His eyes are closed. I’m still staring at him, wondering if he fell asleep, if a person can even fall asleep lying down in a hospital chair. He asks me to tell him a story. What kind of story, I ask. Fairy tale? Science fiction? Please, no science fiction. They haven’t put anything into him yet, none of the killing cocktail that floods his system every two weeks, but he still feels sick. Anticipatory nausea. His body remembers.
He knew that something was very wrong in early summer. It started almost a year before that with a mysterious lump in his shoulder that grew and grew and then suddenly stopped, maintaining itself as a funny bump at the base of his neck, feeding itself from his body. The first doctor called it a cyst, the sort of meaningless thing that could be ignored.
I didn’t like to kiss the right side of his neck, because the lump would loom up between my lips, trying to ease its way into my mouth. To calm our fear, we personified it, named it Fritz, and would have a good laugh asking "How’s Fritz today?"
A new nurse is on duty. She explains each thing that she is going to do before she does it, and this irritates him. He knows the process by heart, nothing changes treatment to treatment. When she comes with the needle (what right do they have to call something that big a needle?), I look in the other direction, feeling my stomach clench. I don’t belong here, I belong in his other world, the world where he’s healthy.
He sucks in his breath, and I cringe in the chair that I’ve placed just far enough away to not see anything. The nurse pushes the IV tube into his arm, and he whimpers and then I start to cry. No, not cry, I just let tears drip out onto my shirt. I sit quietly while he makes noises I’ve never heard from him before. I have to pretend to be strong because that’s what I’ve been invited to do.
Later that year, another doctor decided that Fritz had to come out, so they could have a look and decide what it was. The night before he went into the hospital, I sat with him and hugged him and did my best to love him so he’d know my heart was with him while he fell asleep in strange bed.
He wore bandages and then a fresh pink scar as long as my little finger. We waited for the results together, and when I was alone I wondered what the chances were that he might, no, I wouldn’t admit that to myself. He was permanent, even more than I was. Our friends tried and failed to talk seriously about death.
In a botched attempt to take blood, the new nurse has hit an artery. I can only listen to him shudder; I can’t look at the hole that she has ripped in him, and the blood that is dripping down his arm, and onto the floor. The nurse is giggling about it, and tells him that it’s a new sort of needle. I peek over at his face and I see that he is angry. I feel the tears coming harder.
The blood is going for testing; blood that a minute before was racing through his body, up and down, over and under, through the heart that belongs to me. His eyes are closed, and I stare at his face, which is calm. I sniff and his eyes snap open; he asks me what’s wrong. I wipe my wet nose on my sleeve, and smile at him. Nothing is wrong. I can watch those stupid Faces Of Death videos without batting and eyelash, but I can’t hear him wince without crying.
Cancer. It was the real thing, he told me while we sat in his bed watching television, wrapped warmly around each other. Fritz was lymphatic cancer. OK, I said, alright, but it wasn’t OK and I cried. What’s wrong, he asked me. You have cancer, isn’t that wrong enough? Then I stopped crying and watched the TV. He watched my face and then hugged me, but I pulled away.
"You don’t want to touch me now?"
They give each patient their own cubicle, with cabinets and a little closet. I can’t stop looking at the package of latex gloves, because I have the odd urge to make a turkey. He isn’t saying anything, and I’m not saying anything because nothing seems appropriate. The IV is interesting. By the drip rate, I calculate that he is getting one drop of saline-sugar solution pushed into his body per second. I tell him, but he doesn’t care.
The nurses know him, and stop their rounds to ask about school and his family. While they talk, I look out of the window. I don’t belong. I let my attention wander to other cubicles, and watch an old man reading. He has four bags hanging on his IV stand. Somewhere down the hall a nurse calls for more morphine.
We settled into a rhythm of treatment every two weeks. After treatment he would be tired and uninterested, but I would do my best to make him happy. I brought him cookies, and little presents. He didn’t talk to me about being sick or dying. This didn’t surprise me. We (his friends and family) couldn’t talk about it either.
People who heard the news reacted strangely. Some attempted to console me when I didn’t need consoling. Some played the joker, to cheer me when I didn’t want cheering. But most just nodded and retreated into their own minds to contemplate grim thoughts of their own deaths. After we found out that renegade cells had made their home in his body, I did my best to ignore it. Thinking about it did nothing.
We are still waiting for his blood test results, and he is feeling all the sensations that haven’t started yet. I wish I could hug him, but I am afraid to. I know that jostling his IV will hurt him, and he has enough pain. I look out the window again, but there is no view. I open my notebook and sketch the IV stand for something to do.
The nurse comes back and tells him that his white blood cell counts are too low for him to take treatment. He will have to come back after a few days of rest. She gives him an injection and warns him that she will be pulling out the IV. He says that if I thought putting it in sounded painful, I should listen while they take it out. I look into my lap and he yelps.
I stopped thinking about the cancer after we got used to the treatment schedule. On the days he wasn’t feeling sick, everything was normal, and we’d laugh or fight or hold each other. We never talked about it. But sometimes when I would joke about death, he’d look away from me, and I’d cringe at my stupidity.
I tried to be the opposite of his hospital life, until he asked me to come to chemotherapy with him.
We walk out of the hospital together, arm in arm. Dinner, he asks and I nod. I’m happy and sad that he couldn’t go through treatment today. Happy because he’s free again, and sad because it’s really far from being over.
We get in the car, he drives us further and further away from the hospital, and I can pretend that we were only on a joyride.