C. A. Rivera

Evanescent Encounters


C. A. Rivera is a Mexican Puerto Rican American physician-writer born and raised in  Los Angeles. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ars Medica, Garfield Lake Review, Pulse-Voices from the heart of medicine, SFWP Quarterly, and in the Signs of life, a literary anthology. He was a participant at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference under the renowned writer Sigrid Nunez. He is a member of the prestigious Macondo Writers Workshop and a recipient of an Author Fellowship from the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He lives in Los Angeles with his family, where he is a practicing gastroenterologist and working on his novel Across the Asphalt, a searing tale of the Los Angeles carceral system effects on the health and soul of an inner city young man. 

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Against her doctor’s advice, Maggie trudged from Angels Plaza to the Alturas Central Library on an infected foot. She walked half a mile, but crossing Sixth Street proved the most challenging. Maggie, a petite 82-year-old woman, wearing denim Capri pants and a crimson red T-shirt, pushed her walker and dragged her throbbing foot across the street. She paused in the middle of the crosswalk to wipe the beads of sweat pouring down her forehead. As immovable as the tall skyscrapers around her, she gripped the serrated-edged brake on her walker with one hand and waved her handkerchief to hush the honking cars with the other. Then she stuffed her handkerchief back into the bag attached to her walker and continued her agonizing journey.

Once inside the library, she shuffled onto the elevator, but it took her a moment to realize she was going up instead of down. Maggie suppressed a groan as she stepped out of the elevator to catch one on its way down. She made the sign of the cross on her chest and thanked God she was still alive.

The elevator doors slid open. Maggie nodded at the man inside, who was sitting in a wheelchair. She struggled to squeeze her walker into the elevator without bumping into him.

“Jesu Cristo, yo me persingnaba, when I drove onto the freeway, but getting into the elevator—¡carajo!” The man shook his head. He continued, “Let’s hope there’s no earthquake while we’re both in here.”

“We’ve had enough of those, haven’t we? The tremors from the volcano in Bacano have followed me to Alturas,” Maggie replied. She moved to push the button for lower level four—the History and Maps Department—and saw it was already lit.

They rode in silence.

“After you, senorita,” the man said when the doors opened on level four.

Maggie walked beside the hand-drawn historical maps of the city of Alturas that hung on the walls. She stopped and followed the endless Alturas River with her index finger. Maggie strolled along that riverbed a few years ago, when there was not a single drop of water flowing through it. She thought the drought was temporary, but it had become an everlasting drought to this day. Maggie then traced the edges of the old map of Alturas to her left, an exoskeleton of a distance past. The shape of the map was like an outline of her Pacific conch shell at home. It looked like her home in the Bacano, Philippines. The old bucolic land on the map transported her into the past in the same way that her conch shell did. Maggie listened to the symphony of ocean sounds of the Pacific Ocean in her conch shell every morning before she left her home.

Maggie considered the library her second home, and she visited daily, but hadn’t been there in two weeks. Today, she hobbled to the library as she had into the classroom every day until she retired from her career as a preschool teacher. She had taught low-income children for forty-five years. She was busy as a preschool teacher, which prevented her from fulfilling the burning desire to write poetry. Maggie published a few poems, but attempted nothing as difficult or as important as the current project she was working on. She had tried for months and months to write a poetic stanza, but never got beyond a few drafted lines.

Her poem began in her childhood while growing up in the Philippines. She tried to capture the isolation she’d felt growing up as the youngest of three children in the Philippines. As soon as she learned to read and write at five years old, she’d spent most of her time in the room she shared with her sisters, scribbling short poems in her journal. She’d spent countless nights imagining in the tiny room of their báhay kúbo dreaming of life beyond their cramped home. Every night, she stared up at the tips of the bright green fishing line that held their small hut’s nipa roof together. As she watched the fishing line pull apart, she didn’t realize that her family would soon do the same.

Maggie found it difficult to write about her childhood scars and her life. She was five years younger than her closest sibling, so her father had always referred to her as the “accidental child.” She didn’t remember seeing her father very often, but she remembered that whenever he was around, he yelled and broke the few things her family had. At least that’s how she remembered him now. Her mother told her that her father was incarcerated in 1943 when Maggie was eight, prompting her mother to move to America with Maggie and her second youngest sibling in search of a better life. Maggie remembered waving goodbye to her grandmother and her other siblings as the boat pulled away from the Bicol shore. She didn’t know that it would be the last time she would ever see them.

Maggie never married or had children of her own. She was private and reserved and lived alone, so she rarely shared her feelings or details about her past with others. Poetry was her therapy and the only source of self-expression. She admired the works of Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde, and she aspired to reach their levels of poetic mastery someday. She tried to capture the graceful rhythm of Angelou’s poetry and the intensity of Lorde’s.

Maggie settled into her usual seat near the librarians in the southwest wing. She enjoyed listening to the spinning reels and the clicks of the microfilm readers that still existed at the library. She pulled out her poem, which had the written title, “America is in the Heart,” across the top of the page. This was an homage to one of her favorite poet-writers, Carlos Bulosan. Maggie also shared William Faulkner’s belief that the human heart in conflict with itself was the only thing worth writing about. She desired to tease out the conflicts of her own human heart. By doing this, she felt she could achieve a deeper understanding of her final coming of age. 

The words didn’t flow today. Instead, Maggie spent her morning reading through travel guides. She longed to visit Berlin, Prague, Shanghai, Mexico City, Tibet, and Nigeria. She even considered returning to the Philippines. She rearranged her list of preferred destinations daily. Today she would go to Mexico City first. Yesterday, it was Prague, and the day before that, it was Tibet. Maggie immersed herself in the guidebooks. In her mind, she walked on and off the crowded subways in Mexico City and climbed up the steep, mountainous regions in Tibet. She loved envisioning herself traveling the world as a poet in her life’s second act. She knew that her worsening diabetes would prevent her from making that vision a reality, especially now that she had a few toes amputated, which made it more difficult to walk. Still, she thanked God that she could walk at all and that she could visit all the places she loved through books.

Maggie removed her cane from her walker’s storage pouch, unfolded it, and stood up, holding onto the table to maintain her balance. She took a few unsteady steps and then sat back down. She would have to use the walker to stroll to the travel section and collect as many Philippine guidebooks as possible that she could fit in her walker’s storage basket. Maggie was too tired to make it back to her original table, so she chose a seat near the travel section. She took a deep breath, opened the first travel book, and recalled how Franz Kafka had written “America” from only hearing about it and reading travelogues. Maggie felt she could recreate her own childhood by triggering memories as she paged through the guidebooks.

At a nearby table, a man wearing round eyeglasses with no lenses snorted and woke himself up. He flipped a few pages of the book in front of him before nodding off again.

Maggie put on her noise-cancelling headphones and flipped through the Philippine travel guide. Soon, the images and descriptions transported her back to her childhood. Maggie could almost taste her mother’s salty and sweet chicken adobo that she ate on a bed of rice. She could smell the lechon stuffed with garlic, onions, lemongrass and tamarind that was roasting at the rare family reunions. She loved animals, so she grimaced when she remembered the sad image of a suckling pig spinning on the roaster. Maggie enjoyed dipping her fluffy warm pandesal in hot chocolate for breakfast. Especially spreading peanut butter all over it with her fingers. She still enjoyed the same breakfast every morning.

The man with the round glasses woke and struggled to his feet. He approached Maggie with a large magnifying glass in his hand, whacking her table with it, and yelling at her.

“Turn down your radio. Turn down that goddamn radio.” He pounded the magnifying glass against the table to emphasize each word.

The scent of dusty books clashed with the lingering odor of unwashed clothes and urine, causing Maggie to recoil. Her heart pounded as she removed her headphones. The man with his deep black eyes suspended in jaundice towered over her with his magnifying glass. With every passing second, Maggie’s heartbeat raced faster, but she was curious about him.

“Sorry, but I don’t connect my headphones to anything. The radio is not on.” She held up the headphone jack and tried to show him she wasn’t playing any music.

The man kept whacking the table, inching closer to her face and yelling again. “Turn down your radio. Turn down that goddamn radio.” He slammed his magnifying glass against her table one last time and flung her headphones to the floor.

Maggie felt like a child again, trembling while her father yelled at her. Maggie remembered the day she found some white powdery substance on a hand mirror. As she attempted to taste the powdery substance, she asked her father, “What is this, Tata?”

Her father grabbed the mirror out of her hand and smacked it against the table, shattering it into pieces.

Maggie felt paralyzed as she waited for the man’s magnifying glass to shatter all over her table, but it stayed intact.

Finally, the man grunted and lumbered back to his seat. He grabbed his black marker and traced thick black lines in the law admission test study books. He then ripped a handful of pages out of the book, crumpled them, and threw the puffs of paper all over his table and on the floor.

The librarian rushed toward the reference desk and scrambled to pick up the phone. Within minutes, officers encircled the man’s table. They questioned him, handcuffed him, and escorted him out.

“I’m sorry about that interruption,” said the librarian.

“Poor lonely soul,” Maggie said. “He needs some help. Going to jail is no solution.”

“They’ll release him outside. Happens all the time. I hope he knows the bottom has dropped out of the law market,” the librarian joked as he picked up the crumpled puffs of paper. “Oh gosh, I shouldn’t joke like that.”

“He might’ve been a brilliant lawyer,” Maggie replied as the librarian carted off the big LSAT books.

She opened her journal and began writing on a fresh page. At the top of the page, in beautiful cursive, she then wrote,

The Evanescent Man

Maggie felt like she’d been transported back and forth between the Philippines and America, and she couldn’t shake the way the man had reminded her of her father. She sat back in her chair. She knew the man was harmless. He was screaming inside for help. The man had needed recognition and a response from Maggie to confirm his very existence. She wondered whether the little she said had been enough. He had awakened a part of her spirit that she had tried to get in touch with for so many years. 

“This is America,” she whispered to herself.

Stacks of books surrounded her on both sides. She traced a flower design on the table as she searched her soul for the right words. Then Maggie felt a rush of energy, so she picked up her pen and wrote. 

Lingering motes of dust, tiny brown ghosts,
floating under the flickering fluorescent lights,
a fading man, my father, a troubled man.
Who was he? Where did he go?
The reflection of my father in fractured memories,
brushed away by fragile Balete tree branches,
another lonely man, swept away…

She stopped when she felt a chill sweep over her body. Why is it so cold in here? She shuffled back to her original table and rested her head on folded arms. Her teeth chattered, making her head rattle against the table. Maggie sat back up and rubbed her hands together to warm them up, but that didn’t help. She wished she could warm them up in the garden under the sun while she ate her lunch, but she didn’t have the energy or the appetite to go outside. Instead, she continued to rub her hands together.

Looking around, she noticed two men kissing in front of the men’s restroom before ducking inside. She waited, expecting them to come out again in a few minutes, but they didn’t. Then two other men went inside. They didn’t reemerge either. Finally, a man walked out, his lips full. He was dressed in skinny jeans and a black silk blouse with colorful flower petals. He carried his violin in a silk space, blue and beige paisley violin bag.

The man strutted past Maggie in long, heavy steps, as if walking down a fashion runway. His silver loop earrings glistened and his dazzling smile highlighted his round bronze cheeks. He turned, tilted his head back with joy, dropped his sunglasses, and made eye contact with Maggie.

He pointed to her shirt and read the word emblazoned across it: “Teacher.”

She looked down at the letters on her shirt, then back at the man, nodding and echoing his words. “Teacher.” What a gorgeous man he is, she thought.

The man turned and disappeared into the book stacks.

Maggie started perspiring and shivering. She pushed her walker over to the women’s restroom, struggling a bit. She washed her hands and dabbed her face with cool water before running her hands through her hair a few times to cool off her head. She cupped water in her hands and drank some water from the sink, and then she took her second antibiotic of the day.

As Maggie exited and passed the men’s restroom, she thought she heard men moaning inside, but a man wearing dark shades and bright lipstick near the back of the library distracted her. He was humming while he combed his hair. She wondered if the moaning she heard was coming from him or the men’s restroom.

She sat down across from him. It was the man with the violin.

How had he gotten back here?

Maggie waved her hand to get his attention. His beauty reminded her of her older sister, who was tall with soft, dark brown clay-like skin. She’d died of breast cancer at a young age. Maggie felt a hundred needles stabbing her heart, and although she felt like crying, tears eluded her. She was too dry and thirsty to cry.

The beautiful man removed his headphones. “Are you okay? Look at those giant black eyes, those snowy gray bangs, and those silver curls.” He gathered his fingertips against his lips and blew a kiss.

Maggie smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Humberto, sweety. Thee Humberto Diggs.”

Covering her mouth with one hand and pointing toward the men’s restroom with the other, Maggie whispered, “What’s going on in there?”

The man moved his dark shades up to his head. “If you only knew,” said the man, smiling with delight.

“What do you mean?” She leaned in closer.

“I can’t tell you all our secrets, can I? He winked at her. He took out his make-up bag, removed a mirror, and pursed his lips as he inspected his reflection.

Maggie pointed to his bag. “What do you have in there?”

“Why, you are one heck of a curious cookie, aren’t you?”

Maggie stood up, exasperated, but the room started spinning, so she sat back down.

“Uh-oh, are you okay? What’s your name, sweetheart.”

“Maggie” She took a slow breath. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Maggie tried nodding, but it took too much energy. She had cottonmouth and moved her tongue around to moisten it.

 “Maggie, I have an extra water bottle. Here, have some.”

“Thank you.”

Maggie drank as much water as she could, but it did not relieve the dry, cottony feeling.

“Do you want me to help you? asked Humberto.

“I’m fine, thank you.” She gripped her walker, but her hands shook, and her teeth chattered. She wobbled toward the librarian’s desk, leaning her entire weight on her walker at one point. In front of the librarian’s desk, her feet gave out, sending her tumbling to the floor, and her walker tipped over into a book stack.

The librarian leaped up from her desk and ran to Maggie. “Are you okay?”

Maggie tried to sit up but couldn’t.

“Call for help.” the librarian cried to the others.

Maggie was drenched in sweat but still shivering.

“Please help me up,” she begged.

The librarian knelt on the floor next to her. “I don’t want to move you and make any injuries worse. I’m right here with you, Maggie. Help is on the way.”

Maggie looked down at the gauze sticking out of her walking boot. Brownish pus oozed through the back of the boot.

The emergency medical team arrived, sat her up, took her vitals, and examined her.

“Ma’am? You have a fever and low blood pressure,” one EMT said.

Maggie tried to respond, but she felt weak, and she was slow to respond to their questions.

“Your foot looks infected,” added the EMT.

Maggie nodded and tried to explain. “It is… My doctor… a lot of medications…” She caught her breath, and then continued, “… infection won’t go away.”

The EMT nodded, “Sure looks like it hasn’t gone away.”

“Can you take me home?” Maggie asked. The idea of going to the hospital terrified her. Maggie wrapped her fingers around the small round pendants on her necklace that featured her sisters and mother’s pictures. She rubbed the pictures and tried to discern whose face she was touching. She thought about her mother and older sister’s slow deaths from breast cancer. Her middle sister had died at an early age of leukemia at the Alturas General Hospital. Am I next? Her eyes darted around the library. She searched for the historical maps. Then she turned, glanced down, and touched the carpet with her other hand. Glancing back up, she imagined the violin man serenading her. Is this the end? She felt weak.

 “Sorry, we can’t drop you off at home, not with such a severe infection,” the EMT said, interrupting her thoughts. “Do you want us to call a family member and let them know we are taking to you to the hospital?”

Maggie’s eyelids fluttered like a butterfly, her big round eyes rolled around in their sockets, her hands turned clammy, and she slurred her words as she collapsed back down. The EMTs checked her sugar level and found it to be low. They opened a can of soda from Maggie’s bag, propped her up, and gave her a sip.

After some convincing, they rolled her onto the gurney, strapped her on, and took her to the Alturas General Hospital Emergency Room, where they dropped her off, wishing her good luck.


A cacophony of voices, beeps, and overhead announcements greeted Maggie as she lay in the bed in the ER. She watched as staff cut off a man’s clothes in one of the trauma bays, trying to gain access to the gunshot wounds in his torso. In another bay, doctors were performing chest compressions to resuscitate an unresponsive woman. A short man next to Maggie’s bed kept screaming and trying to rip his clothes off. She wanted to jump down from her bed and run, but the EMTs had unwrapped her foot, and there was no way she could walk anywhere on one good foot. She stared at the red and purple wound oozing pus and felt like she was looking at someone else’s foot. She reached down and touched her shin, but she couldn’t feel anything.

A doctor walked over to her space to examine Maggie. “You have a severe infection. We have to admit you for further evaluation.”

Maggie wished she could call Olivia, her best friend at Angels Plaza, but she had died of a hemorrhagic stroke three years earlier. Maggie had played ping pong with Olivia back when they were both more agile. They had laughed then and talked about all the handsome men in business suits strolling through the plaza. She wished she could call her other closest friend, Modesto, the cashier at the Fair St. Market, but she didn’t have his phone number.

Maggie’s body stiffened from the cold air blowing from the vent above her. She waved a nurse over and stammered, “May I have a blanket?”

“Of course, you poor thing. You look like you’re freezing.” The nurse returned with two thin blankets, which she spread over Maggie’s trembling body.

The chorus of sounds from every direction was making Maggie’s head swirl. She closed her eyes and tried to tune everything out, but then a woman’s voice announced hospital codes over the intercom. Code blue. Code gray. Everything sounded urgent.

Maggie burrowed further down into the scratchy blankets, trying to get warm.

Tears streamed down her face.

The doctor tried to reassure her. “Hang in there, Maggie. After the surgery, you will feel better.”

 “Did he say surgery? I don’t want to have surgery.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my dear. You get some rest for now. They’ll transfer you up to a different floor soon.” The nurse rearranged Maggie’s blankets, so they covered her shoulders and hung another bag of antibiotics on the medicine post.



Maggie felt better when she awoke the next day. As she sat in bed alone in her room, she tried not to regret walking on her foot. Going to the Alturas Central Library was an essential part of her daily routine. She thought again about crossing Sixth Street to enter the library and remembered the hovering cars. Then she recalled her tightened grip on the walker’s serrated-edge brake. Maggie knew she would need that grip again if she received unfortunate news from the doctors.

 “Good morning, Maggie. My name is Dr. Hart. This is my chief surgeon, Dr. Brady, and the rest of the team.”

“Good morning,” Maggie muttered, turning as pale as the surrounding walls around her.

“I’m going to examine you, and then we’ll go over the findings, and our plan of treatment. Is that okay?”

Maggie nodded, “Sure.”

“Thank you.”

The doctor uncovered Maggie’s foot. Her leg had angry red splotches that spread further up above her ankle, far beyond the thick black outline the ER doctor had drawn yesterday to mark the infection. The surgeon gestured to the rest of the team. They moved closer to look over his shoulder.

Dr. Hart cleared his throat and said, “Maggie, we are going to have to amputate part of your leg, below the knee. If we don’t, you could die.”

Maggie couldn’t respond. She wouldn’t have accepted either outcome a day ago, but she had lost sensation in her foot, so it was already gone. Maggie asked for a moment to herself.

She called the Fair St. Market to talk to her friend Modesto, but the operator kept placing her on hold. She overheard the bustling market sounds in the background and yearned to hear a familiar voice, but Modesto never came to the phone. Maggie closed her mouth to draw a bit of moisture in. She prayed. She meditated. Nothing worked to calm her nerves. She pressed the button to summon the nurse.

“Can you please track down my journal in my belongings? I need it.”

The nurse pulled a few bags out of the closet, searched, and held up her journal. “Is this it?”

“Yes, thank you. Can you bring me a pen, too?”

“I’ll have to go get you one from the nurse’s station. I’ll be right back.”

Maggie transferred herself to the chair by the window on one foot, setting off her bed alarm. She didn’t care. She stared out the window at the brownish gray haze of smog suffocating the city and consuming all the skyscrapers. The only thing she could see was the tip of the tallest building. Though she could not see it, she knew the library was right across the street from that building. Would I ever return there? She shifted her gaze to the street in front of the hospital, which was full of buses and cars. The shadow of a helicopter arriving on the helipad covered the sun’s rays as the windows rattled, vibrating her entire body.

A deep loneliness overwhelmed her. She had one friend, Modesto, but no family. Despite the millions of people in the city below, no one would even know if she died. I could die if I don’t get surgery. I could die in surgery. I could die after surgery. No one will ever know. She pushed away the thought. It felt like a desperate rush, like the cars that had inched their way into the crosswalk yesterday, as she hobbled across the street. Yet, a relentless hope still filled her soul. She wasn’t ready to die.

Maggie realized in her encounters at the library yesterday, there was a broader context and a broader story than she’d envisioned. She thought about the man with the empty glasses and the magnifying glass, the deep breathing, the moaning, and the gorgeous man Humberto. Unlike Walt Whitman’s poem about America’s working class, she would write about America’s heartbeat. Those at the margins of society were the ones that encapsulated the spirit of humanity’s resilience, beat by beat. She remembered Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands; those men were at the margins of society, the crossroads, the borderlands, and so was she.

 It was this song at the fringe of society that was the most moving and she imagined Humberto gliding his violin bow on the strings of her soul. Maggie desired to walk in the footsteps of Gwendolyn Brooks and write about the ordinary people she had encountered at the library. She realized that her quest to understand her childhood isolation was a quest to understand the social isolation that was all around her. Those men were her, and she was them, she reasoned.

She pressed the nurse’s call button.

The nurse walked in and handed her a blue ballpoint pen.

Maggie wrote and wrote soon, forgetting she was in the hospital. She changed the title from “The Evanescent Man” to “The Evanescent American.” She scribbled down the title at the top of a fresh page.

The Evanescent American

She wrote seven pages of notes before the surgery team came to pick her up. Before they wheeled her out of the room, Maggie handed the nurse her journal and necklace.

“Please place these with my belongings. They’re very important to me, so keep them safe.”

“I will,” the nurse promised as she placed her soft hands around Maggie’s hand and necklace. “Good luck with the surgery, Maggie.”

 After eluding her for years, poetry came for her at that moment at the Alturas Central Library. The evanescent encounters provided enough inspiration to get her into surgery with renewed hope in her heart. The outcome of her surgery no longer mattered.

She looked at the nurse and pointed to her heart, then folded her hands on her lap, and declared, “America is in plain sight.”

As they wheeled her away, she remembered one of her favorite William Carlos Williams’ poems, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” She thought about his short poem and how the red wheelbarrow was instrumental to pastoral life because so much of life depended on it. Maggie reasoned that from now on, much of her life would depend on a wheelchair. But unlike William’s wheelbarrow, the wheelchair would be instrumental to her urban lifea life Maggie felt she could now capture through her writing.





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