So all week I’m wondering – when’s the best time to tell your date you have cancer? Definitely after you order – maybe during appetizers – do you let him finish his entrée? After cocktails. Yes, definitely after some cocktails.
All I can think is that in a couple of years he’ll be sitting at a dinner party and someone will be telling a story about “the worst date ever” and he’ll be like – “no, no – I’ve got a story!”
I met him May 21st – the day after I found out I had ‘the big C’, at my friend Mike’s annual Opening Day of Polo Season Picnic. Mike doesn’t play polo, we don’t know anyone who plays polo, but he’s a chef and he likes to theme his events. It was also “The Day of the Rapture.” The irony was not lost on me.
I had spent a sleepless night on my friend’s couch – surrounded by baby toys and fear.
Being around people helped – nothing they said did. That morning I got up and put on a white dress, pulled my hair in a pony tail and drove to Will Roger’s State Park because, one – I had rsvp’d. Two – Mike’s an excellent chef, and three – what the hell else was I gonna do? I just found out I had breast cancer! WTF?! Nothing I could do wasn’t going to feel surreal – why not be eating grilled tenderloin and farmer’s market salads under giant eucalyptus trees while ponies played polo? And – there would probably be pie.
So there I was pointing out to everyone at the linen covered picnic tables the fact that clearly, none of us had been raptured – and there he was – across the table, a couple seats up: adorable. No ring. And smiling. At me.
So I ask him, “Why is it that Jesus didn’t want you? What did you do?” He looks for a second like he is considering answering me honestly – his blue eyes amused, then thoughtful… and I am confused or maybe stunned. The last thing I expected to come across – on ‘picnic/rapture/just found out I had cancer’ day was an adorable, eligible single man.
After the polo match – I convince him to join us at a friend’s wine tasting that most of the group will be attending the next day.
I’m still in a little bit of a state of shock – and by the time he gets to there I’ve eaten my way through the cheese and charcuterie display and tasted all the wines. Twice. Maybe three times. He offers to drive me home we end up at Westside Tavern eating burgers, drinking wine and shutting the place down on a Sunday night. He is smart, adorable, and easy to be with in a way I stopped thinking was possible after one too many bad match.com dates.
The next day he emails me with the offer, “Would love to take you out – more of a proper date. One with a corsage, some sort boating or horse carriage ride and fondue.”
God he gives good email. Even his punctuation is good. I respond with equally witty replies.
There is no way my week couldn’t be going better – except for the cancer thing –and doing all the stuff you do when you find out you have cancer. I call my agents and tell them I have to take “a cancercation.” I go to the Tao of Wellness for acupuncture and start drinking copious amounts tea that looks and tastes like it was made from stuff scraped up off of a forest floor. I realize that stuffing myself self with delicious food is a really poor choice for a body that needs to be fighting cancer and decide instead to freak out and eat nothing but organic, sugar free, gluten free dairy free, whole foods. I get support from close friends – don’t tell anyone else, – it’s cancer and there’s no way to gracefully insert that into casual conversation. I tell a few people inappropriately. Because.
I’ve decided to move back to the East Coast for radiation and possibly chemo following my surgery which is scheduled for the following week so I’m busy giving everything away and packing everything else in my apartment into large plastic bins. I don’t know when I’m leaving and I don’t know when I’ll be back – another reason I should probably tell my date.
That Friday night we are sitting in a tiny romantic Trattoria in a table too close to the restrooms and we’re almost done with our entrees by the time I tell him.
“I know,” he says. He knows – how could he know?
“You told me last week.”
I told him last week? Now – I remember having the thought that it wasn’t fair not to tell him – when we were safe in his shiny warm Lexus flying down the empty freeway late Sunday night – I also remember a burgers and cheese and wine. A lot a lot of wine.
“You don’t joke about something like that.” He says, “everyone’s got their stuff. I’m in the middle of a divorce.”
He takes my hand and from the restaurant we walk around the block.
The sprinklers are going off all over the sweet Larchmont neighborhood and he’s careful to guide me around the sidewalk puddles and spray.
When he drops me off at my door he gives me the sweetest kiss. I breathe him in and touch the back of his short hair. I cannot believe my good fortune.
We both cancel our Saturday plans and have a next day date.
I bring sushi to the barren landscape of his apartment. His ex has taken most of the furniture. It’s empty and echoes. On the couch we make out like teenagers and don’t watch Star Wars.
Then everything starts to happen in a cancer avalanche – my mother arrives, more doctor’s appointments, more packing. Memorial day is Monday, the lumpectomy the next day, and then the day after that – my birthday.
But all that week – the sweetest, funniest, emails. I don’t mention the “C” word, but he knows, I know. And I know he knows – and he’s still there, and the fact he agrees to drive out clear on the other side of Los Angeles to celebrate Memorial Day in my friend’s tiny apartment with my mother their 9 month old twins is too good to believe in. He helps me grill on the tiny porch – we are a team – responsible for perfectly cooked chicken.
He comes to my incredibly awkward impromptu birthday party and brings me a Kate Spade scarf – from the Kate Spade store, wearing whimsical purple polka dot socks under his expensive business suit.
I think I might be a little in love.
When the weekend comes, with my mother gone and no immediate doctor’s appointments, I decide to drive north of the city and stare at pine trees until I can breathe again.
I get to the Old Bear Inn toting the disgusting herbal tea and a few self help books and check my email – and this from him, “Obviously both of us are going through a difficult time, which is why I think we need to hit the pause button for a while. I’d like to move out of my place and file the paperwork, so I can at least feel like I’m officially single. So maybe we give it a break for a few months and then see where it My reply is both genius and full of humor – I ask him how he can possibly dump a girl with cancer? And propose, “let’s be friends.” He replies “100% yes on the friends. Dinner next week?”
But I’m ok becuase I’m thinking – it’s a romance – that’s what this is. It’s a romance and every romance has its challenges, and it’s ok – and I’m ok. This is the part of the movie where the lovers are separated due to war or bad parenting or the time flux continuum, or careening taxi cabs – like in An Affair to Remember and I’m Deborah Kerr on the couch, and eventually he’ll show up – like Cary Grant full of grace and regret and apology.
We enjoy a summer of careful non dates. Great restaurants, I wear heels and dresses and he opens doors. He is lovely; fascinating, interesting, engaging. He doesn’t talk about his divorce – I don’t really talk about my cancer. Things are not really going as planned, tests and retests, another couple of minor surgeries. Physically I’m feeling fine, and the good news is I won’t be leaving town any time soon – I won’t need chemo or radiation, the bad news is the whole left breast needs to go. It sucks, but I take one day at time, annoyed by the fact that the trivial phrase so annoyingly quoted to me by one of my doctors, “everyone’s cancer is different” has turned out to be true.
Then late one summer evening we duck out of the Hollywood Bowl early – because everyone knows how Westside story ends. We walk down to Hollywood Blvd where I put my feet in Natalie Wood’s tiny footprints and my hands in her hands. We walk along the sidewalk stars and he opens up about his soon to be ex wife. He admits that up until maybe this very moment he didn’t believe it was really over.
In the cab on the way back to our cars he asks how things are going for me and I admit I’m getting a mastectomy – surprised myself how hard it is to say the word aloud. He takes my hand and I squeeze back – missing that natural point where I should just let go then I have to keep squeezing until he has to get his wallet.
We let ourselves in through the gate at my friend’s house in the hills where we have both left our cars. They are still at the Bowl watching the Jets and the Sharks rumble while we put our feet in her infinity pool.
He tells me he wants to visit me in the hospital after my surgery. I decide that is a lovely idea because my best friend will be there, flying out to care for me for the week following my surgery, and the hospital is right near my favorite restaurant. I make reservations for two at Rustic Canyon. They have the most amazing faro fennel mint salad, and it’s not like I’ll be good company after 7 hours of surgery.
I’ve just been wheeled in from recovery when she rushes into the room with all my bags from the car, “I saw him in the parking lot – it had to be him, and he has a Bloomingdales Big Brown Bag.”
I’m mortified because I have awoken to discover that when you are on IV narcotics you have to wear something called a nasal cannula. It is a sort of a flesh colored bumpy textured oval shaped piece attached to a breathing monitor tube stuck into your nose – basically it’s a plastic scrotum sack hanging on my lip.
I tell her to turn down the lights and attempt to remove ballsack long enough to try to look casual, but you can only have it out for 38 seconds before the alarms go off – if you then blow directly into it you’ve got about another minute.
In the Bloomingdale’s Big Brown Bag is a cashmere throw. A buttery tan cashmere throw. Come on! A guy doesn’t do things like that for friends. He likes me. I know he likes me – and he did say “a couple of months” and it’s been a couple of months! I sink into a morphine induced good night’s sleep with visions of his blue eyes dancing in my head.
The next two weeks I don’t remember a lot. Valium is a mind eraser.
I hear nothing from him. That I do remember.
When I finally do get emails back he uses ellipses a lot and has mostly vague responses.
Then “Hey… (dot dot dot) I probably should be telling you this in person, but it is not an easy one. I’ve started seeing someone, so that of course makes things complicated. I hope you understand and can forgive the wimpy email.”
I wait a week and email him back. I write that I understand, that if someone had walked into my life I wouldn’t have said, “I’m sorry, I can’t date you, I’m not dating a guy named D.” I do call him a ‘Jackwagon’ for telling me he wasn’t ready to date and tell him I’m looking forward to hearing from him one day when he isn’t such a ‘hot mess.’
But I wonder – would he have been my hero if I had really asked him to be?
Recently I came across an article from the New York Times, okay – Oprah Magazine, where the cancer heroine’s advice was to; “Fully embrace the vulnerability of the situation. I would never have gotten through it if I hadn’t allowed people in.” The article goes on to report, “that even included a new boyfriend, who became so intimately involved in her recovery that she allowed him access to her innermost self. The two became engaged in the I.C.U. and plan to marry next year.”
If I had been honest, if I had backed up that dump truck of fear and loneliness and neediness would the deep truths and tragedies in life been some sort of alchemy for real love like it was for Oprah chick?
What if – what if I had asked him to wait with me in the dark lobby of Cedars Hospital – eerie and empty, late on that Memorial Day Sunday night? What if I had called him when I was waking up at 4 in the morning during those the weeks of testing from the dreams of doctor’s telling me they had found the cancer in my stomach and bones and brain and that there was nothing they could do and that I felt that somehow this was all my fault? What if I had asked him to help me with the fertility injections, the weeks of sticking needles in my stomach, or what about that night we were wrapped together on his couch, – what if I asked him to feel the hard apricot pit in my breast as Luke Skywalker destroyed the Deathstar behind us?
Maybe, but I guess I’ll never know.
I do know two things: one, whether it was fear or prudence, I don’t regret my “you can’t handle the truth” executive decision. If I had unloaded on him, and he had bugged out – I would have fallen apart, into the abyss – into the darkness of what was happening in my life and that wouldn’t have been pretty.
And two: if that could happen once – if he, love could find me in that surreal and wildly imperfect state when I needed it the most – it could happen again. I guess it’s hope. It/he gave me hope – in the darkness – it’s that Saint Francis of Assisi saying, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
And how can I be resentful of that? I can’t be mad. This surprises nobody more than me.Tweet