“I’m fasting today,” Wanda tells Darlene over coffee.
“Me too,” Darlene says, as if this were normal, the fact that they’re both fasting. As if it were even possible. Wanda stirs a Sweet & Low packet into her mug of hot water and tries again.
“I have cancer,” she says.
“Me, too,” Darlene says, smiling this time because it is true. She has cancer and she hadn’t told a soul until now. She stirs two packets of raw sugar into her latté. It’s not true that she’s fasting. She sticks out her tongue at Wanda and says, “Can you see them? The cancer. It’s in my saliva glands.”
Wanda looks away and out the window at the hipster kid riding up on his bike with his Blue Heeler wrapped around his neck again.
“Someone should report that kid,” she says.
Darlene puts her tongue back in her mouth and imagines she can taste the cancer. It tastes like liquid lavender. They discovered it a week ago after her face went numb. She had thought it was MS.
“Anyway, I drink hot water with cayenne and lemon,” Wanda says. “It’s not that bad now, but it was at first.”
Wanda just turned sixty, has short spiky white-blonde hair and a new boyfriend who recently told her he has a thing for tiny women. He didn’t say so, but what was implied was that she’s not tiny. Not fat, but not tiny. Her body’s not really made for that. But Wanda likes a challenge and now she’s seven days in. At day four she spent the whole morning crying on the kitchen linoleum. She’d planned to tell Darlene about the experience, but then they’d gotten distracted by the imaginary cancer thing.
“They say they’re going to remove part of my tongue,” Darlene says and takes off her glasses to clean them with her shirt. She’s sixty too, but looks younger than Wanda on account of the extra padding. She hasn’t had sex in three and a half years.
The hipster kid has locked up his bike and removed the Blue Heeler from his neck. He’s letting it sniff the Dachshund of a skinny goth girl reading a textbook on discourse analysis. The Dachshund begins to hump the Blue Heeler and both Darlene and Wanda look away.
“Is that why you’re fasting?” Wanda finally asks and it’s like she’s lost.
“I’m not really fasting,” Darlene says and it’s like she’s lost, too.
Wanda feels a flush of contentment, although it could be the lack of food. Since day five and a half, she’s had moments of unexplainable bliss.
“Three days ago I was sprawled out on the kitchen floor bawling like a baby,” she says and when Darlene widens her eyes everything feels normal again.
The goth girl gets her Dachshund off the Blue Heeler with one hard kick and goes back to reading her textbook. Both the Blue Heeler and his hipster owner look at her with surprise. The hipster had been about to ask her if he could sit down at her table, but he thinks better of it and parks his Blue Heeler beside another table before going in to order a coffee.
Once he’s gone, the goth girl watches the two old ladies through the window. The skinnier one with short hair is doing most of the talking, but every once and a while the younger one in glasses will say something that takes over and silences her friend. The goth girl is sure she read a term for that in her textbook.
As long as Wanda keeps talking, Darlene’s cancer cannot metastasize. But as soon as Darlene interrupts, Wanda’s anguish shrinks in magnitude. It cannot be both ways. To talk is to suffer, to listen is to be healed. At least for Wanda and Darlene.
With us, it’s different. I’ve been talking at you for the last three minutes, for instance, and you have yet to say a word.
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