Dispatch 26 (Dec. 3-4, 1998)

     Back in Austin, a cold front finally moved in, erasing the abnormally warm winter we’d been experiencing. Before it ended, it got up to the mid-70s. Here it was, after Thanksgiving, with the shoppers flooding the malls for Christmas gifts, and it still felt like late May as they shopped in their T-shirts and their shorts.
     But it finally snapped, ending in a cold night and a sunless, cloudy day.
     A cold had also descended between Gina and I, but not because anything was wrong. Maybe it was because there wasn’t anything wrong. Maybe there needs to be conflict between us for there to be interest in each other. Maybe friendship, at least between two people who have nothing but obligation between them, is boring.
     After Thanksgiving, we spent another day in Harlingen. Most of it, Gina spent talking to her mother and busying herself with keeping the house clean, meals cooked, and the dishes done.
     I spent time watching TV with the endlessly listless Sandra, and scribbling observations and snippets for the journal in my big white notepad. Every few minutes, Gina might walk by or ask what we were watching and I’d ask for a Spanish translation of something that had been said the day before or some clarification as to what Mari or Miguel had meant by some of their words.
     It seemed to cheer Gina up a little, having something to do, offering something she could teach, in this case correcting my ignorance in the Spanish tongue.
     But when she wasn’t babysitting me, Gina looked constantly worried, flustered as if there was a direction she knew she should go in, but she wasn’t sure where the path lay or led to.
     She had her back turned to me at one of these moments, and I spied her standing in the hallway, motionless, looking toward her mother’s bedroom and then leaning back toward the kitchen. She was immobilized, unsure where to go, and it was the only time I’d seen her grow frustrated by her own indecision. It was familiar behavior to me, the girl who makes a pro and con list choosing items at the vending machine.
     The day we left, Mari returned briefly. She stopped in the kitchen to get an egg and then went to the bedroom, Gina following.
     Gina told me the egg was part of a healing ritual. The egg is rubbed on the head and chest and afflicted areas. I wasn’t in the room when it happened, but I could imagine Mari doing it, saying her prayers in her resonant voice as Gina watched.
     We drove back late afternoon Friday after Miguel had returned from buying a second round of prescription medication and some groceries. He was sorry to see us go and although he hugged Gina and kissed her forehead as if she were a little girl, even I could see he was disappointed and hurt that we weren’t staying longer.
     Gina didn’t have to tell me why we weren’t staying through Sunday – she was sick inside and afraid of what staying here any longer would do to her. The strained lines around her eyes and the way her hands trembled slightly when she held a glass of water were signs, obvious to me at least, that staying here, however right it was, was tortuous for Gina.
     Watching her mother incapacitated was hurting Gina in a deep, profound way, and the fear of what might come was damaging her with crippling force.
     The trip back to Austin was quiet. The radio, when it was on, was turned low and sometimes went to static as an FM signal faded, staying that way for a few minutes before either of us noticed.
     We said our goodbyes and hugged, Gina clenching me longer than I expected. It was a hug one might give a fellow survivor of a trauma, except I wasn’t affected in nearly the same way. If my mother was sick, I could share the pathos and help Gina. As it is, anything I offer in the way of sympathy sounded to my ears like a platitude.
     Similar to the chill that had descended upon Austin, a glacier began to form between Gina and I. She didn’t call me and, feeling that even our most basic agreement in this project was an intrusion right now, I found other ways to keep myself busy.
     Once we returned from Harlingen, no words passed between us for almost a week. Then, when I checked my e-mail late last night, I got a message:

     Heather, I was going to call, but I don’t know what I’d say. Ay, H., I couldn’t stay in Harlingen. I hope you understand why. You don’t have to say anything. Just know that I couldn’t be there any longer. I would have started crying again and never stopped. I don’t think you know how important my mother is to me, but she’s everything. She’s done everything for me.
     My father called today. He said my mother’s back in the hospital. She was getting disoriented and the painkillers weren’t helping her very much. She’s there now and I’m here and if I really was strong, I would go, but instead I’m here, pretending to care about finals. What’s wrong with me, Heather? How is that a way to treat the most important person in my life?
     Call me if you want. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Maybe you know better than I do.

     Tu amiga,

     I closed the e-mail and sat on my fold-out chair, wondering how I could help. I kept having images of Gina, going up to Mt. Bonnell and jumping off, swan-diving onto cold dusty rocks and falling short of the lake.
     I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I also knew Gina wasn’t the most stable-minded person in the world. If a destructive thought entered her mind, I could see her acting on it with the same measured determination with which she would attack a salsa dance or the psychology of dating.
     I called, there from my desk. One of the girls from the co-op said Gina had gone out by herself and that they didn’t know where she’d gone.
     The co-op resident took my message and I started getting ready for bed, turning up my little space heater and setting foot into cotton pajamas.
     She called an hour after I’d hit the pillow.
     "Heather, I’m at Club Carnival. Can you come?"
     I looked at the clock. 1:30 a.m. "Who are you with?" I asked.
     "I’m here by myself. Dancing. Come over here."
     "Gina, I’m in bed," I said.
     "Heather, I’m not asking you again. Are you coming?"
     "No, Gina," I said. "I’m tired and I’m was already asleep."
     "Okay," Gina said. "Bye, then."
     "Gina," I said, catching her before she hung up. "What about tomorrow morning. We can have breakfast or something."
     "Come over then," Gina said. "Around 10?"
     "10," I repeated. "I’ll be over."
     "Good night, Heather," Gina said.
     I slept feeling better, feeling as if I’d helped, or would be helping, Gina. I felt I was reestablishing contact.
     But I didn’t know, sleeping innocently in a cozy space I’d created in the cold room, what I’d find when I arrived.