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05 September 2023  •  Creative Writing

To Drink Perfume and Eat Gardenias

By Natalia Figueroa Barroso
To Drink Perfume and Eat Gardenias

Between dementia and death there’s an eternal stretch. Trust me, I know. For the past few years, I’ve been voiceless in my own casa. Even worse, voiceless over my own body. Apparently, when I lost control of my bowel movements, my kids, Martín and Sabrina, agreed that was the final drop in the glass they were waiting for to take full control of my life. Pools of tears filmed their brown eyes as they told me. But isn’t that how human beings cycle? Dependent, independent, dependent ? Nappies, underwear, nappies.

It’s weird. In my head it all makes sense but inside my mouth, everything becomes a mess. 

‘Papá what things do you want to keep?’ Sabrina asks me like I can answer. Her long black hair grows even longer as she waits.

I try to explain to her that it’s impossible to select which of her mother’s belongings I should take. It would be like asking me which leg I’d prefer, my right or my left? Instead, ‘La television, mi amor,’ my mouth says without consent.

Of course, she looks at me confused. I’ve never been a telenovela and popcorn kind of man. And she knows. Neither was her mother. Our TV sat in our living room, a black mirror reflecting a darker shade of our lives back out. We only turned it on in the mornings as we drank our breakfast yerba mate to see if there was any important news to keep up with. Sometimes, we put on ABC Kids to entertain the grandkids when they got restless on their Sunday visits. 

Sabrina doesn’t follow her gut by confirming my request. She simply takes my not-adhering-to-my-personality reply as a contract between us which gives Martín and her authority to throw everything else out. 

She’s exhausted, I understand. I’m a lot of work as of late. Nonetheless, I’m still her father with feelings trapped inside me, me cago en la mierda! Of course, my kids were smart about the removal of my belongings. They waited until I was having my siesta to begin their work of emptying my casa of its memories and melancholia, throwing all but la puta television to the curb alongside the trash. 

As my eyes and ears take in their guilty action my heart drums the words I can not express. I want to get up and get everything back inside. But I’m too tired to do so. The truth is, I simply can’t tell myself how to act or as just previously stated, speak. So, I listen and hope for the best. 

According to them, disposing of all non-essential items will help them get me ready to move into their casas. One week with Sabrina. One week with Martín. I heard and understood everything, they just don’t know. Nor are they capable of understanding the complexity that is my brain now. Anger and pain numb my feelings until I’m in absolute darkness. A black-inked room that swallows the life around me.

When I wake up, I’m in a claustrophobic ICU ward at Fairfield Hospital. I recognise it from my time there back when my wife Manuelita was sick with lung cancer. My senses are submerged: white bedsheets, white drawers, white bedframes. The stinging smell of disinfectants on vinyl flooring and in the sterile air. This, coupled with the nauseating odour of hand sanitisers on the nurses’ and doctors’ hands is like lemon juice seeping into a puss-covered wound. 

Plus, there’s the disorientating racket of distant and near, slow and fast paced footsteps. Some with a firm forwardness in them, a predictable click-clack at their heels. Some shaking with strain, on occasion, a tumble. Coughing and moaning, snoring and shushing. And so many kinds of beeping. From monitors advising staff that something’s not quite right, to the pushed nurse assistant buttons exhaustedly screeching for help. 

If all that sound isn’t enough to raise all the hairs upon my semi-naked body, there’s also, always, quiet chatter mixed with the nonstop echo of sirens in the distance. That both make me want to eavesdrop and cover my ears all at once. What in the miercoles am I doing here! I try to scream my internal dialogue. In place of my frustrated protest, tears escape my eyes and blur my vision until I’m no longer trapped in there but with mi amor, Manuelita, holding her hand. 

My grip is too weak and I fall into the abyss. 

There are places filled with clinquant light that are not rooms but beings. A whole. A golden beam that holds you like a mother cradles a newborn on her chest. Skin-to-skin-contact kind of existence. I enter through this door from time to time and search for my love. Sometimes she’s there, sometimes she’s not. And when she isn’t there, her absence rushes over me like I’m on a derailed roller coaster without end. Steering me into the past. A bumpy and brutal ride. 

However, as I land in a space that grasps onto Manuelita, peace is upon me. Her voice circulates as air and I breathe her in. My lungs fill with her essence. Her cologne. I smell her beside me. I fill her inside me. Death does not do us part. Death has nothing to do with us. Neither does life. It’s a place beyond place. Beyond reality and dream. Somewhere passed the back of the mind and the edge of the earth. There is no moon to pull at us nor are there celestial bodies to circulate. Just an enormous ball of emotion that burns brighter than the sun. Because it’s not the sun, but Manuelita. And her fire is immortal. And when I find myself here, with my hand in hers, I don’t want to wake up. 

Callously, I always do.   


My eyes blink and sunlight enters at an angle through the dusty off-white blinds. I’m now on an uncomfortable sticky blue-grey synthetic-leather hospital chair. Luckily, Manuelita is next to me. But she’ss snoring on morphine and attached to all sorts of drips and tubes. In her veins, in her nostrils. Her once thick red lips are dry and greyed and stretched beyond their limit. Her nose reddened with sores from the oxygen tube. I wanted to pull all of the cannulas out of her fragile body to make her feel more comfortable, but they’re keeping her alive. Keeping her here with me. Even though her life here only drifts between blankets and dreams. I have not heard her grandiloquent voice—except from the occasional cry from pain—for longer than I can cope. Our relationship survives on one thing, however; holding her hand. 

I look at how bony and veiny they are. How the folds of her delicate skin hold pieces of what she was. I thought of all the nanas she had healed. All the clothes she had scrubbed and dishes she had washed. All the tender touches she had placed upon mine and our childrens’ faces. All the dough she had kneaded over the kitchen countertop. Slapping it 13 times for good luck. All the fists she had punched towards the sky, yelling in protest at injustices. Clapping at revolutionary and progressive speakers. Putting her pinkies into the corners of her wide mouth to whistle at words that she told me she felt she had penned. Her hands that wrote poems on any surface: serviettes, park benches, chalk to road. All the books they had held and all pages they had flicked through. Dogeared her favourite scenes and plot twists. Underlined importance, scribbled thought. All the nights she had spent knitting whilst swaying on her beloved rocking chair. A rocking chair she had made with me. Beside me. 

Once upon a time, her hands were full of art and politics, activities and gestures. In this very moment, they lay to either side of her still body. Rigid. It’s hard to stay in the present when it smacks you cold. I traverse time and remember holding her hand when we were newlyweds. Oh, what warmth they gave me! Not just on my palm but all over my body. A secure hug within. Just like the place beyond place. But now they’re lifeless, frozen and stiff. I have to let go. Her hands unrecognisable; they aren’t hers anymore. She had parted from them in a blink of a moment like a painted lady butterfly caught in spring’s first blustery winds. And most of my language and memories flew with her. Right behind her.

There is nothing more certain about death than seeing a loved one in a coffin. If that doesn’t shake the last remains of ridiculous hope out of one’s mind, I don’t know what would. It isn’t until I see my querida Manuelita in there, framed by her wooden casket that my mind opens to another world. One where she’s with me, whispering into my ear, interlacing her fingers with mine.

‘Remember the book, mi amor,’ she says as her guttural voice caresses my cheek.

Love in the Time of Cholera, it’s her bible. To feel closer to her and to somehow comfort her in her most uncomfortable state, I read it and reread it to her while she slept on her hospital bed. Monitors plugged into whatever life they could attain. I quickly run towards the book and, as I hold it in my hands, I think of Florentino Ariza. The poor fool drank perfume and ate gardenias to try to taste his amor, Fermina Daza once more. 

‘Remember the rocking chair, mi vida,’ she says like a tango in my ear. 

I look at her beloved rocking chair and it speaks to me. Its breath, burnt wood.

‘Sit down Juan,’ it says to me as it rocks itself back and forth, ‘I’ll bring her back to you, I promise.’ Its voice screeches, in need of WD-40 where wood meets metal. 

Of course, I sit down, place her book on my lap and begin to sway. Eyes closed into the magic it proposes to me. At my fingertips I feel its curved armrests with its wooden decorative lines carved deeply into varnished skin. 

Back and forth, forth and back, I rock and sway and become hypnotised by the squeaky sound it makes, and then she sits on top of my lap. Time collapses like her last breath did my lungs.

‘Hola, amor de mi vida.’ Her breath a combination of bitter yerba and musty earth.

I open my eyes and there she is, alive and young. Black hair in a long braid that rests over her left shoulder. Teeth bigger than her smile. Lips red as the blood pumping through my heart. Tears again deceive my eyes, and she swims underwater in a sea of salt and love. 

Sabrina’s hands touch my face and Martín stands behind her, crying like an anxious toddler. Dios mío, she looks like her mother. They both do, I think.

‘Papá what are you doing here?’ she asks with concern written on her face like a doctor about to give a diagnosis of terminal illness to her dying patient. Martín whimpers and sucks in the snot dripping off his brown lips.

I look around me and see I’m sitting on Manuelita’s rocking chair, with her copy of Time in the Love of Cholera on my lap, surrounded by garbage bags and rubbish bins. Our neighbours and their peering eyes. An ambulance flashing its bright red and blue lights in my face and patient paramedics with stethoscopes around their necks glaring their concern back at me. All silently watching and waiting for me to respond. 

‘I want to drink perfume and eat gardenias,’ I reply and it is exactly what I wanted to say.


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