Regarding the Pain of Others
A collaborative email text by Tina Cabrera, Carlos Benitez, and Tyrone Nagai.
All rights reserved.
The Passion of the Christ through the vision of Mel Gibson. I saw that movie when it first came out, with my boyfriend at the time, now my ex. On our first date I took him to see Monster. He thought it was a strange choice for a first date. The “Monster” in the movie was a serial killer who was brutalized both as a child and as an adult. I had to close my eyes in the scene where she was being raped with a flashlight. Why had I chosen that movie as a first date, after a fine dinner? Not sure; I guess I wanted to be decisive about what interested me.
We saw The Passion of the Christ a few weeks later. The 30-minute torture scene of the Christ was nearly unbearable; I heard weeping from someone in the row just in front of us, and as the brutal Roman soldier, foaming at the mouth, slashed Christ with a whip made of sharp bones and metal, and as it lacerated his flesh with each blow, each strike on the big screen, I dug my nails into my boyfriend’s arm, and he almost covered my eyes with his hands, gripping my hand tighter, his hand moving to stroke my leg. The force of each blow was matched by THX surround sound, as the Roman leader, watching with perverted pleasure, gestured with his hand to have Christ’s body turned over to lash it.
I had never viewed such cruelty for that long, nor ever observed someone’s physical body mutilated to ribbons. You could not see it as a simulated scene—with its stunning filmed imagery—it was taking place in front of you, in real time. The darkened theater was silent except for some quiet sobbing. Finally, I too could no longer control my emotions. I pulled my glasses off and cried uncontrollably. How could anyone’s body survive such vicious lashes? How could his mother stand by and let it happen without offering her body instead?
That night after the movie I was mentally exhausted, but my boyfriend and I carried out our lovemaking anyway. Between displays of passion, images of mutilated flesh and blood flashed through my mind.
White circles fade into one another in a concentric, intersecting pattern. A speeding van flips over on a dirt road. Border Patrol sirens peel the air. Women and children pour out of the shattered auto windows like gasoline. They try to run but lean into dizzying figure eights that trace the flag of the Olympic Games. Corazon. Amor. Compasión. They only see white circles fading into one another and wonder if this is El Norte. The headaches whiplash memory of more white circles, priests’ robes, Santa Claus elves.
I once knew a man, an alcoholic, who lived in constant pain. He lived in Leucadia and worked in Del Mar. He labored for a rich white man named Don Ross. The rich white man paid him one hundred dollars a week cash, because the alcoholic man was undocumented. He drove a yellow Datsun to work every morning. In the trunk of his Datsun were many empty cans of beer and a few unopened ones. Every morning he would freshen up with a beer. During lunch he would sneak out to his car and quickly down beer number two. When he reached his home he would drink beer number three, four, five… Before he went to bed he would drink a good night beer.
His wife had stopped loving him. He lived in the house with her, but she slept with other men. He tried to speak to his wife about his demons, but he revolted her. He slept on the living room floor and she slept in the bedroom. His children ignored him. Years went by that way.
The man continued to be kind, but he had a drinking problem; he couldn’t get away from it. When young he’d worked in a distillery in his home town in Mexico, which is where he picked up the habit. Somewhere along the way the beer took over.
One day while living and working in the US he disappeared.
Several years later, a phone call was received: “Your uncle Chano is dead; he went back home to Mexico to die. He died alone on the streets in his home town.”
Me, I lived with him, and I loved him. He played catch with me when nobody else would. The asphalt parking lot in his Leucadia apartment was our field—I was Fernando Valenzuela and he was Mike Scioscia. Afterward he would cool down with a warm beer from the trunk of the yellow Datsun.
Tattooed hangnails and barcode manicures become the rage as French police cruisers smear teenagers on mopeds. Tiny shreds of cotton appear dangling from crystal glasses at fashionable martini bars. Some ignite the cotton with Eiffel Tower lighters and toast comrades and collaborators. When the constable asks for a “Mock Molotov,” the bartender slides over a book of matches with a phone number inside. It’s a line to the latest spreads in Las Vegas. Patriots will go undefeated; Sarkozy will not be assassinated.
Short needles poke out from the top of my friend’s shaved skull. A line of coagulated blood divides the hand-sized patch of naked skin near his temple. He sits up in the hospital gurney when he sees me, and we shake hands—his left in my right. I look at the green and blue Mylar balloons floating in the corner, the football game on TV, and the vases holding wilted flowers.
My friend jokes about how he used to work at this hospital, only weeks before. He tells me that someone must have implanted a nano bomb in his head when they heard he was leaving. Once he was gone, they detonated it to force him back to the hospital. We laugh at this idea, but I can’t help thinking about the cocci fungus eating his skin, bone, and brain.
The toxicologist enters the room and greets us with a friendly Salaam. He holds Ali’s left hand and speaks to him quickly about yesterday’s surgery and the one scheduled for tomorrow. “It’s definitely weapon grade biological contaminant. Genetically native to California and Arizona,” he says. The doctor reads a few lines of Ali’s chart and pens additional notes
After the toxicologist leaves, I sit near Ali’s bed and study his tired face. He says he doesn’t want another surgery. He describes the tube shoved down his esophagus as a burning lance. He says the post-operation nausea makes him too sick to eat. The nurses, he says, ask him questions about his age, the day of the week, the name of the president.
I can’t decide whether to tell him the story of my mother. As a toddler, doctors had to cut out her cancer-filled eyes. From that point on, she lived in constant fear of hospitals. At age 36, she was forced to get a hysterectomy. Because she suffered immense pain after the operation, the nurse showed her how to activate the morphine drip.
My mother refused. She refused everything at the hospital. It was how she maintained control and demonstrated resolve. Still, the pain continued to grow, and finally she relented. She said the morphine melted her down into an abyss of calm, and she woke up feeling sore but content. The following morning she asked the nurse how much morphine she had used. The nurse said none. My mother had pressed the wrong button on the dispenser.
I looked again at the needles holding Ali’s scalp together, and I decided to keep my mother’s story to myself. I couldn’t decide if pain flags by giving in or by tricking it, as with my mother. Either way, I would do my best to leave Ali’s pain in the hospital room, but end up taking it home with me. Pain will track you, persist. Until the Americans go away.
Bricks tossed into a cistern of Strawberry Quik catapult droplets outward into an arc that ends with Jell-O-blood soldiers waving amputated weapons. They rub prosthetic belly buttons and organize for longer vacations between suburban cul-de-sacs and submachine Iraq. They want pepperoni pizzas and an end to night sweats. They want to drive in the middle of the road on a clear day and dream of Dallas Cowgirl cheerleaders wearing see-through burkas and panting like they’re hauling 40-pound rucksacks.
How many years does it take for a wad of chewing gum to disintegrate in a urinal? When a hand pulls the gnarled wad from the porcelain, does it stick like sex-moistened skin? Is there a man who collects these pieces of gum with his bare hands? Does he put the gum to his nose and smell the artificial flavoring? Is he tempted to put it in his mouth and chew? Does he add each piece of gum to the homemade diaphragm covering his mannequin’s cervix? Is the gum hard and rock-like? Is it pliable after a few seconds in the microwave? Does the man feel like mailing his homemade diaphragm like anthrax? Perhaps it’s not gum at all, but C-4 plastic explosive? Does he wonder if it has given him gout? His knee, ankle, and foot joints have filled with uric acid like a sponge. He buys wads of Bubbalicious and chews the flavor out of them. He fantasizes that the gum will grow into the caverns of his body like the blob, sponging the uric acid like a kidney. He pokes a needle into his elbow and into the back of his hand twenty times. But, his bones run dry. He wonders what has happened to his blood. Maybe he’s an alcoholic. Maybe he’s overdosed on chemotherapy. Maybe he’s been whipped and bruised until he’s bled like a sacrificial lamb. Stop staring at him…
You can’t stop. You wait for him to address you personally. “How is your day?” He doesn’t give a fuck how you feel. You don’t either. You’re a voyeur getting off on what you see. That is why you can’t avert your eyes.
Would you like him to chew the pissy gum twice over?
You want to be the person he shares it with?
You want to touch his pain and call it yours?
You want to lick the sweat from his brow and say, “I love you, I understand you, I am you?”
He doesn’t suffer for your fucking pleasure.
I write hip-hop verses about revolution that no one will ever hear. I think about Malcolm X and my two mortgages. I cradle my daughter in her favorite blanket and teach her to root for the underdog. I hold my wife tenderly and send her love letters through the warmth of my arms.
I know I must first imagine a more fulfilling state of existence in order to realize it in the future, and I count my blessings like the holes in saltine crackers, hoping they don’t crumble away.
But imagining something does not make it happen.
I imagined the worst was over when the doctor, reading the results of my mother’s first uterine biopsy, told her: “Congratulations, it’s not cancer.”
I imagined the winking eye and electricity of the object of my desire were meant for me alone.
My mother died of cancer.
And he is sending currents through the body of someone younger, less jaded.
We place our hands, all fingers pointing down, in the gesture of Varada Mudra, the fulfillment of all wishes; the gesture of charity, generating the force of the Buddha to our liking. We believe that the mind is strong enough to will him into existence.
But maybe we should be performing the Tarjani Mudra, pointing to east, west, north, south, to threaten and warn everyone in our existence bubble.
Maybe we should perform the Karana Mudra, the cattle hand, to expel our collective demons.
But try as we may to meditate to the point of exhaustion, it is our pain, and our pain alone.
We pray for protection as we walk through the desert with our young and old. We make the pilgrimage to the holy land of Wal-Marts and Costcos in search of the fabled green card. The document that gives us the right to walk in Aztlan. We’re here to build the empire for the new ruler. The mission is simple: sign up, ship out, kill or be killed. If you don’t make it back we will gift your family with a complimentary flag as we escort them to the nearest border.
He died protecting our freedom. His father died picking your strawberries. His sister died when Nagasaki was bombed. She slit her wrist because he was gone. My daughter was kidnapped to be used in a prostitution ring. We take drugs to ease the pain.
The hammock in Nayarit that hangs from the mango trees where the fields sing at night is my every breath. Cradles me into the earth.
Tina Cabrera’s first novel, tentatively titled For the Former Things Have Passed Away, is in progress. Her writing has appeared in Insolent Rudder, Anderbo.com, and City Works Press.
Carlos Benitez was previously published in the San Diego Magazine website.
Tyrone Nagai has published in Fiction International, The Strip, ArmageddonBuffet.com, and San Diego State’s MFA Anthology of Creative Writing.
This story is included in issue #41: Freak. Copyright © 2008 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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