*Featured Image: Funky Time By Fierce Sonia, mixed media 12×18 featuring acrylic paint and collage
The Chemo Show
By Grace Jasmine
There has to be some Darwinesque reasoning behind this. Other than you are fucked and you know you are fucked and the universe conspires to fuck you.
My friend Beth is going through chemo. She is my oldest friend. She was in my kindergarten class. That’s pretty old. I have the SPF 15 eye wrinkle cream to prove it. Anyway, I flew in to see about her and help her through something entirely more messed up than the first stage of her radiation—that is, planning for her meeting with her estranged husband at a weekend that features her child graduating from college and her estranged spouse rooming with his overly stylish sister, the one for whom he has always harbored a twisted love.
My role in this upcoming fiasco is as fashionista and advisor. I am the person, self-elected, to drag my friend out of the house—mid sobs—and force her into, first, a TJ Maxx (so I could pretend we would buy reasonably-priced clothing) and then, the Macy’s where I know we will actually get the gems we have ventured out of the house to acquire.
Beth is in the stage of chemo for breast cancer, where, in spite of all the hype about how she would become pleasingly emaciated and therefore enjoy buying clothes, has developed a tiny beer belly—though not from beer, from chemo. Drinking beer and getting fat seems infinitely more fun. So, here’s a little run down of our recent shopping excursion.
Act One—Attacked While Bargain Shopping—TJ Maxx.
We make our way into the store where I am trying to be up, sunny, positive, and a little angry, because I hate her estranged husband and I think he is all that makes narcissists look like doppelgangers for Gandhi, and I’m piling up a pleasing assortment of fashion at discount prices and, in helping her take an article or two of clothing off her tiny frame, we gently scratch her with my ring. On the normal person, a little white line representing a scratch would come and go in ten minutes, but on Beth this means, with meds including blood thinners, that she bleeds copiously for about 72 hours. It’s like trying on white pants during an especially horrifying monthly cycle, but this is a bleed-out on her forearm. The dressing room conversation goes a little like this:
Beth: Now I am going to bleed.
Me: I can see that. Let me get something. Kleenex. I’ll tell them you are having an emotional meltdown. (This seems fitting since moments prior I demanded the large handicapped dressing room and seriously, if chemo doesn’t handicap you, what the hell does? I walk to the counter.)
Me: We need Kleenex. My friend is very upset. (Upset because she is bleeding out, obviously.)
Counter helper: Ma’am, we have paper towels.
Me: Great, give me a bunch. (I stomp back authoritatively. I am so much more authoritative when it’s for a friend.)
Beth: This is fun.
Me: Oh, hell yes it is. It is so fucking fun. I should be yelling ‘stat.’ Here, let me wrap you. The best in pressure bandages, brown paper towels.
Beth: It will work. Hold my arm. Okay.
Me: Here we go. Concentrate, Bethie, try to hold the blood in. Well, what do you think?
Beth: I got here. We are only leaving with me in a gurney. Bring on the clothes.
At this point, I gingerly help her on with all the white garments I pulled from the clothes racks, and we delicately try each on and either say, “Hell no.” or “Okay, pretty good.” We move forward. We make our way through it. The blood seeps through the paper towel bandage. We wrap it again. I say:
Me: So I am going to end up murdering you by a scratch, right?
Beth: Yes. Pretty much. I am so done with those blood thinners.
Me: Assuming you live to call the doctor.
Me: We have as much as we’re going to get. Let’s get to Macy’s and get you the major stuff.
So, Act Two: The Macy’s Bleed-Out.
We proceed to Macy’s with the same bloody bandage, like Beth has just left the battlefield versus a tough day at TJ Maxx. We stroll through the aisles and I pull cute outfit after cute outfit for her off the racks. I get her to tell me the events: Cocktails with her estranged ex, dinner with her estranged ex, breakfast, a rest, dinner at a fancy place with her estranged ex, two graduation events with her estranged ex. Beth is sad, angry, worried, ironic, momentarily happy, giddy, bleeding, and then sad again. I am mopping up blood and helping her in and out of white clothes. We manage to get amazing things that look, well, great, considering. Considering she has no hair, she is very depressed, and she has a tiny beer belly. To be honest, she looks lovely. She needs to quit crying, put on the damn wig she hates, and slap a smile on after about ten Xanax, but seriously, she passes for an attractive mother of a college student, any day of the week, anywhere in the world. The problem is SHE doesn’t think so.
Me: You look good.
Beth: I look like shit. I’m so fat.
Me: You are fat for you. You are not fat for society, or even most people in the room, Beth.
But she can’t see past her own perception of who she is at this moment: A woman whose husband left her. Being on the outside, I see that he is a piece of shit. I see he is worthless scum. I know that there is nothing on the planet that makes someone more instantly valuable than their decision to leave. Talk about upping your street cred. Leave first. Do everything first. I once had a cop tell me that if you’re in a domestic dispute, always call the police first. The person who calls is automatically the victim even if the ‘perp’ comes to the door with her severed head in her hands. Leave your marriage first. Just do. It takes the power. And sadly, power is what endings are all about.
Me: Well, we have it all Beth. Let’s pay and go eat.
I look at her arm. It is drenched in blood and her white sweater is also drenched in blood.
Me: I feel pretty good about slicing you open with my ring.
Beth: It’s the blood thinner.
Me: Well, we didn’t get it on the clothes. That’s martini worthy. Let’s roll.
Beth: I have coupons.
I go to the register and, like a demented and angry personal assistant I state, “Hangers. It’s all on hangers.” I dare someone to defy me. I dare anyone to give me any article of clothing not properly hung. I will go ballistic. My concern for Beth has made me a tyrant. As if I can shield her or protect her by becoming an asshole for her. I want to kill her soon-to-be ex-husband. It is as if I am in personal battle with a man I have met four times in my life. I want her sadness to be replaced by the momentary glee she would feel when I bring her his head on a stake. Except in the next moment she would cry, because, God help her darling little soul, she loves him. And she may. But I think the last ounce of waning love is always ignited with lighter fluid by the leaver. When someone doesn’t want you, instantly their faults go out the window and you can only believe the breathless moments of bliss, the pure joy, the unadulterated ecstasy. There has to be some Darwinesque reasoning behind this. Other than you are fucked and you know you are fucked and the universe conspires to fuck you. Yeah, that’s a reason. Anyway, Beth gets her purchases and we make our way through the mall with her white sweater looking more like I had now officially engaged her in gang warfare and not a scratching. We find a dinner place where we ask for aid.
Act Three—I’ll Have Mine Bloody, Please.
The waitress and the bartender and the manager of this swank but deserted mall eatery look at us politely. Beth’s little stature, coupled with her tiny bald head wrapped in a colorful scarf, moves mountains. They bring water and a towel and bandages. And Beth, who has gone through so much it doesn’t occur to her to go to a restroom or out of the way location, performs battlefield surgery at our table. I concentrate on not looking at the blood because since my daughter got her wisdom teeth out the previous week, I have begun some sort of bizarre sight-of-blood retching phenomenon, which hardly seems supportive.
Me: Let me help you.
Beth: Thank you.
Me: Do you have HIV?
Beth: Um, no. (This gets a tiny smile.)
Me: Good, because I would surely have it now if you did.
The bartender brings over those martinis I have been dreaming about and we order. I look at her eyes. We talk about her purchase. I am up, animated, positive, cracking jokes. (I am this way anyway, but right now I am the crackhead version of up.) My eyes are glazed with the need to help. I am amped. It’s the way you feel in an emergency. But this is one, long, slow-mo emergency. We are in slow motion. She is bleeding. We are drinking. We are eating. I am looking into her eyes, trying to enjoy the food. I am concentrating. I am exhausted. But not on any level as much as she must be.
But we are victorious. We did another impossible thing on the road back from breast cancer. We shopped while bleeding out.