He tells me about the cancer on the World War I Memorial Bridge, and all I can think about is the shadow stretched out on the water. The color of the shadow is almost violet against the murky green of the river. Why isn’t it deep, impenetrable black? What right does a shadow have to be a pretty color?
“There’s treatment. Chemotherapy, operations. I’ll pull through.” Chris smiles his easy smile, the one that used to make my heart flutter when he glanced across the room in pre-calc freshman year. “Come on, Tia, say something.”
“You’re seventeen! You can’t get cancer at seventeen. It doesn’t happen.” In my mind, the cancer is a shadow spreading through Chris’ body, sending out dark fingers from his gut and grabbing at lungs and heart and all the other organs that let him smile and run track and wrap me in hugs that lift my feet off the ground.
“I’m young and strong, right? It’s the old dudes who don’t make it.”
I watched lung cancer take my grandfather. It worked slowly, but it ate through him piece by piece until there was nothing left. I don’t think cancer cares if you’re young or old.
“Tee, Tia, look at me.”
I’m staring at the shadow of the bridge again. If I look at his eyes, I’ll cry, and I can’t let that happen. I’m supposed to be the strong one, right? The one whose high school sweetheart dies young, so I create a foundation to raise money for cancer research and I speak at rallies and everyone says how strong I am and how caring. But all I want to do is run away, run back to the car and drive home, leave Chris here, wake up tomorrow morning and forget this ever happened.
I’m a coward.
“God won’t let me die.” He speaks softly, urgently. Like he knows he’s about to lose me to my own fear. “I prayed, I really did. It was like, this voice inside of me. I know it sounds weird, but I really felt it. I felt something say that I would be fine. That He has other plans for me.”
I tear my gaze from the water and look deep into his dark brown eyes. “I don’t believe in God.”
He’s crying, silent drops glistening on his cheeks. He shared terrible news with me, then bared his soul, and I stomped all over it. Something shrivels inside of me, shirks away from touching or comforting him. Like I’ll catch the cancer, or the religion, or something. Who am I?
I force myself to step forward and put my arms around him. I hear myself saying the right things. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m just in shock, that’s all. I love you.”
But it’s like those words belong to someone else, some girl who’s really Chris’ girlfriend. I’m not his girlfriend any more. I’m a disgusted monster who wants to be anywhere but here.
A man approaches walking a small white dog with a curly tail. He sees us embracing and I can almost hear him thinking, Teenagers! Get a room.
I wish he would say it out loud. Then maybe I’d have an excuse to let go, to step back and fold my arms and let the physical distance settle until Chris understands that I can’t be the one to help him through this.
But the man walks on by without a word. The dog sniffs at Chris’ ankle on the way past and he smiles and wipes his face, as if there were never a single wet spot.
“I love you, too. Tia. We’ll get through this together. You’re everything to me.”
We won’t, and I’m not.
But I don’t say these things. I just stand with him, agree with him, until he’s ready to go back to the car.
I take one last backward glance at the water, but the shadow is gone now, faded into darkness as the sun set.Photo by Poco a poco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons