Dispatch 26 (Dec. 3-4, 1998)
Back in Austin, a cold front finally moved in, erasing
the abnormally warm winter wed 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
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 wasnt 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
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 Id 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
But when she wasnt babysitting me, Gina looked
constantly worried, flustered as if there was a direction she knew she should go in, but
she wasnt 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 mothers bedroom
and then leaning back toward the kitchen. She was immobilized, unsure where to go, and it
was the only time Id 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
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 wasnt in the room when it
happened, but I could imagine Mari doing it, saying her prayers in her resonant voice as
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 werent staying
Gina didnt have to tell me why we werent
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
wasnt 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 didnt 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
dont know what Id say. Ay, H., I couldnt stay in Harlingen. I hope you
understand why. You dont have to say anything. Just know that I couldnt be
there any longer. I would have started crying again and never stopped. I dont think
you know how important my mother is to me, but shes everything. Shes done
everything for me.
My father called today. He said my mothers
back in the hospital. She was getting disoriented and the painkillers werent helping
her very much. Shes there now and Im here and if I really was strong, I would
go, but instead Im here, pretending to care about finals. Whats wrong with me,
Heather? How is that a way to treat the most important person in my life?
Call me if you want. I dont know whats
happening to me. Maybe you know better than I do.
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 wouldnt happen, but I also knew Gina
wasnt 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 didnt know where shed
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 Id hit the pillow.
"Heather, Im at Club Carnival. Can you
I looked at the clock. 1:30 a.m. "Who are you
with?" I asked.
"Im here by myself. Dancing. Come over
"Gina, Im in bed," I said.
"Heather, Im not asking you again. Are you
"No, Gina," I said. "Im tired and
Im 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," I repeated. "Ill be over."
"Good night, Heather," Gina said.
I slept feeling better, feeling as if Id helped, or
would be helping, Gina. I felt I was reestablishing contact.
But I didnt know, sleeping innocently in a cozy
space Id created in the cold room, what Id find when I arrived.