Michael was shown the x-rays of his upper body. On the outer edge of his left lung there was a large white spot the size of a penny, tendril-like rays shot out from it in all directions, and a tail curved over to the right so that it resembled a meteor falling from the sky. Cancer.
“Surgery is not an option...It’s difficult to say at this point, but considering the size you may only have 6 months left to live.” The doctor put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.” Then she held his hand for a moment before leaving the room. Although he sat stoically on the exam table, waves of panicked energy moved through him until it felt as though his insides were escaping through the pores on his face and extremities. He was so thirsty.
He struggled to stand but managed to walk to the hand washing sink and gulp down handfuls of water until interrupted by the nurse’s entrance. The nurse asked him several times if he would be capable of driving. “I’m fine,” Michael lied and signed release forms before leaving. I’m fine, he thought as he sat down in his car.
On the drive back to work Michael had a sudden craving for a hamburger with fries. He pulled into a Wendy’s, and ate in silence. He chuckled at the thought that this most humble of meals would be the first of a series of last meals until he succumbed to the disease. He took out his phone and snapped a picture of the hamburger and fries, posted it on Facebook with the caption, I was given 6 months to live. To hell with healthy eating :). Michael stared at the post, found it to be so perverse that he deleted it within seconds after it appeared in his feed.
At work Michael walked straight to his supervisor’s office. Marvin leaned back in his leather chair shaking his head as Michael gave him the news.
“I’m sorry to hear it. How you feeling?”
“I don’t know...like I’m walking a few feet away from myself. You know?”
“Yeah, I understand...”
“Don’t know if it’s just shock, but it feels like someone’s already died.”
“Listen, if want to take the rest of the day off...take as much time off as you need, it’s fine.”
“Thanks. I...I think I’ll finish what’s left of today. Tomorrow...” Michael shrugged.
Marvin leaned in, fidgeting with the pen on his desk, and lowered his voice. “Don’t worry about making quotas today. I”ll mark you down as in-training.”
Michael thanked him and stood up slowly to return to his desk. Sheila was sitting at her own desk beside his and speaking on the phone. “Great. Have I resolved all of your issues today?..” She placed her mouse pointer on the end-call button. “Great, then I would like to thank you for calling today. Have a great weekend.” She ended the call and swiveled in her chair to face Michael.
“I’m going on break. Wanna have a smoke with me?” She asked.
Michael felt as though struck on the head. “...I’ve got to make up a lot of work.”
“Be that way.” She smiled and grabbed her purse as she stood.
He could smell her perfume as she turned, a familiar scent that, until now, had unfortunately become associated with work. She took a few steps before he called to her. “Hey!”
“Yeah?” She looked as though hopeful that Michael had changed his mind.
“We’ve been working beside each other for a few years—“ Maybe this was a bad idea. ”—I was wondering why we haven’t gone out?”
“You never asked.”
Maybe not such a bad idea after all. “Let’s do something?”
“How about dinner, for starters? I feel like trying somewhere nice. Somewhere I’ve never been.”
“Have you been to Mariposa?”
“No, but it sounds like a winner.”
“Great, then it’s a date.” She pulled her cigarettes out of her purse. “You sure you won’t join me?”
For a second he thought about telling her about his diagnosis. “You go ahead.”
He watched her leave then turned around and stared at his computer screen. The display showed over a thousand callers who were waiting for help but he suddenly realized at that moment that he couldn’t care less. He shut off his computer, told Marvin he was leaving and not returning.
Walking into his apartment at an hour when he was usually at work was always disconcerting to Michael—the light was all wrong and things seemed unfamiliar. It made him uncomfortable, like walking into a room where his mother was dressing. Now that disconcerting feeling was compounded by the awareness of the transience of all things.
He considering his options and decided to take a shower then he sat on the couch, with only a towel wrapped around his waist. He stared blankly at the walls for several minutes until his phone rang and jolted him back to reality. It was Sheila. She asked why he had left so early. He told her he wasn’t feeling well. She asked if he wanted to cancel. He told her no, and they agreed to meet at the restaurant.
He remained on the couch. Several hours passed. He watched the sunlight move across the walls and floor until the entire room went dark. Finally, he stood and got ready for the night.
As he dressed he thought about all the reasons to cancel. As he drove to the restaurant he had to fight off the urge to turn back and go home, but once he arrived at the Mariposa valet service he saw no other recourse than to proceed with the date.
There was a crowd of muted patrons standing at the front entrance. Sheila stood out wearing a brown and tan dress and tan heels, blonde hair spun into a bun on the back of her head. She looked very much like a chocolate and caramel swirl sundae. She smiled and waved when she saw Michael approach. Sheila told him how much she liked his outfit. Michael thanked her and told her she looked fantastic then both walked through the doors to wait to be seated.
The atmosphere of the restaurant was a meticulous harmony of color, and sound. It was a large dark space lit only by the reflection of the rose colored candles on the white linen tablecloths at each table. Orchestral music from hidden speakers played at a volume that attenuated the din of crowded conversations.
Sheila and Michael were led to a table near a window, participated in the performance of ordering their food, and waited for their drinks to arrive. He looked around the dining room and watched a nearby couple enjoying themselves, drinking wine and speaking intimately to one another. He imagined that he and Sheila were that couple and began to smile. Sheila noticed and turned to see what he was smiling about.
“Hmm?” Michael took a drink to hide his embarrassment over being caught then offered his glass as a toast. They exchanged a friendly smile as they touched glasses.
“Have you ever thought that life is a lot like a gameshow?” Sheila asked.
“In what way.”
“There’s winners and losers, but no one leaves without a prize.”
“Even if it’s only the take-home version of the game,” she added.
“That’s clever.” He said still smiling but struggling to hold back a sudden urge to cry. Again, he considered telling her about his diagnosis, but did not want to ruin the night for her.
As they continued talking Michael set aside his worry, and he allowed himself to draw some pleasure from watching Sheila smile and laugh, and from their servers’ nervous glances at him when they felt compelled by their position to respond to Sheila’s flirtatious behavior.
By the end of the night, most of the diners had gone and the conversations of those who remained began to echo through the increasingly lonely room. Michael paid for their meal and then he and Sheila stepped out to the valet to wait for their cars.
“This is me,” Sheila said as the valet approached in her car. “I had a good time.”
“Me too,” Michael said with a smile.
“We should do this again,” she said as she stood directly in front of him and sort off bounced nervously as though expecting a kiss.
Michael nodded but as hard as he tried to maintain a sincere smile he saw the realization that shown on Sheila’s face that something was not quite right.
Sheila frowned slightly, apparently misinterpreting the situation. “Okay... I’ll see you tomorrow at work,” she said as she walked around to the driver-side door left open by the valet. She waved from inside her car as she drove off.
Michael waited a while longer for his car. Once he left the Mariposa parking lot his body began to tremble as the same sickly feeling from before when sitting on the exam table returned with greater force. He had difficulty holding on to the steering wheel and his vision blurred. Though still a few miles from home he had no choice except to turn onto a dark neighborhood street and park his car in front of a stranger’s house.
He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and shook it with a murderous strength, grunting like an animal, then tossed his head back and screamed. Dogs began to bark, and he screamed louder, tears streamed from his eyes. He screamed until too exhausted to scream any further, then cried until he unexpectedly fell asleep.
Michael awoke to find himself still sitting in his car. Three hours had passed, and he was surprised that no one had called to report the crazy person screaming in his car. He practiced breathing deeply then adjusted his seatbelt and drove the rest of the way home as if nothing happened.
Once at home he walked straight to the den and turned on his computer. He searched the internet for cancer treatment. There was only a two percent survival rate after metastasis. Michael picked up his computer and tossed it onto the tile floor. It bounced several times but did not break. He laughed. “You son of a bitch.” He pulled the hair on the top of his head and considered kicking the computer into the wall, but walked into the living room instead and grabbed his phone.
Opening up Facebook he searched for Sheila’s page. There was picture after picture of them together at work and company functions. He looked at every one before swiping over to his messages and inviting Sheila to breakfast then he staggered to his bedroom where he collapsed on the bed fully clothed. He replayed the night in his head before dozing off. Michael promised himself to tell her everything in the morning.