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That Burning Question

by Morris Marshall

part 1

My wife and I were at the Annual Student Awards celebration the other night at the Sheraton Centre Hotel. The college had rented a large conference room. It was a swanky affair, so I got out my all-purpose black suit, the one I use for weddings and funerals.

As coordinator of the Psychology Department, I was a presenter and, since faculty could bring one guest each, I invited Silvia. She sat near the back of the hall with the other guests while I read out a list of students who had won. I had practiced reading the more difficult names a few days before and, thankfully, I got them all right.

At the end of the awards, there was a cocktail reception with hors d’oeuvres such as smoked oysters and caviar. Each attendee received one free drink.

“I’m kind of tired, Hon,” I said as I hovered near the bar, soda pop in hand. “I’ve been at work since early this morning. Let’s take off.”

Silvia swiped away a lock of dark hair from her forehead. She sipped her wine and ate some caviar spread on crackers. “This is really good,” she said. “I was hoping to meet some of your colleagues, Marty. You’ve told me so much about them.”

“I think most of them have gone home early. They—”

“Marty, my man! Ladies and gentleman, it’s Marty Stephens!” Tony Morrison, a Marketing professor, leaned over and pumped my free hand with his large, sweaty mitt.

“Who is this, Hon?” Silvia asked, smiling at Tony.

“I was about to ask the same thing,” Tony said, reciprocating the smile. “Marty, you’ve been holding out on me, buddy. Who is this lovely lady and does she have a sister?”

Silvia laughed and extended her hand. Tony took it and shook it lightly.

“This is my wife, Tony. It’s the first time she’s been to a college function; please don’t scare her off.”

“Hey, everybody!” Tony began yelling in his booming sales voice. “Marty’s got a gal with him! I didn’t even know he was married!”

Students and professors looked around. Before I knew it, Ed Starks, Chair of the Business department, had come over. “It’s nice to see you out tonight, Marty. Great job reading out the awards.”

“Thanks, sir.”

“I’m Silvia, Marty’s wife. It’s nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot of great things about you.”

Ed smiled. “Don’t believe any them.” He shook Silvia’s hand. “Marty’s one of our most valued professors.”

“He enjoys working here,” Silvia said, “and he appreciates your leadership style.”

Ed put down his wine glass on a nearby cart. “Well, I have to be up early tomorrow. Hope to see you at other faculty functions.”

“Me, too,” Silvia said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“I’ll bring her out more often, sir,” I said as my boss left. I reached for some liver pâté and put it in my mouth.

Tony continued to hover. “So... where did you two meet?”

I raised my index finger and, after swallowing the hors d’oeuvre, said, “We have to go.” I took Silvia’s hand and began walking.

“Oh... I’m sorry,” Tony said, walking along with us. “I didn’t mean to pry. Look, Marty, I was just having some fun.”

Where did you two meet? It’s the most common question anyone can ask a couple, inviting a myriad of possible answers:

We met in the companion ads.
We met online at Plenty of Fish.
We met at a singles bar.
We met in church.
We met at a Kiss concert.
We met in rehab.
We met at my ex-wife’s funeral.
We met in...

* * *

September 1990. The three of us — my dad, Doctor Cooper and I — were sitting at a round table in a small room in the intake area of the Toronto General Hospital Psychiatric Ward. It was three in the afternoon, and the sun was shining through the window, illuminating dust particles in the air and making a bright rectangle on the blue carpet.

“You do realize what you’re doing?” Dr. Cooper said to my dad. “We could keep your son for a period of thirty days for observation but, since he’s an adult, he could leave at any time.”

“I’m at my wits’ end,” Dad replied. “I just don’t know what to do anymore. I found Martin standing on some train tracks at the end of the block. And he took an overdose of his mom’s sleeping pills last week.”

The doctor took a deep breath and exhaled. He ran his fingers through his greying beard and then he went to a steel cabinet, opened a drawer and took out some papers. He brought them over and sat down at the table. “Martin?” he said, “do you understand what’s happening?”

“Yes, I’m depressed and I need some help. I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”

“Okay,” Dr. Cooper said. “That’s good enough for me.” He put the papers in front of me and I signed them.

Dad hugged me before leaving. “I’ll be back to see you in a few days, son.”

The ninth floor ward was square with a hallway that extended like a track around the entire floor. Unlike the Crisis Ward where I’d been the year before, the doors remained unlocked, and there were no patients strapped to their beds. This ward was also a lot cleaner. It was a research wing for the local university, and there were always doctors and nurses around. Every couple of days, a doctor would visit, write notes and discuss your progress.

A young nurse named Dana walked me to my room. She smiled at me as I put down my suitcase. “Dinner is in an hour. Hope you have a nice stay.”

In the Crisis Ward, we’d slept on cots in one large room that made it easy to keep track of patients. Each bedroom in Toronto General had two beds separated by a steel track on the ceiling. The curtains on my roommate’s side were drawn. I lay down on my bed, took out a book and tried to read. The words swam in front of my eyes, refusing to form coherent sentences as my mind raced.

At five o’clock, the curtain around the bed next door opened and a bespectacled man with messy medium-length brown hair came out. He paused briefly in front of my bed. "I’m Adam," he said. "You must be my new neighbor. I’ve had three in the last month."

“Nice to meet you,” I replied, barely glancing up from my book..

A few minutes later, he returned with his dinner tray. He closed the curtain behind him and ate alone.

I wish I could say that I was different from my roommate, that I went out into the dining room, ate with the rest of the patients and socialized. For the first two weeks, I kept to myself and ate in my room. I knew that I should be connecting with others but wasn’t ready yet.

Nights were the most difficult time on the ward. There was always someone roaming the halls, muttering to themselves, making rest nearly impossible. The sedative that the nurses dispensed at nine each evening wore off by three in the morning, guaranteeing hours of tossing and turning until breakfast arrived.

The ping-pong table in the recreation area finally drew me out of my shell. I could hear the constant tap-tap-tap of the ball hitting the table and paddles as I lay in bed, reading. Unable to concentrate, I ventured into the hallway in a quest to see who was playing.

“The Professor,” a tall, gangly man with steel-rimmed glasses and long, wispy white hair, and “The Beast,” a short hairy barrel-shaped man, were knocking the ping-pong ball back and forth. The Beast was losing 15-5. He grunted every time he missed and threatened several times to smash his paddle on the floor.

“Can I play the winner?” I asked.

The Beast grunted his approval.

With dinner over and nothing better to do, several of the other patients gathered around the table. They cheered every time someone made a good shot.

“I guess that’s game,” the professor said, after finishing with a well-placed smash in the corner. He looked over at me as I took the paddle from the Beast and readied myself about five feet behind the table. Most professional players stood ten to twelve feet away from the table.

“That’s a strange grip,” the Professor said, looking at my left hand. “What do you call it?”

“It’s a Chinese pen grip,” I replied. “It gives me more flexibility on my backhand side.”

I served first, putting a slight sidespin on the ball. The professor fanned his shot. One nothing for me. I missed the next two serves. Both landed outside the boundary. The Professor returned the fourth serve with a well-placed topspin to my backhand, which I managed to block and return. He hit a drop shot that barely cleared the net. I lunged forward, popping up the ball. The Professor smashed it, and it went flying.

“Did anyone see where it went?” I asked after searching the hallway unsuccessfully.

“I think it rolled into room 920,” one of the patients said, pointing across the hall. “We’d better get a nurse to retrieve it.”

I walked over to the room (the door plaque said “S. Edwards”) and peered through the open door. The curtains around the bed were parted slightly.

“You can’t go in there,” the patient said. “That chick doesn’t like visitors. She yelled at me last week when I tried talking to her. She’s one crazy witch. That’s why they keep her locked up.”

Undeterred, I knocked several times and waited. My heart pounded.

“Yes?” came a muffled voice that sounded as though it belonged to a teenage girl.

Resting my shoulder against the door, I said, “We have a little problem. Our ping-pong ball flew into your room and I... I was wondering if I could come in and find it.”

“Don’t just stand by the door. Come in, of course.”

I sauntered into her room, got down on all fours and began searching for the ball.

“Have you found it yet?” the woman in bed asked after a minute.

“Not yet. I’m still searching.”

“Would you mind coming over and opening up my curtains? I could really use some light. The vitamin D would help me right now.”

“Sure,” I said. “No problem.” I approached her bed and pulled the curtains open.

The woman looked no older than twenty. She wore glasses and her brown hair framed her neck in a bob style. She lay on top of her blankets and her stick-like, purplish arms and legs peeked out from her blue hospital gown. An IV tube snaked down a steel pole into her right arm.

“Do you have eye problems?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were staring.”

“No... I wasn’t. Honestly, I—”

“Haven’t you seen someone with anorexia before?”


A voice came from the hallway. “Marty, did you find the ball? What’s taking you so long?” It was the Professor.

“I’m still looking. I’ll be there in a second.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall

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