In the group chat she had established to batch-process the furnishing of family and close friends with computerised tomography scan results; chemo-, immuno- and radiotherapeutic treatment updates; and the interchangeably grave prognoses of an ensemble of public healthcare professionals, I opened and used two fingers to zoom into a picture of my mother’s breast.
She had identified the location of her latest tumour with a red X, treasure-map style, using the messaging app’s pencil markup feature, a function I had only ever utilised to adorn images of my own face with illustrated elements (moustaches, horns, tears, etc.) to provoke amusement from my friends.
‘Where is lump? I am trying to call you,’ my mother’s sister had written in the message preceding the image.
In the message preceding that, a friend of my mother’s had written: ‘I can only imagine, we are all praying for you.’
In the message preceding that, my mother had written: ‘Hi all. It’s spread. Doctor says new lump. Treatments ltd. Feeling v sore and v tired. My boys are with me.’
I only ever experienced the conversations that took place within the group in this kind of reverse-chronological order, prioritising the newest messages over those that predated and appeared above them, which historical messages I must on some level have judged, by virtue of their antecedence, to be inferior to, or at least less urgent than, the more recently delivered ones. I was uncertain if I absorbed the messages this way because I simply found it easier to read them scrolling upward from the bottom of the backwardly sequenced chain that the app arranged them into by default, or because if something bad happened, I would feel better prepared to receive news of the event having read the reactive dispatches of sympathy it had elicited first.
The light-rail carriage conveying me quaked. I clamped a glossy, orange plastic bag containing a room-temperature bottle of supermarket-brand rosé tighter between my thighs and, remembering that I possessed the ability to do so, exercised my pelvic floor. I released the picture of my mother’s breast, which resized itself to auto-fit my smartphone’s display.
Because I had muted inbound notifications from the chat – an act of communicational negligence validating my long-standing suspicion that I was capable of disappointing even the lowest of my mother’s sonly expectations – I usually had an omnibus of messages to catch up on when I checked in on the group. Earlier today, in anticipation of the outcome of her stereotactic biopsy, one of my mother’s friends had posted a motivational video of a famous author giving a university commencement address; before that, my mother’s cousin and her stepdaughter had shared links to two separate studies evaluating the presences of hormonally disruptive and potentially carcinogenic trace pharmaceuticals in the city’s water supply; before those messages, four of my mother’s friends had wished her good luck, two of them via GIF; and before those messages, atop today’s pile, my mother had written that she was due to receive some important news soon; that she would keep everyone posted about said news; and did anyone know whether the unfiltered tap water from the city hospital she might have to stay in for a while would be safe for her to drink.
I had been there in the hospital earlier that day to see my father receive dictation of the water question from my mother and then, later, to receive, alongside them both, the biopsy results from a junior doctor roughly my own age. She had informed us that the two extant tumours (which I visualised as onyx-black coils of ammonite studding the soft inner walls of my mother’s body) had metastasised (which I visualised as the coils darkening or hardening, wordlessly strategising with one another to arrogate resources and territories not rightfully theirs) to almost the worst extent they possibly could, and had invited a third to join them along for the ride. The doctor explained that any further attempts to radiate the tumours into diminution – to continue in the endeavour of attempting to heal my mother’s body by adding to the overall damage dealt to it – would be counterproductive and serve only to worsen the condition of the ulcers that clustered her mouth and prevented her from eating the food she was mostly too tired to ever want to eat anyway; nowadays, she only wanted to suck on ice cubes.
The doctor prescribed a mode of treatment that was short-term sustentative and long-term palliative. Hearing this, I looked to my mother, whose eyes were closed; who her whole life had never changed, until she did change; who since babyhood I had known as the worldly portal for all of life’s other-worldly grace to emerge through; her skin now roughened, turned to rind; her prematurely gaunt face desaturated of colour and cross-hatched with lines. It felt as though too illogically short a period had passed between her initial diagnosis and present state of ill health, as though the full duration of her sickness had been time-lapsed.
A consultant oncologist would be available to talk that evening after the next rotation of staff; we could go home and come back or wait. The doctor had left us in a partition-screened, regulation-hygienic half-room that smelled of lemon-simulating disinfectant and whose overhead light was either flickering or contained a bug, where for a period of hours the three of us remained to cycle through a truncated version of the Kübler-Ross acceptance stages. At no point could I look at my father.
It was near to near-dark when my mother said, ‘Why don’t you go and start getting yourself home,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ and she said, ‘It’s OK, you have a long way to go, we can stay here and wait on our own.’ There was an unmistakable register of exhaustion to her voice that I wilfully mistook for calm. ‘Go home and we’ll talk more tomorrow,’ she insisted, and my father said something remote-sounding that I didn’t hear, some buried acknowledgement that he had had it as good as good would ever get for him – was broken – and when I exited that room and walked fast down the long corridor away from it, I did not permit myself to look back.
I watched as the city slid by, its high-rise monuments of industry diffusing vague blushes of aircraft-warning light into a translucent evening fog. Certain skyscrapers I considered active personal nemeses, and had been watching them closely as my carriage entered a tunnel, in whose dark I saw my face and the scowl it contained superimposed onto the newly blank window opposing me, my reflection elongated a metre wide by the slight convexity of its glass.
Only now that I was already most of the way there did I realise I ought to text Benny and let him know I was coming, having RSVP’d that I wouldn’t weeks earlier.
I returned to the conversation we had been having across mixed media for almost a decade. ‘hey bens. think I will come tonight if cool? is roos there?’ The message delivered as I emerged from the tunnel.
A pulsating grey ellipsis, signifying messagecraft at Benny’s end, appeared in the bottom left corner of my smartphone’s screen moments later. I wondered if that meant nobody had shown up yet.
‘Tonight?’ Benny texted.
I hesitated, then replied: ‘yep to your party. think I can come if thats still ok.’
He replied: ‘Thought you werent coming!’ Then: ‘Yes R is her.’ Then: ‘*Here. Excited to all hang out!!’ Then: ‘I just thought you werent coming!’ Then: ‘Cant wait,’ followed by an illegible rebus
I replied: ‘great if youre sure its alright.’
He replied: ‘Of course ofc cant wait to see you I just thought you werent coming!!! Glad decision was reversed.’
‘a perfect 360. see you soon,’ I composed, reread, replaced ‘360’ with ‘180’, and sent.
Benny’s parents lived in a high-net-worth, citadel-like exurb of the city whose leafy, evenly paved streets were further enriched by electric-car charging ports and anti-homeless public architecture. I alit the commuter rail service there, descending the steps of the neighbourhood’s overground station into a premium-quality silence beneath private views of un-light-polluted nocturnal sky.
An algorithm calculated a fifteen-minute walk to the party that I was certain I could outpace; I tracked the blue dot representing my virtual, triangulated self as it glided in real time across an aerial-perspective scale rendering of my surroundings, tipping my smartphone sideways several times in an effort to reorient its display to landscape. When I zoomed out of the map to better contextualise my position, the unbuffered space beyond the loaded catchment area of my immediate vicinity appeared as an uncharted beige grid netted with darker beige lines. I received and dismissed a push notification reminding me to take my daily pledge. The act of pledging consisted of checking a square that had the words: i will not drink today aligned to its right. I pocketed my smartphone to continue the walk unguided.
I had been to Benny’s parents’ house twice before, and attempted now to summon the memory of its whereabouts. Facially, the neighbourhood’s new-builds all bore minor variations on an identical set of prominent hereditary features; under the merge of star- and street light, their prim residential lawns all displayed the same stonewash blue.
Wending my way through the indistinguishably grand culs-de-sac, I considered my position adrift on the map’s endless beige grid. Since graduating, I had taken up and quit a succession of entry-level jobs at both independent and corporate workplaces, each as weightless and unengaging as the last, monetising only my inborn ability to tolerate high measures of stress without ever showing it.
I had passed the last five years like this, occupied in drone positions I didn’t want to occupy that forced me to act like a person I didn’t want to be. The autogenerated recruitment emails I received on Mondays only solicited the same kind of unskilled, layperson work I already performed, just in different, occasionally more design-conscious, environments. I did not hesitate to lie to people when they asked what I did for a living.
I had no illusions about the arc of my future. I would never come close to affording a home inside or nearby the city, and sometime in the next year my mother would die of a natural cause. I wondered how my father and I would manage when that happened; whether he’d up and die the way some broken-hearted widowers do, and to which compensatory short-term pleasures I would have to turn to alleviate such unendurable pain.
Trace verticals of April rain had begun to fall by the time – some thirty minutes later – I reached the uphill, resin-bound gravel driveway to what I was pretty sure was Benny’s parents’ house.
Although I lacked my usual stamina to micromanage others’ opinions of me by announcing every conceivable critical stance against myself and the things I thought before allowing them the opportunity to do so themselves, I felt, overall, positive about going to the party; being invited to and attending a social event indicated that I was making good progress in my life.
Now that my mother was definitely dying, the sense of dread I had felt tauten over the past year seemed suddenly to have gone slack. Far from longing to inhabit any earlier, pre-terminal-diagnosis era, I felt newly at ease in the pleasantly numb, sedate world I had transitioned into that evening upon leaving the hospital; a limbo of detachment, stillness and mental quiet I could analogise only with depictions of zero gravity I had seen in films.
Before knocking on the front door, I reminded myself of advice I’d read online about imitating confidence into existence; that I had liked, in a general way, most people I had ever met; and that awkwardness, nervousness and miscommunication were inevitable by-products of human interaction the world over and not specific to me. I exhaled on my hand and smelled the hand.
Nobody answered the door, which after a second round of knocks edged ajar.
In the house’s vast hallway, maybe thirty people, assembled mostly into fours and fives, drank, talked, semi-danced and laughed; unnoticed by them, I crossed the party’s threshold.
I was surrounded by people I didn’t recognise who wore the kind of high-concept clothing I believed I didn’t take myself seriously enough to wear but in reality probably only didn’t wear because I took myself too seriously. (Having known some fourteen hours ago, before heading to the hospital, that I would likely end up at Benny’s, I had worn my darkest clothes in the hope that they might pass for designer-designed, or at least expensive.)
Most of the guests were Benny’s dynastically wealthy high-school friends, whose parents cushioned their salaries with passive incomes, affording them the means to fill exciting, sub-living-wage positions at magazines and non-profits; invest in quality homeware from the windows of boutique stores; and, when they eventually met their timely, old-person deaths, to expire in the same private healthcare practices whence they’d long ago been born. I lived on minus money, in an overdraft that was almost overdrawn. On my mother’s deathbed, my main non-existential concern would still be rent.
Music from the living room reverberated against the sound-reflecting surfaces of the hallway, between which and the kitchen I estimated, having taken cursory glances from their opposing doorsills in attempts to scope out anyone I might recognise, a further thirty guests were divided.
I re-swept the hallway as discreetly as I could, still recognising no one, experiencing, in lapping it, the collective matrix of conversation as a polyphony of interlacing cross-fades; old friends referring to one another by their last or nicknames: did you hear about what happened to X; hey, but, how’re things working out with Y and Z.
I produced my smartphone (whose lock screen displayed two missed calls from my father) and texted Benny, texted Roos, wrung tighter the slender neck of the bagged rosé bottle with my non-smartphone-wielding hand. The idea was, with rosé being my least favourite alcohol, I would be able to conduct my drinking more carefully than I had managed in the past, or at least to chug the bottle without risking a full relapse afterward – my dislike for its taste acting as a regulating mechanism for my enjoyment.
After the texts had been delivered, I kept the device aloft in front of me, a prop externally supporting the illusion of my rich interior life, indication that I, too, had circa sixty friends, although none of them were here right now.
I recrossed the hallway and, violating what in most contexts would reasonably be said to constitute the furthest boundary of a party guest’s welcome, headed upstairs.
Urinating into the sink – a maladaptive coping mechanism I had developed as a child from not wanting my parents to hear me using the toilet in the middle of the night, and out of which habit I was still yet to be shamed, having kept it so effectively concealed for the past two decades – I stilled in resistance to the lure of my smartphone. Having caught myself midway through the unconscious hand-to-pocket gesture that instigated the device’s retrieval, I felt I had outsmarted every former version of myself who had failed to perceive and interrupt this behavioural loop.
As a reward for having achieved such an accomplishment of will, I equipped my smartphone from my trouser pocket and returned to the online spaces I most regularly patrolled. My browsing habits generating ad revenues for several of the historically most profitable and proportionally least taxed multinational corporations ever to have existed, I revisited the social media profiles of friends and those of non-friends I hadn’t seen since graduation.
On the dating app I had periodically deleted and re-downloaded for the past year and with which my relationship was far deeper and more complicated than any of the relationships I had attempted to instigate with any of the persons with whom the app’s algorithm had put me into touch, I thumbed half-heartedly through a cache of female faces.