by Francis Sanzaro
I waited for Rosa at the airport doing those things you do—urinate too much, imagine other people’s lives, fall in love with a girl in yoga pants, fail to connect to the wifi, talk to a taxi driver with a mustache.
Two, three, then five hours had passed and nothing. At six hours I witnessed a father receive a call that his wife had taken her last breath, from cancer I could gather, and when his kids were playing with the rent-a-carts and one of their hats fell off, revealing a freshly shaved head, it was as if a wind had blown dust off of his soul, and pity, an emotion a cripple seldom feels, arose into my heart, reminding me I had one; suffering calcifies even those who should feel it most. Quickly, the shaved-head child got onto his lap, and they fell asleep for eternity.
The last time I had seen Rosa, my sister, was when I vowed to never see her again, and I had been unfortunately successful in that vow, despite scheming for a rendezvous that would appear impromptu and allow her to apologize for calling me a cripple, a freak and then storming off to NYC three years ago after a boy or a life or a dream that didn’t exist.
“I hate you. Don’t try calling,” were her exact words.
Would she remember how angry I was? If she forgot, would I remind her?
I put my hands on my stomach. Soon I’d have another’s intestine—a transplant. Mine was failing, like a sputtering car. Most days I wanted to die, and if you had given me a suicide pill two days ago I would have chomped down on it like it was candy, the pain, I calculated, akin to having a twenty-five foot tongue and having it rolled out on a wood plank and then someone drives a 16-penny nail every inch into it, looking straight into your eyes as they do so, to make it feel personal.
It was also this time that she started cutting herself, first with small, parallel eye-length slits on her thighs. Everyone confronted her about it, but then, in time, everyone knew that there was nothing they could do. It fell off our radar. She continued.
Thunderstorms outside the airport, belligerent, broodish clouds and spitting rain and wind. It was cold, unusually cold for October. My bones felt fragile.
It was agony and I wish I could say there was some transcendent motivation keeping me alive, but there wasn’t, and that fact alone depressed me, as if I wasn’t dead simply by a technicality.
What was I going to say to her? I’m just going to piss her off anyway and end up in a hotel. Does it really matter?
It was dark now and the man who lost his wife to cancer had gathered up all his kids and left crumbs and soda cups on the floor and disappeared into the goings-on, his children wearily stumbling behind him, fidgeting with their slinkys and lego sets. The boy with cancer dropped something, a toy, but I let him lose it; something in me resented him.
Why don’t I feel bad about not telling him?
Surgery in two weeks, a might-not-make-it surgery, hence the last-hoorah visit to see Rosa. Though we hadn’t spoken in three years, there was enough resentment to fuel our distance for decades—simply her being her and me being me and growing up with an abusive mother; when siblings have a mutually shared object of hatred, it often happens that the hatred reflects, ala moonlight on the statue of a saint, on all innocent parties.
Somewhere inside of Rosa was a good person, it’s just that the good person wanted nothing to do with Rosa. We didn’t always hate each other—as kids we were besties, and slept in the same bed for five years, but something just happened one day, as if the proverbial switch had been flipped, and we never recovered.
What really happened to us, anyway?
“I’ll be there. Just wait!” Rosa texted before I hopped on the plane. I couldn’t imagine she meant to use an exclamation point. I barely remembered what her voice sounded like. So I waited. I watched the rain carry litter down the drains. I listened to fat drops of water pound the aluminum roof. I tried to sleep. I thought of the man with cancer and if he had told his kids yet their mother died. I wondered if he had already begun to protect them from her, and, if so, what moat had he dug.
We couldn’t sell the farm, and cauliflower and cucumber prices had dropped so low that it didn’t make sense to grow it anymore. For years my parents couldn’t afford my surgery and it made me resent them and everything they did. I wanted out, like Rosa, but I needed full-time care and packing a backpack and dissolving into anonyme with new nipple rings and tattoos in the big city wasn’t in the cards for me. Rosa left just as things got difficult and the fighting began. I resented her for leaving me.
When we talk, do I bring this up? What did she do for work? I heard it was expensive.
A month ago, early Fall in central Vermont, my parents sat me down.
“We have the money for your surgery,” my father said, as if it was time for the car to get an oil change.
He planted his callused elbows on the kitchen table; it should have been a celebratory statement, but it sounded defeated, conciliatory, and I picked up on that immediately, thinking that my death might have been their great liberation, they could travel and all that, see the world, have some respite from my medical bills, which crushed them, us, but which I never had the maturity to thank them for, partly blaming them for my disease in the first place and on the other hand expecting them to pay the bills, as if paying my own medical bills would be preposterous. I couldn’t look at my mother for some reason.
When you suffer for too long and your parents take care of you, you despise them and take all of your anger out on them. I knew this, they knew this. Mom looked ashamed when my father broke the news, which was odd.
The second thing they said was, “You need to visit your sister.” It seemed they would arrange it, and if Rosa was willing, so was I. They were adamant about the visit, and I couldn’t tell why. It was like a blind date with someone you loved.
“Take this with you,” my father said.
He gave me a letter, and said to open it “before you meet with your sister.”
I tucked it away in my bag, thinking it was a gift card for dinner or theatre tickets.
Why am I seeing Rosa again?
Now, with the surgery, I’d live. I had already mourned myself, and being told I’d live was like being introduced to an old friend who had let you down but that you reasoned it was worth the effort to make amends with. Stunned, I hadn’t the wherewithal to ask where the money came from, and, in retrospect, they would have lied, but I might have at least picked up on the lie and dug deeper, since, if I have anything it’s time. But I should have asked where the money came from, since there was no good reason for me not knowing, only incredible reasons for me to know.
I finished the internet and hailed a smog-grimed taxi from the airport to Rosa’s place. An XL arrived. The man whose wife just died and his son who had cancer sat in the back, tired necks leaning to and fro, barely perceptible whimpering. He helped fold my wheelchair and tossed it into the back, as if he had done it before.
“What happened to your legs?” said the bald kid to me. He rubbed my legs with thin, bruise-spotted hands; he had a compassion in his touch that only terminally sick kids have, a touch in which the body is an absolute stranger, a vicious yet unaware monster, but at the same time the cause of the finer joys, which to a sick child is just plain living, alive. The sicker you are, the more your and others’ bodies become communal property. The man just started talking to me and the boy kept rubbing my legs, inspecting me, and the father didn’t think to tell him to stop.
“I had a twenty percent chance of living,” I said to him, “…but with the surgery, I have a 70% chance of living to age 40.”
“Huh,” he said, “You know…I see this girl who, well, it’s hard to describe what she does. People in this country haven’t really discovered it yet.” He lifted up his shirt, revealing intricate scarring on the flesh of his left side, as big as a dinner plate, clearly intentional, like a tattoo made with a sharp knife; I couldn’t make out the details but it looked like the result of an initiation rite of a tribe from Papua New Guinea.”
“Cool,” I said. “But I’m in enough pain…did they do that all at once, or over time?”
“Over time—each week I have a little more done. It’s odd, but it changes the nature of the pain when it’s written on you. I’m going tonight. Come if you can. She is expensive, really pricy, but worth it.” I didn’t feel like discussing his philosophy of pain, so I shut up after that. His name was Dougald.
I prayed for him to shut up.
“How is your wife?” I asked.
“What? Sry, the engine is loud back here,” he said.
I’m a terrible person.
As we spoke, I thought about the money in the back of my mind—likely, the farm was sold to pay for it. They had nothing else, and there was no one else. Soon enough, I told myself, I need to thank them. I need to apologize. I really did. I’d be a shame to die and not tell them.
The taxi stopped at Rosa’s address. Near or aspiring homeless loitered about on the stoop below. They eyed me carefully, the cripple. I was drenched just rolling myself to the stairs, as if someone dipped me in a bucket. But I turned around and figured I’d better eat something. My stomach was in knots.
I returned an hour later and just as I was nearing her place Dougald hopped out of a cab and darted into her building.
No way, I thought, impossible. She couldn’t be…
I solicited help for my wheelchair on the stairs and a guy with a half-smoked cigarette behind his ear and tattered jeans obliged, getting drenched in the process. Her building had serial killer hallways. Rain pelted the roof with anger, generating small waterfalls onto the littered streets below. The elevator took an eternity, and whence atop, her door was unlocked, but had a lot of locks.
A man greeted me at the door, a man in his fifties wearing a suit, disheveled red tie and tennis shoes; he had slicked back hair, and spoke sadly. He looked surprised. It was Dougald.
“Hi” I said. He didn’t recognize me. He looked like he was in a trance.
Her apartment—actually it wasn’t an apartment—was vampire-chic, red velvet drapes hitting the floor, black leather wallpaper, pedestals with gargoyle trinkets and an overall Transylvanian melancholy to the place, it being quite big as well, colonizing the entire upper floor of the building, whose rent must have been unfathomable; loungy chairs made little clusters in each corner of the room, with a least five or six rooms, and it was obvious that people didn’t make small talk here, a funeral parlor that didn’t know it was one, just with better decor. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I rolled myself to a corner, past a few Wall Street types with crossed legs and Italian leather shoes, their heads down not wanting to be seen. The carpet was a bit wet. A leak from the roof. I waited. Where was I?
A gland-rich assistant in all-black attire approached and rolled me to a shower room where she stripped me down and washed me as a zoo keeper would a baby elephant, sensitive and mindful yet with the efficacy that there were other elephants after me. She then carted me down a pitch-black hallway and into another room, where I was laid on my back. Music may have been playing, but I couldn’t tell. Someone was humming, maybe. The floor of the room was tile and it had a drain in the middle. I guess it was for spilled blood.
Rosa came in shortly. I barely recognized her. She looked unfed, malnourished, with hair prematurely grey in spots and legs looking like they had kissed the end of a swiftly moving hammer. She had knives in her hand, sharp ones, with red handles. She was going to hurt me.
I thought I would have just said “Hi” but another set of words involuntarily exited my mouth.
“Why did you leave? Why?” I felt like an angry eight-year old. I had wanted to ask her that for three years. Now it had asked itself.
“I didn’t…didn’t want to. It wasn’t my idea.”
She was not ready for a fight.
“Please just close your eyes. This is going to hurt a good bit—I need you to relax,” she said.
“What are doing to me? What in the hell is this?” I said.
“I help people make do with the loss of a loved one—I give skin tattoos and help them materialize the pain,” she said.
“Who’s dying? I’m not dying…I haven’t lost anybody,” I said angrily.
“No, this is for me.”
She stopped talking for a second, choosing her words carefully. “I’m dying. I’ll be dead in two months.”
“Wait…what?? What are you saying?” I asked.
It was too much. It didn’t register. I changed the subject.
“What’s this got to do with you leaving?” I asked.
“I left three years ago,” she said.
“So,” I said.
“That’s when we found out I had brain cancer…that’s when I left.”
“Mom and dad sent me here for you.”
I didn’t understand. She knew I didn’t.
“This isn’t the typical good bye, but it’s how I have to do it. I’m sorry. I’m moving to California so I can die without looking like a corpse; they have better laws there. You’ve always been good at dying, but it’s not for me.”
She cut me, patched me up and kissed me on the forehead and saw me to the sidewalk out front. She was distant, inaccessible. The carved flesh on my left side made it feel as if I had third-degree burns. It was awful.
Outside on the tar-stained sidewalk I saw a ripped envelope, wet from the rain. It reminded me of the envelope my parents gave me. I rolled myself under an awning and fetched the letter from my bag. It was unopened and addressed to my father. Perhaps it was the wrong letter. I opened it. Inside was a check to the amount of eleven thousand dollars, made out to my father from Rosa.
On the bottom left line of the check, the place where you note what the check is for, it said Last payment for Sean’s surgery. Rosa died a month later. I never thanked her.
Francis Sanzaro (Ph.D.), is the author of three books, and has written for the New York Times, Continental Philosophy Review, Breadcrumbs Mag, Sierra Nevada Review, Huffington Post, The Baltimore Post Examiner, Greyrock Review, and among others. His books are The Infantile Grotesque: Pathology, Sexuality and a Theory of Religion (2016) and The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering (2013). Society Elsewhere: Why the Gravest Threat to Humanity Will Come From Within will be published in spring of 2018. He is Editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent magazines.