Oranges

It’s terrible when you’re defeated by a bag of oranges.

The oranges were just a purchase, one of many at the supermarket. It was such a tiny act, so lost in the millions of ordinary tasks of the day that I don’t remember the details. Maybe it was Tuesday and raining, or Thursday and annoyingly sunny as usual. Maybe I had bought the oranges in some futile effort to be healthier. Though it was clear to me, by then, that it was pointless, and too late, and that I should just be eating chocolate and blowing my savings on frivolous things like cruises and tiaras, or if I liked that sort of thing, whiskey, and cigarettes, and hookers.

What I wonder now is, why would a 32-year-old single woman, who lived alone, and who was dying, buy a five-pound bag of oranges?

Perhaps I wasn’t thinking.

Perhaps I was in denial.

Perhaps I meant to share them.

But I can’t imagine whom I meant to share them with. Even my closest friends and the most well-meaning of people made me tired. All I wanted to do was sleep all the time. The pain had made me antisocial, paranoid, and sensitive.

Whom would I have shared the oranges with when I was in such a state?

By the time the oranges began to bother me, they were as far away as my feet, which  might as well have been like reaching down to the center of the earth. I knew the inner core was there, soft and gooey like the candy center of a Tootsie Pop, but I couldn’t reach it.

How tall had I become?

I wondered how many thousands of feet had I grown. I was like Alice, who in Wonderland, had been tempted by a piece of cake and that clever little famous sign—those simple sinister words begging out to little girls, “eat me.”

But I wasn’t a foolish little girl tempted by candy from strangers. I hadn’t grown the same way Alice had. I wasn’t busting out of The White Rabbit’s house. I wasn’t in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. I was just five feet four, here on Earth, where the center of the world was on fire, full of magma burning as hot as the sun, and I knew the best part of anything, that gooey-candy-center of life, was just out of my reach.

Tensile as glass, I had been replaced by the mirror image of myself. I worried that if I was not careful in my movements, I might shatter. How many months had it been since I had touched my toes or bought the oranges? How many months since I placed those oranges in the drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator? How many months had they laughed at me?

How many months could I smell the stink of them?

Six at least,

—or more?

Death seemed slow and inevitable, as natural to me as the tiny lines forming around my eyes. Everyone gets wrinkles. Everyone dies, but the decay of the oranges seemed unnatural. Their demise seemed so much more rapid than my own—so much more graphic—oranges that in any normal context could be something else entirely.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

I once saw a beautiful woman sitting in the sun of a Spanish courtyard in Santa Fe. She stretched her young body out on a wooden bench. She delicately crossed her long legs.

She knew how to eat an orange.

She gently peeled back the thick rind, caressing its thin

—naked skin—

beneath,

as if she were about to make love to it.

Slowly, she pulled it apart,

—tenderly pulled loose a perfect piece,

++++—and bit into it passionately as if biting the neck of a lover.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

She let its juices dribble down her chin, down her neck, down her wrist. She was unapologetic about this. Most polite people would have reached for a napkin, but she just ran her hands up the side of her neck, trying to experience it one last time, before she licked her fingers clean. She let what was left grow sticky on her face in the hot sun. Afterwards, she smelled the peelings, pleased with the scent of them.

She was satisfied.

How long had it been since I had been so satisfied with anything? How long had it been since I had known oranges the way a young woman should?

Sweet.

++—and ripe.

++++—and fresh.

How long had it been, since I had been in love? If I ever had been in love, then I had forgotten. How long since I had felt passion, or an orgasm, or even been laid?

—But the oranges I knew were not like food. They were not like making love. They were not even like a one-night stand, which one might later regret. They were like death. I had forgotten what food was like, or love, or even sex. All I knew was those oranges were slowly decaying, just out of reach, and all I could do was watch.

They watched me back.

We watched each other rot like two old men in a life raft marooned in the middle of the ocean. Each of us annoyed the other’s slow demise. But I was not in the ocean. I was not an old man. I was not even an orange. I was a young woman who had slowly given up on asking for help.

I saw those oranges one last time when I got home from work that night—hours before quitting time, on a double overnight shift, at the hospital where I didn’t even have insurance. I had been working as a nursing assistant in hospitals throughout the state, but as my illness became worse, I had settled into a job at the rehab center five years earlier. Every day I helped other bodies become healthier, as mine decayed just a little more.

My last night of work, a co-worker named Hilda called the charge nurse, “Cruzita,” she said, “I’m really worried about Candice. She’s so pale. I don’t know if she should be working.”

Cruzita was the physical embodiment of the perfect woman I had grown up reading about by poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca. She had in fact married a Chicano poet, and had entire pages written about her, but my own need to be a writer made her uncomfortable. My own independence—the way I resisted the norm and always insisted on doing things my own way—exhausted her.

I was a single woman who had dared to date men young enough to be Cruzita’s son, I was an artist, and I lived alone. We were two hard-working women with strong and unending convictions in how we lived our lives. But as much as we didn’t get along, and as much as we both spent a great deal of effort patronizing each other, she sent me home that night, to rest, without harassing me about my illness like many of my other supervisors had.

I remembered our conflicts when I got home. I wanted a glass of water, but I had neglected the contents of my refrigerator; mold floated at the top of my Brita pitcher. I gave up and shut the door. It was the last time I saw those oranges.

I thought about how Cruzita and I struggled not to bicker and fight. I wondered if we would ever understand each other. I would probably never see any of the people I worked with again. It made me a little sad that she and I would be frozen in time, neither of us ever able to transcend our expectations of the other.

My outside appearance was suspended in that moment. But on the inside, I had aged centuries. In my early twenties, I had once gone to the Petrified Forest, on the New Mexico/Arizona Border. Over the centuries, those trees had turned to stone: striated rocks that, as a young woman, I once held in my hands. How many centuries had I been the petrified woman, both terrified and turning to stone? Like Susan Sontag said, “Time works differently in the kingdom of the well than in the kingdom of the sick.” Within a year’s time of an ordinary life, my insides had fossilized for eons into something not much different from all those miles of dead trees stretched out across the desert.

I was nothing more than a monument, chipped by steady hands into stone. In the kingdom of the well, this statue had begun to replace me. I only existed on the other side of living, where the natural world seemed like nothing more than an echo. I could see it in the eyes of men—the way they would try to make eye contact, the way they thought I was still a young woman:

ripe,       and ready,     and free.

I slunk gingerly out of my scrubs and went to bed. I had become sicker than my patients.

It was Sunday night. I should have been working. I should have been wherever in life I chose to be, but instead I had fallen out of time and space. I was back at my apartment, which like the oranges was a testament to the truth.

Exhausted, I pulled my stone body up the steep stairs that led to my bedroom and bathroom. I dragged myself by my thousand-pound stone feet. With great effort, I bent my stone legs over the lip of the bathtub, so I could take a shower. Then I fell graciously into my unmade bed. I slept restlessly, marinating in my own sweat. My sheets stank like the oranges, they stank like me, they stank like death, but I was too tired to care.

In the book Jesus’ Son, a hitchhiker gets into a car that he knows, by some supernatural intuition, is going to get into a fatal accident, but he’s so cold from sleeping by the side of the road, in the rain, that he doesn’t care. He just wants to be warm, and in the backseat of the car, even if it means he might never wake up.

It didn’t occur to me, as I slipped under the dirty covers, that it wasn’t normal to go to bed if I wasn’t sure if I would ever wake up. It wasn’t normal to be so tired that I didn’t care if I lived. I didn’t realize I was going into shock.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

The POUNDING, POUNDING, POUNDING, that I knew at once wasn’t right.

140, 180, or more beats a minute.

Too many to count.

Too many beats for a        single heart        to bear        alone.

But I was not an orange. I was not a statue. I was a woman whose heart should not be pounding so loudly she couldn’t sleep. I was a young woman who needed to get to a hospital and get an EKG because she thought she was having a heart attack.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

But I couldn’t get out of bed, because I couldn’t move my stone leg. It was as if someone was pushing me down. And I sank like dead weight into my memory foam mattress. And I started to feel suffocated. And for the first time I panicked, which didn’t help my heart.

It    is    absurd where

your   mind   goes       when you start    to          lose it

—the kind of   insane thoughts  you    grab    onto     for clarity when your mind begins to

Float

Like     these words.

Some TV show doctor’s voice comes to you. Some faceless “authority” who’s the star of some storyline you don’t even remember. Some impractical super show like ER, or House, or Grey’s Anatomy with make-believe hospitals where no one thinks to put a sick patient’s bed rails up, no matter how confused they are—and even the sickest patients are perfectly symmetrical, beautiful, and thin.

What was it the not-real doctor said to that not-real patient?

Something about how a broken femur could leak bone marrow into your blood stream and can cause heart problems. I had been waiting—for some bizarre epiphany—from a lunatic idea of a fake doctor—that my leg was broken—just to pay attention. I worked in a rehab hospital where I taught patients, with broken hips, to get out of bed. I knew how to get out of bed with a stone leg. If I tried, I could get to the hospital, and try to save my sorry-ass-stone-life.

What I didn’t know—as I planned my escape—was that an abscess had formed in my right torso. My kidney—to fight back—was turning to stone—and a strange mass was shoving my kidney into my spine—until the stone had pressed against my spine—and everywhere my body was fighting everything with pus, and blood, and fluid. My whole torso was so ready to pop that even my right leg was filling up with what infection the rest of me could no longer hold.

In that moment, I was grateful for my experiences in healthcare. I was grateful for what I knew of moving patients. I was grateful for my understanding of moving stone people from one place to another. I was grateful for knowing how to get my stone-self out of bed.

I pushed with my left leg, and used my arms to drag my sheet to the side of the bed. I tilted with the left. I took a deep breath, and risked letting my feet fall to the floor. I was grateful for being stiff as stone. I was grateful that, unlike noodles, statues could stand. I dragged my right foot by pulling my pant leg forward.  My toes caught on the carpet—like a zombie—like walking—like the still-living dead.

I cursed myself for leaving my cell phone in the car, and hoped I wouldn’t fall down the stairs. I threw my weight from side to side, as I held onto the wall and rail, dragging my stiff right leg. It landed with a thud down each step.

There was clean laundry on the dryer downstairs, but I had no idea what to pack.

How could I pack when I didn’t know if I was ever coming home? What shoes could I get on my swollen football-feet—football-feet I couldn’t even reach? What bag could I carry when I could not even carry myself?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, the mother packs a family of six for a missionary trip to the Congo. Orleana, a preacher’s wife—in 1959—tries so hard with everything she knows of the world—to be prepared—and fails miserably. She packs Betty Crocker cake mixes for her four daughters’ birthdays without knowing what it is like to not have a stove. Everything she thought she would need seems so brightly ornamental and useless against the mud hut walls. She would eventually leave her husband in Africa to save her children from the uncertainties of the jungle.

I realize now, despite all my experience in the healthcare field, I didn’t know anything more about being sick, than Orleana Price did about Africa. There was no way to properly prepare for it, and all the Betty Crocker cake mixes in the world wouldn’t have helped.

I should have taken a pillow and a blanket for the sixteen-hour emergency room wait. Had I known I would be there for a month, I would have thought of something to entertain myself, so my mind would not have floated so much in morphine-induced-limbo (where I would still be in pain, but be too strung out to care).

I should have taken a wide-toothed comb, shampoo, conditioner, and detangler, because a woman who has long hair, and is hospitalized, will have so many tangles that by the time she gets home the first thing she will want to do is shave her head.

But who knows these things, really knows them, until they have experienced them?

That night, all I knew was I feared nothing would be fixed. I feared like all the other doctors I had seen, no one would try to help me, even if I asked for help. I feared that after so long in the waiting room, and crying my eyes out to one more doctor, I would be even more exhausted, and there would be nothing left to do except come home to the oranges, write my will, and wait.

I wanted to be strong enough to defeat this beast on my own, but I had failed. I had failed in being independent, and I had failed in my ability to ask for help, and I knew I would fail my family by not knowing how to live. I would die young, and unnecessarily, and foolishly, and this pain and emptiness would be my only legacy to them.

But I didn’t go home to the oranges. I had the best emergency room doctor in the world. I lived because a doctor cared enough to personally run in terrified when I started throwing-up, even though it had become normal for me. She was the kind of doctor who refused to go home until she found someone to help me. And she was the kind of doctor who came upstairs, the next night, to make sure I was okay, once I had been admitted.

I stayed in the hospital where I belonged, where none of my possessions would help me, without even a shirt on my back. I watched my mother become frantic and take away what few belongings I had thought to bring with me, because she was so worried someone would steal my things while I was sleeping (and once I was finally settled in, I was almost always sleeping).

I learned to laugh at what absurd things she would bring me as I began to need clothes again. I asked for a T-shirt and she would bring me a tight fitting low-cut blouse. I wondered why she would think that’s what I wanted, and I would learn to love her for trying so hard.

I would soon learn to live without things I never thought possible to live without: a bra or underwear, my health, my mind, coffee shops, reading, writing, or anything I had felt were the things I loved and knew of myself. I would learn to let go of my fears and my attachments the way Orleana Price learns to let go of making her daughters’ birthday cakes.

I had to understand none of the things I might liked to have had with me would have done much good. I still had to let not only the doctors, and nurses, and techs, and hospital staff, help me, but my family, and friends, strangers, and even people I didn’t like, help me. I still had to hand my keys over to my mother, and let her drive my car away from the patient parking lot to my empty apartment. I had to let others clean and sift through my remains—to rearrange for me what I could not do for myself. I would have to allow others to enter my home as one would enter the homes of the dead.

I waited to find out what kind of surgery I might need, and I waited to find out how sick I was. While I waited, sleepy-minded on too much morphine, my little brother would have do for me what I could not do for myself. He would have to go into my abandoned apartment, after another week of ripening, and throw away those damned oranges.

Candice CarnesCandice Carnes worked as a caregiver for over fifteen years. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir An Incomplete Case Study of the Petrified Woman. She earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College and is currently a graduate student in Science-Medical Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She also serves on the board of directors for the New Mexico Direct Caregivers Coalition. You can find out more about her writing at: candicecarnes.com