Café con leche: about three-quarters of a cup of coffee, add warm milk, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a dash of Sugar in the Raw because there aren’t any more C&H packets, and of course nobody at the cafeteria is going to help you restock the coffee bar because, who the hell cares about bleached, cane sugar when there are people on the upper levels of the hospital that are literally dying? I can pull the thoughts from the cafeteria employees’ heads like cards in a deck. Predictable. Unhelpful. I don’t even bother to ask.
I cross the hallway and enter the waiting room, the smell of sterilization and sanitizer and ozone strong in the air, and join my family, sitting in the corner by the window. Dee is on her second box of tissues, her hair tousled, eyes bloodshot and cheeks tear stained. She blows her nose rather loudly, and when done, adds it to the trash can she’s kidnapped from the receptionist’s desk. Percy is bleeding nerves left to right in many different hues of grey and has been on the phone since I left to get coffee fifteen minutes ago. Assorted relatives, I assume.
‘Toma, Abuelita,’ I say, handing her the cup of coffee.
Abuelita lets out a loud sob as she takes the paper cup, and she wipes crocodile tears from her face. ‘Thank you, Lucas.’
I sit down next to Percy and sigh, a million and a half things racing through my head. Had I imagined La Carretanagua? Or did Mother actually see it? I take a deep breath; logic says no. Logic says otherwise. Logic says that dreams only reveal our darkest fears and deepest desires. And besides, it’s a tiny tumor the size of a golf ball wedged between her hypothalamus and her hippo-campus. The medical professionals have said that seizures, epileptic and non-epileptic, are quite normal for a case like hers.
I know I should not feed into it…but I can’t shake off the feeling that it was maybe more than a dream. With that thought, I leap out of my seat immediately, eager for a walk. I wish the hospital sold alcohol along with coffee.
Percy lets out a large sigh as she takes the phone from her ear and she plops down where I had previously sat. ‘Tia Coco and Benjamin are praying for us,’ says Percy, with a nearly undetectable snort of dismissal. ‘They’re in San Francisco right now visiting friends, and they can’t cut their trip short.’
‘Of course,’ I say. Mother would’ve been on the first plane out, regardless of wherever she was, if something bad happened to them. It’s not like she travelled anyway, but still; she’s always felt that she’s done more for her family. I can only imagine why.
Abuelita is whispering to herself, eyes shut tight, gripping the paper cup of coffee carefully; she must be praying…Gods of the old world, hear my cry…
‘Well,’ I say, turning once more to an exhausted Percy. ‘We should be getting an update from the doctor any moment now, right?’
Percy’s eyes flutter to a figure behind me. A pair of sneakers, squeaky against the waxed floor and the familiar scent of Old Spice and tarragon fills the room, and though my back is facing him, I know instantly who it is. I turn to look at him, for the first time in six years.
‘Lucas,’ says Roberto, unshaven, his white shirt dingy underneath his unbuttoned forest themed flannel. His eyes, droopy against his sallow skin, stare at me with a sense of longing and pain, dark as the night. His face is thin and hollow, his hair held in place with grease and a backwards baseball cap; his usually tight-fitting Dickies are now as baggy as oversized trash bags, held tightly to his waist by a belt. The air around him is painted with dull greens and solemn blues, the signs of a man crawling on his knees to scrape at the last bits of hope he has left. ‘It’s really you,’ he says, still staring.
He’s about seven feet in front of me, halted on the spot with the same uncertainty that paralyzes me.
‘Dad,’ says Percy, standing up with Dee as they walk over to him. He embraces them, a kiss on each forehead, and they walk him over to us. I can feel Abuelita’s presence behind me, strong, firm, emitting razor sharp thoughts.
As much as I wanted to say it was unexpected, Percy calling Roberto is not a surprise. Not even close. Mother is, after all, still legally married to him since their separation.
‘I’m glad you came,’ says Dee, burying her face into her father’s chest as she holds him tightly. ‘We need you.’
The words sting against my skin.
When I was a little boy I always tried to run away. I had this dream, this constant goal, this life wish, to stow away on one of the freight ships at the port of Playa de Oro and ride the ocean waves all the way to the shores of New Zealand, or Australia, or Japan – wherever the waves would take me, wherever the wind would guide me; the life of a seafarer, with the stars as my map, a pirate’s life for me, yo-ho. I wanted to go anywhere but here. In the middle of the night, nursing my bruises with cups of Jell-O, sucking on the blood from my lips, I’d stuff clothing into my backpack, cups of chocolate pudding, maybe a kitchen knife or two, and a notebook with an entire carton of pens, before taking all the change in the change jar with me, opening the door of our third floor, one-bedroom apartment, and stealing away into the night.
We lived in a projects complex next to the very end of the LA river, bordering a trailer park and the train tracks, a barren, dry wasteland with undeveloped property and dirt plots, boarded up businesses, potholes the size of basketballs on the streets…busses would stop showing up just after midnight, and if I was too late to catch the bus, I would take the train and ride it all the way downtown. I’d watch Tent City, the homeless in their communities along the dirty, mostly empty river, made of blankets and carpets of bright reds and greens and blues and garish blacks and greys and beige, of scarlet purple and trash bags, with shopping carts and cardboard boxes for the stray animals, smelling of smoke and alcohol and urine and patchouli.
I’d ride the train and I would never buy a ticket and, luckily, I was never caught. Maybe a guardian angel watched over me, a nagual as Abuelita used to call it, or maybe it was the silent circle I would cast upon entering a train car. Or maybe it was just sheer, dumb, luck. I would take the train until I got to Downtown Playa de Oro, and I would sprint out, backpack and notebook in my hand and all, the only child running in the area under the purple starry sky, running straight for the port with its firetruck red cranes and massive freight liner ships.
You have to understand, I was small and naïve. Stowing away on a shipping container with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and two cups of chocolate pudding? I didn’t even have water with me. Wishful thinking, and I think part of me knew that. I never made it past the ocean front, past the lifeguard tower closest to the train station. I’d stay there and cry and eat my pudding and my sandwich and drink from the water fountain near the public restrooms and ask God why, why did I deserve a life like this…
Bruises and sweat and blood…sweaters to cover up my arms, excuses about why my lips were busted every other month or so…a three-inch scar from when I didn’t wash a pan correctly only for him to take the pan from the drying rack and beat me over the head with it…Sunday school and Sunday mass, bible leaflets…staring in the bathroom mirror at church, studying how dark purple the region around my kidneys and intestines would get…Hallelujah, Amen…
Mother got it worse than I did. With the hair pulling and the beatings and the screaming and the like…he once fractured her arm, and another time scarred her cornea with his wedding ring during a backhand slap. My sisters remember nothing, not a thing at all, and maybe that’s just how the brain works to heal itself, to block out truly horrific memories, in order to move on. But every time I think of my childhood, I still can’t shake off the feeling of staring at Tent City all those lonesome, painful nights. It was like watching a carnival pass by, the colors and sights and the smells, the foot-long beards and the wild, manic-depressive stories the homeless have to tell. Sometimes I thought it would be better to live with them than at home. The fact that the homeless took better care of their animals than my step-father did with me was always a source of sadness that stuck with me. Even though the homeless may not have much, they still know how to love.
‘I didn’t know you were in town,’ says Roberto, cautiously. His eyes glaze over me and then to Abuelita; he might have been talking to both of us for all I know. ‘It’s nice to see you. It’s been, what – ’
‘Six years,’ says Abuelita, flatly. ‘I’d say it’s nice to see you again, but I’m afraid I’ve run out of lies for the week. Maybe I should attend Mass this Sunday to restock.’
A tart smile appears over Roberto’s face. ‘Lucas, when did you get back?’
I swallow. ‘About three weeks ago,’ I say. ‘Right before Thanksgiving.’
‘Oh,’ he says, shifting his feet as he looks at the floor. He avoids eye contact. ‘You should’ve let me know…we could’ve…I mean, it’s Thanksgiving, y’know? Why not spend it with…your family…’ He breaks off into inaudible murmurs, still staring at the floor before he blinks and looks up at me, as though waiting for an explosive response. I don’t give in.
‘Right,’ I say, calmly. The invitation is merely one of those ‘the thought is nice’ things to say, I can read, instead of it being a genuine thing he wanted. I turn to look at my sisters, who are sitting down and watching all three of us in ill-disguised greed, watching their own personal soap opera unravel before their eyes. I do not give them any satisfaction, either. ‘I’m sure Percy has told you everything we know?’
‘Yes,’ he says, nodding as he glances at Percy. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t call, Lucas. You’re the man of the house.’
If there’s one thing I forgot about the man is that he is an expert at laying down bait. ‘Service in the hospital is shitty,’ I say, wagging my phone. ‘Besides, Percy got to it, so I figured you didn’t need me to call you and repeat the same thing.’
It’s a sobering thought what cancer and chemo-therapy can do to someone. An inclusion of humility, a dash of sorrow, a pinch of regret…cancer can fell the greatest monsters of the ancient world, and chemo-therapy can shrink them to the size of a golf ball. If they survive, at least, and there is not a hint of surprise that Roberto has done just that: survive.
‘Lucas Alexander Jarquin?’ A voice, stern, calm, floated over to us, it’s owner emerging milliseconds later in the form of a short, bespectacled man wearing dark blue scrubs and a white hospital lab coat.
‘That’s me,’ I say, turning from Roberto to the man.
‘Dr. Harris,’ he says, his hands folding neatly in front of him. ‘I’m your mother’s doctor.’
‘Oh, good, you have news then?’ asks Percy, leaping to her feet.
‘Yes, I have news,’ he says, clearing his throat. ‘Your mother did indeed have a seizure. Two, actually, about ten minutes apart, but we were able to get her under control.’
‘What is causing the seizures?’ asks Abuelita.
Realizing the look on Dr. Harris’ face, I turn to speak to him. ‘Her mother, Maria.’
‘Good, good, she has all her family here,’ says Dr. Harris. ‘Well, Maria – ’ I wince slightly; hearing the name of my Abuelita spoken on someone’s tongue is a rarity that I can never get used to. ‘- the thing about seizures is that anything can cause them. If I had to make a guess based off the last time I saw her a few weeks ago, I’d say stress. Or maybe eating habits. Lack of sleep. Is she sleeping well?’
‘Yes, like a baby,’ replies Abuelita. They still share Mother’s room until we finish setting up the garage for her interim room. ‘She sleeps more than I do and I’m an old woman.’
‘Okay, well, is work stressing her out? Is she working on a hard case right now? She works as a paralegal, right?’
‘Not that I know of,’ says Percy, shaking her head. ‘I work with her in the same legal firm, and we’re not working on anything too tough right now. If anything, with the holidays coming, it’s surprisingly dead.’
Dr. Harris frowned, then cleared his throat again. ‘Well, does she eat at least twice a day? Sometimes, especially with tumors like the one your mother has, something as small as a disruption in her eating habit can trigger an episode like this.’
‘I cook for her all the time,’ I reply, calmly. ‘I force her to eat least eat twice.’
Dr. Harris’ frown became slightly more prominent, but he cleared his throat again. ‘Well, we’ll have to run more tests to have a better understanding of what triggered these seizures, and I would like to keep her overnight, maybe two nights, for observation.’
‘Can we see her?’
Dr. Harris stared at Roberto, an eyebrow raised; I feel a hint of obscure information floating around the doctor’s head, as though he knows something about Roberto that he isn’t willing to share.
‘Immediate family only,’ says Dr. Harris, firmly. He stands up straight, as though he’s being pulled up like a puppet, before speaking again. ‘Two at a time.’
‘We’ll go first,’ says Abuelita as she grabs me by the arm. ‘Show us to her room, Dr. Harris, please.’
‘Right this way,’ says Dr. Harris as he begins to walk.
Abuelita pulls me along with her, and I turn to face my sisters. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ I say, and as my eyes fall onto Roberto, I nod my head. No words. Silent farewell.
I turn to Abuelita, following the doctor a few hallways later, and we enter the room to see Mother, her thick, curly hair sprawled across the white pillow. Wires with suction cups stick to her skin underneath a loose, blue hospital gown, and they are attached to various monitors. Her eyes look swollen and are closed; her chest rises and falls with the sounds of sleep.
‘She must have fallen asleep the moment I left her,’ says Dr. Harris. ‘She’s had a very long night. I’ll give you two some space.’
Abuelita leans over her daughter and kisses her on the forehead lightly, tears welling up in her eyes as she holds her daughter’s hand. ‘I will take care of you, mija,’ she says, nodding. ‘Te lo juro, mijita. Te lo juro.’
She turns to sit down and I stand over Mother, looking at her. She looks so peaceful. I take her hand in my face, soft, warm, smelling of vanilla and cucumber, and kiss her on the cheek, before turning to sit down next to Abuelita as she fishes in her bag.
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ I say, watching Mother sleep.
Abuelita nods, sobbing, as she reaches over to grab my hand…and information passes through me from her like a jolt of electricity; I feel it, I see it – a little cross, her index finger over her middle, a drop of blood being flung at his feet, a quick flick of her wrist, and a few sparks shoot out. And then the doctor’s words:
‘Immediate family only…two at a time…’
I pull away and stare at Abuelita, watching her in disbelief as she cleans her insulin case nonchalantly. Nausea, like a bowling ball dropping into my stomach, fills me cold with dread. I’ve seen this before, somewhere. To force someone, to wrench away their free will. Like taking candy from a baby…
‘You worry too much,’ says Abuelita, not looking up. ‘The Gods always require a blood sacrifice, I’ve told you that. I’m doing what I can to help my family.’
I don’t reply. My head feels light and my mouth feels dry. Maybe I made the whole thing up. She didn’t force anything, not the doctor. Abuelita just wouldn’t be that person. And, besides, didn’t the Gods themselves warn us against things like that?
Interventionist magic. The thought alone sends chills down my spine.
‘Lucas…’ Abuelita’s voice is like gravel now, rough, harsh, dashing my thoughts to pieces as she continues. ‘I don’t think this was caused by something natural.’
I turn to look at Mother, and if I squint closely enough, I can almost see a grey, silver shimmer about her, around her head. I blink and it’s gone.
‘Maybe,’ I say, trying to squint again. I see nothing this time, and I sigh.
Above the low hum of the fluorescent lighting and the beeping of the machine, I can hear the wind rustle against the leaves…