I do not want Azúcar to die.
The ambulance backs into the yard behind the three-story apartment building in East New York. It’s night. The swirling blue and red lights pound my eyeballs. NYPD officers march around the backyard with bright flashlights. Broken glass and trash appear and disappear under the searching beams. The swirling lights make me dizzy.
I do not want Azúcar to die.
Two EMTs jump out. They stop to talk to three detectives whose ties are undone and collars open. The summer heat and humidity squeezes everything in its choking grip. I turn and wipe sweat from my eyes as they lift her.
After they put her on the stretcher, warm blood oozing from her stomach, Azúcar beckons me with her eyes to come closer. They are strapping her in and giving her intravenous. She grabs my hand, pulling me close to her lips, and whispers in my ear, “I don’t want to live. I want to die. Tell them to let me go.”
She’s a good soul. She can’t leave now.
I do not want Azúcar to die.
In the back of the ambulance, I seek God.
It is hard to pray when the smell of her blood turns my stomach into knots. I cannot pray when the rolling squeals of the ambulance make me dizzy. I open my eyes and I turn to Azúcar on the stretcher. Her skeletal body is connected to machines by white cords and to plastic bags and tubes filled with dark fluids. The tubes and wires look like tentacles of an evil sea monster; a monster sucking away Azúcar’s life.
The heels of my hands press hard against my eyes. I should not think dark thoughts.
Whispering with my hands folded, “Dear Mother-Father God I beg for forgiveness. For blessing and love. I beseech you to save this sweet and kind woman. Azúcar is good. Mother-Father God please, please save her.”
I lift my head. In the square windows at the back of the ambulance rushing down Eastern Parkway, telephone poles, streetlights, and buildings look as if they’re yanked backward by the force of powerful magnets. The view and exhaustion hypnotize me.
My eyelids creep down. I shake my head hard to stay awake.
Azúcar rests under a rough gray blanket draping her from her chest to her feet. She is quiet now. Azúcar’s hands curl into each other. Her eyes are closed, and her breathing is even. She sleeps now.
If I close my eyes, I will dream the dream. For the past three days I fight off sleep because I am terrified of the dream.
In my dream the missionaries have come to my village. This dream takes place during my mother’s baptism when I was just a small boy in Nigeria. It takes place when the Seventh Day Adventist missionaries came to our village. Most laughed at their God on a cross. Most laughed at their vegetarian diets. Mother loved their message of hope.
When the dream starts, the noon sun is hot and high in the sky. The Seventh Day Adventist minister, Pastor Humphries, stands in a white robe in the muddy river that rises midway to his round belly. One hand is in the air and the other on my mother’s back.
My mother is draped in a white baptismal gown. Her hands clasp together in supplication while she sways back and forth to the singing of the other new converts on the shore.
Pastor Humphries intones, “I ask you, Good Lord Jesus, to watch over this new lamb of God and to guide and protect her. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Pastor dunks her in the water, holds her down, and invokes God’s grace. As Pastor lifts Mama up from the muddy river, her wet, coal black skin glistens. Water splashes off her thick dreadlocks. Taking in air, her mouth forms an “O” and then Mama cries out, “All glory be to God our Father. Amen.”
I am standing on the bank. The noon sun burns the top of my head. The sand feels like boiling coal under my sandals.
“Hallelujah!” and praises to the Lord rise from those of us on shore.
Mama smiles and calls me to come. I start to run toward her in the river. Mama is so beautiful. I love her dimples, the heavy flesh under and around her elbows, and her high forehead. When I look into her eyes, they blink twice. It is always at that moment that my non-dream mind reminds my dream mind that my mother died years ago.
I am running towards her and then I stop. Slippery flesh under the water rubs against my legs. My dream mind thinks fish swim around my limbs. I look down.
Dead snakes, hundreds of dead snakes, float everywhere. Wet scales reflect the sunlight and sting my eyes. I am walking in a mass of dead snakes. As I scream, they all spring to life, water splashing, slit eyes blinking, fangs flashing, tongues stabbing the air. I scream louder and louder until my throat burns.
I jump up from the seat and bang my head against the inside of the ambulance. I fell asleep. I stand disoriented until I gain my bearings. A nervous grin pops up on my face. I slide back down into my seat. The EMT swipes a strand of brown hair behind her ears and looks down at Azúcar who sleeps with a tense brow.
The EMT stops the flow of blood that drooled from her wound.
The gunshot, Azúcar’s scream, and the thud as she hit the wooden steps replay in my mind. With closed eyes, I lower my head and begin to pray silently.
I hear a light cough and a moan. I look over at Azúcar.
She calls my name with the lilt of a New York Dominicana raised in Brooklyn. I quickly glance at the EMT who gives me a little nod. I stand and go to her side. Her face looks even more withdrawn, more skeletal than when the ambulance first arrived.
“I can’t go on. Tell them to let me die in peace.”
“They won’t listen to me.”
Her jaws clench tight. “No me traiciones...” Don’t betray me.
Her body heaves upward as coughing spasms overtake her. Her thin body shakes and trembles until the coughing spell ends. Spittle and blood dribbles down her chin. The EMT looks at her watch and then cleans Azúcar’s chin. The EMT slips the round end of the stethoscope under the blanket.
“Aye, eso es frio. ¡No! Sólo quiero morir.” Hey, that’s cold. No! I just want to die.
Less than a week ago, I was hiding from a drug gang in an abandoned and condemned building. I was starving and fearful, sitting on plaster-covered linoleum with rats running around my feet and rotten, soggy air filling my lungs. At some point I became delirious and imagined strange animals lurking nearby, large creatures from nightmares and late-night movies.
One day I heard footsteps coming down the hall in this gutted three-story building where I had been hiding for nearly two days. I inhaled and held my breath. Sweat rolled slowly down my face. I slid back. Chunks of plaster on the floor pinched my hands as I pushed myself backward until I hit wall.
They want to kill me. Word in the street had put me near the Cypress projects on Euclid Avenue when money was stolen from a drug crew. It was untrue. I was in English class at Brooklyn College when this happened. But I know I could not fight the lie or reason with anyone about what was true. Word on the street moves like the hot scirocco wind and is just as unchangeable.
In my mind I thought how a round of bullets would end my life. I recited the Lord’s Prayer under my breath. I waited for the blast of a firearm. I did not hear a gunshot. Instead, I heard, “Shhh…”
My eyes opened with caution. A boney woman with long black hair and the face of a silent movie star looked down on me trembling with my back against the wall.
Her face, obscured in the shadows, whispered, “I know you didn’t do it. I will help you.”
I had seen this woman around the ‘hood and in the laundromat every so often. It was normal seeing her singing fragments of familiar melodies and dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. High or crazy. Sometimes she twirled in circles or jumped up and down to melodies and rhythms only she could hear. In rain or bitter cold, often she would still be outside performing to no one at all. People named her “La Loca” Crazy lady.
After she rescued me and I got to know her, I wondered what made her risk her life to save me. One day, while stuffing my face with lorica I asked her.
“Why? Why did you come to help me?”
“Tu eres el hombre en mi sueños.” You are the man in my dreams.
The ambulance accelerates as Azúcar coughs again. The stinging smell of medicines mixes with the stale odor of dried blood.
Azúcar tries to speak. The EMT rests her hand on Azúcar’s shoulder. “Be still. Take it easy, hon’, save your strength.”
The EMT checks dials on machines reading Azúcar’s vitals. Azúcar turns her head to the side with a frown creasing her thin cheeks. The pillow caves in around her profile. Her black hair flows behind as if she is running.
Crinkling her brow, Azúcar says in a flat voice, “No tengo miedo de morir.” I am not afraid of dying.
“No vas a morir.” You are not going to die.
“Mi negrito tu eres bueno conmigo.” My dark one you are good to me.
“Y conmigo tu mas.” You are good to me more.
“Reza para que muera en paz.” Pray that I will die in peace.
After Azúcar found me in the rundown building, she took me to her third floor one-bedroom apartment off Pitkin Avenue on Elton Street. When she swung open the dented and scratched metal door, I noticed blackened roach motel boxes on countertops and dried cheese in dusty glue traps on the floor. I smelled grapefruit and dirty socks. Pamphlets from various Addiction Recovery programs layered the countertops.
During the day while I watched TV, she disappeared and returned with mashed bags of Hostess cakes or crumbled packages of Entenmann's marble cake. Sometimes she had bags of expired potato chips. On occasion she would bring back food in cloth bags with The Salvation Army logo on it.
Whenever she returned, I asked, “Are they still after me?”
Frequently she returned with money. Did she steal, beg, or trick? I didn’t think about it too much. These thoughts were painful to me. I was glad for the attention, for the food, and for companionship. I was thankful I hadn’t been shot dead by now or worse, chained in a damp basement while hungry pit bulls tore my flesh.
When she had money, she always promised to bring food. She usually did. However, when she didn’t, she staggered in, eyes glazed, and fell onto the sagging bed.
She wheezed, “Mi negrito. Lo siento mi amore.” My dark one, I’m sorry my love.
“No problema mami.” No problem mommie.
Then she’d fall asleep for hours.
To kill time, we shared fables and tales from our childhoods. Hers, from the Dominican Republic, were stories about the magic frog El Coquito. El Coquito would antagonize bigger animals but would avoid trouble by jumping into the nearest pond and hiding, or he would connive his way out of trouble with convincing lies.
“I’m too dumb to do something like that. I am just a frog.”
My tales were about The Jive Time Turtle. All the other animals would make fun of him because he was slow. They thought he was dumb. However, he always outsmarted them, and they were always amazed at being had by the stupid turtle. All night we recited story after story until either the teller or listener dozed off.
Three days ago, I had the dream about my mother and the snakes for the first time.
Azúcar reaches out her hand and places it tenderly in mine. Her thin hand is ice. I know she lost blood but wasn’t expecting her hand to feel like this. I lower my head down and kiss her hand under the gaze of The EMT who begins ripping open a prepackaged syringe.
Azúcar turns her head and looks at me. Her eyes, unfocused like a newborn baby, searches for me. When I’m in focus, her smile starts on the left side of her lips and then the right side curves up and unveils missing and darkened teeth.
“Si no rezas me muero entonces cántame.” If you won’t pray for me to die, then sing to me.
Am I being selfish?
She loves my African melodies. This blancita, whose skin looks like milk shot out of a cow’s teat, always asks to hear a song from my childhood while plantains or pescado sizzle in hot grease on the stove.
Sometimes at night, lying on a moth-eaten blanket covering an old lumpy mattress, I hummed or sang while she stared at the water-stained ceiling, listening to my melodies from long ago blend with the distorted bass from car stereos passing by.
As I hum a tune, the inertia of the ambulance turning a corner makes me lose balance. I nearly fall. The EMT must be accustomed to these swerves because she shoots out her hand against the side of the ambulance and braces herself.
“We’re almost there. Once we get her in, she has a good chance. She’s strong.”
I squeeze in a few notes when Azúcar raises her hand off the blanket and lowers it. Tears roll down her face.
“Nada mas. Ni quiero mas.” No more. I don’t want more.
I know she isn’t talking about my singing, but I stop, nonetheless.
I stare into her almond-shaped, dark brown eyes and asked myself for the hundredth time why this angel with needle marks on her arms and legs, with scars on her face, why would she take hold of me with such force and relentless intensity?
Her life has been dismal.
She told me horrible things that happened to her while our hands patted rhythms and counter-rhythms to the bachata songs on the Latin station.
“Cuando tenía ocho años, mi primo mayor me robó la virginidad.” My cousin stole my innocence when I was eight.
“Mi tío me prometió un trabajo en los Estados Unidos. Cuando llegué aquí, mi tío me clavó una aguja en el brazo y fue mi chulo.” My uncle promised a job in the U.S., but when I got here, he made me a junkie and was my pimp.
She had it rough. Is it better for her to die and be free from all this pain?
Not more than an hour ago she gets a call from her cousin on her TracFone telling her that the dealer knows she is hiding me in her apartment. Without hesitation we run down the wooden stairs leading to the backyard.
On the second-floor landing, in feverish summer heat, a gun barrel reflects muted light. I see it first and step back up the staircase. She walks past me. I pull her arm and try to stop her, but she snatches it away and keeps walking down the stairs.
After three deafening retorts, she falls onto the wooden stairs with a thud. I never heard the gunman leave.
I carry her outside to the back property. We sit silent on the rear porch that stinks of cat urine. Discharged gunpowder floats from the back hallway into the humid summer air. I pull her into my body. Her hands are slick with blood. She shivers and breathes rapidly.
“Lo siento no te ayudé.” I’m sorry I didn’t help you.
“Está bien mi loca bonita.” That’s okay my pretty one.
I sit holding her weakening body until a siren and the crackle of a police walkie-talkie breaks the silence.
The ambulance stops at the entrance to the Emergency Room. The EMT opens the back doors and jumps out. Seconds later, the driver appears around the corner.
“Sir, please step out carefully.”
The EMT grabs her radio mic from her belt and mumbles words into it that I can’t understand. I jump down on the ground with numb legs. I shield my eyes from the flashing siren. The EMTs confer a moment and begin taking the stretcher out of the back door. I stand and my heart thumps like congas.
As the stretcher passes, Azúcar darts her tongue out at me. She smiles, lifts her head, raises a trembling hand, and with weakened breath, whispers, “El hombre en mi suenos.” The man in my dreams.
Her head falls back onto the pillow and her eyes close.
I stand frozen as memories of the smell of her soap fills my senses, the bitter tang in her breath, and the way she yanks my hair and scalp making cornrows, causing me to wince in pain.
I close my eyes and say to God, “Thy will be done.”
The EMT turns. “Sir, please go to the waiting room. Someone will be with you.”
The harsh spinning lights of the siren force me to keep my head down.
Damp white tissue twirls in my hand and helps me tell Detective Marshall, a white man with kind blue eyes, what just happened. That when we were walking down the back stairs from her apartment, a figure appeared from the shadows. There was a flash of light and gunshots. Azúcar cried out and fell.
“I carried her down the steps and outside to the porch. I sat on the steps holding her and someone must have called for help.”
“I have no idea sir who shot her. It was dark…”
“No, sir, I have no idea why anyone would want to kill her…”
In her apartment right before the phone call, while eating rice and beans I asked, “Azúcar, why do you want to help me? To be with me so much?”
She answered in English, “During the day the stars still shine on the other side of the world. We just can’t see them.” She patted my head.
I still can’t figure out what she meant.
Sitting in the waiting area, I nod off.
The dream comes but this time it is different. I am at the river. I stand waist-deep in the still water. I am grown up. The river is empty. It is sunset. A warm breeze pinches the surface of the river. Pink lace streaks the horizon under a cluster of clouds, and black silhouettes of birds flapping their wings sweep across the red sky.
From under the water Azúcar emerges. She is nude. Her body is no longer skin and bones but is radiant and vibrant. No scars. No bruises. No swollen joints. She takes in a deep breath and looks around. She’s frightened at first. She looks down at her healed body and begins rubbing her hands over its wetness and vibrancy. She shakes her limbs and torso in a dance I have never seen. Then she dives into the water and pops up a few feet from me. She wipes her eyes and sees me.
She starts laughing and squealing. She’s splashing and playing and singing and jumping up and down, waving her hands above her head. She runs out deeper calling after me.
I run after her and she whooshes water in my face to keep me away.
“No puedes atraparme.” You can’t catch me.
I chase her. Wet black hair sways like palm fronds in the wind. Her taunts and her joy rise past the clouds into the sky.
My non-dream mind hears footsteps down the corridor come closer.
My dream mind hears the rustle of water and giggling.
I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I do not open my eyes. I know. I already know.
I know because I am “El hombre en los suenos de ella.”
The man in her dreams.