“My heart went really fast. I went red in my face. I was hot and I was cold at the same time. I felt like falling,” she said. “And then, I feel like my stomach hurt very bad… I don’t know—I wanted to vomit but I only did this,” and she dry-heaved in front of the doctor. “No vomit.”
Doctor Hermann Flora’s glasses sat low on the bridge of his nose. His eyes looked over them, analytical.
“You said you felt the blood in your head?”
“Heart arrhythmia. It’s stress. Are you an anxious person?”
“Well… I guess yes… I mean, I take care of a lot of things—”
“Yes, yes. One would hope. It’s only... I don’t recall you. At least from the top of my head. I don’t remember you. You do know a check-up once every six months is what’s recommended?”
“Of course, doctor, but is just that it is difficult and well… is expensive to come here—the insurance is difficult…”
“Well I don’t think I could help there… Your medical issues, though, do seem related to stress. Do you exercise? Eat well?”
“I a vegetarian, doctor. I take two pills of Vitamin C every night. I eat vegetables only,” she said with a smile and pride.
“No animal protein? No excessive salt?”
“I see,” said the doctor.
“My son change his diet too,” Cordelia said, again with a smile.
“He don’t cook for himself, so when I say I change my eating he say nothing.”
“I see…” Doctor Flora said. “To go back to your symptoms, you also mentioned stomach pain?”
“Like a ball hit you. These might be ulcers. Also related to stress. You need to control it, Ms. Vita. I’ll be recommending you to Dr. Rebecca Terium. I’m sure she might want to get you checked with an endoscopy. I will also ask you to come back with some bloodwork to continue your check-up, if you don’t mind. Is a month enough time for you to schedule your visits?”
Cordelia hummed unsure and looked at him uncertainly.
“Good. Get your blood results in and we’ll see where we are. Be sure to see her as well. This could be quite important.”
Taking cue, she stood to begin gathering her things. Then a question came to her.
“Doctor, the insurance cover the endoscopy?”
The doctor looked at her again over his glasses, his hooked nose, hazel eyes, and brown-gray hair like an owl, and said, “That depends on your plan, really. But yes, I would assume it is covered by most people’s insurance.”
“Is just you never know,” she said.
“I wouldn’t think something would come up. Again. Re-lax.”
“OK, Doctor. We finish, then?”
“That is all. See you next month.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
She left and drove down the Florida Turnpike carefully, hanging, almost, by the wheel. She was short and had a head of very curly hair the roots of which she had to constantly dye.
Nerviosa? she thought. Nerviosa y ansiosa, me dijo. Like you could fix that in a person. It’s hard to know if he’s being even serious. All he does is look you up and down with his eyes and say, “you got this, you got that.” And now two more appointments. Examenes de sangre. Ahora una endoscopia. Because of stress! Dios mío. Cuando cague plata, then I’ll start letting them stick plastic tubes down my throat. Not gonna do it. Hell no. ¿Que me van a decir? “Drink some tea. Do yoga.” And that’s counting Bee doesn’t get sick himself.
At home she found her son in front of an easel with a canvas of an urban scene in bright colors. Kandinskyan.
“How did it go?” he said in Spanish.
“Couple of tests to do.”
“Will you be fine?”
He pressed his teeth.
“How’s the painting?” she said as she put down her bag on the white kitchen counter.
“Making progress,” he said.
“Did you eat?”
“Did you see the food I left?”
“Yes, sorry. I didn’t feel the time.”
She looked at the canvas. It seemed as it had for the last year: a blue undefined skyline. A geometry of light.
“You need to eat,” she said.
“Why aren’t you eating?”
He said nothing.
“Are you sick? If you’re sick, you need to let me know.”
“I’m not sick.”
“You need to eat.”
“I’ll go get it in a second,” he said.
“Why aren’t you eating now?”
He sighed. “Fine.”
He took the rice, peas, and plantains from the refrigerator.
“Take some out for me as well, while I call for my next appointment.” And she moved to the other room.
The microwave hummed and rattled. Bee could hear his mother in the other room speaking in her squarish accent. He listened to the tone and wondered if she was lying to him.
She could be lying, he thought. It wouldn’t be past her. She would lie, especially about this. How obsessed she is with living. Like nothing’s more important. She can’t eat something bad for her. She can’t eat a bean unless it was juiced with spinach. God forbid beans destroy her lower intestines on their way out. She will die just as everyone in the world dies, only she will have the better skin in the coffin.
“Did you wash your hands? ¡No te comas los químicos!”
The microwave finished and after washing his hands Bee removed his plate of food, putting his mother’s after his to the same cycle. He took his to his chair by his canvas and easel in the living room, a space he had taken for himself to the annoyance of his mother who couldn’t stand his mess and who lived in utter fear that from the plastic cups of dirty water, the boxes of paints, the drips of color, the brushes and the knives scattered all over the floor, the wooden detritus, the coal etchings—that out of all of this a cockroach or some vermin would bolt like a rocket through her toes.
Bee began eating.
“I have my appointment next Wednesday, and another the next Wednesday after that. I may have to ask for the day off,” she said, picking at her cooling plate.
Bee put plantains in his mouth and chewed their sweet flesh. “Meaning I have to help out this month again.”
“I think so,” Cordelia said.
“I die every time I go there,” he said.
“What can we do?” she said and an old guilt, like a tic, throbbed in her spine.
“Those kids doesn’t give two fucks about anything I tell them,” he said. “They just doesn’t care.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He looked at the skyline on his canvas.
Blues and indigos and little dots of white and pink and orange. A neon strip, an electric teardrop sliding down the flat glass face of a skyscraper: Biscayne Bay, seen from the ocean-front restaurant where his mother worked as a floor manager. Below the white and glass titans, he stands, a dash of brown, on the wooden boardwalk over the lapping piers waiting for his mother to finish her shift.
“I think we crazy. If is not money, is society. If not that, then is E. Coli or the mad cow disease or the swine flu. And if not that is red meat and nitritos or the lead in the water…” Cordelia said as her blood flowed into a tiny tube.
The phlebotomist chuckled. “Yeah, it always is something, isn’t it?”
“And of course, that’s just the worries of us normal folk. The rich have it easy and clean and beautiful while we all just struggle to keep above water.”
“I know that, too,” the phlebotomist said. “Y’know the hospital pediatrician? The one on the 8th floor? He just bought himself a two-hundred-thousand-dollar car the other day. It’s crazy! He just up and switched an old one for a new one. It’s that insurance business. They all milking that trade.”
“I know! Every time I go to the doc and he just sees me with his eyes like they were some powerful tool or something, they charge my insurer like a thousand dollars! For a visit! I shoulda told my son to get a job in something like that,” Cordelia said.
“What’s he in?”
“Hmm. How old?”
“Twenty-four. My fault. Shouldn’t’ve told him to do something he enjoyed. My own mother sure as hell told me to get a career before anything.”
“And did you?”
“I did for a while. I was going into law. But I hated it. And then a man happened.”
“I will prescribe you some pills in the mean time,” said Rebecca Terium, the gastroenterologist. “Omeprazole and—”
“Omeprazole? Why? What for?”
“It treats the symptoms you described.”
“But don’t you recommend we do the endoscopy before?”
“No. This is mostly to help you in the meantime. Make sure you avoid alcohol.”
“Oh I don’t drink or smoke. I only eat ice cream—but only when stressed.”
“Good. This will help your stomach pain. And heartburn if you experience it.”
“Yes, I’ve had a bit of reflux too.”
“Right. See what you make of it.”
“Any side effects?”
“Light diarrhea. And some nausea. In the worst case, fainting.”
“But that’s what I was here to fix.”
“This is minor. It’s all minor. Chances are you won’t experience it,” the good doctor said.
“That’ll be a fifty-dollar co-pay,” the pharmacist said.
Cordelia cursed under her breath but handed over her card.
The pharmacist returned it with a paper bag and Cordelia heard the pebbly rattle of her pills inside it.
When she arrived home Bee had not washed the dishes and he had not made his bed and he had not swept the floor and he had not dusted the bins and he had not taken the trash out and it was so hot out that Cordelia was sweating and the same pain in her stomach—
She breathed in and out. She felt her blood flutter and it felt like an icebath and her stomach ached as if from a blade—
She saw the easel with the same image, the same city, and she wondered why it went nowhere and he said all he does somedays is drop a little splash of color because genius can’t be rushed—
She breathed in and out. But he graduated already, and with honors to boot. He can’t be expected to do something else if this is what he likes. He has to enjoy his life. He has no one else but me, she thought. No one else to help his dream. But she looked again at the canvas—
He came out of the bathroom as the toilet roared.
“Did you wash your hands?”
He returned to the bathroom and washed his hands.
“How was it,” Bee asked from the bathroom over the hissing of the sink.
“Fine. I got some medicine.”
Bee returned to his area in the living room and sat in front of his canvas.
“How’s your art?” Cordelia said.
“I can’t get the water right.”
“The swells. They’re too real.”
“I see,” she said.
“I paid the light,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. “How were the students today?”
“They don’t care as usual.”
“How much longer until you finish with them?”
“Year ends in May.”
“Not too bad.”
“They just don’t get it,” he said. “For them it’s just a standard exam; they just see chiaroscuro as just a multiple choice question.” For Bee, however, it meant the boundary between a nervous breakdown and sanity. Part-time teaching in a high school is all he could do right now.
“It hurts to teach,” he said.
This pained Cordelia. And that old guilt came again.
“There are the ulcers,” Dr. Terium said as she pointed to the white yellow areas, like canker sores, on the wet, pink walls of Cordelia’s stomach lining.
Cordelia, conscious but still affected by the sedative, understood the gist of the doctor’s words and nodded.
Bee was on the other side of his mother on a stool. He found the image of his mother’s insides repulsive to an unutterable degree, and he found seeing his mother in a hospital gown heartbreaking.
“We’ll have to continue with the omeprazole…” Dr. Terium said, and again, Cordelia nodded.
Bee wondered if he would have to get a second job.
The fear was always what if Cordelia fell while she worked and kicked the proverbial bucket? That was it. White knuckle terror, because poor Bee. What will he do with no family, nothing to his name, but whatever had been paid of the mortgage. He had no father, was an atheist (so it would be disingenuous of him to seek help from church—though one never really knows how far one can go in one’s will to live). He was neurotic and obsessive, traits he recognized in his mother and which aided him in his artistic pretensions since he could now remove himself from society in peace. Who even knew if he was any good at his art? Who knew if he would make a buck? If he would sell? Who decides? The art galleries?
And Cordelia didn’t get better. She just doubled down on her homeopathic obsessions while the omeprazole made her dizzier and dizzier. And as May turned to June and July and there were more people out and about wasting their money, or as politicians call it, contributing to the economy, her job got harder and harder. For the 40,000 a year she earned, she had to endure the anger of a man whose poodle was showered in the shrimp and vomit of an indigested patron; the annoyance of a celebrity with a golden head who could not be satisfied with his meat; and a large European group that wasn’t cognizant of American restaurant formalities and treated Cordelia with an educated and friendly contempt, thinking her a form of servant whose job suddenly included playing with the manic toddler and keeping him from crying.
Then one busy Friday night a server tripped when a fat man, having spread his legs to let his paunch hang free, left one knee jutting out in the server’s way. The tray full of plates and glasses flew and Cordelia had to take over the spoiled order. She became the target of that table’s angry salvos. “How long will you make us wait again?” “I’ll be expecting them for free, you know.” And of course, she had to comply. The reputation of the restaurant was worth more than the food. However, she had other tables demanding her attention and she began to excuse herself from the conversation. “Are you going to make us wait again?” “What an awful place!” “Awful service!” “I can’t believe they hire such trash.” “Where are you from?” “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Her pressure went up; her heart fluttered and skipped; she felt nausea, warmth in her head, ice in her hands. Her left hand went numb. And this time, when the world tipped beneath her feet, she fell back and faded out of consciousness.
Cordelia Vita woke up in the hospital and later Bee drove her back to their apartment.
“You’ll be fine,” Bee said.
And after she had recovered and returned to her work (the owners liked her very much) she was fine.
Two weeks later, she gathered her mail, walked home to find Bee, as usual, staring at his unchanging skyline, and opened a letter from the insurance company.
She read it and her eyes glazed. She heard her heart in her ears and she breathed to calm herself. One. Three. Zero. Zero. Zero. Uncovered. The words and numbers in the letter throbbed in her head. She felt an ebb of pain in her chest. It radiated out until she felt like her left side was no longer there, though she felt warm and cold and she even wanted to say something but all she managed to grunt was her son’s name.
Bee had but a chance to hear her grunt before he saw her fall and the paper with the bill of what was or wasn’t covered fly out of her hands, gliding down in arcs almost as if it were smiling.
[Check out Julian Santiago Munoz's back porch advice]