After three hours of chemotherapy, Synthia unhooked my mother from the Taxol drip. The skin on Mom’s forearm had already bruised into a dirty yellow. It would be the color of seaweed by tomorrow morning. Synthia checked Mom’s blood pressure a final time, then said, “You did great today, Neve.”
Weak, Mom could only smile.
“You okay?” I asked my mother once the nurse left the room.
She nodded, then asked me to pray with her. “You don’t mind, do you?”
We held hands as she asked God for a successful recovery. I peeked: her face tilted up to the cork board ceiling, as though healing would shower down like rain. Mom thanked God for Synthia and Doctor Pearson, the pharmaceutical company, cancer researchers, me. The tremor in her voice betrayed the calm on her face. I squeezed her hands to remind her that I was still there.
After she finished praying, I whispered, “I’ll be outside,” then stumbled back through the corridors to the waiting room, now empty. I took a deep breath and leaned against the back of a chair. Even though we were finished, we weren’t finished.
My cell-phone chirped and interrupted any thoughts about the next several hours. I grabbed the phone from my bag. The caller I.D. display flashed Sam Chappelle’s phone number. We met five years ago. Ran into the back of him—literally—in my old Hyundai. He was a star reporter for the Times. I was a starting photographer on my first day. He had eyes the color of cognac, a strong chin covered in barely-there whiskers, and a lithe, tennis player’s body.
The phone continued to chirp. Didn’t know whether to smile or be annoyed. Wondered if I should answer or...
“Hey,” I said.
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks.”
“Where are you?” he asked.
“At the hospital with my mother.”
A pause. “Oh.” More silence. “Is she okay?”
I wandered over to the smoked glass windows. Raindrops still slashed across the thick panes, and down below, people rushed from the hospital to the parking lot across the street. “Hard to tell.”
“So are you celebrating tonight?” Sam asked. “It’s the big 3-0.”
I could hear his fingers flying over the laptop keyboard. For the past week, he had been writing a story on toxic sludge discovered beneath a proposed school site.
“Really don’t feel like it,” I said. “With everything going on.”
He was probably sitting at his desk, surrounded by empty root beer cans and Doritos bags. He had muted the sound of Judge Judy or Oprah, listening instead to Tupac or Biggie Smalls on the stereo.
“I’d really like to spend more time with you,” he said. “You’ve been pretty busy lately.”
I sighed. Heard this all the time from any poor sucker I dated. This time, I could blame my mother for my distraction.
“Cat, you there?” Sam asked.
Outside, gusts of wind forced palm trees to lean back like long-legged limbo dancers. I closed my eyes and pictured the freeway: cars, rain, brilliant pink flares thrown on the asphalt, forcing three chaotic lanes into one. There would be Highway Patrol squad cars on the side of the road with officers calming frightened accident victims and concerned truckers.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
Sam stopped typing. “You have nothing to apologize for.” His voice sounded tight, cautious. “So when will I see you again?”
I closed my eyes. “Soon.”
“Next week?” But next week was... was... I’m sure next week was something.
Sam said, “I’ll call for reservations at Dan Tana’s.”
I placed my hand against the window. “That sounds great.”
Sam said, “If you don’t want us to go out anymore, you can say that. I’m 34 years old. I can handle it.”
I didn’t speak. Just watched the rain hit the pane. Just listened to my heart thump in my chest.
“Am I talking to myself?” he said.
“I like you, Sam,” I said, “but I have to think of my mother first. Know what I mean?”
He said, “Yes. I didn’t mean to push.”
I gripped the phone tight.
“I’ll still make reservations,” he said, “and if you can’t make it, you can’t make it. How’s that?”
Relieved, I nodded. Whispered, “Okay.”
I knew that I would cancel last minute. And I knew that Sam knew, too. I also knew that he wouldn’t tolerate me much longer. He’d leave. That’s what men do. They fall in love. Fall out of love. Then, they leave.