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.
A text rolled in from Roos: ‘Are you coming/ here???’ Then: ‘What time/ where are you???’ Then a line of rat emoji, her emoji of choice since claiming to have seen a real rat in the bathroom of the dry-rotting warehouse conversion apartment we co-tenanted – where my half of the rent, before bills, cost approximately 65 per cent of my monthly take-home salary.
Lately, I’d been spending more time at my parents’ place and less around the apartment, and had been overly guarded with Roos about my reasons for doing so, keeping breaking news of my mother’s condition pent up when I knew I shouldn’t’ve, undersharing and circling far enough around certain intimidating truths to constitute outright lying about them, as though the news of sickness were itself a contagion I was bent on quarantining.
Time had to pass before I could talk about things. Even back when the tumours were thought to have been benign, it had taken an entire fortnight for me to get around to the chore of explaining to Roos that my mother was undergoing tests. Still, I was proud of our hijinksless, vanilla cohabitation – smoothened, as we worked hard to keep it, of the delusional romantic subtexts that deteriorated most other platonic hetero male–female friendships.
I replied to Roos: ‘in bathroom upstairs.’ I added: ‘drinking by myself,’ and held my thumb in mid-air for a moment before pressing the send arrow.
She replied: ‘Ha. Where actually?’ I ignored her message.
Beneath its shrill, motion-sensitive lights, I glanced at myself in the mirror of Benny’s parents’ en-suite bathroom. I dusted a light talc of visible dandruff from the collar and shoulder regions of my black sweatshirt and removed and pocketed my glasses, downscaling the world into a lower resolution. So that my mother didn’t die any sooner than she had to, I washed and dried my hands three times over with the bathroom’s generic-brand hand soap and a towel-rail- heated towel.
The bathroom smelled of rosé and sandalwood diffuser, and for no reason that I could have explained if called upon to do so, I search-engined the words ‘sandalwood diffuser’. These were less expensive than I had thought. Then I search-engined the words ‘stage iv breast’, hastened to close the tab containing the results of that search, and opened, from the default menu of trending articles suggested by the smartphone-optimised browser’s home page, a confessional essay by a celebrity who had been sexually assaulted. After skimming the account for its most gripping details, I read, with fuller concentration, the user comments below the article largely defending the actions of the alleged assailant. When I put away my smartphone, my impressions of what I had just read had already almost entirely evaporated.
Downstairs, I resumed a solitary position, remained a foreign object to the tissue of selves constituting the party’s body of guests, newly content to wallflower around, hand again holding my smartphone for a companion.
Doubling back across the hallway for the kitchen, I almost failed to recognise the heavyset man with the platinum-blond crew cut slung low into a cream leather sofa by the stairs. As I watched his eyes work from those of his seat-mate toward my own, his lips already forming the shape of my name’s first syllable, I surprised myself by feeling disappointed to have run into him so early, having wanted to continue roaming his parents’ home unbothered a while longer, blended in like a mystery shopper or a plain-clothes cop. The man called my name.
‘Benny,’ I called back, matching the volume of my voice to his. Then, at regular volume: ‘I didn’t recognise you with that hair. Which I love.’
Before it had been number four-ed and peroxided, Benny’s wavy, mid-nineties romantic-comedy leading-male hair had been among his most uniquely defining attributes. The cut and dye it had newly sustained were too severe for the cheekboneless, dairy-product soft face that hung beneath it, and, somewhat sadly, I could picture the way he had intended it to look: fashionable and futuristic, a catwalk haircut.
‘Thank you,’ Benny said, rotating his head to the limits of its axes, exhibiting its back and sides. ‘I decided it was time for a change.’
Benny heaved himself up from the sofa, revealing, in the act of rising, the semi-solid churn of his midsection, which I saw him see me notice. I recalled the one time I had seen him shirtless at university, the forlornly face-like configuration of his nipples and belly button, and strove to sound like my mind was somewhere other than where it was when I said: ‘Big change, Bens.’
‘It’s perfect that you came,’ he said, assimilating us into a hug. Then, more hesitantly: ‘How is she?’
The same, was the stock answer I had been repeating lately when anyone asked, referring them back to their own outdated mental portrait of my mother. I re-repeated it into his shoulder.
Benny broke away from me, his face worry-shapen. I felt a familiar lift of happiness at being in his company; I knew he loved me a lot.
‘I just wish I had something better to say than I’m sorry,’ he said.
In the low-lit, densely populated kitchen, Benny introduced me to Héloise, who in turn introduced me to Lior, whom I introduced back to Benny.
‘Of course I know Lior,’ Benny said, as though this were a matter of public record. ‘Lior’s father works with my father, and they’re both extremely important people.’
This, I now remembered, was in fact long-established friendship-canon: Benny and Lior’s fathers co-owned a firm that had to do with architecture or law or architectural law, and worse, I was still in the process of remembering, Lior and I had met several times previously at club nights and bar nights Benny had invited the both of us to. Lior’s face tensed into a smile I recognised from other, more familiar faces I had disappointed as one that was merely decorative.
‘Honey,’ Benny said, the three rightmost of his dependably warm fingers covering the three leftmost of my poorly oxygenated and thus permanently cold own, ‘be a honey and get something good from the fridge.’
Being used to always remembering more about other people than they ever remembered about me, I felt unbalanced by my exchange with Lior and grateful to have been assigned a task that required me to remove myself from his company. I headed through to the kitchen’s connected utility room, where, for some time, I hovered in a trapezoid of high-wattage fridge light, struggling to discern any recognisable hallmark of quality betraying which varietal wine I should bring back to Benny. The bottles all looked to be straining themselves taller out of eagerness to be chosen. I picked up the Frenchest-sounding one, replaced it, selected the one closest to it and returned to the kitchen.
Benny handed me a battery-powered wine-bottle opener that looked like a police torch, and I said, positioning the device’s orifice end around the neck and down to the shoulders of the bottle: ‘Are you sure this’ll work?’ Benny responded that it would. I noticed his smartphone, a practically novelty-sized space-grey device that barely fit in one hand, held at an awkward angle in front of his chest, trained on me. ‘Are you filming?’ I said, and Benny responded that he was, loudly enough to attract group attention. After I had successfully applied the utensil to the bottle and received minor applause for wresting the cork from its neck, Benny called out something inaudible to me, but that sounded a lot like, ‘I’ll have what he’s having!’
I decanted the light-gold wine among a septet of spare sink-side glasses that I realised too late were not actually spare glasses but in fact used and unwashed ones, considered rinsing at least their outsides with the kitchen’s expensive-looking microbead hand soap but didn’t, then distributed the replenished, highly bacterial glasses among the persons with whom Benny was now standing, leaving none for myself.
‘Are you still – ?’ Benny said.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
Benny scarved my shoulders with one arm and told me he was proud of me. His teeth purpled from red wine and his breath soured from white wine, he raised his voice to recite to his audience an anecdote I had heard so many times I could remember where its pauses for laughter came. (I had worried, then felt embarrassed for having worried, that he was first going to raise a toast to me.) When he finished, I considered telling my own tangentially related anecdote, doubted its applicability and, by the time I had deemed it worthy of retelling, realised its window of relevance to the current conversation had closed.
In an access of what I guess you would call woe I said aloud: ‘My mother is being killed by her own body,’ although subtly enough that the phrase landed well below the perceptible limit of common earshot, buried under the bleed of music from the living room, toward which I headed in search of Roos.
Who must have felt the weight of my attention settle upon her, as no sooner had I left the kitchen than I heard her voice calling my name from across the still-crowded hallway.
I strained to make out Roos’s distinct set of outermost characteristics – her telltale overpronation of gait, broad shoulders and general facial contours – sharpening into detail from amid a soft-focus blur of the young and upwardly mobile. She was the only person at the party wearing summer-weight clothes.
‘Hey, stranger,’ she said, nearing in to me.
I’d forgotten how encountering each other in public, out of the context of our apartment, made it feel like we were different people. ‘Hey, stranger,’ I repeated back to her.
‘It’s been a while,’ she said, a passive-aggressive thing to say because it had sort of been a while. We could sometimes go entire weeks without passing each other in our combi-kitchen/dining room. ‘You look like you’re having the total time of your life.’
I only half-heard her say this over the chorus of an early Drake ballad about feeling sad about the past that did make me feel sad about the past. To stall for time while I parsed what she’d said I said: ‘What?’
‘I am having a good time,’ I said, which sounded like something only a person not having a good time would have reason to say. ‘I like parties, anyway.’
‘I can’t imagine this being all that fun sober.’
‘Yeah, well,’ I said, forcing my focus onto the bridge of Roos’s nose so it would look like I was able to indifferently meet her gaze as I said this, ‘clean living.’
‘Do you have a crush on anyone here?’
‘No,’ I said, unable to maintain fake eye contact any longer, now squinting around. ‘Although admittedly, I can’t really see that far. Do you?’
‘I don’t think so. Benny’s friends are all kind of,’ she raised a hand as though the gesture’s meaning were evident. ‘How’s – ?’
‘The same,’ I said, foreclosing further conversation on the subject, triggering an interferent thought of matricidal euthanasia; an unbidden, looping POV shot of my hand delivering a precise blow to my mother’s temple with a lamp or nightstand corner, crumpling her skull like an Easter egg. I breathed mindfully through the image. Sometimes, to prevent myself from having thoughts like these involuntarily, I would sit down and think them on purpose.
‘Oh man, did you see Benny’s hair though?’ Roos said.
‘I did. A true conversation piece.’ As if on cue, we lapsed into a strange-calibre silence then. One of our moods – mine – was off. ‘I think maybe,’ I said, surprised to hear my voice faltering, the relief that I hadn’t started crying or anything registering only a moment before the delayed realisation that I in fact had, ‘I’d just like to be alone.’
Unalone, and returned to Benny’s parents’ bedroom-sized en-suite bathroom, I listened to Roos urinate her contribution of contraceptive and serotonin-reuptake-inhibitive pollutants into what would filter through to constitute the city’s water supply as she asked me, multiple times, using adjusted formatting of phrase, if I was feeling OK enough to stay at the party.
I was facing away from her, leaning with the seat of my black jeans over the lip of the sink’s raised basin. I pinched my eyelashes to check I definitely had stopped crying before I steadied my voice and said, ‘I’m fine.’
‘Has there been any new,’ Roos paused, ‘news?’
‘None,’ I said, folding and then immediately unfolding my arms.
‘Well, when there is something to tell me, you know to tell me.’
‘I do know. And I’m grateful. Honestly,’ I said, feeling like I was only imitating having feelings I was sure I did have.
‘I’ve always got your back.’
‘I know. Thanks.’ I looked over my shoulder at Roos, who averted the smartphone I hadn’t been aware of her using until now from my line of sight. To punish her, I considered deploying the worst of it all at once, inflicting on her a maximum of overdue pain. ‘She’s dying, Roos,’ I almost said. ‘She’ll be all alright,’ I did say.
Then Roos started joking about a thing that had happened between us years ago at university that had begun under circumstances outwardly resembling our current ones, and I yeah-ed along automatically while thinking thoughts and their associated afterthoughts of a kind I usually succeeded in blocking out: my mother intubated with palliatives, time’s cruel passage, the grave. At the sides of my awareness: a toilet flush, the sound of a pedal bin, the toll of glass on metal.
‘There’s an empty wine bottle in here.’
I was wall-facing now, my fingertips testing the screen-like surfaces of the bathroom’s vitrified, marble-effect tiles; the room seeming steadily to carousel. I could not gauge how long I had been like this for.
‘Hey, you. You think we should go back downstairs,’ Roos said, different now, ‘and see our friends?’
I absently picked at a gummy duct of sealant between two tiles, perforating the colourless silicone with my thumbnail.
Artwork © Yoonah Kim, PM 7, 2013