by Sarah McCoy
Promptly and in systematic fashion, each member of our group was assigned a task.
“Amy-Alice O’Connor,” Sister Rosa called from behind her checklist. “Waiting room attendant. You are responsible for escorting patients to the sign-in sheet and ensuring they provide all necessary information. Please report to Sister Maria.”
I proceeded to the waiting room.
Sister Rosa held a commanding presence. Though she didn’t wear the black and white habit, I could imagine her dressed in full regalia with a ruler for smacking irreverent children. I was relieved to be under Sister Maria’s charge and tasked with the one seemingly benign mission. No blood or bodily fluids, no needles or wound irrigations. I simply pointed to the patient sign in and checked for dotted I’s and crossed T’s.
Mandy and Jake assisted a coughing woman to a gurney in the sickroom. Poor Mandy. Her tropical pink manicure would surely be spoiled by bedpan contents and iodine. But then she’d have her boyfriend Jake by her side to do the grunt work. It was awfully nice that they’d been assigned to the same task, which got me thinking about the taskmaster. Someone other than Sister Rosa no doubt created the lists. She didn’t know us from Adam. It could only have been Gil. And if that was the case, I was insulted he thought I had the skill set of a seeing-eye dog. I was capable of much more than leading people to a piece of paper. His impertinence was becoming entirely too much.
In the corner of the waiting room, he chatted with a wizened woman and ran his hand over the forehead of the flushed child in her lap. Something he said made her smile, and she patted his hand with gratitude.
I bit the inside of my cheek. Why’d he have to pick that moment to be compassionate? Gil turned and our gazes met.
“Amy-Alice?” called Sister Maria.
“Here.” Instinctually, I whipped
around with my arm half-raised like an elementary student on the first day of class.
Sister Maria nodded. “Hello, nena. This is the sign-in sheet.” She handed me a clipboard with college rule paper. “Patients provide their full names on the left side, medical concerns in the middle and their exact arrival times on the right.” She lifted a finger to the round metal clock above her head and smiled. “I’ll cross them out when I’ve escorted them back for examination.”
The last crossed out entry was Luis Rodriguez, signed in at 8:23 a.m. It was now almost ten o’clock, and the names went on for another full page.
When I turned back to the waiting crowd, Gil was gone. Two patients had squeezed into the open space where he’d been.
I did my duties standing awkwardly beside Sister Maria’s desk with no extra chairs to spare. My first charge was a man who looked elderly from afar but as he approached, I saw that though his eyes were hollow and his skin hung loose about his wrists, he couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. He gave off a slightly soured aroma, like spotty bananas in a bowl.
“Nombre, por favor,” I said, eager to show Sister Maria that I was committed to my function and even knew a handful of key phrases. “Y su dolor?”
I pointed to the middle, but the man had already filled the entire line: Emmanuel. Agujas. 10:02 a.m. He provided no last name.
“Oh, Señor Emmanuel.” I tapped the clipboard.
Sister Maria waved a hand at me and beckoned Emmanuel to her side. He dropped a brown paper sack on the desk. She whispered to him and patted his bony arm, then reached into a large box behind her chair and returned with a handful of capped surgical syringes.
My body stiffened.
Emmanuel unfolded another brown paper bag from his pocket and placed the needles within.
“Gracias,” he said and bent low enough for Sister Maria to touch the crown of his head.
She murmured something, and they both crossed themselves. I stood rigid as a pine tree. Emmanuel nodded to me, and I swayed slightly as he passed.
Sister Maria cleared her throat. “He’s a regular,” she explained. “He’s been trying to kick the dope for years and asks why the Lord doesn’t answer his prayers for recovery.” She rose with a sigh. “I keep telling him that we are creatures of free will and in fact, it is evidence of the Heavenly Father’s power and love that he is alive at all.” She cupped my elbow. “You’ll get used to it.”
I hadn’t noticed until now, but my hands were shaking. I clasped them together tight. Sister Maria moved on through the double doors to dispose of Emmanuel’s used needles in one of the blood orange biohazard containers.
Before she returned, a ten-year-old boy with a pocketknife wound entered with his mother. The bloodstained towel wrapped round his hand seemed innocent and clean in comparison to Emmanuel’s parcel. After them was a teenage girl who wrote anticonceptivos in the middle, and chewed her lip as she checked the time. I smiled sympathetically, and she gave a half-grin back, her lip caught between her teeth. By midday, my bumpy start was a bleary memory. The patient influx had been persistent and though I hurried, new patients quickly formed a line before me.
“Amy Alice,” called Sister Maria as I held an old woman’s shaky arm while she penned her name. “You must eat.” She pointed up to the clock. It was two o’clock. “Be quick but not to the point of indigestion.” She winked.
All of the other medical mission workers had already eaten their lunches. I found two sandwiches left in the break room cooler: ham and American or salami and Swiss. I chose the American and gulped it down in four bites, tasting the bland comfort of home.
Back in the waiting room, the boy with the knife wound and his mother were leaving. He waved a bandaged hand at me, and I was glad they were on their way out, not in. The room was packed beyond capacity. The overflow paced curbside and the temperature had risen considerably since morning. Sweat dripped from every part of my body, down my spine, between my breasts, under my arms and God knew where else. I pondered which was the better end: burning to death under the sun or steamed alive in here.
The clinic had one window air-conditioning unit in the sickroom and one in the operating room; but the waiting room had only four electric fans in each corner, blowing balmy air to the center. The cement walls helped, but the tin roof radiated heat. Sister Maria’s desk had been strategically placed in front of the sickroom doors so that whenever anyone walked in or out, a cool gust spilled onto our backs.
I stared hard at those metal doors, praying God would bring someone through and trying to contrive a reason to go within; but I could only come up with lame excuses: I need to get a tissue. I need a sip of water. I need to pee. All of which were too transparent. Sister Blanca worked in the sickroom. I contemplated asking to speak with her, but then I’d need a valid topic of discussion and that required far too much concentrated thinking. My head ached. My mind jumped around like bacon frying in a pan.
I breathed out hard, blowing air up over my lip and nose, and wondered if anybody ever cooled her entire body this way. Your arms and chest would be easy, but your legs and back would be tricky unless you were a Cirque du Soleil performer. It was in the middle of musing on individuals with double-jointed aptitudes that the static whirl of fans and clinic chatter was interrupted. Sister Maria stood, listening intently to what sounded like an approaching seagull’s cry.
The wail grew louder, expanding like a sponge and seemingly sucking the oxygen from the room. Within moments, it was at our doorstep, and I half-expected to encounter my first Puerto Rican banshee. Instead, a young woman appeared, clutching her bulging stomach, a girl propped under her arm like a crutch. The woman’s dress was wet, and I knew enough from cattle calving to recognize her water had broken. She staggered forward. Blood dribbled in her wake.
The only death I’d ever witnessed was during a labor on our dairy farm in Michigan. The milcher began to bleed. Dad called it an abruption. He had to reach in and yank out the calf before its mother’s last breath. The image still gave me nightmares. Dad’s arms stained red to his shoulders; the calf sputtering in the barn straw and birth fluids; its mother lying still, eyes rolled back, tongue lolled out. I had nightmares for weeks. Dad didn’t let me back in the birthing stall for over two years.
Sister Maria clutched her rosary beads. “She needs a bed.” She flew to the double doors, shouting over her shoulder, “Amy-Alice!”
But I was already pulling the pregnant woman’s arm around my shoulder. With a new contraction, she doubled over and dug her nails into her belly. Seeing the blood beneath her feet, she cupped herself, then pushed the small girl so hard she fell back into the lap of a waiting patient. The ferocity of the act made me back away, but the woman gripped my shoulder to her.
Despite the heat, her dewy face was paper white, her eyes dark and pained. She looked my age, perhaps a year younger or older.
“Lola,” called the girl with a trembling lip and budding tears.
The pregnant woman let go, leaving a bloody handprint on my arm.
“Lo siento,” she said to me or the girl, I wasn’t sure and didn’t have time to figure out before another contraction buckled her.
I struggled to keep her upright, but the weight was too much, pulling us both to the floor. I knelt in a bloody puddle, my hands around her stomach. Her belly skin was drawn tight as a watermelon rind.
Lola gritted her teeth and howled, “Lo siento, lo siento,” between pushes.
“Está bien.” I knew that wasn’t the right phrase, but it was all I had for comfort. “Está bien,” I repeated.
With each push came more blood. We had to stop the bleeding and get the baby out or we’d lose them both.
“Sister Maria!” I screamed.
Lola’s hands went limp at her side.
“Lola,” I said forcefully. “Stay with me.” My face flamed hot. “Somebody, please.” God, please, I prayed.
Suddenly, her body rose weightlessly above my head. I had a flashing thought that she was indeed an otherworldly spirit, but it was Gil and Logan lifting her onto a waiting gurney. Sister Blanca, gloved and masked, alongside Sister Rosa rolled her through the double doors.
It was then, in the abrupt stillness, that I heard the soft whimpering of the little girl and the gracious hum of the anonymous patient who rocked her. I thought of the lyric-less tunes Aunt Deb hummed when I couldn’t sleep and wished she were here to do the same.
I hadn’t the energy to get up, so I wiped my hands on my shorts and sat on the floor staring at the blood in my nail beds and palms. It reminded me of arts and crafts in kindergarten when the teacher wrote our names in Elmer’s Glue, and we covered the page in glitter that stuck only to the lines. In my palm creases were two red A’s or one large M, depending on if I flexed or not. I’d never noticed them before. That was fate for you. It was a good thing my mom hadn’t named me Sally like she’d planned.
Amy was the name of the midwife who read Alice in Wonderlandaloud to my mom while she was on bed rest with me. During her labor, the pains were so great that Mom refused to remove her nitrous oxide mask. She barely knew where she was, never mind the name she’d picked. When it came time for the finer points of my birth certificate, she’d unconsciously mumbled, “Amy…Alice.” No doubt calling for the midwife to continue reading. Dad thought it an homage to the faithful nurse and didn’t dare wake Mom from her peaceful stupor for clarification; so I became Amy-Alice. I wondered if Lola had chosen a name for her child, and moreover, if she’d get to use it.
“Amy-Alice.” The voice was muted, under-watery. “Is she okay?”
Blood seeped into the floor’s concrete cracks, leaving a splintered red arc like an ancient sundial.
“Nena,” called Sister Maria. “Let us clean you.”
And like Lola’s body rising before me, my own lifted.
“A-A, are you hurt?” Gil whispered in my ear. His arms wrapped tight around my midsection, blue rubber gloves crossed beneath my ribcage.
The haze began to clear. Gil Torres carrying me around was out of the question. Even if I were gunshot, bleeding buckets, dying of thirst in the Mohave Desert, I wouldn’t have him toting me. I found my footing and willed my knees strong. He kept an arm around my back, supporting my weight, as Sister Maria led us to the inner courtyard. There, she filled a metal bucket with hose water, warm and shimmering under the sun.
Gil sat me on a picnic bench. “I got her,” he said.
Sister Maria nodded and rubbed the back of her hand against my cheek. She, too, wore latex gloves, and they pulled uncomfortably against my skin. “You did a good job in there.”
I shook my head. I’d felt as helpless as I had in my dad’s barn.
Gil knelt by the pail, working a bar of soap into a frothy lather that smelled of too-strong pine.
Sister Maria turned to the waiting room. “I need to check on that little girl.”
“Wait.” It came out like a cough.
Sister Maria stopped.
Gil dunked a cloth in the soapy water and proceeded to wash my ankles and shins. The bubbles turned pink.
While I collected my thoughts, Sister Maria cupped her hands together out of habit or prayer, or perhaps they were one in the same.
“She bled a lot,” I said. “Are she and the baby—”
“Don’t worry about them,” assured Sister Maria. “They’re in good hands.”
Gil was up to my knees, scrubbing uncomfortably hard.
“Was it an abruption?” Again, my memory evoked the bloody barn stall scene and the dead cow.
Sister Maria puckered her lips. “Sister Rosa is a veteran nurse and Sister Blanca is one of the best midwives in San Juan.”
Sister Blanca was a midwife? I assumed she was a volunteer like us. Marine biologist, midwife, Bride of Christ: her list of talents kept growing.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I hear news,” Sister Maria promised. “Now I must see about the girl.”
Yes, of course, I was fine. It was inconvenient enough to have Gil bathing me like an invalid.
Sister Maria hurried back to the waiting room. Gil stopped scrubbing to examine my legs— too closely to be appropriate, I thought.
“I can do it.” I reached down to take the washcloth.
He pulled it away and met my eyes with unflinching candor. “Did you cut yourself when you fell? Scrape your knees or anything?”
The tone of his voice made my pulse race. One after the other, I kicked my legs out straight. “No.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed like he was about to say something but swallowed the words. He dunked the cloth into the water and started on my arms. I let him.
The water trickled down my sides, and I held my breath as he rounded my shoulders, afraid he’d hear the pounding of my heart. I was grateful his hands were gloved. The latex against my skin felt more clinical, less what it was: Gil Torres giving me a bath. I tried not to remember the taste of his mouth on mine, but the memory was ripe and savory. And despite the pungent pine soap, I could smell him, smoky and oceanic, like he’d just sat hours beside a driftwood bonfire. Though he’d made it perfectly clear of his disinterest, I couldn’t rationalize my body from going limp as a noodle.
He washed my arms, scrubbing away the lines in my palms and pausing to scrutinize my fingertips.
“I’m a biter,” I said.
He furrowed his brow. “You should try to stop.”
I balled my fists. “It’s on my list of self-improvements.”
Gil dumped the bucket. A stream of pink bubbles flowed into the base of the shady palm tree.
“My roommates say I snore.” He smiled, and my stomach dipped to my toes.
I pursed my lips to keep from reciprocating. “You should try to stop.”
“List of self-improvements,” he parroted.
I stood and my sandals squished beneath me. I was soaked to the skin. In the steamy heat of the morning, I’d decided against wearing a bra. A decision I wholeheartedly regretted now. My damp tank top was nearly transparent. I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Do you think I could get a shirt or something?”
The question seemed to catch him by surprise. “Uh, yeah.”
Was I so undesirable that he hadn’t even noticed? I huffed and scooted over to the opposite sunny side of the bench.
He scratched his head then pulled off his yellow polo shirt. “Here.”
His chest was tanned and smooth. The disks of my spine turned to jelly doughnuts. This was too much to take. God was punishing me. Before I collapsed in front of him, I accepted the shirt. A little blue man on horseback rode just below the collar. Ralph Lauren. Good taste.
“I’m done swimming in pools of blood for today so it should be safe,” I promised.
Gil winked like he had at my dorm residential adviser. “I’ll get you some scrub pants from the closet,” he said and went inside.
Using a trick I’d learned in the fifth-grade locker room, I pulled the polo over, worked my arms out of my top beneath and slid the wet garment down over my hips. His cotton shirt was soft and dry. I breathed in deep; his smell filled up my lungs and head.
I’d come to terms with the fact that I had absolutely no chance with him, but there wasn’t any harm in appreciating an attractive man. Besides, he’d just finished washing blood off my feet. He was practically as holy as Jesus. And everybody loved Jesus. But they weren’t in love with him and that made the difference. Gil was far from Christ. I hadn’t forgotten that less than two weeks before, he tongued me in a drunken stupor, which was not one of Jesus’ documented miracles. However, I was a believer in second chances, especially when alcohol was involved in the first offense. Maybe we could be friends. Totally platonic. The idea didn’t seem so far-fetched. Actually, it sounded kind of nice.
He returned with a pair of green medical scrub pants and Sister Rosa by his side. Their faces were tense.
Sister Rosa cleared her throat. “Rapid cervical dilatation coupled with a weak constitution. She’ll be sore but nothing serious.”
A shutter went through me. “Her child?”
“A girl. She’s fine.”
I sighed with relief, but their countenances remained unchanged. The survival of a mother and newborn after a troublesome birth deserved a least a grin, right?
“What is it?”
Gil looked to a stone-faced Sister Rosa.
“Lola is HIV positive.”
The words came out too fast, like a fourth of July bottle rocket whizzing by my ear. In contrast, my brain seemed to chew their meaning like a cow on cud.
“But the baby… and all that blood.”
Sister Rosa looked down at her hands then back up to some distant point above my head. “Lola wasn’t on the recommended antiretroviral. We’re testing the infant, but I don’t hold false hope. She’s perfectly healthy otherwise.”
“Just in case, we’re starting her on the preventative meds. Similar to yourself.”
And then it hit me like elephant tusks rammed into my abdomen. Lola was HIV positive. The baby was exposed to infected blood, the same blood Gil just washed off me.
“Oh, God.” I plunked down on the picnic bench. “Oh, God.”
I didn’t care if I was taking the Lord’s name in vain—maybe He deserved a little sacrilege. After all, he let this happen to me on my first day in the clinic! I buried my face in my palms.
In a flash, Gil was at my side. “It’s not as bad as you think. You’ll just have to take AZT. I’ve done it before. No big deal. Part of the territory.”
I lifted my damp face to his. I was crying, though I hadn’t meant to. “No big deal? Part of the territory?” I wasn’t afraid anymore. I was furious. “What the hell are you smoking?”
Sister Rosa recoiled like I’d Tasered her, giving me both instant gratification and shame. My Baptist roots ran deep.
“I’m sorry.” I hung my head, unable to look them in the eyes.
Sister Rosa sat down on my opposite side. There we were, a Milano cookie: two holy wafers with sinful dark chocolate between. I stared at my toes. A hungry mosquito landed on my ankle. Go ahead, I thought, and didn’t move when I felt the pinch.
After a few minutes in the afternoon sun, my tears evaporated leaving my cheeks singed salty. I sniffed back what self-pity remained. There wasn’t anything I could do to change the situation. Like Aunt Deb was keen on saying, “No point shaking your fist at God for the sky being too bright or the night too dark.” It was what it was.
“You’ve been exposed?” I asked Gil. The thought of him being equally tainted was somehow comforting.
He nodded. “Two summers ago. Needle prick.”
“Part of a cocktail.” Gil’s tone was artificially light. “Think of it as your HIV martini, and you don’t even have to be twenty-one.”
I frowned, not in the mood for jokes. I wanted facts. “Is it a shot?”
“Pills,” said Sister Rosa. Her tone was gentler, less commanding. “You’ll take it twice a day.”
“That’s it?” I was surprised. I’d envisioned the worse-case scenario: Immediate shipment home to await the positive results of an HIV test, followed by a short, painful life in which I’d never have sex and die a victimized virgin of goodwill.
“AZT aborts the virus before any irreversible systemic infection,” Sister Rosa explained.
My head swirled, and I gripped the bench; tiny splinters embedded in my fingers.
“You’ll only have to take it a month,” she went on.
“Four weeks,” chimed Gil.
I rolled my eyes. “I know how long a month is.”
From her pocket, Sister Rosa pulled two pill bottles. “We keep these on hand for emergencies, but we’ll call the Hospital de la Concepción to prescribe a full treatment.” She opened them and tapped out a pill from each.
One white tablet and one orange nestled in the triangular creases of my palm.
“The white is AZT and the orange is Lamivudine. They work together,” she said.
“Partners in crime,” joked Gil. Along with the scrub pants, he’d brought bottled water. “Drink up.”
Staring at the chalky pills, I knew exactly how Alice in Wonderland felt with the currant cake in her hand. Terrified but desperate for a solution. I imagined midwife Amy reading, ‘Which way? Which way?’
“They won’t make my hair follicles die or my eyeballs swell or anything funny, right?”
“No.” Sister Rosa’s commanding tone returned. “The sooner you take them, the better.”
I exhaled. No more overanalyzing. That was Alice’s biggest problem. She thought entirely too much in Wonderland, and it brought her nothing but trouble.
I tossed the pills back, sipped the water, and swallowed.
Copyright 2010 Sarah McCoy
Sarah McCoy graduate from Virginia Tech with a BA in journalism and public relations. She received her MFA in Fiction from Old Dominion University. Sarah’s debut novel is titled The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico. She is working on a second novel.