None of the doctors could help her in Los Angeles or the provincial outpost of San Diego either, little people all of them, sniveling types, handwringers, an army of effete bald-headed men in spectacles who were mortified of the law — as if this law had any more right to exist than Prohibition, because who was the federal government to dictate what people could and couldn’t do with their own bodies, their own minds, their personal needs and wants and compulsions? Were they going to regulate needs, then? Dole them out? Tax them? Miriam was so furious, so burned up and blistered with the outrage of it that she must have been overly severe with the cabman — the driver with his hat cocked back on his head and his trace of a Valentino mustache — because when they got to the border at Tijuana, he stopped the car, turned round in the seat and demanded payment in full. Insolently. Out of insolent little pig’s eyes. “This is as far as I go,” he said, and she couldn’t place his accent.
She was immovable. She felt her face concretize, the pores sealing up, the muscles round her mouth and eyes going to stone. “Nonsense,” she spat. “Drive on.”
There was a customs man standing off to the left of the car, a slouching congenital idiot with a lazy eye and bad teeth, and he’d already showed them his smile and waved them on — no searches here, no passports required — and he was giving her a curious look now. As if he’d seen everything in his day, every sort of indecision and cataclysm, women four and five months gone heading down to la clínica for the procedure that would make them right again, rumrunners with their empty trucks, day-trippers and ethnologists and rock collectors, but this, this was a new wrinkle altogether.
“No,” he said, “no more,” and he shoved his way out of the car and tried to pull open the back door, but she held fast to the handle. “Get out,” he insisted and it gave her a small pulse of pleasure to hear the tremor in his voice. The war was already won.
“I won’t,” she said just to savor the words on her lips. “Now, I’ve paid you to take me to Tijuana, and I won’t budge until you fulfill your end of the bargain.” She looked round her in growing outrage: the customs man, a river of Mexicans in pajamas and serapes, mules, dogs, Indian eyes, Indian hair, dust, muck, filth, the street vendors and beggars in their cutaway rags — and hanging over it all the heat, the impossible punishing heat that stewed the odor of decay till she could barely breathe. “Move on,” she demanded.
He saw the look in her eyes, saw the way her face had set, and he didn’t even try to Jew her out of an extra two bits, as any of the rest of them would — he just shrugged, climbed back into the cab and put the car in gear. A moment later they were lurching down the rutted streets, the human circus of Mexican poverty unfolding outside the window like a mural in a moving picture. She was uncomfortable, feeling the heat, dizzy from the stench — she’d sweated through her undergarments and the seat of her dress, and her hair was gummy beneath her parrot-green silk caftan, which she’d chosen expressly to bring out the color of her eyes. But there was no one here to care about the color of her eyes. Just peasants — campesinos, isn’t that what they called them? And what was pharmacy? A cognate: farmacia, wasn’t it? She consulted the Spanish/English phrasebook in her purse and found the term under the heading “Useful Phrases”: ¿Donde está la farmacia?
There was a dog dead beside the road, the carcass swollen beneath a second skin of insects, people strolling by as if it were some sort of monument, as if it had been molded of brass and put there by the town council to honor canine achievement. The cab lurched again, in and out of a rut, and the dog was gone. “The farmacia,” she said, the cords tightening in her throat. “Take me to the farmacia, the first one you see. Quickly, quickly.”
He didn’t seem to have heard her, so she repeated herself. A scorched minute blistered by. There were birds now, some sort of Mexican birds, exploding up from the road — pigeons, Mexican pigeons. “The farmacia,” she said, and she was beginning to feel desperate, all her outrage evaporated in the face of the hopelessness of this place, these peasants, this driver — and he was American, of some sort, a legitimate cabbie from San Diego who’d agreed on a legitimate price here and back, half paid in advance, half when she was restored to her hotel on Coronado Island where the sea breezes stirred themselves each afternoon to neutralize the heat. Peasants she knew. Peasants she’d dealt with in Paris, where they were alternately surly and unctuous, and Tokyo, where they bowed to the floor and laughed behind your back, but these people frightened her. It was dangerous here. She could sense it. See it, see it with her own eyes. Prostitutes. Drunks. That man there — staggering as if he were riding an invisible donkey, his eyes red as some demon’s, staring belligerently through the window at her. And there — another unconscious in the dirt and no more a concern than the dog in his jacket of flies. She was about to open her mouth again, about to say she’d had enough, forget it, he could take her back and away from all this, this chaos and filth and the ungodly stink, when the car abruptly came to a halt. “What?” she said. “What is it?”
But the driver — was he Italian, was that it? — merely pointed a finger. It took her a moment, and then she saw the sign, black script, freehand, on a white background: farmacia. She gathered up her purse and the cloth bag she’d brought along, leaned over the front seat and commanded her voice long enough to say, “You wait, now,” and then she was out on the street and the sun hit her like an axe. Five steps, a wooden walk, and then the door and the bell that announced her even as the cab jumped into gear and shot away from the curb with a crunch of tires and a rat-tat-tat of exhaust. She felt the fear seize her then, a cold hand laid on the back of her neck. She was going to die here, she was sure of it, lost and abandoned in a place where her French was no use to her or her Southern charm either — and her children would never know, her friends, Frank … no obsequies, no sepulcher, nothing. She’d be like that dog lying bloated at the side of the road …
At that moment — as the bell sounded and the door swung back and she stood there frozen while the taxi receded down the street — two women in mantillas came up the walk behind her, their black hair braided and their eyes ducking away from hers, and what did they want? They wanted to go through the door, that was it, and she was in their way and they were waiting for her. Politely. Respectfully. She came to her senses then, murmured an apology (illogically, in French: Pardon) and stepped into the store. It was close and dark, hotter even — if that was possible — than the street outside. Slowly, as her eyes began to adjust, the features of the place started to take on shape. There were jars everywhere, a cornucopia of jars, and in the jars various dried herbs and potions, and there were folded browning sheaves of plants suspended from the ceiling to dry, the smell of them musty and bitter and sweet all at once. And the counter. The counter behind which stood a man identical to the spineless physicians and pharmacists of Los Angeles and San Diego counties, right down to the spectacles and the bald dome of his head, except that his skin was the color of the varnish on a very old chest of drawers — and what was that in the jar at his elbow, chicken’s feet? She thought of the apothecary’s shop in Romeo and Juliet, the mad mixer of potions, and what was the word she wanted, the word she’d practiced all the way down here in the cab? Un dormidero, that was it. Un dormidero.
But then the man behind the counter smiled at her, a broad, winning, helpful and welcoming smile — anything can be purchased here, Señora, anything at all, that was what his smile said — and the word flew right out of her head. He said something then, something she didn’t catch and couldn’t be expected to, but the gist of it was obvious: How may I help you?
Feeling better now, feeling herself again — or nearly herself — she straightened up and approached the counter, giving him his smile back even as the two women who’d followed her in browsed among the jars and their mysterious contents. What she said then was contained in a single word, a word she hadn’t had to memorize: “Morfina.” She watched his eyes. “Do you understand?” His smile widened. He nodded. “I want,” she said carefully, “morfina.”
She didn’t wait till she was back at the hotel, though certainly that would have been more pleasant, because she’d been feeling ill and run-down and lightheaded all morning — and her stomach, her stomach was cramping and her bowels weren’t right and no amount of bicarbonate of soda could even begin to help. The man behind the counter — the little brown pharmacist who’d suddenly become her best friend in the world — had given her what she wanted, all she wanted, the only limiting factor the number of dollars she laid out on the tin countertop, dollars outweighing pesos here (and that was funny, since dollar was some sort of nonsense word as far as she knew and peso was a measure of weight, of gravity itself), and she’d filled her cloth bag with a dozen tubes of morphine sulfate hypodermic tablets (1/4 gr.) and ten of the diamorphine hydrochloride (1/6 gr.). And she got herself some new pravazes as well, the needle she carried in her very clever little kit (it was made to resemble an outsized cigarette lighter, with room for two tubes and the hypodermic itself) having become blunted through use and unpleasant in the extreme. When the purchase was completed, the two women in shawls watching her surreptitiously and the pharmacist smiling till she thought his head would burst, she gave him another word, which might have been Spanish — or maybe it was Latin: “Taxi.”
“Taxi,” he repeated, as if she’d just supplied the one term that would make his life complete. “Taxi, sí,” and he shouted something toward a tumbled nest of straw baskets where a striped Mexican blanket concealed a doorway behind the counter. In the next moment, a boy with his eyes still asleep emerged, took one look at her and ran out into the street shouting the magic word.
The driver knew not a syllable of English, but San Diego was not an Anglican designation and the dollars she waved at him immediately bridged any difficulties of interpretation. The sun hammered her briefly and then she was in the back of the car, everyone grinning now — the pharmacist and the two customers who’d followed her out into the street, the boy and the taxi driver and even the random passerby, a whole world of dedicated grinning. The door shut on her, the car a Tin Lizzie, a flivver, a rattrap of the worst and flimsiest construction — and ancient, the first sedan ever made — but it had a roof, and, apparently, an engine. The thing jolted and bumped as if it were pitching headlong down the side of a cliff, the smells assaulted her all over again, the heat crouched atop her, right under the caftan (and she wouldn’t take it off, wouldn’t show her hair and the sweat and the fright she must have been), but none of that mattered for long because immediately she was dissolving a tablet in water and drawing it into her pravaz and between bumps finding a vein high up on her right thigh beneath the rolled-up sweat-soaked hem of her dress.
After that, the breezes blew and the smells dissipated. The man at the border waved them on without a second glance, the world took on a metallic sheen — the sheen of the high seas as seen from a deck chair on the SS Paris — and she wasn’t in Mexico anymore. She wasn’t in the bleached brown desert of San Diego either, not on land at all. She was on a cruise, perched high up on the rail with the wind in her face and the birds wheeling overhead, on her way back to France.
Excerpted from The Women, a novel by T.C. Boyle, to be published next week by Viking.