“Where should we go next?” I scratched my index and middle fingers, raw and red. Eczema again, because I didn’t have enough health issues.
Montie stared at me. “Why can’t you plan ahead, Mason?” She sipped slowly, her pink lipstick staining the striped straw. She did everything slowly.
She looked away. “Sorry. Wrong choice of words.”
“Planning would be no fun.” Was my smirk enchanting or eerie?
“Not to mention you’re running away again.”
“No, I’m not.” I took a bite of my steak, which was tougher than my twenty-four years on this earth, and I waved down the waiter.
He approached. “Yes?”
“This isn’t medium-rare. And my teeth hurt biting it.” But my teeth hurt eating cottage cheese, too.
“Sorry. I’ll be back with another one.” I slid my plate over, and he gingerly retrieved it.
I placed a hand over his, noticing he scrunched up his face. “Can I have the chicken special instead? Please?” Be nice to waitstaff, Mom always said. They have the power to spit in your food. As if a stranger’s saliva could worsen things for me at this point.
He nodded and strolled away.
“Why do you always have to be such a difficult guy?” Montie tossed a napkin aside, playing with her spoon.
“At this point, I ought to have my way. And what exactly do you think I’m running from, Montgomery?”
She glared at me, I’m sure knowing my intent was to put her down, hence using her full name like a scolding parent.
“No. School me.” I jutted my chin forward, sighed, and stared out the dirty window, watching someone attempt to pull his pickup out of the skinny driveway as he hauled a fishing boat, creating more maneuvers than the military. Don’t you hit my car! I nearly got up but decided against it. How much longer would I be able to enjoy that vehicle? A red leaf fell upon the window. I hate the end of summer. Everything dies.
“You know you have other options.”
I banged my fist on the wobbly table, and silence overtook the entire diner, people staring at us. I felt a blush scatter on my cheeks. “Oh, really? So now you know what it’s like to have cancer?” I tried not to be loud, but I think I was, as I heard someone gasp. Maybe they were having the steak.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” Montie added.
“You’re always coming up with this shit. Stop reading social media posts.” I shook my head, feeling a chill up my spine. The traffic was building. New York State Fair patrons, no doubt, rushing to see their final outdoor concert of the season, to watch the police demonstrate what happens when you don’t wear your seatbelt and you’re in an accident, or to gobble up some fried bananas, a bacon bomb, or something else resembling a heart attack. The last thing I wanted was to be jostled by crowds. I’d had enough shoving for three lifetimes. That’s why I’d chosen this short Labor Day trip with Montie. Now I regretted it. I pushed my green strands off my face, also regretting the Kool-Aid suggestion my sister had made, and hoping the funeral home cosmetologist would have mercy.
I examined my dry hair. “Maybe I’ll get a haircut. ‘Cause if I have chemo, I’ll lose this mop anyway.” I chuckled. “Remember in college when they called us M & M, and everybody thought we liked Eminem?”
“But we did.” She sighed. “Old school music. Those were the days.”
I’d grown my hair back then specifically to look more like a guitar heartthrob than a sickly skinny kid. And I kept growing it. Strands of it fell out, and I pulled out a lot on my own.
“Remember when we were gonna start a band?” I sipped my coffee.
“Yeah. Me on flute like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, you shredding like Eddie Van Halen.”
Truth? I hadn’t pursued it because she’d always control everything. The song lists, rehearsals, hiring band members. She must have noticed my lips change from a frown to a sneer.
Montie tilted her head in that grandmotherly fashion. I’d not realized how much she irked the crap out of me. Lately, it seemed I thought more about the nuisances in my life. Why had I been Montie’s friend all these years? We were complete opposites. She was sweet, funny, caring, and perfect. I was sour, sarcastic, selfish, and flawed.
I hated her Pollyanna approach to life, her cleanliness, her perfection, and impeccable fashion. I hated her destroyed denim. She loved everything destroyed, including me. She needed to move on and get a life.
I stood up. “Be right back.” These days I often wondered if that were true. I strolled toward the facilities. A blind person could find them from three feet away.
Luckily it was a one-person bathroom. Spitting up blood as noisily as I did was startling and upsetting to most people. Montie had gotten used to it. That annoyed me too. If something is gross, react accordingly. Why didn’t she become a nurse? She’d be able to see lots of nasty shit if she were, and she’d never toss her cookies or faint. I wiped my mouth, drained my wiener, and washed my hands. No soap because most of them aggravated my eczema and the fragrance made me sneeze. I had more complaints than someone triple my age. I hated myself most days. I hadn’t even been able to take care of my health.
I felt lightheaded as I held onto the bathroom door handle, then the wall, my knees weak. It seemed like it took me an hour to make my way back to Montie. I slid into the booth, noticing her tears escape into her Caesar salad. I took a crouton off her plate and grabbed a napkin to wipe her cheeks.
The worst part about all this was what it was doing to those around me. I’d isolated myself but it didn’t work. Everyone crowded around me, treating me like a guest, like that Jefferson Airplane song. Only I wasn’t high. I was dying.
She sniffed and looked away. “That guy’s been trying to back out for ages.”
I looked at the driver hauling the boat and wanted to feel sorry for him. But I’d gladly trade. I had no emotion for others left. I’d exhausted them all on myself. No more tears, as I’d silently cried night after night, or run into the bathroom during class or work. My excuses were getting tired and weak, like me. How many times could I say I had allergies or sinus issues, or oh, I’ve been slicing onions?
Those who knew didn’t help. In an effort to calm me, they’d give me sorry ass advice, like eating better. Then there were the people who thought they were being kind by telling me they knew someone who had the same kind of cancer, “God rest his soul.”
The waiter returned with my chicken as Montie tore into her lasagna. I hated how she ate, too. She always did that: Cut a huge piece of something then take tiny bites not even fit for a hamster. And the sound she made. Like a squirrel gnawing on a prized nut. Slowly.
Like the cancer that was eating me up. It couldn’t happen fast, could it? No, of course not. Slowly. First my liver. Then the lungs. And now it was moving up. Something I’d never had the chance to do, move up. Move up on the job, move up in life. I brushed away a tear and looked down at the charcoal chicken, pushing the plate away.
“Sending that back too?”
I shook my head and pursed my caked-up lips. “What’s the point?” I wish I could send my life back, start over. I wouldn’t care if my life was filled with tough steak and blackened chicken that was meant to be fried.
I couldn’t bear to tell Montie why I’d chosen her for this trip. She was the best driver I knew, the only one I could trust with my prized Corvette. Somehow I knew. I looked out the window again. The boat guy was gone. My Vette was in one piece. Unlike its owner.
I’d left a diary in the glove compartment. I’d addressed so many things to the special people in my life. I’d asked Montie to take care of Judas, my Saint Bernard. He had bad hips and needed special care. Montie was the only one I could count on to visit my mom and sister when they sat in front of the TV watching movies about people dying prematurely. She’d be there, sacrificing her time, her work, her hobbies, her life.
I took her hands in mine, stroking her smooth fingers. She never seemed to care about how rough mine were. I wished I’d asked her out long ago. She was boring sometimes, but she was the one for me. Now it was too late. I fixed my gaze on her hazel eyes. I could tell she was thinking the same thing.
And she’d have stayed with me even after the diagnosis.
I waved the waiter over for the check, slapped some money on the table, and stood up.
Then I blacked out.
It’s incredible up here. I see Dad, Grandma, my second-grade teacher, Mr. Carlson, who I loved for his refusal to judge. Maybe I’ll even get to see some famous people, I mean, spirits. Perhaps Lennon, maybe Sinatra. Or even Eddie Van Halen. I look at the few changing leaves on the trees below, admiring the bold shades. Birds float by, each with its own call, alarming but beautiful. Chipmunks scatter as joggers speed past. People cackle, walking by in the breeze, arm in arm. I’d never realized how musical some laughter is. A lone empty bag floats by. I try catching it, forgetting I can’t recycle now.
There’s my mom and sister! Mom! Shannon! They don’t turn around. They approach Montie, and they embrace. Gosh, my sister has gorgeous hair. And Mom’s smile always lit up a room. Watching those I left behind allows me to think about how precious life really is. I wish I’d known that when I was alive. I try calling out to Montie, but I don’t think she hears me, though she turns her head.
I watch as they clutch one another and cry uncontrollably. They slip into my Corvette. I sit in the car with them, on Montie’s lap. But she doesn’t seem to feel me. I’m unable to grasp the steering wheel. I guide her hands to it, ten and two. I whisper in her ear. Did she just nod?
We drive away, onto Route 81. Slowly.