Author’s note: Chloe, fierce, fragile, passionate, generous and self-absorbed, is determined to defeat her own death and to save 4-year-old Colin, whose insurance company is refusing the treatment that can save his life. She, a nurse and a handful of other patients embark on a quest that veers between comedy and tragedy. In this excerpt, she receives a device placed under the skin to allow her nurse to administer chemotherapy and later goes out with a friend to get drunk.
Now I’m home in my own apartment, but I’m branded. I’m a cancer patient again. I’ve got the mark of it, a quarter-sized lump under my clavicle. Can’t get it wet. Can’t brush it with my fingers accidentally or take my clothes off without thinking about cancer. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror before my shower, sweating with fear, not wanting to pull off my tee-shirt because I’ll see it, and that means I’m back where I started.
I know where I’m going now. I know all the signs along this path, the bent twigs or animal scat or whatever it is those nature people use to find their way around out there. I know about chemo and all-night nausea. I know about losing my hair— which I swore I wouldn’t do again, no matter what. I remember all the dreams about running and running and not being able to get away, and how the whole world feels unreal and out of phase and everyone is carrying on with their lives while I’m watching through glass, crying because someone just said “Christmas” or “baby” or “next year” and their lives seem so easy and uncomplicated while mine is dripping away and who knows if I’ll see next year?
Dripping? Ebbing. Racing. Being snatched. Yeah, I know this path and I never wanted to walk it again. In a way, it’s less scary because all the landmarks are so familiar. But in another way it’s scarier. Because last time I kept thinking, oh, this won’t be so bad. I can handle it. I can handle anything if I just get drunk enough or have sex or refuse to think about it or ask the doc for decent drugs or whatever. And guess what, boys and girls? It is so bad. I know that now. What I don’t know is what’s waiting for me at the end of the path, something black, stinking, ugly and shapeless, some shape-shifting beast that embodies every childhood terror I’ve ever had.
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When I’m pretty much healed from the Portacath, I go for the first chemo. I’m sitting in the big blue chair, crying and crying, snot running down till I can put out my tongue and taste it on my upper lip, and Paula is holding my hand. I’m just in a fog of lostness, and her hand is warm and cool at the same time. I know that doesn’t make sense: warm on my palm, but dry and … you know, distanced. There and not there. Not obtrusive. Like Paula herself—compassionate but without suffocating you. That’s the best I can do.
Finally, the stupid needle is through the Portacath and she starts the drip. Doctor Nelson comes in, asks how I’m doing, pats my shoulder. He wants to say something, but I’m sniveling like a three-year-old and he doesn’t know what. He goes out. So then Paula says, “Okay, Chloe, a patient goes to the doctor and says, Doctor, I’m so confused. Sometimes I feel like a tee-pee and sometimes a wigwam.” She gives my hand a squeeze. “Know what the doctor says?” I shake my head I don’t know, and she goes, “You’re two tents.” That’s so stupid I don’t know why I laugh, but I do. I laugh till the tears come.
I wish someone was here with me right now, while I’m waiting for the nausea. I walk around the place—kitchen to living room, living room to bedroom, back to the kitchen. I open and close the fridge door, sit in front of the tube, click around a bit, click off, go back to the kitchen for a glass of water, go back to the tube and forget the damn water. I can’t stop thinking and I don’t know where to put my body. I wish I could just shuck my sick, smelly body. Where the hell is Fin when I could actually use him?
A few days after the treatment, me and Michele go to the Sink. It’s rocking, jammed with kids, reeking of beer. I’m afraid I’ll throw up. I keep swallowing. Michele picks up some guy pretty fast. Short, talky guy, nothing special. His friend keeps asking me questions, leaning in too close, blasting his beery breath in my face and I keep edging away. But we let them buy us pitchers and pretty soon nothing matters. I’m maneuvering around the tables, dancing, just off on my own. Seems like there are hands clutching at me, maybe a catcall or comment here or there, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is navigating the corners of the tables and letting the music drive through my hollow bones. I feel a hand at the side of my waist and a voice says, “I think I should take you home.”
“Again and Again”
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Fuck you, I’m about to say, but when I see his face, I stifle. He’s tall and skinny; his hand on my side feels nice.
“Do you have a purse or anything?”
I shake my head. He starts guiding me to the door. I look around and there’s no sign of Michele and her guy.
It started raining while we were inside, and the street has that slick, washed look. The air smells sweet. I bend over and throw up. Just miss his running shoe. I don’t care. I really don’t care how I look to him. He says, “Whoa,” and draws his foot back.
He’s coming at me in bits: bony face, the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his neck when he says whoa.
I let him walk me to the apartment. He keeps his hand under my elbow and I’m humming and turning up my face to catch the cold rain. It feels so good. He doesn’t say anything. We go down the steps to my place.
“What’s your name?” he says when we’re at the door.
“I’m Joe. I’d like to see you again sometime.”
I wind my arms around him and lean against his body. I hear him draw in his breath. “Now,” I say. I keep hold of him while I push the door open, maneuver him into the apartment and pull him with me into the bedroom, where I sink onto the bed. He stands there, his face unreadable in the half dark, then sits down beside me.
“You’re very drunk, Chloe.”
“I don’t care.” I hold out my arms. He moves out of reach.
“Tell me your number. I’ll call you.”
I sit up. “If you’re not staying, don’t bother.”
He’s hesitating between the bed and the door. “It’s not that I don’t want to.”
It seems like the most important thing in the world at that moment for him to stay with me. I rise up to my knees. I say, “I want you.” He doesn’t move. “Please, Joe.”
He comes to me then, kneeling on the bed, taking my hands between his. I begin to shiver. He cups my palms together like a chalice and breathes kisses into them. “Chloe,” he whispers. “Beautiful Chloe.” I start crying. It’s been forever since anyone called me beautiful. I put my arms round his neck; he fumbles with the top button of my blouse and I undo it for him. He puts his lips to the place where my breasts begin. I can feel his warm breath. I’m worrying about the Portacath, what he’ll do when he feels it. “Joe,” I say, but he just stays still, breathing hard, and then he pulls away.
“I can’t, Chloe. It’s not right.”
“It is. It’s right.”
“You’re drunk. I can’t do this.” I grab his head and try to force it back down. I’m shameless. I need him. But he resists. “In the morning you’ll know it wasn’t right.”
He looks wretched. Later, I realize that, but at the time I don’t give a shit. “Stay with me.”
He shakes his head.
“Well, get lost then.”
“Calm down, Chloe. You don’t mean that.”
He stands up, heads for the door, turns and starts to say something, turns again and walks out. I yell “Fuck you,” but I don’t know if he hears. I throw a pillow at the closed door. I scream things—I don’t remember what: “Fuck you.” “Asshole.” “Why are you leaving me?” I barely have time to get to the bathroom before I’m on the cold floor hugging the toilet seat and retching my guts out.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter, theater critic and University of Colorado writing instructor. She has published a critically praised novel with food at its heart, “Stocker’s Kitchen,” along with short stories and essays, and has won several journalism awards. Her memoir, “Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals,” won the Colorado Book Award and was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Wittman also received a True West Award as Person of the Year, given for Denver arts coverage.