Almost every day now, before walking all the way east to the hospital where my best friend is dying, I stop at Olympia Florist on the corner of 81st and Lex. Gus, the owner, comes forward with his hands clasped when he hears the bell on the door. “How can I help today, Miss Tessa?”
“Some lilies today, Gus,” I say. Lilies are expensive, but my mother has a charge. “Some daisies. Baby’s breath. How about lilacs, do you have any?”
He shakes his head. “Lilacs in May, Miss Tessa.”
This is one thing among many I don’t understand. It’s winter–aren’t all flowers out of season? I ask, and he says that the ground has to freeze for lilacs to bloom. The lilacs need dormancy, sleep. Therefore it’s very difficult to grow them except in certain, colder parts of the country. “Roses, though, we have.”
Outside, I tuck the bouquet under my left arm and light a cigarette. Six blocks is the perfect distance for one Marlboro Light. I throw it down outside the rotating doors and pass through the other smokers, the desperate people in their winter coats with that look on their faces, the I-should-have-cancer-not-my-husband/ wife/ mother/ father/ sister/ brother/ child-look. I know my way to the third floor, the pediatric ward, which accommodates both little kids and indignant twenty-year olds like Sophie. I know not to go straight to Sophie’s room, but to the small waiting room where Josh, Connie, or Bob—Sophie’s boyfriend, mother, and dad—will be, or will be soon. I am always the fourth to arrive.
Everyone is impressed by my flowers. “They’re beautiful!” says Connie.
“Very nice,” says Josh.
“Sophie will love them,” says Bob.
I’ve known Sophie since we were fourteen, since the fall I started upper school. My first day she looked at me with narrowed eyes across the homeroom, her arms crossed, bouncing on her right leg. Later, I saw her crouching behind a car on East End Avenue, lighting a cigarette. I got a fluttery feeling in my stomach and I walked up to her. She said, “You’re shy, aren’t you?” She stood and held the pack out to me. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll like it here.” The next day she held my hand and showed me where everything was: the cafeteria, the gym, the reading room where we would later go in between classes to nap and exchange backrubs.
We were in the same math group, the intermediate one. When class got out we would walk closely behind the first graders as they left their class too and returned, like us, to the other side of the building. We did this to tease them. They were all very shy and walked quickly, trying to get away from us, and they would grow suddenly quiet amongst themselves but they would also pretend not to know what was happening. Once the little girl I was following started to cry. She had long black hair and was the tiniest one in the group. I didn’t realize she was crying until we got to the end of the long hall and she started to run. I ran after her, calling out, “Wait! Wait! I’m sorry, so sorry!” But her crying got loud, and she pulled open the big heavy doors to the stairwell and headed down the stairs, so fast I worried she would trip. I decided that it was better to just let her go.
On New Year’s Day I sleep till eleven. Then I lie in bed for twenty minutes, reading a magazine on beauty and trying to ignore an intense and familiar feeling of nausea. Soon I accept the fact that I have to throw up. I turn on the water in my bathroom and when I’m finished I turn it back off and wrap myself in a towel and lie on the floor, next to the yellow radiator pipe. The warmth of the bathroom is funky but pleasant. The wind howls in the airshaft outside the bathroom window. Then I get on my knees again. It is just clear liquid this time, then clumps of gastric yellow bile.
Friends from college have spent the night and they are asleep in the living room, draped over couches and ottomans as if under some drowsy enchantment. I bang around the kitchen louder than necessary as I make tea and toast, hoping they’ll wake and be on their way, but they are still asleep when I leave at noon, taping a note to the back of the front door.
Olympia is closed so I stop at a Korean deli for carnations. The wind blows off the river and cold seizes my face as I approach York Avenue. I get caught behind a couple in their mid-twenties, their arms around each other’s waists, his hand holding a chunk of her long, long hair. I smell the sweet scent of marijuana; see him pass the joint over to her. We end up in the elevator together. The guy has taken off his colorful knit cap and I see that they both have hair. I try to guess which one has cancer. They both look sick—maybe they met here.
In the waiting room, Bob and Josh are watching the New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon. Bob says, “All of the horror movies that come out now get their ideas from the old Twilight Zones.” We watch an episode about an evil doll that ends up killing the stepfather of the little girl who owns her. The stepfather is the only one who sees the doll for who she really is. The mother and daughter don’t believe him; they call him crazy for turning against the doll.
“Of course, the stepfather is the bad guy,” says Bob. “Always the stepfather!”
Bob is a stepfather. But not really. He married Connie when Sophie was two. Sophie’s biological father lives in Florida with his new wife and new baby. He hasn’t been to visit Sophie in the hospital once.
Josh stands up. “Anyone want something from the cafeteria? A sandwich or anything?” He points at Bob, then at me.
“I’ll have a sandwich. Roast beef, if they have it. And a Coke,” says Bob.
Josh is still pointing at me. “I’m all right,” I say.
“Did you eat before coming over here?”
“I got up late. I had some toast.”
“None of you girls ever eat.”
“I did eat. I had toast.”
“Toast.” Josh shakes his head.
Josh is convinced that all of Sophie’s friends have eating disorders. He’s always been a worrier, but it’s worse now, as if he’s trying to dilute his concern over Sophie with smaller, less toxic worries. He leaves for the cafeteria, still shaking his head, his wide shoulders faintly stooped.
We are the only people in the waiting room except for a heavy Hispanic woman and a blond little white boy. They talk in low voices and play cards. “It’s so quiet,” I say.
Bob says, “It’s the holidays. Nobody’s here who doesn’t absolutely have to be.”
Josh returns with the sandwiches and drinks. The evil doll episode ends, and we watch one about a group of aliens who visit Earth. The friendly aliens show the humans around their spaceship. The humans catch sight of a book called “Preparing Humans.” For what? they wonder. At the end of the episode, they realize it’s a cookbook.
Bob finishes his sandwich, leaves, and comes back. “She’s awake,” he tells me.
The hospital rooms all look the same, the sterile floor and the blinds drawn and the television on, but then you step inside and there’s someone you know. Sophie is leaning up against the pillows, her head swathed in a navy bandana, knitting in hand. The needles click. Something pink grows between them. Substitutes for bodily fluids drip from a bag into her organs and veins. The tubes twist around her like vines. I pass the chair by her bed and go for the one in the corner. Connie takes the carnations. “I’ll find a vase,” she says. She smoothes her hand over Sophie’s head as she leaves.
I avert my eyes from the bag and concentrate on Sophie’s big soft eyes, the only thing about her that still looks normal. “How are you doing?”
“How do you think I’m doing? I’m fat. I can’t smoke or drink. I haven’t had sex in a year.”
“You’re not fat,” I say, lying a little. She’s gained thirty pounds since beginning the chemotherapy, which does not seem fair. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I haven’t had sex in a year either.”
“Oh, Tessa. That’s pathetic!” She frowns at her work and pain does a mean little dance across her face. “Poor Josh,” she says. “Sometimes I wish he would just break up with me.”
I can’t think of anything to say to that. She puts down the knitting. She shakes her head.
“I’m constipated,” she says. “The drugs are making me constipated. Last night I had a dream that Macaulay Calkin came to the children’s ward and went to the bathroom. He said to the kids, if I can go, you can go too.” I laugh. She shifts impatiently. “What’d’ you do last night?”
“Don’t remember much.”
“What are you knitting?”
“A scarf for Jordie.” Jordie is her dog. We fall briefly into silence. Josh pokes his head in then sits on the chair by her bed. He has sandwich crumbs on his lip. Sophie tosses the scarf aside and tugs at her shirt. She refuses to wear the hospital gowns. She says, “Bob thinks it’s really sick I’m wearing a House of Pain T-shirt.”
She holds up a book of Danielle Steele love poetry Bob has gotten her by accident, thinking it was a Danielle Steele novel. She reads a couple of the poems out loud. Then she begins to fade. She turns to Josh and whispers, “Why is Tessa wearing motorcycle boots?”
“They’re clogs,” I say. “See?” I pull the cuff of my jeans up above the ankle.
She says, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in shoes like those.” She leans her head back and closes her eyes.
When Sophie turned eighteen the tumors blossomed. All her life they’d slept and waited but now they spread like a promise or a curse through her young body. Like a wicked dark fairy they busted in and broke up the party. Nobody wanted them. We hid Sophie under sheets and quilts, under nicknames and wigs and a faux leopard-skin coat. They didn’t care. They came anyway.
I walk home slowly and take the elevator to the fourteenth floor. My college friends are gone. They’ve written a note, Thank you, thank you! and left it next to my note. The apartment is cold—the heat won’t cycle back on till six. I wrap myself in a blanket and lie on the couch and watch television in the room that is now the television room but was the dining room until we stopped eating in there.
My mother’s heels click timidly along the hardwood floor. She stands in the doorway. “Hi, sweetie,” she says. She is often angry with me these days, but only in writing. She leaves little notes on brightly colored Post-Its around the apartment. I’ll find them gradually as I go about my day—one on the coffeemaker, one on the fridge, one inside the fridge, stuck to the orange juice or the milk. One on the television, one on the phone. One in the hallway, within the sweep of the front door.
The notes say, “You came home very late last night. You were very loud,” or, “Please make an effort to turns lights off when you leave the apartment.” Sometimes the notes are friendlier, and she asks me questions that I forget to answer. “Let me know the name of the song you were listening to last night.” Or, “I have two tickets to the opera for Sunday afternoon. Any interest?”
She is wearing a brown tweed suit with shoulder pads. Her outfits constantly disappoint me. I wish she would dress more like Connie, who dresses like a young person except not like an older person dressing like a young person. Connie wears boots that come up to her knees and tight, soft, black V-neck sweaters that end right at her waist. Though her days are spent now at the hospital, she still dresses well. She can’t help it; all her clothes are stylish. She doesn’t have anything else to wear. And because they’re all black, everything matches. She stumbles into the waiting room in designer jeans and silk t-shirts, her black hair pinned up. I see some of the other parents giving her looks, like, what’s she doing looking like that at a time like this. But I think that Sophie probably likes to see her looking good.
My mother says, “I talked to my cousin Sisi. Did you know that her sister-in-law had exactly what Sophie has? She’s forty-two, and it’s been in remission for twenty-five years now.”
My mother is constantly bringing me stories of miraculous recovery. I know that she’s trying to help, but I wish she wouldn’t.
“That’s great.”
My mother sighs, and says, “How is Connie taking all of this?”
“She’s thrilled. On top of the world!”
“I can’t talk to you!” My mother slams the door of what used to be the dining room. I hear a pantry cabinet open and close, a cork popping, her heels in the hall. I feel sorry for her, but not enough to do anything about it.
For American history Sophie and I had Mr. Dewey, a youngish man with a deathly pallor and curly black hair. On the first day of class he made us go around the room, adding adjectives with the same consonant sound to our names so that he could remember them. “We’re going to play the name game!” he said. He didn’t seem fazed by the groans from the class. He opened a notebook, all business. “I’m Deadly Dewey,” he said.
We went around the room. Sophie was “Stealthy Sophie.” There was “Zesty Zoe,” and “Bouncy Belinda.” I called myself “Ticklish Tessa.” He frowned. Lexi called herself “Sexy Lexi.” He frowned more deeply. “That’s not how the game works. It’s alliteration, not assonance.”
Mr. Dewey gave us AP tests instead of regular history tests. This was good for people like myself who planned to take the history AP, but bad for people like Sophie who didn’t, because the AP tests were hard and covered material that we hadn’t talked about in class. Sophie objected, every time as if it were a fresh grievance. “But Mr. Dewey!” she’d say. “This is so not fair.”
I’m hung-over again the next morning. There’s the initial, effusive wave of nausea. Then the yellow bile, the lying on the white, cool tiles, afraid to move, afraid to leave the comfortable but tedious bathroom.
My mother is downstairs, drinking coffee at the kitchen counter, waiting for me with another miracle story. She watches as I make a cup of tea. She says, “I had my movie club last night. Roz said that her son’s ex-girlfriend had a brain tumor when she was eighteen. Do you want to know how old she is now?”
I lean over the tea, let the steam clear my sinuses. “How old, Mom?”
“Twenty-eight! Twenty-eight years old.” She leaves to meet a friend for lunch, and I find a Post-It on the dishwasher as I load my cup. The note says: “I’m surprised and somewhat shocked by how much wine you seem to be drinking.” I open the drawer where she keeps her pens and paperwork and locate the bright stack of Post-Its at the back. I pull them out, careful not to mess up the drawer, and drop them in the trash.
I walk to the hospital with the first verse of The Canterbury Tales stuck in my head. Last semester I had to memorize it for a class and then recite it in the Old English. The TA, believe it or not, was named Dewsnap, Desmond Dewsnap. He was tall and young and balding with the careful nervous speech of someone who used to stutter. He blushed constantly. He probably had us recite The Canterbury Tales in order to bring us up to his level of embarrassment.
Bob is sitting alone in the waiting room. “You look pale,” he says.
“I’m not feeling great. It’s no big deal.” I throw my jacket down and sit on the row of plastic bucket seats that meet his row at a right angle. I lay the new gathering of flowers carefully across a couple of seats. “How’s she doing?” “Not well. Not well at all today.” I see that his eyes are shot with red. It makes my own eyes water to look at them, so I pick up a copy of TV Guide and flip through it.
“I want them to stop the chemotherapy,” he says. “I want her to go home.”
I wish that Josh would walk in. “But–at home, she’s just–doesn’t she need that stuff?”
He says, “The chemo’s not helping her.” He stares at me. I have a wild desire to recite The Canterbury Tales. Then he loses interest in me and turns his eyes on the television. “She won’t talk to her psychiatrist.”
Connie comes in and slumps into a chair. She smiles at me a little but doesn’t acknowledge Bob. He gets up. “I’ll go tell Sophie you’re here,” he says over his shoulder.
“You look good,” I say. “More relaxed.”
“They gave me Valium. I feel better.” She stares blankly at the television, a soap opera. “And you?”
“I’m okay.” We sit in silence. I examine my fingernails. I have no idea what to say to her. Then, so quickly that by the time I realize what I am doing it is too late to stop, I am telling her the story of Sisi’s sister-in-law, of Roz’s son’s ex-girlfriend.
“Twenty-five years,” I say. “Ten years. No cancer at all! They’re all better. They live normal lives. My mom’s cousin’s sister-in-law, she had exactly what Sophie has!”
The words jump forward like small dogs from a car, barking optimistically.
Connie sits up straighter and her face brightens a little. “Really?”
“Don’t worry,” I say.
Bob appears in the doorway. “Can you come back tomorrow?”
Connie rises from the plastic chair. “You didn’t leave her alone, did you? Is Josh with her? Who’s with her, goddammit?”
“Josh is with her.”
Connie touches me on the shoulder and stalks out past Bob. He looks after her. “Connie’s furious at me.”
“Because she knows I’ve given up on Sophie. What she doesn’t know is I gave up right after Thanksgiving. I just didn’t tell anybody then.”
I hand Bob the flowers and lean over for my jacket, exaggerate the motions of getting myself together. “Get some rest,” he says. “We don’t want any more sick kids around here.”
On the way home, I buy a pair of black leather boots with heels. They’re not my style but Sophie will like them.
My mother is standing in the front hallway, waving a piece of paper. “This came today!” She straightens the paper and pushes it up to my nose. It’s the bill from Olympia Florist. Seven hundred and forty seven dollars. At the bottom of the bill, Gus has drawn a smiley face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“What have you been doing? What’s all this about?” She snatches the paper back and crumples it in her hand. “Tessa, I’ve had it with you.”
“Like I said, I’m sorry. Its just flowers. I didn’t realize.” I walk past her, head back to the dining/television room. She follows me. “Anyway, you can afford it.” I throw myself down on the pink couch and dig for the remote under the seat cushions.
“That’s not the point. Are you completely out of it, or do you just not care?”
“Both.” I say, “I’ll pay you back,” although all my money comes from her anyway.
She sighs. “Were you bringing the flowers to the hospital?”
“Yes.” I let my voice get soft and sad.
“I suppose I just feel taken advantage of.”
She clasps her hands, as if getting ready to say something important. She sighs again, and lets her hands drop. She turns and clicks away to the kitchen for her evening glass of wine. It’s only 5:30, early for this, but I guess I have driven her to it.
I watch an episode of Fraiser, and then I get up to call Lexi. My mother is reading a book in the library, her legs crossed, all the way over on the far side of the couch. I pause outside the door. She is skinny and pale, so different from Connie and Sophie before she got sick, with their tan skin and casual voluptuousness and well-exercised, shapely limbs. She rests her elbow on the arm of the couch and leans her cheek against her hand. I feel love for her at that moment, as distinct and isolated as an intestinal cramp.
“What are you reading?”
She looks up quickly; shy friendliness peeking out from behind wistful preoccupation. “Alice Adams.” She holds the book high. “I’m never crazy about her, but Roz said I should read this one, so…“ She shrugs. “It’s still not doing very much for me.”
“So don’t finish it.”
She brings the book back to her lap, keeping her finger at her place. “I shouldn’t. I’m too much of a goody-goody not to, I suppose. I always feel I have to finish a book once I’ve started it.” She looks down and spreads a hand gently across the page. “It’s funny. The book is very well written. I’m not sure why I don’t like it.”
I call my friends and tell them I’m too tired to go out. I make myself a chicken salad sandwich and watch Sleepless in Seattle on television. I don’t have a drink. Halfway through the movie, my mother knocks at the door to the dining/television room and nudges it open. Her eyes are shining.
“I thought of why it is I don’t like the book,” she says.
“Why? Why not?”
“I think to really enjoy a book you have to feel for the characters. You have to connect to them in some way. I mean, no matter how well-written the book is, if you don’t feel for the characters none of it really means anything.” She pauses, her palms spread in explanation. “Don’t you agree?”
I can’t look at her. I focus on a brown stain in the northwest corner of the ceiling. Something from long ago crosses my mind, something about a sick girl and a stain like a rabbit. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I do.”
I wake before eight. I make coffee and stare out the kitchen window while it’s brewing, at a loss without my hangover. Snow mixed with rain streaks the single pane glass. I sip the hot coffee. It opens up my lungs and I breathe deeply, closing my eyes, still seeing through my eyelids the strange bright gray light of the rain. At nine o’ clock I leave for the hospital.
Gus greets me at the door of Olympia Florist, grinning. “Lilacs today!”
The lilacs are amazing. Purple ones, full and heavy and fragrant, moisture beading up on the tiny petals. The branches sag under the testicular blooms.
“Give me a whole bunch of those.”
He puts them together, his eyes crossing with concentration, breathing loudly through his nose. When I pull out my wallet, he waves it away. “Next time, Miss Tessa. You get me next time.”
There’s no one in the waiting room. I give it thirty minutes, and then I walk to Sophie’s room and knock on the half-open door. “Yeah,” she says. The blinds are raised, and she’s looking east, out the window, towards the park across the street, blurred and romantic. She knits absently, slowly. Pink yarn waggles between her hands. At this rate, Jordie’s never getting his scarf. She turns her eyes on me. “Hey.”
Josh is dozing in the chair by the bed. He starts as she speaks, sits up and rubs his eyes. “Coffee,” he says and nods in my direction.
“I had some. Thanks.” As he passes me, I can smell that he needs a shower.
I head towards the corner chair. I stop when I see that it’s gone. The floor looks naked where it was.
“Sit here,” says Sophie.
So I go to sit in the chair by Sophie’s bed. The seat is still warm from Josh. Up close like this, I can smell her too. She smells sharp, medicinal. Like nothing I’ve smelled before.
“How’s it going?” I don’t let her answer. “Where’s Bob? Where’s Connie?”
“Talking to the doctors. Bob’s at the apartment, picking up Jordie.” She swallows dryly. “They said I could have him here, for like, one second.”
“How’re you feeling today?”
“Pretty shitty. I’m just so tired. I hate it. I keep trying to finish this, but it’s like I keep falling asleep.”
“I won’t stay long.”
“No. I didn’t mean it like that.” Her irises are dark, staring at me.
I look down at the flowers in my lap and hold them towards her. “Here, I brought you these.”
“Thanks.” She raises a hand in the direction of the other bouquets losing their freshness on the windowsill. I stand, but she says, “Don’t worry about it. My mom will do it. Sit,“ she says. I sit back down. “So what’s up?”
“Not so much. Except—I got these shoes. What do you think?” I lift my foot to show her the boots, which are already giving me blisters.
“I like those.”
She leans her head back. Her eyelids slip down. The knitting rests in her lap. She breathes extravagantly. “So. What’s your major again? English? What are you going to do with your life?”
“No idea.”
I sit for a good twenty minutes, silent, waiting for her to say something else or at least look at me. I pick at my fingernails. I wonder what’s taking Josh so long. I sniff the lilacs and adjust the cellophane. Her eyes stay closed. My presence beside her bed becomes embarrassing. I push the chair back and stand up. “I guess I’ll go.”
“Oh. Okay.” She opens her eyes, looking startled. She begins to knit again and jabs herself. “Ow.” She drops the scarf and sucks her finger.
“You just seem so tired. I don’t want to bother you.”
“No, you’re right. I actually am really tired.”
“I’ll just put these over there.”
“Can I have them?”
I place the flowers in her lap, and she crooks her arms around them. “They smell so good.” She touches the tips.
I’m glad she likes them because they’re all I have for her. These freakish blossoms, this useless and tardy gift. The uninvited guest, that wicked one, has done her work. No one, not even the lilac fairy—the last to arrive, the latecomer—can save Sophie now.
Later, at the funeral, Bob will tell me how right before she goes she looks directly at him and says, “Am I going to die?”– as if she just can’t believe it, as if it is the last thing on her mind. The phone will ring early tomorrow morning and I’ll know before I answer what the call is
I arrange the chair in its original position. “Well, bye I guess. I love you, Sophie.” I hate the pleading tone in my voice.
She doesn’t look at me as I inch towards the door. She hides her face in the flowers. She says, “Thanks.”
I step into the hallway, leaving the door half-open. A bright, distracting racket clatters past me: metal carts and shorthaired nurses, rayon tight across their behinds. Again, Dewsnap’s bald head pops foolishly into mine. I thought about Sophie a lot during his class, about Deadly Dewey and high school and the history AP’s, which in the end helped me get into a good college. I thought about how if Sophie were there with me, we would tease and torment Dewsnap, we would laugh when he slipped into a stutter, we would sit in the back and riff on his name. I ran through the possibilities. Do me, Dewsnap. Do unsnap me, Dewsnap. Dewsnap, do unsnap my bra.
But without Sophie, there wasn’t much joy in it.

Waiting Room, ’08

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