She stopped in the doorway and scanned the room for him, finding him sitting in the corner with an empty chair beside him. He looked up as she entered, and he smiled and waved her over. He had an angelic face. It was thinner now than when they had first met, but still had that beatific expression, as if he knew the secrets of the universe and they were glorious.
She bustled over and sat down, putting her canvas bag on the floor. The bag contained a book, some knitting, and a thermos of ginger tea. She took only the tea out of the bag and placed it on the small table between them. She didn’t know why she still brought the book and the knitting. The two of them usually talked the whole time. Well, this place. You never knew who would be there and who wouldn’t.
“How are you?” she asked as she got settled in. She poured herself some tea.
“Great. Much better than last week.” He had his own ginger tea on the table. He was the one, in fact, who had introduced her to it. It was an acquired taste, but she enjoyed it now.
He had introduced her to so many things over the last few weeks. They made an odd couple, these two. In any other setting, they may never have spoken to each other or met at all. Strange bedfellows, indeed. She was a timid soul, and he was the bravest person she knew.
Her parents had raised her with fear. “Be careful!” “Are you sure you want to do that?” “Don’t hurt yourself!” “That’s too hard for you.” “Be sensible.” “Stay on the path.” She learned the lesson well. Risk is bad and failure is the end of the world. If you don’t try, you can’t fail.
She grew up having small dreams, if you could call them dreams at all. Do well in school, get a job, have a family. Wispy dreams. No substance. And she didn’t even achieve them all. She never got married and had a family. She was a fifty-year-old bookkeeper in the same company that hired her right out of business school, and it looked like she’d be there until she died.
He was twenty-five and larger than life. He practically buzzed with energy, even in this room. And he had dreams. That was what attracted her to him. Not only did he have big dreams and plenty of them, but he had already done so many interesting things. He played guitar and sang at open mic nights, where he also did stand-up comedy. He painted sets in the local repertory theater. His entrepreneurial spirit had led him to having several small businesses over the years, starting in his teens, walking dogs and washing cars. He was also adept at woodworking, making bird houses and art objects. He had what he called a “Joe job,” steady employment that paid the bills, but didn’t distract him from what he referred to as his “real life.”
She did not know why he liked her, and he really seemed to like her. He tried to save her a seat whenever he could and when he couldn’t, he’d maneuver things so that they’d sit together at some point during their 4-hour sessions here. Perhaps he saw her as a mother figure. She was old enough and his parents were deceased. Whatever the reason, he enjoyed her company.
She found him fascinating. He followed his every interest, no matter how whimsical. He laughed—laughed!—at the things that hadn’t worked out. Imagine laughing at failure! She couldn’t imagine that at all. There was no hesitation in him. He simply tried things. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn’t. He said that when things didn’t work, he still had fun finding that out and he always learned something, even if it was how not to do something. He got something out of all his endeavors, even if it was just a funny story. And he had plenty of those.
He reminded her of the old joke:
“Do you play the piano?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
She wondered what it felt like to be that free. When they met, she wasn’t sure she had any specific dreams anymore, just a desire to not live the life she was living. Ha! No one wants to live through this, sitting in a chair for hours while poison drips into your veins. Chemotherapy is no one’s idea of the good life. But, even before the cancer, the life she lived then was not the life she wanted.
The first day they had met, he had told her his entire life story, and she had been grateful for the distraction. He had been through this before, he told her, when he was twelve. “It sucks,” he had said, “But we’ll get through it and feel a lot better.” He said it as if their recovery was a fact, guaranteed. She believed him. It was the first time since the diagnosis that she had dared to think that she would recover.
At the end of the first day of treatment, after he had told her all he had done, and all he had left to do, he had said, “Enough about me. What do you want to do?” as if she were not already well into the second half of her life, as if she were a child being asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She looked at him and considered the question. Did she want to do anything?
“To see the world,” she said, and she knew it was true.
“Let’s do it!”
She had laughed out loud, surprising herself.
Ever since that first day, they talked about the world trip. They talked about all the place they’d see, all the things they’d do. It was a way to pass the time. Other people in the room read books or played cards. They toured international capitals. She got rather good at it, which surprised her. She never realized she had such an imagination.
They got better, and they kept in touch. They actually planned the trip to see the world. She had little money, and he had even less, so they had to save up for a year, but they cobbled together a schedule that included London, Paris, Venice and comprised a lot of meandering around Europe in trains.
Before they could buy the tickets, though, he relapsed. He said she should go alone, but she moved him into her house and took care of him until the end. The day before he died, he said, “Promise me you’ll take me with you when you see the world.”
She assured him she would.
She sat now, in the airplane, waiting to take off. Nervous, she reached up to touch the necklace, a gold and cloisonne butterfly containing some of his ashes. It was a keepsake that the funeral home offered and she had promised him she’d take him with her.
“Let’s do it,” she whispered.
© 2020 Liza Cameron Wasser