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She walked briskly through the crowds, her mouth pursed tightly in a thin line, her eyes squinting at the sun that shone bright and unyielding behind the layer of clouds. She sifted through the mass of people that stood and waited by the dull metal signs.
Her stop was up ahead.
She reached the area in which she was meant to wait in, and stood uncomfortably in her limited bubble of personal space. Her arms were crossed and she held them tight and together, her knuckles white from the cold. She was very careful not to touch anybody surrounding her. She looked down at the leaves that had fallen from the trees and noticed how each leaf was marked with holes or rotten spots; the cold had left it’s mark on them.
As bus 515 lurched to a stop, she filed into line and shuffled up to the doors with the rest of those that had waited, clutching at her coat, still looking down. A smile spread mechanically across her face for the moment her eyes briefly met the bus driver’s and her exact change clanked down the metal slot.
She found a spot in the far back of the bus.
Twisting her wedding ring around her finger, she thought of what the doctor had said to her over the phone. She relayed the conversation, every hint of voice inflection, each careful use of words, each pause and nuance in his speech. She refused to allow her mind to wonder why he made it seem so crucial she come in that particular day, or why the doctor’s voice sounded so thin and pressing over the line. Worrying was a useless human affliction, and she had trained herself to do without it. Closing her eyes tightly she willed away the negative thoughts, still pretending that she had control over them. She practiced a breathing technique she had read about in a self-help book she’d read once, she abandoned this attempt quickly, she’d read the book long ago and the author was probably a quack.
The woman noticed a young boy with curly brown hair who was looking at her, his eyes round and questioning. She pulled the corners of her mouth into a convincing smile and the boy turned back around, uninterested. She remembered how desperately she and Henry had wanted children, how bright and unconcerned their marriage had been when that was still a possibility.
She pressed her forefinger and her middle finger to her temple in attempts to alleviate a sudden headache. Her eyes fixed on the smudged window and she swayed with the bus for the rest of the ride.
She thought of the weather.
She thought of how harsh this fall was predicted to be, and how, to her, the coldest falls were the most rewarding. The way the entire hemisphere was preparing for the winter to come, the trees braved the cold until they lost their last leaf. The bus stopped. It’s doors opened noisily and she sat up, pulling her coat tight, readying herself for the cold. She stepped through people and their possessions, exiting the bus as a gust of wind swirled the leaves at her feet. She tucked unruly hairs that had escaped her ponytail tightly behind her ears, her mouth in a frustrated and uneasy grimace.
The wind whistled and she pulled at her scarf so it covered most of her face, leaving only her eyes and the slight bridge of her nose vulnerable to the wind.
Her black boots clicked on the cement while she made her way towards the hospital entrance, and her mind disobeyed her. She thought about work, about all that paperwork she had to finish that night for the new case that had been dumped on her. The thought of the eleven year old girl with severe emotional trauma she was meant to find a home for, and the amount of stress that would add to her already overwhelming workload. How could she find someone who would dare foster, much less adopt, a preteen girl with such extensive problems. Even those families who abused the system wouldn’t go to that much trouble for a monthly paycheck from the government.
That was the thing about pushing the bad thoughts out of your head, new ones always replaced them. She walked faster, annoyed at this inconvenient fact, and at the pile of worries she had accumulated over her lifetime because of it. The trees lining the walkway bent towards her, under the increasing pressure of the wind.
She sat impatiently in the waiting room, inspecting a deep scratch etched in to the wooden arm of her chair. Her eyes wandered to the children’s waiting room across the hall. A round toddler giggled at the bubbling fish tank, pointing a tiny finger at the pink starfish that clung to the side of the tank. The mother picked up the child so he could see better, pointing and giggling with him.
Looking back at the deep laceration of her arm chair, closing her eyes, she traced the line of it with her finger.
The familiarity of it comforted her.
A nurse read her name aloud from a clipboard, and she followed the nurse down the hall. She was led through a white door and told to have a seat, that the doctor would be right with her. She sat, tapping her foot on the gray tile, discomforted by the heavy silence of the room and a paper that had been carelessly tacked crooked on the wall. She thought of the last time she had sat in that room, in that same leather chair that groaned as she adjusted herself.
The doctor walked in just as she had shut her eyes to force the thought away. “Hello?’ he inquired politely. She hadn’t thought he would arrive so quickly. Embarrassed that he had walked in on her before she had gathered herself, she sat up and half-mumbled an unnecessary apology. He smiled sympathetically and told her not to worry about it. Conscious of the blood rushing to her neck, she adjusted her scarf and cleared her throat. She recognized that smile. He began talking and she found herself staring again at the crookedly tacked paper, thoughts of her first visit to that room came to her. She remembered sitting there, staring at that same paper, when the doctor told her she had lung cancer. She thought of the first thing she said after hearing the results; “that doesn’t make sense.” Everything in her life up to that point was calculated, meticulously and purposefully, it didn’t fit and that was what frustrated her the most.
This cancer didn’t fit into her plan. It reminded her, that she, like everyone else had no power or control over the world and it’s order.
She had left the hospital shaken. Henry sensed something was wrong with her, he held her hand and smiled sadly, the same way the doctor had, as she told him the results. “You are going to be fine. Okay? Do you understand me?” He’d squeezed her hand so tight she’d wondered if he was trying to convince her, or himself.
She just shrugged. She’d heard the same thing every day since, that she was going to be okay, that she was going to fight this, that she was strong. Like the tumor that rest inconveniently on her lung transformed her into some sort of hero. She was just trying to be realistic. Less affordable than dying, was allowing herself to get her hopes up. She went through chemo, that was all she could do, what did it matter if she had a good mindset about the whole thing? She couldn’t fight off cancer with her mind, or a cheery attitude, so she had to prepare herself for the worst. She thought if she could compartmentalize her life, leave the cancer patient at the hospital at the end of the day, that she would be able to handle it. This proved a more challenging task then she had thought. The chemo took everything out of her, after each round she found herself hollowed out more and more, and Henry grew more and more distant. She was rarely home, and while Henry stayed, nothing about their life together felt the same.
Each time she left the house, she would notice him looking at her like one would look at a stranger they’d accidentally made eye contact with.
The doctor rested his hand on her shoulder, “Did you hear me?” she looked up at his hollowed face and readied herself for more chemo, more needles, more nurses in bright scrubs, more tubes and machines and pity.
The heater attached to the wall kicked in and began humming.
“Sarah, you’re going to be fine, the cancer is finally going away, the tumor is shrinking, your last round of chemo seemed to be most effective” Sarah looked at the doctors eyes, which were searching her own for a reaction, she looked back down. The papers that were tacked to the wall above the heater fluttered from a surge of hot air. Another step she’d miscalculated, another part of her life she hadn’t predicted or prepared for. Cancer had so abruptly stolen and altered her life, she told herself there was no point to fighting it. Sarah had resigned to live her life like it wasn’t going to last much longer, it was the hope that damaged her the most. Now, just as quickly as cancer came, it left her. The heater quieted and the papers settled. Sarah felt that somehow she’d failed, and for once she was happy that she had. All this time that was her fear, and she laughed at herself, realizing how trivial it was that she had spent all that time being worried of being wrong, in the face of lung cancer.
The nurse came back to fill out some paperwork and Sarah looked at her and smiled. The woman’s brightly colored scrubs coordinated with her blue stone earrings. The woman wore her hair down in silver curls, she smiled back kindly and Sarah noticed she wore a wedding ring on a silver chain around her neck. The nurse followed Sarah’s gaze and grabbed the ring in impulse, turning around and twisting it around her finger. The nurse acted intensely focused on filling out the rest of the paperwork. “Your hair is really beautiful” Sarah said as she left the room. Her boots clicked down the ivory hospital halls towards the green exit sign.
Sarah felt an impulse to walk home. For the first time in her life she allowed impulse to influence her decision making. She set out walking at a brisk pace, squinting at the sun that had managed to shine through a sliver in the clouds.
She pulled her hair out of the pony tail she’d fastened tightly to the nape of her neck, allowing it to fall in dark waves around her shoulder, thinking of how she wouldn’t have to shave it again, feeling each strand in it’s fullness.
The wind had let up and only swayed the trees gently. Sarah, for the first time in a while, smelled the distinct aroma she associated with fall, allowing her lungs to expand with it’s scent. She stopped at the park she’d long frequented with her golden retriever. She thought of all the times she’d been there before, and how she’d never stopped and looked up at the trees that had transformed from their bright summer green to a softer fall pallet. She’d never noticed how each leaf was marbled red and orange with flecks of gold, almost like the low fall sun was reflecting off of them. Or how the trees were so tall and full they created a canopy across the park, it’s silhouette full and sparkling against the sky. The leaves that had fallen had not made their journey in vain, but had their own part in the scene, coloring the ground below the trees. Sarah smiled at these nuances and walked faster, thinking of Henry who she’d known had just clocked off work. A little girl holding a red balloon smiled at Sarah, exposing the gap where her front teeth had once been. As Sarah smiled back the small girl looked at her balloon and released her grip of the string. The girl’s blonde head tilted while she walked, she watched the balloon grow smaller and smaller, nearing the sun. Sarah stopped and watched until the whole balloon disappeared behind a white cloud, satisfied, she continued on her way.
The walk sign flashed white as she rounded the corner to her old red brick apartment building. She bypassed the indefinitely broken elevator and climbed the stairs two at a time. The trip was more work this way, but she felt she could reach her destination faster and with more control. Her step’s echoed in the stairway with a nostalgic ringing.
Sarah gained energy in her climb, remembering when she and Henry had returned from their honeymoon. He’d insisted on carrying her up each stair and nearly threw out his back. She’d protested and flailed her arms, her laugh filling the cold stairway air, she’d never felt comfortable depending on him, but she loved the reckless feeling he gave her none-the-less. He told her she was supposed to allow him to carry her, and that someday he would have to ask the same of her. She then thought of the last time she’d descended those stairs. Trailing her suitcase behind her as it hit each stair with a thud, thinking of the simplistic gold ring she’d left on the kitchen table and the note she’d scrawled in a nervous haste beside it. She couldn’t have left if he was home, he would have convinced her not to go and she would have let him. She would have so easily and predictably fallen into his arms and told him everything, how scared she was, how she wasn’t this hero everyone pretended she was.
She couldn’t risk that type of vulnerability. Her fist hovered in front of her familiar red door as she hesitated.
The door Henry had painted on impulse despite their landlord’s strict rules, because he felt nothing should be left colorless. She loved the door but she’d refused to admit it, he always joked that she wouldn’t be able to live without his spontaneity and charm.
She bit her lip and laughed sardonically at how true his joke had turned out to be. She knocked three times quickly and stepped back, crossing her arms as if there was a chill, she uncrossed them quickly and wiped off some invisible dust from the hem of her skirt. Henry opened the door wide and stood there. She looked down at his mismatched socks, the garbage that cluttered her old apartment, stacks of newspapers, unwashed half-filled mugs, empty plastic bags once containing assortments of comfort food, she looked up at his unshaven face that remained frozen and unsure.