White Elephant in the Room: Page One, Chapter One
The morning of March 15th, 2009, does not begin with buzzing alarms or espresso or reading the New York Times in bed with my husband of three years. It begins with the sound of retching.
Honey? I murmur, eyes half-closed. Everything okay?
My husband’s laugh echoes from our bathroom, and my eyes blink open to pale morning light.
Can I…get you anything?
Alberto answers with more heaving sounds.
Getting you Zantac, I say, climbing out of bed.
The kitchen clock reads 5:23am and our counters are littered with empty antacid packets. There’s nothing rare about seeing Alka-Seltzer—it’s the Cuban version of chamomile tea—but in the four years since I’ve known Alberto, he’s never thrown up.
Armed with Zantac and ice water, I knock on the bathroom door and hear the toilet flush. Alberto emerges, naked and sweating.
I threw up, he explains, his voice more four-year-old than forty-year-old.
It’s okay, baby, I say, leading him to the sofa. You’re kinda warm…should I open a window?
Yes, please, he nods, swallowing the Zantac. Sit with me?
I crack a living-room window and curl into him. We talk about what he ate for dinner—gyro meat from our favorite Greek place—and whether he’s been evacuating from both ends.
No, he answers, with a shiver.
Maybe it’s that weird flu that’s going around? I suggest, wrapping a blanket around him. Alberto continues to sweat and shiver, despite the open window and blanket.
Should we go to the clinic on 23rd and Seventh? I ask. It’s always open.
Alberto had his annual physical less than forty-eight hours ago, so spending our Sunday at a walk-in clinic is the last thing either of us wants to do.
We can get dressed and go, I offer, half-heartedly.
Neither of us moves a muscle.
Thirty-six hours from now, I will replay this exchange and hate myself for not getting up from the sofa and insisting we go to the clinic. In the years ahead, this moment will stand out as the singular frame in which today’s outcome might have been altered.
But at daybreak on March 15th, 2009, I do not realize that my husband does not have the flu.
* * *
By his own admission, Alberto did not ‘do sick’ gracefully.
A common cold would send him over the edge—I’m dying! The suffering! The agony!—and send me to KFC for his favorite “sick food” or the market for Nyquil, VapoRub and Kleenex with aloe. If he got sick in foreign countries, hospital trips or house calls from doctors were involved. Once, in the high drama of a sinus infection, he’d said You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone, Tré! Then he called his sister, Barby, to complain that his wife was mean because she makes me take antibiotics and they give me acidez.
When he had inner-ear surgery the first year we were married, his mother, Hilda, flew to New York: Partly to be here for Albert, she explained to everyone, but mostly because Tré doesn’t know what she’s in for.
Three days after he was released from the Ear, Nose & Throat Infirmary, Hilda flew back to Miami, apparently assured that her son’s recovery wouldn’t result in his subsequent divorce. But on the fourth day, I was concerned about his lack of sleep—Lunesta didn’t help, painkillers didn’t help, a glass of wine with either of them didn’t help—so I called his surgeon and drove us to the Infirmary on Second Avenue.
The doctor unwrapped the bandage, took one look at his ear and put him on the table. When interns started using words like aerate and 16-gauge needle, I stepped in.
Excuse me, I whispered. My husband hates hospitals and needles, but he’s watched enough “Grey’s Anatomy” to understand what’s happening right now. So I really need you guys to have this discussion out of his newly restored earshot.
They shot me a collective look of annoyance, but moved to the other side of the room.
As the needle was prepared, I took his hand, told him to look at me and nothing else. It entered his inner ear drum and his pupils dilated. While they drained the fluid causing his discomfort, Alberto squeezed my hand purple.
Hey, you’re doing great, I said, maintaining a calm face. Tell me what you want from KFC after this.
He was too spooked to reply.
It’s almost over, I promised him. And you’ll be able to sleep tonight.
He blinked at me before whispering his order: three breasts, original recipe. With gravy. And a biscuit.
Done and done, I said.
It’s almost over and you’ll be able to sleep tonight.
* * *
Instead of making an early-morning trip to the clinic, we remain on our sofa discussing the flu: who’s had it and for how long.
Still sweaty, Alberto stands up and stretches before heading to the bedroom. I follow and sit beside him on the edge of the bed.
Stomach still hurt?
Maybe you could try to get the rest of the food out of you? It might help you rest?
He sighs, squeezes my shoulder, and walks toward the bathroom.
Hey, I call. If your head wasn’t shaved, I’d offer to hold your hair back.
He laughs weakly before the retching sounds begin again. I wince and do the only thing I can think to do: pray for sleep for him.
I drift off mid-prayer, but awaken to a rhythmic flapping sound. Alberto is sleeping vertically across our bed and his right arm seems under the control of a mad puppeteer: it rises jerkily into the air and smacks down on the duvet. I get up and peer over him, unsure if I should wake him from what seems like a nightmare. I shift my weight and observe him until eventually, the arm-thrashing stops. His toes are touching the floor, which looks uncomfortable, but if I move him, he might wake up.
Too risky, I decide.
I shut off the bathroom light, glance at the clock—6:42am—and arrange myself in a ball at the end of our bed.
It will be two hours before I open my eyes again, and by then, all that seems promised and predictable right now will have slipped through the open window in our living room.
* * *
A year and a half after this Sunday morning, I will be in Southern California, where I grew up, accompanying my fifty-nine-year-old mother to a cardiologist. That afternoon, I will learn more about the human heart than I ever wanted to know.
Through illustrations and rubber-heart replicas, her doctor will explain that a nerve bundle in the left chamber of Mom’s heart isn’t functional. And that the bundle in the right chamber compensates by rerouting the electrical impulses. The electricity does a longer lap than it should, he says, but in a word: she’ll be fine. And just to be sure, he’s putting her on a heart monitor for the next month.
I will stare at images of my Mom’s heart while the doctor comments on how resilient and creative and determined the human heart is.
I will stifle the questions forming in my throat: Is the heart so ‘resilient’ that it would hide a massive blockage from an EKG less than forty-eight hours before cardiac arrest?
Are the hearts of my eighty-eight-year-old grandparents—who each survived recent heart attacks—so much more ‘creative’ than the one belonging to my husband, chief creative officer of his own ad agency?
Is the heart’s ‘determination’ to beat contingent upon a wife immediately taking her husband to a clinic at the first sign of vomit?
I will say nothing.
The window in which to ask these questions has already closed.
* * *
It’s after 8am when I wake beside Alberto, who isn’t snoring.
I reach for him but upon contact with his skin, my eyes jerk open.
What the—why is he so cold?
My eyes race to his face and what I see sends an alarm roaring through my gut.
He is a terrifying shade of yellow.
His mouth is frozen in a gasp.
His lips are lavender.
No, no, no.
The phone, where’s the phone?
911. This is Harmony: what’s your emergency?
I just woke up and found my husband not breathing! He’s—yellow!
What is your name and does your husband have a pulse?
I’m Tré—and I don’t know if there’s a pulse!
Put your ear to his chest, she instructs.
I put my ear to his ice-cold chest but can’t hear anything over the roar in my ears.
Is there a heartbeat, she asks.
I don’t know, I yell. I can’t tell if it’s his or mine?
Let’s stay calm, Tré. Is your husband lying on a flat surface?
The bed. He’s on the bed!
I need you to move him to the floor so you can perform CPR.
Episodes of “Law & Order” flash through my head: I don’t know much, but I do know if there’s one thing you never do, it’s move the body.
(The Body. Is. Alberto.)
Not possible, I argue. He’s twice my weight. I can’t move him.
You can do CPR without moving him, she says. But first, you need to open the front door so the paramedics can access your apartment.
I start toward the foyer before realizing I’m half-naked. Even as I’m pulling an Ella Moss top over my head, I know it’s too low-cut for a crisis. But there’s no time to deliberate: doors have to be opened and CPR must be performed.
When I unlock the front door, the weight of last night’s dry-cleaning delivery prevents it from staying open.
Have you opened it? Harmony asks.
Not yet, I shout. Gotta move all this stuff hanging on the door—gimme a second.
I start shoving plastic-wrapped clothing into the foyer closet and see Alberto’s shirts, his ties.
I must perform CPR!
I grab the phone, rush back to the bedroom, and in my panic, forget to open the front door.
As I stand over Alberto, I become conscious of the sirens approaching.
I hear sirens, I tell Harmony. Thank God.
I hear them too, Tré. But right now, we need to do CPR.
Yes, I say, snapping out of it. Tell me how to do this.
Interlace your fingers and place them in the middle of his chest.
I try to ignore the temperature of his skin and the visible veins creeping down his forehead.
Just pump vigorously, she urges.
I start pumping. His head is jumping off the pillow. His eyes are not opening.
What’s supposed to happen here? I shout. How do I know I’m doing this right? Will he—
Harmony interrupts to ask if the front door is open?
Oh my God, I say, and race to the door.
Two young NYPDs in uniform are standing in the hall. I hang up with Harmony and start answering their questions—any drugs last night? any alcohol?—as I lead them to Alberto. They’re visually sweeping our apartment, but I don’t care. There’s nothing to hide.
No, I say, just Greek food and movies about Cuba.
When we reach Alberto, I realize he’s still naked so I cover his lower body with a chenille blanket. Just as I step away, the paramedics and firemen charge inside.
I retreat to the kitchen to call my parents in California, but like a scene out of a horror movie, the call keeps failing. On the third try, it connects and my mother picks up.
I hear my voice explain that Alberto wasn’t breathing when I woke up this morning and that he’s still not breathing, but the paramedics are here and they’re working on him.
While answering her questions, I think I hear him cough—wait, Mom! hang on!—and lunge out of the kitchen into the chaos. Alberto is on the living-room floor, surrounded by medics and monitors. I want to rush to his side and keep him calm until I realize he wasn’t coughing: it’s just the sounds of the air bag they’re pumping into his mouth.
Is he breathing yet? Is he breathing? she yells across 3,000 miles.
No, I whisper. It was only—oh, God. Is this really happening?
I’m waking your Dad right now, she says, firmly.
Please tell him what I told you. I gotta see what’s going on out there.
I take a few halting steps toward what used to be our living room. It’s as if the firemen lifted a corner of our apartment and everything—sofa, coffee tables, area rugs, artwork—tumbled to one side. A medic blocks my view of Alberto and explains that the reason they haven’t taken him to the hospital yet is because we have the same equipment here as the ER does. He asks about Alberto’s age, medical history and whether he takes any prescription drugs?
He’s forty, I answer. He’s been on Lipitor, and he had a full physical on Friday. I was there: They gave him an EKG and a clean bill of health.
Someone else asks for his driver’s license, which I produce from his orange wallet.
I return to the kitchen in a daze and call Alberto’s mother. His stepfather answers, and when he hears my tone, he asks if everything is okay?
Nothing is okay, I say. Please get Hilda.
He mumbles something in Spanish before handing her the phone.
Nené, what’s wrong?
Mamacita. I don’t know how to say this, but please sit down, because I’m about to tell you that Albert wasn’t breathing when I woke up this morning. I called 911 and did CPR but—the paramedics are still working on him.
Is he breathing yet, she gasps.
No, Mumu, not yet. Please pray.
I’m getting a flight right now, she tells me.
Yes, I say, forcing back tears. Please—get here.
I love you, Tré.
Love you, Hilda.
Alberto’s sister in Jersey doesn’t pick up her cell or home phone. Ditto for her husband’s cell. I hang up without leaving Barby a message because who leaves this sort of news on voicemail?
My next call is to Fico, Alberto’s best friend and business partner of ten years. I repeat facts.
I’ll be right there, he says.
A year from now, Fico will confess that he was so stunned by my call that he told his wife and three young daughters that Uncle Alberto had an allergy attack. To this day, the word allergy still throws his kids into hysterics.
At 9:03am, the worst-case scenario becomes official.
Someone in the living room calls it.
Alberto is pronounced.
Massive coronary event.
As the medics start clearing out their equipment, I start looking for a chair, the floor, anything for equilibrium.
This can’t be happening.
Someone asks me for his social.
I hear myself recite it.
Paperwork is produced.
My mouth feels paralyzed but my fingers manage a signature.
Do you want us to cover him, they ask.
I look at Alberto, the chenille blanket still draped over his lower body, and kneel down beside him.
His mouth is open, skin tone nearly normal after receiving the oxygen. He just looks asleep. And pale.
Don’t cover him, I whisper, before returning to the kitchen.
The madcap arrangement of our furniture means Fico has to nearly step over Alberto en route to the kitchen. His brown eyes are wide with horror when he lifts me into a hug.
This doesn’t seem possible, he says. Or real.
I keep hoping it isn’t, I say, turning from the living room and toward the window.
We’re still holed up in the kitchen, avoiding the abandoned triage scene, when Fico’s wife appears. Nikki is visibly shaken—her dad died of a heart attack in front of her—but she shifts into event-planning mode, her profession for the past decade.
Tré. Have you called your PR firm yet?
Give me your boss’ number and I’ll handle it.
I nod and press buttons on my phone.
I stare at my digital calendar and announce in a flat voice that I was supposed to do Pilates with my friend Mariana this morning and I had a hair appointment this afternoon. There’s a dentist appointment tomorrow and drinks with a client on Tuesday. We divide up who’s-calling-who to clear my previously scheduled life.
While leaving a voicemail for Mariana, I’m repulsed by my need to pee. My stupid bladder thinks this is just another Sunday morning? I make my way past the cops on our off-kilter sofa, their radios breaking the silence. Alberto’s arms are outstretched on the floor and I notice the wedding ring on his left hand. I kneel down to remove it, but it’s stuck.
He’s already started bloating?
I scramble to the bathroom, pump some liquid soap into my hand and use it to gently remove the ring.
When I stand up, Nikki and Fico are staring back at me from the kitchen.
What, I nearly say. Everyone knows you don’t get the jewelry back.
I’m suddenly unsure if this is a thing everyone knows, so I just shrug and take the ring to the bathroom. From there, I make more calls, including one to Ramses, Alberto’s childhood best friend, and his wife, Jeanette.
But I just talked to him on Thursday, she sobs.
A cop interrupts—the detective and M.E. have some questions—so I follow him to the elevator landing, where I repeat facts to men with notepads.
Will you authorize an autopsy?
I want to say no. No because autopsies are disfiguring and no because Alberto should look like himself at the viewing. But scenes from his favorite crime shows flicker on my freshly widowed brain and I find myself answering like a wife-who-did-not-kill-her-husband should.
Do what you need to do, I say.
The medical examiner grills me about Alberto’s health and, when I mention that I’m not sure he’d been taking his Lipitor lately, pauses for a moment.
Non-compliant, he announces, scribbling it on his notepad.
Not the word I would use, I say, stiffly.
The coroner is on his way, he shrugs, and hands me his card.
Thanks, douchebag, I say, under my breath.
Back in the kitchen, Fico recommends we all take a walk. I remember a recent conversation with Hilda about her mother’s death barely a month ago: she wished she wasn’t there when the coroner arrived because the image of the gurney and the body bag still haunts her.
I say yes to the walk.
The cops take Fico’s cell number and shut the door behind us.
Downstairs, Nikki and Fico link arms with me. I’ve known them as long as I’ve known Alberto and their presence today is taking the edge off my panic. Maybe it’s because they’re older and six inches taller, but as they steady me down 23rd Street, I feel like their little sister. When I freeze suddenly in the middle of a crosswalk to pull out my phone, they practically lift me to the safety of the curb.
Wait—I can’t remember if I’ve told my parents that he’s been pronounced?
You called them, Fico nods.
So the blackouts have started already?
The three of us keep walking until we reach the benches on the pier at 27th Street. We stare at the ashy Hudson River, holding hands and Kleenex, until Fico steps away to take a call.
I’ll meet up with you guys in a little while, he says before disappearing.
Nikki and I settle into stillness until I remember that my current Facebook/Twitter update is twenty-four hours old and involves something trivial about an iPod charger.
The digital world still thinks I have a dead…iPod?
The idea of those words representing my present tense strikes me as every kind of wrong, so I pull out my phone and robotically address a text to Twitter. My mind is blank but for the phrase no no no and this can’t be happening. I combine them without proper caps or punctuation and press the send button.
When Fico reunites with us, I slowly realize that since Fico is here, it must mean Alberto is no longer there.
They’ve taken him.
I didn’t kiss him good-bye, I say aloud. Oh God, why didn’t I think to kiss him good-bye? I sink into the park bench, trying to console myself. But I can kiss him good-bye at the viewing, right?
Yes, absolutely, Fico assures me. Is that your phone ringing?
Facebook has begun responding to my update: What’s wrong? and Are you okay? and What’s going on, Tré? I call these three friends and give them the news. Then I ask them to please call everyone who should know, so I don’t have to.
I lie on my back and close my eyes against the reality of just how many people need to be called.
Barby and Anthony are on their way from Jersey, Fico interrupts softly.
You talked to them? I couldn’t reach—
Yes, he nods.
So we should head back, I say.
Fico, will you track down Alberto’s ex-wife and give her the news?
Are you sure? Nikki asks.
I’m sure that if I were his ex-wife, I’d want the chance to pay my respects. Whether or not she does, well, that’s her business.
I’ll find her, Fico says.
Our living room is no longer haunted by cops or chenille blankets, but we still rush toward the shelter of the kitchen.
I’ll look into places—funeral homes—for you to visit tomorrow, Nikki says, gently.
My eyes swing toward the empty space on the floor where Alberto was lying.
My God, I say. He’s gonna make me…I’m gonna have to cremate him.
Fico reaches toward me, eyes earnest.
You know that’s what he wanted, right?
Please, I sigh. He claimed there was a clause in his will that said if I didn’t do it, I get nothing. Seriously, who says—who thinks about—that shit when they’re in their thirties?
Fucking Alberto, we all say in unison.
An unbearable silence follows so I fill it with my announcement to shower before Barby and Anthony arrive. In the shower, I encounter Alberto’s half-full Redken shampoo—which I special-order even though he shaves his head—and it brings a sound out of me not unlike the wounded dogs I used to rescue in California.
I shut my eyes against the sight of his shampoo but lose my balance. Elbows and ankles knock against porcelain and I come down hard on my knee. The fall shocks me but it doesn’t compare to what’s rising in my throat and chest. At the bottom of the tub, clutching my wounded limb, I let loose the stream of snot and tears that’s been building since I woke up. I cry until I feel nothing: neither the need to continue nor the urge to stop.
When I emerge from the bathroom, Nikki has intuitively changed the bedding and duvet. Rearranged the pillows and tidied the night table. Our living room has been restored to order and I can hear dishes being washed a room away. Upon opening the four-paneled closet that Alberto installed for me after he proposed, I stare at racks and shelves.
Seems so cliché to wear all black, but maybe that’s what I’m expected to do?
The hell with what’s expected.
I slip on a pair of Alberto’s brightly striped socks and reach for jeans, a citron-colored sweatshirt and my low-top Converse. In the bathroom, I dress and dry my blonde hair, but skip the eye-makeup because today is not my first rodeo.
Alberto’s will be my thirty-fourth funeral.
I am thirty-four years old.
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