For the sake of privacy, some identifying details have been changed.
“My life is leaking out of me like the water from this garden hose,” my friend says, and wiggles the spray nozzle at me. A trickle of water darkens the sleeve of her sweater. Some shrug of shoulder or downward turn of lip betrays my reluctance to surrender hope. She shakes her head and warns, “Shape up. You don’t have much time left to reach the stage of acceptance.”
She lifts the hose to her lips to drink. Water drizzles down her chin and comes to rest in a shimmering pendant against her throat. “Rubbery.” She grimaces and tosses the hose to the ground. A widening rainbow begins to arc around the nozzle. My friend’s shoulders relax, her eyes lose focus, and she meditates on the transformation of water and light into some glistening new thing.
A certain stillness has replaced the restlessness that’s characterized her as long as we’ve been friends. I check my watch — one hour until her doctor’s appointment — and stretch out in a lounge chair, one of two shaded by a sugar maple in blazing regalia. Despite the dry autumn, the grass is lush. My friend waters diligently, mourning each flowering annual as its season for life passes. Russet and gold have overtaken the soft green of summer, but mums spike up purple, yellow, and white in their raised beds. Three of her rosebushes are studded with tiny, hard hips, prepared for winter, but the fourth, a cottage rose, in stubborn disregard of the cold nights, is flooded with pink buds even as the petals of spent blossoms curl and drop. The tenacity of the bush delights her, and she feeds it against all advice that it be encouraged to go quietly dormant.
“The roses and I are in a contest,” she said when I arrived. “Which of us will hold out the longest.” When I didn’t respond, she cocked her head at my silence and said, “Get with it.” Her eyes were hard. I knew then that she was going to be relentless and wouldn’t give up until I acknowledged the truth.
The hose gives a final hissing spurt as she twists shut the faucet on the side of the house. I close my eyes and try to meditate using a mantra she taught me. She insisted I’d enjoy meditating, but my mind scurries from the book I’m writing, to my husband’s upcoming business trip, to problems with my psychotherapy clients. The lounge chair beside me creaks, and I open my eyes. She’s moved it over a foot into the late-morning sun, and she rests there now, with closed eyes, her pale face slathered with sunblock. Her hipbones jut out against her dark jeans. Her silver hair has grown back in the short curls of Roman boys in old frescoes. As if she knows I’m looking at her, she reaches over and pats my hand.
“Shouldn’t you move out of the sun?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I’ll have lots of time to be in the dark.”
I packed my car with Maine icons for this visit: soap and moisturizer from Tom’s of Maine; photographs of the coast; real maple syrup; a ceramic crow from a gallery in Portland; an L.L. Bean vest; a poster from the Portland Museum of Art. In honor of our history of junk-shopping, I added an exotic gypsy scarf, gaudy dangling earrings, six mystery books, and two cashmere sweaters from the Salvation Army. My husband watched as I layered it all on my back seat. “Hug her for me,” he said. He hesitated, then added, “Tell her I’ll see her soon.”
I nodded, but we both knew it was a crapshoot.
She ran out to the driveway when I arrived, and glowed when I threw open the car’s back door and began to fill her arms with gifts.
“That’s all?” she said. “Are you sure you didn’t forget anything?”
After dinner each night, we watch reruns of her favorite shows. In the darkness of the living room, images flicker across the screen, and time accordions back into itself: Alan Alda is maturely handsome rather than time-ravaged; William Shatner is not yet camp. We have returned to an era before polluted air and water, extinction of species, and glacial melting. We’re back in a long-ago time when only other people died.
This morning my face in the mirror was drawn, eyes already saying goodbye. Time is slipping away from me. “Why her?” I whispered to my reflection. My mother, my brother, my first husband’s grandparents and aunt, two other friends, and a writer I knew: all dead. Also Andre Dubus, François Truffaut, Raymond Carver, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, and millions more, known and unknown.
Nobody survives life.
At breakfast, my friend ate a spoonful of oatmeal and examined me. “You look like shit.”
“Thanks,” I answered. “I’m going to meditate on that.”
She laughed and said, “Let’s go sit in the yard after I water.”
In the lounge chair, my friend opens her eyes and looks at my watch. “Time to go.” She threw her own watch in the trash when she learned she was dying. “Time is relative,” she said. “A day with my son when he’s home from college is shorter than a second; a twenty-minute wait for the results of a test is longer than a year. Dying will take as long as it takes.”
My friend stands in a single, graceful motion, and I realize she’s been practicing how to move as if she were still healthy. She stops beside the cottage rose and beckons to me. “Let’s go. I don’t have forever.” Her fingernails and toenails are painted the same vibrant pink as the roses. She flashed them at me when I first arrived — she was wearing sandals despite the chilly fall weather — and said, “We’re having a girly party later, and I’m polishing yours.”
Our friendship had begun when we were both young mothers, and now she was offering an escape to an adolescent past we hadn’t shared. “OK,” I agreed, “but I refuse to watch Gidget and drink Coke while you do it.”
So now my fingernails, too, are bright pink.
“Don’t worry about those,” my friend says as I carry the lounge chairs to her porch.
“It might rain,” I protest.
“Where?” she asks. “In India?” It’s true: we haven’t seen a cloud all week. She bends to sniff one of the roses. Pain floods her face, and she places a hand against the curve of her back. My throat knots with sorrow. She looks up to hurry me, sees my expression, and quickly plunges her nose back into the petals. I clear my throat and say, “Let’s go.”
Once we’re belted into the car, she turns to me, squares her shoulders, and says, “Ready?”
I nod, and we grab the handles that open our windows.
“OK,” she says. “Ready, set . . . go!”
We both crank furiously, but she opens her window first. She raises her hands in a gesture of triumph. “Winner and still champion. You buy lunch — again.”
“I’ll win next time,” I say as I back out into the road.
“Ha,” she scoffs, and leans out the window. The brim of her green cap snaps in the wind. As the car picks up speed, she pulls her head back in to say, “You’re running out of time to win.”
Relentless, I think, then answer, “There’s the trip back home.”
“No,” she says quietly. “We both know I’m going to be first.” She leans out the window, but not before I catch a glimpse of the fear in her eyes.
At the oncologist’s office, we sit in the waiting room, which is painted blue and pink like a nursery. Thin rays of light sneak in through closed blinds and rest on the flat beige carpet. The radio plays music you forget even as you hear it. Vapid watercolors break up a stretch of wall. The only other patient is a gaunt man with eyes like the last lingering coals of a fire. He sits across from us wearing a crisp white shirt and paisley tie and restlessly fingering an issue of the New Yorker. A heavy sweater and fedora lie beside him, and his gray hair is the length of new spring grass. His expression is wry and a little bitter.
My friend cocks her head at the Muzak and says, “Steely Dan would drop dead if they heard this version of ‘Dr. Wu.’ ”
The man laughs.
“So, is this where you come to loosen up?” my friend says to him, and I realize by her tone that she’s flirting.
“Yes, and what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” he says. He’s wearing a wedding band. So is my friend.
“Where else can you get a cocktail with this kind of kick?” She shimmies her shoulders provocatively. I’m astonished to see him give a quick, self-conscious shimmy back.
The man’s name is called, and he rises, makes a drinking motion, and pretends to stagger through the door to the doctor’s office. My friend burps noisily, as though she’s had too much to drink, and the receptionist looks up and smiles vacantly.
Once the man is gone, my friend says, “I should have at least one affair before I die.” She sighs, but her eyes gleam.
I swallow hard and glance at her shocking pink nails. “Hey, we’ve only got one life to live.”
Her laugh tells me I’ve said the right thing, a feat it’s getting harder to accomplish.
As the wait drags on, my friend fidgets and whispers loudly, “Who has this much time to kill?” The receptionist blinks rapidly but doesn’t look up. My friend stares out the window, and I memorize her profile. I miss her already. My first marriage, my children, my younger son’s surgery, my divorce, my present marriage — I imagine it impossible for an event to occur in my life if she’s not there to witness it.
She turns to me and says, “I felt that.”
“Where is all this telepathy coming from?” I ask.
“I’m practicing channeling,” she answers. “First on the receiving end, later on the sending.”
“Are you going to be this relentless the whole visit?”
“It depends on you,” she says. “It may need to be the whole visit.”
The magazine she has put down lies open to a quiz with the title “Do You Have the Courage to Dream Big?”
“Let’s take it,” I suggest.
We roll our eyes at each inane question about decorating your house, choosing a car, changing makeup. The gravity of the tone suggests that meticulous attention to such trappings is essential to achieving harmony.
The final question is “Are you excited about every new adventure?”
“I lose,” my friend says, and closes the magazine.
I’m struck hard by the bleakness in her voice, and I grab her hand. Just then the doctor’s door opens, and the other patient steps out, buttoning the sleeves of his shirt. He’s paler than when he went in and looks uncertain of where he is, until he sees my friend. He sits down and says, “I need to wait, just in case I have a reaction to the injection.”
The nurse calls for my friend. As she passes the man, her long leg brushes his knee. “Is that all you’re waiting for?”
His eyes lighten, and he answers, “Maybe not all.” He watches her vanish behind the closed door, then turns to me and smiles. I’m suddenly self-conscious about my fingernails, as though I haven’t earned the right to wear such a brave shade of pink.
We sit silently, turning the pages of magazines and watching the play of light on the carpet, until my friend swings open the door of the doctor’s office. She sees the man and asks, “No bad reaction?”
“Oh, that,” he says. “I forgot about that. I’m just hanging out and soaking up the ambiance.”
She puts a hand on his shoulder and asks, “Can you tear yourself away from the music and join us for lunch?”
He immediately stands, pulls his sweater over his head, adjusts the fedora, and cocks an arm for each of us. “Let’s go,” he says. “I’m dying of hunger.”
My friend laughs and takes his arm. “We’re going to a little organic restaurant I love.”
“Perfect,” he says.
Outside, milky clouds drift across the sky. The sun is bitterly bright for early autumn.
“I’ll follow you,” he says, and he opens his car door and slides in. “Drive slowly.” I nod, and my friend pats his hand on the steering wheel. When he looks at her, the expression on his face is so stark and naked that I turn away.
On the road, she watches his car in the side mirror and leans out the window to wave. When I stop at a red light, she applies lipstick and face powder, pursing her lips at how dry and flaky her skin is. I feel my heart break.
We eat winter-squash soup and endive salad at a table beneath a picture window. Sun filters through gauze curtains. The restaurant is quiet; we’ve come between lunch and dinner. Each table has a small rose.
When we first sat down, my friend leaned over to sniff our rose, then announced with disappointment, “They’re scentless.”
“You like roses?” the man asked.
“I love them,” she said. “I have one still putting out blossoms, as if it hasn’t figured out summer’s over.”
“A fighter,” he answered.
Throughout the meal, they laugh and talk in a complex language of medications, treatments, and experimental programs. It’s not a graceful dialect, yet they speak it as if it were a Romance language. My friend eats with more appetite than I’ve seen her show in a while, nodding enthusiastically and waving her fork in the air to make a point. The man pushes his plate away and rests his face on his hands to watch her.
They have a lot in common: She reviewed books in her “former life,” and he’s an avid reader. She’s a computer whiz, and he was a science teacher. They both love museums. His wife owns a business and travels all the time; ever since my friend received her “sentence,” as she calls it, her husband, an executive for a computer company, has been working late and is always at a conference somewhere.
“He’s buying new suits and watching his diet,” she says as she takes a last forkful of salad, then pushes her plate away. Her mouth twists. “He and I have both grown thinner, only not together. I hardly miss him anymore.” She takes my hand.
The man looks at us sadly, then reaches across the table and squeezes both our hands. I’m a little bit in love with him, too, the aplomb with which he handles himself.
They discover more commonalities: They both take their sleeping pills and painkillers sparingly. They both refused a second round of chemotherapy, believing it wasn’t worth the misery just to have a few more months. They both employ a regimen of vitamins and herbs prescribed by the same neighborhood naturopath.
“Hell,” my friend says, “I’ve never felt better in my life.” She leans toward the man seductively, a mannerism left over from a time when she still had breasts. Leaves tremble outside the window, and shadows flicker over her.
“And you look great,” the man says, leaning forward. “I can’t believe you’ve ever been more beautiful.”
Their fingers meet across the table. There is something glowing inside her that I haven’t seen for years, a feverish light that ignites her. I suddenly imagine a miracle, something beyond medical science. I know she would laugh derisively at me if she knew I had such thoughts.
We order coffee, and my friend takes hers with cream, a luxury she never allowed herself before. She and I order chocolate cake. The man gets apple pie. They exchange tastes of their desserts. There is a haze around them of midafternoon light, their skin as translucent as rice paper, blue veins as delicate as map lines. Everything is slowed down. It seems to take an hour for his pie-laden fork to reach her lips.
The man insists on paying the bill. “It’s our first date,” he jokes. He generously includes me.
Outside they exchange telephone numbers and then graze cheeks. The man leans over to kiss me as well. “See you,” he says.
“I hope so,” I answer honestly.
He walks to his car, waving over his shoulder. His stride is a little stiff but still fluid: a man traveling a path between the middle and end stages of a terminal disease. My friend watches him go.
Back in the car, she rolls her window down before I’m even in my seat. “Hey, no fair,” I protest.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to cheat,” she tells me.
At the house she laughs at the lounge chairs that I folded neatly on the porch and holds her palm out mockingly, feeling for nonexistent rain. I’m preparing herbal tea when her husband calls from D.C., where he’s attending a conference. She holds the cordless phone in one hand and with the other picks up a spoon and plays a row of glasses on the counter.
“Nothing’s changed,” she tells him. “No, nothing’s worse, and nothing’s better.” She’s quiet. Then, “No, had lunch with a man we met at the doctor’s office, the three of us.” She’s quiet again, then stares directly into my eyes and says briskly, as though reciting a weather report, “The same as mine, hopeless.” A muscle twitches in her jaw, and the spoon speeds up, bouncing between glasses. “Nothing,” she says, and stops tapping. “Some noise from outside.” After a moment she tells him, “No, don’t call. I’ll be asleep by then.” She plays the glasses again, gently, a crystal symphony. “Yes, goodbye.”
She hangs up and turns to me. “Bastard,” she says. “He’s getting impatient.”
We sit in the yard, wrapped in light blankets, drinking tea and watching the sun leave the sky. The phone rings, and my friend goes inside to answer it. When she returns, her eyes are thoughtful. “Would you mind if I went out for a while this evening?” she asks. The blazing sunset casts an orange aura around her.
I feign shock and say, “Do I know this boy? Don’t get into the car if the driver has been drinking.”
“I promise,” she says. Then she fiercely embraces me. I feel her tears against my cheek, and she trembles. I rub her back and think of her husband, absent and remote almost since her illness began. I suddenly hate him and know he is no longer a part of this equation. She has friends who love her, women who will rally around her and do anything she asks. But there are needs that friends can’t meet. She is counting on this man, and he is counting on her. Time has collapsed, like a building falling in on itself, and what could take weeks to develop in ordinary time has transpired in an afternoon.
I suddenly want her to die before the man does. I don’t want her to suffer his vanishing and be left behind to wait for her own end.
I’ve reached acceptance at last.
“Is this a good idea?” I whisper to her.
“Because I’m married?” she asks bitterly.
She steps away from me and studies my face. “Yes,” she says, “you’re finally there. And yes, it’s a good idea.”
I feel an unexpected flash of jealousy when her car pulls out of the driveway a half-hour later. I promised her I’d try to meditate, but I can’t sit still, and I wander around her house, as worried as I was when my children went out at night. I touch her things, as familiar as my own: The old table we bought at a yard sale and lugged home, carrying it between us, putting it down every few minutes. The ridiculous crystal chandelier we found at Goodwill. A photograph taken when we were both still married to our first husbands, our faces earnest and unlined; a picture of a time before illness. There are books we both own, records we’ve shared: Miles Davis, John Coltrane. I walk from room to room crying, knowing that when she is gone I will never see these rooms, these things again.
Feeling edgy, I pour a glass of wine. My mind is whirling too fast for me to read. I climb into bed with a second glass and click on the television: a rerun of Star Trek. I want to be “beamed” out of this reality. I fluff the pillows and settle down, listening anxiously for her car in the driveway. Don’t be an idiot, I admonish myself. An automobile accident would be too ironic.
In the morning I find my friend drinking coffee at the kitchen table, a bouquet of roses in the center. I kiss the top of her head, and she smiles up at me. There’s a softness to her features, a luminosity to her skin. She seems younger in the gentle morning light, the woman I met when we were twenty-something. I pour a cup of coffee, sniff the roses, and ask, “You had fun?” It’s rhetorical.
“When was the last time you sat up half the night talking and necking and making stupid jokes?” she asks dreamily.
“Too far back to remember.” I take a sip of coffee.
My friend giggles at some private thought, and the sound is so delightful that I giggle, too.
Last year, in a phone conversation, she said wistfully, “I miss passion most of all.” Now she is experiencing not the frantic carnality of young adulthood, nor the comfortable familiarity of middle-aged partners, but the thrilling kisses and hand-holding of a teenage crush.
She takes my hand. There’s fear in her eyes, but also something else: a brief staying power that has made time bend in some crazy, forgiving way, like a Möbius strip, a geometric anomaly with no beginning or end. Past, present, and future are melting together. Events of long ago are happening even as we remember them. And her smile is so alive, so radiant that I stop time right here.