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I hear the elevator doors open. The wheels of a hospital bed bump down the linoleum and I run over to the tiny window in my reinforced door. There is a man covered in tubes, lying on a stretcher by the nurses’ station.
“Look!” I yell to my roommate, Erica. “Look, look, look!”
Erica gets out of her bed and stands on her tiptoes next to me. We are both patients at The Terrence and Miriam Wexler Wellness Center and Spa, located on the top floor of the County Hospital . The Wellness Center is actually a women’s psych ward. They call it a “spa” to make us feel better about ourselves. Other than our psychiatrist, Dr. Molina, we have not seen another man in a month.
We are supposed to be focusing our energy on ourselves; we are supposed to be turning inward, owning up to the particular problems that plague us. We are supposed to be making sustainable life-changes that can actually be sustained. We are not supposed to be worrying about mysterious, unconscious men who have olive skin and large biceps.
“What’s he doing here?” Erica asks.
I look at the man—his head held in a metal halo, his leg cast up to his hip. I watch as they roll him into the room across the hall from us.
“He’s here,” I tell Erica, “to fall in love.”
John Jodzio’s stories have appeared in Rake Magazine, The Florida Review, and Opium. He’s won a Minnesota Magazine fiction prize and the Opium 500 Word Memoir competition. John was recently awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to finish a collection of short stories titled If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- JJ: The first draft of this story was simply about a middle-aged woman who had started to cut herself and then ended up in a psych ward. It was pretty boring and somewhat murky until the third or fourth draft when Mike Phipps appeared, a life-size action figure for Liz to move and pose. Once Mike was there, I got a much clearer idea about where the story should go.
- HT: What do you think it is about Mike Phipps that is attractive to Liz?
- JJ: While Liz is attracted to Mike physically, I think she’s much more attracted to the fact that she has control over him. This is something that she’s never ever had in any of her past relationships. Even though the man she has control over is in a coma, it’s something new and exciting for Liz, something that she wants to explore.
- HT: The character of Erica, who eats batteries and office supplies and everything not nailed down, is such an interesting one. Did you base her on the idea of a real disorder?
- JJ: There’s a medical disorder called Pica that is characterized by an abnormal appetite for non-food items. I read a newspaper article a couple of years ago about a man in who’d had to have surgery to remove a bunch of coins from his stomach. He had like twelve bucks in loose change sloshing around in there. He’d been doing it for years, without consequence and it got me to thinking about what else someone could swallow. Erica was actually a partially formed protagonist from another story who migrated over to “Flight Path” and befriended Liz.
- HT: Why did you decide to place the women’s psych “spa” in the path of an airport?
- JJ: I live somewhat near an airport. For a couple of months of the year, planes are routed directly over my house. It isn’t so bad when you’re inside, but when you are outside talking with someone and a plane passes overhead, whatever you say is always lost. It is pretty annoying, especially during a mid-afternoon BBQ, when this happens every two or three minutes. During these months, it is difficult for annoying plane noise NOT to work its way into one of my stories.
- HT: Why did you choose this to be an all-female ward? The patients, and the nurses, all seem damaged by the men in their lives, and it brings to mind other famous mad women in literature—Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, and the unnamed female protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Did you have these other “mad women” in mind while writing this? It’s interesting that by adding Mike Phipps to the dynamic, the women actually have control over a man, maybe for the first time in their lives?
- JJ: I don’t think I had any other piece of literature in my mind (at least not consciously) when I started to write this. I knew right away that the women in this ward were damaged and needed a long respite from men and relationships. When Mike Phipps arrived, I began to see the possibilities of having a man in a coma around all these mad women. For the first time in these women’s lives there is a man around who can’t do anything harmful to them. Once I realized that dynamic, I definitely wrote toward it.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- JJ: I wrote the initial draft about three years ago. Over that period of time, I wrote five or six different drafts. I put the story aside for long periods of time and let it marinate while I worked on other things. Sometimes stories float out of me nearly formed, but this was one I really had to work on. It took a long time for me to get Liz’s voice right and to understand how the story should unfold. I owe a large amount of gratitude to Hannah and Marie-Helene at One Story, who both had wonderful insight that helped frame and focus the story that I originally sent to them.