Fiction / Myriam Gurba
:: Cumbia ::
They met at a grim threesome.
She, a niece, as well as a writer, sat sidesaddle on the deathbed.
A heather gray tunic draped her. Cut from t‑shirt material, it dangled from spaghetti straps. Beneath it, a scoop-necked, cobalt top molded itself to her. Her ex-boyfriend, a drama teacher from whom she’d escaped several months prior, had enjoyed shit talking the Oxfords that completed her outfit.
“They look like undertaker shoes,” he’d complain.
He’d been wrong. They were lesbian shoes, and he hadn’t understood this because he wasn’t a lesbian, he was a man, one which her clever lesbian friends found distasteful in his ordinariness.
She stared at her uncle’s face. The institutional light fixture mounted above his headboard cast a glow about his shaved head. This didn’t look angelic. Fluorescence can’t.
Her uncle’s nostrils twitched and pain yanked his head up and off his pillow. His neck tensed, tendons/tendons/tendons, and agony twisted his features and kept twisting them, contorting his cheeks, nose, brow, and mouth in ways the writer had never seen done to human skin. She’d only seen dishrags twisted like this when her mother had wrung them out on hopeless school nights. She’d felt sorry for the dishrags.
Her uncle’s tongue scraped his remaining teeth, nubs resembling piloncillo, and the tongue froze like a flag in midair. What else does that? Is out and wet and pink and crisp? A dog’s penis. The writer thought of one, a pit bull’s she’d watched unsheathe itself as he squatted at a woman’s feet.
She’d been brunching on an omelet.
Eyeballs bugged. Nostrils flared. Eyes squeezed shut as her uncle shook his head, grimaced, and exhaled hard enough to hurt himself.
He looked Holocausty.
And so the niece had arranged for help.
“Breathe,” she whispered.
“…shutup…” he moaned. Another paroxysm was on its way.
Obeying, she waited. She wanted.
She wanted her uncle to have what her grandmother hadn’t, a dignified death, the best death his veteran’s benefits could afford, and she knew that a final curtain like that would require opiates.
HE WILL FUCKING HAVE MORPHINE TONIGHT, the writer texted her little sister, a Jew, and nurse, working in New York City, OR ONE OF THESE FUCKS IS GONNA PAY.
The sister replied, THEY STILL HAVEN’T GIVEN HIM MORPHINE??????
Three knife emojis followed the question.
In return, the sister texted triple the knife emojis.
EXACTLY, the writer replied. She sighed. She was ready to ruin someone’s evening or life for her uncle’s comfort. She was ready to make someone scared, to make someone suffer. She wanted to inflict whatever pain necessary—physical, emotional, or psychic—and then she would scream at the administrator or staff member or whoever else needed to be screamed at.
She would demand, “How do you like it? Oh, you don’t like it? You want relief?
“ WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY.”
Her uncle’s chest heaved.
She understood what she was watching.
Each family has a dying style: she knew what her family’s looked, smelled, and sounded like, and her uncle’s breathing was increasingly approximating her abuelita’s the night before she woke up dead. Memories of her abuelita’s death rattle evoked gothic images in the writer’s mind. One of them: a Mexican hag with a black lace veil plopped over her silver hair. Catholic lingerie …
In a Tagalog accent, someone, probably a nursing assistant, chirped, “Hello, doctor!”
“I’m not a doctor!” a man barked back.
Footsteps approached the privacy curtain. It swished. The writer turned to look.
At the foot of the bed stood a svelte bear of a man in a white coat. The blue of his eyes was remarkable. They were the blue of pop music and études. This made the writer angry. Why had someone with libidinal appeal been sent to the deathbed? It was vulgar.
The writer thought about firing the bearded man.
Her bisexual gaze locked with his.
“Hello,” he told her. “I am the hospice nurse.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
I rarely write about love.
When I do, I’m often writing about my uncle Henry. If not writing directly about him, then I’m writing indirectly about him.
I wrote this piece as what I thought was a deathbed account. My uncle was dying, though he didn’t die, and this story is a continuation of the sickbed portraiture that I was making of him. I constantly document my uncle and am inspired to create artifacts related to his many illnesses. The first instance that I saw of such work was Hannah Wilke’s Intra-Venus series. She created the photographic series with her husband, Donald Goddard, while she was dying of cancer.
The photographs are equal parts beauty and grotesque, repellent and magnetic, vulnerable and rock hard. This tends to be a common quality in sickbed and deathbed portraiture.
Another work that I had in mind was a painting that I saw as a child. The painting represented hell and featured a soul burning there. The soul, surrounded by flames, appeared on a tall, metal alms box in a Mexican chapel. The image didn’t inspire me to give alms, but it inspired me to want to meet people in hell.
Myriam Gurba is a high school teacher, writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers.