by D. Frederick Cook
It was dark – that was all I knew for sure. The doctor pointed to the spot on Jennifer’s X-ray time and time again, but to me it just looked like a smudge. Jennifer sat blank-faced the whole while, perched atop a hospital bed. There were no tears. There wasn’t really much of anything.
We returned home later that day and neither of us used the word “cancer.” Neither of us said “dying.” We talked about tomorrows she wouldn’t have like they were inevitable. The doctor had said “inoperable” and he’d said “terminal” and he’d said “eight weeks.”
I’d wanted to let her down easy. It was supposed to be a quick swing by the doctor’s office to get some test results and then a nice lunch where I’d break the news gently, where I’d say, “Jennifer, I’m sorry, but the truth is, I like boys,” Or maybe: “Sorry, Jen, vaginas disgust me.”
That was all ruined now. You can’t break it off with someone who has eight weeks to live, even if you are repulsed by their genitalia. So I had to stick it out – at least it would give me an excuse not to break the news to my parents. Besides, it was only eight weeks.
Three weeks in and her skin turned yellow. She wasn’t eating much. Soup, sometimes. Sometimes just water. I whispered lilac lies in her ear at night and she held my neck tightly. Sometimes she cried. Other times she just held on.
She never wanted sex. I suppose that was lucky. It was hard enough doing that to a healthy woman. Now she was yellow. I made half-hearted attempts for her self-esteem’s sake. She said she didn’t feel sexy. She thought I was sweet for trying.
Six weeks in and her skin was graying. Some days she didn’t eat at all – no water either. Some days she refused everything but orange popsicles and on a lot of nights I’d kiss her forehead before I ran out to the store to pick some up for her. I always made a detour by Chubby’s, the local gay bar. Markos was there, my golden-brown Adonis.
Markos was stereotypical and I loved it – here and queer and working his bouncing pecs at the YMCA. Every time we talked I imagined how my parents would react if I brought him home. My dad: “So, John, this is your friend?” And my mom: “My, what shiny shorts. Where did you say you were from, dear?”
After the first box of popsicles melted in the car, I learned to pick them up on the way home from Chubby’s.
Eight weeks in and she seemed to get stronger. Her skin turned a shade of pink-beige that looked curiously healthy. I couldn’t understand – the doctor had said eight weeks. Only days ago it had seemed so close. She’d been gray. Now there were sparks of her old self in her brown eyes. She was springing back to life.
One night she asked to make love to me. I kissed her ear and told her she’d be better off saving her strength – told her I was praying for a miracle.
“Miracles happen every day,” she said.
We smiled different smiles.
Ten weeks in and she was holding on, barely, with skin like watered cream of mushroom soup. Translucent to the point that I could see her blue-green lightning veins. She told me: “You’re making me strong, John. You’re the only thing keeping me alive.”
“The only thing.”
I sighed on the inside.
Meanwhile, Markos was getting frustrated. He wanted to come back to my place, or wanted me to go back to his, but I couldn’t let Jennifer get suspicious. One night he wagged his finger in my face and accused me of being a straight man playing gay on the weekends.
“Not exactly,” I said. “Just a few more days.”
He stopped talking to me a few days later.
Twelve weeks in and her color was corpse. And me, impatient. She looked at me with adoration but I was barely faking it anymore. Barely there. I held her hand and I said all the right things in a voice growing ever more monotone.
The doctor took me aside and said: “Her time’s almost up.”
“You say that a lot.”
“If there’s anything you want to say to her, I suggest you say it now.”
I choked on that for a moment. Glanced back in at the room.
“She probably won’t make it through the night.”
“You’re sure this time.”
“I know it’s hard.”
Back in the room, alone, Jennifer held my hand with less the strength of a newborn. Everything around her dazzled white and sterile, bringing the colors of her cancer all the more to the forefront. Cancer, slow as death.
“This is it, John,” she said weakly, and she gave my hand what passed for a squeeze, her eyes on me with what life they had left, loving. I couldn’t help but feel I owed her something. Honesty, I supposed. So with my vibrant baby blues I matched her dead woman’s gaze.
“I’m gay,” I told her.
Her grip loosened.
Jennifer held on for two more weeks – enough time to break the news to my parents, my friends, and my friends that weren’t really my friends. Colorfully, all. Enough time to cut me out of her will which she claimed was the only reason I’d stayed with her. She told my boss.
I saw the doctor at the funeral.
“Eight weeks?” I said.
“You said she had eight weeks. She lived fourteen.”
“Miracles happen every day.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So I hear.”