Friday, June 10, 2011


By Claudia Ricci

At the worst moments of the chemo, after she throws up into the basin, and forces herself to eat some cherry jello and maybe a few bites of banana, Anna plays the flamenco, drifting perhaps into a soleares, a sweet lament that starts slow and then pulls up tempo. And when the soleares stops working, and no longer transports her, she shifts to a tango or even, a fandango.

And then comes the day that she steps inside the doctor’s office in the black and red satin dress. It rustles as she walks, and the luscious tail of the bata de cola trails behind her. Anna picks up a fistful of ruffles in the train, and enters the examining room. Her nailed shoes, tied at the ankles in ribbons, clatter on the waxed floor. Her black hair is sleek, almost wet looking, pulled tight to her head and knotted at back in a donut. She hugs a black lacy shawl to her shoulders and in her free hand, she is pumping a red flowered fan.

The nurse enters behind her. Oblivious. She opens Anna’s medical file –three inches thick—and asks Anna to step on a scale against the wall.

“Must I?” Anna sneers. The nurse hesitates.

“Must I get the doctor?” the nurse asks.

Anna’s eyes narrow. Still holding the ruffles, she steps on the scale, and the nurse records Anna’s weight.

“Remember to subtract for the dress,” Anna says.

The nurse starts to say something. Stops. She asks Anna to turn around and stand against the wall. Anna sighs, then swivels.

As she steps against the wall, she lifts her head with all the dignity of a Castilian queen.

“Five feet ten and one half with those heels,” the nurse says, wrinkling her nose ever so slightly as she eyes the shoes. Then she turns to Anna’s right arm. “Now, how about the veins today? How are they?”

My veins.” Anna pauses. Sneers. “Are the same as always.”

Thrusting one arm overhead in the manner of the great bailoras, Anna locks herself in the dancer’s stance. She looks as if she could be plucking a ripe Seville orange off a tree. Twisting one wrist, she pulls the imaginary lush globe of fruit tightly to her bosom.

“I am glad you are so limber, Anna.” The nurse crosses her arms. “But would you mind sitting down? This will go a lot faster if you do.”

Anna glares, sits down and arranges the dress around her. Then she thrusts one arm forward, exposing a pale blue vein.

“That one looks like it will work,” the nurse muses, reaching up and snapping one finger against the inside of Anna’s arm.

“Please,” Anna snarls, pulling her arm back. “Please be gentle.”

“I’m sorry,” the nurse says. Her voice softens. “I really am sorry.”

Anna turns away, as if the nurse’s sudden kindness has made it so much worse. “Do you know how many times that my arm has been needled? Do you realize what you do to me every week? And do you realize how important these arms are to my dance?”

The nurse bites her lip. “I’m sorry. I forget sometimes. I know there are days when…when they, when we…have…considerable trouble getting in.”

Anna draws her shawl closer around her shoulders. A single tear dribbles out of one eye. She ignores it and sitting up straighter, she lifts her chin in the manner of the Iberian royals, casting a decidedly unfriendly glance at the nurse. Then she thrusts her arm forward again.

The nurse anchors Anna’s arm on the armrest and prepares the needle. “Here we go,” she whispers. Anna flinches as the needle passes into the crotch of her arm, but the nurse has tight hold of her hand.

At first Anna and her pert red lips turn away, but soon she can’t help herself: she is tipping backward to look, drawn to staring at the syringe, particularly the small butterfly spread of sky blue plastic attached to the needle. Anna brightens. “Ah, you see, my fan has blue butterflies too.” She flicks open her red fan again with her right hand, showing off the intricate design: a red background, swatches of yellow and orange flowers and blue and black butterflies dancing here and there.

The nurse glances at the fan, but is more preoccupied with the needle. She jiggles it. “I think this vein may be blocked.”

Anna blinks. Looks away. As the nurse pokes the needle in further, Anna’s eyes open wider and begin to water. Then she rapidly fans her face. The fan is a hot blooded color, and the blue of the fan’s butterflies is exactly the same blue as the butterfly of the needle, the needle which the nurse is now pushing even deeper into Anna’s skin.

“Oh Dios mío, PLEASE NO!” Anna yelps. Her face is chalky and as sweaty as it is when she dances the farruca.

“I am sorry I am hurting you, Anna, I really am.”

Anna sighs. Keeps fanning. “Yes, I should say so.” Her voice breaks. She fans faster. “How much longer must this go on?” She chews into her lower lip, and her teeth pick up some of the berry-colored lipstick glazing her mouth.

The nurse wiggles the needle ever so slightly. She sighs. Exhales. “It’s just that I have to get a blood return on this one, and I’m not getting it.”

Anna closes her eyes and stops fanning. At moments like these, when it gets particularly difficult, she always resorts to intense mental rehearsal: she goes through the newest alegria in her head. She can count it better than the seguiryas, or even the sevillanas or the malagueña.

She starts counting, but a moment later, is interrupted. The nurse sighs, slides the needle out. “I guess this one won’t work,” she says. “Sorry.” She applies a tiny circle of a bandaid over the hole left behind in Anna’s arm.

“I’m going to have to get some back up. See if someone else can help.”

Anna blinks. “Yes, well, and I think I am going to need my prescription now,” she mumbles, her fingers trembling slightly as she reaches into the ruffled bosom of her dress. Inside is a tiny vial of pills. Before the nurse can say anything, Anna has two tiny white pills in her hand and she is popping them under her tongue. “This will help.”

The nurse looks embarrassed. “Look, I am really sorry to put you through this. But I …”

“…But I don’t want to hear it,” Anna says curtly. “I really don’t want to hear it.” She smiles her thinnest, tightest grin. “Just go ahead, please, find someone. Someone who won’t hurt me. And get it over with.” Anna inhales, saying a small prayer that the pills will work their miracles once again.

The nurse leaves and returns almost immediately with another nurse. A young man. Slim and very tall and dark-skinned. He smiles and Anna looks into his eyes and her first thoughts are, he is not at all handsome, but he is very kind. And he would make a suitable partner.

He takes Anna’s hand and for a moment she expects him to kiss it. But he simply rubs his long brown fingers over the surface of her skin. “I hear we are turning you into a pin cushion today,” he says very quietly. The way he says pin: peen. And cushion: cooshun. His accent is…what? Latin? Indian? Iranian? She cannot tell, and well, what does it matter? He grows more handsome by the moment.

He keeps sliding his fingers over the back of her hand. “So how are the veins here?”

Anna closes her eyes, smiles, and gracefully pulls up her hand. Her blood red nails glitter. “My hands…are magnificent,” she whispers, opening her eyes again.

He smiles, bashfully. Anna notices the intense silkiness of his black hair. The giant oily pearls that are his eyes. She sighs. The other nurse, who is standing in the corner of the examining room, arches one eyebrow, then turns and leaves the room, making the door smack shut as she goes.

The young man looks up. Meets Anna’s eyes. Clearing his throat, he takes Anna’s outstretched hand and pulls close to examine it again. “Well, these don’t look as ravaged as the ones in your arm. I see what these treatments have done to torture your poor arm.”

“Ah, and not just my arm,” Anna shoots back. Her voice croaks. The man lifts his eyes and Anna returns the look. In it is an odd combination of fire and ice. Sorrow and fatigue. Fortitude and resignation. Pride and shame and mostly, relief. She watches in silence while he proceeds to wrap a rubber tourniquet around her wrist, making the veins in her hand bulge slightly.

“So, would you mind if I played my CD?” Anna asks, her eyelashes fluttering. Her vision is beginning to swerve. Hard shapes and straight lines are turning to butter.

“Oh, no problem,” the nurse says. “Do you need help?”

“Not a bit,” Anna says. “I have done this all before.” She uses her free hand to reach into a satin bag for a pair of headphones.

One-handed, she slips the headphones over her sleek hairdo. By now there are several stray black hairs at her moist brow.

Anna switches on the CD player and so, when the needle vanishes into a vein in the back of Anna’s left hand this time, she is listening to a cantaor singing a woeful tale of his lost gypsy.

Anna closes her eyes as a bailora joins in, dancing in the background; there, now, she can hear her feet clacking rapidly on wood. Besides that, there is a set of castanets rattling and a clang of the martinetes, the ironsmiths’ metal hammering against metal. The cantaor’s voice rings up to a prolonged trill just as the young man gets his blood return.

“That will do it,” the young man says, filling a small clear tube with Anna’s ruby blood. “Now we just need to put the radioactive tracer into the vein and we’ll be all set to do your scan.”

Anna looks up from her CD, a docile smile on her lips. Her head feels loose, as if it coming unattached from her shoulders, which are now bare of the shawl. The fan sits closed up in her lap. She blinks, sinking ever deeper into the music.

“Did you know, young man, that duende eases all of our pain?” She whispers this, and her words are slightly slurred. He nods.

“Please,” she says. “Please state your name?” He hesitates.

“Arturo.” He pats her hand once more and starts to pull away. Anna wants to hold his hand there, but her grip comes too slow.

He leaves the room, and she goes limp, sinking listlessly into her chair. The pills have taken hold, no doubt, because now she is yawning, and smiling broadly, and dancing on a brightly lit stage that is rising into the air. She laughs. After all this is over she will call her sister, Margarita, and tell her this: that it isn’t hard to dance when you are rising toward heaven, because there you can freely pluck oranges and apples from the Garden of Eden.

And because you are on chemo, and because everyone feels sorry for you--even God—He doesn’t care one bit that you are there stealing His fruit. And eating it right there in the Garden.

Anna laughs. When the tall young man returns with a small lead box, the one that contains the radioactive isotope, she reaches out to take his hand. He puts the box down and staring hard into her eyes, he readily accepts her hand – and his role in the dance.

Anna watches him, a placid smile on her lips. And then the music turns fiery, and the moment comes. The stage clears and he steps into the white circle of light. His elbows lifted to each side, and his narrow hips immobile, he tips his head back proudly and begins pounding his heels in perfect unison with the compas, the rhythm of the music. Ah but what a pair of legs Arturo has, thundering now against the floor. Yes, she thinks: he is more talented than any partner I have had before.

Now it is her turn to spin: the young man reaches out one hand to her. Mustering all of her grace and dignity, she lifts herself off the chair and thrusts her torso forward. Her bosom swells fully into the satin fluff and ruffles. Moving slowly at first, she begins swiveling and tapping, all the while holding one armful of ruffles at her hips. The other arm stands overhead. Her movements quicken, and soon her hips are twisting, and her feet hammering like a sewing machine. And there, there are her wrists and fingers, all bent at odd angles, giving her hands the look of branches, branches on an orange tree, a tree from which she always plucks her imaginary fruit.

She pauses, out of breath. The two of them –- she and her amazing Arturo. They are holding hands, and now, suddenly, they are bowing. Surely it cannot be over already? Together they occupy the stage light. Staring blissfully into the darkness behind her eyes, she feels her heart pump as quickly as her fan, as the young man whispers “Anna, you were just wonderful.”

“Thank you,” she whispers back. And then she waits, patiently, for all the clapping to stop. And for the needle to be withdrawn and for the curtain, finally, to fall on all of this.


"Needled" appeared first in the North Dakota Quarterly.

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