Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Underbelly

Revolving doors are not for people. They are for animals. Cows, dogs, cats, lab rats, monkeys... We can find ways to justify the need for cheap mechanisms that allow these in and out of spaces. But why would big buildings housing mostly intelligent humans need them? Rarely does a person feel like jumping in at the exact same time someone else is using it to gain access. Are we merely goldfish moving from one bank to the other, convinced that we are free only because there are many spaces to move into and out of? Likely, we are simply moving between wagons of the train that is rapidly taking us to mother death's embrace. It doesn't matter if you are at the front or the back, the doors open at the same time for all.

A splitting hangover prevents me from thinking straight. Can you spare some compassion? Or is that reserved for your fellow teetotaler, who does not deserve to suffer from a headache; the same way you refrain from giving change to the homeless by telling yourself they deserve to live like they do if they refuse to abide by the norms of our capitalistic society? Perhaps I can jump in the revolving door of your compassion, reaching for a minute the attention you devoted Invisible Children for at least a few weeks on the crimes committed by Joseph Kony thanks to their Kony 2012 campaign. While you take a quick trip down memory lane and ask yourself what you were doing at the time, maybe together we can find a good use for "revolving doors", at least as a mildly effective analogy to describe the ephemerality of our interest for anything that does not directly affect us. Why let someone else's problems disrupt our party?


Johnny started calling me his "whinny little cunt" the very day I got sick. What does he know about the female body anyway? He gets the flu and immediately calls in sick. He says I'm whinny? Men have no capacity for empathy, nor sense of proportion. Hell, they have no common sense either. If only he had a real job, not just an "entrepreneurial adventure" with his stupid startup, and could add me to his health care insurance plan, I could afford to see a doctor. For now, all I can do is eat light and drink plenty of water - every day, all day long. Not the way I wanted to spend my forced "downsizing" vacation, but at least I don't have to go through this while at the office.


Unemployed for a few weeks now, every day feels the same. I can no longer tell Tuesday from Sunday. Today, I didn't even bother to get out of bed. The stomach cramps are killing me. What is this? What is happening to me? It's been too many days to blame PMS. I'm so sick, joints hurt when I try to close my hands in a fist. I might just be getting old. At 27, that sounds a bit premature though. Johnny is finally getting worried now. He spoke to his friend, Camila, who agreed to lend me her insurance card so I can go see a doctor pretending to be her. I am responsible for the copay though. Things are so tight that even this relatively small payment made me hesitate for a moment. Still, I borrowed some money from my savings box and got out of the house in search for medical attention.

Nobody from the three local clinics I visited today agreed to see me without proof of ID matching the card...


Today was my lucky day. Dr. Strauss from the community clinic agreed to see me for a small fee. He took a few notes and asked for some analysis.

“Bring a stool sample to the lab, get the results to me and we will go from there. Seems like a bad stomach infection, but something is strange because it shouldn't have lasted this long” - he said. I wanted to take the little note with instructions he handed to me, but couldn't hold it tight enough. It slipped to the floor. I bent over to pick it up, but my fingers felt stiff. A bit embarrassed, I made an effort to ignore the pain and finally picked it up. I may have a bigger problem than I thought at first, but Dr. Strauss wouldn't venture any assumptions without seeing the results from the lab. At this point, I'm starting to seriously worry.


I woke up with the worst case of morning breath I can remember. Morning may not be the right word in this case. It is 2:00 pm already. Maybe I just need a cup of strong coffee to make this taste go away. But what do I do about the rest of the symptoms? The pain in my bones is just unbearable. And my hands look like those of an old lady with arthritis. Maybe some fresh air will make me feel better?

I went outside to walk a bit and buy some groceries while I'm at it, and bumped onto my neighbor. “So, are you going to say hello this time?” – he uttered. – “Why wouldn’t I?". “Well… last night was the second time this week I come home at night and see you by the sidewalk. You just walked past me both times without even looking. And what’s with the pajamas? I see people walk their dog in the morning while still wearing their pajama, but I never pictured you as one of those fashion anarchists!”

“Sorry, I must have been distracted” – I stated, a futile attempt to hide my shock. He rolled his eyes as if thinking I am going crazy and went up the elevator. “Are you coming up?” – he asked. “No, I was actually just going out for a walk” – I dryly replied.

For the last few days, the pain has been such that I haven’t even waited for Johnny to get home before going to sleep. That is the only way to make it stop, if for a while. I just take some nearly expired painkillers and dive into oblivion. Could it be that I am sleepwalking? I have never suffered of something like this. Why now? And why me?


The results are back from the lab. Dr. Strauss says there is nothing wrong with me. He even had the nerve to recommend I go see a psychologist. Basically, I have got nothing and are just going nuts.

Johnny is pretty worried now. He took a break from his busy life to actually care for me. He got me some medical insurance online and we went to see a real doctor with my test results. Again, nothing seems to be wrong with me. More doctors to see tomorrow. Now, time to swallow some painkillers and go to sleep. Sleeping is the only thing that makes me happy these days.


The pain has greatly subsided. I feel a bit more like myself today. However, typing on my computer is now very difficult. I can only do it if I go very slowly. My hands are bent inwards, stiff from the wrist. Fingers all crammed together, coming on top of each other. Feels like the tendons hardened in that position. I can't even hold a spoon anymore. Johnny fed me this morning. It was embarrassing. This may be my last diary note until I find a care.

Or die! Ok, I'm joking. I don't want to die yet. And no, I'm definitely not planning to ask Johnny to type my diary notes for me...


It has been a very dramatic few weeks. I couldn't bring myself to write again until now. More than once, I stared at the blank page, not knowing how to even start. It is hard to find the words to describe the latest events in our life. Still, I will give it a try.

The disease kept slowly taking over. My hands started to look like those of an 85 year old woman. And they were just as useless.

We saw many doctors, which forced Johnny and I to start asking friends and family for borrowed money. His mother was particularly generous, but everybody chipped in. We tried everything we could, even alternative medicine. In the end, we decided to use some of the borrowed money to go on vacation and see if the warmth of a beach in Mexico would help. The cheapest place we found, where we could stretch our money the most, was in the Mexican state of Veracruz. We had been told the beach wasn't too pretty, but it would serve our needs for a relaxing environment.

On the fourth day there, the old lady that owned and operated the hostel told us about Catemaco. At first, we thought she was recommending a touristic destination to us. She had in fact noticed my health condition and immediately thought it was a spell. "A spell?" - I responded. Johnny couldn't believe it either. "Yes, sometimes people put spells on you to cause harm. There is much envy and jealousy in the world. You would be surprised how many people come here to meet with a Brujo and ask for a spell to be conjured unto others, or to remove one that has been placed upon them". I said I was just sick, and that it was probably just something temporary. I just needed some rest. We thanked her politely and went out to explore. I had no trouble walking. Sightseeing made me forget about my hook-like hands.

Johnny slept like a baby that night. Who wouldn't, after several bottles of local dark beer? I, on the other hand, tossed and turned all night. I couldn't get the face of the old lady out of my mind. What if she was right? I could take all the medicine money can buy, and would never get healed.

I made up my mind before the sun rose. Johnny couldn't believe what he was hearing when I told him I wanted to give this a try. "It is nothing but local superstition!" - he yelled. "Well, nothing has worked so far. I am not willing to let a stone unturned in looking for a cure. Besides, I hear it is a beautiful place to visit so it will be a nice little trip if nothing else comes of it". We got dressed, went downstairs and talked to the old lady about our plans. She smiled in a quirky manner, some combination of relief and sincere joy. I smiled back. "Don't just meet with any of the Brujos. Most of them are charlatans, and are in it only for your money. Talk to Don Graciano. He won't even accept your money. He was pretty evil in his youth, and now helps people only to bring balance back into his life. Call it a penance". I asked her how to find him. "Just go to the local market and talk to Teresita, the lady selling cigars towards the back, next to a fruit stand covered with flies".

She clearly knew the place like the back of her hand. Teresita was aware we were coming, and directed us towards Don Graciano's house. After walking a few blocks, we inexplicably realized we were there. He was watering the plants outside when we arrived. I thought it was strange he was doing so, for it had rained every day since we arrived. Without looking at me, he said - "Plants get everything they need from father god. I'm only here to address their gluttony. How are you, kids?" Johnny and I looked at each other without know how to answer. I raised my hands and showed them to him. He opened his eyes wide to examine carefully, in the way that reminded me of the many doctors I had seen so recently.

"Come inside so we can talk" - he demanded. His English had an expected heavy accent and limited vocabulary, but definitely enough for us to understand him. We followed him to a room in the backyard, full of candles and a typical witchcraft symbol on the floor.

We started talking. A strange force made me feel a bit dizzy and comfortable at the same time. The conversation took through unexpected topics: life, family, friends, school, politics, even sports. It felt like a long conversation with a distant yet beloved uncle. Finally, we got to the intention of our visit. He looked at my hands once again, this time with an expression of concern.

"Sylvia, I will be very honest with you. I make my living as a janitor in the local school. Witchcraft is something I do for other reasons. I don't make false promises just to get paid. It would defy my purposes. In nine out of 10 cases I see, my conclusion is that there is nothing I can do, because the affliction is not the result of a spell. Many people leave my house disappointed. But you may not. This is a strong yet relatively common spell. It is a cheap one too, performed by an apprentice. That means two things: First, it requires strict discipline to get out of. And second, whoever originated it will get it back".

"I don't want to harm anybody" - I said. "Isn't there a way to cure me without affecting someone?"

"It doesn't work that way. In a way, spells must obey the laws of the universe. For every action, there is a reaction. It is the only way". - replied Don Graciano.

Johnny was furious. "Who could have done something like this? You wouldn't hurt a fly!". I hugged him and he kissed me on my forehead. "Let's do it Don Graciano. Whoever did this deserves what is coming to him" - he told our brujo without hesitation.

The ceremony started. There was chanting in strange tongues, skulls, cards... It was so stereotypical at one point I wanted to leave. Johnny kept hugging me, more convinced than I that this would work.

A few hours later, we were on the ferry back to our room. It was near sunset, and the wind had gotten chilly. Johnny hadn't stopped hugging me since we left Don Graciano's house. I could see true hope in his eyes.

For the next few days, we stuck strictly to the prayers and rituals Don Graciano had prescribed. By day five, the pain was almost gone. On the tenth day, I could move my fingers even if my wrist remained very stiff. Two weeks after taking the ferry from Catemaco I was almost back to normal. The horrible taste in my mouth, apparently caused by what Don Graciano called "involuntary sleepwalking to drink sewer water", part of the spell I was under, disappeared completely. I am the happiest person in the world. It now feels like a horrible nightmare I have waken up from.

Don Graciano's only request is that we look for ways to "pay it forward" by being kind to others. He said "just try to help others the same way I have had the fortune of being able to help you". This is my new mantra. I even got a pendant that carries the inscription so I never forget. This event changed my life for the better. Johnny and I have never been happier together.


I write this note from the plane back from visiting Johnny's mother. I found a new job, and his start up was bought by a venture capital firm. We paid our friends and family the money they lent us. The last person we hadn't yet paid was Johnny's mother. Despite her protests, Johnny insisted in delivering the money himself and pay her a visit. I tagged along.

We arrived on a Friday afternoon. His mother was sweeping the front porch as the rental car we got pulled in front of the house. She looked at us with eyes of infinite sadness, in a way that made the hair on my arms spike. Then, my heart sank. She was having trouble holding on to the broom because of her horribly deformed hands.