A Storyby Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Not long for this world. “Don’t say things like that,” I would’ve said if I had heard it from Talinda. One of her usual angry and dapper turns of phrase.
“You’ll fight this thing,” I said when she first told me she had stomach cancer, and for once she nodded without ridiculing a cliché. But that was a year ago, before I became this wretched person. A woman sleeping with her best friend’s husband, a woman waiting to take over a life.
“Aren’t you full of surprises, Miss Narika Kandelwala,” Talinda would have said. “You’re not as boring as I thought.” If she had known.
But Talinda doesn’t know what her husband and I were—are—capable of. She’s only known about cancer. How its cells lived as shameless parasites of the body, the dark and mocking children who would never leave home. Talinda could caution you about genes that whispered false instructions, making the body sacrifice itself to obey, genes speaking louder and louder over rivers of new blood vessels gushing powerfully, these rivers mindless and cruel as they assumed crossed and confusing directions of their own to feed the cells of destruction, greedily serving them.
I’m not like her. I don’t know much that’s medical, but I could tell Talinda things. Not who she was; Talinda herself had made that be: Talinda Kim, age thirty-seven, Korean American, born to a waitress in Flushing. Board-certified internist and geriatrician, married no children, signet cell gastric carcinoma, stage four, prognosis six months.
Six months. If I weren’t betraying Talinda, I’d use what I know for her benefit. My arm around her shoulder, I’d describe Audre Lorde’s cancer journals, her dignity, her hope. Then Talinda would be forced, as usual, to turn on me with her mix of affection and contempt, the potent and honest combination that I’ve counted on. She might say, “Narika, you don’t win any points for reading some black woman’s diary, whose problems you aren’t black enough to understand. Amazing how you’re trying to read books for a living. At some point you have to stop going to school and get a job. At some point, you have to accept it. The real world isn’t made of poetry.”
I’d use any time we had to try and distract her. Talk about Dadaist art or North Korean politics, or Bette Davis movies, her favorites. Now, Voyager, with a childless Bette Davis trying to make do by being a cool aunt. Of Human Bondage, Bette as the pregnant, vulgar, coercive, determined Mildred. All About Eve. What it is like to have your life, bit by bit, stolen by a woman you trusted.
But all I’m doing now is sitting in Talinda’s black Benz white-knuckled, hoping she doesn’t know the truth. The car is silent. She is in the driver’s seat. I can’t bring myself to talk about movie actresses like Bette Davis anyway, because who was she really? Some skinny, overbearing, self-important white woman who bears more than a passing resemblance, I realize suddenly, to Talinda’s husband George’s mother, who never remarried after George’s father left her for one of his students thirty years before, a beautiful Asian, and moved with the woman to teach at a university in Singapore. A mother-in-law whom Talinda avoids and who, like Talinda’s own mother, hasn’t been told anything about the cancer. A mother-in-law who’s expressed the wish, loudly at times, that George had never married Talinda. That Talinda didn’t exist.
If I were Talinda’s friend, really her friend, I’d tell her that her husband seduced me, and vice versa. That the three of us should get far away from each other. That she deserved a better life, friend, and lover. If I were good, I’d exit, pursued by a bear.