Arrive five minutes to eight, sign in at the front desk, scrawl “chemo” for “reason for visit,” take one hard candy from the glass bowl, find two open seats next to each other and sit down with your mom, who wore pink today, “to cheer you up,” (it doesn’t), eyeball the other patients in the room, those who also meet here every other Friday, also waiting, turning the pages of the same months-old National Geographic magazines, notice that you are the only twenty year old in the room, study the women older than you, how they’ve learned to conceal their balding heads: brightly colored scarves, husbands’ baseball caps, bows like gift wrap, charitable hand-knit beanies.
Only one woman does not cover her eggshell-grey skull. “With age comes strength,” they say. You wonder what forms of cancer these women have, if they are sicker than you, if they will die instead of you, if you will die instead of them, but for now you are all just waiting for an invitation to have your blood drawn from the tip of your index finger before you are dispatched to your treatment station. You count the minutes with your tongue, rotating it like the big hand of a clock as you suck on your candy, a foil-wrapped strawberry with a gooey center, and just as you bite down, you are called to the nurse’s station. Run one hand through your own shorn-off hair, a DIY-cut done by a sympathetic girlfriend, walk through the open door to the vinyl highchair, get poked in the finger with a plastic lancet by the nurse, proffer one scarlet seed pearl that she catches with a straw, get sent back to the waiting room, stare at the woman sitting across from you, the one with the Christmas bow above her forehead, wonder what kind of cancer she’s got, if she is better or worse off than you, probably better, but maybe worse too, tug on the cords of your sweatshirt and slouch deep into your chair, stare out the window, count the hospital’s rooftop smokestacks, wonder what they are burning, the evaporating steam reminding you of Holocausts you learned of in school, see the marine layer beyond, everything white-white-white, the color of nothing, think about what dying looks like, about your friends at your funeral, your boyfriend, John, standing over your grave with your electric guitar in his arms…Think about living! Graduating from college, celebrating your 21st birthday, jumping into a summer of swimming pool after swimming pool, carpe diem carpe diem carpe diem! Notice a young man walk in, young enough to be your age, wonder if he’s got cancer, watch him say something to the receptionist, see the door open and an elderly woman shuffle out with an oxygen tank that she drags behind her like a child’s wagon, watch the young man walk toward her and hook his arm through hers and whisk her away, feel a rush of disappointment, then guilt, how could you wish that he was sick like you? Finally hear your first name called, your last name stumbled over, as if it were made of broken glass, stand up with your mom, catch Christmas Bow lift her head to determine which of you is being summoned, see it in her teary squint when she realizes that it is your hair that is patchy and thin like a molting parrot, not your mom’s, whose is long and wild as always. Walk toward the door hanging open like a big pink mouth, follow the nurse down the corridor toward Treatment Room Two, the one with Donna and not Heather who last Friday wouldn’t bring you a second blanket, feel the relief that you get Donna today, choose a recliner far away from the only other person in Room Two, who has covered himself from head to toe with a blanket so that you cannot see him at all, except his shoes (that’s how you know he is a man), sit near the window for the view of the Los Angeles basin, the one that doesn’t budge, with its mountains, skyscrapers breaching the fog, suburban rooftops like scattered confetti, the papery kind fit for celebration, and for the first time in your little life, know that you are the recipient of the prize, finally part of the special club, where each week you and the others gather to wait, wait, wait, while a poison is slowly let into you, one that kills each of your very own cells, one at a time, burns them off like smoke into air, so that when you leave, you may become entirely new or nothing at all.
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