Gretchen Lowe, age 35 at the 90’s midpoint, was not dying, as she was at pains to point out more frequently than she would have wished. She had muscular dystrophy, a distinction often lost on those who equated strength with muscle mass, consciousness with cognition, and worth with productivity. A growing chorus assumed this would be her preference, death before disability, rather than the indignity of grappling with that terminal condition from which the chorus-members, themselves imperfect, suffered: life that is both enviable and bleak, and always, always unfair in distribution of the same.
Like so many of her friends, Gretchen had swapped one coast for the other after college and she left DC, a city of increasingly impossible winters, lawyers, and three years of an uninteresting technical proofreader job, and moved to San Francisco, a city of manageable weather, bike messengers instead of lawyers, and apparently no editorial jobs. Five years in, she was the administrative director of a small free clinic for women and had cycled through four shared flats before the Recluse, her boyfriend, gave up his Pacific Heights studio and moved in, more or less, to Gretchen’s two-bedroom flat on a quiet street in Cole Valley.
Like ancient Rome, San Francisco was a city of hills and, with few exceptions, honored its dead by housing them firmly and in perpetuity outside its official boundaries. Gretchen lived and worked firmly within those boundaries, mostly because taking public transportation to and from work everyday took what limited energy she had. She did have an increasingly hard time breathing and walking, her grip was undeniably poor, her fingers lacking in dexterity, but she had an even harder time imagining herself dead, or wanting to be dead.
But she had no master plan, no Disability for Dummies to be her guide, just a lifetime of experience in a body that was weak, breathless, and clumsy, and getting more so year by year. So Gretchen did what was practical and what made life – her life, none other’s – worth living. She kept to the flatter parts of town, used the bathroom before she left home and work, and thought more about her next meal than eternity. In this last concern she had the unwavering support of her family; Gretchen did know how to find a decent restaurant.
She needed this particular skill on this particular evening because her mother, Alice, had flown in. Festive feelings aside, Gretchen had serious misgivings to broach, misgivings that were about a clinical research opportunity that divided them called “Genetic Reparative Therapy.”
When Alice had first excitedly called her daughter months before about GRT, Gretchen couldn’t bring herself to say a hard, “No.” She herself didn’t know exactly why she was flat-out rejecting this “cure” — or why she couldn’t tell Alice no. She’d certainly done it before.
It wasn’t until she burst into tears after half-watching an old Sally Field movie about a mother not leaving her daughter that the feelings coalesced within her as a single as-yet-unspoken fear: “I could be taken from you and you would never get me back.”
But first things first. They both needed a solid meal and some easy conversation before the next day’s clinic appointment.
San Francisco’s Sunset District was a level stretch to the Pacific and Ristorante Pomegranate was nestled in a tree-lined commercial street not far from Gretchen’s Cole Valley apartment.
But Pomegranate had changed since their last meal there the year before. The lasagna was gone from the menu and where there had been a large, high-ceilinged dining room, there was an odd, bi-level space. But with her mother tired from the day’s cross-country flight, Gretchen asked for a ground-level table and they settled in to see what looked good.
The other reason Gretchen chose Pomegranate was because of its bathroom, a promised land of easy use from its door handle to its nonslip floor to its properly placed grab-bars. Their orders placed, Gretchen went to use it, down the hallway that was familiar and unknown. She leaned unsteadily on her cane until she remembered a wall was right behind her. Once propped, she was a small figure in grave contemplation. Under her survey were two unmarked doors and a milk-crate filled with glasses. Chairs idled under posters for Limoncello and Cinzano.
A server bounded out through a swinging door, fumbling with apron ties. Where…? He pointed up. Much better, much bigger, he promised. Go back and up the stairs.
Stairs. They weren’t allowed to put the bathroom up a flight of stairs.
But as she came back to the main dining room, she saw the sign on the newel post. The arrow pointing up and the steps highly polished. And there were …thirteen.
One of you will betray me.
Gretchen hung her cane on the table and sat down.
Alice shook her head. “Don’t tell me, I can guess.” She jerked her head in the direction of the new mezzanine and then leaned in. “Do you need to go really badly?”
Their server materialized. He asked if there was a problem.
“Is the only restroom up those stairs?” Gretchen asked.
He turned to Alice. “Ma’am?”
Alice’s expression said, I wasn’t the one talking to you.
“I can’t climb the stairs,” Gretchen said. “I need to use the restroom.”
He assured them there was a lift, see, right there. And there it was, in a nook created by the landing that broke up the stairs.
Gretchen was embarrassed. “Be back in a few,” she said to Alice, picking up her cane.
“You want to use tonight?” the server asked tentatively.
Alice sighed, reaching for a heavily buttered chunk of bread. Gretchen put a hand on the table and the table lurched, the bud vase with the narcissus barely caught by her mother. The flower’s bittersweet smell stung the air. She recovered her balance and hooked her cane over one arm.
The server was contrite. “I am so sorry but no one may yet use it.”
The manager was called over from the host stand.
The lift was broken, no one had learned yet how to use it, the safety inspection certificate was not yet in hand, no one had the key, there were questions of acceptable weight….
Alice burst into laughter.
The manager’s face was as kind and remote as a minor household god.
Gretchen spread her arms wide. “Hose me down, signor, and we’re still well under ninety pounds.”
Alice blew her nose and said, “Oh, this is terrible,” into the tissue before shaking with laughter again, silent this time.
The manager offered Gretchen his arm and said, gravely, “I will solve this problem, miss.”
Gretchen pointed to the stairs. “You’re not carrying me anywhere. We’re clear?”
“Absolutely,” he nodded. “Please. For your comfort.” He gestured to his arm, still crooked. His cuff was snowy white against the black of his blazer. He had beautiful onyx cuff-links.
Though Gretchen had a sinking feeling, she had to go with him. She had to go.
Her arm through his, Gretchen turned back to see Alice’s face.
Alice was frowning. But Gretchen didn’t see. She was already being walked down the hallway, and a little too fast at that. She yanked her arm back to slow him down.
“Excuse me,” he said and they crawled to a funereal pace.
He pushed open the Exit door with its metal bar, and they stepped into a narrow alley before Gretchen could say Whatthefuck. She jerked her arm again and the manager said, “It’s all right, it’s right here,” and for one hysterical moment Gretchen thought he intended she should pee by the dumpster. But he continued them at a snail’s pace, Gretchen’s cane swinging where it hung on her free arm. It was difficult to be afraid when this man was inching her along instead of whisking her off. If this was abduction, it was awfully slow. She might have to ask him to speed it up.
The fog coming in was moving faster. A kitchen worker slouched against the building having a smoke. He saluted them as they crept by. Italians liked to stroll in the evening, it was part of their culture. Though not in back alleys, as far as she knew. She really needed to pee now and it was cold. They were moving toward the building next door, through a stout wooden gate that separated the lots. A dog barked and she jumped but no animal appeared.
She ought to know what was next door to the restaurant; she’d been there several times before. The neighboring building was completely detached and resembled the back of a family home except for a long row of waste bins along the wall. The bins bore the logo of a medical waste management company, just like the receptacles at the clinic where she worked. She remembered. This was a funeral home!
“What are you doing?” she stopped the manager. “What is going on?”
He held up a keychain. He said his family owned both businesses, though naturally they did not advertise this fact. There was a restroom inside she could use. “And there are no guests scheduled this evening,” he said with, god help him, a flourish.
A gentle concrete slope led up to the back door where a sign dangling on the doorknob read, This House Has Been Prayed for, and Recycled. But it was the simple no-step entrance and the pressure on her bladder that held Gretchen’s attention. She urged his arm forward. “Let’s go, then,” she said.
Gretchen looked around the bathroom. It was a nightmare done in French Provincial. The walls were cream with gilt trim, hung with pre-Raphaelite scenes – tendril-heavy misses trailing diaphanous garments in wooded glens or whirlpools – in intricately carved frames. Heavy gold fixtures in the sink over a mother of pearl basin. The counter, like the floor, a black marble-like slab. Decorative flourishes, the gold mesh wastebasket and angel-crusted sconces, made the room a monument to the death of taste. Or a taste of death. But what did it matter? She wasn’t there for the view. She was there for the toilet. The centerpiece, the throne, a mordant seat of honor in the same black faux marble as the counter, an ebony whirlpool, home to the saturnine flush of shame over the plutocrat’s waste, a swirling reservoir for the queen’s own squat, midnight-tinged mausoleum for meal-times past. It would do as well as any.
Gretchen unbuckled, unzipped and sat. She didn’t worry about being able to get up. The vanity was there for leverage.
As she sat there gazing as peacefully as a cow at the room around her, the headline “DIGNITY TO COST SAN FRANCISCO $5 MILLION,” caught her eye. She plucked the local newspaper from the hideous gold basket next to her. “Oh my god, they’re giving diapers to homeless people?” Aghast, she read on.
It was true. The “solution” to the lack of public bathrooms for the poorest of the poor (though many disabled people were in this group they were not mentioned, big surprise) was to issue them diapers. Business owners would get tax rebates for installing “changing stations” that were toiletless closets. The few public toilets the city had would be converted, their plumbing disconnected. It was called the Dignity Initiative. “This is HELL!” she said out loud.
[To Be Continued]
There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-agecrip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.