Debra Stang (M.S.W., Univ. of Kansas, 1996) is a freelance writer and medical social worker currently employed at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri. She has written for the National Hemophilia Foundation, Sojourn (an AIDS service organization in Topeka, Kansas), and Truman Healthcare Systems. "Rough-Housing" is her first published piece of fiction. You can see other work by Debra Stang at http://www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/lesbian_issues
I told the doctor I got the bruises from "rough-housing."
I was nineteen when I first heard those words together. Another doctor taught me. I'd told him I got bruises from falling down. "Bruises from falling down don't leave finger marks," he said, real cold. "If you're going to lie, at least make it an intelligent lie. Say you were rough-housing."
Later, I found a dictionary in the library and looked it up. It meant, "Rowdy play." I guess you could get finger marks from that. So now when doctors ask about the bruises, I say Ernie and me were rough-housing. Most of them don't bother to ask, though. Maybe they're scared they'll have to fix it, like they have to fix the cuts and the broken bones.
This doctor tonight was a woman. I hadn't seen her around before. She had brown hair, kind of limp, like she didn't get to wash it very often. Her eyes had lines all around them, track marks on the snow of her pale face. She'd have looked a lot better if she'd worn makeup, but maybe she didn't have time for that, bein' a doctor and all.
"Those bruises don't look like rough-housing to me," she said. "They look like abuse."
"Oh, no," I said. "We was just playing. You know, like wrestlin'." I was proud of myself for making up the part about wrestling, even though wrestlers don't look like they have a lot of bruises when you see them on television.
Her fingers touched my arm, the side of my head, my jaw, my hand where it kept bleeding. Nice touch, soft. It's hard to lie when someone's touching you nice, but I kept looking her right in the eye.
"Would you talk with a social worker?" she asked, still touching my hand.
"Oh, no. I ain't wasting her time."
No way I could say I'd had my fill of social workers when they took my baby away.
I thought I'd known what to say about the bruises on the baby. Discipline. That's what my mother had always said, and no one took me away from her and Daddy.
"She's got to learn young," I'd told the social worker lady in the blue dress who came to the hospital. "Her daddy don't want her running with no wild city kids when she grows up, so he teach her right from wrong now."
"But she's only a year old," the social worker said, looking sad and angry at the same time.
"Yes, ma'am. But they got to learn stuff young."
"You don't teach a child right from wrong by hitting her in the head and twisting her arm," the social worker said, more angry than sad now.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "In the country, you do."
"Is he beating you, too?" she asked, squinting at me like she needed new glasses, even though the old ones was plenty thick.
"No, ma'am," I said. "I fell."
That was before I'd heard of rough-housing.
So she took my baby, and Ernie ended up in jail. He didn't stay long, just a few months. His lawyer told the judge there was a difference between rural and urban discipline, and to be too harsh on Ernie would be culturally insensitive. Even looking in the dictionary didn't help me understand that one, but I guess the judge did, `cause it seemed like Ernie was out of jail before I even got used to him being gone.
Before Ernie went to jail, he had a long talk with me. "The world's changing," he said, "And it ain't always a good thing to tell the truth. Next time somebody asks, you don't say a word about no discipline. You just say she fell. Got it?"
I got it, but nobody ever asked again. We never got the baby back, `cause Ernie wouldn't go to any of the parenting classes the social worker said we had to. Said he damn well knew how to be a daddy, and he wasn't gonna drive no twenty miles into town so some ugly dyke could tell him how to raise his kids.
Then my insides got all messed up, so we never had no more children. Ernie was mad as hell, said I wasn't even as good as a cow, `cause at least most of them could breed. But I didn't mind not being able to have babies. Seemed kind of pointless to have `em if Ernie was gonna keep doing stuff to get `em taken away.
The social worker used to call me every month or so, trying to get me to leave Ernie. Problem is, she never told me where I'd go or what I'd do if I did. She kept sayin' she wished one of the towns nearby would start up a shelter for women like me, but her wishing it never made it happen, and after a year or two, she quit calling.
She did send me a picture of the baby once, though. Baby was about three years old then. She looked like a real nice little girl. And she didn't have a bruise on her.
The doctor came back in and gave me a shot in my hand. It hurt bad enough to make me want to scream, even though I knew it would go numb soon. "How many stitches?" I asked, grindin' my teeth together `til I thought they'd crack like eggshells.
My eyes stung, and not just `cause the air smelled like too much cleaner.
"You know," the doctor said, real casual. "They've started a shelter for battered women about twenty miles from here. It doesn't cost anything to live there, and you can stay for a few months, until you get your life together. You shouldn't be living with anyone who…rough-houses…that hard."
I didn't answer, just watched as she fit the edges of skin together. Like mending a seam in Ernie's clothes. I gasped when the needle went in.
"Are you feeling that?" she asked, not like most doctors who don't care what you feel.
"No, ma'am. It's numb. I just don't like seein' needles in my hand."
"That shelter I was telling you about has a toll-free number," she said. "You could call it from home, and your husband would never know."
I kept my mouth shut.
She put in two more stitches before she said, "I'm going to give you a business card with the phone number. That's all it is, just the phone number. No name on the card or anything. And when the shelter staff answers the phone, they just say, `Hello,' so even if your husband finds the card and calls the number, he won't figure out what it is."
She finished sewing up my hand and went to get some papers. I'd read them before. Put ice on the bruises. Keep the cuts clean. Come back in a few days to have the stitches taken out.
One time a doctor had wrote, "Avoid rough-housing," on those papers, like it was a big joke.
At the very end, the doctor handed me the business card. Like she said, no names, just a phone number in plain type. "You can call them from here if you want to," she said.
Sure. And maybe they'd even tell me to come stay with them for a few months. And I would. And it would be great, livin' without Ernie around. But when my few months was up, and they put me out, then where would I be?
Even if I did strike out on my own, folks know each other in these parts. Wouldn't be two days before one of Ernie's friends'd be tellin' him, "Hey, saw your old lady in Higginsville last night. What's she doin' there?" And he'd find me lickety-split, and I didn't even want to think about the rough-housing that would happen then.
"No, ma'am," I said to the doctor. "I guess I'll just go on home."
She sighed. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes, ma'am. Where's your toilet?"
When I got in the bathroom, I took off my shoe and slipped the card way down by the toe.
Then I put my shoe back on and went outside to the parking lot where Ernie was waiting by the pick-up. "Jesus Christ, you fat cow, what took you so long?"
"Nothin'. I needed stitches."
"You kept your mouth, shut, right? Told `em you fell?"
I nodded. Once I tried to tell him doctors could see from the bruises whether you really fell or not, but he slapped me for bein' fresh. Now I just nod a lot.
"Go ahead, git in the truck. You wanna stop for ice cream on the way home?"
I nodded. The card in my shoe made walking uncomfortable, but nice. Like I had a secret that was all mine, not his.
I had this dream, quick and bright as lightning in an August sky, that maybe my secret would grow. Maybe it would get bigger and bigger `til it was big enough to take me away some place where Ernie couldn't find me, a place where I'd never have to talk about rough-housing again.
But the dream faded like dreams do, and the sharp edge of the card poking against my toe was all I had. It was pretty close to enough.