A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I don’t know why certain faces are magical for me, why a particular set of features should seize me with the conviction that all of love and meaning can be found in the way an eyebrow lifts, or the way the corner of a mouth tucks in to suggest a smile. But Louie’s face always seemed like such a miracle. I could trace her cheekbones in the dark and believe I had been born for that simple act of appreciation; I could see the way her gray eyes picked up colors from her surroundings and feel secure in their beauty. I loved the smooth fullness of her skin; I loved her copper hair with its subtle, glinting reds; I loved her voice’s musical play and her high laugh.
Perhaps it has to do with timing. I met Louie at a point when the world seemed strange and dangerous to me, and ordinary things shone with an unearthly light. Through this landscape of trees and stones that seemed alive, Louie moved easily and lucidly, unafraid. She took my wildest imaginings in stride and from time to time suggested that the world she lived in was at least as strange as mine. And yet she had her dancer’s discipline: where I was often immobilized by an excess of meaning, Louie could live with mystery on a daily basis and still cook dinner.
We were so wildly in love that we renamed every street in San Francisco according to our private experiences: the street where we first held hands, the street where we first fought, the street we walked that night we couldn’t sleep. Then came a series of conflicts that baffled us both. Unable to resolve them, we broke up and grimly set out to live separate lives. But our relationship proved deeper even than our conception of it. Something that, for lack of a better word, we called friendship held strong through every twist and turn.
Our friendship deepened, if anything, after Louie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Over the course of a year, her reproductive organs were removed, along with parts of her large intestine and spleen. The doctors’ predictions were very grim, but Louie believed she would beat the odds. She abandoned chemotherapy for a diet of carrot juice and potatoes and organic greens — all prepared lovingly by her current boyfriend, Felix. And she prayed more than she danced now, describing prayer as a kind of deep ballet.
My main comfort while Louie was dying was, strangely enough, talking to Louie. She would call me at three in the morning when she was kept awake by the enemas that were supposed to help clear her body of debris from the ostensibly disintegrating tumors. She knew that I was sleeping as intermittently as she, and we would talk until dawn, then watch the sunrise together from our separate beds. Felix developed a knack for sleeping through our endless late-night conversations. I believe she was grateful she had someone to talk to.
Once upon a time, Louie had danced six hours a day and spent another hour in the pool doing flutter kicks and dolphinlike maneuvers to improve her wind and fluidity. Her goal was to work her way back to that kind of regimen. After the first, heartening flurry of energy on her new diet, however, Louie peaked, and then got progressively weaker. Her workouts shrank from half an hour to fifteen minutes, and then five, until at last she was forced to give them up entirely. The last time she danced was a little private performance for Felix and me, an abbreviated version of the Dance of the Seven Veils.
She’d been working on this dance ever since she’d regained mobility after the operation. Over her months of practicing, I’d begun to have an inkling of what the striptease meant to her: It was her way of coming to terms with the changed landscape of her body after the surgery. The veils also signified the falling away of the layers of earthly illusion, stripped one by one as she approached the central mystery. Until now, I’d been more or less at ease with the symbolism, but tonight it scared me. I wanted to look away as the first veil floated to the floor. She wore no leotard beneath the scarves, and I was shocked in spite of myself by her appearance: I could see every rib, the curve of her collarbones, her shoulder blades protruding; I could see her sternum, unnervingly prominent between her diminished breasts. The long scar left by her surgery, from her genitals to her chest, flushed eerie red, like a long tongue of flame.
Felix, afraid she was overextending herself, stood rigidly beside me during the dance. I could hear his tense breath coming through his nostrils. Louie’s face, the cheekbones more elegant than ever in her emaciation, was sober and intent. She stood barefoot, naked, on the wood floor afterward and smiled at us. “Now you’ve been initiated,” she said. “Can you believe what’s happened to this body?” Then she put on a nightgown and got into bed. She didn’t get up, except to go to the bathroom, for the next three days.
That was the last of her dancing. After that, she spent the greater part of her time resting. Sometimes she painted using the dregs of her carrot juice as a kind of watercolor. She painted orange trees and orange flowers and heaps of orange cumulous clouds in a mild orange sky. She was cheerful as she weakened and invariably agreed with Felix when he insisted that the weakness was merely a phase as her body adjusted to the new diet. With me, she gossiped as always and insisted on hearing everything about my work. We talked endlessly about food. Louie’s culinary fantasy life was rich in fats and carbohydrates — steak and eggs, great spreads of greasy fried foods, pizza, burritos. The restrictions of her meat-free, salt-free, oil-free diet had made normal American cuisine look like heaven.
I felt caught between this business-as-usual attitude and a growing fear that I would go crazy if she died. Normally, I discussed all my feelings with Louie: every intricate twist and turn and weird particularity. But now the usual easy flow of our talk was painfully blocked, like a dammed-up stream. From time to time I would catch her looking at me quizzically, almost amused, as if waiting for me to break. I believe she was always somewhat ahead of me in matters of mortality.
Felix was a physicist of some brilliance and promise — and certainly of some ambition — but when Louie was diagnosed, he had left his doctoral studies on matrix-specific subatomic particles in mid-dissertation, like a half-finished beer. Against all advice, he was taking an indefinite sabbatical to devote himself entirely to her care. He was also doing deep-visualization exercises every morning, trying to influence the quantum dynamics of Louie’s tumors (a practice I doubt would have played well with his dissertation committee).
Felix had become so submerged in the labor-intensive routine of caring for Louie that I was gradually losing sense of him as a person. He was more like a cloistered monk. When I had first gotten to know him, Felix and I had delighted in long conversations about physics and God and the processes of the cosmos, but we had not talked much since Louie’s illness. It was as if her cancer afflicted our conversational range as well, confining us to a limited ground of hope and denial. He believed that if he did everything right, Louie would live. I believed that Louie was in the hands of God, and that God could not possibly take a dancer away in her prime. Each to his own magic, I suppose. We were both desperate men.
On the weekends, Felix and I would take turns driving Louie to Nevada. It is illegal in California to recommend any treatment for cancer except surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, so there is a lot of traffic over the border to Reno, where the more desperate therapies flourish like cactus in the desert. Felix had located a doctor who employed a radical therapy involving intravenous enzyme and vitamin treatments. He claimed dramatic turnarounds even in late-stage cancer patients. Though for Felix it was a stretch to concede that Louie was a late-stage anything, he was willing to give in on that point in exchange for a miracle. He was doing his quantum visualizations two or three times a day now, and spending the rest of his time running errands and preparing potions and fixing Louie’s tiny, restricted meals. Her abdomen was swollen around what appeared to be a fresh wave of expanding tumors, her appetite was failing, and she continued to lose weight. But Felix’s determination carried the day. The trips to Nevada were a sort of pilgrimage in his religion of positive thinking. Louie agreed to them out of a kind of noblesse oblige. I got the definite sense that she was going through the motions to humor us.
It was a four-hour drive to Reno, and Louie’s appointments were for noon, so I would pick her up early Saturday morning, often only a few hours after we had finished our usual insomniac chat, and pack her into the passenger seat of my pickup truck with many pillows and blankets. She was heartbreakingly frail by now and had to make these trips encased in a sort of downy cocoon. We would slip out of town and head east on the quiet freeway. By the time we reached the hills around Vallejo, the sun would be just over the horizon, right in our eyes, and the undulating landscape would glow beneath a golden mist.
We would play tapes, and Louie would sing along and drink carrot juice out of the huge aluminum thermos that Felix had bought her. Her singing voice was high, pure, and delicate. She no longer had enough energy to sing for more than a few minutes at a time, though, so there were long periods when we listened quietly to the tape, or perhaps I hummed along in my pedestrian way. And then suddenly, thrillingly, Louie would begin to sing again, and I would get goose flesh at the sound. I loved those drives, riding in our little musical bubble across the valley and into the foothills, up the long grade to Donner Pass and down the back slope into the dry country. I always wished the trips would last forever.
Dr. Travis, Louie’s doctor in Reno, was a bustling, energetic fellow given to dry humor. He operated out of a tiny suite in an obscure building in what amounted to Reno’s industrial section. The offices down the hall were occupied by a silver-mining company, and sometimes, as I sat in Dr. Travis’s waiting room, I’d hear snatches of conversation about promising veins and subquartz indicators and fill-to-product ratios.
Louie’s treatments took a couple of hours. She did crossword puzzles and ate organic plums while the intravenous solutions leaked into her arm. I played gin rummy with Dr. Travis’s receptionist, Penny, who was deft and relentless and beat me every time. We played for jelly beans, a candy a point, and I was often out three bags by the end of the day.
Dr. Travis himself was either circulating with a bottle of vitamin solution in his hand or mixing another in the little laboratory just off the main office. Lean and sun-browned, he wore jeans and a big silver belt buckle and came across as part alchemist, part cowboy, part priest. He had endeared himself to Louie early on with his outlook of dark realism shot through with laser rays of hope, bright enough to burn through anything. His trade humbled him daily, but he survived by believing in a chemical version of grace. All he ever really wanted was time, it seemed; to him, no case was so severe that with sufficient time he could not heal it. His wife was a former patient who’d experienced a miraculous recovery. I suspected at times that all his bottles and potions and theories were a front, a distraction, like magicians’ props, and that whatever healing went on there was more simply a phenomenon of faith. In my darker moments, I saw his entire practice as a waiting room for the dying and Dr. Travis as a doorman of sorts, a keeper of the gate of mortality, there to ease his patients through on their way to the next mystery.
For it was clear to me by now that Louie would die. Nothing seemed to have any real effect. Sometimes after her treatment, she would get a little burst of energy and be up and around for a day or two, but these highs passed, leaving her even more depleted. I could sense her trying to get someone else to admit that she was going to die. Felix wouldn’t hear of it. Dr. Travis would not concede — he had a new vitamin supplement on order from Germany, the latest thing — and her conventional doctors talked only in terms of statistical likelihood.
And so it fell upon me to agree with her, one early autumn afternoon, on the way home from a visit with Dr. Travis. Louie had come out of her treatment session preoccupied and glum, so I stopped on a whim at Sam’s Sahara Casino #3, ostensibly to cheer her up. I suppose I was also trying to revive her determination to beat the odds — as if winning in the face of a 97 percent house-return policy were the magical equivalent of beating ovarian cancer. We fed nickels into the slots for a while, and Louie did hit some kind of bell-and-light-show bonanza, causing thirteen dollars in coins to pour out into her tray and overflow onto the cocktail-stained maroon carpet. I was ecstatic. Louie shrugged and made a kangaroo pouch of her sweater, scooping the nickels into it.
Rather than reinvest her winnings in the machine, Louie led me into Sam’s Sahara Cafe, a seedy place rife with gambler’s specials and all-night econo-coffee. Louie and I had frequented greasy spoons before she’d purged her diet of the known killers, but we hadn’t been in a place like this for more than a year. Nothing on the menu even remotely resembled food she could eat. We sat down at a table with a view of the interstate. The waitress came by with the coffeepot, and Louie, to my astonishment, held out her cup.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“The diet is a joke,” she said. “I’m giving it up. I’m celebrating — celebrate with me, will you?”
“You can’t just give it up, just like that.”
“Watch me,” Louie said, and added cream and sugar to the coffee. I watched as she stirred and sipped and grimaced. “God, that’s awful stuff,” she said.
“Of course it is. And you shouldn’t be drinking it.”
“And you should?” she said. “Let it be. You’re not my mother. My mother’s dead. . . . I wonder what she ate when she knew she would die. Not carrot juice and potatoes with no butter or gravy, I’ll bet. My mother knew how to live. And no matter what I eat today, I won’t be any deader than she is when my turn comes.”
The waitress came back to take our orders, and I listened in dismay while Louie ordered a cheese omelet. For almost a year now she’d been talking about cheese omelets as if they were the Holy Grail. Now God had brought her to Sam’s Sahara Cafe, and the Grail came with a side order of hash browns.
Louie settled back in her seat and smiled at me. I smiled back uncertainly; I really didn’t know whether to see myself as a knight errant or an accomplice to a crime. Felix was going to be furious. A cheese omelet, for God’s sake. He was going to ask why I hadn’t at least talked her into a salad and soup. But they served breakfast twenty-four hours a day at Sam’s Sahara Cafe, and Louie had always been a big breakfast eater.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” I told the waitress.
When it came down to it, the meal was mostly symbolic. Neither of us did more than touch our food. Louie’s stomach had so little room by now amid the swellings and growths that three or four bites of anything was all she could manage, and I had lost my appetite for pretense. She paid the bill in nickels, leaving a comical heap of them on the table. The waitress took it in stride. In the artificial light, Louie looked haggard and wasted, but serene. Her skin had an unworldly glow, and I suspect that even the waitress knew she was going to die.
A few days later, Louie went back into the hospital with an intestinal blockage. I couldn’t help but think of the omelet. She’d been right to have it, though; when the doctors opened her up, she was so full of tumors that they just cleared her intestine and left the rest to the inevitable. Louie was home within a week, with a hospice nurse in regular attendance. Felix still held out for a miracle, but Louie and I talked calmly about the arrangements for her funeral. Right up until the end, when she could no longer eat, Louie continued to fantasize about food, especially ham and cheese on rye, with just a certain kind of mustard that she had known in the Philadelphia delis of her youth.