All his patients called him El Gato. Even my mother called him that. His clinic was on the top floor of Herrera Llerandi Hospital, in Guatemala City—the same hospital where I’d been born. I instantly liked his kind face and his peaceful demeanor and his sparkling blue, catlike eyes. I was six years old. I had no reason to distrust doctors. Not yet.
As my mother and I walked into the examining room of his clinic, he ruffled my hair jokingly and told me to please sit on the red vinyl chair. He was dressed in full scrubs, as if coming straight from surgery or as if about to go downstairs to perform one. He sat next to me on a metal stool and cranked a manual lever on the side of the red vinyl chair until I was staring straight up at a warm yellow light that felt good on my face. I closed my eyes and just lay quietly while my mother explained to him in detail my chronic nasal allergies. Yes, every day. In the morning, still in bed, as soon as he’s up. Sniffling and sneezing and runny nose and watery eyes. Sometimes it can last until evening, when he goes to sleep. My mother took a deep breath and then, as for some sort of grand finale, started to rattle off the long list of medications already prescribed, taken by me to no avail, and discarded. The handsome doctor just nodded in silence, one hand on his chin, until she was done. He finally turned his attention to me.
We’d better get started, he said, as he fastened on a head strap with a round mirror.
He tilted my head back gently and peered into my nose for a couple of minutes, maybe more, as if he was looking for something he’d left there. Then he opened a drawer and took out a small glass vial and a long syringe with an even longer hypodermic needle. I must’ve squirmed or whined because he immediately placed the syringe on a metal tray behind him, out of sight. He put on black surgical gloves. As if on cue, a nurse walked in.
What followed is still difficult to describe.
All I remember is the nurse standing behind me and holding my face firmly on either side, with both hands, while the doctor, his beautiful blue eyes right up against mine, proceeded to inject something deep inside each one of my nostrils. Then everything went blurry—perhaps because of the pain, or the uncontrollable trembling, or the tears.
So intense was the stream of blood from my nose that I rode the entire way home lying down on the back seat of the car, clutching a sullied white towel over my face. The pain lasted well into the night, as I cried myself to sleep.
I now know the handsome doctor injected me with cortisone, the new thing at the time among ear, nose, and throat specialists, supposedly to treat nasal allergies. I remember the exact words I told my mother that night to describe the pain: a fire in my head. I remember the feeling that started coming over me in the following days—and which I experienced for years, without telling anyone—when suddenly everything around me, for a few seconds, moved in a kind of slow motion and sounded as though someone was gradually turning the volume all the way down. I remember going back to the clinic in the hospital five more times, for five more treatments, almost paralyzed by fear. My mother disagrees. She says it was only three.
A few years later, in the fall of 1981, we fled Guatemala in the midst of the political turmoil and escalating violence of the armed internal conflict, and moved to South Florida. I was ten years old. Since arriving, my allergies had become even more severe.
I would go to school every morning with a tissue or two in my pocket and always one in my hand, balled up tightly inside my fist. When that tissue got too moist or was finally unusable and falling apart, I would toss it in the trash and dig a fresh one out of my pocket. Not only was I the new kid in school, not only was my English still heavily accented and choppy at best, but I was also the boy with the runny red nose and the permanent wet tissue in his hand. I heard Sneezy, of course. And Snotty. And a Rudolph or two. But none of it bothered me: I had recently discovered and fallen in love with Linus from Peanuts.
Linus van Pelt.
I held onto my tissue the way Linus held onto his blue security blanket. That is, all day and all night. I would sleep with one clutched in my hand. I would reach for a new one in the morning as soon as I got out of bed. I would still have one inside my fist at three in the afternoon, when my mother picked us up from school—although my allergies would have subsided much earlier, usually by the end of the morning. It didn’t matter: the tissue was my security blanket in this new, air-conditioned, English-speaking world I’d been thrust into, and I was not about to let go.
I understood Linus, complex as he may have been. His blanket was not only a clear symbol of weakness and insecurity, but also, quite ironically, a source of strength. On occasion, he would use it as a bullfighter’s cape, as a slingshot, as a parachute, as a paper airplane, as a kite, as an insect swatter, as a grappling hook to open the mailbox and deliver a letter to the Great Pumpkin. Once, at summer camp, a boy warns him that he’s going to be viciously teased because of his blanket. And Linus, in response, rolls it up and uses it like a whip to cut off a branch from a nearby tree. They never tease me more than once, he declares.
And they didn’t.
There must have been thirty or so small syringes lined up on the plastic tray, cocked and loaded and ready to go.
I was now twelve.
It’s called an allergy skin test, the specialist said. It’s imperative that we first find out exactly what he’s allergic to, she continued, speaking as if I weren’t there.
She was sitting behind her desk. My mother and I were sitting in front of her, side by side, listening attentively. Or at least my mother was listening attentively. I couldn’t stop looking at the thirty or so needles that were about to pierce my arm.
With the aid of some children’s illustrations mounted on cardboard that she kept showing us and then replacing on her desk, the doctor explained the procedure. She would inject a very small, diluted dose of different allergens into my arm (a drawing of glass capsules smiling and dancing). Mold, animal dander, pollen, bee venom, penicillin, various foods (a quick sketch of each; I remember the bee looked a lot like the one on the box of Honey Nut Cheerios). She would then, over the next fifteen or twenty minutes, monitor me to see if there were any allergic reactions on or around each of the marks on my skin (an illustration of a friendly doctor waving hello with a gloved hand). Intradermal, she said. Just a tiny prick. Not at all painful.
She then propped up a drawing of someone’s arm with what appeared to be two long, parallel lines of red and blistered mosquito bites, and started talking about the reactions and possible treatments to those reactions. But all I could do was stare at the drawing of the suppurated arm and imagine the thirty or so needles going into mine, one by one, in two straight rows, down the length of my bicep and forearm. And before I knew it, I was lying on the floor, drenched in a cold sweat. It wasn’t the first time I’d passed out at a doctor’s office, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was allergic to certain types of pollen, we ultimately learned, after much ado and some ice chips.
I met a girl who told me I blew my nose incorrectly.
It was the mid-1980s. We were both in high school, though I was a couple years older. She, too, suffered from chronic nasal allergies—albeit much less severe than mine. And she, too, would always have a tissue handy, just in case. A kindred spirit, I thought when I first saw her pull a musty white tissue from her bag. We started dating, and she immediately told me that I blew my nose the wrong way, and also that her father wouldn’t allow her to date a Jew, but she liked me, so why the hell not. I was taken aback by both comments. Who did she think she was, telling me, a longtime expert in the art of nose-blowing and tissue management, that I blew my nose incorrectly? But I thanked her, of course, in that pitiable way that a boy thanks a girl for anything whatsoever if there’s even the slightest chance of sex. Unfortunately, we stopped seeing each other before any sex took place and also before she’d revealed to me the secret of how to properly blow my nose.
I learned to live with nasal allergies. To me, they became nothing more than an inconvenience I’d gotten used to, an encumbrance with very clear laws and maxims. Such as: always keep a box of tissues at arm’s length (one in the living room, one in the kitchen, one in every bathroom, one in the car, one on either side of the bed), and have at least six brand-new boxes waiting in the closet. Always check before leaving the house that you have a clean tissue or two in all your pockets—jacket, pants, and shirt. When in public, wipe or blow your nose as discreetly and politely as possible (even if you weren’t lucky enough to be instructed by a pretty anti-Semite on how to do it the right way). Never trust the quality or quantity of hotel tissues; your own personal stash will travel better stuffed in a Ziploc bag than in the original box.
I knew all of this and accepted it. But two things changed after I finished college. Two things that now, looking back, would be inaccurate to classify as independent or separate events.
The first was that I had to leave the United States. My studies were over. And since I’d always been there as a student, with some form of student visa, I was forced to return to my native Guatemala—a country I didn’t know anymore, a culture that had become foreign to me. I could now barely speak Spanish (my mother tongue had been quickly displaced by my stepmother one, English). Moreover, I would be taking back with me a college degree that was nothing more than a framed piece of paper on the wall. Although I had majored in engineering, I’d never really chosen it. It was chosen for me, one could say, partly because I was good at math, partly because my father was an engineer, and partly because I was seventeen and, like most people at seventeen, I wasn’t passionate about anything and had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. It was expected that I would study engineering. I was supposed to become an engineer. So I did. And then, overwhelmed with frustration but unwilling or unable to do anything about it, I reluctantly went back to my country, which had long ago ceased to be mine.
The second thing, then.
Up until that point in my life, I just had allergies. I was the guy with allergies. All right, I understood that. I could deal with the daily sneezing and the perennial runny nose and the used tissues in my pockets and falling behind me like some sort of bread-crumb trail. That was my condition, my reality, my burden, which I had learned to bear. But now, suddenly, there was pain.
It started late one evening. I was driving back from the beach to my house in Guatemala City when I suddenly felt as though someone had jammed an ice pick into my forehead. I was forced to stop on the side of the highway and wait for the pain to subside—which eventually it did. But the same thing happened again a few days later. The same piercing pain, but now around the eyes, or above the eyes, or more to the point, behind the eyes. I called a friend who was a pediatrician and described the pain to him over the phone. He asked me to lean down and touch my shoes—and I instantly grimaced from the throbbing in my forehead. Sinusitis, he said. Probably from complications because of your nasal allergies.
I’d never before had sinus pain, so didn’t recognize what it was. The everyday sneezing and sniveling I could handle, but this was altogether different. This, to me, was insufferable. And thus began a new, long list of medications, now for sinusitis: first, the more mild over-the-counter antihistamines; then, the stronger painkillers; then, antibiotics with prescription; and finally, a small plastic container filled with little white pills given to me by an aloof and impatient doctor. One a day, he said. A very mild dose of cortisone.
I was twenty-five, and right back where I’d started.
There were needles all over my face.
It would be too simple to say that I accepted the idea of going just because of the pain. Yes, I was at the end of my tolerance with the constant and increasing sinus pressure and the antibiotics and the antihistamines and the daily cortisone pill. But that wasn’t it. My angst, I now know, went much deeper than the pain in my forehead.
One afternoon, while I was visiting a girlfriend’s house, her mother saw my container of cortisone pills. She stood up from the living room sofa and went over to the phone. This is a gift I’m giving you, she said, as she dialed a number and made an appointment at an acupuncturist, without ever asking me.
I could have stopped her, I suppose. I could have told her I was too rational, too scientific to believe in that. But I had no choice in the matter. It was no longer up to me.
All of my cynicism vanished the moment the doctor walked into the small examining room and closed the door behind him.
He greeted me formally, asked how he could help, and remained standing in silence, waiting for me to speak. I was sitting on the examining table already, my legs hanging over the edge. As if unburdening myself, I started telling him all about my allergies and the sinus pain and the little white cortisone pills. He interrupted me and said, in a calm but firm voice, that he strongly recommended I stop taking them, that they would only make matters worse. He asked me about my emotional state. He asked me about my diet. He asked me to describe the exact color and texture of my mucus. He asked me if the pain was mostly on the right side or the left side of my head. Then he asked me to lie down on the examining table.
And he began placing needles all over my face.
He would take a needle out of a black plastic flask he held in one hand, wipe a spot on my face with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball he held in the other, place the tip of the needle on that spot, and stick it in with two or three gentle taps of his index finger. I now had a needle on the top of my forehead. A needle between my eyebrows. A needle on either side of my nose. A needle in each cheekbone. A needle in each of my earlobes. He kept sticking more needles into my face and, as he was doing so, he was asking questions that, to me, had nothing to do with my allergies or sinus pain. But I kept answering.
I told him about my childhood. About my family. About going to live in the United States and almost losing my Spanish. I told him about being forced to come back to Guatemala. You don’t like your job, do you, he asked suddenly. I hadn’t even mentioned my job, but I said that no, I didn’t. He walked a couple of steps away from me and turned off the light. We were in the dark now. I could feel his presence next to me. I see, he said. And so, Eduardo, if not engineering, what do you want to do? I remained silent. I wasn’t expecting that question. What do you like, he insisted, and I definitely wasn’t expecting that question. In my mind, in my world, what you did for a living was one thing, and what you liked was another. They weren’t the same. They couldn’t be. Or could they? The dark suddenly felt darker. I didn’t know what to say. But warily, almost bashfully, an answer crept up from somewhere inside me and echoed there in the cave-like dark.
To read, doctor.
My words surprised me.
I was never a reader. Never liked books. As a kid, I would only read the novels that were assigned by my teachers if I wasn’t able to find a good synopsis, or the CliffsNotes, or a bookish schoolmate who would agree to read and summarize them for me. What for?
But recently I’d discovered literature—or fallen into it, by accident. Últimas patadas de ahogado, a friend later said, half-jokingly—as I described to him my going one afternoon to the university in search of something—the last, desperate kicks of a drowning man.
I was drowning, slowly, in a spiral.
After a couple of years living back in Guatemala, I felt even more despondent, stranded, and out of place than when I’d arrived. Desubicado is the precise word in Spanish, which implies being out of place mentally and emotionally, not just physically. It was as if I were living someone else’s life or someone else’s idea of what my life should be: an actor playing a role in some sort of ancient and colorless tragedy. Out of the blue, I would become shrouded in a general sadness. My anxiety was increasing. I had a recurring nightmare of being unable to scream as I fell gradually in a spiral, without ever reaching bottom and without anybody ever noticing.
And so, one afternoon, I went to Rafael Landívar University and asked if I could enroll in a couple of philosophy courses. I thought, naively perhaps, that philosophy might hold the answers to why I felt so estranged, so existentially lost. Entering the university that afternoon was my very rational way of looking for help. My last few desperate kicks before going under.
The university admissions officer, an elderly woman with lazy eyes and very little hair, told me that I could only enroll in philosophy if I also enrolled in literature. It was a joint degree, she explained, offered by the same faculty, Filosofía y Letras. I didn’t care. I was drowning.
I filled out all the forms right then and there in front of her and started attending my first classes that same afternoon and I immediately became mesmerized by literature. I still don’t know exactly why. It wasn’t a particular writer or a specific book that did it, but the concept of fiction, the fundamental idea of telling stories, the notion that literature, in a very real way, could also be a buoy.
And so I began to read. I became a reader.
The needles felt electric on my face. Pulsating and warm. I could sense in the pitch dark that the doctor was now standing near the door, his hand on the knob. He said that I should try to rest, that he’d be back in a few minutes. He opened the door and was about to walk out, but I called him back. Yes, Eduardo, he responded, the door still ajar, a tiny sliver of light coming through. I needed to say something else to him, but I didn’t know what. I wanted to tell him I understood that all those needles on my face weren’t only treating allergies and sinus pain. To tell him I knew that all those needles on my face were part of something larger and deeper I had just begun to understand, which would soon propel me into quitting my job as an engineer with no other plan than to read books. To tell him that for the first time in my life I felt that I’d spoken in my own voice and uttered words close to the truth. But there was no need to say any of those things. So I just thanked him. You’re very welcome, he said, as he walked out and closed the door behind him and everything once again went dark.