Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

Sam Baldassari - "Remember Your Death"

 

Annie splashes water on her face, pinches color into her cheeks, tries to remember having cancer. Red splotches appear where her fingers squeezed her skin. She watches in her bathroom mirror as they disappear almost instantly, the blood shying away from her, keeping her pale. Even her goddamn blood doesn’t want to show up today, she muses, still pinching, watching the color drain like water down an eggshell basin. She shakes her head at her reflection like a misbehaved child. Unbelievable.

Alec snores in the bedroom, the garbling, almost-choking kind of snore that Annie sometimes jokes could end their relationship. She heads in there, annoyed. Grabs his foot and moves it back and forth a couple of times until he jolts awake.

“Get up.” She says with enough panic to remind him what day it is.

“You got this, babe.” He mumbles, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “I’ll make breakfast.”

On the other hand, maybe her complexion isn’t the worst thing for today. She’d been pale when she had cancer, hadn’t she? A translucent almost-blue. Looking shitty could be her inspiration. She clamps her eyes shut for a moment, willing herself back into some hospital bed from years ago. She just needs to remember how she’d been feeling: how sick and depressed and how beating cancer was so incredibly moving that she’s carried invaluable life lessons with her everywhere, in all that she does. For some reason, all she can actually remember is an uncanny sensation of shrinking, but even that might have been the nausea. She scans her closet for a dress, wondering if a report of her digestive upsets could count as an inspirational speech.

Alec returns from the kitchen as she shimmies into her first pick: a navy blue wrap-around dress that was cheap but doesn’t look it. He holds a plate in one hand and grabs her arm with the other, pulling her to sit down on the bed. He looks so calm that Annie considers strangling him.

“Hey, just stop for a minute, okay?” He slides the small white plate onto her lap: a slice of peanut butter toast with a chocolate-chip smiley face. “You’re going to be amazing.”

Annie kisses his cheek and looks down at her breakfast, watching as the smile melts to a grimace.

    

The invitation from Fulton arrived three weeks ago. She’d found it on the kitchen counter, unfolded and displayed on top of the envelope that had been sliced into a jaw of teeth. The unmistakable crest of her high school alma mater was stamped on the top right corner: golden and decadent. They’d begun a series of speeches by notable alumnae, the letter said. Since she recovered from such a terrible illness during her sophomore year and has become so successful, they would love for her to be a speaker in the series. They designated a day for her presentation already; she simply needed to call the number below and accept the honor. As she held the laminated paper, Annie could not decide what annoyed her more: the invitation’s use of the word “successful” or the fact that Alec had opened it for her.

“So proud of you, babe.” He’d come up behind her while she read it, wrapping his arms around the waist of her robe. In that moment, she wished he had used the dumbbells that sat at the foot of their bed, maybe gone running more often. She wished he were stronger, that his arms could support her. But he was lanky and she was annoyed, so she pushed through him and walked over to the couch, his arms swinging limply at his sides.

 

She spent the rest of the day watching speeches by cancer survivors on YouTube. She’d seen similar ones before: sometimes videos, sometimes in person. There was a period of time right after she went into remission when Annie binged on stories such as these. They’d been forbidden when she was sick. She remembered one day in particular when an eleven-year-old boy came back to the oncology wing after being declared one-year cancer free. He wanted to give a short speech for the staff and patients. Most of the nurses knew him and a few of the children did too. He’d been discharged before Annie arrived. She remembered his excitement mostly: his face and name have faded, but she can still see the way he tugged at his shirt tail, the way he greeted everyone with hugs. When the boy began his speech, Annie’s mom shut the door to her room and set up a board game for them on the tray table.

Annie understood it, sure. But her curiosity had been peaked. When she was better, she watched every survival story she could find. She felt like she had joined an exclusive club. It felt communal in a way she never imagined cancer could feel. However, her obsession with “inspiration porn,” as some sociology teacher in college had later called it, was short-lived, packed entirely into her few weeks at home before she had returned to school. After that, her interest in this new “club” waned, replaced exclusively by her intense devotion to rejoin her old life and leave her cancer-days in the past.

 

The videos seemed different, from what Annie could remember. Some of them were grainy, poor quality. The kind of thing she imagined a proud relative straining to record between a hundred heads. The venues were big and small, from formal banquet hall speeches to casual declarations at family parties. The speech-givers ranged in age, gender, diagnosis. Leukemia, Lymphoma, Neuroblastoma. The stories were different but all of them seemed to follow the same basic formula. It seemed so obvious now; she couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized these patterns before. Annie took notes:

1. Begin by painting an overly-favorable portrait of your life pre-diagnosis. Stress your happiness at this time. Consider also mentioning a specific hope or dream you had for your future.

2. Describe the pain that brought you to make that first visit to the doctor. A nagging pain in your side? Chronic headaches?

3. State the specific date of your specific diagnosis. “On September 13, 2004, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer…”

4. Describe treatment. Focus on the activities you had to give up for treatment. Females always mention hair loss.

5. Use war terminology throughout. You “kept battling.” You “fought hard,” etc.

6. Close by presenting a new, unique outlook that you didn’t have before. Explain how this new mentality has affected you positively since recovery. Appear confident and overly conscious of your life.

 

For a few days, Annie didn’t do much besides watch these videos, familiarizing herself with the structure again, mastering the criteria. She called out sick from work and curled up with a pen, a notepad, and a box of tissues. If she studied their demeanor, maybe she could replicate it. Maybe she could deliver something somewhat convincing. She could rejoin that exclusive, nonexistent club she had once imagined. She could move someone with the story she’d always distanced herself from, the story she could only remember in disjointed pieces.

One of the videos kept Annie’s attention a little longer than the others had. A high school girl stood in front of a large student body. She’d been given an award for bravery or excellence or some other ambiguous term and was accepting with this speech. The girl was well-dressed, small boned, and spoke with a southern twang Annie didn’t anticipate. Her sewn-in brown hair extensions weren’t too bad; Annie probably only noticed them because she wore her own. Memento mori, the girl whispered into the microphone while clutching onto the patterned scarf that hung around her neck. In ancient Rome, servants would whisper this phrase to the great emperors every morning, she explained. Memento mori. Remember your death. Being three years in remission, the girl said that she struggled with just that: remembering. “When my hair began growing back after chemo, I was ecstatic. I didn’t think I could be any happier. I was so excited just to have hair. But after awhile, I began to forget. I complained about my hair. It got too frizzy in the rain. It didn’t hold the curls. I forgot the joy of simply having hair because it was no longer taken away from me. In this way, I forgot about my death.”

Annie snorted at the comparison. Wasn’t that a bit of a stretch? She hit the escape button to pause the video, which brought her to a memorial webpage for the girl. Kristen O’Hara. Her picture was displayed in the middle of the screen: standing on a beach in a long maxi skirt. Her skin was tanner than it had been in the video and she was playfully clutching the edge of a straw fedora. Her smile seemed to be growing; whoever had taken the picture must have caught her the second before she burst into laughter. Under her picture were two dates connected by a tiny dash mark. Annie felt like an ass. She closed the computer and threw the notepad into her drawer, leaving the tissue box unopened.

That was her last video. She wasn’t exactly inspired in the way she had hoped. Eventually, she sat down and typed three pages, double-spaced. It was a relatively short speech, decent at best, but it followed the criteria well enough. When it was finished, she practiced reading it to Alec. After her attempted sentimental closing, he stood up and clapped loudly, which made her feel less like a survivor imparting wisdom and more like a child practicing lines for a play.

 

On the train out of the city, Alec sends emails from his iPad while Annie presses her forehead against the cool window, watching the New York skyline pass. Fulton Academy is a couple of hours east of Astoria, the neighborhood in Queens where she and Alec have lived for a year and a half. The apartment was hers first; she’d moved for a position in the marketing department of Futures.com, an employment website that was supposed to be “up and coming.” Alec was going to Columbia law school at the time, spending his meager savings on bus tokens and textbooks. He had no money and thousands in debt, which appealed to Annie. She enjoyed inviting him into her home, saving him from his run-down studio apartment.

Four months ago when he was given a junior partner position at a firm in Manhattan, he began leaving large sums of money for her in envelopes: in her sock drawer, wedged in the corner of the bathroom mirror. He’d always paid a share of the rent, but now he was trying to cover all of it. Every time he attempted this, she would take the unopened envelope and leave it on his pillow. They’ve never had an actual conversation about it, and he’s also never given up.

“Babe,” she says, placing her hand over his screen. “Next stop is us.”

 

The school is more vibrant than she remembers. Either her memory had greyed things, or the many buildings of the academy have all been lathered with a new sheen of paint. She almost forgets, for a moment, how to navigate the elaborate campus, before finding the visitor’s entrance attached to the main hall.

“Annette, darling, you’re here!” Mrs. Carrington, the school receptionist, stands at her desk to greet them; a loud jangling sound comes from the many bracelets and accessories she piles on her neck and wrists. She looks almost the same as ten years ago, save for a new pixie haircut that Annie imagines a young stylist suggested to her at some expensive salon. Mrs. Carrington reaches a manicured hand across the desk and Annie takes it, tight-lipped. She had forgotten, for a blissful ten years, how much she hates the sound of her full name.

Mrs. Carrington chats with them as she escorts them down the hall. The width of the stone corridors makes Annie uncomfortable; she much prefers the claustrophobic city streets, the possibly toxic air. A group of three students walks by them, clutching textbooks to their chests and staring intensely at Alec. Basically every male who walks through an all-girls school receives this same level of attention: ravenous curiosity, instant objectification. Annie recalls her senior year when someone drew a vulgar picture of the calculus teacher, Mr. Chapman, in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. She coughs to keep herself from laughing; it was still funny.

“Here we are! Dean of Alumnae Relations Office. Dr. Downs is finishing up in a meeting and will be right in. So good to see you, Annette.” She pulls Annie into a hug. “The school really needs this today. Bless you.”

Mrs. Carrington’s last words linger with Annie as she lowers herself into a plush, leather armchair. She considers calling her back into the office, asking her why the school would “need this” speech from her, but her nerves take over, immobilize her. She sits dumbly, listening as the clanking of Mrs. Carrington’s heels grows softer, subsiding in the distance.

“You okay?”

She’d forgotten about Alec.

“Yeah. I’m okay.”    

“Hey,” he grabs a section of her thigh between his fingers and squeezes. “Never thought I’d see that skirt again.” He raises his eyebrows at her. A hint of soft crimson rises in his cheeks, his earlobes. His sexual gestures were typically of this breed: not forceful or malicious, just awkward and misplaced. He’s trying to cheer her up, she knows. To distract her with this scandalous allusion, this shared memory.

 

She knows what he’s referring to, of course. That skirt, her high school uniform, was what Annie had been wearing the first time they had sex. She had always heard rumors of elaborate Halloween celebrations at college, ones that extended past the holiday itself and spilled into an entire week. She’d packed the skirt her freshman year as a back-up costume, figuring if she rolled it up once or twice she could go as Brittney Spears from the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” music video. A couple months into school, she’d forgotten about that plan. The night she wore it, she rolled it up three or four times, declaring she was a “naughty school girl” to whichever beer-yielding boy would listen.

By the time she saw Alec at that Halloween party, she’d already decided she was going to sleep with him. To her, he was already “boy from Anthropology 100.” All semester, she had taken periodic breaks from her note taking just to stare at him: his black jeans and mismatched t-shirts. His mossy, unbrushed hair. He wasn’t attractive by most girls’ standards, this Annie knew. But she was drawn to how he slouched at his desk, how he chewed his pen caps into long, ribbed antennas. He seemed to exist simply and equally in every moment, beautifully free of a backstory. The small bracelet he wore on his right wrist everyday was the only exception. It was silver, engraved, and it appeared meaningful in a way that complicated him, in a way that Annie couldn’t bear.

When he went home with her that night, Annie slid the bracelet off along with the rest of their clothes. She threw it behind his head and it bounced off of her roommates’ bed frame but he was too distracted to notice. They made their official introductions right there, between drunken, gulping breaths, bodies moving rhythmically against her paisley comforter.

He was the smaller than any other guy she’d been with. She could barely feel him beneath her: no pleasant tingling, no sharp intake of breath. In fact, Annie had no involuntary reactions at all while having sex with him. She controlled how she sounded, how she looked. But she loved the way he seemed to absorb her, the way his eyes became buried beneath his eyebrows as he lost control of himself. She loved the way he’d grip her afterwards, greedily, breathing off her skin like a ventilator.

 

Unfortunately, Annie has no mental stamina to act intrigued by this memory.

“Annette Dinaldo? I’m Joseph Downs.”

Annie stands to greet an elderly man who walks into the office. He is dressed in a forest green tweed jacket and smells like a grandfather: mothballs and breath mints and stale tobacco.

“Nice to meet you. You can call me Annie.”

“Great, great you could come. And I must say how much I admire your story. Truly touching.” He smiles and Alec wraps a proud arm around her.

“So this process is fairly simple. The bell just rang so our students are filing into the new gym right now. Have you seen the addition to the South wing yet?”

Annie shakes her head.

“Oh- it’s beautiful, you’ll love it. Anyway, we’ve set up a podium in the new gym, which was just named last week for Regina July, a senior of ours who passed away. Car accident. Terrible, terrible thing. Anyway, you’ll be speaking there. Our first speaker in the venue. It should all be wonderfully emotional, given the content of your speech. Afterwards we typically open it up for a short Q and A. The students aren’t very talkative, but sometimes they come up with some great questions. Does this all sound good?”

“I’m…sorry about the student,” is all Annie can think to say. He waves an age-spotted hand behind him.

“All the better reason to hear a nice survival story.” He bows his head at them slightly then motions them to exit his office.

 

He is right about the gym being beautiful. The bleachers fold inwards, opening the space wider than any auditorium she’s seen before. The ground is golden and coated with gloss. When she enters, Annie gets the sensation she has stumbled upon a hidden meadow. The Sting song Fields of Gold pops into her head, unwelcomed.

She and Alec take seats by the podium. The students sit cross-legged on the floor, chatting with each other, their many voices creating a low, united hum. Dr. Downs stands up and leans over the tall wooden platform. The sight of him alone begins to silence the girls in waves.

“Good afternoon, women of Fulton Academy.”

“Good afternoon,” the girls parrot back with a blood-curdling, sing-songy inflection. Annie brings a hand to her mouth, covering her lips that had involuntarily moved with the students’.

“We gather today to continue with our series of alumnae speakers. In a moment, we will hear from Annette Dinaldo, a woman who courageously battled Stage 4 Thyroid cancer during her sophomore year here at Fulton. As a fifteen-year-old girl, she was given a 30% survival rate for a one-year period. Miraculously, Annie was given a second chance at life and stands here before you today, a strong and healthy twenty-eight year old woman.”

There is a flutter of reluctant applause from somewhere in the back. Annie hopes Dr. Downs will stop there; he’s already taken half of her speech.

“But before we hear Annie’s story, I wanted us all to take a minute to bow our heads and remember Regina July.” Dr. Downs leans slightly forward and closes his eyes. “Regina, you were an invaluable member of our community here at Fulton. Your precious life was taken so senselessly, so abruptly. In your honor, we have named this beautiful space so that you may stay always in our minds and in our hearts.”

Dr. Downs pauses for a long, drawn-out moment. The silence is painful to Annie, like her eardrums popping at a high altitude. Some students cry she notices: a soft, embarrassed cry, like the girls had been told not to show too much emotion in public. She finds herself zeroing in on these girls, the ones pressing tissues to the corner of their eyes, hiding behind their palms. They were her friends, she imagines. Girls who got personal calls on their cellphones when it had happened, who had long threads of text messages with her, memories with her. Whose best friend had simply vanished one day. Perfectly. Without warning.

 

Annie spent a lot of time wishing she’d die that randomly. Hit by some car on a freeway. Crushed, instantly. She wanted that brief, life-flashing moment. The milliseconds before the vehicle flattened her being the only window of time for her to contemplate death. She craved the immediacy of such an accident, the helplessness of it.

She never told anyone about this wish, except once to Alec. They’d been dating for a few months and she was driving him to a law firm a few miles outside of their college campus. He had an interview for a summer internship. He was fiddling with his tie in the passenger seat, telling her how valuable of an experience this position could be, when a truck across from them lost control and swerved into their lane. Annie stared at the vehicle as it sped towards them, mesmerized by how it seemed to grow, magically, as it gained on them. She did not hear Alec yelling beside her. She was alone with the truck: the distance closing between the two of them, the promise of darkness gaining if they should finally meet.

Alec reached across her and steered them to safety. When she finally looked at him, his neck was coated in sweat. Stains lined the collar of his neatly pressed shirt. His breathing was wild; his eyes were wet, alert, full of questions. They sat in silence on the shoulder of the road until Alec flipped his cellphone open and cancelled his interview.

He drove them to a diner. Annie laced her fingers through the handle of a ceramic mug while he questioned her. Why didn’t she steer out of the way? Was she in shock? Was she okay?

That’s when she decided to tell him about the cancer. She’d successfully hid it from him until that point; she never felt a need for him to know. But in that moment, she wanted to talk about it. Partially because she knew he cared: he actually, really cared. But mostly because she was scared of herself, of how easily she welcomed death without making a conscious decision to do so.

She spoke only briefly. She ran through the important events, elaborating when he prompted. She tried to explain her immobility in the car. The words felt foreign, never spoken by her before, but they seemed to present themselves as she needed. Life. Guilt. Trapped.

He cried almost immediately. She hated the way crying looked on him: his contorted features, his squinty eyes. It embarrassed her, the way he cried. She kept her eyes in her lap mostly, hoping that the next time she looked up at him it would be over. But it wasn’t. He reached both arms towards her across the table, palms open. She placed limp, noncommittal hands on top of his as he spoke.

He told her about his Uncle Ray, a marine who had died in combat when Alec was a kid. They’d been so close when he was growing up, he told her. His death devastated him, changed the course of his life.  Annie concentrated on her expression as he spoke, feeling hyper-aware of her face, attempting to hold it in a way that conveyed interest, sympathy.

“Uncle Ray was a hero. I know that. Some people lose their lives being heroes. But others don’t. Some heroes keep living. They get the chance to tell their story. That’s you, Annie.”

In that moment, she knew she never would love him. She thought of his silver bracelet, the one she threw away. She never found out what it meant, if it had anything to do with his uncle. But she knew she couldn’t escape it. He was more than she wanted him to be, just like everyone else: complicated and messy.

She smiled at him anyway. A small, grateful smile because she needed him to stay. She needed him to value her in the way she’d never value herself. She needed him to turn the wheel from all of the seductive vehicles barreling towards her.

Her eyes dropped to the coffee in her cup: the pure black liquid, completely still. She squeezed his hands, feeling nothing but the distant company of a stranger, learning to be content with this.

 

“Now, please join me in welcoming Annie Dinaldo.”

Annie stands on impulse at the sound of her name. The wave of applause lifts her off her feet and towards the podium. She places her hands down and stares out to the crowd of young girls in their plaid skirts, all of them silent and blinking at her. How could she compete with Regina July? A girl they’d known personally. A girl who probably had hopes and dreams that were genuine even though they might have sounded insincere if she wrote about them in a speech. Wasn’t the absence of this girl more moving than any words she could come up with?

She fumbles with her papers, arranging them in the correct order. As they wait for her to begin, Annie knows these girls are deciding whether they should envy her, the cancer survivor, or pity her. She smoothes the papers of her speech and allows herself a quiet moment to decide the same thing about them.

Should she envy the girls whose skin will never turn the color of sour milk, who will not lose their sense of taste, feel like they’re gnawing on cardboard meal after meal? Girls who won’t feel the deep, burning sensation of vomiting blood, who will never have to wonder if every person in their life is a genuine friend or just another product of their disease? Or maybe she should pity them. These girls who will go on to live unfulfilling, mediocre lives and never be glorified for them. Girls who will never be told they are an inspiration because they weren’t lucky enough to survive a disease that can justify everything for them for the rest of their lives. Girls who won’t be anyone’s heroes, who won’t be invited back here to give a speech.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Dr. Downs prompts calmly. Annie nods at him then turns back to her pages: the hasty, insincere words she’s written. Why shouldn’t she be ready?

She makes sure not to look at any of them. She notices the slightly opened door in front of her, in the very the back of the gym. She pictures herself running towards it, escaping this disingenuous dance. But they’re all here, waiting for her story.

Annie fixates on the open door, the only sliver of space that feels real to her, and begins.


Sam Baldassari is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn College. She enjoys reading and writing, teaching, eating Cheezits, and hip-hop dancing with her team from Penn State, Whiplash Dance Team. Her work has been featured in Eunoia Review, The Nottingham Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. To read more of Sam's work, visit www.sambaldassari.wordpress.com