Steam from my sobs plume around my head as I rifle through my pockets. I can’t find my bus pass! Panic consumes me. What am I going to do? The streetcar I’m supposed to take creeps up King Street on this wintry weekend before Halloween. What did I do with it?! I’m here in Toronto for a week. I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I have no currency—loonies nor toonies (as they call their coins). Unfazed, the streetcar trucks along without me. I have no pass.
I just fumbled my way through a moment I’ve been dreading; a moment I’ve imagined a hundred times. A moment I’m now scanning to find a standout sentence I can feel bad about for saying.
A dark-eyed woman glances at me. She looks alarmed—I might be hurt, maybe I need help. It’s a very Canadian expression. She probably thinks I’m crying because of a boy. Yes, I look like someone just dumped me. That could explain it. I’m 34, it’s an age-appropriate thing to be crying about.
I ransack my purse and check all my pockets twice. No pass. I needed that pass to get to the airport. I hope it didn’t fall out when we were at that stupid play. It was “Private Lives” by Noel Coward from the 1930s. It was long and tedious. There was lots of yelling. A comedy—the lighter side of early 20th century domestic violence. I suspected she liked it because it was British. She’s British and prone to liking things British people like. Over-cooked vegetables for one.
I go over my options: I don’t have $70 to take a cab to the airport. I’ve been traveling on a shoestring and I’ve reached the fray. My pass is probably in her couch. I have to go back. I have to go back to her micro-apartment.
I met Nicole* 12 years ago in Los Angeles. She was a guest on a long-ago-cancelled talk show. When I first saw her she looked like a black and white photo of a Victorian china doll. Proper. Delicate. Grey Goth in a mid-century secretary’s dress. I’d been invited to watch the taping by a scholar studying the group The Children of God, also called The Family. It was the ‘90s and Nicole was a child abuse activist. We’d never met before, but we were born in the same cult. We’d corresponded with that same scholar. Meeting her was like finding a long lost sibling (an experience not foreign to us in that cult). Suddenly things I had done my whole life made sense because she did them too: my longing for an fictional home most likely based on a Charlie Brown holiday special and The Cosby Show; an ache that it’s gone or maybe that it never was; my hyper-awareness of “average” and “normal”; my warped sense of money and material things. Every neurosis suddenly had new meaning, I noted every tic to ask her about later. It became a bonding agent.
On that talk show she disclosed her rape. The organized sexual abuse she’d suffered. Her subsequent bout in “systemite” prostitution when she left the group. Seated next to a muted-tone Kleenex box with a million people gaping at her—she exposed herself reluctantly. Nicole hoped these disclosures would help other people. The idea was if she helped someone, not only would her maltreatment have meaning, so would her life. Then she would feel better, she anticipated. Then we’d all feel better.
Next to her on the stage sat a first generation—a horrible woman who’d written an equally horrible book. A tome I’d obsessively read, picking out passages to be pissed off at. According to her it was all just wholesome revolutionary fun; somewhat tantalizing and maybe even a little sexy but nonetheless innocent. First generations are those who joined—the willfully obtuse turned self-righteously adamant. Those who had a cause and clenched fists! Those who are apt to blame/attack anyone besides themselves (the system, their parents, their children, etc., etc.). This horrible book author told the audience she had sex with men for money, sure, but really she helped those men because she brought them to Jesus. The professional audience very professionally gasped on cue. She was what the group called a Flirty Fisher. I despised her. To me she was my parents under studio lighting.
To Baby Boomers the whole world is a mirror. Everything they see is a reflection of themselves. The rest of us are just supposed to understand and be happy for them.
But it was on that icky drive-by pop psychology show where I met Nicole. I’ve chosen to change her name. I asked her if I could write her story. She said no. I asked her if she’d like to write her own story. She waffled. I told her I could find her a ghostwriter. She changed the subject. That’s my thing, I realize, not hers. Not anymore. Shortly after we met, she gave up being an activist. She was no longer going to heal the world through her personal disclosures. She settled into a nice tech job in Canada. She’s private. She likes it. Finally what’s hers is hers; nothing on display, nothing for sale.
In all of my baby photos I look worried. As a toddler I was blond, cute and dark. The candid shots show a sullen and pensive little girl wearing homemade hand-me-downs in various nameless foreign countries. Her childhood photos are interchangeable with mine. She also had that look. She was also that kid.
Nicole and the other girls trapped in the group were forbidden from wearing underwear under their mandated sarongs. The long-ago-cancelled talk show aired the videos of the six-year-old girls doing strip teases in those said garments. Nicole mentions her abuse as casually as other people describe school field trips. There was extreme isolation. She’d been quarantined in third world outposts; moved around, manipulated and exploited. When she was 18 she fled the group and started in official sex work in Los Angeles. She didn’t know what “rubbers” were. She brought balloons to her first day of the sex trade. Then she went into S&M. There was no sex but men paid her to tie her down and beat her.
My parents left the cult when I was kindergarten aged. It wasn’t long before I ended up in foster care as a ward of the state. I once told her being a freelance writer was my re-creating the worst part of my childhood—the rejection of my parents. Now I get rejected over and over again by strangers. I must be reinforcing my own trauma, I mused to her. She smirked, and with her nearly British accent said, “That’s why I was a hooker!”
My face is puffy and red. The geyser I felt coming is dormant yet again. I have to go back to her house, I admit to myself.
It’s cancer. She has Stage-3 cervical cancer. She got it from someone who raped her when she was a child. He gave her HPV. Her doctor told her whoever gave it to her probably gave it to other women. She informed me of this and I immediately got on the Internet and searched for other former and current members with cervical cancer. There were tons. Pages of notes. Women with two to three names each—their legal one, their “family” one and their married one. I cross-referenced. I put on my investigative journalist hat. I downloaded data and crunched it. There’s an Excel spread sheet. We all deal with despair differently. Some people eat too much or buy things they don’t need. I create spreadsheets.
I relayed this to Nicole. She said the husband of Rachel* abused her. Rachel had already died. I didn’t mention this. I wanted to tell her he was the one who gave her cancer. Then there could be a face with a name to point her fury at. There’s no direct evidence of this being true. There were many faces and many names.
It’s a hollow rage—aimless, pointless and worst of all futile. So its suppressed. The subject of justice is met with a heavy shrug. Not all fights are winnable. She tried. Then she moved on. Now she’s sick.
The hooker with a heart of gold is a lie. No one propagates how coalminers with black lung still love coal. But we feel better thinking prostitutes have so much love to give that it’s a full-time occupation. In every sense it’s a fucking job.
Nicole doesn’t hate men; she politely treats them like they’re an allergen. After all, she’s retired. She doesn’t have to think about them anymore. I like looking at boys. She likes looking at anything else: clothes, art, rocks, trees, or books.
We had our nails done. We gossiped over coffee and muffins. We smuggled her overfed dog on a ferry ride. We winced in a talk by an author we both obsessed about in the ‘90s. “I must have loved that book before I knew any better,” we cackled. She dragged me to a comedy show and then on our final night together—she made me go to that stupid British play.
It all seemed very normal. Not until I met her did I realize how much time I spend noting what’s normal. We place value on normal; it’s how we adapt.
A cluster of pub-crawling zombies stumbles by me at the bus stop. Life really is a short parade of whistling past a graveyard.
“Oh, god!” I think to myself. I asked her when she was going to age! No wait. It was even worse. I said, “Aren’t you going to age?” That was it. I was trying to be complimentary. I was trying to be clever and tell her she looked the same as when we met. Ageless. Not that she will never age…
The parts of her body which make her female—desirable and therefore profitable—are the parts dying first. She’s going through menopause at 35. Her hospital-speak gives me paralysis. Regrets are our psyche’s way of creating the illusion of control. I regret almost everything. I should have sprung for a closer apartment, then I could have spent more time with her and less time on the streetcar. I should have stayed longer, left earlier, come sooner. Moved here, moved her there—fled somewhere else. Done everything different. The list is endless.
After the play her pain became so acute she couldn’t eat. She made me raviolis in pink sauce; hers sat coagulating on the coffee table.
She said she can handle with the pain because she learned how to disassociate when she was a professional submissive. She can block it out by force of will. I wish I could.
She said she has a 54 percent chance. It hasn’t metastasized but it’s spread. The next step is to remove her bladder. She told me this and hours later repeated it. She repeated herself a lot. It was the drugs. But what she repeated was always sweet. She’d tell me she adored my latest column. “It’s brilliant. It really is. Brilliant.” Then she’d tell me the same thing later on in our conversation. She told me over and over again her apartment was too small for guests and apologized.
She won’t have her bladder removed, she informed me. She won’t go out like that. It’s as if both of us at the same moment realized her 54 percent chance is contingent on her having that organ removed. Without surgery or with the refusal to do more surgeries, her percentage went down.
We always celebrate people who survive cancer. We say they’re fighters—heroes—bravely defying a disease and choosing to live! More people die from cancer than thwart it. It’s not a challenge; it’s a checkbox on a death certificate. We call it natural…even when they’re 35.
“I should get my affairs in order.” She tried to sit in a way that’s more comfortable.
“If no one has offered, I will take your dog.” I said it. Her dog was old. Very old. The whole idea she could not outlive her obese geriatric cocker spaniel is as fatalistic as we’ve allowed ourselves to be.
She nodded and agreed to make those arrangements.
It occurred to me she couldn’t take me to the airport. In the scene I’ve rehearsed in my mind we’d say good-bye at the terminal. There people would be around and I would be able to contain myself. I’d be funny, maybe aloof. I’d cry later, maybe, on the plane. I’d not be ridiculous.
“I can take myself to the airport tomorrow—“
That’s how badly she was hurting. She’d been hovering over me all week like I’m a lost stray. She made sure I ate and got places on time. She doesn’t think I can take the streetcar, the subway and a bus in a foreign country to make my flight. But she’s in so much pain at this moment she let it go.
She gave me instructions and I wrote them down. I sat there. Good-bye was imminent and glaring at us.
“I thought the set design was annoying, Mint sponge paint? Gross.” I offered.
“It was odd.”
We talked about anything. Things you’d talk with a stranger about. Polite conversation. Saying things without saying things. Exchanges via subtext.
“I’ll let you rest,” I said finally. She agreed.
She won’t let me tell her I love her. For her that word has been corrupted. In The Family the word “love” was used for control. It meant possession. It meant license. It was cynically applied to those who were objectively hostages. The Family of Love raped her and gave her the cancer-linked strain of HPV. Understandably, she doesn’t like the word. Usually I say something that’ll make her laugh, “I admire you greatly and think of you fondly.” “I’m happy when I know of your wellness and contentment.” or “I like you very profoundly.”
I pulled her into me. “I love you,” I whispered. It was the first time I’d said it to her. I expected her to protest.
“I love you too,” she relaxed into the embrace.
Tears shot out of my face.
“I love you!” I confessed. I had to say it again.
I pulled away and snatched a paper towel to sop up my snot.
“I’m not crying because you have cancer,” I lied. “I’m crying because I didn’t want you to leave 12 years ago.” I’m no longer making sense. It’s not even a good lie. It sounds like a confession to something not actually true. Which is just weird.
“This is getting morose. I have to leave,” I told her. “You get some rest,” I said.
I grabbed my jacket and fled down the stairs.
At the bus stop, a sexy Dracula shuffles past me. I feel bad for feeling bad. For making this about me. For thinking I’m suffering because she is dying.
I go though my purse one more time—just to make sure. No bus pass. I have no choice. I have to go back. She thinks I’m helpless and right now she’s totally right.
So this moment I’ve been dreading—where the indifference of mortality is met with an everyday embrace and salutations—this moment I’ve rehearsed over in my head a zillion times—is now a moment I have to go and do twice.
For Christmas that year I received a plush HPV Virus science toy in the mail from Nicole. The card read, “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
By June, Nicole passed. During that time she had moved to another continent, to the UK, to a little beach town on the coast. She was, after all, born in England.
No matter where we’ve been, we all want to go home.
*not her real name