Johnny America


Spots of a Leopard


Nicolás is seat­ed in his study. The last rays of the sun seep through the
win­dow, il­lu­mi­nat­ing half his body and trac­ing the spi­rals of to­bac­co smoke
that en­vel­op him with brush­strokes of light. He puffs fru­gal­ly on his cigarette
and looks through the smoke at his moth­er’s pho­to in front of him. The ashtray
on his desk is over­flow­ing with cig­a­rette butts — not from yes­ter­day or the day
be­fore, but from to­day. Since he came back from lunch, he has lit one cigarette
af­ter an­oth­er. Nicolás was des­per­ate be­cause smok­ing is no longer al­lowed in
restau­rants. So when he left, he smoked in the street, in his car, and his
house­’s bath­room while ea­ger­ly wait­ing for his cof­fee to be ready, taking

Al­most six years ago he un­der­went aortofemoral by­pass be­cause he was no
longer able to walk well, his feet felt burned, pins and nee­dles, and couldn’t
take even one more step. His an­gi­ol­o­gist said blood did­n’t cir­cu­late well in
the low­er legs. If he did­n’t have by­pass surgery, the legs would have to be
am­pu­tat­ed. He was­n’t crazy about surg­eries, but ac­cept­ed the doc­tor’s advice.
He pre­ferred to die rather than live with­out legs, with­out free­dom and
in­de­pen­dence, with­out walks to the Par­na­so book­store in search of books. And
drink­ing a cup of cof­fee, right there in down­town Coyoacán. And go­ing back down
the Calle de Tres Cruces, where he bought two packs of cig­a­rettes in a candy
store. No, hav­ing no legs, no! Not even his chil­dren, who al­so smoked, would
ever un­der­stand how des­per­ate he felt when he did­n’t keep a cig­a­rette pack
close by. No one would bring him cig­a­rettes quick­ly enough. So he agreed, then,
to have surgery.

Af­ter the surgery, the doc­tor said his artery looked like a blood sausage,
it was al­most com­plete­ly blocked, and blamed it on smok­ing. And the surgery
ac­tu­al­ly im­proved his life and phys­i­cal mo­bil­i­ty. But he was pro­hib­it­ed from
smok­ing and pre­scribed nico­tine gum and patch­es to stick on his stom­ach. God
knows how hard he tried, but the on­ly thing the treat­ment did to him was to
in­crease his crav­ing. He chewed nico­tine gum as he smoked one pack after
an­oth­er, with a nico­tine patch on his belly.

A month ago he be­gan to feel ill — weak and sick. His son-in-law, who is a
doc­tor, or­dered all kinds of stud­ies, blood tests, to­mog­ra­phy, and MRI scans.
Again he was put through strange ma­chines, white tun­nels with strange noises.
He was in­ject­ed con­trast liq­uids to have X‑rays tak­en that cut him in pieces — situations
so mod­ern and ad­vanced that they turn out to be un­pleas­ant. But what is worse,
he was­n’t al­lowed to light a cig­a­rette for hours. Hos­pi­tals should be
un­der­stand­ing and make a smok­ing room avail­able, be­cause there peo­ple feel nervous
and stressed about sick peo­ple or their own ail­ment. But those who make these
new laws just don’t un­der­stand it. They were not yet born at the time or too
young to re­mem­ber Bog­a­rt smok­ing in Casablan­ca or lit­er­ary gi­ants like Rulfo
and Cortázar, al­ways with cig­a­rettes be­tween their lips, dan­gling to the rhythm
of their words. Nei­ther did they have a moth­er like his, who gave off the sweet
aro­ma of to­bac­co, seat­ed at the din­ing ta­ble, talk­ing, sip­ping her coffee,
chain-smok­ing Raleigh cig­a­rettes, with­out wor­ry­ing about her chil­dren who
shared the ta­ble, wor­ry­ing about noth­ing but smok­ing, con­tent­ly smoking,
en­joy­ing puffs of smoke around her. To­bac­co re­minds him of mo­ments, so
fa­mil­iar, so in­ti­mate, and smells like home, like his moth­er. It can’t be harmful.

Nicolás gets up from his ex­ec­u­tive chair to serve him­self an­oth­er cup. This
com­bi­na­tion of to­bac­co and caf­feine is be­yond his con­trol. From the rem­nants of
the one he has smoked, he lights a new cig­a­rette. He sips his cof­fee and looks
at his moth­er’s por­trait. She was more far­sight­ed than oth­ers. If smok­ing were
harm­ful, she would nev­er have al­lowed him to smoke. And to think that he tried
his first cig­a­rette when he was eight.

Any­way, smok­ing is not the cause of his ail­ment, he knows it, even though his
doc­tor says the op­po­site, sec­ond­ed by his son-in-law, his daugh­ter, and his
med­ical ex­ams. As his body de­te­ri­o­rates, it no longer stands a re­al man’s life.
A body that is get­ting old, just like his mother’s.

Nicolás looks at the yel­low Médi­ca Sur en­ve­lope that con­tains the re­sults of
his med­ical ex­am. His doc­tor checked them a cou­ple of days ago and says his
aor­ta got in­fect­ed where the by­pass was done. He has to un­der­go yet another
surgery; like horse surgery, his en­tire ab­domen has to be cut open. He shook
his head, giv­ing a cat­e­gor­i­cal no. At eighty, this kind of surgery must be too
heavy a cross to bear. Even if he lived five more years, liv­ing like that is
not re­al­ly liv­ing. Be­sides he would have to give up smok­ing for good and stay
in the hos­pi­tal, with­out light­ing up, for at least two weeks and six months to
re­cov­er. Bedrid­den, de­pen­dent on his daugh­ter and nurs­es. With­out se­cret puffs
in the bath­room or on some bal­cony. No one to help him out, no puff to get rid
of his anx­i­ety. The more he thinks about it, the more de­ter­mined he is: he
prefers to wait for death with a cig­a­rette in his mouth. No, he’s not going
back to the hos­pi­tal. On­ly he knows what’s hap­pen­ing to his body; it’s old age
that’s killing him, not smok­ing, no way, he thinks while watch­ing the fading
smoke be­tween him and his moth­er’s photo.

Filed under Fiction on December 13th, 2013

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