When one knows better, one does better.
A Shift in the Universe
Nina wrinkled her nose at the hospital’s odor of disinfected sickness trapped with her in the car; the smell permeated the very fibres of her clothes. She pulled into a tight parking space and cut the engine. She couldn’t wait to get into the apartment and change. Passing through the lobby, she grabbed the mail from its slot then continued down the hallway to her door.
Her tidy apartment was flooded with early summer sunlight. She kicked off her shoes, then nudged them carefully with a stockinged toe until they were perfectly aligned under the entryway bench. As she dropped the mail onto its plate with the keys, a small, purple envelope caught her eye. A pang of regret stabbed her heart when she recognized the familiar loopy penmanship. She carried it with her to the bedroom.
Nina tossed the envelope on the bed as if she weren’t in any rush to open it. She had to spin the skirt she was wearing around her waist to find the enclosure, which had made its way from the back to her left hip. She replaced it with yoga pants, which hung looser today than the last time she put them on. She pulled the fitted blouse over her head without unbuttoning it and chose a t-shirt from a neat stack in the drawer. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Nina opened the envelope.
It was a birthday card from Dani. Inside, she had written,
Happy 23rd B-day, cuz!
I miss you still. Let’s not let another year go by.
Fucking call me!
Nina suppressed a smile. No matter what life had thrown at her, Dani’s blunt sense of humor had never failed to lift her spirits. She missed her cousin so much that it physically hurt. They grew up best friends, inseparable. Dani was present in every one of Nina’s childhood memories. They’d always sworn to be there for each other, no matter what. The shock of learning Dani’s deceit had thrown her into a tailspin she could not recover from. Nina’s world had bottomed out when she was told the painful details. Despite eyewitness accounts, she hadn’t wanted to believe it. She confronted Dani. She remembered staring right into Dani’s eyes that day, begging her to tell the truth. And Dani lied to her. Lied to cover up what she’d done, just like the coward she was. Nina grit her teeth at the memory, relived so many times over the past two years. Her hand closed around the card, ruining the paper with ugly creases. How could Dani have been so selfish, disregarding Nina’s feelings -- her own flesh and blood -- for a meaningless romp in the sack with a guy she didn’t even care about? A guy she knew Nina pined after. Self-righteous resolve comforted Nina as she shoved the card back into its envelope and crossed the room to the shelves. She pulled down an ornate, stained-glass box and lifted the lid to reveal a thick stack of similar envelopes, all adorned with Dani’s fluent handwriting. She tossed the envelope in and snapped the lid shut as the phone began to ring.
The caller ID said ‘Memorial Hospital’. Odd, she had just come from there. “Hello?” she answered.
“May I speak to Nina Rhea.”
“This is she,” Nina replied. “Can I help you?”
“Ms. Rhea, this is Linda calling from Dr. Colbert’s office. He asks that you come back to his office this afternoon. Would three o’clock be ok?”
Nina glanced at her watch. It was almost two. She hesitated. “Yes, I guess so. Is there a problem?”
The voice that came back was strangely benign. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any other details. The doctor will explain everything when you get here. See you at three?”
Nina thanked her and hung up. Something didn’t feel right. Not at all.
An hour and a half later, Nina was sitting in a comfortable leather chair listening to Dr. Colbert and the oncologist he had invited to the meeting, Dr. Sachs, talking to her in a language she didn’t understand. She stared at them as they used words like ‘dangerously low lymphocyte count’ and ‘extremely elevated white blood cells’. She became aware of her own heart beat and found herself listening to it instead of the doctors’ voices.
From a distance, she heard her name. “Nina?” Dr. Sachs spoke gently. “Our preliminary results point to Lymphoma. It appears aggressive, but we will need to run further tests to nail down the prognosis and decide on the appropriate treatment.” He seemed so calm. “Do you have any questions?”
Nina stared at him unblinkingly. “There has to be a mistake.” Tears began to fill her eyes. “I just made the appointment because I lost a bunch of weight. I’m tired a lot, but I’m a teacher! It’s from working with small children. I forget to eat.” She began to sob. “I don’t have cancer. You’ve made a mistake. This is all a mistake.”
She didn’t know how long she was there; time ceased. Dr. Sachs had his secretary schedule an appointment, then sent Nina on her way. Numbly, she wandered out of the hospital and into the adjacent park.
People passed her with smiling faces and carefree gaits, unaware that a great shift in the universe had taken place. She already felt disconnected from them, alone, a foreigner amid humanity. Sudden exhaustion hit her, and she stumbled to a bench and sat down.
Her methodical mind fought to bring order to her chaotic emotions, but only a pattern of anger, disbelief, and fright emerged. She was losing control, felt it slipping away. In desperation, she reached for her phone. With shaking hands she managed to find the number and hit "send." After the fourth ring, a cheerful recorded voice answered.
“Dani here. I’m out living today like it’s my last. Leave me a message, then go do the same!
Nina hung up, soft sobs racking her thin frame.