Roses at the End
by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
"My life is leaking out of me like the water is leaking out of this garden hose," my friend says and wiggles it at me. A trickle of water darkens the sleeve of her sweater. Some shrug of shoulder or downward slope of lip betrays my reluctance to surrender hope. She shakes her head. "Shape up. You donít have much time left to reach that desired stage of acceptance."
She lifts the hose to her lips to drink. Water drizzles down her chin and comes to rest in a shimmering pendant against her throat. She grimaces, "Rubbery," tosses it to the ground, and a widening rainbow begins to arch around the nozzle. This adroit process of capturing and decoding color from sunlight captures my friendís attention. She watches the transformation of water, grass, air into some glistening new thing.
"Transformation" has begun to appear with regularity in her conversation, along with the word "meditation," and stillness has replaced the restlessness thatís marked her for as long as weíve been friends. I watch her for a few moments. Sheís very slender now, the sturdiness that marked her frame whittled down. Then, feeling as though Iím somehow spying on a private moment, I stretch out on a lounge chair shaded by a sugar maple in blazing regalia and close my eyes.
Despite the dry autumn the grass is lush. My friend waters diligently, mourning each flowering annual as its season for life passes. Russet and gold have overtaken much of the soft green of summer, but mums spike purple, yellow and white in her raised beds. Three of her rose bushes are studded with tiny hard hips, prepared for winter, "the little death," but the fourth, a cottage rose, in stubborn disregard of the cold nights, is flooded with pink buds even as the petals of spent blossoms curl brown and drop. The tenacity of the bush delights her and she feeds it against all advice that it should be encouraged to go quietly dormant.
"Weíre in a race," she said when I arrived. "Which of us will hold out the longest." She cocked her head at my silence and said, "Get with it." Her eyes were hard. I knew then that she was going to be relentless.
She trembles a moment, then walks to the side of the house where the faucet is. The hose offers a final hissing spurt, the spreading rainbow stalled. In just a few minutes, the earth will absorb the water and the rainbow will vanish. I close my eyes and try to meditate using a mantra she gave me, an experience she insisted Iíd love, but my mind scurries through problems with my psychotherapy clients, the book Iím writing, my husbandís upcoming business trip. The lounge chair beside me shifts and I open my eyes. Sheís moved it into the late morning sun and rests there now, with closed eyes. Her pale face is slathered with sunblock. Her hipbones jut against her dark jeans. Her hair has grown back in the short silver curls of Roman boys in old frescos.
"Should you move out of the sun?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "Iíll have lots of time to be in the dark."
Iíd stocked my car with Maine icons for this visit; soap and moisturizer from Tomís of Maine, photographs of the coast, apples, maple syrup, a ceramic crow from a gallery in Portland, an LL Bean vest, and a poster from the Portland Museum of Art. In honor of our history of junk-shopping, I brought an exotic gypsy scarf, gaudy dangling earrings, six mystery books and two cashmere sweaters from the Salvation Army.
My husband watched as I layered it all onto my back seat and said, "Hug her for me." I nodded. He hesitated after kissing me good-bye, then added, "Tell her Iíll see her soon."
I nodded again, but we both knew it was a crapshoot.
She ran out to the driveway when I arrived, then glowed when I threw open the carís back door and began to fill her arms with my gifts.
"Thatís all?" she said. "Are you sure you didnít forget anything?"
Three days have passed, only two left before I leave, and my face in the mirror is drawn, the fine web of lines deeper, eyes already speaking the language of loss. Time is slipping out from under me. "Why her?" I whispered to my reflection. My mother, brother, my first husbandís grandparents and aunt, two other friends and a writer who was an acquaintance are all dead; also Miles Davis, Francois Truffaut, Raymond Carver, Andrew Dubus, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, millions known and unknown.
Nobody survives life.
I stretched, sighed at the throb of my aging knees after running on the hard pavement and took a hot shower. Over breakfast, my friend ate a last spoonful of oatmeal and examined me. "You look like shit."
"Thanks," I answered. "Iím going to meditate on that."
She laughed and said, "Letís go sit in the yard after I water."
My friend opens her eyes and looks at my watch. "Time to go." She stands in a single, graceful motion and I realize sheís been practicing to move as though sheís still a healthy woman. She threw her watch in the trash when she learned she was dying. "Time is a concept devoid of meaning," she said. "A day with my children is shorter than a second, a twenty minute wait for the results of a test is longer than a year, and dying will take as long as it takes."
After dinner each night, we watch reruns of her favorite shows. In the darkness of the living room, as images flicker across the screen, time accordions back into itself, Alan Alda maturely handsome rather than time-ravaged, William Shatner not yet camp, Red Skeletonís drunk act funny before we acknowledged the effects of alcoholism. We are sealed into a twenty-five-year old time capsule, a long-ago time when only other people died. TimeóI read an article on how we really donít know what it is, and that it actually does move faster and slower. If we figure out the system we can be in any time at all. I donít understand the theory.
My friend beckons from beside the cottage rose where she waits for me to get my car keys. "Letís go. I donít have forever." Her finger and toenails are polished the same shocking pink as the roses, a smooth vibrancy that radiates like waves in the air around her. She flashed them at me when as I first arrived, then pointed to her polished toes in the sandals she wore despite the chilly day, and said, "Weíre having a girly party later and Iím polishing yours."
Our friendship began as young mothers and sheís offering an opportunity to experience a makeshift adolescence together, a flight to a past that we didnít share. "OK," I agreed, hauling my suitcase from the trunk. "Polish away, except I refuse to watch Gidget and drink Coke while you do it."
"Stop dawdling," she says now as I carry the lounge chairs to her porch.
"It might rain," I protest.
She shakes her head at my compulsivity and asks, "Where? In India?"
She bends to sniff one of the roses. Pain floods her face and she rests her hand against the curve of her back. My throat knots with sorrow. She looks up to hurry me, sees my face and quickly plunges her nose back into the petals.
I clear my throat and say, "Letís go."
When weíre belted into the car she turns to me, squares her shoulders and challenges, "Now?"
I nod and we grab the handles that open our windows.
"OK," she says. "Ready, set, go."
She churns passionately and opens her window first, then clasps her hands above her head in a gesture of triumph. "Winner and still champion. You buy lunchóagain.Ē
"This time." I start the car, back out, and turn into the road.
"Ha," she scoffs and leans out the window. The brim of her stained green cap, one her garage mechanic gave her when she admired it, snaps in the wind. As the car picks up speed, she pulls her head back to answer, "Youíre running out of time to win." Through the window the American suburbs race behind her like a video on fast forward.
Relentless, I think, then answer, "Thereís the trip back home."
"No," she says quietly. "We both know Iím gonna be first." She leans out the window, but not before I catch a glimpse of her eyes.
In the oncologistís office, we wait for her examination. Vapid watercolors interrupt the long expanse of walls painted blue and pink like a babyís nursery. Closed blinds block every window and thin rods of light sneak in and rest along the flat beige carpet. The radio plays music you forget even as you hear it. The only other patient is a man who sits across from us restlessly fingering an issue of The New Yorker. Heís gaunt, with eyes like the last lingering coals of a fire, dressed in a crisp white shirt and paisley tie. A heavy sweater and fedora rest beside him and his grey hair is the cropped length of new spring grass. His mouth is wry and humorous and a little bitter.
She cocks her head at the radio and says, "Steely Dan would drop dead if they heard this version of Dr. Wu." She puts down a magazine and smiles at the man whoíd laughed at her comment and now grins at us.
"So, is this where you come to loosen up?" she says and I realize, by the tone of her voice, that sheís flirting.
"Yes, and whatís a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" he flirts back. Heís wearing a wedding band. So is my friend.
"Where else can you get a cocktail with this kind of kick?" she answers and shimmies her shoulders provocatively.
Iím astonished, then further surprised to see him shimmy back with a quick self-conscious movement. His name is called and he rises, making a drinking motion with his cupped hand, pretending to stagger as the door to the doctorís office softly closes behind him.
My friend burps noisily, as though sheís had too much to drink and the receptionist looks up from her desk to smile vacantly into the almost empty room.
"I should have at least one affair before I die," she says, then adds, "Some kind of affair, anyway." She sighs but her eyes gleam.
"Hey." I swallow hard and glance at her shocking nails. "Weíve only got one life to live." Her laugh tells me I said the right thing. Itís getting both easier and harder to accomplish that.
She fidgets as time drags on and whispers loudly, "Who has all this time to kill?" The receptionistís eyes blink rapidly but she doesnít look up. My friend stares out the window and I memorize her profile. I miss her already. First marriages, children, my younger sonís surgery, divorces, present marriages, I imagine it impossible for an event to occur in my life if sheís not there to witness it. She turns to me and I look quickly at the window.
"I felt that," she says.
I shake my head and ask, "Where is all this telepathy coming from?"
"Iím practicing channeling," she answers. "First on the receiving end, later on the sending."
"Are you going to be this relentless the whole trip?"
"It depends on you," she says. "It may need to be the whole trip."
The magazine she put down lies open at a quiz: "Do you have the courage to dream big?"
"Letís take it," I say.
We scoff at each inane question about decorating your house, choosing your car, changing make-up. Thereís a gravity to the phrasing of each question that suggests meticulous attention to external trappings is essential for psychic harmony. The final question is, Are you excited about every new adventure?
"I lose," my friend says and closes the magazine.
I experience a moment of vertigo at the bleakness in her voice and grab her hand just as the doctorís door opens and the man steps out buttoning the sleeves of his shirt. Heís paler than when he went in and looks around as though uncertain of where he is until he sees my friend and smiles. He sits down and says, "I need to wait in case I have a reaction to the injection."
The nurse gestures that itís my friendís turn, and as she passes him, one long leg brushes his knee and she says, "Thatís all youíre waiting for?"
I catch my breath at her unfamiliar boldness then look at the clean, worn angles of his face and something inside me cheers.
His eyes lighten and he answers, "Maybe not all."
He watches her vanish behind the closed door, turns to me and nods. We smile at each other and Iím suddenly self-conscious about my fingernails, as though I havenít earned the right to their brave shade of pink.
We sit silently, me turning the pages of a magazine, him watching the play of light on the carpet, until my friend swings open the door of the doctorís office, says something quietly over her shoulder then closes the door behind her. She sees the man, inhales sharply, then asks, "No bad reaction?"
"Oh, that," he says. "I forgot about that. Iím just hanging out soaking up the ambiance."
Her smile is brilliant and she leans over, her hand on his shoulder and asks, "Can you tear yourself away from the music and join us for lunch?"
He immediately stands, pulls his sweater over his head, adjusts the fedora, and cocks an arm at each of us. "Letís go. Iím dying of hunger."
My friend laughs and takes his arm. "Weíre going to a little organic restaurant I love."
"Perfect," he says, waving his elbow at me again and I take it.
Outside, a milky scarf of clouds drifts across the sky. The sun is demanding and bitterly bright for so late in the season.
"Iíll follow you," he says, opens his car door and slides in. "Drive slowly."
I nod and my friend pats his hand on the steering wheel. He looks at her and there is something so stark and naked on his face that I look away.
"Itís on this road," I mumble. "Just about ten miles on the right hand side."
"Iíll follow you," he says again.
Once weíre on the road, she watches his car in the rear-view mirror, leans her head out the window, waves, then sits back in her seat. When I stop at a red light, she applies lipstick and pats on face power, pursing her lips at how dry and flaky her skin is. I feel my heart break.
We eat winter squash soup and endive salad at a table beneath a picture window. Sun filters gently through gauze curtains. The restaurant is quiet. Weíre between the lunch and dinner hours. Each table has a small rose and when we first sat down my friend leaned over to sniff then said with disappointment, "Theyíre scentless."
"You like roses?" the man asked.
"I love them," she said. "I have one still putting out blossoms like it hasnít figured out weíve shifted to mid-autumn."
"A fighter," he answers.
Throughout the meal, they laugh and speak in tongues, a complex language of medications, treatments and experimental programs that is beyond my capacity to fluently converse in. Itís not a graceful or smooth dialect, yet they speak it as though it were a romance language. She eats with more interest than Iíve seen for a while, nodding enthusiastically and waving her fork in the air to make a point. Heís pushed his bowl and plate away and rests his face on his palms watching her, laughing when she says something funny, nodding when she says something serious.
They begin to talk about their lives beforeÖÖ.
He insists they have a lot in common. She was an editor in her "former life" and heís an avid reader. Sheís addicted to computersóďNaturally," she flashes her eyes at himóand he was a science teacher. They both love museums. His wife owns a business and travels all the time, and since my friend received what she calls her "sentence," her husband works late and on weekends and is always at a conference somewhere.
"Heís buying new suits and watching his diet," she says.
She takes another forkful of salad, then pushes her plate up beside his.
He nods silently.
Her mouth twists as she grabs my hand and says, "He and I have both grown thinner although not together. By now I hardly miss him."
He looks at us with an ancient sadness, also with the satisfaction of the old friend he has somehow become. His eyes mirror an elemental loneliness that traverses both the living and the dying, although they are really the same. He reaches across the table and squeezes both our hands for a moment. Iím a little bit in love with him myself, the aplomb with which heís revealed himself.
They discover more commonalties. They both use sparingly their sleeping pills and painkillers. They both refused a second round of chemotherapy, believing itís not worth the misery just to get a few more months of struggle. They muse over the role of alternative therapy in America and discover, to their mutual delight, that they both follow a regime of vitamins and herbs prescribed by the same neighborhood naturopath.
"Hell," my friend says, "Iíve never felt better in my life." She leans toward him seductively, a vestigial mannerism from a time when she still had breasts. Leaves tremble outside the window and shadows flicker over her like candlelight.
He nods, leaning forward also. "I donít believe youíve ever looked more beautiful."
Their fingers meet across the table. There is something glowing inside her that I havenít seen for a few years, a feverish light that ignites her. She is "transformed." I know she would laugh derisively at me because I imagine a miracle, things beyond medical science.
We order coffee and she takes hers with cream, a luxury she never allowed herself before. She and I get chocolate cake. He gets apple pie. They exchange tastes of their deserts. There is a field around them of mid-afternoon haze and shadows, their skin translucent as rice paper, blue veins delicate as map lines. Everything is surreal, slowed down. It takes an hour for the pie-laden fork he holds up to reach her lips. It takes as long for her hand to touch his.
He insists on paying the bill. "Our first date," he jokes, then turns to generously include me.
Outside they exchange telephone numbers. The trees transform sunlight into a cool green that drops over us. Russet leaves drift down onto the grass. There is a massive bush of cottage roses on each side of the restaurant entrance and while hips have taken over, a few blossoms remain, flooding the air with their fragrance. The man swoops and plucks one, carefully avoiding the thorns and presents it to my friend who bows gracefully in gratitude. They graze cheeks then he leans over to kiss me as well. "See you," he says.
I answer honestly, "I hope so."
He walks to his car waving over his shoulder. His shoulders are broad, his walk a little stiff but still fluid; a man traveling a path between the middle and old age of a terminal disease. My friend watches him, one finger caressing the soft petals, inadvertently loosening a few which fall to the path. "Beautiful," she says and I nod.
She rolls her window down before Iím even in the car and I settle into my seat protesting, "Hey, not fair."
"Sometimes, youíve just gotta cheat," she tells me then leans out of the window as the car picks up speed.
When we arrive at the house she laughs at the lounge chairs folded neatly on the porch and holds her palm out mockingly. Iím preparing herb tea when her husband calls from D.C. where heís attending a conference. She holds the cordless phone in one hand, and with her other grabs a spoon and plays a row of glasses on the counter.
"Nothingís changed," she tells him, shaking her head. "No, nothingís worse and nothingís better." Sheís quietÖthen, "No, had lunch with a man we met at the doctors office, the three of us." Sheís quiet again then stares directly into my eyes and says briskly, as though reciting a weather report, "Same as mine, hopeless." A muscle twitches in her jaw. My heart pounds so hard I have tunnel vision and drop to a chair. After a moment of silence she says, "OK, OK," and the spoon speeds up, alternating between glasses. "Nothing," she says and stops. "Some noise from outside." After another moment she tells him, "No, donít call. Iíll be asleep by then." She plays the glasses again, gently, a paled symphony of crystal instruments. "Yes, good-by."
She hangs up and turns to me, ĎBastard," she says. "Heís getting impatient."
Weíre in the yard, wrapped in light blankets, drinking tea and watching the sun surrender the sky when the phone rings. She goes in to get it. Her eyes are thoughtful when she returns and asks, "Would you mind if I went out for a while this evening?" The blazing sunset transforms her to a dark silhouette, a brilliant aura of fiery orange flaring around her.
"Oh-oh," I stand and put my hand on my forehead in feigned shock and say, "A date. Do I know this boy? Donít get into a car if the driver has been drinking."
"I promise," she says quietly, then takes a few steps forward and her arms fiercely encircle me. I feel her tears against my cheek as she trembles violently, great shuddering waves of the terror she cradles inside. I rub her back and think of her husband, growing more absent and remote. I hate him then and know he is no longer a part of this equation except in the concrete abstract, if that makes any sense. She has friends who love her, women who will rally around her, do anything she needs, but there are needs that we canít meet. She is counting on the man and he is probably counting on her. Time has collapsed like a building falling into itself and what would take weeks in ordinary time has transpired in an afternoon.
Iím terrified thenÖI want her to die first. I donít want her to suffer his vanishing, be left behind to wait for her own entry into infinity.
Iíve reached acceptance at last.
"Is this a good idea?" I whisper to her.
"Because Iím married?" she asks bitterly.
She steps away from me, grabs my hands, and studies my face. She nods.
"Yes," she says. "Youíre finally there. And yes, itís a good idea."
I feel an unexpected flash of jealousy when her car pulls out of the driveway a half-hour later. I promised her Iíd try to meditate again, but I canít still myself and wander around her house. I touch things as familiar to me as my own: the old table we found at a yard sale during a walk and lugged home, carrying it between us, putting it down every few minutes, asking ourselves, "Why donít we get the car," and then lifting it again. I run my fingers over a Navaho pot my husband and I bought her when we were in New Mexico, the reds seeming to float over the tan background. Thereís a ridiculous crystal chandelier we found at Good Will that was missing the parts to hang it. We scoured second hand stores and finally, in a stroke of genius, she balanced it carefully in an enormous glass vase. Thereís a photograph taken when we were both still married to our first husbands. Our faces are earnest, unlinedóa stillshot of time before the world crashed in on us.
There are old books I own as well: Play It as It Lays, The Wanderer, Will You Please Stop Talking, Please, and new ones resting beside them; A Path with Heart, Peace is Within, Transformation and Meditation, all dog-eared and well used. Then there are her records, also identical to mine: the four Nick Drake LPís, John Martyn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, a Tiny Tim I gave her as a gag gift, Bob Dylan. The Marvin Gaye LP resurrects a Halloween party where we wore spangled clothing and harmonized, badly, on "Whatís going on?" When I find a Madonna, all hard body and fuck-me eyes, Iím astonished, then not, then laugh loudly finally breaking into gasping sobs. I sink onto her couch, grateful to be alone at this moment. The pain is relentless, every crevice of self-deceit sealed. I walk from room to room crying, knowing that when she is gone I will never see these rooms, these things again. Her vanishing will suck in everything after it, a vacuum that will consume everything of her that is not in my possession.
Afterward, I pour a glass of wine. My body is edgy, my mind a whirling kaleidoscope. I canít read. I change into nightclothes, climb into bed with a second glass of wine and click on the television. Thereís a rerun of Star Trek. I want to be "beamed" somewhere, to disappear into a reality where anything is possible. I plump up the pillows and settle down. I donít remember what else I watched, lying awake listening anxiously for her to come home. Donít be an idiot, I admonish myself. An automobile accident would be too much of a weird irony. I finally sleep.
My friend is drinking coffee at the kitchen table, a bouquet of roses in the center. She smiles up at me when I kiss the top of her head. Thereís a relaxed softness to the fine, high cheekbones and a luminosity to her skin. She seems younger in the gentle morning light, the woman Iíd met when we were twenty-somethings. I have been briefly "beamed" back to a time that lingers somewhere. I pour a cup of coffee, sniff the roses, sit down and take her hand.
"You had fun?" I ask, although itís rhetorical.
She nods and her smile is shy, a girlís. "When was the last time you sat up half the night talking and necking and making stupid jokes?" she asks dreamily.
"Too far back in the primordial to remember." I take a sip of coffee.
My friend giggles at something she remembers and the sound is so delightful that I giggle also. She takes my hand and thereís fear in her eyes, but something else alsoÖa brief staying power that has made time bend in some crazy, forgiving way, a Mobius strip with no beginning and no end.
Last year, in a phone conversation, she said wistfully, "I miss passion most of all." I was silent for a few minutes and then said lamely, "Thereíre different kinds of passion." She laughed and answered, "Ever the therapist." Passion. She is not experiencing the frantic carnality of young adulthood, or the comfortable familiarity of middle-aged partners. It is the thrilling teen-age experience of crushes and kisses and handholding.
Long ago, in a workshop on death, the woman seated beside me worked in hospice. She raised her hand and said, "It always seems, to me anyway, like time begins to move backward, that people who are dying become middle-aged, then younger, then babies, until finally, death is like birth."
My friend is traveling along the road of time, the past, the present, the future melting. Memories of long ago are happening even as we remember them. I am meditating, finally, my mantra a chant for mercy, and she is so alive, so present, her smile so radiant that I stop time right there.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete has been published in a number of magazines that include The Sun, Family Therapy Networker, SNReview, Persimmon Tree, Sierra. She is a retired social worker with post-graduate work in ecopsychology, the study of people in the environment. She has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and in 2004 her essay Heat was selected as one of the 100 most notable essays of the year. Her Essay, Passion Most of All (a variation of Roses At The End Of Summer) appeared in an anthology called The Mysterious Life of the Heart and an essay was accepted for an anthology, Thoreauís Legacy: Writers on Global Climate Change. She works with students both in person and on-line and can be reached at Mcacho@maine.rr.com.