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From My Body Is Paper, which will be published this month by City Lights. In 1996, Cuadros died of AIDS complications at the age of thirty-four.

I had been breathing irregularly for the past few weeks, hyperventilating, hacking up yellowish phlegm. When I had a checkup with my doctor, he found nothing and thought my lungs sounded fine and strong.

Marcus was concerned as I went through bottles of grape-flavored cough syrup, bags of lemon drops, and gallons of bitter ginger tea; he insisted one night that I go to the emergency room at the nearby hospital. By that time it was apparent; my blood pressure was off. I could barely string more than three words together before I had to gasp for breath. I was immediately put in a thinly covered hospital bed, TV remote on my right, bed control on the left. My nostrils were tubed and fine streams of moist oxygen were pumped from the wall behind the bed covered with other medical gadgetry, overhead lamps, blood-pressure sleeve and gauge, various plugs for life-support machines, IVs. For the moment it felt good to lie within the cool sheets of the hospital bed, my feet raised slightly, my back angled gently up. The New Zealander nurse who attended to my needs brought me delicious chicken sandwiches, glasses of crushed ice with water and lemon slices. She let me watch my favorite TV program before she painlessly extracted the twelve vials of blood into various-sized tubes with colored tops, all needed to start the many tests I was to undergo.

That night I dreamed my mother was yelling down at my youngest brother, the one I feel closest to. As the red-infused dream of my mother’s tirade went on, her face changed into a bloody distortion, the creases in her face and forehead looked as if carved with a hatchet. She held a knife, a long, familiar kitchen knife that was the sharpest blade she had when we were children, and she could cut whole chicken parts with it, breaking the joints, slicing easily through the flesh. Once, she cut herself badly with this knife. She did not scream or cry; she simply clenched her finger under the faucet and blood swirled in the sink with the juice of the pulled-out chicken neck and brown giblets.

As if mirrored silk, the knife slid through my brother’s rib cage, revealing organs still throbbing, like holy cards of Catholic martyrs. My voice became enclosed in old black lead. I wanted to scream the harshest words I could use; my face dripped jewel-like tears while my body thrashed. Still, my mother kept on stabbing and slashing, the knife slicing through bone, severing arteries and creating spigots of shooting blood. My heart ceased as if being crushed between two firm hands. I was afraid to approach them, my brother’s skin draped across her feet. I hunched down to protect my chest, deforming myself, as I have done my whole life, when she would strike me across the mouth for saying smart things, making sure I knew who ruled my life, enforcing that I had to be perfect in everyone else’s eyes except hers because she knew how worthless and pathetic I was.

My New Zealander nurse touched my arm gently. “Do you always have night sweats so badly?” The sheet that had been covering me was sopping wet and smelled strangely of my body, tin cans, and cayenne pepper.

Twelve more empty vials were placed next to me; with tender movements she began to tie off my arm with a stretched latex glove. The muscles of my upper arm winced, circulation stopped, and my hand became numb.

The doctor stood in the room, clipboard tilted so only he could see the results of the tests. He was stocky, with black curly hair and a large bulbous nose. He tapped his nose with a single finger and then spoke. He was very concerned about why I was on such heavy antidepressants and another psych-oriented drug. I told him of my lifelong history of depression, my earliest experience at six years old, how I would lock myself in dark rooms, speak to no one.

He suggested that when I got out of the hospital I should see a psychiatrist and work myself off the psych drug; the antidepressant was my choice, however.

Some of the best drug experiences I’ve ever had were in the hospital. When I was suffering from shingles, I screamed for Demerol shots. It was lovely. With meningitis, the same drug of choice. But with pneumonia, they decided Halcion was best for me.

I stared across at Marcus, who was making a valiant effort to be there for me as much as he could; even though our area was having the worst winter in recent times, he’d come. The rains drenched his clothes, staining his shoulders, the calves of his legs. The buses he had to take were always late and crowded and he complained of people coughing without covering their mouths. He would bring me movies, snacks, my CD player, magazines that had only pictures.

My room turned into a Salvador Dalí painting; clocks melted like processed sliced cheese. Small silver disks would appear at the edge of my vision, and when I turned, they would dart the other way. I began to sleep like children sleep, or maybe I was the newly dead.

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June 2024

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