Those Things by Lauren Leatherman

I wanted to be his girlfriend, but that wasn’t the way it worked out. So I took the next best thing: mistress. Even still, I’m uncomfortable with a word that implies a lack of free will on my part. It’s a lovely word, really, supple and strangely blue-blooded. It's also full of bad meaning. Anyway, she knew. His girlfriend, Liz, knew all along about me, so whenever he called her from my loft, he wasn't forced to lie and say he was working late.

“You’re at Kayla’s?” she’d ask.

“Yeah, I’m at Kayla’s.”

He’d only call after we’d had sex, when he was wallowing in post-fuck bliss and I was happy as a pig rolling in her own muck. He’d trace the strawberry birthmark on my hip, making my hairs stand on end, making me want it all over again, the aroma and the sweat, that cliffhanger moment when I knew I was close and wasn’t sure if he was going to stop and say, Well, I’m done. In fairness, he’d never done that before; it was a fantasy I’d invented long before we even slept together. I imagined myself getting intensely angry, steam billowing from my skin. The fury alone would make me come.

I met them both when Liz was dying for the first time. I was a twenty-four-year-old candy striper – which is, admittedly, odd – considering a career change. At St. Regina’s, I shadowed several nurses and carried flowers, medical records, and lab specimens from unit to unit. Sometimes I visited patients. At night I was a stripper who went by the name Tatiana, but during the day I was unassuming, makeup-less and pony-tailed.

Liz was a cancer patient. And I gathered, from the constant deluge of flowers, that she was terminal. Every day she got another bright bouquet, tulips and roses and daisies, baby’s breath nestled in between the blooms. When I finally met Liz, I expected her to be white and frail, head crowned with soft downy hair. But she was tall, tan, with toned arms and a straight white smile. She wore red lipstick and a stylish bandanna. When I brought her the latest bouquet, she didn’t open her arms with the ardor of a mother receiving her new baby. Instead she rolled her eyes.

“Well, it’s official,” she said. “I'm dying.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“Orchids,” she said. “Sympathy flowers. Here,” she said, “give ‘em over.”

I gave them over, glad to have her death-flowers out of my arms.

“Ha!” she said. “From Keith’s mom. I should have known. Bitch never liked me.”

“Who's Keith?” Already I felt we were close enough to share details about our personal lives.

“He’s my boyfriend.” She set the orchids down on the bed stand, next to the kidney-shaped puke collector the hospital issues to all patients. It’s not called that; I’m not sure it even has name. But it collects puke. May as well call a spade, a spade.

“That’s nice.” I figured no one deserved to die alone – especially not a young, pretty woman who obviously practiced yoga. My biceps suddenly felt like mush, pushed up against the sides of my breasts. I wondered if I’d become skinny-fat, one of those twiggy girls with no muscle tone.

“What’s your name?” she asked.


“You’re a volunteer?”


She eyed me. “You don’t look like the other volunteers. They all remind me of my grandma, seventy years ago.”

I’d never met my own grandma, so I couldn’t imagine what she was like at sixteen. Nothing like me, I’m sure. Then again, I was older than the other candy stripers. Their youth made them chirpy, more eager to please than I. I had to please the guys at Lady Lace’s, make them think I wanted them and not just their bills. There was no sexual undertone to my dealings with the patients. I needed nothing from them, and they needed nothing from me. I flitted in and out of their rooms, bland and inoffensive, another girl with a bedpan.

“The other volunteers aren’t moonlighting as strippers,” I said.

She laughed in a way that made me think she might have thought I was kidding, but didn’t care if I wasn’t. When she laughed she opened her mouth wide, giving her a slightly equine – though not unattractive – appearance.

“I think Keith would like you,” she said. “He gets so bored here. He doesn’t tell me that, obviously. He’s, you know, being sensitive to my feelings.”

“Oh. Right.” I pictured Keith blond and pudgy – not in any unpleasant way, but in an amiable, oops-I-like-ice-cream way. In fact he was a little pudgy, but he wasn’t a blond. I didn’t meet him that day; the same day Liz told me she had Stage II breast cancer with a shitty prognosis. She’d undergone chemo for six months now, followed by radiation. She’d lost all her hair and craved sex about as much as she craved a root canal. While she hadn't been a fiend before the cancer, she'd still liked sex enough to have it a couple times a day.

"A couple times a day?" I asked.

I myself hadn't had sex in a year. That might sound strange coming from a stripper, but it's not. The norm in the industry is celibacy or lesbianism. Few strippers I knew were having satisfying sex with men. I told myself that I had no reason to endure the complexities of a relationship, even if only a sexual one, when I had a perfectly good vibrator in my underwear drawer, and a whole craggy-faced sea of reminders why men weren't always the best choice.

The truth? I was sick of my new virginity. My perfectly good vibrator was cold, mechanical, with no penchant for talking or cuddling.

A couple times a day, Liz affirmed, shaking her head as if to say, how naive I was.

So I pieced together another image of Keith, inoffensively chubby and a sex maniac to boot. He and Liz had met in college. Theirs was one of those rare relationships that survived graduation and the attendant shitty jobs; that would have probably survived, in general, if Liz had done the same. He still loved bald, ribald Liz, surprisingly hot in her hospital gown, but Liz had a clearer vision of their future: she'd be absent from it, and Keith would only have the smell of her on his sheets. He needed a distraction from the impermanence of their story. She'd been thinking, Liz. I might have known then what she'd been thinking; let's say I felt a tingle at the base of my spine, a cautious tingle that finally gave way to a throb. But I had to man the hospital gift shop – a job assigned to not just any candy striper, but one who had proven her worth.

Liz took my hand in hers and said, come back tomorrow. And tomorrow Keith was there, in jeans and a sweatshirt from his alma mater, with longer hair than I'd expected. We would subtly work out an arrangement; so subtly, in fact, I wasn't sure if any of us knew what we were doing. But when he drove over to my loft that night with wine and lubricant, my concerns were rendered moot.

"How do you like it?" he asked, but didn't wait for me to answer. I liked that, I said, but his mouth was on mine, drowning the sound. It fell backwards down my throat, swelling into a moan that gained mass and speed, finally shooting back out as a scream. Not quite a scream to summon the dead, but still it surprised me.

Keith looked a bit smug. "That was great," he said.

We did this once a week for the first month, when Liz was in the hospital. During the day I'd visit her, bringing contraband mints and magazines. She liked the soft mints with the licorice centers. Her magazines she liked brutally honest.

"Hospitals only have fluff," she scoffed, referring to the Reader's Digests and Us Weeklys fanned out on the visitor’s table. As I understood it, this hospital was meant to be a site of hope. Terminal patients weren't to be reminded of their status, except when they looked in the mirror and found their own sallow faces. Reading, by God, was supposed to be buoyant.

"At the very least, I'd like Time," Liz said. So I brought her Time. I even got a subscription to it.

Sometimes, pausing between a piece about Iraq and the latest in designer DNA, she'd ask me how things were with Keith.

"Oh," I'd say, nonplussed. "Just fine!"

At which she'd raise one barely-there brow. She had lovely eyebrows, even towards the end. You could only make out that pale strip of fuzz, but her fuzz was perfectly arched.

"I was hoping for better than fine."

She had a way of pulling the truth from me like so much cotton candy. It was internal, sticky, private, but she spun it into something nice, something sweet and warm you'd want to put your mouth on.

"Does he do that finger thing?"

"This one?" I'd ask, waggling my fingers like sea anemones.

"That's the one!"

Apparently we both got off the same. Learning this seemed natural, as though we’d discovered we shared the same birth month. She told me that the sex had gotten better when Keith gained weight. In college he'd been svelte, a swimmer. Once he started a nine-to-five he got lazier, but he compensated for his weight gain in new and erotic ways. He became, as Liz said, a connoisseur of the female body. I thought about the way he ran the tip of his tongue from my neck to my wrist, following a strange, meandering path. Dare I say he made me feel electric, a girlie cliché writhing around in satin sheets. I bought satin sheets for the express purpose of writhing around in them. I liked the slippery feel, the coolness against my skin. I'd lift the sheet like a parachute kids play with at day camp– snapping it into the air and ducking quick underneath so that it billows around them, falling gently upon their heads. For a moment the sheet would stay suspended in the thick air of the bedroom, and then it would slowly float back down to my body. First it'd touch my legs, then my stomach, breasts, clavicle. Keith would be in the kitchenette, pouring himself a glass of water, his naked ass like a split moon. Later I'd describe it just like this to Liz.

"Yeah," she said, thinking back to his naked ass. "It kind of lit up the night sky."

Liz was jokey most of the time, except when she’d just read something awful.

"Do you know how badly dairy cows are treated? Pregnant ones are forced to produce so much milk, they can't even walk. They get sores all over their bodies." She glanced at the untouched meal tray next to the bed. "Check for me, Kayla, if there's any milk. Throw it away. Never again."

In addition to the mints and magazines, I started bringing her soy milk – a quart slipped into my purse. This milk, somehow, seemed vital to her health. I'd started to notice more color in her face. And was it my imagination, or was her hair growing back?

"My hair's growing back," she announced. It was a Wednesday. I'd walked into her room to find looking at herself in a hand-held mirror. Her bandanna was off. She was rubbing her palm against her head, not so naked anymore.

"Good," she grinned. "I was tired of looking unfuckable.”

Liz was released from St. Regina's in April, on the stormiest day of the month. I helped Keith load her things into the trunk of their car, while she sat in the passenger seat fiddling with the radio tuner. Our hands grazed and I felt a thrill. Was it my imagination or was Keith gaining weight?

"I'm gaining weight," he said that night, in my bed. "When Liz first got sick, I stopped eating. But since I wasn't swimming anymore, I didn't lose this weight." He gestured casually to his belly, as though it weren't actually his but something acquired on loan. "I just struck a balance, I guess. And then when I met you, I started eating again. It was one of those things."

Gluttony, I remembered, was one of the seven sins. The other six I vaguely recalled. I pictured Keith driving home to his dark apartment after fucking me. He’d walk straight to the fridge, bathing the dark kitchen in its cool artificial glow. Then he'd chow down the way an animal chows down: instinctively, unself-consciously. Hummus and creamed spinach and leftover Murgh Makhani, ice cream and cold donut holes from the back of the freezer. I took his weight gain as a big compliment, his version of a love song.

Our fucking didn't stop with the advent of Liz's good health. It felt precarious, conditional, and mostly to Liz herself. "Sometimes I wake up," she told me over the phone, which had become our chief mode of communication now that she was out of the hospital, "and feel like there's something lodged at the back of my throat. I got lucky with remission. Now my body's looking for other ways to kill me."

I told her she was probably being paranoid, but who was I to say? I didn't know how those things worked. And by those things, I meant fate and providence, karma. They shared some common thread wherein all events are predestined; a messy, precious balance that keeps the world spinning. At night I'd strip down to nothing but a sequined G-string, shake my tits to a lackluster rhythm, and then come home to Keith. I'd lose my clothes again. I was always losing my clothes; my nakedness was fascinating. I'd catch Keith staring at the gentle curve of my stomach, the valley between my legs, and I'd think, he must see what a fascinating woman I am.

For the Fourth of July, the three of us filled a kiddie pool and cooled our bare feet in the water. We sat that way, on Liz and Keith's deck, for hours, drinking hard lemonade and watching the fireworks. Liz sat in the middle. Keith kept his hand on her muscled thigh, and I wasn't jealous. Liz was almost her normal self—or what I guessed was her normal self.

But she couldn't do what I could do for Keith. Sex felt like an invasion. Too many things had taken hold of her body, too many to name, and maybe it didn't make sense (she threw up her hands, resigned) but lots of things didn't make sense.

Getting sick, for instance. And three weeks after the fireworks, when the cancer came back, that didn't make sense either. Who gets five months’ respite, some mimicry of wellness, only to hear from the doctor that, oh, by the way, you're still dying? Liz went back to St. Regina's. She got a different room in Oncology. I brought her Time and mints, but she wasn't interested in either.

"Let's play show-and-tell," she said. Before I could respond, she tore her gown over her head. She was thin, achingly naked, and she was missing a breast. It made sense. Of course she was missing a breast. In its place was a puckered scar, long and thick as an earthworm. I wanted to run my finger over it, read her pain like Braille.

"You wouldn't have known," she said. "I always wore a special bra, with a built-in prosthetic."

She lay back against her pillow. Her one remaining breast flopped slightly to the side, close to her armpit. I could hear the fluorescent light buzzing above our heads.

"I thought the cancer was only in the left one. It was, for awhile." She laughed. "But they're twins, right? Only natural they'd share." She flicked her right nipple, which stood up at attention. "I'm losing this one, too."

I knew it was my turn to unfasten my jumper and let it fall to the well-scrubbed floor. I pulled up my top and unhooked my bra. My breasts, known to me and many others. She nodded approvingly.

"Pert," she said.

Whenever Keith nuzzled my breasts, licked in between my cleavage, I thought of Liz's impending loss. It made her prepubescent, just as her new hairlessness made her prepubescent. One year earlier I hadn't known Liz or Keith. Their weights felt good against me, pinning me down, giving me purpose. Florence Nightingale would have felt this way, I imagined. Ann Sullivan too. They were nurses and the nursed, teachers and the taught. I'd straddle Keith and he wouldn't say I love you but he'd moan deep and wordless, and that was enough.

"You're at Kayla's?" Liz would ask over the phone.

"Yeah, I'm at Kayla's."

"Hug her for me."

When he hugged me for her, he was gentler. His softness was malleable, reminding me of myself.

It was fucking unfair, I thought, that Liz shouldn't be able to have a drink before she lost her second breast.

"I'm not supposed to drink anything," she laughed. "Even water's forbidden."

So we toasted invisible champagne flutes, Liz and Keith and I, to health and prosperity. When Liz was wheeled into surgery, Keith put his arm around me and I leaned into him, as though she were ours. We went home to my loft and had tender sex. Keith was mine, even though I shared him. He shared me with no one. Therein lay the problem. When I came I punched his back.

"I thought you wanted sweet." He looked hurt.

"I did," I said. "And I want a husband."

That wasn't what I wanted at all. At the very least, I should have probably started with a boyfriend. That was the natural order of things. But I didn't want a husband, and that the word had fallen off my tongue made me want to erase all evidence of my existence.

"Oh," he said. "I don't know, Kayla."

He said this with such grace, such forgiveness. It was late. Now that Liz was back in the hospital, Keith was spending nights with me. It was different this time, he said. Their apartment felt like a cave he’d gotten lost in. He could only sleep with me curled against his back. My dreams were boring and vivid all at once. I never knew where I was supposed to be, but the place was filled with strobing colors, a goddamn laser light show. I'd wake up hungry and eat a two-egg omelet. I'd make one for Keith too before he drove to his office. Me, I'd go to the hospital. My pinstripe jumper was starting to sag in the shoulders; I wondered if it was possible to lose weight in the shoulders.

Liz was back on a liquid diet, which she got intravenously. Saline dripped steadily into her thin blue vein. She wasn't tan anymore; in fact, she was the whitest white girl I'd ever seen.

"Drink your juice," I'd say, in reference to the O.J. I’d snuck in for her. She’d half roll her eyes at me. Rolling them all the way hurt.

"I hate juice."

"Your cracker ass needs the sugar."

Normally I wouldn't have been so blunt with a terminal patient, but her cracker ass did need the sugar, and honesty was our policy.

"It doesn't matter, Kayla," she'd sigh. "Don't you see that?"

I did. Now that she'd lost her second breast she seemed to have lost her hope, too. She didn't want a fucking padded bra with prosthetic titties. She'd remain this way – flat, androgynous – until the day she died. That was the one vow she'd made to herself. I told her she looked athletic, like an elite lady runner. Truthfully, she didn't. And she'd sooner be able to fly than run half a mile.

"You're not being very honest," she said.

"No," I admitted. "I'm not."

We were watching Dr. Oz on the TV bolted to the wall. He was stuck on some hot-button issue about semen and protein count. All the housewives in the audience laughed knowingly, trying too hard to seem liberal. If I were selected to be part of a live taping of Dr. Oz, I'd carry a riding crop and lay it suggestively across my lap. Not very nurse-like. I was going to make a terrible nurse.

"What are Keith's plans for you?" she asked.

I thought of Keith scarfing down the two-egg omelet I'd made him earlier. The sun was in his face. "I don't think he has any."

"I guess I should ask him myself," she concluded. "Men are vague like that."

I wondered how she'd feel if I said, oh! we're getting married. But we weren't getting married. And to say such a thing presumed that Liz was going to die. Which she was, the very next week, on a Tuesday around dusk. But I didn't know that then. If I had, I would have told her I'd go on Dr. Oz with a riding crop in hand; I was that kind of girl. She would have said, I know.

Keith was with her when she died, along with her mother, a woman I'd never met and could only conceive of abstractly. She'd look like any mother, soft in the middle with short, neat hair. She'd smell like scented hand soap. She'd hold Liz at the end and urge her, gently, to go, it was selfish to keep her here, selfish when the pain had become too great a burden for one body to carry. But Keith, I couldn't picture his ministrations. Had he kissed her? cried? punched the wall? It was all, on my part, so much speculation. I'd been absent, throwing late-night work clothes into a gym bag and knotting my hair into a bun. And because she was not family, a sister or twin, I didn't feel it when she passed. It didn't hit me with its sudden, irrevocable force, the eternal loss of Liz. My hairs didn't stand on end. My stomach didn't turn over. I sang along with the radio, listening to my tinny voice filling the car. The setting sun had stained the sky orange, red, and purple. It was, in a word, majestic. By some strange process, I felt especially beautiful. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror: yes, I was.

Five hours later, when he knew my last set of the night was done, Keith called me to say it was over. Liz, that was. Over. He didn't mince words and I liked that about him. Liz as we knew her was gone. Whatever form Liz took now wasn't for us to know. She might be static energy or a spirit in another realm. If we ever saw her again, she would be incomprehensible to our narrow human minds, the same way we wouldn't know an alien if it sat down next to us at dinner. We weren't made to understand so many things, and not just the cosmic things, either. For example, what do you do with a relationship founded on a dead woman? The night Liz died, I drove over to their apartment, the one they'd shared for six years, and spent the night in their bed. It smelled nothing of Liz. We touched, tentative at first, until we were desperate to get inside each other. He wanted to burrow in me and I, in him. But he could get inside me, he had the advantage. It wasn't a matter of me letting him in, which I did, always. It was just so easy for him. He had a wake to plan without me. Casket and flowers and appetizers to nibble in the church basement. Liz's mother was staying at a bed and breakfast; he'd pick her up in the morning.

I fit into this puzzle like something that didn't fit. I swallowed Keith down then walked to the sink, spitting on the dirty dishes. When I went back to him he eyed me like a stranger, taking me in from head to toe, deciding who I was.

Lauren Leatherman is a fiction/non-fiction writer and copywriter living in Jersey City, NJ. She graduated from NYU in 2007 with an MFA in Fiction. Most recently, her autobiographical piece Tasty received second place in the Memoir's Ink annual competition.