Cancer Pirates

Fiction
Julianne Pachico


New Plant! Yes!
Photo Credit: Margaret Shear

She would have never guessed that radiation for prostate cancer didn’t make you lose your hair. That’s what she wanted to tell him when he opened the Volvo door, but as usual she lost her nerve and kept her mouth shut. Instead she just plopped herself down on the passenger seat, on top of all the random crap he called his “office supplies”: the Walgreens pharmacy bags, the Depends receipts from Walmart, the pages of stapled medical documents.

“Oh, wait!” he said. “Just, um. Nevermind.”

He drove away like he was perfectly okay with everything.

Now they were parked outside the plant nursery, the engine still running as he ran inside to get something: more suet for the birdfeeder, a thermometer for soil, fuck if she knew. Dealing with nature was his thing, in the same way that writing Yelp reviews of restaurants she’d never been to was hers. She kept her eyes on the dashboard clock: if he came back in the next five minutes, and they didn’t hit too many red lights, they’d still be able to make it to the radiation session on time. He liked going to the early morning ones because you’d see fewer of the worst cases. “Dying people are late risers,” he’d said once, cracking his knuckles in the waiting room, and she’d looked up at the ceiling and asked him if he thought Cosmopolitan magazine was sexist. The Walgreens bag squeaked every time she moved her butt.

In order to feel like a nice considerate girlfriend instead of a stupid useless one, she started pulling out papers out from beneath her and tossing them in the back. It felt good to just throw shit everywhere, like she just plain did not give a fuck. It was especially delicious when the coffee-stained WinCo receipt hit the window’s bull’s-eye. WinCo was where the cashier had asked her if she’d liked to make a donation for cancer, forgetting to say “research.” “For cancer? I’m against, motherdick.” She’d left without grabbing her pennies from the little cup.

They were already in Week 3 and she still had no idea what it was like. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask him. Was it a laser beam they shot at his body, a giant cancer zapper? How did it know how to detect tumors? Did they light up on his body like a Christmas tree? She used her fingernails to pick the loose dimes off the floor.

Or maybe it was a big machine that they wheeled you into on a gurney, like on those medical TV shows she couldn’t watch anymore: a black machine, beeping and blinking. Maybe being inside was peaceful, like a meditation retreat, a way to finally get away from it all. Or maybe it was like being inside a coffin. Maybe designing it that way was the medical establishment’s way to prepare you to be dead, a sick kind of heads-up. Doctors. She wanted nothing to do with them. She yanked on a Google map so hard it ripped.

The last thing she pulled out was a thin pamphlet. She held onto it for a second because it had those sharp pointy edges that were perfect for cleaning fingernails, but then stopped and stared. It was a pamphlet for a Catholic liturgy, with a big picture of Jesus holding his arms towards her: angry or ecstatic; it was hard to tell. What did liturgy even mean—was that the thing you put in your mouth?

Before she had time to think or even curse, there came a rapping on the window. She looked up with the same guilty expression she’d had that one time he’d caught her drunk and jerking off in the car, late at night waiting for him to get back from the ATM. Now he was standing there with a big grin, his arms bear-hugging a giant plant in a black plastic pot.

She leaned over to open the door for him. “What… who?” It was hard to decide what question to ask first. He leaned in and shoved the plant in the backseat. Some soil spilled onto the crumpled medical documents.

“Come on lover, don’t you remember?” He wiped his hands off on his jeans, a gesture she hated: it made putting hand sanitizer on so useless. “I told you all about these trees. You know, from my childhood?”

He pulled off a leaf and waved it in front of her face. She stared at the single drop of milky liquid that had formed on the stem, swollen between his fingertips.

“Come on now,” he said, starting to frown. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember. We called them lecheros—milkers. Ficus leaves always have that little white drop on the stem when you pull them off.”

“I must have been drunk when you told me,” she said.

It was a mean thing to say and they both knew it. He got into the car without speaking and they drove away. She didn’t want to tell him how it had scared her, him waving that drop of liquid in her face like that. It had almost pulsed; it seemed so clean and alive. She hated that plant already, so pure and organic, sitting there on the ripped leather seats. She could feel it judging her, especially the pumpkin ashtray rolling around in the back trunk every time the car took a turn (neither of them had smoked since the diagnosis). That white liquid squeezed between his fingers had looked like something leaking out of him, getting lost.

While waiting at the stoplight, she touched his arm. “Lover,” she said. “I don’t remember the ficus, but I remember the story about the rubber tree. Didn’t you guys hack it with your little plastic swords, because you loved seeing the rubbery liquid come out? And then it died because you cut it up so much, and you felt so guilty about it.”

“Our swords were sticks,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “We didn’t run around with Thundercat swords in Medellín, not like you lucky guys here in Portland.”

“Ha, ha.” But she could feel it, him forgiving her the way he always did, like something warm spilling in her lap.

As he pulled onto the freeway she shoved the pamphlet deep into her purse. “I remember what games you guys played too,” she said, using the clean nails on one hand to clean the dirty ones on the other. This had become one of her favorite things to do, especially in the waiting rooms with the really uncomfortable chairs. It was almost as good as a vacation. “You guys played pirates. I was never into piracy. I really liked Napster when it first came out, though.”

“Mm.” He opened his mouth wide and let out a long burp that sounded like saying “aaah” at the dentist. Did he understand the Napster reference? She suddenly had that one thought she usually only got lying awake at night, up too late yet again from writing fake Yelp reviews: Who is this old man, lying in bed with me? How did I get here?

“Do you think I would get along well with the Somali pirates?” she said in a voice loud enough to chase the thought away. “I heard on the radio the other day that they’re the best group to kidnap you, because they have the lowest number of deaths among their victims.”

He swerved sharply into the next lane, scaring her a little, though she didn’t show it. Hiding her feelings was one of her best skills, besides staring down people in bars who made racist comments or asked if he was her father. “Does your dad always buy you that many tequila shots?” they’d ask.

“I think Mexico has the highest death rate, which doesn’t surprise me.” She hadn’t even finished the sentence before he let out another burp, a long one this time that went on forever, a sustained musical note at the opera. He groaned softly once he finished. She tried to hold her breath so that she couldn’t smell it.

“Remember that story you told me in Bogotá?” He almost hit an orange traffic cone and she had to press her lips together. “The one about that girl and her mother who were kidnapped at gunpoint, and then their kidnappers just drove them around in a car for hours?”

He shook his head, still not looking at her. Another foul smell was filling the car, deep and eggy, and she tried breathing through her mouth as quietly as possible. If you could view smells under a microscope, would this one be a mustardy yellow or a rotten egg greenish brown?

While he parked the car at the hospital she tried to make a lot of noise rummaging in her purse so that he wouldn’t be conscious of how she could hear his diaper rustling. When he got out she threw her head back and studied the broken sunroof intensely so that he wouldn’t see her noticing the wet patch on his jeans.

“I do remember,” he said at the same time that she slammed the door so hard the whole car shook. Somebody standing far away by a garbage can said, “Whoa, lady!”

“What?” Her voice still sounded like motherdick.

“The story in Bogotá.” He stood in front of the hospital the same way he drove: calm and undeterred, his hands steady.

“The daughter told me,” he said, “that what scared her most wasn’t how the gunman slapped her mother’s face every time she spoke. She said the worst thing about the experience was the way the driver’s hands shook uncontrollably at the wheel. That’s what gave them away as amateurs. Nothing like real pirates. Yeah.” He smiled. “At least for my near-death experience I’m in the hands of something that knows what it’s doing.”

“No,” she said. “You’re not!” She was thinking of the tumor, bursting inside him like flowers pushing out of the earth. She opened her mouth to say something distracting but something else came out instead: “Did you go to church and not tell me?”

“What?”

“The next time you go,” she said. “Tell me. So that I can come with you.”

He started rubbing his beard. She wanted to start cleaning her fingernails so badly it was like she could taste it, but she forced herself to keep her hands still and at her sides.

“Just maybe,” she said. “If you feel like it.”

“OK.” His voice sounded small. He reached out and pulled her by the elbows into a hug.

She didn’t want to say it out loud, not then, but what he didn’t know is that she’d been a pirate for weeks now. She’d been sailing the Internet seas and attacking the message board harbors. She had raided and scavenged all the information that the two of them would ever need. She had Prostate Cancer 101 sheets and FAQs printed out and tossed back in the car somewhere with the flattened Lucky Strike cartons. When the time was right and she felt brave enough to actually do it, to sit down and finally have the conversation, she would pull them out. She knew all about interpreting PSA test results. She knew it was good news for a Gleason score to be under 7. She had so much information about Chinese nutrition and hot and cold foods, he’d be blown away. She even had a list of punchlines about digital rectal exams.

She wasn’t ready for that just yet though. For now it was nice to just be held by him in the parking lot. But it was weird to suddenly think of the tumor only inches away from her, growing steadily away, alive and organic. She felt sorry for it all of a sudden. Stupid tumor. What did it think it was doing? Didn’t it know that if he died, it would die too? And yet it didn’t have a choice. All it knew how to do was grow. It was just nature and stuff. She suddenly remembered the words she’d glimpsed on the pamphlet right before shoving it away, the long cursive words drooping up and down: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

She would tell him the good news about not losing his hair later. For now, she pressed herself against his body as hard as she could, hard enough so that there was maybe a tiny chance she could squish it out of him, just like that. Squish it hard.

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Julianne Pachico lives in Norwich, England and tries to blog at never-stop-reading.com. Email: pachicoj[at]gmail.com

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