He’d never been particularly healthy, or handsome, but it felt wrong to see the flesh hang off him as though the muscles had surrendered. And the jaundiced, under-nourished color of his skin had a porous quality like perhaps it was already disintegrating.
“Prepare yourself, he’s changed” was the warning she’d received. Ascites had caused his abdomen to balloon out with retained fluid. He hunched into his sweatshirt.
“Oh. You look good,” he said, meeting her at the door. The adjustment to artificial lighting, air conditioning, medical smells and the new reality of her old friend sent Pepper into a bout of nausea she tried to cover up. As her eyes adjusted, her balance regained. She slung an arm around him in a gentle hug. He felt breakable, the pain almost palpable under his skin, barely numbed by morphine.
“Hey there,” she said into his greasy hair, as though no time had passed.
“You look good,” he said again. His voice had a shaky quality to it. Pepper knew she looked good. Pregnancy had left her with healthy curves. A summer farming in West Virginia had her bronzed and honey-colored, her muscles strong and nimble. Her hair fell thick and long. She imagined she had changed almost as much as Caleb had.
“Can we go get cigarettes?” he asked, already steering her back out the door and into the parking lot.
The old Volvo was a mess, with Cheerios and stickiness griming the plastic upholstery. A car seat in the back held summer’s offerings of beach towel, sunscreen, a change of baby clothes, a swimsuit. Caleb peered into the back seat. She felt a sting of embarrassment and then let it pass.
“A baby, huh?” he asked, but seemed disinterested in an answer as he leaned back and slowly escorted his enormous abdomen into the car. She tried not to stare as he struggled with the seat belt and then gave up.
“Eh, what’s the point? I’m dying anyway!” he let the seat belt fall to the side with a smirk of dark humor.
Pepper turned the key in the ignition and rolled the windows down.
“Do you want to tell me the situation?”
Here’s what she knew: cirrhosis, liver failure. A refusal to be put on the transplant list. A stubbornness threaded throughout Caleb’s life, a desire to die, even. Why should it surprise her now?
They pulled out of the parking lot and eased down a suburban country road more suggestive of country clubs and boarding school than a hospice center, and toward a gas station at a busy intersection.
“I just thought I was having stomach problems, you know? Pain and nausea. I was tired all the time. I went to the ER a bunch of times. My stomach was swollen, you know? So they’d pump out the fluid and send me back home. And then one time I went in and they tested my liver enzymes and then said I should talk to this hospice nurse. I was like ‘What? I’m dying?’ Some crazy shit, man.” He knocked a knuckle at the window as he stared out into nothing. Pepper glanced over, pulling the car into the gas station parking lot.
She remembered a bar they found in the French Quarter in New Orleans where you could get a Highlife and a shot of whisky for five bucks. The scene bloomed from her memory with perfect clarity. They’d been in and out of an all-day show, leaving between sets to find cheaper drinks than the venue had to offer, and had been so pleased with themselves when they’d found such a deal. That day Caleb had tried to hold her hand at the show and she’d pulled her fingers away in exaggerated applause for the singer- an aged and elegant Wanda Jackson- hoping not to offend him while delivering a clear message. It was the only time anything had threatened their platonic bond. Now as he lurched out of the car and across the parking lot, she wondered what people thought, felt a prickle of shame to be seen with him. Felt shame for the shame she felt.
She found him in the cold drink aisle, cruising the coffee selection.
“The coffee over there sucks,” he said, spinning a bottle around to read the ingredients. Her mind forked into two voices. One wanted to know the logistics- her nurse’s brain rattling off questions about pre-existing conditions, transplant qualifications, enzyme numbers and specifics of his current state of health.
“They’re coming by later to drain the fluid out of my abdomen. I wish you didn’t have to see me like this,” he said as though reading her mind. How to respond to that? She put a hand on his back but it felt awkward there and she took it away. He looked 50, not his current 36, two years and a day older than her.
The other fork in Pepper’s mind wondered darker things. Did he not care about his life that much? How much was he drinking before the diagnosis? Was he still drinking now? That part of her mind was softened and distorted by feelings, memories, snippets of a life lived in tandem.
This thing happened that no one told you about. You hit thirty and some people cleaned up their lives and set intentions and followed them through to something bigger. And some people didn’t. They kept drinking too much and smoking and sleeping until noon. They kept wearing the same jeans every day and moving from shit job to shit job and shit relationship to shit relationship. They kept getting evicted for not paying rent on time and blaming it on someone else.
Or it could be worse. The ones who kept overdosing, kept getting arrested, getting beat up over pointless drama, sinking deeper and deeper into depression without the means to pull themselves out.
It was fascinating to see who went down which road because it wasn’t always what you expected. She wasn’t who she’d expected to be. She, the Pepper from the past, would have told you she didn’t care enough to make those changes, she would have insisted she was happy with that life, the in-the-moment glory and pain. The highs and lows that were chemically inflicted and the ones that were self-inflected.
She’d been young, barely 18 when she moved to New Orleans. She’d left high school before it ended, left her dad’s house before they’d had a conversation about what was next. She’d been tired of being bullied, of being alone with her thoughts, tired of the conventional small town questions, “Which college are you going to? Where are you going to get a job?” “Who are you going to marry?”
She’d known she wanted more for her life, she just hadn’t known what that meant. New Orleans had been dangerous with possibilities. It was a postcard on her wall, the melody in a song, the taste of something stronger. So it was there she went and there she met Caleb while washing dishes at a diner in the French Quarter. They would get off work at 4am and buy cigarettes, beer and cheesy fries to eat on the levee while watching the sunrise over the Mississippi. There was nothing more beautiful than a warm New Orleans dawn, night-blooming jasmine scenting the air, the soft tinkling of the Calliope’s pipes as the steamboat geared up to take tourists up and down the river. They would part ways, each to a different bedroom in a different shared house, sleep until three and then run into each other at the coffee shop and share a day-old cheese Danish.
Caleb had been there a couple years already and knew a lot of kids around town who got them into shows and bars. They leaned against cars on Frenchman Street with beers in paper bags and let jazz, brass and old-time music spill out of the clubs. Caleb drew cartoonish renditions of tourists on the Moonwalk and Pepper learned to play the accordion to entertain them as they sat for portraits.
Pepper unglued herself from her spot in the cold drink aisle and followed Caleb to the counter where he asked for a pack of American Spirit blues and got out his wallet.
“Can I smoke in the car?”
“If I can bum one off you.”
They sat smoking in the Volvo with the doors open, the sweltering late summer heat prickling sweat at their temples and brows. Caleb wore a hoodie as though his body lived in a colder reality than hers. Pepper turned the key in the ignition and cranked up the radio volume, a Dead Moon mixed tape making them both smile at the past.
“I can’t believe you’d never heard of Dead Moon when we met,” he said.
“Ha, and you already had a Dead Moon tattoo by then. There was a lot I hadn’t heard of.”
“When did you get back to North Carolina?” She knew he’d been living between New Orleans and North Carolina the past five years but she didn’t know the timeline.
“I got out of rehab a year-and-a-half ago and my parents wanted me to stay with them in Mississippi. But it’s so fucking terrible here. There’s nothing to do and no jobs. I had a girlfriend. We did some fun wheat pasting projects. I went to some shows, saw some friends around. But that’s it.”
Friends Pepper knew from her years spent in University of North Carolina’s nursing program had mentioned seeing him around town. Drunk at a show. Yelling into his cell phone in front of a grocery store. He’d been to jail briefly.
She knew it could have been her. It might not have been alcohol, but it would have been something. If she hadn’t gotten into nursing school. If she hadn’t met Luke. If she hadn’t gotten sober. These were three things she could concretely say found her by accident and changed her life. If she were religious she might have called them miracles. And if she was an atheist she might have called them total coincidence. But she was neither and so she put them in no category, she just felt gratitude, polished them in her mind like sacred items and kept them on an altar she worshiped during moments like these, when her twin self showed up in a glimmer of what could have been. A visitor from a parallel reality. Caleb wasn’t the first friend to cause this kind of reflection. They’d lost friends to drugs, suicide, accidents, street violence.
The cigarette calmed her and she threw the butt into the parking lot when she was done with it. It felt good to break the rules a little. Without asking him she started the car up and drove them back to the hospice facility, parking in the same spot under an oak tree.
“I don’t want to go back in there yet,” he said. “Although honestly, it hasn’t been so bad.” He had a specific way of pronouncing words, letting them roll out of his mouth with all their syllables. She’d missed this, unknowingly, and hearing it again felt familiar like soft cloth on skin.
There was a sitting area, two benches next to a little garden with a couple small dogwood trees and a statue of a rabbit. Caleb got out the pack of cigarettes and sat on the bench to light one awkwardly while Pepper stretched her arms over her head and gazed up at the open sky.
“Why did you come? I haven’t even seen you in years.” It was said sharply, an accusation.
Pepper put her arms down and focused her gaze on Caleb’s jaundiced skin, his critical brown eyes. “I don’t know. To see you. I just hated the idea that I might… not see you again.” She knew how unlikely it was for an alcoholic 36-year-old to get approved for a liver transplant. And even less likely, at this point, that he would live long enough to receive it.
“But you haven’t even seen me in years. I mean it’s been actual years, probably even since we talked.”
“Maybe you’re just a tourist now! Come from your safe, normal life to gawk at the freak!” He could be so dramatic.
“The last time I saw you, you slammed the door of my truck so hard you shattered the window! You spit at me through the empty frame! You said you hated me. Do you even remember that?”
He was quiet. She sighed and got up to pace a little under the trees. Was it worth dredging up the past? Was it worth sharing rumor and speculation to explain why she’d given up on him. And it’s not like he’d been trying to see her all this time.
“I don’t even remember that,” he said softly. “I was probably blacked out.”
“You changed,” She said, finally. “You got mean. And a little crazy.”
He laughed at that, as she knew he would. “What are you even talking about??” he demanded.
“You don’t even remember half of it!” Defensiveness prickled her neck. “There were times- lots of times- that you changed the story. Like you just made up reality differently than what happened. Like Samantha? I was there the night you broke up with her! I sat with you at the bar while you told me, ‘We just didn’t have that much to talk about. I didn’t see the point.’ And then you accused her of dumping you! You stalked her and yelled at her and pinned her on the ground! All the time saying she’d broken up with you. And that isn’t what happened! What the fuck, Caleb? She’s my friend and you got psycho on her. It was so not cool. It was fucking scary and deranged.”
Pepper was pacing, not making eye contact with him, wishing even as the words came out that she could stop them. Because what was the point in bringing up this old shit? He wasn’t going to change. Certainly not now. He’d built a whole life of delusion and denial around himself and now he was drowning in it. But Pepper had never been one to hold her tongue.
“That’s not what happened,” he said quietly. But Pepper was pissed off now, she couldn’t hold back.
“It is what happened! I was there! You can’t ask me to doubt my own mind.” And then he laughed a sad little laugh and shrugged and she rubbed her face with her hands and shook herself a little.
“Whatever,” she said, finally. “It just got weird. And then I left New Orleans to come here for nursing school and then everyone said you just weren’t hanging out anymore. That you trashed the coffee shop when Benny fired you.”
“Ok, that did happen. But he was such a douche about how he fired me.”
“Benny was always a douche! It’s just there are certain things you don’t do, Caleb.” She sat down, defeated, and somehow the gesture allowed the tension to disperse. They sat in silence in the insubstantial shade of the dogwood. The foliage was beginning to turn a lovely autumn red. How do you choose the plants that will surround a hospice facility, knowing the only people to see them will be heavy with impending loss? The building loomed behind them with all its fake air and medical smells.
“Are you really refusing to get on a transplant list? You could change your life. It’s not too late yet.” She sat on the edge of the bench across from him, leaned her elbows on her knees.
“I don’t know. It might be. You have to be sober six months just to qualify. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long.”
“Are you sober now?” she asked tentatively, pressing her palms against her knees.
He laughed. “Where would I get a drink around here? Plus, who needs booze when you’ve got morphine?”
They were quiet and a little breeze blew through Pepper’s hair.
“Happy birthday,” she said. She leaned her head back and laughed a little, she didn’t know why.
“Happy birthday to you, too, Pepper.” It was late September and they’d both just moved from odd numbered years to even.
“I do pretty well with multiples of nine,” he said with a smirk.
“Oh yeah? You think it’s going to be a good year?” And they both had to laugh because dark humor was a thing they’d always shared.
“Tell me a story,” Pepper said then, “You’ve always been good at telling stories.”
Caleb sat up, the request beseeching a formality from him, a desire to perform. He combed his fingers through his lanky black hair and began to recount the story of a DUI he got while not even driving. He could always put a funny twist on a tragic story and Pepper half-listened as her mind reeled, trying to make sense of this current reality. This life from her past crashing into her present. She felt she had lived so many lives already and it would be so easy to sink back into one of them, to forget Luke and the baby, the sweet farmhouse they’d inherited from his grandparents in West Virginia, the rural clinic where she worked three days a week as a nurse.
She thought of the candlelit parties she and Caleb had thrown in abandoned buildings in New Orleans. She thought of the catering jobs they’d done at rich people’s houses, stashing bottles of champagne and napkins filled with shrimp in their bags for later.
The crux of Caleb’s story came with the moment he was awakened by a cop as he slept in his car, keys in the ignition to keep the AC going on a hot night. “I thought I was doing the right thing by not driving, but ironically if I’d just driven home I wouldn’t have gotten the DUI.”
“Dang,” she said. “Who knew you could get a DUI just for having the keys in the ignition.” Caleb continued with the story.
Pepper pictured the honey-colored wood, shiny and cool, in the living room of the farmhouse and how the baby put down his chubby, perfect little hands, one then the other, to grip it as he scooted himself along in an attempt to crawl. Certain images just stayed like that in her head, as clear as if they were happening in front of her eyes.
She saw Luke in the kitchen, slicing cucumbers fresh from the garden, warm from the sun. In her mind he reached a slice out to her, placed it on her tongue with a big smile. She could see him turning back to the cutting board, the crinkles next to his eyes as the smile played across his face. She was drifting away from Caleb, drifting away from the door that had opened into her past. The past was New Orleans, her youth and all the scars it had left her with. Her present was North Carolina, the place she had turned her life around. But her future was West Virginia, the place all the seeds had been planted for a verdant, flourishing life.
Soon she would close the past softly, make her excuse to leave and drive away from this moment. She would leave Caleb and never see him again. She would text with him sometimes, just to see how he was doing, and he would call her once in a while, volleying between lucid and irrational with pain and the medication to soothe it. She would finally receive a message from his old girlfriend that said, “Caleb is too sick to text, but he’s still with us.”
“So we drove all the way to Charlotte to get my truck and then the tow place wasn’t even open on Saturdays! The one in Raleigh was, but not the one in Charlotte. They could have at least told me that over the phone.”
“So what did you do?” she asked, scratching a scab.
“Went to a record store then went home. I had to pay my friend to take me back the next day. Four fucking hours in the car.”
“Shit,” she said.
They agreed the bench was uncomfortable and the afternoon too hot, so they retreated, finally, into the building and found some overstuffed chairs in the visiting area. The television was on and two small children watched it from a couch while their parents quietly argued behind them. A nurse walked by, “Hi, Caleb,” she said, bright and cheery. “Hi, Lucy.” And Pepper could imagine how Caleb had charmed all the nurses with his dirtbag punklore. His wit and sketches. She itched to leave but also she dreaded the goodbye.
“I’ve got to head back soon. It’s a five-hour drive. I stayed with friends last night but I have to get back to my baby. Had to pump a bunch of breast milk just to get away this long.” He made a face at the mention of breast milk, a wince, almost.
“Do you want to know anything about my life?” Pepper blurted. She tried not to sound defensive.
“Sure,” said Caleb. Pepper began to speak about the farm, Luke and the baby, the clinic, the few friends she had made. Farm parties and bonfires. Barn raisings. At first Caleb seemed to drift, but then he got excited about the idea of a barn raising and wanted to know how it was done.
“Yeah, there’s been a resurgence of them recently and communities totally rally together to make it happen. Build each wall structure on the ground and then haul it up with a winch and a prayer.”
“That sounds cool. Your life, it sounds good. Maybe I’ll be able to visit one day. Come for a barn raising.”
“Haha, yeah!” said Pepper, faking enthusiasm. She looked at the clock.
“I’m sorry I called you a tourist,” he said.
Hours later Pepper popped the old mixed tape out of the deck and fiddled with the knob to tune the radio. She hadn’t seen another car on the highway in five minutes. Bronzed fields spread before her and a little town crested the horizon and passed before she could focus on it. She gave up on the fuzzy radio and rolled down the window, letting the gusts of hot wind whir in her ears and mind. She was only two hours from home now and West Virginia called to her.
The highway blurred like it was melting again, and as she approached, the dark pool skipped ahead as it always did on these hot days, a heat mirage. She followed it with her eyes, making a game of it. Finally, the endless strip of highway was dissected by an old overpass and as she drove toward it she noticed scrawled graffiti across its concrete arc. The letters were loopy and childish, but she gasped as she read, “CALEB WAS HERE!” in a bright, optimistic blue.
“It can’t be!” she said out loud. And then she laughed at her disbelief. Could it be? Could he have been here? Or was it just some freak chance that someone else with that slightly unusual name had left this timeless message for her to find? It seemed like something Caleb would do. Or something the old Caleb would do. The Caleb whose body was within his control. Whose mind was relatively clear. Who fit into the general amorphous category of functional. She could see the old Caleb, having accomplished something like dangling upside down to spray-paint his name across a freeway overpass laughing with self-fulfilled pleasure, throwing a fist into the air and hooting.
It filled Pepper with a kind of joy, a reckless feeling of immortality. This scrawl would be here, declaring Caleb’s existence, in all likelihood long after Caleb was.
Pepper entered the quiet house in the dark. Knowing it by feel and smell, she didn’t bother with the lights and just let her bare feet guide her through the kitchen and to the living room where she dropped her bag and keys in a pile by the door. She stood in the silence of the house, felt its warm, quiet comfort.
A light was on in the hallway and she followed it to the bedroom, the door open a crack. She could hear the soft breathing of her sleeping family. As though sensing her, she heard a squeak and then a little fussing. In the room, the baby sat up in bed, a thing he’d only recently learned to do. She saw the outline of Luke, a C curled around the baby who squealed and pummeled his father with tiny fists.
“Oh no no no, let’s let him sleep, my baby,” said Pepper, scooping him out of the nest of sheets and carrying him into the living room. She sat down hard in the rocking chair. “Are you hungry? Do you want a little snack?” but he seemed content to just sit with her.
The silence of the house crept in, the soft sighs as it settled against the foundation, and as she rocked softly, Pepper thought of Caleb and the last thing he’d said to her. “You’ll be turning 35 next September. You’ll be officially middle-aged!” He seemed to revel in this realization, which she’d brushed off. But now, in this moment, she recognized that she hadn’t understood his meaning when he said it and now she felt a panic. He meant she’d be middle aged without him. That this part of the journey was hers alone. An urgency welled in her. “Wait, I need to tell him something,” she said out loud, and she made as if to get up out of the chair.
The spray paint on the bridge, in some parallel reality Caleb did come to visit her. He would have stopped on the highway to pee and in doing so saw an opportunity to leave a more permanent mark.
In her head Pepper lifted out of the chair and continued out the door, back into the car, back onto the road, and back to North Carolina, that sweltering afternoon, to tell Caleb the things she had forgotten to say. She wanted to physically make him put his name on the transplant list, to take every opportunity to survive that was handed to him. If he saw the writing on the bridge. If he knew what could be.
She thought of their afternoon together and all the memories she hadn’t shared that she would never get to share. Once he was gone they would be locked inside her, the key forever missing. Her muscles tensed but she stayed still and after a moment let go the impulse and fell back against the chair.
The baby pounded chubby fists against her chest, palmed her face and neck with his soft infant’s hand. He searched for her against the skin of her body but she was elsewhere. She held her child so that he felt the warmth of her blood beneath the skin but still he could not reach her.
Gillian Wiley Rose (she/they) lives between the Cascade Mountains and the Salish Sea where she writes, ponders and watches the celestial patterns turn earthly. She has had stories published in Denver Quarterly, Sonora Review and Cottonwood Literary Magazine, among others. Her East Asian Medicine practice, Twelve Rivers Medicine, allows union between the written word and the idea that the body is a microcosm of the universe. https://www.twelveriversmedicine.com/blog