Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Four short literary incisions (Or how I began to write things that did not let me sleep)

Catalina Florescu
Staten Island, New York, United States


In memoriam, to mom and dad

[Episode One: On Life and Even More Life]

Carla hasn’t said a word since last Friday when her younger sister, Elvira, stopped talking. Elvira has been lying in bed, eyes almost shut all the time. If Elvira is in pain, few people are aware of that isolating situation. She has been inside the house for two months ever since doctors gave her the death sentence: all it is left to do is waiting for her death. Beware of this waiting! It’s unique when compared with life’s daily vanished seconds. The older sister has been waiting, too. She has been waiting for Elvira’s death and to give birth to her second child, a boy—an ultrasound confirmed. A healthy creature is growing inside her belly. She waits for his full growth. That, and her little sister’s demise. In literary plots, we would call them opposite events. In life, one arrow points in one direction, the other simply ignores the trajectory of the first. Time feels zero in Elvira’s room. And like infinity in Carla’s belly. The sisters’ mutual silence is exemplary, but highly traumatic. Carla writes on a piece of paper that she loves Elvira to death—the irony! If Elvira has “chosen” the silent path for her last days, Carla will abide by this unnatural request. Other people think differently. They believe Carla’s silence is aphasic and may affect her terribly in the aftermath of her younger sister’s death. “What’s wrong with mommy?” Carla’s three year old daughter asks while holding her blue teddy bear. Why is the little girl in the same apartment as the dying aunt? She needs to be elsewhere, pretend playing, far away from reality. Is Carla perchance in a pretense phase of her own? Is she in a land where words have been asphyxiated and forgotten?

Carla starts to reminisce something old, remote, almost crushed into pieces by overloaded memory. It’s winter in Carla’s recollection, just as it is today. Elvira was drawing, while outside it was snowing furiously. The mother was cooking their dinner. The father was reading a novel. The snow was turning everything white. The blizzard would keep them inside for days. Their father—a teacher of literature, like their mother—suggested them to take turns to tell stories. As the time was passing by, filled with unbelievable plots and characters, the town seemed to be dipped in milk. White as in doves . . . bones . . . blank paper . . . cotton balls . . . Egyptian bed sheets . . . vanilla frosting . . . white cells . . . wedding gowns . . . butcher’s string . . . uncountable pills . . . yeast infection . . . egg whites . . . marrow . . . shredded coconut . . . sanitized gloves . . . surgical cast . . . clouds . . . Pierrot, the famous French clown . . . salt . . . pearls . . . gauze . . . the waves when they crash at seashore . . . soft cream cheese . . . bodily parts revealed after x-rayed. Death must be white, too, a non-color, an aberration to the eye and life, Carla inferred silently. The ice will melt. The pain will harden.


[Episode Two: The Alzheimer’s Report]

A woman and a man sit on a bench. He asks her: “Do you remember me now?” She shakes her head and produces a dry “No.” After a short moment of silence, she continues: “Who are you again?” He speaks to her softly while leaning his head toward her: “I’m your husband. We’ve been married for forty-five years. How can you not remember me?!” She does not interact with the word “married” at all. She is confused by the numeral, though. “Is 45 a big number?” He does not say a word. But he changes his mind: “We had a daughter together, 43 years ago. When she was little, she wanted to hear our voices constantly. One day, we taught her how to count. Each year, we would add numbers and words to her increasingly improving curiosity. So, if you start counting, 45 is pretty easy to reach. Still, for humans, 45 seems like eternity.” Silence. Big sigh. Then he adds: “45 years together. A lifetime. But now I am alone. You are neither dead nor alive, and that’s confusingly painful. I look at photos and videos with us, and yet I want to touch you, the one who sits neglectfully next to me.” She is a cocoon of iceberg wrapped in layers of fog. She is not moved by anything her husband has told her. Or, even if she is, she masks flawlessly what she truly feels.

A nurse comes and helps the woman stand up. She reminds her patient to say “Good-bye.” She asks the nurse: “What’s good-bye?” The nurse smiles embarrassed at the man. “I am serious, what is good-bye?” The nurse holds the patient’s hand and tells her not to trouble her mind too much. “Dinner will be served soon. Tonight’s special, mashed potatoes with rosemary. For dessert, crème brûlée. That’s gonna be so delicious.”

The two women are ready to start walking. The man calls them, “Wait up. Take this with you, please.” He hands in his dog. She asks, “Who is he?” He responds, “His name is ‘Fix It.’ I named him as soon as I heard your diagnosis. Every single time I call him, he looks straight into my
eyes. Fix It! Fix It! Fix It! Please take the dog with you, he will keep you company. Don’t worry; you do not have to remember his name. I encrusted it on its leash. It’s forever.” Pause. “Forever. More than 45. Forever. Like my love for you.” She asks him, “Who are you? Have we met before?” She holds the leash in her right hand. She walks away. He yells: “Fix it! God damn it, fix my wife!!! Fix her! Fix her right now! Are you a God of torture or of compassion?” He collapses on the ground in tears.


[Episode Three: 20 Minutes]

She was sitting next to him.

He was wrapped in medical gauze. He was hooked to machines. The paleness of his skin reminded her of their first encounter; she was in a Parisian café ordering milk with a drop of coffee. He was behind her and started to laugh. “What’s so funny, mister?” she said piercing him with her algae green eyes. “That’s exactly what my Nana used to drink. She said coffee would keep her awake for too many hours; she insisted that she wanted to live in dreams.”

“Live in dreams . . . lovely. I bet she was beautiful and petite.”

“She was indeed short . . . of breath.”

“Hm, don’t ruin your story with intellectually frigid ideas . . .”


“So, she was petite.”

“Yes, she was. She used to say, ‘I could fit in a bottle and sail away.’”

A nurse came in. “Do you need something? A glass of water? More tissues?” The woman nodded. The nurse went out.

Outside, the cherries were in bloom.

She thought of the Valentine cards they used to make to each other on New Year’s Eve. They agreed to do that on their wedding night, after they had made love for hours. “How could we last?” he asked her. “You are my Eve and I am your Adam, and soon we will be expelled from Paradise.”

“What are you babbling about? What Paradise? We are not eighteen years old any longer. We have outgrown our cultural predisposition to tolerate cheap narratives.” He looked at her; she seemed to be so statuesque. Outside, it had started to rain. The cherry trees’ flowers were losing their petals. “They would grow others next year,” she found herself saying this out loud. He is not. He is dying. He is lost.


A cry.

The nurse rushed back in: “It’s time. Let him die!”

“Could I buy a new set of 20 minutes with him, please?”

“No!” said the nurse. “Your time with him has expired. Let him die.”

“Please, please, please . . . then, 10 more minutes.”

“You have been asking me this for a long time. A year, in fact. Now it’s time he died. Let him go.”
She blindfolded her eyes.

“What are you doing?” asked the nurse somewhat annoyed. She did not say a word.

She stood up, walked straight to the hissing machines, and plugged them all off at once. She was counting on a very dramatized last moment.

“Happy now?” she asked the nurse.

The nurse started to dial a number. “Hey, Cynthia. It’s done. Please come and clean the room. We need it ASAP. Great! Good girl.”

The nurse went out. The woman took a cable and put it around her neck. Outside the rain stopped.


[Episode Four: Heart Shaped Shoe]

He woke up from his coma after 25 years. “Why am I in this ugly bed?” was the first thing he remarked. “What happened to my library? I had an impressive collection of books.” He wanted to get down, but the IV poles nailed him to bed, as if crucified. “What the hell? What kind of joke is this?” A nurse came in. “You are not my wife.” She dropped the glass of water.

“Ex-Ex-Excuse me?” was all she could say.

“Who are you?”

I am Mona. I am a nurse in this hospital.”


“Well, don’t freak out. You have been here for 25 years. You need to process that information before rebelling. Why are you so upset anyway? You should be happy you woke up.”

“Happy? How can I be happy? This is not my house, and you are not my wife. Where is she anyway?”

“I think she left you for another man.”


“Can you really blame her? She was faithful for a year or so, but the doctors encouraged her to see other men, to explore . . .”

“I am so going to sue this hospital for emotional malpractice.”

“Would you go from here to a courtroom? I’d rather be dead if I were you.”

“What kind of twisted humor is this anyway? It’s not even funny.”

“Life is what it is. No double meanings. No interpretation. Brutal pieces of sameness daily.”


“What do you mean?”

“I remember what I have been doing for the past 25 years. I traveled. From Africa to New Zealand. From Europe to Asia. From North Pole to South Pole. The wonders . . .”

“I have to trust you on that. For the past 30 years, I have been in charge with comatose people. You are the exception. Why did you wake up?”

I was drugged to accept that shit happens and that one can only hope not to fall in a hole full of shit . . .

“The language is so refined. Poetry to my ears.”

“Screw you! You haven’t wiped anyone’s butt to make any evaluations of my language. I portray life with my words. I am the lost poet of this world.”

“I hope you wrote down your masterpieces.”

“Nope, I did not. I believe in the oral tradition when people sat down to hear stories.”

“That’s kind of what I did to my comatose patients.”

“What did you tell me?”

“I got a good one; I came in your room, 24 years ago, went straight to the mirror, wiped off the lipstick, and kissed you. Then, I said: ‘Well, guess what? Medical case 1246272, your life got better now: your wife left you for an ordinary sailor.’” Pause. “Are you shocked? Don’t go back to your coma, please. Pull it together, man. She left. You traveled. I cleaned your butt. Life is a fairy tale.” Diabolic laughter. “Okay, enough for today. I must find your doctor and let him know you’d need discharge papers. You are free.”

“Do I still have my house?”

“How would I know that?”

“But what if I don’t have it? Where would I go?”

“To a shelter . . . You are used to living in neutral places with strangers . . . So, that’s a perfect transition from inside to outside and then back inside.”

“A shelter is for dogs.”

“Stop being such a smart-ass. A shelter is a place for underdogs.” Another shot of diabolic laughter. “I need this laughter; it’s my Faustian multivitamin. I would collapse if I did not laugh . . .”

“Oh, now I get it: you are objectively funny . . . Am I still eligible for work?”

“That depends . . . If you want to go back to being a teacher, I suggest you don’t do that. Kids today live in capsules of digital time. You are from the past. Literally. On the other hand, if you want to be a janitor, that would be fine. Although you are kind of too white for that . . . No racism here. It’s just that immigrants die to do these low profile, low paid, low esteem jobs. Listen, I don’t know. The hospital has social workers. You should talk with one. But don’t aim too high. Your time has passed, dear. I mean, you are now 70 years old. You are close to dying.”

“I feel young.”

“Wait until you get off bed. Let a week pass. Or, okay, a month. Your real age will catch up.”


“Yes? What do you want? I really got to go, so say it quickly . . .”

“Could you please listen to my heart. I hear a strange noise.” The nurse obliged and put the stethoscope on her ears; she listened to his chest for two minutes. “I’d be damned. I do not hear a thing. I really need to page your doctor. Shit! Shit! What kind of sick joke is this?!” She exited the room in a very distressed mood. After an hour, testing results showed the man did not have a heart. Instead of it, he had a shoe shaped like a heart.

After an hour and a half, he was dead. As the nurse was covering his face with a white sheet, she said: “He woke up by accident. He was supposed to stay inside any book from his beloved library. Or continue his imaginary trips.” Pause. “I am so hungry. What’s today? Ah, Wednesday. Fried Cajun-style chicken and rice and beans at the cafeteria . . . I think I will also have a slice of carrot cake. Although, it’s kind of dry.” Uncovering his face for one second: “Damn, you! Look what you have done to me: I cannot stop talking . . . I am afraid to stop talking . . .” She opened the door and slammed it really hard.



CATALINA FLORINA FLORESCU is the author of the following books: Transacting Sites of the Liminal Bodily Spaces, which is part of top-rated universities’
collections (Princeton, UCLA, Stanford, NYU, etc.); her new collection, Disjointed Perspectives on Motherhood is slated for release this fall. She also wrote a memoir in Romanian.

She teaches drama and writing at Wagner College.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 4

Fall 2013  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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