Watching Pablo sleep
An original short story set in Mexico
It's midmorning in Sta. Lucia and Claire lies on Pablo's right side watching him sleep. He can't go to sleep unless she watches. This is his belief, and his beliefs infect her, fester like splinters under her scalp. She has watched him sleep much of the time for three of their four years together. She is compelled to inspect, bleach, disinfect, wash, rinse and cook to keep the cancer at bay. She longs to be alone. Is it guilt which binds her to him now more tightly than love?
He lies on his right side so the catheter in his kidney will fall freely to the bag on the floor. His skin, which used to be the color of a burnished chestnut, has lost its luster. He looks older than his 50 years, but Pablo is still a handsome man.
Claire remembers clearly how he took her breath away when she first saw him in the Sunday street market in Sta. Lucia. High heeled boots make a man walk like Pablo did, a hip-swinging, strutting walk which showed her the unshakable dignity of his character. The way he held his broad shoulders, the little sway of his slim hips bespoke his poise. This, as much as his sweet mouth, disguised with a mustache so as not to appear too feminine, attracted her. She stopped to buy a green mango cut like a flower and the vendor called her muneca, doll, an endearment for petite women. She was the size of many of the Indian women. She observed Pablo as he smiled in greeting to his many acquaintances. The very old and the very poor knew him, saluting him with the back of the hand held up.
By some sixth sense he knew she noticed him and it seemed perfectly natural to accept his offer to carry her bags of fruit. She told herself he probably had a wife and eight children at home. She told herself he was likely to be as disloyal as many Mexican men are, but she didn't listen to herself. His visit lengthened into evening and she basked in the stares of envious women as they walked around town. Pablo was handsome, but more than that, he had charisma.
During the week he was away working. Claire lit candles to the Virgin and to the blind saint, patroness of the pueblo. She felt very much the hypocrite -- what would the Presbyterians in Iowa say, she wondered, but she did it anyway. She bought bright zinnias and magenta cockscomb and put bouquets in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Every love song she heard was a dart in her heart. When he arrived the next weekend with his shiny boots and his laughing manner, she thanked the gods, Presbyterian, Catholic and Indian that he was divorced. A rare thing in this country.
She daydreams here in the little bedroom, clear images of dancing with him as he balanced a bottle of tequila on the top of his head and never missed a beat. Or of the serenades sung with a guitar which now lies mute, untuned. She imagines a daisy, her hands plucking the petals. Love him/feel guilty/love him/feel guilty. Of course she loves him.
As he turns in sleep she turns too, following his rotation like a moon in orbit. She slips one arm under his head and the other along his side. She won't kill this morning watching him sleep. She'll make bread or cheese, or maybe chink the space below the kitchen window where insects get in. She'll wash her sweater and turn the collars on his two favorite shirts.
Stealthily she rises from the bed in her bare feet, pressing two pillows against him so he won't miss her. She winds her hair around her hand and fastens it with two combs. Her mother was proud of Claire's hair when she was a little girl, always rinsed it with chamomile tea to give it blonde highlights.
She hears the tamale man calling out. The corn crop is ripening and green corn tamales are her favorite. She opens the door soundlessly and slips sandals onto her skinny freckled feet, feet with long and grasping toes, feet like those of the chicken lady (ten years older than Claire is, but looking like a crone.) Chicken feet. But not chicken legs; long shapely legs, not middle-aged legs.
The tamale man stops his bicycle, a relic almost as old as he is, and grins at her, showing front teeth backed by stainless steel.
Attached to the back of his bicycle is a cart with a steaming pot of tamales. He flirts a bit with her as she picks out her purchases. Since Pablo's illness many men in Sta. Lucia have become flirtatious. Probably the flirting has much to do with the perception that she might support them, as she obviously is supporting Pablo. Her money and her strength are running out. She buys two sweet and two salty tamales for six pesos. The salty ones are the best, tasting slightly of chili and very much of corn.
"You better hurry up and sell them," she teases him. "It's going to rain soon and hard."
"Then why don't you buy all of them so I can go home?"
She also buys two liters of milk from the man on the horse and enters the house as noiselessly as she left it. The moments alone are as sweet as the tamale she nibbles. Today his daughters will come to be with Pablo. Not that he needs watching, but he gets sad alone. They who have helped so little when he was in the hospital, are sometimes available now that he's in remission. Now that he's obviously going to live. Claire was the one who emptied bedpans and bathed and fed him. Claire was the one who went weeks without rest.
Browsing through the dresser drawer, she finds the old red cashmere cardigan and washes it. It won't weigh down her knapsack, and she'll need it on the bus. Even on the better buses in Mexico, there's usually a window stuck open. Then she washes and bleaches the lengths of cloth which Pablo uses to bind his back and abdomen to support the muscles. Her motions are quick and efficient, those of a farmer's daughter. She was 16 when her father lost the farm in the little valley in Iowa. Took off on her own, coming back home only to nurse her mother through her final illness. She wonders, does she have some kind of karma with cancer?
The clouds move in and she watches the dramatic sky and the gray-green hills she can see out the kitchen window. She pasteurizes the milk and places a few tablespoons of water in a small bowl to dissolve the rennet. Branches of the red-flowered tulipane tree beat against the windows. Pablo has disliked wind and rain since he was a child.
Once he told her why. "I was just a little boy, Amor, when we lived in San Luis Potosi. The rain came hurtling out of the sky. We all lived in one room, so when the baby was coming, Mama made us both go out in the rain and wait in the abandoned car. It was dark and Ifegenia and I were frightened. And cold. But we stayed in the car all night." The threads of Pablo's stories bind her to him.
She finds candles and trims the wick on the kerosene lamp. They may lose the electricity again if this keeps up. Maybe this will be the last storm. It's almost the end of September. She adds to her knapsack the silver thimble from her mother and some pieces of ribbon, and the small travel bottles of mouthwash, shampoo and sun block.
Pablo wakes. " Ma? Mamacita?"
"I'm here." She thinks of her children calling out at night to be reassured.
" Aye, Mama, it's blowing up a good one." In response she pops a thermometer into his mouth which he removes. "I'm not getting an infection, I promise." He pats the space beside him. "Come, I had a strange dream."
"Okay, let me check the milk."
"Are you making cheese again?"
"Why do you make cheese when we can buy good panela for a few pesos?"
Because mine is cleaner, she thinks. "Please don't talk to me when I'm in another room. I can't understand you." Not that understanding makes any difference to Pablo. He talks to connect, not to communicate. If she leaves, she'll miss his talking, but right now it irritates her.
She's irritable because she 's tired beyond tired. Weary beyond the power of sleep to heal. All those nights waking to listen to his breathing, to divine the depth of his pain. To keep vigil, as she watched her mother for two long years. Pablo seems all right now, but she couldn't let down her guard, not until lately.
She tests the milk on her wrist, mixes in the rennet and sets the enamel pan of milk in a larger one of hot water. She covers the whole lot with a piece of wool blanket. This done, she goes in and kisses him between his fierce eyebrows, noting for the hundredth time that he looks vulnerable since he's lost so much weight. The bones of his face are more prominent, his nose more like a beak. Her heart feels pinched. At least there will be cheese tomorrow. She hopes his daughters will keep it safe from flies.
She takes up her sewing, ripping off the collar of his purple shirt. "How do you feel? Do you hurt much?"
"No, Mama, I'm all right. It's only a small pain."
Not that he would say so if it were a large one. Only the tightening of his skin over the skull would tell her. How bravely he bears pain!
"Let me tell you the dream before it goes away. I was a rich man, an actor, older than you." She drains his bag of urine into a plastic bucket, being careful not to contaminate the bag. "I had lots of money. That's a good sign we'll have money again."
"You think so?"
"Dreams don't lie."
She empties the plastic bucket in the toilet and rinses it, returning to hear his dream. Sometimes he tells her his dreams in the morning before she has time to fully recall her own.
Pablo continues, "You came to live with me and I took care of you. I acted out all the parts I had played. I was a roving singer, and I was Don Quixote. I was Pancho Villa and an evil king. I wore different sombreros and false hair." He pats his head where the hair is thinning. He used to have such a lot of hair, one of the things she loved about him. There's a lot more gray the last couple of years.
Claire half listens to the dream and thinks that she too has aged a lot. The loss of youth never ceases to make her sad. A certain beauty was her only inheritance from her mother. That and the nerve to start all over again in a new place with only the clothes on her back and what she could carry in her knapsack. She's done it six times now, furnishing her little dwellings with other people's cast-offs
"So you got bored with all this play acting and you left me," accuses Pablo.
"I left you?" She tries not to sound guilty. Before his operations he used to claim he never dreamed at all. She encouraged him to tell her his dreams so he could remember them and distract his mind.
"Yes, you left me. I missed you as I would miss my right arm. But after a week you came back. You know how much you missed me?
"How much?" Claire, the listener, the perfect audience.
"So much that you cut your heart out with a knife and gave it to me."
She laughs. " Aye Amor, you have such vivid dreams. Did I die?"
"No, you just gave me your little red heart."
He really doesn't know, at least on a conscious level, that she's planning to leave him. She feels like a traitor, but better a traitor than fade away here, physically and financially.
* * * * *
It is Saturday, and another day with no help from his daughters, which doesn't surprise Claire. Time to go to the plaza and call her friend Alice, but she still hasn't done it. She is irritated with the daughters. Probably one of the children is sick, or they got mixed up on which day.
The rain has let up, so they go for a walk together to buy tortillas at Pablo's suggestion. His life centers around food. The monotony of their days must bother him. It certainly bothers Claire. Together they put on his cowboy boots and the jeans that are too large for him. Not acceptable to appear in public as a sick man.
He isn't sick, he's healing, as Claire has told him daily over the last three years. His urine bag goes in a woven cotton bag which swings jauntily from his shoulder. From a distance he looks like any other man carrying tools in a morral. He walks slowly, but not so very slowly, thinks Claire, when you considers he's only been out of the hospital a month. He is such a good sport about everything. She, recalling the endless nights in Guadalajara sleeping on the floor under his bed in the IMSS hospital, is a sissy. To tell him she's feeling fed up with this life seems unfair.
She told Alice, but she can't tell him. Alice, removed more than 1000 miles from Claire, worries about her and makes her promise to call collect. She calls on Saturday mornings when her friend is home in Taos, New Mexico, where it's an hour earlier than in Sta. Lucia. To Alice she said it last week. "I'm fed up."
"Take more time for yourself," advised Alice. "Get the daughters to help more."
"They do. Sometimes they feed him mid-morning and do his laundry."
"Only sometimes? I thought Mexican families were famous for helping each other."
"Not me, I'm not family.
"Do you go away by yourself when they do come over?"
"Usually, but I can't leave for long; there's so much to be done."
"You're a glutton for punishment. Go away somewhere and rest. Come to see me. I'll pay half your plane ticket."
"Alice, that's very kind of you, but I don't know if I can."
"When he's out of sight I can't relax."
"What are you? His life line?"
"Go away somewhere for a little while or you're going to collapse," Alice told her sternly. "I don't know how you've had the strength so far."
"I don't either."
"Promise me you'll go away."
"If I go away I might never come back."
"If you don't go away you might die."
"Ah, Alice, you're so dramatic."
Claire, you're such a chump. I love you."
She'd like to call Alice, today, right now, but she can't keep Pablo out any longer. The rain was just a sprinkle when they started walking, but now the wind is blowing and it seems to signal another downpour. They zip their jackets and buy tortillas. "When I was a little boy it rained for three days in San Luis Potosi," he says. "It flooded the main streets and half of the town. We had to climb a tree, Ifegenia and I and my parents and the baby. We stayed there for three days.
"What did you eat? Leaves.?"
He laughs a hearty laugh "No, we had cooked up a big pot of corn and we ate corn for three days, all except the baby. He didn't have any teeth.
"Didn't he get sick being in the rain?".
"No, we kept him warm with our bodies. All my brothers and sisters are very strong. They don't get sick easily." Pablo never runs out of stories to tell her. to keep her fascinated.
The storm front has been causing Claire's anxiety level to peak, and now the fury of the hurricane, which was hovering off the coast of Colima, is unleashed in Sta. Lucia as a tropical storm.
They eat lunch listening to the rain, a sound like waves slapping the tile roof. She experiences a sense of relief, even though she hasn't told him yet. Or written a note to leave behind. Her old knapsack is ready with good luck talismans, the Christmas and birthday cards from him and a minimum amount of clothes and cosmetics. She wonders who will fit into the little clothes she's leaving behind. He is bathed and fed. The dishes are washed, the floor mopped, the lengths of cloth to bind him drying on hangers in the bathroom. A last siesta here would be nice. Eating made him sleepy, but he resists nodding off until she lies beside him. "Are you all right?" she asks.
"Yes, I'm all right. I would bear any pain in order to spend a few more years with you." Her heart contracts.
She tucks the teddy bear she bought him under his arm and lies on her right side embracing him. As she drops off to sleep she hears someone's battery radio blaring the love songs he used to sing. Songs of cruel women and broken men.
When he used to sing in restaurants, Vicente Fernandez' son and Lorenzo de Monte Carlo and Gerardo Reyes were just getting started. He knew them. Now they're famous. She sleeps for perhaps half an hour and then gets up and lights the candles against the gathering dusk. She is less restless than she has been in ages.
It is still so humid that her sweater isn't dry yet. She is moved by his devotion. She pushes the pillows against him so he won't miss her presence and goes to look up the recipe for brioche. She finds the hidden backpack and slowly unpacks it.
She warms a bowl with hot water and dissolves the yeast she got from the bakery. Nice people in Sta. Lucia. Especially kind to her because she is Pablo's woman. She mixes in a bit of flour and the yeast, putting it in a bowl of warm water until it swells and rises. Then she adds two eggs with the rest of the flour and puts it all together, kneading away guilt and fear and resentment. To make it right will probably take the whole night.
But then, she can watch Pablo sleep while she makes it. When she lies beside him again he will caress the long bone of her hip, as if she were an extension of him. Which she is.
"Watching Pablo Sleep" was inspired by observing the macho male patients at El Centro Medico in Guadaljara, a 14 story hospital in the IMSS system.
Many bore their suffering with dignity and an unfailing sense of humor. Their wives, mothers and daughters cared for them with love and great fortitude, sleeping under their mens' beds for weeks at a time.
My husband and I were there for almost three months.