Pushcart XLIII: C. J. Hribal, “Do I Look Sick to You? (Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient” from Bellevue Literary Review #17.1

At first you don’t. You hold back, stroking the small of her back. You kiss her ear. You nestle in behind her. Finally she says, “What, you’re afraid I’ll break? You’re afraid it’s contagious? Trust me, the cancer will not stick to your dick. It’s not gonna rush up your urethra, pummeling your little spermies on the way, and explode like an IED in your insides. It’s only trying to do that to me.”
This is how it’s going to be—she is going to kick cancer in the ass. Everyone says this, “She is going to kick cancer in the ass,” until it becomes a mantra. Everything is going to be as it was before, only now you are “living with cancer.”
“‘Living with cancer?’” she says when her oncologist uses this phrase. “What, I’ve lent out rooms? I’m just supposed to think it’s a particularly sloppy roommate? It leaves its clothes everywhere, its dishes mound up in the sink, it leaves its towels on the bathroom floor and clots of hair in the drain, and when I say, ‘This is not
working out,’ my cancer roommate gets to say, ‘Screw you, I’m staying’? That is so not right.”

Complete story available online at BLR

If you search google for “language of cancer”, you’ll find a great deal of material – written by linguists, psychologists, medical practitioners, and everyday bloggers – on the way we talk about cancer. The military metaphors of battling, fighting, defeating, waging war, have their defenders and detractors, and it’s quite interesting to read. It serves for some as motivation to keep appointments that will result in horrific side effects.

For others, these battle metaphors are less appreciated. They set up the patient as brave and strong, as on a mission. That puts a lot of pressure on someone who is already dealing with enormous obstacles. Soldiers don’t cry. Warriors suck it up and continue once the vomiting stops. The brave have sex because sex is fun and life affirming even when your portacath is aching or the mouth ulcers are painful.

And the significant others of these warriors make love to their partners, because they have to be warriors, too.

The story pays close attention to these language tricks we play on scary things. Take the phrase “living with cancer”. The character in the story reacts to that as absurd. My offhand, completely unresearched impression is that it’s a phrase that came about as cancer treatments improved, as people were no longer sick or well, but in the middle ground of chronic disease that can be managed. It’s better than being labeled terminal, but nowhere near a cure, and knowing one’s life will be impacted by frequent tests and ongoing treatments may or may not be cause for celebration. As the story moves on, it becomes evident Charlotte is no longer living with cancer, if she ever was (I have a feeling the oncologist was a bit optimistic), but dying of cancer.

I have to agree with Jake Weber on this one. In his post, he makes it clear how impossible it is to actually critique this story (particularly since Hribal’s interview indicates it’s based on actual experience), given the emotional content. I’m glad I don’t have to critique, but just report my reading experience.

Telling the story from the angle of the boyfriend tells a slightly different story, but most terminal-illness books (and I have a whole shelf of them, dating back some 40 years) are told by significant others. Hribal’s choice of second-person narration also creates a somewhat different dynamic. I have a particular interest in this point of view, so I was happy to see him include both the tendency to draw the reader in, and the simultaneous distancing effect, that I’ve mentioned before in connection with second-person narration:

I kept coming back to second person because second person, when it’s done well (and I hope I’ve done it well), can do several things simultaneously—it invites the reader to directly enter the story as a character, and it can convey to the reader the feeling that the character him- or herself doesn’t quite want to be there, that they’re in a situation from which they’d like to be slightly distanced. It’s not happening to me, it’s happening to this other person, this “you.” For this story, I did want the reader to be in this particularly uncomfortable situation, to experience it as the character might, which includes his both wanting and not wanting to be there.

CJ Hribal, interview at BLR

I also like his comments about giving two emotions at once to the reader, the fear/horror and the humor, as this couple tries to be brave. The humor schtick, however, is, like the military metaphor, so overplayed as to be almost a requirement, at least in books and film/TV, and again, it demands a lot of cancer patients: not only do you have to be brave and heroic, you have to be funny, all while pain, nausea, and existential panic follow you around. Maybe it helps to cope; I know I can be pretty funny when the chips are down, but I’ve never had to put on a full-frontal-denial defense while in chemotherapy.

The story turns when the defenses break down:

And later, after her brain surgery because it’s spread there, too, and the radiation that follows that, and the ascites that causes her belly to swell like a late term pregnancy, which gets catheterized so it can be drained daily—three liters, four liters, where is all this goddamn fluid coming from? you wonder as you empty the bags into the toilet—when she asks, “Wanna make love?” you say, “Can we just cuddle?” And she says in a tiny voice, her grin exhausted, “Why, do I look sick to you?”
Then she sees the look in your face.
“You’re really afraid you’re going to hurt me, aren’t you?” she says, and you say, “Yes.” And when the tears start to your eyes, she says, “Good, I was waiting for that.”

Two brave warriors, side by side, until one puts down his sword and shield, inviting the other to do so as well. Yes, they’re both more vulnerable, but they’re also more connected without all that armor between them. Maybe it was time. And maybe it should’ve been time long before. They’re the only ones who can know.

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