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. 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.