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Preface: Patient Women
Je suis une femme de lettres et je gagne ma vie.
Out of the blackout Nora hears a voice: Don’t die baby don’t die baby don’t die baby don’t die . . . .
Eyes rolling, head thrashing, her back arched on the gurney, Nora’s scream rips out:
Get the fucking needles out of my mouth . . . .
What are they doing? They are pumping her stomach they are giving her charcoal she is hooked to an I.V. again . . . Which flight deck which tank St. Joseph’s. St. Francis St. John’s . . . Oh Mother of God she’s conscious she’s conscious she’s still alive . . . .
Nora was never late; she either came on time or didn’t come at all. Her lover drinks a scotch he doesn’t want and waits for Nora to come, Nora who is never late. From the window, he watches a young couple kiss; they are seventeen, perhaps eighteen years old. He turns away, suddenly uncomfortable, and starts calling hospitals.
Her lover finds Nora in St. Luke’s. She is pissy and her face is swollen. She recognizes him. She smiles, then grimaces.
“Make them take it out of my mouth,” she whispers. “Please. Please. Make him take it out of my mouth.”
“They’re pumping your stomach,” her lover tells her, crying, “Giving you blood.”
Nora’s voice rises and carries down the white halls: “That’s the last damn thing we need around here, new blood.”
She tries to laugh but whimpers instead, then whispers, so softly that even her lover, his earnest crying face pressed close to her cheek, cannot hear her:
“I’m choking . . . Doesn’t he know? Make him take it out of my mouth . . . .”
Finished, the trick asks Nora the usual questions:
“How long have you . . . ?”
Nora sits on the bed and crosses her legs. “Been doing this?” she asks.
The trick nods, eager.
Eight months. Yesterday till three. Today I’ve been here for eleven hours. I had conjunctivitis last week and couldn’t work. I had gonorrhea in October; I worked till Billy got it, too. I’ll be here tomorrow and Thursday and Friday and Saturday. I’ll probably be here Sunday, too.
Nora smiles at the trick. “How long have I been doing this? Let me see now . . . .”
Nora walks through Riverside Park. Drivers curse her as she walks in front of the cars to cross the highway. She sits at the water’s edge, feet dangling in the Hudson. It is drizzling; the sky is pink and brown.
Across the river, billboards and Jersey factories light up. A Jersey boy drowned in the river the last time she sat here. Nora remembered vaguely: she bought the bottle of scotch, and dragged him out of his dormitory. He didn’t want to come, had to study, he said, but finally, in a moment of abandon, surrendered.
They crossed the highway and sat on the rocks by the side of the Hudson, the George Washington Bridge in the distance. Nora told him that she was depressed; the Jersey boy said he liked her that way. They drank to that, and to the dismal twilight.
After that, the blackout: like a curtain dropping, Nora remembered nothing. She came to on the grass, flat on her back, wet. Stumbling to her feet, she whispered ‘Matthew’ into the deep night, and ran from the park to the city streets. Somehow, she convinced a cab driver to take her to Queens. Mrs. Nader answered the door, paid for the cab and put her to bed without asking.
For three days, Nora prayed and hoped against hope that he had run away, left the city, gone cross country, was even now heading to the home of a relative or a friend. Nora spent three days with the detectives from the 26th Precinct before his body came up near the 14th Street pier, looking for a bottle of scotch on the rocks.
“Miss . . . miss . . . can you hear me? What day is it? Miss? Miss, wake up . . . How many fingers am I holding up, Miss? How many fingers?”
In Mexico, in the mountains, I could see the rainstorm, thirty, forty kilometers away. I saw it moving in the central mountains, clearly defined and distant rain. Dancing rain. I stood and watched it dancing.
Nora buys a bottle of scotch on the way home. She has a drink in the elevator. She catches her reflection in the mirror. Her fluid eyes dart away, scared.
The cat yowls as she unbolts the locks. He sits smiling and blinking at her as she opens the door. Touched by his simple affection, Nora picks the cat up. Hugging him to her breast, she starts to sob. The cat is frightened by the sudden attention and struggles to get away. He jumps out of her arms, runs a few feet, then turns and sits on the floor. Nora’s tears stop as abruptly as they started.
Pouring eight ounces of scotch into a tumbler, Nora goes to the bathroom. She leans heavily on the sink, looking in the mirror. Her lips move; she is startled to find she is talking to herself, answering an unseen interlocutor.
Nora paces the apartment, drinking—a second tumbler, a third, a fifth, anything to still the senseless chatter in her brain. She lies down on the bed, hoping to pass out quickly.
Long moments go by, and she is still conscious .
She lies in the darkness until she realizes she is talking to herself again, justifying herself to the same bathroom inquisitor.
“Around here, there’s no such thing as premature ejaculation. Believe me.”
“With the young ones you just have to do it again.”
“You can suck them off.”
“I’d rather fuck.”
“The less time they’re inside me the better. The way some of them hold you is frightening.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“He talks too much.”
“I’d rather listen to them talk than touch them.”
Nora downs her drink. “As long as they don’t ask to see me on the outside, I don’t care. Or try to hold my hand.”
The Mexican children beg, chanting un peso da me peso da me un peso da me un peso . . . I gave one little girl a coin and she started to cry. She was saying beso, not peso. She wanted a kiss.
Nora goes to the bathroom. She takes a handful of pills with a gulp of water. She contemplates her silly, guilty expression in the mirror. She stands there for a long time, staring at the red patches on her face, averting her gaze from the dilating eyes in the mirror. Eye contact is strangely embarrassing. When her eyes meet those in the mirror, she smiles a weak, unpleasant smile. The woman in the mirror looks back vacantly.
She breathes with perceptible heaviness. She thinks about another drink. She reaches into the medicine cabinet and takes another handful of pills. As she empties the bottle, she notices her hands are shaking.
“I’m dying,” she tells the stranger in the mirror. “What for?”
The red-patched face in the mirror smiles weakly, embarrassed.
In the life, Shekinah became Cleopatra, Billy became Heather; Nora Nader from Queens became April Easter, and everyone respected her. Even the pimps deferred to her. She knew how to talk to men. April Easter was the best blow job in New York: everyone respected her.
The ocean, that huge, sentient ocean, and the mountains. You walk for miles without seeing a human being, without seeing anything made by men, only cows, trees, cactus.
I walked along the beach at night. White sand, ancient sand. The ocean there, immense. You feel it there. You feel the power of it more at night when you can’t see it. The edge of the water is clear in the moonlight, the ripples on the sand shifting directions, running into one another under your feet. But beyond that, blackness. Breathing blackness.
The fisherman found a tortuga skull, the enormous skull of a giant tortoise. They said the tortuga lived for five hundred years, lived before the white man came. They gave it to me for my wonder and some cerveza.
There was a storm that night. I wrapped myself in a blanket in my hammock to watch. The wind was incredibly strong. I couldn’t hear the thunder at first for the wind and the water. My body was beating against the porch wall like a drum.
I heard a series of loud cracks, unmistakable: lightning, clear loud light. The first word I learned in Spanish was relampago, lightning.
The ocean, white and turbulent. The tortuga alive, its empty eye-sockets full of lightning.
From the World Trade Center people look like swarming insects; in the mountains, from the ocean, men are a part of a vast and beautiful continuum. Here, men are either God or the Devil or nothing.
“How true, sir. Every prostitute is a fucking man-hater. Did you say you were a lawyer?”
Nora comes to in the bathtub. Fear fills her. The water is cold but she doesn’t remember how she got there. Nora hears the cat yowl. She starts to cry. “I’m coming, Furry, I’m coming!”
Nora grabs the towel rack and pulls herself out of the water. She stands in the bathtub shaking. The weight of her body is too much for her and she falls back into the cold water. She cradles her head in her knees and rocks and cries, rocks and cries . . . .