The best part about having cancer is the sex. Not with Chris, naturally. Sex with him is still the same, only now when he wants to flop around on top of me, I’m allowed to just say I’m too tired. Before, when I said things like that, he would get angry and lecture me about the importance of a giving relationship. Since the diagnosis though, he says he understands. He gives me this look that is supposed to be pity, I think, but it still sort of feels like he believes he’s sacrificing something.
So for a few weeks now, after leaving my “coping” group on Thursday nights, I go downtown. I don’t go to the Cedar Door or Dogwood, where my friends might be. There is nothing for me among the cocktail dresses with no panties, and T-shirts under blazers. I have no desire to order $12 infused drinks made from organic lemongrass and locally sourced fruit. I have nothing to add to the conversations about hot yoga, the best place to score vegan gravy, or what the Junior League is doing to “really help people this year, you guys.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above these people. I am them, and it disgusts me. Everything has disgusted me since September, when Dr. Alexander closed the door to his office. It was raining—one more thing I used to love.
In the city, night is only an excuse for the world to shine brighter. White lights wrap around the trees that line the sidewalks. In front of the bars, neon lettering spells out establishment names and nightly drink specials for prospective clients. In front of the churches, backlit crosses and landscape lighting beckon to wayward souls. The moon and stars all but disappear, erased by the glow of sinners and saints below. I am both, or neither. I never know. I think about God or the universe or what it all means. I have no answers. And even now, with nothing left to lose, I won’t sacrifice truth for solace.
“Oh, Trish, you are so brave—just so brave,” they say, as if I volunteered to have the lump, then paid for it to be cancerous. They bring food—most of it I can’t eat. They call or text to see how I am. We’re all dying, I say, I’m just better at it than you. They don’t know how to respond.
I head east, away from the swanky jazz clubs, high-end apparel shops, and luxury day spas. I trudge through small piles of leaves, feeling the crisp wind of late autumn and wondering if the trees are happy to be rid of their extra weight.
“Remember, the people you love are going through this with you,” the counselor tells us our group, looking around the circle as she speaks, making eye contact the way the manual tells her to. “They want to be there for you, and it’s okay to let them.”
Chris doesn’t want to be there for me. He wants me to be cured. Cancer-free. Unsick. His 5-year plan didn’t include me dying, and I can only imagine what this will mean for his 10-year goals. He treats me like I’m pregnant now. He won’t let me lift things. I told him that’s not how it works, but he insists. Maybe it’s his way of coping.
My view of the world has always been from above. Privilege will do that. But for the first time, I am dwarfed by the city in all its…aliveness. I look up at the brightly lit bank towers and hotels, both promising better sleep to the highest-paying patron. The rain has stopped, but a puddle in the street shimmers, reflecting the colors of my existence. I stare into it and, for a moment, the world is upside down.
Maybe I love Chris, or maybe I did, before the rain and the office and the closed door. We were house-hunting this summer, before I got sick. Got sick. I guess I did more than that. When Dr. Alexander told me what was what, I felt something, hiding behind the fear and the depression and the anger of hearing my fate. It was relief. A strange weight off my chest. Somewhere, a completely illogical part of me was cheering about not having to live with Chris.
He’s a lawyer, and he is kind, though not particularly thoughtful. His lack of sensitivity makes him steady, but the negatives weigh more. He is rigid. Not cruel, but cold. He has plans, and he plans to see them through. He uses self-tanner.
A traffic light tells life to go on, and in an instant my upside-down world is splashed onto my designer shoes. I recoil from the unexpected, as if I’m afraid I’ll drown in it. I cross Seventh Street and see the line forming outside the shelter. Too many people, too few beds, but they’ll all get a meal before half are sent back into the night. I used to have my “I’m sorry” face perfected for when someone asked for money or food. I would show it, without slowing my pace, and say, “I don’t have any cash.” Some people would accept this, while others would yell after me the location of the nearest ATM.
After the lump and the tests and the September to remember, a man approached me. He said he didn’t want money, just food. He said there was a place selling a basket of egg rolls for only a few dollars. I followed him, my own prejudice telling me there was a good chance he was planning to rob me. But he didn’t. I bought him egg rolls and he thanked me—grateful, but not hopeful.
“You know babe, that just enables his habit,” Chris said, later that night. “He’s not going to learn to make good decisions if there is always someone bailing him out.”
I thought about that for almost four days before deciding Chris could go fuck himself.
The drunken wonderland of Sixth Street beckons. A three-block stretch on each side, nestled between the university to the north, the river to the south, and bookended by condos and high-rises where people my age focus on living their best lives. I go into a bar. I don’t know which one.
Dr. Alexander said I could drink. He said it didn’t matter what I did at this point. He wasn’t being flippant or anything. It’s okay though. I don’t want a drink. I tried that a few times. Drowning your sorrows doesn’t work when your sorrows are Stage 5. Instead, I ask the first guy I see if he has a cigarette. I don’t look around to see if there were other men. I don’t even really look at him. He gives me a smoke and lights it for me. His name is Justin, or Dustin, or something. My name is Lacy. I always liked that name. I ask if he wants to come back to my place. He says it’s not even 10 o’clock. I ask him how many more drinks he planned on having tonight, then buy five shots and watch him take them. I call a cab. I let him grope me in the backseat while our driver takes the occasional peek in the rearview.
When we walk into my building I can gather that Justin is in the right frame of mind. The shots have barged into his system, toppling over whatever was in their way. His inhibitions are far gone, but he isn’t stumbling drunk. He’s perfect.
When I asked Dr. Alexander what in the hell I was supposed to do for the next four to six months, he’d given me two suggestions. One: make my peace with God. Two: Distract myself as much as possible.
I tell Justin I’m “crazy fucked up.” I always dreamed of what it would be like to perform, and so I do it now. I slur my words, and giggle, and let my eyes go lazy. I don’t know why men like this. Not all men do, of course, but he does. The more vulnerable I act, the more savage he becomes. He grabs me and throws me. I scream. I beg. His veins protrude. I orgasm twice. He cums on my face.
In the bathroom I don’t wipe Justin off me right away. I stare at my naked body in the mirror.
“At least you won’t have to cut your tits off,” Veronica said. “How depressing, right?”
She was kidding. I think. Trying to make light of a death sentence is always tough. But she’s right, I have great tits.
I kick Justin out, and he is happy to go. A fuck and a goodbye with enough time to be back at the bar by midnight. I am nothing, if not a people-pleaser.
I’ve done this three weeks in a row. Not with Justin each time. First there was Rob, then there was massive-member-guy whose name I forgot, but whose tire iron left me sore for days. I’ve never cheated on anyone before. Previously, I had exactly two one-night stands. Every other sexual experience was in the throes of monogamy. I’m not sure which is more demeaning.
After Justin, the guilt comes, and I welcome it. It means I’m still a person. Whether or not I love Chris, I shouldn’t cheat on him. Even if doesn’t matter. Even if I’m dying. But I did, and I will again, because there have been a few fleeting moments, as some whiskey-smelling heathen is manhandling me, when I forget to be absolutely terrified. Because that’s the worst part of cancer—the fear.
On D-Day, when my doctor dropped the bomb, I hadn’t looked at the weather. If I did I would’ve grabbed an umbrella. Instead, there I was, walking to my car in a downpour. It was the first cold front of the fall, and I sat inside shivering until the heater could knock off the rust of summer. The radio was playing “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. By the end of the song, two things were apparent. The first: I needed new coolant in my car. The second: I would never live another day without fear crippling my mind. I thought about the choices. Make my peace with God, or keep myself distracted.
“We have to get a bouncy castle,” I tell my stunned friends and family as they gather in my apartment near the couch where I gave Justin head the night before. “I swear to fucking God, if we don’t have a bouncy castle, I’m not coming.”
“But,” Tara is confused, “how are you gonna? You know, ’cause it’s your…”
“Yeah, it’s my funeral, I know. It was a joke, Tara. But, real talk, get me that bouncy castle. Also, no casseroles, no Bibles, no black dresses, no prayer requests, no slideshows, no flowers, no guestbook, and no fucking Beatles.”
“I thought you loved the Beatles?” my mom asks. I can tell she’s been fighting back the same tears for two months.
“I do love the Beatles. But I also don’t want people crying and butchering the words to ‘Let It Be.’ I’m gonna die from cancer, for fuck’s sake, play some goddamn Kendrick Lamar and let’s get turnt. P.S. I changed my mind about the flowers. Get me some vanilla orchids in that bitch. Lots of them.”
“Sweetheart, can I talk to you in the other room?” my dad asks.
“Are you taking drugs?” he says, once we’re in my kitchen. His face is more curious than concerned.
I laugh, “No Dad, although I did smoke some really good pot with one of the leukemia kids at St. David’s. That little dude might only be fifteen, but he rolls a tight j.”
And then my dad gives me the look. The one that says we were always closer than you and your mother. The one that says don’t fuck with me, kiddo. The one that says talk to me, I love you.
“You know, I remember when Grandpa had colon cancer,” I tell him, “and we got the T-shirts made, and we had the bumper stickers that said ‘fuck cancer,’ and all in all we put on a great show. But we weren’t doing that for him. We were doing it for ourselves, because we were scared. Scared of losing our loved one, scared that one day we’d be in his spot, just fucking scared. And guess what? Nothing’s changed. I’m terrified, Dad. But the thought of my friends getting drunk and rapping inside an inflatable castle makes me laugh. And I have to laugh. Because if I don’t, what’s the point? Why see this thing through any longer than I have to?”
We hug. He cries. I don’t want to, but I do. Fuck.
By Christmas I weigh less than I did in junior high. I hate my thin face, my frail body. I break several mirrors. I take pills to sleep, and pills to stay awake. The doctors give me anything I want. I smoke weed every day. Chris comes by less often, relieving much of the caretaking duties to my mother. I don’t know who is worse.
When it gets bad enough, they ask if I want to be at home or in the hospital. I ask what most people choose. Home, they say. Good, take me to the hospital.
They ask if I want a priest, but outside my hospital window, there’s a tall building. I can see a man on a scaffold. He’s washing windows. I wonder how much money they pay him. I wonder if he likes his job, or if he’s scared too, like me. I spend a lot of time thinking about this man. He is a good distraction.
James Wade lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He is a winner of the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest, and a finalist of the 2016 Tethered by Letters Flash Fiction Contest. His work is featured in The Bitter Oleander, Skylark Review, Jersey Devil Press, Bartleby Snopes, and many other publications. Read more here: http://www.jameswadewriter.com.