He gave the barista a fake name. Hunter. He’d never known a Hunter, but always liked how it sounded. Strong. Confident. A chance to briefly step outside his own life, his own constraints, his own body.
The escalators hummed loudly. People milled up and down the aisles of books and slithered around round tables where colorfully bagged snacks were displayed. A herd of small boys praised the stands that featured Star Wars action figures. Two white-haired seniors pushing walkers studded by tennis balls argued over their favorite cookbooks.
Hunter, black sharpie, six letters, cursive print.
The doctor said not to worry. His mother used to tell him that, to not worry. It helped when she said it but not when the doctor did.
A woman with caramel skin sat down at the table across from him. She had silky black hair that glistened under the bright lights and big blue eyes the shade of the Montana sky. She sipped an ice water and pecked at the keyboard on her computer. He envisioned her life. Gave her a name, Mila, four letters, exotic yet charming. He saw her as a P.A. or a nurse, but why the furious typing then? Maybe drafting an email, or splicing several spreadsheets together for an employer. Other names and phone numbers and addresses and each line with its own story. Loves, losses, deaths, births. Where did this put him? He pictured his name on a line, his real name, a line on the nurse’s spreadsheet, clumped together with the thousands of others awaiting a similar fate.
The ice in his latte had melted. He wasn’t a coffee drinker. Never had been. His father drank three cups a day, starting each morning reclined in the leather La-Z-Boy, hands cupping his blue mug, brown eyes ticking across the newspaper. And the day ending by the fireplace, holding the same blue mug close to his face, letting the steam fog his eyes. The old man passed kidney stones three times. The news of the final set being enough to send him out the seventh-story window and plummeting towards Denton Drive.
No, that’s not why he jumped.
His left eye twitched and he wondered if Mila noticed it. The tingling sensations that followed sent shivers through his torso. The barista with a nose piercing called for a man named Richard and he almost rose from his seat to fetch the coffee, catching himself with his ass an inch out of place.
An old man slumped into the chair on the opposite side of the brown railing. Bald head, shriveled arms, congested breathing as if each inhalation were an arduous task and one he contemplated undergoing. In his black slacks and black shirt and pale skin, he looked like death incarnate, come to set the final act in motion. Only he was too late. It had started when the doctor pulled out the scans and given name to the rounded mass, Adenocarcinoma, whatever that meant. It meant vomiting and baldness and hospital bills and perpetual exhaustion and finally, death.
It meant drinking coffee for the first time in twenty years.
Those waiting in line looked at their phones. A child screamed from the first floor. There were novel posters hanging on the walls, printed on a threaded paper that looked similar to his shirt. Catch-22. For Whom the Bell Tolls. On the Road. A sentence materialized in his mind from a book he once picked up and set down in the same time it took to read the sentence. A screaming comes across the sky. He didn’t know the author. What book it came from. Or why, now, alone in the bookstore, Adenocarcinoma lining his lungs, that it was flashing in his mind. When he closed his eyes the sentence scrolled across the blackness like a ticker reading the stocks at the bottom of a television.
His left eye twitched and the woman asked him if he could watch her computer while she went to the bathroom and he tried to speak but couldn’t.
When the doctor told him not to worry he said why would he, Apple had just gone up seven points. Apple was up seven points and AT&T another four and had he even checked the Vanguard Mutual Fund up an unprecedented three points on the day?
The ring of condensation began to spill over the table’s edge, dripping onto his lap and staining his tan slacks in jagged splotches. What would Cheryl say? She’d tell him the truth. The number of people who died within five years of their diagnosis. The slim odds made slimmer by his age. And he’d love her for it. Always had.
Jeffery, a life-long friend, asked him to describe her once. This was a long time ago when the two were just seeing each other, the crazed energy of two lives fusing into one, sleepless nights spent talking and fucking and staring at the ceiling wondering how only a few weeks ago they managed to exist without ever knowing each other.
“She has a face that doesn’t take much to smile. A face that doesn’t take much to cry.” The words simply came to him. The aspiring venture capitalist who didn’t read fiction or drink coffee and enjoyed a Manhattan with his dinner and any music pre-1990 had said this.
The woman whom he named Mila smiled as she stood and collected her belongings. Their eyes met, briefly, locked in the indeterminate space above the red tables and tiled flooring, and he felt some semblance of hope. Something about the smooth complexion and lips that curled in the corners like fishhooks. She left and he watched her descend the escalator. Then she was gone. He was alone and his left eye was still twitching and in less than a year he would be in a coffin.
As a boy he liked to watch the workers get off the train by his house. He liked to give them stories with families and love triangles and banal infatuations with fast food items.
This was where he saw his first glimpse of death.
The gray stones and wooden tracks and black smoke rising in archaic lashes as if drawn by the tip of God’s finger. The black suits and heavy briefcases and woman in pantsuits so exquisitely fitted around their forms that even at this adolescent age he felt an aching in his gut. Watched as the people, silent in their departure, sprouted out of the moving crowd and hastily strode across the sidewalk to their cars that baked in the evening sun.
A man in a baggy gray suit collapsed on the sidewalk clutching his chest. His briefcase tumbled to the ground. Richard had never forgotten how the sun glinted off the man’s golden watch. As if the bursts of light were somehow his soul intertwined with the world and the spark, yellow and blinding and erupting in all directions, was its way of saying goodbye.
He stayed for the paramedics and stayed after the paramedics left. The crowd dispersed in time for the next train to arrive with its load of workers all anxious to get to their cars, oblivious to the scene that had just unraveled. This amazed him and in the decades spent as part of the crowd it gave him solace imagining a young boy sitting on his balcony watching him as he loped under the blue sky.
He sensed in emptiness in the stopping and going of anonymous cars. Fleeting clouds like gray ash from a fire hung in the forefront of a white blanket. He drove in silence. His left eye stopped twitching but he didn’t question it. This seemed fitting and he didn’t know how it fit only that it felt like it did.
He didn’t feel the mass in his lungs and never would.
The old man landed on his back. No one had told him this. It was something he simply knew. Not in the way he knew there were exactly seven hundred steps from the seventh floor to the ground, he knew this because he walked and counted it, meticulously, sometimes up to three times a day.
His father’s voice faltered like feet walking on wet rocks. There was enough there to distinguish it from his mother’s high-pitched echo, but sitting at the top of the stairs, Richard felt certain he wouldn’t recognize it if it were coming from anywhere but his family’s kitchen.
“Just talk to me. Please.”
“Karin. I. Don’t. Know.”
“Is it pain? Are you in pain?”
“It’s not pain. It’s not anything. Nothing, that’s what it is.”
“It’s not that I haven’t been falling. It’s that I just looked down.”
He knew the old man landed on his back because that’s the way he saw it play out. That way the old man didn’t have to see his death. Only the white clouds and blue sky and faint whispers of the previous night’s stars.
The doctor sent him home with booklets containing way more information than one could want about cancer and lung cancer and treatment. Like how there are 200 types and subtypes of cancer. That 5-10% of cancers are entirely hereditary. That if you didn’t have a hard enough time surviving the holocaust, you were at greater risk of getting cancer because of the air pollution and starvation and whatnot. Cheryl would read each one of the booklets and retain almost everything and this wouldn’t worry her. She might cry the entire time, but it wouldn’t worry her.
The vividness of his childhood reemerged. This must be where the mind goes when death finally arrives. Images so clear and so random and with no overt significance. His family’s yellow lab leaning its head against the grated crate. Raindrops sliding down his bedroom window. Now it’s afternoon, the sun high in the sky, and he’s on a white sidewalk. His head is moving side to side and there’s laughter and a green lawn and he turns to find his grandmother’s house. Red brick. Venetian blinds. The bushes with the small red berries his parents said to never eat.
But this was always the end, wasn’t it? What was he expecting? Isn’t this the essence of what people mean when they said stuff like Time flies, I can’t believe I’m really 63, Those were the days.
A baseball mitt with the second-finger webbing detached. The stuffed angel on top the Christmas tree. A blue shirt stained by chocolate ice cream.
Cheryl was on the porch when he pulled up the sloped drive. Drinking red wine from a plastic cup because she said wine glasses were pretentious. He tossed the pamphlets and papers in the backseat then got out of the car.
She smiled at him as if he were young and his heart beat in successive thuds.
“Your brother called.”
“Let me guess.”
He kissed her lips and savored what tasted like raspberry. Does chemo take away the ability to taste?
He sat next to her and clasped her free hand tightly. It felt warm from the sunlight that was slowly receding behind the row of houses across the street.
“Little early for a glass, isn’t it?”
“It’s after seven.”
He checked his watch and sure enough, hour hand a hair’s width past the seven. Again he thought of time and wondered if the grief and dread of its passing could be better curtailed by some newfound horror than some newfound joy. Like how he first noticed his balding head the day Chesapeake Energy dropped fifteen points.
Names entered in a spreadsheet. Lives separated by a thin black line.
“You can’t tell the difference, can you?”
He addressed her from her toes that poked out her opens sandals up to her soft face where a girlishness was hidden beneath the rosy cheeks. A sign that he’d done something more with his life than stare at numbers.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“It’s your hair. You cut your hair. Let me guess. 2 inches.”
“It looks great. I love it.”
“I don’t know how I feel about it yet.”
“I love it.”
He began to cry. The tears ran slowly at first then quickened. He opened his eyes and saw blurred colors, a fusion of yellows and greens and reds and blues. He sobbed. She said his name and other words he couldn’t understand and he held her hand to his lips.
Raindrops sliding down his bedroom window.
She held him tightly. They were lying in bed and her arms were wrapped around him. Her left arm was numb from being pinned underneath his body. The ceiling fan clicked and rattled and jagged cracks sprouted out from where it was mounted.
“We need to fix that,” he said. His green eyes hadn’t blinked in several minutes and when he thought about this they finally blinked.
“I’ll call someone tomorrow.”
“I can do it.”
She laughed and instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry.”
“Your shoes are still on.”
“Can I take them off?”
Tucked in her arms, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I kind of like it.”
“What about your shirt?”
“I can take it off.”
She loosened her grip but he didn’t move. They lay there for some time. Her waiting for him to move, his body motionless and warm.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I went to a coffee shop today.”
“You don’t drink coffee.”
He shuffled and repositioned himself so that he looked at her face and she managed to pull her limp arm out and lean it against the bed frame.
“There was this woman. She had very pretty skin. Like caramel.”
“Don’t make me worry about that too.”
“And she was typing and I kept picturing there was this spreadsheet with a list of names on it and my name was right there in the middle.”
She made a hmh sound that signified it was alright if he continued talking, a heightened connection shared between two people who have spent their lives together, given their lives to each other.
“I named her Mila.”
“That was her name?”
“I don’t know her name. I don’t know what she was typing. But I named her Mila and I imagined her working on this spreadsheet.”
“A spreadsheet of people with cancer.”
He had stopped blinking but hadn’t noticed. The air in the room was cool with a smell that resembled something sanitized. “Not just cancer, though. A whole list of people who were going to be dead soon.”
“Then you weren’t on the list.”
He grimaced. “There needs to be rules for these type of things.”
“What do you mean?”
“We need to be honest.”
“I am being honest.”
He wiggled out of bed and stood for a moment looking down at his wife still beneath the sheets. Her hair looked whiter by the day. Where were the years of long blonde hair? Hours passed and days diminished and one year at age 10 was a tenth of a life but one year at age 63 was a drop in a bucket. He slowly undid his shirt, starting with the top button then skipping one and returning to the forgotten one after, an oddity picked up from years of closely watching his father undress following a long day of selling bonds.
“I told the man my name was Hunter.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
He smiled and she smiled back and he laughed and soon they were back in bed, close in each other’s arms, studying the pale skin and wide eyes, laughing hysterically. He laughed into her neck and kissed her cheeks and lips and he inhaled her innate scent, a subtle oakiness that always made him think of a campfire.
“I’m coming with tomorrow.”
“I know you don’t want me to but I am and that’s how it’s going to be.”
“That’s how it’s going to be.”
“What are you thinking about?”
He unraveled from her arms and laid supine, head supported by three fluffed pillows. His feet weren’t asleep, but they felt disconnected in the way a still body in water acquiesces to passing tides.
“What about it?”
“I keep thinking that the room I was in was the one Tessa was born in. Or the one Joy was born in.”
“You weren’t even in that section of the hospital. You weren’t even in the same building.”
She grinned and waited for him to do the same.
“I know. But I keep thinking it.”
“Did you enjoy the coffee?”
He paused. “I think so.”
They went through the morning as if it were any other morning. She rose with the first alarm at 6:40, walked to the kitchen and pressed the button on the coffee machine, waiting the several seconds for the coffee to actually drip. Then she peed and undressed and stood in a warm shower wearing a hair cap for precisely three songs that played through the waterproof radio he had gotten her for a birthday years back. When she emerged, freshly washed and newly dressed, her husband was on the back patio sipping green tea out of a blue mug and reading the business section on page four of the Times.
Only he wasn’t holding the blue mug and the Times was still wrapped and sitting in the driveway.
“Richard, what’s wrong?”
He sniffled and she could tell he had been crying by the dampened cheeks and the croaked tightness in his voice. “Our honeymoon. I can’t remember where we went. I can’t remember where we went on our honeymoon.”
The appointment was at 1:30. By now, Cheryl had sorted through the pamphlets and was saying things like Second opinion and Misread and Chemo. His head hurt but his lungs felt fine.
“I’ll meet you there,” he said.
She didn’t ask where he was going or even lower the opened pamphlet, which featured a wide-angled photograph of a sun falling into the ocean on the front flap. He took two steps and she said, “Kiss.” One word. Four letters. He kissed her on the lips and they tasted like strawberry and he told her he loved her and she said she knew.
A small voice urged him to stop by the office. To stop by the office and make the rounds of saying Hello to former co-workers and possibly talk with Jeff in his glass-walled office. The voice wanted him to do this and it also wanted him to mention that he had cancer and would most likely be dead within the year so be on the lookout for an invitation to the funeral. Do people plan their own funerals?
These were the thoughts that surfaced on his way to the coffee shop.
“And can I get a name for the drink?”
Graham. Six letters. Soft, soothing. Something about the name brought to mind the image of a cloud.
“That’ll be right up. Have a good day, Graham.”
He smiled and nodded then sat at the same table as the day prior. The adjacent table was empty. He told himself Mila must have finished the spreadsheet and was back at the hospital caring for the sick, for future names on a future spreadsheet.
He sipped his coffee intermittently. Whatever the song was that played over the speakers, he hated it. He knew he shouldn’t hate it because he foresaw a time in the near future where he would simply wish to hear anything. Lying in a hospital bed, breathing through a machine that beeped and whirred and illuminated with a multitude of bright lights. Foreign faces flowing in and out the room like a revolving wheel of anonymity. This was his fate, to long for pop music.
He finished his coffee and enjoyed the gritty, speckled feeling on the back of his teeth.
Cheryl was sitting in the waiting room when he arrived. She wore a blue sundress and her white hair glowed in the yellow lighting. A child wept in the hallway and he was torn between sitting down and staying in the hall and listening to the cries.
“What are you reading?”
She set the magazine down on the mirrored table and smiled her smile that gave him feeling in all his extremities.
“Oh, nothing. How do you feel?”
He sat down with his palms folded over his knees.
“When I look down, my legs tingle.”
“I’ll call Doc Smith when we get home.”
They sat and waited for 1:30 to arrive. Other patients passed through the brown door and returned with the same glossy stare he remembered seeing reflected in his car’s windshield. He could hear the clock ticking on the far wall.
“Sometimes I feel all we do is wait.”
Cheryl sat with her legs crossed and she unfolded them only to cross them again a second later. “Who is we?”
“And what are we waiting for?”
“I don’t know. This, I guess.”
“You’re talking about death.”
“On a larger scale, yes. Death. Or just something to react to.”
The nurse called his name but he continued to sit and stare at the floor with the voided glare of lost thoughts. Cheryl raised her hand to say We’ll be right with you. With that same hand, she took hold of her husband and guided him across the tile floor and through the doorway like a mother does to a begrudged child.
While Cheryl exchanged words with the doctor, he sat with his hands folded in his lap staring dazedly at the soft-blue wallpaper. Something about further screenings and uncertainty. His wife was smiling her pure smile, eyes imperceptible between the scrunched skin, dimples hollowing out the taut cheeks.
By the hand of a nurse, he was lead into a small room and carefully guided onto a large white machine whose noises were out of a sci-fi movie. He knew the name of the machine but couldn’t think of it right then, sliding into the darkened tunnel on paper that crinkled when he inhaled. Clicking and humming and the word scan continually flashed behind his closed eyelids.
Seven floors. He fell seven floors and what was he thinking about while he fell? The cloud formations. A childhood memory. Or maybe the mind goes numb and fills with the releases of nerve endings and in his last moments he lived his entire life three times over. Seven flights down and then eternity.
“I don’t understand.”
“Frankly, neither do we. We’re going to have you come in for some more tests. Basic stuff, really. But what we’re looking at is a phenomenon, of sorts.”
“Oh my God. Thank God. Oh my God.”
His wife was crying. He sat, complacent, back a little sore but nothing too aching. His wife was crying and beneath the tears was a smile.
“I don’t understand. This doesn’t make sense.”
“Spontaneous regression. Some thousand cases of it or so. Like I said, we’re going to run more tests just to make sure. But, for the moment, you’re free to go.”
His wife hugged the doctor. Her dampened cheeks stained his white cloak. The images on the wall glowed with a translucent blue.
He sat still and thought he was going to die and his father jumped from the seventh floor thinking he was going to die.
“Richard. Smile. For Christsakes, it’s a miracle. My God. It’s a miracle.” A shriek. Hands clasping red lips. She buried her face in his chest.
The doctor’s face was pale and narrow like a bowling pin. “You’re bound to experience some shock. I’ll leave you two be. Janine will set up the appointment at the desk.”
“Thank you, doctor. Thank you. For everything.”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
Friends came over that night. Friends that got to live the past nightmare in the span of five minutes. First he had cancer, and now he didn’t.
“I read about a similar case.”
“The kid from Tuscaloosa. Had a brain tumor and when they checked again it was half the size.”
Bottles were passed around. Jeffery swirled a glass of bourbon and Carson was cutting cigars over the garbage can. Cheryl bounced from person to person, a smile stamped on her face as if it were stuck there, perpetual joy, a relief so grandiose and unbounding that it erased the blackened half-moons beneath her eyes and smoothed the skin along the bridge of her nose.
Out on the back patio they smoked the cigars. The moon twinkled in the distance just above the row of brick houses and tented roofs.
Carson puffed and contemplated the burning fibers in the dark space before his eyes. “The King of Denmark. Last time I smoked one of these was when I sold UNH.”
Jeffery sipped his bourbon and smoke rose in magnificent waves towards the navy-blue sky. “UNH. You bastard.”
They sat and smoked and Carson chuffed air. Women’s laughter could be heard from inside the house. Ash sprinkled from the end of Richard’s cigar which was pointed towards the red tiles, hardly shortened since its cutting.
“You alright, Rich? Hardly said three words since we came over. Cheer up. Got yourself a second life.”
“Yeah, what are you thinking about right now? I cannot imagine. One second dead. The next, on the back patio fingering a fuckin’ King of Denmark like Frank Sinatra.”
He raised the cigar to eye level, studying the orange light as it slowly dwindled away at the tube’s heart. “You brought these to the hospital when Joy was born.”
Carson twisted in the swivel chair, cigar raised above his head. “I thought those were Padron’s.”
Richard felt his heart beat and neither friend could see it in the night, but he was smiling. “I’ll bet my second life on it. The King of Denmark.”
By the time friends left and the dishes were washed and lights turned out, it was very late. Cheryl and Richard looked into each other’s eyes, the same eyes from the previous thirty years, yet ones whose liveliness hadn’t faded in the slightest from the first day they met. They kissed and slid into each other and breathed in unison. She giggled as he nuzzled into the crevice of her neck and after it was over she laid her head on his chest which rose and fell like it would for the next day and the day after that.
“You still smell like cigar.”
His laugh turned into a cough that took some time to settle.
“I wish you’d stop smoking those.”
“Maybe in my third life I will.”
They were warm lying underneath the covers and the ceiling fan was off but neither of them thought of getting up.
She sensed a shift in his gaze, a subtle tick that conveyed distant thought.
“I’ve been thinking of my father. About what he was thinking before. On the ledge. In the air. Right before the pavement. I keep thinking about the last time I heard him talk. It was to my mother. I heard them in the kitchen and his voice, it was frail. Very weak. And he said that it wasn’t that he hadn’t been falling, it was that he just looked down. And since finding out I have it – thought I had it – I kept trying to make sense of that. Trying to figure out if I’d always been falling and only now looked down. Or if, maybe, everyone is falling and it’s not the looking down that’s the problem, it’s thinking there’s any problem with the falling to begin with.”
When he looked down she was propped up on her elbow with her eyes glinting into his. “Well, what did you decide?”
He knew the answer but he lay there silent for a long time, and at the end of his silence he leaned forward and kissed her and in that moment, coherence didn’t matter, understanding didn’t matter, only that his chest was rising and his lungs were filled with air and they were together in some semblance of eternity.