think Dr. Ritter hates Berkeley,” I said at last, to fill a silence.
“Then what is he even doing here?” Brigit twitched back her long brown hair with a little shrug of annoyance.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Maybe he needs a change. Like I did.” Brigit glanced sidelong at her boyfriend Tony, who winked. They had just moved into the flat across the hall in our gray Victorian, a block from campus. My roommate, Cherie, believed in getting to know one’s neighbors, so she had invited them to dinner. Thus, I now knew that Tony had done time in Georgia for robbery, burglary, and car theft. And that Brigit had run away from her studies at Georgia State with this prize catch.
Brigit wore a short black skirt, scuffed loafers and no hose, revealing perfect legs, a grimy band-aid barely clinging to one knee. Though her ratty blue angora sweater looked as if it had been plucked from a Salvation Army bin, it did not conceal the fact that God was paying plenty of attention when he put her together.
Tony was about thirty, a tall, lanky blond cracker with amused, larcenous blue eyes; an immaculate dresser and pathological liar who had also developed the bad habit of bigamy. For Tony, the law just kept breaking like a rotten shoelace. Neither Tony or Brigit had any source of income, but masterful shoplifting kept them well provisioned.
I was nearly seventeen and on my own for the first time. Two months ago, I had arrived in Berkeley on a busload of Vietnam antiwar protestors from Santa Monica. When I called home to announce that I was staying, my mother did not try to dissuade me. I had joined a crowd at school that drank, used drugs, and had sex. I was truant and had been caught forging attendance excuses. Time and again, I stayed out all night. My best friend, Erin, carried on with a married man. After school, Erin and I would get into her alcoholic mother’s vodka and call up boys and men, even teachers. Like my absent, profligate father, I was dark-eyed, curly-haired, and argumentative. Infuriating.
From day one, Berkeley had burst upon me, overwhelmed and embraced me. This was not “another Berkeley,” or “a little Berkeley.” This was the real thing. Standing before Sproul Hall in a crowd of protestors, I looked up the stairs to its Greek colonnades with a euphoric premonition that my life was at last beginning.
A week later, I was broke, hungry, and disheveled from sleeping on the sofas and floors of chance acquaintances or in doorways. Hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, I met Cherie, who had an apartment to share. She had flunked out of nursing school and now worked part-time for a local doctor, using the skills that she had been able to master, such as presentation of the examining gown. When a similar job opened up with Drs. Ritter and Guyton next door, she recommended me.
Pale and doughy, with long, auburn hair, Cherie was obsessed with Iran, which she called Persia. Evenings, she would often bring home some hesitant Farhad or Mohammed recently arrived in Berkeley to study engineering. The Mohammeds taught her the Farsi lovemaking vernacular - pet names for genitals and body sounds and positions. Bursts of giggles emanated from Cherie’s bedroom all night long, sounds of spanking and sex. Koofts and koohns. Lying alone, I would plug my ears.
My new bosses had little in common besides the M.D. after their names. Dr. Guyton was in his early fifties, tall, with the regular features, graying temples, and deep blue eyes that I associated with aristocracy. By contrast, Dr. Ritter was lean, angular, and as flat as his native Nebraska plains. Though not short, he was delicately boned, with thin, translucent hair, as if to economize on essential minerals. Dr. Ritter called himself “an old-fashioned conservative.” Whenever his skeptical, measuring gray gaze fixed on me, I would straighten my back and mentally examine myself for indolence, mendacity or other moral infections.
Dr. Guyton’s father had been the discreet, trusted physician of Crockers and Stanfords. Now, Dr. Guyton the son was a prominent pacifist, who donated his services to antiwar rallies and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. His patients - booted, sandaled, and tie-dyed - sprawled wide in the waiting room, redolent of incense and pot, navels defiantly exposed, armpits subversively bushy.
Dr. Ritter’s mostly elderly patients huddled suspiciously apart, fidgeting on straight-backed wooden chairs whose upholstery was a hard, flat pad of green leather. With each passing moment, they seem to intensify in Republicanism, bristling with Elk’s Club and American Legion insignia. The wives clutched their handbags as if they contained atomic secrets.
Most days, the two sets of patients merely stared at each another, perhaps seeking some common denominator. That certainly wasn’t their maladies: Dr. Guyton’s patients suffered the ravages of excess: hangovers, pulled muscles, sex-induced rug burn. And of course venereal diseases of a dizzying variety. Dr. Ritter’s patients endured all the ills of aging: heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes. None of this helped their dispositions when they were forced to wait by the hour, a captive audience of those who were bringing the nation to the verge of chaos. Because the one thing the doctors did have in common was that they both ran late. By early afternoon the patients were hopelessly stacked up, scowling, sighing, and craning their necks to glare at me, and at Paula the nurse, hunkered down beyond the reception window.
Tall and still childishly awkward, I admired Paula’s lithe, sylphlike figure in her dazzling white uniform, her neat, dark hair tucked into a bun. A wingswept, snowy cap crowned her delicate features like the headdress of some classical goddess. And she did seem almost deific as she flicked the syringe deftly to purge the air bubbles, or drew blood with carmine precision. Or handled Robert Brand, Dr. Guyton’s sickest heroin addict.
“Robert,” Paula sought and held his eyes. “When was your last fix?”
Robert blinked, head bobbing, unshaven, lips twitching downward. I thought guiltily of Emmett Kelly the clown.
“Couple days ago.”
“Okay.” Paula patted his shoulder. “I can give you something to help you feel a little better.” Robert had lost the ability to keep himself clean. His pants were stiff and creased with dirt, his bare feet blackened. Dull brown hair hung lankly down his shoulders. He stared out from deep sockets, dropping his eyes quickly if they met mine.
“His disease is extremely virulent,” Dr. Guyton would say. Dr. Ritter’s lemon-sucking expression betrayed his opinion of the disease theory of addiction.
“Dr. Ritter worries what Robert might do if he gets really desperate,” Paula told me. “Plus, his patients are afraid.”
“Oh, Robert isn’t the only one Dr. Ritter’s patients complain about,” I said. “Did you see those two girls with their heads shaved?”
“They’re in some cult. Anyone can get sick, Katie,” she said at my shudder of distaste. “Dr. Guyton is sure the little one has leukemia, but he wants to run more tests. She thinks she has mono. Doctor says she won’t live out the year.”
I was becoming accustomed to the presence of death, which had once so awed and terrified me. Death was not only abroad in Vietnam, exploding in gouts of earth and blood; it was also a quiet, unobtrusive element of office routine, a pencilled notation in a chart. But here, people didn’t exactly die; they “expired.” Several patients had expired since I came, people I had greeted and chatted with.
“Katybird, I need you to help me out.” Eyes teasing and bold, Tony accosted me in the dim entryway as I returned from work. Out of breath in the chilly twilight, I slung my backpack onto the floor.
“What’s the matter?”
Tony hung his head in sham distress.
“I’ve gone and got me a case o’ the clap.”
“Well, you need to see a doctor,” I said. Tony evaded my glance. “It’s not fatal, for God’s sake, Tony.”
"Can you boost me a few pills then? Come on, they’ll niver miss it.”
I drew back.
“Tony, a few pills won’t cure you. You need a whole supply and a shot too.”
“Where am I supposed to get that?”
“The free clinic will treat you for nothing. They just don’t want you infecting other people.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, but he grinned quickly and followed me into our apartment. Cherie looked up.
“What y’all lookin’ at Shay-ree? You better watch out, I git with you they’ll have to tape your eyeballs in.” Tony lit a cigarette, and I noticed that his hands were trembling. “I’m ashamed of myself,” he said suddenly, and began to cry in dry, racking hiccups.
“What have you done?” Cherie did not wait for an answer, but dashed across the hall, leaving me alone with Tony.
“Katie, I always did like you,” Tony said. “You got half a brain. Now that Shay-ree is the dumbest thing God ever slung guts in.” He pointed at me with his shaking cigarette. “Y’all think just once in your life you find something that won’t let you down. But love’s a sucker’s game. Only time trouble comes is when you forget that one thing.” He rose and took one last, deep drag, then stepped on his cigarette, backed out of the door and vanished.
Moments later, Cherie reappeared with Brigit, wiping her swollen face with a bloody towel. He had knocked out half a tooth, broken her nose and blacked both of her eyes. Brigit suddenly seemed as fragile and helpless as one of Dr. Ritter’s old ladies.
That night, Brigit moved in with us, and we took turns nursing her. Cherie called Brigit’s parents in Georgia the next morning and explained their daughter’s situation in terms vague and reassuring enough to do credit to a team of diplomats. I made several follow-up appointments for her with the doctors, and her injuries soon healed, leaving her with a slight lisp through the broken tooth that was not unappealing. Tony hung around town just long enough to intercept and cash the check Brigit’s parents sent to cover her medical expenses.
Brigit adapted quickly to life on her own. Minus Tony’s vigilant oversight and censorship, she chattered freely; spinning tales by the hour while Cherie and I listened, rapt. Her lovers had ranged in age from eleven to eighty and included rock stars, politicians and CEOs, though she relished the casual pickup as she would an olive or a pepper - which Tony had been, a spicy felon. Embarrassed to confess that my entire sexual experience consisted of a few inept, drunken copulations, I would nod knowingly at Brigit’s stories, as if I too understood the deepest ways and desires of men.
The doctors alternated Saturdays, and I arrived early to open the office, tidy the waiting room, and make coffee. This being lenient Dr. Guyton’s weekend, I had slept a little later. As I walked down the building’s dim, empty hallway, Robert Brand suddenly loomed up, a tormented soul who seemed to have wandered in from Torquemada’s dungeon or the cellar of the Doges’ Palace. My heart hit my ribcage like a bird hitting a windshield. He must have slipped into the building behind me
“Dr. Guyton left me a prescription.” Robert’s reddened, watery eyes wandered in their sockets and his sour breath came in pants. I didn’t believe him for a minute. Everyone knew that the office maintained a supply of painkillers, along with the prized triplicate prescription forms required for Percodan and morphine. Only I stood between Robert and all the dope in the world.
Dizzy with panic, I opened the waiting room door, and Robert pushed in ahead of me. Together, we searched Dr. Guyton’s dim, mahogany-paneled office, the air quiet, cold and stale, the desk littered with papers and medical journals. Hands shaking, I dialed Dr. Guyton’s number.
“Robert is here. He says you left him a prescription.”
“Oh damn,” I heard stretching and yawning. “I’m sorry, I forgot. I’ll be right down.” It was then that I heard noise coming from one of the examining rooms.
“Stay back,” Robert said, sheltering me with his body. He must have seen his chance to make up for the scare he had given me. Flattening himself against the wall, he stole down the hallway. After a moment’s hesitation, I followed.
“Robert, we should call the police,” I hissed. But it was too late. He grabbed the knob and threw open the door.
Brigit’s feet were in the stirrups of the examining table. Before her was Dr. Ritter, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope, his pants deflated around his ankles. The coat, displaced by what must have been vigorous motion, had ridden up to reveal surprisingly muscular buttocks of the purest white. I noted, before pulling Robert out and slamming the door shut, that an examining table is perfectly configured for sex with a standing man of about six feet in height. Racing to get out of the office, Robert and I collided in the doorway, and it was either that impact or the laughter I was unable to stop that gave me a nosebleed.
For the next few days, I walked about in a mild state of shock that was not unpleasant. Only the week before, Dr. Ritter had called me in to ask if I were using drugs. I seemed lax, preoccupied. “You’re in a fog,” he accused. Indignantly protesting, I had burst into tears that continued even after Dr. Ritter became flustered and waved me out of his office. I did not know how to convey to him my sense of abandonment, my growing realization that neither of my parents seemed to miss me, or care to see me anytime soon, if ever.
Now, perhaps concluding - quite rationally - that he had little to hide from me, Dr. Ritter began to call me into his office frequently, close the door and interrogate me about Brigit. At that age, I could not have comprehended the cruel power that erotic love can wield over people who have disciplined and denied themselves throughout a lifetime. All I knew was that Dr. Ritter was held pitilessly fast in the toils of obsession. And I did sense that his love had less to do with its object than with his own elemental nature. He thirsted to know every detail, what foods and music Brigit liked, what clothes she needed. He passed me a couple of discreet packages which turned out to contain costly lace underthings and a delicate gold bracelet. When I mentioned Tony, Dr. Ritter waved the name aside as he would an insect.
“He isn’t fit to be in her presence,” said Dr. Ritter. He growled and clenched his fist. “He’d better stay away.” At other times, his affect was dreamy - the very behavior he had found so troubling in me. But Dr. Ritter was indeed drugged, with eros. He wondered aloud that I was so casual about sharing a home with Brigit, his fondest desire. Her power over him was total.
Dr. Ritter also began to take an interest in Robert Brand, the heroin addict. This too was unsettling, as if he had bounced to the opposite extreme out of misplaced principle or loss of control. Perhaps he now understood, even identified with Robert’s addiction, his disease. Dr. Ritter grew sideburns, always a troubling sign in a middle-aged man. And beneath his lab coat, I spotted one day a paisley turtleneck. Dr. Guyton saw it too, and shared with me a tiny indulgent smirk. But more often, Dr. Guyton observed his partner now with a faintly worried, quizzical look.
When I arrived at the office on Dr. Ritter’s Saturday, he leaped from behind his desk with a shout of greeting. At the sight of me, his face fell. Brigit had stood him up. He sank back into his chair and put his head in his hands.
“Forgive me, Katherine,” he said. “Brigit has been through so much. You and I both know she desperately needs a protector. And she’s still in danger. She’s very self-destructive, you know.” He rose and paced. “It’s only a matter of time…”
I stood dumbly staring, a silver roll of EKG tape unwinding from my hand.
“Dr. Ritter,” I said at last, with an odd, conspiratorial thrill, “maybe Brigit doesn’t need a new … relationship right now. After all, she just broke up with Tony.”
Dr. Ritter gazed at me in disbelief.
“How can you say that? A new relationship is exactly what she needs. A healthy one. Some stability in her life.”
I turned away and began to load the machine, wondering in what solar system an adulterous affair with a man more than twice her age could be construed as healthy or stable. But in fact, stability seemed to be in short supply wherever I looked. Berkeley’s zaniness had lately turned down a darkening path; even the numbers 1969 looked ominous. Later that week, I awoke to the radio blaring. One of Cherie’s Mohammeds had turned it up loud: “…with the Alameda and San Francisco County Tactical Squads standing by, but not to intervene unless an emergency situation develops.”
“What the hell?” I stood swaying at the door of my bedroom.
“A rally,” said Mohammed, eyes flashing, “to defend the park of the people.” I stared incredulously, recalling a lot of runty trees, raw dirt and splintery wooden trellises near Dwight and Bowditch. “I feel the issue to be a great one,” he said. “Freedom against oppression.”
“But doesn’t the university own the land?” I yawned.
“No,” said Cherie from under the covers. “The people own the land.”
Mohammed shook his radio at me. “You are coming to the rally?”
“No,” I said. “This isn’t a game, Mohammed. They’ll bust your head.”
“I know police is no game. I come from Iran.”
Just before noon, I left the doctors’ office to walk home for lunch. The air was warm and moist, the bosomy hills above the university deep green. Along Telegraph Avenue, shop windows were boarded with plywood. Traffic was being rerouted to accommodate the police, staging up and down Bancroft. I noted Alameda County Sheriffs, Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creek and Concord police, and California Highway Patrol.
When I opened our apartment door, the first thing I saw was Tony’s profile, sharply defined against a tortuously lettered psychedelic poster on the wall. Beside him stood Brigit, looking extremely uncomfortable. Dr. Ritter, abject and ill at ease in his lab coat, was facing them both, his hands hanging awkwardly at his sides.
“Oh, Katie,” Brigit lisped over her shoulder, “Kyle stopped by.” I had never heard Dr. Ritter referred to by his first name.
“Brigit, you have to come away from this,” Dr. Ritter said. “You deserve a decent life.”
“She don’t want no decent life,” said Tony. “Don’t waste your time, Kyle.”
“You have to understand,” said Brigit. “Tony and I are practically married.”
“But he’s a criminal. He beat you.”
“She done gimme the clap,” said Tony. “What in hell was I supposed to do?”
“I did,” said Brigit. “But Tony forgave me. We forgave each other.”
“I can’t allow this,” said Dr. Ritter.
“Look, Kyle,” said Tony. “You seem to be a good guy. I don’t want to beat the shit out of you, because I know what she’s like. But I will beat the shit out of you if I have to. Brigit wants you to leave her alone.”
“I love you, Kyle, I really do,” said Brigit, “but I’m back with Tony now.” Dr. Ritter sank to his knees with a groan.
“Dr. Ritter,” I said in desperation, “please, come away from this.” I reached out. “Just ….walk away.” Dr. Ritter groped for my hand and seized it fiercely, nearly pulling me over as he stumbled to his feet. Wordlessly, he straightened his shoulders and shrugged to adjust his lab coat. I opened the apartment door and he limped through after me, still holding my hand.
Outside in the hallway, he stopped. “Katherine,” he said, “I have lost myself.” He searched my eyes.
“Not at all,” I said, using the same tone of voice that he used with anxious patients. I nudged him through the outside door.
“I’ve tried to lead an ethical, educated life. And this Tony is no more than a vicious outlaw.”
“Some people,” I said, ”prefer outlaws.”
“Then I’ll be an outlaw too,” said Dr. Ritter. He hoisted two imaginary pistols from his belt loops and shot them into the air. “Bang bang,” he shouted. I snickered involuntarily. Dr. Ritter looked sadly at me, his hands still guns. He glanced down at them and his shoulders sagged.
“Dr. Ritter,” I said, “you can’t even imagine what goes on in Brigit’s head.”
“I guess not,” he said. We had reached the campus, and Dr. Ritter looked around as if he had just awakened on another planet. “What’s going on here?”
In Sproul Plaza, the crowd was already packed shoulder to shoulder, gaudy and half naked in the noon sun, heads and raised fists a blur. Unintelligible words resounded from the microphone on the Sproul steps, bouncing off the student union. Suddenly, a deafening shout arose, and the crowd boiled over, surging toward the park like a tsunami, overtaking and jostling us. From the vanguard came a series of sharp pops and brief, puffing explosions, accompanied by high-pitched screams and hoarse yells of outrage. Seconds later, my eyes begin to sting. The tears welled swiftly, rolling down my face and I gathered them with my tongue, the way I had as a child. The noise increased, an irregular staccato of explosions and ululating falsetto shouts.
Between Durant and Channing, Dr. Ritter and I encountered a full and panicky rout, a phalanx of helmeted, goggled tac squad in hot pursuit, nightsticks flailing. Fearful of being trampled, we turned and ran with the crowd, jarred by fleeing bodies. I heard more volleys, and gas canisters writhed at our feet. People picked up the hot canisters and hurled them back toward the police.
Ahead, the tac squad surrounded Sproul Plaza, and I saw that we were trapped. I wondered vaguely why the police had left the crowd no escape, when they desired nothing more than to be shut of us. The crowd ran straight at the encirclement, its momentum carrying Dr. Ritter and me along, lurching helplessly against one another. After a brief, confused moment of contact, the mob flew apart in twenty directions. The police were at our heels, moving faster under all that equipment than I would have believed possible. If they caught somebody, they beat him. People would advance, shouting and throwing rocks. When the police charged, the people would scatter, and so it went.
Two policemen at the base of the Sproul Hall steps were kicking a man so hard that one lost his balance and grabbed for the other’s shoulder to steady himself. Peeking through the crowd, I saw that the victim, curled up and writhing, was Robert Brand, our addict. Trying to shout, I must have hyperventilated, because I suddenly became dizzy and staggered backwards into a sapling.
When my vision cleared, I saw the police hauling Robert up the Sproul Hall stairs. Slightly below them charged Dr. Ritter, taking the stairs two by two. When the police reached the top, the doors opened and they dragged their prisoner inside, Dr. Ritter following. There seemed to be a nimbus of light encircling his head, but perhaps that was only the sun reflecting against the smoke and gas.
Robert Brand survived his beating only to expire weeks later of an overdose. Dr. Guyton, Paula and I wept openly at the news and, after a moment, Dr. Ritter joined in. Brigit and Tony soon returned to Georgia, and I never heard from them again. But the fact that they might still be out there, coupled with the fact that Cherie eventually obtained a medical degree, ought to make everyone a little more cautious.
In time, I qualified and enrolled at the University, venturing back into the good graces of my family with the trepidation of an early polar explorer. I was declared “cured” of my immaturity, as if it had been a transient infection. But residual traces persist to this day, just as the unrequited love of Dr. Ritter must have left its own elemental ache throughout the remainder of his life. Sometimes, walking down Telegraph Avenue, I seem to hear somebody calling my name in a mocking southern accent. Turning, I see nothing.
Copyright © Linda Boroff 2003. Title graphic: "Remedies" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.