Nothing false and possible is love.
"Life is not a choice," she said when I come into her room at the hospital. A machine was pumping blood and water out of her lungs, making the gurgling sound of a fish aquarium. I looked at her and her eyes filled with tears.
She lay in the bed like a sick child. She did not look like the young woman I met six months ago working in an underground bar in Chinatown. Now she reminded me of my own daughter, with black hair rather than brown, more heavy-set, and with Chinese features.
At first it was hard to see her. Looking at each other led to tears. Then something changed. I don't know what but the next time I visited I came away feeling strangely happy. It was like we had only so much time to talk so we were making the best of it. We were saying only the important stuff and leaving everything else out. If we had been writing a story, I think it would have been a good one. And can you believe this? Soon we were engaged to be married. Not this life time, of course, but the next one.
"I teach you Chinese next life," she said to me one day; then added, like a question, "and, who knows, maybe we marry."
"You got a deal," I said without hesitation.
I know, it was a fantasy; but I felt strangely intoxicated by this unusual engagement. It worried me a little that we might have trouble finding each other in the next life. But then we were dealing with eternity anyway. I didn't have any of those worrisome second thoughts that people here on earth have about being engaged. And this would be a marriage of pure love, one light joining with another light, like two candles coming together to make a brighter flame. People could laugh at our foolishness but it would not matter. We would burn in heaven like a star.
She came here three years ago. She brought her dreams with her. Now they are coming to an end. Or so it would seem.
It was not easy for the "social services" people at the hospital to locate her mother, her brothers, and daughter to let them know. They had a bad email address for the consulate for her city, Shenyang, Liao Nin province. But now they know. Someone would come at the crucial time.
She likes soft music, piano, violin, saxophone. She is not "addicted to noise" like so many people her age. She is gentle and quite like a deer and her eyes are like deep pools of water in the shade of a forest. When you look into her eyes you open a book and enter another world. A better one.
I brought her Beethoven, Bach, Mendelsohn, Satie, and Debussy. The Debussy put here to sleep in five minutes. She slept with a smile on her face.
Ces nymphes, je les veu
I watch as she sleeps. I open a door and step into her dream. I who am losing her lose nothing. We drift together, two mingling clouds over a mountain peak. The fear is gone. We look down and feel sad for those starting up the trail of the mountain. The way is so long, so full of pain, so unclear.
But now she is awake again and I ask her if she wants anything.
"Maybe some songs," she says.
"What kind?" I ask.
"Love songs," she says. "'Sometimes When We touch,' 'Killing Me Softly'you know?"
"I know, I get," I say, speaking my own brand of simplified English.
She wants some big, tearjerker love songs. She wants something to fill her up. This I can handle, this I can do.
I tell her that I have read somewhere that the universe is not made up of atoms, as the scientists say, but rather of stories."
"Can you get me some of those too then?"
"I will try."
She's been in the hospital ten days. Her arms, poked with needles, look like those of an addict. She has small veins, and the nurses have to keep poking her to find a good one for the IV. I think the pain of it all accumulates.
As the nurse pokes her again, she begins to cry.
"Honey, just relax," the nurse tells her. She is a heavy-set black woman, kind and compassionate and she takes her time, unlike some of the other nurses. "If you tense up, I can't get the needle in." But how do you relax when someone is jabbing you with a needle?
I grab her other hand and hold it tight while the nurse tries to find a vein she can get into. Her hands are small and chubby, like those of a child, and warm. It is hard to imagine them still and cold.
She groans in pain as the needle goes in againshe sounds like she is in laborand I press her head into my shoulder so she cannot see the needle. I tell her I'm sorry and try to absorb some of the pain with her. She seems a little better and now the nurse has found a vein that works. When it is over, we all smile weakly. It is just one of many little ordeals.
But now I'm a little scared. For a moment, things had gone into a balancegetting it over with and dying seemed better than living. But now we are back to living. She is a kid in a bed with a stuffed animal. Her pajamas, marked "SF General", are flannel and loose fitting. She has an ID band on her wrist with a lot of numbers. I see no name on the band. But her room is like a shrine, full of the flowers and photographs that people have brought. While the machine by her bed that is pumping water and blood from her lungs gurgles loudly, I hear the drifting melody from the CD player on the other side of the room. The melody drifts over an imaginary stream in the mountains, and I see some timid creature in the forest, its eyes dark pools. And we bath ourselves in the pools and are purified of human thought. We ourselves become creatures of soft light living on a bed of leaves in the forest. We nuzzle each other but speak no words.
Then we are awake again and she is eating fruit that someone has brought. I watch her put a cherry in her mouth and chew it with her mouth half open. I see the dark red pulp in her mouth and the saliva. Then I watch her swallow. Surely I have watched someone eat a cherry before but it all seems new and wonderful to me now. Food. Eating. Life. Health. For awhile.
She is back home now. No more hospital. No more white walls, TV on a stand, on the 5th floor of a concrete slab. She is tired but at ease. In her own pajamas, she looks like a kid who has gotten to stay home from school. She has combed her hair.
Her apartment is smallfront room doubling as kitchen, little bathroom, little bedroom. It is a doll house just big enough for people. It is on the top floor of the building and light from a skylight makes it cheerful. The bedroom is mostly filed up by the bed. In the corner on a table is a pile of stuffed animals. There are some family photos from China on the wall.
I have been talking about the world and atoms again and we hang on the word "science." I can't think of another word for it. She picks up the phone and calls her friend John. In less than a minute he shows up to translate.
"Oh, oh, oh," she says when John tells her the word is kexue. I repeat the saying about the universe being composed of stories and not atoms, as the scientists would have us believe. She gets it this time and laughs.
She talks to John for a moment, who is about to leave, and he says, "She wants to tell you something and doesn't know how to say it. I will try." He sinks to the floor with his back up against the wall in the little space between the door and the closet.
John is the son of a college professor in Shanghai. He left home at age 15 to travel and has been all over the world. He speaks very good English, which he learned simply by listening. He is bright and humorous.
"First," he say, "she wants to say that she is very moved by you. She is sorry that there is not more time to know you."
I'm moved that she is moved but don't know why she is moved. I have done nothing other than be nice to her and hold her hand when she is in pain. I have noticed that most of her friends come by and talk as if nothing is happening, as if avoiding the obvious is going take her mind off it. And no one ever touches her. That I think is a cultural factor: The Chinese are shy of public displays of affection.
She and John talk again for a moment, then he says, "She would also like to tell you her story." She talks to him again in Chinese, then he says:
"Her mother raised her and her two brothers by herself. She cannot remember her father. She says you cannot imagine how poor they were."
"She says she was married very young in China. She had no knowledge of sex and she had never kissed anyone ... Soon she had a baby, a daughter ... Then she found her husband had a girlfriend."
They talk again and John continues:
"She did not find the girlfriend 'acceptable.' So she separated from her husband and there was a divorce. You don't understand how it is in China, but with the divorce she lost her daughter. After that she says she was very confused and unhappy but went to work in China. Then she came to San Francisco."
Her story seems abbreviated but real. I can picture her arrival in the City on a day that seemed full of promise even though she knew no one here.
They talk again, then John continues. It seems like the light has grown dimmer in the little bedroom with John on the floor, her on the bed hugging a stuffed animal, and me in a chair by the bed.
"She says there was no good job when she came here. That is why she only works in the 'basement.' And she felt like she couldn't go back to China."
There was no good job because she could not get a green card.
The "basement" is an underground karaoke bar called L'Amour on Jackson near Kearny. There are always a certain number of "girls" there to entertain men and keep them buying drinks.
John stops for a moment and I can picture her coming to the City a few years ago, scared but with a dream. And now I feel sad that the dream appears to be passing. When a person's dream goes, so does the person. At this point I can accept the physical end of her life but I have trouble accepting the passing of the dream. It does not seem "acceptable."
"How long has she been sick," I asked John. He asked her in Chinese and then said:
"For about six months. She felt tired and had trouble breathing. Then she fell down and someone took her to the hospital."
That is where I caught up with her. A friend told me.
It is August and we are Christmas shopping. We sing Jingle Bells in the cab. The driver looks confused. He is young and healthy looking.
The driver is also confused because it is his first day driving in the City. He's fresh from New York. I tell him how to get to Union Square. It seems a bit odd giving him directions, but everything else seems a bit odd too.
I suggest Macy's but she has another idea in mind. BCBG. I've never heard of it or noticed it but it is one of the "in" stores with young female shoppers. Quality stuff. Style. In the store I hear the music. It is the equivalent of a love song for shoppers. If love songs urge you toward amorous behavior, shopping music urges you to buy with passion. I'm not sure guys hear it.
Being sick has not changed one instinct. She may be a sick shopper but she is still a shopper. We prowl through the store like hunters looking for the perfect quarry. The quarry lies in wait for us with a hefty price tag. In this store the really good stuff is pricey. We look at a beautiful pink dress with flowers for $400. It does not fit. She is a little too large for it. We look at a fluffy short white jacket that looks as though cotton balls have been glued all over it. Tres chic but not tres chic to buy it. The hunt goes on. Now we are standing before a rack of leather coats with strips of fur and fur collars. She tries one on. It is magnificent. So is the price. But I like it and she likes it. I suggest another store, as it seems too early to make the kill. Or to be killed, as the case may be. But I can tell she likes this coat. We go over to Saks.
On the first floor at Saks we look at some more dresses, some jewelry, some scarves. Then we go to the second floor and circle the elevators, located in the middle of the store, making the complete circuit twice. The store is bright and beautiful but nothing causes excitement. I ask if she wants to look on the third floor. She doesn't. Back on the ground floor, we exit through the perfume department where we had entered. We leave with the same heady odors, not quite intoxicating enough to make us buy anything.
It is bright and sunny on Union Square. She has on an old green jacket to hide the tube that comes out of her back and drains down into a plastic pouch. She has pinned the pouch to the inside of her jacket so that it does not show.
And now we are walking back to BCBG like zombies pulled there by invisible strings. "You like the coat?" I ask softly. "I like the coat," she says, almost in a whisper. "But it's a lot," she says, her voice rising. "Is that okay?" "That's okay," I say. "If you want it, it's yours." "You're sure?" she asks, as though offering me a final out. "Yes," I say. She is suddenly radiant. Shopping is good medicine, I think. Maybe if we just keep shopping, life will go on. That's an idea, anyway.
Poetic fragments in italics from, respectively, "nothing false and possible is love" by e.e. cummings, "April" by William Watson, "Le Faune" by Stéphane Mallarmé, "Killing Me Softly" by Lauryn Hill, "California Dreamin'" by John and Michelle Phillips, "dying is fine) but Death" by e.e. cummings.