By Lindsay Haber
Glen’s wasn’t one of those fucking cliché cancer stories. It wasn’t fighting for survival, lamenting with his wife and kids, telling everyone to go on without him. Glen’s was stomach pains that led to six weeks to live which was really four and a half, every moment of which he was fucking sick and despondent, and couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes, and could barely talk or swallow. When people would see him, they’d whisper about how terrible he looked, like he was already dead.
Everyone begged him to fight harder. But he didn’t. He didn’t wear a ribbon, and he didn’t laugh with the nurses, and he didn’t reveal the secret of happiness to his children. He gave into his disease, let it eat him from the inside out. The last weeks of his life were the most miserable of the whole damn thing, except for one simple moment.
Two weeks before his death, Glen sat in the driver’s seat of his Lexus. Even with the air at full blast, the dense heat molded his thighs to the car’s interior. He pushed the radio dial, and Zeppelin’s “Going to California” came through the speakers. When he was young, it was one of his favorites. Now, along with everything else in his life, it seemed overplayed and meaningless. He left it on anyway. He took the Parkway to exit 105 and almost hit an SUV while trying to negotiate the new roadways and U-turns. It used to be simple: one road straight to the beach. Now, it seemed like the shore was evolving without him. Skip a few months in the winter and everything was lost.
His phone buzzed for the fourth time, but he didn’t pick it up. The last person on the whole fucking planet he wanted to talk to was his wife. Glen wasn’t in the mood to hear any of her shit. And it wasn’t because of the cancer. He’d felt this way for thirty years. Thirty fucking years and no endearment whatsoever. He’d wanted to leave her five, ten—hell, even thirty years ago, even when he first married her he hated her, but he could never bring himself to do it. He was too weak, always too weak, always making excuses.
He drove straight down 36, through the beat up downtown, the same chipping fairytale characters plastered on the laundromat of his youth, skeletons of buildings he remembered but with different stores: a pizza joint here, beauty shop there, checks cashed and bail bonds. He had to pull over twice to puke before he reached Ocean Ave. Fucking Chemo. Pumping his body with poison. Trying to survive by killing everything.
It seemed that once he got diagnosed—4th stage, pancreatic, months or weeks or days or moments left—everyone had a suggestion for treatment: buddies from high school telling him to consider Mexico, his wife’s friends recommending reiki and acupuncture and yoga. Fucking yoga while he was fucking dying. And those who advocated for modern medicine, all swore on this specialist they knew, this doctor in New York, this surgeon that saved their parent’s brother-in-law. Everyone knew something or someone who could help him. It was easy to hope when you had nothing to lose.
Glen was sick of it. Sick of it all. He didn’t need clinical trials or another doctor’s appointment. He didn’t need chakras or manifestation. He needed his cracking feet against the sand, his balding head burning in the sun, the smell of low tide and the days of his shore summers rolling in and out of his memory. That’s what he needed, and that’s what he was determined to get. He parked on the street across from the start of the boardwalk, then unfolded the car mirror and looked at himself. His face looked more skeletal than fleshy. His eyes sunk and his forehead was bruised and discolored.
He crossed the street and stepped down from board to sand. He inhaled the saline air. As a kid, he’d lived for shore summers. All North Jersey kids had. He and his friends would talk about it daily in school, they’d count down the days, place bets to see who could make their family leave early. When they were young, they’d trade baseball cards and when they got older, they’d trade girls. They’d set off fireworks in their backyards: Roman candles and red devils and flying saucers and moon travelers. They’d ride bikes to the beach, sneak into the Stone Pony and stand so close to Springsteen they could feel the heat of his breath.
They never imagined there would be a time when they’d grow up, when they’d prioritize anything over summer, when they’d gain weight and lose their hair, when they’d find wives to fight with and have children that talked to them in ways their parents would have never forgiven. If he’d told his father to leave him alone, that he was sick of being told what to do, his dad would have picked up a coat hanger and a belt and asked him to choose.
But life wasn’t like that anymore. It was full of mess, full of grey areas, law suits, harassment, and narcissism. It was coddling 20-year olds. It was cancer at 52. It was wasting your life with a woman you despised. It was driving yourself to the beach but being too sick to know what to do when you got there.
Glen sat his bony ass in the sand of his childhood and rubbed the weight of his eyes. He thought about Jeanne. Jeanne from forever ago, Jeanne with her three crazy older brothers, Jeanne with sea glass eyes and a deep, guttural laugh. Jeanne who he could still smell, still taste when he searched his mind.
He’d met her flipping burgers at Mrs. Jay’s. She’d been walking on the boardwalk, asked him for a light. He gave her a match, asked where she was from. She was a local. A week later, he kissed her. A month later, they had sex. His first time.
It was cliché, as cliché as summer romances can be, but there were things about it that made it real: the stretch marks lining her overflowing breasts, how she used to undress in the dark to prevent him from seeing them, how all he wanted was to see them, the uncomfortable reality of beach sex (he always preferred the couch in her basement to the sand and filth invading his ass crack), how when she told him she wanted to be with him, didn’t care that he was leaving, that they’d write and call and make promises to each other, he couldn’t commit. He told her it was just for the summer, that type of thing, nothing serious, nothing worth holding onto, and, of course, she’d screamed and threatened and called him an asshole and a creep and asked him why and it’s not fair and egged his car and slept with his friend and did everything she could to hurt him in the way she’d been hurt.
Now, Glen, dying from cancer, sharp ass on flat sand, time ticking, ticking, ticking, felt like the biggest moron in the world. He’d married a woman out of fear, the same fear that prevented him from committing to Jeanne, the fear that he’d be miserable and alone if he didn’t marry, when just a few years earlier it was the fear that he’d be miserable and alone if he committed to someone from somewhere else.
Glen often convinced himself that dying was getting in the way of his judgment. He didn’t know if he wanted Jeanne, or if he ever really wanted her. Maybe she was just all of those things in life he never got to experience, maybe she was all those things he experienced but would never get to relive, or maybe he was just dying and desperate for anything, whether it be truth or fabrication, that made him feel like there was still blood coursing through his tired veins.
The waves slapped in and out. He tried to breathe, tried to enjoy it, but his body hurt. His oldest son had screamed at him the night before because he wasn’t drinking enough water. Glen had laughed at the teenager. As if drinking more water would bring his body back, bring his health back. He knew his son meant well. He knew he wasn’t really upset because of the water. But however much he knew he was hurting his son, hurting his daughter, he couldn’t bring himself to drink more.
Glen stared at the cotton candy colored horizon. He tried to lean back, but instead fell from elbows to head in a solid thud. Once his skull stopped pulsing, he stretched his arms out and took up as much space as he could. The sun was intense. Droplets skirted down his cheeks, his forehead, his nose. He tried to pretend he was just at the beach, just getting sweaty, hanging out for a few hours before Jeanne’s couch. He closed his eyes.
A woman was shaking his shoulders when he came to. She was panicking, asking him if he was alright, screaming for help. He could tell by her sunhat and gaudy beach jewelry that she was on vacation. He could also tell that she thought he’d been dead.
“I’m fine. I’m okay,” he tried to manage, but his mouth was dry and he couldn’t whisper.
He tried to sit up, but he fell back, and she lifted his shoulders and propped a rolled-up towel behind him.
“Let me call someone,” she said. “Let me call an ambulance.” She pressed a bottle of water against his lips and the wetness slid out the sides of his mouth.
He shook his head as surely as he was able and took hold of the bottle. “Please, please don’t,” he managed. “I’m okay. I know what’s wrong with me. It’s okay. Thank you, though. Thanks.”
He gave her one more look that said please leave me alone, and she nodded. The lifeguard walked over, but he nodded him away too. “I’m fine. I’m gonna go now. Thank you both.”
They helped him to his feet, and he stood for a moment. He tried to make it the longest moment of his life. He tried to hold onto it like you would a hug from your parents, the end of an orgasm, a meal on death row, but it passed. Just like everything else, it passed, and he knew they were watching him. He knew it was time to leave.
He drove himself to the hospital, the same one he went to when he had alcohol poisoning at 19. He and Jeanne and some of their friends had been chugging whiskey from brown paper bags and the next thing he knew, he was on a bed in a white room, parents at his side ready to end him.
When he walked through the sliding doors, nothing was as he remembered. Everything was repainted, remodeled, different posters on the walls, different uniforms, new computers.
“Sir, can I help you?” a man behind the glass divider asked.
Glen almost laughed. He wanted to say, “No, no you can’t. No one can help me,” but instead, instead, he sighed and said, “I’m here to check myself in.”
Lindsay Haber teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Emerson College. She has a fondness for canines, the outdoors, and 90's grunge rock. Her writing has appeared in Print Oriented Bastards, FiveontheFifth, Gambling the Aisle, and 365 Tomorrows. Her story 'Clean' was awarded second runner-up for Folio Magazine Editor's Prize and appeared in their Spring 2017 issue. She is thrilled to be a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize.