Winner of the 2015 U of T Magazine Short Story Contest
He looked at it for two-thirds of a second, poked it with a latex-covered index finger. I would have barely had time for a chord change on the guitar.
“It’s not a tumour.”
But it had to be. I’d had symptoms for months. That hard knob tucked where my right thigh met my hip. The feathery ache that settled at night as if it were nesting in the twigs of muscle there. Bridget didn’t notice it but sometimes she rushed through things with me; promised she’d linger there next time when she didn’t have a head-sick patient to visit. That’s how I knew she was good even though she made me feel cold; she visited sick people at twilight or dawn, those off-hours times with the pearly light. I loved her for that.
“I should have an MRI.” I told the doctor. “Sarcomas show on those.”
He tossed me an impartial look. “We’ve been over this. Weeks ago. And two months before that. Since last summer. You need to stop reading things on the Internet. Lauren, it’s your damn hip bone.” The doctor snapped off his rubber gloves with grammatical finality, an exclamation mark procured from an authoritative flick of his wrists. He handed me the print-outs I’d found about hungry mutinous cells, the black sludge in lymph nodes, that peculiar fruit salad system of sizing lumps. It was better to have a grape in your thigh than a cantaloupe. Mine was the size of a strawberry. I felt for it everyday; I could feel it through my jeans when I had my hand in my pocket.
“You’re twenty-three years old and you’re healthy, all right?” The doctor shuffled to the door. I felt another little chunk of the world slip away. “You think too much. You should get a boyfriend, distract yourself from WebMD.”
I walked home from the doctor’s office. I could have taken the TTC, but I felt keyed up, like I had something that I needed to tell someone. I knew that if I saw an old person struggle with grocery bags full of bagels and frozen fish I was going to lose my shit completely. I’d never known my grandparents and they seemed like a separate species to me. My body would never be compliant enough to reach old age. My friend Ally’s grandmother was four times as old as Ally had been, and she still went home to Honolulu for two weeks every January, even though she’d been mute for years. It never stopped Ally from loving her with all her heart. We’d go to Ally’s place for rehearsal because her mother always made us pie with real fruit inside, and before we could even step in the door Ally would shove her way past us to greet her grandmother, who drank tea from a pink cup on the back porch when the weather was good.
“Oh, Tutu Darlene,” Ally would say, “My acro costume is so beautiful, it has the yellow hibiscus and I think of you every time I wear it! One day you’ll see me in Cirque du Soleil, and I’ll have the flower on me.”
Ally’s mother said that Darlene was senile, which could be expected when you were old and had done your living on an island baking in the hot sun, so they didn’t want to upset her. They told her that Ally went to the island for a long visit.
I never asked what they did with Ally’s costumes. They gave me her books. Tasha got a blue bottle of perfume and Ally’s younger brother Kai got the wooden horse that stood on Ally’s windowsill since we were in grade school. How asinine Kai looked holding that tiny thing in his big pianist’s hands at every rehearsal thereafter, singing away to it. It all seemed so final, as if everything was boxed up and shipped out and we could be ready to move on. And it seemed as if all of them, even Kai who’d loved her most, really had.
I called Dr. Shor on my cell, called her office directly. I’d been seeing her for years, even before the world shook itself like a wet dog and sent me spinning. What began as a once-a-week session after my parents divorced had morphed into a different sort of relationship. Tasha thought it was exciting, but Ally had hated it, told me that Dr. Shor was using me because I was the kind of girl always looking for a hug. God, how I hated Ally for that. How I hated myself now for ever hating her.
“It’s me. I need to talk to you.” I told Dr. Shor, and I had my hand deep in my pocket. “I’m worried about this bump…I’m remembering too much again.”
She said, “Okay, honey, I can see you tonight. My place. Eight o’clock?”
The hours spun through the day like silk. We were just hitting the summit of July, and I felt like the elegiac evening light could be shaken out of the drapes like dust. Bridget Shor and I sat side by side on the leather couch that faced her bookshelves, all her volumes of Donne on the top shelf, and the heavy tomes of medical books just below. I loved the hierarchy of her literature, even if she was prone to rationalizing certain dark thoughts as misfiring neurons rather than spiritual ennui.
She emptied the last of the red wine into my glass. “I haven’t much time tonight, perhaps an hour.”
I felt nervous, the same echo of fear I’d felt at sixteen, feeling the air on my thighs and her voice yawning in-between, telling me that there was always a little pain. And there was, but there was also a glorious moment when everything in the world felt whole and round and perfect. I’d been chasing that feeling ever since, as if there was some secret to wholeness hidden in those circles of our bodies. “Can I have that empty bottle?”
“Just be sure not to break it, honey.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly – that’s it. Dr. Shor -Bridget? What was that phrase you said last week?”
“Tikkun olam. Repairing the world. It’s just old religion, Lauren. You’re smarter than that. I don’t need it and you certainly don’t need it.”
“Kai’s doing good because of what his mother told him at the wake last year, the Hawaiian thing. Mana, right? Its like all things have spirit -”
She cut me off with a kiss, her hand knotted up in my hair. “I’ve told you, you don’t need to feel this way. She had a headache. You helped your friend, baby.”
She gently guided me between her legs. It turned out like always and we ran out of time before she could touch me back, but even still, the night seemed billowy, as though I could finally breathe. Bridget knew the names for the things I was feeling. Her thighs were soft and dense, ungodly dunes.
A couple of afternoons later, I went to Tasha’s place before rehearsal. Tasha was rattling around in the recycling bin. She didn’t see me until she’d pulled out a jam jar, wiped the purple remnants from the rim with her shirtsleeve, and held the thing up to inspect the glass.
“I brought you something better.” I pulled the wine bottle from my bag.
She jumped on the spot. “Brilliant!”
I followed Tasha to her bedroom. Kai was already there, sprawled out on Tasha’s bed with a baggie of carrot sticks and his ukulele. We watched Tasha rearrange the assortment of glass bottles on her windowsill.
“Ready to rehearse?” Kai asked through a mouthful of carrot. “Recovered from Matt-Two-Ts-Not-One’s party last night?”
I hated it sometimes, the whole damned ritual of drinking too many shots at somebody’s place or a bar or a park. Once or twice I’d gone and rubbed against some girl just to feel the spheres of our bodies together, but it never really made things better for good. I only vaguely recalled the end of the night when Tasha said she found God in the bottle of tequila and wouldn’t let anyone drink from it and when Mat-One-T-Not-Two tried to take a picture with his phone, she tucked God under her arm like a football and bolted through the kitchen door saying that he was going to hell.
At parties since Ally died, sometimes I’d gulp some God and think the same things I always thought: Did they bury her in her thong? Did they keep her toenails painted green? It wasn’t like it was a car accident; like she’d done something stupid and we could kind of blame her for it. She’d just wanted to lie down for a minute. I gave her aspirin, asked her how she was feeling.
“Just peachy!” She’d done a handstand to prove it. I’d believed her.
We settled in Kai’s car with the carrots and our instruments. We still used his place for rehearsal. I hated sneaking past Darlene, whose eyes were wet with anticipation, like she was just waiting for Ally to talk to her about her yellow hibiscus. It made me feel unsteady, as if her gaze provoked a deep shivering sigh from the earth.
“Hey guys,” Ally’s mother greeted us, “No pie today, eh? I can’t find the filling.”
We set up, and we were quiet while Kai did his ritual of holding the wooden horse in his palms and singing his Ally-song to it, then placing it on a cushion on the floor.
“Okay guys.” He said finally, “She’s listening. Don’t fuck it up.”
That night, my leg was throbbing. I’d drawn around the lump with a black marker and tried to measure it. I bet I had until December with the right regime of chemo. An apricot-sized lump was still better than an orange. I could cut it out myself, just trace around the black line, scoop out all the bad, but I was alone in my apartment and too afraid of the pain.
I called Dr. Shor. Remembered the nights I’d fallen into sleep, the phone tucked in the crook of my shoulder, while she perused her poetry, lingered lyrical on the line, “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men…”
“I can’t sleep. The lump, I told you about it, don’t you remember?”
I picked up the prettiest bottle of wine I could find. At her place, a pot of something simmered on the stove.
“I’ll set the heat to low, that’ll give us twenty minutes.”
I had something that I needed to tell. “I thought maybe we could drink -”
“We’ll have it after.” Dr. Shor said, with a flick of her wrist. I followed her, past Donne and all the editions of the DSM, into her bedroom. She turned down the sheets, flannel even though it was warm outside the curtains, a womb of rich bloody night.
“Can we talk first?” I asked. Her hands were white-hot on the zipper of my jeans, and then my underwear and then my hips. I shifted my weight to shake her loose. “I just feel so shitty, I feel like everything I am is too arbitrary. It was easier when it first happened, you know? Everyone was supposed to be sad.”
“Survivor’s guilt,” Dr. Shor said. She didn’t notice the black marker around the swelling. She reached for my hand. “But baby, why not her? Why you?”
“Do you believe in souls?”
I saw her shoulders bunch up, so I re-phrased it in a way that betrayed all those volumes on the top row of her bookshelf. “Is it a psychological necessity to believe?”
“There’s something more than cells dividing.” She said, “But no, not a soul, there’s no possibility.”
I was worried by the finality with which she addressed something she saw as trivial. I turned my head, murmured to the blue smudge of mascara on the edge of the pillow, “My friend Tasha is a writer. She says she’s got excess soul, enough for everyone. She culls the lost spirits from the air and they help her write – in-spirit-ation. She keeps these empty bottles she finds, that’s where the souls live. In bottles of sake and olive oil and the blue Midnight Poison on her window-sill. She’s got a bottle of cold cream waiting for Ally. Like a clown.”
Dr. Shor swung her legs to the side of the bed. “I just heard the timer go off. If it’s such an issue for you, what do you believe?”
For all that murky night clogged in the curtains, I didn’t know. The roundness of women’s hips, maybe. I believed in balance. In missing pieces. Bridget Shor just gazed at me from the end of the bed.
“You know what? I have rehearsal tomorrow.” I struggled back into my jeans and put my hand in my pocket. “Keep the wine. But I want that fucking bottle back.”
We practiced the next evening at Ally’s place. Our set ran long and Kai kept apologizing to the little wooden Ally-horse. I went for a walk in the garden to catch my breath. The light in the sky was nipple-coloured, wide and raw. Darlene was sitting on the veranda with her sweet gauzy gaze and the air crinkled with the scent of lilac. I knew what I had to do.
“Darlene, there’s something I need to tell you.”
The crickets rubbed their thighs together, and I felt braver than I’d felt in a long, long time. “Ally died. She didn’t go to Hawaii. Well, maybe she did, since we don’t know where anyone goes, afterwards. But she died. Last summer. It’s called an aneurysm and she’d had it in her body her whole life. She had a headache and we didn’t know. It could have happened to anyone.”
Darlene nodded and sipped tea out of her pink cup and then procured from the billowy depths of her cardigan a perfect round peach, which she pressed into my palm. When I sat there stunned, she pressed her fingers to mine so that I had to grip the thing, that small breast of a fruit. That was it, that was all she did. She sipped cold tea out of her pink cup, and nodded long and slow. In some other place, maybe Hawaii or heaven or both, the sun was rising and the crickets there, their thighs were rubbed soft and silent for the day.
I put it on my windowsill, that round peach. It was a lot bigger than the bump in my thigh and I thought that now I had something that I could measure things by. I thought that there might be something more for me, the way we sometimes feel the things we cannot see. And sometimes they hurt, and sometimes, they just sit in calm circles inside of you, and outside, and all around while the earth shakes itself and then keeps spinning.
Amanda Lang (BA 2012 Victoria, BEd 2014) is a teacher who works with youth from a low-income neighbourhood in Scarborough. A lifelong enthusiast of writing in all its forms, she is interested in the ways that fiction can provide fundamental insights into life, love and loss.