by John Tavares
Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.
After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.
The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.
“How much coffee have you been consuming?”
She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.
His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”
The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.
At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.
After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.
“I need to speak with my mother first.”
“I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”
She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”
“Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”
“Sudden cardiac death?”
He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”
After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.
By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.
Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.
Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.
“She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.
The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.
Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.
“What a waste.”
“The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.
Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.
Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.
“This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”
“I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”
“Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”
“That’s not true.”
“You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”
“You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”
“You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
“You’re just being bossy. You love power.”
“Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”
Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.
The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.
“Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”
Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.
Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.
“I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”
“You’re still in the right age group.”
“I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”
“Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”
“Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”
On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”
“And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”
“Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”
“They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”
“But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”
“Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”
“Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”
“And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”
“You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”
“She was the head nurse.”
“You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”
“I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”
“Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”
“Mom, I want out.”
“No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”
“I don’t care about school anymore.”
“You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”
Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.
After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.
She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.
As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?
“Do you want some speed?”
“I don’t do drugs.”
“Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”
“You don’t look like a narc.”
His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”
She glared at him.
“Do you want to mess around?”
“No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”
“I’m having my period.”
“Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”
He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”
A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.
The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.