As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” . . . So he went and washed and came back seeing.
— John 9:6–7
Mazatlán this July is hot and smelly. A sewer line has broken and sent a river of reeking brown water into the street, and our taxi leaves a swirling wake of sludge. The air is thick with flies and putrid stench, and I wish I hadn’t agreed to go downtown with the McDougalds for lunch. They don’t seem to mind the filth as much as I do. They’re excited about being here with the healers again and finding that I’m here, too, and they’re busy catching me up on everything that has happened to them since we were here together last year. They’ve brought their eighteen-year-old daughter with them this time, a pretty young woman who’s a blonder version of her mother.
The restaurant is a welcome oasis of clean floors and white linen tablecloths, and Victor is waiting for us there with several other people. It is Victor who brings the Filipino healers to Mazatlán every year and handles all the arrangements for us to see them. He is a soft-spoken diplomat, shuttling expertly between them and us, the healers and the healees. He introduces us to an elderly couple, Dr. and Mrs. Van Zandt, and to a middle-aged man named Frederick who has come for the first time. Frederick is tall and slender, with a haunted look in his eyes. He sits across from me, and I catch him looking searchingly at me several times. I know the awful, dry-mouthed anxiety he must be feeling. Coming to see the healers for the first time is terrifying.
The healers — Romy Bugarin, his brother Carlos, and a new man who only does bones — are not having lunch with us. They’re back at the hotel where the rest of our group is just now checking in. We won’t start having appointments with them until tomorrow, and even then they will stick to themselves and prepare their own meals in their penthouse suite.
Excitement over what we’re doing has made us all a little giddy, and everybody except Frederick orders a margarita. Mrs. Van Zandt says she never drinks in the middle of the day, and then suddenly announces that she has come to have her bladder fixed so she won’t pee when she laughs. She blushes at her own blurted confession and looks close to tears, when Frederick speaks up and says he has the opposite problem: there’s a tumor blocking his urethra. We all fall quiet, and Victor tries to break the tension by joking that Mrs. Van Zandt pees too much and Frederick can’t pee at all. Nobody laughs.
After lunch we separate. Mac McDougald goes to buy film for his camcorder, and Victor takes Frederick to a local urologist to get a catheter put in until Romy can heal him. Mrs. Van Zandt makes another trip to the ladies’ room, and then she and Dr. Van Zandt take a cab to the hotel because she can’t be away from a bathroom very long. Ellen McDougald and her daughter Sarah and I dawdle awhile over some Mexican baskets laid out by a sidewalk vendor. They’ve decided I stay crippled because I get so much pity and kindness from other people, and they’ve started calling me crip.
“Come on, crip,” they say. “We’re tired of you poking along, slowing us down.”
I pretend to laugh, try not to show that it hurts, and wonder whether they’re right. Maybe being crippled is something I’ve adapted to so well that I’m afraid to leave it, like a hostile environment where I’ve managed to create a comfortable home.
Back at the hotel, Sarah leaves us to join the other young people on the beach, and Ellen introduces me to a funny woman named Barbara, a surgical nurse from Canada who has a malignancy behind her nose that she wants Romy to remove. Her nose is small and perfectly formed, with no visible sign of any underlying cancer. She must be terrified, but she keeps her fears well hidden.
The three of us go up to my room and leave the door open to invite company. Several people drift in and take turns massaging my legs. A man from Oklahoma rubs me with strong, even strokes while he tells us that his first wife had polio when she was twenty, just like me. She survived, but the doctors told her she’d never walk again.
“We rubbed her,” he says. “My sister and her sisters and her mother and my mother and me. We rubbed her night and day, and after a while she just got it back, all her strength. She’s fine today. Not even a limp.”
“Where is she?” I ask.
“Back in Oklahoma. She got married again, too. Married another oil man. We see each other every now and then. We’re still friends.”
I feel sad that he and his wife couldn’t make their marriage work. All that love. All that rubbing. When I had polio, nobody touched me. After my first three months in the hospital, they let me go home for a weekend, and my young husband and I had sex. Or at least he had sex while I lay paralyzed. When he rolled off he said, “That was like fucking an ironing board.” He never stroked me or rubbed me or massaged me. I don’t remember if he even kissed me.
Since I was here last year, I have become aware that I crave to be touched, and yet I never reach out to touch anyone else. When I read the Bible, I am struck by how often Jesus healed by touch. I’ve decided that before a person can touch another with healing intent — to massage, to stroke, to hold someone’s hand in sympathy — one must first have a strong sense of personal power and presence. We must first embody love in order to reach out in love, and I am not yet whole enough to do that. I still wait for others to touch me.
Victor stops in the doorway, and Frederick’s face floats above his shoulder. Victor is smiling, but Frederick is pale and somber after his visit to the urologist. Victor hands out our appointment cards. My times are at 9 A.M., 2 P.M., and 6 P.M. Most people have only one appointment a day, but Romy tries to cram as much into my days as possible. Sometimes he seems obsessed with putting life back into my legs.
At dinner in the hotel dining room, I accept an invitation to join a burly football coach and his wife. As we eat, the coach bounces in his seat every now and then with curious little bobbing motions. His wife laughs every time he does this, and finally I have to ask what’s going on. He leans forward and lowers his voice.
“I had hemorrhoids removed an hour ago,” he says. “They were so big I could’ve pulled them behind me in a little red wagon. At home I would have been in pain for days after surgery — sitz baths, swelling, all that stuff. Romy just picked them off: no pain, no bleeding, no hemorrhoids. It’s a miracle.”
I congratulate him on the loss of his mammoth hemorrhoids and tell them about watching Romy remove a lot of them last year. He does indeed just pluck them off, as if twisting grapes off a vine.
“You can’t fake that,” the coach says solemnly. “No way can you fake removing hemorrhoids.”
We nod emphatically at one another, pleased to have another foolproof piece of evidence that we’re not deluding ourselves. No, sir, you can’t fool somebody into thinking his hemorrhoids are gone.
I’ve come a long way from the terror I felt the first time I came to see Romy. I was pretty sure I was losing my mind back then. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going before I boarded the AeroMexico flight to Mazatlán, and I even seriously considered using a fictitious name. During the flight from Houston, I heard a woman on the plane say to her companion, “All I ask is that you keep an open mind,” and I knew she must be going to the healers, too. I looked furtively at her to see if she seemed crazy, but she was just a normal-looking woman.
At the Mazatlán airport, Victor came forward and introduced himself and put me in a taxi with Mac and Ellen McDougald. They didn’t seem crazy either, and I began to relax a bit. I had been afraid we’d be staying in a sleazy, back-street hotel, but it turned out to be a normal resort hotel on the beach, and my room was large and open to the sea. Our group met that evening in one of the conference rooms. Victor served pitchers of margaritas and piña coladas, but I didn’t drink anything for fear the drinks might be laced with drugs to make it easier to hypnotize and trick us. Everybody else seemed to be with somebody, and the room was full of chatter. I sat by myself and looked straight ahead, hoping nobody would speak to me.
Victor finally introduced Romy, a small brown man with childlike eyes. Romy told us his healing powers weren’t his but were from God, and that we should give thanks to God and not to him. He seemed too simple and naive to try to manipulate anybody, but all that talk about God made me restless. It was easier for me to accept the idea of a person having the ability to heal than to believe it came from some divine power.
When Victor called me into the treatment room in the penthouse suite the next morning, I was surprised to find a sunny room with ordinary twin beds. I had expected darkness and candles and some kind of hocus-pocus effect. A woman was lying on one of the beds. The only hint that something messy might happen was the plastic sheets draped over the bedspreads.
I lay down on the other bed and watched Romy’s face while he ran his hands over my legs. I knew he was called a psychic surgeon, but I thought that meant he would send energy into me to wake up my dead muscles. I thought it meant that he performed some kind of mental miracles. That’s what I was ready to accept, what I could halfway believe. I could go that far.
Romy touched my knees and ankles to indicate to an assistant where to swab my skin with antiseptic, then dug his fingers all around the sides of my knees in a twisting, pinching motion. I could feel his hands, but I couldn’t see what he was doing. I felt disappointed. Every therapist I’d ever seen had been keen on trying to loosen my frozen patellas, but I hadn’t come all the way to Mazatlán just to get my kneecaps loosened. I wanted something more dramatic.
I turned my head to look at the woman on the bed to my left, and felt a jolt of shock. Carlos was bent over her and, with two hands, stretching apart the skin over her stomach. A tumor the size of a cantaloupe was slowly extruding through the opening, and the woman had raised her head to stare at the thing in amazement.
I was dazed, not sure I could trust my own eyes. Romy’s hands moved down my left leg to the left ankle, and I felt his fingers again pushing into my skin. I looked toward my feet, and when he moved to the right ankle, I could finally see. His fingers twisted against it, and I saw a thin trickle of blood run across my foot before the assistant wiped it away. For the first time, I understood that his fingers were actually entering my skin, actually penetrating my flesh, and I felt a curious whirling in my head, like a kaleidoscope turning to create a new pattern.
When I left the penthouse suite, I felt dizzy and strange. Back in my room, I examined my skin closely. There were faint red marks, thin as knife traces, around my kneecaps and ankles, but that was all. I pushed my finger against my kneecap, and it shifted under my skin. For several minutes, I sat poking at my kneecaps and watching them move freely, no longer cemented in place. Suddenly too tired and groggy to think, I fell on the bed and slept.
Human beings are peculiar creatures. Blessed and cursed with the ability to edit our experiences, we constantly go about re-creating ourselves and our world. Presented with an experience that radically belies everything we believe is possible, we have three choices: We can deny that it happened, perhaps telling ourselves we had a momentary lapse of sanity, and keep a grim hold on our known world. We can accept it, but compartmentalize it so that it doesn’t affect our other beliefs, thereby believing and not believing at the same time. Or we can let the experience permeate our entire consciousness so that every belief we hold dear has to shift a bit in order to incorporate the new knowledge. If we make that last choice, we become different people, as new to ourselves as we are to the people who know us. Expanding reality is a scary business. It’s no wonder it’s not more popular.
I couldn’t deny and I couldn’t compartmentalize. But I also couldn’t completely believe. I remembered reading that psychic surgeons were really sleight-of-hand artists who tricked people with bits of sponge and animal parts. I didn’t want to be a gullible fool, so I stayed on guard, diligently looking for throw-down chicken livers and fake blood.
I watched and waited an entire week before I was ready to risk admitting why I had really come. I saw twisted limbs made straight, palsied tremors calmed, and blind eyes regain the ability to distinguish one person from another. My cold legs began to pulse with a new warmth as old clots and adhesions blocking circulation were removed, but still I could not totally accept what I was experiencing.
On Sunday, Romy held a brief morning service for the handful of people not playing on the beach, and then we had appointments in the afternoon. He was waiting for me when I went into the treatment room, but when he bent toward my legs I stopped him. I had been having pain in my right breast for a few months, and there was a lump in my armpit. Lifting my arm sent stabbing pain across my chest, but I hadn’t told anybody about it.
Now I told Romy about the pain, but not about the lump. It was a kind of secret test I posed for him, to see if he would find it without my telling him. He put a white sheet across my chest and scanned my body for hot spots through the material. Then he removed the cloth, looked sternly at me, and said, “You pray.”
His fingers went unerringly to the spot under my arm and pulled something out. He held the thing above me for a brief second: a glistening, plum-colored object overlaid with crisscrossing orange and red lines. When I asked what it was, he said, “It’s a growth,” as if it required no further identification.
I almost laughed at his disregard for it. It was removed and disposed of without the legitimacy of name or analysis. Undistinguished by attention, it was merely something to be forgotten. The pain was immediately and permanently gone.
Victor claims that three different spirits work through Romy, and that Romy has no control over when they’ll show up. One morning last year when I was waiting my turn, Victor came from the treatment room and announced that people who wanted their eyes treated would be seen immediately. We all understood his meaning: the Eye Spirit had come. The Eye Spirit operates only on eyes, and always comes early in the morning. People started queuing up for eye treatment, so I thought, What the hell; I’m here already, and joined the line.
In the treatment room, I lay on my back and an assistant stuffed cotton in my ears to keep them dry. Romy’s face hovered over mine for an instant, and then I felt his fingers slip behind my eyes. Fluid ran down my cheeks and toward my ears, and I felt a surge of sheer panic. Inside my head, a voice of reason screamed, Dear God in heaven, this little man has his fingers stuck in my eyes!
And then I could see light through my closed eyelids, and there was a wondrous feeling of space around my eye sockets. Romy held his fingers against my closed lids for a few seconds, and then rubbed them with some kind of soothing lotion. I felt as if a film had been removed from my eyes, and for a long time I could see through my closed lids, as if looking through thick layers of gauze.
Back in Houston, I went to my ophthalmologist for an exam. He was puzzled, and kept checking and rechecking, muttering to himself, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Finally, he told me I no longer had astigmatism, and changed my reading-glasses prescription. As he handed it to me, he said, “I don’t understand it. Astigmatism doesn’t just go away.”
Victor asks me, when I tell him about it, “Did you tell the doctor why it went away?”
I shrug, lofty with superiority. “No. I let him stay ignorant.”
Victor falls into step with me as I leave the hotel dining room after dinner, and I ask him about Frederick. He says Frederick has prostate cancer and has been told by his doctors that it’s beyond hope. For him, this visit to the healers is a life-or-death proposition. I think about how vulnerable he looked at lunch, and wonder why nobody came with him on this most urgent trip. Perhaps he, like me, has no one he could ask to come.
A fine rain falls near midnight. There’s a full moon and the moisture in the air is charged with moonlight, like a continuous camera flash. I go out on the balcony in my yellow silk nightgown and look over the railing at a pair of young lovers kissing in the mist. They stand below me on the sidewalk, and strands of bougainvillea move gently around them. Thirty yards away on the beach, the sea spreads her ruffled petticoats and whispers seduction in the night. I watch the lovers and listen to the waves and feel the kiss of rain on my bare shoulders and wish I weren’t alone.
Before I go to sleep, I have a sudden thought: If Jesus returned today, he would have far more in common with simple healers like Romy and Carlos than with doctors and theologians. I feel a new respect for the courage of the people who put aside their pride and followed Jesus, for the women who fed him and supported him. I’m not sure I have that much courage. I’m still vastly impressed by degrees and titles. I still want to be considered a rational person.
On an intellectual level, I understand that matter is an illusion, that what we consider solid is actually a mass of vibrating molecules of energy. When I think of it that way, it seems reasonable that the healers can put their fingers through skin as if plunging them into water; when they withdraw them, the skin closes the way water rearranges itself when something is removed. Sometimes, for large incisions, they first draw a line with their finger to open the skin, and then smooth it back together again when they are finished. Shamans and healers are often called seers, meaning those who can see the future; perhaps the word also means one who literally can see through illusory barriers that the rest of us believe are real.
I lie awake and think about how Hindus have taught for thousands of years that men and women who fully know themselves to be one with God radiate an aura that heals those who come into its sphere. The early Christians believed that, too, until the church fathers decided it wasn’t true. Even though Jesus told his disciples, “Whatsoever I do ye can do also, and even more,” nobody takes that literally except religious fanatics and social misfits. I fear crossing the line that separates me from them. I hold on to vestiges of cerebral certainty with an almost desperate intensity.
In the morning I sit on my balcony and sip tea with my toast and fruit. The sun has risen behind a minimountain on a little offshore island. Above the gray-green ocean, a lavender sky is streaked with gold-edged flamingo feathers. The air is satin gliding across my skin; I can almost hold it between my fingers. The light is yellow as butter. The bougainvillea spills giddy color like a Mardi Gras crewe flinging beaded necklaces. I am humbled by such unbridled generosity. I sip my tea and feel the rhythm of the sea calling to the rhythm of my body. For a moment I come close to understanding how the blood flowing in my body resembles the flow of water over the earth, each organ a microcosm.
When it’s near nine o’clock, I put on a light cotton robe and go to the penthouse suite. Ten or twelve people are already in the living room, sitting quietly in their robes and slippers, like people drawn from sleep in the middle of the night. There’s a hushed reverence. Everybody is turned inward, focusing on the hope that brought them there. Some people are praying or meditating, and I try to shut my eyes and do the same, but I’m too curious about them and what they’re doing, what they’re feeling. As always, I feel outside myself, scattered like buckshot, diffused like droplets of moisture in a fog. Frederick is there, and I stare at him as he sits with his eyes shut, spine erect like a yoga master. His dark hair is so close-cropped that the shape of his skull is starkly outlined. There are gray shadows under his eyes. His ears are perfectly formed. I wish I could cradle his head against my breasts and whisper, “It will be all right. Don’t be afraid. It will be all right.”
Barbara comes in and I shift over on the sofa to make room for her. She leans close to my ear and whispers, “Hi, crip,” and I know Ellen and Sarah have let her in on their plan to devalue my handicap. I smile tightly, and one of the meditators opens his eyes to look a reprimand at us for whispering. Barbara takes my hand, and we sit with intertwined fingers and think our own thoughts. The warmth from her palm is comforting. Our pulses adjust and synchronize, like ticking clocks that fall into the same rhythm. I wonder what it would be like if our pulses ticked audibly like clocks. Would everybody in the world become synchronized to every other person? And if our pulses all beat as one, would we then stop killing each other?
When it’s my turn, Victor stops me at the door and points to my fake Rolex. “No watches in here,” he says.
I slip the watch off my wrist and drop it into the pocket of my robe. “It’s a fake,” I say, and Victor shrugs off responsibility. We’re not supposed to wear watches in the treatment room because Romy claims the highly charged energy in the room will kill their batteries.
This year I’ve come primarily to see the bone man, and he’s waiting for me beside one of the narrow, plastic-covered beds. His name is Monolo, and he is younger than I expected. Slim and much taller than the other Filipinos, he has straight black hair and a nice white-toothed smile. Victor speaks to him in Tagalog, motioning toward my legs, showing him where muscles have grown like mountains pushing up from the earth in the year since Romy removed blockages to circulation. Monolo pinches my new calf muscles between his thumb and fingers and makes a circle in the air with one hand. I roll over on my stomach and let my eyes wander around the room.
Sunshine and fresh air stream through the open penthouse windows. The healers are lean, and spare in dress and body. They wear short-sleeved cotton knit shirts open at the throat, their legs are bare in khaki shorts, their feet are cool in leather sandals. Here in this sunbathed setting, the thought of a sterile hospital operating room, with its masked surgeons and nurses, pulsating machines, tubes and needles, shining surgical instruments, sponges, suctions, oxygen tanks, anesthetizing equipment, and unconscious patients, seems bizarre, barbaric, like historical accounts of medical practices in the dim past.
Romy is working on a woman’s head, and Carlos is bent over a man’s chest, removing the last traces of arterial garbage. When the man arrived, his skin was yellow-gray, he walked with a stoop, and his lips were set in a thin, muddy line. Now he is pink, his lips soft. He laughs and flirts with all the women like a man given a second chance at innocent pleasure.
Carlos says to him, “When you go home, don’t eat greasy food, don’t work, work, work all the time. You must eat right, laugh, be with your friends, or the trouble will come back.”
The man nods several times, like a child making a solemn promise. “I will,” he says. “I really will.”
Carlos is stern. “I can help you now, but you can make yourself sick again, and we won’t be there. You must keep yourself well.”
The man leaves, and Carlos walks over and begins massaging my feet. Carlos is the size of a fourth-grade child, but he’s a full-grown man with a sweet face. His small hands are very strong and sure. His oiled fingers push upward, rippling the flesh on my legs in the same way newborn animals are stimulated to life by the determined tongues of their mothers.
I feel Monolo’s hands on my spine, tracing the curved line of vertebrae with his fingertips. His pointed fingers twist into the flesh on the right side of my spine, and I feel a pulling from low in my back. Warm liquid runs across my back below my shoulder blades, and one of the assistants wipes the wetness away. Monolo rubs aromatic ointment on my back, first at the place where his fingers entered, and then in long, sweeping motions.
One of the assistants helps me back into my robe. Before I leave the room, I reach into my pocket for the envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill. The healers don’t charge a fee for their services, but Victor has suggested a twenty-dollar “donation” for each session. The money is split among all of them to cover their air fare from the Philippines and their expenses in Mazatlán. I drop my envelope in the donation basket, then pull out my watch and stick my fist through the band. I look to see the time. My watch is dead.
As I leave the treatment room, Romy calls after me, “Come to the roof tomorrow morning at sunrise for morning meditation.”
At first I think he’s joking, but he’s serious. I nod without much enthusiasm. Sitting on the roof with a lot of other people while the sun comes up isn’t my idea of a good way to begin the day.
In the hotel dining room, two earnest young women are interrogating their waiter: “Is there animal fat in the food?”
He shrugs and grins helplessly. I sit at the next table and listen.
“Does the cook use butter? We don’t eat butter.”
I speak to the waiter in Spanish. “They’re vegetarians. They want to know if there’s butter in the food.”
He spreads his hands, palms up. “It’s lard.”
“There’s no butter in anything,” I tell the young women.
Their tense faces relax; their anxious brows smooth. They smile at the waiter and point to their choices on the menu. People spend their lives worrying about stupid things. These young women are healthy, strong, able-bodied. Their legs are firm and tanned. They move their feet on the tile floor effortlessly, without thinking about it. To compensate for their good fortune, they worry about things like butter.
The Van Zandts pass by my table. Mrs. Van Zandt is telling everybody who will listen that she’s peed only three times since noon. She is radiant, glowing with happiness and triumph. Dr. Van Zandt smiles indulgently, steering her with a hand under her elbow like a debutante’s escort. She waves at me and flashes a toothy smile, and I wave back, pleased to hear of her newly strengthened bladder.
Victor stops by my table and I ask, “How is Frederick?”
His face grows somber. “The same. Romy has to wait until the time is right to get the cancer out.”
“When will the time be right?”
He shrugs. “Who knows?”
He leaves me with a pat on the shoulder, and a guitarist comes to my table and warbles in bad English, “My heart I leeeft, in San Franseeeesko.” He looks at me with what he obviously hopes are amorous eyes, and I laugh and give him some pesos. He seems puzzled by my laughter, but grateful for the tip.
Ellen and Mac McDougald are entering the dining room as I leave. They invite me to join them, but I beg off. It’s been a long day. Sarah is trailing behind them with a young lifeguard from the beach. He wears a thin white T-shirt that stretches over his chest and shoulders like a second skin. She stops to introduce him: Pedro. He pulls my hand to his lips and wetly kisses the palm, and Sarah grins when I blush.
“Maybe you stay with us,” he says. “I call my friend, yes?”
I laugh stiffly and turn away, suddenly weak with humiliation. It is cruel for men to say such things to a crippled woman; it’s like pretending to flirt with a ninety-year-old. I feel them watching me as I walk away, and I’m even more awkward than usual. I’m acutely aware of my left foot flopping at the end of my leg like a fish on a line. I feel the crunch of my ribs pulling together on the right side, and the strain of my neck as I pull my head to the left, trying to keep my face angled the way it would be if my spine didn’t curve in a long bow. My cane taps along the tiles like an extra claw on a scuttling crab. When I get into the elevator, I avoid looking at the mirrored walls. Living inside my body is painful enough. I don’t need to inflict more hurt by looking at it.
In the morning I join a group of inspired people who are already in place on the roof. We’re in robes and slippers, and the predawn air is cold and damp. I find a spot on a low concrete wall and shiver as the chill of the stone seeps through my terry cloth. When the sky has lightened enough to identify shapes, I look over the railing into the empty, palm-lined streets. A lone cow ambles down the avenue past the hotel, followed by three chickens and a clopping donkey. A rooster struts to the middle of the street and crows lustily at the sky, then scratches furiously in the dust before stalking off haughtily. A man comes out of a building across the street carrying a can that gleams silver in the pale light. He crosses the street and pours water at the base of a palm tree, then disappears back inside the building. In a minute he returns and pours water on another palm tree. His can is the size of a one-pound coffee can. It may even be a coffee can. I wonder why he doesn’t use a bigger bucket. I wonder if there is no running water inside the building that he could attach a hose to. With a hose he could pull it across the street and water the tree much more quickly. I wonder why the man is watering the palm trees anyway; don’t they belong to the city?
The sun is waving pink and saffron banners in the sky, and all around me people sit in lotus positions, people with faces lifted to the heavens, people with heads bowed in humility. Everybody is absorbing the moment of sunrise with rapt devotion while I am consumed with curiosity about a man watering a tree. Suddenly, as if in response to some subliminal signal, everybody rises and begins to mill around, quietly greeting one another with smiles and hugs. I’m disgusted with myself. I’ve missed an opportunity to experience something important. I’m not sure what it was, but I missed it.
Frederick is at the edge of the group. I didn’t see him before, and I’m suddenly shy. I hope he didn’t see me watching the cow in the street while everybody else was praying and meditating. He is standing aside as I come toward him. I can see him watching me, but I don’t let my eyes meet his. He turns his head toward me as I pass. Then Barbara falls into step with me, and I’m grateful to have somebody to talk to so it won’t be so obvious that I’m avoiding Frederick.
“Hello, crip,” she says. “I’m surprised to see you here.”
“I don’t know. I just am.”
Now I have something new to obsess about: why should she be surprised? I feel extremely grumpy and off balance as I go back to my room. I stand under a hot shower a long time to warm up, but not until I’m on my cozy little balcony with a cup of steaming tea do I feel comfortable.
There’s nothing ethereal or tentative about the Filipino healers. They are strong and muscular; they stand with their feet firmly planted. When they are not healing people, they work on their farm in the Philippines. It is good for the soul, they say, to live and work close to the earth. They know herbs and native medicines, and always have some herbal concoction brewing on the stove in the kitchen for people to drink or bathe in. A Bible is always close by when they are working.
Once, when I was leaving the treatment room, Romy stepped suddenly to my side and put his arm around me. He said, “Did you know in heaven you will dance with the angels?”
I said, “I’d rather dance on earth.”
I had expected him to laugh, but he merely looked sad.
When Romy was five years old, there was a terrible rainstorm that lashed the kalipaya trees and sent torrents of brown, swirling water throughout his small village. The storm lasted a day and a night, and during the night a hail of knocks on the front door roused the entire family. At first Romy thought it was the storm coming into their house, but it was a drenched man asking for Romy’s father, the village healer, to come see to his sick wife. Romy and his brothers watched their father get dressed in his white suit with the fine, wide lapels and the double row of abalone buttons. Their mother brought his immaculate white shoes pricked with tiny holes no bigger than a gnat’s eye. Their older sister brought his wide-brimmed white hat, and they all stood respectfully while he adjusted it so that it rested just above his thick, arched eyebrows. He stood in front of the mirror and gave himself finishing touches: a slight shift of his white silk necktie, a delicate tug at the cuffs of his white linen shirt sleeves. His wife handed him his white Bible with the raised gold lettering, and he leaned to kiss her forehead like a benediction. He touched each of his children, thumb in the center of their foreheads and fingertips stretched to the spot on their crowns where their skull bones met. Then he left with the man who had come for him, and Romy watched him walk through the blowing rain. Not a drop of water touched him. Not a breath of wind threatened the angle of his hat.
I don’t know if that story is true, but I believe it. I understand now that it doesn’t make any difference what the facts of a thing are. What matters is the meaning it has for each person. Facts shift and change according to altering public perceptions, but immutable truth is in the spaces between the words, somewhere apart from objectivity.
It is near the end of the week, and I have come to the treatment room for my appointment with Monolo. Frederick lies on a bed against the wall, still waiting for the moment when Romy can remove his malignant tumor. He is the color of raw silk, his skin transparent as the surface of water; his boundaries are insubstantial. He is naked beneath a sheet that reaches up to his waist, and he lies with one forearm covering his eyes, shut off from the quiet buzz of activity swirling around him.
Romy is bent over a man lying on the bed next to mine, and a man who is filming a documentary is in the corner, aiming his camera at Romy’s hands. The camera’s batteries keep dying and having to be replaced; sometimes the man has to stop filming and put his head between his knees because he grows dizzy from what he sees through the lens. Several assistants are in the room; they move quietly, carrying away lumps and blobs the healers have flung into bowls; they massage aromatic oil into the patients; they help them dress and undress.
Outside on the penthouse balcony, people talk in low voices, laughing softly, looking out toward the sea. They are waiting for something. Sometimes they stop for a few minutes and pray, holding hands, their faces raised to the sky. Their voices are like background music.
I no longer have any doubts about what I see. I no longer feel a need to rationalize or intellectualize or rehearse what I will say when people ridicule me. I am limp with trust. Monolo works on my back, and I feel the tugs and pulls of adhesions and clots separating from vertebrae and cartilage.
Romy abruptly straightens, and I look up at his face. His eyes are opaque, dark, like a falcon’s gaze. He whirls suddenly, lithe as a dancer, and springs toward Frederick like a curved sickle. His arm is extended in a graceful arc, an extension of his rounded back. He does not seem like a man, but a tool. His movements are lightning quick. The sheet is jerked away from Frederick’s bare body, and Romy’s fingers disappear into his flesh with a sound like churning water. There is a struggle, and then a triumphant jerk of Romy’s arm. His hand holds high a dripping, crescent-shaped blob. Frederick props himself up on his elbows, legs outstretched, and looks at Romy with silent demand. A faint pink line is slowly fading low on his abdomen.
Monolo touches my shoulder softly and motions that I can go. Stunned by the drama of what I’ve just seen, I leave the treatment room in a daze. As I go, I look back at Frederick. His eyes are following me. He looks very alone.
Since it’s almost time for us to leave Mazatlán, I have made arrangements with a private club for a special dinner with the McDougalds and the Van Zandts. We gather on the open porch of a lovely Spanish-colonial building overlooking a long sweep of green lawn. A gentle breeze stirs the crisp linen tablecloth as we take our seats at a long table set with heavy silver and china. The crystal wine goblets sparkle in the soft glow of candles set in Mexican pierced-tin lamps; individual saltcellars hold miniature silver spoons. Everybody is impressed that I have brought them to such an elegant place. We are the only people on the porch, and I feel quite proud of myself to have had the forethought to request an outdoor table, where we can dine in the fresh air and talk freely. A waiter brings drinks, and we clink our glasses and toast one another, flushed with the warmth of intimacy brought about by shared secrets. Together, we have had experiences that even those most dear to us will never understand.
The sun is setting and the air is growing cooler. The breeze picks up and causes the candle flames to dance. We study giant menus and after much discussion give our orders. The prices are very high; the evening will be a large expense on my credit card, but it’s worth it. I’m very fond of these people, and I want to show my appreciation for their friendship before we part. The breeze becomes brisk; it is now very cool. The tablecloth flaps and grains of salt fly from the crystal dishes and scatter over our clothes. Tree limbs are shivering; the grass on the lawn is bending. The candle flames sputter and struggle. We hug ourselves and look at one another and laugh. Perhaps we should move inside.
Our waiter brings the appetizers, and we tell him to take them to an inside table. He shakes his head: there are no tables available inside. Through the lighted windows we can see people sitting at tables with candles that burn steadily and tablecloths that hang toward the floor. Our waiter brings extra ashtrays to weight down our tablecloth so it won’t fly away. He casts a speculative eye at our inconstant candles. We huddle closer together and eat our appetizers fast.
By the time the entrees arrive, our faces are blue-tinged, our lips stiff with cold. The candles have blown out, and the waiter takes them away. He turns on outside electric lights so we can see in the darkness. The food is chilled before we can eat it. Our basket of dinner rolls tips over and tumbles to the ground, spilling a trail of oval bolillos that are blown into the grass, where they skip merrily before the wind like demented Easter eggs. We let them go and bend over our plates; we hold our wine glasses steady with one hand while we industriously fork food into our mouths with the other.
The trees are swaying on the lawn; the wind whistles around us. Mac is laughing with his head thrown back and his mouth open wide. We’re enjoying the spectacle of napkins flying off laps and the corners of the tablecloth standing upright in the wind. We decide to forgo coffee, and I ask for the check. I’m chagrined at the way the evening has turned out, and so to save face I have my credit card ready when the waiter brings the bill; there’s no need to look at it. I hand it to him and murmur, “Add 25 percent.” He’s been very good about bringing extra tablecloths for the women to wrap around themselves.
He says, “Oh, señora, we don’t take credit cards.”
I’m stunned, undone like a zipper gone useless. I don’t have enough cash with me. Mac roars at my embarrassment and begins to dig in his pocket for his wallet. Dr. Van Zandt laughs and drags out dollars and pesos. They lean over the bill with the good humor of men accustomed to bailing out idiotic, pretentious women, and compute how many pesos and dollars it will take to pay for our extravagant meal. I don’t even have enough money to pay for my own dinner, and somebody has to make up the difference. We leave as quickly as we can. As we round the corner, I look back and see the waiters chasing napkins and bolillos across the lawn.
Back at the hotel, we drift toward our respective rooms. As I go down the hall on my floor, I pause in front of Frederick’s room. A thin line of light shines under the door, and I wonder whether he is inside in a state of thanksgiving or if he is fighting demons of doubt. I should go to my own room, but I cannot. I knock lightly, and when he opens the door I can’t think of anything to say. He stands and looks at me. His eyes are shadowed with fatigue and hope. I should say something, give him some word of faith or encouragement, but I can’t speak. There are no words for someone whose reality is encapsulated in a malignant growth yanked out by its roots. There are no bright greeting-card expressions for someone who stands in the bardo between a life that was and another not yet begun.
He steps aside to let me in, and when I’m inside he shuts the door and puts his arms around me. I hold his shuddering body while he sobs against my neck. I clasp my hands behind his back and make my arms like steel bands. If I could, I would wrap him in tight bunting to keep him safe and secure. I would give him the illusion of permanence and certainty.
His breathing is heavy and his face is wet against my skin. The stubble on his cheek scratches against the line of my jaw as he raises his head to look at me. In this quivering moment, I am fully here, concentrated, knowing.
Gently, I stroke his face with my fingertips.