On Frank’s first Sunday at the Golden Age, Ida and Meyer come to visit. They befriend the parents of Fabio, one of the babies, who are Italian immigrants. While Ida says they are probably “ignorant Tuscan peasants” like the Golds’ Italian neighbors, she likes talking to other people who dress like her and share her cultural expectations. Trying to be agreeable, Ida raves about Italian licorice and laughs too much; Frank thinks she is being hysterical. Frank complains to his parents that the hospital is for babies, and Ida agrees that the artwork on the walls is kitsch and tacky. Meyer says that he has to give it time, since there’s nowhere else for him to go.
Ida is undeniably snobby, but becomes is an endearing characteristic since it usually corresponds to her determination that Frank be well cared for and protected. It’s interesting that while she’s completely composed in times of crisis, Ida is often ill at ease in ordinary social situations. To some extent, life-and-death situations have become more normal and easier to handle than conventional civilian life. Her unease shows that mentally, she’s still entrenched in her desperate fight for survival.
After visiting hours, the children are exhausted and “displaced,” unsure if they belong with their parents or with other invalids like themselves. Having visitors reminds them how much they’ve grown apart from their families since contracting polio.
In the bed next to Frank is the boy he likes least, Warren Barrett. A year younger than Frank, he’s much bigger and makes fun of Frank for his lack of cricket knowledge. Frank hates being exposed as “un-Australian.” Watching Warren suck loudly on candies, Frank reflects that he and his parents have been forced so many times to live uncomfortably close to strangers. He hates the proximity to other people’s “underclothes” and their “little meannesses,” and feels nostalgic for his parents’ calm lifestyle.
For Frank, living in the hospital is demoralizing in much the same way as was living in a ghetto or refugee camp. As a polio patient, he’s reliving the material and emotional challenges of the war. However, this time around he’s old enough to fully grasp what’s happening. In many ways, his increased maturity makes these experiences even more complex and unpleasant than they were when he was a little boy.
Frank misses IDB, where he could always escape and be alone, even though he tries not to think about IDB because it reminds him of Sullivan’s death. He feels unable to write poetry or complete Sullivan’s work at the Golden Age.
For Frank, the constant presence of other people isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s a hallmark of the various traumas he’s endured. Solitude, which Frank associates with safety, is necessary for him to develop his vocation.
Wheeling down the corridor, Frank peeks into the girls’ ward and notices a new girl sleeping in her wheelchair, the sun outlining her face. Even though there are other girls in the room, she seems to be alone. She’s very tall and seems graceful despite her crippled legs. Frank realizes that this must be Elsa, a name he’s heard people say in the last few days. Looking at her, he feels like crying. Suddenly, a title comes into his head, “The Third Country,” and he feels like he can write again.
Frank’s intense reaction foreshadows the extent to which Elsa will become not just his friend, but his muse and talisman. Elsa also helps him recapture a sense of the things he’s lost to polio. While Frank was feeling crowded by others, she gives off a sense of pleasant solitude; while Frank often feels ashamed of his physical weakness, she’s a reminder that polio patients can be graceful and beautiful.
That night, Frank dreams about Sullivan. His old friend is standing waist-deep in a lake; his muscles are strong and capable, and his hair is no longer matted from lying in the iron lung.
Frank feels better just by seeing Elsa; his sudden ability to imagine his old friend healthy and unaffected by polio foreshadows the restorative qualities of the friendship on which he’s about to embark.