Three years. I had made it three years. My hair had finally grown back out. You could never tell by looking at me. Brown hair. Average. Brown eyes. Average. 5’11”. Average. Average enough, anyway. 148 pounds is low average. Maybe. I think it’s all average. I don’t know. I don’t stand out. No one ever stares, or double-takes, or anything like that. Not for three years, at least.
I sort of forgot the word “relapse” even existed. I remembered “remission.” I remember being warned about metastasis. I remember sitting in that chair, just sitting, for what felt like days. I remember being asked where my parents were, because even though 22 is an adult, it isn’t adult enough to hear the words “you have cancer” on your own. Not that he said that exactly, but you know.
I remember the seven months of chemo. I remember the look on Erin’s face when she walked into the bathroom, and saw me with the shaver. I remember her reflection in the mirror, after she offered to help, and the single tear that rolled down her left cheek. And I knew right then that that tear wasn’t for me. She wasn’t ready for this. Not what she signed up for, but what kind of girl leaves her boyfriend when he’s going through chemo? I remember not being surprised when she left last year. No relapse in two years means you’re in the clear, right?
“Leo! Lee-o! Come ‘ere, ya dumb cat. Come Leo! Come!”
I forgot Matt was even here. He banged his hand against the side of the couch, louder and louder until I looked up. I gave him the smirk I figured he was hoping for, then looked over at the cat, just outside of his arm’s reach. He stared too. “Dude, I think your cat’s dumb.”
“I don’t know man. I think he’s just a cat.”
“Naw, this isn’t any cat. This is Leo! Leonardo DiCatrio. He ain’t just any cat.”
I turned back to the TV. Matt has no idea.
It’s been three years. How does this even happen? Last time I had this conversation with him was four years ago – when he had heard the word “lymphoma” before, but he never really knew what it was. Four years ago, when my paraphrasing of what the doctor said was simplified to “white blood cells go rogue.” I guess he took it more seriously when I was throwing up in the morning for reasons other than a hangover. Well, that, and I didn’t have it in me to go out drinking. And the hair thing. And the weight loss. He caught on pretty quick.
My lap suddenly felt heavy, and I must’ve missed when Wins, the other cat, jumped on top of me. I’m not even sure what’s on TV, despite the fact that I appear to have been watching intensely for the past 20 minutes.
“Well well well, if it isn’t miss Cat Winslet herself. I can’t believe that old broad of yours tried to take her when she left. What kind of person tries to separate Leo and Kate?” Matt reminds me that he’s with me. Physically. To talk. “Hello? Jake are you even here right now?”
“Huh? Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Just distracted.”
I invited him over because my cancer is back. I invited him over, to tell him that the cancer is back.
“Well, sure. Your lap’s full of pussy.”
And he has no idea.
I cracked a smile and turned to see that Matt finally got a hold of Leo. Even though he was hardly paying attention to the thing, Matt’s half-assed stroking could not have been making that cat happier.
“And I see that doesn’t seem to be distracting you at all?”
“Clearly not. You see, I’m a fantastic rubber – I know this, they know this. My hands work magic. I don’t even have to pay them any mind to still make ‘em feel fantastic. Ain’t that right Leo? Yeah, that’s right. You love it. You love the rubby!”
“I bet he does. You do seem to be fantastic at stroking that male right there…”
He slowed the stroking down and glanced up at me. The look on his face told me that he was trying to come up with a clever comeback, and with each passing second, he and I both knew that it was going to be too late to be effective. He tried anyway, by telling me “I’ve had some practice.”
“I know that but I mean, really? That’s all you could come up with?”
“Just shut up and keep watching that 30 Rock you can’t get your eyes off of.”
“Oh, that’s what this is?”
“What do you mean ‘that’s what this is’? You’ve been watching for twenty minutes!”
“Yeah but I told you-”
“There were even those stupid ‘and now, back to 30 Rock!’ announcements after every commercial!”
I paused. Matt had completely distracted me. This realization, of course, has brought my mind back into focus.
“Nuh uh. I know my mind’s everywhere right now, but I’m not that bad. They don’t even say those things anymore!”
“Sure they do! TBS does it all the time.”
30 Rock. I decide that maybe I should try to pay attention to the TV. Maybe staying distracted is a good idea. Cancer’s a big deal though. It was a big deal before. It’s still a big deal the second time around. To me, anyway. Probably not to other people. I can see other people not really caring. It’s kind of like the second baby. If you’re the parent, you’re having another baby. That’s awesome. You feel good. You’re excited. But to everyone else, well, the first one was exciting. Now you’ve already got a kid. Cool that you’re having another but you’re already a parent. You have a baby, you did it. You have a second baby, everyone already knows you can be a parent or whatever. And I’m already “the guy that had cancer.” People don’t separate “had” and “has” as often as they should. Either way, cancer guy has cancer isn’t a big deal.
“Remember that time we thought that I was gonna be a dad?”
“Yeah, and it scared Erin into being crazy about her birth control.”
I start to wonder if something baby related just happened on the show, or if Matt is simply used to drastic subject changes that are seemingly completely unrelated to what is going on. I guess Tina Fey was pregnant not too long ago.
“Instead of just crazy.”
Matt’s on my side. Cancer’s still a big deal to him, when it’s me and my cancer. The second time isn’t just a second kid, because “oh well you made it the first time, you can make it the second time” isn’t as convincing an argument. This is more like beating the boss and forgetting to save, so then you have to do it again, and even though you know you somehow managed to do it the first time, you have no idea what you did and are not at all convinced that you can do it again.
Or maybe it’s a little different. I don’t exactly have a reset button.
“Imagine if though? What would we even be doing right now?”
“Probably watching Sesame Street instead of 30 Rock.”
“And your place would probably be messier.”
“Probably more toys.”
“Maybe if it was a girl.”
“Oh shit, that’s right. You didn’t get Wins until after that whole thing, huh?"
“Yeah. Wanted to replace the baby she lost. The so-called baby that she so-called lost. So obviously getting another cat was the best way to do that.”
“You coulda worked that one out in a way that resulted in you getting laid a lot more.”
“But then I’d be a dad, dude.”
“More beer, more women, right?”
We both laughed, but I stopped short because apparently cancer is the only thing my brain will allow me to think about. I wonder if this would’ve happened, was I still with Erin. And had a baby. I don’t even know if I can do that now, post-chemo and everything. It’s not exactly something I want to try to find out.
I figured that I had set myself up enough that it was time to say something, since the thought was literally driving me crazy.
“Well, maybe not more problems.”
“You don’t think? I’d consider a baby a problem…”
“Yeah, same. But-”
“But you don’t have the woman so you can’t have the problem.”
I took a deep breath. “It’s back.”
“What, your crabs?”
“Matty, I’m being serious.”
“Baby scare? Are you still fucking around with Erin?”
I shook my head and mouthed the word “no.” I don’t think any sound came out. Erin and I were sort of hooking up for a bit, but then she suddenly had this new guy in her life. And I guess that’s what happens in life, and I knew this. I know this. I wasn’t too upset and it’s not like we were hanging out or anything. I just wasn’t allowed to text her at the end of the evening to ask if she was down.
When we broke up, I knew it was going to happen at some point. I still loved her, and she still loved me, but it wasn’t that passionate love like the movies show. It was some sort of loyalty. Responsibility, maybe. She couldn’t leave because of the cancer. I couldn’t leave because then I become the asshole. It might even be worse to be the one that leaves your sweet loving girlfriend who cared so much about you and was there for you and helped you through the cancer and whatever else they might say. Not that I wanted to leave. I knew that it was all too much for her and everything changed and somewhere along the lines that meant that we changed too much to be together. I knew she was going to leave, but I couldn’t know when. Maybe I thought that love was gonna be enough.
I realized Matt was still looking at me, for some sort of explanation.
“No babies. Just the-” I had to stop myself. No “just the.” No such thing as “just the cancer.” “You know how I had that doctor’s appointment the other day?”
“Well, yeah. They called me this morning.”
He readjusted himself on the couch, his eyes not straying from me. Even when he shook his hair to move the curl out of his face, he was still watching me. He either knew exactly where I was going with this, or he had no idea.
“Blood test came in and it tested positive… which I, uh, I, yeah. I guess it’s back.”
“You… shit. No. No, there’s no way. They said you were cured! Didn’t the radiation kill it all?”
“Zombies, I guess.”
“I know. Sorry. It’s just-"
“Don’t apologize man. It’s just… you have cancer. And you already had cancer. What the fuck, man.”
“I know dude. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t even know what to do. I haven’t told anyone else yet.”
“You gonna tell Erin?”
“I don’t know, you think I should?”
“Probably not before you tell your parents. Or Kevin or Brian. But she was there through it and I don’t know, they might ask how something was and you don’t remember but she could?”
“Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.”
“But dude. I… when did they call you?”
“9? 10? I don’t know. Some time this morning. I was doing laundry. Pretty sure all my stuff’s still in the washing machine.”
“And you texted me at what – 1? – to come over? Why didn’t you say something then?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know. Fuck. Now I feel bad for fucking with you.”
“I’m still the same.”
“Yeah but, no. You know. How does it even come back after so long? I thought they said you were good?”
“Just a cancer thing, I guess? I guess it’s not in your body anymore but it was, so it is, you know? My body knew how to make it before and it never really forgot.”
“So it can just happen anytime?”
“Well, with lymphoma apparently it happens more often than with other cancers. I need to go to talk with them Tuesday to see what to do. See how bad it is and stuff.”
I wonder if there’s a correct way you’re supposed to respond when your friend tells you that your cancer’s back. Or a correct way to tell them. I don’t think there’s any sort of “I’m the big sister!” shirt, like for the supposed only child.
Not surprisingly, telling Matt didn’t free me. I spent the next few hours merely existing. The world was doing its thing, but I was blocked off. Mental capacity full. Everything came back to cancer. The cancer came back. I was scared the first time, but I had no idea what it was like. This time, I remember it all so vividly and that’s what frightens me. It’s miserable. It’s painful. I feel like any steps forward in my life don’t matter, and I’m exactly back where I was four years ago. Except Erin’s not by my side, which of course means that everything not only comes back to cancer, but it comes back to cancer with Erin. And Erin. I’m moved on, and suddenly I’m caring about her again. In some sense, anyway.
And that might be the worst part. Moving on, moving forward, and then getting caught and falling back into the past. Any progress you made, or thought you made, gone. Exactly where I was four years ago, but even worse off now.
What did I do?
I grabbed a glass from the cabinet, took three ice cubes out of the freezer, and poured myself the still-open Jack sitting on the counter. I figured that now was just as good a time as any to let Erin know. She was good to me, but I’m not trying to bring her back. I’m not in exactly the same place as I was.
I pull out my phone and open up my messages. I jump to the body and begin to type the words “I have cancer.” And again. “I have cancer.” I had cancer and then it went away and now I have cancer. It came back. I leave the recipient field blank and type out “I have cancer” one more time. I guess you could call this an exercise of acceptance.
Why do I even feel like I need to tell her?
I close the open text message and go to the phonebook. Scroll to Erin, and call. It’s ringing. Ringing and I don’t even know what I’m going to say to her. Do I small talk? What was the last thing we talked about?
No answer. So I go back to my messages and type out “hey, can you talk?” and hit send. Do it before I back down. Even though I just called, and she’ll see the missed call. Or ignored call. Whatever it was.
I’m losing my mind. No response. Maybe I was a little too unclear. I type out another message, this time saying “I really think that we should talk. It’s important.” Before hitting send, I decide to add the word “please” in there. Not that that should make a difference, but it feels like it will.
And it does.
My phone vibrates in my hand. I let it ring once before picking up.
“So uh, shit. You want to talk?”
She made me realize that I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to have to tell her I have cancer again, but I want her to know, and I want her to know why she’s supposed to know, and whatever that reason may be, I want it to be something beneficial. For me.
“Well, I guess. I mean… I heard some stuff… and I think we should…”
“Oh, um. Yeah. You’re probably right. I meant to say something… I didn’t want you to have to hear through the grapevine or whatever. Guess I fucked up.”
“You think you fucked up?” I am not processing what she’s saying. Did someone else tell her about me? If that’s the case, I highly regret making this phone call. But I guess I don’t have to figure out what it is I want to say, or how I’m supposed to tell her.
“I’m sorry Jake. I meant to tell you.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“I know, I guess I don’t have to, but we were pretty serious and I suppose that you’d find out soon enough, but you deserve better than to find out through Facebook or something that your serious ex that you still occasionally talk to and have some leftover shared things that require us to sometimes talk is getting married…”
“You’re getting married?”
“That is why you’re calling, isn’t it?””
“Yeah. Yeah that’s it. Just wanted to say good luck. Congrats on moving forward with your life and shit. I gotta go.”
I hung up the phone. Erin is getting married. Erin is off getting married, moving forward with her life, and I’m here. Alone. With cancer.
I grab the bottle of Jack from the counter.
This time, I don’t bother with the glass.