—FOUR YEARS EARLIER—
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Without thinking, for the third time in the last hour I run my hands across my scalp, tracing my cold touch over the dull reminder that where there should be hair, there isn’t. In the small porcelain sink in the shadowed corner of the room, faint snippets still cling to the white, shiny basin, clumped sporadically around the tail-end of what’s left of my braid. I turn on the faucet and watch with burning eyes as a swirl of water washes my scarlet hair down the drain. Again.
I rinse off the pair of scissors resting on the edge of the bowl with shaking fingers, curls still caught between its two cutting-edges. Unplugging the buzzer from the wall, I wrap up the cord and rest it beside the scissors, the placement of each sadly familiar. Déjà vu forms a lump in my throat and I swallow it down. Like every pill. Like every word I’ve never let myself say. Down, down, down with my pride.
It’s not the first time I’ve ever had to cut off all my hair. Obviously. And life has a way of assuring me it won’t be the last. But something about this time is different—perhaps it’s knowing that I may never live to see it grown out ever again. I’m not quite sure anymore. Death doesn’t seem to have a hold on me after all this time, and yet my lungs seem to have a fondness for its touch, its feel, its essence.
I study myself in the mirror, initially expecting to see cancer staring back at me in the foggy glass. But this time I don’t. This time I see the sheen of the overhead flickering fluorescent lights glinting off my freshly shaven skull, the red-rims entrapping my baby-blue eyes, and the faint remnants of tears on my lashes like snow glittering in the vastness of twilight.
This time I see a corpse, breathing in, breathing out. I see the fear that’s drained the color from my lips. The repercussions of being sick. Which, you know, I have total control over. Cancer isn’t something you can just cure yourself of with some soup. Or by washing your hands extra hard in the sink. Or by getting a shot. Cancer is a nuisance that burrows in deep and only lets you go, so I’ve been told, if you’re bitter enough on the inside to repel it from your body.
I repel people. So it’s a wonder why cancer likes me so much.
I draw my eyes away from the glossy mirror and count back from one-hundred before moving even a muscle. Each number slides over my tongue, slipping through my teeth with so much ease that I nearly forget I have to hold onto the counter to support the weight of my thinning frame. The bag of bones I’m clearly destined to be.
I find that numbers are the easiest remedy for me in my moments of absolute weakness. The simplistic purview of infinity almost always draws me back to the present, where I spend my days counting each line on the hospital ceiling; counting each door to each corridor that opens and closes for only a few days before either closing forever or opening to nothing but empty air and the still fresh color residing within from the memories that had lingered inside its walls.
It’s not hard to lose myself in numbers. Because if I can’t count every breath I take, every hopeful glance I make, then I shouldn’t be allowed to count the days that I’ve been forced to suffer—
There’s a sudden knock at the door. It’s my nurse waiting to help me back to bed. But I don’t want help. I don’t want to be in this situation where I need help.
I want to go sneak into a movie. Or run a mile. I want to steal a car and smoke pot behind the liquor store. I want to fall asleep at sunset and wake up somewhere entirely new to me—actually, on second thought, none of these things sound appealing. But I want to do anything but remain within these walls for another minute.
I move for the light switch and flick it off, taking a seat on the back of the toilet, planting my feet down firmly on the seat. The only light comes in through the window, streaming through the curtains with the scent of the forthcoming winter permeating like smoke, the coolness numbing my body from head to toe.
I like not being able to feel anything. It takes the edge off.
A second knock comes but I don’t move a muscle.
I simply stare out at the painted world sitting like a canvas in the place of my window, unable to help but notice how nothing outside stops. Not for even a second. I stare unblinkingly, surprised to find that, from the coalescing clouds in the graying sky to the slight breeze in the air shifting everything out of order, stillness is something so scarce in such a world filled with people sitting still.
It’s weird to see the world still moving, still beating and breathing; still turning like the Earth never forgot how to spin on its own. I hug my knees to my chest and stare, my chin quivering as the echoes of my sobs begin to waver, the silence in the dark room slowly thinning out.
It’s stupid to cry. Stupid to even think of crying. Stupid to pretend like my hair was anything more than exactly what it was. Hair. Just hair. It’s plain stupid. But, in my defense, I guess I just liked it because it was proof that my body can actually do something right; that, despite the war waged beneath my flesh, deep down in the darkness beneath my heart, my body still had the strength to produce something as beautiful as it did.
In here, in my quarantine of white walls and needles, of hospital gowns and shivers that hold me for so long that the tectonic plates of my body tremble and shift even when my eyes drift shut, I can no longer see the streets of this city without noticing how different my life has become. How ugly it’s become.
How pointless it’s become.
It all seems so close and yet so far away, like the crooked star on the top of a Christmas tree, looming above the head of a person with short-person problems. Like me. It’s there, it’s taunting me, shifted and in need of a fixing, but it doesn’t change the fact that this world wants me right where I am. Right here. Quiet. Sarcastic. Cynical. And cancerous.
Its sense of humor is feeble, more so than myself.
Regardless of reality, of the natural order of things, I reach out to the canvas of brick and mortar, of dimly spun sunlight igniting the cobblestone streets below, still wet from the most recent rain, and my fingers are hindered, as they always are, by the cool touch of the window’s glass, restricting me, telling me without words that this is my life. This is my disease. This is my consequence, my punishment for ever being born.
This is my world. And I can’t make anything out of it.
A third knock sounds at the door, followed by a fourth. This time more urgent.
I don’t flinch. I don’t move, either. But after the fifth and the sixth knock pulls my gaze away from my desire, slowly and carefully as not to scare me away, I’m a little relieved to know that, even though it’s her job, there’s someone just outside my door waiting for me. Acknowledging my existence. Protecting me. Hoping for me.
The time passes like tears down my cheeks, and when I’ve fully engorged myself on the exterior world, on the scenery of the earth just waiting for me to come home, I open the door and allow my nurse to help me to my bed. But I don’t need help. I don’t need a shadow following my every move, drowning me in questions regarding my health. I’m dying. I’m going to be gone in a matter of time. Asking me if my pee is clear is unnecessary.
I stare up at the ceiling long after she’s gone, and long into the night after the lights have gone out. Just staring. Counting. Breathing. Wondering if there’s another dimension out there somewhere where someone just like me never has to worry about forgetting what it’s like to breathe. Where someone like me has a big house. With a big lawn. And a family. With family meetings and family dinners and family vacations.
If there is, I’m happy for her.
I drift away with that thought lingering in my head, and I’m able to sleep better knowing somewhere, beyond the black of the sky and the gleam of the stars that lay therein, someone might be happy because I’m not. Because I may never be.
People think I’m depressed. I think I’m living a nightmare. Either way, I make my own happiness. I just wish, more than anything in this world, even more so than I do for my cancer to be gone, that Mother would think my life important enough to take off of work to come see me.
But if wishes were fishes we’d all swim in riches, right?
Somehow I think I would still find a way to drown.
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Okay. A little history lesson on my home, the City of Natchitoches, Louisiana. That’s NAK-E-TESH. I know, nothing like the spelling.
Our city, named after the Natchitoches Indians, was officially founded in 1714, though French traders happened upon it as early as 1699. Natchitoches is the oldest permanent settlement within the purview of the Louisiana Purchase, originally established as an outpost for the French along the Red River, constructed for the sole purpose of convenience in regards to trade with Mexico—controlled by the Spanish at the time.
Nearly a century later, following the Natchitoches outpost, several plantations were formed subsequent to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Population skyrocketed. Cotton became important. If you don’t know the rest go swallow a textbook.
All you really need to know is that our town is divided into two types of people. Those who think it’s pretty and those who think it’s not. Because, you know, after everything our country has been through, and after everything those self-less enough to give up their lives to protect us have fought for, all that really matters are appearances. If your city isn’t pretty enough to be in the backdrop of your selfie, then what’s the point? Right?
No. If you think this way then you have to get up. Pack your things. Call a cab. Go to the airport. And fly somewhere far, far away. Far enough that your stupidity can’t spread like the virus it’s become—people think the apocalypse will come with the rise of zombies. I say it will arise from stupidity. And the end, so it seems, has already begun.
I for one think Natchitoches is pretty in its own little way; though, to be fair, most great things aren’t known for their appearances. Kind of like scars. They can be long and ugly, but they can symbolize something so pure that to some people they look beautiful. I feel that way about our town. It’s old. It’s gray. But it has taken beating after beating and it has still managed to weather through to the end.
Our city is terminal. Our city has cancer.
I’ve always thought that if Natchitoches could survive all this time, maybe I can too.
And then I realize, as I often do, that I’m hiding beneath the sheets of my individual bedroom in this hospital because I’m too afraid of the sight of myself in the mirror, in the reflection of my glass of water, in the shininess of the floor tiles. Everywhere I go I see myself. I see my bald head. I see my rheumy red eyes. I see cancer and I don’t have the strength left in me to stare it down.
I’m too afraid. And I know now more than ever, breathing in the stale, medicinal air of the darkness beneath the sheets and exhaling shaky, shaky breaths, that if I can’t even bear the sight of cancer in its truest form, then there’s no way I’m going to be brave enough to fight it.
I gave in a long time ago.
I’ve never been an athlete. I’m not an academic. But I’ve always rewarded myself for living, for fighting, and no one will ever take that away from me. I will never let the people of this world see me fall apart—they may see me fall down a lot, but that’s a problem that can’t be fixed. Sadly.
That’s why I’m hiding. If I can save the world the trouble of watching me die, I will.
My name is Rosie Bryar. Welcome to my nightmare.
Kissed By A Rose
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It’s better to be kissed by the prettiest of roses with the sharpest of thorns than the prettiest of roses with no thorns at all.