Sunday, February 15, 2009

Handsome in America

by Regina Edelman
“You don’t look fifty, Joey, such a slim body and beautiful skin,” my friend Americus said as I stepped out of my black Beetle that sunny and humid summer day in Fairfield, Connecticut. A mild wind hissed through the sycamore, pin oak, and magnolia darkly shading our way, and willows hissed ahead.
My friend Americus did the best thing in his life not bringing a child to his world. Single, fifty-two, Italian background, short, ball-bellied, his face was wax yellow-green at the time, seriously concerned, bags of flaccid skin under his wide green eyes almost jumping outside their sockets. His lips stretched straight in a small trace. In the past, his lips weren't normally like that; the trace of his mouth used to draw like a Chinese bowl in a good mood, talking, talking, loudly joking, laughing at his own jokes, but lately the man was overwhelmed in misfortune, and had called me once more to cry out his miseries. He only called me when he thought things were too wrong for him to bear alone.
I felt some sort of gratitude to this man because when I emigrated from São Paulo to New York he gave me a job and shelter in his tiny office where we worked as agents representing a paper manufacturer in the Amazon. He gave me the job because he couldn’t stand the Brazilian mentality of doing business. He was tired of losing, and was headed to bankruptcy. “Jesus! Brazilians can’t import a container without being late at least twenty days,” he’d say, he the one who had to pay for the losses or lose the customer. When I came to work for him, I put order in that confusion, and worked my ass off to meet time tables. I made good enemies and did a good job while Americus spent his time playing Solitaire on his computer. In two years, I accomplished his wish to have a million dollars. I worked for him until the day my first book was published, a work I did in silence, on the side, on my own, because I dearest dreamed to become someone with voice in this crude world. Americus cried heartily when I announced my victory. He didn’t want me to leave. I said I wanted to be a star. He said I was too old to be a star, said I was a traitor, said that if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t know English to write any book, which isn’t true. I learned English because I always wanted too, and because I read and read, and paid attention to everyone speaking in the city, went to free English as Second Language classes twice a week night times, the only days I stopped working at eight in the evening. Then I met my adorable husband. On the day we met the first thing he said to me was, “The best way to learn English is to have a native speaker for a boyfriend.” We’ve been together for eight years.
“I can’t let you go!” Americus sobbed when I quit, but I had to go. He knew there was nothing he could do to stop me, so I went, and promised he would have my friendship forever. Without me, he closed his business, scared he would lose his millions of dollars I worked so hard to earn him. Now the man called to tell me his pain, to complain about his mother’s huge underwear he had to launder. On account of that, he lost his appetite for having sex with women, not that he was looking for any women. “Women in America are the most expensive cold bitches!” he usually moaned. His sexual preferences were wild; prostitutes from Brazil he liked the best when he used to travel there thrice a year. With his mother bedridden, he hadn’t traveled for two years in a row.
“Joey, there's no sadder thing on this earth than to find out too late you’re pretty fucking stupid,” Americus Rindo cried his sad confession. I answered he was right in a manner to cheer him up, but his eyes crossed mine, blank and indecipherable. He walked down the porch through the backyard and stopped at the margin of the pond, throwing rocks to shoo the geese, which, squawking, flew weary to the front of the house, a million dollar house he earnestly dreamed to own. His mother promised it to him if he’d take care of her until her last breath, and he had sworn he’d take care of her.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked.
“Joey, you’re the cruelest friend ever!”
“Why?” I asked, and wanted to add that cruelty is throwing rocks at the geese, but I didn’t say that because I was a visitor, and the man was already so depressed with the latest news about his hepatitis c. Before this latest news, when he found out he had the dread disease, he panicked for the end of his life, then his doctor told him he could be cured with new medications, but it would eat a couple thousand dollars from his fortune if his insurance didn’t cover the treatment. He said he couldn’t afford such expensive medicines. What is a couple thousand from your millions to save your life was my question. I don’t know, my money is invested, was his reply, greed glinting in his immense mysterious eyes. It took a month for him to find out his health insurance covered the interferon injections and ribavarin pills needed to eradicate the virus eating his liver, and until then the man called me at least three times a day to tell he couldn’t sleep or eat so anxious scared of death he was, and now that his chances to die of that disease diminished to twenty percent, he had some other trouble not yet quite clear in my mind.
“You confirmed I’m stupid!” he cried, his tales of misery filling my head.
“No, I just said that what you’re saying is absolutely right. I remember being pretty stupid myself, and the older I get, stupid I remain. Now, come on, cheer up. Isn’t it wonderful you don’t have to pay for the medicine that can cure your liver?” I asked, walking down the stairs to be close to him. He wrenched to get his pack of cigarettes in the pocket below the knees of his cargo-shorts, lit his menthol, put the lighter back in the cigarette pack and wrenched again to return it to the far pocket. He belched gray smoke, pacing around, one hand in the pocket of his cargos, silent, sad. I respected his silence and pain and patiently waited for him to speak up. In the interim, I compared his lawn, trimmed but rare, dried, weedy, bare-spotted here and there, with the other houses’ lawns, tender, hydrate, dark green and full. Birds ate in a seeder swinging in the sycamore on the edge of the road. A wind-bell tinkled somewhere. His cigarette long gone, Americus continued to pace, but now dabbed at the bundle of hair at the back of his neck as he’s done since I met him in Brazil, a mania he has every time he thinks someone’s looking at the plugs of hair on top of his head, not that I was looking at his gruesome scalp, red and irritated where the fake hair was planted.
“I’m sorry, Joey, I shouldn’t of called you and worry you with my fucking dilemma.”
“Where your dilemma lies wasn’t much clear to me so I came to talk in person with my delightful friend, Americus.”
“You call me delightful sarcastically. I bore you to death. I’m sorry. I felt so lonely today I wanted someone to talk to over the phone. There was no need for you to come from Manhattan to spare any time with me. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a burden and ruin your Saturday.”
“Look, you’re not a burden. You don’t ruin my Saturday. Your mood worried me. What’s a friend for? I came to talk to you, so talk.”
“Well, the insurance covers the medicine as you know. The doctor guarantees eight percent the medicine will work for me. After a year, we’ll see how my body reacts.” He stopped talking to light another cigarette. “Doctor warned the counter effect of the drugs will put me in an ill mood, lazy to the point of not wanting to get up from bed, and it’s possible I’ll lose my hair.”
That's his latest worry? Losing his hair?
“I don't want to lose my hair, Joey!” he cried and shook his head so hard that I thought it would roll in the pond to fulfill the vengeance of the geese.
Suddenly, an impatient buzzer cracked the air.
“Mom, mom’s calling,” Americus said and checked his watch. “Two o’clock. She needs her bladder medicine and food.”
I followed Americus to the house to attend his bedridden mother. In the kitchen, he chose a pill bottle among an ocean of other pill bottles set on a round tray on the counter. He picked a glass inside the cabinet, filled it with water from a Britta pitcher he took from the fridge, then picked a glass jar with some sort of baby-papinha with vegetables in it, set the microwave to hit it, picked salt crackers from a jar on the counter, and after all, set everything on a tray and hurried to his mother’s bedroom.
I waited in their large living room decorated with cat bibelot and white china on top of a caramel-colored credenza that matched a wood dinner table and six chairs; pillows in five tones of hibiscus from pink to faint red adorned each seat, and the same hibiscus pattern colored the huge couch in front of the only modern thing in the house, an immense HDTV in the corner of the room. Clean white lace drapes fell nicely down the four floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the lawn in front of the house, which was greener and fuller than the backyard.
“Americus, I heard voices in the house. Do you have visitors?” I heard his mother say in a low, tired, thick, and groggy voice.
“I don’t want to see anyone!”
“You won’t.”
“Don’t go anywhere. My blood pressure medicine's due at four. Fix the clock!”
“Yes, mother,” Americus said, came out the bedroom, closed the door behind him, and walked quickly to the living room. “Do you mind going back outside with me? I need to smoke. Mom doesn’t know I smoke. O! I’m sorry; you’re sitting comfortably on the sofa. Let’s stay here in the fresh air-conditioning.”
“No, no. Let’s go out,” I said and stood from the sofa, patting my skirt on the butt. He protested again that there was no need to go out in the heat and humidity, but the truth was that he badly needed to talk and couldn’t do without his cigarettes. “Forgive me…” He went ahead, unloaded the tray on the counter, filled a glass with diet coke, and asked if I wanted anything to drink. Prejudice of their glasses, afraid I’d catch his or her disease, I declined and then I followed him back to the backyard. He shooed the geese once more, and once more they ran mad from the lake, from him.
“What does your doctor say about hepatitis c and cigarettes? Are they compatible?” I asked.
“Doctor knows I smoke, said I have to quit. He gave me drugs to quit, but I’ll start the tablets when I start the liver medication the end of next week.”
“Good! Seems everything's under control then for better health and your future.”
“My future?” he considered, head cocked left. “My freedom is gone. I may die before mom, and my dream to inherit this house all for myself, only a winged illusion,” he muttered, nerves blooming out of his skin, head cocked right.
“How old is she now?”
“Ninety-two. The woman has a lust for life. She might live at least ten more years and I’ll be fucking sixty-five,” he said, gazing gracelessly to the sycamore, then turned to me and must have read in my forehead that I thought his mother a burden to him. “O, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want mom dead. I love mom!” he excused himself, shame appearing red in his flaccid cheeks. “The woman's strong…,” he continued enigmatically low, almost to himself, and tapped the bundle of hair at the back of his head.
“What’s the deal with your hair?”
“Curing my liver might be a disaster to the rest of my natural hair. You ever notice I have hair plugs?”
I nodded slowly and he looked shocked that his gruesome head was obvious to anyone. Who knows what he thinks? I’d known the man for nineteen years, and I noticed the plugs when my eyes first landed on top of his head, moreover, there's a certain pleading look in the eyes of a man with hair plugs, as if begging everyone not to look at his scalp. “I think you shouldn’t worry in anticipation,” I said, “and if the worst happens for sure, shave your head.”
“I can’t shave my head, no,” Americus said, nervously shaking his head, “for two reasons,” he paused, pensive, “one, plastic surgery to smooth my scalp the way it used to be costs a fortune, and two, there're holes in the back of my head. Plastic surgery may not resolve a thing at first, so more surgery, more money down the drain. If my scalp can ever be repaired is a question mark, surgeons say. I’ve investigated.”
“Too expensive? Holes in the back of your head?” I asked helplessly.
“Yes, the reason why I said lately I found I'm sooo stupid!” Americus said, his big eyes revealing suffering with no end.
What could I say to that man? “O! Don’t worry with your hair. If hair was a good thing, it wouldn’t grow in the asshole for us to shit on top of it.”
The man cocked an eyebrow and carried his thumb to his mouth, then bit the edge of its nail, pondering my dumb saying. Witless, indeed sad, a captive cockatoo picking on its fleshy foot is a happier picture. He went on, “To be handsome in America, you ought to keep your hair no matter if hair grows in the asshole.”
Madonna mia, he considered himself handsome! “Well, that’s a strange opinion. I rather my man bald than with fake hair, toupee, or those hair-do’s where they comb all the hair over the bald spot and harden with spray not strong enough to support a light breeze, and the hair lifts, floating like a strange satellite attached to the gravity of a strange vain head. For God's sake, who in hell says fake hair is handsome? What devil blew this in your ears?”
“O! It’s a long story. Do you wanna know? I’ll tell ya the whole thing,” Americus said, his eyes encouraging me to let him reveal the depth of his pain.
I nodded for him to him go on, and then heard a revelation.
“I didn’t need to get hair plugs. I was too young, twenty. I had hair, Joey! I swear I had fine hair, thin, but just fine. I did it all because of a girl! A girl! She turned out to be a turn-off like mom’s huge underwear.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. I dearly loved this girl. I was so horny for her. She was so cute, nineteen, blonde, blue hypnotic eyes, short hair, tiny cute ears, skinny, small bulbs I fantasized sucking till she orgasmed and I came. She promised hot sex, teased my cock and I had wet dreams for months. One day, an elderly man, late thirties probably, walked past the two of us in our college cafeteria. He had thin hair on the sides like mine, but was bald on top, and she said, ‘I'd never go out with a bald man. Your hair is just like his and falls out fast. It’s getting thinner and thinner. If I were you, I’d get a hair transplant now before your hair’s gone.' Madly in love with her, I fretted about what she said for days, figured she meant we’d be lovers if I wasn’t damn bald. It was all in my head, but it sure seemed my hair was falling out faster than ever. I fantasized about having a rich infallible crop of hair and considered getting a transplant to win over the girl who consumed my thoughts with sickening desire night and day. I requested several hair transplant clinic brochures by mail. They didn’t convince me, and the prices were high. The hair in every picture seemed unnatural, but then one shiny morning the TV announced a fair-priced transplant service. It could save my life, I reckoned, and the clinic was located conveniently in a town seven miles from here. The process was something new at the time. They took shanks of natural hair from the back of the head, and implanted them on top of the bald spot. I drove there and they put me in a room to watch videos of men. I was so impressed, those men with no hair and then with hair after the surgery, perfectly handsome, natural, and smiling.”
“The male models convinced you?” I asked. What a simpleton, I thought.
“They did, Joey. I went home happy, took more videos with me of the surgery procedures, and saw more models, each happy with the result. The pictures in the new brochures suited me better than the others I’d seen. I called for an appointment for the surgery, and didn’t tell mom or my two brothers I was about to get a hair transplant.
“I didn’t want nobody to convince me not to do it.”
“So you already knew your foolishness, didn’t you?”
He nodded bizarrely. “On the day of the surgery, the nurse called me outside to the front yard to hide from the surgeons. She told me if either of the two doctors saw her, she would certainly be fired. She badly needed to support her two kids. She told me to give up of the surgery. ‘You have just perfect hair,’ she said, ‘and it will be twenty years at least until your hair falls out.’ Until then, she hoped I was mature enough to decide not to get a hair transplant, but I was suspicious of the blonde woman, maybe in her middle-forties with a voice hoarse from cigarettes and beer. You know the kind I’m talking about?” I nodded. “She looked crazy with her weary fast talk. I barely understood her. I thanked her, and went inside the clinic. She came after me, embarrassed.” He stopped to light another cigarette.
“Do you understand that nurse risked her job to give you a good piece of advice?”
“Now I do. Now I know I clearly heard every word she said. Now I know my indomitable, vicious libido. Now I know I forced myself to believe she was crazy, but I was crazy, now let me finish,” he pleaded with one hand on his chest, the other up front in the air. “So, after the surgery, which took four hours, they put me in front of a mirror, disappointment hazing my thoughts, the top of my head red and swollen. Then I had even less hair on top, and holes in the back from where they took the hair to put on top. I was told that my head would be back to normal and my hair handsome in three or four days. Shit! Shit! I fucked up was all I could think, and could say nothing. When I got home, and mom saw it, she ran after me to beat me. My two brothers said I was loony. I ran outside the house to the fields, but had to come back home at some point, so end of the day I came back home. Mom moaned in grief, gave me a mirror and a recent picture of myself, then asked me to truly compare, and I admitted to her I fucked up. Mom cried for a few more days, but time put everything back. The shock healed in a week or two, and my family accepted to live in peace with me. So that’s the story of my implanted hair.”
“Hold on, what happened to the girl of your dreams?”
“O! She dumped me!” Vexed, he lit another cigarette. I couldn’t hold myself and started to laugh. “Are you fucking laughing at me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t…mean…to laugh…. but your hair story is the most absurd story I ever heard… she fucking dumped you…”
“She did, the minute she saw me she fled like I ported some contagious disease. I don’t know. I’m cursed to kill everything nice I have, and I’m not talking about trifle nice things like bones dogs bury. I’m talking about nice big things of heavy importance, of real value, like youth I wasted for want of this house, like my hair, like my liver, it’s only all my holy fucking fault.”
“How did you get hepatitis c?
“I don’t know, too much unsafe sex, cocaine excess. Who knows? I ain’t a saint. I kill nice important things like I even killed this lawn.” Pensive, he looked to the dreary lawn under our feet.
“What? The lawn? Why?”
“Because I’d be fined and in financial trouble if I didn’t clean the bottom of this pond, accused of being responsible for sand and mud clogging the neighborhood pipes somehow, this pond the very cause of the last flood. The town argued with mom and me. We had a month deadline to clean the pond and present the documents of service done to the town. The correct thing to do would have been to clean the bottom of the pond and dump the gunk some place around town. Ten G’s to do the work, but my Mexican gardener tossed in my head he'd do the work at night while nobody's looking, for 3G’s, and he’d spread the dirt from the bottom of the pond on my back lawn, then roll a machine after to set the dirt in the ground, so ditto, my lawn never grew anymore. Who’d a thought grass is a sentimental thing? Now my lawn is like this, sentimental.”
“Pretty much like you hair," I said, holding my laughter to not hurt poor Americus’ head even more.
“Like my hair, yes, yes. Am I old and stupid?”
“Well, yes, but, but that don’t mean the end of the world. If you can look into all this with regret it means you can chart a different destination for a better future. You have the force to move, to change directions, and there’s always time to change if you wish to.”
“You talk philosophy.”
“What isn’t philosophy in the human universe—gods, money, Aristotle’s ideas, million dollars skyscrapers that wind or fire can knock down one minute to the other? Our intelligent world comes from our superstitious small heads; everything meant to fit us humans are only ideas of other humans, old ideas that aren’t necessarily ideal any more.” He conceded my words with a nod. “Can’t you have your life independent away from this house? You can go any time you want to, just manage things right before you leave.”
“Yes, but who’d care for mom?”
“Pay a nurse to be with the woman, Americus.”
“Too expensive! Mom don’t trust strangers!” he said exasperated.
“Look, don’t you have two brothers? Didn’t they come out through the same womb and sucked her same nipples? Talk to them. Make a new plan. Maybe they can alternate with you to take care of mom, and you could travel off for two weeks to Brazil for fun. Don’t you think you deserve a break?”
“Mom’s will is that I take care of her in order to have this house. I agreed. I can’t blow off a million dollar house. My brothers and their wives would fight me in court to sell the house and split the money with them, but mom already gave them their portions. Mine is the house if I take care of her.” His dismal face snarled greedily.
“Americus, look, I think your well being is worth more than a million dollar house. If the house is so much more important to you, then I don’t know how to tranquilize your troubles. Meditate.”
He cocked his head to understand and look at me. “I’d like to die if I lose my natural hair,” he cried.
I didn’t think he heard or believed a thing I said, so I reassured him. “You see at this moment how much more important your hair is to you than the house? Wouldn’t you give up the house if you could have your hair back with no menace of it falling out?” I think he sketched a nod, but cocked his head again with no answer for me. “Look, you must calm down and wait for real things to happen in the right time, then you’ll see what attitude to take to remedy whatever afflicts you. Don’t precipitate any act that you may regret later or make some loved one cry for you. Didn’t you learn from your past? Enjoy this backyard. Sit on the ground. Close your eyes and breathe. Think of nothing, think of yourself as a piece of the whole universe, a sacred important piece. Hold in this position for three minutes at least. That will calm you and help you to go through hard time or not. Today you’re not sure if you will lose your hair, so don’t worry with that at this moment,” I said, looking at the time on my cellular. 3:30. “I have to go, Americus. Follow me to my car.”

Three days later, the phone rang. “Hello, Joey? This is Ignacio. How are you?” I heard an urgency in Americus’ brother’s voice.

“O! Hi, Ignacio. I’m doing great. You?”
“Terrible! My brother was found hanged this morning. When mom buzzed for her six o’clock kidney medication, he didn’t come. She sensed something terrible could happen to her if her medication was not perhaps administered at the usual time, so she called 911. Americus left a note for you:
“I couldn’t take it, Joey, and sent myself to oblivion. I precipitate against my life too. One thing I learned in this life, I was coward to live, but not coward to die. You talked so deeply true when visiting me three days ago. I meditated. I was calm for a while, but the old anxiety took me, and I felt peace isn’t for a tired and vicious soul like mine unless you’d be around me night and day, for your voice pretty much comforted me. I know you were tired as hell of my nonsense through this life. Forgive me whatever I did to annoy you. I also know of your loyalty to me. I was glad I encountered you. You’re right. A million dollar house is not worth any exchange for well being.”
©2009 Regina Edelman

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