We were both early for the appointment. I saw him across the foyer. He is wearing the same turquoise tie and a skinny-fitting shirt a bit more ironed than last time, a blonde flop and a really very smart leather bag. He’s sharp but messy-boy dirty and young, young, young. I am 40. Oh, come on, let’s want him.
He used the north lifts, I hid for a minute then used the south lifts. It was like this, a circling, of course as if we hadn’t really seen each other when of course we totally had and we wondered who would approach or how and when. He waited around in the chemo atrium, I checked-in, averting glances. But still it began approximately on time: Bambi L. I stumble and fall, but I give you it all; every detail I could possibly remember about every single doctor’s visit while I was in the hospital, the psychological impact, the practical implications, what time of day it happened, what time of day they said it would, how it was to wait, when it was necessary to get hysterical, what worked, what didn’t, when, which rank of doctor lied, how they did, who did the bone marrow biopsy, where did my samples go, the trundling round on a trolley when I could walk perfectly fine, energy saving tips and anti-advertising rants against the pay-for TV, and then every single detail I could muster about my own cancer, every hard fact that I am in command of about what might happen to me and an awareness of the hard facts that I am not, of how I am not, what to expect, what not, when the ifs and maybes kick in, why, actually about all cancer and its treatments. The boy couldn’t believe his luck. I mean, he’s the trainee doctor but quite what they learn at school… It really was like pouring liquid gold down his honeyed throat and he filled and filled his little reporter’s flipbook that I wondered if he’d bought specially with writing that just looked too big to be efficient.
After about an hour Bambi L. was getting twitchy at his hospital’s failure to acknowledge that I was actually there – oh the aspirations of this boy, the utopian ideas that appointments mean something, that there might be communication, oh, oh, I wish for him… But anyway, that didn’t stop me. On and on I went. Bambi’s ordered a special book from the British Library that might be the only one in the world with any information on this kind of lymphoma I have and he’s promising we sort of ‘do this together’ kind of thing. Roll over, sit, spread, grind, grind…
Bambi’s tie is too long. As Denise is prepping me and before she’s forgot to check if my injections are in the fridge (they’re not, though she never knew) which would have been before she finished her shift and goes to her Samba class without a care left in the world, and while we’re all getting frittery because I have a slight temperature and the doctor has to come etc etc I am looking at Bambi’s tie. It is flopped over his crotch, his slim-fit grey flannel trousers and he sort of fingers it from time to time. And we both know that it is too long.
His trousers are tugged-up slightly and he is wearing odd socks, each as bright as the other. One bright red, one bright purple. Intense. It reminds me of this boy who would come to a Chaucer class we had together that started at 9am and he’d always wear brightly coloured striped socks and they were always odd and somehow he came into the room with the air of a rugby pitch about him, that was simultaneously a just-lurched his rugby-wrecked torso from a bed to a shower via a sex life and a still-smelling of mud or a grass stained sock, and the underside of his hair was always wet to start with, which reminds me of… oh, oh… a kind of fantasy hybrid of one called Pablo and one called Mark and red and black football socks, and one of them wearing the other’s for a week and then me unravelling them into cut strings of sweat-soaked wool in individual zip-locked bags as a limited edition for a magazine, really for the smell, which I never did…
But back with Bambi I’m still going and I can smell my own body because I didn’t have any clean underpants to put on that morning, not having slept where my underwear drawer currently is, and if I’d seen it before I would have made a mental note at the time that I smelled like the smell of the eyelash under his foreskin that arouses the speaker in Ed Atkins’ video, like a flash of leg shot into a bright white Converse. The smell of that eyelash is a smell I know, or at least I know what smell I’d recognise privately and say that it is that smell for me. Because really I’m sitting there and of course the person I can smell is not me nor him, but Harry, after a day’s work. It’s like lying in bed in Berlin and hearing the National Anthem on Radio 4 and feeling ridiculous and lying in bed now in Dagenham and hearing it and realising that it is OK after all, because it doesn’t make me think of My Country in either place, but in both instances of Elsewhere: in Berlin of an idea about somewhere I didn’t live and here, now, of lying there in Berlin, and it’s hard, but there’s something soft in just such a split.
But anyway, if it wasn’t before then this is when it really gets like a sex date, like that moment when you think things might have been going alright but the person you’re on/in the date with suddenly really earnestly wants to know what you do and you’re in the groove and so you think you’ll give it a go and you say something earnestly like “I’m an artist, I make performances” and “I work also with artists who make film and video” and then you’re bumped – hard – at the brick wall of details that can’t explain anything and just make the chasm bigger. You’re in the cul-de-sac of a subset of a subset and all the juice drains out and you have to sort of forget that any of this was ever spoken to carry on. When you get older you can see this coming and fend it off at the pass (like, you lie, or you say “I teach”) because you can find the bothered/not-to-be-bothered-about-given-the-circumstances line…
Nonetheless, we get to generational difference because I am trying to explain to Bambi L. some of the formative political, social, cultural issues of my teenage years, artists who were heroes then etc., but the 1980s are a country to which he’s never travelled, and he never goes to art galleries now for which he berates himself (for my sake it seems, oh please, know me more) though he might have a look at the Turner Prize because I’d egged him into it with R.D. Laing and all those promises that I wasn’t sure he really knew about either. But that Bambi L., he wanted it all, despite… I mean I really think he didn’t want to disappoint.
He is looking at me now and he’s running out of words to say continue, this gracious boy, this absolutely so attentive and gentle and respectful, considerate, delicate, aspirational… and he says that by now his medical cortex is raging trying to put all this together with all that came before, and he’s mentally cross-referencing and double-checking and it’s all a-whirring and so I say “What does that feel like? What thoughts is that giving you?” and he cannot say, he really cannot, and he starts to remember that when he arrived he’d seen me with a book. It is as if he’s remembered also a strategy from a workshop on how to deal with patients in social situations and he suggests that maybe I want to read my book, which I don’t, but I know what he’s saying and there’s only so long I can not read my book for, because ultimately I’m a giver (that’s what Gary the masseur told me because of the way I gave him my hand too helpfully) and so I pull my book out of my bag and it was a few weeks ago when I thought this illness might be a chance to catch-up with the kids and so I was reading I LOVE DICK and there it is, saying that, in green block capitals on a white background.
Apparently I’m already quite a key part of his education. It’s as if his report for which he’s meant to get information from me over a 6month period is already bloody written. Well Bambi L. you are my report too, my route, let’s subject each other if we can but I’m no more me there in your flipbook than you are here. And so we’ve got a deal boy. As far as I’m concerned. And I will try to learn when to STOP TALKING so we can spread this out and to say less to you to get more, that kind of thing. To want and want and never have.
“You know my hair will fall out?”
“But your hair is really nice.”
“I know my hair is nice, but it will fall out.”
“Would you like something to drink?”
“I’d love a cup of tea.”
He’s gone for ages and when he does come back I sort of feel depleted, or muted and I’ve got I LOVE DICK in my lap and the CHOP chemotherapy is dripping into my vein and he’s been to Starbucks and here it is, another green logo on a white background, the most phallic cup of tea anyone has ever bought me, thin at the base, really really tall and expanding at the top, almost toppling over or swinging, and he gets ready to leave, but before he does he suggests not coming to the next appointment, but maybe to the one after and that’s already next week, on Monday, now and he told me by email that he’s asked his teachers to see if he’s allowed.