This Unrelenting Future
A Story of Confusion by Taylor Gould
The Montreal Review, October, 2010
And as I continue looking at him, I notice the way his fingers thin and ball, the frail bone canvassed by surplus skin, the knuckles round and thick. I continue to look at him. Balding and pale, maybe a cough. Where a beard had been, a few curly black hairs jut out and line mostly his neck. My hand is on his shoulder, where I feel the force of his bloodflow shooting into his brain, and the veins bulge-tired and weary. He has become an old man at 19.
His nose whistles as he breathes, deep and disconnected, and the heart monitor provides us rhythm. I tap my foot to the cacophony of death.
This scene here is a far cry from where we had been just four years ago. It was slow and mean, the way The Disease set in, tearing him apart and making all his loves too difficult. Baseball, swimming, sex-it was summer when the diagnosis came through. And things became all too real at that certain time when things should be quite the opposite. He was taken from his home, eventually, and placed here-where he could lie in sterile beds, drink from sterile cups, piss in sterile toilets, and, in end, be sterile. He said, once, that the hospital was his "second home." I told him I thought he'd begun developing Stockholm syndrome.
Lately, though, I've gotten permission to grab him and take him to lunch some days. Sometimes three times a week. Sometimes not.
Today is one of the days I take him.
I grab his hand with one of mine, and put my other on the small of his back; raising him like the undead to go smoke a joint in my van and get pizza at Speedy's.
I help him into the car, he buckles, and we leave. He wastes no time reaching for the glove compartment and lighting up.
Through a jungle of smoke, he says, "my ass is melting."
"Dude, I'm pretty sure that's not what cancer does." I say.
"But, like. my ass. it's melting."
"Is that what the doctor was saying when I first came in this morning? 'Mike, your ass is melting. I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do."
"That's exactly what he was saying. Common misconception about cancer is that it's this solid, surgically-removable thing. In all actuality, dude. it melts you. I, having been lucky enough to get ass cancer, have a melting ass."
We look at each other for a moment, the context-all things considered-dares us to laugh, but-melting asses and all-we cannot.
"This weed is bunk," he says, "all it does is make me feel like I'm dying." And there's a short silence. I turn on the radio, but before I can even find a good station, he shuts it off. "I'm sorry, man. I don't mean to be a buzzkill, really. I'm glad you come and. do all this, y'know? It's not like you have to. And I don't make it easier sitting here bitching about everything."
"It's fine, dude, you'll be dead soon."
And we laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh, like we did before the great decay. Like we did before melting asses and rag-and-bone fingers, before I had to help him put his shoes on, before many things I didn't know could happen to people-before the Body, the Machine as it seems to me now, became rusty and unusable. Obsolete. Yeah, that's it. obsolete. The world doesn't need him here anymore, that's what it is.
But what happens if I do?
The wind blows hatefully cold this ugly April Monday. I sit with the blinds closed in my dorm room, scouring the internet for any sort of information I can find on this quiet goblin that's been so efficient at tearing apart my friend. All the numbers and estimates and color/class/creed/country variables put my mind in a vice. I look a little deeper, still only skimming, but with grand attention. I finally find it, but only partially, wedged in between symptomology and proper care. Survival rates, 85% in Stage One, 59% in Stage Three. But where the hell is Stage Two? Stage Two. Like no one's fucking curious about stage two? So this is it? Some rough estimate somewhere between 59% and 85%? Somewhere in there, wedged in 60's and 70's, and, hopefully 80's, is the life of my friend. What it boils down to is this ignorant guestimation, where realism and optimism butt heads and curse and scramble. This is all I've got to go on then, eh? 59-85.
Why do I feel like I'm on the unluckiest episode of the Price is Right?
The hospital is dull and quiet. Just on the periphery of audibility is the sound of a baby crying. My shoes squeak against the wax-covered tile. A toilet flushes. I sneeze.
I turn the corner toward Mike's room and a thick, meaty hand falls, plush and grotesque, on my shoulder. "Hey, there, on the way to pick up Mike?"
I turn around to see the familiar face of a sweaty man in scrubs with a surgical mask dangling from his neck. This is the man whom Mike and I have adequately titled Fat Doctor . "Yeah, just gonna head down to Athena Healthfoods and pick up some yogurt and carrots."
"Right, well, hopefully you don't find yourself at any pizza places, right? Or smoking any marihuana ."
I study him for a moment, looking for the point of weakness in this monster of a man, "Ohh, hah, no, don't worry. That was just an early birthday present."
"Well, birthday present or not, he really needs to be eating more healthily. Especially since the cancer has spread to his intestinal tract. He hasn't been smoking cigarettes, has he?"
"No, he-" and I stop, cold and defeated, "it's spread to his intestines?"
"He hasn't-" he searches for the words, "you didn't-" the eyes searching my face for the answer to my question. "I'm afraid I'm really not at liberty to discuss it. I'm sorry. I thought that he would've."
And we look at one another for a moment, the fiery wrath of miscommunication burning both our red faces. He turns and scurries away, as only a leaky-mouthed fat fuck like he could.
My shoes squeak as I continue down the hallway. The wind outside blows. The coughing. The toilets flushing. The wind outside blows. The fluorescent bulbs bleed their light from the ceiling. The wind outside blows.
Somewhere, a window is open. But not here. Here, I am suffocating.
"So what do you want for your birthday?" I ask.
"Shit, man, my birthday."
"Hah, why do you say it like that?"
"I forgot about it, man, legit, I forgot my own birthday. How the hell does that happen?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's all these dimebags we smoke. And, uhh, by the way, dude, you gotta keep that mouth shut about this pizza I'm letting you eat, alright? You know the only reason they let you leave with me is because I promised I'd be feeding you ass-friendly foods."
"I know, I'm sorry, I slipped up talking to one of the hot nurses. Told her we just blaze and eat pizza." He says, looking out the window at the series of houses and cars and people that were once the backdrop of his life. They are sterile now, like everything, non-impact, worms slithering through the toes of the dead.
"Well, don't worry about it. I'm just saying I got a pretty high-stress talking-to by Fat Doctor this morning on my way in." I say.
"Oh shit, what'd he say?" he asks, coughing a bit through the beautiful smoke he exhales.
"Just that if he finds out, or sees me, feeding you that garbage , as he said it, then I won't be able to take you out of the hospital anymore."
I think about his cancer spreading. Do I bring it up? Why had he not told me? My eyes sting at the immediate presence of tears, I turn my head and roll down the window.
After letting my eyes dry-the wind outside still blowing-I turn to him, noticing for the first time the absence of any fat in his face. I respect the protrusion of collarbones and an Adam's Apple-the stone-cut presence of cheekbones. The softness of his empty cheeks. The rouge of exhaustion and marijuana and desolation coats his eyes.
"What a prick."
I agree, and he passes me the joint. I may be too high to drive, I think. "Dude, Mike, I may be too high to drive."
"Then pull over. Y'think I'm excited to get back to that bright-white hell?"
So I drive another mile or so, pulling off, finally, next to the lake where we'd come in caravans many summers ago and, with the headlights of our cars on and the beautiful resonation and echo of boomboxes at midnight, smoke and drink and be happily hedonistic.
"Ahh, shit, man," Mike says, "I missed this place."
"I know," I reply, "some good times here, huh? You remember that time, down here, where Kate blew Josh, like. in front of everyone? I mean, how wasted do you have to be to-"
And he grabs my forearm, cutting me off mid-sentence. I realize I hadn't been looking at him since we parked, only looking out over the just-unfrozen lake, respecting the handiwork of Mother Nature this spring. I turn my eyes to his hand on my arm, follow it up, through baggy shirtsleeves, and to bony shoulders, a ligament-filled neck, and find myself stuck, then, staring at the well-defined jaw line of an athlete-turned-cancer-patient. There, on that icon of masculinity, that protrusive jaw, I see the drip of a tear, and I follow the acidic trail it left behind after departure from the eye.
Finally, there, in the placid blue of Mike's gaze, I find myself compelled to grab him and hold him. I do, pushing his breaking body against mine, his head falling just underneath my chin, my beard catching in his hair. I feel him heave with terrible sobs, the rising and falling and st-st-stuttering of his sorrow shaking me and giving me the chills.
We sit like this for so long, his hand on my forearm, his head on my chest, and my right leg jutted across my left. Hiding my erection.
I spend this evening in wonder. I think of all the luscious tits I've held and tasted, all that warm pussy that's enveloped me so figuratively and literally. All those kids-the ones who sat outside the art room in high school-I called fags.
Again, I turn to the internet for help. Here, it says it could've been nervousness, or fear, or even sorrow. Many males, it says, experience the illusion of homosexual behavior in times of tragedy. One website calls it The Transmutation of Emotion in Light of Hardship . I feel better, but not before logging onto Spankwire.com and looking for the most vagina-filled orgy I can find.
But what about that rouge I saw? In his empty cheeks. The softness and neediness of his hand on my forearm. The way I held him and the way he let me hold him. Did he feel it, too? I'm not gay, no, I know that much, but I wonder-did he feel it too? That sharp confusion and the palpitation of the heart, the streaming of the tears and the mixing and swirling of my beard into his unwashed, hospital-treated brown hair? Did he know it had happened that way?
I think that he hadn't, no. Neither of us is gay, no, and. this, this. transmutation of emotion in light of hardship , it explains it all.
But I wonder, did he know it happened that way? Did he feel it too?
I stand, placing the palms of my hands on my desk, supporting my upper body by extending my arms and locking them out-straight at my elbows. My head is hanging as my roommate walks in.
"See Mike today?" he asks.
"Yeah, we went over by the lake-remember, that one I showed you?" He wasn't from around here, and didn't know the area. Once Mike was diagnosed with cancer, I decided to stay close to home for college so I could watch him recover. I would, as it was planned, move to a school in Boston when he was better. Nearing the end of my freshman year of college, and the end of this friend's life, I see the possibility of this becoming slimmer and slimmer.
What am I here to wait for?
"Yeah, with that big dirt parking lot?" my roommate asks.
"That's the one," I say, "yeah, we just blazed a bit there, had a couple pieces of pizza." I pause. "He cried today, dude."
"Shit, man, I'm sorry. What about, exactly? Well, I mean, I know, on a general level, hah, but, like, what prompted it?"
"I don't know, really. That's the thing. One minute we're talking and the next, I'm hugging him and shit, and he's like. really crying, y'know? Hard. Not bullshit crying, like, this was the real deal."
"How are you holding up, I guess is the next question?"
"I don't know, really. It's fucking stressful. An odd thing watching the life leave someone you really care about, y'know? I can see it, too, it's visible-more and more every day-just seeing the life slip away from him." I look at the ceiling, at the floor, out the window, "it's spread to his intestines."
"Oh man, I'm sorry. how did you find out? Did he tell you?"
"No, he didn't, I'm not sure why he wouldn't. I had to find out from that fat fuck doctor of his."
"Wow, man. I don't know, I guess he could just. not be telling you so. you don't have to hurt about it? I guess? I don't know." He says, plopping himself onto his bed, which is filled with books; Siddhartha by Hesse , The Stranger by Camus , The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche.
"You gonna read any of those?" I ask.
"I mean, I have to-for class."
"Yeah, so. you gonna read any of those?"
"Probably not," he says, pulling a small, condensed bag of pot from his pocket, "not while the sweet green of happiness is still available for $15 a G from that Mexican dude who works in the café."
"Well said, man."
"I thought so. Now, you've had a hard day, let's roll us up a fatty and watch cartoons until we fall asleep."
"Can't think of a better way to spend my evening." I say, my eyes transfixed on something I see in the park across the way; two young girls-under five-one is being pushed in a stroller, blowing bubbles, the other is being pushed in a wheelchair.
Damn this life. This unforgiving past, this unbelievable present, and this unrelenting future.
I know that this is a dream.
But these walls are paper thin, on just the other side I can hear laughing and crying, or. some fusion of the two. Men and women, and children, I can hear children. The heart monitor's bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep makes the walls shiver around me.
Then it's black.
Thick, musty black. So thick I can feel it on my skin. And then I look, and it is on my skin. Melting down me-sobs and laughter echoing through my world-I'm covered in it now. Falling, too. Now I'm falling.
As I drop, the liquid darkness is pulled from my skin by the speed of my descent. Finally, I hit-warm and wet-red and white, with snaking blue lines bulging and shaking-it lines the walls, the floor, the ceiling.
It smells here.
"Who might you be, hm?" comes a voice from behind me-a man's voice-a grizzly voice, raspy from too many cigarettes.
I turn around. "My name is-" and I see it, Mike's mother.
"You're killing him, you know. Don't ya know that, hm?" the man's voice leaps from her throat. She's a small woman, petite and a peculiar off-white color, presumably from too many prescription pills. But still, there is that voice. "D'ja hear me?"
"I heard you."
"Then what'n the hell you got to say about it?"
"I guess. I'm sorry? I don't think it's me that's doing it."
"Yess'm, well, it is, got it? Think that boy needs'ta be smoking marijuana, eatin' pizza-you know he's not gonna fall for y'alls faggy little tricks."
"No!" I shout, "It's not like that! He's just my friend. I'm helping him. Taking care of him."
"Then what's that, hm?" and she points to my crotch. A two-to-three-foot erection has burst through my pajama pants and is moving like a charmed snake. I try to cover it with my hands, but my hands are shrinking, and it's so huge.
"Stop it! Stop doing this!" I plead, "It's not my fault! It's the transmutation of, umm, it's not my fault I promise. The transmutation of. it's the transmutation of."
"Sexuality, boy. The transmutation of sex-u-al-ity . You gone gay, son, you turned from yellow to pink. Such a weak helpless thing, you always were, no wonder you turned out to be a cocksucker, too."
"No, really, I promise, it's-"
And from her pocket, she pulls an oddly phallic gun, pulls the trigger,
and I wake up. Abruptly, instantly.
Just in time for morning wood. Stuck here in the muscular throes of rapid eye movement.
I push it down, throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and take the elevator down seven floors, to the bottom, and smoke a cigarette in front of the building.
"What a morning," a man says walking by, looking at the powder blue sky, the wisps of cloud that dance throughout, "what a great morning."
It's Tuesday. At midnight on Friday, Mike will be 20. He'll have escaped a decade that was plagued with sorrow and decay, deterioration, disorientation, misery-baseballs traded for bedpans, women for nurses; the cool, encompassing breezes of summer for a three-inch-tall fan he puts by a window that doesn't open all the way so people can't jump out.
He said once, "If I make it to 20, I know I can beat this."
I always thought it was an irrational view on things. Truth be told, the longer you have this thing, the lesser chance you have of living. He's dangerously close, now, to the 59%.
I throw this all aside as I walk out of my dorm, the door slamming shut, carelessly, behind me. I take the elevator ride down, throwing my jacket on as I exit. I pull a cigarette out, walking, light it, and melt unimportantly into the surroundings. I walk up past the café, the Burger King, out where the roads start to thin and crumble-where highways have turned into gravel, the white lines are replaced with a steady stream of still-lit cigarette butts. This is where no one goes, where the forgotten come to be remembered-at least in each other's eyes.
As I arrive here, at what we call The Pit, I see a couple guys I vaguely know smoking a blunt. I chat them up for a little while. I ask about school, about the weather, about politics. "You wanna hit this?" they say, and of course I do.
As we smoke, one of the guys-with red hair, in a green and white tie-dye shirt, says, "So, bro, aren't you that guy who was so tight with. shit, what's his name. uhh."
"Mike?" I suggest.
"Yeah, that dude. How's he doing? He still blaze even though he's dying?"
"Yeah, I pick him up once in a while, we blaze and hit up Speedy's."
"So legit, dude." The other one says, putting the grape-flavored blunt to his mouth, hitting it, inhaling, hitting it, inhaling, and passing it.
"Well, I mean, Speedy's is legit, but, like. it's not exactly the coolest thing that I have to pick up Mike from the hospital before I take him." I say.
"Yeah, man, word."
And it's all so shallow, all so empty. I look at these two guys, their eyes glazed over with the pleasure of ignorance. Marijuana. I quit.
"Yo, so, where's the joint?" Mike asks, rummaging through my glove compartment.
"I thought we'd take today off."
"I don't know," I say, "I just feel like. we smoke too much weed, I think we should take a break while you. get better. Or recover. Or, whatever you wanna call it I guess."
"I can get that. But, like, this helps me, y'know? Coming out here, being a real teenager again. It helps me. I gotta have that ganj."
"No, man, I know it does, really. I just think it would be better. I had a dream-"
"Oh, so it's some Nostradamus shit, is it? You foresaw my death, eradicated my body of THC, and, in the real world, are trying to save me?"
"Not exactly. I just think it would be a good idea. The dream wasn't anything like that." I say, recounting his mother with that ugly voice, with that dick-gun thing she shot me with.
"Then what was it?"
"Nothing, really, it was just a bunch of nonsense. A lot of. like. dicks."
"Ohhh, one of those dreams. Think you're gay?"
"Haha, no, dude. It was all threatening. All the dicks were threatening."
"Well, I mean, Freud would say you love cock." He says, "That's all I'm tryin'a say."
"Well, thanks for your input, but, of cock. I'm not a huge fan." I say, "Plus, I mean, pussy is an ugly thing-all fleshy and shit-but there's nothing more odd-looking in this world than a penis."
"Like. aside from sexual reproduction, all a penis does is, like, chill, stiffen-up once in a while, and just basically get in the way."
"Haha, yeah, I know. But I'd take it over a period any day. I mean, I'd rather wake up with a boner than wake up with panties full of blood."
"Hah, dude, you wear panties?" I ask, jokingly.
"No, dude, it was hypothetical."
"Bullshit, you wear panties."
"Of course, standard hospital-issue thongs. It's so hot."
There's a long silence, now. The contemplation of things sets in, and you see his eyes-my eyes, too-searching the roof of the van for conversation, or for justification. Or for entertainment. We're lost here, losing ourselves and each other the longer it takes for his cancer to go into remission. The longer it takes for his body to decide to live or die. I see his eyes, mine meet his-they beg for decision.
"How are you holding up with all of this?" I ask.
"What makes you ask that?" He replies.
"What do you mean, 'what makes me ask that?"
"Well, you don't ever ask shit like that, really. We just do our thing. You've been weird today; no weed, these weird questions. What's up man?"
"I don't know, I'm just worried. My bad, dude."
"No, it's fine to be worried. Man, I'm worried. I guess I just wish that it wouldn't affect the very few things I have left in my life. This is all I've got, you realize that, right? This and XBOX360 in the waiting room. But really man, it's this-smoking, pizza, talking-it's all that's keeping me. okay. Keeping me sane. I know you're worried, but I just need some time-here, with you-where I can just relax. Repress all of this cancer bullshit and go back to what life was like before."
"I know, I'm sorry." I think for a second, "I have a dimebag in my pocket, to tell you the truth."
"Cool, then, I'll roll it up, if you've got papers. I'll roll it up, y'know, for old-time's sake."
And he sits there, after I hand him my bag, and rolls a small joint. I look out over the horizon, the sun begins to set beyond the trees and the top of the hill we're driving on. I look at him-confident and sure-rolling the joint with just the thumbs and forefingers on each hand, licking and picking, and pressing and holding. I superimpose my lips, there, at the end of that joint..
But shit, what am I doing? He's a dude, I'm a dude. It's stupid, it can't happen. It's the transmutation of this and that, and nothing, I'm sad because he's dying.
But I see those lips-dry and dying, red and cracked-and I want to water them and watch them grow. I want to live in them.
"What the fuck are you looking at, dude?" He asks, breaking me free.
"Hah, nothing, just waiting for a hit. It's been a long day."
"Yeah, man, it has been. Beautiful morning, though."
"What's this?" my roommate says, holding up a stack, nearly 14-pages deep, of papers.
"I don't know, just. something I've been writing about this whole experience, y'know?" I respond, reaching out and taking them from his hands.
"I didn't know you wrote. Is it any good? Lemme read it."
"Nah, man, it's no good, really, it's just a collection of thoughts and shit."
"Are you going to get it published?"
"It's not really that easy, dude, haha, people work their whole lives to get shit published-what am I, supposed to just send in some shit I typed up half-stoned and expect to make bank off it?"
"I don't know, I think that's what Bukowski did."
"Nah, he was drunk. There's a difference. Alcoholics make the best writers. Stoners make the best movies." I say, and I shove the papers in my underwear drawer. "Besides, I'm really not a writer. I'm more of a. connoisseur."
"A connoisseur? Of what?"
"Whatever you say, dude. I think it could be good. I don't mean to sound callused or anything, but, like, America eats this white teen with cancer bullshit up, they love it. As long as it's not them, it's entertaining as shit."
"I mean, I guess you're right. But I'd kind of feel like a dick making money off the fact that my best friend is dying of ass cancer."
"I suppose you're right." he says, spreading a comforter over his sheets, priming and pressing his bed.
"We can only hope."
"That mean I'm sexiled?"
"We can only hope."
When I arrive at the hospital, Mike's mother is there. The dream from nights ago still haunts me as she turns to speak to me-my balls recede up into my body cavity, the hair on my forearm is electrified, but all in vain, as she is (as one could fully expect with any rational thought) herself.
"Oh," she says, soft and weepy, and buries herself in my arms, "I'm very glad to see you."
"I'm glad to see you too," I say, holding her by the shoulders and removing her from my body, we're face-to-face now. Well, almost, she looks up at me, and I am her protector. "Is something. the matter?"
"We're losing him."
"Oh, god, why do you say that? Did the doctor say something?"
And she buries herself in me again, this time sobbing and gagging as the pressure in her throat from the crying becomes too much. When she pulls her head back, there's snot dripping from her nose down onto her lips, I kiss her on the cheek. It's warm and salty, and somewhere in there I taste the bitter, powdery flavor of mascara. "We're losing him."
"It's okay, I promise. Things will be okay." I'm crying now.
"We're losing him." Buried, muffled, sniffling, muted, broken.
"Shhh." I stoke her hair. I am crying now.
"We're losing him." Defeated, terrified, guttural, meek, small.
"I need to go see him, I'm sorry." And I break free and swing open the door to his room, surprised to see him fast asleep. I walk up bedside and put my finger on his neck to make sure the heart is still beating-even though the monitor tells me so. I grab his hand, letting my fingers dive bittersweetly into his clammy palm. "They say we're losing you, Mike.
"Are we losing you?"
And when he doesn't respond, I am buried, muffled, sniffling, muted, broken.
"Don't quit on me now, you sonofabitch." Defeated. Terrified. Guttural. Meek. Small.
Taylor Gould is studying creative writing at Emerson College, Boston, MA.
Illustrations: Aron Wiesenfeld. "Victor" (Oil on Canvas, 2004) and "Morning" (Oil on Canvas, 2002). Aron’s paintings depict enigmatic figures traversing desolate environments. Both the people and the places seem familiar, yet oddly out of place. He says about his personages: “They are refugees, pilgrims, and wanderers, trying to get to the other side of a river that is forever out of reach. I think they are answering a call that is not consciously understandable, but resonates somewhere inside them. It draws them to a place they forgot that they knew about, something like a return to Eden.”
Aron says about his paintings: "If something is going on behind the surface, people are drawn to it but don't know why. They've connected to something in it. And that is a constant theme through my work, the ability to paint something to suggest something that isn't shown."
Wiesenfeld's works can be purchased at
Arcadia Fine Arts
Gallery (51 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013). Wiesenfeld's website: www.aronwiesenfeld.com