Monday, March 17, 2008

Switch!! Chapter One, Tell me Sandra am I Insane?

By Claudia Ricci

This time I’m on the phone with my best friend, Sandra. This time I’m trying to explain it and I really think it’s finally making some sense.

But then I hear myself. “So I’ll be sitting there, reading a book, or standing at the counter, cutting a grapefruit or peeling a carrot,” I begin, “and then suddenly I close my eyes and something comes over me and I switch, boom, I am just...her.” The last word comes out as a whisper.

Sandra, who is closer to me than my own sister, was my roommate at Brown an eternity ago. She was a chemistry major. Thoroughly practical. Thoroughly. Rational. She learned how to measure clear liquids in glass beakers. She went on to grad school. She learned how to use something called a single-beam spectrophotometer. She mastered ion-exchange chromatography. And electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Yeah, well, she is way-over-the-top brilliant. But the neat thing is, she's also gorgeous and hot and sexy, with a flawless complexion and a head full of these long fluffy dreds. And even though she's a brain, she's fun-loving and unpredictable and playful, and she has a heart the size -- and deep rich brown color -- of Africa.

A few years ago, she moved out to California to take an exciting new job. She spends her days working for the Ibex Corp. in San Jose, hunkered down in important meetings. Writing impressive research reports.

At home, her house sits in one of those immaculate California suburbs. The streets look buffed. Inside, her house is carpeted white. Her closets are organized with blue plastic crates. They are all labeled. She makes lists for every day of the week and she checks off each item she has completed at the end of every day. Her conversation is peppered with phrases like “at this point in time.”

A moment goes by. “Well, so, what’s the problem with getting into your characters? I don’t see the harm in having a very active imagination,” Sandra says. In college, I was the English major. I stayed up nights writing by a candle. Sandra would find me in the morning, my head on the desk next to the melted lump of white wax.

She used to read every short story I wrote. Every poem. All of it. Often she would write comments like, "I'm not sure I get the point of this one, but honestly I love it. I really do."

I am pacing the kitchen now. Ten steps to the door, ten more back to the jade plant in the corner. Around and around the granite counter three times, my fingers trailing the cool surface. “The problem, Sand, is that I can’t stop thinking that I’m her. Sister Renata. The problem is that I’m in her life as a nun more than I am in my own. The visions are coming more and more often.”

I close my eyes. I feel my backside damp and cold against the stone bench. I feel my fingers gripping the bars. I smell the rust on my hands and the cabbage slop in my metal dish and the sweat in my pits and worst of all, I smell the shit in the foul pail. The putrid odor is a swamp rising out of the corner of the tiny cell. Only when I yell and yell and bang my spoon incessantly on the dish does the jailer finally come down the hall jangling his keys and complaining about having to retrieve it.


"Yeah?” I am back on the phone.

"As long as you’re getting to work, teaching your classes, and functioning in the house, I don’t think you should worry too much.”

I run my finger, the one that’s sore from playing the flamenco rasqueados on the guitar, along the granite counter. Quartz crystals the color of a cantaloupe glisten under the kitchen light. “But I do … worry,” I say, very softly. “Lately I worry a lot.”

Sandra sighs. “I know you do,” she says. “You worry way too much.” She doesn’t ask what I worry about. She doesn’t have to. She flew back East numerous times six years ago, just so she could be with me through the chemotherapy and radiation, the treatment that almost killed me, for the cantaloupe-sized tumor that filled my chest. She has also accompanied me on occasion to see a few other doctors too, namely, my shrink. Once she helped me make a list of all the meds I’ve been on -- Ativan to Prozac to Zoloft. She assembled careful notes when side effects forced me off.

And she’s been with me through the last year, through too many phone conversations to count, when I wept over my last child --Adam-- leaving for college. And then, my husband David’s affair, which ended, but left me wallowing in misery and despair. There have been buckets of tears filling Sandra's and my transcontinental conversations of late.

I thank her again for sending me a half dozen embroidered hand towels for my bathroom. She used her brand new, super deluxe $7500 sewing machine to embroider each towel with my favorite flower -- a yellow rose with blood red tips.
That also happens to be the very same rose I see so often when I close my eyes and jump back in time to the other life.

“You are more than welcome to those towels. I felt bad I didn’t get them to you sooner, in time for the holiday. And I felt bad we didn’t get to see each other this year over Christmas or New Year's. So are you thinking of coming out here for a visit any time soon?”

“Maybe.” And then I start to say something that I had no idea whatsoever I was going to say until this moment. “I want to come out to do..."

I stop.

“To do what?”


“Research? On what?” Sandra heads up a quality control unit at Ibex. They do all kinds of studies on subjects I'm not sure I can describe.

“Well, so, you know. I would be researching this...this story about Sister Renata because I feel maybe..."

Sandra interrupts. “I would say just do what you have to do. Come out. Stay with us. Maybe this is what you need. A way to distract yourself from all the heartache and trauma you’ve been through.” She sighs. Her words feel like cold little hammers tapping on my heart. My fingers freeze on the granite counter.

“What I wanted to say, Sand, is that I honestly believe the nun story could be...true. I mean, everybody I tell it to says they think so too.”

I keep seeing the newspaper in my mind. The San Francisco Examiner headline: “Nun may hang for her cousin's murder.”

“Honestly, I see all it so clearly in my head.” I let my sentence go off a cliff of silence.

My dear dear Sandra, always there for me, catches it. “Well you are always welcome here,” she says simply. “Whatever it is you want to do, Don and I would love the company. So just come on out and stay as long as you want to. You’ll have to have a car of course.”

“So then you don’t think I’m...crazy to do this?” I hold my breath.

Sandra laughs. One short laugh. “Of course I think you’re crazy. You’ve always been crazy. You're just a little more crazy now. But that’s what I love about you. Or one thing at least.”

When I hang up the phone, I go out to the backyard without a jacket, even though it’s March and only 20 degrees. I walk in my house slippers across the brown crusted grass and when I get into the middle of the backyard I gaze up to the dark sky. Pinpricks of light. Glittering stars. Blinking on and on and off and off. The stars start it going.

The switching. I close my eyes and there I am, under an pale green night sky, and I'm riding on the wagon with Senora Ramos once

Stay tuned for Chapter Two of "Switch!!" a novel by blog! A website is coming shortly, where the entire novel will be housed. Meanwhile, the novel is at:

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