Swinging the door open with a metallic thud, Santiago walked into the waiting room. He pivoted around as if he were a washed-up dancer, greeting me and apologizing. “Disculpa la demora… Que pena.” I gazed upwards at him from the stiff sofa, petting Miel the house cat, as I’d been doing for the last hour and a half. His business partner, Mauricio, had let me into the waiting room. He couldn’t show me upstairs to my own room, however, as he walked with a cane.
Sweat perforated Santiago’s blue gingham shirt and the whole of his tired, worn face. His shaggy black hair was thoroughly soaked.
“Drug abuse,” Judgement told me. “That kind of perspiration is not normal.”
Empathy objected, “You don’t know his story.”
I struggled to focus on his words; the layers beneath the conversation called to me. As Santiago spoke of living in New York, asked me of my time in Colombia, and other useless chatter, his presence screamed for help. My eyes diverted from his face to the dampness of his shirt that, like a river, descended from the neck to the waist.
“But it’s been raining,” Compassion insisted.
“I love the United States,” he spat out, practicing his English, his dark eyes unable to focus. “Come, come,” he rattled, grabbing my monstrous purple suitcase and hoisting it up a flight of stairs.
“What state you from?” he asked as we entered a large, barren room. The dingy windows revealed the graffitied repair shop across the street, littered with broken-down, banana-yellow taxis. At least there was a bed and a desk where I could work.
“I’m originally from California,” I told him as he darted to close the curtains.
“Que bueno,” Santiago responded, on auto-pilot, surveying the room. “But there’s no sheets,” he muttered in Spanish, to no one in particular. “No, no, no.” After being in the room for less than a minute, he insisted we go to another room. “Vamos,” he motioned to me with his hand, quickly grabbing my 70+ pound suitcase, preparing to haul it up yet another flight of stairs.
As we reached the third floor, he began to wheeze. He paused, putting his weathered hand to his forehead, struggling for breath. “Perdon, necesito un momento.”
Of course. Take your time.
At this point I recognized that something awful was about to transpire. Experience told me I was about to see the flip side.
I watched his silhouette shrink amongst the white walls; his frail body collapsed upon the ceramic tile. There was a loud “crack” as Santiago’s head smashed into the floor. He lay face down, unconscious, his legs twitching. I didn’t know if he’d fainted or had a seizure. It was probably both.
Suddenly, his late arrival meant nothing. I didn’t care if he’d been stuck in a thunderstorm or was sweating out of pure anxiety. I knew that his story reached much deeper, and it touched upon mine.
The first time I passed out, as I recall, was during junior year of high school. I’d been sick with a horrendous flu for over two or three weeks. Still, I attended class, read more than what was assigned, went to tennis practice- everything that was expected of me. But each day when I got home, I looked at myself in the mirror and knew that something was off. My light skin had attained a lucid, almost green quality.
One morning, I went to the bathroom, washed my hands, and was awoken by the sound of my father yelling at me from upstairs. “Cristina! Don’t slam the door!!!”
As I came to, I realized that I was flat on my back, facing the kitchen sink, resting in a literal hole in the wall. My body had torn through a three-foot radius of dry wall. I felt nothing. Too weak to stand, I flopped myself over, opened the bathroom door, and crawled across the hall into my bedroom.
I don’t remember if I’d wailed for help, or if my parents were more curious than upset than to get out of bed to see what was going on. I’d reached my room, but couldn’t pull myself up into the twin-sized bed. It was too much. Again, I closed my eyes.
My parents were now on either side of the bed, where I lay. From my elbows to the tips of my fingers, every bone, ligament, and muscle was completely stiff. I was paralyzed; my arms seemed permanently bent and my hands refused movement.
“What’s happening to me?!” I pleaded to my parents. “I can’t feel my arms!”
“It’s going to be okay, mi’ja,” my mom told me, but by the look on both of my parents’ faces, I knew they were just as scared as I was. “Just take deep, deep breaths,” she told me, holding my hand and rubbing my arm, as if to bring it back to life. I scanned the room for my cat Cuddles, but she wasn’t there. I’d spooked her, too.
“Estas bien?” I asked Santiago, without response. “Are you okay???” He still laid lifeless, apart from the shaking of his legs. I looked at him as if I hovered above his body, outside of my own, wondering what to do. This had always happened to me, but I didn’t know how to react as a witness. Memories flooded my brain as I tried to decipher what to do next.
“Mau,” he sputtered in a whisper. Mau… Mauricio! The guy who initially let me in- he would know what to do. And my host began to sob.
“Mau! Mauricio, porfa!” I shouted down the stairwell, unsure if he’d be able to make it up the stairs. “Mau, el se desmayo! No se que hacer!” I had no idea what to do, but Mau made his way up the stairs at a miraculous speed.
I’m not sure I breathed for a full five minutes, perhaps longer. Mau came and helped my host turn over onto his back. He struggled to sit up, tears flooding down his face. He quickly changed the subject and attempted to stand. I knew the embarrassment all too well.
Mau brought him a chair to sit in, and I reminded him to breathe. “Es la primera vez que me ha pasado esto,” he confided in me. He’d never passed out before.
“Me he desmayado varias veces,” I told him. I’ve passed out several times before. I know what it’s like. There’s no rush; you need to take care of yourself- your health– first. You can’t run a business if you’re sick…
Looking at my host, his face now reddened and stained with tears, I couldn’t help but feel his pain. See, there is business, and then there is life. Life always comes first, no matter how hard you try to push it away, bury it under the covers. If you are dealing with loss, depression, separation, or any other traumatic event, it will take precedence. It will give your boss-life the boot and make you struggle every moment to keep everything running smoothly. And it won’t; there will be blatant glitches, because we’re not robots, we’re fucking human beings.
Two minutes later, a woman with long black hair appeared to my right. She stood looking at Santiago, her face void of emotion. She held a manila folder, both of her tiny arms crossed over her chest.
“Es su esposa,” Mauricio explained. My own face probably showed confusion at this woman’s lack of compassion.
“Ah, que bueno que estes aqui,” I told her. I thought that Santiago’s wife being by his side would bring him comfort. But she didn’t bother to look at me or even change her facial expression. I began to understand; while this may have been his first time fainting, she had probably see him break down countless times. And while my empathy still sought to help him, I also knew what it was like to try to help someone who refused to help himself.
“Es una bruja,” Santiago told me, his eyes wincing. “Esto me paso por ella.” And he continued to cry.
Look, I told him in Spanish, we’re not going to blame anything on anyone. But you should go to the doctor. You many have a concussion; you fell hard onto the tile. I’ll be fine, I can make my own bed.
He ignored my advice and continued talking about his heartless wife to me. I wanted to ignore him as much as I wanted to hug him and tell him not to be frightened.
At this point in my life, I can’t count how many times I’ve passed out, how my body has betrayed me at the most inopportune moments. “Vi todo negro,” Santiago’s voice repeated in my head. That sensation of your peripheral giving up, of the light around you becoming like a fish-eye filter until you wake up on the ground, hopefully with all of your body parts intact, hopefully not alone. But sometimes, you are alone, and sometimes, when you come to, you’ve unwillingly damaged your parents’ home or you look in the mirror and see a lush red ruby on your chin, causing you to rush to the ER at 3am. Knowing that the form you occupy can give out on you at any time- at the worst time- fucking sucks. It makes you come to grips with how little control we truly have over our lives.
I ended up taking the room on the second floor- Santiago stubbornly helping me lug my suitcase back down a flight of stairs, then disappearing. Mauricio apologized for the spectacle, explaining that Santiago was depressed because he and his wife were separating. Aha. He and Santiago’s wife stood in the doorway as I made the bed, discussing what had happened and details about the divorce I didn’t care to hear. I told them that they should check on Santiago and I shut the creaky door.
For the next half an hour or more, Santiago and his soon-to-be ex-wife screamed obscenities at each other regarding trust, sanity, and misery. This wasn’t your average, everyday kind of yelling. It was that type of earsplitting, barely comprehensible shouting that comes from the deepest part of your bowels, where you’ve been stuffing and repressing all of your feelings. The words you spew forth are filled with more angst and hatred than you could ever conceive telling a stranger. Because when you love, you actually care. And when that love ceases and something entirely different manifests within you, it’s the ugliest force in the world.
I looked out of my window, which was barred and forged shut, watching the mechanics work on dilapidated taxis. Santiago and his wife continued their verbal war, and I chuckled to myself about the irony of the situation. I’ve always wanted a room with a view. I guess next time, I’d better be more specific about my wishes.