He once thought Enron had stripped him of everything he owned, that was until the prostate cancer hit him, robbing him of what little remained, including his manhood, leaving him with only his name, which I, in my selfish fear, neglected to ask.
We shared a room on the cancer floor of Allegheny General. I, with morphine dripping in my veins, 50 years of age, like it or not, was improving my vocabulary, the latest entry in my mental dictionary—nephrectomy—defined the surgical removal of a kidney. I had renal clearcell carcinoma—two of the three big scorers in Scrabble if one lived long enough to play again.
I had loved playing games. Ultra-competitive by nature, I hate to lose.
Limp and exhausted by a day of chemotherapy, my roommate lay in bed. I wondered if he felt it the way I had: at first, just an internal itch, no more than a butterfly alighting, then metamorphosing into a caterpillar, bloating and bloating and bloating.
Finally my roommate stirred. He had looked 65 before chemo this morning; now he appeared 75.
Feebly, he twisted around in bed to face me. “Do you like tennis?” he asked in an eggshell voice.
“I was once city champion,” I replied.
“I won the NCAA Division II title in 1968,” he said without a trace of one-upmanship in his voice. There is no one-upmanship in cancer. To one-up means to have the most tumors.
“I would love to play just one more time,” he said.
“Would you play doubles with me?”
“Just close your eyes and imagine we are playing in the championship at Wimbledon.”
I lay back and shut my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly. He did not tell me whom we were playing, but I knew our opponents could only be the best: Nadal and Federer. My doubles partner and I were now 22, gliding and grunting, smacking perfect forehands and backhands, serves and volleys on the mark, sweat-drenched skin glistening under the English sun, wind rippling our hair. Then I could no longer see our opponents, only the bright yellow ball, hearing only the sounds of the ball upon impact. We were up two sets and one game in the third when I heard the floor nurse talk to my roommate.
“This is Stella, your social worker.”
“Hi,” Stella said, “I have a voucher for a bus ride and another for a night’s stay at the YMCA.”
Fifteen minutes later, my roommate was dressed, everything he owned inside his jacket pockets.
“Nice playing with you,” he said, and then hobbled into the hall.
Tomorrow, I would go home and sit under the sun and dream inside my private tennis court.
Robert E. Petras is a previous contributor to Eunoia Review. His poetry and fiction have also recently appeared in Midwest Literary Magazine, Riverwind, The Stream Press and Speech Bubble. He is a five-year kidney cancer survivor.