Aliens & Mermaids
by Suzanne Samples
I’ve known her forever, you tell your friend. It’s a lie, but I do not disagree. We stand in the theater and for the first time since the diagnosis, I do not feel alone. You hold my hand. This will be the best place to sit, you say as you point to an aisle chair. I appreciate you remembering how my new lack of coordination makes it difficult for me to exist beside others. I feel like I am constantly elbowing everyone in the gut.
I feel like I am always apologizing, and you are the only person who tells me to stop.
I feel like I belong here.
Last night, you picked out a movie. We pulled your couch near your computer and cuddled under a weighted blanket to watch a film about aliens and linguistics. You knew we would both enjoy not only the aliens and linguistics, but also the main character’s nose.
The brief description does not mention a young adult dying from a terminal illness, but five minutes in, I am clutching my throat with my good hand and heaving cancerous brain cells onto my cheeks, the weighted blanket, your psyche, the main character’s nose.
I have known you forever.
You met me last Thanksgiving, and I started dying seven days before Christmas.
I stare at myself in your bathroom mirror. I am not broken; I am not gone; I have letters of cells, sentences of blood vessels, paragraphs of necrotic tissue in the frontal lobe of my brain.
I am an alien. I am linguistics.
You have known me forever.
You keep apologizing, and I am the only person who tells you to stop.
You grind your coffee with the same drill you use to tighten your bass strings. Between water pours, you point to creatures in the side yard. That’s a bird, that’s another bird, that’s a bee, and that’s a rabbit, you say. I do not see the rabbit, but I believe you. This is what old people do, I say as I scorch my tongue. Stand here and look at birds. Neither of us are old, but both of us are dying.
I will be gone within a few months, and you—you will become someone new.
Last night, you walked two streets over at midnight to find my bag the airline lost. I was afraid and did not want you to go; I did not know if you would be safe, if you would come back whole.
I did not want to buy new clothes because I knew I might only wear them once, maybe twice. I was prepared to turn my underwear inside out, to swish them around in your sink until they passed as clean.
You returned three minutes later.
I did not know this story had a champion, but there you stood with my purple bag in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I fell asleep next to you that night, and I was no longer afraid of anything: the sickness, the streets, myself.
In the morning, I watch you manipulate the coffee beans. They divide and divide and divide as the drill meets their outer shell. It’s as if I can see my world becoming more infinitesimal as you pulverize those seeds into digestible dust, into something new.
Once liquefied, that digestible dust causes chirps, hops, and buzzes to fall from my mouth and into the space between your legs where I rest. The animals watch us from the window and wonder how you managed to find that bag, how I managed to find you.
You play the drill-strung bass in the show, and I keep getting distracted because your instrument holds the songs, the lines, and the plot together. I attempt to pay attention, but all I can think about are words like identity, loss, power.
Your bass roots the music to the theater, the characters to the flooding floor.
Without you, the play would be a body with no backbone, a spineless creature void of notches necessary for the audience to grip.
With you, the show takes shape. The music forms a mermaid tail for the water and sturdy legs for the living room, the stage.
Everyone is in between right now.
No one knows what might happen next.
We might float, we might drown, or we might leave everyone else behind.
I try to stand when the show finishes, but I am too weak. I need the tail, I need the legs. I need your hand to pull me up from the pond and drag me to the parking lot where I can feel safe in your car once again.
I need you to take me back to your apartment and show me bad movies where the main character is simultaneously a bioterrorist and an anthrax-tossing hero. I need you to take me back to your apartment and let me brush your cat as she pretends to cry for food but really just wants a friend. I need you to take me back to your apartment and let me sit next to you until I feel comfortable enough to understand that soon enough, I will need to say goodbye.
This is S., you say to your friend as you squeeze my hand and help me stand. I do not need to kick my legs or hope I will survive; I do not need to wish for aliens, for linguistics, for cancer cells cried onto the main character’s perfect nose. I am here and you are here and I have more moments, if only a few. I’ve known her forever.
I feel like I belong here.
I feel like I no longer need to apologize.
I feel like you’ve saved me from drowning so many times before.
Suzanne Samples lives in Boone, North Carolina, where she teaches English at Appalachian State University. In her spare time, Suzanne plays roller derby as 9lb Hammer for the Appalachian Rollergirls. She would like to thank Shannon van der Reck for inspiring the flash nonfiction story.