He weighed 275 pounds, towered over her at 6 feet and 5 inches. He played football and could finish off two 16oz steaks without getting up from the table. She weighed a feather and pencil over one hundred pounds, her wrists could fit through some peepholes, and she barely crossed the threshold for riding Space Mountain.
“Take him out into the fresh air, it’ll do him good,” the nurses told her. “Talk to him about your experience. Be a friend. You can relate.”
“I couldn’t possibly push him around.”
“Sure, you can. That’s why there’s wheels on those things.”
She swallowed her saliva and tucked in her chin. “Okay, I’ll do it. It’ll be fine,” she told the nurses, almost believing herself.
She knocked on the door to his room and found him in his wheelchair staring at the slow moving cars on the freeway. He wore an Ohio State hat and his straw-colored hair was brushing against his eyebrows.
“Hey, why don’t we go outside? It’s a beautiful day,” she announced.
His eyes were wintry, sad. His cheeks flecked with cherry-colored acne. “I don’t know,” he answered. “I’m fine where I am.”
“But the sun is calling us,” she told him, then impersonated a playful sun, “Come out and enjoy me. Splash in my raaaaays.”
He gave her an unamused glance, then turned back to the window. Cars crawled along in the distance and a plane floated gently over the sea. She noticed that there were window washers on the bank building across the way, two men balancing a scaffold 70 feet off the ground.
There were three issues of Sports Illustrated she dropped off last Friday laying on the table in the same spot she left them but also a potted plant that she hadn’t noticed before. “Got a new friend, huh?”
“What are you talking about?” He asked, confused.
She pointed at the red and yellow petals. A blue balloon with the words ‘I love you’ was attached to the pot. Sunlight bisected the table where they sat, illuminating the plant but casting shade on the magazines.
He looked exhausted, sighed. “My girlfriend dropped them off.”
“Oh,” she blurted out clumsily. Then, afraid that he detected her surprise that he had a girlfriend, added, “How neat!” She immediately felt silly for using the word ‘neat’. She never uses that word, only hears it from her dad. It sounded cold and out of place, like an igloo in the desert.
“Yeah. She’s really being fucked-up over this.”
“Fucked-up? What do you mean, like, she’s not being not cool?”
He gnashed his teeth together and the right corner of his lips became a little arrowhead. “No, the opposite. Too cool. She won’t leave me alone. Treats me like a Faberge egg. Keeps giving me presents and shit.”
“She cares about you.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess… she’s just going to have to carry all of this crap out after…” He went silent, stared at his shoes resting on the footplate.
“You can beat this. There’s no ‘after’,” she told him. “You’re tough. You’re a big guy.”
“It’s Cancer, not an opposing quarterback.”
Even though she had gone through the ordeal, endured the Chemo, experienced the doubts, dealt with her hair falling out, opened envelopes with cheesy get well cards tucked inside, all of that, she still had a hard time saying the ‘C’ word. “You’re lucky to have somebody by your side going through this. Trust me, you’ll be fine.”
“Oh yeah, are you a doctor?” He asked, flipping his hat backward and then returning it to the front, then backward again, chasing the perfect position. He then took the hat off and threw it on the bed.
“No, but I beat it, and look at me!”
He looked her up and down then turned his attention to his 8th floor window, the theater of life shrunken and removed. Nurses in scrubs walking through the courtyard. A man sitting on a bench reading the paper. A boyfriend kissing his girlfriend on the forehead. The window washers raising their platform to the next set of windows. Above it all, the spotless sky transmitted a crystalline blue truth.
“I know you’re trying to cheer me up, but there’s no point. Being positive right now is a form of denial. I’d rather just be by myself. I’d rather deal with it then take a spin in fantasy.”
“Look,” she said, “I’m not one of these New Age freaks that believe you can think your way out of, you know, shit like this! I didn’t picture myself healthy or pray or do anything magical. The doctors just blasted the hell out of me with radiation.” She paused to let her words sink in. “I’m not trying to bullshit you. This is L.A., I know the air out there isn’t ‘fresher’ than it is in here. The nurses want me to take you outside and I would rather do that for twenty minutes than go analyze the color of people’s piss. Can you help me with this?”
A change came over his face, a shift, not a parting of clouds, but maybe a thinning. Her speech had an impact, she thought. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Alright, you can push me around if you like,” he mumbled. “It’s your time you’re wasting,” he said more to himself than her.
One handle on the wheelchair was missing its rubber grip and the exposed metal was cold to the touch, but he was lighter to push than she imagined. The nurses beamed at them as they wheeled past on the way to the elevator.
The whole way down they didn’t speak. The elevator felt small and claustrophobic to her with his 275 pound frame and the specter of Cancer filling it. She thought about the metal wire holding the box in their air and wondered how many elevator accidents there are a year. She found it strange that you don’t really hear about accidents on the news and figured that there must be more than they let on, that it’s an intentional omission by the powers-that-be to keep society from knowing how fragile our modern world really is, how thin the wires are that keep us up.
They got to the lobby of the hospital and it was like a train station with the marble floor and people going in every direction and the gift shop and the bars over the registration window making it look like a ticket counter. She noticed how nobody would make eye contact with them because of his wheelchair and the plastic IV bag hovering above him. It reminded her of her time in the hospital and how invisible you can become when illness cloaks you like a shroud of sickness.
The automatic doors opened and she pushed out into the sunlight. It struck her sharply, like overhearing a secret you weren’t mean to hear. “I wish I had my sunglasses,” she told him. “And maybe we should have put on sunscreen.”
“Yeah, I’d hate to get a sunburn to go with my cancer.” He didn’t laugh, and she didn’t think it was a joke, but a tiny tantrum. She knew how simple it was to fall into an endless cycle of self-pity, and how easy it was to dress it up with crude jokes. When she had breast cancer she couldn’t help making comments about how lucky she was to get breast cancer when she barely had any breasts.
She manufactured a cheery tone. “Let’s cruise, shall we?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
There was nothing that was going to cheer him up, she realized, causing an injection of resentment in her. Why was she even trying? If he wanted to stay up in his room and sulk, why should she deter him from it? Wasn’t it his right to face this any way he wanted: bravely or like a dickhead? She silently cursed the nurses. It’s a gigantic load to carry, who was she to insist he put on a happy face?
“Okay. Let’s roll,” she said.
With a concerted push she aimed him toward the handicap ramp. There was a soft breeze that pushed her hair back. She loved the feeling of her hair lifting in the wind, a remnant from when Chemo took that sensation away. She felt sorry for him again, for being so young and having to contemplate the possibility of the end, but also for being so big; not that he was overweight, he was a football player so it was appropriate, but she imagined that in someway that must have made the Cancer feel that much more implausible, and possibly more virulent. And she knew the thoughts he must be having, especially at night when you’re all alone. She thought back to the times she’d stay awake in the hospital staring at the glowing green monitor, imagining her bed was a grave and the blankets were layers of dirt. It wasn’t morbid or anything. Almost like relief. She called it the corpse game.
When they got to the top of the ramp, he asked her, “You got this?”
She replied, “No sweat.”
Halfway down the ramp the wheelchair grew heavier and her grip became more fragile as gravity’s effect intensified. She began to worry that maybe she didn’t have this. Their speed increased and he emitted a scared yelp that would have made her laugh had she not had her eyes on the street twenty feet out from the end of the ramp and an image of her unable to hold onto the wheelchair and he rolling into oncoming traffic terrified her.
She panicked. “Jesus Fuck Christ Shit!”
Strange sounds that the old Batman episodes wouldn’t know how to spell escaped her lips as they hit the end of the ramp. The chair bounced back and forth and she struggled to keep it in control, having to jog a little to keep up. A few feet out onto the sidewalk, though, everything slowed down and she managed to stop the chair without much of a struggle to her great relief.
Passersby looked at them with a mixture of concern and amusement. She was embarrassed about losing control and using foul language. The nurses were going to be furious, she feared, she’d probably not be allowed to volunteer anymore. “Whoa, I’m so sorry,” she told him. She cringed, waiting for him to yell at her, but was shocked to discover instead that he was giggling and then slapping his knees like a man in an old silent picture. Soon laughter was bellowing out of his mouth and tumbling across the courtyard.
“Don’t be,” He told her. “That’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”