I’ve almost always worked with all men.  I’ve come to prefer it.  But there’s nothing glamorous about it.  men are not glamorous.  Especially when I worked for the fire department, where everyday Joe’s got dressed up in blue shirts and steel toed boots and rode around in shy red trucks.  Women approached me, constantly, eyes all a-gaga and mouths all agape, to ask me how much I loved working with such gorgeous men.  Driving down the freeway, women in cars beside us would flash their breasts at us, not realizing I was seated, uniformed, next to the boys.

Eventually, I learned to simply snort, and roll my eyes, as opposed to giving a true answer to their question.  It makes no difference to them what my answer is, they will hold on to their fantasy.  Fantasy is always nicer than reality.  Otherwise, what would be the point?

The reality of working, as a woman, with these men, was nothing like those Freeway Girls Gone Wild would ever think.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t wonderful, enjoying and rewarding.  It was.  But it was never glamorous.  Nor sexy.  Nor neutral odor.

The big, open bunkroom, on any given overnight, smelled like a chicken farm baked in the desert heat and dusted with gym socks.  Hockey gear smells better.  Cattle farms smell better.  Sometimes, even death smells better.  And that room is never silent.  Eight sweaty bodies shifting and snoring and farting and sleep talking can make a cacophony that would raise the dead.  I’ve worked with men with sleep apnea that we’d crowded around at 2 a.m. with intubation kits in hand, threatening to throw a tube down their throats if they paused for more than six seconds.

I’ve worked with men who had night terrors, who would startle me awake with blood curdling screams.  One of these men was legendary for his sleep stalking.  He’d crawl out of his bed, slither across the aisle to you on all fours, looking like Gollum, and perch inches from your face, staring and staring until you awoke to his hot breath in your face and his manic eyes, only inches from your own, hoping he didn’t have a knife in his hand ready to filet your carotids.  Other nights, he’d climb the walls like Spiderman and we’d find him perched above his bed screaming out the name “Kenny.”

No one knew who Kenny was, not even the guy screaming his name.  It got so bad that people started hanging empty soda cans, en masse, with dental floss and paper clips stuck in the ceiling, above his bed.  If he sat upright in his sleep, he’d hit the cans and wake everyone else up.  They’d start shouting his name until he woke up and laid back down.  It sounds so simple, but it was absolutely terrifying to work with him, to tuck yourself into bed, uneasy as you always were on shift anyway, knowing you’d be suddenly awakened by the tones, to either go help some little old man off the toilet or maybe have to work your ass off trying to cut someone our of a crumpled car or crawl through some burning living room, humping hose and wearing 50 pounds of gear.  You’d close your eyes expecting all that, and you’d deal with it.  That and the fear that your wife or your husband was banging someone else in your bed while you were toiling on the taxpayers dollar and working toward a pension the public would demonize you for taking every day of the year except September 11th, Christmas Day and the day they call 911.  But to have to bear that and then deal with some ape-shit dude who seems so normal by the light of day, but so obviously needing therapy by night, that puts you right over the edge.

Then your brothers tie you down to a backboard in the apparatus bay and pour mild and flour all over you and you consider it a compliment because they wouldn’t pick on you if they didn’t like you.  And then your heart sinks and your stomach turns when you’re pulling weeds in the station yard and you find that someone’s put a cinderblock beneath the window in the ladies locker room so they can stand upon it and looking at you as you get out of the shower.  And every ounce of trust you’ve spent years cultivating is gone.

You take a deep breath and remember where you are, and instead of explaining all that to the a-gaga woman who approached you in the grocery story to as you how wonderful it is to work with all those sexy men, you just snort and roll your eyes and leave her to her fantasy.

Robin Behl, La Cuentista



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