(The story of a young couple trying to cope with the girl’s terminal illness)
I spark the bowl and inhale deeply, careful to leave some fresh green for her to burn. She likes that, and any good pothead knows that this is proper etiquette when sharing a bowl. She’s not in too much pain today, but smoking has become a habit now. Actually sort of a ritual, our ritual. I can’t actually share her physical pain, but I can share everything else with her, including the self-medication. One bowl in the morning when she wakes up, two if she’s in a lot of pain. One mid-morning. One before lunch. A bowl mid-afternoon, one mid-evening, one before bed. And in between whenever else she needs or wants one. Whatever she needs, whenever.
Katie is regarding me with those straight-on, penetrating brown eyes in a manner that I have come to simultaneously love and find extremely uncomfortable. I’ve taken too long to retrieve the ornate glass bowl from her hand and she’s caught me “zoning out.” She’s probing my thoughts with those dark and intense eyes of hers and I feel suddenly naked. But I take the bowl from her, and rather than ask me what I’m thinking, she merely puts a small hand on my thigh and squeezes affectionately as I take my hit. Sometimes she just knows not to ask.
Katie got sick shortly after we met two-and-a-half years ago, although I suppose she was sick before that and just didn’t know it. We took a shine to one another almost immediately, but, as morbid as it may seem, we became the closest after she got sick. I took her to her doctors’ appointments and treatment sessions and stayed with her whenever she needed to be in the hospital. Not because I’m some great guy or because I want sympathy or something on account of my girlfriend being sick. Everything I did, I did because I wanted to. I wanted to be there for her and take care of her. I wanted to make her feel as good as possible, in spite of her being sick. And when, a few months ago, she decided to stop chemo and radiation and put her fate “in God’s hands,” I was heartbroken, but I pushed it down deep and said, “Whatever you want, Katie. We’ll do whatever you want.”
Now she does ask. “You’re doing it again.” Zoning out. “What are you thinking about?”
I contemplate lying and telling her that I’m just stoned, but I know she won’t believe me. Lying is just not my style anyway, so I simply answer, “You, sweetheart,” and I lean over and kiss her forehead. She smiles and seems content to let it go at that. She takes another hit off the bowl and holds it in.
The weed was my idea and, although neither of us smoked since college, she took little convincing. Truth be told, I felt a little guilty at first, getting us both hooked on drugs, even one as innocuous as marijuana. But it didn’t take long to get over that. The weed eased her pain some, and Katie actually seemed to begin to enjoy our little smoke sessions, falling easily back into the pothead rhythm.
Plus, smoking made her eat more. She had gotten painfully skinny. The chemo had done a number on her appetite and ability to hold food, and even after she had stopped the treatments, we discovered the unpleasant, but not often mentioned after-effects. She had become sort of phobic of food. That’s not really the right word. It was more like she’d become programmed, classically conditioned. Her body and mind had associated the emetic effects of the chemo with meals, and eventually the meals alone became a catalyst to bouts of nausea and vomiting. I hated to see her suffer even after the cessation of the chemo, and I was beginning to feel hopeless, thinking I’d have to watch her waste away not only from the disease, but from starvation. Lucky for the weed.
“Let’s take a walk,” she says suddenly, and my spell is broken. So she is feeling fine, I guess, and we bundle up in jeans and cozy sweatshirts. She wears one of my sweatshirts- she likes the smell- and it hangs off her small frame. She looks like a little girl in her daddy’s shirt.
The air outside is chilly but pleasant, and I think to myself that it is nice to get out of the smoky basement apartment and breath some fresh fall air. The sky is clear and blue, and wispy white clouds hang motionless there, as if suspended by strings. The treetops are kaleidoscopes of red, orange, and yellow. If I squint, they blur and wave like brilliant fires in the branches. I hear Katie next to me, inhaling the crisp air in slow deep breathes; I know she is savoring the fresh taste, the way it lifts her spirits.
I thank God or Buddha or whoever once again for the luxury of working only three nights a week and having so much time to spend with Katie. Of course, luxury is perhaps not the best word to describe the resulting living situation. We live modestly, comfortably, but definitely not luxuriously. I bring in a little bit of cash working at a warehouse in the city and she gets a disability check every month. It’s not much, but between the two of us we have what we need. Neither of us need to say it aloud, we both just know: the most important thing we can have is time and the freedom to enjoy it anyway we like. Together. I remember a Jim Croce song and agree that it sure would be handy to save time in a bottle.
We hold hands and walk down the sidewalk towards a park about a block away. We go there often, when she’s feeling well enough, that is. It’s fifty-fifty, these days. She says that it’s not too bad, that it could be worse. At least, she says, there are as many good days as bad days, and not everyone is that lucky. I don’t necessarily agree, but I keep it to myself.
We reach the park and I sit on top of a picnic table, Katie on the bench between my knees. Her honey colored hair is finally starting to look healthy again and, still too short to be cut into a bob, she sometimes spikes it up with gel or mousse. I remember how long her hair was when I met her at the coffee shop some two and half years ago. It was silky and shiny and streaked with natural blond highlights that caught the sun.
I smile and tousle her hair. She turns halfway around and grins at me. She is more beautiful than ever.
“I’ve been thinking…” she says a moment later.
“What’s that, hon?” I ask, eager to see what she’ll say next. Whenever she prefaces a sentence with I’ve been thinking, I know she’s about to say something off the wall. A “Kate-ism,” as I like to call it.
“We should get a dog.”
“Yeah, a dog. You know? Four legs, furry body, wagging tail… A dog.”
I tap her playfully on the back of the head. “Smart ass.”
She chuckles and replies, “Dumb ass.”
I laugh too and then there is a moment’s silence. “You really want a dog?” I ask. “Is there room in the apartment, do you think? Will the old lady care?”
Katie has turned around again and is gazing ahead at the children playing on the jungle gym. She speaks now almost as if she is talking to herself. “And not one of those wimpy sissy foo-foo dogs either. A big dog, like a German Shepherd or a Doberman.” I don’t say anything, just rub her shoulders and listen, and after thoughtful moment, she says quietly, “We need to expand our little family.” And this time she is talking to me.
I think about what she has just said, and the possibility that it was no more than an innocent remark with no hidden meaning. Then I study the back of her head and wonder if it is wistfulness I notice as she intently watches the children play. We have never discussed having children ourselves. I sigh and hug her tight.
“Okay, maybe we can get a medium sized dog and that will keep you and the landlady happy.”
She turns to me and smiles. “You’re such a pushover.” And then we sit in silence for a while longer.
* * *
Thanksgiving is around the corner. We sit at the small round kitchen table sipping soda and smoking a bowl. We are discussing where we will go, with whose family we will celebrate, and whether or not we can force two meals in one day again this year, when Katie suddenly snatches my hand and grins like a Cheshire cat.
“Screw it,” she says, and then she laughs at what must be a terribly funny puzzled expression on my face.
“Screw it?” I repeat. “That’s your answer? Oh, well fine, we’ll just call your mother and sister and say very politely ‘Thank you, but we decline on account of Katie said Screw it.’” I am joking but also a little irritated. Holidays stress me out.
But she laughs again, and as she raises the bowl to her pretty pink mouth and prepares to spark it, she replies, “No, dummy. I don’t mean we just don’t go and then sit here all day. Let’s go on vacation.”
“Vacation? I thought everyday was vacation.” I sip my flat Coca Cola and grimace – it tastes terrible – while I wait for her to finish taking a hit.
She exhales a plume of fragrant smoke and says, “I’m serious,” but she pinches my forearm lightheartedly. “We should go to Europe or Japan, someplace new and exciting.”
I pull a long drag off the bowl without relighting and pass it back to her. I exhale most of the smoke and let the rest drift from between my lips as I speak. “What about our families?”
“Well see them at Christmas. Besides…” Her words trail off and she puts the smoking piece back to her lips. She peers intently at me, silent while she holds the smoke in her lungs, and when she exhales, she tries to speak before all of the smoke is out and she begins to cough. After her coughing jag abates, she fidgets a little in her seat and squares her shoulders. She is getting ready to be serious. I take the bowl and butane lighter from her delicate hands and set it on the table. Suddenly, I’m not sure that I’m ready to be serious.
“Look, Chris… I want to do it while I’m still having good days. I want to go somewhere before I’m too sick and it’s too late.” She falters a moments and drops her gaze. “I know we don’t have a lot of money-”
“Katie,” I interrupt her, grab her hand, and her eyes meet mine, “where do you want to go?”
* * *
Katie sits at a tiny wooden vanity the color of coffee cream, which used to be her grandmother’s. She’s carefully applying mascara, her eyes wide and her mouth an exaggerated “o”, as if this comical facial expression somehow helps her apply the mascara more easily. She hasn’t worn make-up in awhile. It’s fine by me either way; women don’t seem to realize that most men don’t care about makeup one way or the other. But I mentioned this to Katie once on another occasion and she had turned around on the vanity bench and replied, not without undue pique, “I like to feel pretty. I’m still a woman, you know.”
She hunches slightly towards the mirror and examines her face. Deep brown eyes accented with eye makeup in soft earth tones and pouty lips that shine with some sort of gloss. She really does look pretty, I think to myself.
As if noticing my presence for the first time, she turns around and looks up at me. “What are you doing?”
I smile guiltily, as if I have been caught doing something bad, and shrug. “Just watching you.”
Katie smiles too and stands up. “Zip me up?” I zip the back of her red cocktail dress and appreciate the way the spaghetti straps rest on the soft rise of her collarbones. I draw her near and kiss the soft spot in the crook of her neck and shoulder. She sighs and I can feel her body relax and sink against mine. I run my hands up the smooth material of the dress, over the gentle landscape of her body. Over her narrow hips, her trim waist, and the small mounds of her neat breasts.
Yes, I say to myself, as she bears against the firmness in my trousers, you are still a woman.
She turns to face me and her eyes are innocent doe eyes. She kisses me sweetly, her tongue teasing mine. As she leads me by the hand back to the bedroom, I am aware without regret that our dinner out is going to be temporarily postponed.
* * *
Today is a lazy day. The sky is the color of cold steel and I know before I even set foot outside that the air will be bitter and cutting. The sun has gone AWOL and it’s the kind of day where it is impossible to gauge time; there is four o’clock winter bleakness all day long.
Katie suggests we have a “movie day,” and the idea of cuddling next to her under a blanket with mugs of hot coffee is appealing. She asks if I mind going to get the movies myself, saying she’s chilly and wants to take a hot bubble bath. I smile and kiss her on the top of the head – Of course I don’t mind – and stop at the thermostat to turn the heat up before I leave.
I arrive back home with the movies and two cups of 7-11 coffee in tow, hers flavored with that super sweet French vanilla creamer she likes. I fumble the key into the lock with one hand, balancing the drink tray with the coffees on the other hand, and hope Katie will hear me struggling with the lock and come to the door. The entrance to our basement apartment opens directly into the living room area. I step inside, expecting to see her sitting on the couch in her terrycloth robe, her hair wet and her legs folded under her. I am all set to rib her for not coming to the door, when I discover that she is not in the living room. The tangy aroma of tomato soup wafts its way to my nose and I look to my right, into the kitchen, and see a pot simmering on the stove. But no Katie.
I assume that she’s still in the tub and then laugh to myself as I deposit the tray and movies on the coffee table. She put a pot of soup on and then went to take a bath. I laugh to myself; my girlfriend is nothing if not capricious. I turn the corner at the left end of the living room and head down the hall towards the bathroom. The bathroom door is wide open and Katie is not in the tub. In fact, it doesn’t appear that she’s even taken a bath; the tub is still dry.
At the end of the hall, the door to our bedroom is only slightly ajar. There is soft light inside the room, probably from one of the lamps on the bedside tables. I approach the bedroom slowly, and in the back of my mind I am wondering why the unexpected causes me such anxiety. Unease is tingling in my stomach. I call her name as I push the door open.
Katie is sitting cross-legged on the bed. Her back is facing the door and she does not turn to acknowledge me. I am not even sure she has heard me call her. There are photos scattered all over the navy blue and paisley print comforter, and as I draw closer and round one side of the bed, I notice the scrapbook laid open on her lap.
“Hey, baby. Whatcha doin’? I thought you were gonna take a bath,” I say mildly. Still, she does not answer. Her head is down, her back rounded, as if she is deeply absorbed in her craft, but her hands are resting idly at her sides. I frown and place my hand on her shoulder to shake her from her daze. I am about to tease her for “zoning out” when I see a fat tear ooze down her cheek.
As I sweep aside photos so I can sit next to her, I realize that they are all photos of us. Us camping. Us last Christmas. Us at Six Flags. I glance back at the book in her lap and see that she had already filled half of the pages, and I wonder how many nights she has spent working on this project, this “Us” scrapbook.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
Katie looks up at me, shamefaced that she should be crying, and my heart breaks. But all she says is, “I love you so much, Chris.”
“I know, honey. I love you too,” I answer, my voice inflected with surprise and confusion. I will admit I sometimes behave characteristically male in my perhaps selective understanding, and now I realize that I am in fact trying to evade the point. I am afraid of what she will say next.
She sniffs tears back diffidently and swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand. “You caught me.”
“Caught you what?”
She nods at the scrapbook that has slipped off her lap. “It was supposed to be sort of a surprise.” I stare at her blankly, unsure of what to say next, and it becomes apparent that I’m not the only one avoiding the subject. It occurs to me that perhaps she avoids voicing her feelings for my sake.
I take her by the hands. “What is it, Katie?”
Her eyebrows arch and she attempts a half-hearted smile. “It’s a scrapbook, silly. What do you think?”
“You know that’s not what I meant. Talk to me.”
She lowers her dark eyes and fresh tears begin to spill. “I just wanted you to have something to remember me by. You won’t forget me, will you, Chris? When I’m gone?”
I practically yank her into my arms and squeeze her so tightly that I hear her back crack slightly, but she doesn’t pull away. I silently scold myself for us never talking openly enough about this. Always joking, always dancing around the subject. A mixture of guilt and sorrow is causing my own eyes to well. “No, baby. I could never forget you.” And those words, although completely true, are agonizing to speak, because I spend so much time trying not to think of how much I will miss her.
After several minutes, she pulls back and wipes the wetness from her face with the hem of her ratty Offspring concert t-shirt. “I’m sorry,” she whispers in a voice hoarse with tears.
“You don’t need to be sorry, Katie. You can talk to me whenever you need to…” My words trail off and the back of my throat is brackish with the taste of unshed tears. I’m not sure what else to say.
I know that we can talk about her illness to help us cope. Most of the time, we don’t talk about it so we can cope. That seems to be an unspoken agreement between us. The situation is what it is, and we just go on trying to live every minute to the fullest and not dwell. It’s self preservation, really, because we know that no amount of tears or anxiety will change the situation. We can’t save time in a bottle.
Still sniffling, but no longer crying, Katie closes the scrapbook and gathers the photos into one pile on the bed. She leans over to the nightstand on her side of the bed and grabs the bowl and a lighter that are sitting there. “How about we go watch those movies now?”
I smile weakly, stand, and offer my hand to help her up. She sighs resolutely and I follow her from the bedroom. She bustles to the stove to tend to the forgotten pot of soup, which has no doubt begun a low bubbling boil. I pop a movie in the DVD player and then help her bring two brimming bowls of steaming tomato soup to the living room. We cuddle under a quilt, waiting for the soup to cool and enjoying our lazy day together.