I’ve been living in this waiting room for thirty-five days, so I give the woman the full tour: the corner where the old couple blasts FOX News and glowers at my extended brown family, the table with the broken leg closest to the heater, and the booth where visitors take turns lying in each other’s drool for a moment of sleep. I point out the old man who brushes his teeth with milk to prevent the government from poisoning him and warn her to avoid the booth at all costs if he’s taken a nap that day. No amount of disinfectant can wipe away that smell. I explain how she shouldn’t bother remembering any names, how people have averaged five days before dropping dead, how a code blue was announced once due to the lack of available doctors forcing one life to be valued more than the other, how their decision unraveled when the patient they saved died the next day. I describe the young girl who used to occupy the room next to my papí––the way all the tubes consumed her body, her left eye twitching to the beat of the respirator despite being braindead, the hospital blanket threatening to creep up and shroud her face once and for all. I explain how she got into a car accident that wasn’t her fault, how karma for her white lie in the sixth grade made it her fault, how twenty of her family members showed up in black accompanied by a priest to sing one last hymn before pulling the plug, how in the end her tragedy was overshadowed by two other deaths a few days later.
The woman and I bond over the smell of my prima’s rotisserie chicken. The sound of her thin fingers gliding over grease-slicked bones helps fill the silence and gives us a break from the sobs of the family a few tables over. They’re professional wailers––the kind of people that press their hands to their chests when someone accidentally locks eyes with them. They thrive off competition. You got a dad who’s dying? Well, that’s too bad but not bad enough. They got a dad and a grandma dying, plus their house almost burnt down because of all the candles they lit while praying. I want to tell the woman that their mascara trails aren’t fresh, that they’ve been there for days, but I keep my mouth closed. You can’t say shit about people who offer to pray for your loved ones, even if you didn’t ask, because “God is good” and “He has a plan.”
When the woman’s stomach growls, I point to the partially consumed chicken and remind her that bodies don’t survive here, how she better dig in now if she wants some. When she looks around the room for someone else to talk to, I apologize and ask for her mother’s name, remind her that the chicken’s dead, that I don’t even eat meat, that I couldn’t eat if I wanted to, that half my hair fell out––the shower water refusing to drown me as I cried at the sad clump in my hands that morning. I tell her my papí’s name, even let her pronounce it wrong, just so she stays. That’s the thing about waiting rooms: they make you fucking needy. So I let her tell me about how she doesn’t have time for this, how her teenage daughter reeks of gas station soap and cigarettes.
I push a few napkins across the table when she starts to pull apart the chicken between breaths and try not to get too distracted at the amount of meat collecting under her long fingernails. I consider joking around about it, but her greasy brown hair makes me keep my mouth shut. You can’t make fun of people who haven’t showered. So I ask her where she got her winter coat and talk about the upcoming Christmas sales. I nod when she says she’s thinking about buying her pregnant daughter a silver spoon inscribed with the soon-to-be kid’s name and tell her I think she’d love it. I lie because I have nothing better to do.
People always eat the chicken even though there are a good two inches of oil on the bottom of the plastic container. Personally, I couldn’t care less. If you want to eat the chicken, you should eat the chicken. It’s the oil that does it for me. When all the other visitors have left for the night, I dip two fingers into the oil and write my papí’s name on the walls. Nothing creepy, just his first name over and over again. The shit’s like therapy only better because it keeps him alive. No one ever notices because there aren’t technically enough nurses on staff to care for the patients, let alone wade into the waiting room for a bathroom break. It’s just me and the chicken fat rubbing ourselves against the ugly wallpaper laughing at all the other fools who think their family members will make it out of the ICU alive.
I think about writing her mother’s name on the wall later that night, but realistically her dying mother only has two more days before she croaks anyway. I can’t justify a dip in the oil for a few days. Plus she goes home every night to sleep in her own bed like she trusts the doctors here. She’s fucking crazy if she thinks they care. I tell her that just the other day a doctor looked me in the eyes and told me he couldn’t say when my papí would get better, that I should imagine his rare, deadly illness like a silly broken leg, how I would never ask my papí to run on a broken leg. I told the doctor that that scenario didn’t do it for me. I needed more information. How did my papí break his leg? Was his room on fire, his TV melting down the wall like one of Dali’s clocks? Was I being threatened with a gun to the back of my head down the hall for a bite of my prima’s chicken? Was my tío stealing money out of my dying papí’s wallet again to buy more beer for his daily telenovelas? I told her how the doctor looked at me funny and said I should go home, get some rest. I said no, I needed to know the backstory. That there was, in fact, a chance I’d tell my papí to run on a fucking broken leg.
I can tell that she’s starting to feel guilty about eating some of the chicken when I mention the whole gun-to-the-back-of-my-head thing, but I remind her I’m vegetarian and that my prima cannot possibly eat a whole rotisserie chicken herself. This seems to make her feel better because she sucks the wing real good like she’s trying to make the bird cum while she tells me that she wishes her daughter was more like me, minus the whole losing my hair thing obviously. I nod my head like I agree and fight the urge to wipe the drop of grease from one of her long chin hairs. I can’t believe I didn’t notice them before. There are at least five, maybe more, glistening in the streak of oil. It’s all I can do to look her in the eyes for a few seconds while I repeat to myself that this woman’s body hair mixed with chicken fat is not my papí’s saving grace.
When the last visitor leaves the waiting room, I push my chair to the far end of the wall next to the broken vending machine and dip my fingers in the oil. I write my name next to my papí’s––a final bargain––and hum the song we used to sing in his pickup truck when I was a kid. He’d always ask me to sing to him when he felt himself drifting off to sleep. It was a song he learned in kindergarten and a guaranteed way to make him smile. Cántame una canción. And I would. I’d sing for him every time.