There’s no homegrown cuisine in Washington, DC—no pizza, no bagel, no crab, no collard greens, no BBQ that embodies the District. The best DC can manage, when pressed on the issue, is either the half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl, or the wafer-thin, arm-length slice of pizza drunken college students devour in Adams Morgan.
San Antonio, my hometown, and south Texas in general, does not have this problem. We have food down here: Texas BBQ, kolaches, chili, and—lording over the food scene like an only somewhat benevolent God—Tex-Mex.
Living in DC, I ate my share of half-smokes and pizza. I also started a career in politics. Over three months in 2008, I helped spend tens of millions of dollars in union dues on political ads. Another time, as an assistant fundraising consultant, I took quick shots of whiskey with Congressmen at the Democratic Club as they hustled out the door to vote on some bill. At a luncheon, Senator Barack Obama shook my hand and cut in front of me in the food line with such skill I didn’t realize what had happened. I spent a month in a hotel room in Des Moines. I wandered into a Senate race in New England with some friends and helped teach the campaign what GOTV stands for. Once, at a Fourth of July celebration at the White House, I saw Tim Geithner linejump a dozen people for a beer. The work, the experience, the stirrings of power, none of it was enough. I wanted, more than anything, to write.
In August 2010, I climbed into a van that took me to BWI Airport and twelve hours later I moved into a tiny, shared apartment in San Marcos, Texas. About halfway between San Antonio and Austin, my new city was home to Texas State University, where I’d joined an MFA program.
The first month back in Texas, I gained ten pounds. Chopped beef from roadside stands, breakfast tacos from coffee shops, carnitas, poppy seed kolaches, Shiner Bock, Tito’s Vodka, sweet Texas Hill Country wine. I pounded all of it.
Yet, the biggest culinary surprise in my return wasn’t a type of food or a forgotten flavor combination. It was a hospital cafeteria.
About six weeks after I arrived in San Marcos, just as I was settling into my new small-town life, my 57 year-old mother started complaining about sore legs, tiredness, and bruises on her stomach. After a routine blood test she was admitted to the oncology clinic at Methodist Hospital. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. She underwent her first dose of chemo that night. Two days later my twenty-four year old sister packed up her car and moved back from Los Angeles.
Most weeks between October and January (when she had her stem-cell transplant) and then from February to March (when she was back in the hospital due to complications from the stem-cell transplant) I stayed in Methodist Hospital Thursday through Sunday. And I ate at least two meals a day in the hospital cafeteria.
The food was amazing. No, really. It wasn’t microwaved chicken just salty enough to trick you into thinking you’d had a real meal. They didn’t slather everything in bacon grease and Crisco. The food tasted great and it made me happy. I was a graduate student who’d walked away from a career to write a novel, but somehow the highlight of my new life was a four-dollar hospital lunch plate.
My first cafeteria breakfast was bacon-and-egg tacos. They looked good, the bacon seemed crisp, and the tortilla was thick. But it’s so easy to make Mexican food look good—pile enough shredded cheese and refried beans on a plate and even the “Mexican” food at Chili’s looks tasty. These tacos had to be terrible. I’d walked past the NICU waiting room to get here. I was sitting beside a wide-eyed man holding a child, and who knew what horrors had brought him here? I looked around: everyone had been punched in the face. Our lives were not supposed to lead here and I’m sure most of us resented our hunger.
First bite: Real eggs. Crisp bacon. Even the tortilla was rich and cooked through without being brittle. I looked to the serving line, wondering where they kept the Mexican grandmother that woke up at 3 a.m. to start her magic. All I saw was a yawning Latina in her twenties with a bored smile and a tattooed African-American guy in a hairnet bringing out another tray of eggs.
Maybe it was a cafeteria manager with an oversized budget, or maybe it was a few cooks determined to apply their culinary degrees to institutional food, but whoever was in charge knew what they were doing. The salad bar had full, leafy spinach, grilled vegetables, and bottles of organic salad dressing. A sushi bar was under construction. I swear to God one time there were lamb chops with little white hats on the end of the ribs. Another time: wild boar for dinner. Wild boar! It was good, lean and peppery, but not chewy and with a tart cherry glaze.
Upstairs, my mom could hardly eat. She had a soft, restricted diet, because mom, like most leukemia patients, took a starring role inFast and Furious: Cancer Ward. This wasn’t outpatient chemo where they give you a magazine, turn on “The View,” and send you home a few hours later with a can of ginger ale. This was chemicals pouring into her drop by drop for twenty-four hours, a filtered air conditioning system that turned my throat into cheerios, and nurses flipping on lights at two and four in the morning for pills. Soon enough, if everything worked out, she’d have a bone marrow transplant.
For seven months, I didn’t see the woman who raised my sister and me without a hose coming out of her. Often, she had one in her hand and an additional one in her neck. Eventually, they installed a port into her chest—a permanent docking station giving the medicine immediate access to her largest arteries. My mom had a port. We watched her blood cell counts dip each day like a point guard in a shooting slump. We couldn’t remember what all the numbers actually meant, but if the numbers went too low she’d go to the ICU. That we knew. Occasionally a nurse would look at the printout and shake her head.
“I don’t know. The Doctor may want to send you down there just to be safe.”
Once the nurse left my mom would say, “These numbers have to change. If I go down to the ICU I’m not coming back. People don’t come back from there.”
For the five months my mom called the hospital home, she was never alone. When I wasn’t there, my sister slept on a chair that folded into a smaller-than-twin sized bed. We’d step into the hallway and leave her and our stepfather alone when he visited after work. The family had drawn into a tight knot, like a clump of magnets hoping to heal with our presence. But there wasn’t much for us to do. We couldn’t take a round of chemo for her. We couldn’t stay up late picking the rogue blood cells out of her arms. I decided what I could do was justify my return to Texas—I could write.
In an MFA program, even after only six weeks, you feel guilty if you’re not doing it all the time. By the time she’d gotten sick I’d known the other people in the program for only a month and a half. When I told them about the cancer I could tell they felt badly for me, but they didn’t know me and weren’t sure how sad to be. Most said to keep writing. Tom Grimes, the director of the program, said, “Maybe the best thing to do … Just try to put down words.”
But in that hospital room my only chair was also my only bed, plus there was the constant stream of nurses, the eternal whirring and clicking of IV machines. I could see my mom on her hospital bed over the top of my laptop. Each cough made me sit up. Each time she moved popped me out of my chair so I could make sure she was okay. When she needed to stand up to use the restroom or to go for a walk, I gripped her elbow and stood by her side.
Meal times became my only guilt-free time away from her room. Downstairs in the cafeteria I was surrounded by people, but I felt alone, relieved of our situation. If I was going to be productive, then this is where it was going to happen.
Every morning, the nurse clomped into the room with pills and a blood pressure cuff. Barely awake, I’d stagger to the bathroom, where I washed my face using stinging hospital soap, brushed my teeth, and then stumbled down to the cafeteria. I ate the same breakfast every day: oatmeal mixed with granola and raisins and two tacos with salsa. While eating, I’d write two pages. At lunch I’d read a book and at dinner I’d read everything I’d written and start a scene I’d finish over breakfast. It took weeks for it to come together, but pages were piling up.
While I chowed down, my mom was sorting through the food she would and would not eat. Typical menu du jour: chicken breast, green beans or broccoli, and pudding cup for dinner; sliced turkey and American cheese sandwiches on white bread and potato chips for lunch; plain oatmeal for breakfast. Somehow, each dish, no matter what it was, smelled like stale cheese and fruit just on the good side of rotten. However long it took the food to come up from the basement to the eighth floor, to the nurses, and then finally to her, was enough time for cold food to go warm and warm food to go cold.
My mother would eat the melon but not the cantaloupe. Some days the fries were cooked right, some days not. Only she could tell. The pudding cups made her gag. After a month or two, the smell of the plates and the silverware sickened her—we had to take the plastic tops of the warming dishes into the hallway. I started writing a novel about a couple on the run in the mountains of New Mexico, chased by a bad guy for reasons I couldn’t figure out. I filled my notebook while eating baked chicken, thick lasagna with fresh ricotta cheese, salads covered in grilled squash, peppers, and eggplant. Eventually, the cafeteria cashiers started giving me the employee discount.
It took a couple months for doubt to creep in. In the end, the coffee did it. A large, foam cup was seventy five cents, and the coffee came out of a machine that seemed to mix hot water with either a port-like coffee sludge or powdered instant coffee. I should not have liked this coffee.
Just after New Year’s Day, I crumbled. My mom had the bone marrow transplant, but that led to complications on top of complications. Was I wrong about the cafeteria food? My mind locked up. I was mad at her for being sick, mad at the hospital for not curing her already, and mad at myself for being mad. After all, this wasn’t supposed to be hard for me. My hair didn’t fall out, and my bone marrow hadn’t turned against me. I didn’t need to call my siblings (some of whom she hadn’t spoken to in years) to ask if they could maybe find the time to go to the doctor, take a blood test, and figure out if they could save my life. My courageous act was trying to write a book. In the end, all I had to do was sit there and fill the room with something other than cancer.
The months stretched. Over time, the novel got better. My mother got better. But the food lost its flavor. When my mom was discharged, she was cancer-free. I meanwhile had written about ten thousand words. We packed up the car with her mini-fridge, blankets, pillows, speakers and chargers for her laptop, phone, mp3 player, and kindle. We were all too nervous and tired to even be happy. She had to return to the hospital several times a week for check-ups. At any moment, the slightest wobble could send her back to the hospital.
What I suppose I’m trying to say with all this is that the structure of a novel is, if not identical, then very sympathetic to the structure of cancer treatment. Novels don’t conclude and they don’t have answers—they only stop. Was the cafeteria food good? I don’t know and I wouldn’t eat there again if you paid me. Will her cancer return? The definition of “cured” is being cancer-free for five years.
There’s always more work to be done. My book still isn’t finished. A happy ending is only so happy. If the cancer doesn’t return, then something else will finish the job.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in The Morning News, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The San Antonio Express News, Kill Author, Kirkus Reviews, and many others. He’s finally close to completing his first novel and is working on a series of noir novellas.