I woke from bad sleep unready for the morning, migraine a blood comet arcing slow and heavy through the dark of my skull. The pain’s heavy whoosh rhymed with the planes lowering out of a flight-path that passed above my apartment.
5am: a dark horizon rose-tinted with pollution burn. I wanted to dive back into sleep but a shallow wash of images was all there was to go on from last night’s dreams. A receding tide, drag too weak to pull me down again. My rucked bedcovers left a space of sheets the colour of a beach. Yes: that was it. The beach at Porto Ecole, a cinder dawn, and Fernando dipping kelp into mercury-colour water, mopping pain from my head. “Where’s the soul, anyway, Fernando?”
“In the cool hush after your last breath’s echo. Or maybe your ears. I haven’t checked since I died.”
I can’t say I knew Fernando well. He stayed with us a bit when he was dying: the hospital in Mexico City was better than the one in his hometown. He and my flatmate, Luis, had dated a bit many years ago, but that spark hadn’t taken, settling instead into a mellow affection glow.
We liked him around. Luis said he barely noticed Fernando was even there, which was like his marker of a good house-guest even if it brought its own problems: “He’s always been quiet. It frightens the shit out of me coming into a room and finding him there.”
For my part I loved to come home after a work-trip to find the two of them carping at one another on Luis’ cowhide-draped ‘60s chairs. Candles flickering at Luis’ Santa Barbara shrine, ceramic uplit with fever pallor, and, outside, the storm’s roar like static buffets.
“I’m getting the kilos you’re losing,” Luis said once, tugging the hem of his Hawaiian shirt to show his sleek portly body. “You’ll be fine,” Fernando said back. “I’ve only got about 50 of them left.”
Luis had told me that Fernando’s Dad had been a priest who left the orders after falling for his secretary. He’d inherited the vibe. Frail, sallow-skinned, dressed in black – big boots, leather jacket, a diving V-cut t-shirt – Fernando’s calm was monklike in the dim living room. St. Jerome, 1605-06. The rain-sound was Fernando’s thin sick blood following its courses. As long that sound was pulsing it seemed like he would never die.
The illness didn’t get him down so much as his roommates at the hospital. “I’ve had two gangsters in my ward this week,” he said one morning, slitting and halving a mango before scooping the wet pith out with a spoon. His skull looked big on his neck.
“From the same gang?” I asked.
“Not even from the same state,” he said, eyes wide. “One was super mala leche, a big dark heap of a guy with even worse tattoos than yours and four bullets in his chest. They brought him in from Michoacán – you know what it’s like there; you go to stupid places all the time. So even though the first guy was scarier, the second one was worse. He was from Tapachula. They’d put his eye out in a knife-fight. He cried all night. That was awful. I haven’t slept.”
“It’s not really a hospital,” Luis told me. “It’s more of a Caravaggio painting.”
“Except the lighting is less forgiving,” said Fernando. His eyes in deep insomnia caves. The sallow cliffs of his cheekbones. Sick Bacchus, 1593.
The last time I saw Fernando he wasn’t able to sit down. His immune system wasn’t good.
“Crashing like this goddam Mac!” Luis yelled in his fat brown leather computer chair, slamming the mouse and startling the cat. Luis and I were on a research mission, googling ways to diddle prescriptions to get extra painkillers.
Fernando stood poised like a heron with one knee leant on the red chaise-longue. His hand clenched and unclenched on the scrolled golden chair-back. His hair cropped, his beard unkempt, his eyes far-reaching and abstracted above the pain-thrum. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600.
“It’s such an inconvenient place to have a cancer,” he said to me, shaking his head, voice soft like he was talking about traffic.
“Feels like I’m laying an egg and it won’t go.”
“I know…how you feel?”
“Gosh, I hope not.”
I was in Guatemala when Luis called to say Fernando had died. The brown hospital echo of my hotel’s old 1940s tiles and wood fittings. Out back in the drenched garden black trees pushed forth a glut of mangos. The mangos were the color of sickness. Fog. A stone fountain, pores blackened with time. Mangos heaped in drifts on the black path. Still Life With Fruit on a Stone Ledge, 1605-1610. That writhe of marrows like lovers’ bodies twisting up after an escape from the picture’s two dimensions, the curves aimed blindly up after light pouring through a hole cut in the ceiling. That rhyme between opened ceiling and slit watermelon. A wry mouth, teeth climbed black by medical side-effects.
When do I think of him? We listened to David Bowie one of the days in January that he was up for treatment. Fernando was devastated when Bowie died. Looped Black Star that whole morning.
“It’s that saxophone solo on the last song – it kills me,” he said. “Sounds like a soul leaving the body. The way he exited the stage – he turned death back into an art.”
I put Black Star on sometimes these days and in my head I see a stark brass light diagonal catch Fernando’s face at the head of a deal table. His gaze is aimed down before him over a white page on which he’s drawing the shapes of his pain in black pencil. Smoke threads knit opaque under a cone of light from a black lampshade. Someone nudges Fernando and he looks up to see two beckoning fingers calling him forward into the dark. He’s alright with it. The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600.