Passing

By Carol Test


They walked up the hill, near the cistern, where they ate fry bread powdered with sugar. Sasha felt sleepy. Maybe it was the day, the year. Even the air seemed to sag under the weight of low smog and the smoke from trash burning in barrels.

She had purchased two cups of cider in the parking lot of the Spanish mission and took a drink off one, the warm liquid a meditation, slowing time as she sipped.

She watched Cohen touch the Styrofoam to his lips. His eyebrows had fallen out during chemo along with his fingernails, the chambers beneath them some secret she never wanted to discover.

"It's funny," Cohen said. "When you die, your hair and fingernails keep growing. Alive, they're the first things to go."

"Hilarious." She knew he was stress-testing her. For hardiness. But he had been right all along – she didn't want to hear it.

Before she left for college, he'd handed her a pen and asked her to map his veins, a malignant system of rivers and tributaries. She'd warmed to the project one summer night. The ink on his palms alone took hours. Vertical veins beneath lines of knuckle. Later he'd touched her and the heat smeared the ink. Shit, he'd said, shit.

His father had been the one to call and tell her he'd stopped treatment. Everything that could be done had been done already. Was she coming home for winter break? Would she see him one last time, perhaps? Guilt dictated an affirmative answer. She and Cohen had been peers in every respect and sometimes Sasha felt she should sabotage her life, just to even things out.

#

Earlier that day, she'd waited for Cohen in the dining room of his father's house. Through windows screened to keep sun from fading furniture, she'd gazed out on shimmering pools and the golf courses of Paradise Valley. She had been here so many times these things no longer dizzied her. If she squinted, she knew she might make out the awkward churches and avant garde steeples of Phoenix, a city striving to declare itself this or that, no posture really sticking.

"You look very grown up," Cohen's father had said when he saw her, and hugged her, some sort of body-conscious hug with lots of shoulder.

"How is he?" she asked.

"He's difficult today. Maybe you can snap him out of it. Familiarity demotes me."

He left her with a glass of water. "And don't let me forget to give you this," he said, pressing a folded check into her palm before retreating. She tried to pocket it before Cohen appeared, wearing a green knit cap pulled snug against scalp.

Cohen had dressed in two shirts, to add bulk, Sasha realized, and she wanted to whirl away. What could she say to him? Bullshit. A winter afternoon's worth. They'd had a perfectly satisfactory goodbye back in August.

"I know my dad convinced you to see me," Cohen said.

She smiled, big and reflexive. An apology with teeth.

Cohen eased himself into a chair and rested wrists against jeans.

She did likewise.

She knew he could never posture at boredom as easily as she; he failed in the thousands of tiny fibers that let strain show. But Sasha was newly aware of her body. She'd gained an easy ten pounds her first semester at college, eating to keep warm mostly, in the gray and rainy cold. Now men looked at her differently; she'd graduated to different bras.

Cohen stared at her across the glass expanse of table.

"Are you OK? Can I get you a soda? Or water?" she asked him.

He shook his head. He leaned forward and asked, "Do you consider us to have had sex?"

"Huh?"

"I don't, really," he went on.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you can step onto a football field once, that doesn't mean you're playing football."

They hadn't spoken in several months. Sasha shifted in her seat. "I consider us having had sex," she said.

He nodded, almost imperceptibly.

Her goal had been to get in and out of this visit as quickly as possible, but she recognized now he wasn't going to let her off easily.

"Ok, then," he shifted. "Tell me about college. Classes and things."

"The homework's easier than high school," she said finally. "But doing it is harder than I thought. You only have class three days a week. But no one makes you go."

She couldn't tell him some days it was hard to get out of bed. After all, his father made up the difference between her scholarship and the cost of tuition. She was there for both of them, the weight of this was clear, but the reality remained: she was there on her own.

"How 'bout we get out of here," he said.

"Are you up to that?"

"Probably not. But the occasion requires an outing. Wouldn't you agree?"

"How about In 'n Out burger? Like old times. We could hold hands," she offered.

"No irony."

"Where then?"

He stayed quiet for a long while. "The desert. If this were a movie, isn't that what we'd do?"

#

Together they toured the mission, its promise of redemption evident in its excess. The winter visitors had gone home for the day. A few native women prayed on wooden knee-rests. The church's congregation remained the reservation, faithful for over four hundred years according to the bronze plaque above the entry, though it was apparent more than a little indigenous spirituality had rubbed off.

It was these pagan elements that appeared to fascinate Cohen as she followed him down the aisle. He stopped to marvel at painted saints and skeleton last suppers, blue with mariachi hats and cobwebs, interrogating each for something she didn't understand. He said to her, of Judaism, "Our religion's mostly about books."

She wanted to warn him this was another slant on self-loathing, along the lines of insisting black or Mexican babies were more beautiful than white ones, as if there were some magic in the other that might save you from yourself.

The two of them paused at the altar.

"I think the Bible was bad for us," Cohen said. "Chariots of fire, men who lived nine hundred years. A king whose prayers were powerful enough to change God's mind."

"Why didn't you fixate on the stuff you were supposed to? Blessed are the meek. A still small voice in the wilderness. Stock stuff."

He shrugged.

They made their way to a candlelit alcove, where a replica of the body of Saint Francis lay with pictures and prayers pinned to his gown. She watched as Cohen fingered the bits of paper. Some seemed less prayers, more case histories:

I wake up sneezing in the night…eruptions with honey-colored mucous.

I don't like things touching my neck; I can't wear turtlenecks. I like to talk and talk and I think my husband is cheating on me.

She came across a newspaper clipping of a Tohono O'odham boy who had been run over by a school bus outside Sells.

"I hate when they're actually…tragic," she admitted.

"Some kid crosses the street and gets hit by a bus and everyone says what a tragedy. That's not tragic. Was it brought about by some inevitable character flaw? Destiny? The downfall of a great man?"

He was back to the black-eyed, wild bird postures of last summer, and she feared a conversation careening out of control.

"It's on the list too. Calamity." Sasha kept her voice quiet. "Misfortune. It's way down there, but it's on the list."

She could feel the car keys in her pocket, digging into her skin. It's just an afternoon, she kept telling herself.

Why had she promised to play nice with him?

But already she knew the answer. Because in high school he'd been the kid invited to parties that didn't exist, showing up to ring strangers' doorbells, holding polite packages tied with string. He'd come of age through car windows, played strategic chess against himself, undressed on gurneys, exposing skin and later, bone. This seemed excuse enough for her once upon a time, but it was paling.

"Anyway," she told him, "You're not supposed to read other people's prayers."

#

In high school, Sasha had lived with her grandmother in a retirement community just outside Phoenix. Residents under fifty-five were discouraged, but an exception had been made on her behalf. Perhaps this proximity to mortality made her the clear choice when Cohen's father came searching for a tutor to help his son return to school following a long illness, yet she suspected he had instead searched for the scholarship student in the shortest skirt, the sort of girl who passed in a pack, in clouds of perfume and ripe sweat, and when she stood for the first time in Cohen's marble foyer, the obviousness of all this made her ache.

Twice a week, she had walked to his house from school after classes. Most of the time they read on separate couches. Cohen would pass her a photocopied short story, some assignment he'd given himself more often than anything his teachers recommended.

Some days, he couldn't read. The room hurt. The light.

Do you want me to read to you? she'd ask.

I'll just watch.

She'd pop Good 'n Plenties into her mouth without lifting her eyes from the pages. When she did, she'd catch him staring up sundresses and short sleeves at the long, soft hairs beneath her arms.

Other days, they'd solve cross-word puzzles together. A centerfold's revenge, two words. Paper cuts, he got that one. The maximum number of wives allowed for a man in the Qu'uarn. They talked to each another, but warily. They were friends twice a week from three to five p.m. It was like that in high school.

#

A few months into tutoring, Sasha had lingered after a session. She sat on the counter in Cohen's hall bathroom between two vessel sinks. She could tell he wanted to keep her there. His eyes focused between her legs; she could've drawn a line if someone had given her a protractor.

She gestured to the medicine cabinet. "The kids at school say you're a pharma-boy."

Cohen gave a half-snort. "I can imagine. He's money. All these kids have meds. If he likes you, maybe he'll share."

"I don't care that you're rich," she told him.

"I try not to put it out there."

"Maybe you'll go to heaven, a special Jewish heaven, for non-conspicuous consumers. Morality in abstention and all that." She spread her legs slightly. Curious if he would do one of the things boys do to escalate evenings. But he just looked away.

She changed tack. "Maybe we both spend too much time pretending. Me to be rich and you to be poor." She rolled her hair into a fat braid over one shoulder. "Or to not care, which, by the way, is a dead give-away. Poor kids can't quite pull that one off."

"I don't have a choice," he told her, and his voice betrayed a familiar vulnerability.

She saw at once that he lacked the coastal confidence of other boys her age. Smooth in his skin this kid wasn't. Yet she appreciated his authenticity; it reminded her of some trait she had long-buried.

"My mother died when I was five," she started, then stopped. "I thought…" She struggled to articulate her thought. "Maybe you didn't have a mom."

"Who taught you how to shave your legs, then?"

The tone of his question surprised her.

"No mother? No sister? No daffy aunt?"

"I learned from magazines," she confessed. School was nothing compared with fitting in, her longest course of study. "My grandmother says once you start shaving, your hair grows back dark and twice as thick. I guess she thinks I can put it off forever, as if I have some hand in the matter, you know…to choose not to grow up."

"You look like you're doing all right," he offered.

She brought his attention back to the medicine cabinet.

He opened the mirrored door and her eyes went to the rows of bottles. She was feeling high, reckless, but maybe it was merely a new kind of nervous, the far end of the giant spectrum of nervousness she traveled.

He placed two pills on her thigh, between the hem of her skirt and her knee. One was orange and smelled like cupcakes; perhaps he guessed it would look familiar. The other was dark blue.

She stopped swinging her legs.

"Good stuff?" she asked.

"My favorites."

He took a bottle of mouthwash from the cabinet and handed her the cap, which she filled under the faucet.

"What you were saying earlier," he said. "Everyone assumed when I got sick, there would be a sort of intermission." She eyed the moles on the side of his neck, twin binary stars grown recently, along with his nose and surprising height. His father, too, must have at one time assumed that cancer, that tar-dark word, would have kept adolescence at bay.

"Two of a kind," she said. She brought the cap to her lips and felt instantly ashamed when she noticed how he blushed at the hint of potential connection. The muscles of his jaw telegraphed longing, to be seen, touched.

Just as suddenly, his features had rearranged. "OK, then," he'd said. "What motherlessness do you see in me that reminds you of yourself?"

#

Now they stood together in the small mission courtyard. Through a door framed with chipped aqua paint, Sasha could see a Tohono O'odham choir practice Adestes Fideles. The children looked like bedtime or bath-time in their white robes.

Cohen wore a glazed look, as if some pane of glass was thickening between him and the rest of the world. His expression frightened her. She understood he was watching with the eyes of all those would never see outside eighteen, frozen in the carbonite of high school poses.

She recalled the time one of their sophomore year student-teachers had been killed in an auto accident. The girl had been driving down the 17 when an eighteen wheeler jack-knifed. The word 'decapitated' floated around campus.

Three weeks later, her fiancée spoke in their in high school auditorium. He'd been tearfully young. He'd tried to make sense of things, but instead broke down.

At the time, no one had known what to do.

Hug him, she realized now, someone should have hugged him. Instead, she had returned to homeroom along with everyone else to sit on couches, gaze at copies of The Guinness Book of Records.

"You wanna know what pisses me off?" Cohen said, catching her gaze. "What pisses me off most is this: when I'm dead, everyone will say to my dad 'He's gone to a better place'. But I'll just be dead."

"I wish you'd talk about something else," she said.

"Aren't you supposed to be humoring me?"

"Don't you get tired of that?"

She considered returning the check his father had pressed into her palm that morning. Red-cup parties and honors classes, that endless arc upward. How could she even hold such thoughts in her head? This time all she had to do was grab her keys. Push past him to the parking lot.

"I'm leaving," she said, sneakers crunching on gravel. "Five minutes, then I'm out of here."

He bowed, "Milady. The land of the living awaits you."

#

Earlier that fall, Cohen's father had phoned under the pretext of wanting to hear how her classes were going. Before hanging up, he'd added, "Be sure to send the kid a birthday card this year."

Sasha had never sent him anything; the gesture would ring totally false.

"He's probably in the next room listening to you," she'd joked.

"I know," he'd said, and, "send one this year."

She'd searched the aisle at the local grocery until she found a card with sandpipers on the front. Sasha selected the card with the least room for writing inside. To arrange words in a way that would accurately express what she was feeling, without risking ridicule, seemed too daunting a task. After sitting at the desk in her dorm room for twenty long minutes, she'd picked up a silver pen and wrote in extra-large scrolling letters: "Happy Birthday." That took up most of the space, and below it she'd printed neatly: "Wishing you a good year. S."

The rest of the card was empty.

#

They left the crumbling walls of the mission behind and headed back to the Valley. Cohen caught her up on anecdotes as she drove, second or third-hand versions of stories that sounded better in first-person. She knew he'd rehearsed them, maybe for months; he wouldn't waste them on his father.

Still, he seemed to be winding down. He stared at the numbing stretch of highway. "I had all these things to tell you. But you went away to school and I forgot. I can't hold anything these days."

"Maybe it's the meds."

"It's just… I assumed I'd see all these things, the Aurora Australis, places like Tierra del Fuego. In third-grade, I thought there would be manned missions to Pluto by the time I grew up. We haven't even gone back to the moon."

"We're in a period of de-acceleration," she told him. She didn't like where any of this was leading. "Let's play geography," she suggested. "Like old times. Capitols or countries. Alphabetically."

"Albania," he said, half-heartedly.

"Algeria."

"Antarctica," he said.

"That's a continent."

"Well, I don't want to play word games. What are you, twelve?"

"What do you want to do then?"

He looked at her. "Talk. For real for once, and not all this sub-textual bullshit. You can, right? It's possible?"

She sensed cracks in the ice. The clink, the strain. A thousand subtle slivers, and then it shattered. How long had she lived like this, afraid of their glass curtain falling down?

She swung the car onto the shoulder. It was gesture and noise, a decision-making. Let him see what she, too, had been giving up to play capitals of African countries or read Bronte in bed. To sketch his skull and map his veins as if none of this would rub off on her.

She cut the engine and the temperature inside the car plummeted.

"Does it matter that you know all these things? Will it save your life, the plural of cul de sac? Words, trivia, they'll never replace you. They're not worth the hair on your thighs. A hiccup. A sneeze."

He kept his voice low and even. "You wanna go somewhere? You wanna talk about something real? We'll go somewhere. Give me the keys."

#

He drove to an intersection in south Scottsdale. On one corner, Sasha recognized a drive-in movie theater; on another, a water park, its concrete ocean empty in winter.

Across the street, she saw the cemetery.

The backhoe was bent like a crane against the horizon. She could see the path it had etched into the earth, stretch marks tearing some soft expanse of skin. Unzip me, the dirt seemed to say.

They entered the gates and the sudden expanse of grass reminded her of a golf course, with the sprinklers running steadily, their click-click-click a constant rhythm.

Cohen eased the car alongside the shoulder.

He got out and she followed him across the winter lawn to a late-day spot, beneath a rare tree. He pointed with his foot to a patch of earth. "This is where they'll plant me, come, I don't know, March? February?" He tapped the ground. "Like it?" he asked. "I kinda prefer the library option. You can house your ashes in an urn shaped like a book, spine displaying your name, date of birth, date of death. You can imagine how quickly Dad vetoed that."

He motioned for her to take a seat.

She lowered herself to the ground beside him. Desert cold crept through her jeans and she longed for mittens or a bottle of wine, anything to keep her warm.

"You know," Cohen said after awhile, "growing up, I loved listening to music from Star Wars. Movie themes performed by marching bands. I used to pretend I was a conductor. It was only later I learned that shit was embarrassing. The music everybody liked was tight, closed-in, everything hidden behind a veil of irony."

"The ironic curtain," she called it.

"Is that what everyone does these days? Learn to sit still instead of floating? Hold in your stomach? Listen to music with headphones? Come into a washcloth?"

Hug him, she thought.

She reached for his sleeve, rubbed his arm through his sweater. "Wanna hear something funny?" she asked.

"None of this is funny," he said.

"Last semester, I went to a therapist. After reading some book or other and feeling particularly, you know, moved. I thought I should talk to somebody. I had to fill out all this paperwork. And then the therapist told me I was incapable of intimacy. That I had never been nurtured, so I should dress up stuffed animals and talk to them the way I wish someone would talk to me."

She paused, and then continued. "I put this little hat – one my grandmother kept from when I was a baby – on my stuffed manatee, and I tried. I was supposed to practice saying 'I love you.' I love you, baby. I couldn't do it."

"You're way hard on yourself, Sash."

"So are you. I mean, I wouldn't get out of bed if I thought I had to learn Farsi or visit Pluto. Some days I don't."

He fell silent for a moment.

"Here's one," he said. He played with the grass in his fingertips. "My dad and I are on the couch the other night, trying to decide whether or not to rent a movie. What we both want, I suspect, is a film that gives us permission to break down, because, well, the only acceptable place to cry is the theater, right?"

She nodded.

"But we can't decide which movie it should be. It's excruciating. So he brings out this …list he's made. Movies I should see before, well, whatever. Movies that say things he can't. Turns out he's got lots of lists, of the Ten Things You Should Teach Your Son variety. How much to tip a waiter, how to properly put on a condom, how you should always show one inch of white cuff below the sleeve of your jacket…"

"Useful stuff."

"Anyway…he's sitting next to me with this list, just folding and unfolding it, when all of a sudden I start crying. My dad hasn't seen me cry since I was a kid. Not over the divorce, not at the diagnosis. He squeezes my shoulder, and says, Kiddo…and then he stops.

He's lost all sense of what to say. I mean, I have this upper hand, mortality, right? I can brandish it at a moment's notice – 'I'm dying dad; gimmie the remote control.' So what's he gonna tell me?"

Cohen swallowed. "There I am sobbing on his jacket – jacket, shirt, skin – that's all there is between us, and his jaw tremors a little, like it's going to dislodge, and I realize, more than anything, I'm terrified my dad will start crying, when all he wants is to tell me everything is going to be OK, but what do you tell a kid with cancer? What can he tell me?"

"Not a god damned thing."

#

The house was dark when they returned. Sasha heard footsteps at the door of the study, and then silence, a reversal. Cohen's father summoning the willpower not to check on them.

She followed Cohen to his room and removed her shoes, the aching softness of the carpet a relief. Luxury hit her when she least expected it, and evoked shame, always, at how easy it was to covet what she lacked.

Cohen removed his cap. His lips were chapped. If she kissed him, she'd taste flakes of flesh.

Catch him up on real life, his father had once told her, whatever he's been missing.

Hadn't she tried? All those nights they'd watched Braveheart over and over, stoned on painkillers washed down with his father's whiskey? Now he had grass from the cemetery stuck to his pants. She had trouble even looking at him.

She knew what would come in the following weeks. His skin would yellow. His lips would crack and split with sores. The hospital would use lemon-flavored Q-tips to moisten an ever-open mouth. His breath would change to little apnea gasps, huh-hee, huh-hee, but he would have oxygen for that. To cover the noise, smooth it out for others. And nurses and a rabbi to say prayers.

There'd be a funeral, but not with the sort of after-party he wanted, no astronauts and cowboys theme, no costumes.

Cohen moved toward her in the dimly lit bedroom.

Are we friends, Sash? He touched the back of her thigh with his thumb.

"Don't use sex to create intimacy; intimacy will naturally develop into physical expressions such as sex," she tried to tease.

"Where'd you hear that?"

"It was on Oprah."

"Intimacy," he said, like he had a hair in his mouth. "I've gone weeks without really talking to a single person." His fingers moved against the fabric of her jeans. "People with six months to live say, I'll finally get that novel written or whatever. But you won't. You won't do anything."

She raised her chin. It was the first time she had really looked at him.

His eyes were black rimmed and scared.

Slowly, she smoothed her sweater over her head.

She watched his gaze refocus on her breasts and underarms, lazy red-gold curls, unwound. She realized he remained unable to disassociate from things like beauty, some otherness he wanted to capture for himself, an escape from his skin. Was that self-hatred as well?

He took her hand and she followed him to the bathroom where he used first the buzzer and then a blade warm with water. Droplets ran down her sides, waking her up. He was very quiet, and serious. He was good at this. Why wouldn't he be? He'd shaved his own scalp and the tender terrain of his neck. When he was done, her underarms gleamed.

He wanted to shave between her legs. This took longer. He knelt in front of her on the tile as she pulled down her jeans. Her underwear was white with pale peach flowers, its deep v at the top exposing a swath of stomach. His hand went warm on the front of her panties, pressing fingers to flowers, flowers to skin, before removing them also.

The blade was cool as she parted her thighs. She wished she'd numbed herself with pills. All this time, was this he'd been after, a sister in death, floating, seductive, just across some other side?

Or did he need a ritual to make everything all right? Can't bury your dead in a secular society. After irony, what was left? Only a relentless and inescapable movement toward the grave.

When he finished, he smoothed a hand against her. "You were too bright," he said, "distracting. This is better."

He went to hand her the clippers, then hesitated.

She felt a bolt of fear.

She took them from him and ran them over her scalp.

She did this once. And again. Hair fell away in an astonishing clump.

She shed for him, layers, colors; she stripped and slipped on his skin. And wasn't that, in the end, all anyone really wanted, intimacy, a connection of sorts? No one wants to be alone in the dark.

He watched until her scalp was bare and cool.

She took his hand and placed it against her skin.

Later, he mouthed her neck and shoulders and the soft places under her arms. He pushed down his jeans. He was only half-hard. They traded kisses, but it was not a success.

"I'm trying to be brave," he whispered, "and I'm doing it for you. That's gotta be something."

The only thing she could think of in response was what a professor once said: We're always in our bubble, we can't get out of it, but sometimes, maybe, if we stretch, we can touch the edge.

 

Carol Test was raised in Phoenix and earned her MFA at the University of Arizona. Her fiction has most recently appeared in The Normal School. Her debut collection, The West in You, was as a Finalist for the 2010 Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award. She is at work on a novel. Visit her at www.caroltest.net.

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