Existentialism at the God Rodeo

Fiction
Diana Goble


Blood-coated Cheerios slid down the white porcelain like a slow-motion avalanche. I watched the red whirl into the water, creating a smoky tie-dye pattern. I didn’t remember eating coffee grounds, but the former contents of my stomach seemed to suggest otherwise.

I leaned back against the side of the tub, its coolness chilling the sweat on my skin. Or perhaps the frigidity erupted from the sight in the toilet. It was the fifth time this week; it had happened before, once a month for the last few months, but never at such an alarming rate. Some red mixed with the morning’s oatmeal. Ulcers could have the same effect, I’d heard. But, I thought, this must be one big ulcer.

Despite the calming cold, I felt nauseous again. Not even two minutes had passed. I forced myself to think of other things. My sister was having a barbeque later that evening to celebrate fifteen years of marriage. I was supposed to bring the potato chips. I debated about what kind I should get. Salt and vinegar was good, but ripples always appeased the masses. Bile welled up again; thinking about food didn’t help.

I wasn’t pregnant. Thank god, since I was having trouble keeping enough blood in my system for myself, let alone a fetus. I stared at the days-old pregnancy test in the trash next to me, my knees pulled up akimbo, feet sticking to the tiles to prevent me from sliding down. I wasn’t disappointed, but I supposed I had had my hopes up. The signs had been there: nausea, vomiting… well, those signs had been there. I sure as hell hadn’t been gaining weight. I’d taken the test after the second bloody mess that week, thinking about another daughter like Annie. Darling Annie, who slept through the night her first evening home, and every night thereafter. The six-year-old who proudly served me burnt toast and instant coffee in bed last Mother’s Day. The daughter who was easy to smile and anxious to please.

My husband Gilbert knocked on the door, his passionless departure for work. Normally he wouldn’t even do this, but even in the shower he couldn’t ignore me wrenching over the nearby toilet.

I pulled my feet free from their suction-cup hold and curled up on the bathroom rug. Something was wrong; I could feel it like a cold coming on, like a storm in arthritic joints, like a ghost haunting my veins.

In the cold space of the distance living room, I heard the obnoxious Latin ring of my phone, the tone I selected to purposely to annoy my husband. It was a long shot, meant to combat all the times he came home smelling like the Chanel he was too cheap to buy for me.

The Latin mambo swelled like an infection, and I debated whether to leave my bathroom cocoon to answer it. It was my sister, I figured. I had made her promise to call me at eight on her way to her studio, to make sure I was still alive. I didn’t tell her that last part, of course, but she was the only one who would remember or care enough to call.

I sat a moment too long before pushing myself up and onto my feet—I knew I’d reach it just a second too late, and I deliberated as I crossed the living room barefoot, What would happen if I didn’t answer? Would anything be different? Would the sun streaming through the thinly veiled windows grow one degree colder? Would I vomit up my lifeblood one time less today than yesterday?

The ringing stopped, and I held the phone one moment too long before letting it fall to the leather couch, next to the coffee table where it had been charging. The sun beams pounding at the curtains felt the same temperature, and the nausea continued its butter churning motion. Nothing affected anything, I decided. And with that notion echoing in the dark corners of my brain, I headed back to the bathroom to release another round of blood, blackness and despair.

*

I didn’t want to call my sister back. I didn’t know what to say. Besides, it would overshadow the barbeque, where our kids could play on Nicole’s brand new swing set, and the four adults could drink beer in the lemon-tinted evening.

Everything about Nicole was laid-back, always the cool little sister, yet smoothly cautious. She checked her son’s Halloween candy twice with the ease of a flight attendant checking boarding passes. She even turned her cell phone on speaker when talking in the car, so she could have her hands free for driving. Hers was a caution barely noticed.

I tried to ignore the fact that she was the youngest and, as a child, perpetually spoiled. She’d been named after our Dad’s sister who had died shortly after I was born. My name—Cass—they got out of a baby book a month after I was born.

I’d been the older, restricted offspring, breaking curfew and downing beers at underage drinking parties. Perhaps that’s why I was being punished now. I had had my fun at 17; my lifetime allotment and the reservoir of living pleasure was dry. Not that life was all the much fun, even before the vomiting. I had a husband who was there, but not really, and two kids who were at the age where they didn’t need Mom much anymore. Yeah, Nicole got it all.

Except this.

*

When I got to work, bending stiffly into the space between my desk and chair, I had messages. Nicole had called several times. I hesitated, but finally dialed her number. I didn’t want her to worry.

“Cass!” She was perpetually enthusiastic and happy. “I’m glad you called me back!”

“Happiness is genetic. Did you know?” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to match her gusto.

“I don’t think that’s right, Cass. Otherwise you got your genes from Dad.” She laughed at her own joke, four little snorts.

“Right,” I said, then blurted out, “I’m sick.”

“That’s what you said last night. What is it, a cold? Does that mean you don’t want to barbeque?”

“No. I think it’s worse than that.”

“What do you mean?”

I reached out my hand to fondle the pens in the “World’s Best Mom” cup on my desk, a present from Annie. “I threw up blood.” I could taste the metallic red in my mouth at the mention of it, feel the gritty black sandpapering my taste buds.

“Oh,” Nicole said, like she’d just found out about a mistake that had already been fixed. “Oh… God.”

“God really has nothing to do with this.” I was impressed with my own detachment. I didn’t even feel like crying.

“Oh Cass… ” she gulped, her concern uncharacteristically audible. “Have you seen a doctor?”

“Not yet.” I hated doctors. Dad had been a doctor and he died penniless, thanks to several malpractice suits. The one that did him in was when he’d misdiagnosed a severe case of diabetes as allergies, and the patient lost her foot. My father didn’t know anything. He just wanted people to think he knew everything.

“No matter what it is, we can beat it right? Remember what Mom used to say. When you’re on the bull’s back, you got to hold on until it’s done bucking.”

“That’s retarded. No one can hold on to a bucking bull,” I scoffed. Then softer, because Mom was a soft lady, “And I don’t remember her saying that.”

“Well, she did.”

We hung up after I promised to see a doctor and call her immediately afterwards. It was a promise I didn’t mean to fulfill. I didn’t need any of those quacks poking and prodding just to tell me something I could find out on my own.

I followed my thoughts to a medical website where I could cross-reference my symptoms. Vomiting, blood, loss of appetite… could be a great many things, I realized, as I scrolled through the possible diagnoses. Some weren’t so serious and I could live with. Ulcers were no problem, and food poisoning was fine. I rested easy until I came across a disturbingly accurate description of that morning’s vomit: red coffee grounds. No other diagnosis had that detail, and my heart dropped like a broken elevator despite my attempt to remain detached.

Cancer.

I was sure of it.

I bit my bottom lip hard to fend off the panic that arose, and prayed to whoever was listening that I was wrong, that it was just a nasty ulcer. Cancer was something that happened to people on TV, the one patient George Clooney couldn’t cure, re-run after re-run. And stomach cancer… I hadn’t known such a thing existed. Smoking led to lung cancer, sunburn led to skin cancer, so did eating lead to stomach cancer? There was no immunity, then. Just rotten luck. Lady fortune had always been with me. I once won $5 on a lottery ticket.

I pushed my chair back from my desk and pressed my right index and middle finger into my stomach, feeling for a lump. Of course there would be a lump. And there was, right above my right hipbone. I massaged the spot for awhile, feeling the lump move back and forth as I manipulated my stomach tissue.

There it was. My cancer. So close I could touch it.

The world around me seemed to intensify as the concept sank in. Time slowed down, light grew brighter and sounds grew louder. I could feel the mass gnawing away at my stomach lining like the chomping cannonballs I’d seen on my son’s Mario Nintendo game. My eyes burned under the fluorescent lights and all the ringing of phones in my office were like irritating insects. They made me dizzy and I felt like screaming for them to stop.

I had become immune to the environment around me, and it took a death sentence to become more in tune with all the things that defined who I was, like those incessant phones. I needed to get out; if I was right about my illness, I didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to be like these other losers, talking up products over the phone that I hadn’t even tried. Whatever apathy I could find—accumulated in years of hatred for the small things in my life, my father, my husband, my vomit—I grabbed it and wrapped it around me like a wet blanket, probably the army-issue kind. Mentally swatting at the electronic buzzes behind me, I walked into my boss’s office, my throat scratchy with suppressed panic.

“Excuse me, sir, but I have cancer and would like to go home.”

*

On the way from work I stopped at the Hy-vee. In the checkout line, petty problems cluttered impulse shelves: some star was getting divorced for the third time; a baby had been born with the image of Jesus on its chest; the world was again predicted to end the following week. The cashier was gossiping with the purple-haired octogenarian ahead of me about a terrible accident on the outskirts of town, and I was growing impatient. You can at least start writing your check, grandma, I fumed. I probably have less time left than you.

Next to the tabloids were horoscope charts for all star signs, promising love, health and happiness. It was too late to start reading into the stars. On the rack below was a small pamphlet: “Living Longer for Dummies” and I was insulted. Was I a dummy for not buying this pamphlet early enough? Or perhaps only dummies needed to be told how to live longer, because smart people lived a cancer preventative life from day one. I felt the bitter sting of tears. I was a dummy for wanting to live longer. Or thinking that I had a right to.

I dropped the potato chips and bustled my way out of the store, back to my car. How embarrassing, tearing up in a supermarket. Cancer isn’t even exempt from that social restriction. How antinomian of me to wish for special treatment when I didn’t want to have to be different at all—to be like everyone else. How many different types of people are there in the world who are all required to act in the same manner? It seemed unfeasible, I thought, as I let the gripping spike of sorrow drip away. What was there to do with the rest of my life? I guess I would have to make that doctor’s appointment, verify my fears, and then make preparations. The chemo, the life insurance, the funeral. Most people didn’t have time to plan their earthly departures. Lucky me. I contemplated the sort of flowers I should plant in the garden. What kind would be good at a funeral?

Trying not to cry again over the pointless series of events that concocted a human life—my life—I remembered my dear Annie, the only thing worth living for. The sun grew warm, radiating through the windshield as I started the car and drove the road that would take me to her.

*

I pulled into the deserted bus lane outside my daughter’s school, allowed my body to move with the momentum of the sharp break and slap back against the seat. Slipping the gearshift into park like a dislocated shoulder, I sat and waited, melded into the seat. The dashboard clock flickered seconds of existence away into the silent new car scent, announcing that I was two hours and fourteen minutes early. It hadn’t quite occurred to me to go home. There was nothing there for me either. Gil was at his office creating ads for off brands of relish, even though he vehemently claimed they were actually number one but got second rating because the general public was stupid. Gil Jr. was at school, too, and then football practice. Annie was my sweetheart anyway, the little of piece of myself I’d been glad to let escape into the world.

I remembered the Christmas Eve Annie, in her jammies, walked out into the living room while I was putting out the presents from Santa. I froze under her five-year-old Medusa gaze, those big brown eyes surveying the wreckage of her Christmas imagination. Instead of crying, instead of throwing a fit, she simply walked up to me, wrapped her arms around my leg and said, “Oh, Mama. It’s okay. I won’t tell Junior.”

I didn’t want to think about the future now, what Annie would do. Who would teach her how to shave her legs when she got old enough? Who would bake her cookies and gossip with her while her friends who got asked to Homecoming were flirting with the DJ? I squinted the stinging away. I wasn’t much of a cookie baking mom anyway. That was Nicole’s area of expertise.

Junior had it easier. He was my husband’s son and appropriately named. Hard-headed, stubborn and driven. He used to tell me stories of how he’d bully the bullies because it was fun. I spewed forth clichés my mother had passed along the chain: You attract more flies with honey; an innocent man turns the other cheek. I remember his laughter, just like his father’s, chafing my ear canals. No matter what I said or did, nothing affected the outcome. Junior would always be Junior.

I stared at the school grounds, the pine trees cutting off the corners off the brick building, the playground equipment lonesome as a metal desert, devoid of kids. I tried to remember Mom using that rodeo cliché. But she always had a lot of them, and truth be told, I never listened.

When I was a kid we lived somewhat beyond our means. Our house was new, and on the outside we were rich. Inside, vacant corners acted as echoing toys for my sister and me. Despite the four whole bedrooms, Nicole and I shared the extra bed, one made of cheap wood. It had been my mom’s as a kid. Telltale scratches of childhood insomnia, generations old, were the only ornaments on the wooden headboard. We moved into the house before I spent regular days at school. I could still feel the chilled window making a snout of my nose as I stared into our backyard. It was adjoined to our neighbor’s with no boundaries but two squat shrubs on each property line, and I dreamt of a peppermint-striped swing set like theirs. It had a slide with a red stripe down the middle which I imagined to be so slippery that sliders dropped fast enough to fly up into the sky to play among the clouds. The swings themselves were stiff yellow plastic above foot-worn ground, held in place by creaking metal chains. I watched the neighbor girls on those swings, soaring, only with a little too much gravity. We were promised a swing set one year for Christmas, but Dad spent the extra money on elaborate lights to keep up with the neighbor’s lawn declarations. Dr. Rosenfall, a dermatologist across the street, had an animatronic Santa Claus. That year I did get a generic baby doll I’d once asked for. Nicole got a Barbie.

I shook the past from my head like a dog out of water and stared at the chipped brown doors of Annie’s school. Nothing seemed under my control, and not just regarding my health. I drew in a deep breath to suppress the evoked bitterness. I’ll make it happen, I thought, as I killed the engine. I’ll buck it off. Somehow.

*

I spent all of those two hours and fourteen minutes bitterly imagining my funeral. Who would come? Who would give a eulogy, and what would they say? I saw Gil getting up, spewing out stock funeral comments:—“She was a good person. A loving wife and mother. She will be missed”—even though he never thought such things about the living me.

I put all the anger and sadness aside for Annie. As school dismissed, she bounded up to the car like someone had put her—only her—on fast forward. A big ratty teddy bear bopped along behind her.

“How was your day, sweetie?” I smoothed a straggly lock of hair away from her face while she buckled herself in.

“Great!” Her face was an animated Disney cartoon. “I got picked to take Bertrand home for the weekend!” She thrust the bear up for me to examine and approve.

I smiled through my disgust. How many germs must that bear have accrued over years of first graders taking it home with them? I almost wanted to take it away, to save Annie from potential illness. But she seemed so happy to have it, tucking his limp body into the seatbelt with her and whispering, “He’ll be safe, too!” as she did so. She deserved to be so happy.

We swung by the grocery store again—a different one this time—to pick up the chips I’d abandoned before. Annie walked the aisles with her bear, ignoring the usual items children threw tantrums over, just as she normally did. Things like candy or Pop-Tarts, frozen pizzas or Doritos. Junior would throw anything he fancied into the cart without asking, just like his father. And, I thought bitterly as I scanned the checkout lane for any yellow Dummies guides, just like mine.

*

Gil, Junior, Annie and I arrived at the barbeque an All-American family, potato chips and teddy bear in tow. Nicole’s husband, Don, was grilling in an entirely too festive chef’s hat and apron with “Eat My Meat” emblazoned in red. He waved at us as we approached, the epitome of suburban happiness.

“Go on in and grab some beers, guys,” he sang merrily. “Root beers for the rugrats!”

Inside, Nicole’s kids were running around the table wearing cowboy hats and holstered plastic guns. They slipped by us and out the door with a quick shout. Nicole was standing at the counter in a crisp blue summer dress, buttering the buns for our burgers. I tossed her a meek smile, a sisterly way of letting her know I hadn’t told anyone else, and asked where to put the chips.

“Right down here, hon,” she said, gracefully swiping the bag and placing it on the counter. Her other arm snaked around my waist and she turned to Gil with a world-class grin.

“Gilbert, darling, why don’t you grab a Heineken and relax outside with Don.”

Gil returned the smile, a smirk drowning in flirtation, and I found myself wondering how long I’d be dead before he made a pass at my sister. He never smiled at me anymore.

“And you two—” she directed the kids, “go check out the new swing set. Uncle Don just finished it.”

She had, in her graceful, cautious way, managed to get us alone.

I took a seat at the table while she started for the coffeepot, but she changed her mind and scooped up two beers from the fridge instead. “You need this more right now.”

I didn’t say anything as she joined me at the table.

“You call the doctor yet?”

I sighed, accepted the magnetic bottle opener from her and pried the cap off. “No. I don’t think I need to.”

“Cassandra,” she started.

“I don’t really care, you know?” I spat out. “It’s not like what I have going right now is all that great.”

She gave me a look of utter dismay and leaned in, lowering her voice. “Come on, now. Look out there. You have a wonderful husband. Two beautiful kids!” She leaned back in her seat, her cheeks dimpled. “And one very attractive teddy bear.”

I grunted. Right.

“Well, you have to do something, Cass. You can’t just waste away. There’re things they can do now.” She took a sip. “Plus, you don’t even know you have cancer, right?”

“I don’t need anyone to confirm. I know it already.” I pressed a hand into my tummy and touched the bump. “Right here.”

“What, are you a doctor now? You can’t self-diagnose this stuff.”

“The hell I can’t!” I retorted. What did she know anyway, I seethed. She’d never been seriously sick in her life. “Dad was a doctor and he didn’t know thing one about illness.”

She leaned forward and put her hand over mine. “Come on, Cass. Use your head. There’s just some things you’ve got to do.”

“Like die.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Cass. I’m sure you’re not going to die!” She sipped again. “You look just fine to me. What else can I say to you?”

I turned to her then, feeling even more resentment than usual. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me. To go home every day to a man just like our father. To hate your son because he’s just mean and there’s nothing you can do to stop it!” The words came spewing out like I’d shaken my beer before opening it. “To never ever get what I want?”

“What do you want?”

I looked outside. Don had set his hat and tongs aside to throw a small plastic football around with his son. Gil was sitting on his ass watching his son shove a sobbing Annie down the plastic yellow slide. The life I could have had, the life I did. And then I looked at the swings.

“I’m tired of all this shit.” I said, chugging almost all of my beer in one labored but somehow refreshing tirade. I slammed the bottle down so hard the remaining drops propelled upwards and splashed onto my arm. “And I’m so fucking tired of wishing I were you.”

Nicole’s lips caved in on themselves in suppressed emotion, or perhaps surprise. But I didn’t stick around to watch, or listen, or be chastised and convinced of how I had it good. I knew very well how I had it. I breezed through the screen door and toward the swings.

I bypassed my brother-in-law, my nephews, my pain-in-the-ass husband and sobbing daughter. When I reached the swing set, I turned around to face all I had, and everything I didn’t, and lowered myself onto one of the swings. Ahead of me, to the east, a storm was coming, escorted by a wet, warning breeze. It felt nice combing through my hair, and I adjusted my weight so that the swing was supporting it. And then, amidst the lack of control I already felt, I willingly relinquished the rest, swaying back and forth like my disparaging thoughts on death. I began to figure out the rhythm that allowed me to fly like the neighbor girls of my youth. I didn’t care that my hair assaulted my face on my way down, or that it would be a bitch to get untangled later. This may be the only time, I theorized, and allowed the pendulum momentum to replace the fear—the bitterness, the sadness—with a small numbing drop of exhilaration. At least I knew what was coming. I could plan accordingly. I could quit my job with its buzzing telephone insects, and I could come to terms with a marriage to a cheating man like my father, and I could find out what made me happy before I went. I guess that was the ultimate goal, now. To be as happy as possible before all possibility of happiness was gone.

I swung higher, pumping harder and harder and relishing in the soreness that was already creeping into my muscles. When I reached the very top of the swing’s trajectory, I flew for an extended, glorious second before gravity called me back. The swing met up with my body again, bucking like a bronco. But I had finally found out how to fly, and did it again. It became a shared control between me and the swing, one I had no idea existed—a control that injected life back in, if only for a second. Although I was conscious, now, of every fleeting minute, for the first time since diagnosing myself, I didn’t feel as if the moment was being wasted.

Suddenly I wasn’t swinging alone. A blur swept by me on my way back down. My eyes met my darling Annie’s; she had the teddy bear nestled up next to her on the swing. I slowed down my motion to let her catch up, to bask in the carefree love of being a child, something I’d never known. There we were together, mother and daughter, one fighting for her life, the other enjoying it to the fullest. And then we were swinging in rhythm, in perfect harmony with one another, and Annie laughed, a tinkling sound like wind chimes, “Mama, we’re married!” And I laughed too—long, hard and limitless. We continued to swing in our own shared rhythm, watching the churning storm roiling just out of reach, then closer, then out of reach once more.

pencil

“I am currently an MFA student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. I’ve just recently finished my thesis, a coming of age novel called The Impressionist. I should be set to graduate next semester. I’ve also had work published in Red Weather Literary Magazine and Main Street Rag.” E-mail: gobledi[at]gmail.com