The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 32

Frankie woke in a hospital bed. Her entire body hurt, especially her left arm, and a headache pounded behind her eyes. For a split second she couldn’t remember why she was here, and then …

The man on the bicycle. The bridge.

“Oh God.”

She heard voices and footsteps coming down the hallway.

Her father walked into the room, looking grim and ashamed. Angry. Next to him was a policeman with short gray hair; the brass buttons on his khaki uniform strained over a big gut and a thin dark tie tried to hide the gaps that showed his undershirt.

“Did I kill him?” Frankie asked, unable to raise her voice above a whisper.

“No,” the officer said. “But you came close. Kicked the shit out of his bicycle. Came close to killing yourself, too.”

“You were drunk, Frankie,” her father said. “You could have died.” His voice breaking, he added, “Can you imagine me having to tell your mother that? Another lost child?”

Frankie’s throat felt so tight she could barely swallow. She wished she had died. And then a terrible, terrible thought: Had she wanted to? Had she turned into the bridge wall, instead of away?

Dad looked at the policeman. “Can I take her home, Phil?”

The policeman nodded. “Yes. She’s being charged with DUI. You’ll be notified about her arraignment.”

Frankie swung her feet to the side of the bed, slowly stood; she felt dizzy. Dad moved in close, steadied her as she limped out of the hospital, past her fellow nurses, who stared at her as she passed. They must have known what she’d done, that she’d almost killed a man. “The man I almost hit … you sure he’s okay? You’re not lying to me?”

“He’s fine, Frankie. Bill Brightman. Coronado High principal.”

Outside, the silver Mercedes gull-wing waited. Frankie refused her father’s help and made her own way into the passenger seat.

Dad put the key in the ignition and started the car. It roared to life but didn’t move.

After a long silence, he turned to her. “Do you want to die, Frankie? Your mother asked me that.”

“I shouldn’t have had that third drink,” she said. “I’ll do better. I promise.”

“Enough,” her father said sharply, and she saw it all on his face: the fear that he would lose her, the grief at their mutual loss, the anger that she couldn’t seem to be the daughter he wanted.

She stared at him, knowing he was right. She could have killed a man tonight. She could have killed herself. Maybe she’d meant to.

“I love you, Frankie,” he said in a sad voice. “I know we’ve had issues, but—”

“Dad—”

“You seem … broken.”

Frankie couldn’t meet his worried gaze. “I’ve been living this way for years,” she said. “Ever since my time in Florence.”


Enough.

Alone in her childhood bed, she lay awake, battling her need (addiction—had she ever thought of it in those terms before?) for a sleeping pill, and her overwhelming guilt, as well as this new and eviscerating fear that she had wanted to end her own life.

Who had she become?

A nothing woman, a ghost. No love, no child.

How could she survive? Each of the losses had derailed her, but this, now, the guilt and shame of last night, destroyed her.

She couldn’t live like this.

She needed help.

Who?

How?

You should talk to someone, get help, Henry had said to her; it felt like a lifetime ago, when she’d thought she’d hit rock bottom but hadn’t. I treat a few vets in my practice … Do you have nightmares, Frankie? Trouble sleeping?

Who else would understand the slow unraveling of her psyche since Vietnam, except her fellow veterans? She’d tried to get help before, once, long ago, and it hadn’t worked. That didn’t mean she should stop trying. The opposite was true, in fact.

She pushed the covers back and got out of bed. Weak on her feet, she went into her bathroom and took a hot shower and dried her hair, then dressed in jeans and a turtleneck.

She found her mother in the kitchen, looking tired. “Frances,” she said softly.

“Can I take your car?” Frankie asked.

Mom stared at her so intently Frankie felt uncomfortable, but whatever words her mom needed to hear, Frankie couldn’t say. No more promises. They both knew she shouldn’t be driving.

“The keys are in my bag. When will you be home?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will you be home?”

“I will.” She moved forward and touched her mother’s thin shoulder, let her hand linger there. A stronger woman would have offered words to accompany the touch, maybe an apology or a promise; she said nothing and went to the garage, climbed into the Cadillac. She took the Coronado Bridge at a cautious speed and pulled up in front of the new VA medical center.

Frankie parked in the lot and sat there, afraid to move. Finally, she glanced at her black eyes in the rearview mirror. Digging a pair of big sunglasses out of her purse, she left the car and walked up into the building.

Inside, she went to the front desk, where a large woman in a floral-patterned polyester dress sat in front of an IBM Selectric, her scarlet nails clacking on the keys.

“Ma’am?” Frankie said.

The receptionist paused in her typing, but didn’t move her hands away from the keyboard, then looked up. “You in trouble, darlin’? Is your husband … angry?”

Apparently the sunglasses weren’t much of a camouflage.

“I’ve heard that you offer therapy for Vietnam vets.”

“There’s a rap session at ten. Why?”

“Where is it?”

The woman frowned, pulled a pencil out of her big hair, tapped it on the desk. “Down that hall. Second door to the left. But it’s only for Vietnam vets.”

“Thanks.” Frankie walked down the hall, past several men sitting on molded plastic chairs. At Room 107, she saw a flyer taped to the textured, frosted glass panel in the top half of the door: VIETNAM VETERANS, SHARE YOUR STORIES WITH EACH OTHER. RAPPING HELPS! She took a seat, waiting, staring at the clock. Her whole body ached and her head hurt and she felt sick to her stomach, but she didn’t move. Her left wrist throbbed. She looked down, saw a bruise blooming on her pale skin.

The door in front of her opened at 9:55. A few men walked into the room.

She paused, tried to calm herself, and then she got up, opened the door onto a small, windowless room, in which folding chairs had been set up in a circle. Several of the chairs were occupied by men, most of them Frankie’s age or younger, with long, untended hair, big sideburns, and mustaches. A few older, grizzled-looking guys sat with crossed arms.

More men stood over by a table, eating donuts and pouring coffee from a tall silver urn.

Frankie had expected to be the only woman, but she still felt uncomfortable as, one by one, the men turned to look at her.

A man approached her. He wore a checkered shirt and cowboy jeans held up by a huge-buckled belt. His long, layered hair flipped back from a center part. A huge mustache covered most of his upper lip.

“Can I help you, foxy lady?” he said, smiling.

“I’m here for the Vietnam veterans rap therapy group.”

“It’s groovy that you want to understand your man, but this is for veterans only.”

“I am a vet.”

“Of Vietnam.”

“I am a Vietnam vet.”

“Oh. I … uh … there were no women in ’Nam.”

“Wrong. ANC nurse. Two tours. The Thirty-Sixth and Seventy-First Evac Hospitals. If you never saw a woman, you were lucky. It meant you didn’t end up in a hospital.”

He frowned. “Oh. Well. You should talk to other chicks about … whatever. I mean, you didn’t see combat. The men would clam up with a woman in the room.”

“Are you telling me I can’t stay? I have nightmares. And I’m … scared. You won’t help me?”

“You don’t belong here, ma’am. This is for vets who saw action in ’Nam.”

Frankie walked out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her. She strode down the hallway, saw a GET HELP HERE poster, and ripped it off the wall and stomped on it. M*A*S*H was a hit TV show this year; how could people still think there had been no women in Vietnam? Especially veterans, for God’s sake?

Outside, she let out a howl of rage that she couldn’t have held back if she’d wanted to—and she didn’t want to. It felt good to finally scream.


Frankie had nowhere to go. No one to talk to. She knew something was deeply, terribly wrong with her, but not how to fix it.

She could call Barb and Ethel, but it was pathetic how often she’d called on them already. And when they heard about the affair with Rye and driving drunk into the Coronado Bridge, they would judge her as harshly as she judged herself.

Still, she had to do something.

She could go to the man she’d almost killed and beg for forgiveness.

She found a pay phone and asked the operator for the address for Mr. Bill Brightman.

He lived on Coronado, in a small house in the middle of the island. The perfectly tended yard was outlined by bright-red flowers and a white picket fence. A house someone loved.

She parked by his mailbox, sat outside for a long time, unable to get out of the car, unable to drive away. When she closed her eyes, she saw the accident again and again, in slow motion, saw his pale, terrified face in her headlights.

The door opened. A middle-aged man with sunken cheeks and black hair stepped out of the house, wearing a brown suit. He was holding a folded-up newspaper in one hand and a battered leather briefcase in the other.

Frankie opened her car door, stepped out.

He looked at her, frowned slightly.

She opened the white picket gate, dared to step onto his property, slowly took off her sunglasses to reveal her black eyes. “I’m Frances McGrath,” she said quietly. “The driver who almost hit you.” She felt tears burn her eyes and wiped them away impatiently. This wasn’t about her pain or guilt or shame. It was about his. “I am so sorry.”

“Bring me my mail,” he said, lighting up a cigarette.

Frankie nodded sharply, went to his mailbox, pulled out a stack of letters and magazines, and carried them up to the man. On the porch, she handed him his mail. “I’ll replace your bike.”

“My bike? Lady, you almost ended me,” he said.

Frankie couldn’t find her voice. She nodded.

“I have a daughter. A wife. A mother. A father. Do you know anything about losing people?”

“I do,” she said.

“Remember that. Next time you get behind the wheel drunk.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again, knowing it wasn’t enough, but what else was there?

He looked at her a long moment, saying nothing, then turned and took his mail back into the house, closing the door behind him.

She drove back to her parents’ house and parked the car in the garage. Inside the house, she found her mother at the kitchen table. Frankie threw the keys on the table between them. “I’m back,” she said dully.

“You’re scaring me, Frances,” Mom said.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Go to your room. Rest. Things always look better in the morning.”

Frankie turned slowly. “Do they?”


That night in her childhood bedroom, Frankie came awake reluctantly, fighting consciousness every step of the way. She didn’t want to open her eyes and be in a world where she was this version of herself. Broken. A fallen woman. A liar. It was all so bad, an avalanche of bad.

She reached over to the nightstand, feeling blindly for her pills. She took two more. When had she taken them last? She couldn’t remember, didn’t care. She closed her eyes, drifted.

You almost ended me.

Do you want to die, Frankie?

It’s a boy!

Frankie heard a creaking sound and tried to sit up. It was impossible. She drifted in and out, heard footsteps in the hallway. Or maybe it was her heartbeat slowing down to nothing.

One of her parents, checking up on her, probably. She closed her eyes again and heard someone whisper her name. And then a muffled laugh.

Finley.

She heard his voice out there, beyond the door. In the darkness, she could hear him breathing, could smell the Brylcreem he put in his hair and the spearmint gum he loved.

Come on, Frankie. Be with me.

They were kids again. Summer. She heard the ice-cream truck outside, bell jangling, kids laughing. She threw back the covers and stepped down onto the cold wooden floor, wondering what had happened to her rug.

Finley’s laughter echoed in front of her. She followed it out of the house. She grabbed her old surfboard from the garage and stumbled into the pitch-black night.

No stars out.

No cars rolling on Ocean Boulevard. No house lights visible.

She crossed the empty street and stepped onto the cold sand. “Finley! Wait up!”

She tried to catch up with him, but her legs wouldn’t cooperate. She felt weighed down, exhausted.

The water was so cold it shocked her, made her gasp; still, she splashed toward the incoming surf, jumped on her board, and paddled out.

She paddled weakly over the swells, made it out to the calm water, lay on her board, panting from exertion. She was shivering with cold, and confused. “Fin?”

He didn’t answer. There was just the lapping sound of the incoming swell set, the smack of her board when it hit back down.

She wanted to sit up and look for Finley, but she was too weak. How many pills had she taken?

Cold embraced her, numbed her.

Was that why she had come out here?

A chance to feel nothing …

She closed her eyes.

She shouldn’t be here. She should go back.

But she was tired. Bone-tired. And the cold began to feel good. She could just roll over, sink into the cold sea, and disappear.


Red lights, blinking on and off.

Incoming.

A siren, blaring.

Frankie blinked awake. She was in an ambulance, with her father sitting beside her. Water dripped from his hair and clothes.

It came back to her in a sickening rush, what she’d done. Shame compressed her into the smallest version of herself. All she’d wanted was to disappear, not … something else.

“I wasn’t trying to … I didn’t mean…” She couldn’t say the words. “It was a dream. I thought Finley was here. I followed him.”

“It’s those pills,” he said in a voice she barely recognized. “Your mother never should have given them to you. You took too many.”

“I’ll stop taking them.”

“It’s too late for that, Frankie. We’re afraid…”

Of what you’ll do.

“You tried to kill yourself.”

“No. I just…”

What?

Had she tried to kill herself?

“We could have lost you.”

She wanted to disagree, to tell him that he would never lose her, that she was fine, but for once, she couldn’t say the words, couldn’t soldier on.

“Why am I in an ambulance? I’m fine now. I’ll be good. I promise.”

Dad looked uncomfortable, embarrassed. Worse, he looked afraid.

“Dad?”

The ambulance came to a stop. The attendant jumped out, opened the back door. Frankie saw the words PSYCHIATRIC WARD.

She shook her head, tried to sit up, found that she was bound to the bed at her wrists and feet. “No, please…”

“Thirty-six hours,” Dad said. “A mandatory hold after a suicide attempt. They promised it would help you.”

Frankie felt herself and the gurney being lifted. Outside of the ambulance, the wheels snapped into place.

Her father was crying. Seeing that scared her more than anything ever had. “Daddy. No. Please…”

The next thing she saw was bright, bright lights and a team of men in white.

“I didn’t try to kill myself,” she screamed, struggling to be free.

One of the orderlies produced a hypodermic needle.

Screaming was the last thing she remembered.

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