cross a tiny white square of table, your friend Joanie is slowly dying, although neither of you is supposed to know that just yet. She is wearing an exultant silk turban from the Museum of Modern Art gift shop that you may or may not have bought her as a get-well gift shortly after she started chemo. You don’t remember if it’s the exact scarf you bought or not, or if she put it on especially to meet you for this lunch, and it would obviously be embarrassing to ask. It would also be too sad. She is telling you how much of her life she regrets. You break and break a piece of bread until the pieces are about the size of something you can throw to a pigeon if this were the park. Surely you don’t want to hear this right now. “I should have stayed in graduate school,” she says. “I should have gone into academia. I should never have left to marry Robert. Ten years older than me with a kid only ten years younger, bankrupt and with an ex-wife already. I thought I could save him. I should have known better and if I didn’t, there were people who did who were trying to help.” She shrugs. “But I didn’t listen.” Me, too, you think. Look at my life! But this isn’t your afternoon to sum up your failed existence and you’ve got at least that much to be thankful for.
It’s early spring and you’re sitting at a table set up outside a small downtown bistro. This always seems a better idea in theory than it does in practice. It’s always colder than it looks. Or hotter. The street is always jammed with taxis, trucks, and cars driven mad with impatient drivers leaning on their horns at the slightest provocation, or no provocation at all. Busses wheeze right up to the curb. The tenuous archipelago of tables crowd an already crowded sidewalk and the pedestrians who must fight passed the narrow corridor between the tables and the curb glare at you with annoyance and resentment. They stare openly, fiercely at your plate, then at you, as if in condemnation. You feel guilty forking sixteen-dollar pesto tortellini into your mouth like you’re someone special. “May you choke on it,” you imagine written in the thought balloons above their heads. Exhaust drifts over you like a toxic cloud out of a science fiction film. Around the trunk of an anorectic looking tree the blades of some tulips are corkscrewing painfully out of the butt-strewn patch of otherwise bald dirt. An ambulance with a police escort comes screaming down the avenue at the top of its lungs silencing everyone for several moments. Joanie takes the opportunity to sip the ginger ale without ice she ordered through her straw until the emergency passes. She cocks an eyebrow that isn’t there anymore. She’s hardly touched her food, barely giving it the most tentative of fork-pokes.
Joanie has just told you that the toughest part of chemo isn’t losing the hair on your head, tough as that is from an aesthetic point of view. Everyone knows about that. They’ve all seen the scene on television a thousand times. The clumps of hair at the bottom of the shower, the handfuls left in the brush. Oh, the shock. What they don’t know is what it’s like to lose all your hair, how painful, how problematic it is, for instance, to lose the tiny hairs inside your nose.
“People don’t think about it,” she says, “But those little hairs in your nose have a purpose, too, you know. They aren’t there just to be a cosmetic nightmare. They aren’t just another of God’s jokes, though you wouldn’t put it past him.” You hope she doesn’t go on to tell you the purpose of those hairs but the cancer seems to have already eaten away most of whatever she once had when it comes to tact. It’s truly horrifying, not a topic for conversation over Cobb salad but these are extraordinary times. “The tv movies don’t tell you anything about it. How would you dramatize such a thing? How would you illustrate it? I guess that’s part of the problem. That’s what you come to learn, that’s what comes as a surprise. Everything that television can’t tell you. What television can’t dramatize is everything there is to learn in life. It’s what’s left to say in art, I think. Everything else is just a cliche. So how do you do it, how do you show it?” She interrupts the respectful pause you’ve left for what you took to be a rhetorical question to disintegrate. “I mean it. I’m asking you. How do you think you’d do it?”
You’re a screenwriter lately. Now that the novels haven’t worked out. A budding screenwriter, now that your time as a budding novelist has passed, the bud dead on the vine. You should have been at least a good-size chrysanthemum of a novelist by now. Instead, you are a failure. Instead you bought expensive screenwriting software that you don’t understand how to use and can barely afford on what they pay you to read unsolicited manuscripts from the always growing slush-pile at Greenhouse Publishing. You give Joanie’s question some serious thought but it’s hard with her staring at you to come up with anything. It’s like being one of those ad-lib comics, taking cues fired from the audience from which you’re supposed to concoct jokes and skits. You’ve never been good at ad-lib.
“I don’t know,” you stammer, perplexed. “Well think about it,” she snaps, sharper than she probably intended, but then again maybe not.
The sirens are fading, like some hysterical person being led away by attendants. “Police escort. What do you figure that was about? Joanie muses. “Someone important?” you suggest. “Well they sure don’t clear a path for the hoi polloi. If you or I collapse we can just expire in traffic.” “Deputy mayor?” “Shot cop?” “Diplomat from the U.N.?” “Going in the wrong direction, I think?” “Which direction would that be?” “Is the U.N. even in session?” You shrug. It’s the shadow of a game the two of you used to play, back in graduate school, the MFA program at Syracuse. You’d see a couple together, or an old lady bowed over like a question mark shuffling down the street, and you’d invent a story around them. It was an exercise to spur creativity. Or something. You wonder now, did you ever invent a story about two women sitting together at an outdoor cafe, one hairless, wearing a silk turban scarf? The other looking jittery and uneasy, tearing bread. The game doesn’t seem that much fun anymore. “Remember that writer we hated back in school. The pretty one who kept winning awards and getting her short stories published in The New Yorker?” Joanie asks. You know the one she means, god how you both resented her the privilege and the pedigree, the quick success, the literary prizes and endowments. “Well, I finally picked up one of her books. It’s been twenty years. And you want to know something, she’s fucking good. If only I read her back in the day, if only I hadn’t been so full of myself, so resentful and jealous. So cutting-edge and avant-garde,” Joanie says sarcastically. “She might have done me some good, might have changed my life.” she shrugs. “Too late now. A lifetime of too-late-nows. You should read her though. She still might do you some good.”
That night, in bed, Ben sleeping beside you, you’ll lie awake thinking about this lunch. Good, sweet, gentle Ben of the reddish blonde Viking beard and hair slightly thinning at the crown like a much-loved teddy bear. Ben, the first blue-eyed boyfriend you’ve ever had, and, therefore, an endangered species. Ben, who patiently listened to you recount the events of that day’s lunch at the dinner table, chewing slowly, thoughtfully, without interrupting. Ben, who doesn’t feel the need to stamp his interpretation and opinion like a passport on everything before he can let it cross his border. Ben, whose story this isn’t, who’s sole purpose here is to be a large safe wall of back to curl up against in the middle of a sleepless night as you think these thoughts. What was Joanie getting at anyway by prodding you to invent a way to dramatize the nose-hair business? Did she think by meeting you for lunch she was giving you fodder to write a screenplay about her? Was it all intended as a scene in some future movie that she wouldn’t be alive to see? Was she playing the tragic muse, the only role left open to her now? Was this supposed to be her last gift to you? A shudder runs through you. You pull the blankets up, curl into a ball, dig in closer to Ben’s wall of a back, and you’ll still be cold. It’s probably not true, but right now it seems as if you’ll be cold forever.
When she says that everything she ever learned in life she learned too late you echo “Too late? Don’t be silly. It’s never too late.” Joanie snorts through her hairless nose, then dabs it with her napkin, stares at what’s dabbed there, frowning. “I’m serious,” she says. “If I knew then what I know now about my ex, for instance, the mistake it was to leave grad school when I did, ending up the stepmother to a resentful kid and never being a mother to my own, though what good would that do me now, just another tragedy averted, I guess, thank God, there have been enough tragedies, the affair with Stefan that busted up my marriage, all the time I wasted…” she shrugs. “But knowing now. What good does that do me? It just leaves me bitter and full of regret. It would have been better to think I’d been right all along, to think that way right to the grave. You can’t change anything in the past anyway. They taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living, but they didn’t tell us that the examined life is just plain unbearable.” “But there’s the future,” you say, feeling like an idiot, exposed and ludicrous, as if you wearing someone else’s clothes, suddenly impersonating the optimistic one. You did your thesis work on Beckett, for crissakes. “What’s left of it, for any of us. I mean, I could get hit by a bus leaving this lunch. You could go into remission tomorrow. I’m just saying.” Joanie looks at you, face pinched, lips pursed with distaste, as if you’d just passed gas and she’d reacted instinctively, before she could decide to ignore it. “The future,” she says. “You’ve got to be kidding.” There is something you should be saying here but what it is seems too hackneyed a line even for you, dressed in clown clothes as you are for your new role, to force yourself to say. So you point your fork in the direction of the vanishing ambulance and insist “For that poor bastard it’s too late maybe. For you and me it’s not.” Joanie answers you with a smile that can best be described as wan, as if she’s lost the strength even to be sardonic.
You kiss goodbye standing across the street from the leftist used bookstore you once loved to browse buying up remaindered copies of Sontag and Woolf you never got around to reading; still it felt good to own them, as if the intent to read them were somehow even more important than the actual reading, like a trip anticipated is somehow always more exciting than a trip taken. The bookshop is gone now, digested into an enormous Urban Outfitter that takes up half the block. Joanie’s torso feels fragile in your arms when you hug, like a birdcage made of toothpicks, not meant for a real bird, but just for show.
Two and a half weeks later you get an email informing you that Joanie died. You call a mutual friend and she tells you the details, which she got from a friend who talked to Joanie’s most recent boyfriend, Cal. Joanie collapsed at the Guggenheim. She had gone by herself to see a show by a hip new artist who was presenting something she called “Gertrude Stein machines.” These were constructed of, among other things, Q-tips and condoms stuffed with blue cheese. You read a review of it in TimeOut magazine. It sounds exactly like the kind of thing you both would’ve made fun of back in the day. She died in the hospital a couple of hours later. She never regained consciousness. “The doctors say it was a brain aneurysm. She would have gone fast, no pain at all, probably. Might have been cancer-related, the side-effects of chemo, but no one knows for sure. Might have been congenital, totally unrelated to the cancer. Might have happened anyway, a ticking time-bomb since she was born. Boy, you never know. Well, it was better than dying piecemeal of cancer,” the mutual friend will tell you. “At least she was doing something she loved when she passed.” “Yeah,” you’ll say, because what else can you say. You’ll hang up and think of Joanie in the back of the ambulance, the sirens screaming, stuck in traffic. One day soon you decide to go to the public library and take out a book by that author Joanie brought up who you both hated so much such a long time ago. Another lifetime ago it seems. It might still change everything, but probably not. Then again, it might not be too late. You never now. Maybe you’ll look for it as soon as this afternoon.