It was just a cough.
It was just a tickle, you know, just a scratch, the kind of thing that’s annoying to the person sitting next to you in a movie theater. It was just. Just the remnants of a cold. Just allergies. Just a symptom of going outside with wet hair. She is just fine, her mother, her father, her doctor-uncle say. Better than just fine. She is smart and pretty and going places, says her mother, her father, her teachers.
The doctor has brought in a second doctor and they are staring at a picture of her insides and she is wearing a dress and the paper covering the exam room bed is sticking to her thighs. In the waiting room is her mother. Her father is away on business, and her younger brother is sitting on the sidelines at a soccer game.
Outside the day is hot without being sticky. The window is cracked slightly and she hears a plane drone past. The doctors say they see a shadow. One of them he has grey hair that is trimmed short and wrinkles creep like spider webs across his face and he says hello. Hi Isabelle, he says. I’m from the oncology department, he says.
Well that was the way it had gone. She remembers it like that. With the hot day and the plane buzzing past, like a fly. The oncology doctor, with his spider web face. She remembers this, the way the sweat on her thighs stuck to the paper and the way the clock was ticking quite loudly, and the way she was wondering if her brother had won the soccer game, if his friends would be over that night to celebrate.
Yes that was the way it had gone. She was thinking about her college essay, the one that had gotten her into Yale. She was at the doctor’s for a medical checkup, for Yale. That was why she was at the doctor’s. Not because of her cough. It was just a cough. And she was thinking about her college essay. Her grandfather’s favorite poem: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may old time is still a-flying and this same flower that smiles to-day to-morrow will be dying he had liked it because he had thought it was funny in a way, he was not a prude. Her mother was a prude but her grandfather wasn’t and he liked that poem. And then he died and her college counselor said, write about something that makes you different, so she wrote about how her grandfather had liked poems about how dumb it was to treat your virginity like something that wasn’t transient and what that meant to her and feelings about death and she used the word rosebud, and that was how she got into Yale.
Got into Yale. She was going places, that was what her teachers were saying.
That afternoon had been a beautiful afternoon. Where had the people in the plane been going? It kind of makes you dizzy to think about all the people that could be on a plane. A priest. A celebrity. Lovers. A father and son reconciling. Someone who is dying.
She is lying still now. Whatever the nurses are doing to her, she is closing her eyes tight enough to not notice. There is no window here. The boy is over there and last time she checked he was lying still, too. There’s not much else to do. She can’t stand to watch the TV.
Hi, Isabelle, the oncology doctor had said that hot afternoon when her thighs were sticking to the paper covering. I’m from the oncology department.
Hi, she had said. I’m just here for a check-up. For college. She was going to travel abroad, to France or Spain maybe. She would have to have a check-up again, then, too. Maybe a program at Oxford. On that afternoon, she had thought how much she looked forward to that check-up, to be able to say she was a student at Yale planning to study abroad at Oxford. She had thought about France or Spain or Oxford in pastel colors. She had never tried a real French croissant before, never had real paella, or paella at all.
She’s going to Yale, the first doctor had said because they had already talked about this, and then the other doctor gave him a look and the first doctor fell silent.
There’s no easy way to say this, the oncology doctor had said. Now, lying still, she thinks it was probably not that difficult, when you say something like that everyday. At the end of the day, he probably doesn’t even have trouble sleeping. Those spider webs on his face. The spider webs make her feel like she can’t breath.
Her eyelids are heavy. Her body is heavy. She coughs. She can feel the boy looking at her now but she just keeps lying still. The boy’s name is Adam and his hair used to be brown, he said, and thick and curly. She once told him that she wished she could have touched it, and so instead he had touched her hair and said that he thought her hair is too pretty for her to lose it. I’m never going to lose it, she had said. I won’t let them. And then he looked at her funny. He said, There’s no other option. And she had said, There are plenty of options. There’s the option to go slow or to go fast. And then he had kept stroking her hair and they laid there in silence until someone knocked on the door.
She’s going to Yale, the first had said. And then the other doctor said there was no easy way to tell her what he was going to tell her anyways and he said, We found a spot on your lung. He said, You have something called small cell lung cancer.
And she had laughed. She had thought, maybe my brother called them. Maybe he told them to pull a prank. It was a great prank, because she is 17 years old and going to Yale and because she is going to Yale just think of how the world will unroll before her and how in ten years she will be married and have kids and she was going to be a financial consultant and speak three languages and she was going to eat a croissant from France. It is very rare for a girl your age, the second doctor had said. And the first doctor, well the first doctor was just standing there. He was just supposed to be doing a check-up. He said something. He said, When we first saw the x-rays, I thought it was pneumonia. It was supposed to be pneumonia.
Will I be better in time for Yale, she had asked. Because some girl at her school had gotten cancer and been just fine, after a little while. She had been bald, but just fine in the end. Just fine. Because all Isabelle had was just a cough.
The first doctor turned around and started opening drawers and he did not look at her. The second doctor said, If caught in time, the five-year survival rate is usually five to ten percent.
And Isabelle had said, What? And somehow she felt very silly in this floral dress she was wearing. Because children wear floral dresses, but somehow she had become very old. Old enough to be thinking, this is when I will die. And then she had laughed some more, because of course, she was not going to die. Just last week they had been talking about what first-year seminar she should enroll in. It had been just a cough.
It is just a cough, she tried to tell them. I’m fine. Just a cough. Justacoughjustacough.
That same flower that smiles today
The doctor said, What did you say? And she found out that she was speaking aloud and she said, It’s just a poem. And he said, It’s not just a cough.
The oncology doctor said, We didn’t catch it in time. It’s already mestasized to other parts of your body.
And she had leaned forward and tried not to vomit and she was aware of such little things she didn’t know existed before. Like the patch of hair on her leg, just a light dusting of blonde hair, but there it was, she had missed it while shaving. She was aware of the fact the nail polish on one of her toes was chipping. She was aware the room had gotten a different sort of smell. Not the smell of doctor’s office she was used to, but something very final and definitive, like your mother when you’re little and she says no arguing. Eat your vegetables or go to bed without dinner. That was how the room smelled now.
All she could say: Why. Why not in time. Why me. Whymewhymewhyme.
And the second doctor just said that he was sorry. And she said: How long. And he said, Should I get your parents?
And then later they were all sitting in a waiting room as the doctor got a room prepped for her and she said, I feel fine. I’m not sick. But the doctors shook their heads and they wouldn’t look at her because she was too young and she thought that the reason they weren’t looking is because they had to help her die and she had lived so much less than them and they felt bad that they had so much time to live and she —
Her mother was crying. And her father kept on calling and her brother was at a friend’s house now and they hadn’t won the soccer game.
She has two to four months. That was what the oncology doctor said.
And her mother kept on crying. And Isabelle stood up and went to the bathroom and cried until her lip started to bleed from biting on it and then suddenly her breath was just gone and then the doctors were there and when she woke up she was in a bed in a room in the hospital and the boy was there.
The boy named Adam vomits. Sorry, he says. It’s okay, Isabelle says.
It has been two weeks since the afternoon where the plane took its people far away from Isabelle. Her father is back from business. Her parents are here today. At first there was a lot of talk about hospital bills. The second doctor had said something about a very intense form of chemotherapy. It could work, or she would die. She was dying anyway, the doctor had made himself very clear. And now there is no more talk about hospital bills and she knows why and it is because there was money that had been in a college fund but now there is no point in keeping it there.
A few days ago the doctor had come into her room and sat at the end of the bed and said, How are you feeling? She had looked at him and wanted to spit at him and said, I feel like shit. He said, I’m very sorry. He said that they would do whatever they could to make her more comfortable. She said, I’m not leaving here, am I? And he had said, There are ways to give you a chance to walk out of here. She said: The chemotherapy? He said: Yes. She said: And then I’ll be cured? He said: I’m sorry. But you’re dying, no matter what we do, you’re dying. It’s either one way or the other. Either fast or slow.
He was not a good doctor, Isabelle thought, and so did Adam, and sometimes at night they laughed together about what he was like at home, if he had a wife. How he probably didn’t.
They were in the same room because neither of their family’s could afford a private one. But Isabelle was glad he was there. She liked, at night, to look at the silhouette of his bald head, his face, a face she knew was slightly yellowed and gaunt.
Your parents are outside, Adam says.
They are alone in the room. The nurses have gone. Back to other duties. Adam and Isabelle are a duty, but there are others, some people who maybe aren’t dying, just need blood drawn or a prescription. They’re duties, too.
I don’t want it, Isabelle says.
It is the chemo. Right now she is just weak and her voice is hoarse and sounds like sandpaper and she coughs and she has lost weight, but with the chemo she will throw up and her hair will fall out and she will die already looking like a corpse.
I didn’t want it either, Adam says. But people get better, Adam says. People live, he adds.
I don’t want to live like this, Isabelle tells him.
It is dark now and they lie listening to the beeping of the machines and the air is heavy around them. Isabelle thinks of that hot afternoon and how she had been wondering what they would have for dinner. She had wanted to order pizza. Back before the oncology doctor had come in, she had been in a good mood, a celebratory mood. She was going to Yale.
Now Adam says, It’s too quiet.
Isabelle says, It’s not fair.
Adam tells her, Say something.
And so she says the poem her grandfather loved: the glorious lamp of heaven the sun the higher he’s a-getting the sooner will his race be run and nearer he’s to setting.
Adam asks what it’s about.
Isabelle says: I’m not going to graduate. I got into Yale but I’m not even going to graduate.
And Adam laughs because Adam laughs a lot, he laughs like Isabelle cries, and really they’re just doing the same thing but in different ways. He laughs: Or maybe soon you’ll be bald like me, bald in all of your graduation photos.
I don’t want to be bald, Isabelle says. I don’t want to be bald just to live another year.
There is something poetic about her cancer. Adam’s is very technical sounding: Type IV Pancreatic Cancer. That is harsh, scientific. But Small Cell Lung Cancer. That rolls, off your tongue. It is soft, like a whisper. A secret, passed back and forth between friends.
She shouldn’t have cancer. She is not the type of person who gets cancer. She runs. She never eats at McDonald’s. She studies and does not drink or smoke weed and she volunteers and she does everything right.
What does the poem mean, Adam asks. He is 19. He is old enough to be in the army, to buy cigarettes, to drink in Europe. Isabelle wonders what that would feel like, celebrating birthday number 19, or even 18. To go to France and order a class of wine with her croissant. And then she tugs her knees to her chest even though it hurts and bites down on her hand and avoids all the tubes stuck into her skin and she feels wild and her tears burn and then it’s morning again and how fast everything goes, how fast a night goes, and it’s not fair that she has to be tired, that she has to miss out when her last morning and her last night are so close she wonders what her parents are doing at home, if people are already talking about funerals. It’s not fair that someone let her get into Yale, someone told her a future she could have had. It’s not fair that one morning she woke up with just a cough.
And her parents are there in the morning and because she’s a minor, they say they’re going to start the chemo and that night she is vomiting and it’s kind of a sublime sound, when the vomit strikes the metal trashcan. And Adam is weak but he gets out of bed and goes to hers and he lies next to her as she vomits and he strokes her hair and clumps of it come out in his hands.
One night she tells him, I’ve never seen the ocean.
He says: Me neither. He says: I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life. I’ve never left it.
She says: Me neither.
He says: Don’t make a bucket list.
She says: I was going to see the ocean after graduation.
When one of them is feeling better, they go to the other’s bed. They lie together. When one of them is vomiting, the other talks about the sea. Isabelle will say: It’s grand. And we will find a fisherman’s boat and take it out and just float in the middle of the ocean and stay there forever. Adam will say: We will run away from the waves and at the waves and then we will run into the water and swim out as far as we can go, until we get tired. And then we will hold each other’s hands and just float there until we get too tired to move anymore.
Adam’s brother is 22 and visits often, and Isabelle likes when he visits because he never acts like they are sick, he acts like maybe they’re married and this is their home and he’s just visiting. For brunch or a dinner party or a barbeque or all of the things they should be doing later. When her parents visit her mother cries. Isabelle pretends to smile and her father always holds her shoulder like that will make her better and then they both cry when she vomits or when they see all of her hair is gone but with Adam’s brother, she can be the one crying and she does not have to worry about being strong for Adam’s brother.
He brings them Adam’s iPod and speakers and says he’s loaded up the iPod with wave noises. He said Adam told him about the ocean. So he got them ocean songs. So all the time they have the speakers on and the wave noises playing and when they’re lying in bed together and it’s dark and their eyes are closed, they could be in the middle of the ocean. And it would be so easy to just stay in the ocean, until the nurses turn on the light and look at the two of them together and then wheel them away one by one to chemo. And they say: You might be getting better! Hang in there! And eventually they have to prescribe Isabelle antidepressants because the doctor says she would be happier that she might be getting better. And Adam is on antidepressants too and laughs and says: I guess they just don’t understand why teenagers might be upset they’re dying.
And then Isabelle turns away from him and says: I’m upset I’m alive.
Her mother tries to be helpful and brings her a stuffed bear wearing a small Yale shirt. And that night Isabelle puts it at the bottom of her trashcan and vomits on it and the nurses take it away after she has finally fallen asleep.
Later, Adam is sleeping but his brother comes in. He sees Isabelle lying awake, not really looking at anything. His face is pale and he’s carrying a backpack.
You know, he says, Adam used to be a football player. He was getting straight A’s. He was going to transfer to Duke.
He says: Seeing him like this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
He says: I brought you something.
He pulls a half-empty bottle of whiskey and puts it on the nightstand and she says, What is this.
Just in case you need something to wash down the pills with, he says. He looks at the antidepressants. Adam wakes up as his brother slams the door and leaves.
He says, We should hide that. And he is feeling better than Isabelle so he gets up slowly and tucks it in the suitcase his parents have brought. So he and Isabelle lie there and she says: I don’t feel good and then everything turns dark and she hears Adam start to yell as loudly as he can which is not loudly at all and then the nurses, she hears them, and then there is no more sound.
When she wakes up she is attached to even more tubes. The doctor and her mother and her father are talking and there’s a new treatment, something with a success rate that seems very small to her but her parents say yes and they’re trying she knows they’re trying but she hates them almost and the only person she doesn’t hate because she hates her parents and her nurses and the people at the Yale Admissions Office and the other kids graduating with plans to go to Yale, the only person she doesn’t hate is Adam, and when her parents leave she tries to cry but she is too tired and Adam watches her.
I think I died a few weeks ago, she says.
You know, she says, I’ve never had sex.
It’s very nice, Adam says.
Can you show me, she asks.
He moves slowly, like an old man, like a skeleton, but after a while he is by her bed and he is pale and turning paler as he tries to climb onto her bed but he finally does and he just lies there and his breathing is rough and he is shaking.
I’m sorry, he says, but I don’t think I can.
So she rolls over to face him and thinks how his breath smells like old vomit and Jell-O and then she presses her lips to his and they don’t move, just lie there with their lips touching. Adam laughs: I never thought I’d be too tired for sex.
I never thought I’d die a virgin, she says.
If it makes you feel better, I would have had sex with you, he says. And then she smiles a little and says, I’m not going to get better.
What a coincidence, Adam whispers. Neither am I.
She tries to move her legs and tries to wiggle her toes but it hurts, even that, and she remembers a girl named Isabelle who once ran track and once even won gold, and wonders what happened to her. She wonders if she’s picked out her fall semester classes yet. She wonders what dorm she will live in and who will be the first boy she will kiss at Yale. There are plenty of boys to kiss at Yale: athletes and mathematicians and frat boys and heirs to billion-dollar fortunes and the artists with the long hair and the ones who dress up in suits everyday and intern at financial companies. Instead the sick girl is touching lips with the sick boy.
And it seems like hours as Adam gets out of bed and goes over to his suitcase and grabs the half-empty bottle of whiskey and then his bottle of antidepressants and her bottle of antidepressants and when he’s finally back in bed with her he is trembling and he wipes his lips and there’s blood and he helps her sit up and she realizes that the wetness on her cheeks is tears.
I choose the fast way, he says.
I’ve never had whiskey, she says.
We’re on a boat, he says. And we’re watching the sunset. You’re wrapped in my jacket—he coughs but Isabelle keeps her eyes closed and his cough is just a cough—and we pull out the bottle of whiskey and we lie down and keep on drinking while the boat rocks from the waves and everything smells like sea salt.
It takes him a few minutes to open up both bottles of pills. But he does and he dumps hers into her hand and his into his hand and this takes a while too, the gradual swallowing followed with sips of whiskey. And she feels warm, like it’s a hot day without being sticky. And the boat is rocking softly and the smell of sea salt is strong and thick and a plane buzzes overhead and she never went to the doctor’s office and when all the whiskey is done they laugh and are drunk and have sex and the oars are floating somewhere far away from their boat. The sea is more beautiful than she had thought it would be.
Front page image: “Meditation 3,” by Jana Anderson
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