Dylan Smeak

Clump

The day after we found out, Melanie and I decid­ed to get bombed on vod­ka over a full spread of Chinese take-out. We didn’t stop to think about how expen­sive D28 was or how spicy the four lit­tle red pep­pers by A49 were going to be. I would’ve ordered one of those crispy skin ducks if our apart­ment had been big enough, so we drew the line there. We were sit­ting next to each oth­er on the couch doing more drink­ing than talk­ing, watch­ing a spe­cial on TV about crop cir­cles.

Grab two pens from the junk draw­er for me,” Melanie said after spit­ting out a water chest­nut.

I got up, head­ed to the draw­er, fum­bled through some rub­ber bands and spare play­ing cards in the draw­er. I walked back into the liv­ing room and sat down, hand­ed her the pen. I looked at the half emp­ty white car­tons spread across the table, tried to decide what sticky sauced piece of meat I want­ed next.

Ok,” Melanie said, fight­ing one last noo­dle with her chop­sticks before grab­bing a fork, “grab the note­book from off the table and rip out two sheets.”

I moved a few pack­ets of soy sauce and a few for­tune cook­ies to the side and grabbed the note­book. Melanie grabbed the remote and mut­ed a man talk­ing about Babylonian sym­bols.      “What is this?” I asked.

A drink­ing game.”

Don’t we need to, uh, talk about what the doc­tors thinks we-” “No,” she said.

No?”

No. We’re going to write down every pos­si­bly pos­i­tive thing that can come from all of this.” She said, sit­ting, fac­ing me, her legs crossed. I thought it was a waste of time, but I grabbed my pen and paper any­ways.

I’ll go first.” Melanie said, pour­ing two sips of the vod­ka into the plas­tic cups we’d been drink­ing from.

It’s sim­ple. We write down what we think could be good things from this thing grow­ing inside me and who­ev­er has the… less pos­i­tive of the two has to take a shot.”

The phrase “grow­ing inside me” was all I remem­ber hear­ing and it made me think of, for what­ev­er rea­son, when we had to put down my family’s Bassett Hound when I was eleven. I think my mom used the same words, “grow­ing inside”.

Sam, write, fuck, come on.”

I grabbed my pen and scrib­bled in the cor­ner, “Nothing” before scratch­ing it out, writ­ing instead “no more hair in the show­er drain”.

Ok, rip off the sec­tion you wrote on.”

I care­ful­ly fin­gered a crease sep­a­rat­ing the scrib­bled out writ­ing from what I decid­ed to go with instead. A lit­tle bit of the first mes­sage man­aged to cling to the lat­ter.         “Ok, now we’ll trade pieces and on the count of three we’ll look.”

I opened Mel’s piece and “No more shav­ing my legs” was writ­ten, bare­ly leg­i­ble, on the small piece of paper.

No more hair in the show­er drain? Drink.” Melanie said pour­ing me a shot of vod­ka. “Me drink? No more leg hair beats no more drain hair?”

Melanie said in her most cin­e­mat­ic voice, “Sam, I’m ter­mi­nal, what do you want from me?” She forced her bot­tom lip to trem­ble through a crack­ing grin and I wait­ed for her to throw the back of her hand up to her fore­head, but she nev­er did it. I picked up my cup. We exchanged slips again.

It’s easy to pro­nounce, Inflammatory Breast Cancer. IBC.”

I read it and want­ed it to have a more dif­fi­cult name. Something with more syl­la­bles. I want­ed it to sound more intim­i­dat­ing.

Easy pro­nun­ci­a­tion beat my gener­ic, hol­low men­tion of med­ical pot. Missing din­ner club beat my idea about crude­ly mis­us­ing Make-A-Wish. I won with men­tion­ing she could eat what­ev­er she want­ed with­out wor­ry­ing about gain­ing weight. The next one she wrote down read “Experimental treat­ment won’t cost much”. I can’t remem­ber who won that one.         She kept play­ing and I kept try­ing to ask why she wouldn’t just do the stan­dard, bet­ter-odds treat­ment, but it was going south.

We fell asleep on the couch that night– she before me. I fin­ished what was left of the vod­ka and watched the news on mute. I woke up alone and the liv­ing room smelled like stale soy and gin­ger.

Two weeks lat­er, I picked Melanie up from her treat­ment and she said she was hun­gry so we went to a deli, ignor­ing the mon­ey we didn’t have. We walked in and were seat­ed in a black, cracked vinyl booth. Melanie sunk into her side.

How did it go?” I asked, rock­ing my spoon back and forth on the table.

Fine, I guess. They said my hair should be get­ting ready to go pret­ty soon, but Phyllis says it kind of depends on the per­son, but she isn’t doing the same treat­ment, so.”

Is she still refus­ing to let the black nurs­es help her?” I asked.

Listen, she’s sweet and just kind of, you know, stuck in her ways.”

Last week, I’d giv­en Phyllis a ride home from her treat­ment while Mel fin­ished hers. Phyllis’ niece had for­got­ten to pick her up and she refused to ride a cab because she “can’t trust cab dri­vers with accents”. We were in the car and I was hop­ing she wouldn’t talk much, but she did.

So,” she said, her thin arm dan­gling from the roof han­dle, “how long do you think your lit­tle sweetie’s got?”

I swal­lowed and wished she would have gone back to small talk. “I’m, uh– I’m real­ly not sure, Phyllis.”

Huh,” she grunt­ed, read­just­ing in her seat, “well I know how you feel right now and I’m

not going to lie to you kid, because I wish some­one woul­da told me this, but they aren’t ever around long enough. My sec­ond hus­band, Arthur, died a few years ago. Got him in his prostate. Well any­ways…” she paused, fid­get­ed with the AC shut­ters. I turned the air con­di­tion­ing on, “he died and for what­ev­er rea­son, it hit me hard­er than when Wallace, my first hus­band, died. I couldn’t eat for a while. Didn’t want to talk to any­one. It’s no fun, kid. You think it’s hard now, you just wait.”

I pulled up to her house, into her dri­ve­way.

You’ll think there’s no way you could ever get used to being by your­self, how qui­et it all gets. I still have Arthur’s tooth­brush, that kind of thing. But, you want to know what I do now, though?” she asked as I helped her out of the car.             “What do you do now, Phyllis?” Her arm weighed noth­ing.

I play Bridge.”

That same night, after tak­ing Phyllis home, I found Melanie in our bath­room, sit­ting on

the top of the toi­let tank. She had my beard trim­mer in her left hand, look­ing at it while bit­ing the nails of her right hand, just kind of star­ing.

Hello?” Melanie was ask­ing from the oth­er side of the booth.

Yeah, sor­ry,” I said, snap­ping back into it at the din­er, “so take me through the process of it all again.” I already knew the treat­ment process, had researched it the day she told me the type of treat­ment. I asked because I knew it would take her a while and I just kind of want­ed to keep the con­ver­sa­tion emo­tion­al­ly neu­tral because I was sick of wor­ry­ing about eat­ing Chinese food alone or tens­ing up when­ev­er I heard about crop cir­cles.

…Then once they set up this drip thing…”

There was an elder­ly cou­ple sit­ting across the restau­rant that I was kind of watch­ing. They just sat there, not say­ing a word because they didn’t real­ly have to. The only time I saw them speak was when she point­ed out a piece of sauer­kraut hang­ing on his bot­tom lip. I watched them and start­ed think­ing about the type of nos­tal­gia that starts in the out­side cor­ner of your eyes, makes you kind of squint. Like think­ing about the last time we had sex with the light on or went to a movie. What the slick pam­phlets in the wait­ing room don’t warn you about is the kind of reverse nos­tal­gia that hap­pens where you miss things that haven’t even hap­pened yet. It’s all just kind of shal­low, I guess. Just regret with make­up on.

…and then you pick me up.”

We got home that night after the din­er and sat on the couch to watch TV. I went into kitchen, grabbed a bot­tle of wine and two cups, know­ing only one would be used.

What scares you most about all this?” she asked, her legs bent and tucked beneath her. “You haven’t real­ly talked to me about it much.”

I took a sip.

Remember that time you dragged me to that French, black and white movie a few years ago?” I asked.

Italian,” she inter­rupt­ed, “it was Italian,” she said, pour­ing a bit of wine into the oth­er cup.

Yeah, well French, Italian, what­ev­er, I hat­ed it. It was just full of itself and drain­ing and, you know…subtitles and stuff and I just couldn’t get it. Tried to, but I just remem­ber sit­ting there in the the­atre next to you and there were all these peo­ple who were just so god­damned focused and I remem­ber won­der­ing to myself ‘Why are they here? What am I miss­ing?’ you know, like, who was there to be there and who was there to sleep with the per­son who took them?”

Thanks.” Mel glared from behind a tipped cup.

Do you remem­ber what you said on the bus back to your place after­wards? When I

asked you why you liked to go to movies like that?” I asked, notic­ing how much her col­lar­bone was start­ing to jut out.

No.” She said.

You said, ‘What bet­ter way to see what actu­al lone­li­ness looks like than on a huge movie screen.’”

I didn’t say that.” She sipped, blush­ing with a lit­tle bit of col­or that her treat­ment left in her.

No, you did.” Her col­lar­bone was all I could look at. “I guess that’s it though, what wor­ries me most about this. You want­ed to see that lone­li­ness, mag­ni­fied on a screen and with no col­or. I guess I just want to stay away from it as much as pos­si­ble.”

I remem­ber her look­ing like she want­ed to say some­thing, but instead she grabbed my face and strad­dled me before she could let her­self. She weighed noth­ing. She start­ed to kiss me and I lift­ed her shirt off. The lights were on. I ran my hands down her back and didn’t feel the peach fuzz that had always been there. I closed my eyes and all I could see was her hold­ing up lit­tle pieces of torn paper and I want­ed to smell Chinese food. I unhooked her bra and slid my pants off from under her. My head was against her chest, intim­i­dat­ed by what I new was inside. I kissed my way up her col­lar­bone and neck and raked my fin­gers through her hair to pull her head back and I end­ed up with a hand­ful of what felt like a squeezed and tan­gled mass of thread. She felt me start to pull away, but she wouldn’t let me. She just kept going, almost vio­lent­ly, not let­ting me pull away from her. I came quick­ly and as soon as I did, she got off from on top of me, grabbed her shirt and under­wear and cov­ered her chest, walked to the bed­room and shut the door. I got drunk on what was left of the wine and woke up in the mid­dle of the night to Mel get­ting sick in the bath­room. Still drunk, I drove to a gas sta­tion for some gin­ger ale and rice cakes.

Sick kid at home?” The cashier asked me.

No.” I answered.

I got back to the apart­ment and poured Mel a gin­ger ale. I grabbed one of the rice cakes smeared on some peanut but­ter. I could see light com­ing from under the bath­room door into the unlit hall­way. The door was closed and I didn’t hear any­thing com­ing from the bath­room. I opened the door and Mel was on the floor, asleep in a t-shirt and under­wear. There was hair every­where.

~

Dylan Smeak is a MFA can­di­date at The Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn, New York. His work is forth­com­ing in Cheap Pop.