The Big C
The Ecstasy & The Agony

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Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All
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Cathy Jamison, having already bought her son a car he'll never know about, has decided to teach Adam to drive. Or at least to give him preparatory lessons. As one might have predicted, this goes poorly -- "Do you know how many children are run over every year because people don't do their one-two-threes?" -- and before they've left the driveway, their nerves are already jangling. Paul approaches, shouting at them, at Cathy; he doesn't understand her hurry.

"I'm not allowing him to drive, I'm teaching him how to drive," Cathy explains. "I just thought we'd get it over with." Cathy wanted to be the teacher here, because Paul is not a great driver, but saying so only makes him more belligerent.

"Okay, you teach him how to drive, I'll teach him how to run off to the Bahamas!" A valid point, in a way, but it gets her hackles up enough that Adam orders them both to stop fighting, and they apologize. "This isn't fun for me," he says as he's leaving; the quieter implication is that, in some way, it's fun for them. Maybe he's right.

Paul admits he can't talk to her, anymore, without blowing up at her, and explains his presence away as more than the usual trumped-up excuse to come home: A promotion to VP, for which he has been waiting a while. Cathy's excitement over this, something they waited so long for, is not something she can contain. She maybe having an affair, she may have tossed him out for reasons that revolve from blurry haze to sharp clarity every few minutes, but this is something they planned for, together. She beams at her husband, congratulates him, wonders if he'll want -- if he'll need, she clarifies, because that sounded too much like begging -- any company for the dinner.

Not after her birthday disaster, he won't. "What, so you can suck all the joy out of that moment for me too?" He shrugs: This only proves his point that niceness is currently beyond his abilities. This celebration covers the unhappy twenty years, he means, that she has hated her life with him. It's too long a story to retell, or explain; his story isn't something she can rewrite.

Ever since he left the house Paul Jamison has been writing and rewriting it, polishing it, making it shine, taking every evidence she gives and discarding the rest: The story of Paul the victim. He employs a therapist, and his sister, and even Cathy herself, in order to add more and more sumptuous details, to make it all the more vivid. What this does is give him a complete lack of accountability for his own life; the reason Cathy did it, of course, is that he's always had that.

But you cannot talk people out of their stories. Especially the ones they store up, and burnish with their anger, their righteous victimhood. A slideshow of the facts, photographic evidence, a time machine to watch events unfold from the silent shadows, an epic retelling in iambic pentameter: It wouldn't matter. Not if the story gives them power. Victimhood or righteousness, or that particularly American conflation of the two.

And if, Cathy reasons, you cannot talk them out of their narratives -- if every word you say is just more proof, that you are mean and selfish and horrible and nasty and unable to see the truth, in which they're blameless -- then you're better off staying out of it. There is nothing to say. There is only the option to create more drama, which feeds the monster itself anyway. There is only left to shrug, and leave off the driving lesson for today.

Dr. Mauer is less than pleased to hear that Cathy's insurance company will heretofore only be paying for 70% of her scans. In fact it "sucks," he explains, with the obligatory apology for his nonmedical language. Perhaps, she suggests, she should only pay 70% of her premiums, in return. The dark cloud of socialism passes overhead -- the very idea, that paying for medical care should involve access to medical care coverage! -- and for a moment, Minneapolis shivers. Cathy's insurance company buys four hundred more tricorn hats for the latest group of morons, they imagine themselves to be taking part in the political process for the first time, the world lurches forward like a masturbating teen witch.

"Or we're going to have to save the scans for fancy occasions. You can't be passing those out like mints." Perhaps the next time her cancer is invited to dinner, invited to celebrate her husband's next promotion. "The insurance industry works great, if you never actually get sick," Mauer says, as if it's not a choice, and Cathy shrugs. "Well, that ship has sailed." She relents on the treatment option, asking if he's looked further into a certain clinical trial they've discussed; he'll let her know. "So when are you proposing to her?" asks Cathy, and he stares at her as though discovering she's actually Batman.

"There's an engagement ring on your laptop. So either you've just removed it from someone's colon, or you're popping the question. Or you're popping the question with a ring from someone's colon, but let's hope not." Dr. Todd admits he's been thinking about it. After five years, probably, it's time. Cathy titters, imagining them passing their brochures back and forth, folding laundry, and suddenly an egg timer goes off, somewhere in Amanda Montgomery's house, and Todd Mauer drops to one knee. "Honey," he says, in a doofy little voice she's invented for him, "It's time."

Cathy Jamison spends a lot of time in this office imagining his life outside of it. The story, his story, when she's not there. Todd admits it doesn't sound too romantic, and is uncomfortable, so she changes the subject. You know what is romantic? The Bahamas!" He's happy to hear that she went somewhere romantic with Paul, because he assumes she's told the truth and they are teammates again.

"It's where I went. Little birthday treat for myself." Cathy finally admits that she and her husband are separated -- and when Todd gets angry about that, about the "fucking typical" way Paul must have bailed when he found out, she can't jump in to stop him. "How can he sleep at night, knowing he's leaving you when you're going through this?" She can't tell Todd the truth without wrecking everything, but she doesn't want to stand by while he rails against her husband, so she just says it's complicated.

"No, it's not," Todd says, with near-tears in his eyes. "Loving someone through sickness and in health? Not complicated." Beautiful, like a knight on his horse. Hurting for her, standing up for her, here in this room. In this story.

"Julie's so gonna say yes," she tells him. He is wonderful. But the truth is, he's indicting her and he doesn't even know it. And she can't hear it yet. Sickness and health.

Cathy stands before her classroom, shaking a bottle of kiddie vitamins in the faces of her students one by one. "It's like they took everything that's good in sugar and fruit punch -- and chalk -- and turned it into these miracle little pills." She found them abandoned on the floor, after class. "I am no drug expert, but I know my cartoon pills. And these babies look more like they would ruin your complexion and cost your parents a fortune in bail money. Anybody want to claim these?"

None of them do. She has no idea what she's talking about, but her instincts aren't bad. She asks Andrea, still thinking of her as her secret friend among them, if she knows anything. Andrea packs up to leave, a green stripe in her hair, and stares Cathy down. "Text me if you find my crack pipe, I'm jonesing like a motherfucker." And if she's not accusing Andrea, then why ask her at all? "Don't you know that racial profiling is rude?"

Cathy can't say that she's coming to Andrea because she likes her, because of all the students she has taught Andrea has the lucky misfortunate of being the one she loves, this last summer in Minneapolis; that Andrea is family whether she likes it or not. Any or all of these, and she'd run away even faster. "Actually, I did hear something," Andrea says, and grinds her toe into the floor. "I heard it's none

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The Big C

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