I went to work this morning with a bit of a queasy stomach and a headache. I assumed it was just my weekend catching up to me [crazy hat parties do that, you know], but it turns out I have picked up the dreaded stomach flu going through the office. Woohoo for me.
Since I’ve got time to kill between, uh, diaphragm lunges [is that a nicer phrase for vomit-sessions?], I decided to weed through some old stories I’ve started while in school and see if any are worth resurfacing, finishing, and polishing.
Here is one I started early in the program, took a break from, and picked up again a few months ago. It feels like the beginning of a novel, but I’d love to cut it down into a short story. Any and all feedback is welcomed and appreciated.
The thin wax paper crinkled with every move as Gisela sat on the cold metal table. Though her grandmother held her hand, she couldn’t control the tension coursing through her body. Her slender legs bounced against the table, in cadence with her frantic heartbeat. With her free hand, she traced the rugged pattern of scars across her scalp, the tips of her fingers tingling at the feel of the raised flesh and smooth ridges. While long healed, the scars still remained a violent blend of pink and red against her otherwise caramel skin.
“Be calm, preciosa,” her grandmother whispered in a thick accent, “This doctor can help you.”
Gisela responded only by fidgeting more, playing with one of the few strands of hair still clinging to her disfigured hairline. At nine years old, she had spent nearly half of her life in and out of doctors’ offices. Her grandmother hummed softly and gave Gisela’s small hand a reassuring squeeze.
The little girl tried to concentrate on the room, to focus her attention on the trivial characteristics of the confining space while she waited for the surgeon to enter the office. Examination table covered with wax paper. Long counters crammed tightly against the wall. Pamphlets describing breast augmentation, liposuction, and other procedures she would never consider jammed into a clear plastic container.
Plastic surgery offices always looked the same, she noted to herself. Just like the others, the walls of Dr. Meza’s office were pearl white, just a shade warmer than ivory. The counters were stainless steel, just like the table she squirmed uneasily on, with small glass jars lining the wall. They were filled with q-tips, cottons swabs, and tongue depressors, which she had seen at the last four clinics, as well. A small, plastic model of the human nose, highlighting the results of a successful rhinoplasty, sat precariously on the edge of the counter.
A noise outside the door caused her both Gisela and her grandmother to startle, but it was just a nurse passing by noisily on her way into the waiting room. Gisela relaxed slightly with her grandmother released a disappointed sigh and resumed her humming.
A painting of a sailboat on a turquoise blue sea caught Gisela’s attention as she turned her eyes from the door. The frame was yellowed and cracked with age, and the picture had a textured look, as if the paint was applied over top of a thin layer of papier-mâché. It gave the portrait the appearance of movement, as if a gentle breeze stirred the sail and brought soft crests of waves against the bow. She debated hopping off of the table so that she could walk over and touch the canvas, but she feared the consistency would draw too close a resemblance to her own flesh.
Despite her attempts at distraction, her thoughts predictably wandered back to her parents. The memories inevitably would spring to mind, somehow triggered by the arctic air of a doctor’s office. The wax paper, which crinkled in staccato with her squirming, began to stick to the exposed skin under her shorts as she perspired in response to the vivid detail of her memories of her parents’ murder.
On Gisela’s fifth birthday, her mother and father, Martha and Edgardo Vasquez, had taken her for a special trip into Mexico City to visit her cousins. Gisela had wanted to visit the city for many months, but the trip into town was expensive for her family’s meager income. For her father, it was difficult to get time off from the Chrysler factory where he earned a modest stipend for his manual labor. However, he made arrangements for a coworker to cover his shift so that he could take his only child to the big city, a concession that would cause the family to tighten their belt for a few weeks but was worth it for their daughter’s happiness.
She was so excited; she couldn’t sleep the night before. They took a bus from Toluca, just a two-hour ride, yet it was the first time her family had been able to afford to take her since she was born. Normally, her cousins and their parents would drive their old Chevy van into the country to visit her. Thrilled to finally see the boisterous and eventful home they spoke of, she couldn’t contain her impatience during the trip. She bounced in her seat eagerly, questioning her mother and father frequently about when they would arrive. Her parents just laughed, delighted by their daughter’s enthusiasm.
“Estaremos alli pronto, bonita,” her mother said soothingly, giggling at her child’s exasperated scowl.
“Quiero estar alli, ahora!” Gisela whined. Despite her mother’s assurances that they were almost there, she still complained petulantly, in the innocent way only a child can perfect.
“Se paciente, mi corazon,” said her father as he pulled her into his arms. “Be patient, my heart,” one of the phrases he repeated often to his vivacious young daughter who could never sit still for more than a minute. With her perched securely on his lap, he ran his hands through Gisela’s long brown waves, braiding and unbraiding the strands as he hummed into her ear. She snuggled into his chest, content to wait out the rest of the ride if he was holding her.
Once in the city, the sounds and movement overwhelmed her senses. The vendors on the street, peddling their wares, amazed her. She had never seen so many people in one place. They were selling esquites con crema, noisy silver bracelets with turquoise stones, and sweet mamey or coconut poletas out of coolers they dragged behind them. The honk of car horns in the never-ending traffic frightened her initially, but her father assured her that it was just a game the vehicles played with one another.
“Mira, mi amor,” Edgardo whispered to his eager daughter, pointing into the street.
A mariachi band had begun to set up, five short men with bushy mustaches and jovial paunches, wearing the authentic uniform of street performers. Each held a different type of guitar, and Gisela dragged her father through the crowd to get a closer look.
“Papi,” she asked excitedly, “cantarán para mí?”
“Sí, mi amor, ellos te van a cantar,” he assured her.
As if on cue, the men began playing an upbeat tempo, singing along in rich tenor voices. Gisela clapped with enthusiasm, running closer to the performers. Her parents laughed as their daughter began to dance next to the band, swirling and skipping to the complex melody.
When the first song ended, Gisela watched with curious interest as people from the crowd walked up to the mariachi band and dropped coins and crumpled bills into their open instrument cases. She hurried back to her parents’ side, begging her father for a few pesos to drop into their cases, as well. The leader of the small ensemble, a middle aged man with graying hair and deep set wrinkles in his cheeks nearly hidden by the thick facial hair, rewarded Gisela’s generosity with an lively rendition of Cielito Lindo. Having learned the song in school, she sang along proudly, nudging her mother and father until they joined in, as well.
Having sampled every item of food her small stomach could hold and explored the city on foot for several hours, Gisela eventually grew tired and irritable. Her father bundled her in his arms, always patient with her sour moods, and tickled her until the giggles won over her grumpiness.
As the sun began to set behind the tall buildings of the dusty city, Edgardo and Martha started to walk the short distance back to the open market place, Gisela dozing in her father’s arms. The streets were still congested with traffic and people, but the faces in the crowd grew less and less amiable. Had it been earlier, they would have walked to their family’s home; now, they were seeking out a taxi as quickly as possible.
“No mires a los ojos.”
Gisela awoke from her nap when Edgardo spoke to Martha in a hushed yet urgent voice. In the security of her father’s arms and still dulled by sleep, she was curious when the three unkempt men approached her parents. She thought that they might be street performers, like earlier, and she sat up eagerly in Edgardo’s arms for a better view. She could not have expected the severity of the consequences their approach would have on her life.
A cough from her grandmother caused Gisela to jolt slightly, startling her out of the memory and back to the cold office. Gisela watched as her abuelita pulled a cough drop out of her worn purse, shaking her head when she was offered one, as well.
Despite four years passing, the pain didn’t lessen for Gisela as she sat on the stainless steel. Even now, her eyes brimmed with tears as she remembered that she was the reason her parents weren’t with her today. Had she never gone to Mexico City, she wouldn’t need a doctor to repair her disfigured scalp. She would be whole and so would her family.
She hated that her grandmother continued taking her to doctors for her scalp, trying to find a way to have the deep sutures and scars repaired and the hair replaced. Gisela couldn’t tell her grandmother, but she didn’t want her scalp fixed. She wanted her classmates, her family, and all strangers to see her face and turn away. Even now, she wanted the doctor to gasp when he entered the room, to fall to his knees and beg her to leave because she was too grotesque for him to bear. She pictured it in her mind and it pleased her, visualizing the horror in the surgeon’s eyes at the sight of her disfigurement.
They never did, though. The doctors would always come in, smile when they would greet her, and call her all the words she hated: beautiful, pretty, adorable. Lies. Always lies. Each word stabbed into her heart with the falseness of their sentiments. The expressions didn’t sound right in English. They sounded even worse coming from a stranger’s mouth instead of her father’s.
A gentle knock on the door caused her heart to skip a beat. She bit her lip and watched as the metal handle turned slowly and the white wooden door opened into the room. Her grandmother’s warm, wrinkled hand squeezed Gisela’s, tensing with her optimism, while Gisela’s stomach twisted uncomfortably, her palms sweating. She watched the door apprehensively as the surgeon entered the room.
Dr. Adolfo Meza opened the door of the small examination room, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his with his free hand. He was wearing a polka-dot blazer in lieu of his traditional white lab coat in the hopes of making his new patient comfortable. He rarely worked with children, so he had picked up the jacket especially for his consultation with the young girl he had scheduled today. In his early 40s, he had witnessed every kind of trauma imaginable in his nearly twenty years as a plastic reconstructive surgeon. His experience, however, did nothing to prepare him for the sight of the delicate child as the door swung open into the office.
Gisela Vasquez was perched on the center of the examination table, her willowy legs bouncing staccato against the edge. She was wearing shorts and an oversized men’s t-shirt, which he guessed to be her late father’s. He was familiar with her background, having been filled in by the previous physician who has turned down her case.
Gisela’s maternal grandmother, Amelia Jimenez, sat next to her, holding onto the little girl’s left hand as she stared back at the surgeon. Dr. Meza’s breath caught as his eyes focused on the young girl’s face, but it wasn’t the devastation of her scalp that captured his attention. Gisela was beautiful, with a little button nose and wide brown eyes, and she could have easily passed for a year or two older than the birthdate on her chart reflected despite her thin frame. Her resemblance to his own daughter, Rosa, was what stunned him momentarily when he passed through the door and walked towards his patient.
She squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze, despite the friendly smile and composed demeanor he exuded as he stood before her. He extended his hand and she stared at it for a few moments, debating whether to take it or not. After apparent deliberation, she placed her free hand into his. Dr. Meza’s hand was large and warm, in direct contrast to Gisela’s, and he could feel a slight tremble running through her.
“Hola, mi bonita,” he greeted her warmly as she withdrew her hand. “Me llamo Dr. Meza.”
“I prefer to speak in English,” she responded softly.
Dr. Meza’s eyebrow rose slightly, but he nodded.
“As you wish, my dear.”
He turned to greet her grandmother, who released Gisela’s hand and stood quickly to take his. She thanked him emphatically, in both Spanish and broken English, for agreeing to see her granddaughter’s case. They couldn’t afford to pay, so if he accepted Gisela’s as a patient it would be a pro bono surgical procedure.
While originally from Guadalajara, Dr. Adolfo Meza had relocated to Santa Ana, California, nearly a decade prior to pursue the American dream of wealth and comfort. He had originally served in the Mexican army and enjoyed the luxuries that his rank afforded his family, but it couldn’t compare to the security and fortune his skills could bring him in the states. He had debated relocating for several years, never fully committed to the idea of giving up his accumulated success in Mexico. It wasn’t until his wife, Sofia, announced that she was pregnant with their first child that his mind was made up.
It had taken him every minute of that decade in the United States to perfect his English, so he found it surprisingly that young Gisela, who had been in the U.S. for less than a year, to prefer not to speak her native language.
Once he was finally released from Amelia, he returned his attention to the young girl squirming on the table, the crinkling of the wax paper audible over the hum of the air conditioner.
“Now, Gisela, I am going to examine your scalp to check for blood flow,” he addressed her gently, keeping his tone confident and encouraging. “I am going to ask you to tell me when you feel any pressure. Do you understand?”
She gave a single nod, dropping her gaze to her knees as he came to stand directly beside her.
Dr. Meza gentle ran his fingers over Gisela’s left temple first, aware that she must have blood flow in the area due to the continued presence of hair follicles. To make sure she was cooperating, however, he asked her if she could feel the pressure of his warm fingers.
“Yes, Dr. Meza.” Her voice sounded defeated, miserable, but he didn’t comment on it.
His hands moved to the occipital region of her scalp. “How about now, Gisela?”
He continued the same pattern, his tender hands meandering over her ravaged scalp, checking for the vital blood flow necessary for him to perform a scar revision procedure followed by a full hair transplant session. For many surgeons, a case such as Gisela’s was too complex, limited as they were by the excessive damage and limited donor region to harvest healthy hair follicles from. For Dr. Meza, however, it would be possible as long as there was steady blood flow throughout the affected region. He was one of few plastic surgeons in the United States that practiced follicular cloning and would be able to replicate Gisela’s hair with just a few samples from her the little that still existed on her head.
A soft murmur of mumbled words came steadily from the corner of the room. Gisela’s grandmother sat with her eyes tightly closed, praying in Spanish, while the surgeon continued to assess her granddaughter’s condition.
Gisela remained silent throughout the visit, only speaking when asked a direct question by the physician. She continued to tremble slightly as he worked on her, her eyes downcast and shoulders hunched.
“Gisela, I need to take a biopsy of your scalp so I can determine the health of the subcutaneous tissue.” He paused for a moment to see if she would ask what he meant. She stayed silent, but lifted her head to look back at him. Dr. Meza presumed that she already understood what he needed to do or didn’t wish to know, so he continued, “I will numb the area, so you should only feel a little bit of pressure. Will you please tell me if you feel any pain?”
He stared into her eyes for a long moment and he wondered if she would again stay silent. Her grandmother reached over and patted Gisela reassuringly on the knee, leaning closer to whisper faintly in her ear. Gisela nodded, her grandmother’s mouth still close to her face, then pulled away suddenly and directed her gaze back to the physician with an incensed stare.
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Dr. Meza stepped away from the examination table and pressed the call buzzer against the cream-colored wall, paging a nurse to bring in the necessary supplies.
Gisela stared at the painting on the wall as the Doctor returned to her grandmother’s side to explain, in Spanish, the minor procedure he was about to perform and confirm he had her consent. She agreed vehemently, again overwhelming him momentarily with her gratitude in a flood of praise.
When the nurse entered the room, Dr. Meza extricated himself from Amelia’s laud and returned to his position alongside the steel table, slipping his large hands into latex gloves in preparation for the procedure.
“Gisela, this will be easiest for you if you lay on your stomach. It will only take a moment.”
She consented quickly, pulling her slender legs up and twisted her body in a simultaneous motion. She was tall for her age, so her feet nearly reached the end of the table while her left cheek rested just inches from the other end.
The nurse, an older woman with flaming red hair and a face that had endured several surgical enhancements, pulled a machine over Gisela’s head. It was an enlarged magnifying glass with a blinding light that was trained on the base of the young girl’s skull. Despite the chill in the room, Gisela could feel the heat against her neck and scalp and twitched uncomfortably.
Dr. Meza surveyed the scarring under the magnified lens, marking several areas with a black sharpie he had pulled from the breast pocket of his blazer.
“Ok, Gisela, we are going to numb the area now. You will feel a slight pinch, then a warming sensation, and then your skin will go numb.”
She closed her eyes tightly as the nurse handed the syringe filled with a mixture of Novocain and epinephrine to the surgeon.
“Here comes the first injection,” he said softly.
He inserted the needle into the first point on her scalp and she gasped in pain.
“I’m sorry, Gisela, I know it stings.”
She remained silent and he continued to the next point on her disfigured hairline. This time, a soft moan escaped her mouth when the needle entered her flesh. She bit her lip and her body became rigid against the cold metal tabletop.
The nurse soothingly rubbed her shoulders while Amelia restarted her prayers in a disjointed array in the corner of the room.
“Just one more and we’re done with the injections,” Dr. Meza offered reassuringly. “You are doing great.”
He inserted the needle a third time into the rugged flesh above her long neck and Gisela’s hands clenched into fists at her side.
“We’re all done with the injections now, preciosa. You won’t feel anything more.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said in a gruff voice from against the steel table.
“I’m sorry, Gisela. I didn’t mean offense.”
She turned her head, first to the right cheek then back, finally settling for resting her forehead against the wax paper.
The nurse shared a confused glance with Dr. Meza, and then returned her attention to the supplies she had brought into the office. She handed him a sterilized razor blade, accepting the empty syringe in return.
Methodically, with well-trained hands, the surgeon removed small sections of scarred flesh from the child’s skull using the blade. The nurse dutifully accepted them in small containers, labeling each with a black pen held in her manicured hand. Finished with the incisions, Dr. Meza traded again with the nurse, switching out his razor blade for a sharp needle and thread made up of polylactic acid, which would dissolve in a few weeks.
Gisela remained silent as Dr. Meza continued to work over her, applying medication and gauze to the surgical cites. She sat up at his request, bringing her knees into her chest as she listened to him explain to her grandmother how to care for the sutures over the next week. He informed her that he would have a nurse call to schedule a follow-up appointment if a surgery would be feasible.
Gisela heard his words, but she didn’t listen to them. She was back in Mexico City, reliving her fifth birthday as the tears streamed down her cheeks.
Gisela was dreaming. Not the peaceful dreams of a normal nine-year-old girl. As she did almost every night, Gisela dreamed of her last night with her mother and father.
The three men that approached her and her parents seemed edgy, their hands shoved deeply into their pockets, as they appraised the young family. Their clothing was threadbare and they looked emaciated, the slightest of which seemed slimmer than her mother. The largest of the men, with a face so gaunt he looked like one of the skeletons Gisela had seen at the Dia de los Muertos festivals, spoke in a gruff voice while scratching his shaggy beard. The odors of stale smoke and human feces wafted from them as they stared at Edgardo.
She didn’t understand what they were asking for, the words muddled in her young ears, but she intuitively sensed her mother’s fear by her side. Her father’s grip tightened around her as he stepped backwards inconspicuously.
“No tenemos nada,” her father said quickly, his voice shaking. He gestured to his family, illustrating their simple clothing. “Somos pobres, como usted.” He told them that he had nothing; that his family was just as poor as them, but the words didn’t seem to register in their drug-shrouded minds.
Though her conscious mind recognized that she was dreaming, Gisela couldn’t pull herself from sleep. She watched, like an observer in her own life, as the events played on, unable to interfere in the story that was playing out in her mind.
The haggard men, fueled by drugs and fury at the family’s poverty, lunged at Gisela’s father with a knife he pulled from his jean pocket. Edgardo screamed in shock, turning his body away from his attacker while Gisela clung to his chest. The blade that had barely missed his young daughter had punctured his right arm, and he moaned in pain.
Martha shrieked piercingly, reaching for her wounded husband as Gisela began to cry. The smallest of the three men grabbed her mother, throwing her to the ground in a violent swing, screaming obscenities in an uninterrupted chain. Edgardo tried to fight back, punching blindly into the air in front of him with his wounded arm, while clinging to his wailing child with the other. In a blur of motion, one of the men landed a blow into her father’s face, and his arms fell slack in response. In an instant, she was falling, landing roughly on the warm concrete, her head smacking into the sidewalk with a crack.
Jolted awake by the vivid flash of remembered pain, she instinctively reached for her head, searching for the blood she expected to be escaping from her shattered skull. When her hands came back dry, the brilliance of the nightmare began to recede, her light brown eyes adjusting to the darkness of her bedroom. Her head wasn’t cracked open; she was safe in her bed, cocooned in the handmade quilt her mother had stitched when she was a newborn. Her nightlight faintly illuminated the corner of the tiny room, a beacon against the creatures of the dark. She had never feared the night, but her grandmother thought it appropriate for a girl her age. Gisela felt there were far more dangerous things in the world than shadows, but she didn’t contest it.
She surveyed the room as her pulse slowed to its regular rate. Everything was in its place: her childhood lamp sat on a wobbly nightstand to her right, a glass of water sitting stagnant on a coaster. To her left, a mahogany dresser stood in the dark shadows, dominating the small space with its vast drawers. Her visit with the surgeon earlier in the day had left her emotionally exhausted, but she was scared to return to sleep and pick up where she had left off. Instead, she climbed out of the warm sheets and slid her feet into the worn slippers resting on the chipped tiles.