The main character is already dead when the novel begins and loved ones he has left behind, connecting various pieces of his writing together, attempt to tell his story. The life of the youngest of his mourners, a girl barely twenty, will be changed significantly thanks to a journey he posthumously sends her on.
GATE of HEAVEN
John J. Healey
Jeremy called from Granada a few days before the film wrapped – a big dumb American adventure-drama shot mostly in and around Cartagena. I was related to him once through my first marriage and we had stayed in touch over the years. He was ensconced once again in his little carmen in the Albaicín and had brought over a crate of cranberries from his family bogs in Massachusetts. He was going to roast some partridges and break out some good C.U.N.E Reserva and he wanted me to come. He also mentioned that Inmaculada would be there. It had been three years since our divorce. I booked a room at the Alhambra Palace and made a point of calling Lala who I usually slept with when passing that way. Once I approved the last pile of Panavision invoices and said goodbye to what remained of the crew I rented a car and drove to Granada.
My first thought when I arrived five hours later and found Inmaculada sitting at the long dinner table was how wonderful she looked. She wore a black sleeveless dress and was smoking a cigarette while nursing a glass of red wine. It felt good being back there. The framed, mil-dewed poster for Cerveza Victoria I had first seen in Jeremy's old finca on the outskirts of Malaga when I was nineteen still adorned the mozarabe entranceway. The fireplaces were burning rough hewn chunks of olive wood. The fountain in the patio with its cypress tree and little lemon tree was working and the outdoor lights were still just simple bulbs hidden behind little wicker baskets nailed into the bricks. The only major change was that the living room had been moved upstairs enabling one to sit between bookshelves jammed with old, orange jacketed Penguin paperbacks, the Alhambra and the Generalife lit up across the way.
Jeremy was somewhat stouter and grayer than when I had last seen him. He was in the kitchen drinking and cooking while aiming a monologue at some guests he had found in a bar down the street. He often enjoyed regaling academically minded tourists with arcane facts about Spanish history not found in guide books. These three, an American couple wearing matching Timberland boots and a wispy bearded Brit professor who was laughing a tad too loud were ideal. Inmaculada had not moved since I came in. She stayed put amused to watch me complete the round of obligatory pleasantries before I was able to settle next to her.
As the night progressed in three different languages we managed to actually flirt with each other and catch up a bit without getting too specific. I made it clear I had been unattached the past few months and I figured she might be over someone too. It would explain the more relaxed and playful attitude she was taking with me that contrasted rather sharply with how it had been the last time we saw each other. Spending time apart, with oceans and continents and other relationships between us, and then coming together again with heat, had been something we had excelled at once upon a time.
Later, as dawn broke, I watched her sleep. Naked. Smooth. Content. She lay on her stomach with her face turned towards the window. I saw she was not her usual, emaciated self. She had filled out a little and it had only added to her beauty. Retracing the way her slender back narrowed before gently blossoming into the hillocks of her ass gave me another erection. Her thighs and my cock and the sheets were dried with blood from her period. I remembered with a smile, how after leaving Jeremy's she had made it clear during the walk down through the narrow streets that we were not to have sex. Sleeping in the same bed together would be fine she had said, but nothing else. It would be pointless for her to do that she had said. I had agreed to her terms with equanimity. I told her that would be fine, that the pleasure of seeing her again and the idea of being able to collapse and talk would be more than enough. But once we reached her apartment and closed the door that had been that.
I put my nose close to her skin. She smelled like laundered linens drying in the open air with an underscent of oysters on ice. I kissed the little hollow between her shoulder blades where three lone freckles mimicked Orion's belt and cleared some of her thick black hair away from her face. She did not stir.
I showered and washed my hair with her shampoo and rinsed out my mouth with some of her toothpaste. Snooping in her medicine cabinet I found antibiotics, anti-depressants, collerium and condoms. Drying off with a faded towel monogrammed with our initials I realized the small chest of drawers across from the sink, cluttered with necklaces and painted Indian jewelry boxes, had been a wedding present from my step-mother. I remembered the trip we had taken to visit her in Palm Beach years earlier, just before I had left Inmaculada that first time, barely seven months after we got married. How young and shy she had been then and how anxiously she had behaved on the flight down from New York. How dark she got in the sun. How peculiar and sexy it had felt to swim with her out in front of the house in the unpleasantly warm Atlantic waves frothy with snottish seaweed, her tiny bikini startling the ambient Republicans, and then making love with her afterwards when she was anything but shy in the dense afternoon heat in that ghastly, leopard-skin bedroom we had been given with such fan fare; while the cat watched; while my step-mother played golf with her relatives from Missouri; while the Cuban maid walked the dogs.
I wrapped the towel around me and looked at the rest of the apartment. The windows in the main room looked through a maze of tiled roofs and antennas. Her computer had a neatly draped Liberty scarf covering it and two thick dictionaries resting by it. At least half the books in her shelves were mine. It was odd seeing them again. One of them had sentimental value, a hard back edition of Finnegan's Wake that had been in my parents' apartment in the Bronx since I could remember. I had never been able to explain how it first got there. No one in my family had ever been literary minded to such an extent and yet there it had been and when I had left home romantically cathected to Joyce as only a sixteen year old might be I took it with me, and here it had been with Inmaculada all these years just off the Calle Recogidas.
When my mother dies I do not cry. I already know it has happened. My father takes me into the kitchen in the apartment overlooking the rust colored Harlem River near the gray, schist veined, heavy stoned Washington Bridge under whose vast, damp arches I play with dirty local boys. It is spring and clean spring light comes through the window. It is 1956 and I am still in the little world I was born to. My father is still a dark haired, handsome Irishman in a white shirt and black knit tie. He starts to cry as he speaks the words. I look at him and then look down at the floor.
Inmaculada was sixteen when I first saw her. She worked for her father in the afternoons to earn spending money. Slight and alert and well groomed she would answer the door to the consulta in a white lab coat and show patients to the waiting room. If it was the first visit she would direct you to a dark, book lined office and take your history.
The waiting room and the office where the case histories were taken, as well as the family living quarters I would later come to know, were decorated in a style large segments of the Spanish population chose to reflect their ascendance from meaner times. Back in those days (the late 70's) the region's simpler, noble furnishings could only be found in antique stores or in the country homes of aristocrats or in houses carefully restored by discerning foreigners. Inmaculada's family who had suffered with that kind of furniture as witness associated them with a past of precarious opportunity, had abandoned them as earnings accrued, replacing them with kitsch. Porcelain lamps shaped like oriental wise men complimented sofas and easy chairs covered in a petroleum based, fake leather that stuck to skin in the warm months. Acrylic still-lives depicting shiny fruit and poorly imagined Nordic landscapes hung near factory-made coffee tables produced to emulate a tradesman's view of Iberian splendor. The office and the apartment occupied the third floor of a new building considered desirable and sophisticated by the bourgeoisie of Granada. It commanded a corner where what used to be called the Avenida Calvo Sotelo met the Avenida de Madrid just as it rose up towards the roads to Jaen and to Múrcia. Further up this street was the medical school and teaching hospital, some of which had been built during the years of the Republic and some of which had been built in the early years of the dictatorship. The older parts were curvy and romantic, the more recent additions rectangular and dour.
It is raining hard in spring and I stand in the dissection hall of the Anatomy Department. I wear a surgical mask and latex gloves. I am recently divorced and poor and seeing three women at the same time. I earn my living teaching English and performing these autopsies every afternoon for a professor writing a textbook on neonatal deformations. The hall is cavernous and covered with beige tiles. It has tall, narrow, arched windows like those one might find in a cathedral. Rising up from the floor like baptismal fonts stretched flat are eight dissection tables that stand in a row, made from marble with shiny brass drains. Cabinets line the far wall containing old transparent apothecary jars where amber toned fetuses float in suspension next to large wooden mock-ups of organs once used for instruction. Each piece is a different color and each has a little hook and eye to hold it to the next … the lungs, the liver, the eye, the heart. Today's still-born girl rests upon a green sterile cloth placed in a Pyrex baking dish. I have cut and pulled down the skin just above her forehead. I have opened her skull. I have carefully severed and lifted her little brain into my hands. I am just about to weigh it. I turn to the nearest window which is open to the rain and look out across an empty lot where a family of Gypsies stand about a fire holding bits of cardboard above their heads. I see the bull ring, wet and closed. All the trees are heavy with blossoms.
Nina was in her fifth month when we first came to that office. We had not yet decided whether to have the baby in New York or whether to stay and have it there where we had been living the better part of three years. We had settled in a small primitive village nestled high up on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The northern slopes one saw from Granada were bare and forbidding and covered with snow the year round. But this village, part of the Alpujarras, faced the Mediterranean and clung to fertile, terraced fields worked by tough, wiry farmers in corduroy suits who plowed the earth behind mules shaped liked thoroughbreds. The earth was irrigated by a labyrinth of stone hewn locks and canals laid out by Moors in the 15th Century. Chestnut trees and blackberry thickets lined the mountain paths. Goats and children roamed the steep village streets. The houses had flat roofs covered with a mixture of mud and slate dust that gave off a violet hue after it rained.
Nina and I would awaken in the morning breathing crystalline air, listening to the gush of a nearby stream. We would stare up at the whitewashed ceiling dense with wooden beams and cross sprats jammed with stones, and know that we were living an adventure. A trust fund left by a grandfather long gone and disbursed by an accountant who ate lunch at his desk everyday on Wall Street, made it all possible. The invisible funds arrived at our little bank each month permitting me to read Proust and Gibbons and Henry James and to respond to them with copious pages of my own mediocre, pretentious prose. It allowed me to escape the gravitational pull of my upbringing and to strike poses carefully wrought from books. It permitted Nina, the actual heiress, to paint naive visions of village life and to decorate the four hundred year old house with Marimeko curtains and velvet backed cushions from Bonwit Tellers. Local cats sipped milk on the front steps from one of our Cartier soup bowls. In January our neighbors who could not read would set up a table just meters away from their front door where they would put screaming pigs to the knife. Then they would burn the epidermis and gut them, emptying the blood into plastic vats used on other days for laundry.
Nina and I would go for long walks in the afternoons with our Tibetan dogs and we would listen to the BBC at night by the fire or attend dinner parties at houses owned by other expatriates from England and Sweden. And we would walk home after these meals under perfectly clear constellations and hear the Poqueira river below charged with melting snow rushing between smoothened boulders in the blackness of the night. Once a week we would drive an hour south to the coast to have a proper lunch at the beach or we would drive north to Granada to raid a modern supermarket and buy a Paris Herald to read while soaking in the large tubs at the gloomy and once grand Hotel Victoria. This affable life had persisted for eight years marking similar rhythms in Manhattan, Eastern Long Island, Italy, and now Spain. It would last just a little longer still.
I'm driving south through the orange groves of Béznar. My car is a third hand, roofless, doorless, fiberglass bodied jeep. It is June and twilight and the air is thick with the scents of citrus flowers. The roadside orange and honey stands are closed. The big trucks have stopped hauling. I have the winding road to myself. Inmaculada and Papé are staying in an apartment on the beach in Salobreña. We have been joking for weeks about sleeping together. When it was just the two of them in my class we would leave the apartment and drive to the Sierra or to the Generalife and have literary conversations that inevitably turned to sex The earth was warming that month and sex was everywhere. That morning I had risen from Madeleine's bed, an equestrian from the Swiss-Italian border, blond and stunning, who had been aloof for weeks only to give in last night, suddenly and intensely at her family's cortijo in the Vega . The night before I had stayed again with the Saudi born nurse from Cádiz whose orgasms I had lost count of. But these two I am to visit now have been the most compelling of all, these virginal bourgeois nymphs determined to embrace the taboo I represent ( the other, the foreigner, el rubio con los ojos azules, el divorciado). They have clearly made a pact. I have never managed to see either of them without the other being present.
Inmaculada's father was known to the foreign community as the best gynecological obstetrician around. He was an attractive, energetic man who had trained in the States and who spoke English. The two rooms most clearly his, the examination room and a small supply room that also served as a laboratory, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Both these rooms were modern to a flaw and intimately associated with his progressive points of view. What fueled a restlessness and a sense of disquiet that moved just beneath his amiable exterior was the fact that he straddled two worlds; the world of American medicine where he might have stayed and prospered, and the older world of his wife and their respective families still anchored to the villages outside the provincial capital, a world that had drawn him back and bound him with responsibilities.
I leave Béznar behind. Soon the Mediterranean will appear, just before dark, and I will come down through the sugar cane and the avocado groves, and I will park on the beach, and I will find their apartment, small and badly decorated, and I will have them both tonight, all through the night, and it will be sweet and dear and as full of life as life can be, and the three of us will swim before dawn and have chocolate and churros for breakfast at the chiringuito up the beach, and within the month the two girls will cease to be friends and Inmaculada will have coaxed me into seeing her alone…
We had come down to Granada from the mountains a few days before and settled into the hotel. It was February and the almond trees were in flower but it was still cold and it rained every night. Nina was determined to delay the birth by force of will until her mother and grandmother arrived from New York, but her water broke late one night ahead of schedule. I called and awakened Salvador who told us to proceed to the clinic saying he would follow in a few hours' time.
The car was parked in front of the hotel but aimed into a one way thoroughfare. A Russian circus was in town and some in the company had checked into the Victoria as well. Exiting the elevator I saw the night watchman deep in conversation with two impeccably dressed midgets smoking cigars and drinking Cognac. Once appraised of the situation they ran out onto the avenue and held up traffic until I executed a U-turn, startling drivers on their way home from discotheques and assignations.
The clinic was housed in what had been a 17th Century palace. We stood under an umbrella on wet cobblestones knocking on the massive wooden door until a frail and elderly nun managed to open it and beckon us in. We followed her across a patio that had a fountain and potted orange trees and up a flight of marble stairs. We were shown to a room with two simple beds and a crucifix on the wall. At dawn a midwife strode in with forearms like clubs and flaming red hair and a long white apron sprinkled with blood. She produced a metal device shaped like a small conical drum that narrowed into a twisting tubular probe a good six inches long. Never had we doubted so much our cavalier rejection of Lenox Hill Hospital with its views of Park Avenue and staff of Ivy League doctors strolling the halls in tasseled loafers. But the tubular end of the probe went to the ruddy ear of the midwife and the conical end was placed gently upon Nina's abdomen and the massive woman listened carefully and told us with a warm smile that all was well. As we waited for the baby to come in the delivery room - Salvador and I suited up in scrub gowns and masks and as Nina lay in a sweat on the verge of becoming a mother - Salvador told us how it had been the birth of his daughter that had brought him back to Spain.
It is ninety degrees and she is eighteen and we lie together in my bedroom that overlooks the Paseo de los Tristes. Summer has reduced the river to a stream that runs low over rocks and trash under the steep green shadows of the Alhambra. "I remember you perfectly," she says, "I had a huge crush on you. And I always made a point of working the days you were scheduled to come in." "I only remember the way you asked each question," I say, " Very carefully, and then the way your hair fell forward each time you lowered your head to write down an answer." "I don't believe you." she says. "I could tell you were smart," I say. "And I tried to imagine what you looked like under that white coat and those jeans." "You are such a liar," she says, thumping a fine, very young hand, on my chest. The actual word she uses is 'embustero', which means someone who lies to get what they want.
In Wichita Salvador's life had been a marathon of learning. He came to like the bad coffee and the egalitarian dining customs and he felt genuine admiration for his colleagues. But for his wife it had been very different. A fearful woman by nature with strong ties to a cluster of sisters addicted to catastrophe, Piedad's move to Kansas was a journey to Hades. Everything was foreign to her, from the split level brick house they lived in on a wide, clean street lined with shadeless saplings, to the sounds that woke her in the night; bobcats hunting and mating on the plains that began just two streets beyond their own and marital arguments operatically proclaimed in twangy American on the other side of the bedroom wall. She spoke no English and spent most of her time alone with her boys. She cried without warning and wrote long letters home asking for local gossip and for detailed news of loved ones while rarely including any observations of her life in Wichita not edged in despair. The pregnancy became her ticket home and after many fights she took her boys on the train to New York and from there by plane to Spain. Salvador remained, finishing his residency. He casually mentioned that when he first saw Inmaculada she was almost three years old.
I saw my own daughter take her very first breath half an hour later. I took her from Salvador and placed her into Nina's arms. And when she was swaddled a few minutes later and placed on a scale I took her hand the size of a dandelion and spoke to her very gently and solemnly, welcoming her to the land of the living.
Nina found a new purpose to her life and mine began to drift. We rented a house on the coast overlooking the bay above La Herradura to try and keep it all going. And it worked for a time. The winters were warmer and easier there. We went along for two more years sharing the baby, taking her around with us wherever we went. I sang her songs and took her for drives along the curves of the old Mediterranean highway when she cried and could not sleep. But I wrote less and felt like a drone out of season trapped in a tool shed flying dumbly against a pane of glass. Nina was content and replaced her painting with motherhood and with the reading of pseudo religious texts written by an Indian guru who claimed miraculous powers. She began to view the passions of the physical world with condescension and dismay. I missed romance and adventure, even as I grew embarrassed by my lack of accomplishment. I was spending too much time cleaning the fireplace, putting the baby's toys away, washing the car. Our sex life did not recover. By the time Nina began to notice it was too late. I went for long hikes up into the hills or out through the virginal, sylvan groves of the Cerro Gordo and thought of little else. And I thought more and more about medicine, about abandoning my fictional characters for some who walked and breathed.
I drive Salvador's sedan to the honeymoon suite Salvador is paying for. I have just married the man's only daughter. The car is powerful with an over torqued gear box that makes it hard to control. Inmaculada worries we will go too far without seeing any houses or signs of human habitation along the route. The open expanses of lush Andalusian countryside that gives me so much pleasure fill her with dread and tap into pools of terror she cannot explain. I pray a house or a bar might appear around the next bend. We are traveling to the sea and arrive at the Parador in Nerja in time for a late dinner. Upon our return to Granada our new apartment will be filled with wedding gifts from her father's grateful clients and from family members living in towns I will never visit. As we prepare to go to bed she starts to cry, inconsolably, and I realize I have a child bride. She is crying because she realizes it too and knows how it makes me feel. She is crying because having leaped from one man who had always protected her regardless of his aloofness, she is not sure I will catch her. And worse still she knows she will fight and deny and refuse anything resembling paternal care from me only to resent it when I cease trying. She takes more pills and falls asleep. She is lovely and slight and defenseless and the sight of her fills me with rapacious lust. I go out on the balcony and watch the night fishermen shine their lamps into the Mediterranean.
I became a doctor. My flat in the Arab quarter with the Alhambra view, where my bed rested on the floor and where my books leaned against each other in fruit crates, was replaced by a new apartment with a doorman and a parquet floor, just around the corner from my in-laws. On Saturdays we visited Inmaculada's brother, another doctor, at his house in the suburbs where we played with his children on an undersized lawn and sat half asleep in front of the television after lunch. On Sundays we ate with her parents who spoke to us but not to each other. Trips to the coast or up to the mountains always ran the risk of setting off an anxiety attack. She would encourage me to go alone, and when I did, she would hold it against me. My daughter would come to spend the odd weekend and Inmaculada would expend great energy to make her feel at home, and then resent it, and then feel guilty about it. Our fights were crushing. But desire never left us and most of our arguments ended in Inmaculada's high pitched groans grunted against doors and walls and the brass spars of our marriage bed.
I wore a tie to my classes in the mornings and to the dissection hall in the afternoons under my white lab coat. I gave up other women and ceased reading fiction altogether as the work demanded by my studies grew. I delivered children, assisted with minor surgeries, gave classes in anatomy to first year students.
We've loaded Inmaculada up on Mellaril and Valium and flown to New York to meet my family. We visit my father out in Southampton. He sits in the den in his red corduroy trousers sipping Budweiser, watching the Yankees, surrounded by framed photographs of his congressional years with JFK and Sam Rayburn and Tip O'Neill, immune to the blooming lilac bushes and to the early summer's light piercing the curtains. It is hard for him to speak. His cane is close by. He smiles at my new wife and I can tell he likes having us there. At my sister's insistence I take Inmaculada to the Beach Club where her being Spanish and pretty is more than enough to compensate for her lack of social pedigree. I introduce her to friends I have not seen for a long time. I take her to East Hampton and to Amagansett where closer friends live, relieved that the short journey is lined with houses for her to hold onto. She is shy, blushing easily and scared and overly polite to everyone but takes offense if her perfect but halting English is not immediately understood. I am the guide, the shepherd. She fumes at me by day and empties me by night. We visit my stepmother in Palm Beach where the heat is overwhelming and where the strain begins to tell. She wants to go home, earlier than planned. She says she wants to change her ticket, that I can remain if I want for the extra two weeks, and she means it, and I hear myself saying fine, alright, even as I know she will find a way to hold it against me because she cannot help it. We part at the airport back in New York. She looks especially sweet waving good bye from the Iberia gate in her red dress and straw hat, downing her pills with a little bottle of San Pellegrino.
After seeing her off at the airport I returned to East Hampton to stay with friends. Being able to move about on my own felt luxurious. I would bicycle to the ocean early in the morning to swim and read the paper and lay in the sun until the crowds began to arrive. In late afternoons I would play tennis with my hosts barefoot on the grass at the Maidstone Club or go sailing and then end up in the ocean again before sunset. Three days later I met Carol at a dinner party. She was out there acting in an independent film. She was a beautiful, healthy, blond, large breasted, long legged, hazel-eyed girl from Minnesota who had learned Manhattan and its ways without falling prey to its fatuousness and who liked dirtying her hands changing the oil of her truck, getting lost in the woods up around her place in the Catskills. She earned her living modeling bras for Bloomingdales and Bergdorf's that appeared in print ads in The New York Times, and got runway work in Paris and Milan, and catalog shoots in the Caribbean. She was straightforward and optimistic and worked all the time treating her modeling like a serious, honest job, the way a level headed girl with Norse genes from a family of carpenters might be expected to. She was Inmaculada's opposite and I moved in with her on a tree lined street near the Museum of Natural History.
I remained enrolled in medical school in Spain and when I returned there to take exams Inmaculada would disobey the counsel of her friends and sleep with me. But I was living in New York and working at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. During the day I worked in a lab investigating calcium metabolism and Hodgkin's Disease. On three evenings each week I went on rounds with the doctor who ran the lab and who had taken me under his wing. I grew used to the patients, the gaunt sallow-skinned ones in wheelchairs on their way to radiation therapy, the bald children with leukemia, and the tense professional women with breast cancer. The only patient that had upset me was a pretty Brazilian girl in her late teens with a bone tumor just below her left knee. We had gone into her room one afternoon to speak with her. She had come up from Sao Paulo to have her leg removed and she was eager for it to be over with. She was beautiful and looked even younger than her years. Her little gown swam on her and her face had become extremely thin. But she smiled the whole time we were there and talked in a slight, singsong voice spoken with the soft, swishing, nasal sounds of Samba ballads. Just before we left the attending physician decided to examine the tumor and in a quick movement he pulled back the sheet covering her legs.
Up to that point in my life cancer had been a silent killer, painful and arbitrary about who or when to strike, but its visual evidence had been largely confined to garish photographs in medical textbooks and to the wasting effects it had on its victims or to the effects brought about by the invasive tools used to fight it. With the exception of the tumors that disfigured the little mice in the lab I had never really seen a cancer per se, the growth itself, in all its ravenous, artery generating frenzy. This one was the size of a large grapefruit and it came out of the bone just below her knee with an unremitting vengeance; a globular, ulcerous, butcherous thing; grotesquely disproportionate to this delicate girl's appeal. All the white coats and horn rimmed glasses, all the subdued decorator colors the hospital used to soothe and sanitize the organic mess of life, were defenseless against this. It was something to hide, to cover up, to negate and get rid of as fast as possible, and the fact that the doctor who lifted the sheet was confronting this monstrosity with relative calm and curiosity was a testament to both his professionalism and to his cauterized heart. I felt I was going to faint and the only thing which prevented me from falling to the floor right then and there was a stronger sense of shame at what might cause further distress to this lovely girl. So I mumbled an excuse to go out into the hall, where I lowered my head and tried to breathe and where I railed in silent futility against the fates.
But over time I grew more accustomed to it and I was all right with it, and though I was not yet at the point where I could flip back that sheet, I would feel faint no longer when someone else did. I could stay in the room with her now, and with patients like her, pretending to joke and cajole, adding whatever I could to their compromised sense of normalcy.
Inmaculada is throwing my clothes out the window, just like in the movies. They rain down upon the street and sidewalk. It is late and there are few people about. Then comes the suitcase which dents the roof of a parked car. Then comes my grandfather's Irish walking stick. She is screaming at me. The deranged beggar we have taken care of over the years watches from the shadows by the fountain in a pose of elegant solemnity, comprehending everything. Carol waits for me in Paris. I know all of this has to happen. I also know we are not done yet.
One evening I found myself with two interns in a corner room of Memorial Hospital with a fine view of the East River and the Queensborough Bridge. The spring night had turned stormy and it was raining hard. The patient was an overweight black woman in her fifties being treated for an acute bout of diabetes. She was there at the Cancer Center because she had had her larynx removed the year before and the research minded doctors had a rule of following their patients' every turn.
"My, my. Come look at this." said the attending professor of oncology and internal medicine. I came away from the large window and over near the bed where the interns stood. "Somebody turn off the lights." the physician said. And then he said to the woman lying on her back, almost as an afterthought, "You don't mind, do you? It'll just be for a moment. You've got a crystal clear example of a rare condition and I'd like these young doctors here to see it."
She looked up at him with a nervous smile, granting permission. It was hard for her to speak. I could see she felt at the mercy of these doctors, this hospital, these diseases that had come to define her. And yet she seemed glad for the attention and for the company at that hour of the night even as it made her feel afraid.
The room went dark as the doctor took a small, pen shaped flashlight out of his lab coat pocket. It projected a small beam of red light. He widened one of her eyes with his free hand and aimed the beam there. "Here," he said to them, "Look at this. The fat content in her blood is so elevated you can actually see it in the arterioles of her cornea." And so it was. The tiny vessels that irrigated the white of her eye, though still colored by the blood they carried, were colored too by minute globules of white grease, like the shortening her South Carolinian grandmother might have used to make corn bread.
Both of the interns stared intently, and each asked a pertinent question, and each I knew would make a point of reading up on the condition in the library that very night or the following day while this hands-on viewing was still fresh in their minds. And I looked down as well, even as I realized I had little interest in the physiological elements in motion there. What I was gripped by was the scene itself, the entire thing. The darkened corner room up above the river, the storm outside, the wind and rain and thunder and lightning and the lights of the bridge and the lights on the tugboat heading to harbor. The light at the tip of Roosevelt Island and the reflections on the dark currents of the river and the moving clouds and the trees below surrounding Rockefeller University heavy with new leaves and blossoms blown to the wet walks by the weather. And these dedicated men next to me who thanks be to god did not notice what I was noticing at all. I wanted to thank them for their dedication and encourage them to continue. I wanted to take the woman's hand and hold it and tell her not to fear. I wanted to capture the moment for posterity and include the river smell and the way the earth under the Manhattan asphalt was moistening with Spring and the way the river flowed to the Atlantic wending its way between two islands that once upon a time had been rife with woods and clearings and animal tracks. But what I knew I no longer wanted, was to be a doctor.
The blizzard hits during the night and after breakfast Carol and I go for a walk in the woods. The snow comes up to our knees and sometimes we cannot see more than four or five feet against the wind that ruffles our eyelashes with thick flakes. We climb up over the rise behind the house and down through the thickest part of the forest hiking a good half hour until we reach the stream where it drops and opens into the deep pool we swam in during the summer and fall. We lie down on our backs in the snow and listen to the water rushing over the rocks and to the wind moaning through the trees whose thin bare branches glisten with ice. We kiss and touch each other and lower our trousers and long johns. She straddles me and rides me oblivious to the cold and screams into the wind like some Viking forest spirit when she comes. Afterwards we head back to the house to undress and thaw by the fire and as we return I suddenly remember Inmaculada running her hand up and down my cock with olive oil she had stolen from a restaurant where we had eaten dinner one night. We were in a small hotel in Sevilla. She was sore from all we'd done that morning and afternoon but we both wanted to go on. I remembered the August heat and the ripe curves of her ass and the noise of students carrying on in the street below and the precious tightness of her rectum giving way to deep holding and then the loud way she came grabbing the sheets with those delicate hands and the smell of the nearby Guadalquivir across the park mixing with the shit smell and the smell of our sweat and the scent from the mimosa blossoms that came in through the open window.
The last time I saw my father alive was in the intensive care unit at Southampton Hospital. He was drugged and connected to monitors and IV bottles. He just lay there. Before entering the room the nurse had asked me who Eleanor was. "Why?" I replied. "He called out for her earlier in the day." For my mother, buried then for 28 years. My father's current wife overheard this exchange and managed an accepting smile. I went in and sat next to him and placed my hand over his his. It was a small, manicured, uncalloused hand once greatly skilled at opening bottles of Champagne and Coke and Budweiser, at deftly slipping cash to bellmen and to headwaiters, at covering his mouth when telling off-color punch lines (a trial lawyer's stratagem aimed at frustrating lip readers that had stayed with him). It was the same hand he had felt my mother up with, and had used to steady himself when barfing over the side of the transport ship he was assigned to on D-Day, or out in front of Toot Shor's years later in the small hours of the morning. It was a hand that, when much younger, had gripped heavy metal tongs to haul blocks of ice off the back of a horse drawn truck in the Bronx that delivered to the saloons along Ogden Avenue and to brick row houses that had wooden porches and small narrow yards in the back. It was a hand that had pressed a good deal of flesh, Presidents and sports heroes and reporters and countless constituents living in six story apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse. It was a hand that had even held mine on occasion, taking me once to have a tooth pulled, or when he ferried me each June from the gray and amber particulate light of the Bronx out to our rented summer homes in Southampton where cut grass and dunes and Atlantic moisture gentled down the morning glimmer.
This wordless final meeting seemed appropriate because we had never had a real conversation. Our exchanges had always been conducted in short sentences about topics of little importance; baseball scores, crossword clues, brief logistical issues. We had always been shy in each other's company. My father's most loquacious, heartfelt moments had transpired when I was still a small boy. In the dark of night during the year after my mother died I would sometimes sleep in his bed and he would return drunk from Shors' and tell me what a good man my maternal grandfather was, the Judge. On her death-bed my mother had entrusted my well being to the Judge. Perhaps my father had felt guilty for his many absences and wanted me to feel I was getting better care with my grandfather than I would be getting with him.
He dies two days later. I am back in the city when it happens. Carol and I drive out there again for the funeral. We stay in an attic bedroom at my step sister's in Sag Harbor. Carol wakes in the night allergic to the cats and the mildew. We dress and get into her Peugeot and drive east, out to Montauk. It is December and I turn the heat on and crack open the windows. I take back roads I know by heart. I make Carol put her seat down to try and sleep. I park in the large lot by the lighthouse. A Christmas cross made from light bulbs shines at its base. We are the only people there. Carol wakes, looks about and then leans over the gear shift and rests her blond head in my lap. I hold her shoulder and feel her fall asleep again. Three months later I cash in my small inheritance and return to Granada.