Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When I was eight, I was so obsessed with Erich Segal’s novel Love Story that I memorized the first few paragraphs and recited them at every opportunity: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she loved Mozart. And Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”
That’s all I remember now, but I think I’m stuck with it for good.
What, then, can I say about a fifty-eight-year-old woman who died? That she loved Ricky Martin. And yappy little lap dogs. And tostones, those deliciously garlicky, deep-fried rounds of green plantain. And me.
And that she lived the last seventeen years of her life with my right kidney inside her.
Sarah’s voice on my phone is choked. “I just want you to know, that kidney worked up until the very end. That was what she wanted, to die with that kidney working. I want to thank you for that kidney.”
A few days later Sarah calls again as I’m hurtling down the highway in my dusty old station wagon. She says she’ll be coming to San Francisco later this month to scatter Gladys’s ashes on the shoreline of the city she loved best. She says she wants to have dinner; there are things she’d like to tell me.
What will it be like, I wonder, to come face to face with the woman who did what I couldn’t manage to do — love and take care of Gladys until the end?
Thinking of Gladys, I have to laugh at my dented, twenty-year-old Ford. Gladys would have hated it. During our time together, after months spent gazing at glossy auto-dealer porn, she bought a brand-new Toyota Camry with a moonroof. Not a sunroof, a moonroof. She was proud of the distinction. Its seats were creamy leather, and its muscular flanks shone pearlescent maroon, almost scarlet. We called it “Pearly.” Even on her worst days she looked happy in that car, gloriously ensconced behind the wheel with her sunglasses on, blaring some Puerto Rican crooner on the CD player.
The first time I met Gladys, she was sitting in a twenty-four-hour cafe on San Francisco’s Market Street, wearing a gauzy red blouse and eating a triple-decker sandwich. She stopped when she saw me watching her. “You make me nervous,” she said in Spanish.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not understanding then that the Spanish word nerviosa has different connotations than the English word nervous. Nerviosa suggests a pleasurable state of sexual tension.
As we talked, it grew clear that we had nothing in common. Gladys was a hefty Puerto Rican who conversed as easily with the dead as with the living. I was a skinny, rational white girl. Gladys drank instant coffee, collected teddy bears, owned several hundred videotapes, and always arrived early. I was a tea snob who wrote poetry, rarely watched movies, and ran chronically late. No, we had nothing in common.
Still, when she invited me back to her house for a cup of coffee, something twisted in my stomach, and on impulse I followed the taillights of her car over the hill.
It wasn’t just a pickup line. Gladys really did make us instant coffee, and we sipped at it politely. Finally, sitting stiffly on her naugahyde couch, the coffee now cold in my hands, I realized that if anyone was going to make the first move, it would have to be me. I set my cup down on the table. Then I took Gladys’s cup from her hands and set it down, too.
At 1 AM Gladys offered to let me spend the night on her couch rather than driving all the way back across the bridge to Oakland.
“Why would I stay here if I’m just going to sleep on the couch?” I asked.
“Well,” Gladys said cautiously, “you could share my bed with me.”
We didn’t sleep all night.
I was twenty-eight, and I had never been made love to. Oh, I’d had plenty of lovers — male and female, ardent and self-absorbed, skilled and clumsy — but none like Gladys.
Gladys knew the words to every Gipsy Kings song and sang along with them after dinner in the evenings, serenading me until her voice and gaze would make me put down the plates I’d been trying to wash. She touched me with a confidence that helped me learn the dance move she called entrega — surrender. “Mia,” she’d say fiercely when she held me. “Mine.” And, when my hands and lips were on her, “Tuya. Yours. Yours.”
Once I actually had an orgasm while she stroked my head and neck in the sunlight on my deck. (No, I hadn’t known that was possible either.)
I found out quickly that Gladys wasn’t just Puerto Rican; she was island Puerto Rican, 100 percent boricua, born and bred in a tropical landscape of passion fruit, papayas, and singing tree frogs. It was her home; she’d never wanted to leave. But in college, when she’d admitted to a psychology professor that she had a “friend” who was a lesbian, the professor had told her kindly, “Your friend should go to San Francisco. She’ll have a better life there.” So as soon as she could Gladys packed up her guitar and went.
In California she became a probation officer. It was a good job, secure and well-paying, and she was inordinately proud of her shiny badge. She also discovered the gay bars and learned to seduce women, sometimes making love to them in bathroom stalls, other times going home with them. But the sex was always one-way; she never let them touch her. “That was only for someone who loved me,” she explained.
“And what about me?” I asked. “Did you think I loved you that first night?”
She hesitated. “I thought you might eventually,” she answered.
In the hallway outside her bedroom Gladys kept three yellow parakeets with bright-green wings. Panchito, the tamest of the trio, liked to perch on her finger, and when she placed her mouth close to his, he gave her little pecking kisses with his black beak. Every night she covered the birds’ cage with a towel; every morning, when she uncovered them, they sang to us.
Gladys introduced me to new music of many kinds. She had a cassette tape of a crashing thunderstorm that she liked to put on when we went to bed. At first it seemed strange to fall asleep to thunder, but soon I grew almost addicted. Still, my favorite part of Gladys’s soundtrack was Juan Luis Guerra’s hit “Burbujas de Amor”: “How I wish I were a fish, / so I could spend the whole night in your fishbowl, / blowing bubbles of love everywhere,” Guerra sang in Spanish, and Gladys sang along. In her bedroom she danced naked for me, enjoying her power, keeping her large body just out of my reach.
It took more than a month before she gathered the courage to tell me her big secret. “There’s something about me that most people close to me know, but that I haven’t told you yet,” she said. My mind flashed to an ex-husband somewhere, maybe even kids. I almost laughed when she said she was diabetic.
“Is that all?” I said. I didn’t know much about diabetes, but I knew it was treatable. “Do you use insulin?”
She looked embarrassed. “I’ve been injecting it after you leave in the mornings, or out in my car when I spend the night at your place.”
Of course, Gladys knew much more than I did about diabetes. As a child she’d watched her mother get rushed to the hospital in a diabetic coma not once but many times. Since her family didn’t have a car, they’d had to follow behind the ambulance in a taxi. “My mother would try to resist the foods she loved,” Gladys told me, “but we were poor, so she didn’t have much choice about what to buy. After she got too hungry, she’d break down and eat some arroz con gandules” — rice and peas — “and then some pastries and coffee with sugar. She did the best she could.”
Gladys was sixteen when her mother died. She wore red to the funeral; it was her favorite color. No one had the right to tell her how to mourn. A few months later, when her own diagnosis came, she embraced it with teenage bravado. Since she wouldn’t live long, she reasoned, she’d better live well.
It took a while for these stories to emerge. In the meantime Gladys sent a bouquet of balloons to my work, and then a dozen roses. Even on warm days I often wore turtlenecks and scarves to cover up the hickeys on my neck.
My first lesbian relationship had begun in a college group house we called “Feminist House.” Although that girlfriend and I had a great deal in common, the sex was always lackluster. When we finally parted, I vowed to follow my desire wherever it led. But I could never have imagined it would lead me to Gladys.
Most of the lesbians I knew were earnest white women who worked hard to be politically correct. Gladys was nothing like them. When her little cairn terrier misbehaved, she would call him a maricon — a faggot. When an Asian person in front of us drove too slowly, she’d complain about maricones Chinos — Chinese faggots. She said these things with raucous good humor. When someone drove too fast, she’d cackle, “Se va cagando,” which meant, He’s driving fast because he has to shit. When I posed for photographs, just before she pressed the shutter down, she’d say, “Jugo de tota!” — a vulgar Puerto Rican term for vaginal secretions. It got a smile from me every time.
That was Gladys’s bawdy side. But she grew serious when she told me about growing up fat and friendless, so starved for affection that she’d let the neighborhood pervert fondle her in a darkened movie theater in exchange for coins and treats. Eventually she’d learned to clothe her big body with pride, or perhaps defiance, but I don’t think she ever felt beautiful. And for a long time, despite the effect her touch had on me, I struggled to like what I saw when I looked at her. I even wrestled with her name. Why did she have to be Gladys? Why couldn’t she have some pretty Latin name, like Carmen or Anita?
I solved that problem by nicknaming her. She became “Gladiola,” or sometimes “Gladita,” or “Gladissima.” I came to see that her body possessed an ungainly magnificence. She grew on me — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I grew.
Six months after we met, Gladys had her first angina attack. The terrifying pain in her chest and arm turned her in my eyes from a stocky, vital woman into a fat invalid. Eight years younger, slender and healthy, I began to see what I was in for.
On the night we’d met, I’d told Gladys that I was planning an extended trip to Ecuador to work on a book. Thirteen months later, bound and determined, I left San Francisco with no return ticket. In Quito I rented a one-room apartment with a rooftop deck and a view of the volcano. At thirty dollars a month it was a writer’s dream. But all too often I found myself sobbing into the shared hallway phone. I missed that crazy boricua. I wanted her, I realized, no matter what.
And so, when I came home, me entregué. I surrendered.
With my NEA poetry-grant money as the down payment, Gladys and I bought a house in Oakland together. As we stood on stepladders, painting the walls of our new living room a rich salmon, fireworks erupted outside the window. It was Memorial Day, and we had a perfect view of the Oakland Coliseum. It felt as if those bright, bursting stars of light were just for us.
A few months later Gladys’s nephrologist gave her the bad news: her kidneys were close to failing.
“I’ll give you a kidney if you need it,” I offered blithely, never thinking it would come to that; after all, she had a big family back in Puerto Rico. But it turned out that none of them could donate, since they all shared risk factors for kidney disease.
As Gladys grew sicker, her body ached so much it was hard for her to dress herself. She could no longer wash her own hair; she could barely eat. I bought loaf after loaf of the round, grayish, sourdough-walnut bread that was one of the few foods she could tolerate. She had always known kidney failure was likely, but she’d thought that, when it happened, she’d just take out all her retirement money and go on a cruise. She hadn’t bargained on the fact that she’d be too sick to leave home.
It took months of testing before the doctors declared me a fit donor — months in which Gladys endured hemodialysis, slumped in a vinyl recliner while a huge machine cycled her blood through what looked like Krazy Straws. The room was filled with other patients, all similarly slumped. One man wailed aloud throughout the process. When we asked about him, the nurse tightened her lips.
“His wife won’t let him quit,” she said. “I think,” she added, not looking at us, “she wants him to suffer.”
After that, Gladys tried peritoneal dialysis, which sounded better to both of us since she could hook herself up to a machine in the privacy of our bedroom. But first she had to undergo a painful procedure to implant the peritoneal tube in her abdomen. Then there were days of training in how to use the machine. Even after the nurse pronounced her ready, the process would invariably get fouled up, usually late at night. We got used to being awakened by the machine’s beep, beep, beep. Eventually Gladys stopped trying to sleep; she’d tell me in the morning that she’d lain awake staring at the ceiling all night as the blood had siphoned out of her body and then back in again.
So when transplant day finally arrived, we thought the hard part was almost over. We were wrong.
Gladys and I went into the transplant as well prepared as anyone could have been, at least in those pre-Internet days. We’d attended a support group for months. And I’d gone on my own to see Joseph, a guided-visualization specialist whose office was in a funky old house in the Berkeley Hills.
I’d never even spent a night in a hospital. I flinched when giving blood. How was I supposed to donate one of my vital organs?
To his credit, Joseph never questioned my resolve, even when I questioned it myself. Instead he helped me visualize a safe place where I could leave my body during the surgery. I picked an apple tree, gnarled, laden with fruit, and easy to climb. Right before the anesthesiologist put me under, I pictured my body cradled in its branches. The next thing I knew, I was waking up with a nurse dabbing my mouth. My first thought was, Thank God. Now it’s too late to back out.
I healed quickly. But Gladys’s recovery was not so smooth. It wasn’t that she lacked support from the Other Side. The day after the transplant, she told me, she woke to find her brother and mother, both of whom were dead, dancing beside her hospital bed. Whenever she got scared, she called on her spirit guide, el gavilán, a red-tailed hawk.
Still, her body wasn’t cooperating. When her doctor “provisionally” let her out of the hospital, I took her home amid fanfare and balloons. Two days later, when her fever spiked, the doctor readmitted her for ten days of IV treatment with the strongest antirejection medication he had. It would be almost three more weeks before Gladys came home for good. Even then, the fiery, proud woman who’d danced naked for me never reappeared. Instead Gladys spent most days in her recliner, pale and exhausted, surfing the Spanish-language channels on TV.
I sometimes sat on the arm of her chair and watched, too. Usted Decide, one show was called — You Decide. Each episode presented a dramatic scenario, then flashed an 800 number for viewers to call and vote for the outcome they wanted. Should the attending psychiatrist reveal to her mentally ill patient that she is actually her birth mother? I wasn’t sure. The truth was, I was preoccupied by my own question: Should the young, healthy woman stay with her disabled partner, the woman to whom she’d given one of her vital organs? I didn’t know the answer to that one either.
Organ transplantation does save lives, but the price is high, and we kept paying it. There were the hours we spent filling Gladys’s giant pillbox, cutting and snipping open the foil packets of skunk-scented, immunosuppressive cyclosporine. There was the knee and hip damage Gladys suffered from the cortisone, which left her using a wheelchair more often than not. The combination of cortisone and immobility also played havoc with her weight: in the two years following the transplant, the woman who’d been big but sexy at 250 pounds gained over a hundred more. Meanwhile the diabetes that had led to her kidney failure continued to put a strain on her other organs even though, at long last, her blood sugar was in check. When she had eye surgery for a detached retina, her doctor pronounced it a miracle that she wasn’t blind. She had to wear special braces on her ankles, where the joints were destroyed. She had nerve pain, impaired digestion, and foot ulcers that made her podiatrist threaten amputation.
Gladys was ferociously compliant with her medications, determined to take good care of “Rinita,” the name she’d given to the riñon, the kidney, I’d given her. Yet she was also enraged by her condition. “How can I let you make love to me,” she shouted once, “when my own body doesn’t even work?”
Before the transplant we’d had no sex for months. That fluid language we’d spoken together, the one I had thought would never leave us, was gone. I had hoped my kidney would restore Gladys’s desire; I’d even imagined jumping lustily into bed with her, right there in the hospital. But that turned out to be just about as realistic as Gladys’s plan to go on a cruise when her kidneys failed.
After the transplant there were times when we made love in the kitchen, with Gladys sitting in her wheelchair and me rocking and moaning on top of her. But there were more times when we lay marooned on the island of our bed, the steady spinning of the ceiling fan the only movement in the room.
Then there was all the housework that only I could do. Gladys’s little dog peed whenever someone came to the door, and he often shit on the floor. I was the one who had to clean it up. Eventually, when the stairs got too hard for Gladys to manage, she slept in a hospital bed downstairs and used a bedside commode. I cleaned that, too. Then, when nerve damage slowed her digestion to a crawl, her constipation grew so bad that I learned to put on a latex glove, anoint my finger with lubricant, and disimpact her.
Even then, the body that lust had made holy to me remained holy. But it had become a site of calamity, not joy.
There’d been a time when I’d loved Gladys so deeply, so completely, that it felt as if she had grown up through the very center of my life like a redwood tree. I couldn’t imagine being without her. But for the last eighteen months of our seven years together, I was gritting my teeth.
I had believed I could give my life to Gladys. I had tried, really tried. But when I found myself hoping she would die, fantasizing about the future I could have without her, I realized I couldn’t stay.
Sometimes I thought it would have been easier if Gladys’s diagnosis had been terminal — if I’d known there was an end in sight, just a year or two away. Yet, as sick as she was, Gladys was also hearty. She had often declared herself bien pegada a la vida, well glued to life, just like her great-aunt Ana, who’d lived to be 103. And although the dimensions of her life had shrunk, there was no reason to think its duration would be brief.
I couldn’t imagine leaving Gladys and simply moving across town. It was inconceivable that I could live nearby and not take care of her. My escape had to be more dramatic. When I landed a tenure-track teaching job in Cleveland, Ohio, it was the excuse I needed. I told Gladys.
“Could we just have a long-distance relationship?” she asked me hopefully.
I steeled myself and told her no.
After that, Gladys turned stoic. The pride she’d cultivated as a kid took over. She never let me see her cry.
Did I leave because Gladys was disabled and sick? Or had her illness deepened our connection so much that I’d stayed years longer than I otherwise would have? Both and neither, I think. The petite white Jewish hippie writer and the big irrepressible Puerto Rican probation officer had always been an unlikely pair. Yet I don’t know who I’d be now without the mark Gladys made on my life.
Tonight, fourteen years after I left Gladys and twelve years after I moved back to California, I am doing three of my least favorite things in the world: driving over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco in Friday-evening traffic, driving through San Francisco in Friday-evening traffic, and parking in San Francisco. (Have I mentioned that it’s Friday evening?) I am doing all this despite the fact that I’m moving this weekend and need to pack, rent out my apartment, and sell my car. I’m doing this because Sarah, the woman who loved and took care of Gladys until her death, has invited me to dinner.
I drive up Broadway in the fog, dodging tour buses, cabs, and giggling young women clopping along in too-high heels. I stop at an ATM and see a nymph wearing a strapless peach-colored shift, though the bank sign announces that it’s fifty-two degrees.
“You must be freezing,” I say, hoping it doesn’t sound unkind.
“Yes,” she agrees cheerfully. I realize in this moment that I am no longer young.
Sarah is staying at a Day’s Inn on Lombard Street in the touristy part of town, and it’s only by praying to Asphalta, the goddess of parking spaces, that I manage to find one. I’ve dressed up a bit: thrift-store cowboy boots, a clingy Chico’s shirt I bought on eBay, and a nice scarf from Target. Still, no matter what I wear, I look like a hippie.
Sarah looks like the grandmother she is: short, round, and gray-haired. She’s also warm and frank. “I wasn’t attracted to Gladys when we met,” she tells me. “I mean, I was attracted to her mind, but not her body.”
“But that changed, right?”
Sarah hesitates. “For a while it did. We had a sexual relationship for, oh, maybe a year. After that, we were just friends.”
I’m stunned. I had imagined that with Sarah, Gladys had finally found the whole package: a woman who loved her as passionately as I had and also possessed the endurance to go the distance. Now I have to grieve the fact that she didn’t.
Sarah shows me pictures: Gladys as I knew her, fat and effusive. Gladys after her gastric bypass, looking strangely gaunt. Gladys after her cancer diagnosis, shrunken into a wheelchair, an odd cap perched on her bald head. Gladys in her favorite red tennis shoes.
“She was cremated in those shoes,” Sarah tells me. “She said she’d run as far as she could in them, until her hawk, her gavilán, picked her up to carry her to the next world.”
The following day I meet Sarah and a ragtag band of Gladys’s friends, mostly older Puerto Rican lesbians, on Baker Beach, just west of the looming orange pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge. The women lug a boombox, an armload of long-stemmed red carnations, and a photo album. Together we struggle across the sand in sweaters and fleece, fighting a chill wind. It’s November, always an iffy time for weather in San Francisco, and the cold and fog are fierce. Still, we sing along with the merengue CDs Gladys loved. Then we each pay tribute to the woman we knew.
It doesn’t seem appropriate in this crowd of mourners to say that Gladys’s biggest gift to me was sex, and perhaps it’s not even true. All those years with a woman who talked with the dead opened me up in other ways, too.
For instance, I had a visit from Gladys herself a few nights after she died. She seemed a little confused. “Am I dead?” she asked me in Spanish.
“Yes,” I told her. “You are.”
With that settled, Gladys got straight to the point. It was a conversation I think she’d wanted to have for a long time. “Why did you leave me?” she asked.
“I’m just like that,” I told her. “It wasn’t your fault. I’m just not good at staying.”
“I’m not like that,” Gladys said forcefully. “I would have stayed.”
“Yes,” I told her. “I know.” Then I woke up.
How do you leave someone in whose arms you’ve arched, screamed, shaken, and wept? How do you leave someone to whom you’ve given not only your figurative heart but also your actual kidney, an organ that Chinese medicine views as even more crucial?
The truth is, donating a kidney was easy; I had a spare. It was caring for Gladys day after day that was too much for me.
So what can I say about a fifty-eight-year-old woman who died? That she loved Ricky Martin, and yappy little lap dogs, and tostones, and me. And that now, when I add it all up, I can see that I got more from her than I ever gave.
Ruth L. Schwartz