“Hello,” he opened.
“H-hi there,” she replied, unable and unwilling to hide her surprise. “No one told me you were coming. You didn't tell me you were coming.”
He shrugged, opening his palms in greetings. He approached her bed, taking a few moments to scan his surroundings as he crossed the room.
Within, the hospital room was similar to others Bruce had seen, all of which varied from wretched to pleasantly hopeless. A dismal aura pervaded this room, the wide open exterior window blinds washing all remaining intensity from the dully colored objects which populated the room.
She was no exception, her dark, curled tresses, so brown as to be black, remained, though from this distance, he could not say if the hair was fake. Her deep olive skin was much the as he remembered, but faintly blotched in parts, mostly on her arms and lower neck. Was her skin blotched at all when last they saw one another? He did not believe so, but certainty eluded him.
Her eyes played no such games with his perceptions. The folds of skin around those brilliant orbs had always been dark and slightly puffy from her perpetual sleep deprivation, but there was no mistaking the change now. The eyes were sunken in their sockets, and the surrounding flesh more languid than he could ever have imagined. The eyes themselves stared at him, wide open, alert, and startled.
Bending over her, they embraced courteously, she with one arm, the other tethered to the bedside by the IV drip.
“So, you seeing anybody?” He had planned and settled on asking this question, delivering it with smooth precision in spite of a lingering dissatisfaction with the inquiry.
She laughed, a good, rich laugh, that might say nothing of her health, but everything about her mentality.
“I was. I am, truthfully, but it doesn't feel like it at times because we can only go through some of the motions these days.”
“In all honesty, you look pretty good,” he announced.
“Oh thanks,” she responded with a small measure of her customary sass. “I didn't know- do you live out here now?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I'm just in town for a few small things, for the weekend and a day. Figured I'd pop by after I heard what had befallen you.”
“When did you hear?”
This was not a question Bruce wanted to answer at all, much less this early in the meeting. There was no elegance to the truth, and he'd not been able to construct a suitable fabrication after ruminating on this scenario over the past week. Dodging the question would be awkward as well, given how forward she'd been with the query.
“Not too long ago. Wasn't sure who to ask for more details, who would still be a mutual friend.” Bruce chose to offer a vague, half-truth. He let slip a single nod, the only outward sign of how pleased his was with the sound of the impromptu answer.
Her eyebrows rose in conciliation. “Yeah, that's a fair point, certainly no one I know comes to mind, and I don't have the faintest idea who you still talk to anymore.”
Bruce wondered if the statement was intended as a subtle jab. She'd deny it if he brought the issue to light. He must retaliate with his own covert methods.
“So its cancer.” He uttered the statement with a matter-of-fact timbre, yet could not bring himself to intone the full designation of “breast cancer” much less “malignant breast neoplasia.” His second guesses made him wonder what exterior damage she had suffered, and what was left. He could never ask such a question. He could not treat even her in such a way, turning something so devastating into shallow sexual banter. Nevertheless, Bruce couldn't imagine how anyone in his position could not envision them, at least as they once were.
She would see through his thought process, he was certain. As he imagined her, she would know the signs written all across his face. She'd willfully and unwillingly elicited them too many times to miss them.
“The company?” he asked, in a desperate attempt to divert the conversation from landing on the subject to the faint pink color tinging his upper cheeks.
“You mean work?”
“Its just work, same as always. Nothing I ever got myself involved in lasted that long. I worked for them for years, sure, but when you're always chasing the next big opportunity, you can't get too involved in where you're at in the moment, even if the big break never arrives.” She shrugged.
“Its difficult to think about now,” she continued. “Not 'painful' difficult, but 'hard' difficult. Inconsequential. Can't bring myself to care, and why should I?”
“Is there, if you don't mind my asking, much pain?”
She heaved a sigh. Raising her arms briefly, her hands fell and issued a light slapping sound as they reconnected with the blanket stretched across her bed and lower body.
“No one goes through chemotherapy without pain. Did I just kill two birds for you there? There's been the operation and some chemo, but the majority of risk is yet to come.”
“Who knows. Random, 50/50? Take your pick, doctors seem to use those phrases interchangeably, even though they're clearly independent, so I doubt anyone involved has the time or intelligence to do any real statistics.”
“How To Lie With Statistics? Best seller, translated into fourteen different languages.”
She smirked. “When do the doctors even learn stats? All throughout college, only the engineers and physical scientists knew stats, yet its the sociologists, biologists, and premeds who are the ones who'll need 'em, at least more than the engineers will. They'll take an introductory class, if that, yet as soon as they're in a graduate program, sure, they can handle any statistical test you can throw at them, as if the knowledge was imparted by their patron saint one fine summer day. There's a red flag if ever I saw one.”
Bruce chuckled once. "You know, this chat keeps reminding me of this old Dan Fogelberg song, The snow was falling, Christmas Eve, I stole behind her in the frozen foods, And I touched her on the sleeve. Do you know that song?”
She shook her head, but continued to look directly at him.
“They only play that song around Christmas-time. Its a good, thoughtful song with a nice melody, and it isn't actually about Christmas. The events he's singing about could happen at any time of the year. What sense does that make that one line should do that to a song, relegate it to the third string of pop Christmas staples? Do people only play that Jason Mraz song, uh, the Remedy? Yeah that's the name, do people only play that around Independence Day because he says that someone was born on the Fourth of July? Of course not, the idea is laughable.
“Is it because the Fogelberg song wasn't good enough? Or maybe that Christmas is a black hole of ideology that is more difficult to be independent from than the Fourth of July?”
His gaze had wandered away from her, and his gesticulations had grown more vigorous as his discourse developed. By the end it was as if he was lecturing to an audience of raptly attentive undergraduates, rather than having a conversation.
This very thought struck his mind, and the delusion dissolved, leaving him alone with her. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I got a bit carried away, did you want to add something?”
"No, its fine, you're being yourself. Its nice to see you that way." She actually smiled at him, genuinely, the creasing of the well wrinkled skin on the outsides of her eyes definitively conveying the truth of the expression.
“That's another thing right there: you were someone who I could just act as myself around, without giving a damn one way or the other. In the beginning.”
A voice was speaking inside Bruce's head immediately, volunteering an additional explanation: Because you didn't actually care about her or what she thought of you at the start. That didn't come till later.
He plunged forward, ignoring the voice, unwittingly beginning to ramble. “What changed, and why did it need to change? Western relationships are the most stereotyped institutions that I can imagine, and maybe there's good reason for much of that, but why do people let go of the gripping excitement of fresh interactions? Maybe its not their choice, maybe there's a deep subconscious power telling us not to, or maybe a higher power, if you prefer, but no matter how you swing it, so many people are entirely complacent in how they treat their long term interactions with others. Maybe I've just had poor opportunities to forge powerful, everlasting personal bonds with other people, but I've been all over, lived in city after city, so that doesn't seem like a likely explanation.
“We used to talk about this all the time, do you remember? We both wanted that freedom and excitement back then, I still want it, believe I still have it, and I'd wager you're still the same. What went wrong, where in the chemistry, in the balance of our personas did things go awry?
“That's what happens to everyone!” she blurted out, the exasperation that had built over the course of his monologue threatening to overwhelm her. “You practically answer all of your own questions, but don't make the effort to understand yourself!
“Everyone has their delightful first days, week, or month. And then they stop. For whatever reason, at one time or another, they stop going out of their way to match the other person. Its barely even worth thinking about because of the inevitability of it. You'll know when there's nothing more to be gained from the relationship, or it'll last for your lifetime. I don't know how people manage to stay that in sync forever, I've never experienced that for myself, and I don't live my life ever expecting to find that.”
“Me neither,” added Bruce, content for the moment, to follow.
“Besides, it wasn't ever balanced. I could never be myself around you, not even at the beginning. There's this brooding quality you carry with you, where you want everyone to wonder and be in awe of you, but you never want to tear down the veil with anyone else, you do so as slowly as you can so you can fabricate some new issue to brood over, negating any progress that actually gets made in personal interactions.
“Like what you're pulling here and now, coming in unannounced, mustering your best air of mystery, acting like everything is normal and then stonewalling every conversation that doesn't go in the direction you've selected in advance. You want to talk about it, but only to the predetermined extent that you've settled on.”
She lay, he sat, both in silence for another several interminable seconds.
“And now I'm angry at this entire conversation, which is on you, Bruce.”
He relaxed, lifting his arms and resting them behind his head, tilting his head a few degrees to the right. A wry expression took over his features.
“If I didn't get you a little angry when I wanted to have a serious chat, I'd never be able to pull your attention away from ever-present distractions.”
He was satisfied enough to continue when he noticed her eyes briefly trace the newly tightened tendons buried in his exposed neck flesh.
“What about the current Mister Magic?” He started in on a fresh tack.
She looked back at him, shaking her head, “what about him?”
“Would he be – is he, different from all the others?”
Her lips pursed, betraying her residual anger, still smoldering beneath her largely placid exterior. “Just say what you mean.”
“Well, I mean to say, that if life had turned out a little bit differently, would you be considering, might you have considered,” he fumbled, mentally cursing himself for being unable to transition the conversation as easily as he'd planned in his mind.
Bruce stopped, and took a much needed breath. He hoped she would not treat his recovery as an opportunity to speak. He was lucky.
“What I never understood,” he began again, “was why you always insisted that you wanted to get married some day. You're borderline obsessed with novelty and excitement, you like to move around, you've no interest in kids, not to mention...”
Trailing off with a shrug and a deliberate sidelong glance, Bruce waited for her reply. No explanation or excessive dwelling on the morbid subject was necessary.
Yet, a silence stretched out from a short moment into several seconds.
“What?” She jutted her chin forward, aggressively. She seemed determined to prove him wrong.
“Well, this,” he answered, after another moment had expired. He accompanied the reply with an expressive gesture of open palms and raised eyebrows.
“Right,” she sighed, looking away from him with a shake of her curls. Then, “only you would emphasize one's family history of disease in polite conversation.”
“But you're not wrong,” she continued, turning her face back in his direction.
“I suppose it could have been family influence,” he offered, “and through those girlie fantasy books you soaked up from a young age. How could one not romanticize matrimony what with how all those books end?”
She laughed at this, but only slightly. A semi-truthful joke like that would have elicited quite a giggle from her had she not been lingering on feelings of resentment. She averted her eyes from his own, and the smile she offered was a half smile, a strong curl of the lips, but only on one side. Her most wan of looks.
Bruce refused her any concessions.
“You know what that expression says about you? That look is your strongest expression of sadness, disappointment, hurt, but you know what? There's only one basic facial expression that isn't symmetrical: contempt.
“You're the one who has to win, every time, at everything. Any other viewpoint has to be more flawed than your own. Any failure of in your life has to be someone else's fault. It doesn't even matter if you are right! You either never consider the possibilities and implications of you being in error, or you do, and somehow manage to rule it out every single time. I'm not sure which of the two options is worse.
“Every negative emotion you express is derived not from sadness or even anger, but from the contempt, the cruelest of emotions. Except when you actually cry,” he added, as an afterthought.
When she looked back into his eyes this time, hers were gleaming, alight with indignation. Bruce could easily make out his own silhouette, standing distorted in the reflection of the hospital room appearing on the surface of her cornea.
“Why are you even here? What is it you want this time? You always want something you think I can give you, so what is it now? My life is on the line and I might not live another month, as you've been so kind to repeatedly hint at, yet otherwise you act as if nothing is different, and as if I don't have better things to do and more important things to worry about. Now of all times!
“Showing up unannounced, the smoke and mirrors routine, the underhanded jabs, setting me up for your diatribes like I'm some kind of chump? Why does it still matter anymore? You wrote me off years ago, so what is this? Another chance to write me off, getting it while you still can? Is this what all the pretense is for?”
Bruce had been waiting, staging, hoping it would eventually come to this.
“Well, you're not too far off. I don't believe in an afterlife, at least not one where the actions of a single day make any difference, so I can't really care too much about what little effect I will have on you,” he said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “My immortal chi or soul or whatever isn't at risk as far as I can tell, and neither is yours for that matter. So I came looking for the same thing I'm always after: catharsis.”
And, he thought to himself as blood thundered in vein and artery, beat in his ears, hands, chest as it had for every minute he had just spent with her, I came for one last roller coaster ride with you. He paused, staring into space while contemplating whether or not to give voice to this ultimate motive while his blood raced through his circulatory system as if it were the longest, most exhilarating carnival ride on the planet.
A split-second later he returned to the hospital's reality from the amusement park of his emotions, and a minute smile curved the skin of his cheeks around the lips. He altered his posture slowly so as to be sitting forward in the molded plastic of the hospital's chair, and rested his hands softly on his knees.
This time, she took the cue.
“Are you going to leave now?” She asked in a tone she would have used to deliver an order.
“I think so. Yes. The hospital will be closing to visitors soon, anyhow. No sense getting into some hot debate that we won't be able to conclude.”
Hands already in place, he rose from the chair, picked up the jacket, tossed it over his left shoulder, and stepped toward the doorway. He reslung the jacket over the other arm in order to push down on the door handle with his dominant hand.
“Did you get it?” she asked as his right hand came to rest on the handle, ready at any moment to release his shoulder's weight on the lever arm. “Your catharsis?”
He swung his head back to her.
“I don't know yet. Too early to say. Plus, I've never succeeded at finding catharsis before, so I'm not quite sure what to look for.
“Maybe I wouldn't be able to recognize it even if I did find it.”
He turned back to the exit, and departed, deliberately shutting the door behind him.
Bruce looked up at the darkened sky as he pushed open the doors of the hospital's main entrance and stepped outside. The only sign of clouds was the absolute absence of stars in the December sky. The street block on which he stood was lined with two story, family homes. Once vividly flowered cherry trees reached skyward in the house yards laid out before him. Beyond the homes, Bruce could just make out the outline of one of the bridges crossing the bay, an outline which faded by the moment as the darkness of evening consumed it. A short, salty breeze arose and Bruce caught a chill, convulsing the skin around the back of his neck. He pulled his coat closer around him, warding off the shudder. He stopped walking for a moment and sighed. Then, a wry smile stretched across his face and he shrugged, continuing his walk. He still had a going away party to attend this evening. If he was lucky, it would rain.
Slightly cheered and briefly caught up in the holiday spirit, Bruce began to sing to himself as he walked towards his parked rental car.
Should old acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
and days of old lang syne?
For old lang syne, my dear...