HYDROTHERAPY GERALD KAMENS “Is this the Sea of Tranquility?” he yelled back to me, guffawing; “Hey, Ronald, you know where the actual sea’s located?”
“Not a clue, Jake.” Jake was luxuriating in the large porcelain tub of warm water, its heavy canvas cover snugly fastened – to ensure my patient didn’t leap out prematurely, “Is that in America?” I sat on a metal chair, reading Time magazine, a few feet behind him. The warm water, I’d been told, supposedly helped calm Jake’s sometimes violent thoughts and actions. Sometimes, he’d sit there for four hours at a stretch.
“Not even close, my friend. It’s on the moon. Looks, from earth, like a blue lunar sea. The Ranger 8 spacecraft crashed into it a few years ago.” Jake often went on that way, in the dimly lit hydrotherapy room, about the moon, or angels, or ghostly voices he’d heard in the night. Or his tour in Vietnam, two years earlier. The head nurse told me that morning that Jake was in his manic phase again.
“Whacha doing this weekend, Ronald?” he asked, dried and robed, as we walked through the locked corridors back to his room. “Hot date? Tell me about it next time we meet, so I can get wet dreams.” I didn’t rise to the bait. Anyway, a hot date for me that weekend was most unlikely, despite Linda’s efforts to set me up for such.
Sometimes, Jake and I had more lucid conversations – on matters I couldn’t talk about with my fellow “temporary” psychiatric aides working at the Retreat that summer, over a half century ago. They told us in our orientation not to speak with our patients about politics, sex, or religion, anyone else that might provoke them. Jake, a stocky muscular man in his late twenties, once mentioned he’d been a Special Forces paratrooper “in another life.”
His Vermont parents paid for our expensive hospital because they didn’t trust VA doctors. Despite hospital admonitions, Jake and I often spoke about religion. Jake professed to be a spiritual agnostic with Buddhist leanings. I couldn’t figure out initially why he was in the unit reserved for the Retreat’s most disturbed male patients. With me, he was, in his non-manic moments, almost always preternaturally placid.
Bunny had “many lovely features,” Linda told me in the lunchroom. “Below the surface.” Linda meant Bunny was like me. Deep. Thoughtful. But, that night, Bunny’s most striking features, in the parked Cadillac’s rear seat, were her most plentiful breasts, encased in some shiny black material.
Linda’s boyfriend, Brad, in the driver’s seat, didn’t seem particularly deep or thoughtful. As Bunny nattered on about Mozart, I was getting turned on by the murmurings and unzippings upfront. I pictured the gold crucifix cross I’d seen before, arrayed over Linda’s prim pink blouse, and wondered if she’d keep it on. I tried to visualize as well her seemingly normal-sized breasts.
Linda suddenly swivelled back to me, her shoulders naked except for her bra straps, touching my cheek momentarily, to signal, I imagined, that she and Brad were obviously in a different place than us lovebirds in the rear. This wasn’t the same co-worker with whom I often communed at lunch. I pictured myself up front, in the driver’s seat.
A week or so later, a few of us aides accompanied a handful of patients to the game room. I was playing table tennis with Frank, a tall rangy guy from South Carolina. We’d each won one game, and were now in the tie-breaker. The score was 21-20, my favor, when Frank’s fast serve just missed the table on my side. “You’re crazy,” he drawled. “I heard it hit the table. The game’s all tied up.”
Turning to retrieve the errant ping-pong ball, I was suddenly struck, hard, near my ear by Frank’s paddle – breaking a temple of my glasses. Jake, who’d been sitting nearby, talking to another aide, jumped up, ran over to us, and, with one blow, knocked Frank to the ground. A few aides rushed over to untangle the mess. Jake returned almost at once to his calm smiling self. Shortly, both he and Frank were escorted back to our unit. Not to their own rooms, but, rather, to smaller ones, with cushions lining the walls, another of our calming devices. I went to the nurses’ station to write up an incident report.
The following day, Dr, Reinhardt, a red-bearded psychiatrist newly arrived from Toronto, appeared in our unit, to talk first to Frank, then to Jake, both now back from the padded cells. When a doctor went into a patient's room in our unit, an aide was supposed to go in too, unobtrusively, to protect the doctor from physical harm. But Reinhardt wouldn’t have it. He snorted at the suggestion that he’d be in any jeopardy, and insisted that he could not practice his healing art with a third person intruding in the sanctuary. "I take full responsibility," he said to our skeptical crewcut head nurse, ignoring me as if I were invisible.
After 20 minutes, he emerged, unscathed, from Frank’s room. Grinning at me and the other aides, he briskly strode down the hall to see Jake. I sat, hunched over on an uncomfortable wooden chair, outside the slightly opened door to Jake’s room, reading Time. The Beethoven symphony playing inside ended suddenly, the phonograph needle scratching over the record surface, as the doctor's soft but gently insistent voice tried to gain entry into Jake’s soul.
I resented the young arrogant doctor, whose eyes had refused to focus on me. Well aware I was no stronger than the thin psychiatrist, I wondered how I was supposed to protect him. A sharp thud. The door flew open, and Reinhardt was thrust into the hall, a thin trickle of blood from his nose, a slightly wild look in his eyes. Before I could rouse myself from the chair, two muscular aides ran over from the charge station and disappeared into Jake’s room.
I’d seen one of them, Joe Maglio, beating up an obstreperous patient my first week on the job. ("What'd you expect?" he'd unabashedly told the head nurse later. "The bastard tried to kick me in the balls!") I belatedly rushed into the room, not knowing if I meant to take part in subduing Jake or protect him from Joe and his colleague. But it was surprisingly quiet in there. After putting another record on his phonograph, Jake was just doing his daily jumping jacks, while Joe examined the many volumes in the bookcase.
The following week, I was summoned to the building that housed the Retreat’s psychiatrists. “Normally, Ronald,” Reinhardt began, “Your head nurse would speak with you about patient-aide interactions. But, in this instance, he asked me to review with you the unusual pattern of behavior involved here.”
I began to explain the ping-pong incident, when Reinhardt cut me off, gently. “I’m not talking just about Frank, you understand.” He paused, glancing down on at a notebook on his desk. “It’s not my intent, you realize, to judge you. I’m here to serve the best interests of our vulnerable patients. I’m sure that’s your goal too.”
“You look mystified, Ronald. I’ll elaborate. First, you spend long periods of time, alone with Jake in his room. And some of the other aides heard you talking with him about things like religion. Buddhism, for instance. And pacifism. It’s not useful, and may well be harmful, to encourage fantastic thought patterns in our patients.
What else do you do in Jake’s room?” He looked down again at his notes. “That paddle Frank threw at you. I don’t really think it was just about the game. Frank told me last week that more than once, when you and he were walking outside on our campus, you’d lean against him. Push him off the path. He thought that your motives were not, shall we say, pure. Frank can be a violent man. That’s why he’s in your unit. But, at the same time, he’s in a vulnerable position.” Reinhardt stopped reading and sat there silently, awaiting a response.
“I don’t always walk straight,” I replied after a moment.” My mother said it’s because I have a little scoliosis.”
“So, you’re 19. Do you like girls? Do you ever date?” he asked me. I talked a little about my date with Bunny, and how it didn’t really work out, but said little about Linda and Brad in the front seat of the maroon Cadillac. “My mother says I’m a late bloomer. Like my father.”
After another moment of silence, the doctor said that maybe I wasn’t particularly attracted to girls, but that I shouldn’t give up. Before ending the interview Reinhardt remarked, almost casually, that some of the regular aides thought I was, in the doctor’s words, “A little too sensitive” for that kind of work. “It’s something to think about. To be clear, I’m not your doctor. My sole concern is the welfare of our patients. But since your summer stay with us is almost over, and you’re returning to college next week, I’ll recommend no further action. Just watch yourself.”
Stumbling out of the doctors’ building, I returned to the unit, and busied myself bringing lunch trays to the rooms of a few patients other than Jake and Frank. Afterwards, I went to the staff lunchroom – the doctors ate elsewhere – pleased that Linda was there, eating alone at the back table where we often met. We talked about going back to our respective schools, me to Temple, Linda to Middlebury. Eventually, I told her about Frank and the paddle, and about what happened afterwards with Reinhardt, but omitted the part about pushing Frank off the path.
“You are sensitive, Ronald,” she said. “That’s why I like you. Most guys aren’t.” She told tell me that she and Brad were no longer going together. “He cheated on me once too often. Actually, once should have been enough for me. But I believe in second chances.”
I laughed, and then immediately regretted it, thinking she might change her mind about my being so “sensitive.”
“Want to go see ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ this weekend?” she asked, “I hear it’s good.” We went in her father’s car – he was away at a medical convention in Burlington. After the movie and ice cream sundaes, we sat briefly talking, that first week of September, in the front seat of the commodious Buick, outside her parent’s large house in West Hartford. I couldn’t help but recall the night she and Brad were sitting two months earlier in the front seat of that maroon Caddy. “Let’s go in. I’ll make some popcorn and show you around,” she said
“So I’ll meet your mother?”
“She’s in Vermont with my Dad for the weekend.” Inside, she showed me her father’s den. “These are his golf and tennis trophies. Excuse me. I’ve got something to do.” She summoned me, some minutes later, from the back of the house, calling, “Come see all the bubbles.” I hesitated, uncertain, for what seemed a long time, but was probably only a few seconds.
From that long-past summer, most stuck in my brain was Linda in the hot tub that crisp September night. After climbing the several wooden steps, I peered over the cedar tub wall to be momentarily transfixed by her lovely white body sprawled over the pale blue bench. Strangely, in hindsight, my eyes fastened first on her toenails, painted a dark shade of purple. Naked but for the gold crucifix nestled between her normal, not too plentiful, perfect breasts, she twisted her lower body slightly towards me, holding out her welcoming arms. “Take,” she said quietly. “Eat. This is my body, which is given to you.”
Words like I heard when I very occasionally went to church with my folks. Sacrilege! Casting aside my chains, I quickly shed my clothes and shoes, and slipped, easily, into the endless, warm, and curative depths below.
Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Recent works include children's stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s The Seagull. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia, USA.