Fiction

Longing for normal

By: Dave Gregory

Two tanned, barefoot, young men in wet swimsuits sit on white sand in the shade of a long, lofty row of Casuarina trees. Elongated green leaves, resembling brushstrokes in a French Impressionist painting, sway in a warm breeze. Lulled by the rhythm of waves gently rolling in on a deep blue sea, they should be relaxed and at peace but both are anxious – for different reasons.

The man in blue Billabong trunks eagerly awaits tomorrow when he’ll be reunited with his partner of nearly two years, whom he hasn’t seen in three months. He checks his watch. Her plane from Mexico lands at Miami International within the hour.

Meanwhile his friend in red Quicksilver board shorts is distraught because his Romanian girlfriend will be on a flight bound for Honolulu tomorrow afternoon, not long after their massive, white cruise ship, and workplace, docks in Ft. Lauderdale.

Since meeting on board two months earlier, they’ve been inseparable. She shares his narrow, bottom bunk and sleeps in his arms; they eat together and work within sixty feet of each other (he sells watches, she’s a purveyor of perfume). Their free time is spent hand in hand, combing beaches barefoot or sitting on painted wooden stools in rustic Caribbean rum shops.

She is being transhipped and promoted to assistant shop manager (the previous holder of the position was hastily disembarked after becoming pregnant). Unfortunately, her promotion comes with the condition she complete a full contract on the new ship. She could decline but needs money to furnish her apartment in Romania.

Once she boards the plane, there is a strong chance Quicksilver will never see her again.

A short distance from the two men, the Romanian lover roams the low coral ridge forming the spine of this long, thin Bahamian island known as Eleuthera. She collects white spider lilies, the rarest and most beautiful flowers she’s ever seen.

“Can you believe she just wandered off when this could be our last chance to be together?” laments Quicksilver, suspecting his love might already be slipping away.

Billabong soothes his friend, “She’s been gone less than five minutes – you can still see her on the ridge. I bet she’ll press those flowers between the pages of a novel you two read together – she’ll weep for you every time she sees them.”

“Fate is so cruel,” Quicksilver counters. “Only four days ago we had vacation plans in Eastern Europe; now my holidays will be over before hers even start.” He shakes his head and throws a pebble at a sandpiper foraging near the waterline. “What if she meets someone on the next ship?”

“Then you’ll hook up with someone here. That’s how it goes.” After five years at sea, Billabong finds it hard not to be cynical.

“Last night she promised to be loyal but I doubt it.” Quicksilver developed his cynicism after barely a year on the job. “On any ship, men outnumber women seven to one – and there are all those passionate Italian deck officers with private cabins and double beds, and senior officers with bathtubs. Meanwhile, I share a cabin; my shower is so small anyone with elbows has trouble squeezing in.”

“But why not live for this moment? There is a beautiful, dark haired woman wearing a black bikini there on the ridge. Any moment she’ll bring you a handful of lilies.”

“They’ll shrivel and die once she’s gone.”

“We will all shrivel and die but the fact is we’ve got amazing lives in a beautiful world.” Billabong surveys the beach. A white sand crab nervously peaks from its tiny hole, contemplating a spirited run toward the waves. “Sure, we work long hours but we have no fixed expenses. Unless we’re stuck in the stock room, we’re free to explore whatever exotic location the gangway touches down in.”

“It’ll be depressing without her,” Quicksilver mopes.

“But think how much there is to love here. The fish, the plants – varieties we don’t see at home – and all the people we’ve met: we’re on a first name basis with sailboard staff in Aruba; there’s the cab driver in Barbados who takes us to that gorgeous beach in Bathsheba, with the bizarre rock formations; and that old fisherman in Rousseau who makes his own rum, catches his own lunch and shares it with us right there on the rocky shore, next to his cooking fire.

“All this sun, sand and beauty, meanwhile, there’s snow on the ground back home. All my schoolmates are saddled with desk jobs, debt and children.”

Quicksilver targets the downside, “But there is a huge trade off when it comes to relationships. They’re hard enough anywhere but try making something work when you’re oceans apart. In what world is that normal? Why would anyone allow some low-ranking, newly-hired, personnel scheduler, in a cubicle in California, to determine whether love lives or dies?”

“Just enjoy the moment,” Billabong shrugs as the lily-bearing woman approaches. “I’m going for a swim to the osprey island, which means you two will have this whole beach to yourselves.”

Billabong wades into the calm, warm, crystal clear sea. His toes sink in soft sand. The Romanian passes close enough for him to see her eyes are wet. He nods at her and heads farther out. Dozens of slender, silvery, needlefish are visible an inch below the surface. He swims in the wake of their opaque, wiggling bodies. Rounding the southern tip of the main island, more than two hundred feet from shore, he makes himself vertical to test the water’s depth. Exhaling and descending, he plants his feet on the sandy bottom yet both hands stretch into sunlight. A school of pancake shaped blue tangs gathers to his right, swimming in unison behind a single cobalt leader, while a loose knit army of yellow tailed, black and white striped sergeant-majors curiously approach.

Rising for air, he looks back to his friend on the beach and sees him stepping out of his red trunks. The Romanian woman, now topless, sits at his feet, reaching toward him.

“At least he’s living in the moment.” Billabong is filled with longing and eagerness. Swimming onward, he contemplates, “Only nineteen hours – twenty tops – and Maria will be in my arms. Next call, she and I will be the ones making love on this deserted beach.”

Every week, the cruise ship anchors offshore from the private beach resort and deposits a few thousand mostly fat cruise ship passengers, electronic devices in hand, who sunburn themselves, eat and drink too much, and buy ridiculous souvenirs destined to collect dust for years. Months ago, however, Billabong led his friends on a three mile trek to this remote hideaway where the only local resident is a watchful bird of prey. They return each chance they get.

Reaching the tiny coral island, Billabong’s feet seek the sandy ocean floor while he scans for the reclusive white osprey. As expected, it watches his approach, perched on the highest point – the short stump of a dead fan palm rising from a jagged, slate grey mound of limestone. If he attempts a beach landing, he knows the defensive raptor will swoop down and drive him into the sea. So he simply lets the lapping waves and sluggish current push him ashore.

Billabong flips over in three inches of water. Lulling waves kiss his toes as he eyes a dark purple fan coral washed up on fine white sand. Beautiful, filigreed, towel-sized. Five years ago he had no idea such a thing existed. His encroachment is just enough to offend the osprey who dive-bombs, then circles for another pass, but Billabong is already swimming harmlessly away.

When his arms grow tired, he floats on his back, eyes open to a sky as blue as the ocean engulfing him. Inhaling, his body rises in the salty sea. The sun dries his stomach. Exhaling, his mid-section re-submerges. The process repeats until Billabong feels the earth breathing too. Once rested, he flips again and continues swimming.

By the time Billabong returns, the doomed lovers are dressed, preparing to go. The lilies sit in an insulated water bottle. One thin white cigarette with red lipstick on the filter has been butted out in the sand.

Quicksilver speaks metaphorically to his long haired girlfriend who doesn’t look at him, “Any day now, any day, a crack will open and we’ll crawl through and be together. Until then, time will pass quickly.”

“I hope so,” Billabong interjects, thinking not about his friends but the nineteen hours, maybe eighteen now, separating him from his partner.

The return walk takes an hour on a dusty road lined with palms, shrubs and mangroves, the ground littered with crawling sand crabs – some small as a marble, others big as a lobster. There isn’t a single house in sight. They pass no one. Quicksilver and the Romanian woman leisurely hold hands, changing sides every few minutes to wipe sweat from between their fingers.

As they walk, Billabong contrasts his parents’ durable marriage to ephemeral shipboard romances. “What I can’t get over is that, in forty years, my parents spent exactly three nights apart. Three! Meanwhile, Maria and I have actually been in each other’s presence less than eight months of the last twenty two.”

“Tragic,” the Romanian comments sincerely.

“I met her half way through her first contract. She flew home three months later. I had two weeks left when she came back. Since then, we’ve only worked one other ship together. At least we managed six weeks of shared vacation time, renting a blissful little beach hut in a Costa Rican fishing village.”

Silence greets him when he finishes speaking. Sand in his shoe scrapes his ankle; he bends and brushes the sticky grains away. Billabong finally asks, “What’s the longest your parents were apart? I mean really apart; unable to spend an entire night together.”

Quicksilver doubts his parents ever slept in different beds. His lover replies, “One time, my father, he went for an operation. Heart trouble. You know? Followed by valve complication. Very tricky. Was away two weeks. My mother, she visited every day but came home each night to make dinner, then breakfast next morning, for my little brother.”

Billabong reflects, “Isn’t it crazy? We were raised by people spending lifetimes together but we’re the exact opposite. Do we have any hope of leading a normal life in a house on dry land, with a queen-size bed and big bathtub, where we get to spend every night next to the person we love?”

No one answers.

Quicksilver never sees his Romanian girlfriend after that day. The Italian captain of her new ship seduces her within a month. After receiving the news, Quicksilver begins dating the only female deck officer on board. Maria and Billabong enjoy the next two months but, despite repeated requests, are never offered another contract together.

#

Five years later, Billabong stands before the double closet in the bedroom of a house he is decades from owning outright. Hanging up the dark Brooks Brothers suit which is now his normal work attire, he stares past plush, navy drapes, through floor to ceiling windows, watching big, puffy snowflakes fall through the night sky onto the wintry landscape of his backyard.

Behind him, his new bride, an old flame from high school, emerges from a hot bath. Wrapped in a powder blue terry cloth robe, she crawls onto the wide, white, queen size bed and pushes aside half a dozen ultramarine and cerulean throw pillows. Lying length wise, she rests her head on an outstretched arm. Her eyes are damp and Billabong, now renamed Brooks, doesn’t notice until he drops his collared shirt in the clothes hamper.

Knowing she only cries at sad movies, he leans over and asks what’s upsetting her.

“Diane called today.”

Brooks is at a loss.

“My neurosurgeon’s secretary.”

His legs go weak and he sits on the bed recalling last week’s MRI. Before their wedding, his wife mentioned an earlier cancer scare. An oligodrendroglioma – a low grade tumour – was removed from the right frontal lobe of her brain. She made a full recovery and Brooks seldom has reason to think of it. Details of her operation faded like an old novel, forgotten on a shelf.

“And?” he steels himself.

“She scheduled an appointment with my brain surgeon to discuss the pathology report.”

“Okay. Isn’t that normal procedure?”

Lifting her head, she rests it on her hand. “She recommended I bring a family member.”

“No problem, I can take the day off work.”

“You’re not getting it,” she pouts. “Diane meant to be compassionate but that’s the most menacing thing she could say.”

The only light is a tiny bedside lamp. Looking through shadows at her tear-stained face, Brooks has never felt so much love. “You’re leaping to conclusions.” Moving closer, he places one hand on her hip. “Maybe they want to congratulate you and tell you you’re clear for less frequent testing.”

She laughs at his naïveté. “She said the same thing when the first tumour appeared. They only ask you to bring family for bad news. When handing out a death sentence, they want someone there to lift your bawling, shattered carcass off the floor, so they don’t have to.”

“But you beat the last tumour – you’ll beat whatever this is.” His eyes now wet as hers.

“Why didn’t it just kill me before?” She rolls onto her back. “Why now, when I’m finally happy? This appointment is like a head on collision, approaching in slow motion.”

Her sobs echo off cold, grey walls. Brooks lies beside her and she turns toward him. Kissing her cheek before resting his head on the bed, he feels dampness as tears leak onto the blanket.

She continues, “Tumours come back. They get worse. The first was grade two; they only go up to four – glioblastoma multiforme. Incurable. A GBM is deadly within a year, two at most.”

Embracing his wife, Brooks holds her and they are still. Their breathing aligns.

Later, flat on her back, eyes dry, she tells him surviving the first operation made her stronger. “It was day surgery; I recovered but I wonder how you’ll handle it. You might not stick around to see me suffer.”

He springs upright. “Don’t even say something so crazy. We’re in this together.” Taking her hand, he sees the ring he placed there two months earlier.

“You’ve never had an operation. You get squeamish at the sight of blood. I’ll come home looking like Carrie after the prom.”

“It can’t be that horrible. You’ve told me about it before.”

“I gave you half the details, maybe less, when I was cancer-free. Let me . . . let me tell you everything. You need the whole gruesome picture to fully comprehend what’s coming.”

“What might come. We’re just speculating.”

“They began by shaving my head. A line was drawn across my skull, connecting the top of one ear to the other.” She demonstrates with her hand. “Every strand of hair forward of that line was lopped off.”

Brooks pictures her gorgeous locks falling uselessly to the sterile operating room floor. He hears the whir of an unapologetic razor.

“A second line was drawn with a scalpel, cutting slightly forward from where they shaved.”

Suppressing the mental picture, Brooks watches his wife push her long blonde hair flat against her scalp. Sweeping it back brings the scar to prominence. It lies buried beneath her tresses, faded like old news or a departed acquaintance.

“Then they literally peeled my face like an orange.” She positions her hands like claws against the ridge of her forehead and mimes ripping skin away, slowly turning it inside out. “They stripped it down to my eyebrows; a giant mouth opened on my forehead, exposing my skull from ear to ear. Leaving me gaping open, they went in with a hand tool. A tiny circular saw. Whining and spinning, it filled the air with acrid bone smoke as they sliced a doorway to my brain. Once an egg-sized circle was cut, the doctor wedged it open with a thin tool, the same way you’d pry open a paint can.

“That part of the brain is ‘non-eloquent.’ It doesn’t do much – holds no memories, performs no important functions – so they can cut away entire chunks; scoop it like ice-cream, using a vibrating scalpel. The MRI showed this perfectly formed, glowing white, golf ball shaped tumour but to the naked eye it was far less apparent – not like a pit in an olive, more like minerals in rock of the same colour and texture. The surgeon cut a swath as wide as the door he made. It shows up as a big black square in each new MRI. Hollow space. The cells will never grow back. I joked there should be a hinge on the door, to store things – important documents maybe – but it eventually filled with liquid.”

“What kind of liquid?”

“Don’t know. Not blood, not drinking water. But the most cringe-worthy part is that I was awake through it all.”

“How could you keep still?” Brooks pictures himself screaming and writhing at the mere thought of a scalpel nearing his cranium.

“From my neck up, I was in a series of medieval looking vices. Movement was impossible. Basically, I had the starring role in a live-action horror film. I was under a twilight anaesthetic and fed painkillers intravenously. The brain lacks sensory nerves, so I never felt a thing when they were poking around inside.

“Part of the tumour was close to something called the supplementary motor cortex. It controls movement. I was asked to do things, like move my left hand, when cathodes inside my brain simulated what each slice would sever. Being awake is the only way to let the doctor know exactly what’s being affected. It reduces the odds of waking up with a permanent disability from twenty-five percent to less than one percent.

“When the neurosurgeon was sure he’d removed enough of my brain, he re-fitted the skull door using titanium dog bone clips.”

Taking his hand, she sits up and makes Brooks feel the two clips affixed to her skull, buried beneath healthy skin. He’s felt them before but they still fascinate.

“Due to bone loss,” she explains, touching her forehead, “the door sits fractionally lower than the surrounding skull. It’s obvious when light hits a certain way. I wish he had filled the gap with caulking,” she jokes. “Surely, he’s done home renovations before.”

Brooks is well aware of this perceived imperfection; like her scar, it is invisible until she draws attention to it. At her request, he digitally removes it in every photo he takes of her.

“Then they folded that flap of skin back, sewed me up and sent me home, telling me not to wash what was left of my hair for four days. But my head bled throughout the operation. The blood darkened and hardened, matting my hair together like gritty candle wax. I looked like a zombie, a suicide who’d inhaled a rifle and blown the top of her head off. A railroad of black, horrid stitches held my face in place – Frankenstein’s monster probably looked better. I cooked, ate, slept and did crosswords with a helmet of bloody hair.

“There was swelling and bruising too. Blood leaked behind my face, around my eyes, all the way to my chin; my flesh turned the colour of eggplant. My cheeks puffed out, my eyes bulged, my forehead expanded – as if I’d swallowed a pumpkin, whole.”

Brooks shudders and avoids superimposing this horrific image over her delicate beauty.

“Do you see what’s coming? Do you think you can stand it? And this is if it’s good news.” She hesitates before asking, “Will you still love me?”

“More than ever,” he stresses, sitting beside her, silent and pale. The tumour’s return was an abstract possibility on their wedding day – now it’s solid and real. Looking outside, snow continues falling. “Remind me the difference between good news and bad.”

She leans back on the bed, placing her head on the pillows. “I see the neurosurgeon presenting one of three possibilities. The best news is cells are mutating but not organized enough to take out yet. If that’s the case, he’ll recommend radiation and chemotherapy. All my hair and energy will disappear. Or maybe a neat little tumour is already lurking there and he’ll have to go in right away. He can reopen the same door but, if it’s in a different place, he’ll have to carve another entry point – which is still okay, unless it’s too close to something vital.

“Only the third scenario is bad news.” Looking into his eyes, she concludes with fatal determination, “If it’s a GBM, we’ll never see our second wedding anniversary. He’ll try taking it out but can’t possibly get everything. Spreading tentacles of a star-like tumour will reach through my brain, wrap around healthy, critical cells and gradually squeeze the life out. I’ll spend my final year waking every day to find another stash of memories gone or a series of words erased from my vocabulary, all while my body deteriorates.”

Silence follows. If his wife expects feedback, she’ll have to wait. Brooks is suddenly transported to a hot, sunny day in the Bahamas. Wearing a salty and wet, blue Billabong swim suit, he sits in the sand on his favourite beach with two doomed lovers, contemplating fate, longing for normal.

The End

Categories: Fiction

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