by Ben Crisp and Rose Flores
“Yes,” I said, gesturing pointlessly down the street as I crossed to her. “I… you left it at the park.”
“Thank you,” she said, reaching out a hand to take it. She brushed a loose strand of hair back and squinted at me. “I have no money, sorry. But thank you.”
“No, you don’t… I didn’t want a reward. Are you alright? You look upset.”
She turned away, and I wondered how I could be so direct to this perfect stranger.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m inquisitive.”
“OK,Yankee Steve. I have to go now,” she said, and started to walk.A stupid, mad chuckle escaped my mouth and I caught it quickly in my hand as I chased after her.
“No, not… it means I’m nosy. I’m curious, sorry. Like a cat, you know.”
She stopped and squinted at me again, as though wondering whether to smile at this insane white man or not. Then she pointed at my nose. “Curiosity kills the cats.”
“Yes it does,” I said, nodding. “Do you want a coffee?”
She turned and started walking again. “If I had money I would give it to you, but thank you for bringing my scarf.”
I chased after her. “No! No, it’s nothing to do with… I want nothing from you. I just thought you looked like you could use a coffee.”
Her squinting tortured me. I had no clue what was going on behind those stern brown eyes, and not knowing this little thing was vanishing all that I did know; every instinct was fading from me.
“I’m a journalist, I’m not…” I said helplessly, and shrugged. Not what?
She shrugged back.
“Your boyfriend’s house?” I asked as we sat at a table beneath a red canvas umbrella.
“Why do you think that?”
“The locket.” I pointed at the little golden heart turning restlessly between her thumb and forefinger. She snapped it into her palm defiantly.
“The scarf is from my boyfriend,” she said, pulling it from her neck and resting it on the table as our coffees arrived.
I tore open a sugar packet and tapped it into my cup. “I’ll bet you chose it. It matches your dress.”
She checked her phone and did not answer me. I was right.
“You drink too much coffee,” she said at last, after she had sighed and tucked her phone away again. “Caffeine is bad for the heart.”
I shrugged again. “Everything is bad for the heart these days.”
We sipped from our cups and ventured into the silence that filled the air around us. Empty, silent air; it choked me more than smoke. Was that why my fingers reached for last cigarette after last cigarette after last cigarette?
“May I see?” I said, and held out my palm.
She stared at me through steam rising from her coffee, a cradle of warmth between her two soft hands; then lowered the cup, unfolding her fingers to proffer the locket.
It was of the yellow gold I had never admired, adorned with rubies that might have been real, or might have not; and not knowing made them seem worthless. A tiny clasp unhinged its two halves, splitting the fragile little heart in two, revealing a miniature biscuit-tin print of the veiled Madonna.
“Lucky charm?” I asked.
“She is pure. Perfect. Everything else is dirty in the morning.”
“Nothing’s quite as pretty as Mary in the morning,” I sang in my best Elvis voice, but she did not smile. A digital chirrup sounded beneath the table, and she withdrew her phone swiftly, reading the message with that same familiar squint.
“Boyfriend?” I asked.
She reached out and took the locket back, standing as she did so.
“I have to go. Now.”
Her voice had a tiny tinge of urgency to it. I stood too.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said as she started to walk away.
I was about to remind her that I hadn’t actually offered to pay for her drink, but changed my mind and dropped a handful of coins on the table instead, following her.
“Your scarf,” I said, offering it to her. She snatched it from me with a little noise of annoyance – at herself or at me I was not sure. “It’s Michael, by the way.”
“Violeta,” she said.
She began to murmur underneath her breath as she quickened her pace. I was almost jogging just to keep up with her, my hands in my pockets as though we were just two friends in a mutual hurry. She was praying, I realised; every other word of the rosary filtered from her lips through the noise of the traffic – into which she suddenly stepped, waving her hand at a Corolla with barely readable taxicab printing that skidded to a halt beside her.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
She glanced at me like an impatient schoolteacher as she grabbed at the door.
“Hospital,” she said.
“Then Michael hop in! Or would you leave now?” So we boarded the Corolla.
I didn’t know what this guy wanted from me, but I didn’t care less because my thoughts were horrible. I knew something would happen, and whatever fate again would present to me – as to my friend Hannibal’s wisdom was to be happy and free. I assured myself that what could happen to my boyfriend was reality, like the shifting of clouds – we just couldn’t stop their movements, only God can. The next thing I felt our hands were tightly locked, and Michael’s gaze trying to seize my brokenness.
“Is there something I can do?” he asked.
“Nothing. Thank you.”
Lane upon lane, track upon track; my mind whizzed the clouds, the nothingness, the coldness of my fright, the fallen hopes, the waiting, my single life of faith. At this time, the locket...
“Don’t worry. We’ll get there.” Michael asserted.
And then, in my bag the phone buzzed again. I grasped the phone firmly, but my hands were weak so the phone dropped down the cab floor. Michael got it and read the message.
I did not mind his resolve. The driver was silent with only the twist of his wheels. The air was cold and my heart pounded heavily like rocks on my chest breaking for mercy. “Oh, Maria!”
Silence in the cab, in the air, near the afternoon... Michael didn’t say any word, but searched the locket for me and put them in my hands. He held me close and I did not resist the comfort of his arms around my bereft shoulders that needed warmth and flesh.
“We’d go to the back office of the hospital, Violeta. The staff will give us instructions...”
I paid the driver as she sprang from the taxi.
My only thought during the ride was that I could not remember the last time I had hugged someone out of the simple instinct to comfort; when had the act of touch become so foreign?
That’s all the second text had said.So whatever disaster had befallen him had not restricted his use of a phone. I hated myself for the unkind thought. Had my ex looked as Violeta looked, whenever I had told her I was ill?
The nurse at the back office desk glanced at the clipboard hanging by her side. Emergency. Bay 212. Violeta hurried ahead and I followed, helplessly, at a distance. I thrust my hands into my pockets and peered through the gridded windows on the doors as we walked the length of the corridor, my lungs filling with the smell of disinfectant. The figures in the beds looked so small and vulnerable. As Violeta stopped ahead of me I realised they were children. The realisation shook in me, and my fingers closed around something in my pocket. The familiar scratch of a paper curl on skin. A forgotten cigarette.
I stood behind her. Through the window in front of us I saw a dimly lit room. A woman leaned forward in a chair, her back to us. Her hands were clasped around the hand of a boy who lay motionless in the hospital bed. From where I stood I could see his eyes were not quite closed, fine red lines crossing his face around them. Machines surrounded him, their cables disappearing under his sheet, electric green and blue lights winking and flickering softly.
Across the bed from the woman stood her husband. I recognised him. I had seen his face in newspapers; a politician, maybe. He was short, dressed in a dark business suit. His hands were deep in his pockets and he stood, slumped, staring at the boy with a strange look on his face. It was the look of a man for whom the curtain of life had been pulled aside, and he saw nothing behind it.
His glassy eyes drifted from the boy across the room to the door. He saw Violeta. He saw me. I glanced at Violeta, her eyes now welling. Across the space, through the glass, the two of them were sharing a look filled with all the sadness, the sweetness, the tenderness and heartache that I had ever known love to be about. It was then I felt alone, as the lonely will do, rain soaked neighbour to the world of the loved. A world for those who felt the warmth of others even when parted, and who felt another’s pain.
I felt pain. I felt Violeta’s, as she felt her lover’s, as she felt and he felt the pain of his son, and the mother did too, and I; all of us there in the chapel of pain, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital.
He looked to his wife, and Violeta turned from the window, her hands to her mouth, eyes searching for some solace in mine. I curled an arm around her shoulder and walked her to the stairwell at the end of the ward. As we rose, step by step, I heard the rooftop doorway humming a mellow chant between the cold conditioned inside air and the free and humid day outside.
On the roof we stood and stared, listening together as the yellow scarf fluttered in morning eddies, and I saw… I saw, across the avenue, beyond the cries and howls and mirth of the city streets, through a border of bricks and bolts and steel, perched on a plinth in the centre of a pond, the concrete Madonna.
Perhaps love was not pure, but stained. Perhaps love was not harmony, but discord. Perhaps love came in all the shades of earth and grime, and in the moist and dirty breath of the taglamig air that brushed our faces on mornings such as this.
Violeta prayed in silence beside me, and I lit my last cigarette.
My last ever, I promised myself, as I had done the day before.
posted by rosevoc2