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Essay

I’VE NEVER GIVEN myself an enema in front of anyone,” Christy says. We have arrived at a new stage in our friendship. And technically she’s not giving herself an enema in front of me. She readies what looks like a baster for a small turkey, and then I sit in the anteroom, next to the sink and linen closet and a large bathroom with a pull cord for help and a shower with a plastic seat. I read her copy of Eva Luna with my back turned and one ear open.

Sometimes Christy only needs me to go away. She asks me to move the potty chair closer to her hospital bed and to help her up. “What else can I do?” I ask.

“Take a walk,” she says. I pass a statue of Mary and a wall of photographs of Saint Mary’s Hospital through the ages on my way to a windowless café area flanked by four vending machines. I choose a cup of robocoffee with extra “whitener.” I study the crumbs on the tabletop until the coffee is finished and I assume I’ve been gone long enough. I don’t know which is worse, Christy’s pain or the loneliness of her pain.

Christy has Crohn’s disease. Her father had a colostomy years ago, the cure. “I don’t want them to cut my guts out,” Christy tells me. She is twenty-eight and hopes for more children. She’s mortified that her sex life would forevermore include an external pouch of feces. And there’s India: Christy and her husband, Jay, plan to move there for good next fall with their two-year-old daughter, Brooklyn. Jay, a youth pastor in our hometown, will teach at a Bible college there, and Christy, a nurse at Saint Mary’s, will work at the college and an orphanage. Christy says that a clean colostomy bag in India would be impossible.

If her health is stable, Christy will travel in February with a medical team to help people in Chennai, India, displaced by the recent tsunami, and to Kota, to visit the orphans there, the orphans she calls her kids. Christy urges me to go on the three-week trip. The medical team treats lice, scabies, and simple infections. They lack the resources for much follow-up care. They give what comfort they can. I am marginally employed at our hometown newspaper and living with my parents after two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. The most productive thing I do is train for a marathon because I like drawing a diagonal line through each day’s mileage in the spreadsheet. The team needs nonmedical staff, Christy assures me. I can fill out papers. I can color with kids while they wait to see a doctor. I can shampoo hair. I can hug people whose work and villages were wiped away. I realize that my Peace Corps service might give the impression that I have MacGyver skills and greater-than-average good-heartedness and resilience. But the trip is expensive, and when Christy asks me to go, I can already see myself crouched in a dusty corner, overwhelmed and useless. This is a difference between Christy and me: Christy goes, I don’t go.

§

Not long before Christmas, Christy calls me from the hospital and says she’s sick of Ensure, tired of sad pudding and lifeless soup, and would I please bring some hummus. She also asks me to puree some cooked whole wheat pasta with a can of tomatoes. The dish looks as gross as it sounds, but Christy eats it all from fist-sized Tupperware containers. Thanks to my facility with the food processor, Christy glows a little, those chickpeas moving some inner dimmer switch.

Heavy doses of steroids get Christy out of the hospital for the holidays. She invites me to a Christmas Eve service at their church, Fellowship Baptist, a wide, white sanctuary with a sophisticated light and sound system. I get restless in church, especially a Baptist church, but I’m grateful for Christy’s recovery and want to spend as much time with her as I can. She sings with the music team up front, and I sit with Rhonda, her mom, and Ken and Lou, students from China who are studying at the nearby university, whose real names are not Ken and Lou but whose Chinese names prove stumblingblocks for enough people that they give us other options. They sit with their son, Baby Ken.

After the service, Christy wants to eat at the Super Chinese Buffet near the mall, one of few restaurants open this late on Christmas Eve. I am two weeks away from my first marathon. I eat five times a day and am never satisfied. By the end of that Christmas Eve service I am howling. I would gnaw the hymnals if no one were looking. Earlier that week I’d run through housing developments near Heritage Farm Village and was struck by the new fashion, circa Christmas 2004, of six-foot upright canvas holiday figures inflated by air pumps. I passed tall bobbing penguins, polar bears, Santas, snow globes on yards with no snow. Living in Moldova for two years has created an enjoyable Rip Van Winkle effect. I missed the proliferation of Wifi, for example, and those motion-sensitive soap and paper towel dispensers in public bathrooms.

The Super Chinese Buffet is an awkwardly remodeled Circuit City store. It’s so good to watch Christy eat, even if it is the Super Chinese Buffet: red Jell-o squares, pale beige pudding, and a sad fantail of butterfly shrimp slumping under a heat lamp. From the restaurant, we ride in the borrowed church van through the nearby town of Milton to give out the Candy Cane Award, a kind of Clark Grizwold honor for the gaudiest holiday display. Ken, Lou, Baby Ken, Rhonda, and I vote from the back seats. Christy strolls onto the winning porch with a foot-tall plastic candy cane and presents the award to the surprised guy in flannel who answers the door. I take a photo. Flannel guy smiles. Christy glows. It’s hard to believe she’s been out of the hospital for less than a week. She wears a jeweled sari, a red bodice wrapped in yards of olive shimmering fabric. It’s a wedding sari, she tells me.

Of course we don’t know that in less than a year she’ll be buried in it.

§

It is snowing in West Virginia, just after Christmas, clouds emptying bottoms-up like boxes of instant mashed potatoes. We don’t get much snow here, and it’s not going to last, but Christy and Brooklyn dance under white trees in their front yard and Jay films it. Then Christy takes the camera. Jay throws a snowball that lands at her feet. If she makes the trip to see the orphans in February, she wants to show them Brooklyn and the snow.

Christy and Jay live just a mile from my parents. I’ve walked over with cauliflower and frozen peas for our suburban curry, an attempt to honor the country that Jay and Christy have adopted. Christy received a curry cookbook for Christmas, and we drool over the pages. We plot out the next months of our lives in curries. I plan to move away at the end of the summer, and Christy and Jay will be gone in the fall, so we know the cooking can’t wait.

Cauliflower is a meek vegetable, absorbing whatever you put with it, soft but not slimy invertebrate soft. This recipe uses a whole head of cauliflower. By the time we add the diced potatoes, the mound of seasoned vegetables spills over the side of the skillet. We make haystacks of food for three adults and one child.

In the kitchen we listen to Simon and Garfunkel. Christy and Jay are people with Bible verses and prayers taped to kitchen cabinets, and clusters of photographs of Indian friends, Bible college students, and orphans on the dining room walls. They are two church people with whom I can be friends. Their faith is deep, they read a lot, and church is not uncomplicated for them. The Indian faces on the walls and cabinets have straight, white, immaculate smiles, not the missing, gold, and silver teeth I saw as the stamp of hard times in Eastern Europe. (Mama Nina, my Moldovan host mom, once complimented my teeth and asked if they were real.) Christy echoes my surprise at those white smiles and tells me that many people in India would be fortunate ever to see a doctor in their lives, much less a dentist.

I stay the night in their guest room, and in the morning I leave them a bucket of leftovers and take a bucket with me. In the kitchen, Christy moves slowly, as though she might shatter. She takes enormous pills every day. This morning she suspects she has a bladder infection, so she pops an antibiotic, too. Christy keeps a bottle of smelling salts near the toilet in case she faints from the pain.

§

Just after New Year’s, I run my marathon in Phoenix, and Christy is back in the hospital. One afternoon, as soon as I arrive, Christy is flushed and tells me she doesn’t feel right. I’ve brought a couple of movies, which we never watch. We have to move from the third floor to the basement for chest X-rays. Christy sits in a wheelchair and holds a heavy bound book, like an accountant’s ledger, on her lap. A nurse pushes the wheelchair and I follow with the oxygen tank, wheeling it like a vacuum cleaner. It’s hard not to tangle the thin tube that stretches, like part of an aquarium, from Christy’s nose to the tank. I cut the corners too narrow. The nurse deftly backs Christy’s wheelchair into the elevator. I wait near a bulletin board decorated with a construction-paper pirate and a lumpy ship. A guy in grungy white parachute pants, ragged high-tops, and a neck brace sits in a wheelchair near the television. I try not to stare at his pale, patchy chest hair or his sternum with its four-inch scar.

On nights like this when I stay over with Christy, I leave Saint Mary’s when Jay arrives in the morning. Christy keeps the air conditioning on full blast, a steady 55 degrees in the room. She wears a short-sleeved T-shirt and thin pajama pants, and her cheeks are still red. I learn to layer. One day on my way home, I stop at Hillbilly Hot Dogs for “Stacy’s flu shot,” a dog topped with chili and jalapenos. These days I take my food as hot as I can stand it. I sink into a guilty glee, the sheer euphoria that I am not sick. I am not dying. At home I lace up my shoes and run the loop: over the bridge to nowhere, past the Wyngate assisted-living community and the defunct brickyard, by my old high school, and the new post office where I like to talk to the moderately hot postal worker with that thick drawl. I know it’s a cliché, but when I hear that guy talk I think molasses. I think honey.

“Let me ask you something. You got a car?” moderately hot postal worker asks me.

“Yes.”

“So why do I see you runnin’ all the time?”

§

One night I stop by Saint Mary’s on my way to a yoga class to find Christy alone in her room. She’s supposed to be transferred by ambulance to Cleveland for more tests. Jay has gone home for the day to take care of Brooklyn and some church business. The best he can do is to drive the six hours to Cleveland first thing in the morning to join her. Rhonda is too sick to make it to the hospital often. Christy’s dad, Dave, isn’t around much, though he’s tried to reconnect with her in her illness. Recently Dave stayed a night with her in the hospital, she tells me, and they took turns massaging each other’s feet. Dave has grown a mullet, moved across the state line to Ohio, and taken up with a redheaded nurse that sugar-sweet Christy can only call a bitch—a woman to step on Dave and put him in his place, the opposite of her mother. Mulleted Dave has taken up painting and filled his trailer with pictures of cosmic phalluses erupting stars on cool lunar blue and purple backgrounds. Christy says, “I’ve never seen him happier.”

Though Christy’s visiting hours are packed with church lady visits, there are none to be found now. I realize there’s no way I’m making it to yoga. Christy doesn’t ask me outright, but I know she wants someone to go with her to Cleveland, to help her sort through information and make decisions and be her soberminded wingman. Instead she tells me she’s embarrassed about wearing Depends. I turn away as she swabs her backside with Mylanta to soothe her burning skin.

I have no job or child or duties other than giving my grandmothers a lift now and then. I’ve recently navigated bus stations in countries where I don’t speak the language. And yet Cleveland is a challenge I don’t feel up to. I have no spirit of adventure when the adventure isn’t fun. Christy is full of grace. It’s okay, she says. The nurses will take care of her. She even jokes with the ambulance drivers, including the really young one who calls himself Fetus.

Fetus and company load my friend on a gurney and drive off to Ohio in the clear, bitter night. In that moment I feel guilty but not that guilty. Actually I feel hungry. I buy a sandwich in the cafeteria, dodge the parking lot ice, and drive home to my parents’ house, where they’re sitting by the fireplace watching the news, my parents who are happy together, who can sit there and watch TV because their only daughter isn’t dying. More and more I find that my emotions have an unhelpful time-release function: first I say I’m all right with a choice I’ve made, and then much later the real weight of it knocks me over. Screw up in haste, repent at leisure. Leave your dying friend in a dark moment and have the rest of your own life to think about it.

§

Christy calls me in February from India. Somehow she’s recovered enough to risk the trip. I have no idea what time it is in India, but it’s afternoon for me, and when my mom calls me to the phone, all I can do is listen to Christy’s sobbing. She is in Kota, at one of the Hope Homes run by a Christian ministry supported by her church. The children and workers have been attacked by Molotov cocktails lobbed over the orphanage walls. Christy can barely speak. “My babies,” she repeats. The children are terrified. In general I behave as though the persecution of Christianity ended with the New Testament, as though once Pharisee Saul became the Apostle Paul, everything was fine. I know this isn’t true. You don’t have to run into many relief workers, missionaries, or human rights advocates to know that freedom of religion is hardly a global standard. Christy tells me about her sadness, asks me to pray for her and for the medical team and most of all for the scared children who aren’t safe on the streets or even, it seems, within the walls of charity. Christy could judge me: This is the real world, dammit! Aren’t you listening? Just because you don’t want to get involved doesn’t mean violence isn’t happening. But that isn’t her voice. It’s mine.

§

On my way to Christy’s room at Saint Mary’s I pass an older woman in the hall. Her hair is scarecrow-wild, her face bloated. Black socks slouch around her ankles. A wide hourglass of her backside shows through the gap in the hospital robe she tries to hold shut with one hand. Her skin crinkles like a fleshy sack, an old lady suit that’s too big for her.

Weeks after her trip to India, Christy has gained almost fifty pounds, most of it fluid. She’s outgrowing her body and her pajamas. Four women from church visit her, and one pulls out a pair of blue underwear the size of a front porch flag. “Granny panties,” Christy says. “How sexy is that?” Her taut body is now a balloon body, the skin of her swollen legs stretched to ripping, the pores pulled out of shape. As though her body is not skin but plastic. If skin can scream it is screaming.

Christy is on Lasix to lose the fluids. She is catheterized and refers to the plastic liter-sized box into which her urine drains as her “purse,” as though we’re going shopping. Christy is still fighting the double pneumonia that set in after she started immunosuppressant drugs, after the steroids stopped working. She is restless. She gets up to arrange the sheets and blanket on the foldout chair where I’ll sleep tonight. She insists I let her arrange the bed.

I’ve brought her a couple of recent New Yorkers and a plastic inflatable flamingo: “Fauna!” I announce. When Christy feels strong enough to write, she keeps a journal. “If I don’t make it,” she says, “I want Brooklyn to know I tried.” We don’t linger on this kind of talk. Christy has heard rumors, church gossip, that some people disapproved of her traveling to India for medical work. Why was she jeopardizing her health when she has a child at home? But to Christy, it’s a useless question. The orphans are her kids. Months ago Jay submitted his resignation to the church, effective at the end of the summer, just before their move to India. There are rumors that Christy is faking her illness so that Jay can keep his job. “Who would fake this?” she asks. She is more amused than angry. “Tell me.”

Christy wants to walk to the cafeteria on the first floor. It’s a big trip, but the nurse says she can go. Though Christy’s lungs are damaged, her intestines for now are calm, so she eats whatever she wants. The cafeteria is open till two am. She chooses a corndog and a piece of sclerotic Boston cream pie, her second of the day. She takes my arm as we promenade through the food court, past legions of juices in coolers, the empty salad bar, the buffet of mashed potatoes and a thick-skinned gravy tarn under a heat lamp. WKKW, the Dawg, plays on the radio.

In the far right corner of the dining room a statue of Mary, two feet high, stands on a table. She is shaped like an arch, like a keyhole, as though she is the portal to something good. Mary with a virgin blue napkin draped on her head, her hands outstretched to us. Please do not sit at this table, requests the sign beside her. Mary dines alone. We sit one table over. Near Mary hang fake windows with drooping shutters and window boxes of plastic flowers. The white wall shows through the quadrants of the frames. “It’s worse than a blank wall,” Christy says, of this half-hearted attempt at cheer, the earnest bad taste trying to drive out the sterile grief of the place.

Christy assembles a mound of ketchup and mustard packets and squirts them into the rectangular carton for the corn dog. She closes her eyes after she tears open a packet, then smiles and hovers there as if telling herself a really good joke. It might be the Dilaudid, or the oxycodone, the Ativan, or the temazepam. She is a running ticker of non sequiturs and is talking out her head.

“I’ve got it all taken care of,” she says, holding the mustard packet above the table.

“What’s that?” I ask, slipping the packet from her hands.

“Thanks,” she says. “Brooklyn’s not here, is she? I was talking to her. The pizza delivery.”

“Do you want to stay here? Should we go up?”

“No, give me a minute.” She leans slightly to one side and then the other. Her eyes are closed.

“Do you need help?” I don’t want to stay down here too long. I don’t want her to tire out. I’m of no use when things unhinge.

“I’ll submit to your authority. Just give me a minute,” she says. Now she’s garbling out the New Testament.

“You don’t have to submit to anything. I just want to make sure you’re okay.” She opens her eyes. She opens another packet of mustard and dunks the corn dog in the psychedelic mix. She points in the air with the corn dog. Her eyes close again. “Christy?”

“I’m sorry, I’m talking to everybody,” she says. “Tell me something funny.”

“Remember the time I ran over your suitcase with my dad’s truck?” Christy giggles, that famous laugh percolating out of her as she sets down her corn dog. I had dropped her off after a week of church camp in Flat Gap, Kentucky. It was dark, and I couldn’t see her suitcase in the rearview mirror. Christy and her dad called after me, but I had rolled the windows up against the dust from the gravel road. Once I turned onto pavement I heard the scraping: The muffler? There was nowhere well lit to pull over and check until the Kwik Stop on Route 60. Indeed, the suitcase handle was wrapped around the underside of the truck so tight I couldn’t budge it. I was already halfway home, so I kept driving, a car behind me flashing its lights in a warning, sparks trailing my dad’s blue truck on the highway. The friction burned holes in Christy’s clothes. It burned one eye and both ears off of Mr. Bear. It burned the leather cover of her white King James Bible but not the pages.

“Do you remember?” I ask her. Back then we took the protection of the Word as a sign.

§

I am staring at the white wall behind my desk in Salt Lake City. Christy died at her mother’s house last night. Jay called and said they’d returned from Cleveland earlier that day and were visiting her mother, who lives next door. Christy was too sick for surgery; they’d sent her home with more drugs to kill the blood infection first. I weep and then take my heavy body to bed, where I sleep with my eyes open.

In the morning I go to church. I need the familiar moves, the kneeling and standing, the rustling and fumbling of prayer book and hymnal, the belting out of all six verses of a hymn that resolves itself into a minor chord. I need Raggs the priest to stand at the altar, where she gives me a wafer of Christ like a vellum poker chip, the bread of heaven.

At home I peel and seed a plump butternut squash and cook it into a stew with onions and cinnamon. I don’t have a pastry cutter or a food processor so I mash the flour, butter, and salt together with a fork, with a touch of water, for the pie crust. It is not an artful crust. It is forlorn, a lumpy, snaggletooth crust. But today I don’t have the heart to finesse it. My mother calls while I’m sautéing the fresh tomato slices in olive oil and basil. “Are you busy?” she asks.

“I’m in the kitchen, where I belong,” I answer.

“I love you,” she says.

Later today I’ll call Christy’s mom, who has to brush her teeth in the bathroom where her daughter collapsed and died.

The oven is hot. I layer the cheese, then the tomatoes, then the egg-milk custard in the troubled crust, and gently set the quiche in the oven. The clock is set. I taste the stew—too much heat, too many jalapenos. I always make it too hot, as though it’s a test, as though I could purge the curse of flesh.

§

I visit Christy the night before I move to Utah. She has a staph infection from the pick line in her arm. “No wonder I feel so bad,” she says, once she finds out about the staph. She is on expensive, high-octane drugs. At her request I stop at the Dairy Queen for a mint Oreo Blizzard, so sweet it makes my teeth hurt to think about it. I buy a medium, but she eats it with such rapture, I wish I’d bought a large. Once I start crying, she holds my hand and asks me to leave. “You have a long trip,” she says. I kiss her warm forehead and tell her I love her.

Even in moments of sharpest pain, Christy looks at my meager deeds, which could not be called sacrifices, with gratitude instead of judgment. She isn’t oblivious or naïve; she just accepts with love whatever I can give, even if later I would realize how much I was holding back.

§

Christy calls me every few days when she has the energy to talk. She phones one night, after I’ve lived in Utah for a month or so, while I’m hosting a little dinner party. Three of the four guests are poets, which is the right proportion for a dinner party.

Although much cooking lore advises the home cook to master a dish before serving it to guests, my impulses run contrary. I sit with my cookbook and dream of future menus—oh, the soups I will make! the bowls I will fill! the knobby ginger I will peel and grate, the garlic cloves I will smash and dice, the scent lingering on my fingers till the next day.

Tonight, the pilaf platter, three different kinds. It requires some labor, but the cookbook promises a payoff: Make this for a special occasion—it serves a lot of people—and your guests will talk about it for weeks. I am that vain. I want them to talk about this tri-colored pilaf platter for weeks. The pilaf is a warm color palette: the golden rice tinted with turmeric and flavored with onion, garlic, and scallions; the orange of carrots mixed with raisins; the red of beets flavored with vinegar, honey, and dill. It’s a layering of tastes topped with a stew of sweet potatoes, spinach, prunes, and orange juice, inspired by Persian koresh. The stew is pungent, a loud and celebratory dish.

“Nicole,” the guests say, “you must have worked like a mule.” Yes, I am your mule! A mule for you! Christy calls after we’ve grazed awhile. I slip into the kitchen to talk. She’s in Cleveland; she and Jay are there to talk with specialists about the colostomy. She has resigned herself to this. She is still weak, and her intestines are flaring up again. “I can’t go on like this,” she says. “I need my life back.”

The poets have finished all the wine and are digging out the cheap beer in the back of my fridge. Christy asks what I’m doing and I tell her about the party. “What did you make?” she asks. “Tell me.” So I narrate the tart roasted eggplant salad, the pilafs touched with dill fronds, the funky and aromatic stew. She’s on easy carbs these days: a can of Ensure. Toast. Pudding. “It sounds so wonderful,” she says. I promise to make it for her when I’m home at Christmas. When I call back the next evening, Christy answers, breathless, that she can’t talk, “I’m so sick,” she says. “I’ll call you.” I try to call again in a couple of days but can’t get through.

Of course if I had known that our last conversation would be our last conversation, I would have disbanded the dinner party early and sent the poets home with kisses or beer or whatever they wanted from me. I would have put on a sweater and sat on the front stoop in the September desert night, a light scattering of stars above my visible breath, as Christy spoke to me from that hospital bed in Cleveland. We would have unrolled the future like bolts of luminous Indian silk. Maybe Christy and I would never have stopped talking. Maybe the conversation would have kept her alive, as though her body could not give out until we’d covered everything, until every book was read, every dish eaten, every mangled prayer healed and kissed, every orphan home.


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