By Michele Wolfe
September 1991 - The fierce kiss of heat on your skin reminds you that you forgot the sunscreen. And a hat. Except that you hate hats. An unexpected getaway weekend on the 10 Freeway east left LA behind. Past suburbs sprawled with malls, resort towns and finally your destination. Desert dotted sparsely with a strange-looking plant you’ve been told is called Joshua tree. Unsure of its appeal, you’ve spent an afternoon hiking sand and rock hills; a first date of sorts. Now as the horizon shimmers in your view out the car window, your bare arms and legs beginning to turn pink, you decide the desert has met with your approval.
You are not alone, yet not quite part of the group. Which is perfectly fine with you. Home base is a small house of friends of a friend. You’ll be sleeping on the floor like everyone else and taking a turn at preparing a meal. You are worn out after the hike. Hoping for a shower.
You are pulled aside while everyone else heads to the kitchen. Your friend places a pink while-you-were-out message in your hand. “Important. Call tonight.” You don’t recognize the number but sit down and dial it in the shadowed hall away from the boisterous gathering in the other room.
A woman answers the phone. You recognize the voice. She went to a lot of trouble to track you down. She gets right to the point. “He’s been arrested.” Your brain stops at that one word, hovering over it, not able to fully grasp the situation. You miss details of the what and how while you force yourself to get a grip. “And now?” is what it comes down to. “We wait for the charges in court Monday morning.” “I’ll be there,” you say without thinking. “You don’t have to. I’m taking care of it. He didn’t want you to know. But I thought you should.” “No, I’ll be there.”
A panic button has gone off inside you. Your hands tremble as you hang up the phone. Your little retreat is blown to pieces now. There is no rest, no meditation, no walking trails, no drinking wine and sharing meals on your weekend agenda anymore.
You picture where he is, how he is. How alone he feels. Whatever happened must be a huge mistake. You see him bloodied, beaten at worst; taunted, bullied most likely. You tell your imagination not to run wild, but you can’t rein it in. It keeps taking you down the dead end street of a nightmare scene straight out of “American Me.”
Something snaps inside you, taking over. You get in that mode. The one where you have a mission and you will not be deterred. Where feelings and tears are put on hold because you have no damn time for them. Where you will do whatever it takes to get where you need to be.
You approach your hosts and tell them there is an emergency and you have to get back home. Your ride here isn’t leaving until Monday morning and that will be too late. The couple nod with understanding. Friends of theirs are going to LA tomorrow and they get on the phone and call without hesitation to secure you a lift. You don’t question the generosity, the timing. The universe has seen your determination and is making this happen.
You get a little drunk because it’s the only way you are going to sleep. Your dreams are filled with images of him cold and hungry, surrounded by steel bars, concrete floors, hard, angry faces. Trapped with bully sticks, artificial light, sweaty, stinky air.
You wake on the living room rug, your sleeping bag suffocating and hot. It’s still dark outside the window, so you rinse your face, brush your teeth, pull back your hair and wait.
You can’t even attempt the social niceties on the car ride back no matter how grateful you are. And the next night and day, another excruciating interim that leaves you bereft, on edge. You call her to get the address, reassure her you are still going. You tell no one, even though you desperately want to. Who would listen and not judge? You can’t think of anyone.
In the morning you put on the one nice outfit in your meager wardrobe. Simple black skirt and blouse. You’ve inserted yourself into this drama and you want to look your best. You’ve asked directions and written them down on a post-it. You end up in a small city you’ve never heard of, let alone been to before, in the vastness that is Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs.
First his mom, then his sister greet you, hug you. You don’t know what to say and neither do they. In the courtroom, you sit in the back like you do in church or school, and watch as he’s escorted in. Blue scrubs-like uniform, hair messed, he spies you and is visibly shaken, shamed that you are seeing him like this. At his lowest. You try to concentrate on what the judge is saying. The legalese is a blur. Fissures split your insides.
This is a test of sorts. Life is taking your measure. It would be so easy to walk away.
Three felonies brought down to a misdemeanor. Community service. If he were white you would understand the judge’s ruling. 72 hours after that phone call you wait outside the courthouse to see him, sinking down onto a concrete bench because your legs refuse to hold you up any longer. A rough edge scrapes the sunburn still there.
July 1993 - You end a call with your mother with reassurances like you always do. That’s when the pain starts small but sharp, just as you’ve been warned. Even though you are expecting it, still, it’s a surprise.
Excitement and a bit of panic ensue. The car ride jostles, every LA pothole in evidence. Crisp awareness of the bearded filthy, homeless man, the clothes on brightly colored hangers lining a fence, the bass boom rap song from one car and the Norteño from another, distract you.
It’s all bustle when you arrive. Air rushing and hurried strides. Hands, machines, check you out. A kind but crusty voice gives you instructions. “Go home. It’s not time.”
A day passes. You pace the living room. Take a dozen walks around the block. You are so done with the swollen feet, the heat. You want your body back.
Lying on the couch in the late morning, you are coaxed to eat something. Hours later after drifting off for a while, your body rejects the couple bites you’d managed. As you stand over the bathroom sink, the mirror’s stark reality softens no edges. You are a bundle of messiness churning round. You wish you could vomit and get it out of your system like you did the apple pancake.
You aren’t ready. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. You need more time to be a couple before you become three.
You remember that twilight when he reached for you as you were picking up around the house. Pulled you to the bedroom, devouring you whole. You should’ve said something.
Jeans peeled off, thrown on the floor, fast and furious. You should’ve told him not to come inside you. Even as desire peaked. But then it was over, his rough breath and your pounding heart subsiding in the incipient dark. And it was too late.
Where were the condoms? Where was your voice?
All those days after the pink plus on the stick, as you lay on the bed for hours in the afternoon, were what? You’d drift between consciousness and half dreams, towed under with shaking limbs, a child’s laughter from next door like musical notes through the open windows.
None of this comes up in conversation because he doesn’t ask the right questions.
Six months in, you rose out of the stupor. Now you have it all planned. Your idyllic childhood will be hers, your way. Open-faced toasted cheese sandwiches at a different kitchen table. You don’t have to give up your work, your life, you.
The sun beats down upon the southern facing windows so you retreat to the other side of the house. You’ve resorted to Scrabble for distraction. Tiny wooden squares litter the kitchen table. Even with Z played on a triple letter score and your word zither, he wins. You challenge him to another game and that’s when the pains return in earnest. You breathe deeply and that helps. A little. Not enough.
Swearing, he scrambles to make phone calls, lock the house, help you into the front seat of the truck because it’s too high for you to manage with the belly that is not you. You are in a dream, floating above, watching the lights turn green yellow red, the traffic creep, the pedestrians oblivious.
Some time later you’re vaguely aware of the beeping monitor, the gown covering you, the childbirth scenes from movies are you now. A party has gathered in your room. Lots of joking, sharing stories, laughter that you hear, but don’t hear. Hands grip your hands. He sits behind you rubbing your back because somehow it hurts worse there.
A woman in the next room is screaming with effort. You, however, go inward with each new wave. You push, you fight. You push again and again. Broad shoulders are causing a hold up. You don’t think you can do it anymore. But with the tearing of flesh, he slides forth into the world. You were so sure it was she, but you were wrong.
Looking at him, the way it is supposed to be slinks away, shamed. The should haves follow.
September 2015 - A mix of ugly 80’s style houses, two-story beige apartment buildings and nondescript windowless office spaces stretch over the blocks of this LA neighborhood. You have to search the numbers spray-painted on the curb to find the right place. Luckily this time of day, there is plenty of parking on the street.
The building appears rather ordinary. Trees and shrubs lining its perimeter, partially masking its features, show a gardener’s care. A standard iron fence surrounds the property. An intercom waits at the gate. A male voice asks for a name. You clear your throat and give it, then you are buzzed in. Posted reminders command the door be properly closed behind you.
If you weren’t paying attention, it’s in your face now. You fight the feeling you are sinking. You want to believe everything is going to be fine, but your heart is on pause.
You are not alone. A reassuring squeeze of his hand in yours only just resonates. Though faint, it tethers you to him like a thread of mycelia.
Faded umbrellas over empty blue plastic-coated tables and benches dot a concrete courtyard. It’s difficult to imagine anyone relaxing here. But those thoughts are fleeting. Up the ramp, through an open doorway, to the counter. You now have a face to the voice. It’s unremarkable, no reassuring smile, just another someone doing their job.
Next to you, he talks to the face, cracks a joke. This is his coping mechanism. Sometimes it bugs the hell out of you. Today, you smile, because no matter what, you aren’t going to be the one who breaks down. You politely answer questions, hand over the backpack full of books and socks and underwear that you packed. You mistakenly thought you would get to give it to him. You sign the log sheet, put your purse in a locker.
Another open doorway to your right leads to a waiting area. Comfortable-looking sofas, beech wood tables, armchairs in matching solid and patterned shades of green await. Nothing about this place looks sterile. But you can’t stop seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest transposed over it all anyway.
Sitting down together you wait, because as usual, you are the first ones to arrive. He hates being late.
More people show up. No one looks you in the eye, taking seats with plenty of open space between. No one speaks much. Eavesdropping would be a welcome distraction because now the questions are beginning to surface. “How did this happen? How did I not know?”
A couple in their late sixties, dressed in the simple dark clothes of the older generation of working class immigrants, argue softly in what sounds like Russian or Armenian.
A well coiffed Latino couple, followed by a young boy, perhaps twelve years old, sits next to the windows. The boy stares out into the late afternoon light at the empty courtyard. You guess this is the last place he wants to be right now and you wonder what kind of parent would bring their kid here.
A large woman in a loose fitting dress and pumps on swollen feet lugs in bags of stuff and dumps it on the floor next to the chair she settles in. She checks her watch. Reaches into one bag, rearranging, organizing. Checks the time again.
He starts up a conversation with her. “Is this your first time here?” She hesitates, “Yes. My brother… I didn’t know what to bring him. So I figured more was better. And I brought food, you know. Just in case.” She looks from him to me, back to him again. “What about you?” It’s his turn to hesitate. “First time, too.”
She returns to the entrance with the bags, handing them over to man at the desk, her face a mix of worry and uncertainty that probably mirrors yours because you couldn’t hold on to the smile anymore. She’s joined by two newcomers to this little group that has formed. She thanks them for coming and they nod solemnly with words of reassurance that fall short of doing their job in this place.
A pitched voice gets your attention. “Follow me please and we’ll go up.”
A key opens the elevator door as you approach. Dread surfaces. “What will you say? What will you do?” It is crowded in the elevator, the silence heavy upon you. What you have in common with this group can’t be named, spoken. You grip his hand. A collective gathering of strength, of breath, happens in the group as the elevator rises, as you watch the elevator doors open.
Finally, here are the clinical walls, desk, people you were expecting.
A woman whose nametag says Nancy directs you to the waiting area, an outside patio. Random mismatched chairs, a wood bench, an industrial metal-slatted enclosure that somehow manages to let in the crisp air of twilight.
A twenty-something man in a pale blue hospital gown, barefoot, comes through the doors. Red swollen eyes and trembling limbs. The bag woman rises. This is the brother. His pale back and buttocks show through the opening of the gown as he is folded into her arms. It is a moment so intimate you tell yourself to look away, give them privacy, but you can’t. Your heart expands. You hope it is the last time she will have to come here. To do this.
A sixty-something petite woman is next. You mistake her for a visitor until you notice the beige pants and top that reminds you of prison inmate uniforms. The older couple greets her. The man, awkward, embarrassed, shuffles his feet, but woman to woman, hands are held.
A teenage girl follows next, stark defiance set in her features. She ambles over to the corner where her family waits. Recriminations come in whispered lashes and blame jumps around like a game of hot potato. You want to yell at them to stop. It’s instinctual, this tendency to tell other parents how to parent. Another squeeze of his hand on yours says he knows what you are thinking.
You wait. The universality of tragedy occupies this space, at home here. You shudder.
The door opens. Your breath catches. It’s your turn. The play button has been pushed.
Your embrace is neither shallow nor quick. You hold on to your man-child like you would a life preserver. Other arms come around you both. You are a circle of three in the middle of chaos.
For the next hour you listen. To the frustration. To the “Fuck this!” You request a private room and the doctor finally arrives. The tale of how you all got to this place comes in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. You hear things you wished you’d known before. If you’d known, you could’ve done something, you convince yourself.
In the end, there is nothing you can do to change where you all are at this moment. You have to walk away; you don’t get to stay and he can’t leave. The metal gate clangs shut behind you.
July 2017 - A doctor and nurse come in to the room where the six of you wait. Windows along the wall let in the morning light, a view of blue skies and cotton ball clouds. You’ve been mentally preparing for the past 72 hours and are convinced you’re ready. But your throat is closed so tight no words are allowed voice. So you shake hands, sit when offered a seat in the circle of matching chairs, and clutch tightly an already ragged tissue that won’t last much longer. You eye the Kleenex box on the small table next to you.
The end-of-life counselor reads from the advanced directive and asks, “How do you all feel about this?” You listen to the varied responses that say the same thing. Our family doesn’t do drama or arguments. If this is what she wanted, who are we to disagree? You remain silent, as there is nothing you care to share with this odd mix of family and medical professional strangers.
You are the only one who wants to remain in the room when life support is removed. You move in slow motion down the hall into her room, from brilliant sunlight to shrouded semi-darkness. Piped in mellow music and a light spread of fruit, cookies and thermoses of coffee and tea have appeared since you were here not more half an hour ago. It is horrible. Strangely comforting. The curtain closes around the bed. Time slows, a loud pounding thumps in your ears. You know this moment for what it is. A passing from life, however artificial, these last days have been.
The doctor pulls the tracheal tube out, while the nurse wipes her mouth. The IVs are already gone, and she is settled more comfortably in the bed. Your focus on her heart. Her lungs. You can see the slightest movement of her gown. Then you look at her pink toes peeking out from the sheet at the bottom of the bed. She loved pedicures.
The rest join you round the bed. Taking turns, you caress her forehead, whisper words in her ear, kiss her cheek, the one you’ve kissed a thousand times, probably more. Sometimes it takes up to five minutes before the body completely shuts down. You wait like one of those heart-wrenching scenes from Grey’s Anatomy.
Through this fog, you notice someone has joined you at the bedside. Looks familiar but you can’t quite remember a name. You hear the click, click of rosary beads. A voice begins praying aloud, something about all the saints taking her soul up to heaven.
You want this person gone. You want her in-your-face beliefs that aren’t your own out of here. You are insulted that she has intruded on this most intimate of spaces. The final moments. You demand this person leave, not sorry at all. There is no room for that here.
You sink into a chair, scooting it closer so you can hold her hand. Your thumb rubs her wrist. You feel the minutes. Her skin is less pink, paler. Except where the IV line was. The bruising there appears black. There is no more movement under the sheet.
All of a sudden you want to leave. You haven’t slept well the past couple of nights, more tired than you have ever been before. A headache starts at the base of your neck. From deep in your purse you retrieve your phone and text him. “She is gone.” He has been waiting for word from you and immediately answers with “I love you. Come home.”
The others are whispering now, hugging, drying their eyes. You are given a cup of tea and sip gratefully. Already wondering how much a flight out at the last minute will cost you. It doesn’t really matter.
You look at the faces in the room. Faces you’ve known all your life. Differences have threatened to separate you in the past but you have patiently held on. And here you are together at this time and place for this reason and you understand it will be this tie that holds you together. You can’t walk away from this unscathed.
There is more that you have to endure before this is over. “What happens to her body? Will you donate any of her organs to science?” “When does the mortuary pick her up? When will the cremation take place?” “When will you have the memorial service?” With death there are so many questions. Arrangements.
With a final look at a body gone cold, where she no longer is, you walk out to find a group of people in the family waiting area. People of your past, your growing up years, that you no longer have much in common with. They say things like “She’s in a much better place now” and you wish they would shut up and say nothing.
When you are finally able to break away, you breathe deep. Walking out the doors wakes you from the surreal you fell into. The afternoon clouds hang low now, no longer puffs, just streaks of grey across the sky.