Things Don’t Break

People always ask me about Vincent Van Gogh. Everything I know about that man I learned from random people on the street coming up to me and asking. Nineteenth Century expressionist painter. Epileptic. One time during a seizure he went nuts and cut his ear off and mailed it to some prostitute or something.

Is that what happened? No. Is that what you did? No. Do you have epilepsy? No. Cancer. You idiot.

A lovely midsummer’s day, sun shining, birds singing. I’m walking down this street, so familiar even though I haven’t been here for close to three years now. My head hanging low between my shoulders. I pull a little folded-up scrap of paper out of my pocket. A napkin, actually. On one side is the name, address, phone number, website and logo of a restaurant I used to go to. On the other side is written, in fading blue ink, in her handwriting, a date, today’s date.

I’m just going down the sidewalk, the city continuing to function municipally all around me.
To my right, the people don’t even notice me. To my left, everyone is staring.

Almost there and this can’t be good, won’t be good, I know it. I’m approaching the restaurant and I feel like I’m walking down death row. Electrocution. Lethal injection. I’m sitting in the restaurant, across from her, saying goodbye. The last time for three years. Firing Squad. I’m sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room. The doctor comes out, small steps, looks down at me sitting there with a grave expression on his face, tears about to break out all over mine. Crucifixion.

Stop. My gaze rises, from my shoelaces it ascends, up, up to the sign that clearly shows that I’ve arrived at the Galaxy Diner.

Except it isn’t. It doesn’t say that. There is no sign. Well, there is a sign, but just not that one, not the one I expected to be there.

Now I’m staring, incredulous. I look back down at the napkin, and then back up at the sign again. Number forty-two. This is definitely the place. Except it isn’t.

So I’m standing in front of the ex-Galaxy Diner, shifting from one foot to the other. She’s sitting across from me, empty cup of coffee, and she’s writing a date, today’s date, a day precisely three years from today, on the back of a napkin. Then she’s going to the bathroom. You don’t expect this kind of thing. You never think that your plans for the future will be foiled by the Galaxy Diner going out of business. I’m going to sleep just like everyone else and I’m waking up like Vincent Van Gogh, one step closer to that psychopath from Apocalypse Now, the one with the necklace. You just don’t anticipate it, you don’t make contingency plans for, okay, what if your favourite restaurant becomes a carpet store? You forget all about change, you forget that time keeps happening, even if you decide to have no part of it, even if you decide that you’re not getting any older, dammit. Time still happens, even if you refuse to grow up.

And so standing there gawking stupidly, as there’s no non-stupid way in which to gawk, really, at the sign on the store and then there’s a voice standing behind me, and the first thing that it says is, “You grew your…” and I’m turning around to face it and now the voice is saying, “…hair…oh God.”

Yes, you’d be surprised at how badly long hair hides a missing ear, you really would. It works alright if you’re not moving at all, not even turning around to look at the curiously unfamiliar face of someone important, someone you haven’t seen for so long that you were beginning to wonder if she was ever real at all. And those Elmer Fudd hunting hats with the ear flaps just look bloody ridiculous, especially in the summer.

“Yeah,” I say, “and you cut yours. Your hair. Hi, Kelly.”

“Hi,” she says, seeming distracted. God knows why. “I’m leaving,” she says, “I’m going to Europe for I don’t know how long.” She says, “What happened to you?”

“Nothing, leaky cell phone,” I say. I say, “I’m going to die, aren’t I? Am I going to die?” and the doctor is shaking his head clinically. “It’s a carpet store,” I say, indicating the Galaxy Diner.

“So it is,” she says. “Well then, it’s a carpet store.” She’s ordering a large double-double. I’m ordering a large lemon tea with two sugars, and a lemon cranberry muffin. The doctor is ordering additional radiological investigation. I’m ordering myself not to cry. “Do you need any carpets?”

And recent scientific studies indicate that we’re sitting together on a rolled-up carpet; ostensibly there’s no connection between cellular phone use and ear cancer but these kinds of tumours are often more extensive than clinically apparent if you ask me, and if you’re talking all the time then you’re never thinking, are you?

“How was Europe?” I ask. “Tell me everything. What are my chances? I want the truth.” She’s bouncing nervously up and down on the carpet.

“I’ll be back,” she says, “I’ll meet you right here, in exactly three years.” I can’t find comfort in anything anymore. She says, “It was great, beautiful. In Italy I kicked the Arch of Titus.” A sleeve resection and a skin graft are occasionally possible for early lesions but have limitations related to the ill-defined boundaries of the tumour, and surgery may be incomplete. She says, “In Ireland I made a little boat out of newspaper and watched it float down the Liffey.”

“If you ask me,” I say, “they should tell you that the prosthetic can cause an allergic reaction.” I say, “What am I supposed to do now?” She’s paying for my muffin and sliding the napkin across the table to me, looking doleful.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry,” the doctor says. “In Spain I visited the town where the Communists killed all the Anarchists in the civil war, even though they were on the same side,” she says.

The carpets all smell like chemicals. She smells like violets. The manager is looking at us askance. She smells like violets. Everyone is staring. If you ask me, it’s all about entropy. All around us, time is happening. Studies won’t indicate this, but it’s true: sometimes the only cure for boredom is mutation. A lateral temporal bone resection or subtotal temporal bone resection may be necessary in order to remove the tumour completely. “I know you’ll be fine,” someone says, I don’t know who. External X-ray megavoltage beam irradiation is quite often indicated in view of the closeness of the surgical margin of resection. Synchrony means never having to say you’re sorry. I say, “Why is this happening?”

She says, “It’s important for me to get out and see the world for myself.” She says, “So what, um, have you been doing?” Treatment volume is designed to cover the potential areas of involvement while minimizing unnecessary irradiation to the adjacent vital organs (eye and brain). Treatment is usually prescribed postoperatively. She’s getting up. She’s leaving. She’s leaving. “I have to go,” she says. “It was really great to see you again.” Time keeps happening. “We’ll see each other again soon, I promise,” she says. And time keeps on happening, all around us.

“I keep it in a jar in my bedroom,” I say.

She says, “Ew, you’re kidding!”

“Of course I’m kidding.” But of course I’m not kidding.

I’m sitting, alone, in the Galaxy Diner, in the radiology ward, on a carpet. And time keeps happening, time continues to happen, even if you decide that you’re never getting over it.

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