An ambulance, bi-toned siren blaring WE-are, WE-are, WE-are, turns the corner past the "cerveceria" on La Rambla where E@L is sipping a burnt-flavored Catalan beer, reading an ebook and listening to a Guantanamo-like concatenation of Aaron Neville singing about Rainy Nght in Georgia and a wheelchair-bound old gypsy playing Russian folksongs on a weather-beaten accordian. E@L sighs and lifts his beer and... feels a chill wave of mortality and melancholy wash over him like the brisk wind (which has picked up today), as he thanks whatever gods may be that the ambulance is not coming for him.
It is almost one year since he climbed that tower in San Gimignano and felt the steel spring winding tighter in his chest and soon heard another ambulance, siren on, and it was coming for him, to take him to the hospital in Siena. Every minute since then he has been anticipating another call for an ambulance, expecting every exertion, every rush of excitement or anger to be the one to trigger a new incident, and possibly an incident of greater severity. He is aware of something from a book he recently read by a woman who had breast cancer*, that there is strong pressure socially not to carry on about his fears and feel down. That might bring others down too. He has had to keep operating, psychologically functioning, keep smiling, keep positive, not remind others, by harping on his coronary hypochondria, that they are equally mortal, they, poor boys, are bound to die just as surely. We all block this, we don't think about it, we don't want to freeze in an existential panic.
But when you know that the threat is right there, beating away for the moment, but that is on the point of seizing up in a, dare we say it, in a heartbeat you can't help but feel pretrified, terrifed. Why should you have to deny your real feelings, the sadness, the depair, the anger? When E@L read a report on a recent piece of research which showed that as many a 25% coronary survivors suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it made him wonder what stern stuff the other 75% are made of...
E@L now has that awareness of a hair-trigger death with him always, as he has had with the neuropathic pain that had kept him constantly aware of his own feet for half a dozen years until the best cocktail of drugs was found. Of course E@L was/is stressed by the whole affair. It's like being hit by a car and surviving, and that afterwards, you are not just being more cautious when crossing the road, but knowing for certain that every fucking car on the road really is out to finish the job.
If you see E@L pause for a fraction of a second, if he looks towards you but doesn't quite seem to see you, and if he pulls his mouth back into a slight grimace and then slowly sighs, you should know that a flicker of something has touched him with reminder of the fragility of his existence, someone as not walked over his grave, but pointed out the hole in the ground with his name at the headstone, that something has jiggled the pin of the hand-grenade in his chest. He might then see you, and relax that grimace into a slight smile, because he is alive after all and he doesn't want to upset you with how close the opposite possibility was just a second earlier.
His plate has a small lump of ambiguous matter on it; shiny, mucinous, soft, like something retrieved from a clogged artery, but it is merely a load of Roquefort he had dropped from his pork fillet and cheese bocadillo into his cappuccino earlier and only discovered when he swallowed the last dregs. He fished it out with the coffee spoon, wondering at first if it was not an "easter-egg" from the tourist-hating barista. Meanwhile, the gypsy squeeze-box player is wheeled away by his twenty-something grandson and, a minute later is replaced by a toothy middle-aged violinst.
His iPod has shuffled him to AC/DC's Hells Bells - "you're only young but you're gonna die."
If the coincidence was even vaguely amusing he would laugh but instead, he orders another beer.
E@L was spending a similar lunch time yesterday, his first day in Barcelona, still not checked in, on La Rambla; beer, bocadilla and coffee (note to self: no more than six coffees in four hours when jetlagged) and coming to the conclusion that there was a Pretty, Young Girls In Minimal Clothing Convention on in town somewhere nearby. Many of the men sitting in the shade in the tapas bars in the center of the strip, sipping beer with E@L, were also admiring the passing parade of delegates.
* Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright-sided"