We met in New York when I auditioned for a play she’d written. She didn’t cast me. I struck her as being too intelligent for the part, or so she told me later by way of softening the blow. She’d done some acting herself, mostly in musical theater, where she excelled as a dancer. Then she hurt her back, and so turned to playwriting, graduating from the Yale School of Drama—an impressive achievement for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.
She was pretty, though she didn’t believe she was. She had a dancer’s lithe build, dark hair, and fair features that came off as wan in photos. She walked daintily, with mincing steps, and her voice had a kind of tremor, hinting at something brittle at her core. Still, she definitely attracted attention on the street, which surprised and, at times, amused her.
We didn’t get involved right away. She was with somebody else at the time, and we gradually began an affair that ended before I left New York for L.A. Then, with a new boyfriend, she also moved to L.A., where she, like me, wrote screenplays. Two of her scripts were produced, one with a lot of fanfare, though we seldom saw each other during that period, her boyfriend being jealous of me. Eventually, when they were done, she and I resumed.
She influenced my writing considerably, not so much in style as the fact of her encouragement. She was the first serious writer I knew, so praise from her went a long way. But she was finally competitive as a writer, and grew stingy with praise over time. I would show her a story or script I’d written, and she’d say things like: “Well, I suppose it’s pretty good . . . for its genre.”
We fought about that. We also fought when I dared to criticize her fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. We fought about almost everything, including clumsy remarks on my part. Once, when we were discussing our aborted affair in New York, I said, “I think I was afraid you weren’t cool enough”—meaning I was a rocker type, while she still listened to show tunes. She never let me live it down. Every time we fought afterward, she’d say at some point: “Well, as you know, I’m not cool.”
We broke up and got back together again. We did this several times before we decided we were better off as friends, but even then we fought. She wasn’t a heavy drinker, but when she did drink, I knew we were likely to fight. She’d phone to needle me, often late at night, and I’d say, “Have you been drinking?”
“You’re trying to pick a fight.”
“Yeah, well. That’s what people who aren’t cool do.”
In spite of myself, I almost always took the bait, and she almost always hung up on me. Nothing riled me more, as she knew, and one night after she did it still again, I called her back and left a message when she naturally didn’t answer.
“Don’t you ever call me again,” I said. “And I mean ever! I don’t want to ever hear from you again! We’re fucking done!”
I don’t remember what prompted that fight, though I know, and knew, she was going through a difficult time. Her screenwriting career had fallen apart, and she was working a Christmas job in retail. She didn’t know where, or if, she’d find a job after the first of the year. She sometimes spoke of returning to Arkansas.
So things stood when we stopped talking. It was a period when I fell out with a number of people, but she was the only one I missed. Was she okay? Was she working? Did she go back to Arkansas? Yet I couldn’t bring myself to contact her, just as, for a year and a half, she didn’t contact me.
Then she sent me a letter. I recognized her handwriting the second I saw the envelope, and I noted the return address in Arkansas. I was sure the contents would amount to an analysis of our relationship. She’d sent me such letters in the past.
But this letter was different. She described a pain in her chest that came on while she was still in California. The doctors initially blamed the pain on acid reflux. Eventually, when the pain intensified, an MRI was performed, revealing a large tumor in her lung. The tumor was too close to her heart to be removed. She was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and was now undergoing chemotherapy in Little Rock, where she was living with her sister.
I was floored, of course. She’d always been a hypochondriac—a frequent cause of fights—but even hypochondriacs get sick. Still, lung cancer? Yes, she smoked, but not much: a cigarette a day, if that.
I called immediately. She answered with a hoarse voice. She was weak from the chemo, she said, but she’d just gotten the results of her latest tests, which were promising: the tumor was shrinking. Still, she emphasized, the prognosis for lung cancer is never good: at best, she might live for another five years. She attributed the cancer to depression, not smoking.
We talked about the fight that led to our long estrangement—what was that about, anyway? We laughed when neither of us could remember. Despite her illness, she sounded good—that is, clearheaded. We got on better than we had in years. At least, I thought, the cancer had accomplished that much.
She asked me to come see her. I would, I promised, but she was officially in remission the next time we spoke, and there seemed to be no special hurry. I told her I would send her the novel I’d recently finished. In fact, it wasn’t finished, but I thought otherwise. I didn’t expect her to read it; I simply wanted her to see the manuscript and realize that, like me, she could write a novel. Maybe if she started one, it would help her to further rally.
She read my novel. She liked it, she said in an offhand way, as if she didn’t like it at all. I was irked. She was as competitive as ever, I thought. The cancer had changed nothing. We often spoke on the phone during her summer of remission, with touches of our old tension, though we never openly fought as we’d done in the past.
Then new test results came back. The cancer had spread: it was now in her ovaries as well as her brain. The tumors in her brain were tiny, but if they grew, they could result in dementia or seizures or both. She was more frightened by brain cancer than she was of death, she told me.
The doctors thought she was a poor candidate for another round of chemo, since she’d been so weakened by the first round. Still, the choice was hers: she could take a chance on the chemo, but her quality of life, even if the chemo extended her life, might be poor, to say the least.
She ultimately decided against the chemo. She did, however, have radiation for the brain cancer. It worked: the tumors disappeared.
One night in November we had an especially long talk on the phone. Her final wish had been to see Paris again, she said, but she was now too sick for such a big trip. Instead, she wanted to spend a weekend in San Francisco, where she could see the ocean one last time. She could also see the ocean in L.A., of course, but she didn’t want to return to L.A. She asked if I’d meet her in San Francisco. Absolutely, I said; how soon did she have in mind?
“Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” she said. “I won’t last until the spring.”
I’m still struck by her phrasing. Somehow, despite the constant updates about her condition, I’d failed to understand that time was running out. Now I understood. She said she had to go. I couldn’t speak, knowing that I’d cry if I did.
“Are you there?” she asked. I made a small noise to let her know I was.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s all going to be okay.”
“It’s not going to be okay,” I barely managed, my voice cracking.
“Yes, it is. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
I was overcome with depression. It wasn’t just her. My novel, I now recognized, needed a lot of work, and I was unable to do the work, since I kept having to write scripts for practically nothing. It was Christmas, and I hadn’t seen my family in a few years, so it was either let another year pass without seeing them or use my rent money to pay for a flight home. My landlords would try to evict me. My novel would never be finished. I wished I were dead and said as much the next time she called. I knew it was an awful thing to say to someone on the verge of death, but it was nonetheless true, and I wanted to be able to speak to her as I used to do, without pretense. Maybe she would appreciate my honesty, I thought, especially since everyone she knew was bound to be tiptoeing around her. Surely those people were depressed at times, but they’d never admit it—not to her. Here was a chance to be herself—a person who’d struggled with depression, like me—instead of, generically, a person who was dying.
But she was understandably aghast that I would say such a thing. I tried to explain my reasoning, selfish as it was, but she wasn’t interested in listening. She made an excuse to get off the phone and quickly hung up, and I flew home for Christmas feeling worse than ever. When I returned, I saw that she’d sent me a card. The front of the card was white, except for a few words in black:
Inside, she’d written to chide me for what I’d said on the phone. She was “weary” of my “inability to accept change,” she wrote. That was an old complaint. She’d always seen me as clinging to youth, and it was true, I did cling, but she, unlike me, had never been invested in youth culture.
Yes, the cancer had changed nothing. Our new relationship—the one that started with the letter that broke our long silence—had followed our old relationship: we’d gotten along wonderfully, followed by tension and a fight of a kind. And yet, she wrote in the card, she forgave me, which felt like final words.
I called her again and again. She didn’t answer. I wondered if her condition had deteriorated or if she was simply avoiding me. Then one night the phone rang, and by the time I got to the phone, the call had gone to voice mail. I listened to the message. It was her. She was in the hospital, she said, where the doctors were trying to resolve some problems, including fluid in her lungs, and she expected to go home in a couple of days. She could barely speak, her voice was so hoarse, and I decided not to call back right away. Let her rest, I thought. I would call in a few days, after she’d gone home. For now, it was gratifying simply to know she was alive.
Weeks passed. She didn’t respond to my messages. I Googled for an obituary and found nothing.
One night a friend called to ask if I’d heard from her. I hadn’t, I told him, and hung up and Googled again. An obituary came up this time. She’d died a few days after she called from the hospital. Why didn’t I call back right away?
I was too staggered to cry. Her tremulous voice, her dainty walk, her lithe body, which I knew so well: how could it be here, then gone forever? I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, despite the months I’d had to prepare.
But I did cry later, and never when I thought I would. For instance, seven months after she died, I went to San Francisco to see friends, and I thought of her as I crossed the Oakland Bridge. I didn’t cry then; I cried when I spoke of her to my friends in a North Beach bar, and they’d never met her. She and I had talked about getting together in San Francisco, I blubbered, and here I was without her. I could tell my friends didn’t understand. I didn’t understand myself. I’d known so many people who’d died, but she was different, and so was the way I grieved.
One day my friends and I took a bus to the beach at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. A tickling breeze was blowing off the bay, and gentle waves were breaking, and I remembered her wish to see the ocean one last time. Why the ocean? Maybe, I thought, to be reminded of her smallness in the scheme of things, as we’re all small, except to those whose lives we’ve changed.
I walked to a shelf of rocks, where, hidden from my friends, I leaned down and tried to write her name with my finger in the sand beside the water. I did this repeatedly, never able to finish before a wave swept up and erased the letters. Finally I managed to write a whole phrase, which remained for only a moment.
The phrase included her name, preceded by the three words that I never sufficiently expressed but always deeply felt, even when we weren’t speaking at a time when speaking was still possible.
This piece is excerpted from SUBVERSIA, published by TNB Books in October 2010.