He was weeping, terrified, his tears soaked my breast

I like working in Emergency—you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays.

I get the jockeys because I speak Spanish and most are Mexican. The first jockey I met was Muñoz. God. I undress people all the time and it’s no big deal, takes a few seconds, Muñoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec god. Because his clothes were so complicated it was as if I were performing an elaborate ritual. Unnerving, because it took so long, like in Mishima where it takes three pages to take off the lady’s kimono. His magenta satin shirt had many buttons along the shoulder and at each tiny wrist; his pants were fastened with intricate lacings, pre-Columbian knots. His boots smelled of manure and sweat, but were as soft and dainty as Cinderella’s. He slept on, an enchanted prince.

He began to call for his mother even before he woke. He didn’t just hold my hand, like some patients do, but clung to my neck, sobbing, Mamacita! Mamacita! The only way he would let Dr. Johnson examine him was if I held him cradled like a baby. He was as tiny as a child but strong, muscular. A man in my lap. A dream man? A dream baby?

Dr. Johnson sponged my forehead while I translated. For sure he had a broken collarbone, at least three broken ribs, probably a concussion. No, Muñoz said. He had to ride in tomorrow’s races. Get him to X-ray, Dr. Johnson said. Since he wouldn’t lie down on the gurney I carried him down the corridor, like King Kong. He was weeping, terrified, his tears soaked my breast.

We waited in the dark room for the X-ray tech. I soothed him just as I would a horse. Cálmate, lindo, cálmate. Despacio … despacio. Slowly … slowly. He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, 2015.

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