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WHEN I GET to the Regent Hotel, Marla's in the lobby wearing a bathrobe. Marla called me at work and asked, would I skip the gym and the library or the laundry or whatever I had planned after work and come see her, instead.
This is why Marla called, because she hates me.
She doesn't say a thing about her collagen trust fund.
What Marla says is, would I do her a favor? Marla was lying in bed this afternoon. Marla lives on the meals that Meals on Wheels delivers for her neighbors who are dead; Marla accepts the meals and says they're asleep. Long story short, this afternoon Marla was just lying in bed, waiting for the Meals on Wheels delivery between noon and two. Marla hasn't had health insurance for a couple years so she's stopped looking, but this morning she looks and there seemed to be a lump and the nodes under her arm near the lump were hard and tender at the same time and she couldn't tell anyone she loves because she doesn't want to scare them and she can't afford to see a doctor if this is nothing, but she needed to talk to someone and someone else needed to look.
The color of Marla's brown eyes is like an animal that's been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.
Marla says she'll forgive the collagen thing if I'll help her look.
I figure she doesn't call Tyler because she doesn't want to scare him. I'm neutral in her book, I owe her.
We go upstairs to her room, and Marla tells me how in the wild you don't see old animals because as soon as they age, animals die. If they get sick or slow down, something stronger kills them. Animals aren't meant to get old.
Marla lies down on her bed and undoes the tie on her bathrobe, and says our culture has made death something wrong. Old animals should be an unnatural exception.
Marla's cold and sweating while I tell her how in college I had a wart once. On my penis, only I say, dick. I went to the medical school to have it removed. The wart. Afterwards, I told my father. This was years after, and my dad laughed and told me I was a fool because warts like that are nature's French tickler. Women love them and God was doing me a favor.
Kneeling next to Marla's bed with my hands still cold from outside, feeling Marla's cold skin a little at a time, rubbing a little of Marla between my fingers every inch, Marla says those warts that are God's French ticklers give women cervical cancer.
So I was sitting on the paper belt in an examining room at the medical school while a medical student sprays a canister of liquid nitrogen on my dick and eight medical students watched. This is where you end up if you don't have medical insurance. Only they don't call it a dick, they called it a penis, and whatever you call it, spray it with liquid nitrogen and you might as well burn it with lye, it hurts so bad.
Marla laughs at this until she sees my fingers have stopped. Like maybe I've found something.
Marla stops breathing and her stomach goes like a drum, and her heart is like a fist pounding from inside the tight skin of a drum. But no, I stopped because I'm talking, and I stopped because, for a minute, neither of us was in Marla's bedroom. We were in the medical school years ago, sitting on the sticky paper with my dick on fire with liquid nitrogen when one of the medical students saw my bare feet and left the room fast in two big steps. The student came back in behind three real doctors, and the doctors elbowed the man with the canister of liquid nitrogen to one side.
A real doctor grabbed my bare right foot and hefted it into the face of the other real doctors. The three turned it and poked it and took Polaroid pictures of the foot, and it was as if the rest of the person, half dressed with God's gift half frozen, didn't exist. Only the foot, and the rest of the medical students pressed in to see.
"How long," a doctor asked, "have you had this red blotch on your foot?"
The doctor meant my birthmark. On my right foot is a birthmark that my father jokes looks like a dark red Australia with a little New Zealand right next to it. This is what I told them and it let all the air out of everything. My dick was thawing out. Everyone except the student with the nitrogen left, and there was the sense that he would've left too, he was so disappointed he never met my eyes as he took the head of my dick and stretched it toward himself. The canister jetted a tiny spray on what was left of the wart. The feeling, you could close your eyes and imagine your dick is a hundred miles long, and it would still hurt.
Marla looks down at my hand and the scar from Tyler's kiss.
I said to the medical student, you must not see a lot of birthmarks around here.
It's not that. The student said everyone thought the birthmark was cancer. There was this new kind of cancer that was getting young men. They wake up with a red spot on their feet or ankles. The spots don't go away, they spread until they cover you and then you die.
The student said, the doctors and everyone were so excited because they thought you had this new cancer. Very few people had it, yet, but it was spreading.
This was years and years ago.
Cancer will be like that, I tell Marla. There will be mistakes, and maybe the point is not to forget the rest of yourself if one little part might go bad.
Marla says, "Might."
The student with the nitrogen finished up and told me the wart would drop off after a few days. On the sticky paper next to my bare ass was a Polaroid picture of my foot that no one wanted. I said, can I have the picture?
I still have the picture in my room stuck in the corner of a mirror in the frame. I comb my hair in the mirror before work every morning and think how I once had cancer for ten minutes, worse than cancer.
I tell Marla that this Thanksgiving was the first year when my grandfather and I did not go ice skating even though the ice was almost six inches thick. My grandmother always has these little round bandages on her forehead or her arms where moles she's had her whole life didn't look right. They spread out with fringed edges or the moles turned from brown to blue or black.
When my grandmother got out of the hospital the last time, my grandfather was carrying her suitcase and it was so heavy he complained that he felt lopsided. My French-Canadian grandmother was so modest that she never wore a swimming suit in public and she always ran water in the sink to mask any sound she might make in the bathroom. Coming out of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital after a partial mastectomy, she says: "You feel lopsided?"
For my grandfather, that sums up the whole story, my grandmother, cancer, their marriage, your life. He laughs every time he tells that story.
Marla isn't laughing. I want to make her laugh, to warm her up. To make her forgive me for the collagen, I want to tell Marla there's nothing for me to find. If she found anything this morning, it was a mistake. A birthmark.
Marla has the scar from Tyler's kiss on the back of her hand.
I want to make Marla laugh so I don't tell her about the last time I hugged Chloe, Chloe without hair, a skeleton dipped in yellow wax with a silk scarf tied around her bald head. I hugged Chloe one last time before she disappeared forever. I told her she looked like a pirate, and she laughed. Me, when I go to the beach, I always sit with my right foot tucked under me. Australia and New Zealand, or I keep it buried in the sand. My fear is that people will see my foot and I'll start to die in their minds. The cancer I don't have is everywhere now. I don't tell Marla that.
There are a lot of things we don't want to know about the people we love.
To warm her up, to make her laugh, I tell Marla about the woman in Dear Abby who married a handsome successful mortician and on their wedding night, he made her soak in a tub of ice water until her skin was freezing to the touch, and then he made her lie in bed completely still while he had intercourse with her cold inert body.
The funny thing is this woman had done this as a newlywed, and gone on to do it for the next ten years of marriage and now she was writing to Dear Abby to ask if Abby thought it meant something.
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