Lizzie hated hospitals. She hated nurses and therapists and psychologists and especially doctors, anyone in a lab coat with a medical degree. That’s why, when her sister suggested they go to the hospital together to say one last goodbye to their mother, Lizzie said no. It wasn’t until Tess started to cry that Lizzie promised to get on an airplane, fly back to Florida, and at least drive with Tess so she wouldn’t have to be alone.
“Don’t you need to see your mom one last time?” Lizzie’s roommate Jennifer asked late one night when both of them were in the kitchen. Lizzie had come downstairs around one in the morning carrying a sticker-covered computer in a baggy Gators T-shirt and grey sweatpants to apply for more jobs (her masters degree had earned her a job at as a barista at the local bar and a cashier at the grocery store downtown) and found Jennifer already at the table in an overlarge blue sweater and black gym shorts, her dyed red hair up in a messy bun. On the table sat two mugs, two tea bags, two spoons, and a jar of honey. One of the mugs had a picture of a cocker spaniel. The other read “Perkatory: the anguished, prolonged period spent waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to be ready.”
“I have photos,” Lizzie said, stirring honey into her tea. She had just flipped through some of them yesterday, after Tess had requested she bring some, in a brown leather-bound photo album. There were several photos of her and Lizzie with matching dark, curly hair. In Lizzie’s favorite, her mother was wearing black heels and a bright yellow blouse with red lipstick. When Lizzie was younger, she used to go through her mother’s closet and try on her mother’s sweaters and long-sleeve shirts, pretending they were dresses. Several times, her mother caught her, but she never got mad. Once, she even showed Lizzie how to put on the lipstick.
Jennifer shrugged and left it alone.
Lizzie found Tess by the luggage in the airport, even though she hadn’t checked any. She carried her multicolored plaid bag over her right shoulder. She had thrown her hair up in a ponytail at the airport in Virginia and wore Tess’s old leggings that had somehow ended up in her possession, blue and white striped Toms, and a grey sweater with a white bird over the left breast. Tess, on the other hand, looked put together: she had her sandy brown hair straightened down to her shoulders and wore a navy cardigan with a forest green tank top under it, light blue jeans, and black sandals that wrapped around her ankles. Lizzie put the bag down so they could hug.
“I missed you,” Tess said.
“But now I’m here,” Lizzie said.
Lizzie waited by Tess’s car in the parking lot, a red 2012 Honda with Florida plates. Tess had insisted they go to the hospital right away, so Lizzie had said she would wait for Tess outside, in spite of Tess’s pleas. She promised Tess to come back later, when she was ready. After Tess left, she had pulled off the sweater (it was still warm in Miami, even in November) and was lighting a cigarette when someone from behind said, “You know cancer’s no joke.” Lizzie turned around. There was a man there in a white jacket, a T-shirt with the blue Auburn Tigers logo on it, and ripped jeans. He had thick black hair.
“No one’s laughing,” she said. She put the lighter back in her pants pocket.
“You looked like you could be having a good time,” the man said. “You have cancer?”
“Not yet. Do you?”
“Liver,” he said and held out his hand. “Give me a stick.” Lizzie took the cigarettes back out and lit two of them. One for her, and one for the man in the Tiger’s shirt. “Why are you here, if you’re not sick?”
“I didn’t say I’m not sick, I said I didn’t have cancer,” Lizzie argued.
“Ah. Well, technicalities,” the man said. “How old are you?” He put his lips on the cigarette and inhaled.
“Twenty-six,” Lizzie said, exhaling smoke. The man grinned. “Do you think I’m lying?”
“I mean, kind of,” he said. “I would’ve said, like, sixteen.”
Lizzie smirked. “I’ll age up when I get sick.”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Matt.”
“Lizzie.” She took it.
“Mom would really like to see you.” Lizzie and Tess sat on their mother’s porch swing in the evening, both wearing tank tops, Lizzie’s sandy brown and Tess’s bubblegum pink, and denim shorts. Both tank tops had been Lizzie’s before she had moved to Virginia. Tess had just looked through Lizzie’s photos. There were several of Lizzie and their mother.
“I’ll go back soon,” Lizzie said.
“You’re leaving on Tuesday.”
Lizzie shrugged and kicked off the porch with her feet. Her side of the swing wobbled gently. “I have time.”
Tess raised her eyes and tilted her head forward. It was the same look she had used since she was little when she wanted their mother to tell the truth about whether or not there were monsters under the bed or if cauliflower really was as gross as she thought it would be. “It’s Sunday.”
“I’ll go by tomorrow, while you’re at work.” Tess worked at the nail salon as a stylist.
“You don’t have a car.” Lizzie kicked off the ground again.
“I’ll take the bus.”
Tess raised her eyebrows again. “Lizzie.”
“I’ll go, don’t worry about it.” This time, when she kicked off, Tess lifted her feet off the ground and they both went flying.
“Where does your sister think you are?” Matt asked. They both lay in Matt’s queen sized bed, naked except for a thin blue sheet borrowed from the closet in the hall. They hadn’t had sex, although they had done just about everything else.
“A friend’s,” Lizzie said, gazing up at the ceiling on her back. It was a pretty big room, with white walls and a blue carpet. There was a window looking out onto the street, a full-length mirror in the corner, and a dresser across from the bed. “I told her not to wait up for me.”
“Will she?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, probably.” When Lizzie was a junior in high school and Tess had just started her second year, their mother had gone out of state for work. There was a lot of snow that winter, too much for Lizzie to drive home in from a friend’s that night. Tess had stayed up all night waiting to hear if Lizzie could get home.
Lizzie turned onto her side and traced a faint scar on Matt’s shoulder. “Does it hurt?”
He smiled. “My shoulder?”
Matt shrugged against the pillows. “Yeah, sometimes. I’m on a lot of drugs, though.” Matt took her hand in his and kissed it. “What kind does your mom have?”
“And that’s the kind you’ll get?”
“Probably.” She stretched her arm and ran a finger through Matt’s hair, catching soft strands between her fingers. They fell onto his shoulders in small clumps.
“You haven’t seen her yet?” Jennifer asked. Lizzie’s phone was sitting on the kitchen countertop on speaker, between her mother’s old toaster and the blender she bought when solid foods started making her nauseous. Lizzie herself was boiling water, her hair still braided from before she went to sleep, dressed in black yoga pants and a light blue T-shirt from the night before.
“No. Why?” Lizzie ripped the top off a box of Barilla spaghetti and tipped the pasta into the pot.
“I don’t get it, but whatever.” Lizzie rolled her eyes and picked up the wooden spoon. “How’s Tess?” Lizzie set the silverware beside the paper plates, the navy ones with the polka dots her mother had bought from Wal-Mart since Lizzie’s childhood. She heard a car door slam.
“I think she’s home.”
“Alright, I’ll let you go,” Jennifer said.
“Bye.” Lizzie hit the off button as Tess walked in the door in a crisp white top, a black knee-length skirt, and black pumps. Her hair was pinned up at the sides.
“Thank god for lunch breaks,” Tess said. “Did you see Mom yet?”
“It’s noon,” Lizzie said.
“So when are you going to?” Tess asked.
“Soon.” Tess sat down at the kitchen table. “You wore that last time I saw you,” Lizzie said.
“You’re so obsessive.” Lizzie stirred the pasta in the pot once. Tess drummed the table with her dark red manicured fingernails. “I’m going to psychoanalyze you.”
“Go for it.”
“You care so much about my outfit so you can distract me from the fact that you haven’t seen Mom yet.” She tilted her head and frowned. “Our you’re distracting yourself. I haven’t figured out which.”
Lizzie stirred the pasta the other way. “Not even close,” she said.
“What time do you leave tomorrow?” Matt asked.
“Twelve,” Lizzie said. The two of them were getting coffee downtown at a Starbucks. Lizzie wore a red flannel top and the denim shorts she had worn yesterday. She had borrowed Tess’s tan sandals for a change. Matt was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt and a pair of dark jeans.
“Come over tonight?” Matt asked. He kept his hand around his coffee cup.
Lizzie sipped her coffee, iced, extra milk and sugar, and said, “I can’t. I’m watching a movie with my sister.” Matt nodded. “But I can come over Tuesday morning? Just for a while?”
“I have chemo,” Matt said, blowing on his drink, roasted, no milk or sugar. “But you could come.”
“If you want to.”
Lizzie crossed her legs. “I’ll think about it.”
Matt shrugged. “You’ll have to do it someday.”
“You’re cutting it close,” Tess said. Lizzie put her phone down between them, ignoring another message from Matt.
“Shut up and play the movie,” Lizzie said. They were both sitting on the plum colored couch in the living room, the one their grandmother had given their mother when she died. They had found a box of old Disney movies, some of them so old they were on video tapes, and popped in the Brother Bear DVD Tess had gotten for Christmas one year. Lizzie had forgotten how small the TV was. Both wore old sweatpants. Lizzie wore another tank top (she was still readjusting to the Florida heat), Tess their mother’s sweater. Both were sitting under their mother’s old quilt. Her phone buzzed again with a text. Lizzie pretended she hadn’t heard it.
“I just think she’d like it,” Tess said, pressing play. The castle with the Disney logo came up on the screen.
“You know what, Tess, you’re not going to get sick like her, so please just shut up.”
Tess furrowed her eyebrows angrily and then burst into tears.
“Tess, I didn’t mean that,” Lizzie said.
“Yes you did.” She started breathing in quick gasps.
Lizzie leaned over and hit the pause button. She took Tess’s hand. “I did,” she said.
“I know that,” Tess said between breaths. “Just for one fucking second can you think about me? I’m going to be alone.”
Lizzie pulled her close. Both of them cried into their mother’s sweater.
The room was dark, despite the florescent lighting in the halls. The floor was checked black and white and the walls were a lilac purple. on one side of the bed was a stand with a sandy brown bear holding a red heart that said “I Love You” in white script and three balloons, one red, one white, and one pink. The pink one was drooping slightly. On the other side was a machine that beeped every few seconds, mapping out the movements of Lizzie’s mother’s heart. Lizzie’s mother lay on the bed. Her formerly dark and curly hair was gone. Her neck was swollen slightly and her skin was pasty, almost white. Where as her neck was puffed out, her cheeks had caved in, as though her body had redistributed all the weight. Lizzie pulled the door shut behind her. “Hi, Mom,” she said.
Her mother turned her head slightly. “Did Tess make you come?” she rasped.
“No,” Lizzie said, taking a few steps closer, slowly. “But she did let me borrow her car.” Her legs shook slightly in her mother’s old black heels. Lizzie wore black shorts and Tess’s faded blue button up short-sleeved shirt. Her mother wore a hospital gown.
“She said you were in town. I thought you would’ve come sooner.”
“I know,” Lizzie said. She was close enough now that she could’ve reached out and touched her mother if she wanted to. She settled for sitting in the chair beside her bed and putting her hand on the white sheet covering her mother’s legs. “I was scared, I guess.”
“Because it’ll be you next.”
“Yeah.” Lizzie tried to grab her mother’s hand, but couldn’t seem to get her arm to work.
“It’s not so bad,” Lizzie’s mother said.
“You’re lying,” Lizzie laughed.
“Yeah.” She inched her hand toward Lizzie’s, and Lizzie took it. “That’s what I do for you.”
Lizzie rubbed her eye with the other hand. “I’m glad I came back,” she said.
Her mother inhaled a shaky breath and nodded. She winced at the pain in her neck.
She was smoking on the hood of her sister’s car by the entrance of the hospital when Matt came out of the building in a green Gator’s hoodie. “I might not get cancer,” she said, handing him a cigarette.
He blinked. “Excuse me?” He took it.
“My mom and I had the same disease,” she said, lighting his cigarette. “Have the same disease. It’s genetic. Tess doesn’t have it.” Matt just stood there. “The treatment can cause lymphoma.”
“So you’ve been blowing me off.”
“So I’ve been blowing you off.”
Matt shrugged. “At least you’re honest.”
“I just wanted you to know that,” she said. “I don’t really know why.”
“I mean, I get it,” he said. “Sometimes this woman comes into the room while I’m getting Chemo and she’s already lost her hair and she can barely talk and stuff. She has throat cancer.”
She waved her cigarette in the air. “Probably from one of these.” He laughed. “I’m moving back to Florida,” she said.
“Why?” He blew the cigarette smoke out of his mouth. It smelled almost sweet.
“Does she know yet?”
Lizzie shook her head. “I have to talk to my roommate. And maybe I’ll actually find a job here.”
“If that’s your reasoning, you’d better stay where you are.” Lizzie laughed, too. “Maybe you can let me know when you get back?”
“Maybe,” she said.
“You’ll come back soon?” Tess said.
“I will.” They were standing by the security line, watching the the board overhead for any delays. “Maybe by then you’ll have your own apartment.”
“Yeah. Text me when you get there.”
“I will.” They hugged. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” They broke apart. Tess picked up Lizzie’s bag and handed it to her. “Don’t be late,” she said. They hugged one more time before Lizzie got on the security line and went back to Virginia. Lizzie looked back while someone checked her ticket and ID, but Tess was gone.
By the time Lizzie got home, it was dark outside. She went back to her room and saw Jennifer’s post-it note stuck to her door: “Out to get groceries. Be back soon.”
Lizzie opened the door and dumped her bag onto her bed. She leaned back against her pillow and opened her laptop to start looking for apartments in Florida. With one hand tapping on the keyboard, she fished her phone out of her pants pocket and saw five missed calls, three voicemails, and two texts from Tess. The first read: “Call when you can?” And the second: “Mom died. Call when you land.”
She put her phone on the nightstand and studied her laptop. She had already pulled up an apartment complex not too far from Tess, both in her price range and with several openings. She closed the tab and her laptop. She scooted down off the pillow and lay back on her black and white striped blanket and stared up at the white ceiling, her laptop leaving hot marks on her stomach, rubbing the sides of her neck with her hands.
Nicole Zelniker is an editorial researcher at The Conversation US and a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. She has published several pieces of poetry and two short stories. Read more of her work at nicolezelniker.wordpress.com.