By Nancy Lynn Weber
I could feel the fiery winds from inside the hospital, in the lobby, where a Mexican cook munched on kumquats as she watched Erik Estrada on a Spanish-speaking soap opera. It was weird to see Erik Estrada, a familiar face from my TV upbringing, not speaking a word of English. But I guessed that it was good for him, to still be working, on TV, and back home. I was three thousand miles from New York. My passport was under my skirt, fastened to my belly with fresh white strips of surgical tape.
The Santa Anas held the doors open and I stepped quickly outside. I feared the winds and the wild dogs, but nothing could stop me from my daily two-mile trek to the place I called Poison Paradise. It was a small, run-down version of an American 7-Eleven. I discovered it by accident the night I agreed to help transport my friend Debbie’s mother’s dead body to the border. That night the traffic was bad in Tijuana. The van sat cold and still as Debbie bought blankets and fireworks from a vendor through the passenger-side window. I shivered and tried to relax in dreams of the convenience store we had passed along the dirt road, just two miles from the hospital. The store itself was lit up in color, blinding fluorescent bouncing from the brightly painted green and yellow walls. The sign outside was dark, swallowed up by the cold windy night and spit out with tobacco and dust. I imagined all the things that I could get there, all the things that I needed. I needed a People magazine. I needed to see people--bodies so warm and whole that they could afford to be mutilated on purpose. Phony implants, ugly tattoos, a sharp shiny gem piercing through a tiny navel--these seemed like rational choices made by sun-baked, silicone, beautiful people. Names in captions would match faces in photos. I would study each picture, and it would be imprinted in a dream. I would take People to bed with me and my sleep would be transformed.
I knew that breakfast was nearly over because the infusion room was already full with a half-dozen patient faces that I recognized. I knew them well; I knew about their diagnoses, their treatments, their families, their dietary restrictions, their pain and the name of every little pill placed before them in tiny plastic cups. They were chronically or terminally ill, seeking some comfort or cure at this alternative holistic hospital just south of the border. The miracle as promised was said to occur in the simple form of hydrogen peroxide. We were told how the legendary healing waters of Lourdes had been found to have a naturally high content of hydrogen peroxide. As a result, all of the organic fruits, vegetables and grains that we ate were soaked in it. The pool that we swam in was filled with it. I watched the patients take it in their veins, seated on eight La-Z-Boy recliners lined up at the windows. The infusions lasted three hours. The patients would push back in their recliners and talk endlessly about corruption--about the FDA, the AMA and the conspiring doctors back home. Their conversations floated through the screen door, to the side lawn, to a tiny trampoline, where I would spend hours bouncing up and down. I hated the infusion room. It looked like a cheap set of a grade B sci-fi movie or some kind of lounge area in a cult compound. The patients would call out “we’re praying for your mother,” and I believed them. If I said, “pass the syrup,” at breakfast the syrup was passed, along with a miraculous medal or a small statue of a saint pressed into the palm of my hand. The patients lit candles in their rooms for my mother, the woman who could not eat in the cafeteria, or come to a card game. She was too sick to sit in a La-Z-Boy recliner to take an infusion. I bounced up in the air on the trampoline, feeling alone and unsafe on the ground, relying on no other force than gravity.
Tim was a pilot for United Airlines. Since I had flown the friendly skies out west I figured that we had something to talk about. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like talking.
His face was younger than the one that I imagined corresponded with the strong but cheerful voice of a pilot. Tim was in his late thirties perhaps, with thick black hair and pretty ivory skin. He was built like a long-distance runner, which he was, before he got there. He wore running shoes and shorts, a tank top, and a flight attendant’s smile when he slid next to me at the breakfast table.
“Cafeteria food,” he commented sadly
“I wish,” I said, but not referring to the soba pancakes, soy margarine, or any of the food on my tray. Each morning I resented the Kafix, a phony instant coffee malt powder that made you pray for even the worst cup of caffeine--the stuff from a vending machine from the hospital snack shop back in New Jersey. I liked Tim. I liked the way he used complaining as a come-on. He was long and stretched out like a road. It was hard to believe he was dying.
We spoke briefly about treatments, but somehow illness was less interesting than who we were and what we loved. “Are you going out for a run today?” He wasn’t, he couldn’t. Tim was too tired to run, more tired by his treatment than he ever was with his cancer. He was slightly slumped, gazing out the window to the deserted beach. He looked like a thoroughbred, a favorite to win, who had stumbled at the gate. I imagined him flying, touching down sometimes, and knowing where to get the best margarita in Toledo or Pittsburgh. Tim either told me about Kathy or I imagined her--a flight attendant with long brown hair and carefully arched eyebrows offset by beachy blue eyes. I could see them sitting close to each other, perfect white teeth clenching the end of straws, sipping the best margaritas in Tampa or D.C. Over our pancakes, I saw the lost look in the eyes of a navigator, and the nervous sadness that we all feel when Kathy fades from us forever. I was neither patient nor nurse, so I was the closest thing to a Kathy that he could get. He sat close to me. I told Tim about Poison Paradise and all of the things that I might be able to get there, the things that I needed. I invited him to come with me but he said no, not today, maybe tomorrow.
At some point between the front door and the front gate to the hospital the thin gray dog would appear. I had become acquainted with him from beach walks and late-night meanderings. I named him Mr. Tobias after the nice man at the airport who had helped us with Debbie’s mother’s stretcher and offered me a cigarette when I said that I hadn’t eaten all day. Mr. Tobias the dog was fierce--a huge hunk of scalp that should have been connected to his ear simply wasn’t there. Each time I met him I feared him. It was a wild kind of excitement, heart bouncing in my chest, palms wet. I walked a little with Mr. Tobias dancing around me, and soon Weed caught up to us.
She was big and white and covered in dust. From a distance running Weed looked like tumbleweed rolling. We picked up a few more strays, all unremarkable except for a large amount of mange and general ill temper. They would bark ferociously at a pick-up truck or car that would appear like a hazy phantom down this normally deserted dirt road. Each performance terrified me until the day that I realized that the wild dogs were on my side. They had surrounded a man on a bicycle, barking so insanely that the man fell off his bike. I helped him up, as he mumbled in Spanish and shook in fear. I turned to scold the beasts but they were sitting poised and proud, looking straight into my eyes, searching for some sign of gratitude. I still reserved a little bit of fear, in deference to their wildness and the forces of nature in general. But that day as they sat straight up on the side of the road, I could swear that the wild dogs were smiling.
Weed strolled into the store with me and the clerk waved to her as she brushed up against a pantyhose display. The clerk was dressed like a cowboy. He kept shifting his attention from me to Weed, and then to the bullfight on a small black-and-white TV mounted high on the wall. I got it all there, much more than I needed--two packs of Marlboros, a pineapple soda, a big bag of corn chips, dandruff shampoo, disposable razors, guava-flavored lip-gloss, black cherry bubblegum, a grape popsicle, and best of all, a small but expensive jar of Folgers Crystals. As Weed cuddled up to the ice cream freezer, I searched for People through a pile of assorted magazines in a dirty old milk crate. I found a two-month-old issue of Us Weekly instead. I placed each item on the counter like it was a prize. “You must be from the hospital,” the Mexican cowboy clerk said in perfect English. “You don’t look sick.” I watched carefully as he put my treasured stuff in a slightly torn brown paper bag.
Back in my room I broke the seal of a urine sample cup and filled it with coffee crystals. I knew that caffeine couldn’t be the best thing for an afflicted prostate, but I found Tim anyway in his room, sitting on the edge of the bed tying his running shoes. I placed the plastic cup on his night table next to three little pills and a Pierre Cardin travel alarm clock. “You’re my angel,” he said, but I wasn’t so sure.
I took my two-month old Us everywhere--to bed, to dinner, out to the trampoline. I wanted to share all the big news with the patients in the infusion room. Some famous actress had finally broken free from her abusive, alcoholic, famous actor husband. “I already read it, heard about it, or saw it on TV,” they’d say. It was old news but it was good news, and good news traveled fast through the hospital. Bad news did not. It slinked down deserted hallways then settled in the corners of dark rooms. It was transmitted in code. I first detected the code when I found the coral colored lipstick marks on my mother’s face. After an exceptionally bad night, with my mother vomiting almost constantly and a futile attempt with shark cartilage suppositories, the nurses suggested that I move to the vacant room next door so I could get some sleep. They stayed with her through the night. I went to my mother in the morning and there was an IV in her arm and lipstick kisses all over her face. I got a strong sense of how far I was from home and how close it was to the end. The doctors said that my mother was doing well.
My friend Debbie’s mother did not do well. I was in the peroxide pool when it happened--the earth shook so hard water splashed over the sides. I ran through the hallways in my two-piece bathing suit, dripping heavily oxygenated water all over. Patients were clustered together, searching for news about the earthquake or whatever rattled the window or caused the crucifix to fall of the wall. The door to Debbie’s mother’s room was closed; I noticed an army-issued type stretcher quickly turning the corner up ahead.
The nurses laughed--it wasn’t an earthquake, it was an explosion. The U.S. Army tested on the tiny island you could see in the distance, a huge slab of brown rock in the middle of the ocean. I ran to my room to check on my mother and quickly threw on a long-sleeve cotton shirt and a pair of jeans over my wet bathing suit. I told the nurses that I wasn’t sure when I’d be back. I’d be with Debbie the entire way, until she was safely on a plane home to Texas with her mother’s body on board.
I could tell by the darkness in our room and the way that the doctor’s passed by our door without looking in. I could tell by the way the days were changing. A young man in white shorts and a white scrub shirt set up a heart monitor next to my mother’s bed. I sat in a high-backed chair in the dark, watching the slowly pulsing green light on the monitor until I felt sleepy. My mother and I used to talk endlessly, filling the long days tying up the loose ends of a loving relationship in between episodes of General Hospital and re-runs of I Love Lucy. Now I didn’t turn on the TV; light and sound seemed vulgar under the circumstances. Sometimes Tim would drop by. We’d sit in respectful silence staring out the window, watching the tide scatter debris along the empty beach. We saw a woman’s shoe and a child’s toy wash up, as well as a fender, a tire, and other parts of broken cars. We saw sunsets so magnificent they defied everything that we were feeling, turning the dirty beach into a shiny sheet of pink glass.
I could tell where all of this was heading and I just couldn’t go there, down a long dirt road, past a convenience store, through the brashest streets of Tijuana where a vendor would sell me blankets and fireworks through the passenger side window, straight to the border, where a patrol
officer would offer me condolences in a language I did not understand, right to the airport in San Diego, where one flight attendant would comment to another on how damn creepy it was to have a dead body aboard. I could explain all of this easily to my family--they wanted us to come home. I would try to explain it to Tim. Over clandestine cups of real coffee I had nearly promised him that I would go the distance. Now I appreciated the nihilistic mercy of morphine and the several tidy images that flashed in my head--pale-lipped nurses wearing expensive cross-trainers, walking efficiently from room to room, barely knowing your name.
I woke on my last day to find that I was low on coffee. I called Tim and told him to meet me in the lobby, hoping that he felt okay and could finally make the long walk with me to the convenience store.
The Santa Anas were serious business in this part of the peninsula. The extremely hot winds caused fires and overturned cars. The TV news had posted warnings against traveling when they hit. It made me think of tornados, the randomness of their destruction and how they could swallow up your neighbor but leave you untouched, just a few feet away.
Tim was seated on the dingy mauve-colored sofa in the hospital lobby. He couldn’t go with me; he was tired today, maybe tomorrow. I approached the front doors, which had been bolted shut with a two-by-four. I looked at the guard and his eyes turned to the TV, which told me that it was okay. I removed the piece of wood from the doors. The winds blew the doors wide open and I stepped quickly outside. What he would do for a real cup of coffee, I recalled as I turned back and saw Tim in a pair of high-tech running shoes settling into his place on the sofa. The Mexican cook got up for more kumquats as Erik Estrada smiled in Spanish at a girl in a hot pink swimsuit. Outside Mr. Tobias was waiting. He would take me wherever I wanted to go, safely.
Nancy Lynn Weber ’s work recently has been published in Evergreen Review and Dicey Brown. She is the Youth Program Director for NY Writers Coalition, Inc., a non-profit organization providing creative writing workshops to underserved populations throughout NYC.
Photo "Aura" courtesy of John Boyer, Salem, VA.
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