When Claire didn’t come back downstairs after an hour, a small debate ensued about whether we should go and check on her. While me and Courtney and Janine were arguing about it, Ziggy just went and looked in on her, and then came down to say she was lying down but she was fine.
I went up to check on her myself another half hour or so later. She sat up in bed and looked somewhat annoyed to see me.
“Just checking if you need some water or anything?”
“Sure you were,” she said. “I know you’re all wondering if I’m going to die tonight and ruin Christmas.”
“That thought had not actually occurred to me,” I said, truthfully, “but it sounds like maybe you’re wondering about it?”
She put her hands over her face and hunched over like she was crying.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry.” I shut the door behind me and went close enough to rub my hand between her shoulder blades. “I didn’t mean to–”
“Don’t apologize!” Her voice was sharp enough that I snatched my hand back, but she went on in a softer voice: “You didn’t give me cancer.” She dabbed her face with the corner of the bedsheet and groaned. “I forgot how awful alcohol makes me feel. Afterward, I mean. It’s fine while I’m drinking.”
“I know what you mean.” I rubbed my own jaw, trying to loosen the tension there.
“It isn’t just the nausea and the headache. It’s like my whole world goes back to black and white from color.” She looked up at me. “Of course, I am actually going to die, so that probably has something to do with it.”
I decided now was the moment to ask the question I’d been meaning to for a while. “Are you sure you’re going to die? I mean, isn’t the point of the treatments that maybe you won’t?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. The doctors recommended this course of treatment as long as we could pay for it. I sometimes wonder if they just want the money.”
“That seems cynical even for the modern medical establishment.” There was a small chair next to her bed. Her purse was sitting on it, but there was room for me on the edge, so I sat.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up,” she said.
“I know what you mean, but at the same time isn’t a positive outlook supposed to improve your survival chances?
She looked at me. “You don’t strike me as the type to believe in miracles.”
“Is it a miracle if a medical cure actually works?”
“I suppose not.” She winced. “Can I tell you something before I sober up completely and lose my nerve?”
“Of course,” I said, wondering if what she was going to say was going to be painful to her, to me, or to both of us.
“What I said before, about how none of you know the real me?”
She had dark circles under her eyes and her skin looked sallow. “Part of me is terrified of dying without anyone knowing me for who I really am. But.”
“But it’s–” She sucked in a breath, like she was about to cry again or something, but after a moment she went on. “Never mind. It’s just a bummer, as the expression goes.”
“Do you mean it’s a shame we don’t know you better because now there’s so little time to catch up?”
“No, no. Never mind. It’s not your fault. You know, in some ways it’s better that you and I didn’t really know each other at all. Before this, I mean.”
Presumably because if we did, we’d be at each other’s throats the way she and Janine were. I kept my mouth shut to see if she’d elaborate.
She didn’t. She groaned and pressed her fist against her breastbone.
“You know, when I’m feeling ill or injured, sometimes I feel better just from someone holding my hand.” I held out mine, the one with the scars.
“Why do you suppose that is?” she asked, as she gingerly placed her fingers across my palm.
“There’s probably some scientific reason,” I said, closing my fingers just as gingerly. “Like, hormones or something.”
“Probably,” she said with a nod, and closed her eyes.
I’ll tell you, I had a little jolt of adrenaline right then, wondering if she’d just died and thinking how ironic it would be if she did. But no, she was just asleep. Then she snored lightly and woke herself up. “Why do you think it is?”
I’d lost the thread of the conversation. “Why do I think what?”
“That holding hands with someone makes you feel better.”
“Oh. Honestly? I think when I’m in pain it traps me in a kind of bubble, and when someone holds my hand it burst the bubble.”
“I’m afraid of suffering,” she said. “But even more, I’m afraid of dying alone.”
“I know.” I squeezed her fingers. I wanted to promise her that she wouldn’t. But how could I make that promise when I didn’t know if I could deliver on it? I couldn’t be with her every minute of every day. I wondered if Ziggy’s mother had feared the same. He certainly was afraid that she did, and that she had. “Let’s try not to let that happen, okay?”
A startled chuckle came out of her. “You always say things I don’t quite expect.”
“Is that good?”
“Normally I would say no. But under the circumstances, it’s fine.”
That almost made me laugh. It was a weird sort of approval, and I got the feeling Claire was as baffled by her feelings of approval for me as I was.
She fell asleep again, her hand slipping free of mine and this time I didn’t instantly wonder if she had expired. If I looked carefully I could see she was breathing. If I leaned in close I could smell the booze on her breath.
I left a full glass of water on the bedside table along with a bottle of Vitamin I (ibuprofen) and went to see if the wrapping was wrapping up.