Excerpt from “Rowing to Eden”
“The Barcelona Cancer Center,” Charley says. “Where are the tapas? Maybe there should be castanets at the nurses’ station. Paella Valenciana everywhere you look.”
He says this every time they come for chemotherapy. The Barcelona family made millions in real estate and donated several to St. Michael’s; there is almost nothing worth curing that the Barcelonas have not given to.
Charley puts his hands up in the air and clicks his fingers. Mai ignores him; the person with cancer does not have to be amused.
Ellie smiles. She has already had breast cancer, and her job this summer is to help her best friend and her best friend’s husband.
“How about the internationally renowned Sangria Treatment? Makes you forget your troubles.” Charley stamps his sneakers, flamenco style. Since Mai’s mastectomy he has turned whimsical, and it does not become him. Mai knows Charley is doing the best he can, and the only kindness she can offer is not to say, “Honey, you’ve been as dull as dishwater for twenty years. You don’t have to change now.”
Ellie believes that all straight men should be like her father: stoic, handy, and unimaginative. They should be dryly kind, completely without whimsy or faintly fabulous qualities. As far as Ellie’s concerned, gay men can be full-blown birds of paradise, with or without homemaking skills. They can just lounge around in their marabou mules, saying witty, brittle things that reveal their hearts of gold. Ellie likes them that way, that’s what they’re for, to toss scarves over the world’s lightbulbs, and straight men are for putting up sheetrock.
Mai sits between Charley and Ellie in the waiting room as if she’s alone. Charley makes three cups of coffee from the waiting room kitchenette. The women don’t drink theirs.
“This is disgusting,” Charley says.
“I’ll get us some from the lobby.”
Ellie heads for the Java Joe coffee bar, a weirdly joyful pit stop at the intersection of four different Barcelona family wings, with nothing but caffeine and sugar and attractively arranged carbohydrates; everyone who is not confined by an IV drip or a restricted diet eats there. Mai sips herbal tea all through chemo, but Ellie goes down and back a few times, for a currant scone, for a cappuccino, for a mango smoothie. She is happy to spend three dollars on a muffin, grateful that she lives in a country where no one thinks there’s anything wrong or untoward in the AMA-approved pursuit of profit at the expense of people’s grief and health.
Ellie prepares a little picnic on the seat next to Charley. Coffee the way he likes it, two different kinds of biscotti, a fist-sized apple fritter, two elephant ears sprinkling sugar everywhere, and enough napkins to make this all bearable to Charley, who is two steps short of compulsive. Ellie presents him with the food-covered seat.
“This is great,” says Charley. “Treats. Honey, look how she takes care of me. Yes, folks, that’s a wife.”
This is supposed to be funny, because Ellie is a lesbian and therefore unlikely to be anyone’s wife. If Ellie lived with another woman, neither Ellie nor Charley nor Mai would think of Ellie as a wife. Ellie is pretty sure that her days of looking for a spouse are over; Mai thinks so too, and used to imagine that when Charley died, at a suitable but not horribly advanced age, of a swift-moving but not painful disease, she and Ellie would retire to her parents’ house in Oslo, or buy the little yellow house on Pearl Street in Provincetown that they walked past on spring break twenty-one years ago. Now it seems possible that Ellie will sit on a porch slugging back brandy with some other old lady, and that Charley will grow old with someone who has two breasts and a full head of hair.
Ellie gives Charley a napkin, and he kisses her hand, which smells of coffee and antibacterial soap and of Ellie, a scent for which he has no particular name. Mai has always smelled like clove; since November she smells like seaweed, and Charley, like a pregnant woman, has lost his taste for sushi, for lobster, and for salt.
They sit for two hours. Women in scarves, women in floppy denim hats, women in good wigs, even enviable wigs, and women in wigs so bad they would look better in sombreros; weary, frightened husbands; girls with tons of silky, curly, bouncing hair, whom Mai, Charley, and Ellie all take to be the daughters and friends of the patients. There are a few teenagers, the sweetest signs of their youth distorted, creamy, luminous skin swollen and ashy from chemo, nothing left of their immortal shields, so that even the women who shuffle along on their skinless feet, even the old women whose aged ears hang off their heads like tree fungus, even they cannot bear to look at the children with cancer.
Mai’s favorite nurse, Ginger, an old vaudevillian’s idea of a nurse, busty and long-legged in the only tight white uniform Mai’s seen, showgirl perfect except for her snub-toed rubber-soled shoes, leads them to Corner C of Room T4, the best chemo room as far as Mai and Ellie are concerned. Charley kisses Mai at the door, as if this were the dressing room or a gynecological exam, as if everyone knows that he would stay if he could but the rules forbid it.
Ellie is disgusted, but Mai is fine. Relieved. Sitting agitates Charley, and for the same reason that she would rather do the laundry than wait for him to volunteer, and for the same reason that she does not complain when he turns on the light at five a.m. to iron his shirt by their bedside before going to his office at seven, she does not mind his leaving. He is who he is. It is what it is. She says these things to herself a hundred times a day under normal circumstances. Now she says them two hundred times a day. When Mai repeats these things to Ellie, Ellie stares at her and says, “I hope that makes you feel better.” Ellie is an endless fixer and shaper and mender; she is as sure that life’s events can be reworked and new endings attached as Mai is that they cannot and that any new ending will either mimic the first or make you long for it.
Mai prays that Ginger will stay to do the IV stick. She is the only one who can get it right, and when she walks out, without washing her hands, Mai turns her face to the wall. She can feel Ellie rise from the visitor’s chair, ready to run down the hall, and the mental image of her Ellie, brown curls and horn-rims flying behind her as she chases showgirl Ginger, cheers Mai up. She puts her hand on Ellie.
“It’ll be fine,” she says.
“It better be. If you get that cow again, she gets two tries and she’s out of here.”
It is the cow, and she sticks Mai four times, all over her hand. As she tries again, Mai can feel her perspiration, and she looks down to see that tiny hives have broken out along the nurse’s slick hairline. “Flop sweat,” Mai thinks, and wonders how she knows that phrase. It must be from Ellie’s theater days. Mai closes her eyes tightly, willing the stupid bitch to find a vein.
The stupid bitch leaves and returns with Ginger, who does it right, slapping and massaging the back of the left hand until a small vein lifts up, offering itself. The anonymous nurse slumps out, gratifyingly ashamed, and Ellie forgives her; at least she cares enough to feel bad. Mai forgets her as soon as the saline starts, the fat little bag hung on the curling candelabrum that holds all the drugs, each pouch attached with nursery-blue clips and clamps, clear tubing leading to the pump. Ellie has memorized everything on the machine, including the fact that it is made by the Baxter Manufacturing Company of Dearborn, Michigan. There’s a column of four black buttons–Back Light, Silence, Time, Stop–and next to them the red digital letters flash on and off. Most of the time they just say Normal. When the nurses have to unplug the machine so Mai can pee, it beeps like crazy.
“Oh, Jesus, the hot packs,” Mai says. This is the only thing that eases the burning of the Taxol. Once they have been through the saline and the Benadryl and the Zoloft, it’s time to get down to business, and the business of Taxol is a small well of fire at the point of entry, shooting up Mai’s arm like a gasoline trail. The instant hot packs are godsends, and Ellie collects them, along with lightweight blankets from all the other patient corners, so that when Mai lies down there is a small mountain of plastic on her nightstand and a pile of thermal-weave cotton at the foot of her bed. The hot packs release their heat immediately, after one hard squeeze on their thin plastic edges. It’s exactly like cracking an egg one-handed, which Ellie also likes to do for her own pleasure. Mai smiles like a junkie as soon as she hears the pop of the inner casing, and Ellie tucks three blankets up around her.
They have made a list of everything that makes Corner C in Room T4 the best bed for chemo. First, the privacy curtain pulls smoothly on its track. It’s terrible to pull on the curtain, making it clear that you do not wish to watch someone else’s unspeakable anguish or let them gaze upon yours, only to find yourself unable to close it fully, leaving both parties stuck with eye contact and insult. Also, all the gloves used in Barcelona seemed to be stored in T4: Chemo Plus, the Rubbermaid of latex gloves, thick-cuffed and a matte pale blue; Sensicor, sheer as muslin, ghost fingers spilling out of a dozen cardboard boxes. Mai and Ellie even like the battered plastic hospital trays filled with three kinds of tape, tongue depressors, and test tubes with lavender, red, blue, and lime green rubber stoppers. The trays are not hospital clean; they could be holding dirty silver in the kitchen of any inner-city diner. There are pastel watercolors of lopsided seaside cottages, saccharine prints produced by Posters International of Toronto. Ellie had a lavender-and-white gingerbread cottage right in front of her the whole summer she had chemo. In Corner A, under three small rowboats permanently askew, two women lie side by side, a young woman curled up beside her bald mother. The daughter’s eyes are shut, but the mother’s are wide open as she stares at the ceiling, her free hand curled around her daughter’s shoulder.
The Taxol drips steadily for three and a half hours, from an old-fashioned glass bottle, solid and pale blue. All the other stuff drips from Jetson-style packets, flimsy and benign. Taxol is a heavyweight in an upside-down jug, one fat bubble at a time floating up to the undersurface, entering the transparent slice of silver bubbles before it is bumped aside by the next rising bubble. Charley will be at Fishers Island by the time the Taxol is gone, making food that Mai will not eat. Ellie will eat the lamb kabobs at midnight, will eat the shepherd’s pie or crab cakes for lunch, while Mai sips ginseng tea and eats barbecue potato chips.