Thursday, July 01, 2010
Chapter One: XANDRA AM I JUST PLAIN INSANE?
By Gina Morrison
This time I’m on the phone with my best friend from college. This time I’m trying to explain this crazy nun story to Xandra and finally I think it's all beginning to make sense.
But then I hear myself. “So I’m sitting there, talking to somebody, or I'm playing guitar, or just standing at the counter, cutting a grapefruit or peeling a carrot,” I begin, “and then suddenly something comes over me and I switch, boom, I am just...her Sister Renata, there in the prison shaking the bars. Or I'm sitting in the courtyard with Sister Teresa just staring up at the lion-colored hills.”
Xandra listens without saying a word.
"Are you still there?"
"Oh I heard you."
This is a woman who lives 3,000 miles away in California, but she's still closer to me than my own sister.
Xandra was my roommate at Brown an eternity ago. She was a chemistry major, but not one of those neurotics who filled the study carrells in the high-rise science library. Sure, she spent long afternoons measuring clear liquids into glass beakers. But then she'd spend two or three evenings a week dancing barefoot with her face painted in red and white streaks -- she was part of a campus African dance troupe.
Xandra grew up in Nigeria, the daughter of a village healer. Her mother used to make her swallow bitter potions in order to stay healthy. After she graduated from Brown --summa cum laude-- she went on to med school, but dropped out after a year and a half, disgusted with the way western medicine is practiced. She switched to a Ph.D. program in chemistry at MIT and finished in three years. Today she runs a lab for this company in San Jose that's developing a machine that will sequence DNA.
Meanwhile, she still does the African dancing, and she does yoga too, and lately she's gotten into something she calls "divine healing."
The most important thing I can say about Xandra, though, is that she is a bundle of love, and she really understands me. I can tell her absolutely anything and I always have, and just now on the phone I have told her the terrifying truth, that I think I am a nun living in 1883. I tell her too that I'm writing down the nun's story, whenever it comes to me. Doing that, I tell her, I believe that I can free the nun -- who is falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.
A moment goes by. Finally Xandra speaks. “Well, so, it sounds to me like you're writing a great story. Exactly the story you need to write. And I have an idea how I might help you."
She laughs. "Yeah, but it's way too complicated to explain over the phone. I will however be delighted to read everything you write."
That comes as no surprise.
At Brown, I was the English major who used to stay up nights writing by candlelight. Xandra would wander into the dorm after dancing for hours in her grass skirt and there I'd be, asleep with my head on the desk, next to an empty wine glass and a couple of lumps of melted wax.
She read every single version of every short story I wrote. Every poem too. All of it. Often she would write comments like, "I'm not sure I get the point of this one, honey, but honestly I love the writing. I really do. Keep going."
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 stone surface. “The problem, Xand, 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 and they are so.....”
I close my eyes.
I feel my backside damp and cold against the stone bench. I feel my fingers gripping the bars. I see my ankle crusted in blood and the infection in my leg spreading up toward my knee. 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.
“Gina, are you still there?”
"Yeah, yeah, sorry Xand.” I snap back to the phone.
"As long as you’re getting to work, and teaching your classes, and functioning in the house," Xandra says, "I don’t think you should worry. It sounds to me like you've got to write this."
I run my finger, the one that’s sore from playing flamenco rasqueados on my guitar, along the granite counter. Clear 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.”
“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 eight years ago, just to be with me through the chemotherapy and radiation, the horrifying 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 couple of years, too, through more phone conversations than I can count, when I wept over my son Adam leaving for college. She was there for me for all the rest of it too. The rest of it being the stuff that I'd like to forget but can't.
The rest of it being the shitty PTSD that still plagues me.
Let's just say there have been buckets of tears filling Xandra's and my transcontinental conversations of late.
I thank her again for sending me the beautiful African wall hanging she bought for me on her last trip to Nigeria. It's wild yellow, with a red sunset and black silhouettes of giraffes and elephants and tigers and lions roaming on the horizon. My eyes practically dropped out when I opened the box.
“You are more than welcome. I felt bad that we didn’t get to see each other 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 the moment I say it. “I might need to come out to do..."
“To do what?”
“Research? On what?” I can hear that Xandra is genuinely curious.
“Well, so, you know. I would be researching this...this story about Sister Renata because I feel like...like maybe it could actually be..." I don't continue.
“You should definitely come visit. Stay with us. Maybe this is what you need. Maybe you'll finally let me teach you a little yoga. And talk to you about divine healing. I've told you this time and again, Gina, you need tools to handle your stuff. You need to find a way to manage all the heartache and trauma you’ve been through.” She sighs. Her words feel like cold little hammers tapping on my heart.
I can't count the times she's lectured me about yoga and meditation and spiritual stuff. My reply is the always the same:
"Xand, I don't have a head for meditation. And I don't have a body for yoga."
Xandra is silent for a moment.
“What I wanted to say before, Xand, is that I honestly believe the nun story could actually be...true. I mean, I keep seeing myself..."
Xandra turns to face me, a worried expression wrinkling her brow. "Yes? You see yourself as...."
I sniffle. Look into my lap where my hands are in a prayer position.
“Honestly, Xand, I see all it so clearly that....” I let my sentence go off a cliff of silence. I mean I think I'm Renata, the 19th century nun who is accused of killing her cousin."
Utter silence. But then Xand pulls onto the breakdown lane.
My dear Xandra, always there for me, catches it. “Well," she says, inhaling. "I'm glad you told me and not somebody else." She reached over and gave me a hug. "You are always welcome here,” she says simply. “I am happy to help with whatever you need. And Sam and I would love the company."
I close my eyes and I see Xandra. Dark shining eyes, a strong muscular body (she plays tennis, what a backhand), a flawless brown complexion and a head full of long fluffy dreds. Oh and a ferociously beautiful smile.
“So Xand, then you don’t think I’m...totally insane?” I hold my breath.
Xandra laughs. “Of course I think you’re totally insane. You’ve always been insane. You're just a little more insane now than before. But that’s OK, that's what I love about you. Or one thing at least.”
Xandra can say this to me and not make me feel the least bit bad. Maybe because we've had so much history together. What's amazing is that we are as different as we can possibly be. She spends her days hunkered down in a lab at Pacific Genomics, a company out in California developing this brand new DNA technology. The way she explains it, we'll soon be able to walk into the doctor's office and ask for a reading of our DNA, and then, a "personalized" therapy to treat it.
I've never had the guts to tell her that I'd be afraid to find out the gory details of my DNA.
Anyway, I say goodbye to Xandra and go out to the backyard. I walk in my house slippers across the grass and stand looking toward the pond. The moonlight turns it into a shimmering silver coin.
David is inside. I call to him. He joins me in the middle of the backyard. He holds me by the shoulders. We gaze in silence up at the dark sky. Then he kisses my cheek and goes back in the house.
I remain, staring at the 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 a pale green night sky, and I'm riding on the wagon with Señora Ramos once more. Or what's even more likely, I'm writing about in my diary!