One thing we can agree on about cancer—there is no great time to be told you have it. I got my good news from a urologist named Alton Fitch. He delivered the results of my biopsy the way a vice principal would teach a miscreant the consequences of his bad behavior. “You’ve got quite a bit of cancer there,” he observed. “Cancer in nine of the twelve cores. Your Gleason score is seven, five being the least aggressive cancer, eight being serious cancer. This cancer is treatable. If you had to get any kind of cancer, this is the best kind of cancer to get.”
I wondered if he could say cancer a few more times in case I missed it. But while he droned on about insurance coverage and treatment options, I waited for his nurse to burst into his office, all crinkly and fluttery, waving the fax that just came in from the imaging center that read: Dear Recent Biopsian. Boy, are our faces red! We’ve mixed up your results with some other poor bastard’s, and it is HE, and not you, who must suddenly face the terror of his mortality. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused and sincerely hope you will continue to think of us for all your future cancer-screening needs.
It all started innocently enough. I get my annual checkup around my birthday, so I’ll remember to do it. Who likes to think about maintenance, right? Does anyone remember the last time they rotated their tires?
I always thought it would be my heart. My father’s stopped ticking when he was forty-eight. His father and brother barely made it past fifty. I was not going to let it happen to me. I stayed away from red meat and salt, played a semblance of tennis a few times a week—all the paper umbrellas we hold up against the fifty-ton safe that’s been falling at us from the day we were born.
My GP’s name is Miles Davis (I love that he’s never heard of the other one). He’s affiliated with the medical center at the university where I teach. He’s known me for twenty years. We do the small talk while he pushes and probes and presses and palpates. He asks if I have any screenwriting geniuses this semester. I tell him we give them all the wrong advice. Who needs the competition? But he knows what I want to know, and he tells me right off that my heart looks good. My weight hasn’t changed…he likes that. “And neither has your height,” he adds. The same lame joke every year. But I give him the laugh. Because if he’s joking, it means I’m OK. The waranty is still in effect. I’m cleared for another year. I literally have one foot out the door when he Columbos me. Like the rumpled Peter Falk detective who asks the killer the one innocuous question that crumbles his entire alibi. Davis’s question to me is, “When was the last time we checked your prostate?” Turns out it’s been two years. I’m fifty-seven, young to be considered at risk, but still he suggests we do a digital.
To be clear, the “digital exam” Doctor Davis proposes is not an examination of the digits. It is an invasion by the digits into an area beyond the digits’ easy reach. I can feel his lubricated, rubber-gloved fingers explore their tight enclosure. He intones a brief “hmmm.” It is not a sound of mild interest, but of concerned surprise. It is not a sound you want to hear from your airline pilot, or your auto mechanic, or your doctor under any circumstances. “I feel a roughness on one side,” he says. The room begins to spin. “Was this ever here before?”
“You’re asking me?” I explode. “How the hell would I know if it was there? That’s your goddamn job to know.”
But he knows, and because of the way he’s asking, I know—it wasn’t there before. He can sense my blood pressure rising like a cartoon thermometer.
“Let’s draw some blood and do a PSA before we get all upset.”
At this moment I am so ignorant about my body I have never heard the term: Prostate Specific Antigen. PSA still means Poetry Society of America or Public Service Announcement. When I get home, I do nothing to spackle in the gaps in my knowledge. I invoke my mother’s advice about bees—if you ignore them, they’ll ignore you. Which didn’t even work with bees. But on the alternate weeks when my fifteen-year-old daughter is with her mom, I troll the internet dating scene, where I’ve been doing surprisingly well for a guy who drives a Honda Civic and rents a two-bedroom apartment in (the not yet ultra-fashionable) neighborhood of West Hollywood.
I seem to have found a little niche—a treasure trove of attractive, accomplished, wounded women in their forties and fifties whose successful husbands have ditched them for younger versions of themselves, but left them well provided. They comprise a significant demographic group—The Badly Married, Well-Divorced. BMWDs. Bimwads. Maybe I’m exotic to them. Middle age has forgiven the pudgy foibles of my youth. I have a kind of Yuri Gagarin look—short silver hair, decent enough built. My online moniker is Ageing Astronaut. I’m guessing I’m a 7.5. Patty, the woman I’m meeting tonight is a 9+ and that’s the least of our differences. Looking at our dating profiles is like Battle of the Network Mismatched:
|Freelance writer and university professor
||Consultant for high-end real estate
|Movies, plays, racetrack
||Charity events, silent auctions
|New Yorker/Sunday Times crossword
||Business Week/Today’s Entrepreneur
|Tom Waits/Leonard Bernstein
||Celine Dion/smooth jazz
|Divorced 12 years/15-year-old daughter
||Just divorced after 20 years/no kids
People will occasionally use an archival picture in the hope that you won’t notice when you meet in person. Patty is better looking that her photo—a blond, intense Catherine Deneuve type—out of my league. But I step up to the challenge. It’s Halloween night, which neither of us had thought of when we planned to meet. I hit her with a stupendous opening line, “I see you came as the pretty girl.” I step back to give her room to fall for me. For the smile to beam across her face like an orchid opening. The smile that says: You have touched me where no one has ever reached. You are the sunlight reaching the deepest recesses of the pyramid on the longest day of summer. But all I get is a tight little smile. It continues to go that well until we finish our coffee. She does not have an abundant sensor for humor. And I’m really cooking. When she says she has no children, “I tell her two great advantages of not having children are one, you keep your figure; and two, you don’t have children!”
“Come on. You don’t get material like this at the real estate round table.”
She says, “I have an early meeting.”
Outside, her Lexus is parked alongside my Civic. I give it one more try. I point to a high rise in Century City and mention that I own it. She says she has never dated creative types. But after 20 years in a squelching marriage, her therapist has advised her to try someone outside her comfort zone. She asks if I have a tuxedo. Before I can say no, she puts her fingers over my lips and tells me to get one. And I do. To my immense surprise and delight, the next several nights are a sexual banquet. She expands her creative and comes to a poetry reading and the racetrack. I expand my Republican side and go to her charity fundraiser.
I have no illusion that this can last, and I doubt that she has either. Smart horseplayers tell you if there’s no horse in the race that you love, you lay off that race. Conserve your capital. Gamblers say, someone’s gotta win. If there’s no one you love, bet on the one you like. Stay in the action. But everyone agrees that no winning streak lasts forever. And when Doctor Davis calls a week later, there is no small talk. “Your PSA is 11.8,” he says. I strain to hear relief in his voice. Like, Phew we were worried for a minute, for a second but thank goodness it’s only 11.8. I ask him what’s normal? I prepare myself to hear ten. Maybe nine. He says normal is anywhere between two and three. Above four we might be a little concerned. Words start falling out of my mouth like teeth or mahjong tiles. “Do I have cancer?” My voice sounds like an unoiled hinge. Again, he tells me not to get upset—until we get the results of a biopsy.
The word itself (like a stroke) sounds like something nice. A ride at Disneyland. Or something you’d say to make a baby giggle. Biopsy daisy. When I call the Urology office to schedule an appointment, the nurse says they have no openings until after the first of the year. I tell her that’s fine. There’s no urgency. I feel quite magnanimous, deferring my place to men with greater need. She asks what my PSA is. When I tell her, she asks me to hold for a moment. When she returns she says Doctor Fitch can see me at three-thirty tomorrow. Now I know how it feels to have clout in a fancy restaurant.
The four other men in Doctor Fitch’s waiting room are WAY older than me. At least they look older. At least I hope they look older. They’re all with their wives. One woman smooths her husband’s collar. Another points out a picture in a magazine they both recognize. I feel heroic being on my own. I don’t need a damn buffer. I AM the buffer. A plump nurse with a clipboard and tight kinky hair takes me to the exam room. The shelves are lined with the tools of the urology trade: rubber gloves, finger condoms, K-Y Jelly. Why would someone even become a urologist?
I park my car in the same spot every morning. Reserved for Doctor Alton Fitch. I take the long walk down the hallway that I think of as The Great Hall of urology. Twenty-four majestic portraits behind glass. Doctor Ernst Prater, inventor of the flexible catheter. Doctor Maurice Younger, King of the Kidneys. I was a young man when I first arrived, with grand urological ambitions of my own. I’ve squeezed ten thousand prostates in my twenty-seven years. Some small and juicy as a kiwi. Some stringy like ball of rubber bands. Some grown to the size of a cantaloupe. Some hard and noduley like a handful of marbles. I remember every one I’ve ever touched. But not all the women I’ve known. We take twelve tissue samples. A needle at the end of a slingshot shoots three centimeters into the prostate while I watch through a computerized digital camera. The camera is Doctor Milton Freedman’s invention. His portrait is in the great hall. You’ll feel a little pinch, I tell them, like an electrical shock. They curl into fetal position on the table. I always wanted to deliver babies. Oh, well.
Afterwards there’ll be some blood in the urine, blood in the stool. Blood in the semen is the one that gets to them. Some of them can’t pee when it’s over. It won’t come. It’s like a full ketchup bottle on a winter day. You read the panic in their eyes, that something irreversible has happened.
You don’t tell them that the results are nearly always positive. Two hundred thousand new cases of prostate cancer every year. Basketball coaches. Leaders of nations and great cities. Your Uncle Phil. Forty thousand die. We still don’t know what causes it. It’s the younger guys you don’t want to tell. Like this one here. Seems a nice enough person. You know what’s going on in their brains. You’ve seen it hundreds of times. They have bitten into the fruit of knowledge. They know they have been marked. That the angel of death has not forgotten them. That even if it is not this, that something will get them. That the meter’s running down and nobody’s going to put any more quarters in. It’s that. It’s the knowing. It’s that now they know. And that you’re the one who has told them.
And now, one week later, I am sitting across the desk from him and he has been droning on about—what? I’ve completely tuned him out. Wanting me to have a bone scan done…right now? What, is he kidding? I’m six days behind on what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m a divorced single parent raising a fifteen-year-old daughter, and I haven’t bought anything to make for dinner. Plus I have my screenwriting class and a rewrite on a script that’s due this weekend. I know he means well, but he has to understand: “Doctor Fitch. I apologize for interrupting you. You have to understand. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS.” I wish I had my schedule book. I could open it up to any page.
“No!” he says. It’s possible that he grabs me by the shoulders. “It’s you who don’t understand. With your high numbers, there is an even chance your cancer has already metastasized. You will take the elevator to the sub-sub-basement and follow the orange signs to NUCLEAR MEDICINE.”
The sub-sub-basement is like a bomb shelter. Thick concrete walls. All painted orange. I have the grim understanding the concrete is not meant to keep radiation OUT, but to keep it enclosed. In a blind trance of obedience, I follow rather than flee from the signs pointing to NUCLEAR MEDICINE. I am met by a lab technician with a bony head, thick glasses, and eyes that blaze like a man hatching plans for world domination. I am rammed up against a cold flat slab of glass. He ducks behind a wall of sandbags as thousands of roentgens are sent through my body.
He tells me the migration patterns of prostate cancer are as predictable as Ospreys. They seek out the femur, the rib cage. Their vacation isles of the Pacific. He says he’s seeing a lot of hotspots. I catch a glimpse of the x-ray plate. Good Christ, it’s all over me. I look like Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night.
It’s 5:30 of a late November afternoon when I return to the outside world. Everything looks alien, like I have been to another galaxy and returned a hundred years later. The sky is cobalt blue with streaks of orange, and I have cancer. Normal people walk across the promenade chatting about weekend plans and real estate prices, and I have cancer. Their kids run, erratic and thoughtless. Are their parents unconcerned by the railing the kids are climbing, the lawn sprinklers, and sense meas the only danger? Do they shield their kids from me? Am I marked?
I remember being the age of those kids, walking down Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn on cool fall nights. The streets, filled with men coming home from work, wearing overcoats, carrying brief cases filled with adult concerns. I wish I were still a child again among them, comfortably ignorant of my future, a loaf of warm bakery rye bread under my jacket, cool fresh air with the smell of burning leaves in my nose, knowing that when I get home there will be a hot bowl of soup waiting for me.
Patty calls that night to see how it went. It feels just a twinge obligatory. Like this was not on my dating profile. We’ve seen each other nearly every night but as the novelty wears off, it’s hard to ignore the obvious. This relationship has more red flags than Moscow on Labor Day. I make a spontaneous decision I’m sure I’ll regret. I tell her not to come over tonight. “You have to walk away from this right now. From me, from this, from it, from us. No, listen to me! You’re just out of a long stifling marriage. You didn’t sign on to be an oncology nurse. You should party and dance and sleep with and as many management consultants as you can! Listen to me. I’m being Bogart for you at the end of Casablanca. Take the exit visas!”
A moment after I hang up, my daughter surges into the room like a pit bull. She’s fifteen, too smart, too perceptive, too strong for my primitive parenting skills. She bludgeons me with a question. “Are you going to die?” I sputter and spatter and assure her that no. Of course not. “Oncology nurse? Who needs an oncology nurse?” Of course. She eavesdrops on my phone calls. I fumble for a plausible lie. I don’t want her to know. A parent’s job is to be their child’s external kidney, to filter trouble OUT of their lives, not to be the cause. I tell her it’s a safe word Patty and I have when we’re fighting. I assure her I’m fine…that she’ll have me to abuse for many years. She seems placated. I feel like the lousiest of louses. How easy it is to lie to her. And what a violation it is to the one consistent purpose, the steady foundation I am for her life, that when she asks, I will always tell her the truth.
I will never forget her coming up to me one day when she was five and asking me if all men had penises. We were up in the garden staking tomatoes. It was a beautiful spring day. Everything was in blossom—peas, beans, three kinds of squash. But when your daughter asks about penises, the way you answer is going to shape her life. You have to hit the right balance. You can’t underplay it, like oh, just this little thing boy’s go peepee with. Because it’s more than that, and later in life you don’t want her to get freaked out. (Holy shit, this is artillery. I expected small arms fire.) On the other hand, you don’t want to overplay it and make it sound like the hammer of Thor, so that when she sees a perfectly adequate one on her husband or boyfriend she won’t think, Is that all you’ve got? Most important, you can’t be lazy and tell her to ask her mother! You’ve got to man up. Be strong. Take the bull by the horns. So I knelt down to eye level and said, “Yes, honey, all men have penises. In fact, the males of all species have penises. Dogs, cats, squirrels, goats. Having a penis is what makes a man a man.” I could see my answer playing on a PBS special on Great Moments in Parenting. But as I thought of the millions of viewers watching me, I wondered if what I had just blurted out in a moment of elevated sincerity was true in a deeper way than I had intended. Or not true at all. IS having a penis what makes a man a man? Are we nothing more than carrying cases for our genitals? The male ego rears up on it hind leg and shouts, NO. We are so much more than that. We are born to higher purposes—to cure Ebola or invent Post-its. But if we take the ego out of it, our one purpose is no more elevated than any other species. It is to propagate. Once we pass on our genes, as far as nature is concerned, all our accomplishments are hobbies to pass the time—write a book or two, conquer an empire.
Angie was not interested in squirrels or goats on that day. Something deeper was troubling her. She said, “Does Mister Rogers have a penis?”
“I’ve only seen him on TV,” I told her, “Same as you. And he was wearing all his clothes. But, yes. I’m going to say Mister Rogers has a penis.” My answer did not surprise her. I think my limited understanding of the world disappointed her. She said, quite thoughtfully and not to hurt my feelings, “I think Mister Rogers is too nice to have a penis.” I just wanted to hug her. Think of the qualities she had felt in Mister Rogers that were absent from the other males.
Maybe cancer has made me sentimental, but she’s still that five-year-old girl who trusts me, and I’ve just lied to her face. Is this what it means to be a man?
The day after the biopsy is a day like any other. Go for a run, pick up the laundry, find out if the cancer has metastasized. Patty pays me a surprise visit. She looks vulnerable and undefended. The hard professional mask is gone. “I know you think I need my life to be predictable,” she says. “But you have to admit. I couldn’t have predicted you. I want us to be in this together.” The phone rings. It’s the lab calling with the results. “Maybe we’ll be lucky, and it’ll be a short-term relationship,” I say. She smacks me. I kind of like it. The voice on the phone tells me I’m a lucky man. All the hot spots on the x-ray were old sports injuries.
“All of them?” My voice is weak with disbelief.
Tears flood Patty’s eyes. She squeezes my arm, thinking the worst. When I hang up, I tell her the cancer had not spread. It is confined to the capsule. A smile radiates from her, an orchid blossoming. She says my name like she’s meeting me for the first time. It feels the way I met my dog, Norton, through the bars at the animal shelter, how at first glance we both thought: Oh. There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.
Patty said, “I never seen anyone so glad to have prostate cancer.” I am flabbergasted. “Patty, did you just make a joke?” Breakup sex and makeup sex are great. But the cancer has not metastasized sex? Not for amateurs.
Euphoria fades fast. I have to decide on a course of treatment. I have armloads of material I can’t bring myself to read. And every day I delay, I picture the thing like Pac-Man biting off chunks of my organ meat. Like my tumor is Popeye and my prostate is spinach and the more he eats the stronger he gets. I need someone to tell me what to do. This is a job for my friend, Big Paulie.
Paulie has the absolute definitive opinion about every possible subject, whether he knows anything about it or not. He’s right out of The Sopranos. Big mug of a face. Voice like a triple-decker sandwich. But a total sweetheart. If he had to break your legs, afterwards, he would drive you to the hospital and water your plants. I dump the crate of material in his lap. “Paulie, I prostrate myself at the temple of your wisdom. Tell me what to do.”
He leafs through the material like he’s tossing crap out a dead relative’s closet. “Dja read any of this shit? Of course not. You can’t figure out your electric toothbrush. Awright, ya gotcha Door Number One. Your radical prostatectomy. Meaning they cut it out and throw it away. Sounds good except that they have to cut YOU open to get at it. Side effects “Incontinence and erectile dysfunction.” Meaning you can’t fuck and you wear diapers. So that’s out.”
“Beautiful,” I say. “So I do radiation. Thank you!”
“Not so fast. They microwave your ass. Side effects—? Here we go again. Limp dick and diapers. Throw in exhaustion and puking. Oh, and this is a nice touch. After all that, if any of the cells have escaped, you gotta do chemo anyway. So forget that shit too. What else ya got?”
“I think that’s everything.”
“That can’t be everything. They both suck! This is like when we were seniors and we took the freshman up to the roof for THE QUESTION, and if they gave the wrong answer they’d get thrown off. D’ya remember the question—? If you’re buried up to your neck in a vat of wet horse dung and somebody throws a pail of vomit at your head…Do you duck?”
The thought of jumping off a roof doesn’t sound too bad. Thankfully there IS a Door #3. The older brother of a longtime friend. He had gone through hormone blockade for his prostate cancer a year ago, and he looked great. A few pills every night. A shot once a month. Some radioactive seeds injected after a year. And that’s it! No surgery! No radiation, except for the implanted seeds! Doctor Calvin Ramsey is tall and lanky with the manner of a well brought up country boy. He talks about my life after cancer. He sees me as a human being, not an array of symptoms. And for the first time, I think maybe I’m going to come out of this OK.
I’m excited to tell Big Paulie about it. We’re at Hollywood Park racetrack the next day. His enthusiasm is more muted than I had hoped. “Are ya outa ya fuckin mind? A couple of pills every night are supposed to cure cancer? They wouldn’t cure hemorrhoids.”
“No! Listen! They stop your body from producing the hormone that the cancer feeds on. The tumor gets starved! Isn’t that the perfect irony? The treatment does to cancer what cancer does to your body. It gives it a taste of its own medicine!”
“What are the down sides?”
“Paulie, why are you being so negative? Why do you think it has downsides?”
“Because when you lose your stupid hunch bets at the track, all you lose is your money. I’m not gonna let you pick a cancer treatment that way. Let’s hear the downsides.”
“Ok. The treatment only shrinks the tumor down. It doesn’t kill it. After a year I go to Seattle where they’ll inject little radioactive seeds into what’s left of the tumor. But I’m in and out the same day.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. What else?”
“Who are you, Perry Mason? Why do you think there’s more? OK, there’s one little bump. It turns out that the hormone the cancer feeds on, the one that the treatment stops your body from making, is testosterone. So I’ll kind of be—stop laughing please—testosterone free for a year. No sex drive. No libido. My body chemistry will be like a woman in menopause. Will you please stop laughing, please?”
“You’re gonna be a chick!”
“They call it a chemical eunuch. But think about it. It’ll be good for me. I’ll be like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. He came out a better man.”
“Except he just put on a dress, he didn’t have cancer. Plus he got paid eight million dollars to do it. Plus it was a fucking movie.”
“Anyway, but also the doc says one guy in ten keeps his sex drive through the whole thing and you know I’ll be that guy.” I drop the laughs and get serious. I’m exhausted and at my wits end. “I’m doing it,” I say. “I need you to tell me it’s the right thing.”
“Hundred percent you’re doing the right thing. Just answer me this. If you grow tits, can I date you?”
I hate routines of any kind. I hate regimens. I hate patterns. I hate anything predictable. But if I’m going to be a cancer patient, I’m going to be the best patient in the history of cancer. I impose a rigid discipline on myself. Soy shakes every morning to counter the estrogen. Exercises to prevent muscle atrophy. Calcium pills to support bone strength. None of it allays the effects of the slow steady slide. Illness is measured in milestones of loss. As my testosterone level drops, physical changes occur. One day the hair under my arms is gone. Then it’s gone from my chest and my legs. A glob of fat accumulates around my middle. One night at a restaurant. my whole body breaks into a sweat. Patty’s friends take a shared delight in this—my first menopausal hot flash. Desire diminishes. The mechanism gets sluggish. One day I jog past a workout center as a group of young women in leotards comes out: their young birchy bodies crackling with pheromones. Perspiration glinting off their skin. The way their hands move, their arms, glimpses of exposed flesh—! Old me would have been hooked through the nose and dragged across the street to them. But now, for all the effect they have on me, they could be nuns at prayer.
Even worse than the physical changes are the emotional changes. I’m becoming soft and sallow. Sickeningly sereeeene. Nothing bothers me. I WANT things to bother me. One day I’m driving. I grew up in New York and what Los Angelinos call “road rage,” we call courtesy. A woman in an SUV is putting on makeup while she drives, talking on her cellphone, completely oblivious. She zaps into my lane, like an inch on front of me. And when I give her the horn, she gives ME the finger. Old me would have rammed her into oncoming traffic. Instead I smile and wish her a nice day. What the hell kind of man am I becoming? I want to be Jack Nicholson, but I’m turning into Mister Rogers. A man too nice to have a penis. It’s not going well with Patty. Our differences are growing inversely to our frequency of sex. I’m finding her humorlessness less charming. She has the same feeling about my humor. She buries herself in her work. I try to badger her into having some fun.
“I’ll tell you what isn’t fun,” she snaps at me. “The other night at the party, I did not appreciate your telling my business associates that I was a pole dancer when you met me. No, I do NOT think it was ironically funny. Yes, I DID see the looks on their faces. Maybe you think that was theater. My friends don’t go to that kind of theater. Why would you ask me if they know you have cancer? Does every minute of your life have to be the Oprah show. Damn it. Stop badgering me! I have a deadline.”
When I come into the bedroom that night, she is asleep on top of the covers. As beautiful as a fawn in a moonlit glade. The bottle of pills is on the nightstand. Not the cancer pills. The purple pills that rhyme with a certain waterfall. Our ritual has become that I take the pill on Saturday night and Sunday mornings we do the dirty deed. They have a funny side effect. They create a blue haze in your field of vision. When it first happened, we called it our Blue Sundays.
But as I reach across her beautiful, available body, the thought of sex makes me slightly nauseous. I realize the unthinkable happened. My libido is gone. I will not be that one guy in ten who keeps his. I feel like a dead rock. What am I without my sex drive? What kind of man am I without the thing that defined my manhood? In junior high I used to ask these weird questions. Like where does light go when you turn off the switch. And now I wonder where mine has gone. And if it will ever return.
With my trip to Seattle a month away and the finish line in sight, I have a setback. It is decided that my initially high Gleason and PSA numbers “support the possibility” that some cancer cells might have escaped the prostate capsule and begun to migrate. The decision is made to err on the side of caution, and I am to have 30 doses of “conformal beam” radiation. The idea is to create a kill zone—a ring of fire—that will vaporize any cells attempting to escape. A solid plastic sheet is placed in a vat of hot water and made pliable and then molded to the contour of my body. Six holes are cut on each side that match a series of bolts on the table, so I’ll be in the same exact position every time X’s are marked for the coordinates where I’ll be blasted.
With each session my internal temperature builds up. After two weeks, my plumbing becomes inflamed. I wake up every hour with the ferocious need to pee…walk like a zombie to the bathroom. Wait for the deluge. Get a dribble. Stagger back. I make the mistake of looking at myself in a mirror. My skin is the color of a used bandage. Driving is the worst. One day I have to pull over on the freeway to pee. I don’t even see the cop car. He leaps out of his Black and White. “Hey You. PUT THAT THING AWAY.” I feel my neck bowing in submission. “I have prostate cancer,” I mumble. I take a card from my wallet to prove it. He doesn’t want to touch anything my hand was on.
The encounter takes me back to a day when I was twenty. One of my dad’s clients got us tickets for a New York Giants football game. The Bronx was foreign territory, and we got a little lost finding the Stadium. All the parking lots were filled. He’d already had two heart attacks, and he couldn’t walk far. We pulled up to a lot a few blocks away. A chain was latched across the entrance. The kid in charge was maybe nineteen, hair slicked back. “Sorry bub. All filled.” My father was a CPA, not a ‘bub’ kind of guy. He wore trousers and dress shirts on weekends. He rolled down his window. I thought he was going to slip the guy a twenty. Instead he said very quietly, so I wouldn’t hear, “I have a weak heart.” After we parked, I walked deliberately faster than he could and made a big ceremony of slowing down for him. I resented his weakness. I didn’t want to be a genetic casualty of his faulty manufacture.
When the game was over, I took the keys from him and told him to wait inside while I get the car. I had never driven in the city or at night. I felt like I was making a run through enemy lines. I negotiated the one-way streets and got back to where he was waiting. He expected me to slide over but instead, I opened the passenger door and said, “Get in bub.” My back found a space in the indentation worn by his back. He fell asleep crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge. Like I used to fall asleep in the back seat to the murmur of adults talking. I kept the car at a steady speed and changed lanes very slowly, so he would sleep all the way home. Only now, as I feel my own terror, do I realize how he must have felt every day, not knowing how far away that safe was from crushing him, but knowing it was there.
At last, the day that seemed so far in the distance has arrived. I am flying to Seattle where the radioactive seeds will be implanted. My Bangladeshi cab driver finds the Princess Hotel easily. The carpet smells like something cooked in the 1940s. The couple checking in before me are half deaf and have to repeat everything five times. And yet they seem bonded. Maybe that’s the secret to sustaining relationships. Lesscommunication. I don’t really know why I didn’t let Patty come with me. I know why I said she couldn’t come. “We’d have to get a nicer hotel. You’d pack too much.”
There’s an hour of daylight left after I check in. I wander the city. I don’t know how I should walk. Hunched in a C-curve of surrender, conserving my strength, or defiantly using it all up. I find myself at a supermarket and when I get to the checkout, I see that I have a set of dishes, a plant, and some wall decorations in my cart. And a painting of George Washington on his horse? What am I thinking? Am I going to decorate my room at the Princess Hotel? I leave it all there, go outside with a fifty-nine-cent Bic pen and a spiral notepad. I start to write, and all the thoughts and feelings I’ve kept bottled up come flooding through me. A paramedic ambulance passes me, siren howling. It’s heading toward my hotel. The first line I write is: The angel of death came looking for me today, but I was out.
Morning comes to the Princess Hotel, and I am up before the alarm. I am greeted at the hospital by a nurse with a psychotically cheerful smile: “Good morning, sir. Have we had our two fleet enemas?”
“Yes we have!” My sarcasm at trying to match her cheer is unnoticed.
“And did they have their desired effect?”
“They did, indeed.”
“That’s good. The doctors don’t want to have any cloud cover.” She winked.
And now it’s all business. I’m brought into a prep room, given a hospital gown, told to undress, strapped down onto a table, given an epidural that will numb from the waist down and a shot to put me into twilight sleep. I’m rolled into the operating theater and now, everything goes into waltz time. I hear murmurings of conversation as the doctors go to work. I think I hear one of them say the tumor is so small they only need 70 instead of 90 seeds. I think I ask if I get a discount. I think they say yes. A long, thin needle is inserted into my rectum. One by one, the rice-sized radioactive palladium seeds are inserted into my now shrunken prostate tumor. I encircle myself with images of friends, their arms linked, all of them smiling at me. Patty is outside the circle, trying to look in. When am I going to learn to be a human being? I want to leap off the table and apologize for not letting her be here. Of course, that would be a huge mistake as I am on a table with a catheter up my dick.
An hour later it’s over. The first time I pee it feels like I’m giving birth to a porcupine through hot barbed wire. I call Patty and get her voicemail. I take the night flight back to Los Angeles. The moon hangs outside the window like a glowing earlobe. I read the post-op instructions I was given at the hospital: Sexual intercourse may be resumed. However, initial ejaculations may be discolored brown or black or red. This is normal. This is normal?? I have clearly moved into a new dimension of normalcy. I realize that after a year of diagnoses and treatment, I am no longer a cancer patient. My treatment is done. All I can do now is wait and see if it has worked.
I must have dozed in the taxi because I find myself at home. My lights are on. I open the front door. A warm rich aroma permeates the house. Patty has made me hot soup. She has also packed her Louis Vuitton valise with the few things she keeps here. Her contact lens solution, a French sweater, a pair of glasses, her hair dryer. “Really? Now?” I say. “The hard part is over.”
“You’ll find who you’re looking for.”
“I wanted it to be you.”
“No…you wanted it to be someone like your friends who looked like me.” She wishes me well, nods goodbye with a rueful smile.
With the treatment over, the manic of doing is replaced by the wallow of waiting. The thousand pound gorilla crouched just over my head is the PSA test six months down the road. Any reading over 1.0 means that the implants haven’t worked, and the cancer is still alive. I’d have to go on another cycle of hormone blockade or something more radical. Men aren’t wired for waiting. Men are linear. We think in outward extensions. Unbroken streaks. We would never have imagined the cycle of seasons. It must have been a woman who first knew the world was round.
I write Patty a few letters she doesn’t answer. One thing hasn’t changed—my futile belief that if I can find just the right words, I can penetrate the heart of an unreachable woman. Either that or cure Ebola. To kill time, I make another foray into online dating. I run an ad with the headline: OLD. RICH. DYING: Terminally ill man looking for a woman whose personality is so obnoxious she will make death a pleasant alternative.This is LA. Three hundred women answered. Maybe this is a milestone of recovery. I don’t call any of them back.
Six months finally pass. I go to Doctor Davis and have blood drawn for the PSA. It comes back 0.005! The seeds have done their job! I am cancer free. There are people who will want to know. I call Patty first. We haven’t spoken since the night she left. It’s Halloween tomorrow. The second anniversary of our first meeting. We meet at the same restaurant. She looks stupendous. There is so much I need to say. I don’t know how to start. “I had cancer,” I say. “I’ve had cancer.”
“I was hoping you’d say ‘you came as the pretty girl.’”
“You remember that?”
“You don’t hear material like that at the Real Estate Round Table.”
I’m surprised and a little bit turned on that she remembers. “I never got to thank you. You went beyond the call of duty.”
“You think you’re easy to be with, but you’re not. You inflict pain with your humor. Cancer is no excuse.”
“I understand that now.”
“The next girl will be lucky.”
She preempts what she senses I am about to say.
“It wouldn’t have worked no matter how much hard work we did. Maybe it takes knowing you’re with the right person to make all that effort possible, because that’s the one person you can’t afford to lose.”
She tells me she’s getting married. It takes me a few moments to be happy for her. And then I am. “Another writer?” I smile.
“You’ve cured me of that. He’s in upper management.”
I walk her to the parking lot. We hug one last time. It still feels good. She gets into her Lexus and drives west. I get into my Honda and drive east. And that would be the end of the story, except that Angie is waiting for me when I get home. She charges like a rabid wolf. “I hate you! Asshole Jason broke up with me.”
I am dumbfounded by her ferocity.
“He’s just like you. He wouldn’t know love if it hit him in the face. No wonder I choose misfits. Look who’s been my role model. You should have died. I’d be better off.”
I am left in tatters. Is this why I fought so hard for my life? To have the person I love most in the world wish me dead? Strangely, the answer is YES. I realize I’d rather be alive hearing her wishing me dead than dead and her wishing me alive.
A moment later she comes back. She throws her arms around my neck and says she’s sorry. I multiply the gesture by its weight on Jupiter. Men live in a hard world. A mother has a child’s love whatever she does. A father has to earn every moment of his by explaining and making safe for his child a world that still frightens him and that he’s never understood. It’s weird to think of cancer as a gift but maybe that’s what it took for me to understand an obvious basic truth: You don’t choose a woman to sleep with, but to be awake with. And if there’s no one running that you love, you lay off that race.
We never know when someone is going to say, “Hmmm, I feel a roughness on one side,” and everything we thought about the rest of our life changes. We are, and then we aren’t. All that light? Who knows where it goes? But growing old doesn’t scare me anymore. I want to keep doing it as long as I possibly can. It’ll take six months for my testosterone to return. I hope I’ll retain some of this understanding, and that we are not merely products of our chemistry.
The first night in Seattle, on the walk back from that drug store to my hotel, I stopped outside a small café where a singer songwriter named Annie Gallup was performing. I still remember a line in her song. “I’m looking for that one bright and shining choice, so clear and compelling it makes every other possibility irrelevant.” I hope I haven’t missed my bright and shining choice. I hope she is careening through the maze toward me, and that we’ll recognize each other and say: “Ah. There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.”