The door that led to the examination room opened. A black nurse with long, silver hair said, “Genevieve Barrett?”
“Want me to come with you?” I asked.
Mom rose from her seat. “Not yet. I’ll have the nurse come for you after I get settled.” She kissed my cheek, then offered a crooked smile. “See you later, alligator.” She disappeared behind the closed door.
Moments later, another woman took her seat. She looked to be my age. A strip of gauze peeked from beneath her blouse. A Star of David pendant dangled from a chain around her neck. I wanted to ask her: Are you okay now? Are you scared? Why are you here alone?
The woman considered me with sea-colored eyes. And with that look, I imagined that she and I stood at the beginning of a Lifetime Television moment. She would be the best friend that I never had. We would hold hands as we walked along the beach. We would drink lavender lemonade and remain friends until her illness claimed her life. It would be just like those friendships in the movies. One of the heroines is sick. The other heroine is Jewish.
I smiled and nodded at her. It didn’t matter that I was black and she was not. She would be my Bette Midler. I would be her Gentile.
My Lifetime T.V. friend wore a tangerine and lemon-colored Hermes scarf over her head. Mom had that same scarf. I purchased it at Saks (definitely not a knock-off) after her third round of chemotherapy. She had tired of strangers’ stares and with friends who ridiculed women with short hair (ugly, mannish, lesbian, they believed). These friends gasped once they remembered that Genevieve the Beautiful had prettier hair than they. And now, she sat across from then, almost bald.
Her friends would apologize and promise to be more careful in the future.
“Oh, Neve,” Mom’s best friend Erlynda would say. “You know we’re not talking about you. Stop being so sensitive.”
“They were always sorry,” Mom had said to me. “But they were always forgetting.”
The moment passed with a smile from the young, Jewish woman seated beside me. She shifted her gaze back to the book in her lap. She didn’t look at me again. And when the nurse called her name—Jenna Goldenfeld—she sprang up and walked past me without a word.
I don’t know how much time had passed when someone touched my wrist. “Are you okay?”
“What?” I snapped.
A man with gray eyes jumped, snatched back his hand. His skin flushed until it turned cranberry. He was a Husband, and he was holding a sheet of pink tissue. “I asked if you were all right.”
I glanced around the room: the other husbands were staring at me. “I’m fine,” I said.
Water had spilled onto the back of my hand, then slipped underneath my palm. I touched my face: my fingers came away wet, slick with tears. When had I started crying?
He offered me the tissue.
I plucked the sheet from his fingers. “Thank you.”
He nodded, then ran his hand over his thick, graying hair. “No problem.” He yawned. Laugh lines crinkled at the corner of his eyes. “Wanna get some fresh air?”
“No. I really shouldn’t leave.”
He grunted, then returned to his Road and Track. After turning a page, he closed the magazine and tossed it on the coffee table. “Was that your mother?”
“When was she diagnosed?”
Annoyed, I squinted at him. “Excuse me?”
He smiled “None of my business, right?” He picked stray lint from the sleeve of his cable-knit sweater. “My wife’s forty. The doctor thought she was too young to get breast cancer.” He shrugged. “This is her first chemo session, and I’m scared out of my mind. Probably not as scared as Lizzy, though. That’s my wife.”
“My mother’s forty-eight,” I whispered. “She thought a spider bit her.”
But the skin around the ‘bite’ had dimpled like an orange peel. She hadn’t suspected that anything serious had happened, even after calamine lotion failed to heal it.
“She had no clue,” I said. “And she didn’t want to go to the hospital.”
“Cuz you know what happens when you go to a doctor,” Mom had told me.
The rash clears up or your throat’s no longer sore, or those strange palpitations in your chest stop as soon as the doctor walks in the room. He sees nothing with his handy-dandy penlight, and looks at you as though you’re an idiot. You apologize profusely and tell him that it was there, but he sighs, tells you to take a Benadryl and get some rest. So, you leave, horrified and confused, out of ten dollars for your co-pay and out of five dollars for the box of antihistamine that you already had at home.
The man laughed. “Can’t argue with that. You and your mother really close?”
I said, “Umm... We’re close.”
He blushed. Stared at me as though I had called Mom a bad word.
Then, I realized my faux pas. ‘Umm...’ meant ‘no, not really’, which suggested tension.
Umm...’ meant that I had to think about it, then lie. My ambivalence flew in the face of those mother-daughter relationships portrayed in Massengill and laxative commercials. We definitely didn’t ask each other about freshness. And she had a best friend that wasn’t her daughter.
It wasn’t my fault that my mother chose to keep some distance between us. We all have our areas of improvement. My area is interpersonal relationships with men. Mom’s is interpersonal relationship with me.
Ashamed, I told the man, “We are close. Very close.”
The guy held up his hand to stop me. “Well, at least you’re here.” He grabbed Road and Track from the coffee table. Flipped through it without another word.
His reaction meant that I had said enough, and now, he didn’t want to have polite conversation with me.
I wanted to pop him in his face and tear up his magazine. Instead, I pulled my cell-phone from my purse. The display showed that my boss Zeena had left two voice-mail messages.
I left the waiting room and retreated to the far-end of the hallway. Strange: the further I went, the calmer I became. I punched in the numbers to Zeena’s direct line. After several rings, she picked up. “Yeah?”
“It’s me,” I said. “I’m at the hospital.”
“Are you coming in today?”
“Probably not,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
“Mike developed your pictures from the party last night. You need to look at them before tomorrow morning.”
“Can he e-mail the contact sheet to the house?”
Zeena sighed. “Catherine, I’m trying to be understanding, but this is important.”
“I realize that.” I rubbed my eyes. My contact lenses had dried despite the weather. “Do they look good?”
“They look great,” Zeena said. “But I begged them to let you do this feature for the magazine, so you can’t fuck up on this.”
Although life had stopped for me, the Sunday Times magazine continued its coverage of Los Angeles galas, Los Angeles gardens, and Los Angeles restaurants. Last night, I had temporarily joined society to photograph a high-profile fundraiser organized by a Hollywood wife dedicated to the fight against... against... I can’t remember.
I had taken artsy-fartsy portraits of Hollywood Wife for the cover, then wandered the Beverly Hilton’s grand ballroom, clutching my Nikon, in spiky Jimmy Choo’s and a pantsuit that needed dry-cleaning.
All around me, important people shared their thoughts on the fight against... I don’t know, the mortality rate within the Yeti population. I snapped candids of power agents with tumblers of Scotch in hand, of vacant actresses nibbling crudités, of scions of rich families slapping each other on the backs. They all said the same things since they were all aware that their deep thoughts and Botoxed mugs would appear in the Sunday’s magazine.
Life had been tidied up on nights like this, and the players that mucked up the paper’s front pages with their corporate raids, messy divorces, and shoplifting convictions, hid their evil ways and imperfections beneath layers of Richard Tyler and Estee Lauder for the glossy rag found among coupons and sales papers. They remembered to look fabulous as they poked at rubbery breasts of mushroom-stuffed chicken. Some tried to act humble as I hoisted the camera to my face.
“I look a mess,” they’d say.
“You look great!” I’d say.
I laughed when they laughed. Soothed their egos when they complained of zits. Ignored the very-married mega moguls that eyed my boobs and brushed and bumped my backside as I bent to find more film or another lens in my bag. All in a day’s work.
“Well?” Zeena asked.
“I gotta go,” I said. “My mother’s probably looking for me. Have Mike e-mail everything to my home computer, and I’ll call you tonight. Swear.”
The nurse with long, silver hair had returned to the waiting room. She crooked her finger, motioning me to come with her. Synthia, the nurse, had helped Mom during her previous treatments. She always wore a small button on her scrubs top. It was a picture of her children Kelvin and Tomika. They had been killed in a drive-by last year.
I followed Synthia past the nurses’ station and down the bright, narrow corridors. “How’s she doing?”
“Better than last time,” the nurse said. “Still getting used to that I.V.”
Each small room we passed had been occupied. I recognized three women from the waiting room. Some listened to opera or classical music. One woman listened to her husband read. They all lay in beds with tubes snaking from their arms to plastic bags on poles.
Today was Mom’s third chemotherapy treatment and the last two times with that needle had left her arm bruised and tender. She had cried all through that visit, and I stood there, patting her shoulder, whispering, “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” But I could turn my head and only wonder how it felt to be poked over and over again with a thick needle.
Synthia and I reached Mom’s room. Gold light escaped through the cracked door, but it wasn’t from sunlight. There were no windows in these rooms. The theme music for All My Children had just ended, and an ad for Pine-Sol now followed. I took a breath, thought a quick prayer – Lord, please help me say the right thing – and pushed open the door.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, my voice an octave higher.
Mom lay in bed, hooked up to her bag. A small television sat on a credenza in front of her. Motel art of seascapes, lighthouses, and poppy fields hung on the walls for synthetic cheer. The furniture was Montgomery Ward circa 1976, the Great Faux Oak movement.
Synthia checked the machine and Mom’s heart. “Let me know if you need something,” she said, then left the room.
I sat in the armchair next to Mom’s bed. “Is it better today?”
“Yeah,” she said, a bit dazed.
“Want some juice?”
“No, I’m fine.” Mom’s eyes remained on the television temporarily visiting Pine Valley, a town where no one really died. Erica was in trouble again. Brooke had married again.
Adam... or was it Stewart... argued with his long-lost daughter. Again.
“Didn’t this happen three seasons ago?” I asked.
“You hate the stories, huh?” Mom asked.
I slouched in my chair. “They’re okay.”
“You don’t have to come here,” she said.
I didn’t read on these trips. I couldn’t watch television, either. I even refused to nap. Entertaining myself as my mother suffered seemed selfish to me. Sitting and waiting was the least I could do. And someone had to shoo away the vultures and shout that she wouldn’t die today.
“Chemo drives me crazy,” Mom said. One Life to Live titles had faded on screen. “I can either watch these rich people live ridiculous lives or watch this stuff drip from this stupid I.V. into my stupid vein.”
She turned to me. Dark circles hugged the bottoms of her eyes. “I can taste this stuff,” she whispered. “Even when I’m not hooked up, I can taste it. It’s... it’s... it tastes like pennies.” She closed her eyes, then opened them. “I’d understand if you didn’t want to come anymore. You have a life.” She closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed.
I drew close to her.
She was asleep.
What if she didn't wake up?
I told myself to stop thinking such dramatic thoughts. Stupid soap operas.