The men smile at Marlene and Marlene smiles back. "I'm so annoyed!" yells Rebecca. "I was speaking to my future husband over there? At the bar? And after about fifteen minutes, the conversation suddenly turned real gay." Cathy laughs, pointing out his velcroed star-spangled shorts. "That's a costume," Rebecca hisses, as though that makes a difference. "Do not look for your future husband in a strip club," she begs, which sends Rebecca reeling again. "I wonder what Sean's doing right now," she sighs. Marlene shovels chicken strips and fries into a plastic baggie and finally stands: "If you're gonna play that broken record again, I'm gonna go get more hot wings."
Paul chases Cheryl down the hall, after lunch. She ducks him first one way and then the other, and then panics, heading into the supply closet. He follows, begging her to talk to him. To explain it to him. To meet her husband, and see how beautiful he still is. He corners her, begging for a happy ending. Or at least To Be Continued.
"There's not going to be a good time," Cheryl finally yells. "Look. I am sorry about your wife. I am. But what do you want me to talk about? How horrendous it was watching the person I love most in this world fighting for his life, and knowing that I couldn't do a damn thing about it? Over the past three years, Gary lost 48 pounds, all of his hair, and most of his dignity, and I... I just had to sit there, uh, pretending to be normal and cheerful while he wasted away week after week. It got so bad, I prayed. I prayed every night that he would just die, and put us both out of our misery. And finally, he did. Last month. So... Excuse me for not wanting to talk about it, because that means reliving it and I, um... I barely made it through the first time. I'm sorry I can't make you feel better."
The hope runs out, like breathing. His loneliness made him cruel, and nothing he says is going to change that. Gary died last month. Paul breathes out. It's not about Paul, for one moment of grace. Cheryl is not about Paul, Gary is not about Paul. Cathy is not about Paul. He breathes out.
Marlene loves the one onstage; she says that about all of them but this one, she's sure: He really knows his way around a chair. When the boy from the door hops onto the stage, telling all the single girls to raise their hands. Rebecca cheers right in Cathy's face, but Cathy won't budge. "You're separated! Hop, skip from a single girl." But Cathy doesn't want to be a single girl. Not in a strip club, not anywhere. But explaining it now means too many blank spaces: It's not that kind of separation; she's not subject to the pandemic. It was about making time stand still long enough to get her breath. About putting enough space between Paul and her illness that she could look at them both. It wasn't a stop on the way to divorce and it's not a hop-skip from a single girl. It wasn't about separation, it was about breathing. So when the boy tells them to check under their chairs -- like it's Oprah's birthday, like it's Rosie O'Donnell, flinging Koosh balls at their noses -- she doesn't want to do it. Under her chair is a thing with feathers; every woman there is desperate to find the key, but Cathy knows from experience. She doesn't even have to check.
"Did you see that waiter? If you give him just a quick glance, he could be Sean's twin. Do it, just a quick glance, just real quick, do it, just... Just real quick!" It's getting sad, it's getting late. It's getting dark. Marlene's chair is empty; the waiter looked like a boy, not like Sean at all. Caffeine perks up, coursing through her, and in a moment Rebecca's the same girl she threw away a long time ago: All those men weren't her objects, they were her hopes, every time. She wasn't choosing sex over Cathy, she was choosing life. Putting herself in the worst positions, out of desperation. She's worse than Paul, these fantasies. Caffeine speaks, softly at first: "Rebecca?"
And again, fierce. Angry: "Rebecca? You need to go back to before you were straddling my brother on a washing machine in my house and he was just another homeless man, because he is not the guy for you, okay? And maybe there's never gonna be a guy, so you need to just give up on that version of your life, because it's probably not gonna happen."
Breathe, she's saying. Don't waste years on the dream I found wasted. It sounds cruel; she moderates her tone. Still angry, still fierce, but pleading now too. An ache Rebecca won't recognize yet: "And whether you know it or not, your life is pretty fucking great. You need to realize that, before you die and maggots eat your eyeballs out."
The hope runs out, like a breath. Rebecca goes white, horrified. Cathy used to be the optimist. It was Rebecca who was dark and cynical. But Cathy got it all, and Rebecca got nothing, and now Cathy won't even let her have that. Lotteries are a tax on stupidity. Wishes and dreams go sour in your hands if you can't make it work or you build them on sand.
But it's not about cynicism. There's no place for cynicism in Cathy Jamison, not when she knows how much love she has for them. She isn't bitter, this isn't a passport to anywhere but honesty. Righteousness is too bright to look at: It's a thing with armor, that crouches in the soul. She's not doing anything she hasn't done to Paul, and Adam, without them knowing. She'll do it again, and again, until her dying breath: It's the only thing that makes sense. Her harshness is only brighter truth, no matter how it cuts. Why else would Rebecca come to her, over the years and now permanently, if she didn't want a little of it? If she didn't want to be reminded of how bright and painfully the sun can shine?
Marlene pops up from underneath the table, holding the key she found under Cathy's chair. She stares. Cathy's never won anything in her life. Lotteries are a tax on stupidity. It's all in the numbers. Cancer is endemic until it happens to you. Until you're the lucky girl. Dip down under your chair and what's there? The end of everything.
She's never won anything before; she didn't even want to look. To feel around blankly beneath herself, wondering how lucky she could be. Quashing hope and living in it, scrabbling around, pathetic: None of that. No asking hope to hurt you again, even in the tiniest ways. But to have it handed to you, now, that might be a sign.
They usher her onstage; she beams. Not for the gay boys, not for their bodies, not for the applause: She smiles brightly for the numbers. Inside the box, which she opens with a key, is another boy: Air Force this time, that song by Berlin, for a moment or two before the thumping beat returns. He picks her up easily, like an officer, and seats her on the chair like a gentleman. Rebecca sits in the audience, still stinging. Jealous. Cathy doesn't appreciate anything she has. First the hat and then the glasses -- "Oh, just take it off!" Marlene screams -- and then the shirt. He places himself in her lap, reverse-cowboy, and suddenly he's doing a headstand in front of her.
"You must be very proud of yourself," she says nervously, leaning down toward his reddening face like a teacher, like a parent: "You're very talented. You bring a lot of joy to people. That's ... Really nice." It's not about his body, not this close. But she can't help but connect. In a Cathy way, in a way that says she's in charge of the context here: To show him that she's not turned on, that her body is still hers. That his efforts are appreciated but that his body is not an object, for her. When the pants come off, revealing a red sling underneath, Cathy makes her escape. He seems like a nice guy.
Rebecca's still unhappy, when she returns, but with a bit of adrenaline in her veins Cathy can't keep it as intense as before. She sounds pitying, indulgent; she feels neither but it sounds like she's talking to a dog: "Oh. Awwww, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I got so dark." Rebecca stares, still unsure. Angry and fierce. "I have vodka and caffeine chasing each other around my body..."
Rebecca nods. She's not wrong. Cathy's