I decide I have malaria. The trainee nurse, and a nurse take turns on the CDC website, pulling up maps of Zambia, African malaria zones, treatment, medication, prophylactics. My blood pressure is perfectly normal, and aside from a three day headache, deep fatigue with some insomnia, and many mosquito bites, I don’t set off serious alarm bells. My doctor walks in on the internet search, looks me up and down, rolls his eyes and walks out of the room shaking his head. I am the healthiest person in the Bronx, he says it every time. Still, the nurse ties up my right arm and begins to draw blood.
‘I’m sorry.’ She apologizes. ‘She’s rolling away from me.’ She is talking about my vein. She hasn’t collected any blood, but there is a vivid blood bubble that bursts out when she withdraws the needle. She plasters the bubble and binds up my left arm. My jacket is on my lap and I rub the suede rhythmically with my thumb to soothe myself. ‘Fist, open, fist, hold the fist.’ She taps the skin smartly, drawing the vein out. The pain of the penetration is severe this time. I will not look at it, but I know that ‘she’ has rolled again.
My voice is steady, ‘Is there somewhere else you can draw from?’ I’m proud of myself – I used to be hysterical around needles. In my freshman year at UNZA I went to a blood drive at the campus clinic. It was the first time in my life I would go to the hospital without my mom. I had decided that I had overcome my fear of needles that very day. And I had, but the nurse let out an astonished cry when she read my blood pressure, it was dangerously low or high. I looked calm on the outside but it seemed my terror of the needle was exposed by the meter. I became hysterical because the nurse frightened me. I didn’t give blood that day, the nurse put me into bed with a packet of biscuits they had reserved for blood donors. When I woke up, my face was swollen from crying, but my blood pressure was normal. She discharged me just in time for class.
This Bronx nurse is shaky now. She doesn’t believe in third time lucky. ‘I’m going to get someone else to do it. I’m not going to hurt you anymore.’ Good. ‘You need to drink some water, so long as you have a lot to drink you got good veins.’ I stand by the sink and wait for her to produce a cup. Foolish girl. I cup tap water with my palm and drink urgently. She reenters with an older nurse, one of the permanents who I know. The permanent binds my wrist and pierces my balled fist. There is no pain at all, even though I feel them fishing, trying to catch something. And they do, they have her. I look now, and there’s my blood, not at all red, but black. She withdraws the needle.
‘Collapsing….they’ve collapsed. I’m sorry. You’re going to have to come in another day.’ I offer them my left fist, but the permanent says with finality, ‘No. That’s enough.’ The young nurse is sorry. Good. I’m still calm as they plaster up the second and third punctures. I’ve seen this before, in the sexual assault emergency room. I didn’t think it could happen to me. My victim was a junkie. ‘He punched me so hard I wet my pants. And he still raped me!’ She was a pretty, little blond girl when she was asleep. But awake, she was haggard and mean, except with me. She didn’t mind me. It was my first experience with the police, they used me to subdue her. ‘I don’t have veins! Let me do it myself!’ She’d screamed at the nurse, and then the doctor who tried and failed to draw her blood from strange parts of her body. But I’m calm today despite my terror of needles, maybe because I am not suffering withdrawal symptoms, my socks are not wet with urine, and my jaw is not broken on both sides.
I’m calm as I cross Grand Concourse. I stop at a Chinese market and buy Paul Newman popcorn because I have suffered and I deserve it. I decide that I’m too sick to go back to school. I walk to the Bedford Park Boulevard bus stop and wait fifteen minutes for the 10. The kids from the local high schools are on their way home too. There’s a thirteen year old who looks sixteen, taller than his friends and already manly in the jaw and shoulders. He could be an Utrecht boy. He is quieter than them, and shy. Ofcourse he is shy, maybe even ashamed, because all of us, the grown women at the stop, maybe even the men, are staring at him. And here it comes, the 10. But it’s so full the driver lets only two kids in before slamming the door shut again and roaring off. The third kid, the big handsome one, barely manages to rescue his backpack from the slamming doors. He is left standing on the curb wordless, stunned that his friends didn’t try and make some space for him on the steps of the bus. They ride on without him – they don’t even turn their heads to feign a regretful ‘see you later’ face. I want to tell him that they are not his real friends, and it’s because he is too handsome that they secretly dislike him. It’s no good being that type of handsome at that age – he must feel like a freak.
I start to walk home. I was in Africa for 10 days, and that was all it took for the trees outside my window to turn from green to flame. It’s autumn, cold today, but the sun so brilliant, that whichever way I turn my head I feel it burning through my lids, blinding me partially. It’s beautiful, and I’m warm and missing the bus, walking home doesn’t feel half bad, and my malaria is subsiding.
I remember daddy’s malaria.
He says he was small, but far too big to be on his mother’s back. She was always old to me, ancient even when my parents were young. I never saw her carry a thing. But I can see her, a girl, much shorter and much younger than me, slight and pale carrying a boy as tall as her on her back. He remembers her back and purple trees. The jacaranda still line the long stretch of road leading to the University Teaching Hospital. I am shamelessly and rabidly loyal to my mother, she is the only obstacle to my unconditional love of my father. So, it follows, I never loved my grandmother, my mother’s eternal rival for my father’s unconditional love. But I am deeply in love with her in that moment, not as my grandmother, but as a mother carrying an unconscious boy, with purple leaves in his eyes, on her back.
I remember mommy’s malaria.
She lay down at the entrance of the house, on the marble floor because it was cold. Daddy was away on mission and the babies were asleep. I know I would have woken up and rescued her if I had been in Addis and not in Limuru. I was twelve, already in boarding school, getting ready for bed after prep, whispering in a room full of girls after lights out. It was the guard, Ato Yalew who saved her life. He was summoned to the open door of the dark house by Caesar and General barking, inexplicably, from inside the house. She spent over a week at the Russian hospital, they knew what to do with cerebral malaria. The babies were taken away by Madam Burundi until Mom and Dad were back home.
Mommy reminds me of her and daddy’s malaria stories each time I travel to Africa. She reminds me that I’ve been away so long I’m sure to have lost my immunity. She tells me a variation of the story about the Zambian lady who died in the US two months after a beautiful holiday in Africa. The doctors mistook her symptoms for the flu. ‘Malaria hits you long after the holiday is over, it’s the last thing on your mind.’
I’m on Bailey Avenue now, walking past the motel. Usually, I laugh as I walk by it, daring myself to walk in and inquire about the hourly rate, wondering if I’d be having sex in there if I was a teenager in the Bronx. I tried to do it in a car once, and the police caught us. My boyfriend was a hero, he locked me in his mother’s car while the police shook him up. Our passion for each other died right there, we never so much as held hands again. I google him from time to time, my sweetest my bestest first boyfriend, when I am looking for my youth. The little girls in the ER make me laugh sometimes with their motel stories. I admire this about them, that they can be funny too. ‘You know what’s worse Miss? I paid for the room, he had no money. And then the way I was treated – not even a prostitute gets treated the way I was treated last night!’ It’s on my to do list, alongside publishing my short stories, and running a 10k clean under an hour: dubious sex in a dubious motel. But I’m kind of subdued today, not just because of the malaria, but because I’m thinking of John, dead in a Bronx motel. In a bathtub? Did I make that part up, did the newspaper say it or have I seen it on TV, that you have to do it in a bathtub? I have promised myself that I will never read the newspaper reports again. I am still ashamed that I gobbled them up so fast after I heard the story. What can’t you find on google?
A young professor who I don’t know well stood in my office – I didn’t know what he wanted. I had seen him staring at me at my book launch in the art gallery smiling at my surprised face. It wasn’t exactly a fake smile, but it was not a happy smile either. I didn’t know what he wanted there either. I don’t know his name, I don’t know what he is: white, straight, gay, black, mixed, Jewish, British, American – race&sex indeterminate I call this type of person.
I stood up from my desk and we tried to start a conversation. And then he interrupted us and asked if I had heard about John. Honestly, I hadn’t. And then he told me about John. When I had exhausted the ‘whats!’ ‘whys!’ and ‘I don’t understands!’ he said ‘I wanted to tell you because I saw you together. I know you were friends.’ I don’t know him well enough to know if there was some innuendo in the statement or if he was probing. My student appeared in the doorway, behind the young professor. ‘We can have lunch’ he tells me as he excuses himself, ‘I’ll tell you everything else then.’
I think of this statement spoken so blandly ‘I know you were friends.’ It’s true I was John’s friend, but I was a bad friend. I saved myself and not him, I never gave him a thing. That’s just not true. I made him happy once: We’re watching baseball at Yankee Stadium. He is underdressed in the cold, he wanted to look nice, and he does look nice. I’m wrapped up tight in my Dutch winter clothes, and eventually I insist that we leave before the end of the game and catch the 4 train home.
I know he is very cold, even on the train platform. I start to skip fast like a boxer. ‘My friend Roman from the Ukraine was stuck at a train station in Poland in the winter, it was so cold, they couldn’t sit or lie down without getting frostbite.’ I’m jumping rope, really high now, panting and laughing. ‘Roman taught me something. Him and his friends ran and ran, all night long, up and down the platform, until the morning train came. You know how you keep warm John?’ He’s smiling now. ‘ You run!’ I’m ridiculous, he didn’t know I could be ridiculous, or maybe the Polish story is ridiculous, but he starts to laugh, with all his amazing and crooked teeth showing, the first and last time I really made him laugh and laugh with me.