Spots of a Leopard

by Amélie OLAIZ

(Translated by Toshiya KAMEI)

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 puffs.

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.

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