The meeting began as I always expected it would. Awkwardly. And with something akin to pain, though perhaps only because whatever it was attacking my nervous system made me wince like I’d closed a dresser drawer on my fingers.
I never expected such a meeting to occur, but here I was, sitting in a suburban Starbucks, not really hearing the bustle and hubbub clattering and whirring around me. I was more listening to the voices in my head. Mine and what I remembered of hers.
“Hello, Jason,” I heard a voice say. It sounded just like Alison, so I knew my memory might be getting better. Then this somewhat familiar looking woman walked from behind my chair into my daydream-shrunken field of vision and I knew the voice I thought I heard was actually the real thing. Though different.
“You’ve changed,” she said.
“Well, hello to you, too,” I said. She was always one to knock you back a bit, never letting you get too close, even in friendly conversation. I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be one of those.
“No, I can see it in your eyes,” Alison said.
“Perhaps. No, you’re right. I’m sure I have,” I replied.
“You’ve aged, too.”
“No, I’ve gotten old. But that’s not the biggest change, now that I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I can see how you’ve changed, as well.” Touché.
Alison brought her hands to her hair, which had become wiry and gray, then to her hips, which she shimmied in exaggerated defense of an unspoken observation from me.
I rose from my seat and motioned her to the chair opposite me where I’d placed my jacket to hold her spot for whatever it was she wanted to tell me.
Inevitably, such resurfacing into my humdrum life was never a good thing. Not that it didn’t make the world a little more exciting. As I said, I always kept those old memories. But Alison usually only surfaced to make me feel badly, which I guess made her feel better for a spell by comparison.
“I got you a coffee,” I said, pushing the cardboard cup next to mine toward her. “I’m not sure how you take it these days, so I left it black. But it’s still hot as hell. I can attest to that.”
“Oh, thanks. I’ll be right back after I put in some sugar and half and half,” she said. And once again she lit off for something to temper and sweeten her here and now.
Alison was right, though. I’d changed in my old age. I was thicker around the middle, had an extra chin, silver hair with a sunroof and wasn’t so ostensibly cocksure and snarky as I had been when last we met.
Now that I looked at her, though, all of her, I saw her changes even more clearly. She looked shorter. I wasn’t sure if that was age or the illusion created by her widened hips and the weight she’d put on elsewhere. I’m sure my old 5’10” must’ve looked about 5’3” by now. But I also noticed how her clothes looked baggy on her, too.
“Okay, now where’d we leave off?” Alison said as she woke me from another reverie with the squeak of her chair and the wobble of the little table.
“We hadn’t yet. Nothing to leave off from. First, how are you? Are you doing okay?” I always worried about her, even when she cold-cocked, cock-blocked and outright shocked me over the years.
“Oh, I guess things are the same as always. Fucking miserable,” she said. There was a tone of defeat in her voice I’d not heard before. “What about you?”
“Probably the same, only with some new physical ailments that you earn along with your Social Security benefits. Perhaps some day you’ll earn your own.
“Oh, I hope so. Though I’ve got more than I can handle now.”
Even if I tried hard as I might, I couldn’t help but allow my feelings for her to ask.
“What do you mean? Are you all right? Oh, I’m sorry. None of my goddamn business.”
“No, no. It’s okay. A lump here and a bump there and if they cut ‘em out and start the chemo in time, which I hope they did, you get most of you your health and hair back. Only neither of them as shiny as they were before.”
“Jesus, Alison, I’m sorry. Are you doing okay now?”
“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m looking to leave a legacy for when I go, whenever it is I go. Something that my kids and whoever else wants to can read and learn about life and the roads some of us have taken, I’ve taken, to all ultimately get to the same place,” she said as she rolled the coffee cup between her hands as if trying to warm them.
“And you want me to…”
“Write it? Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve started it but it just sounds like whining to a damn therapist. Clinical, accusatory and bitchy. And you’ve always had that way with words. So, maybe, I thought I could ask if you’d…”
“Edit it? Or ghost it for you? Aw, I don’t know. I’ve never done any memoir or biography or anything close to that, except for obits I wrote in my early days,” I said.
“I’ll bet you were really good at them, too,” Alison said, as I saw her eyes brightening for the first time tonight. Or was it in twenty years?
I was, but this was not the assignment I ever wanted either. I knew this was going to be the ultimate obituary for someone I once cared for. And she knew it.
“Let’s slow down a minute and talk about this, Alison.”
“I don’t know if I have a minute, Jason. I get the latest test results back Friday.”
“So what are you telling me? You believe your cancer’s back and you have a short time to live?” I said, leaning forward and tilting the table her way with a bump.
“Basically, yes. I know how my body works, how it feels. And I know it doesn’t feel, oh…let’s say doesn’t feel right.” she said.
“Jesus Christ. Sure. You know I’d do most anything if you asked me to help. Do you want me to come to your place, wherever that is, or what?” I said, my voice getting a little louder than it probably should. Even in a semi-crowded Starbucks.
“No! I don’t want you coming over to my place. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call, either. Here,” she said, and pulled two USB drives from her bag, as well as some pages ripped out of a spiral bound notebook. She pushed the pile across the table to me.
“Pretty confident in yourself, I see. You figured I’d never say no, even after all those times you used me as you sounding board, your chew toy, the target for your anger at everyone else,” I said, because it had to be said.
“No. I was hoping, because hope’s all I might have left. And because I trust you. You never told anyone about any of the things I told you, even though we’d have those blowups. Now I want you to,” she said.
That was true. Even after she’d scalded me so many times, knocked me down like one of those blowup clowns with the sand weighing their bottoms. I’d pop back up when she’d call. I had the sleepless nights, the wrinkles, the choked-down guilt and anger to prove it.
She admitted to being a cheat long ago. But I’d come to realize she was a recidivist thief, too. Time and again, she stole my heart. But what else should I expect, always leaving it hanging out there for her like that? My question I always had been why she insisted on giving it back to me only to steal it again, each time returning it more busted than the last. I guess she was a vandal, too. And I was her abettor.
“Okay, I’ll do my best,” I said. And now I was aiding as well as abetting.
“Thank you, Jason. Thank you, my friend, my dear Jason,” Alison said, all the brightness leaving her eyes as she reached her once-soft hand across the table and touched my cheek. Even after rolling her cup, her hand felt so cold. And then she was gone.
I began listening to her recordings that night. A lot of the stories she’d told me or intimated years ago. Nothing about her shocked me anymore. I made some notes and went to bed but didn’t sleep very well. Not for the two weeks thereafter, as I worked on Alison’s memoir.
One night, as I was typing away, the phone rang and it was Alison’s number on the screen.
“Allie! I’m glad you called. I’ve been working away here and have a few…”
“Hi. Jason? This is Gregory, Alison’s son. Mom died this afternoon. Pancreatic cancer. She went fast and in the end we were all there and there was no pain. She just drifted away.”
“Oh, my God! No. This… I… I’m so sorry, Greg. I just have no words,” I choked out.
“Thank you. One of the last things she said while she was still with it was to make sure I called you when she was gone and say thank you for all you’ve done for her and what you’re doing now. Whatever that is,” Greg said, a little puzzlement in his voice.
“Just a little project she asked me to handle for her. I guess maybe she won’t need it now,” I said, mostly to myself. I really didn’t know what to do with her story now.
“There’s one more thing,” Greg said.
“She wanted me to tell you she loved you.”
The next day I handed Greg the most beautiful obit I’d ever written. I left out the hurt, but left in the true. And I cried for three days and for three months and now three years since then.
Each time I listen her voice again.
A desperate two hours spent trying to write a story. Here’s the first draft. In life, most of us only get a first draft, so try to make it better than what Hemingway allegedly called them. (Shit.) Or what this one probably is. But at least it’s written and that’s the best part. I guess my lesson is to never stop trying to do my best at writing, whether it be a story or my life.