Dispatch 12 (Oct. 9, 1998)

     Midway through lit class, we were rehashing the Louise Erdrich "Life is Hell and then your husband goes and kills himself after the molestation charges" motif when I heard the muffled ringing of my pager coming from the front pocket of my backpack.
     I checked it after the sound stopped and it was Gina’s phone number, which I’d come to recognize by now, followed by a "911."
     The professor (not the same as the independent study maven who started me on this happy project) is casual about comings and goings, so I got up and walked to a downstairs phone booth.
     Gina answered on the third ring.
     "Heather?" She sounded half-asleep, her voice slumber-soaked.
     "Yeah, it’s me Gina. What’s up?"
     "I’m sick. I can’t get out of bed. Can you come?"
     I looked at my watch. About 20 minutes left in class and I had no real commitments outside of studying and a library trip for the rest of the afternoon.
     "I can be over in a half hour."
     She told me she couldn’t keep any food down and she thought she might have a fever. I told her I’d bring a few things and to stay in bed.
     I stopped at one of the campus bookstores on the way, and despite the overpricing ($3.25 for a simple spiral notebook?), I bought Pepto and a 32-ounce lemon lime Gatorade bottle there. I didn’t buy any Midol – it’s Standard Heather Equipment, regularly stocked in my backpack.
     The sun had appeared for the last part of the week, but a cold front had moved into town, sweeping away the heat and humidity. It’s the closest thing to spring or fall here – a dip into the tall 70s or short 80s and then it gets cold enough for coats. By March, the heat comes back.
     At the door to Heather’s co-op, an heavyset blonde girl I’d come to recognize at Jennifer opened the card-coded door. She was watching Jerry Springer and it must have been early in the show because everyone was still in their chairs.
     I knocked at her door.
     "Come in," I heard from within. The door wasn’t locked. I let myself in, hearing first the hum of a fan pointed to Gina’s bed.
     She was lying under heavy blankets. A backpack of hers lay near the door, the contents of it – books and notebooks, were spilled out like the curve of a rainbow.
     It was dark, or as dark as it could be with sunlight peeking through the edges of the curtain she’d closed.
     Next to her, on the nightstand, were a bottle of prescription pills, a half-full liter of Diet Coke and wadded Kleenex tissues.
     I went to her bed and sat. The fan thrust its cold air at me.
     "Are you all right?" I asked. "I brought some stuff for you."
     I pulled out the pink bottle and the Gatorade from the plastic bag and placed the items on the nightstand. She looked at them, disinterested. "I’m not good with Pepto," she said. "Usually I just throw up again."
     "So you’ve been throwing up?" I asked.
     "All day and last night. A couple of times. I didn’t sleep too well and I think I have a fever."
      I did the mom measurement, placing my palm on her forehead. It was cool and clammy.
     "I don’t think you have a fever," I said. "Why do you have the fan on?"
     "I was sweating all night and hot. Then I’d get chills."
     "Are you coughing and sneezing?" Heather Yi has not a degree in medicine, but she knows from flu. And I have allergies too.
     "No," Gina said. "Just nauseous. My stomach has been upset the last few days."
     "Oh," I said. "Because of what we talked about?"
     She nodded. Her eyes were puffy, from lack of sleep or crying or both. They were bloodshot. Her face looked drawn, the edges of her mouth hanging as if pulled down by hooks.
     "So you think you’re maybe making yourself upset?" I asked.
     "I can’t sleep, Heather. My stomach is all in knots. I just wanted to sleep or cry. I think I’ve done a lot of both."
     She began to cry a little then, making little high-pitched moans.
     I placed the back of my hand on her cold cheek and stroked it. I’d been thinking a lot about her this week, wondering about her state of mind, what she might be thinking, or if she’d bounced back from it with Gina Resiliency and was thinking about it less than me. I had stopped thinking of her as Gina, the girl who picks up guys in bars, who makes me look like a frump when she dresses up, who has treated me badly and who I didn’t know to trust. For now, I was seeing a wounded person, frightened, sick, pathetically dependent on me. It made my sympathetic. Or maybe powerful. Maybe I wanted to see her this way.
     "It’s okay," I said, brushing back her hair with my fingers. "It’s all right, Gina. This’ll all pass."
     "What if I wanted a baby?" she moaned. "Would that be terrible? What kind of mother would I be?"
     I told her what at face value seemed like a lie, but maybe wasn’t. "A good one," I said.
     "My body was trying to tell me something," she said. "It was ready. And now it’s making me sick. Making me throw up."
     I changed the subject, worrying that she was turning to self pity, making it worse. "Where’s your roommate?" I asked. "Why isn’t she here?"
     "She was here this morning. She made me tea earlier. But she had a test today and had to go."
     "What have you eaten?"
     "I tried to eat a sandwich, but I threw it up," Gina said. "I tried some crackers and that was a little better."
     "No Diet Coke," I said, reaching over to the bottle on the nightstand. I capped it and put it in the mini fridge. I opened the cool Gatorade and handed it to her. She sat up slowly and took a small sip.
     "Better?" I asked.
     "Uh huh."
      "What started this?"
      "I couldn’t sleep the night after we talked. I just kept thinking about it." Her voice sounded a little stronger, as if the drink had cleared her a bit. "I wondered about my parents, my father. About Juan. What they would say and how they would react. I got scared."
     "But nothing happened. It’s okay now," I said.
     "I called Juan. We had a fight. I think I blame him a little." She waited a few moments before continuing, as if measuring her thoughts. "He wouldn’t be a good father and I’m angry because of that."
     "He doesn’t have to be a good father right now," I said. "You’re not, you know, pregnant."
     "But I was almost in that situation," she said, explaining as if to a child. "He wouldn’t have been responsible. Why am I with someone that couldn’t have taken care of me in that situation?"
     Lust? A pretty boy’s face? He can dance and has some artistic talent? Opting for gentleness, I said instead, "Because you love him?"
     "Do I?" Gina said.
     The fan hummed, filling the space of the silence between us. Gina fell back onto the pillow, her hair nearly covering it. "I’m sorry I made you come over."
     "It’s fine," I said, sensing the conversation was about over. "I hope you start feeling better."
     She rolled over, facing me. "Do you think I’m crazy, Heather?"
     Carefully, I answered. "I think you’re upset. You’ve been through a heavy situation and now you’re shell-shocked. It’s understandable."
     "How would you have reacted?" she asked me.
     The idea seemed pretty foreign to me. I’m a control freak, and sex has always seemed a little to me like a carnival ride with no "Off" switch. Ride At Your Own Risk. "I really don’t know, Gina," I said, and meant it. "I’ve never given it much thought."
     She rolled over again, this time facing the wall. "I’ll see you, Heather. I’m sorry you came all the way over here."
     I hovered near her bed for another few moments. I wasn’t sure if I should do a motherly pull up of the blankets or say something reassuring. Instead, I took the coward’s route and made for the door.
     "Bye Gina. Get better."
     I opened the door to the hall, unleashing outside light into the darkness. I turned and the shape of her under covers was shaking.
     I exited, closing the door behind me.