I was parking and she was screaming and for a moment I thought the world might end. You had to really hear them, piercing and full of life. The kind of shrieks only eighteen-year-old non-smoker lungs can belt out.
She was covering her mouth with one bony hand and pointing with the other. She was pointing at the lamp in front of my door and soon enough I was slamming my car door, I was running, and I was flipping the switch.
As soon as I turned the light off I could hear the buzzing, the flapping of fuzzy wings dispersing into the night. Moments earlier, a tornado of moths wrapped around my light post.
She was afraid of moths. She wouldn’t get out of my car until I swore it was safe.
This girl, we’ll call her moth girl, zoomed in and out of my life at lightning speed one time after another. We would talk, first on MySpace, then in the living room of my apartment, then on Twitter, then on a patio sharing coffee. She would disappear. We had mutual friends. We’d add each other on social media, share a message, and she’d evaporate. It became a rhythm through my twenties. Surprise visits I could never see coming, but could look forward to.
We dated for about eight months in the middle of all that fluttering and disappearing. She hung around from February to October and we got along okay. I was hopeless and angry all the time. I was smoking heroin off tinfoil with my roommate. I punched a concrete wall in my basement a few times, because if I couldn’t fix my problems at least I could break my own hands.
Everything crumbled and I moved away.
A year ago she called me.
“This feels weird,” I told her because I had never expected to hear from her again. It had been six years.
“Really? It feels normal to me. I’ve been wanting to call for a while.”
She told me she had a doctor’s appointment. She was in Denver. I suggested she visit Pablo’s. She said she didn’t have a car. She was walking six blocks to her appointment the next day. It was with a specialist.
I didn’t think anything of the appointment because when we dated she was always going to doctors. She would get headaches and kidney infections and colds and strep throat and migraines. Her aunt blamed her bulimia. Her dad said it was divine judgment for her arm sleeve tattoos, her septum piercing, her endlessly changing hair color. She was always taking Tylenol for something, except when she was crushing up Vicodin and snorting it.
It wasn’t until after the appointment that she told me what this was all about. She had cancer. The specialist was scheduling surgery immediately; it was further along than they’d suspected. She said she was worried she might die.
“Call me first, okay? Like as soon as it’s over and you’re awake.”
“I will,” she said. But she didn’t. She called her aunt and then her dad called and then she called me.
When I picked up the phone she was crying and I couldn’t understand her except when she shouted, “Feet! Entire feet!”
As she sobbed through the phone I became very aware of how far away I was. I’d driven 1100 miles to get away from her and everything else and now I was too far to do anything.
“The cancer is all over my intestines and it’s spread and it isn’t the stuff they can cut out.” She told me that when it was early it was like Styrofoam. Puffy crunch-bubbles a surgeon could slice off her organs. But as it aged it became gooey, impossible to remove with a scalpel or any other tool.
I wanted to promise impossible things. Almost shouted into the phone that there was still hope, that there were always more treatment options. We could research her cancer together. I could read up on experimental procedures, consult my brother the biologist. I could see it: me and my brother and all sorts of friends roaming around a lab full of overflowing vials, fiddling with pipets, concocting a miracle serum.
But I didn’t say anything. I paced in my apartment while she cried. She said the first thing she asked when she woke up was, “Where are my eyelash extensions?” She laughed. “I’m worthless,” she said, “if the first thing you want to know about are your eyelashes, you don’t deserve to live.” I liked that she was joking. I liked the nihilism—even if it was fake—it was nothing short of cosmic revolution to know how serious things were and have the audacity to laugh.
Next she tried chemo from home and had a tube feeding into her chest. She would call me and I’d listen to her breathlessly hobbling outside to smoke a cigarette while she babysat her roommate’s kid. “It’s all I have energy for any more. One cigarette and then I sleep for like six hours.”
But then she was calling me crying and saying that the cancer wasn’t responding to chemo. The Boston specialist had looked at her results and it was too late, too spread, and there weren’t any more ideas. I still wonder about that guy, in Boston, who looks at a chart and says, “You’re already dead.”
She stopped calling after a while. When I tried her number it went straight to voicemail.
Two weeks went by, then a month, then a year.
There are 10,586 results when I type “coping with death” into Amazon’s search bar but none when I type “not sure if my ex died of cancer yet.”
The last time she called she was taking her nighttime cocktail of pills. “I’ve been taking pills my whole life,” she said. “How am I not healthy?”
There were murderous useless cells growing inside her, starving her into a corpse and I knew that because she would send me pictures sometimes and they always left me feeling empty. Her clothes didn’t fit her anymore. She used to have what people call pronounced cheekbones but now she was all cheekbones and eye sockets and not much else.
And I’m listening to her on the phone and she’s a skeleton and there isn’t much time and she’s joking about abusing prescription painkillers. And I joke back because in my head I’m saying, “Hey this is okay, this is fun, let’s just joke about shit and nothing else because when it’s all falling apart, hey, at least you have jokes.”
And that’s great, but you should’ve seen her face and the horror in her eyes when she was screaming at those moths dancing zigzag patterns around a light bulb. Because that was the moth girl I was seeing in my head, even when we were joking.