Mom and I reunited in the empty waiting room. How small she looked. Seemed as though the chemicals that streamed through her bloodstream had shrunk her to be the size of a sixteen year-old, only weaker, frailer. Her fawn-colored skin had paled, and blended with the beige scarf on her head.
She scrutinized me with eyes set deep in their sockets. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Ready?”
“You’ve been crying.” She smoothed my hair. “I’m sick but I’m not blind.”
“I’m fine.” I faked a smile. “Let’s get you home.”
She smirked. “So I can throw up in private, right?”
We laughed even though her sickness was far from funny. It took the length of our commute from Westwood to Long Beach—thirty-two miles—for her body to rebel against Taxol. As soon as we’d get home, Mom would hop out of the car, and nearly kick down the front door.
She’d race to the upstairs bathroom and sink to the tile floor. She’d grasp the sides of the toilet and drop her head over the bowl. Her body would convulse, then, as it tried to rid itself of the drugs that would make it better.
Downstairs, in the hospital’s lobby, patients, doctors, and staff rushed from exam room to pharmacy to lab. Someone tapped the keys of the baby grand near the front entrance. The well-worn linoleum was slick with puddles and mud.
“Neve!” A woman’s voice had cut through the noise. “Neve!”
Both Mom and I turned to see a small woman wearing a puffy Raiders parka rush over to where we stood. A cloud of wet-smelling cigarette smoke followed her. “I thought that was you!”
Mom squinted as she tried to remember the gap in the woman’s front teeth, her bloodshot hazel eyes, and the crucifix tattoo on her neck.
“Girl, it’s Aretha,” the woman said with a broad smile.
Mom squinted more.
The woman put her hand on her hip. “Aretha. Remember? Girl, I know you remember me.”
Mom’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Aretha from the Broadway?”
The short woman nodded. “Yeah!” Her golden hair weave rustled against the nylon jacket.
Mom turned to me. “Remember Aretha, Cat? She used to work in Girls.”
“This is Cat?” Aretha screeched. “Honey, I remember when you was nothing but a baby. Remember me?”
Guarded, I said, “Yes. How are you?” In truth, I barely remembered Aretha from Girls. And I barely remembered that Mom had worked as a department store salesclerk.
“So, what you here for?” Aretha asked my mother.
I tugged at Mom’s coat. “We should go. Traffic...”
“That sure is a beautiful head wrap.” Aretha turned to me and said, “Your mama always had taste. Just like Diana Ross. That’s what we called her at the store.”
Mom touched her head. “Actually, I’m losing my hair.”
“Already?” Aretha coughed—three packs a day, it sounded. “You what, forty-something? Cat giving you the blues?”
“No,” Mom said. “I have breast cancer.”
And it happened, like it always happened when Mom told someone that she had cancer. The Eye Dance:
“But you look so healthy,” Aretha said, unconvinced. “Remember this: the Lord will never give you more than you can handle.”
I cringed at these words. They were shaped like little burs that stuck to your socks.
“Well, looks can be deceiving.” Mom had never used that cliché before she had been diagnosed.
Aretha’s eyes now shifted between the exit and the floor. “So y’all still living in the Jungle?”
Mom shook her head. “No. My husband and I—”
“Husband? You ain’t talking about Paul, are you?” Aretha grinned, narrowed her eyes.
Mom tugged at her coat. Fidgeted with the strap to her purse.
“You really should get home and rest,” I said.
Mom nodded. “Aretha, it’s good seeing you again.”
Aretha said, “Yeah,” relieved that her brush with death and disease was almost over, but ticked off that she didn’t find out more about Mom’s private life.
My mother and I watched her shuffle to the elevator bank and wriggle into a full car. She didn’t look back. Looking back would change her into a pillar of salt, I guess.
Mom took my arm. We left the hospital that afternoon and braved the rain together.