The Lucky Lady

Rebecca Schiff

 

He wasn’t looking at me. He didn’t know me. I told him I’d had sex in his room once.

“Not with me,” he said.

“A different guy lived here,” I said. “Before you. He collected banjos. The bed was over there. So were the banjos.”

I squeaked open a drawer that was already a little open. It was filled with closed bottles of pills.

“There is a lot of medication in that drawer,” I said. “I have cancer,” he said. “I have a girlfriend.”

“What kind?”

“The pretty kind. Read my blog,” he said. Over there it said he had cancer, too. It was Halloween. Everyone was smoking his cancer pot and wearing bracelets to support his cancer’s cure. I was sitting on his bed, reading his blog, unfortunately dressed as a pirate. His cancer hadn’t had bracelets or blogs before he had it. It didn’t have cosmetics-sponsored walks. It was in need of a celebrity.

I went to see if the girlfriend was my kind of pretty. Her face didn’t answer the question. She was one of many sporks. Everyone thought they were forks. New sporks kept arriving, hugging each other, whooping. There was a guy dressed as a drive-in movie theater—miniature cars in a miniature parking lot, a projector that beamed a short film onto his chest.

“His birthday’s Halloween,” people said, as though that explained why he had to do this.

There was a bedbug and a bed. There were blinged-out revolutionaries, zombies and robots, apocalyptic survival strategies for men who wouldn’t survive a subway delay. Where were the other pirates? Nobody was even scary.

I couldn’t figure out the cancer guy’s costume. Cancer patient? Flatware? He was wearing gray pajamas. He was now on the bed we’d never had sex on, or, as he probably thought of it, his bed. He took a hit to cool his nausea.

“Captain Hook,” he said, though I had no hook.

“I just started reading ‘Immuno Suppress This, Bitch,’” I told him. I held up the glow-lit device that made it possible to read his blog at his party.

“Take a bracelet, Captain,” he said. “Become a fan of me.”

He passed the pipe. I soothed future tumors with it.

 

You could become fans of the bloggers now, follow them, stream their blogs right into your glow-lit device, blogs about the obsolescence of blogs. Still, I appreciated the form. The guy who debated with himself about whether poor kids should be taught in a semicircle on a rug—the way he’d been taught—or the way where the kids are assigned to homerooms named after the universities he’d gone to. The guy who was trying to get you to compost your dead relatives instead of embalming them. The guy doing Gay Doctors in War Zones with his gay doctor boyfriend. I’d dated the boyfriend briefly, back when he was still bisexual. I’d dated all of them, or wanted to. The blogs were what I had left or what I would never have. I followed.

My cancer patient was blogging every day like it was his last. He dunked himself in icy waterfalls to ring in the New Year. He waded out into the middle of freezing lakes in trunks that showed off his tattoos, his scars. He went whitewater rafting with amputees. He proposed to his girlfriend in song. Everything was recorded, linked to, tweeted, re-tweeted.

But at night, he still had cancer. Steroids kept him awake and chatting with empathetic women. He was cancer-nice to us, or what I later found out was us. The girlfriend was a saint, was his rock, was asleep. I was awake. Julie was awake. We commented on his posts with “Hooray”s for remission, “Oh nooooo!”s for new tumors, “That sucks” for side effects, and he zoomed back and forth between us, frantically emoticonning his approval of our jokes, comforting us when we were rejected by healthy men.

“I’ll kill him,” he wrote. “What do I have to lose?”

“Ha ha,” I wrote. “Ha ha.”

I didn’t know what he had to lose. He didn’t have any money. He was throwing a fundraiser for his upcoming treatment, and you could buy bracelets off the site, mugs, hoodies. People biked, walked, ran, and sometimese swam in his honor, to send him parasailing with other terminal cases who wanted to challenge death in a non-hospital venue, and he in turn featured them as “Supporters,” “Besties,” or “Awesome Ambassadors of Jamie.” He was his own cause. I liked causes. I was the kind to get particularly attached to a political prisoner, the kind who stood in front of embassies with decade-old pictures of the prisoner, the kind who handed out bullet-pointed info sheets to people just shopping near the embassy. I would go to Jamie’s fundraiser. I would raise funds.

The problem was that I wasn’t good at asking people for money. I had been a terrible Girl Scout, dawdling around the neighborhood without a uniform, underselling the Thin Mints. My parents wouldn’t buy me the uniform. Without it, a Girl Scout is just a girl. I drafted an email with a link to Jamie’s newest video, an infomercial starring him warning teens to get checked early and often for what he wished he didn’t have.

“He really has cancer!!!” flashed under his face, in case the vicious Internet thought he looked too cute for the disease.

I cc’d former bosses, people’s parents, my own two aunts. I mentioned bands that might play the fundraiser—local bands to fight his non-localized cancer. I sent Jamie twenty dollars. But I couldn’t send the email. I didn’t want him to be another cause people deleted, another petition to not sign.

Maybe I could just tell my friends to buy the merch. The girlfriend designed the merch. The hoodie was cute—it had a silkscreened PET scan of Jamie’s most recent tumor, with a universal No symbol slashed through it. You could toast Jamie’s survival with “Immuno Suppress This, Bitch” shot glasses. There would be karaoke at the fundraiser, and the couple was already taking duet requests via e-Jukebox. Each song cost a dollar. My fundraising skills didn’t really seem needed.

“What can I do?” I asked him. I pictured myself grocery shopping after his next surgery, making pharmacy runs to several different pharmacies until I found the anti-inflammatory he needed to counteract whatever gene therapy had inflamed. He didn’t get bald from this therapy, and he looked pretty good, though sometimes lymph leaked out of his groin.

“Just be you,” he wrote.

Being me didn’t pay for cancer treatment. The newest trials had promise, but there weren’t enough survivors of Jamie’s cancer for a walk celebrating those who’d survived. Walks were for the lucky cancers, the lipstick cancers, though even within those cancers, the unlucky could be shunned, kicked off a survivors’ board if the disease recurred or they died. I’d heard of this happening in my Long Island town. Beating a disease was more Girl Scouts, but instead of cookies, you had to sell continuing to live. Instead of badges, you got those pink baseball caps, the ones that all seemed to be for the same team no matter whose logo they printed on them. It was offensive to baseball. Jamie’s cancer was vigil cancer, forget-the-color-of-the-ribbon cancer, and would Jamie’s blogging be enough to change it to a walking kind? Were words enough? He started posting more photos—him grinning beside an IV drip, the health insurance wedding at City Hall.

“Who’s the lucky lady?” wrote Julie, obviously not following the blog closely enough to know that the lucky lady was one former spork. I felt, as a fellow Bestie, that Julie might not be as committed. I emailed, asked what she was doing for the fundraiser.

“We’re making cookies,” she wrote. “Me and Rose.”

Who the hell was Rose? I hadn’t seen her in the comments. There was always another girl, with a name like a flower, coming up right behind your nearest rival to nothing.

 

I looked for the cookie booth as soon as I arrived. The fundraiser was in a music hall that liked to throw parties for the season finales of bourgeois television shows. If it was a period drama, people would show up in period costume and pretend to be as hard-drinking as the show’s characters. If it was an office comedy, people would wear their most depressing work clothes. At this party, we all dressed as Jamie. I saw the wife right away, wearing the T-shirt, the bracelet, the hoodie, the hat. She’d married into the whole outfit. Julie and her friend were just wearing the T-shirts, tucked into some skirts, but their cookies were warm. Rose asked how I knew Jamie.

“ISTB,” I said. I’d coined the blog’s abbreviation on the spot. The friend didn’t care, was just being friendly behind the baked goods, but Julie was paying attention.

“How do you earn the bracelets?” she asked. I was wearing three.

“He just gives them to his friends.”

This was a lie. Everyone got a bracelet. They were in a basket by the door, like condoms.

“Oatmeal raisin brigade!” shouted Jamie. He grabbed a warm cookie without paying, then got into a group hug with all of us.

“These are fantastic,” he said. “I’m really glad you came, Captain.”

The hug was group, perhaps photo-op group, but inside this hug, his body was alive against my body. New options—divorce, survival—presented themselves. The flash went off and Jamie shook himself out of our hug, gave uploading instructions to the camera guy.

“I didn’t make these,” I said, to bring him back to the cookie moment.

“But I was aware that they were being made.”

“You guys are fantastic!” he said, then turned to tell the people who’d made almond bread that they were fantastic. A microphone was being tested, perhaps for karaoke. Someone had spelled out “Jamie Beans for the Cure” with jelly beans.

The whole place had a heady-early-days-of-AIDS feel. Sickness, death, loomed, but the Immuno-Suppress-This-Bitch-a-thon was about concerned members of our community making a difference for one member of our community. Or so Jamie said, thanking us and Big Pharma for keeping him alive, before launching into a rap about kicking Big Pharma’s immunosuppressive ass. The rap noted that he was white, to great laughter. Were we laughing because he was white? Because he was sick? Because he was not really a rapper?

“These bracelets are made in China,” said someone by the dip. I was drawing patterns in the hummus with a community-garden carrot. I drew a smiley. Someone was willing to call it as they saw it. The bracelets weren’t local. They came from the same place that made cancer bracelets for all the cancers. That place was apparently China. The Chinese were manufacturing our hope for the cure. Someone could post this on a blog as evidence of America’s decline. People could link to the post, comment on it, then get angry at one another’s mutual friends.

The local band was doing sound check. We were all getting ready to like them no matter what, for the fundraiser. Audience friends nodded and said the last happy thing before a band starts playing, oblivious to the anger they would feel the next day on a comment wall. I saw Jamie, already wrapped around his wife from behind, the vanguard of concert snugglers, the two of them grinning the grins of organizers who appreciate everyone coming out, who’ve just put their mics back into the mic stand and are now ready to aggressively enjoy music.

Was I being unfair? Who was I to begrudge the terminally ill their right to concert-snuggle smugly? The healthy were wrapped. Man hands above girlfriend hips. I had never gotten to do this, no matter how good the band, but I wasn’t maybe dying really soon. Dying was going to take me a while.

The local band made life seem longer. Minutes went by where I wasn’t sure if the rest of the music was worth whatever had happened here. Normally in the presence of lack of greatness, I would focus on the bassist’s arms, the drummer’s shoulders, the differences between their T-shirts, but they were all wearing the same T-shirt. They ended their set by bringing Jamie back onstage and handing him a large guitar. He did the multiple encores we had to ask him for.

“Let’s go backstage!” There was Julie in her extra-small tee, wriggling a cancer bracelet over her fingers. I wasn’t sure if she wanted Jamie or just the fast friendship of groupie-dom.

“But it’s time for the dance-a-thon,” I said.

“He said he has something for us,” she said.

I pictured bongs with Jamie’s face on them, joints with cancer ribbons wrapped around them. I hoped it was pot. I needed perspective.

Julie rushed us past what should have been a bouncer, but was just another girl collecting raffle tickets.

“Thanks,” she said, to no one.

We entered a room with mirrors on the ceiling. Guys in the band were dragging their instruments across the floor. Jamie had taken his shirt off. Tattoos I knew well from pictures were right in front of me. A phallic spray of flowers erupted over his shoulder blade. Lupine. I had read about his wildflower-identification hobby. His wife was kneading the tattoo like a boxing coach, or a geisha. It was time to give wife some attention.

“You guys met doing karaoke?” I said. Jamie had told the story of their meeting in his first-date-anniversary blog post and on three different social-media sites. Maybe it would be different live.

“I knew I liked her right away,” said Jamie, on How We Met autopilot, but making faces to reflect the effects of the spousal massage. “She could sing. And she was the only woman in Sing It! who didn’t seem easy. Some of those girls were desperate.”

She smiled wifeishly, dug an elbow into his back.

Was this the reason I found myself alone? I was very easy. I couldn’t figure out why to wait. That wasn’t it. I could figure out why, but not how. I wasn’t ready for someone to think I was the least slutty girl at the bar, to marry what

I wouldn’t yield.

“Do I seem easy?” I said.

“No,” said Jamie. “You’re great.” Was great the opposite of easy?

Julie had draped herself over the local drummer. She fed him guacamole. She’d forgotten the mission, our reason for coming backstage, or maybe she was actually interested in the drummer. The wife kept kneading. She dug into Jamie with her fingers, her knuckles, her thumbs.

“Ow!” he yelped. “A little softer, babe. You’ve got a sick man, here. So I’m diagnosed the morning of our first date. I don’t know what to do—do I cancel? Will she think it’s an excuse? Having cancer? Somehow I find myself walking to her apartment. I show up at her door with a bouquet of poppies and tell her she probably shouldn’t have dinner with me.”

They both smiled at this obstacle, quickly overcome because of the wife’s determination to accompany him to his entire illness. She was his plus one. I had read this numerous times on ISTB, but the two of them were ready to make people cry in the paper of record. I had friends who were journalists. I could do PR for this cause.

“We can’t thank you enough for everything,” said the wife. For what? Twenty dollars? IMing her husband at night? Jamie reached around and patted her thigh, massaging the masseuse.

“Maybe I can help more,” I said.

 

Jamie had a colonoscopy appointment. His wife had to work. I had to work, too, but I’d called in sick, told Jamie and wife that I had the day off. I would be the designated adult to get him after the procedure, or I was designating myself an adult in the presence of a heavily sedated cancer patient I had a crush on. In any event, I was old enough.

Morning light streamed into a pavilion named after somebody wealthy and dead. Nurses wheeled patients through sun motes, patients who didn’t bother to squint. A security guard told me I was in the wrong building. These were all the wrong buildings. Not one of them was the right place to be.

I hurried to Outpatient Services, then waited for three hours. I squirted my hands with antibacterial foam. I read a parenting magazine. Before there were blogs, there were magazines. They came every month and told you how to parent as a verb. Now the mommies blogged their mommy screw-ups daily—the burnt nut loaf, the unsafe car seat. They failed publicly to show you they were still people. I wasn’t convinced. Jamie’s sperm was in a vial somewhere in case his wife needed it later to prove she was still a person. I read this, too, on Jamie’s blog. If he made it, he would make a good daddy blogger. If he didn’t make it, his children would just whisper their updates, or even dream them. Here in the waiting room, we weren’t allowed to use electronic devices to forget where we were. We had to grease up old magazines with our fingers, take advice from outdated horoscopes.

“Who’s here for Jamie C.?” A tiny nurse looked for me. My old horoscope had told me to welcome new experiences.

“I’m the designated adult,” I said, standing.

“He’s in Recovery,” she said. I thought the nurse might ask after Mrs. C., or if she knew Mrs. C., ask why I wasn’t her. But she didn’t ask. She led me to Recovery, where middle-aged people lay recovering from their routine colonoscopies.

“Can I have my phone, Ida?” said Jamie, once we got behind the curtain. He turned to me. “They let me use it in here.”

The nurse handed him the backpack she’d been carrying. It held the clothing he wore to look like the rest of us.

“Don’t get dressed too fast,” she said. “Or walk out in your shorts like last time.”

“I love you, Ida,” he said. He took her picture, then my picture, then a picture of the two of us together.

“You’re my Champions of the Day,” he said. He handed us both stickers out of his bag. “Ida is Champion-in-Chief. You can be the First Lady.”

“I read up on the prep last night,” I said, after the departure of the President. “It sounds difficult.”

“This is my fifth time,” he said. “My shit runs clear before I even drink the stuff.”

He didn’t look up from his phone as he quipped. He was already typing his impressions of this colonoscopy, comparing it to the previous four.

“I thought you’d be more tired,” I said. “Or drugged.”

“So you could have your way with me?”

“Of course not,” I said. Then I saw that being serious made it seem like I had it worse for him. “I wanted you completely unconscious.”

“Well, soon I’ll be dead.” He smiled and kept blogging.

“What did the doctor say?”

“I only see Singh today. He tells me what he saw. Then Weiselberg calls. She tells me what it means.” Weiselberg and Singh were members of the oncology team he kept thanking.

“What could it mean?” I asked.

“Don’t you read Immuno?”

“Not that often,” I said. “I keep meaning to get around to it.”

“I really don’t have the energy to catch you up right now. Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

He squinted, then spoke in a new voice. “I think Julie has a crush on me,” he said.

“That’s not healthy,” I said. Poor Julie. She’d slept with the drummer, but Jamie still suspected her.

“She’s all over me. You’re all over me. I feel like I can’t breathe.”

It was confusing to want to punch someone in a hospital gown, but his face above the gown looked like a lot of faces I had seen deliver this message.

“Has the anesthesia worn off?” I asked. Maybe we could blame the drugs.

“Yeah, totally,” he said. “People want to be a part of this, and I appreciate that. But I’m married.”

“I know you’re married. I read your blog.”

He looked down, tapped a final set of keys, then sent his words into a sphere all of us used without understanding. We used to call it the World Wide Web, but at some point the world had dropped out. The wide was gone. It was a narrow web connecting us to those who would never love us back.

“I’ll let you get dressed.” I turned to go to wherever wasn’t here.

“No, Captain. Stay for the results.”

I stood as far from him as three feet allowed. Jamie put on his clothes. I helped him tie his shoes as a token gesture. Then Singh pulled back the curtain and told us what he saw.