Raymond Manuel Aguirre is a writer and a health care professional. He migrated to the United States when he was 17 years old and has since been interested in various political issues, particularly immigration issues. In 2015, he released a short book entitled The Hill: A Novelette. Currently, he is based in Los Angeles, where he is working on other creative writing projects. To learn more, go to his website.
A Short Story
By Raymond Manuel Aguirre
It was dark already when I made the trek back to Los Angeles from Sacramento. Once in a while, I would see the outlines of trees and crops partly illuminated by the moonlight and the headlights of the vehicles on the road. Mostly though, all I saw were the bald plains of Northern California. I was cruising down the 5 South. I let the wind in–chilly, but soothing. I smoked yet another cigarette and let its stench graze my battered car seats, my shirt, and the nice air outside. I turned up the knob on the stereo and searched for the rock station. I sat back as Metallica played For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then, I allowed myself to slouch back a little and turned on cruise control.
Every few minutes, I would look at the passenger seat, at a small envelope that was sitting on it. I beamed silently with joy each time I looked at that envelope. It contained a document stating that I can now work as a licensed vocational nurse. This was it, I thought–a new life. Two hours ago, I had phoned my girl Mimi to inform her of the news while I wolfed down my one-man celebratory dinner at a KFC in Stockton. She shrieked like I never heard her shriek before and congratulated me. I also called Terry, Mimi’s co-worker and the staff developer at the facility where I had been planning to work. He said he would speak with Rowena, the director of nursing, first thing tomorrow morning to tell her that I could finally start working. The only person I did not call was Mama, whom I thought deserved to hear this good news personally.
October 26, 2013. I was in the middle of Maternity Class when Mama called me.
“It’s your father,” she said. “Come now. We need you. We’re at the Queen of the Valley ER.”
When I got there, Mama was bawling. Tita Odette, Papa’s older sister, made it there before I did and was trying to console my mother. At first, I took Mama’s panic with a grain of salt because she was the hysterical type, the type that overplayed things, but I also acknowledged that things were not good. Papa had been admitted to the hospital twice over the last three months for cardiac arrest.
“One more,” the doctor warned during the second admission, “and he could be a goner.”
Papa was a withered mess when I saw him that night. He was nowhere near the pompous corporate executive in Manila that stood beside President Fidel Ramos and Senator Juan Ponce Enrile in a photo that hung in our living room. His face, which in the last few months had already sagged, sagged even more. His entire body also sagged, and if he sagged just a little more he would liquefy and just drip off the bed.
He died at 4:32 A.M. of the 27th, with Mama wailing by his side, and tita Odette and the rest of my Papa’s siblings crying softly in the background. I stood quietly during this whole procession, debating between sadness and anger.
In the years that we had been in the United States, Papa was beset by bad luck. After he had a falling out with his business partner in the Philippines, we moved to the United States, hoping that things would pick back up in his career. Instead, he spent years being limited to minimum wage or temp jobs or sometimes, being unemployed.
Despite his luck, however, Papa stayed idealistic.
“One day,” he would always say. “We will live a better life. This is America! The Land of Opportunity!”
Papa was pretty much the only person in the family who never told me to become a nurse. He never dissuaded me from becoming one, but he had told me plenty of times never to be a nurse just because it was a safe bet. He knew that I never imagined myself a nurse. That I preferred the solace and the empowerment writing afforded me.
“Finish that damn book of yours already,” he’d always say, fully aware of how many years I’d been trying to revise a manuscript that I kept in my closet. It was a young adult novel about the struggles of an 18 year-old immigrant, which I started writing the day we arrived in Los Angeles.
After his funeral, I looked through the pages of this book. I considered adding to it, an entire chapter perhaps, but realized I had run out of things to write about. Little did I know that as the lines blurred between my life and the difficult world in which my protagonist lived, it would become much harder to write.
Mama changed since Papa’s death. She liked to clean, but Papa’s death made her clean even more. She was always mopping and scrubbing something. It was as if she was hell bent on trying to erase every bit of Papa’s remnants within our apartment. At night, she kept the television on, even though she had always been the one most concerned about our electricity bills. She did not cry as much as I had expected her to, though she was usually serious. I thought her lack of emotion was strange, since Mama had never really been the stoic type in times of uncertainty.
A month after Papa died, Mama and I realized we had very little money. Money had been a problem even when Papa was alive, but his death gave the issue a bit more urgency. I had to work more. Mama had to work even more. More than what her body could sometimes bear, in fact. Her migraines troubled her more often, and I had no way of keeping track of how many Tylenols she had taken. Eventually, Mama and I decided we had to make do with a small room in La Puente, a downgrade from our one-bedroom apartment in Covina.
I worked part-time at a Filipino fast food in a commercial complex in West Covina and full-time at a warehouse that provided the stock and the supplies at that fast food place. Meanwhile, Mama cashiered at a Filipino supermarket in the same complex, washed dishes at Denny’s in Pomona, and sold Moringa herbal pills to her friends. We were too tired to do anything besides work, but we made OK money together–enough to pay for a roof, enough to pay for a banged up Civic, enough to breath. But still, there were plenty of nights when I would look to the popcorn ceiling, wondering if we could do better than this.
Often, Mama would make remarks about this neighbor or that friend of a friend who was a nurse. She’d tell me that these people were doing great, that I should consider becoming one, and that it was not too late to shift from creative writing to nursing. She had been trying to persuade me before I went to college, but when Papa died, she became more persistent. I tried to resist the idea, to hold on to what idealism Papa had encouraged me to have.
But after a while, I had to give in. The urge to rise from poverty overpowered every bit of will I had to live the life of an artist.
One day, I gave Mama a nice surprise when I said, “Yes ‘nay, I’d like to go to nursing school. I quit writing.”
I had left the house at four in the morning, got to Sacramento around noon, and left at around four in the afternoon. Before heading home, I spent an hour or so walking near the state capitol trying to contain my excitement and ended up posting some cheesy status on Facebook that said, “All the hard work has paid off.” When I got past Stockton, I lost my signal, and did not get it back until I got to Fresno. By then, I already had 102 likes.
I got back to West Covina fifteen minutes to ten, and decided to go to The Heights. While I smoked, I listened to my voice mail. I had three calls. One was from Mimi asking where I was. Another was from Mama asking me where the hell I was and why all her calls went straight to voicemail. And then the third call was from Terry asking if I wanted to drink.
I texted Terry to say I was too beat to drink. Then, I called Mama to tell her what I had done that day, that I meant to deliver the news to her in person, that yes I was safe, that I’m sorry I didn’t let her know I drove to the opposite side of California to get my nursing license, and that no I won’t do this kind of thing ever again. Mama responded by crying over the phone, telling me how good of a son I was. After that, I called Mimi and said I was on the way to pick her up.
We ate dinner at this 24-hour Pho place along Cameron Ave. They had lousy Vietnamese soup, but they were open 24/7 and they had an open veranda to sit at late at night. It was the perfect place to smoke and eat while the rest of San Gabriel Valley slept. I volunteered to pay.
Mimi glanced at me with pride and amusement and said, “Sure, Mr. Big Shot Nurse.”
I kissed her on the cheek. There was no way I would let Mimi take the tab on our dates again, ever.
“So Rowena said she’ll see you in the morning,” Mimi said.
“Can’t wait,” I asked. “Is it a full-time position?”
“Not right now, but just hang in there.”
I kept looking at her.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You know how some of the people at the facility are like. Sancho looks like he’s the next candidate for the Fly-by-Night Nurse Award.”
“Well, don’t you think I’d be like Sancho?”
“You won’t Sam. I know it. You’ll do great there.”
I nodded and gave myself credit. I did ace nursing school, to my surprise and to the surprise of Mimi and my mother. I took almost all the awards during graduation, with the exception of the Perfect Attendance Award.
After dinner, we checked in at Elegant Heights Inn, which I paid for as well. It was a motel by the freeway owned by this Indian family. For the last three years, we had been frequent flyers at that joint. We liked Elegant Heights because it was cheap, but didn’t look cheap. I mean, the sheets didn’t smell like cum or looked like somebody had just been boned on it. It was at that motel where I would always promise Mimi of a better life. Where I would always vow to make something out of myself, out of our lives.
And that night, after we had fucked, and after she had burrowed herself in my arms, I slept knowing that I had finally kept that promise.
Four months after Papa died, Mimi and I were at the housewarming party of Jen, this 40-year old RN that Terry was fucking around with. Their relationship was supposedly a covert operation–known only to me, Mimi and this other LVN named Joe. I never understood why their relationship had to be a secret, since most of the staff was tsismosa and tsismoso and already knew what was up. But Terry and Jen continued to keep things hidden, as if secrecy was some type of fetish they had.
Jen was already piss-drunk by the time we got to her house. Mimi and I got there pretty late, because she had worked the 3-11 shift and had a fall incident 15 minutes prior to endorsement. I picked her up from work, like I always did, because it was the least I could do.
Anyway, when Jen saw me, she glanced at me through her half-open eyes and gave me this over-the-top welcome hug. She normally never said hi to me, at least not directly, and at least not when she is drunk. Jen had this annoying habit of referring to me in the third person even when I was present. Like, for instance, we would be in the same dinner table–me, Mimi, and Jen–and Jen would be like, “So what does Samuel do for a living?” I hated that shit.
After chatting with Mimi, Jen staggered across her living room and crashed into the couch. Terry was equally fucked up beside her, with a half-consumed bottle of Patron dripping on his scrub pants. Later on, they would disappear, like they always did.
I helped myself to a beer in the kitchen, while Mimi started talking with her co-workers in the living room. I didn’t mind. Joe came hollering out of nowhere and said some shit I did not understand. He was high on something, I’m sure, but I couldn’t tell what. He approached me, gave me a chest bump, and then we helped ourselves to some food, which had gone cold by then.
Mimi looked back at me from her little circle. I knew that look. I hated that look. It was the look that said, “Sam, I wish you could be part of this conversation. I wish you could be one of us.”
“I’m OK,” I said. She didn’t hear me, but she read my lips and nodded. From where I stood, I could not hear what they were talking about. The volumes of the electronic music and of the other drunken nurses were too loud. I did not bother to come closer, because I knew I would not understand a thing they were talking about anyway.
The party raged on until about four in the morning, and by then I was about as fucked up as every single person in the house. However, I somehow managed to be the last one awake. Mimi was on the floor with a blanket up to her neck, snoring. Jen and Terry were nowhere to be found. Everybody was littered all over the living room, like casualties of an apocalyptic event. It was a housewarming alright, because the house felt like a hundred degrees.
I had been to many nights like these. It was during these nights when Mimi and her co-workers dissociated themselves from their profession–from the heavy weight of carrying other people’s lives on their shoulders and the paperwork that came with such responsibility. I attended these parties because of the free booze and because of Mimi, but also mostly because they were the only events where nobody looked at me strange whenever I said I wanted to be a writer, where I did not feel like I had to defend myself.
Before I slept, I decided to look around Jen’s house. It was a beautiful three-story house that had hardwood floors and new furniture. It was a place Papa would have loved, a place I could have never bought with two minimum wage jobs and a writing career that was going nowhere.
At around noon, Terry woke up and suggested we go someplace far. We ended up driving to Primm, Nevada. Mimi and I decided to tag along because she was off and there was nothing else to do. Joe and this nurse aide Mikhail also went and brought some leftover alcohol with us. We all drank on the way to Nevada. We laughed and laughed.
While they continued to laugh, I stopped at one point. And it was during that moment when it seemed like a switch had just suddenly gone off in my head. I looked outside the car window and bathed in the sunshine that passed through it. It was a beautiful morning, hangover notwithstanding. I at looked Mimi, Terry, Joe, and Mikhail. And for the first time, I did not see a bunch of nurses trying to find an escape from their tough job. Instead, what I saw were people who were so satisfied, so relaxed, so complacent about life. They all looked like they had reached a transcendent state of mind, a state of mind that I thought I was only going to achieve as a writer, and a state of mind that I could no longer afford on my current salary.
When I saw this, I thought, “I’m sorry Papa, but I think it’s time to let that book go.”
I was up and about early the next day. Terry had left a voice message saying Rowena wanted to see me at nine. I was at the facility by 8:25. I refused to smoke with Terry because I didn’t want to stink when I met with the Boss.
The interview was short, shallow, and pretty much a formality. Terry had everything arranged before I got there.
Why do you want to work here? Because I am passionate about helping people and I believe this is the best place to exercise that passion.
Are you good with people? Absolutely.
Do you have a habit of calling off work? No ma’am.
What shifts are you available? I am open to any shift.
We start new grads here at $20/hour. Is that OK with you?
Of all my answers, my agreement with the hourly pay was the one that I thought about the least. I had meant all of my answers, but man, twenty bucks was good. I ran calculations in my head and realized that working full-time both at the fast food place and at the warehouse would not even equal what I was about to make as a nurse.
I smoked with Terry after the interview and then decided to hang around the facility.
“Welcome dude,” he said. “Welcome to St. Martha Convalescent Hospital.” I sat inside Terry’s office looking at the people outside.
An old woman wheeled herself in front of us and started to turn the bathroom knob. She set off the alarm that was attached to her and Terry bolted out of his seat.
“Ms. Cherry, please,” Terry said in such a phony, sweet-ass voice. “Please don’t get up by yourself. I will call your nurse if you’d like to go to the bathroom.” Terry then called out a nurse’s aide and gestured towards Ms. Cherry. Then, he came back to his office.
“That’s Ms. Cherry dude,” Terry said. “Been here for eight years. You’ll get to know her more when you start working. She’s a fall risk, a little confused, but she’s really sweet.”
I watched as Ms. Cherry was wheeled by the CNA into the toilet. She looked thin and frail. Her arms were marked with purple discolorations all over. I wasn’t sure how the staff could hold her, even gently, and not break any of her bones.
After a half hour of sitting around, Terry decided to have me do some paperwork. After that, he toured me around the facility. He got approval from Rowena to pay me for four hours that day.
“80 bucks for just fucking around,” I thought. “How can I complain?”
Terry introduced me to the staff, which was 75% Filipino. There was tita Lucy in the North Station, who was old and was munching on some peanuts while charting. She stared blankly at me for a brief moment, nodded, and immediately went back to charting and munching. Next, there was Jill, a cute little chinita that reminded me of Yolly, my hot date for junior prom. Terry and I hung around her station, the West Station, for a little while until we saw Mimi approach us.
“How was it?” she asked. “How did it go with Rowena?”
“Ah! You know he’d get it,” Terry said. “No doubt about that.”
Mimi squealed and hugged me. Then I backed off a little. Just to keep shit professional and all.
Afterwards, Terry continued to introduce me to the other people. There were many, and soon, my mind started to float as I met several other LVN’s, CNA’s, RN’s and administration staff. One of the people I met was this stern-looking woman whom Terry introduced as the medical records director.
“She will be your new best friend,” Terry said. “Medical records will be on your ass with audits, especially if you are new. Don’t get frustrated. Use it as a learning experience.”
I nodded. I looked all around me to see everyone so busy. Call lights buzzed here and there. People walked in and out of rooms. Phones rang from all directions. A woman somewhere screamed “fuck you!” while Rowena bandied about with a stack of papers looking for Lucas, the admissions director. Ms. Cherry was by the front door trying to get out, which set off the alarm to the whole facility. I took in this whole picture, this chaos, and prepared myself for what was about to come.
Three months passed before I got acclimated to the whole nursing home routine. Sancho ended up quitting a month after I came aboard, so I did end up getting a full-time position on the 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift.
During these early months, I became literate in talking about incident reports and other kinds of nursing documentation. I experienced firsthand what hell my nurse friends had to go through just to write these things. I had my fair share of falls and skin tears and orders from Rowena to rewrite my documentation on them to make them seem like they were not facility’s fault even though they clearly were. I also learned how to send a patient out to the hospital for various bogus illnesses so that he or she can come back to the facility days later with renewed Medicare coverage. I had also become used to telling Ms. Cherry not to go to the bathroom by herself about 200 times per shift. I also experienced getting yelled at by doctors, getting harassed by department heads, getting guilt-tripped into covering for absent nurses almost every night, and having sleepless nights because I could not stop worrying whether I had mistakenly drugged some poor old man or woman to death. Then, I came to know many of the faces Terry introduced to me on my first day, the people who would have been something else in life or was former this or former that in the Philippines, but who had to make do with being a LVN or a CNA because there were no other jobs out there other than nursing.
I took all this in, considered these experiences as initiation rites to the nursing profession. During this time, I never wrote, partly because I was always too drained to do so, but mostly because I had refused to see its worth. I began to see it as a waste of time, an ancient pastime that only served to hold me back from fulfilling my promise to Mimi and my desire give a better life for Mama.
It wasn’t until eight months after I started working at St. Martha, a week after Rowena was on my ass for yet another issue on my documentation, and a day after I was ordered by management to send out Ms. Cherry to the hospital under the false pretense of a bladder infection, when I wistfully cracked open the pages of my novel. For a second, I thought I heard Papa’s voice saying, “Finish that damn book already!” Then, I wondered, what Papa would have said if he knew what I had been up to lately. The book felt ancient in my hands, like a volume of spells that trapped hordes of damned creatures within its pages. I began to flip through the book and took my time in doing this. I relished each line that had once felt so natural to write, but now sounded like the voice of an unknown person. And then, I wondered as I looked at the last sentence on chapter five, the last chapter I had written, if I still had it in me to write the sixth.