Carve Magazine

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A Survivor Story by Dan Hernandez

Dan Hernandez is the managing editor of Witness at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His journalism, essays and fiction have been published by The Guardian, Vice, The New York Times, The Offing, and Day One. He won the 2015 Richard J. Margolis Award as a promising new writer.

When Colin left the House for the first time after his last treatment cycle, he said he was “going to grab some air.” So I went too, but for a cigarette. There were a lot of smokers at the Ronald McDonald House. As soon as we left its rotating doors we saw our friend Angie’s parents puffing away quietly. They stood on the edge of a gang of smoker parents in a stale haze. We nodded hello. I didn’t even have to ask for Angie’s dad to bum me one. “Good morning!” Colin said. Her father simply forged a smile, a fake version of his daughter’s. After he lit my cigarette, we found a spot in the sun away from them. 

Colin soaked it in, combing the sunlight over his scalp like a hot rinse. “Do they smoke so much because of, like, their kids?” I asked. “Or were they always heavy smokers? And so…” But he wasn’t listening. He shaded his eyes with a palm and scanned the sky, smiling. Colin’s eyes were green, and with no eyebrows or eyelashes they looked naked and vulnerable and, to my dismay, showed a glint of optimism.

I knew what he was thinking. For January, it wasn’t cold out. You could see your breath, but take or leave the scarf and hat. 

“It’s perfect beach weather,” he said.

“You can’t do that,” I insisted.

“Come on, man. Let’s jump on the train right now. I’m ready.” He didn’t have to say where because he’d talked about it all week. Always wanted to join the Polar Bear Club, he’d said. It was New Year’s Day. They’d jump in the surf in a couple hours.

“Seriously, you—” 

“I know, I know. I just want to see it,” he said. “I want to see you do it.”

“I'm not doing it.”

He smiled. Then he tried to grab my cigarette away. “Get off!” I said, shoving him back, my words coming out in dissolving puffs of smoke and with dissolving resolve. 

“I just want to see Coney Island,” he said. 

So we went. Two trains, two boroughs, thirty or forty stops. We finally rumbled into the Poor People’s Paradise, as it’s called, after what seemed like two hours. And I guess it was worth it just to see the open horizon at the edge of the city. You slog through it every day, dwarfed by the massive buildings and sidewalk crowds, checking cross-streets and peeking into storefronts—pondering the money, history, ambition—and generally you forget that New York City ends. The empire state of it, the New York state of mind of it. All that stuff goes mercifully quiet and flat. 

The Polar Bears were lined up on the shore as if waiting for a race to begin. Paunchy biker guys mingled with young hipster girls while aging hippies did stretches and nervous college kids about our age stood around drinking. Although Coney Island is a bay, choppy little waves rolled in from boat traffic. A bald guy wearing a white fur vest ran up and down the beach leading impromptu workouts—jumping jacks and push-ups and a can-can dance. “We should have brought booze,” Colin said. Because even as observers it seemed like we were doing it wrong. 

Fur vest man picked up a megaphone and then hollered, “Two minutes, my friends, then we swim!” His club gave out a roar, newcomers cheered in hoots and claps and Colin opened his messenger bag. “You ready?” he asked. I saw that he’d packed a bath towel. “One of us has to.” My brother never stopped planning things to pass off to me, and all I could do was sigh. 

A bottle rocket sliced into the sky and popped in a moist bloom. It left an asterisk in the air and all at once the crowd leapt forward, howling and skipping, jogging toward the sea and flailing their arms as soon as feet touched the water. They kicked the surf, berserk as kids through sprinklers, laughing and crying and losing themselves. 

I’ve never been much one for jumping in oceans, especially not dirt brown freezing ones, but after Colin nudged me again of course I had to say, “Fuck it.” I yanked off a shoe and spiked it in the sand. Colin chuckled at that. I shed my coat, my sweater, peeled off the T-shirt and jeans, getting down to my boxers. Straight ahead a woman bobbed up and down like a seal while holding a flask in the air. I hopped in place a long second and said, “I guess I'm going in."

Colin shouted, “That's my fucking brother," as I jogged toward the water, past photographers and cheering spectators, running faster and harder against the ocean air chill. I stomped in. Up to my knees in what felt like ice, I turned around to see Colin smiling. 

“Happy fucking New Year!" I hollered.

He made a diving motion with his arms. I backed up, sinking deeper right as a small wave lifted the water to my waist. Flinch. My jaw chattered. Every time the tide lapped a millimeter higher I sucked in my breath. But I figured if I was going to do it, I might as well play the full martyr. So I opened my arms, puffed my chest and fell back like a tree slapping a lake. A bubbly shriek escaped my lips as I clenched in shock.

I came up spitting, sneezing out salt water. Exhaling heat then gasping to get it back in. Suddenly, then, the water grew so cold I couldn’t feel it, and I don’t know why, maybe because it started feeling worse above the water than below, I fell back again and sank for several seconds, growing numb. 

.  .  .

“How was it?” Colin asked. My chest ached, I had trouble breathing. My hands trembled when I grabbed the towel. I scrubbed it over my arms and legs and, awkwardly, yanked the jeans up my wet shins, knees, thighs. Buttoning the fly was like tying a knot with oven mitts on.  

“Terrible,” I said.

“I was tempted to join you. I really was,” he said. “It looked fun.”

“Well, you should be glad you didn’t.”

“It’s a good story to tell,” he said. “For you, I mean.”

Throwing the peacoat around my back and hugging myself with it, shivering as I spoke, I said, “Okay. Well, you can tell it for me. Storytelling is your thing.”

The crowd then drifted in. They included a group of girls who laughed so hard as they crossed the beach it almost made me jealous not being involved in their version of the event. Maybe Colin felt the same way; he seemed vaguely sad to experience this with just me. Neither of us said anything like that aloud. 

Someone announced that a nearby bar would host a drink special for Polar Bears. Colin wanted to check it out, but I said no. Instead we walked the boardwalk listening to the tide churn and watched a lonely seagull hover overhead. We passed Coney Island’s Ferris wheel, The Wonder Wheel, which looked frozen yet inviting, its pink and blue paint fading under a thin layer of dirt. Considering New York’s obsession with all things slick and new, I wondered whether it might never rotate again. And I took a picture just in case. 

“Look at that bully,” Colin said. He pointed to a fat pigeon guarding a pizza crust. The bird ate as much as it could while a circle of friends and cousins and rivals closed in. Then he fought off the nearest encroacher as others gorged on the unprotected meal. The fat pigeon then returned to scare them all away, protect his bread, and eat as much as he could as fast as possible until another rival tried to steal a bite, and then he attacked that one. It was a joyless routine. Eventually, a sparrow swooped in to steal the crust away. “That’s so New York,” Colin said.

We walked in the direction of a tall red antenna, a kind of vaudeville Eiffel Tower that flowered at its top in a big metal bloom. “I’ve heard about this,” I told Colin. “It’s a retired ride called the Parachute Drop.” 

I made him pose for a picture with the monument at his back, but he didn’t smile. “I’ll get in too,” I said. And once our heads were together on the screen we could both grin widely. Our gums showed—the smiles were real. 

“What now?” I asked. The sun was retreating behind a familiar white haze, the veil it wore all through December. The air was cooling fast. “I think we should leave,” I said. “My underwear is still wet. My ass is literally freezing.”

“Come on,” he said. “You’ll live.” A lame joke he used often.

“I don’t want you to get sick.”

“I am sick,” he said. “What I really want to do is see that Polar Bear bar.”

“What’s the point going there? You can’t even drink.”

.  .  .

I showed these pages to Laura while we lay in bed in her apartment, and to keep from leaping off her fire escape as she read I made plans to clean a dust web in the corner of the ceiling, to fix an armoire that leaned askew, to patch a hole in the drywall. The heater hissed to life (did it always do that?) and its whistle jacked me up even worse. Her honest opinion—that’s what I asked for. But really what I expected and hoped for and probably needed was false praise, a kiss on the cheek followed by “I like the tone.” Whatever that means. 

“This is what you wrote today? I’m confused,” she said.

“Oh?” I sat up. “Why?” Grabbing my beer off the nightstand gave me something to do with my hands. “Tell me.” 

She let the pages fall to the bedspread. “What I don’t get is…. Well, I thought you were editing your brother’s story, something he wrote, but it’s told from your perspective. So this is your story now?” 

I started peeling the label off the bottle. A noise reached the window from a bar downstairs, a cackling laugh. “When you said he wanted you to finish his cancer writing, you said you wanted to honor his wish. A survivor story, right? I guess you’ve moved on from that, though.”

Jumping off the fire escape was still an option, I supposed. Maybe the room didn’t need dusting after all.

“My brother’s version of this was just a therapy exercise. Someone had given him a book about visualizations, and his fantasy was to be the disease-embattled-survivor-warrior boy, or whatever, so people could read his yarn and get inspired.” I started picking at the beer label residue, the only thing left on the bottle. “He wanted me to finish it for him, but only so I could benefit from his fantasy too.” 

“Okay,” she said. 

“And besides, I can’t write some big fake inspirational memoir.” The beer was warm but I took a gulp anyway. “We had a moment when he accepted that there was no shame in, you know, the truth. Eventually he gave up that survivor memoir delusion.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t mention this before,” Laura said. Then she let out a sigh. Or was it a yawn? 

“Everyone has their process,” she said. 

I didn’t know what that meant—whether she meant that everyone has a grieving process or everyone has a writing process. Looking over the story again, she scanned each page and shuffled them back behind each other until she’d browsed through the whole draft. “My only other critique”—she cleared her throat—“is that it needs more Colin. How’d your brother feel watching you from the beach when he wanted to jump in too? Right now, it’s just you in a cold ocean, sinking and growing numb.” Laura prided herself on being a tough critic whereas I was the opposite, priding myself on telling people what they wanted to hear whether or not that was the truth. 

She said, “Is that what this is all about? Numbness?”

“No, it’s not about numbness.”

“I still think you should cut out this stuff about pigeons and seagulls and dig more into your brother’s head.” 

She wanted me to do an autopsy. I returned my beer to the nightstand and got up to get dressed, and when she asked what was wrong, I said I was going to grab some air.

“I was about to ask you to turn out the light.”

“I will.” 

“But you’re leaving?”

What I really wanted was a cigarette, I told her, and since I didn’t have any I would have to go buy some. She inserted a pair of earplugs while I put on my shirt, my sweater. My coat hung by the front door on a hook next to her keys, which I grabbed as well, turning out the light and shutting the door behind me as quietly as possible. 

.  .  .

A friend told me that before flowers are picked, they like cigarette ash. It fertilizes them. So rather than grow breathless smoking on the walk back, I stayed outside the bodega, taking in the scents of roses and lilies and letting ash fall into their water buckets. 

I considered buying some for Laura. But she was always searching for bad omens, and the ones that held my eye—fluorescent daisies—would have probably made her cringe. “How, um, quaint!” she’d say. But how striking! A flower that glowed like orange magma. The green of an Amazon fern. Pink and blue like a flamingo in a Bolivian lagoon. Their colors looked almost painted on. It was a miracle too that they hadn’t shriveled in the night’s cold. 

Or maybe numbness was what they needed to survive, because I supposed the cool air preserved them. They’d been picked, after all—were withering from inside out. I took a last drag and flicked my cigarette to the gutter. Thinking about it, fresh-cut flowers were no reminder of nature’s splendor. They were a morbid indulgence. The ones I liked looked sneakily fake anyway.

There were a lot of synthetic beauties in Soho. I walked behind a trio of terribly skinny women who took proud, haughty steps around a pack of NYU students blocking the sidewalk outside Spring Lounge. The models were avoiding the crowd, but I strode through. Two girls in pencil skirts giggled as they pawed their meathead pursuers, guys with orange skin, manicured eyebrows, long leather coats. I overheard two guys talking basketball. “It sucks that the Pistons aren’t in it right now.” “Dude, they suck now.” “I know. The fact that they suck, sucks.” 

It was the kind of place Colin used to like—the kind where a fake ID is the only form of ID accepted—so I handed the bouncer my old license, the one I’d given Colin to use for such occasions. I shoulder-tapped and nudged and squeezed my way through. Cigarettes often gave me a sort of chemical melancholy and what I needed was the New York dive bar special—a beer and a shot for five dollars. The liquor sat on ascending platforms behind the bar and, backlit by yellow lights, the bottles glowed like votive candles. 

.  .  .

The Coney Island bar was named Ruby’s and it was a cross between an old man tavern and neighborhood dancehall, with a bit of Brooklyn photo archive about it too. They had sepia-tinted pictures on the walls from when women’s bathing suits went down to their knees and people parked cars on the sand. Every chrome-legged stool was taken, and in the back room a Latin couple swayed to a 50s love song on the juke. When the couple stopped, everyone clapped. They reminded me of my parents.

The bartender wanted our IDs. In fact, she practically interrogated us—“Are you boys 21?”—and that was fine with me because it meant we weren’t staying. Colin was only 19, and even though he had my old license on him, it couldn’t work when we were together. I gave her mine. She moved her lips when she read the birth date. Then Colin said, “No, we are not 21.” He took out his wallet. “Actually, we’re 22… Can’t you tell that we’re twins?”

Oh Jesus, I thought. 

She bounced her eyes between us. “I don’t see the resemblance.”

“Ever since I lost my hair it’s been hard to tell.” 

She took his ID—which, again, was mine from a year earlier—studying it with a playful grin. “I wouldn’t recognize you as brothers except for your eyes,” she said. A funny comment since we had different eye colors. “What can I get you?” 

“Two shots of Goldschlager,” he said. She chuckled as she went for the bottle. 

“Why’d you order that?” I asked. “And why two?”

“They’re both yours.” 

As she poured each shot, gold flakes floated down to the bottle’s neck, making it a glittery snow globe. The shots were generously tall. I stood to get my wallet but Colin insisted he’d pay, saying, “I ordered Goldschlager, this favorite of high school kids everywhere, because, if you recall, one night this past summer Megan brought a bottle of this stuff over. Remember? We were sitting at our kitchen table when she opened it. My last night seeing everyone.”

I remembered.

You fucking scolded that girl for offering me a shot.” He paused, smiled. “She was all, ‘I don’t know how cancer works! I didn’t know he couldn’t have one!’” Colin flicked one of the glasses, perking its gold. “Then at midnight you told everyone to go home so I could sleep.”

“Sorry,” I said.

He cut me off. “Don’t be. I appreciated it. I’m still grateful, I was just thinking about that night and it made me want Goldschlager.” 

I lifted one to my nose. It’s basically cinnamon-flavored mouthwash. The only reason to order one is if you have bad breath. Colin stared down into the other shot. 

“Did you know there’s a carnival game here called Shoot The Freak?” I asked. “In the summer. You shoot paintballs at a teenage kid who runs around in a mask and is ducking and diving around and shit. They’ve got a barker out on the boardwalk saying, ‘Come’n shoot da freak. Shoot’m in da freakin’ face.’”

“Exciting.”

“Oh yeah. Maybe if I’m still looking for a job this spring I’ll apply. Think I’d get it?” 

“With your education, you should at least get an interview,” he said. “But then I worry about you being around all those paintball guns. You might end up shooting back.”

“It may come to that.” I raised the Goldschlager again. “Come shoot this freak!” 

The Latin couple was back at the jukebox, browsing for more love songs I assumed. 

“Then again they might want someone with a math degree,” Colin said. “A freak who can calculate angles, trajectories. Yeah, now as I think about it, you should probably focus on finishing my memoir.”

“Finish your own damn memoir,” I said. 

Then he lifted the other shot. “Don’t do it,” I begged. He held it under his nose. “I can’t smell anything anymore.” He took a small sip. “I can’t taste anything either—everything tastes like metal.” Tapping its side, he stirred up the few gold flakes at the bottom. “It’s like Cisplatin, the stuff in my chemo. Platinum in that, gold in this. Each a rare metal that saves lives.”

I watched him suck back about half the glass then strain to gulp it down. 

Five minutes later he ran to the bathroom. I waited outside, and after a couple minutes, I knocked. “Let me in,” I said. 

When he finally opened up, he looked even more pale and teary-eyed than before. I offered my shoulder and wrapped an arm behind his back for support. “We gotta go,” I said. But he hung his head, breathing heavily in and out through his nose. “You all right?” He nodded yes but still wouldn’t move. “You ready?” He finally patted me on the shoulder. “Good,” I said. “You’re okay.” He looked utterly defeated. 

.  .  .

Inside the bathroom at Spring Lounge I was grateful to find walls covered in graffiti, scratch tags, and vicious little screeds. The anger steamed off the walls. It was a single stall, so I was alone. Down in the urinal I noticed a sticker that said, “Fucking Hipsters." 

Exactly, I thought. Colin was a hipster. 

There was more philosophy over the sink. Someone scrawled, “God is dead. – Joe 12/24," and under that line in different handwriting it read, “Joe is dead. – God 12/25."

“You’re dead, God,” I said as I washed my hands. “No, Joe, you’re dead. Merry Christmas. Happy fucking New Year.”

Then the door rattled against the lock. “Is that you, God,” I asked. “Is it my turn?” They were indeed determined to get in, whoever it was. Yanking, jostling the hinges, they kept trying as if the door were merely stuck. “It’s still locked!" I yelled. Then two girls giggled on the other side. I opened to find them wearing playful grins, and when I stepped out they entered the bathroom together.

“Hey,” I said, stopping the door with my foot. “You’re gonna snort coke, aren’t you?” The brunette burst out laughing while the redhead looked like she had to calculate a response. “Can I join?” The redhead backed out of my line of sight and I guess she nodded no because the brunette sweetly said sorry then shut and locked the door.

I went outside and smoked a cigarette that tasted like cat hair. I kept pulling drags anyway, not ready to go back to Laura’s. Going back there meant lying awake, listening to her dream. Maybe I’d order another drink, I thought. Goldschlager to remember that awful taste. 

.  .  .

“Do you boys need a cab?” the bartender had asked. When I said no she told us to get home safe, and I gathered from her expression she was sorry Colin was deteriorating right before her eyes. But the thing was, he seemed better on the street. We took our time reaching the subway, a walk that led us to Stillwell Avenue, where Colin suggested they move the Ronald McDonald House because, “as far as I’m concerned,” he said, “73rd Street is Not-well Avenue.” 

Our train was stationed with one door open on each car as a transit worker mopped the floors with bleach, a smell that reminded me we were headed back to Manhattan’s hospital district. Slumped on a bench seat in the corner, we watched the mop streaks dry. I nodded off as we rolled out, but Colin couldn’t sleep, and about forty minutes into the ride he caught me peek my eyes open and asked, “What are you going to write?”

It took a minute to realize what he was after. As usual, he wanted assurance that his little cancer book wouldn’t be left to rot, that it might still help someone, somewhere, even if that meant providing the inspiration for a work of fiction instead of fact. I think that’s what every 19-year-old wants—to make some kind of mark. Most have more than one year of adulthood to do it, though. I had been telling him that giving up meant giving up. I’d been holding his fantasy for ransom. This time, I said, “I guess I’ll write something nice. Something you would like.”

“You’ll have to put this in there.”

“It's not too late for you to do that.”

“No, it’s not,” he said. Sunlight poured in as the train climbed onto the Manhattan Bridge. A crosshatch of steel beams scrolled by in the window, as did loft buildings, then the East River. “It may be too late for the good ending. For me to write it,” he said. “That's what I want, you know? Make it end nice. Hollywood happy. Everyone loves a survivor story.”

.  .  .

I stepped off the curb at the sight of an oncoming cab and it came to a rapid halt. I got in. The driver asked where we were headed. “Sir!” he finally insisted. “Please give me an address or get out.”

“73rd Street between 1st and York.” 

Without a word he hit the meter and we accelerated into the stream of traffic. The number of guys and girls traversing between bars and clubs and restaurants really came into perspective. They were everywhere: throngs in drunken revelry. The route took us past boutiques, galleries, restaurant supply stores all fronted with security grates or steel shutters. A homeless woman pushed tandem shopping carts on the edge of Chrystie Park, and I wanted to hand her my cash when we stopped at a light, but I’d need it to pay the driver. Tenements whirred past, making jagged canyon walls along the road to FDR Drive. They stood dark save for a lone window here and there lit by a TV screen or yellow lamplight. 

On the highway the driver started speeding maniacally, racing along the wall separating us from the river, drafting slower cars and weaving between other sedans. Normally I’d have begged him to slow down, but instead I laughed. “Can’t you go any faster?” I asked as we whipped by a delivery truck, almost grazing its bumper. 

“Right there with the blue awning,” I said on 73rd. The only way to distinguish it from a proper hotel was the name on the canopy. The lobby lights were dimmed and the doorman was asleep, as usual. When I walked in, he looked up, recognized my face, then returned to a shut-eyed slouch.

The elevator still had the same painting of a cartoon apple walking through Times Square. “Start spreading the newsI’m leaving today,” I sang. The doors parted on the seventh floor and I walked out to the terrace. 

Just a few potted plants and a great view. This was where I smoked at night, when going downstairs was too much trouble, so I lit one up for old time’s sake. Suddenly the door opened and a punky girl walked outside. Rubbing her arms as she skulked toward me, hunching her head, she held herself like a stray cat. Short black hair poked out from under her knit cap. I assumed it was a wig because her eyebrows looked penciled on.  

“Hi there,” she said.

“Hello.” 

After pulling up the hood on her sweatshirt and crossing her arms to keep warm, she asked, “Can I have one of those?” I plucked the cigarette from my mouth and looked at it, then at her. “But aren’t you sick?” I said.

“Oh god, I don’t have lung cancer for Christ’s sake.” She used a sleeve to wipe her nose. “My parents let me get cannabis pills, and I even might get a marijuana prescription. Do you think one little cancer stick is gonna end me?” 

This again, I thought to myself. “Okay, I agree it’s not going to end you, but a cigarette probably is in fact worse than your prescription weed. Cigarettes have additives, chemicals.”

“I’ve got, like, a periodic table’s worth of shit in my veins right now. Seriously. What’s a few more chemicals gonna hurt?”

“How old are you?” I asked. She turned away furiously, preferring to stand on the edge of the terrace. I watched her lean over the wall to look down. The view offered a clear sight line into a hotel across the street, The Aquarius, as Colin and I referred to it since it served the purpose of a fishbowl. We had the same view in our room. From there, we’d see tourists pose behind new dresses and sweaters. We spied on businessmen packing suitcases and women latching necklaces in front of mirrors, kids leaping from bed to sofa chair and back again.

“Did you see that?” the girl asked, pointing to the Empire State Building. It hulked over the nearest high-rises and skyscrapers even as it was the furthest visible building. “Wait another second,” she said. A flicker of light came from its observation deck. “There. Ha! Don’t you love it? They want their little cameras to light up the whole city. It’s so cute.” 

“Nothing’s showing up in those photos,” I said, joining her by the ledge. “I know because I made the same mistake when my brother and I went up there. The flash only allows you to capture the immediate foreground, so all they’re getting is black sky. Dust spots maybe. Some faint dots of light.”

“Oh,” she said, obviously disappointed. “Well my point is that it’s a romantic idea. I always like seeing them do that because it reminds me how tourists see this place.”

I opened my cigarette pack and she looked my way, smiling. “Fuck it,” I said. “If you’re old enough to get your disease, you’re old enough to do whatever you want. I’m sick of depriving people.”

“How magnanimous!” she said. I offered her the open pack and she plucked one out, nodding thanks.

“Don’t tell your parents.” 

“You don’t tell my parents!” 

“Let’s not tell anyone’s parents,” I said, “especially not mine.” As if that were a possibility. “And don’t feel like you have to smoke the whole thing.” She clenched the butt between her teeth and, cupping it with both hands, sucked the flame onto her cigarette. I considered how if any of the staff walked out, I’d probably be thrown off the ledge. 

“So what are you in for?” she asked. “Hodgkin’s?” I felt like we were meeting in a prison yard. 

“Do I look sick?” 

“You look something… Maybe you’re just tired.”

“I’m leaving soon. It was my brother who was sick, and he had testicular cancer.”

Ouch.”

“That’s what everyone says. ‘Ouch.’ He fucking hated that.”

“Sorry.” She gazed up as if looking for stars, yet I caught her eying me from under her hood. A glint of light refracted off her nose ring. We then took drags at the exact same moment, causing her to smile like this was some cosmic coincidence. Her sweatshirt was loose on her frame, baggy, but it still managed to convey how boney her shoulders were.

“Once,” I recalled, “when my brother was getting a PET scan, he was receiving a bunch of questions from the tech over the intercom system. All the usual medical shit, you know, and the guy asked, ‘Are you a smoker?’ It had started on his testicle but by then spread to his lungs and lymph nodes. Anyway, Colin said, ‘Am I a smoker? No! I got my cancer for free.’”

“That’s funny,” she said.

“The tech didn’t think so. There was nothing but radio silence from his end. You know, if it isn’t the catheters and diets and shared hospital rooms, or the fucking pain obviously, some humorless medic will kill you with his spirit-crushing numbness. Be careful,” I said. “I mean it. You with your tourist goggles. Seeing everything like it’s a postcard—there’s no room for that at Sloan-Kettering.” I flicked my cigarette off the terrace and she did the same. A deep breath. Then I asked, “How about you? Is everything okay?” 

“I should be leaving here soon, I hope.”

“Then what?”

“I’m technically still in school, in Santa Cruz. Because of this whole thing I decided to change my major to nursing when I get back.”

“Really? My brother wanted to do that! He wanted to switch to nursing too!”

“He doesn’t anymore?” 

“No,” I said. “I guess he wants to be a writer now.”

.  .  .

I opened the door as quietly as possible to not wake Laura. Patting my way along in the dark, I found the counter, then grazed it with my hand—every step a creak in the floor—to guide myself to the fridge. Its door was cool. I opened it, grabbed a bottle of beer and let the door shut slowly, giving me just enough time with its light to find the kitchen table. Its incandescent glow eclipsed right as I took a seat. 

One long gulp. Foam dribbled down my chin. I pressed the bottle to my cheek and let its condensation lick my face. A bit of moonlight leaked in from a vent shaft that showed a brick wall three feet outside her window. I went to wash up. Without looking in the mirror I scrubbed my hands and face and brushed my teeth. Poured the rest of the beer down the drain.

Laura was fast asleep. It seemed she could always rest deeply. I crawled in next to her and shut my eyes. 

As a trick to fall asleep sometimes I liked to imagine vivid scenes. This was from Colin’s self-help books, a recommendation to see flowered meadows and mountain backed lakes. I tried to go horseback riding in an Aspen forest once. The slow plodding on the dirt trail really helped silence my head. Lately, though, I’d replayed our trip to Coney Island. I went there again. 

This time I saw a sky that was soft blue instead of gray. The water was a teal green rather than dirt brown. Stepping in it was easy too—it wasn’t cold. I liked the sound of the waves, how they sluiced forward neatly and made small breakers that passed my shins. The sand felt muddy. I squeezed it between my toes. I knelt down and bowed under the next small wave. Standing up, wiping my eyes and combing my hair back, I waded in deeper. 

There were no people to my left or right this time. I was letting myself change it. No screaming or splashing, no other swimmers. I looked back and saw a scattered crowd on the beach—I did see that. They were the pot-bellied bikers, aging hippies, and college kids about our age, hooting and clapping. I scanned the people for Colin but didn’t see him. I kept looking, trying to find his face. The tide receded and tugged at my ankles.