The Big C
Happy Birthday, Cancer!

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The Suitcase Kid
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Mrs. Jamison said she would buy the cake herself. Her husband and her son have their work cut out for them, so she determined she would buy it herself and take it across the street for a private birthday party with Marlene, the only person who knows her secret. Her only friend. The only one who's keeping pace with her: Not too slow, like her family, not too fast, like the world.

"It's a wedding cake," Marlene says: Tiers on tiers, of white cake with buttercream frosting. Wedding cake, Cathy's favorite. Without the man and wife on top it would just be cake, but with all the flowers and the decorations it means something different and it tastes better.

"I'm trying not to worry about the fact that Samantha and John never picked it up," Cathy jokes; one partner or the other, in these cases, presumably got cold feet. Marlene asks what else she plans to do for herself, besides eat forty pounds of wedding cake with Thomas at her feet, and Cathy shrugs. "I don't know. This could be my last birthday. The anxiety of trying to decide what to do..." Well, it could kill you.

Cathy appreciates the joke. It's the kind of joke she likes to tell, with Dr. Todd and Marlene, the one that says something huge and old and ugly is in the room with us, but we can laugh louder if we just glance at it. Now and then.

"What's it feel like to be old, Marlene?"

For Marlene it tastes of wearing skin like a sweater. Looseness and slack, rearranging itself; flesh dripping down like fresh paint, like a process too slow to notice. For Cathy it feels imaginary and stolen: Samantha and John, weeks ago, staring off into the middle distance of a pre-jitters future. The taste of their wedding cake, on the day of their wedding. The taste of their long marriage. For Cathy, it tastes like looking back and never forward, recording messages for the future that she won't be there to see them hear.

Cathy's son Adam is repainting Marlene's back door, for reasons Cathy doesn't understand. She wouldn't believe Marlene could be so strong, or love her so much so quickly, that she'd take the boy in his own hands and help her burn him strong. "Why are you eating wedding cake?" he asks, and Cathy smiles: "Because either John or Samantha got cold feet." Because it tastes like a future that never got to happen.

Cathy makes a list, inside her head, and then relates it. "When you paint the door, make sure that you put tape on the glass or you'll get paint on it. Make sure that you don't get too much paint on the brush, or it'll drip down the door and look goopy." Not just this door, but every door. Write this down.

Adam is put off, by each item on the list; every word of advice sounds like an accusation. A declaration of incompetence. But is it enough? He goes forth, with tape and just the right amount of paint on the brush, huffing and puffing. Marlene smiles. But is it enough? Is he a good kid? "I just want him to be a good kid," she says, in the end. Marlene nods sharply.

"He's fine. You're the pain in the ass."

Increasingly it seems this is the case. The pain in Cathy Jamison's ass is fading too.

Lenny is a painter. He knows the proper amount of paint for the brush, about taking measures so there's no mess at the end of the day. He is an artist. Creative, you know, with pictures and stuff. For Cathy's birthday he has brought her a scarf, alive with color. She's not known a man like him. What kind of person takes that amount of time to make somebody feel special?

"Happy birthday to you" is the first thing Lenny says. "I love your dress," the second. The colors of the scarf are pale green and aqua and buff and deep blue. They reminded him of her: Banana Split and Dive, and the shoots of blue-eyed irises. Wan and vibrant at once. He knows her.

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The Big C




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