“I couldn’t possibly die on a Tuesday,” Ruth announced, with the flourish of a seasoned stage actress. She raised her cannulated hand to her forehead in a mock swoon. With her other hand she clutched the Pumpkin Spice Latte that I’d bought for her, strictly against doctor’s orders.
“It had better be a Friday,” she continued. “That way you can drop by the morgue after work if you need to identify the body, then go out and get drunk to celebrate. And still have the weekend to recuperate.” She released her hold on the still untasted drink and adjusted the shawl on her lap, then let out a chuckle. That was one of the many things I loved about Ruth: her dark humor, even in those final days.
“Actually,” I said, “Sunday afternoon – no, evening – would be best for me. That way we can enjoy the weekend, then I can play my part as the grief-stricken friend and get at least a couple of days off work. Maybe even the whole week. Yes,” I continued, taking a sip of my Americano (“boring”, she scoffed, every time I ordered it), “it would have to be a Sunday, preferably 5:15 p.m., not before.”
“It’s a date,” Ruth declared, then plunged her spoon into the teetering tower of cream the barista had piled a little too generously on top. Though it was obvious her system wouldn’t know what to do with the sugary orange concoction, for now we pretended otherwise. Just another Tuesday afternoon visit to Starbucks. We clinked our oversized mugs together, mocking the elephant in the room.
“On that note,” she continued, “I’m changing my Facebook status to – wait for it – ‘In the process of dying’. Isn’t that brilliant?” She leaned back smugly in her sofa-chair. We’d been lucky enough to snag the comfy ones for a change.
“Hah,” I laughed. “Good one. But doesn’t that apply to, oh, everyone?” I asked, just as a toddler shuffled past, dropping crayons in his wake. Instinctively I looked for the responsible adult. And there she was. The glamorous, slightly hassled, thirty-something fake blonde balancing a cappuccino in one hand and a fractious baby in the other. I leaned down and scooped up a handful of crayons, then passed them to the boy, who scuttled back to his mom. He’d missed the blue one: I picked it up and held onto it.
“Oh, come on, Jess, why don’t you live a little? Are you ever going to change your ridiculous ‘Single from now on’ status? You’re only 39, for goodness sake,” Ruth said, raising the cup to her lips to take the tiniest of tastes, before deciding against it and resting it on the table. I resisted the strong maternal urge to dab away the splodge of cream that had dripped onto her chin.
We sat in easy silence, enjoying the white-noise effect of other customers’ conversation. Sometimes, in darker moments, I’d worried that we’d run out of things to say. Like that couple you were guaranteed to see in any restaurant – the one who was together at least corporeally, yet inhabiting separate realms. No doubt they’d raised children together, and once the children had left – I projected – they had nothing in common anymore. Once, Ruth and I watched a man and woman clock a full one hour and forty-six minutes of near radio silence, speaking only to the waitress, until the wife reached behind her chair to get her jacket and said, robotlike, “Home, honey?”
No chance of that with Ruth, I’d realized, not least because we had too much history. After thirty years of friendship (we’d met in third grade, in creepy Mr. Sands’ class – Ruth called him Sandman, the dream-stealer), encompassing two failed engagements (both mine), several career changes, one gloomy prognosis, and zero offspring, we had shared a lot, and our Tuesday outings had become as close to organized religion as either of us would get.
Idly I twirled the crayon in my fingers, entertaining the idea of walking over to the boy, now wriggling in his chair while his mother jiggled the baby in her arms, and placing it in his sticky little palm.
“Aren’t you going to give that back?” Ruth cocked her head toward the crayon and eyed me knowingly.
“Maybe,” I said. “Or perhaps I’ll just do a JK Rowling and start scribbling my magnus opus on this.” I picked up the paper-thin two-ply napkin intending to scrawl “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4 Privet Drive…” I only managed the “M” before it ripped.
“There goes that idea,” Ruth laughed. “But seriously – what’s your plan B?” she asked, leaning in slightly over the table, her arms very angular beneath her purple cardigan. She’d joked that, if women knew the slimming effects of chemo, then everyone would sign up, never mind the nausea. A sure-fire way to shed the pounds.
I put down the crayon and sipped my coffee thoughtfully. “Well, I could always color myself blue like a Smurf, lure the boy over here, then smuggle him out and hold him for ransom. You could be my accomplice. What do you think?”
“Actually,” she said, her latte still full, the cream caving in on itself now, losing its height, “I was referring to, you know, your life. What you’re going to do, being that you still have one – a life, I mean.” She said that without the slightest hint of resentment. She’d told me she had to reconcile herself early on to the fact that she’d be taking the short road; that there was some comfort in knowing where she was heading, and when. At times I think she even relished the new role she’d unwittingly been cast into. The perspective it gave her. The wisdom.
And now she’d asked me about my life: the real elephant in the room. The no-go area. The one thing we hadn’t spoken about, the grief that I carried like a residue I couldn’t scrub off. Mine, not hers. But not here, I thought. Not now. This shouldn’t be about me.
“Can I get you something else, Ruth?” I craned my neck and scanned the menu board. “How about the ‘Cauldron Cappuccino’”? I asked unconvincingly. She could see right through me, of course.
“Come on, Jess,” she said gently. “You know I hate cappuccino.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, the blue crayon precarious on the edge of the table, rolling slightly, the napkin crumpled next to it.
“Ruth, I don’t…” I began, then looked at her, really looked at her: my best friend, the once-beautiful, now sick, very sick, Ruth. Who had – and would – always care for me, who sat there with her undrunk latte in this steamy café trying to make the best of a tragic (she hated that word), downright shitty situation. Still, despite everything, she wanted to listen to me, to help me live.
Suddenly the sounds and smells of the late-afternoon café blurred into soft focus and it was as if the spotlight were shining squarely on me. This had to be the time, for both of our sakes.
“Ruth,” I said, staring into her still brilliant-green eyes. “Have you ever wondered what makes a heart start beating?”
She looked at me askance, no doubt thinking I was dodging the subject again.
“I mean, have you ever really thought about the beginning of life? What it is that makes a heart beat, and just keep beating on an on, until…” I trailed off, not quite sure in which direction I wanted to steer the conversation. “I know it’s cliché, but it really is a miracle, isn’t it, when you think about it? Your existence, mine: how there is nothing one second, then suddenly a rush and a valve starts flapping, a heart pumps…” I took a breath. I had started, and needed to finish. “And then, for some inexplicable reason, it stops. What was moving, stills.” Stillborn is what I was thinking, but like any word that you say over and over, it had lost its gravity. I had long finished grieving; it was now reconciliation I sought.
“The thing is,” I said, eyeing the dregs of my coffee, “I never wanted that in the first place, you know? Before all this” – I swept my hand across the table we shared in a futile attempt to encapsulate it – “we used to make fun of all those people – those yummy mummies who sit in cafés, chatting about whose boobs make the best milk, whose kid is the smartest, the cutest, all that crap. How pathetic, how solipsistic. As though the world revolves around women and their offspring…”
I twisted the napkin in my hands, then shredded it, bit by bit. “And then it happened to me – a tiny heart started pulsing and I fell under its spell for the few weeks that it lasted, until suddenly it stopped.” I swept the napkin shreds in my hand and flicked them into my cup. “And I knew it had stopped before any doctor confirmed it. Silent but audible, I felt it. Like a leaf falling.”
Ruth reached out to take my hand, and I let her. There would be no tears: I had shed enough of those in my own time, but the look of pure love on her face almost had me. Not because of the life lost in me, but because of the life still in her.
“So,” I said, sitting up, regaining my composure. “That’s what I’ve been mulling over. Which, I guess, is not totally unrelated to what you must be going through – beginnings and endings, you know?”
“Yes,” she said, a small laugh escaping. “I’ve thought a bit about that. Don’t worry: I’m not going to say something inane like ‘You could always try again’, or ‘You’re still young…’, just like I can’t stand when people say ‘You will get through this’. I know that’s not how it works.”
“Thanks,” I said, and we sat there, just holding hands for a minute, letting our sorrow brew. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement. The boy again, toddling along, now clutching a battered-looking coloring book sporting a lurid seascape on its cover. In front of him his mom pushed a stroller through the maze of tables, eyes fixed on the exit. He trailed behind, taking his time, intent on gripping that book. I couldn’t help but wonder what creations lay within it, what unfinished masterpieces. I imagined his fisted hand filling a neat, clearly delineated beach scene with color: the yellow sand, the red bucket and spade, the green boat, the pink-skinned mommy. But what would the sea be without blue? Or the sky?
As if reading my thoughts, my frail friend released her grip and stood up, her shawl spilling onto the floor. Resting a steadying arm on the table, she slowly made her way to the boy. Softly, she tapped his shoulder and he turned to face her. She leant down and whispered conspiratorially in his ear, then led him back to our table.
“This lady has something that’s yours, I think,” she said, pointing at me and winking.
Shyly the little boy approached. Two and a half, maybe three by my estimation. I saw his mom pause by the door and check her phone, then, looking left and right, she seemed to realize she was missing something. “Charlie?” she said, her tone one of annoyance more than panic.
“He’s over here!” I called, beckoning her. She gave an exasperated smile and waved at her son to hurry up.
Picking up the blue crayon, I turned back to the boy. “Charlie, wait,” I said gently. “You dropped this.” Then, I slipped it into his coat pocket, safe and sound. “It’s so you can finish your picture.”
And I can finish mine, I thought.