I can do the trip in my sleep to Union Hospital and the doctors’ offices there. I know many of the nurses and receptionists. I get the pitiful smile from most of them and the short phrases “how’s she doing .. hang in there.” I just dropped Helen off for her bi-weekly chemo-treatments with Herceptin for HER2 metastatic breast cancer. This is an old story to them, for me, it is my first time on this journey. I trudge to the coffee shop, laptop in tow. The coffee shop is my reprieve, my escape from home and the bills I can’t pay, my job where I am hopelessly behind, and cancer that lives in my wife and stalks me like a sinister spirit in the deep dark maze of a life I can not believe is real.
A large cup of french roast is ordered with the simple “the usual and one of those,” a muffin that I point at. They serve my coffee in one of their large ceramic mugs without asking, I am a regular. I take a small sip even before I have added the half-and-half and wait for energy to somehow spread magically through my body. My body is past tired and I conquer the gloom by ignoring it. The coffee is bitter without the cream, but I cup my free hand around the mug and ignore the fact that it’s too hot. I breathe in the aroma of smells that drift through this place that feels more like home than home does these days.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I catch her legs first. There is the faintest feel of life, of a quickened beat in my heart. She is sitting in a short skirt, immersed in something on a clipboard, her legs slightly open in one of the comfortable chairs that surround a central coffee table. I am drawn to her like a drowning man to floating debris in the middle of an ocean. I take the chair closest to hers although four others around the table are open. She looks up and gives me a half smile then goes back to working on her clipboard. Looking over her shoulder, I note on her clipboard that there are boxes with names written in them. I judge she is in her mid-thirties, more than twenty-five years younger than me. Long blond hair, over-sized boobs on a slim frame. Implants I’m sure; they say “want me”. Her legs are well shaped, slightly muscular, long and bare, and impossible to ignore. Eye candy, fantasy land. I’m in LOVE. It seems only days ago I met my wife when she was thirty-one and had a different, but great body. In my mind, my body is the same as long ago as I sit by this creature of the universe. I am not bashful in grabbing a life-line.
“It is strange to see anyone working on paper these days,” I say to her to start up a conversation. I am hungry for any interaction with a woman, especially a healthy vibrant one less than a foot away. I can smell her hair, Johnson Baby Shampoo I’m sure. She has children. I deliberately avoid looking at her ring finger and breath in her smell as subtly as possible.
“Ya, we are a hundred years behind. I am trying to schedule technicians to man all the X-ray machines, MRI, echo-scan, etc. in the hospital. “ She holds the clipboard up to show me. “These people down here have to go up here. These columns show me what equipment each technician is trained on, and down here I have vacation requests, and Sally is getting married next weekend, etc. It’s a mess.”
“Are you a secretary?” I ask.
“No, administrative assistant. Yea, I guess I am more or less. I’m not important if that is what you mean. I am getting coffee and stuff for the whole office, well, and combining it with my break. I can take a longer break this way, who is going to complain when their coffee hangs in the balance,” she says matter of factly and then laughs softly. I imagine birds fluttering from her lips. I follow her glance to the clock on the wall, nine thirty five.
“What brings you here?” She studies my face for a moment. Her brain seems to scroll through faces like someone looking at mugshots, “you brought your wife in last week for an MRI.” It is a statement, not a question.
“Yea, my wife is getting chemo in Hausford’s office right now.”
“Herceptin”, she says more as a statement than a question.
“Yes”, I answer and nod. From that moment it seems as if she knows me. It’s not eire but strangely comforting.
“Sorry,” she says softly. There is a long moment of silence. She defensively pushes the v-down that is made by her tight skirt across her legs. I avert my eyes realizing I was staring and that my body has begun to respond. “My name is Melissa, and I’m sorry about your wife.” I keep my eyes focused on her and don’t look down to see if my problem is visible yet. It feels like a snake that is coming out into the sun for the first time after a long winter. The intensity of my body’s reaction makes me want to kill the snake, but IT is beyond my control, or my willpower, I don’t know which.
“I’m Robert. You were in the back. I remember your hair. It’s beautiful by the way”, I audibly stumble suddenly awestruck by the woman in front of me. It is not just her beauty. She has a presence about her, someone that has lived more than her years, the words “old soul” pass through my head. There is a profound sadness around both of us that feels, well, like we both have shared it for a long time. I fell slightly humbled to be in her presence. Our eyes lock and for a moment we are lost inside of each other as if we are recalling something. And just as suddenly we are both back from wherever we have just gone.
“Thank you,” she says softly and when my face tells her I have no idea what she is talking about, she adds “my hair.” I nod and smile as she rises. I stay seated afraid to rise unless she notices the serpent. She holds out her hand and I hold it. Her hand is soft and warm, but firm. We just hold each other’s hand without shaking, then let go. We say nothing, but the connection sends a shiver down my spine. I wonder if IT flows both ways.
“I have to go. My order is ready.” And yet a third time, she says, “I’m sorry about your wife.” My eyes follow her to the door. She is shorter than Helen – about five foot three or four – and I can’t help but smile as I notice her small ass nicely filling out her pleated skirt swaying down the sidewalk with two plastic grocery bags of coffee swinging in unison to her butt. I’m surprised to find my hands shaking slightly. It’s been almost a year since my wife and I have made love. We were going through a bad patch in our marriage and then cancer came back just shy of her five-year remission celebration. Cancer had metastasized and spread to her lungs. They found a lump underneath the breast that had been reconstructed five years earlier that was assumed to be the original source. It made no sense removing the lump with millions of pieces of it already growing in her body the doctors admitted, but Helen wanted it gone so she endured another operation.
I asked why they didn’t find the lump with the mammograms she took every six months. They said the reconstructed tissue was denser and didn’t work well with mammograms. I was fighting mad when they told me that in only two percent of the cases did cancers reappear under the reconstructed breast. Yea, but if it did, frequently they couldn’t find cancer until it metastasized. Really? And that was okay? There was a wad of anger I carried around with me at the values people had that made this all possible. It was not to be my last wad of anger about cancer I was destined to carry.
Coming back to the present, I opened my laptop and sipped my coffee. I felt my body settle back into being exhausted. I sipped slowly waiting for the drug to flow through my tiredness. I waited while my laptop connected to the internet and downloaded my email. I work from home now, but work is shaky. My performance has been anything but stellar over the last few months. My concentration sucks, I am an ex-workaholic in withdrawal. I stare at the screen, but I am soaking in the ember of hope that has found its way into my life. Nothing like an old fool, I say to myself. My brain wanders around inside of the memory of Melissa before it fades before the onslaught of cancer.