The last in our series of excerpts from issue 19: the unpublished authors issue. Available online, at Barnes and Noble, and at independent booksellers nationwide.
Gods Beneath the Sand
By Andrew Pineda
The last night I cry––the night Erin says, “Don’t give up”––I weep into my hands, feel the wetness at the webs of my fingers. My parents have stopped calling. We’ll hear about you when you die, they must think. I’ve grown tired of sharing the trivial details of my health, so I stop reaching out and I stop answering the phone. But it’s not just them I ignore. I don’t want to talk to anyone; the illness is mine and nobody else’s. Cancer turns me selfish.
I imagine bits of sand pouring from my eyes and mouth, slipping through my fingers. Everything inside streams out. And I watch as the living room turns into a beach. All of my sediments settle into mounds at my feet.
What remains after I’m turned into numbers—white blood cell counts, toxic cycles—but rituals to staple me together? A walk downstairs. Coffee, cereal, lunch at 11 or 12. Television. One cycle through chemo. I lie on our white couch, wallow in half-sleep then sit up. Centimeter-long lines of my black buzz-cut stick in the white fabric. I’m afraid that if I leave the house I’ll either blow away or ants will tear me apart.
At the infusion center, I read haiku. I like that there are few letters to labor over. The curves aren’t hard to follow. I can’t yet handle a novel without getting a headache. This isn’t to say that haiku are simple—they’re more than language. I’m with Bashō when I close my eyes.
The Zen masters died centuries ago. But I want to do what they’d done: ball up the world and jam it onto a page. I want to create landmines. I want to tell you the truth. I want you to know what it feels like when I give myself shots. The blood thinner courses through my body. It burns for a second. When I exhale, I taste the air. My breath changes like I’ve sipped on dry wine.
I’m trying to save myself. I would catch the bits falling from my body and put them in a bin if I could. The best I can do is write, shout at the wall, rap. I hesitate to tell people I rap because they think of caricatures, the kinds of celebrities making it rain in strip clubs. But I was a rapper before I was a writer. Hip-hop opened my eyes to language. I’d ride the bus home in middle school listening to Nas’s Illmatic and watch the buildings pass. Each rhyme and crisp snare articulated the concrete outside. Scratched samples punctuated traffic on the way home. It was as if I could see Nas’s breath as he slipped into his verse on The World is Yours. So, when I was diagnosed with cancer I knew words would emerge. It’s as if the tumor in my chest is crawling out of my throat.
Then, after my first cycle of chemotherapy, I spend one particularly bad night, awake, shaking in pain. The next morning, the pain finds its way out. When I would have rather died than endure my cancer, the sun is all it takes to remind me that there is music to make.
I write seven songs in a week. Record, mix and master the project in ten hours at a posh recording studio in Santa Barbara. I make friends with the interns and engineers at Playback. We say words like collaborate. The last time I felt this sense of creative excitement was in high school. I set my eyes forward on an EP, an official release, a CD––something to hold in my hands while the tumor remains buried next to my sternum.
The first time I was in Santa Barbara, I had just graduated from the US Air Force Academy and was on 60 days of leave. My brother Laurence and I ate breakfast at Joe’s Café, walked State Street, went out on the pier. The funny thing about Santa Barbara is that if you look out from Stearns Wharf, the land that you see is actually Oxnard, an hour farther south. You’re not looking out across the ocean––you’re looking in.
The next time that I was on that pier, I was with Erin. We ate an expensive dinner in a touristy restaurant. We felt an earthquake and it had to be a good sign. The waves rode high. I watched the water rise and fall as if there were a heartbeat beneath the surface. After dinner, we held hands and went out as far as the boardwalk stretched. Erin and I walked slowly, careful not to trip on uneven slats of wood.
There were stars where the clouds split. A beacon in the distance blinked. The ring felt heavy in its box inside my pocket. It brought me to a knee. My words tumbled from my mouth. Before Erin could slip the diamond onto her finger, I snapped the box shut. I didn’t want it to fall between the cracks and into the Pacific Ocean. I wondered how many rings had settled in the sand below.
Santa Barbara is an hour’s drive south from where we live in Lompoc. I learn the drive over countless days and nights of making trips down the coast. Highway 101 turns into a two-lane stretch that winds through drought-ridden hills. Then, from in between a valley, the road opens up around a smooth bend. Outside the window on the right, the ocean shimmers. The horizon cuts a line of symmetry. If it isn’t the sunlight, then it’s the moonlight that makes me feel like I’m a piece of glass. I try to take it all in but it passes right through me. The colors diffuse my memory. In Santa Barbara, everything is bright.
Dad’s driving me and Erin to the sperm bank at 8:00 in the morning. We know I have cancer, but I’m not yet diagnosed. I’m told that chemo can affect my sperm counts. I’m told that it’s a good idea to save some sperm if Erin and I ever want to consider starting a family.
The sun is already blinding. Erin reads in the back. I’m trying to sleep in the passenger seat. When we emerge from the turn and the Pacific glistens through the window, I give up and stare at the water. When I blink, there are fleeting green shapes like images burned into a television screen. One second they’re there, the next, they’re not.
When Erin took me to the ER, the doctor showed me an X-Ray of my chest. He drew an imaginary circle around a blob near my sternum. The tumor displaced organs beneath my ribcage. It was the size of a softball.
In an old photo, I’m a little bit bigger than a football and I’m strapped across my dad’s chest in a baby carrier. Laurence is fastened to his back. Maybe we’re hiking, or at Disneyland, or the zoo. It looks like summertime. Dad’s young. His black hair is parted on the left side of his head. The red polo he wears stretches around his arms. I imagine the combined weight between me and Laurence. Forty or fifty pounds. Dad could carry us with one arm if he wanted to. I was born 2 pounds and 12 ounces. My height was measured in inches. There in the passenger seat of our Honda, if I’m not the same age as my dad in that photo, then I’m not far behind.
On Santa Barbara's coast at Playback Recording Studio, I feel like I’m in grade school again, getting my pictures taken. I cross my arms, turn, put my hands in my pockets. Four cycles deep into chemotherapy, I’m totally bald. The ridges over my eyes shine brightly. There are no eyebrows to soften my appearance, the curve of my skull. I look like an alien.
After a series of flashes and trying different poses, Ryan, the photographer, sits me down on a black leather couch. He puts a fake plant behind me. We’re getting ready for an interview. He levels a camera on a tripod and angles a black microphone towards me. To my right there’s a mixing board with knobs offset in various positions.
I look around behind the camera at the pops of color scattered throughout the room. The owner of the studio collects sneakers and rare vinyl toys, hangs posters and plaques throughout the building. Star Wars figurines battle on a windowsill. Playback is a musician's playground. Each keepsake takes me away from my reality. I almost believe that I could live here and cultivate the seeds of creativity forever.
We do portraits in the studio and record the interview. With 18 minutes of music, hundreds of photos, and a video, I’m gathering artifacts of myself. If my oncologist is wrong, I know that this is all that will be left of me: just my voice and my image. But my oncologist says that my prognosis is “good,” and somehow I believe him. In the future, the inertia of these days will pass. I’ll forget where the moles are on my scalp. I’ll forget where I was when I wrote pain.
Ryan knows that I’m not the typical rapper who comes into Playback simply because I know how to rhyme. None of the drugs I take are for recreational use. When I rap about Percocet, it’s because I need it. Ryan sees this in my eyes and the way I’m slow to speak.
He’s going to pitch my story to the owner of one of the most heavily-trafficked hip-hop websites. I’m the cancer rapper. He puts my interview on YouTube and calls it Lyrics vs. Lymphoma. We talk about “the tipping point” and how an artist goes viral. Ryan says, "Think of it like planting seeds. Over a number of weeks, people will share the video and the views will grow. Next thing you know, someone big is calling you." He talks with his hands and when he says the word grow, he widens them as if he's holding a globe. Every now and then a studio intern comes into the lounge, and when the door swings open we hear up-and-coming rapper Travis Scott recording in the background.
I title my EP Side Effects. Ryan and I team up to put it into the world. I know writing and music. He knows artistic direction. I’ve seen albums that he designed in record stores. Turned the jewel cases and flipped through the booklets with each one. Over months, we meet at Playback and talk about my EP. It blossoms in our imagination. We talk about a release party in the studio’s open space or maybe the Blind Tiger down the street. I begin to breathe the notes of my EP.