Kayla Rae Whitaker is a native of eastern Kentucky. She received her BA from the University of Kentucky and is working toward an MFA in fiction writing at New York University. She is currently at work on a novel. She lives with her cat, Breece Pancake, in Brooklyn, New York.
The cancer’s back, but I’m not telling Bobby. Instead, I use the flat iron to straighten what hair has grown back in—it’s blonde, curlier than I remember—and closely apply mascara and eyeliner. At five o’clock, there he is. Instead of waiting inside the truck cab, he’s gotten out and is standing there in his winter coat, Cincinnati Reds cap pulled down low so I can’t see his eyes. His hands are shoved down deep into his pockets. When I come close, he opens the door for me, like we’re going on our first date. I tell him, “Thank you,” and I wonder if he sees how I’m smiling at him.
My visit to the specialist in Louisville was yesterday. I lay on my belly on a padded examining table, the paper gown crinkling underneath me. He was prodding my back and advising me to major in business when I returned to school in the fall. When he hit the spot- I felt it, craned my neck slightly to look at him when he located it- his eyes turned muddily neutral, fixed onto the floor.
I am what they call “beyond the point of care”. In other words, give the tumor two months, or three. Watch it blossom out of control. Once, I was Bobby’s girlfriend. I was a college student. Now, I’m like the kids I saw in the cancer center. I’ll smell sick. I’ll smell like an old person who’s about to die, so sour I won’t be able to scrub it off. This was the gist of what the doctor explained to me. “We’ll have someone to talk with you, of course,” he said.
“Well, a counselor, of course. Someone to help out.”
“I don’t need a counselor,” I said.
I watched him draw back, blinking. He looked at me long and close. “I think you’re in shock,” he says.
We are heading toward Bobby’s house and he takes the curves in the road easy, palms spread flat across the center of the steering wheel. “You color your hair?” he asks me without looking.
I reached up and smoothed my bangs. “Nope. Just coming back blonde.”
Bobby still lives with his parents. He lives in the same room he grew up in. Just like in high school, no one is home.
When we started dating, Bobby’s room smelled like a boy’s. Sour and dark, like he’d been jacking off into a sock. But his hair was so clean and light, like a child’s. Walking away from him, I would smell nothing at all, as if I’d just been held by a ghost. Now, the room smells whiskey-sweet.
When I came home from the hospital in remission, I found out Bobby had been cheating on me with Serena Stoffer. Serena’s pretty and chubby and excitable. When she gets drunk, she jumps all over Bobby like a puppy.
I admit, knowing he’s been with someone else changes being here again, makes the smells more sordid, the colors duller. The carpet is dingy, stiff in places where he has spilled and let the spill be. Wet towels from showers taken weeks ago are wadded on the floor. Instead of kicking off my shoes, throwing down my purse, I keep them close to me.
He tugs the bill of his hat down over his eyes again, then changes his mind and removes it. “Well,” he says.
He reaches toward me, looking at me briefly before touching my face with his hands, putting his mouth on mine. I open my eyes after a moment and am gratified to see that his are closed.
Bobby is a big guy, naturally thick in the arms and legs and with a hint of a beer belly to come. His was the first and only five o’clock shadow I ever felt against my cheek, my chest, my thigh. The ceiling light burned out months ago. Now, a standing lamp in the corner lights the room. Bobby doesn’t turn it on. He strips me in the dark, unbuckles his own belt, takes me from behind. I think briefly of the tumor, and try to position myself so it’s pointing away from him. He comes quickly and falls asleep. His hand is on my hip and I can feel a callus on his thumb, probably from his work at the auto shop, a shivering carburetor held one too many times. “Bobby?” No response.
Around the time I found out about Serena, I pushed Bobby for the truth. It finally came out. “I cain’t fuck someone with cancer,” he said. “I might catch it.”
I wasn’t shocked. I did not point out that you cannot catch cancer. I was also not shocked that my hair grew out four inches before he would even kiss me again. I thought I would dump Bobby when I got to college. It just never happened. I guess I’m not very confrontational. Couldn’t bring myself to break it off with him. And I didn’t meet anyone at school, which might have hastened a breakup. Bobby just kept calling, kept visiting, and so we stayed together, even when I got sick, even when his hospital visits became fewer and farther between.
At some point, the doctor said, the growth will become more prominent. I check to make sure Bobby’s still asleep, then shift to feel along my back, pressing my fingertips against my spine, and I remind myself to go fetch the eighth of skunk weed I just bought out of the glove compartment of Bobby’s truck. That’s when I find it: a little to the right of my spine, like a mole under the skin.
The first few times I was in this room with Bobby, I yearned to feel adult, like a grown woman in his eyes. I must be an adult now, I reason. I’m lying naked next to a man who is also naked. A used condom lays by us, slick and sepia in the dark. I have a bunch of painkillers, a stockpile of weed, a boyfriend to whom I am lying, and a growing sense for what has the ability to turn gone, just gone, and quicker than you might think.
Somewhere I read that, just prior to death, an animal’s brain will release a natural sedative to elicit a sense of calm. I keep waiting for that. It hasn’t happened yet.
Bobby snores and turns over. His hand falls away. I turn to look at him, appraise his mouth, partially open, the line of clean white teeth he clandestinely flosses and rinses every day. He is terrified people might find out. “They’ll think it’s sissy,” he protests, adding just another habit- oral hygiene- to the long list of things that, in his mind, toe the line of manhood.
I assume that I love Bobby, in a way. Kind of like the love you feel for your family, people you might not have chosen for yourself otherwise. It is strong but familiar, obligatory. A slim-pickings kind of love.
In high school, Bobby played second-string football. He was good, not the best, but dependable and always made the other guys laugh. He would dress in drag for pep rallies, using balloons for ridiculous, inflated breasts. He loved cars. He chewed Skoal. In other words, he was a good old boy. He was also my familiarity; our houses were even the same FHA model with short, dark walls, dust motes in stripes of sunlight on the carpet, rooms like thick, secret caves. Bobby does not read books, but has a sense for how things work, mechanisms, tools. He does not use the word love much, but uses his hands in a soft way. Good in bed, kind to animals.
Before I got sick, I had what people from here call aspirations. I started college. I always waited for something better to come along, for all the good it did me, I waited for my wonderful inevitable, what my life could turn into. I would curl up and dream bright, airy futures for myself in which I would be able to speak from age and experience, to have lived through enough to know that I had had a youth, it had passed, and I had been left with something valuable. These desires distracted me, and Bobby tolerated this. I have this insane idea that maybe, as long as Bobby knows nothing about it, this sickness isn’t happening, and won’t happen.
I reach over to my purse and fish a Percocet out of an inner pouch, glancing over to see Bobby snoring. I light one of his cigarettes- what the hell, I figure- and ash into an old, stale bottle of coke, watching the light on the end burn in the dark.
He shifts slightly. “What are you doing,” he mutters.
I don’t look at him. “Nothing,” I say.
While we’re dressing, Bobby tells me there’s a party at the old Lots Mill High School. “I thought you’d want to go,” he said, “since you said you’re feeling better.”
I shrug, bent over a magazine on which I am attempting to roll a joint. I satchel the weed and spin the paper between my forefingers and thumbs. The old high school used to be one of my favorite places in town—a natural spookhouse. “Well, let’s go, then,” I say.
The county built a new, consolidated high school back in the seventies. The old high school is an original WPA project that connects to an even older schoolhouse, built just after the turn of the last century, by an outside breezeway of brick and stone. It was a high school, then an elementary school, then county storage, then abandoned altogether. Someone had long since pried the plaque bearing Roosevelt’s name and the dedication date from the front of the building.
Bobby drives while I take down orange juice with vodka. The moon is a fingernail against the dark. The cows look stricken in the half-light. “Pretty night,” he says.
“So what did you swallow back there?” he asks me.
“Back there at the house. What did you swallow.”
I shrug. “Pamprin. I’m having cramps.”
“Huh.” He switches gears casually and we enter city limits, passing Speedy’s gas station, the bovine vet clinic, silent tractors for sale in a roadside lot. “Are you sure?”
“What is this?” I say, sharper than I mean to. “Yes, I’m sure. Jesus.”
Bobby guides the truck up a slim street to park behind some shrubbery. In Lots Mill, this is an ill-kept end of town, houses older than ours with stone steps and real brick chimneys and crumbling driveways. The sidings are shabby, mottled in the shadows of the street’s two aging streetlights. Forty years ago, people living in these houses could walk to Lots Mill football games from their houses, blankets in hand, toboggans in school colors on their heads.
The last time we were here, I was sixteen. It was the second time I’d ever had sex, in the musty, cool choir room just off the back of the old auditorium. The wooden seats were carved up the back with ancient tags: TIGERS 75. CLASS OF “80”. SHEENA P IS A SLUT. Old classroom supplies littered the aisles: a board painted by hand with the multiplication tables, a hand-drawn cutout of Charlie Brown denoting the four seasons. I brought a blanket, which we spread on the floor underneath us.
Afterward, we explored the building, holding hands. The gymnasium was filled with old office equipment: fax machines the size of bumper cars, gray, hulking computer monitors piled in a corner. An Apple II, the screen and body melding into one huge form, was parked under the basketball hoop. “Ain’t those real old?” Bobby said.
I giggled and reminded him of the thick screen, the green block font. He prodded one with the toe of his boot. “Man, it’d be cooler than hell to bust this apart,” he said.
Above the basketball hoop, a cartoon tiger wearing a jersey roared. “LOTS MILL HIGH SCHOOL TIGERS” was spelled in bubble letters above its head. In small script below, “Mrs. Ison’s Art III class, Fall 69”.
We climbed to the second floor that night, past lockers rusting open, and looked out the windows. We saw our entire town then: the old overpass arching over the two-lane bypass, the steeple of the Baptist church a gray stab against the dark, the yellow arches of the McDonald’s sign the highest point in town. Then, the mountains beyond, our eyes drawn to the soft rising in the distance, the sky total, dark clarity. We pressed our palms against the chill of the windowpanes and stood silent, looking out.
Bobby turns off the engine and sits, not moving. He’s nearly as skinny as when he graduated, but he’s getting a double chin. There are pockets under his eyes. “What,” I say, trying for nonchalance.
He licks his lips and wrinkles his forehead. “Nothing.”
“Well,” I say slowly, “let’s go in, then.” He sits. I wait.
He is suddenly blinking, very rapidly. His eyes shine dully from under the brim of his cap. He’s not crying, but he’s on the verge, I realize, for the first time since I’ve known him- not even when his papaw died did he cry- and I feel a sort of panic squeeze my throat. He tries to speak, fails, sighs, tries again, makes a lost sound. Everything is quiet.
“Bobby,” I say, almost in protest. He doesn’t have the words for what he’s trying to say and, for this, a part of him will believe that he is stupid. For this, I feel terrible for him. I often feel badly for believing that Bobby is dumb. It is easy to forget, sometimes, that he’s not. He is loud; he thinks farts and explosions are funny. When he came to visit me in the dorms at college, he made fun of the guys there, calling them gay and doing impressions of them where he pranced around singing in falsetto, “I’m majoring in history!”
I realize it now: he was scared I was going to leave him for one of those history majors. And the hospital made him sweat, made him bite his lips and avert his eyes from my weight loss, the needle marks in my arms, reduced to a little kid in his big Carhartt jacket.
His mouth is soft, wavering, and I just want it to stop. I don’t want to lie, but I want this to stop more, so I do. “I’m okay,” I tell him. “I really am.”
He exhales loudly out his nostrils. “Are you sure.”
“Yes.” The panic squeezes my throat again and so I focus on whatever small details I can: the crumbling steps leading into the old gymnasium, the concrete of the parking lot pulling apart from itself to let yellow grass tendrils escape, the outline of Bobby’s nose a gleaming little knob in the dark.
“I wanna marry you,” Bobby says, tilting his head to look directly at me.
I massage my forehead with one hand. “Why.”
“I just wanna marry you.”
“But why, Bobby.”
“Cause I do,” he says. “Do I gotta have a reason?”
“It’s usually a good idea.”
“Bullshit. I love you. I don’t need a reason.”
I look out the window. Two people, their outlines vaguely familiar, walk toward the building from the little houses on Indian Avenue, holding six packs. “I love you too,” I say uncomfortably, feeling as I always do when I tell Bobby this: a little childish, a little fraudulent.
“So why won’t you marry me?”
“So you don’t love me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you pretty much are saying that, though.”
“I’m not.” I feel trapped. What can I tell him? Bobby, I’ll tell you what I think you can understand, what I might understand if I weren’t sick: every day, something is being sapped out of me. And it’s not fair, and I’m so afraid, and every morning I wake up from dreams I don’t understand, sick and sweating and inside my own head, I’m screaming all the time, and it doesn’t matter how fucked up I get, I can’t block it out. It’s me, screaming for my life.
“Why do we need a piece a paper,” I finally say listlessly. “Why do we need to make a big deal out of it? How many married people do we know who are happy?” He is shaking his head, tugging down the brim of his cap. “Your parents? Mine?”
“So?” he says belligerently.
“So you want that for us?”
“Well, maybe we won’t be like that,” he says.
“I like things the way they are.”
I take a cigarette from the package on the dashboard. Bobby knocks it from my hand. “What the fuck are you doing,” he says. “You’re getting over having cancer and you’re smoking?”
I fold my hands in my lap. “Fine. Sorry. It’s just like, look, we just got back together, right? I don’t think we should rush things.”
“I told you I was sorry about that,” he says to me, low.
“And I heard you.”
“You’re losing weight again,” he says suddenly, and his voice is steady but it’s piped, artificial. I could deny it. I don’t. I wait for him. “You won’t talk about anything anymore. Going back to school, buying a house, anything. It’s like, I look at you, and you’re not there. You’re somewhere else.” He takes a deep breath, then another. “I hate it.”
We never deceive in the way we would like. It occurs to me that I was happy being selfish, being with Bobby but not being with him, in my head. I was okay with it, because I figured I could fix it later. It’s a terrible thing, how blatantly we underestimate the people around us.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell him, and I mean it.
“I wanted this for you,” he says with finality, opening the door, “but you won’t let me. Don’t step on the six pack.” The door slams.
The party is full of people we graduated with. They’ve all heard I’m in remission and they smile, hug me, ask me how I’m feeling. Someone has weed. I throw in my share. We smoke up in the dark of an old hallway, in a corridor paneled with real wood, not linoleum or tile. Real wood, cut from something that had once lived. I marvel at it. I come from the time of linoleum, Formica, plastic, hospital colors. I feel nostalgia for natural material, for what I’ve never experienced. I reach down to drag my finger along a seam in the boards. It comes back dusty. When I think no one’s looking, I put my finger in my mouth.
I see Serena Stoffer, who reaches out to fluff my new hair. “So cute,” she says, and I don’t think about Bobby fucking her. I think about Stoffer Funeral Home, and what Serena said once about them not being able to bury people in wet seasons, particularly in valley cemeteries. They have to keep all the bodies chilled in caskets in the basement for burial when the soil firms. This is true. My papaw died during a wet March, and his body was kept in the basement for two weeks. When my mamaw checked on him, lifted the lid to get a look inside, moisture had crept in. Half his face gone velvet with fungus.
Bobby is in a corner smoking cigarettes with a couple of other ex football players. He refuses to look at me. I wander up and down the hallways sticking my head in different classrooms. These are old rooms, with high ceilings and great iron heaters built into the walls. Children used to press crayons into the heaters to make wax puddles; streams of cerulean, magenta trickle to the floor. The cloakroom gapes from the rear.
Up the stairwell are four-squared windows. Here is the turn where you go into the auditorium. At some point during my treatment, the floor fell in. Wood, damp and splintered, scattered everywhere, like a vortex came to take the room down from its middle. An old velvet curtain hangs in shreds over the stage, felt letters spelling LMHS.
I walk past the auditorium to the opposite stairwell. Imagine, during the proms and night games of thirty years ago, what a warm, yellow cave this hallway must have been. Wing around the same gymnasium, still dirty and cold and cavernous. Down to the locker rooms, barred up tight in the building’s last five years of use, now ripped open with someone’s crowbar.
Winter has made the locker room a freezer. Old desks are stacked on desks, shoved into the shower stalls. Weeds have sprouted through the sink drains. A toilet is split down its middle in a jagged line. One brown plant moves up through it.
My body is aching through my drunkenness. I have come to expect the hurting, in a very lucid way. There is nothing to firmly nail you to the here and now than physical pain. It’s a shame. It is the fantasy I miss, the habit I used to have of letting part of my mind take leaps, to propel myself into a fraudulent future that, however wild, used to keep me going. It was the room for possibility that made me so happy- when I graduated, when I left Lots Mill.
These daydreams embarrass me now, knowing that I could have spent the time thinking of my family, or Bobby. It’s the knowledge of self-indulgence. I’ve never told Bobby about these flights my mind took. I never thought he would understand, and I would embarrass the shit out of myself trying to explain. I know for a fact it looks strange, because when Bobby edges the door to the locker room open, he hollers my name. “Huh?”
“What the hell are you doing?” he asks me, staring.
“Nothing.” I put my hand out to steady myself, gripping an old wall fixture. I slip and grasp painfully to it. When I loosen my hand, a trickle of blood comes from my palm.
Bobby heaves a sigh. “That was probably covered in rust.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“Best get you a tetanus shot,” he says wearily.
“I was just looking around,” I tell him.
“Well, you been gone a long time. People were wondering where you were at.”
He looks so forlorn that I reach out for his shoulder. He takes my unbloodied hand and we pick through the splintered benches between locker rows. We pass the old coach’s office, where a stack of algebra textbooks from the seventies mildews beside a moist desk. It’s colder than I realized.
Bobby reaches for my other hand. I give it over to him, an act of will. He cradles it, gentle. “Let’s hope it don’t decide to infect,” he says, and suddenly struggles out of his jacket, then strips off his t-shirt, revealing his undershirt. He wraps my hand with it. The gesture is so ridiculous, so heroic, I would normally giggle. But I’m too tired. I stand and watch the slight puffs his breathing makes in the cold.
He ties the two ends tightly, then makes to shrug his jacket back on. “You really should get that looked at,” he says.
“No, it’s fine, really,” I say. It’s the way he’s looking at me, closely, sad with knowledge, that causes the panic to rise back up in my throat. And something else- guilt, a pain so imperceptible you would swear it has always been there. He puts his big hands against my head, my lower back, and I lean into him, wrapping my arms around his middle. I bend my wrist away slightly, to keep the blood away from him.
That’s when I notice it, over his shoulder. I have to hold onto a wall as I bend over to look. Three inches of glass covers the floor, making it slick. It’s not glass, I realize as I peer closer, but ice, covering the floor, submerging the bottom halves of the lockers. The ice is all over. Nothing can touch the floor underneath. With him watching me I curl into a fetal position and lay down, testing my weight against it.