Here’s what you would have witnessed if you happened to be standing outside the Raymond restaurant in Pasadena on April 13, 1997: A ’68 VW Bug comes to a stop, a woman flies out, skirt aflame. She drops to the ground by the side of the road, rolls on the grass, setting the grass along the side of the road on fire, and then against the green bushes, setting those on fire too. “Oh no, oh no!” is all she can manage. That woman was me.
In fact, about 30 feet away, a poor Sunday-brunch couple getting out of their car did see the whole thing. They stopped in their tracks and watched as my skirt burned off, as my skin turned to char. “Can we do anything to help—?”
The thing is, this wasn’t the first time I had been nakedly embarrassed in Pasadena. Years ago I was immortalized in the old Pasadena Art Museum playing chess against Marcel Duchamp totally naked. But now it seemed more likely that the result of the embarrassing episode would be the very opposite of immortality: it might possibly be death itself. Back then I’d said, “Oh no,” too—but to myself.
I got back in my car, grabbed my pink wool sweater, and put out the rest of the fire the best I could with it. The brunch couple watched in horror as I drove off.
I had just finished brunch with my mother; my aunt Tiby; my sister, Mirandi; and my cousin Laurie. Mirandi would be driving my mother back to her place, where I was also living at the time, and I looked forward to smoking the Tiparillo I’d been saving for the ride in peace and quiet. The cigar was one of those fashionable but hideous cherry-flavored ones I loved because smoking them made me feel like Clint Eastwood; everyone else hated them.
I grabbed one of those wooden matches, struck it against the sandpaper side of the box, when all of a sudden the match fell from my hand. The gauzy skirt I’d put on to go out dancing later went up in flames; my pantyhose melted to my legs. Thank God for sheepskin Uggs, which protected my lower legs from burns. I tried swatting at the fire with my hands, but it was hopeless. At that moment I remembered the words of a fireman I’d met long ago, who told me that the real danger from fires isn’t external burns but the damage that smoke inhalation does to the lungs, so I jumped out of the car. The skirt’s wraparound ties made it impossible to remove. If only I’d had a nice swimming pool nearby to jump into, I would have been fine.
This wasn’t the first time I had been nakedly embarrassed in Pasadena.
Here I was, I thought, over 50 years old, still so stupid that I was risking my life for a smoke. Was this the brick wall that Mrs. Hurly, my fifth-grade teacher, so confidently warned me that one day I’d end up crashing into “if I didn’t pay attention”? Had I managed to avoid all the damage I had done up to this point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick wall because of a match? I imagined how pissed off my friends would be if they heard I actually died from trying to light a cigar.
I got back into the car. My hands felt like fire, but I managed to shift gears, steer, brake, and otherwise accomplish what any driver whose lower half didn’t resemble a blackened mermaid could do. I was filled with adrenaline, unstoppable. News came over the radio of a fire in Pasadena. Was it the one I’d started? Thank God, no. I was still craving that cigar, but it was too late, the matches were somewhere melted into the car. And obviously I couldn’t be trusted with such a luxury.
First-degree burns really hurt, like getting boiling water splashed on you or a serious sunburn; second-degree burns are those horrible things you don’t want to have either; but third-degree burns, which is what I had, meant that my nerve endings were burned off. So I wasn’t in much pain at all.
I drove slowly through Eagle Rock and then Glendale, because it was Sunday and the cops would be out, ready to give tickets. Now I was getting close to home. All I had to do was turn onto Franklin, make it the final few blocks to where my mother and Mirandi would be waiting. Unlike them, I was too chicken to take the freeway, so I knew they’d beat me home.
The gauzy skirt I’d put on to go out dancing went up in flames; my pantyhose melted to my legs.
I pulled into the driveway and got out of the car, minus my skirt. I saw Mirandi standing with our next-door neighbor Nancy Beyde. Nancy’s face had a look of pain; I knew her Sunday was completely wrecked and my sister looked just as horrified.
“What did you do?” she asked, following me back into the house.
“My skirt caught on fire, can you believe it? I’m going to put aloe on it.” I still planned to go dancing with my old boyfriend Paul Ruscha later.
“Aloe?” she said, looking serious.
“Would you get a scissors and cut the waistband? I want to sue the skirt company.”
Mirandi got scissors and cut the waistband, and there on the label was the name of the clothing company. She borrowed a codeine pill from my friend Holly, who happened to have some left over from a surgery, and called 911. A woman paramedic arrived, looking like I’d wrecked her Sunday too, even if she was a paramedic. I said, “It’s O.K. I was trying to light a cigar in my car and my skirt caught on fire.”
She looked like she was sure I would die, but she didn’t know me. My friends would kill me if I died.
Woman on Fire
I was admitted into the burn-intensive-care unit at Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center. I once read in The Village Voice that an artist was anyone over 25 without health insurance—well, that was me all right: over 50 without health insurance. Did that make me a real artist? My sister had explained the situation to admissions, and I’d been enrolled in the hospital’s special program for people like me. My condition was listed as “grave”; burns, mostly third-degree, covered nearly half of my body, which is to say that the skin was gone. And I used to have such great skin.
The last thing I remember before falling into a heavily sedated sleep was meeting my night nurse, David. He was exactly the type to prevent me from dying.
“Oh, you’re going to save my life,” I said.
“You won’t remember me,” he explained, calmly.
But he came every night for the first six weeks I was there, so I did remember him. And later, he did save my life.
The doctor showed up the next morning, bright and cheery, with the news that I had a fifty-fifty chance for survival. The doctors confirmed that my jumping out of the car had in fact protected my lungs, so the prognosis wasn’t as dire as it could have been. Mirandi burst into tears, but I took it the opposite way. To me, fifty-fifty meant I had a good chance. I’d have guessed something closer to seventy-thirty.
On the way to the hospital it occurred to me: All my life I had been very lucky, and why should my luck run out now? Having been through getting sober in a twelve-step program, I knew that even when things seemed horrible, there was always a chance that they could turn around. It was only later I’d learned that, in addition to my main doctor, Dr. Nguyen, the famous and heroic Dr. Zawacki, the best burn doctor on earth, would be overseeing my case. He looked just like Jim Caan from The Godfather and his specialty was severely burned patients, the kind who, years ago, couldn’t be saved.
The doctor showed up, bright and cheery, with the news that I had a fifty-fifty chance for survival.
I was being drugged into oblivion, yet not so much that I didn’t wake up now and then and beg David to give me a cigarette. Finally, he called Mirandi on the phone. “She’s begging for a cigarette, what should I do?”
“Put a patch on her,” she said.
“There’s no skin,” he replied.
Kicking nicotine, as everyone knows, is the worst thing in the world, worse than kicking heroin, according to friends who should know. You can imagine what I was going through: not only was I in the burn unit but I was being forced to kick tobacco cold turkey. Well, I’d been miserable from kicking stuff before. Funny thing was, in recent years I’d been in the best physical shape of my life. I was working on a book about the ballroom-dance scene in L.A. and going out dancing every single night. I still smoked, though. If you’re a writer, tobacco is all that works. I wanted to finish my book, so I had to smoke, is how I looked at it.
“So, Eva, a cigar, eh?” Someone had written my name wrong on the band around my wrist.
Every morning a different person would come in and ask the cigar question. It was the only thing in the burn I.C.U. that gave them a laugh, because the other guy in there, a Mexican man who’d burned 30 percent of his upper body trying to help someone on the freeway undo a radiator cap, was really not good for a laugh at all. But me? They just had to laugh.
“Have you always smoked cigars?” they wondered.
“No, it was just a fad,” I tried to explain. “A Demi Moore type of thing.”
The previous fall Demi Moore had been on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, a fat cigar in her mouth. I thought that would ring a bell, at least if they bothered looking at magazine covers.
But I couldn’t tell them the whole thing, because once they began laughing, they didn’t really want to hear about Demi Moore, much less about the fashionableness of smoking cigars.
It was decided that I would undergo two 12-hour surgeries. In the first one, the doctors would remove skin from my scalp, shoulders, back, and arms. Two weeks later, they would staple it back on, reupholstering me with my own skin. And afterward I would be on a respirator and a feeding tube for weeks.
The first surgery took place on April 18. All through it, it seemed to me that I was floating above my body, I was watching the bloody operating room. The hospital had warned my family that it wasn’t worth waiting around during the surgery, but my cousin Laurie insisted. When she first saw me after the surgery, I was bundled up like a burrito, my face and body swollen to 300 pounds. We looked at each other and the word came to us at the same time: abattoir, the French word for slaughterhouse. All my life I had wanted to have a reason to use the word abattoir, but it usually escaped me, no matter how determined I was to remember it. Laurie didn’t sit through the second surgery—one butchery in a lifetime is quite enough.
After some weeks on the respirator, I was well enough to have the intubation tube removed, though the feeding tube remained. Still, breathing was hard. It was from all the morphine, I suppose. I just couldn’t breathe with enough conviction. David, my lifesaver, tried to warn me: “Eve, if you don’t breathe, we’re going to have to ask your friends to leave!” But my lung collapsed anyway.
It was practically a third operation, getting me on the respirator. God, it all comes back to me, what I put them through.
Funny thing was, in recent years I’d been in the best physical shape of my life.
Now began the routine. Every day I was taken to a horrible weighing machine. I had been unable to get true REM sleep for weeks, and in my paranoid dreams, it seemed I’d been kidnapped by terrorist orderlies and taken to a secret place where they tortured the patients.
I was so weak, strong arms were my ideal. I began to regard the men able to move me to the weighing machine with the least fuss as my saviors. I’d never gone in for muscles, but now they were all I looked for in a man.
My other torment was physical therapy. Christine, the therapist, put me through an ordeal where I had to sit up and crawl across the hideously impossible bed (which I was too weak and mad to do). Once I was seated, the bed would be lowered with a loud wham, so I dropped about a foot, right into what felt like a pile of broken glass.
Pain was the whole point of the exercise. Only later did I realize that that crushed-glass feeling was probably exactly what jump-started my nerve endings, which had been completely burned away. One of the reasons nobody but saints wants to work with burn patients is that they only get better when there’s more pain. Screaming from pain is the signal that you’re getting better.
Burn patients are also susceptible to infection, so the number of friends allowed to visit during my recovery was limited to five: Mirandi, Laurie, Paul, my writing partner Michael Elias, and Carolyn Thompson, whom I’d known since the 1970s. Nancy Beyde, the neighbor who witnessed me pull up in my VW, naked from the waist down and burned to a crisp, wasn’t on the official list, but she snuck in anyway.
Screaming from pain is the signal that you’re getting better.
It was Nancy who, when the doctors feared that I wasn’t healing and there was talk of another surgery, consulted her homeopathic-doctor friends. She smuggled in cantharis pills, something usually reserved for bladder ailments and blisters. She told me to relax (relax?) and slipped this smallest of tablets under my tongue. The doctors were amazed at my progress. I wasn’t about to clue them in to Nancy’s secret pills, because I was sure they’d regard them as ridiculous or else take them away. They were my secret.
My only consolation was the wonderful warm therapeutic Jacuzzi. Even though it was the world’s hottest summer, and Carolyn was fainting from the temperature in my overheated room, the bath was the only place I ever felt warm enough.
The Jacuzzi was the first place I’d seen the staples, so many staples. And my legs: from my waist to my ankles, black, black, black. It seemed impossible that I’d ever stand on them again.
“How did they get black?”
“This is just the first stage,” someone explained. “Eventually, they’ll turn pink—and then red.”
At least I hadn’t burned my face, or run into a traffic pole headfirst. I was trying to remember my good luck. I held on to the happy thought of being well enough to go back to the Glendale Galleria, not far from my house. I dreamed of shopping at the Gap and Nordstrom, as shallow as that sounds.
Bed of Nails
To a lot of people, the idea of an extended bed rest sounds like heaven. But the truth is, lying in bed you get no respect and being a burn patient is a visit to torture land. Even though everybody knows that since time immemorial sleep is about the only thing that lets people get better, I was never allowed to doze more than two hours at a time without someone coming to take my vitals, putting one of those blood-pressure things on, turning me over on my side, sticking needles into my wrists, and doing it so ineptly that I was bruised all over. Immobile in bed, on opiates, the constipation is terrible and enemas the only, horrible solution. Everyone keeps telling you to “relax,” which you have absolutely no way of doing anyway.
It was the modern era, so they put me on the latest thing, an antidepressant called Paxil. It didn’t do anything for the insomnia but it did enable me to speak with enthusiasm about everything that was wrong with me. I would list my complaints, starting with my head (too cold, sticky rubber pillow), my arms (bleeding), my gut (constipated from the opioids), my heels (developing bedsores). Laurie would come and read Colette to me, but my body was so traumatized that every story just sounded like pain. I was paranoid and had incredible, twisted ideas of what they were doing to me in the hospital. It wasn’t till two years later, when I finally kicked the Paxil, that it dawned on me that the thing that was supposed to make me sane was in fact doing the opposite. I shouldn’t have been surprised; one of the things I learned at A.A. was that the drugs that usually work for “normies” sometimes work wrongly for people like me.
The truth is, lying in bed you get no respect.
Eventually my lovely therapist Christine was able to get me on my feet, and I was able to use my near-atrophied legs again to practice walking up and down the hallways. Suddenly I got nicer, and the staff was nicer to me. Unfortunately, despite everything, including flowers being forbidden in case they gave me a virus, I did get a virus: VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococcus). My room was quarantined for the remaining weeks I was at County. Only doctors and nurses were allowed in. Eventually they let up a little and the few people allowed to visit had to scrub up, put on sterile mint-green paper masks, paper coats, rubber gloves, and even booties, and deposit them in a basket labeled TOXIC WASTE in the corner of the room, which by the end of the day was piled almost to the ceiling and carted off with humiliating regularity.
Even my beloved life-size poster of Magic Johnson, which I could glance over at when I needed to see his incredible smile, was incinerated in the end. Michael had brought the poster in memory of the Lakers games he used to take me to. We would sit in his third-row seats, and everyone who passed by, like Jack Nicholson, would wave hello. What a scene. Now Magic Johnson had H.I.V. and, like me, was a shell of his former self (though a shell with mystique and beauty). Likewise the radio, which my friend Anne Rice had sent me, and whose oldies station provided some distraction, had to be destroyed, too. God, that virus, that quarantine!
Laurie would come and read Colette to me, but my body was so traumatized that every story just sounded like pain.
My appetite was nonexistent. The feeding tube that had been pumping thousands of calories into me until recently had naturally caused me to gain weight. After that I was faced with the notoriously horrible 1950s food at County General. Soon I weighed what I had when I arrived—another miracle of modern medicine. I begged my friends for something edible, and Michael brought me pasta with pesto, but my mouth was still sore from the respirator, and it hurt to eat even that. Nancy brought me smoothies from Jamba Juice, our favorite.
One day I woke up craving a tuna-fish sandwich like my mother used to make. It consisted of tuna mixed with chopped celery and lemon juice on whole-wheat bread, nothing else. I mentioned this to Carolyn, who brought me a tuna sandwich she’d made herself, only on white bread, with green pepper. My friend Sarah Kernochan brought me one on white bread with cucumbers, for Pete’s sake. It was then that I realized that everyone in the whole world has their own idea as to what a tuna sandwich is.
Now, my sister and I have had the same dynamic practically since she was born, she being obliging and kind while I am horrible and ungrateful. But I knew I could call her, and that, she and I being the only two people who understood what a tuna-fish sandwich was, she could bring me what I was hoping for. I was glad because I knew that if I longed for this, life was possible again; the craving made me feel human. I would eat a few bites, feel full, and then stash it away in a little fridge on the floor. But then this imperious killjoy nurse, this caricature of Loretta Swit’s character on M*A*S*H, declared that, since I was contagious, there could be nothing of mine in the cooler: “Impossible. Unsafe.”
“But it’s all I like!” I cried.
“The hospital has egg salad,” she said, primly.
The funny thing was, this nurse actually loved me and was a fan of my writing. But here she was, taking away my sublimely perfect tuna, and pawning off County General egg salad.
Finally the doctors took a look at my ass, pronounced it “healing,” and made preparations for me to go to White Memorial, a rehab hospital not far from County. As miserable as I’d been at County, with its funereal teal blue everywhere, I was afraid to go to a new place. What would the staff be like? Would they be as great as David? What about the night nurse William, the only one who could stand me in my rotten insomniac moods, who would chat with me from three to five a.m.?
My sister assured me that, compared to where I was, White was the Beverly Hills Hotel—all the beds had purple spreads and, really, the people were lovely.
And so, six weeks after my admission, I was wheeled out of the hospital on a gurney, screaming the whole way at the fresh, cold air. I hadn’t felt an actual breeze in months; it was exhilarating.
I was greeted at White by all the nurses, as though assembled just to meet me. These nurses were beautiful; I was amazed. One, Maria Rosa, was especially kind, an angel, in fact. No more struggles with catheters, tubes, or needles. She was brilliant with them all, and she never told anyone to relax, a sure sign she was adept.
Here were the famous purple bedspreads. I had a room to myself and a window with a view. I even had my own telephone—not that I could stand its loud ring, given the state of my nerves. Of course I was still in quarantine, but this was a fabulous version of it.
Maria Rosa handed me a sheet. “Here’s your program for tomorrow,” she explained.
How delightful! I thought. Maybe they put me down for a massage—who knows?
At 11 the next morning, I was wheeled down to the Jacuzzi, where I was met by an extremely cute male assistant with whom I immediately fell in love, muscle-bound as he was. You know me and muscles. As far as I was concerned, Johnny Depp came in a distant second to this assistant. This brilliant flirt thought I was cute, too, and he was the only reason I didn’t fall into despair when I knew I had to go to therapy. “I used to be charming before I got here,” I told him. It was the first time I’d been able even to imagine making any kind of joke since the accident.
“O.K.,” he said. “You stand while we—”
“Stand?” I snapped. “I can’t stand. You’ll have to hold me.” I hobbled to my feet, leaned back into the muscles, and “stood,” which is to say leaned, for about 45 minutes, while a girl picked at my skin with sharp tweezers, pulling at me while I screamed. This was the therapy.
Here, instead of being lowered into a therapeutic bath of warm water on my beloved gurney, as had been the practice at County General, I was seated in an electric wheelchair that plunged into frigidness. This water was so cold that pain was its essence. I screamed at every move—but then I was always screaming. I was used to it by now. At County the Jacuzzi was the only time I wasn’t in pain, whereas here, it was the only time I was.
Finally, wrapped in a sterile white sheet, covered with a sterile towel, bandages taped to my body, I was wheeled upstairs. Lunch awaited me, and I actually felt a pang of hunger. Had the morning’s exercise worked up an appetite? It occurred to me that maybe what looked like beef might not be bad.
It turned out to be barbecued beef, and it was so good I actually gobbled it up. The vegetables too. I hadn’t so much as seen a single vegetable my whole time at County. The nurse who came for my plate explained that White was a Seventh-Day Adventist hospital, and supplied its kitchens from its own vegetable garden. It was the most fun I’d had at a meal since that tuna sandwich my sister brought me. Oh well, I thought, at least I have something to look forward to.
You know me and muscles.
The routine at White wasn’t all that different from County General and I wasn’t feeling much better, at least to start. Between the Paxil and being woken up for a vitals check, I never was allowed a minute to sleep. My digestion still wasn’t “regular,” so I wound up having to have several more enemas. And I was bored: at County there were videos (I must have watched Tin Cup eight million times), but here there was just the TV—with nothing worth watching. My friend and editor Vicky Wilson had sent me a history of the Byzantine Empire, which was fascinating, but I was still in too much pain to read. I longed to be left alone for one whole day, but I was subjected to standing and tweezing therapy even on Sundays.
None of it really mattered, though; I loved this place. If you rang for the nurse, one would come and chat, and except for the weekends when the place was staffed by temps, we always had the same nurses—the same everyone. Because White Memorial’s chief physician was a woman, there were no male doctors barging into my room laughing about cigars and calling me Eva.
The young Mexican man who had been in County General was here, too. His burns, unlike mine, were visible: on his hands, his shoulders, his face, even. His family didn’t speak any English, but I loved them; you could tell they were kind.
I began to make progress. I’d been sent from County General with bedsores on my heels. One day a surgeon of great valor came in. He gave me a tiny little opiate and with a small knife dug the bedsore first out of one heel, then the other. The scream of pain in my throat was so shocked that no noise actually came out. The pain was surprising. Nothing else, outside of a bikini wax, even came close. But then after my first bikini wax, I’d vowed I’d never subject myself to another.
Amazing tortures arrived for me in the form of occupational therapy. The surgeries had affected my hands and upper arms. In removing the skin from my arms, the doctors had cut too deeply. It was a long time before the incisions stopped bleeding. For two weeks I worked on desensitizing the nerves by clutching first a handful of sand, then beans, and finally dry pasta. It took about two weeks before I realized a magazine could touch me and I wouldn’t scream. But it really took a year for the pain to fully subside. Until then, even the brush of a pillowcase was excruciating.
When it came to relearning to walk, years of dance lessons made me fearless. The social workers and therapists watched, frightened, as on the very first day my near-atrophied legs miraculously climbed, first up a flight of stairs, then down. But I had done much more daredevil things in tango. In fact, all the common things most people struggled to relearn, I learned with relative ease. The real problem was that the new tissue was not really adhering the way it was meant to. I was leaking so much that, if I didn’t keep my pants legs rolled up, they’d become all gummy.
There were tense meetings at White, when the social worker got together with the head doctor and the two bickered over how soon I could go home. The head doctor was determined to keep me there until I was as healed as much as possible. But after almost two months in rehab my time was up. They booted me, even though I was far from fully recovered.
Just before it was time to leave the rehab center, I was finally allowed flowers in my room. My agent at the time, David Vigliano, sent a miraculous bunch, one of those newfangled bouquets that look just like dripping petals. Anne Rice sent a four-foot-high arrangement that turned my room into the Four Seasons and was so alluring that people came from all over the hospital to get a look at what the vampire lady had sent. Don Henley (that witchy man) sent white roses stuffed so tightly in this wicker basket that it took weeks for them to fade. And last but not least, Ed Ruscha, Paul’s artist brother, and his wife, Danna, sent a breathtaking combo of huge sunflowers and gigantic irises, half Van Gogh, half English garden.
Home in my condo, I was visited daily by a home health aid. The agency sent a different one every day by some twisted logic, which meant that I had to explain on a daily basis exactly how to wrap around me the endless rolls of bandages I still required. After about two months, my sister found Heather, a physical therapist whose specialty was burn patients and who was universally adored—even if she did have a set of those sharp tweezers and knew how to use them.
Even my beloved life-size poster of Magic Johnson was incinerated in the end.
The expenses added up. If my cousin hadn’t figured out how to get discounted bandages from Kaiser Permanente, those things alone might have bankrupted me. I was fortunate to have friends who knew about finances. Michael Elias brought around Debby Blum, a whiz at setting up foundations. She made it so that people could donate money tax-free. Everyone from Steve Martin and Harrison Ford to Ahmet Ertegun gave generously. Laddie Dill held a silent art auction in my honor at the Chateau Marmont, which was pretty amazing. I was determined to sue the skirt company and make them pay, though.
Six months later, when I was finally on my own two feet, I visited the burn unit at County General. The doctors had told me that “nobody comes back.” I took that statement as a dare, but I also wanted to see the people who had saved me, and to let them know that I remembered everything they had done. But the thing is that I hadn’t really remembered at all. Dr. Zawacki, whom I thought of as a kind of insane older Mickey Rourke, was just a benign smiler, happy to see me dressed and upright for the first time. And the whole place wasn’t that obnoxious pale turquoise I’d thought it was; there was only a single curtain in that horrible shade. The Jacuzzi, which I’d experienced as kind of a baroque object of torture and relief, was just an ordinary long aluminum tub. My dark room was bright—I mean really bright. It was small too: the distance between the bed and the bathroom, which I thought must be a city block of pain, was no more than 10 feet.
Eve Babitz is the author of several books including Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company. New York Review Books will publish I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, a book of previously uncollected nonfiction, in October