“You want the good news or the bad news?”
Clint sighed and let his shoulders slump back in the chair. It had been a long day, and he wasn’t in the mood for games. He wiggled around to get himself comfortable and loosened the neck of his shirt. If it had been anyone else calling him today, he wouldn’t have even picked up. Then again, he was accustomed to giving her more than he gave to anyone else. Angie was his girl. Even when she wasn’t.
He had never really stopped to think about why that was, except for the obvious reason. Love makes you silly, sure. Stupid, yes. It also makes you generous, sincere, patient, and willing to do things you never thought you’d do – like spending 259 perfectly good American dollars to see an Air Supply cover band two states over because your girl loves cheesy 80s pop. Or like playing guessing games over the telephone at the end of a 14 hour spanking of a day. Yeah, it was the love. And it’s not like she didn’t deserve it from him, given everything they’d been through. He smirked a little and sighed again.
“Alright, Kiddo. Hit me with it.”
“Which one? Good news or bad news?”
“I’ll take them both, together. Mix ’em up.”
Angie laughed a little, but it sounded to Clint like there was something off about it. Maybe it was just the connection. He hadn’t had good cell reception since Tuscon.
“Potluck, hmm? Ok… let’s see… So I went to the doctor last week. I had been dealing with some things here and there, nothing concerning. Some back pain, a little weight loss. I finally went in to the emergency room after my back had me doubled over and screaming. Anyway, the good news is that I don’t have appendicitis. The doctor said my appendix is totally fine.” She paused for a split second and then started again. “The bad news, though. Listen, Jerkface, I don’t want you to do anything stupid. You hear me?”
“Who, me?” Clint chuckled. “Does that sound like something I would do?” Angie stayed silent. Maybe his initial impression was right. Something WAS off with her.
“I’m serious. I am going to try my best to just say this to you and I need you to give me your word that you are not going to react in a big, explosive way. Ok?”
“You got it”, he said, sitting up straighter. This bad news must be pretty bad. He felt the hairs on his arms stand at attention. Suddenly he felt a little nauseous. Anticipation didn’t sit well with him anyway, and right now it was giving him all kinds of bad vibes. He braced his feet on the floor and his free hand on the arm of his seat.
“I told the doctor about my back pain, and the sleepless nights, the way my jeans were fitting looser even though I haven’t stopped eating like I do. They ran a lot of tests, Babe. Can I even call you Babe? I know I shouldn’t. Anyway, I made them run every test a second time before I called you. I didn’t want to tell you if it wasn’t one hundred percent certain. The last thing I want is to pop up in your new life like some old smelly flannel shirt that you can’t seem to get rid of.”
“Jesus, Woman. Number one, you know I love flannel. Number two, quit dancing around it, I am not in the mood to tango. Spit it out.” Clint had risen to his feet and begun to pace around the floor of the hotel lobby. He hadn’t meant to snap at her, but the way she was talking around in circles was making him anxious. He knew if she had called him directly, it was important. He had dismissed her six months ago – ghosted her, really – and she hadn’t fought him on it.
She was a contradiction, this woman. Tough but fragile. Independent but needy. Selfless in that she’d let him walk out of her life forever and never admit that it hurt her at all, if she thought it was best for him, and still selfish enough to call him when she needed to talk to someone she could count on. It was one of the things he adored about her. There were a lot of things he adored about her. He missed her, too. Some days he missed her so bad his bones ached, like his body was physically rejecting his rejection of her.
Clint was following the labyrinthine pattern of the ugliest rug he had ever put eyes on, working to stay calm like she had asked him. He walked one foot in front of the other, like he was taking some weird businessman’s sobriety test, and waited for her to talk again.
Phone pressed to his ear, he could hear her making whimpering noises. The words were sticking in her throat, and he knew her well enough to know she was crying on the other end of that call. He would have given anything to be there with her at that moment, to magically teleport to wherever she was and wrap his arms around her like he dreamed every night about doing. Finally, she broke the silence.
“Do you remember me talking about my Grandmother Jewel?”
“Yeah, I remember you mentioning her. Beautiful and mean?”
“That’s the one. She passed when I was four years old from ovarian cancer. Apparently, it’s a pretty rare and hereditary type of cancer and – the bad news – the terrible news – is that I have more in common with Grandmother Jewel than I thought.”
“You have cancer”, Clint interrupted. He could feel all the blood leaving his face.
“Worse, it’s already spread. You know I hate going to the doctor so I put it off as long as I could, so while I was ignoring this little pain and that little nag, the cancer was growing inside me. I have a surgery scheduled for tomorrow to remove a big tumor on my kidney. I’m scared, Clint. The doctors said the weight loss should have been a clue, but I felt alright and I had so much work to do, so many people counting on me. You know me. I can handle pain.”
Clint wasn’t listening anymore. He wanted to, but his ears had started buzzing around the word “hereditary”. All kinds of thoughts flooded his mind, one running over the next, a jumble of worry and fear and memory and love and none of it made any sense. It’s like he was seeing their history, their near-misses, their alternate universe possibilities, his dreams about her, the pets they were gonna own one day, someday, maybe. He was seeing everything all at once, which was making it impossible to focus on any one thing.
For a moment Clint thought he felt his heart actually break. His chest had gone tight, his palms were sweaty and his legs started to buckle underneath him. His throat was closing. Was it possible that their story – the one he so often called a Romantic Tragedy – could end in this kind of devastation? It was ironic, really. He had told himself six months ago that he had been prepared to live without her, and now that he might be faced with that reality, he knew it was the only thing he could never prepare himself for.
He regretted all the things he never said to her. If he was honest, it was safe to say he regretted most of his life, except for her. And now… Jesus, what happens now? His girl, she had always been his girl even though she had never been his girl. This memory, this unreachable thing that had kept him driving down lonely stretches of highway when he was ready to quit, the person who inspired his heart to beat when he would have preferred it went still, the one woman whose face in his mind’s eye kept him hanging on to “someday” and an unknown future he hoped would include her, might leave him long before he’d planned on it.
The lobby was spinning now and he struggled to focus his eyes on something, anything. He was falling. That ugly labyrinthine pattern beneath his feet came flying up at his face without warning. Within half a second it was right in front of his nose and then – black.