Devorame Otra Vez (Devour Me, Once More)
These were the bags of liquid going into Cinnamon's body. There were others -- some arterial cardiac drug, 100 cc of D5W, and other things I couldn't read. They dripped slowly. Tiny amounts through tiny tubes through even smaller needles into Cinnamon's tired veins. Paquito and I were the ones who brought her to the emergency room, and I remember when they inserted the catheter and hooked up the first IV she turned to me and said,
"It feels so cool, John, cool going into my arm."
That was right before she slipped into unconsciousness.
A Dominican woman with a wet mop came in. She was wearing yellow rubber gloves, bright yellow, and big -- like gloves for handling radioactive uranium. For a moment she looked at Cinnamon, at the flashing lights and the IVs hanging everywhere like Christmas tree ornaments, and then she turned to me and asked,
"He your brother?"
I shook my head and whispered,
"No. He is my sister."
I met Bernal, aka La Flor de la Canela or "Cinnamon Rose," at a party in Jackson Heights. My current Latino-boyfriend-of-the-month was Colombian, and he had brought me to this party, and there was Bernal standing over the stove, mixing the rice, moving his feet and popping his head to the salsa music. And I was a little intimidated cause this guy was out there. I mean, way out there....
"Miss!" the Dominican maintenance woman called down the hall to the nurse's station. "There's a needle!" A nurse came quickly down the hall.
"There. A needle." The mop lady pointed under the bed, and I watched as the nurse went over to the box of latex gloves, put one on, carefully picked up the needle, and tossed it into the plastic padlocked disposal box. I'd seen the drug dealers near St. Agatha's, but, shit, a padlock for dirty needles?
"Good thing I saw that." The mop lady looked at me earnestly. "I could've swept it up into the garbage bag and someone maybe stick themselves. SIDA?," she asked.
"My brother, too. One year ago, today." And then she left.
I carefully took Cinnamon's hand, the one not attached to the IVs, and looked into her eyes. Her eyeballs were so swollen from the infections that she couldn't shut her eyelids. Bloodshot and bulging, her eyes reminded me of a frog in the grip of an overly affectionate child. I knew she probably couldn't see me -- the retinitis had destroyed most of her sight months ago. The doctor said she couldn't hear me either, but I talked to her anyway. I turned the TV to channel 41, "Domingo Super!," and tried, as best I could, to describe the costumes and hair of each of the singers and dancers. She watched the show every week -- even after her eyes went. Never missed it. I thought she would like to hear the Spanish, you know, subconsciously. I thought it might calm her. She looked so scared.
We had sex once, although we never told anyone. I had never slept with a guy who wore eyeliner before. It was the first time I had seen her in drag. She had performed a number that night at this Latin club called The Golden Angel, and I was surprised at my attraction. Afterwards, I offered to drive her home in my Buick, and we started kissing, and like, well, you know. I asked her to keep her dress on while we did it. She shrugged and smiled like it was no big deal. I wanted the fantasy of being a teenager on prom night in the back of my father's car. And it was like that, just like that. I opened the back of her dress to put my hands on her tits. They had already started to grow from the hormone injections. I licked her neck, I bit her ear, I inhaled her perfume. I liked the feel of my pants open and her skirt hiked up between us. I kissed her tenderly, but fucked her hard. I spent the night at her place. And the next morning, while I kissed her goodbye, she grabbed my dick. And holding me there she pulled me close and whispered into my ear,
"How you will make me suffer when we live together, John Sullivan, how you will make me suffer."
We both laughed, I left, and it never happened again.
I watched the "GayMar Thermo II" flash, "103.7... 103.8... 103.7... 103.8..." The nurse replaced the empty bag of Levophed, and removed the plastic goggles that had been placed over Cinnamon's eyes. The goggles had little hoses attached that carried moist air to the eyeballs. They had been giving her a drug that paralyzed her convulsive movements. One of the side effects was a drying up of the tear ducts. But the doctor had taken her off that, and tears were streaming right down Cinnamon's cheeks. The little convulsions had started again, and it scared me 'cause I thought after so long in a coma, maybe without the drug, she was feeling the pain again. The respirator convulsed, too, with painful regularity, forcing her chest, now back to its original, masculine flatness, up and down... up and down. A wide piece of surgical tape went around the base of her skull and held the respirator tube to the corner of her mouth. A slow river of bloody phlegm flowed out of the other corner onto the pillow.
The nurse was injecting something into the heparin lock attached to Cinnamon's arm. "Is that for the fever?" I asked.
"I'm trying to get a reading on his blood pressure. It should have started back up by now." That was all. She wasn't as talkative as the mop lady.
Cinnamon's head twitched into a new position, frightened now she was trying to tell me something before she died, I carefully leaned my ear over her mouth. No sound came, but as I hovered there, I noticed her earrings for the first time. The hospital staff hadn't bothered to remove them. They were small hoops of silver. They hadn't even removed her necklaces: a couple of crucifixes and a white crystal. I was glad. She always said she felt naked without her jewelry.
Once, on her birthday, I gave her a pair of earrings. I had long since broken up with the Colombian, but she still invited me. It was going to be a private party at The Golden Angel, and I had no idea what to get her, but I knew enough about Latinos and birthday parties to know that I couldn't show up empty-handed. I thought flowers would be safe, a nice card maybe -- then it hit me. I would get something that would show that I wasn't afraid of her, something conspiratorial, something frivolous. It had to sparkle; it had to be glamorous; it had to be fake. It had to be big, ostentatious, rhinestone earrings.
"Jo'n!" scolded Paquito, "Where you been? She been waiting for you!" Everyone else was happy to see me 'cause it meant that Bernal would finally allow the food to be served. Deep platters of steaming chicken and rice were brought out with bowls of black beans, roasted peppers, big purple olives, mountains of green salad, chunks of white bread, and ice-cold "Tall Boys." For dessert, sweet strawberry shortcake and several shots of aquardiente. Bernal opened all his gifts: a big black dildo, a Celia Cruz CD, massage oil, and neon-colored condoms, but blushed only when he opened mine. There was more drinking and dancing, and then, the lights went out, a follow spot lit up the stage, and Paquito appeared in a blue tuxedo. Commanding everyone's attention, he cleared the dance floor and then, with great dramatic flourish, introduced "La fabulosa! La versa'til! La Flor de la Canela!" The music came up, the curtain parted, and then she appeared. Bernal, now "Cinnamon," was dressed in black velvet and taffeta with stiletto heels, a platinum blonde wig, and from her ears, shinning brightly in the spotlight, the rhinestone earrings.
She was great. Her singing, her dancing -- very passionate and at the same time distant, "holier-than-thou." And I believed her, I believed she was somehow better than the rest of us.
Ven devorame otra vez,
I asked Paquito to translate for me.
"In the song, she longs for a past lover. She is alone now, with only the memory of the great strength and passion when they made love. She can no longer sleep with another. Her white sheets are, ummm... 'wet' with the memory of the lovemaking they shared. And she sings, 'Come, devour me once more, devour me just once more. Come, punish me,' she says, 'with your desires, that my body guards, or saves for you. My mouth tastes of your body, I am desperate for you.'"
As she lip-synched the chorus she looked over to me, fondled one of the earrings and winked seductively. Two days after the party, she had her first bout with pneumocystis.
The only drag I ever did was once on Halloween. I was sixteen, a junior on the track team at Holy Trinity High, and I thought I was invincible. I showed up in first period dressed up like a pregnant nun. Sister Mary Colleen came in, stopped, blinked at me several times, then raised her ruler shaking with rage and cried,
"You think that God doesn't see that? WOE BE TO YOU, John Daniel Sullivan, WOE BE TO YOU!"
I laughed. My buddies laughed. Father Caedmon sent me home with a five-day suspension.
After her birthday party, after we made love, Cinnamon would always call me for a ride when she was performing. El protector, she called me. Paquito was always there, helping her get ready. When she started getting sick, when she needed to go to the hospital, Paquito would always call me. And I would always come.
The first couple of times in the hospital, there were many friends, balloons, flowers, booze and teddy bears. The nurses would warn us to quiet down, or chase us out. But as Cinnamon got sicker, as she lost weight, lost color, lost her sight, the friends got fewer or made excuses. In preparation for visiting hours, Paquito tried harder and harder to apply more and more make-up, brush her hair, do her nails, things like that. But eventually she asked him to stop. This last time in, none of the old gang came.
The hospital chaplain arrived in the hospital room and looked surprised. Cinnamon, Paquito and I must have made a pretty unusual family -- not exactly the Nativity. He introduced himself as Father O'Connell and asked if "the patient" was Catholic. I said yes. He asked if Paquito and I were Catholic, and again I said yes. This seemed to please him. He gave both of us a prayer book and asked us to follow along as he read the last rites. But before he would apply the oil to Cinnamon's forehead, he put on a pair of surgical gloves. Other than that, the required application of the oil, the priest didn't touch her.
I left the room with Father O'Connell and asked him about arrangements for the funeral. He protested that he had nothing to do with that. That I would have to contact the patient's own parish priest. That state law required the cremation of all AIDS victims. He said that I should arrange with the Office of Hospital Administration to pick up the ashes. That I really needed to talk to a parish priest about a funeral Mass. Then he stopped, looked straight at me, and with a compassion that surprised me, he said that he was sorry, truly sorry, but he just couldn't help me. He turned, hurried down the hall, and was gone.
I walked the halls for a long time. The receptionist hardly looked up anymore. The security guard knew me by name. It seemed like I'd walked those halls a million times before, but for the first time I noticed the small plastic sign that read "Chapel." I decided to follow it and found a darkened room with a crucifix and some chairs. Off to the side was a kneeler and a set of electric votive candles in front of a portrait of St. Agatha. I remembered from Sister Eileen's catechism class that St. Agatha was the patron saint of nurses. A favorite of my buddy Billy Donovan's, she's always pictured holding a plate with two small tits. "'Cause she was a Christian, she refused to sleep with some Roman jerk official, so he had her breasts cut off," Billy would say. "A hell of a price to pay for a 'lifestyle choice,' seems to me." I hadn't prayed since high school, but I kneeled and I asked St. Agatha to take care of Cinnamon. I dropped a quarter in the slot, and after one of the tiny lights flickered on, I went upstairs to watch and wait with Paquito.
Standing there, watching Cinnamon, I realized that she could never leave the hospital now. Christ! She looked like a specimen in a petri dish -- all those tubes and machines. It was like she was in a bitch fight, but all her fingernails were broken. She was losing. She was being devoured.
I watched Paquito stroking her hand, straightening her crystal, brushing her hair back from her face as Cinnamon's lidded eyes gave no response. The aspirator sucked as the mechanical ventilator sighed and the lights on the diagnostic equipment flashed and the cardiotachometer emitted its irregular beeps. Paquito was once again on the verge of tears, his thin torso convulsing with sobs. I couldn't stand it anymore. I grit my teeth in irritation. My fists clenched around the hospital bed's side railing and I began to shake it as hard as I could. Paquito suddenly stopped crying and looked up at me in horror. I continued rattling the bed as Cinnamon's body was rocked back and forth, her head falling from side to side with every shove. The IV drips were swinging from their hooks and I could hear the nurses at their station down the hall calling for the orderlies.
"I can't stand it anymore!" I was snarling. "Death and disinfectant, that's all I can smell. It stinks. I'm sick of that smell! And that goddamn respirator is driving me crazy! It never fuckin' stops! Isn't it enough yet, Cinnamon? Haven't you fuckin' suffered enough? You're just being selfish. Yes, selfish. Look at Paquito! Look at him! He hasn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks; he's skinny from eating only takeout and bad hospital coffee. Selfish!" Cinnamon's head involuntarily lolled to the side, her eyes open at me -- staring and dead. She was just a bag of bones, shit and piss, crumpled on a clean white sheet. The IV bags continued dripping; the respirator never stopped. "I can't stand to watch it. I can't! I won't! I won't be your audience, Cinnamon; do you hear me? I will not be your audience, anymore!"
A large Jamaican orderly came, and I lifted my hands to show that I was finished. Paquito was crying now, desperately straightening Cinnamon's bed, smoothing her pillow as the tears trailed down his cheeks to the corners of his mouth.
I went outside to have a smoke, and had the strong desire to just keep walking. I didn't have to go back. I could go home, or out to a bar, a bar with people. The doctor told me she was in a coma -- that she couldn't hear me or see me, that she wouldn't come out of it. I could just keep walking. She probably wouldn't notice. She could die without me.
As I stopped to light my cigarette, I stood for a moment with the handful of other smokers in front of the hospital watching the traffic speed up First Avenue. I took a deep breath of air. The fumes smelled good to me. They were alive. There were hundreds of cars full of people, people going places, rushing to unimportant appointments, to do unimportant things. I wanted to join them. I wanted to do something monumentally meaningless. I wanted to eat zeppoles, go dancing, drink a pint of Jameson, all at once. I wanted to call up my old Bronx buddies from Holy Trinity and repaint the giant shamrock in the middle of the intersection at 231st and Kingsbridge -- just for good luck, we always said, just for good luck.
I pulled out my hip flask and took a deep drink. I closed my eyes for a minute and tried to remember Cinnamon back then -- the sequins and the music, the smell of perfume on her neck and the flash of those rhinestone earrings. I opened my eyes again and watched as a yellow taxicab pulled up to the curb and discharged its laughing passengers. The door hung open and the "for hire" light came on, the cabby hesitating to see if I would be his next fare. A gust of wind came 'round the corner fluttering the hospital's baby blue visitor's pass pressed tightly in my hand, and then I remembered Cinnamon's mother in Cali, waiting for our call.
I paused for a moment and found myself making one last plea to Heaven. I tipped my flask up to God, and swallowed another shot before screwing the cap on and shoving it back into my pocket. I flicked the glowing remains of my cigarette into the gutter and watched its shower of orange sparks. Then, with a deep breath, I turned and walked back inside.