Lifeline

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A man at the end of his rope finds hope in the most unexpected place.

As he snuffed out his last cigarette, the sobbing began for the third time that day. Dylan wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and pushed the ashtray to the far edge of the table. His eyelids were so swollen that he was forced to view the world in small slits, like switching to the next frame in an old red and faded View Master toy. Where once the reels contained pictures of dinosaurs, safari adventures and all things meant to delight ages three and up, now the pictures were scratched, worn with time, dim and blurry.
Resting his elbows on the dusty coffee table, he glanced around the room, now filled with an unfamiliar emptiness that unsettled him to the core. Just eleven days ago, his wife of ten years, Lisa, had informed him that she was leaving. When she had claimed she couldn't handle the stress anymore, he had thrown the television remote across the room. "Well, lucky for you, you can just walk away from the stress," he had yelled as he watched her silently roll her bags out the front door. She had walked away with such a quiet, dainty, cold demeanor; her heels clicking on the floor echoed, sounding like a matter-of-fact statement:Of course I can't stay hereThis is not what I signed up for. And then:Goodbye.  It seemed a simple and necessary farewell to her, as if somewhere in the Morris' marriage contract, it stated that a cancer diagnosis makes the marriage null and void. He wanted to believe that he would never forgive her for this, but he knew that if she walked through the door again, he might beg her to stay. She would regret this one day; leaving him when he needed her the most. What a selfish ungrateful wretch of a woman.
 The next morning, he had his usual cocktail of chemo pushed through a port in his chest at the Ryland Cancer Center. As the poison cursed through his veins, he glanced around the room and noticed a young woman walking towards him, her presumably bald head covered with a black and white flowered scarf, a crossword book in hand. Though her skin was ashen and pale, her blue eyes glittered with quiet amusement. She smiled at him and sat down.
 
When the nurse approached, Dylan noticed her nametag readKate. She was a slightly plump woman who looked to be in her mid-forties and was wearing a pink polo shirt and khakis. A pile of red curls bounced around the top of her head as she walked towards the woman next to him.
"How are you? How have you been feeling since your last round?"  Kate asked as she went about setting up the woman's IV.
"Oh about the same. Just shaved my head the other day. There wasn't much left, so I thought, what the hell? Might as well cut to the chase." She laughed as she adjusted her scarf. "How is little Jack?"
"He's better, thank you. We were scared for a while, but his fever is gone and he's feeling much stronger."
The woman let out a sigh of relief. "I'm glad to hear it."
"How's the nausea? Anything else going on?"
As the women talked, Dylan thought of how happy the other patient seemed. She didn't act like someone who had cancer. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked away, focusing on the old Seinfeld episode on the television mounted high on the wall. The show didn't make any sense. He didn't understand what was going on; that was because there was nothing going on. It was pointless and not even funny. A loud burst of laughter interrupted his thoughts. Looking to his right, he watched her as she tossed her head back, her body shaking with high-pitched cackles.
 
She met his eyes. "God, I love this show."
"Really? Never made sense to me. There isn't even a plot," Dylan said.
Her eyes widened. "Well, of course, silly. It's not supposed to be deep and meaningful. It's just funny. Mindless humor."
"Well, I don't like it. I wish they'd change the channel."
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Laughter is good for you. Because this stuff," she said pointing to her IV. "I'm not so sure about."
"I'd laugh if it were funny."
"I'm Serena," she said, holding out her hand.
He shook her hand and said, "Dylan."
She raised her eyebrows. "Nice name. Any relation to Bob?"
"No. That wasn't his real name, you know."
She jolted upright in mock surprise. "You don't say!"
After his treatment was finished, he wanted to go home and sleep. Staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he ran his hands through his deep brown hair and tossed another clump of hair into the trash by the sink. He decided to shave it off later. But right now, he needed to look over his finances. He had owned his landscaping company for five years now and it had been successful, but since beginning chemotherapy, he had been sick and exhausted from morning until night and unable to work. One of the guys who worked for him had quit and he was left with Jay, but he couldn't keep up with the work every week and had asked for a raise. Dylan couldn't afford to give him a raise and he knew it was only a matter of time before he quit, too. With Morris Landscaping down from three men to one, his customers were growing frustrated and impatient. According to his calculations, if he lost two more customers, his business would go under.
 
He shut down his computer and went to bed, swallowing a Phenergan for the nausea. But, as soon as he laid down, the hot, bubbling sickness rose in his throat and he stumbled to the bathroom, sinking to the cold hard tile, gripping the porcelain bowl. After his stomach was completely empty (it didn't take long; all he had eaten that day were twelve saltines and a twenty ounce bottle of ginger ale), he sank back into bed, the cool cotton sheets providing a few seconds of comfort until he felt hot again and kicked them off. His cell phone lit up and vibrated on the nightstand. Propping himself up on one arm, he read the caller ID. It was James, his best friend since high school. He rolled over to his side and promised himself he would start returning phone calls soon. If there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was the look of pity on someone's face. And the idea of having to speak to someone right now, assure them he was okay, would require more energy than he was prepared to expend. Lisa was the one who should have been here. But since she had left without a trace, he knew his only choice was to toughen up. He decided that tomorrow he would work on that. For now, he didn't want to think about a thing.
Two days later, he arrived at the cancer center to find the room empty.
"Dylan! You're early. Pick a seat and I'll be with you shortly."
Surveying the room, he chose a chair as far from the TV as possible. He leaned back and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Kate was walking towards him, smiling. "Serena asked me to save her a seat next to you."
 
"Why?"
"I don't know, maybe she likes you. She started her treatment around the same time as you, but you guys usually came on different days. It makes it easier to get through this if you have someone to talk to."
Before he could respond, Serena bounced into the room, looking radiant as usual, despite her scarf-covered head and increasingly translucent skin.
"You saved me a seat. You shouldn't have," she said, batting her eyelashes. Then she laughed. "And the furthest from the TV, I see. Kate, could you please change the station so poor Dylan doesn't have to suffer through another episode of Seinfeld?"
Dylan gave a half smile. "Don't change it on my account. If you really love it, watch it. I brought a book, anyway."
"No, no, no. You made it clear just how much you hate the show. And that kind of negative energy will not help your condition, now will it?" Serena quickly turned her head when she heard the theme song for Dora the Explorer. "Look! Dora! Isn't this better?"
"Oh, God..." Dylan leaned his head against the chair. This was going to be a long day.
Kate laughed and changed the channel to an old 80's movie. "This will have to do."
The two sat in silence for a few minutes as Kate set up their treatments. When she left the room, Serena turned to Dylan. "You seem so sad."
"I do have cancer."
"So do I."
 "Yeah, well. It's usually not something people are happy about so pardon me for not being so thrilled about it."
 
"Do you think I'm happy about it?" She paused. "What kind do you have?"
"Stomach."
"Me, too. Do you have to have surgery?"
"I don't know yet."
"I am having surgery in a couple weeks. They want to try to kill whatever they can with the chemo, then go in and remove what's left. Then, they'll probably do more chemo to make sure they got it all."
Dylan shook his head. "You seem excited. Aren't you afraid?"
"Excited?" She laughed. "Well, I guess I'm looking forward to getting rid of this nasty thing. Of course I'm afraid. I just don't see any use in being depressed all the time."
"It's hard not to be."
"You're stubborn."
"Excuse me?"
"You heard me. You're stubborn. You want to feel sorry for yourself and be sad because, hell, you have cancer. You have every excuse. But, it won't help you."
"Jesus! Listen to you! You don't know a damn thing about me." He paused and shook his head. "But since you're determined to know, my wife left me as soon as I was diagnosed. My business is going under. So, you'll have to forgive me. I'm doing the best I can."
"I'm sorry."
"Yeah." Dylan turned his head to the TV and kept his attention on the movie for the next two hours.
 
***
Jay, his only remaining employee, quit the next day. When Mrs. Roberts, a long-time customer, called to schedule service for the next month, Dylan told her he was no longer in business. She argued with him for ten minutes, until he finally told her the real reason. She had become silent then started in with the I'm so sorry's and I'll pray for you's, which is exactly why he chose to keep this to himself. Checking his savings account online, he figured he had enough money to survive for another three months. He could accept the disability benefits offered to him, but he refused. I'm only 36 years old. There's no way I'm going on disability. I will have to find another way to support myself.
On Thursday, he almost thought Serena wasn't going to show up to treatment, but she walked in just as Judge Judy came on. She smiled at him, but much to his surprise, she sat a couple seats down and talked to other patients. Well, that's fine, he thought. She's obnoxious anyway. Hiding behind her facade of sheer joy. No one is that happy, especially someone who has cancer. At least I'm being honest about it. But, as the minutes ticked by, he found he couldn't take his eyes off her. He had been so lost in himself that he hadn't even noticed how beautiful she was. He barely knew the girl – who looked to be in her late twenties – so he shouldn't have cared about her one way or the other. But, he found himself missing their conversations, even the heated ones. Ok, so she's giving me space. I'll talk to her on Monday.
But she never showed on Monday. Or any day for the next month. Week after week, he sat quietly, watching TV if there was something on he could stand, or reading his favorite Stephen King book. Finally, on April 4, he glanced up and saw her standing in the doorway looking more healthy and radiant than before. Her cheeks had a rosy glow and she looked to have gained a few pounds. He motioned for her to sit next to him.
 
"Where'd you go?"
"I was taking a break. It got too much for my body to handle and my doctor took me off treatment for a month. It was killing too many healthy cells or something. Did you miss me?"
"I did. You look great."
She laughed. "Well, that's because this nasty stuff has cleared out of my system. Don't worry, in a couple days I'll look just as sickly as you again," she said as she playfully punched him in the arm.
"How much longer do you have to do this?"
"Doc says another month. Then, no more chemo. As long as it doesn't come back. You?"
"The same. I think a month is all I can handle anyway."
"I know. Throwing up and losing all your hair must have really put a damper on your social life."
"Ha. If I had one."
"Well, let's do something about that. Next month, when we're both done with this, why don't we celebrate our newfound ability to keep food down by going out to eat and getting a drink?"
He laughed. "Sounds like a plan."
***
Over the next few weeks, Dylan and Serena sat side by side, receiving their chemotherapy as they talked, only half-watching the old Friends reruns that came on every day at 4:00. On the first Monday of May, a new patient walked in. Dylan could tell he was new not only by his full head of hair, but by the oblivious disposition he possessed as he sauntered into the treatment room. Poor guy doesn't know what's in store for him. The doctor tells you, but you just don't get it until you get it, Dylan thought.
 
"Mind if we change the channel?" The new patient, who Dylan heard Kate call 'Tim', looked over at Serena and Dylan after being set up with his IV.
Serena laughed. "Just don't put it on Seinfeld."
Tim shrugged as Kate handed him the remote.
"Yeah, yeah," Dylan said, laughing in spite of himself.
"Dylan! I think that's the first time I've ever heard you laugh!"
"Oh, come on. I doubt that."
"Do you know what day it is?"
"Monday?"
"Yes, and...?"
Dylan widened his eyes. "It's May fifth. It's your last day. Congratulations, Serena!"
"Thank you, but we're celebrating together, remember? Your last day is soon, too."
"Friday."
"Yes. So, let's do dinner a week later. That way, the nausea will be gone and we can actually enjoy eating."
"So, the sixteenth it is."
"Perfect. Ever been to Charley's?"
"Nope."
"Well, they have the best burgers and some amazing wines."
"Burgers and wine. Interesting combo. I'm in." He leaned back, closed his eyes. "God, I can't even remember the last time I had a good meal. Or a glass of wine."
"Less than two weeks, Dylan. You can do it."
 
***
“Are you going to eat those?”
Serena, still chewing her last bite of avocado burger, waved a hand over her remaining French fries.
“Thank you.”
“See, your appetite is improving.”
Dylan shoved six fries into his mouth at once and gave Serena a mischievous grin.
“You seem happier lately, Dylan.”
Dylan felt his face flush slightly as he shifted in his seat. Then, as if reading his mind, Serena leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands and smiled.
Dylan paused a moment before speaking. “I remember when I first saw you at the center. You looked different from everyone else.”
“It was the scarf."
“Serena, how is it that you’ve been able to keep your sense of humor through all this?”
“I used to believe I was a victim and well…I just had to give up that way of thinking.”
Dylan nodded and picked up the salt shaker and turned it over and around in his hands. It looked hand-made, like one of the little sculptures he had seen at the glass-blower's shop downtown. The bright orange shaker was shaped like a fish, with the holes for the salt nestled in between the fins. Three vertical turquoise stripes were painted on each side.
 
“You really like that fish, don’t you?”
Dylan met her eyes, then looked back down at the shaker, turning it around in his hands, allowing a few grains of salt to sprinkle onto the lacquered wood of the table.
"When Lisa and I first got married, we went downtown to the Markham Glassblowing Studio and took a tour, even got to try it for ourselves. There was a glass ornament in the shape of a dolphin. She loved it.  I bought it for her when she wasn't looking and surprised her with it in the car on the way home. It made her so happy. It looked kind of like this. It's funny," he said, as he laughed bitterly. "It's broken now because she threw it across the room when we had our last big fight."
“You can never really know a person, can you?”
Dylan shrugged before setting the shaker back down onto the table and shoving it to the far edge, behind the menu stand. 
"I guess not.  Some hide the truth behind a facade."
Serena sat back in her seat and narrowed her eyes. "Wait. You think I'm hiding something?"
Dylan sighed. "Nevermind."
"Oh, no you don't. What did you mean?"
"Having a good attitude is great, but have you ever cried about it? Have you ever felt angry about it?"
 
"Of course I've cried! Of course I was angry at first. But why should I torture myself, asking why me? I'm ok with it. It's life. And it will be ok. I'm a survivor."
"Yes, but...I don't know. It just seems..." Dylan shook his head and looked away. "I don't buy it."
Serena leaned forward in her chair. "You don't buy it? Why can't you just take me at face value?" She paused. "You don't trust me. You're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. As if every woman is like your ex. Well, I'm not, Dylan and you're going to have to deal with it."
Dylan laughed. "Oh really? And how the hell would I know that? I've known you for a few months. I knew Lisa for nearly ten years."
Serena's face dropped. For a moment, she looked as if she might cry. Then, she cleared her throat and mumbled, "Alright then," as she tossed her bag over her shoulder and rose from the table.
Dylan's heart skipped a beat. No, don't leave. "Wait, Serena. Please."
She ignored him, making her way through the restaurant and out the door.
Jumping up to follow, he was out of breath by the time he reached her in the parking lot. Her back was to him as she unlocked her car door. 
"Serena, please. I'm sorry."
She whirled around. "Kiss me," she said, her face an inch from his. He could feel her warm breath against his skin as she stared up at him, her brown eyes wide, waiting.
But he couldn't do it. He turned his head and sighed.
A mixture of disappointment and anger flashed across her face. "I know, Dylan. I know."
"No, you don't. I'm trying, Serena. I really am."
"You're not trying. Let it go, Dylan. You're allowed to be happy, cancer or not. Alone or not. You need to get it together. You won't let me in so I don't know what else to do. I have to go." She turned and opened her car door, then glanced back over her shoulder. "Goodbye, Dylan."
"Damn it, Serena, wait."
But she was already buckled in and taking off. He watched her drive away, her red tail lights growing smaller and smaller with each passing second, until they were nothing but tiny red dots in the distance and then disappeared into the black of the night.
***
"Yes, Mrs. Jensen, we'll be there at 9:00 A. M. sharp...Ok, great. See you then." He hung up. The last two months had been hectic for Dylan; with his chemotherapy complete and his cancer in remission, he had re-opened Morris Landscaping and his old customers had begun calling him again for lawn service.
His business was flourishing, he was feeling better than ever before, but there was one thing – one person – missing. He chickened out every time he picked up his phone to call her. Maybe she had moved on and forgotten about him. Maybe he had blown it.
He had taken a trip to the courthouse last month and filed for divorce. Lisa had called incessantly for weeks, but he had never returned her calls. She had left long, emotional voicemails begging him to meet her. But, he had ignored all of them. He owed her no explanation, no discussion. She had made her choice. He was ready to make a fresh start. Mostly, he missed Serena. They hadn't spoken since their date at Charley's.
 
After a long day of work, he sat down on the couch and started flipping through channels. Just as he was about to switch off the television, he heard the opening music for Seinfeld. Immediately, her face flashed in his mind. He could hear her laughter, her sarcastic remarks, see her smile. Picking up his cell phone, he scrolled through his contacts until he found her name, but then quickly sat it back down on the table. No, she  wouldn't even pick up. She had moved on by now. And could he blame her? He did this four more times, until finally he worked up the courage to call her. She didn't answer, so he left a message. "Hey Serena. It's Dylan. I hope you've been well. I'm sorry I didn't call sooner. I needed to get myself together. And I have. I miss you. Please call me."
Serena called back the next day while Dylan was out on a job. Her voicemail sounded friendly but cautious, telling him to meet her at the Rose Cafe the next day for coffee.
When he walked into the cafe, he was taken aback by how different Serena looked. She was radiant and healthy, and was sporting a short pixie cut.
They hugged, then Dylan asked, "Should we get some coffee?"
"Might as well, right?" Serena smiled then turned to order at the counter.
A few minutes later, coffees in hand, Dylan led her to a table. "So, how have you been?"
"I've been great. Back at work, staying busy. The hair is finally growing back," she said, pointing to her short blonde locks. "How are you?"
"Got the business going again and it's busy, thank God."
"You look great," she said as they sat by the window.
"Thank you. I love the new 'do." He paused. "Look, I'm sorry for before."
 
Serena nodded. "It was a rough time for you."
"For you, too."
She shrugged. "Yeah, well. It's behind us now."
He reached across the table and took her hands. "We made it," he said as he squeezed her hands. "I want to see you again, Serena."
"That's funny because I was just going to drag you to the new Ninja Turtles movie!"
Dylan laughed. "We need to do something about your taste in entertainment."
She straightened up in her chair in mock seriousness. "You're right, Mr. Morris. It's just deplorable!"
Giving her arm a playful nudge, he said, "Smart ass."
Serena nudged him back, almost knocking his coffee off the table. "You love it."

 

"I do." Dylan stood and held out his hand. "Shall we?"
 


Submitted: August 16, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Elaine Ewertz. All rights reserved.

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