The first time I saw Michael, he stood in the shadow of a bougainvillea climbing the arch of the courtyard entrance. The sun diffused through paper-thin leaves and cast a ruby hue on his clothes. It was as though he stood in the center of a pink spotlight. He looked healthy, sunburned, and rosy-cheeked like me. It wasn’t until he stepped through the entryway, away from the flowers’ protection, that I recognized he was one of them.
In the clear light, he was sick and gray-skinned with half moon shadows the color of bruised plums under his eyes. He was one of the leukemia kids; his chemo buzz cut growing out like the jarheads sprung free from Camp Pendleton. He looked tall, maybe high school age, older than my older sister Adrienne, who was about to start her junior year.
Adrienne and I wasted our summer outside the clinic. Sick kids avoided the outdoors; they withered in the heat. So we claimed it as our own and littered the courtyard with nail polish bottles, back issues of magazines, and beach towels. Adrienne said we were lucky. We would start school with great tans and could truthfully brag how we spent the summer in Mexico.
The sick guy casually leaned against the wall as if he were waiting for a bus. He may have been cute before the cancer, but his patches of hair and zombie skin ruined him. I stretched my legs on the picnic bench and applied sunscreen to my bare shoulders.
“You’re not allowed out here, sick-o.” Adrienne said. “Off limits. You’re trespassing. Go back inside and let the nurses take care of you.”
He ignored her and glanced around the courtyard. His eyes paused at mine, but I looked away and screwed the cap back on the sunscreen.
“What’s the big deal if I’m out here?” he asked.
“You get the hospital. We get the courtyard. Comprende?” Adrienne said.
Guadalupe, a nurse friend of my mother’s, hollered from an upstairs window. “Mijas, come up to visit your mamasita. She’s ready for you.”
I stood and wiped dust off my clothes. I was wearing a tank top and my new jeans, the ones that I bought for my upcoming first day of high school. All I wanted to do was stroll down Tijuana’s streets so I could turn heads and let my ears ring with whistles. Adrienne was teaching me how to walk high school style.
“You better be gone when we get back,” Adrienne said.
Guadalupe was waiting for us at the top of the stairs. In her fifties, she had a warm round face that took the edge off our days at the hospital. We followed her down the hall toward the one open door and she waved us through. My mother rested with her back against several pillows, propped up with her eyes closed.
“Iris,” Guadalupe said. “Your girls are here.”
My mother managed a hint of a smile. “Gracias, Lupe,” she said. “What have you girls done today?”
“Same as every damn day,” Adrienne said.
“Language, Adrienne. Please at least try. Sit. I need to talk to you.”
We plopped down on the vacant bed parallel to my mother’s and Adrienne continued to flip through her magazine.
“I talked to your father a little while ago,” Mom said.
That got Adrienne’s attention and she tossed the magazine to the floor. “About what?” she demanded.
“Now that the FDA’s banned Laetrile in the States, a lot of people are coming to Mexico to treat their cancer. Most aren’t as lucky as we are, living in San Diego so close to the border. The clinic is getting calls from people all over the country. What do you think of having people stay with us? Not a lot, but on occasion? We’d be a safe house.”
“Not in my bed,” Adrienne said.
“You two would have to share a room once in a while.” Mom said.
“Why?” Adrienne said. “It’s bad enough we have to hang out here all the time. Now you want to bring them home with us? I can’t believe Dad said yes.”
“Please stop,” my mother said before coughing. Her cough grew louder as it progressed. I handed a plastic cup to Mom, who drank, took several deep breaths, and drank some more.
“This is important,” Mom said. “Even if you can’t see it, we’re very lucky. There’s a family who needs help right now. A teenage boy and his mom need a place to stay.”
“Must be that guy outside,” Adrienne said to me.
“You met Michael?” Mom asked. “He’s seventeen. Dark hair. Leukemia.”
“We saw him,” I said. “How long do they have stay with us?”
“Maybe a month. Then he’ll be back at the hospital so the doctor can monitor his cells. They might have to adjust therapies, but his treatment has been very successful so far. We’ll talk if he needs more time by the start of school.”
“But you’re sick,” Adrienne said, her voice sharp. “We can barely take care of you. How can we take care of more sick people?”
“It would be nice to feel like I’m doing something for other patients. Everyone at the clinic has been so good to us. When I met Barb, I wanted to help. She’ll take care of Michael and she promised to help with the house. It should be easier with them there. Not harder. Your father agreed. Okay?”
I nodded and when I turned to my sister, she reached for her magazine and ignored our mother.
* * *
Tired from the heat, Adrienne abandoned her reading and stretched out on the bed, napping. I never was one for naps, too restless. I slipped from the room and made my way back to the courtyard.
He sat on the picnic table, pale skin blazing in the heat. “So, are we roomies now?” he asked.
“You knew who we were, but you didn’t say anything.”
“Your sister wasn’t very welcoming.” He didn’t apologize or say anything polite; he just shrugged his shoulders. “You want to check out the beach?” He started walking out of the courtyard.
It was less than a mile to the ocean, an easy distance if you didn’t have cancer. I’d never seen one of the patients walk to the beach. They wouldn’t even let us healthy kids go unsupervised. Michael kept walking without looking back to see if I’d made up my mind. I glanced around the empty courtyard. It was hot, that unbearable late afternoon late summer Mexico heat, and I followed him wishing I were wearing something cooler than my new high school jeans. I caught up with him at the street corner and we walked down the long dirt road to the beach. The few trees weren’t tall enough to provide shade.
“How long have you been coming here?” he asked.
“A little over a year.”
“Your mom’s not any better?”
“No, but she’s not any worse either.”
“Where’s your dad?” he asked.
I shrugged and remembered what Mom always said when we asked her the same question. “Someone’s got to pay the hospital bills. He works all the time.”
“Yeah, same with mine. He’ll only be here for a couple of days before he drives back to Seattle.”
Michael drew in his breath when we reached the beach.
“You okay?” I looked him over, top to bottom. He looked fine, except for his creepy hairstyle.
He nodded. “The last couple of months have been really hard. Thanks for coming with me.”
Maybe Adrienne was wrong. Maybe it could be okay having them around. “Let’s walk this way,” I said and pointed north towards Rosarito.
Michael walked with his feet in the water and I paused to roll up my pant cuffs as high as they would go so the water cooled my bare legs. We talked about school, about how no one understood what it was like to be uprooted by illness.
“Until you got sick, did you know anyone with cancer?” I asked.
“My grandma. That’s it. But now I see it everywhere. Everyone says Laetrile is the miracle drug.”
“You look good.” I said. “Considering.”
“You sound like my mother.”
Mortified, I looked down at my feet. I fumbled and started asking dumb questions that adults always ask me. “What about school?”
“I don’t think I have a grade anymore. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d be starting my senior year. But I missed most of last year, so I guess I’m back to being a junior. I hate it. My friends freaked out, especially when my hair started falling out. It was like I had to pretend that I wasn’t sick to make them feel comfortable or something. Then I got too sick to hang out with anyone.”
“It’s kind of the same with us. Everyone knows my mom’s sick and nobody comes over anymore. It’s been a year since I’ve had a friend come over to my house.”
We wandered for a while and spotted a cluster of fishermen huddled over the day’s catch. When I pointed them out to Michael, a man showing off an enormous fish, he looked pale except for big, red blotches spreading across his skin like a rash. Sweat ran down his face and I realized he probably wouldn’t tell me if he needed to stop walking. He put his arm around me, his limbs as heavy as lead, and I felt like I was carrying him. I looked at Michael and then at the group of fishermen. His breathing changed, his exhales grew louder and there was a strange wheezing sound. There was no way he would be able to walk back. I touched his arm and told him I’d be right back. As soon as he let go of me, he dropped to the sand.
I approached the men with a big smile, and in my limited Spanish asked them if they had some water and if they would drive us back to the hospital. One man, the oldest, agreed and told me to wait while he fetched his truck. Another man lifted a bottle of Coke from the sand and handed it to me. It was warm but I rushed to Michael anyway, saying it would be rude not to drink it. While Michael drained the bottle into his mouth, I talked to the fishermen, looking over their fish. Crab and snapper mostly. I was scared for Michael’s health and whatever punishment was waiting for me back at the clinic. My mom wouldn’t approve of my walking a dying boy to near death.
“Hey, these guys are going to drive us back. Do you want me to help you up? Their truck is right over there.” I pointed to the road.
Michael nodded and reached for my hand. I tried to pull him to his feet, but my hand slipped from his and I teetered backwards. The man who gave me the Coke walked over and lifted Michael from the ground.
We rode in the back with the rods and bait. Michael leaned against the side of the truck with his eyes closed. I didn’t know what to do. I inched towards him, my clothes catching on the tackle. I heard my pants rip and my skin burned where hooks dug deep into my legs. It was a quick drive and when we pulled up at the clinic, a doctor ran out and lifted Michael from the truck and carried him up the stairs. Guadalupe rushed out of the building, and stopped at Michael to check his pulse. Satisfied, she scolded me first in Spanish and then again in English for not telling anyone where we went. I had disappeared with a patient and she was frantic. Our mothers, she said, were furious. I looked past her as Michael was carried through the door.
Guadalupe lifted her hand and scooped my chin in her palm.
I shook free. “I think he’ll be fine. Maybe he just needs to eat.”
“Mija,” she said and drew me close to her. “You’ve got to be careful with the sick ones. They’re not like you.”
I agreed and shooed her inside. When she was out of sight, I sat on the stairs to unroll my pants, which were covered in sand, torn by tackle, and reeked of dead fish. My legs were pinpricked and punctured from the hooks, and small streams of blood ran down my skin. One puncture was deep and purple around the edge. Crying, I sat until the sun disappeared and the Mexican sky brought out its enormous mantle of stars. I’m not sure how long I was outside, at least a couple of hours, before he emerged with a plate of tamales. He looked better, just plain leukemia sick.
“How did they let you out here?”
“When they finished with my IV fluids, I asked for dinner and snuck out here to eat.”
“I never should have let you walk like that. I wasn’t thinking of how sick you are.” I kept looking at the unevenness of his color to remind me of what Lupe had said.
He sat down and handed me a fork and napkin. “Thanks for being my tour guide.”
* * *
Michael and his folks stayed at the clinic for a week as they completed his initial tests. We joined our father at home and prepared the house for company. On the day they were due to arrive, Adrienne opened the fridge so we all could see the emptiness of the shelves: just an old bottle of ketchup and an expired carton of milk.
Dad came into the kitchen. He’d lost too much weight and his cords looked a size too big, the waist cinched with a belt.
“Looks like we need some groceries. We can manage that, can’t we, Adrienne?”
“Yeah.” She followed him out of the kitchen, but turned toward me on her way out. “Just load the dishwasher and I’ll take care of the rest. Get your room ready for sick-o.”
By the time I was finished emptying my drawers to make room for Michael’s clothes, the car pulled into the garage. Dad’s arms were full of grocery bags and Adrienne carried in the pizza and a bottle of soda.
“I’ll get your mom,” Dad said. I heard him open the door and coax her. “Come on, honey, you need to get up.” I heard windows open and the toilet flush, followed by the shuffling of feet. Mom emerged in a housedress. I don’t think she had bathed since we got home from the clinic.
Dad distributed slices of pizza from the pie and when it was Mom’s turn, she shook her head.
“You need to eat,” he said.
“Just some soda, please.”
I reached across the table and poured a cup for Mom, who took a sip, rose from the table, and returned to her room.
* * *
Later in the afternoon, we heard the squeak of brakes outside and I opened the door to see the Griffins had arrived in a Suburban. Barb hopped out and with a smile, handed me a load of stuff. Michael walked over to me and gave me a sideways hug that made my cheeks flame with a combination of thrill and embarrassment. He carried his skateboard inside and I followed him with the crate of clothes.
Our house seemed to shrink considerably as the Griffins moved in. We hauled their belongings, all packed in milk crates. Spines of books, dishes, clothes, towels, and toiletries. An entire crate of vitamins.
I guided Michael to my room. He looked around and I was suddenly shy of my lavender quilt. When he wasn’t looking, I reached for my family of plastic horses and kicked them under the bed. However, I was proud of Adrienne’s hand-me-down copies of freshman English novels: A Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare’s sonnets and selected plays.
He placed his skateboard wheels up on my bed and sat down while us healthy kids carried in more crates. With Michael its occupant, my room became foreign territory.
When we were finished unloading the car, I picked up a stack of Michael’s t-shirts and placed them in the dresser. I wasn’t being polite; I wanted to see his things rest in my dresser, hang in my closet. I hadn’t felt this possessive since I had dolls. Still, I couldn’t explain why I wanted to be the one who folded Michael’s clothes and put them away. We finished unpacking, and I left the room to fetch fresh towels. When I returned, I found him inspecting my desk. He picked up a loose piece of paper where I had scribbled the first few lines of a poem.
“You like poetry?”
“I’m better at reading poems than writing them.”
“Are you any good?”
“Not yet, but I’d like to be. It’s quiet and gets me out of everything going on at home. I guess it’s the only time I feel by myself, alone in my head. It’s hard to explain.”
He grew quiet for a moment. “I think I know what you mean. That’s how I feel about my board.” He flung the skateboard to the floor and placed his feet so one was in front of the other, the forward leg bent at the knee. “Like this, it’s just the board and me. Nothing else. No disease.” He dismounted and we sat on the bed until Michael’s mom shouted dinner was ready.
We hadn’t had company since Mom was diagnosed, so imagine my surprise when I saw the dinner table decorated with place mats, cloth napkins, and candles. Dad sat at the head of the table. Mom, freshly showered, joined us. I was happy Dad got a chance to see her clean.
As we ate the hippie vegetarian food, Mom quizzed Barb about the different natural health treatments. She wanted to know what food helped which symptom. They went on and on until Adrienne and Dad cleared the table and washed the dishes and Michael and I escaped to the family room to watch TV. Halfway through the show, he put his hand on mine. I was so distracted by the heat of his palm on my skin, I couldn’t tell you how the program ended.
Later, when we all went to bed, I whispered to Adrienne about Michael holding my hand.
“Jesus Christ, you’re fourteen years old with a live-in boyfriend. Now you really have something to brag about when you
* * *
That August was the shortest month of my life. Each day looked something like this: I woke up and took a shower. Barb served some kind of homemade cereal and fruit salad. Adrienne escaped to the beach. Dad brought home extra work and while he studied blueprints, Mom and Barb talked in the kitchen.
Mom was a different person with Barb around. First of all, she bathed and left her bedroom. They talked exclusively of cancer, detailing various ailments, their language consisting of phrases like cell’s reproductive cycles, and white blood count. One word was so powerful they said it in hushed tones: remission. Their conversations were constant. Before Mom got sick, she had been a nurse and Barb had studied nutrition in college. They had a frenetic energy between them, as though their discussions might lead to a cure. It freaked me out how they could talk about disease all the time, especially when Michael and I swore we wouldn’t speak of it. This was his month to be normal.
Michael taught me how to skateboard. The incline of our driveway functioned as the beginner’s slope as I learned to balance my body on the board. He knelt down to bend my knees, moving my legs into position. Gently, he pushed the board and said, “Go. Now veer to the right. If you bend your front leg more, you’ll go faster.”
I rode up and down the driveway until I could do it ten times in a row without falling. That took nearly a week. After that, I would zigzag down the road as Michael coached me. It took three weeks before I felt confident on the board, but then Michael taught me harder stuff, like handling a sharp turn or flying off a curb. At each corner, we’d pause and wait for Michael to catch up.
He avoided the board. Both of us feared repeating that walk on the beach, of him overextending himself. I think that’s why we never did anything besides hold hands. He hated it when I treated him like he was fragile, but we both knew he was.
The day before he had to go back to the clinic, Michael surprised me when he snatched the board and rode to the door.
“Do you want to go up and down the driveway?”
He shook his head. “I’m cool.”
But he was different that night. He didn’t want to watch TV. Instead, he went to my room, which had long ago stopped feeling like mine, and packed his clothes. Adrienne and I lingered in the kitchen with Barb, watching her place canister after canister of vitamins back into her milk crates.
The next morning, in the driveway, Mon said, “We’ll be down soon for my tests.”
“Thanks again,” Barb said. “I can’t tell you how grateful we are.”
“It’s been wonderful having you here. Good for all of us.” My mother ran her fingers through my hair. I noticed the gray pallor of her skin and the way her hands trembled.
Wanting to go with them, I walked Michael to the passenger side and, after closing the door behind him, He reached for my hand through the window. “I’ll see you soon,” he said.
We watched them circle the cul-de-sac and when they were gone. The house felt clean and open, the sun and fresh air reminding us of the lives we could have been living—even with cancer. But as soon as Mom slipped back into her bed and Dad closed the drapes we returned to our old setting.
Michael had made my bed. His skateboard leaned against the wall. I picked it up and noticed he had written me a note on the underside. Directly on the wood with a large marker, he told me to practice riding it. Then it would be just him, the board, and me.
* * *
The next few weeks passed like dog years. With Adrienne’s help, I cut off my ripped back-to-school jeans to surfer shorts length and wore them on the first day of classes. The high school was large and difficult to navigate. After a few days, I hooked up with some old junior high friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I think they were scared to ask me questions because of my mom, but I had plenty of other things to talk about.
One afternoon, Mom interrupted my homework to ask if I’d like to go to the clinic. Just the two of us. She needed to have her tests and schedule the next round of treatment. We left late to bypass the border traffic, but the crossing still took an hour. Until that day I’d been confident about Michael, about how comfortable I felt with him. But as the drive to Ensenada rushed by, I doubted myself. When we reached the clinic, Guadalupe met us at the front door, smiling. After we exchanged hugs, we walked Mom to the lab. Then Guadalupe escorted me to Michael’s room.
“Look who’s here for a visit,” she said and pushed me through the door.
“Vanessa!” Barb said. “It’s so good to see you.” She rose and wrapped her arms around me. “Where’s your mom?”
“In the lab,” I said, hugging her back.
“I’ll go say hello.”
After his mother left, I turned to Michael. It had been six weeks and the bags under his eyes had lightened to a shadow. He smiled.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “You look so much better.”
“I feel a lot better. I guess the doctors are happy with how I’m doing.”
I perched on the edge of his bed. “Have you had a chance to go outside?”
He shook his head. “Nope, I’ve been in this room the entire time. How’s your mom?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “The same. It’s weird how everything felt so different when you guys were there, but as
soon as you left, it was like you never came.”
He paused. “I don’t know if we’re coming back,” he said. “The doctor doesn’t think I’ll need another cycle. He says my blood work looks good and my body responds well to Laetrile. My mom said it’s looking like I’m headed for remission.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s great. I’m so glad you’re feeling better.”
“Vanessa,” he said.
I looked up and did my best to smile. “I’m really, really glad you’re better.”
“I want to stay here, but my mom says we need to go. I miss my dad. Maybe you can come visit? I can show you the best skate spots in Seattle.”
“But won’t you have to come back down here to get check ups?”
“I don’t know what will happen next. I’m just glad I might be normal again.”
“Mija,” Guadalupe peeked her head in the door. “Your mama’s waiting for you downstairs.”
I rose from the bed. “I started high school,” I said.
“Do you hate it?”
I didn’t, but I nodded my head anyway.
“My mom said she’ll call your mom when we’re getting ready to leave. We’ll stop by before we head back.”
He stood and faced me, looking like a senior to my freshman. I felt young and foolish next to him, like suddenly I was the sick one. He leaned down to kiss me but I turned my head away. He didn’t withdraw. Instead, he put his arms around me until my face met his. Guadalupe called my name again.
“See you later,” I said as I left the room.
My mom sat holding some tissue to the inside of her elbow, stopping the bleeding from all of her blood work. “Honey, I’m sorry about Michael,” she said. “But you should be happy for him. He gets to live.”
“I know that, Mom.” But what about us?
I tried to absorb some sense of quiet, the same clearing of the head as when I tried to write a poem, when Michael skated. When we reached home, Mom, wiped out from the drive, took a nap. I went into my room. Michael’s skateboard rested against my closet door, so I hopped on and scooted across the room, crashing into my bed. I must have done that five times before Adrienne marched in and told me to stop. Then I tucked the board under my bed.
* * *
When I was doing my weekly housework, I came across a card from Barb on my mother’s dresser. A brief thank you note promising to stay in touch.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me this came?” I asked after storming into the kitchen. My mother hunched over a mug of mint tea. She looked up with a confused expression, her face empty of color. I sat down and pushed the card across the table like I was upping a poker game bet.
“That just came,” she said.
“That’s all?” I asked.
“I’m afraid so.”
I snatched the card from her hand, ripped it clean in half, and tossed it in the garbage.
A few days later, I came home to find a postcard on my bed. The picture was of a surfer riding a wave, the image distorted by a felt-tip marker. Michael had written, “That’s me,” with an arrow pointing to the surfer. His note was brief. He had started school again, repeating his interrupted junior year. It was a little more than he could handle. He said he missed me and signed the card with love.
I sent Michael a card but didn’t hear back. When it was time for her tests, I accompanied my mother to the clinic. Guadalupe greeted us at the door and settled my mother in a room while I wandered outside. The courtyard filled with sun. A small boy, kind of sick looking, strayed in. Silently, I surrendered the courtyard to him.
Guadalupe sat at a desk marking charts. When I said her name, she jumped, clearly startled. “Mija, you scared me,” she said, laughing. “Do you need anything?”
“I need to know what happened to Michael. It’s okay to tell me. I really need to know,” I said. Tears slipped down my cheeks and I slapped them away, frustrated I couldn’t be more composed, more adult. “I haven’t heard back from him.”
Guadalupe shook her head. “We haven’t heard from them. Remember what I said, mija? The sick ones are different. You have to let them be sick. If you don’t, everyone gets hurt.”
I asked Guadalupe if I could stay with her a while. She brought me some juice and I sat next to her as she filed charts. Over her shoulder, I examined each, searching for the name Michael Griffin. As she filed away the last one, I stood, ready to go home.