had been a very comfortable stage. Neighbors and acquaintances you had barely
seen for years had been at your doorstep with flowers and cards and
“You’re a fighter,” said Sharon, the middle-aged lady from next door, as she handed you a bundle of daises. She stood too close and talked too loud, but her words were kind. “Your ma tells me your optimism hasn’t wavered one bit. What a courageous young lady you are. God bless you.”
Nobody seemed to understand that it was easy it was to be positive when you knew that everything would be fine. You put the flowers in a vase next to the others on your dresser and got back in bed. The comfortable white sheets swaddled you and you told yourself, “This is temporary. I’ll be better by May.” It just made sense. The world around you was being reborn following the harshness of an upstate New York winter, and you would bloom too; the color would return to your skin as it did the trees and the grass and the sky.
The doctors were the only ones who saw it for what it was. They had seen it so many times before. They would ask, “Do you understand that you will live with this forever?” and you would look down at your ugly cotton gown, a pattern of light blue-gray squares inside darker blue-gray squares, and nod your head and say of course. You told me that last time I was here. But inside you felt inexplicably certain that you would be in remission by May and that it would stay under control after that. You couldn’t tell the doctor that because he’d give you that skeptical look again.
Anger is harder. The first time you saw the curling red tendrils of blood in the toilet again after eighteen months of being well, the comfortable pillow of denial had been snatched out from under you. You grasped around for the next easiest emotion to cope with and Anger had been there for you. You had been angry at your stupid friends who asked what do you mean you’re sick again? I thought you beat it? To which you had explained that this isn’t like that; it’s not beat it or die; it’s beat it and it comes back a year later to fight again. You had been angry at your neighbors who didn’t bring you flowers this time, like it was too tiring to show sympathy again and again. You had been angry at your body itself for having the gall to not only act up again, but to do so in the spring. It added insult to injury to have your comforting metaphor trod upon so mercilessly. You had been angry at strangers on the internet who implied that this could have been caused by anything other than shitty genes and shitty luck. You had been angry at your doctor who suggested maybe he should cut you open. You had felt that familiar assurance when you told him that won’t be necessary.
Four years later and you’re still stuck in Anger, and you wonder if your slow progression through these stages means there’s something wrong with you. Even your friend whose mother died had seemed mostly okay within a year. The cripples on TV all smile and say that life is a gift. At this rate maybe you’ll reach that coveted Acceptance by the time you’re thirty-five.
Your roommate Kayla tells you that she just learned her lab partner has the same thing you have, and would you like to meet him? Your response is an emphatic yes and she gives you his number. His name is Ricky, she says.
You send Ricky a text, not knowing exactly what to say but knowing you need to say it.
“Kayla has mentioned you,” Ricky replies, and you smile, already imagining a future with him, somebody who knows your aches and understands why you can’t go out tonight and who brings you a heating pad for your belly when you need it, and he knows when you need it just by the look on your face.
“Want to meet up?”
Ricky looks the way you expected him to – pale and too thin. He has black hair and brown eyes and bad posture. He’s beautiful.
You and Ricky both have the same small, circular scar on your upper left arm where PICC catheters had been attached to your bodies as teenagers. You ask him if he’d ever been made to drink those ghastly thick nutritional supplements in the hospital, and he groans.
He excuses himself and goes to the counter to order a tea. You rest your elbow on the table and your chin in your hand and wait for him, thinking about how different life will be now that you have a friend who gets it.
Ricky comes back and asks if you like cars. You say no, you’re indifferent about cars. He tells you he’s fixing up an antique car in his garage back home. He’s putting in a new engine and it should be road-ready within a few weeks. He starts telling you all the technical specifications and you frown but nod along, having nothing to contribute to this topic. After a few minutes of this you interrupt him and say that you need to get going. He furrows his brows as he says goodbye.
At home, Kayla asks how it went, and you tell her it was awkward. She apologizes. You reassure her that it isn’t her fault.
Kayla throws a party that night and several of her friends drape themselves over your living room furniture. Jeff is sipping a Woodchuck and recounting his skateboarding accident.
“The bone was poking through the skin,” he says solemnly, pointing at the scar on his arm, a large blotch of pale, shiny skin. “It nicked my brachial artery. It bled so much. I thought I was gonna have to get a blood transplant.”
“It’s called a transfusion,” you say. “I’ve had twelve.”
Some of Kayla’s friends give you a sideways glance. You continue, “When I was sixteen I had septic shock and they had to run a liter of blood through me at top speed just to keep my blood pressure up ‘cause my heart was starting to fail and I almost died.”
They’re staring at you now and you finally clam up, realizing that you were doing the thing again. You feel your cheeks heat up as the blood of thirteen different people flows into them.
Kayla confronts you after everybody has left. “I’ve asked you not to do that.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You tell the same depressing stories over and over again. You’re obsessed with being sick.”
“I know. I’m working on it.” You’ve been working on it for four years with little improvement.
You’re pretty sure the Kübler-Ross model of grief doesn’t include a stage called “brag endlessly to anyone that will listen about all the bullshit you’ve been through” but you’ve been doing this for a long time, too. If you have to go through bullshit, it’s nice to get at least some benefit out of it, and feeling like a badass when you talk about your past is pretty much the only benefit that being sick has. But even that is starting to go away. Lately you’ve realized that nobody really likes the person who interrupts the light-hearted party to talk about her near death experience.
You think again about Ricky and about how disappointed you’d been that he wasn’t fixated on being sick, that he’d had the gall to talk about something else other than your shared suffering. You think about the fantasy relationship you imagined when you first texted him. Do you want a friend or a nurse?
You open your phone and type a text.
“Sorry about today. Can I see your car sometime?”
That fall, you and Ricky walk through a pumpkin patch. You want to hold his hand but the pumpkin you’re carrying is heavy and occupies both of your arms. You knew it was The One when you saw it right at the edge of the field upon arriving. It was big and round, flattened only slightly on the side it was lying on while it grew. You had brushed the dirt off as best as possible and picked it up.
“This one. I want this one,” you had declared.
Ricky laughed. “That’s the first pumpkin you’ve looked at. You’re being hasty.”
“Nope. I want this one.”
And you stick with your decision even as you wander deep into the field. Ricky, however, stops and stoops and turns over almost every pumpkin for a closer look. The sun is starting to set and you’re getting antsy.
When he finally finds his pumpkin, you have to admit that it’s better than yours and commend him on his perseverance. It’s perfect.
It’s one a.m. back at your apartment, and Ricky sits on the trash bag tarp on your floor with his tongue poking out the side of his lips. An array of tools is spread beside him: a large, serrated knife for the major incisions, a smaller, sharp knife for the detail work, a big spoon for scooping out pumpkin guts. He uses a small spoon now to scrape pumpkin matter off the inside walls, thinning them out but not punching all the way through, so that the candle makes a soft glow when lit. You’ve long since retired to the couch, your jack o’lantern grinning goofily on the window sill. You don’t know how Ricky has the patience to keep going at it. Your back started hurting hours ago from hunching over your work, and it just wasn’t interesting enough to hold your attention for four hours anyway.
Ricky sets his tools down, lights the candle, and places it inside. He gets up and turns the lights off in the room. “What do you think?”
You sit up. Glowing on the tarp is the perfect image of a pumpkin carved into his pumpkin. He varied the thickness of the wall such that the light shines through most brightly on the upper right; the lower left appears as though in shadow.
“You’re ridiculous,” you say. “It’s so perfect. You realize this thing is going to rot, don’t you?”
“Of course. It was just fun.”
“How do you do that? How do you sit and devote yourself so fully to something for four hours?”
“Patience?” The word lilts upward at the end, like a question. “Being bedridden for months at a time as a child will do that to you.” He pauses. “At least, it did it to me.”
You think about that. “Not me. How young were you? When you got sick?”
“Jesus,” you say, realizing that this explains a lot of your differences. “I was fourteen. And I actually used to be patient like you. When I was younger.”
“Yeah? What changed?”
“I think it was when my PICC site got infected. And we didn’t know what was going on for a few days, and so I didn’t get help until I went into septic shock. I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time but I guess I could have very easily died. And ever since then…I just don’t…I can’t waste time anymore. I have trouble giving my time away.”
“Well,” he says, reaching out and taking your hand, “I’m glad you give some of your time to me.”
That summer, a woman in a shawl stops you and Ricky on the sidewalk to hand you a pamphlet. You look down at an image of a dark, towering figure leaning over a crying infant, hypodermic needle in hand. Text below it says, “Are you going to let BIG PHARMA control the health of YOUR child?”
You look back up at the woman and allow a broad grin to creep across your face. At your side, Ricky cautiously says, “Babe, let’s just let it go. Come on, let’s keep walking.”
But you don’t need his encouragement. You’re smiling at the realization that you’re not angry at this strange woman or her misguided message. You’re smiling because the only emotion you feel when you look at her is pity as you wonder what it’s like to be inside a mind so consumed by paranoia.
“Thank you,” you say to her, and you mean it.