“I feel awkward,” I tell him.
“That’s OK,” he says. “We can be awkward together.” This is a conversation I’ve been alternately putting off and waiting to have for five years, and now that we’re sitting across from each other, there’s a part of me that’s wondering if it’s not too late to bolt for the door.
On the other side of the table, fair-haired and bespectacled, is my best friend. I’ve always been the kind of person for whom “best friend” is a level, not a singular title, but truth be told, he’s not even that. He’s something more, some word I’ve yet to find. And it’s exactly that something more that’s made me dread this conversation.
The question I want to ask—have to, even—is a simple one: Why me? But in the asking, there’s a laying bare of five years of emotion that I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to face or understand.
“Why did you choose to be so good to me?”
He takes a bite of his sandwich and thinks. His eyes are blue, the color of shallow shipwrecks, a blue that edges green in the shadows, like waves on an angry sea, shading sapphire to emerald, lapis to jade. He looks at me like it’s a silly question, like it’s not worth the weight I’ve let it carry, but also like he understands and that maybe he knows that in asking the question of him, I’m really asking myself.
Dec. 8, 2011
It took us several weeks, but we finally made a date to have dinner. It was December then, and my first chemo appointment was the next day. I had told him a few days earlier that I was sick. We had been talking on Facebook, and somehow typing the words, the gentle patter of fingers on keys replacing voice, seemed safer.
I had tried not to tell many people, just my closest friends and the people in D.C. I knew would miss me once I’d moved back home to Little Rock. Saying the words, seeing their expressions change, seeing myself die in their eyes—it was something I wasn’t yet able to do. Moving my lips, making sounds, it made things real. Somehow, in the deepest reaches of my imagination, I was still able to believe that if I never said the words aloud, they would cease to be true.
We met at a little corner restaurant that served salads and pizza and gelato and pretended to be Italian. He was wearing a peacoat turned up against his neck, and he hugged me like it hadn’t been a year since we’d last seen each other. We went upstairs to a table and ordered salads and tried to make small talk about anything we could think of.
I looked at him, and he stared back—not in the devastating way that I had come to expect, but with curiosity at me, an anomaly is his world, something to be investigated. The small cleft of his chin bounced with his mouth as he caught me up on his life: law school; his sister, whom I also knew; and the boy who had just dumped him. His hair was the kind of brown that turned almost blond in the summer or in the winter, or maybe just depending on the light.
Finally, our salads were delivered, distracting us from the only subject that we had, by now, failed to broach. We made busy in our meals, dancing our forks above the leaves. “So,” he said finally, “how did this happen?”
I looked up at him and shook my head. “I have no idea.” I began recounting the tale. The lump, the tests, the needles, the blood work, biopsies, the goodbyes and the move. “And now I’m here. And,” I paused, “I guess now I just try not to die?”
“Well, that would be ideal,” he said.
Nov. 30, 2017
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I sought out others who’d faced similar diagnoses. Though they tried to tell me that once my diagnosis was made public, the way people looked and talked to me would change, it was a concept that I found impossible to understand until it happened.
When you’re sick and someone looks at you, they never really see you. To them, you are their own eventualities reflected, a projection of their own crumblings were your fate theirs. They see themselves as the sick one, what they might look like if they were to be the unlucky one. For them, you’re just a walking reminder of their own mortality. In an effort to avoid this, they will stop looking at you. That is a relief. The tired and frightened eyes of the healthy were a pressure I struggled with—their constant not knowing what to say or how to act.
But not him. And that’s why he matters. Because when so many chose to look away, he looked at me, saw only me. And to have someone look at me, see themselves and keep looking was more than I ever knew to ask for.
In some ways, it was and still is the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had. To be loved by someone when you’re dying, when they know there’s a very good chance that things won’t turn out well is, I think, one of the biggest sacrifices someone can make for you. When you’re sick, it’s so easy for people to just fade away. After all, that’s what they expect of you.
Feb. 22, 2012
We were having a sleepover, our version of a night on the town: ice cream, easy-bake cinnamon rolls and late-night TV. The night had become morning, and finally we gave in to our tired bodies and got ready for bed. He asked me if I’d be OK on the couch. I said yes and walked over to the closet that held a stack of blankets. He rose off the couch and tossed his empty bottle into the recycle bin; it clinked among a dozen others. He turned up the staircase, each step sighing under the weight of his foot, and stopped halfway up, his brow just disappearing behind the ceiling, and turned back to me. “Boo, come up.”
I downed the last of my beer and shut the closet door. “OK.”
It was a little name we’d taken to calling each other, “Boo.” I’d first called him that when I met him at his home, on the front porch of a rented carriage house. The light above us was dark.
“What are you doing all Boo Radley-like in the shadows?” I’d asked.
“Just being scary,” he’d said.
The floor of his bedroom was a shelf upon which he directly stored most of his clothes. His bed, brown jersey sheets, was tucked into a corner against the wall.
“You get the inside,” he said.
“Fine with me.” I shed my shirt and slid my jeans down my legs, little hairs fluttering down from my thighs behind them. I was thankful that he chose that moment to go brush his teeth. Already, my body was beginning to change. Where the weight had shrunk from my cheeks, it gathered around my waist, and with every movement, new tufts of hair would fall loose from my arms or legs or chest and lose themselves upon the floor.
I was already under the covers by the time he came back. He shucked his shirt and pants and slid beneath the blanket beside me. We weren’t touching then, a solid few inches between us the entire way down like you were spending the night at an aunt’s house and were forced to sleep with the cousin you rarely saw.
We made small talk for a while, about college and grad school, Little Rock and the people we both knew. We talked about the boys we had dated and wondered aloud if we’d ever really been in love. We talked until our voices faded and sleep held us, and when my eyes opened, I was only surprised that I’d never noticed falling asleep.
I leaned over to check the clock, still an hour before the alarm would ring, and still an hour before I had anywhere to be. In an effort to combat my ever-changing body temperature, I had turned the ceiling fan up to its highest setting, and now, seven hours later and battling someone who insisted on wrapping themselves in as much fabric as was available, I was regretting that decision.
I wondered what he felt like. It had been so long since anyone had touched me without wearing gloves. My body ached. My skin, atom by atom, strained in his direction. I had never needed anything so badly.
“Would it make you uncomfortable if I put my arm around you?” I whispered it, almost hoping he wouldn’t hear. His voice was quiet and restful.
My hand slid down and across his torso, my face nuzzled into the nape of his neck. I rejoiced in his physicality, touching each hair with my fingers, each mole with my thumb. Freckles galaxied out across his back, tracing the subtle curve of his spine down to where it met my chest, pressing constellations into me and melting into my skin in the way that the sky skims beneath the sea at the curve of the Earth until they become indistinguishable.
Nov. 30, 2017
“Was I a burden?”
It was, perhaps, the question I’d been most afraid to ask. At the time, to ask for what I wanted felt like such an imposition. To dare ask of him that he share his bed, his warmth with me, when all I had to offer was my own broken body in return seemed crass and unimaginable.
He looked at me the same way he had spoken to me that first morning—“no, Boo”—a tone of why would you even ask, or of course the sky is blue. When even your own body is revolting against you, it becomes so easy to forget that people can have a love for you that extends beyond your physicality.
“I was frustrated sometimes,” he said, “at the cancer, but never at you.” Such a simple distinction, to separate my body from myself, so easy for him to make, yet such a foreign concept for me. For all survivors, I think. We’ll always be the crime that crossed us, at least in part.
June 28, 2012
I stopped and picked up burritos for dinner. On my way to his house, driving across town, I wondered if I was normal. If I was typical. If I was statistically significant. My mind searching for the moment when it all began, that one instant when the first cell decided to turn against me. What was I doing when my body first decided to commit mutiny? I’ll never know, but I hope I was happy, was outside enjoying the sun, was with friends and that I was laughing.
When I got to his house, the Cubs were on. We ate in silence. The pensive and rustling silence of not knowing what to say, how to broach tomorrow. He was braver. He spoke first.
“In all of this, I’ve been scared, but I’m not worried anymore.”
“You were scared? When?”
He looked at me. “Every day in the hospital. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t want to lose you.”
“Yeah,” I said putting down the bowl of ice cream. “Me, too.” The batter on the television struck out and walked back to his dugout. The camera panned up through the crowd, thousands eating popcorn, hot dogs, beer. Each one with smiling, happy, careless faces. All connected with a singular emotion projecting onto the field. In groups, we thrive, a thousand bouncing energies converging and diverging, replicating and multiplying. It’s only when, through the very happenstance of life, we are singled out and left alone that we begin to crumble. No man is meant only for himself, not least of all in the face of death.
He shifted again and reminded me that, in one true way, I was not alone. Alone in my fate, yes, but not in that moment, not on that couch—I was alive and with him, and we were watching the Cubs lose again. Everything was normal.
“It’s fifty-fifty, I guess. Either I will or I won’t.”
He looked at me. “You will.”
I raised up my head. “Don’t lie to me. You don’t know that. You can’t.”
He locked his arms around my shoulders and pulled me into him. Melted ice cream stained the edge of his upper lip. He spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to force each word into my mind. “I know you. And I know how hard you’ve worked, how hard you’ve fought. And I know that tomorrow we’re going to put this behind us for good.” The game ended in silence, but we kept watching the television.
“Ready for bed?” he asked.
“No, but I’ll go with you.” It was between 1 and 2 in the morning, and the steady stream of baseball had been replaced with infomercials for products no one would ever need. I collected our bowls from the coffee table and ran water over them, washing away the delicate glaze the melted ice cream had left. He came up behind me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders.
We walked up the stars, the second step from the top letting out its usual groan. I turned into the bathroom to brush my teeth, while he undressed and turned out the lights. A moment later, I crawled into bed beside him. Instinctively, he crossed over me, enveloping me in himself, the only protection he knew he could offer. My breath left me in a shudder, and with it went the world, or at least the portion of it that I had heaved upon my shoulders throughout the day. “Let it out, Boo. Let it go. You’ve done everything you can to beat this. Tomorrow is just getting proof of that.”
I turned to look at the dark shadow line on his face that I knew was hiding his eyes. I wanted to speak back, tell him how puny and stupid his words sounded. To tell him that there were no words for him to say, no thought in his mind or touch in his body that could counterbalance the crush of Forever as it sat upon my chest. My mouth opened, but before I could speak, the dappled light of the moon through the blinds caught the tear track on my cheek, and his lips were brushing against my hair, his stubble gently pricking my ear.
He held me, and I was thankful that we weren’t in love, that he was just my friend. That when he held me he was only a comforting friend and nothing more. That our lips never touched, that our hands never drifted too far below our waists, that he did not love me. There is nothing worse than to love a dying man, to love anything that can die. To love when, at any moment, the delicate scale of life can be so easily tipped over, is to invite pain.
He held me awhile, one hand tracing up the slope of my back, the other resting on my thigh, now stretched across his legs. “You’re going to be fine.” He said it once and a thousand times. I don’t remember what I said. I held on. He told me stories of his family, of people he’d known. Each one once sick and each one now living strong—an aunt, or a cousin, a girl, either way.
I told him I had a plan. If the news wasn’t good, I would go away. I didn’t want people to see me die. I didn’t want him to have to watch. He ran his fingers through my hair.
“If I told you the truth, how much I wanted to give up, how much I wanted to let go, if I told you everything, would you still love me tomorrow?”
“If you don’t know the answer to that, then you don’t know me at all.”
My body hurt. Not from the chemo, not from the Neulasta, not from working, not from anything but from the sheer weight of every thought I would never have suddenly crashing into my mind. All the things I’d miss, places I would never go and never see. There was so much to the world, and I wanted more. I wanted everything. I would never have enough of tomorrow. My voice cracked. “I will miss the sun. I will miss the warm on my hands and my arms. And the way it feels.”
Nov. 30, 2017
And there we were, five years later and finally, over a plate full of sandwiches, I’d gotten answers to the questions I’d always wanted to ask. It was only then that I realized the answer, as it so often is, wasn’t the point.
For years, I’d been searching for a name for us, some term or classification that would define exactly what we were and what he was to me.
Is he what it’s like to have a brother? As an only child, I’ll never know. Savior seems such an awkward word, full of camp and kitsch, but what else do you call someone who was, at one perfect moment, everything you needed? “Why is English the worst?” He doesn’t know a word for us, either.
He was necessity. I couldn’t have done this without him. Angel, soul mate, savior, friend, whatever you want to call it—in the end, don’t they all play the same part? They save us. They make us better. They show us the best in us so that we can go another day.
I can’t say that he cured me because he didn’t. The doctors did. But he did save me, not just my bones and body, but everything else—my mind, my heart and my soul. The same as being alive and existing are two separate things. Existing is what your body does. Keeps your heart beating, eyes blinking, pulsing whatever electrodes we have in our brain to make it work, your physical presence on this Earth. But being alive, feeling and loving and hurting and caring, having an emotional connection to the outside world—that has nothing to do with how healthy your body is or isn’t.
And that’s what he did. He made it easy to stay alive, even when my body didn’t. I don’t know what it was, the hand-holding, the hugs, the sleepovers, whatever. He was there. And he loved me, and I loved him, and somehow that worked.
Sitting across from me, he’s still the goofy guy I met in college and still the man who saved my life. I’ll never see a simple side to him, and I suppose that there will always be a part of me that searches for how to put who he is and what he did for me into words. Getting up from the table, we make plans to see each other the next day. With him, there will always be a tomorrow.
Now five years cancer-free, Seth Eli Barlow is a Cleveland county native who works as a writer and sommelier in Little Rock. He and “Boo” will celebrate a decade of friendship in 2018. They still root for the Chicago Cubs.