Cancer Season

She dyed her hair purple before I got home. In fact, I was driving through Irvine when my mom texted the pictures to me. Fries, chewing, sitting on the curb with my head down, looking at my phone. I guess some older guy thought I was lazing around, a loitering teenager or a sad homeless kid. Not that he was wrong — final exams were over. This was the free-est I’d been in months.

“What’s on your phone that’s so interesting?” he croaked, his eyebrows furrowed and snarling at me — I didn’t even see his mouth before I saw his eyebrows. Those eyebrows. They could haunt me. What he said barely registered as I stared at those caterpillars. And then, I blurted out:

“My dad has cancer.” I held up my screen. “He’s sending me copies of the PET scan.”

I was a liar. I was angry. And the man didn’t even come get a loser look, he just lifted his caterpillars in surprise and backed away. Like I held a gun. Like I was contagious. The sun billowed another hot breath into my hair, shrouding my face, and I stood up with my bag of fries. Steam coming out my ears. My fingers greasy and sharpened for a fight.

And I knew, as I started up my car again, my home ahead marked me as an enemy.

Why am I the enemy? My mom is rushing around me, shouting for me to get this and that. My phone buzzes in my pocket — one old friend cancelling plans again. My mother groans, but not at my news; she’s groaning because she’s lost something. Flinging shirts across the room, Chico’s green or Banana Republic blue flying onto her bed or sliding to the floor, she looks more in disarray than I feel. But I look more in disarray than anything else. She just needs her stuff folded and put into the bag. She doesn’t even need me, though she begged me to keep her company.

She’s going alone. She booked the trip last year, a backpacking thing across Spain. In February, we got the diagnosis, but my dad assured her she could go. She leaves her phone on the counter. On purpose. No contact for four weeks.

The two of them fly out the door with many panicked goodbyes, and then the house is silent. My sister brooding in her room. I, in the pale noon sun-lit living room, surrounded by the same furniture from twenty years ago, sit. And read.

But in the absence of worry creeps dread. I learned the difference two months ago, when I walked to my car in the parking lot from work and noticed someone following me. Worry became dread. Fear became validated. Like a parking permit. Like a nod from an authority figure. He was walking to his own car, but certainty had lodged its way into my brain at the time. Now, I’m clicking my pen click-click-click and biting the insides of my mouth into welts all over. I was, after all, the enemy even sitting on a couch. EVen wandering a parking lot. The silhouette posing no threat? The parking lot itself? Enemy, enemy. I’m the house’s enemy.

How do I begin? I keep trying and failing, like a marathon runner whose never ridden a bike before. My ankles are sprained, and this is the only thing that will keep me in shape. But I’m no storyteller. I’m just telling you this horoscope, all your tarots face-down on the table cloth.

Cancer. Born between June 22 and July 21. Fitting that they be sentimental, emotional heavy-lifters. Fitting that they’re tied to family. The streetlights here are comforting — soaking every step with blotches of stained orange, my whole silhouette outlined with every one-two-deep-breath-one-two-deep-breath. It’s not a good run, no, until I lose my mind a little bit. When I come back to reality and I’m back where I started. Autopilot. Two, three, four miles. Depending on how stressed I am. During the school year, three miles keeps me sane. When I’m home, four does the trick.

I’m a Capricorn. Technically, the exact opposite. Organized, methodical, disciplined. And eventually I grew into that sort of person. So, call me Capricorn.

My sister? A Taurus. Stubborn, unfriendly. Impulsive, purple-haired. Fitting since the day she was born. Call her Taurus.

My mother? Technically, an Aquarius cusp. A little emotionally… liquid. Like a snowglobe. A little professionally… invested. She work ten hours a day, so let’s call her the Company Man.

My father? It doesn’t matter. Not since the diagnosis. He’s a different man. A ghost. They say that cancer treatments, the chemo, makes you look like a ghost. Who knew? But, for the record, a Virgo.

When I first saw him in his double XL that didn’t fit anymore, a chunk of my throat choked me up. I couldn’t swallow it. I didn’t really want to. He stood, rounded-face now gaunt and serious. His belly smaller, his upper-arms flabbing like wings, his complexion gray in the California sun. The family visited me up at school because the three of them had never seen the campus. They ooh-ed and ahh-ed at my knowledge of the plazas and building history. I pointed out cafeterias and food franchises, and my dad shook his head. Didn’t want food. Didn’t want food.

Is this a story? Is this a bad recollection in Finnegans Wake’s memory? Is this the ramblings of a marathon runner in her third mile? Still more to go.

It’s the fourth of July. We are not really celebrating — Finnegan, Taurus and I have decided to order pizza, one cheese one pepperoni. We bought a pie. We have salad. Since the Company Man is off backpacking in Spain, we splurge. She would admonish our eating habits, but since Finnegan’s chemo has been over for a few weeks, he enjoys food again. Each meal is a celebration, even if it’s slow.

I hear Taurus creep from her room — tiptoe into his room. The bed creaks. We cuddle with him a lot more now that we know the season isn’t over. The first treatment didn’t work. An American flag waves in my neighbor’s yard, the view from the afternoon-sun-lit living room highlights it, a tired and limp wave. The lump in my throat won’t sit still. It cackles while the tears hit my cheeks. I can hear the two of them mumbling from down the hall. I know the sound of my sister mourning. It’s a soft grief — it’s desperate, it’s hopeful. It’s all love love love love love and the cancer is eating it up.

And this lump would be easier to swallow if Finnegan hadn’t been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. If it wasn’t hereditary. My dad calls out to me from his room, so I join them in their cute cuddle-fest before we call for pizza. One cheese, one pepperoni.

Taurus sleeps the whole day, but when I enter the room to wake her up she yells at me. The croak in her voice, the volume and the pain in my ears — it all makes me yell back. I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t. I made the problem like salt on a wound. She slams doors. She shatters dishes. She screams like a banshee.

And I’d say it’s tantamount to abuse, but I’m too tired to claim my sixteen year old sister is abusive. She’s just ruthless. She’s feckless. She’s mean. But she can only weild so much power over me before she begins sobbing too. The angry covers the bandaids, prevents them from falling off.

When she goes to her room to lick her emotional wounds, I glance at the oven time. Digital numbers in neon green. 16:07. Military time, because there’s no way to show “PM” on an oven. Ovens don’t understand afternoons. I shake the thought but it takes me instead to the temperature outside. Over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I could cook an egg on the sidewalk. It would save us gas to do so.

I push aside the blinds, and smoke billows fifty miles away like a warning of impending doom. When did everything become a sign of impending doom? I get a notification: Alpine in flames. I’m nowhere near Alpine, as I glance left and right and shut the blinds again. I mourn anyway. Taurus slams the toilet-seat down in the hall bathroom. Porcelain bouncing on porcelain, screeching and sudden. Fuck. Fuck.

“Did it crack?” I yell.

“Fuck off.” Taurus slams her bedroom door.

When Finnegan gets home, I’ve curled up on the couch and napped for half-an-hour because my amygdala has shut down for the afternoon. Rolling over when he unlocks the door, I show my teeth at him and let that be a smile for now.

“Hey,” he says. “Hear about Alpine?”

“On fire.”

“Since eleven-thirty.”

We get out frozen bags from the freezer and tie them to our upper arms with old t-shirts. Frozen nectarines tied to the back of my knees. Cauliflower and broccoli pressed to my dad’s back. We don’t eat the food. We just press them against our bodies and let them thaw. Nectarine knee-pads on backwards. Broccoli sandwiched between chair rails and a large man’s back.

We check on Taurus, a knock and a soft push of the door. She’s asleep. Under covers. We don’t dare pull them off of her. No need to let the porcelain bounce again. No need to shatter anything. My dad looks as exhausted as I feel. His exhaustion is probably an after effect of the chemo. I know mine is.

Look out the hotel window, at the sea of stars we planted on the ground. Light pollution. It blinks out the stars in the sky. It gives the night a hazy silver gradient glow, a sheen like it catches the light. See that one? A constellation, but not of Virgo. That’s Los Angeles. Our great grandchildren, giggling in a moon crater, will look down and tell the stories of Earth’s constellations one day. That one’s New York — also called Malum major. That? That’s Dubai.

This is Los Angeles. Somewhere, up in the sky, Virgo is hanging from the rope grief tied. Story goes Erigone found her dad’s dead body and couldn’t bear the grief. Ovid says Dionysus seduced her. Where do I have that knowledge? A Wikipedia article? Roman literature last year? Finnegan clears his throat, cringes at the sound of it. Esophageal. I can’t pronounce it right yet, but I will one day. I can pronounce Van Nuys. I can point to where Virgo should be in the summer. I can trace the paths headlights take as they veer left onto the 405 exit.

Finnegan asks where I want to eat. We can’t decide, we go back and forth for thirty minutes before we find out we both want onion rings. Finnegan is a Virgo the way I am a Capricorn. Luck. Pure luck.

And then, when we return home from our adventure in a constellation, Taurus eases up. We joke in the same language. We agree on the same numbers. In the glittering buffoonery we verbalize, words that make no sense in an Absurd stream-of-consciousness (and I mean REAL stream-of-consciousness, with all the distraction of bright lights and white noise invading minds at every second like an ant trail) fashion. The passion of understanding. The desperation of connection.

My dad plays video games while Taurus and I exchange the dialogues of our favorite Vines. Nonsense, no sense, none of the senses. The smell of the A/C blasting at 9AM. The same smell at 9PM. The sound of it churning domesticated wind. Where did I read that? Where where where.

None of this makes sense. But let the mind melt in my head. My dad is dying. My dad is dying, and all I can think about is that play, God’s Ear. My drama teacher in high school gave it to us to act out, and there’s a monologue list, in the play, of cliches — one banged out right after the other in a way that removes meaning while preserving the sentiment of the phrase. My dad is dying, and rather than understanding it I’m just reminding myself of it.

It feels wrong to say, but I know I’m not grieving right. Finnegan and I discuss what we’ll do when the Company Man gets home. She’ll swoop in like an eagle and take the baton from me. I have been running errands and chauffeuring Finnegan and Taurus to various appointments. One aspect of true adulthood, full-fledged grownness I had not expected was the acknowledgement by my own family that I am more than just the older sister. In my head, sister always means child. It wasn’t as if this year completely transformed who I was to people. A gradual slip into existential redefinition. I am no longer an eligible child-prodigy or Lolita-figure. I’m a temporary mother. I have been for years, slowly groomed to be accommodating and poised and clean enough to maintain the aura of self-awareness. Looking around, making jokes to keep the household anxiety at eye-level, I wonder which parts of me feels grotesque because they were stunted by expectation.

So, I cannot grieve right. I must maintain the aura of self-awareness. Grieving is too unfocused, I think. This is Cancer Season, after all, the tumult of biopsies and deadlines. The summer of autumn leaves and fire. Topsy-turvy. Loopy-curvy.

“Capricorn?” I poke my head into my father’s bedroom door when he calls.

“Yeah?”

“What do you think?” he asks, holding up a bright blue button-up shirt. He’s grinning.

“Looks great!”

Taurus creaks out of her room, hearing the commotion of a bright blue shirt. Finnegan and I look at each other, exchanging a brief stillness while we wait for Taurus to catch up to us.

“Why are you guys yelling?”

“Sorry, Taurus,” I say, but my dad interrupts.

“Come look at my shirt!”

“Your shit!?”

“Shirt,” he repeats.

Taurus rubs her eyes. Her eyes are still shut when she pulls her hands away, lumbering to her room and shutting it behind her. Finnegan and I look at each other. We shrug, we shrug, we shrug.

A storm begins. Greased talons smearing the glass of my phone screen. Ordered three fries and ate them all, practically inhaled them to make them scratch my esophagus on the way down. My larynx hacks up pieces of oily potato, and I cry and I cry for a thousand. Taurus walks in — Finnegan went to work today — and she sits on the couch while I melt into the floor, running down the grooves of the tile like the biggest mess. It’s called shame, I think.

She sits there, legs folded beneath her, waiting for me to be done. When my lips finish slipping and sliding along each other, when the burning in my throat begins to replace the shame, she nods and asks me what’s wrong. A friend died. I’m gaining weight. Finnegan’s dying. I’m a disappointment. Everyone’s dying. How do I run a marathon when the first five miles leave me so winded? I don’t answer. I just wipe my eyes, burning skin touching rough sleeve hem, because if I answer I have to admit that I don’t help anything by being here.

The truth? The truth? The truth the truth the truth is in the teeth. I’m toothless.

I croak out, “I’m toothless.” Taurus pauses.

“Are those… dentures?”

I giggle. “I am not helpful here,” I say.

“Helpful for what?”

When did the sky gray? Turn to blue dusk, dusting the horizon with the last powdered-sugar flecks of daylight. A wavering breeze swaying the palm trees, although we’re thirty minutes from the coast. The stars begin blinking into sight.

“Mars is out,” I say to Finnegan. He and I are walking, post-dinner just to catch up with each other. He cannot go to the gym. He cannot eat. The cancer does those things for him. The chemotherapy does those things for him. But a walk around the block? Entirely plausible. As we move, though, the sky grays. Not by way of clouds, but by its very nature. Blue, gray, navy. Brilliance sandwiching transition. Is transition gray?

“Mars is out,” he repeats. It’s a copper glint in the sky. It’s the first star. We clump together our consciousness into one shared one. I talk about my research paper, something that needs to be finished soon. Finnegan talks about the guitar he bought, slightly guilting Company Man into letting him buy it. I know she’s worried about losing him. She’s as bad a griever as me.

Now that I think about it, as heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, none of us are very good grievers. We don’t cry when we should cry. We just gray. Okay. The PET scans come in, the appointments with white-coated and blue-scrubbed smiling faces. Okay. Sure. I gray.

I get it.

Finnegan nods. “We don’t see many stars.”

I think about Los Angeles.

“You know,” I tell my dad. “It’s Cancer season.”

“What? Like, it’s growing on trees?”

“Like, the horoscope. It’s Cancer Season. I just thought it was funny that I’m only home for the month, and that month is the… the Cancer Season time.”

His face can’t react — it warps from confusion to realization to that joy only macabre humor cradles. I grab his elbow.

“Coincidence?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I respond. There’s no doubt. “There’s no doubt.”

Finnegan chuckles from somewhere deep in his throat, where the cancer is, and part of me hopes he can cough it out. When we get back to the house, he goes inside and I take another lap around the block. Because I need to watch dusk turn into night. I need to see the gray turn navy blue, like an endless ocean punctuated by various suburban beams — porches, brakes, auto parks with their displays burning through 2AM. I need to see the night creep in like a coffee stain.

I try to ask myself something else. But, like I said. Bad griever. The questions I keep asking myself are nonsensical, completely human, completely learned through TV shows and movies. My thoughts are not my own, my responses hijacked by culture. I can’t fix my dad. I can’t be strong for him. He has to be the one taking stuff in stride. He’s a TV movie. I’m Camus’s the Stranger.

And then, there’s the issue of door number two. Of not knowing what I might be exchanging if I continue like this. I know that the world is mapped out for me from here on out, but door number two is ditching school and the lease and traveling to Japan. Is there any way I can do everything I want to do? The streetlights barely shade outlines of the objects parked on the curb, digging into the dirt of a front lawn — playsets, jeeps, rolling trash cans. As I finally reach my driveway, a long ambling back to solid ground feels impossible until I crunch my key into the lock, press the handle, and let the warm suburban stuffy air hit my face.

Legs twitch, muscle lines sketched up the calf, worry — swollen ankles, purple dorsals, blue toes — circualtion fine, mostly just the chemo.

Taurus’s hair is already fading. It’s lavender. She points out it matches Finnegan’s purple feet. He gives her this hilarious facial expression he’s done since we were little — he scrunches up his face, shaking it back and forth but also towards you as if he’s reprimanding you for something. Or taunting you. It used to be a way to shame us into shutting up, but growing your own value system de-escalates your parent’s opinions of you. We mimic the face back to him, and to each other, and we laugh.

“Those aren’t the same shade of purple,” I say.

“No,” Taurus says. “They’re the same. It’s a very fashionable color. Lavender. It looks good on you, Dad.”

“Thanks,” he says, still confused.

When the Company Man comes home, I’m the one who drives her. Taurus and I stand in the airport terminal arrival place, straining our necks and making small talk with the suits and their placards. They’re picking up associates. One guy is picking up a billionaire from Sarasota, who shows up in cargo shorts and a fisherman hat from an Indiana themepark.

Taurus and I say nothing, but they each remind us of our own father. Same, generational inflection of the voice. The two men wave goodbye at us (the billionaire unaware of who he’s even waving at) and off they go. And still, we wait for the Company Man.

We see her — black pants too big, her black hair wild and matted from the plane ride, a striped white-and-blue shirt with a wide-tan fanny pack banded around her middle. The airline-issued sleep mask dangling like a necklace. Glasses askew. She sees us and waves emphatically, running down the stairs instead of the escalator.

We argue about the weather, which is weird.

“My friend, Alexis, she died,” I say the Company Man.

“Oh,” she says, shaking her head slowly. Her voice jumps a disappointed octave. “Did I know her?”

“No,” Taurus says.

“No,” I repeat.

“Your age?”

“Yeah,” I respond. “Damn it, why is it so windy?”

“Oh, I know this,” Taurus says. “It’s Zeus, communicating a message to you: talk shit, get hit.”

The Company Man talks about Spain. And then, like normal, she settles into the passenger seat in total silence. Contented quiet. I reach out a greased talon to her and she clings to it. I can drive us, one handed, home. That sort of thing doesn’t leave me winded.

And when we, exhausted at ten in the morning, reach home Taurus and I get out onto the driveway. The Company Man has to go to work. She already has clothes in a trashbag meant for changing into once she gets to work. We wave, comically, and she promises she will call Dad. Call Dad. Taurus and I look at each other, and file into the house. She asks if I’ll help her re-dye her hair. Shut the door, metal locks.

I text Dad that Mom is home.

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Sarah Bergman

Middle-weight heavy reader with a BA in English. Playwright, short story writer, and essay writing tutor. Supposed former infatuation junkie.