Fiction and Drama
The Magic Thyroid and Energy Boosting Chocolate Truffles
Thanks—MUCH belatedly—for the holiday card, and may your dreams come true in 2013, but I must say that I don’t believe in Christ or the power of wishes. As a nutritionist, I’ve seen too many of my clients “wish” to get well and stay sick despite implementing healthful diets and using the best doctors and supplements; and as a crazy person, I’ve wished too many times myself—by picking heads-up pennies from the sidewalk and stuffing them in my bra and saying out loud what I want, or staring at the moon and thinking hard about my desired object—for things that never came to pass.
Since you asked me, in your card, to write you a real-life story in which someone’s wish comes true, I’ll do my best.
It’s hard to describe the sadness that comes on me sometimes. My acupuncturist says I have sticky goo in my head. I was in one of those periods when this occurred, going regularly to a medical center in Union Square to receive IV antibiotics for Lyme disease. My bloodwork was off and I needed iron infusions to raise my ferritin. I had parasites, despite eating raw garlic every day for three months and taking six rounds of Vermox, and found it hard to concentrate. This was when I’d just started taking nutrition courses, taught writing classes at several universities to pay rent, and was obsessed with making medicinal foods. I’d spent my savings on Lyme treatments, and whenever I got extra cash, I bought ingredients for these “medicinal foods” that I’d developed, helped a few friends overcome ailments with, and hoped to patent, manufacture, and sell through a company like Nestlé. I had one very promising prototype, Thyroid Boosting Brownies. These were brownies I’d buried nine supplements inside and medicated my graduate creative writing students with, by putting three in front of each student at the workshop table and saying only that they were “healthy desserts.” I had a compulsion to give sick people supplements. That was all I cared about. I knew my students were sick because they wrote badly. They looked bloated to me, and some were fat. Don’t ask where my compulsion came from. Perhaps because I couldn’t cure myself. That day my students laughed more and made smarter comments, and in the class’s middle, five got up and did jumping jacks. But at its end they asked what was in the brownies, and when I admitted that one ingredient was raw bovine thyroid, two students, a Hindi yoga instructor and a vegan action-film heartthrob, walked to the bathroom and retched. That week the department chair told me I was an insane fuckup who’d never teach there again.
That worsened my finances, and I should have given up on the supplement food line and concluded that my students did jumping jacks because they ate sugar, but I had a fantastic need to believe in my foods’ ability to improve people’s health.
Not much else was going on in my life—I taught and went for treatments at the detoxification center.
It was one morning in summer 2010 when I received a disturbing package from my mother, who due to family disagreements hadn’t spoken to me in years. After I opened the package, I put on my wolf suit—a black hoodie and sweats I often wore to the detoxification center—and went to the health store and spent most of my rent money buying supplements, and then I took one item from my mother’s package—a toxic three-pound milk chocolate bar—and melted it in a double boiler alongside three pounds of organic 100 percent cacao, and spent two hours crafting a “filling” made of organic almond butter, raw honey, cardamom, sea salt, and twenty super-potent, ground-up supplements, and then I spooned melted chocolate, then filling, then melted chocolate into each of nine dozen truffle molds—some dome-shaped, others seahorses, starfish, or chessmen—to make nine dozen Thyroid Boosting and Alzheimer’s Reversing Chocolate Truffles for Blanca, a sick heiress who often went to the detox center whom I longed to cure of her disease, and I packed the truffles in gold-foiled cups inside two shirt boxes, labeled the boxes, tied them with pink ribbons, hid them in a shopping bag, and sailed on the silver bullet, the B train, over the river to Union Square and walked into the detox center to find Little Georg, as he was called to differentiate him from Big Georg, sitting in a leather recliner next to a blue guitar case, and Georg drew his free hand, the one not connected by tube to an IV pole, across the case and said, “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. I brought my guitar today because I hope I can get Donella Starr to jam with me.”
Now, the Scheinberg Center was full of people with yellowed eyes and selfish wishes. Everyone was always wishing for something. Dr. Scheinberg, a trim man in his forties with an Asian Fetish, often wandered into the IV Room to show us his new Detox Diet Book that he hoped would be a best-seller on Amazon, and sometimes at night we’d glimpse his latest girlfriend, a pale slender Korean or Chinese, coming in to get an after-hours vitamin B cocktail she hoped would alleviate her fatigue; no one knew whether the girlfriends were fatigued because Dr. Scheinberg loved them so well, or because he was compelled to love tired women, but we’d heard he hid an accordion in his office that he played after hours to charm them while they dripped. SugarNurse, the nurse who got the needle in the vein the fastest, mixed and switched IV bags with split-second timing, and whom we’d each privately asked to be our mother, simply wanted us to recover. Some wishes were foolish, such as that of two fiftysomething married investment bankers who’d passed Lyme between them—the husband got it from the wife when he licked her out—to conceive a child; that of a felon with Crohn’s to produce a talk show hosted by felons, and that of a city accountant with cancer to have the lover who bit her boob in the spot the fungus later grew come back and bite her again before she died; but Georg’s wish to jam in the IV Room with Donella Starr was the most selfish and foolish I’d heard.
Let me describe the Scheinberg Center. It’s on the fifth floor of a limestone building on Fifth Avenue, tucked below a Skin Spa and above a Bridal Gown Boutique. Only the smart or lucky ever find the center, and only the rich can stay. It’s one of the few places in the world where people with monstrous diseases are cured. The center’s mineral water is triple-filtered. Its air is purified. The IV Room’s pale green walls are climbed by dark green vines, and around the room are cream-colored leather recliners for patients to recline in while receiving IVs. The Center’s reception area contains mahogany benches and teak tables piled with the Times; its back, doctors’ bamboo-and-crystal-laden offices, and a nurses’ station where patients receive shots and rectal exams and nurses mix minerals, amino acids, chelation agents, and antibiotics into IVs.
Little Georg sat in a recliner he’d covered with an antimicrobial sheath. Reclined against a sea of black fabric, with his pale skin, bony face, long brown hair, and emaciated body dressed in T-shirt and jeans, he looked like an ’80s grunge rocker. He smiled a lot, and his cheeks had dimples even though he weighed seventy pounds. He lived in a studio and wasn’t rich, and appeared so near death that once a housewife who heard him whisper to me about biofeedback therapies he couldn’t afford left him a $5,000 “biofeedback check” at the desk. Georg ate 4,000 calories a day, he claimed, things like calf liver and beef heart with spinach in cups of butter, but because of the autoimmune disregulation caused by Lyme and the hypoglycemia induced by high mercury loads, his body wouldn’t absorb calories. Before he was a “Lymie,” Georg was a painter. He painted sad women in traumatic colors. Now Georg still made art, when he had enough energy, but he used crayons. His health had been destroyed, either by breathing mercury fumes from paint solvents or else by a traumatic childhood. In the center, he held a fat MS on his lap that he laughed out loud at and made notes on, and if anyone asked what he’d laughed at, he said, “I’m working on my screenplay. I crack myself up.” I had a soft spot for Georg because he’d once asked me if I was a “Heeb” and I said I was not, and he said he’d thought I was one, and I said, “Why? Do I look Jewish?” and Georg said I sort of did and that I could be an honorary one, and I was glad to accept and be part of something, anything except what I was.
Right after Georg said, “I hope I can get Donella Starr to jam with me,” SugarNurse swept by and said, “Cassandra, you’re late. The schedule’s full. Sit, we need to get started. What are you having?” so I told her which IV I wanted, inserted my electromagnetic-frequency-neutralizing plug into a socket, and sat by Little Georg, and he made a crack about my EMF-neutralizing plug, and I made one about his antimicrobial sheath, and he said, “You bet. I can’t handle germs with my compromised immune system. I have enough trouble fighting Lyme disease.” Then he asked what was in my bag.
I tried to shut it. But the ribbons on the shirt boxes stuck out.
So I told Georg.
“Truffles for Blanca? WHY?” Georg said.
I considered. At 29, Blanca’d been the youngest person ever to contract Alzheimer’s disease. She was a beautiful Brazilian heiress, and once sick, she’d become world-renowned. Doctors across the globe tracked her down and begged to operate, medicate, treat. Her face was on the cover of Scientific American, Time, Brazilian Time, and Newsweek. She’d had every procedure and medication. Nothing helped. But even though sick, she looked after her health. She was 49 now but looked 30. She strolled into the center each day in designer sporting clothes. Her skin glowed. I knew it was inappropriate for me to try to cure her. She’d only been coming to the center one year. Some wealthy housewives and entrepreneurs had befriended her, but I was afraid to try. We’d barely spoken a word.
Georg’s eyes widened: “To cure her?”
So I admitted I’d read an article on the internet about how to cure Alzheimer’s. The article, I told Georg, was written by a podiatrist whose husband, once a computer engineer, had become so dumb from Alzheimer’s disease that he couldn’t wipe his bum. The podiatrist’s article explained that in Alzheimer’s the presence of metals disrupts the brain’s ability to use glucose for fuel. Without fuel, the brain starves. The podiatrist wanted to procure a medication of ketones, an alternative brain-fuel source, for her husband, but it was unavailable because not FDA-approved. Frustrated, the podiatrist realized she could give her zombie ketones by feeding him coconut oil, which is mostly ketones. She fed him three tablespoons a day, one in his oatmeal, and one each in his lunch and dinner sandwich. After two weeks, the engineer could dress himself, read the newspaper, and pass the tests he’d failed before. I’d put one tablespoon of coconut oil in each truffle for Blanca, I told Georg. I didn’t mention the raw cow adrenal, deer antler velvet, saffron extract, and other secret, specially selected energy-boosting ingredients.
Georg blunk. “Why’dyu care about Blanca?”
I blushed. Envisioned Blanca’s poise and elegance. Her silky black hair, exotic accent, and coffee-colored skin. Her taut muscles. I hadn’t had sex in years. I was disgusted by people, especially myself. Also, I was straight. But I loved Blanca. The furthest my mind could go was licking her cheek.
“Not sure,” I said.
Georg said I was nuts. He patted his guitar case, which stood upright next to him, and said loudly, “I carried this baby all the way from Avenue C. Today’s my birthday. I’m gonna get Donella Starr to jam with me.”
SugarNurse stopped in front of my chair. She observed Georg’s slowly dripping Rocephin bag.
“Georg,” she said, “IF Donella comes in today, I want you to leave her alone.” She studied him with her soft brown heart-shaped face. The black pupils in her green eyes expanded. She rubbed my arm veins.
I knew Georg’s plan was doomed—the idea that Donella Starr, a diva with seven Grammys who wrote and sang “Biting Me Gently,” would jam with a hipster so spoiled that even when about to die of starvation he kept writing his autobiographical screenplay in a room where actual Holocaust survivors, not to mention the heads of CNN, came to find peace and detox their organs, was absurd.
I looked at the framed sign on the wall.
The sign said QUIET IN THE IV ROOM.
Dr. Scheinberg put it up. Even cell phone use was forbidden. Dr. Scheinberg let classical music play softly when we requested it, and sometimes a pop station. A calm environment, he believed, aided healing.
SugarNurse rubbed my right forearm. “What shall we use today?” she said. “Big Boy?”
She meant the vein in my right arm-crook, which we’d used repeatedly and was beginning to harden.
“He’s hard,” she said, “but I see him. Let’s see if he’ll take it.”
She wiped my arm with alcohol, hung my IV bag on the pole, positioned the needle, and pierced my skin. I felt a slipping sensation.
SugarNurse squeezed the tube. “He let us in,” she said. “Now let’s see if he’ll give us blood.”
Red liquid seeped into the tube.
“He cooperated,” SugarNurse said.
She looked at Georg. “This place is for contemplation, Georg,” she said, “and healing.”
She pointed at the magazine rack on the wall: CountryLife, LymeTimes, Vogue; not even Us Weekly.
“You can read,” she said.
The other reason Georg’s plan was absurd was that it was stupid—music is the useless art. You can’t touch it or eat it, and it doesn’t make you laugh unless it has words. It comes and is gone, a memory. I never understood people like Georg who searched for experience, an expensive meal, an “amazing” concert, an exotic trip, a chance to hug dark kids in India or climb ancient steps in Machu Picchu. I valued things, wanted things I could keep that would help me forever—friends, a great love, a brownstone.
SugarNurse patted my arm.
“Swab later,” she said. “Right?”
“It’s four hundred up front,” she said softly. “Insurance doesn’t cover. You got the money?”
I hesitated. I thought I had room on a credit card.
“Yup,” I said.
“Georg,” she said. “I know it’s your birthday. But Donella needs to get her medicine. Maybe you can ask Donella to play with you if there’s absolute calm today; but only once she’s done her drip, and ONLY if she’s in a GOOD MOOD. And if she says ‘No,’ that’s IT. Do you GET me?”
SugarNurse plucked a blue velour throw-blanket from a shelf and tossed it over Georg’s guitar. All that remained was a guitar-shaped blanket.
“LEAVE THAT,” she said.
Georg nodded meekly.
But once SugarNurse left the room, he poked his arm, which was swelling grossly around his needle, and said, “I’m asking. Last time Donella was here, she said if I brought my guitar, she’d jam with me. If she wants to, they’ll let her. They let her do anything—she’s special.”
I heard voices in the vestibule and picked out one—mellifluous, accented. Blanca. I heard Donella’s. I leaned back. I hoped Blanca’d eat the truffles and that they’d cure her. I touched the box in my bag. I didn’t give a fig about Donella Starr.
By “special” Georg meant “famous,” or possibly, “black.” The nurses were black, and maybe Georg thought Donella’s being black scored her points with them. But the nurses were nice to everyone equally. Or maybe Georg meant “old.” Donella Starr wouldn’t say her real age, but she was, according to Wikipedia, at least 70.
She’d written “Biting Me Gently,” and people wet their pants when she came in, whispering, “Donella’s here! It’s Donella!” but that seemed less because of her fame than something else, because Lou Reed used to come in often and he was more famous, as was Candie Lassie, the schizophrenic pop star; no one blinked when they entered. Donella charmed some people and offended others because she spoke offensive thoughts; she carried around gold-tasseled purses and talked about Children’s Charities she’d performed; maybe her longevity charmed regulars, the fact that at seventy-some she was recording with the Rolling Stones; Georg wanted to jam with Donella Starr so he could say he’d jammed with Donella Starr. But Donella Starr wasn’t a diva to me, she was an A blood type with fibroids and a goiter. That was how I saw everyone, by their blood type and disease. I knew Donella was an A blood type because I’d asked her once, when she sat next to me and I overheard her tell another woman about her illness, how she felt about lentils, and she said, “LOVE ’EM,” and I said, “Quinoa?” and she said “LOVE that TOO,” and I said, “Are you an A blood type?” and she said “How did you know?” and I explained that the shape of the A-antigen resembles estrogen and stimulates the growth of fibroids, and that a woman with a goiter, a pituitary tumor, and fibroids that kept growing back after three myomectomies who loved lentils and quinoa sounded like an A blood type to me. I didn’t say that I knew from my training you could get a pituitary tumor three ways: you fell on your head, you were molested as a child, or you ate too much cheese. In Donella’s case, she was molested. I intuited that because she grew up without a shirt on. I knew that because she told me.
It was one day when everyone in the center was sluggish from finishing lunch, wishing they were in the Hamptons and flipping through lifestyle magazines, and I said softly, experimentally, “I had a traumatic childhood,” and Donella Starr, quick as lightning beside me, said “You did?” and I nodded, and she pushed her spirulina tea aside and said, “Traumatic how?” Surprised at her vehemence, I opened my mouth, ready to spill forth horrors, like the time my parents refused to take my little sister to the hospital for seven days after her appendix burst, and my older sister kept her alive by calling her on the phone each night and telling her to lie still and stay alive, or the way my mother made my older sister clean our bathroom every week when she was 7, then knelt her by the toilet and gently pushed her head in it to show her she did a bad job, but my mind grew a cloud—it might have been a yeast die-off—and my mouth said, “We drank Kool-Aid,” and Donella said, her voice laden with something heavy, low, and slick, “You drank Kool-Aid? That’s traumatic?” and I blunk and said my mother used to buy orange juice, and my father scolded her because orange juice was expensive, and Donella Starr’s wide lips pressed together and she said, “I grew up without a shirt on,” and everyone’s head lifted from their magazines and twenty yellow eyes looked at Donella, and then everyone gripped their magazines and the eyes turned down and SugarNurse’s skirt swished through the room and SugarNurse frowned at me, and Donella said, “I grew up in a small town in Georgia, you know, a normal neighborhood, not dirt poor but not rich, and I played in the street with the other girls . . .”
She told me how when she was 5 years old she played jump rope and dodgeball in the street, and one day her mother came out of their house, and Donella, who was naked except for cotton underpants, pointed to the other girls and remarked to her mother that they wore shirts, and her mother said, “And you have yours.” And Donella looked at the other girls jumping rope in their blouses, and looked down at her own naked chest. She said softly, “But Mom, those girls have blouses on,” and Donella’s mom turned around and nodded and said, “And you have yours.” Donella Starr went to church every Sunday, she told me, and at age 6 she got a coat from the Goodwill to wear to church, and the thing was too big and dragged on the ground when she walked, and Donella told her mother that the coat was too long and Donella’s mother said, “Shut up and wear the coat.”
It’s a good philosophy for life, “Shut up and wear the coat,” if you want a pituitary tumor. Donella Starr was so smart she graduated from high school at 15, but before that, at age 12, she stopped growing tall. The pituitary gland, the “Master of Command,” as Descartes put it, regulates our growth hormones, our sex hormones, our thyroid function. It’s light-sensitive, our little star; when it sees the sun, that other star, it feels happy, and its shutting down when a human being experiences sexual stimulation too early is a protective mechanism; there’s a syndrome, called “psychological dwarf syndrome,” whereby molested children and those who experience physical abuse, lack of love, or emotional neglect fail to thrive—i.e., grow tall. At 12 years old and five-foot-two, Donella stopped growing tall and a lump grew on her neck, but no one said jack about it until she went to college, and her academic adviser said, “You’ve a goiter,” and sent her to the health center, where they put her on thyroid hormone.
Donella Starr loved music and wanted to be a classical pianist her whole life, and she practiced piano every chance she got, and since she didn’t have a piano that meant she carried around a piece of cardboard she’d glued paper to and drawn keys on and moved her fingers across it. That was the story I heard from Donella while everyone picked at their lunch-leavings. Donella was good at piano, when she graduated college she earned a full scholarship to get a master’s degree in classical playing, but two months after she’d begun the program, she dropped out to help her mother. Don’t we all drop out to help our mother? Her mother wasn’t ill enough to die, just ill enough to need Donella’s support. Donella gave up her scholarship and took a job teaching mostly Jewish children at a local high school for $8,000 per annum. And for fun, because she was alone, she sang hymns and played classical piano at the church she attended on Sundays, and one day a male parishioner said, “You’re pretty good at piano. You should play pop at the gay bar down the road,” and Donella answered, in her mellifluous voice, “But I am classically trained,” and the parishioner said, “So what the fuck?” so Donella played gigs at the little gay bar down the road and she liked it, it was sort of fun, not what she’d planned, not what she’d wanted, not what she’d dreamed, but fun, and after she’d played at the gay bar a few months, she noticed the crowd was decent, and she saw one night, when she went outside to get air, that the line to get in the door snaked down the block and around the corner, and one night she noticed Bill Cosby in the audience, and one night she saw Miles Davis in the audience, and one night she saw Lou Reed, and she said to the bar’s owner, “Why are they here?” and the owner said, “It’s a good bar,” and the parishioner, who was sipping scotch at the counter, said, “They come to hear you sing, Donella. They come to hear you sing.”
Eventually Donella got offered a contract. The scout said, “Take the bus to New York City, Donella, call me up, you can use my studio anytime,” and she said, “Anytime?” and he said, “Anytime,” so she arranged her mother’s care and took a bus as soon as she could and it arrived at Penn Station at 1 AM and she called the scout from a pay phone and he’d been asleep and said, “Who is THIS?” and she said, “It’s Donella Starr. I’d like to record.” And he said, “It’s one AM,” and she had no money and nowhere to stay and said, “You said I could record anytime so I took the bus from Georgia and I’m at Penn Station now and I would like to record.”
After telling that story—for some reason the whole center was studiously reading LymeTimes magazine—Donella turned to me and said, “How old are you?”
I looked down at the student work I was grading.
I knew, roughly, what she was getting at: I was an old maid.
“How old?” she said.
“Thirty-nine,” I said.
She peered at me, her heart-shaped face and brown eyes with yellow lights; she’d highlighted her curls that week. “And do you have someone?”
I looked at the needle in my arm.
“You’re aLONE,” she said. “You’re NO PRIZE. But you’re not ugly. Why?”
“Well I found mine,” she said. “We were together for five years, and three times we tried to get pregnant and three times we lost the baby. It didn’t work out,” she said. “But I had him.”
She peered at me.
“I found mine,” she said. Then she said now she lived with her thirteen cats. “I AM A CRAZY CAT LADY,” she said. Not an eye in the center looked our way. “I LOVE my cats,” she said.
SugarNurse placed a spirulina tea on Donella’s tray table. She glared at me.
“I rescued them all from the pound,” Donella said. “Thank you, Sugar,” she said dulcetly. She sipped her tea.
“I LOVE my cats,” she said, “and THEY love ME. I’m HAPPY with my cats.”
“Everybody gets one,” she said. “I found mine. But you haven’t found yours yet. You’re not young. You’re thirty-NINE. You better hurry.” She paused. “Trauma,” she said. She sipped her tea.
Then, because I was pissed, I told Donella I had special iodine in my bag and that if she took it, it would melt her fibroids and maybe her pituitary tumor too, and she said, “I HAVE iodine, I have Iodomere that my MEDICAL DOCTOR gave me.”
Suddenly, she asked a Rangers hockey player whether the curry chicken at Whole Foods was organic. When he said he guessed so, she said “What’s ‘ORGANIC’? What’s ‘PESTICIDES’? What’s ‘free range’?” and started a debate. After Donella left, SugarNurse said to me, “Donella’s blood pressure went up today. I don’t want her bothered again.”
A woman called Hopper because she’d once been a track star strode in and set a purse by a chair. She was a lean woman with long springy red curls who loved politics and dreamed of hosting a show like The View, and we all trusted her because she was sane. After being ill for twenty years she’d run out of money, but in her deepest poverty she went to an art opening where she met a rich old German landscape painter, and now she was married and had every recovery tool we’d ever dreamed of owning: a blanket made from NASA technology that refracted one’s own energy back to one’s body, a healing laser machine that banished all pain and dissolved all lumps, which she wore attached to her waist, and a portable brainwave-harmonizing machine. Just as she did every day, Hopper arranged her tools on her tray table. She studied the guitar-shaped hump next to Georg.
She lifted the blanket and peeked.
She said, “GEORG, WHAT’S WITH THE GUITAR?”
Georg blushed. We heard voices rising in the vestibule—incoming patients’, receptionists’. Donella’s. Several regulars wandered in and sat down. Georg peered behind him. SugarNurse wasn’t in sight.
Georg said, “SHHH. I’m going to ask Donella to jam with me.”
Hopper’s lips pursed. “You are?”
Georg nodded. He explained that Donella had promised that if he brought his guitar in, they’d jam, and that he’d carried his guitar two miles from his studio to the Scheinberg Center six times now. Each trip had exhausted him. But each time: no Donella. Today, Donella was on the schedule. It was going to be great.
“I LOVE Donella,” Hopper said loudly. “But she doesn’t always do what she says she will.”
Georg looked down at his arm. The lump around his needle had swollen to the size of a plum. “SugarNurse!” he yelled. “Help!”
He asked what Hopper meant.
Hopper shrugged. “She said she’d come to the Lyme benefit we had. Three times she said she’d come. But when the event came, no Donella.” She adjusted the cold laser at her waist so it beamed healing rays into her kidney. “That’s all I’m saying.”
SubNurse swung by, on shift now.
She pointed at the vestibule, and put her finger to her lips.
“Donella has a lot going on,” she said softly. “If she said she’d come to the Lyme charity event, I’m sure she meant to.” SubNurse wrapped a rubber band around Hopper’s wrist.
“SubNurse, HELP!” Georg said. “My needle popped out of my vein. It hurts!”
“Yes, Georg,” SubNurse said. “Please wait.”
Hopper remarked loudly that she LAHVED Donella, but that she shouldn’t say she was going to do something if she wasn’t going to.
SubNurse replied that Donella likely intended to attend, but might have felt sick.
I saw Donella’s shape in the vestibule.
I pointed at it, but Hopper didn’t see me.
The shape moved closer.
“Phooey.” Hopper leaned back as her drip started. “None of us are well.”
Georg said hopefully, “Maybe she was busy.”
Some regulars waiting for IVs spoke. Donella was a DIVA, they said. She was FAMOUS, of course she was stuck-up. She was talented, but also obnoxious, senile, and selfish. She didn’t have Lyme, so didn’t care about those who did. Of COURSE she skipped the benefit.
My head hurt. But it always did. I was surprised, because I knew the regulars loved Donella, and that she was always kind to them. But everyone in the room was ill, and ill people, I guessed, are never really themselves.
At that moment an apparition entered: a swinging white skirt, a white tennis top. Blanca brushed her long dark hair back. She smiled and said in her Brazilian accent, “Hello, everybody! I went to the Lyme Charity Event! I loved it! I always support my Lyme Friends, even though I do not have Lyme disease, I have something else, I have Alzheimer’s, but I am happy to support my Lyme Friends!”
Hopper stood and hugged Blanca. They sat together. My mouth filled with a lump. Hopper said, “You came and you gave, too.”
Georg poked my thigh. His arm was grossly swollen and he looked pale. He pointed at the boxes in my bag.
“Cass,” he whispered. “You don’t know how Blanca’s body will react to whatever you put in those. She’s sick . . .” Sick people, he said, had heightened sensitivities. I might endanger Blanca by giving her supplements she couldn’t tolerate. I might make her Alzheimer’s worse, he whispered. She might not even like coconut. Personally, he said, coconut oil made him ill. He knew I meant well. But I wasn’t a doctor, and I shouldn’t toy with people’s health.
I looked around. Yellow-green light fell from the windows between climbing vines. Almost all the recliners were full. Across the room Hopper, Blanca, and a matron with a large white purse whom I’d dubbed OldWhitePurse were getting EDTA drips to pull aluminum from their brains. Blanca had admired Hopper’s new purse. Now they were showing each other their purses’ hidden slots and saying how spacious their purses were, and how they’d cut costs by buying them in France. While I watched Blanca, Hopper, and OldWhitePurse stroke each other’s purses Donella appeared at the room’s edge. She perused the magazine rack. She wore black sweatpants and sweatshirt. I guessed she’d heard what everyone said about her. She reached for Vogue. After a minute, she turned toward the IV Room and listened to OldWhitePurse describe her purse: made to last forever, she said, like a Lockheed Martin submarine. Its handsewn leather stretched gracefully and got stronger with age. Donella put Vogue back. I felt left out. My purse was small, narrow, and cheap. I’d never been to France. As I was thinking this, OldWhitePurse asked Hopper whether she’d ever tasted So-Delicious-Coconut-Ice-Cream? and Hopper said she had, and Blanca said, “I can’t eat coconut. Every time I do, it gives me—” she looked down and spread her manicured hands over her white tennis skirt—“diarrhea,” she said.
Georg poked me.
Blanca looked at Georg. “Why’d you poke her?” she said.
Georg’s eyes widened.
“I like to poke Cassandra,” he said.
I gathered my courage. I thought about the truffles’ benefit for Blanca—reversing Alzheimer’s disease—versus their cost—diarrhea.
I opened my mouth.
Georg shook his head. “NO!” his lips said.
“Blanca,” I said. “I brought you something.”
Blanca’s eyes raised to mine.
She said, “What is your name again?” Her lip curled. “I am sorry,” she said. “Because of my Alzheimer’s, I am bad with names.”
I told her.
“Cassandra,” she said. “You are sweet. I would love it if you would bring me something. Will you bring me a green tea? I would like that.”
The whole center was watching, so instead of explaining to Blanca that I’d brought her Alzheimer’s Reversing and Thyroid Boosting Chocolate Truffles, I wheeled my IV pole to the tea station in reception, and made Blanca’s tea.
At reception, I watched a woman get booted. She was a regular who’d come to the center after her Sloan-Kettering chemo failed. Dr. Scheinberg put her on low-dose naltrexone, high-dose iodine, maitake mushroom D-fraction, and vitamin C cocktails, and first the shit in her boob and lymph nodes stopped spreading, then it started to shrink. But after the woman’s last two drips, her cards had been declined. “Everyone has to pay,” the receptionist said. The woman offered to pay by plan, then begged. I bobbed Blanca’s tea bag. I was at the center because I’d had a teaching gig with unusually good insurance. When the gig ended, I’d extended the plan through COBRA. In a month, the extension would run out.
I re-bobbed Blanca’s tea bag.
I didn’t care that soon I’d be booted too.
But I felt dejected. I felt outside of the world: both my sisters still spoke to my parents, even though our parents no longer spoke to me. Both my sisters were “normal,” had husbands and accounting jobs and ate wheat, soy, and corn regularly, recklessly, even though they’d both almost died, my little sister when her appendix burst, my older when she had Lyme. I didn’t understand how people could suffer so much and not emerge with a fierce desire to do anything to be well; my doctor told me corn, soy, fluoride, and wheat hurt my body and I stopped eating them, I didn’t miss them, I wouldn’t eat them or drink tap water or brush with Colgate for a million dollars, I didn’t understand how Americans could agree to be so stupid, to drink fluoridated water that calcified their pineal glands and blocked iodine receptors and caused wrinkles, cancer, and goiters, to eat wheat that made them foggy-headed, and to eat no meats but factory-farmed and hormone-pumped pig, chicken, and cow, which made men breasted and women bearded and both genders estrogen-loaded, docile, pigfaced, timid, and fat.
“It’s unconscionable,” the woman said to no one, at the elevator. “I have cancer!”
I remembered I had the swab later; I called my credit card. It was overdrawn.
I rolled my pole toward the IV Room.
“Excuse me,” said a voice. “I just want to get by.”
“IT’S DONELLA!” Hopper said. “HI Donella!”
“HI DONELLA!!!” everyone said, as Donella walked slowly, with her cane, toward an empty chair, and Blanca took her tea from me and said, “Donella, Georg brought his GUITAR so you could play together, isn’t that nice?”
Donella dropped her bag on a recliner. She said, “Blanca, did you say something? I can’t hear well, I’m tired.”
Georg looked up.
Blanca yelled, “GEORG BROUGHT HIS GUITAR!”
But as she spoke, SubNurse strode in front of her. She said, “Sit, Donella. What tea would you like, spirulina?” and Donella nodded Yesand SubNurse turned to Blanca and said “SHHHHHH.”
Blanca said, “Dear me!”
SubNurse’s hand covered Blanca’s mouth.
“Donella’s TIRED,” she said.
The center quieted. Donella’s tea was brought.
Everyone browsed menus. We were all supposed to eat while getting IVs to keep our blood sugar up. We ordered salads from Chopped!, sushi, Chinese. Soon a discussion started about health care. Obama was trying to get his universal plan across. People were either “Against It” or “For It with Grave Reservations.” Obama’s presidency was disappointing, everyone agreed. He’d failed to close Guantanamo, failed to pull out of Afghanistan, buckled to the banks, spent Michelle’s birthday with Oprah, and likely bonked a certain young blond film star. ObamaCare was a disaster.
Throughout the discussion, Georg leaned forward. I knew that though liberal, he thought Obama was pandering, bigpharma-ass-kissing, and donation-taking. But each time Georg’s lips parted to speak, he glanced sideways at the sleeping Donella, and closed them.
“I’m all for everyone who works getting care,” OldWhitePurse said. “But you can’t make them care about themselves.”
Donella’s eyes popped open. “WHO’S THEY?” she said.
The woman’s mouth opened and shut.
Hopper patted the woman’s knee. “That’s just Donella,” she said.
The woman looked boldly at Donella. “People on welfare,” the woman said.
The woman had a pink face with large jowly cheeks. Curly gray hair framed her blue eyes.
Donella’s head lifted. Her just-highlighted copper curls sprung out from her head and gleamed. Her spirulina tea sat unsipped. She frowned.
“Have you been on welfare?” Donella asked.
The woman had not.
Did the woman think, Donella asked, people wanted to be on welfare?
The woman glanced at her IV. The liquid was amino-acid gold. It dripped slowly. She just knew they didn’t take care of themselves, she said.
Donella didn’t move. “And what is your job?”
“And when you worked?”
The woman said something clipped about organizing charity events. My attention wandered. I didn’t care about Obama. He was OK. He was a rare AB-negative blood type, though, so like JFK Junior and Senior, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, he was biologically compelled to transfix crowds, try to please everyone, suffer pot or nicotine cravings, cut deals with enemies, and experience stress-induced hypoglycemia and—whenever he ate chicken—gas and bloating. He needed an hour of tai chi each day, a bespoke foods menu, constitutionally appropriate adrenal support, and a daily liver-cleansing supplement, possibly a specific brand of kudzu root, also a health coach, things I doubted he’d ever get. Especially not from me, because everyone who’d ever met me thought I was nuts. I yawned. I wanted to give Blanca the truffles, but she and Hopper were watching an episode of Four Nerds and a Babe on the DVD player she’d brought. They giggled at the screen. I didn’t want to scare Blanca, so I wasn’t going to tell her the truffles’ ingredients, raw cow thyroid, for example, to boost thyroid function, and coconut oil to restore Blanca’s ability to read books and remember names, and love from me, my intent to cure her that I’d imparted into the chocolate when I melted it in my silver double boiler; I’d just say, “If you eat three each day, these may reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” and I thought if they worked for Blanca, I could patent the recipe, there had to be a market, a LOT of people had subpar thyroids and/or Alzheimer’s disease, maybe I could work a deal with Mars, I thought, and they’d manufacture the recipe as two separate bars, Magic Thyroid Boosting Chocolate Bars and Alzheimer’s Reversing Chocolate Truffles, and make me head nutritionist on the project and give me 10 percent of the proceeds, and we could sell the bars to tired people alongside Kit Kat bars in Walmart and Duane Reade. I wanted to be worth a shit, to cure Blanca, to please her. If I cured Blanca, I thought, we’d be friends, and I could patent the thyroid-boosting bars and help people, and in the process make a million dollars and pay my debts and not be a loser, and I could afford to fly to Europe and buy martinis for Blanca on a French beach. I wanted to get Blanca’s attention, but she was telling Georg that today, she, Blanca, had an exciting appointment. Dr. Scheinberg was going to review with her the results of new tests he’d run, which he believed would reveal why her body wouldn’t respond to Alzheimer’s medications. She’d had a hard time, Blanca told Georg. Georg glanced at the manuscript on his lap. He smiled. He jotted on it. Blanca couldn’t drive anymore, Blanca told Georg. She’d been sick twenty years. Her husband was disgusted by her. He’d married a healthy girl who loved horses. No doctor had halted her health’s decline except a shaman she’d flown to a tiny village in Brazil to see, who’d removed 6cc of fluid from her brain through a spinal tap. But the fluid must have seeped back inside her head, Blanca said, because now her headache was back. Today she hoped—her voice rose—that Dr. Scheinberg, the only doctor in New York she trusted, could find out the root of her troubles.
“GET COPIES OF YOUR TESTS,” Donella said.
“What, Donella?” Blanca asked in her girlish voice.
“Get copies of your tests,” Donella said.
Blanca giggled. “But I can’t read them.”
Donella rested Details on her lap.
“You can. All the values have ranges beside them. It’s simple.”
Blanca shrugged. “Dr. Scheinberg’s good. I trust him.”
Donella sat forward. Her body was dwarfed by the leather recliner. She put her eyeglasses on.
“It’s a patient’s responsibility,” Donella said. “You need to be proactive about your health.”
Did Blanca think, Donella asked, that Donella came to the Scheinberg Center that day—even though she had a four-hour charity event to perform that night—for fun? No, she’d woken knowing that she had to come—her energy pushed her this way.
“OK Donella,” Blanca said meekly. “I’ll get copies. But I can’t read them. Maybe you can read them for me.”
Donella rolled her eyes. “I will if I’m here,” she said. But she was tired. Once she finished her IV, she was going home. Her gaze lifted out the window toward the East River.
Georg stroked his guitar with short swift strokes, as if brushing mites off it. I could see he still planned to ask her to jam with him. Yellow light fell through the windows and gilded Blanca’s black hair. Blanca’s DVD ended. Blanca said that Four Nerds and a Babe was so funny she could watch it forever. A Rangers hockey player finished his red vitamin B drip and we all watched him stride out.
“Blanca,” I said softly, “I brought you—”
“BLANCA!” SugarNurse said. Dr. Scheinberg was ready for her. When Blanca protested that her IV wasn’t done, SugarNurse made her go in with the pole attached.
“I heard you, Laura,” Blanca said as she rolled her pole away. “I remember your name, Laura. We will talk when I get back.” Her white skirt swished.
“Well,” Georg said. “I guess we’ll all be in suspense till she gets back.”
Donella’s eyes closed. Georg slept against his antimicrobial sheath. I felt suspended in water, in sunlight, in July in the IV Room, the green island where crazies knew the secrets of life. Hopper flipped a newspaper on her lap. I glanced at it. The words blurred. I scribbled notes on my students’ essays. I wrote “amazing plot” and “fantastic!” A fly buzzed at the window. Time pivoted. Earth tilted. I’d been in the Green Room a hundred times, I’d be there forever, I’d never recover, I’d never change.
“Cassandra,” Hopper said. “What do you think of Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain?”
I blunk. “What?”
She pointed at an article in the paper.
It said, MICHELLE SPAIN-EXTRAVAGANZA COSTS MONEY.
“Michelle Obama went on vacation with her best friend and their daughters to Spain,” Hopper said. “What do you think of that?”
I blunk. Newspapers confounded me. I wasn’t sure why Michelle Obama’s going to Spain counted as news. Hopper’s question seemed like a trap. Were we at war with Spain, and I was stupid because I didn’t know about it?
Georg stared at me. The look said: “Don’t answer. Don’t upset Donella!”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Normal and good?”
Hopper adjusted her bifocals. Her NASA-technology blanket shifted on her lap.
“You think it’s NORMAL?” Hopper asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Well I think . . .” Hopper said. Her cream jaw elongated as she spoke. Given the bad economy, she said, it was inappropriate for Michelle Obama to take an expensive, exorbitant trip.
The air in the Green Room, even the liquid in the IV bags, seemed to stiffen. The nurses paused midsweep.
Donella’s eyes snapped open.
“HOPPER,” she said. “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?”
“I said,” Hopper said, enunciating, “that it’s inappropriate for Michelle Obama to take an exorbitant vacation in this economy.”
Donella put down her tea. Her back straightened. Her words rolled from her throat like musical jeweled frogs.
“Hopper, I have known you for fifteen years,” Donella Starr said. “And I have admired you ALL fifteen years, and I respect your opinion. And that is why I’m curious to know, why do you think that Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain was exorbitant?”
Hopper said matter-of-factly that Spain was far away . . . It was Europe. Now was not the time for a European tour. Michelle should have taken a modest vacation to show solidarity with debt-saddled Americans. She should have gone to the Poconos.
“No one’s going to Europe now,” the woman with the white purse said. “Look at me, I’m not even in the Hamptons hahaha, I’m in the Scheinberg Center getting IVs!”
Donella’s face tinged mauve. Georg leaned forward worriedly; I could tell he thought Michelle had wasted taxpayer money and itched to say so, but also wanted to woo Donella by saying something charming, or at least neutral, in support of Michelle’s exorbitant trip.
Michelle went to Spain, Donella said slowly, looking carefully around at the other patients, holding her hands out, because her best friend’s father died; she’d promised her friend they’d spend time together, show their daughters Spain.
“The rain in Spain . . .” Little Georg hummed.
“Why are you humming?” Donella said.
SugarNurse swept through the room and pinched empty bags. She tilted them so the last drops fell into the tubes, detached them and replaced them with new fat bags.
“Yes,” OldWhitePurse said, “but Michelle’s trip cost taxpayers MONEY.”
That was exactly her point, Hopper said, the trip had cost taxpayers—she looked at the newspaper—$470,000!
“Michelle paid her own way,” SubNurse said softly. “Her friend, too. They paid for their own food, hotel, airfare, everything.”
Various voices chimed in—Obama was an orator, a theater producer said. He’d accomplished nothing since taking office and fulfilled none of his promises. Of course the Obamas paid their own way, an oncologist with heart disease said, they were LOADED.
“And,” Hopper said, “they brought twenty secret service agents. THAT’s what cost $470,000.”
Georg leaned forward. “Imagine if it were twenty Inspector Gadgets,” he said innocently. “How much would that cost?”
“HOPPER,” Donella said, and stood. Michelle Obama was the wife of the President of the United States, she said. She had to travel with appropriate security. As for the Spain trip—it was not a tour of Europe. It was just Spain. And it might give Americans hope that we’d lift out of the recession. Some glamour was expected of a President.
“Why do we have Vogue at the Scheinberg Center but not Glamour?” Georg said. “Has anyone ever wondered that?”
“Georg,” SubNurse whispered. “Shut your mouth!”
Donella studied Hopper’s huge tan purse.
“Did you say you bought that purse in Spain?” she said.
“France,” Hopper said. “But I bought it in spring, before the economy was bad.”
“Let me tell you something,” Donella said. The sun moved left. The IV stands cast bar-shadows on our faces. Donella had been to Spain, Donella said. She told a longish story, about how she’d gone to Spain because the Queen had requested that Donella sing for her. The money was airfare and a chance to sing for a queen. Donella was prepped, before her performance, about what to wear, how to say things like “Thank you so much, your Majesty” in Spanish, and how to walk as she approached the throne. But she was not told to bow. So before Donella performed, she curtsied. A deep curtsy, but a curtsy. That was all the newspapers that covered the event talked about. “DEBACLE, Donella Starr does NOT BOW.” But she hadn’t known she should bow, Donella said, her face turned up to ours, her hands spread apart in the air. And, Donella Starr added, the Queen of Spain had liked her, “and they invited me back,” Donella said.
What, Hopper asked, was Donella’s point?
Donella’s point, Donella said, her left hand spreading beside her, was that when you were known, people liked to criticize you.
She appraised us. The yellow liquid in her IV bag, vitamin C to melt her brain tumor, dripped into her arm. If she wore jeans or sweatpants in public, Donella said, people stopped her on the street and told her she looked dowdy. She’d never spent more than $300 on a handbag, she said, and never would. She’d worked for everything she had. She didn’t care about clothes. “But I have to dress a certain way, if I don’t I am criticized.” And that was only what Donella experienced, Donella said. People like Michelle Obama, Donella said, were criticized by everyone, for everything they did, all the time.
“Donella.” Hopper blanched. “You’re right. I see that. Ignore me. My head hurts. My head’s not right. I’ve got aluminum in my head, I don’t think right. Ignore everything I say.” Her long gray-sweatsuited body sat stiffly in her chair.
Donella said she valued Hopper’s opinion.
“YOU know I love Obama,” Hopper said. “I campaigned for him.”
“I know you did,” Donella said.
Everyone looked at their laps.
Nine other people said they’d campaigned for him, too.
Hopper read her newspaper.
Georg sighed happily.
Hopper looked up. She said, “But it was a lot of taxpayer dollars.”
All nine people nodded.
Donella’s head lifted.
On her tray table, Hopper’s hand jerked back and forth. The drip in her bag—a pink B-magnesium combo—increased speed. Her body vibrated as if a stimulator were inside her. “I just think it’s exorbitant,” she shouted, “flying to Spain when the American people are struggling!”
Donella’s eyes widened. “Hopper,” Donella said, “I feel sick at heart to hear you say that, I feel deeply dismayed, I feel—”
But she was cut off, because Blanca dragged her IV pole into the Green Room and roared in her glamorous Brazilian voice, “Everyone, you won’t BELIEVE it, it’s a DISASTER!”
Blanca’s hands pulled back her hair. She cried, “I do not have Alzheimer’s disease! I have LYME!!!”
She’d been misdiagnosed. For twenty years by doctors across the world, and now by Dr. Scheinberg. The new tests revealed nothing, Blanca said. But because of what Donella had said, Blanca asked to see her old tests. So Dr. Scheinberg flipped through her old charts, blood-draws, CBC panels. Blanca watched. When he came to one, Blanca said, “Stop.”
She saw that it was for Lyme disease, and that it said “Positive.”
The test was one year old. Did Dr. Scheinberg know, Blanca asked him, how she’d suffered this past year? They could have been treating her! she’d said.
Dr. Scheinberg apologized. His assistants reviewed test results; they must have missed it. But if Blanca would stay on at the center, he’d treat her for Lyme right away.
Could we believe it? Blanca asked.
Donella shook her head. Even GOOD doctors were human, she said.
SubNurse swung through the room, checking IVs. Infected by Blanca’s woe, everyone spilled their troubles and gnashed their teeth. Before coming to the center, everyone had been misdiagnosed. A woman with Crohn’s disease was told she had lupus. Four Lymies were told they had multiple sclerosis, and two they had celiac. Two people with Graves’ disease were told they were just fat, and one had been told, correctly, that she had syphilis.
SubNurse unhooked Donella.
Donella put her hands on her recliner’s arms. Her hands trembled.
Little Georg stared hopefully at Donella. He remarked that everything she had said today was wise and correct.
Blanca wailed, “Misdiagnosed!”
Donella ignored Georg. “You’re looking at the negative,” she told Blanca. “No other doctor even tested you for Lyme. Dr. Scheinberg is the first doctor to CORRECTLY diagnose you.”
“True,” Blanca said.
Donella stood and put on her coat. She fumbled with the sash.
Georg’s pale hand slid toward the blanket covering his guitar.
SubNurse slid the needle out of Blanca’s wrist. She bandaged her. Blanca stood and twirled.
“I’m a Lymie now,” she said. “It is fitting that I went to the Lyme Benefit, and even bought a Lyme T-shirt! I thought I was supporting my Lyme friends, but the person with Lyme was me!”
“That’s right,” Hopper said. “You’ve always been our friend.”
Blanca’s brown eyes widened. Her broad lips smiled. “I guess I knew in my heart that I was a Lymie.”
“In your bone marrow,” Georg said. “That’s where the Lyme resides.”
“In my bones then,” Blanca said.
SugarNurse stopped my IV and drew the needle out. She put gauze over the wound, said “Press it hard,” and I did. I felt sick though. I was devastated that Blanca didn’t have Alzheimer’s. I should have been happy that she had a lesser disease, but my heart was a chunk of tar and I sorrowed for my Magic Thyroid Boosting and Alzheimer’s Reversing Truffles, that I’d never reverse Blanca’s Alzheimer’s with them, and their odds of being purchased and utilized by Mars company, Hershey’s, or even Luna Bar were bleak.
Donella’s hand lifted. She appraised the room.
Swiftly, Georg whipped the velour throw off the guitar.
“It was good,” Donella said graciously, “to see you all. Blanca, hang in there, it’s good news.” She walked with her cane toward the elevator.
Georg’s head popped up. The guitar case flew open. His bony hand slid across the caramel-colored instrument.
“I brought my guitar, Donella,” Georg said. “Will you jam with me, just for one song?”
Donella stopped. She’d reached the magazine rack. Her posture was bad.
“No,” she said.
“It’s my birthday,” Georg said.
“Happy birthday,” she said. She did not turn around.
“Thank you,” Georg said.
She looked at him.
“I carried this thing all the way from Avenue C. It’s really heavy.” Georg lifted it gingerly in his two arms. His shirt hung on him. He said, “Will you jam with me?”
Beyond the dim windows, street lamps had come on. In the bathroom, a flush happened.
“Georg,” Donella said. “I did not come here to jam. I came to receive medicine for my illness. I am tired.” She pulled the sash at her waist. Her chin lowered. “My cats need me.”
“Aw,” Georg said. “It’s my birthday.” He looked small holding the guitar, his voice took a child’s tang. I was reminded that he was 45 years old, although he looked 30 because he never ate carbs. His cheekbones jutted out of his cheeks and his eyes were large because the skin over his face was stretched tight. “It’s my birthday wish,” Georg said.
“GEORG,” SubNurse said, “Donella’s tired.”
Donella faced Georg. She hunched. “Jam with these people,” she said. Her hand swept the room. Her birthday wasn’t until February, she said. But for her birthday, she wished that the American people would appreciate the work their President had done for them. Just once, she said, she wished they’d acknowledge his accomplishments. He’d brought us out of the worst recession in eighty years. He’d inherited and ended two foreign wars. She listed more boring accomplishments. “You have your wish,” Donella said. “I have mine.”
The room was silent.
“February what?” a CNN head said.
“February tenth,” she said.
“Figures,” the CNN head said.
She drew her coat around her. “What figures?”
“You’re AQUARIUS,” the CNN head said.
She stared at him.
He explained that Aquarius was the most obnoxious zodiac sign. Also the smartest, but in the stupidest way. That was why Donella graduated high school early, he said, and wasn’t embarrassed to wear gold-tasseled purses and be offensive.
Donella’s eyes narrowed. She adjusted the strap on her shoulder.
“I’m me because I’m me,” she said. “I’m smart because I have good genes. And I’m not afraid to say what I think because I’m Donella Starr, and I’ve never been afraid to be strange.”
She walked into the restroom. The door shut.
“I like to be normal,” Blanca said.
My heart sank to its lowest. SugarNurse said it was time for my rectal exam. I stuffed the boxes with the pink bows in Georg’s lap and said, “Take them.” Georg said he didn’t want the truffles, he couldn’t tolerate honey and coconut oil gave him the runs. I told him to chuck them out a window into the square; he looked at me lovingly. “Cassandra,” he said, “I’m sorry, but NO one wants your truffles. You’re crazy. I don’t want them,” he repeated, “coconut oil makes me sick!” SugarNurse gestured down the hall.
SugarNurse’s office was narrow, with shelves of jars and vials on one side, and on the other a massage bed. SugarNurse shut the door. I assumed the position: on my left side, knees curled to the chest, pants down, facing the wall. SugarNurse was doing a butt-swab that the doctor ordered because he couldn’t figure out why medications wouldn’t banish my parasites. I was afraid, because I’d had the swab before and I knew it hurt, and was ineffective because in daytime worms hid far up the colon in the small intestine, and I’d have to pay $400 on my way out; I’d come because everyone wanted a moment with SugarNurse, even if for a rectal swab. Whenever we walked through the Union Square Farmer’s Market we picked up something for her, the rich brought her roses, chocolates, teak musical instruments, and pashmina scarves; I brought her an apple or a fat-free spelt muffin. You’ll think it crazy, these crushes, but it was SugarNurse who called me, years after my money and insurance ran out and I’d stopped going to the Scheinberg Center, and left a message saying, “It’s SugarNurse, I’m calling to see how you are!”
She rubbed alcohol on my rear and shot me. I said “OW!” and she prepped the swab.
I thought despondently about how stupid I’d been to spend money making the Magic Thyroid Boosting and Alzheimer’s Reversing Chocolate Truffles for Blanca, to think I’d cure her and that that would make me her friend, and I thought how distant was the dream of Nestlé agreeing to manufacture my bars. It was a shame, how one could see it so clearly sometimes, the way in which one could help the world—there would be two flavors, SUPER STRONG Magic Chocolate Thyroid and Energy Boosting Truffles for those whose thyroids really needed help, and MEDIUM STRONG Magic Chocolate and Almond Energy Boosting Truffles for those with delicate systems; I knew my bars had the power to make people more joyful, energized, and motivated, but I also saw how stupid I was, how bloated, fat, and full of parasites; how unfriendly, gloomy, and without the capacity to get along with other people or to bring my ideas to fruition. SugarNurse’s glove smeared gel on my butt.
She said brusquely, “How you feeling?”
I said, “Good.”
She said, “Busy day today.”
I said, “Yeah.”
She said, “You teach tonight?”
I said, “Tomorrow.”
The rectal swab went up.
“Ow,” I said.
She said, “It didn’t even go in, it has to go a lot more, I’ll go slow.”
“OK,” I said, my thoughts full of castigation. Why was I stupid? What had I done to get myself in this place? Why wasn’t I better yet? Why couldn’t I get better by taking antiparasite medication like other people who had parasites? Thoughts of self-pity washed over me, woe was me, I thought, I got Lyme disease, I caught it late, I was an idiot, I had a traumatic childhood, my mother didn’t love me, I bathed in pain and feeling sorry.
“SugarNurse,” I said, “who did you vote for?” figuring her for Obama.
She said, “I vote for the man who wins.”
I said, “What?”
The stick went up further.
I said, “Ow!”
She said, “I always vote for the man who wins. I support whoever’s in office, because he needs support to do a good job. If Cheney won, I would have supported him.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “OW!”
She said, “In my country we have a saying.”
I asked what.
“Don’t fuck with the money,” she said.
The stick moved.
“You always support your President. And you don’t fuck with the money.”
“SugarNurse,” I said. “This is America.”
“I know,” she said. “I like it here. You still don’t fuck with the money.”
I hugged my knees.
“You got something on your mind,” she said.
I told her that my mother had sent me a package that morning.
SugarNurse said, “That’s nice.”
SugarNurse knew my mother was crazy.
“There were three things inside,” I said. “One was a book called The Nine Steps to Detoxification, one was a book about a white man who helps girls in Afghanistan, and one was a toxic three-pound milk chocolate bar.”
“At least she’s trying,” SugarNurse said.
I said, “The card said, ‘I know you have Lyme disease. Good luck.’”
“That’s nice,” SugarNurse said.
“Yes,” I said, “but one could want her to be more present.”
“We can’t always have what we want.”
The stick moved.
“I saw you brought in those chocolates,” SugarNurse said. “How much did you spend on those?”
I shrugged. “Ow!”
“Don’t want to tell me?”
“Nine hundred bucks,” I gasped.
“Listen,” SugarNurse said. “You need to focus on your own healing. Don’t worry about Blanca. Have you seen her husband?”
“He’s nice,” SugarNurse said. “And he has a lot of money. It’s time to go home now, he’s going to be waiting for Blanca with soup, and she’s going to tell him about her day.”
“He may not love her,” SugarNurse said, “but he’ll take care of her, because that’s what he promised to do.”
“Yuck,” I said.
“Listen,” SugarNurse said. Her glove gripped my ass. “If you only do one thing I tell you, marry an ugly man. An ugly man will treat you well. I married a handsome man, and it’s my biggest regret.”
I asked, did she love him?
She did, she said. But he didn’t treat her like an ugly man would. Her husband liked his laundry done; he didn’t make her dinner or buy her flowers. “I’m telling you, marry an ugly man.”
“Stop spending money on other people,” SugarNurse said. “Stop worrying about other people. That’s what you need to do to get well. Blanca has doctors who will help her, Blanca has all the help she needs, if she’s not feeling well she goes to Asia for vacation. Do you think Blanca thinks about you?”
I shook my head.
“Even your mother,” SugarNurse said. “If she were worried about you, she’d be with you now. Save your money, don’t spend it on Blanca. Put your pennies in your purse. Don’t send supplements to your sisters. They’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about their jobs and their husbands. Family isn’t everything. No one promised you a mother who loves you. God never promised that. Your sisters don’t love you and that’s fine.”
I squirmed. I couldn’t see her, to see if her face changed.
“You don’t need them,” SugarNurse said. “We don’t get everything we want in life. Don’t wallow. We have to make do with what we have.”
The stick moved higher.
“OW!” I said.
“It’s going well,” SugarNurse said. “I think I got him.”
“I felt one squirm,” SugarNurse said. “I’m high up now. I’m getting there.”
“Ow,” I said.
“Look at Donella,” SugarNurse said.
Something crashed in the IV Room then, as in IV stands or walkers falling sideways.
I felt SugarNurse turn to look at the clock.
“She’s gone home because it’s late and she’s tired, but Georg would like her to sing for him. But he doesn’t realize how much energy it takes. He only thinks about himself, that’s how most people are. Donella’s old and she has a tumor in her head, she has high blood pressure, her thyroid doesn’t work, she lives alone, she has help she pays, but no one supports her, she shouldn’t perform, she’s sick and seventy-some years old and no one ever helped her, do you think Georg would give her a dime if she was begging on the street and he didn’t know who she was? Do you think anyone in that room would?”
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Well, you see, sometimes the person begging in the street is Donella Starr but you don’t recognize her, because the person is in disguise, you follow? You follow the people in the Green Room home and you see if they give a dime, even a dime, to the person in the street. Donella knows they won’t, that’s why she told Georg ‘No.’ Donella looks out for herself. That’s what you need to do. Stop spending your money on chocolates, it’s a nice thought, but you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t have your degree, you’re just putting raw cow organs inside chocolate and hoping it’ll taste good, and it will to some people, and others it’ll make sick. You’re running away from the real thing. Take care of yourself.”
The stick moved high inside me.
“OW,” I said.
“Go home like Donella went home,” SugarNurse said. “Look out for number one. None of those people care about Donella. Donella won’t sing for those bitches. She’s smart.”
I heard a crash from the IV Room.
“OK,” I said.
“I almost got him,” SugarNurse said. “I felt him on my stick. I caught one.”
“Are you supposed to be catching them?” I said.
“No, but I’m good at it.”
“What will you do?” I asked.
“I have a book with pictures of all the parasites that can crawl up a rectum. I’ll compare him to the pictures, and we’ll find out what he is.”
“I know you don’t have the money,” she said.
“You and I,” she said. “Even if the lab doesn’t have the answer, we can solve the problem ourselves.”
“OK,” I said. “Are we almost done?”
“Let me ask a question,” SugarNurse said. “How many men have you let go up here?”
I froze. In my head I tried to count. I knew one wasn’t supposed to.
“Zero?” I said. “None?”
“Are you lying?”
“Don’t move,” SugarNurse said. “He almost got away.”
“Are we talking recently?” I said. “Last six months?”
“TOTAL,” SugarNurse said.
I heard a scream then. Distantly, I heard wailing, an accordion, like church. I thought maybe it was just the city—the city’s strange.
“I don’t know,” I said. Quickly, I applied a formula. The formula was devised by a Buddhist monk to protect women from judgment. You were supposed to use it when admitting to partners the number of people you’d slept with. Divide by ten then add six. This worked: some boyfriends I’d used it with had been displeased, but none had started sobbing, left the house, and gone on a binge. “Sixteen,” I said.
“NEVER,” SugarNurse said, “let a man put his thing up there. Nothing goes up there, NOTHING. That’s the worst damage you can do to yourself. The way God made you, he doesn’t want anything to go up there. Only things should come out!”
“This is what I mean when I say, protect yourself. From now on, if a man wants to put his thing up there, you say, ‘I don’t do that. NO.’ Then make like Donella Starr and WALK OUT.”
“No one will protect you in this world,” SugarNurse said. “You have to protect yourself. Once you protect yourself, you’ll feel better.”
I said, “Ow.”
“Stop worrying so much about other people, and if someone insults you, walk out.”
“Turn around. See what I caught.”
I pulled my pants up. I saw SugarNurse’s beloved face. Her hands cupped together over her white smock, hiding something.
But before her hands opened, the door to the room flew wide even though it was latched; the wind pushed it perhaps, because someone had thrown windows wide, and from the Green Room I heard a noise I can only describe as a cacophony.
Every voice of every monstrous excuse for a human in the Green Room was raised, singing—it was undeniable—“I am the walrus,” I heard Hopper say, “I am the egg man,” and Blanca’s voice, surprisingly deep, boomed “COO COO CaCHOO.” SugarNurse’s hand grabbed my arm. “Don’t go out there,” she said, and I forgot to ask what was in her hands; later when I did she said, “Nothing! It got away!” The two of us walked out together and by the time we reached the Green Room the music had changed, Dr. Scheinberg was seated in an IV recliner, his hands moving madly over an accordion, or perhaps an Asian harp, it was tall with shining wood and had strings, his eyes were shut and his hands flew over it, made sounds like a pipe organ, and in the room’s center Donella’s head tipped back and from her throat I heard a 16-year-old girl’s identity pour, a sea lion’s voice or a mermaid’s, and it chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare,” and Georg, who sat across from Donella on his knees, strumming his guitar, sang “Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare,” and Donella sang “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare,” and the whole room chanted Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, just as if they’d always known this Buddhist shit, and Georg sang Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare, and Hopper and the others seated in the darkening room sang Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, and it was beautiful, like church music but much better, and not. The sun had sunk below the East River, SubNurse lay across a recliner, she had dimples when her mouth went wide, she sang Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare, her hands waved in the air and all her fingers were chocolate-stained, I saw in the dark then that on the tray tables and recliners were scattered gold-foil truffle liners, the shirt boxes sat empty on the floor, not a seahorse or chessman was left and everyone’s mouth was tinged chocolate, and SugarNurse looked at me and shrugged, and Donella in the center of the room, her fatigue floating in the air above her head, sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul, a soul like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind so blind, but now I see,” and everyone including, I admit—though I hate Christianity, Christ, and Jesus—me, sang, because it was beyond meaning, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul, a soul like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind so blind, but now I see. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.