Bette, Joan, Anne. Excedrin.

Bette Midler was in the crowd just in front of me. She looked fab – about 15 years younger, hair the color of flames. She was mouthing off to Joan Rivers who was laughing and dropping a few sarcastic lines of her own. They disappeared into the throng of people pushing through revolving doors, as bodies closed in around me and I lost sight of them.

I was searching for something – another place to live maybe. I wasn’t sure where I was. New York? Paris?

I wasn’t “home,” but then I’m never quite home, anywhere.

Then I saw her again, at a small table set out in front of a restaurant. She was drinking coffee. She was older now, but not by much. Her hair was more blond, and she still looked good.

Then I heard Joan, from the other side of what was some sort of wall. Seemed to me she was in a public toilet, like you see on the streets of Paris. Only its exterior was worn wood, with partially ripped movie posters still stuck to its surface. Is that where we were? Paris?

I stopped.

Can we tawk? I said to Bette. Odd that I didn’t hesitate to approach a stranger. A famous stranger, at that.

She looked up. Now the street was somewhere in the South, a much smaller city, but I still didn’t know where.

You from the North? she asked.

Joan was scuffling around and muttering curse words as she appeared at my side, wriggling and adjusting her skirt. She was put together impeccably. Dripping in flashy earrings and a touch of faux fur, with a bright, painted smile.

Oh dawling, that voice is from the Nawth.  Can’t you tell? Get the girl a cuppa kawfie and we’ll AWL tawk!

Joan sat down, flagged a waiter for another coffee, and never missed a beat. She fired off one-liners into the air as Bette laughed and I tried to figure out if we were in Memphis or Manhattan, but it didn’t matter because we were all laughing and it was such a relief being with these funny women who let me sit and disappear into something familiar and diverting. And pain-free.

We gotta go, Bette said, abruptly.

Me, too? I asked.

Why not? Joan said, throwing a fifty on the table and grabbing me by the arm.

Next thing I knew, the three of us were standing in a huge plaza in front of a soaring skyscraper. New York. Everything was suddenly in black and white, and a fifty-something Anne Bancroft was waiting for us, looking a little disgruntled. She was dressed like someone’s mother, the way she looked in that movie with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.

Oh right. Keeping the Faith. 

But now I’m not me. I’m Bancroft with that little crooked smile, and as I talk, I jut my chin out just a bit, purse my lips and cock my head. My gestures are her gestures. My voice is her voice. She – we – aresomebody’s mother. That much I know. And time is always a factor when you’re someone’s mother.

“So?” she says, except it’s me, speaking, from inside her body. “What took you so long?”

What? says Joan. So we’re a little late. Nobody died.

I look. So do Joan and Bette. Walking towards us is another Anne – or, another me, as Anne. At least I think it may be me as Anne. Only this version is a stunner. Fortyish, and chic chic chic, the way Bancroft looked in The Graduate. Hair, jewelry, make up, little black dress – impeccable. She wears the smile of a woman who’s lived plenty of life, but is confident in everything. A woman who knows her place. And her place is where ever she wants it to be.

I’m trying to figure out where another me – Anne – came from. And why I’m still inside the older, crankier version.

Joan and Bette act like nothing in any of this is unusual.

Including two versions of Anne.

“You took your time getting here,” says the other Anne, with the sort of insouciance that I expect from a well-heeled woman who has little to fear, from anyone.

“I saw from across the street. You still don’t know where you’re going or where you belong, do you. Well you better figure it out. Damn quick.”

Her statement was like a fist to the gut. She was talking to me.

I wake, my head pounding. I check the alarm clock, drag myself out of bed, go to the fridge. Okay. The lunch is gone. I glance on the floor by the couch in the living room. Shoes gone, too. And the fancy calculator that was on the footstool. My kid remembered everything today – and made the bus on time.

I feed the dog. I spoon Italian roast into a paper filter. Flip the switch on Mr. Coffee. I search for Excedrin. Pop one, while the dog is lapping her water and I’m waiting for caffeine.

My head feels likes it’s in a vice. I’m nauseous. I have a million things to figure out over the next days and there’s no Bette and no Joan to make me laugh, no one else to foot the bill for a coffee or anything else. My life has just dropped into the shitter again. Or more precisely, deeper into the shitter. Financially. I have legal recourse, but I’m nearly a decade past affording lawyers.

My “real life” smacks me in the face again. I run to the bathroom to be sick. Then drink coffee to kill the taste, and the migraine.

I wonder why these particular women inhabited my dream. Those particular urban landscapes. Two versions of myself – or possibly more.

The outhouse? Yeah. I get that. Shit nearby, no matter who you are, or how far you think you’ve traveled. Keeping the Faith. That one’s almost funny.

The real question, as the grip on my temples eases just a little: Can I learn enough to act as my own attorney in a system that already ground me up and spit me out years ago? I had three attorneys supposedly on my side then, and I still was dropped off a cliff along with my kids. It’s been an eight-year fall, a slow, hit-the-sharp-rocks-on-the-way-down kind of  fall. Still spiraling down, only faster now. Unexpectedly.

I know the adage about a person acting as their own lawyer – that he or she has a fool for a client. And I’d like to think I’m not the fool I was 15 years ago, or 10. Not this time.

How do you fight back when you have no resources? How do you find the strength to stand up, one more time after years of battling in a system in which individuals without resources are invisible? How do you fight an adversary with money and indifference on his side? And maybe indifference is his greatest weapon of all?

That was my disadvantage from the beginning. Caring. Not wanting to put my kids in the middle. A mother protects her young.

They’re older now, but still vulnerable, though this latest infraction is big. The nail in the coffin, financially, and two years early. It will destroy any possibility of a stable finish to high school for my younger son. My chances? Long gone. But my son?

I’m not forty anymore. I’m tired. And there is no coterie of friends to make me laugh, or provide support of any sort. But if I don’t fight, then who have I become?

What do you do when the legal system won’t help, whether the law is technically on your side or not?  What do you when you’ve been ground down to such a reduced self that you barely remember which body you inhabit, which “self” is real, much less where you “belong?”

As for the voice in my head – what do I do about that? It keeps saying to fight back, no matter what – fight back. If you’re going down, go down fighting.

Am I Bancroft? If I am – which one? And how does that help?