals like to throw you out after only one day. You must have given them a scare. You sure gave us a fucking-A scare. But you’re okay now. I’m so glad!”
“Did you see my sister? Not Susie, Lily? She came down. I never thought she would.” Marianne stopped and her brow wrinkled.
Crystal said, “Sure. I saw her in the waiting room and when she asked for you at the desk, I introduced myself. She sat with Jason and me until you were moved into here and your condition was rated “fair,” when she could visit. I was so jealous!”
Marianne seemed to be thinking deeply. After a minute she said, “Family counts. I never thought so, right? I’ve been so stupid.” She was quiet a minute, then she said, “You can’t deny where you come from. I guess all those Amy Tan novels I hated were trying to tell me that. And Maxine Hong Kingston. I needed to be a woman warrior, not a plain vanilla American or a Bloomsbury babe. A Chinese American woman. That’s what I was born to be. Katie was a good pointer for me, if I had listened to her. I have to go back and read those books again.” Her hand restlessly patted the thick woolen hospital blanket and said, “This rough blanket’s not like my bedspread. It surprises me every time I touch it. But people are more surprising. I thought…”
“You thought no one cared what happened to you,” Crystal said. “But we did, lots of people did. I did, your family did, Sharon did, even Liu did. I brought you cards from Sharon and Liu and from the people on the lit magazine. See, here they are. Jim gave me flowers too, but the hospital wouldn’t let me bring them in. They were red tulips, in case you want to thank him. He said you told him never to send white flowers to a Chinese woman.” Crystal arranged the cards on the bed table. She shook her head. “Don’t give up on the world. We’re there for you.”Marianne had smiled when Crystal told her what Jim had said, but now she looked tearful again. Crystal wondered if she was in pain, but she said, “I have to tell you some bad news, Crystal. My sister Susie has stage 3 liver cancer, very bad. She had hepatitis B a long time ago and they think it caused this. Shit, she never thinks about herself so I bet she ignored the pain until it was so late. My Dad said the hepatitis doesn’t cause any symptoms until you get liver failure or cancer. I don’t know how in hell she’ll manage.”
“I know, I heard from Student Affairs. Sharon talked to your Mom. Susie’s got to put up a fight, doesn’t she? She’s married, and a doctor, right?” Crystal said.
Marianne nodded. Crystal said, “Can she have someone else see her patients? What about her kids?”
Marianne said, “Patients will work out. She’s associated with that non profit HMO, Kaiser Permanente, the one my mom works for too, so the other doctors in the group will cover her patients. The kids…well, that’s the problem. Alfred can take care of their three kids at night, but the afternoons he can’t. He’s an engineer, works for an atomic energy company. They got three new orders after a long spell of nothing. He can’t take leave now.”
“Can they get a nanny?”
“When Susie’s not working, they can’t afford it. Mom said I should come live at home, go to the junior college there for the rest of this year, help Susie with Andrew, Gloria, and Ann in the afternoons. Lily can take the kids to day care and school and pick them up. But she can’t stay with them after school, she has her pharmacy work in the afternoon.”
“Even now, after what you’ve been through? Your Mom wants you to give up your life and go back under the family thumb? That sucks. Are you going to do it?”
Marianne had a calm, almost radiant expression on her face. “Susie has always been there for me. She helped me talk Mom and Dad into letting me come down to Carson. I guess I want to do it. I’ve done enough damage now with this Bad Project. It’s time to help other people. But Crystal, I just hate how my Mom and Dad won’t let me be my grown up self.”
“Yeah, they may never let you. They’ll be fucking 100 and you’ll be 75 and they’ll still be keeping you under wraps.” They burst out laughing at the image, but its essential truth wasn’t so funny.
“I hope I won’t lose it all, go back to how I was in high school.”
The two women were silent a while, wondering what would happen. Then Crystal said, “I bet you won’t. Too much water under the bridge. You are a different person now. You can bid your time, no matter what they want from you. What about Carson? Will you come back?”
“Maybe. The dean said they’d let me transfer back if I want to. Of course, they haven’t seen my grades. And they won’t for a long time. I’ll get incompletes until I take the final exams and finish the papers. They did the paperwork for the incompletes and it’s all approved.”
“Oh, Marianne, shit. I hate the thought that you’re going. I’ll miss you so much. But maybe this is right for you now. Sort of balances the universe a bit.”
Marianne giggled. Crystal felt her spirits rise to hear that giggle again. Marianne said, “Karma, you mean? I don’t really believe in that exactly, but it does feel like I owe some kind of debt to others. I demanded to learn all the Bad at once, never mind the consequences. I don’t want to think about the Sandstroms.” She turned even paler and a tear ran down her cheek. “He’s dead. There’s nothing I can do about that. But if I have any free time, I want to work at a center for single mothers. I’m gonna have a whole shit-load of guilt.”
The two were silent for a minute. Then Marianne grinned, that old naughty co-conspirator grin that Crystal had always been drawn in by. She said, “You know, Crystal, being friends with you is the best thing that happened to me this semester.”
“Same here. We’ll be the virtual Room of Our Own now, forever. And maybe in reality too, when you come back to Carson.” Crystal crossed her fingers to add extra power to the wish.
The two hugged each other again.
Crystal said, “I’ll be back tomorrow. Keep on getting better, now.” She knew she’d miss Marianne when she was at home, but she felt that her roommate had crossed a threshold and taken control of her own life. She wasn’t a pawn in others’ plans, she would be able to stay in her own custody. And Crystal felt she had grown up too. She had won the Forscher Award. She had begun to accept Grandma’s wise thought about the power of time to heal. She would go to medical school and then, who knows? She crossed her fingers and visualized Marianne back at Carson, winning the senior writing award with Crystal looking on and clapping wildly. “We’ll get there. I know we will,” she whispered to herself.
As Crystal walked back down the hall, she noticed that the apple was gone from the windowsill. Just like the Bad Project, she thought. It’s over, but our lives are still moving forward. She felt like she had let go of the string of a helium balloon, one that she had been guarding for a whole semester. It flew up and away and would not be hers to guard any longer. Her feet felt light on the polished linoleum floor.
A woman down the hall was sobbing. Crystal felt a pang of pain, but kept on going. A man burst from a room to her right, cursing in a loud voice. Crystal felt disconnected from him, like she was following directions to exit stage left. Her part in the play was over now. We go through hell, and the world just keeps on marching on—wasn’t that one of Marianne’s quotes? She couldn’t remember. What came back to her was a quote from Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, a book that Jason had given her after her rape, “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitudes.” Marianne has chosen to help her family, and I am okay with that. I think she’ll never go back to being scared to be herself, at least inside. And what do I choose? I choose to become me, really me, not this frozen person I’ve been. I’m scared, but I think I can do it. Amen.
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