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Black Grapes

for my physician

It is good to see you, Isabella says, hugging me and taking away my suitcase. I follow her to the taxi as she walks lopsided, struggling with the big bag. It has wheels on it, I holler, but she doesn’t stop. She probably doesn’t understand the English word wheels.

The driver runs up to help her.

Illustration by Nicole McKeever

The last time I saw her was in India, her body hidden under a Punjabi suit and her hair in braids like an Indian girl. Today she’s wearing a little green sundress and she’s as beautiful as ever, but with the addition of a few more wrinkles. Maybe it’s the tropical sun. Maybe she’s thinking the same when she looks at me… Well, it must be the pollution in New York City. It has been five years since we first met, sitting on the floor in an Indian guru’s living room. She was struggling to communicate with him in English as he was trying to extract a payment for yoga lessons. Since I could speak a little Spanish, I offered to help, and after that, we spent two months traveling and practicing yoga together.

Now we drive down the wide highway behind the western hotels that border the ocean, turning up a cobblestone street and climbing the mountain into a barrio of little houses and narrow streets with stray dogs and children playing. Isabella’s apartment is on the top floor of a five story building with large windows and doors opening on three sides. It is rustic, sparsely furnished, and you can stand on the veranda and survey the circular horizon of mountains, houses and apartment buildings sloping downward toward the Pacific Ocean where today the setting sun is orange.

I want to live here, I say, as I scan the amazing skyline. It was one below zero when I left my coat with my son in the airport in New York. Standing here, it now feels as if I have been living in a noisy busy cave, rushing down one dark corridor to another.

It’s nice right now, she says, but very hot in the summer.

Do you want to go out to dinner? I’m starving, I say.

I am on a fast. Soy en ayunas. Maybe you, too? She holds up a book about Taoism and sex, pointing at me. Eating only grapes, ovas, for seven days will clean the dirt en su cuerpo. She makes a circle around her belly with her hands.

Siete dias, solamente ovas? I was kind of looking forward to eating Mexican food, but I was also worried that so much cheese and beans might make my allergies worse.

She places a red and blue woven tablecloth on the outdoor table, we fill a platter with big black seeded grapes, and then we sit down for dinner. A formation of sea birds drifts over the buildings and then leans toward the sea.

No cows here, I say, and we both laugh, remembering numerous encounters with the cows in India.

En las montanas, she shakes her head and points to the mountains. We’ll go with Rigaberto on Sunday en su camiÛn. That’s when we’ll start eating some other food again, too.


You know, um, big auto grande for things. She emphasizes size by holding her hands wide apart along with a gesture of an exaggerated question on her face.

Truck, he has a truck? I say after flipping through my pocket dictionary.

Grapes are one of the sweetest fruits, full of water. Actually these grapes are sweet and sour simultaneously. I slice one in half and examine the design. Four big seeds inside. Even though they are connected to each other in the cluster, each grape is slightly different from the others.

After dinner, we walk down the mountain to the waterfront in the old part of town. We stop at a beach side cafe to drink chamomile tea and watch the sun set behind a steady stream of tourists. Then we climb back up the hill, stopping at a grocery store where we find two tables full of grapes, one fresh and one not so fresh, but considerably cheaper. We fill up a grocery bag with the fresher batch, and then wait in a long line behind an old woman and her two grandchildren who are busy climbing in and out of her cart.

At night I toss and turn, wide awake from the sound of loud Mexican music on the street and my body a little too light from eating only grapes.

In the morning after breakfast, we borrow a car and drive outside town to a beach without any other gringos.

That’s the house I want, Isabella says, as I maneuver the car around the steep narrow winding road. There’s plenty of room for my yoga studio and for mi escultura. She is pointing at a big stone house on the side of a hill.

I’d rather live in something smaller like the little cement houses in the villages, but then I just need space for my computer, desk and books. Isabella needs more room to work on her stone angels and wooden yogis.

We put on our bathing suits, shawls and hats and sit in beach chairs under a large grass roof. A very sweet and handsome waiter brings us tea. There is only one other group in the restaurant and the beach is quite secluded.

I smile at him. I could live with him, I say, and she laughs. He is married with three little children. A very sweet man though.

I want to retire early, marry a young man and get out of New York City, go somewhere, like here, live in a little house near the ocean near you. I’ll take care of his children.

What about his wife? She laughs. You and me, we have bad luck with men. She eats five grapes in a row.

What about Rigaberto?

Well, I like him very much, but he has many other lives besides with me—;his family, his friends, and his business contacts in Mexico City. He is not with his wife anymore but sometimes they stay in the same house because of his daughter. He is not like me, though, and that is the real reason why I say this is temporary. Very nice, but only for now.

A speedboat passes by the waterfront, pulling a man on a parachute over the water.

On our way back, we swerve around bumps in the road, passing the big hotels again. I look to the left, up the mountain into the barrio. That’s my apartment up there, she says. You can’t get lost here, just look up to the top.

We keep going for a while, driving inland. Then we turn right and after a few miles we enter a village with a big white Catholic church in the middle. We park and go inside. Jesus’ body is hanging on a cross, hand painted and illuminated with blue lights, reminding me of the blue lights my mother put on our Christmas tree. She died in January when I was eleven and the lights were still on the tree. Isabella and I sit in the pews in silence. Outside the stones in the sidewalk take the form of one cross connected to another.

In the morning, I am sitting on a tall stool in lotus pose beside a beautiful bright pink plant, munching on grapes and reading the only English book in the house, on yoga techniques for fasting and cleansing your body. With Kunjal Kriya, you drink eight glasses of salt water and then bring it back up. Not today, but maybe in the spring.

I study the collection of sculptures around the apartment. When we were in India, the sculptors in Mysore welcomed Isabella into their workshop, printed an article in the local newspaper, and held a puja to welcome and celebrate her new work. While they worked day and night doing their cast duty, replicating forms of the Hindu gods and heroes, she came now and then to chip away at a yogi in headstand. Her work is very angular and so geometric that they are almost, but not quite abstract, reflecting some combination of Indian and Mexican aesthetics.

I am so light that I can feel the blood pulsing through my veins. It’s almost as if I could fly right through the window. I must be losing about a pound a day. Nevertheless, even though I’ve left the city and I’m only eating grapes, I’m still sneezing from my allergies. Isabella tells me about a homeopath in town who also does colonics, a Dr. Rivera. We should go see him. It would be very good to do while we are fasting, and it will be quite reasonable for you with your American money.

Don’t tell Rigaberto about the grapes or the colonics, though, please, Isabella pleads as she puts some water and iodine into a pan full of grapes. When you see him, don’t say a word about any of this. She’s wearing a white blouse and a hot pink mini skirt. Even though it is very warm, I’m still wearing my levis. Maybe if I stayed here long enough, I’d change my style to include shorter skirts and more vibrant colors. After all, I came home from India with my hair in a long braid and wearing baggy clothes. A friend of Isabella’s tells me she can always tell when someone comes from New York because we are usually dressed all in black. When Isabella lived in Paris with her husband, she says, she also dressed mostly in black, but her dresses were elegant.

We follow the beach walking in the sand until we come to the Sheraton and then we climb over a ridge of rocks back to the street. The backside of the hotel is a hideous eyesore and the road in and out of town is strewn with big parking lots and transnational chain stores, such as Goodyear and Wal-Mart. Parts of town are old and lovely, but the seascape is monopolized by foreign businesses, hotels and condominiums owned mostly by American and Canadian retirees.

We sit in a little lounge, waiting for the doctor and listening to Ave Maria over the speakers. Magazines about health are carefully arranged on the table. Isabella places her cards in the center, advertising her yoga classes and reiki sessions. The receptionist brings us each a tall glass of water, and then Doctor Rivera calls me into his office. He is a very thin, elderly man who was educated in California. He has several diplomas on the wall.

Hello, Miss Henning. How can I help you?

I describe my problem with sneezing and coughing, especially in the morning.

Besides working with homeopathic remedies, I am also a neural therapist. I have studied in Germany as well as California. I will analyze your energy system, using homeopathic remedies as well as injections of anesthetics. Your past experiences often create short circuits in your electrical network, blockages.

In my prana?

Exactly, and I can correct these with the injections. For example the simple removal of a wisdom tooth in someone’s past might produce a major blockage in their heart resulting in heart problems. So in this case, we inject some anesthetic into the heart meridian as an adjustment.

I’ve had two wisdom teeth removed plus other molars when I was young to make room so my teeth could be pulled back with braces.

For about a week and a half more.

It would be nice to have more time, but this will be sufficient. Would you like to proceed?

I nod. I’ll do anything to try to cure these allergies.

My assistant is going to give you an acupuncture treatment today to prepare you. Then tonight I would like you to make a list of all the ailments you have suffered from in your lifetime, and all the scars left on your body. They leave a trace in your energy system, in your health. Bring the list with you tomorrow.

Isabella decides to begin a series of colonics immediately, but I feel too light for that so I take the bus home and curl up in bed with my notebook. Just a list, I think, of one word each. Tonsils. Falling. Knee. Throat. Tubal. Tear. Heart. Shoulders. Cough. Wisdom. Mouth. Knees. Sacrum. Temple. That’s a life in 14 words.

The next day, I sit across from the doctor’s big wooden desk as he jots down notes in my file.

When I was a little girl I had tonsillitis many times, I tell him. At age six I was taken to the hospital overnight to have my tonsils removed.

Were you unhappy?

Yes, I remember crying a lot when I was left alone in the hospital room at night with the shiny steel rail and the white sheets. I remember having a very sore throat afterwards and my mother making me pea soup. As I grew up I had bronchitis and colds a lot. Perhaps that had something to do with the cold climate in Detroit, and the fact that I grew up eating such terrible food.

What type of food did you eat?

Fried chicken, hamburgers, potatoes and canned vegetables. Hardly ever any fresh vegetables. Bean sandwiches on white bread. That was lunch when my father couldn’t afford bologna. The standard diet of working class middle America during the fifties and sixties. If I had grown up in the tropics, maybe I would have been luckier.

He looks up at me and shakes his head. Go on.

When I was in my early twenties, a doctor gave me some antibiotics for a sore throat. The sore throat never went away, and I became very ill, running a high fever. The doctors used to give us penicillin when I was a child with the same frequency that the cashier in the grocery store gave us a sucker. So my boyfriend took me to the emergency room and I was admitted. They drew a lot of blood and gave me massive doses of penicillin. Then it was determined I was allergic to penicillin. They tapped my spine to try to determine what was wrong with me. I remember my father and sister standing beside me, very concerned. Perhaps I had rheumatic fever. My heart didn’t sound right to the doctor, but in the following year, I was pronounced completely healthy. While I was in the hospital, though, my boyfriend found a new girlfriend, and I was heartbroken. I had to move out of his apartment.

Did you ever smoke cigarettes?

Yes, I was addicted to nicotine. For about ten years, I smoked three packs a day.

That means you would put out and light up a minute later?

I quit smoking when I was pregnant with my daughter, but I was always around a lot of smokers.

Isabella’s boyfriend chain smokes and he’s an alcoholic, she says, but he doesn’t admit it. He has a case of vodka and a couple of bottles of wine stored in her apartment. She tells me that her biggest scar is in her mouth. When she was seventeen, she had a job as a secretary and she was making enough money so she decided to fix her teeth. One tooth was slightly in front of the others and she wanted so much to be pretty that she let a dentist pull out all her front teeth and put in implants. It was the biggest mistake she ever made. Maybe Dr. Rivera will want to inject morphine into her mouth. No, she says, shaking her head. Never.

How many pregnancies? He looks over his glasses. Four pregnancies, two babies and two abortions. There must be a scar where my vagina tore when the last one was born. After that sometime in 1979, I had an operation in a hospital in Detroit. I was taken into the operating room in the morning, sedated, turned upside down while the doctor cut a little hole in my belly to stop the flow of eggs into my uterus. I woke up, vomiting and crunched over in pain. A little trail of sutures was left behind in my navel. Then my husband and I were fighting because I didn’t want to circumcise the baby, and I became allergic to deodorant, breaking out in an awful rash under my arms. I think maybe that’s when I became sensitive to aluminum. Or perhaps it was the stress. The doctor looks at me and scribbles something in his notebook. Take off all your clothes and lie down on the table under this sheet. He injects anesthesia in my neck, inside my mouth near the back of my throat, into my chest, in my navel and then in the outside of my vagina. He promises that this procedure that is very popular in Germany will somehow interact with my energy system and counteract the negative effects of the scars from these events.

I catch a bus following the sea until I come to a very upscale condo and a big marina. A few minutes later, in the corner of the studio, I strip off my levis and go immediately into downward facing dog. Isabella is talking very rapidly in Spanish so I watch out of the corner of my eye to try and determine her next move. Every so often she looks over to me, Pierna. Lift your leg, Barbara. Inhalando. Exhalando. Everyone is looking at me as she tries to help me open my chest. After class, I ask her what she was saying. She told the class that I am very advanced in my practice in some ways, but there is a problem with my shoulders that I am not used to working on. I try to explain to her that it is because I am always leaning over a book, a table or a computer. As a sculptor and a dancer, Isabella apparently doesn’t suffer from the same tendency to hunch over. No, your yoga practice is not right for you, she says. Astanga is not good for everyone.

We are still eating grapes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I chew the seeds slowly and swallow. I think I’m going to stop this fast though because I need to sleep. I wonder about the history of her other ailments. We are not fluent enough in each other’s language to carry on a clear and deep conversation. Instead we struggle with words and dictionaries. Sometimes at the border of two languages, it seems as if we are able to talk about what might be the unspeakable. Or perhaps the truth is that after we struggle to communicate we often give up and accept each other with our different ideas, no matter what they might be.

Isabella has shown me several small scars on her face and body where when she was young she had moles removed. I imagine the doctor is attending to these with injections. I know she also had a serious illness when she was a child growing up in Guadalahara, but I don’t remember what it was. She is becoming very thin right now from the colonics and the diet of grapes.

I don’t have any visible scar from this, I tell the doctor, but I suffered from depression, starting when I was eleven when my mother died and on and off for many years, ending in the mid-nineties when I started practicing yoga.

He hesitates and writes for a while in his notebook.

My kneecaps were dislocated in 1999, but after I started practicing yoga, that stopped, too. The worst injury I ever had was a few years ago when I herniated the disk between L5 and S1 while being a little too ambitious with back bending.

When exactly did this happen?

Let’s see, I think it was in January 2000. My foot was completely numb. I couldn’t stand on my toes.

On the bus, traveling from Isabella’s yoga class to the supermarket, we get off and buy a big bag of grapes and some vegetables because we are planning to switch over to vegetables the next day before Rigaberto arrives. I love the narrow streets up and across the mountain, each stone laid beside another so the pavement is somewhat bumpy, but a perfectly effective road, especially if one drives a truck and that is what I’d do if I were to move here, I think. I carefully examine the many gringos in the more modern area as they pass their old age comfortably in the tropics with the help of the Mexican cost of living. Well, maybe, I don’t want to join just yet.

Isabella teaches me to lift up my chest and open my shoulders. Wear a push-up bra, she says as I am standing on my head in her living room. It will serve as a reminder. When she lived in France, she worked as a Mexican dancer, twirling her skirt in a Parisian cafe with her shoulders dipping in circles. Perfect training for a yoga teacher. Perhaps in different countries, yoga teachers emphasize different postures based on their cultural background.

What about your cough?

That’s why I came to you, to do something about these awful allergies.

When did that start?

In ë86, a few years after I arrived in New York, I caught a terrible cold and throat infection, and it never went away.

Let me look at your teeth. He looks into my mouth with a little flashlight. I’m sending you to a dentist. I think if you have the molar with the root canal on the top left removed, you will be much better, but first I want to see an X-ray.

My wisdom teeth and some other molars were removed when I was a teenager to make room for my braces. Are there scars from these events, too, I wonder. Perhaps the injection of novacaine helped to remove the effects of another scar.

Isabella and I both go to the dentist together to have our teeth pulled. Are we crazy? I want to stop sneezing and coughing enough that I decide to sacrifice one tooth. In the last few years I tell him, I’ve had giardia and numerous Indian bacterial infections. I nearly died from typhoid fever. There is a little scar inside my right knee from falling off a slide when I was seven years old. And on my right temple, from a fall when I was running through the house to get the doorbell and I tripped over my backpack and hit the side of the table. My forehead split open. I picked up the baby, called my sister and went to the hospital. The baby was in the waiting room crying for me and so I decided not to have stitches but instead to hold her.

Then there are those scars on my shoulders from my initiation into yoga. The swami in a Vishnu temple in India branded me with a discus and a conch shell.

Did you scream?

Yes, of course. And they laughed at me.

He takes out his needle and pokes me in both shoulders.

They were burning hot and red for a week, I tell him.

He injects a little anesthesia into my temple and my knee.

On the last day with the doctor, there is a new recording of Ave Maria playing, a woman singing so beautifully, soft and windy. It makes me feel melancholic. I often feel abandoned, I tell him, especially with music like this. Must the experience of losing my mother as a child follow me everywhere? He injects a little anesthesia into my scalp. I am dizzy, I say. He tells me to lie down for a while. It is normal with that much anesthesia.

Isabella tells me that her husband who was French never held her at night. Her mother and father still go to sleep in each other’s arms. So she had to leave her husband. Now Rigaberto comes over every weekend or so, leaving his other life back in Mexico City. I, on the other hand, don’t usually want to be held through the night, just before sleep and after waking and maybe a little in the middle. If someone were to hold me all night, I’d feel as if I were suffocating.

I am in bed with the lights out when I hear Rigaberto’s voice in the living room with Isabella. There is the sound of ice cubes in a glass. I sit up, put on my shawl, pin up my hair and step outside to meet him.

Hello, I have heard a lot about you, he says.

And I’ve heard about you, too, I say, sitting up on a stool at the counter, drinking a glass of water. Isabella tells me he is a kind and generous man even though at times he can be a flirt and that embarrasses her. There are three big paintings propped up against the wall.

What do you think? he asks. I’m taking these to a dealer in Guadalahara for an artist I know.

Let me think about it, I say, because in fact I don’t like them at all and I don’t want to respond with my first reaction. Some fruit, a woman’s back and a lot of turquoise paint.

After climbing and carrying things, I am tired. Sometimes, I feel as fragile as a leaf on its way to becoming dirt. At home my dog is getting so old and her eyes are bleary. We’ve been together for seventeen years. As I lay on Isabella’s sofa, I feel an intense sense of loss for my dog, myself and everyone else who I know I will see again in a week or so, but lose in the coming years.

If I were to move here, I would have my friend Isabella and the sea. Sometimes memories and other familiar material seem more accessible and strange when you distance yourself culturally. I’d find a little place in this barrio or maybe I’d move further away from the sea and the tourists. Everywhere I travel, I think, if I were to move here, but there are several years of work left in New York, so I can postpone all this speculation. At the email station, I check my email and there is one from Jimmy, saying some romantic things. I used to imagine moving to San Francisco and living with him. No, I tell myself, don’t respond. We both play with this idea every so often and if one of us responds, the other runs.

There are very tiny ants everywhere in Isabella’s apartment or maybe they are termites.

Rigaberto is quite charming, but today when we are eating lunch and dinner, he interrogates me about my vegetarianism. You never even have fish? Why is it that so many meat eaters are defensive when eating with vegetarians? He also keeps saying he is not an alcoholic, but he seems to drink day and night.

On the airplane here, a salesman for a popular makeup company told me that Mexico is their biggest market in the world. Isabella keeps trying to get me to add color to my face. Some lipstick on your cheeks, a little please. I never wear makeup though. I’d feel claustrophobic with my pores blocked like that. My feet look kind of ordinary in these utilitarian sandals. The leaves scatter a path toward the shoes lined up outside the shop so I follow them and buy a pair of handmade sandals with a loop of leather to go around the toe and ankle. At home, I paint my toenails purple.

The next day we drive into the mountains in Rigaberto’s old pickup truck, deep into the country, sort of dry and parched looking land, but still country like country anywhere. We stop at a puddle of water and stones and make funny shapes with our shadows.

In the forest, he pulls over to the side of the road so I can photograph a plant with great big thorns. The first form of vegetable protection, he says. He and I enjoy discussing the various ways of saying everything in Spanish and then in English. He is quite fluent with English. I sit in the truck with my dictionary open on my lap. Rigaberto has to stop every so often and fix something under the hood. I have a fantasy about quitting my job, buying an old pickup truck and moving to Mexico. Could I bring my dog here? I ask.

Definitely, you can bring everything to Mexico. We can’t go to Los Estados Unidos so easily, but you can come here. He stops so I can photograph a cow along the side of the road. Unlike the cows in India, she is frightened by me. When I look into her eyes, she quickly turns and gallops up a ridge to escape us. I guess she knows that here most humans eat cows. I feel badly as if in my glee to communicate with her and to photograph her, I have committed a violent act.

You’re lucky she didn’t attack you, Rigaberto says.

I sneeze two times.

Isabella picks up a gigantic dried crumpled fallen leaf and holds it over me as my umbrella. We sit on the side of the road on some rubble, looking up in the trees at some orchids. Orchids are parasites, Rigaberto tells us, and he talks about some other trees—;I’ve forgotten the name—;with deep brownish red trunks. You can cut these down and put them into soil or water and they will grow again. We make fences from them and trees grow again from the posts.

I sneeze again.

You must be allergic to something here, he says as I blow my nose, laughing and revealing a little gap in my smile.

Stop, hey, look up at that funny lonely-looking tree, Barbara. It looks like a little tuft of hair on a bald head. He needs a hairdresser, badly. Get a photo, Isabella says, and so I do.


Barbara Henning

Barbara Henning has several published novels and books of poetry, recently Digigram (United Artists 2020); forthcoming is Prompt Book: Experiments for Writing Poetry and Fiction (Spuyten Duyvil).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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