Book Excerpt: TNT 1

For your reading enjoyment: excerpts from my coming book. I’m writing madly, aiming to finish by December. A pre-Christmas book release sounded like a no brainer. Unfortunately that’s just what I feel like half the time when it comes to promotion. I’m still figuring out the marketing end of self publishing.

Anyway.

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This first chapter is titled, TNT.

 1976: A History of the Hunt

TNT: Noun, 1. A yellow crystalline compound, CH3C6H2(NO2)3, used mainly as a high explosive. –Dictionary definition

The lot attendant waved his hand and vehicles inched forward. A Camaro was next in line, and he motioned wearily for it to advance.

He was in his late twenties, with short hair and a carefully shaved face. He wore worn-in work boots with metal tips shined to a high buff, jeans, and a nylon jacket over a tee shirt. The jacket flapped open suddenly to reveal a shirt printed with tangled stick figures. Red letters advertised Certified Muff Diver. Demonstrations upon request.

The attendant bared his teeth and closed the jacket as the teens in the car stared. “Five bucks parking, make sure you place the receipt on the dashboard or plan on paying to retrieve your vehicle from the towing company.” He handed over a parking stub and pointed to the farthest corner of the lot. “Over there, champ. You’ll want to keep this nice conveyance safe.”

No one in the car said a word. “Nice shirt,” the teen in the back seat commented once they were out of earshot. “Who’s that?”

“You don’t know? That’s Todd Taft. My sister Janine graduated with him. Todd was a big hero back in the day,” the driver recalled. “They called him TNT. Now he’s just a guy with a bad attitude who works parking cars.”

***

The last sports fan drove off with a wave after the game ended. “So long, pal,” Todd called cheerfully. The driver turned into the street and Todd stopped smiling. “Dim mother fucker,” he added under his breath. The rainbow painted on the side of the microbus faded in the distance. Todd watched until it vanished from his sight. The work keys jangled as he attached the chain link fence across the entryway. He walked back towards his booth, whistling.

The part-time attendant strolled over from the other end of the tarmac. Donny Shoemaker wore a clean pair of jeans, his ponytail tied back with a rubber band.

“Feel like a beer?”

“Well, that depends. Got somewhere in mind?”

“I thought I’d head over to Cumberland. Dante’s has a live band on. It’s Ladies’ Night! And in Cumberland that means college women.”

“I don’t need someone who can debate, Donny. I’d rather get laid.” But Todd reopened the booth where he always kept a clean tee shirt behind his crossword dictionary.

Donny waited impatiently. “It’s quicker if we take the back roads.”

“It’s all back roads, remember? This is upstate,” Todd said dryly.

“Christ, Taft,” Donny remarked when he was finally done. “Don’t you ever buy clothes in the right size?”

Todd looked down at the fresh shirt, tight on his barrel chest. “What are you talking about? My shirt?” he asked innocently. “Oh, it fits. Free advertising, Shoemaker, free advertising.” Todd ran a comb through his short black hair and let out a rebel yell. “It’s Saturday night. Look out, ladies, here we come.”

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Wine and Sculpture

IMG_4623 When my friend Liz lived in Germany, she and I would go exploring. One lovely spring day she suggested a trip to the nearby town of Weinstadt. IMG_4600It lies in the Rems Valley, a region known for vinyards and orchards. IMG_4580Weinstadt has charming villages, wooded hills, wine and sculptures… all mixed together.IMG_4629Weinstadt is actually five towns that joined together in 1975: Beutelsbach, Endersbach, Großheppach, Schnait and Strümpfelbach.IMG_4635 We walked through the streets and the Sculpture Trails in the latter two (Strümpfelbach and Schnait).IMG_4582IMG_4581Weinstadt’s slogan is „Kultur trifft Natur“ or “Art Meets Nature”. IMG_4574A family with three (3!) generations of artists reside in Weinstadt. It is their art that decorates this already gorgeous area.IMG_4599 IMG_4566Bronze and stone sculptures are tucked into bushes and vinyards, yards and walls.IMG_4624Professor Karl Ulrich Nuss first started the Scupture Route initiative. Karl is in the middle of the art dynasty that includes his father Professor Fritz Nuss (1907-1999), and two grandchildren of Fritz: Christoph Traub (born in 1964) and Felix Engelhardt (born in 1970).IMG_4613

IMG_4610Liz and I wandered through the vinyard’s sloped hills with our cameras.IMG_4612

IMG_4615Spring was running riot with blooming trees and flowers everywhere. IMG_4631The flowering Nature made the perfect backdrop to the artwork …IMG_4605

or was it the other way around? IMG_4627

IMG_4606IMG_4602NOTES: http://www.weinstadt.de/de/Home

Amongst other places, Fritz Nuss’s work is displayed in the British Museum and the Liederhalle in Stuttgart.

Photos Copyright © 2013 Jadi Campbell. (All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)IMG_4608

Thuvia, Maid of Mars

She placed the wooden box on the red bedcover, reluctant to open it. As soon as she recognized the odd sense of fate she laughed at herself, It’s not like he’s Blue Beard or something and anyway the box isn’t big enough to fit a head into! – And besides, it wasn’t as if the box had a lock she’d need to break open.

Charlene pulled the wooden lid back and peered in. Sure enough, Linda’s missing photograph of Rob and herself laying on their sofa was on very top of the box, just where Carl had claimed it would be. Underneath lay a jumble of boy’s treasures, the usual collection of any adult. Charlene lifted the picture out carefully, the old photo thick and heavy in her fingers. Careful as well of her husband’s privacy, gently she placed the lid back and returned the box to its place at the bottom of the closet floor.

Charlene began to dial Linda’s number on her cell phone as she turned back to the room to retrieve the photograph. The image of Linda and Rob looked up at her from the red bedspread, stained a color like wine in the bright afternoon sunshine from the window. Linda would be relieved to hear it was safe and sound.

Charlene picked the photograph back up and more photos fell and fluttered down to the bedspread. Apparently they’d stuck to the back of the first photograph after years of laying in the darkness of Carl’s treasure trove.

Charlene stared down at photos she’d never seen and hadn’t known her husband possessed. The first one was a gray photo, slightly blurry and out of focus, taken from the railing of a ship. A whale’s flukes were just visible in the background. The only elements clearly in focus were Rob’s huge grin and outstretched hand, pointing excitedly at the gigantic mammal.

Two photographs were close ups of a radiant, exhausted Linda holding Jennifer, their newborn baby. The infant couldn’t be seen through the swaddling of the baby blanket wrapping her, but it was clear these were photographs Rob had snapped as he welcomed home his wife and first born child in the middle of winter, snow piled at either side of the front doorway.

Charlene fanned the photos out on the bed and she sat down. She looked the images of a baby in winter and felt frozen. What in the world? Charlene dropped the cell phone. The phone call to Linda would have to wait.

Carefully she put the photos in a perfect stack and set them on the mound of the pillow on her side of the bed. She pulled the box back out of its hiding place and placed it in the very center of the bedspread where she’d have the most room. Her heart pounding, Blue Beard indeed! Charlene reopened her husband’s childhood box.

Charlene grimaced as she looked down into a jumble. It was a random collection, the emotional residue of any small boy’s life. But this didn’t explain what the photographs belonging to Linda and Rob were doing there. She began to slowly remove objects to review each of them more carefully.

The sun moving across the bed winked at her when light glinted off ruby glass in the box. Charlene gasped out loud as she recognized the eighth Venetian cordial glass that had gone missing so many years ago. The last time she’d seen it was at the dinner party to introduce Carl into her circle of intimates. In all the years since, she’d thought two glasses had broken. Carl had never bothered to correct her assumption and now Charlene knew why: that night, he stole one of those glasses.

Charlene sat very still. Then, with one swift motion, she upended the box and dumped its contents out onto the bed. A golf ball rolled off the spread and bounced over into a corner. She retrieved it and turned it over in her palm, biting her lips. It was signed in red ink with the name Jack Nicklaus, 1980.

“I hate golf,” Carl claimed; he found the game mind numbingly boring to watch on television, and not much of a sport to play in real life. Charlene thought, What’s he doing with a golf ball signed by the man considered to be the greatest PGA Championship player of all time?

Terry Rundell, she thought with the next breath. Terry and Carl worked together, and Terry was an absolute golf freak. Charlene had no actual proof that her husband stole the ball. But she knew. In light of all the other tokens she was looking at on the bed, Charlene knew.

Suddenly they were no longer random. With her fingertips Charlene picked up the single, ominous pearl colored silk stocking she’d overlooked. Charlene draped it over her left forearm and held it out in the sunlight in front of her where she perched on the red bedspread. One stocking. One. Stolen from a clothesline, maybe. Or filched from the back of a dresser drawer from a house where they’d been invited for dinner, or drinks, or an innocuous social gathering. Who had it belonged to, and what was it about the woman to compel Carl to steal her stocking?

Her mouth twisted in disgust and she dropped the silky, filmy thing into a pile. She continued to sort through the other items.

An old paperback had landed on the bed half-opened. Its cover was yellowed, the edges of the pages cracked and cuThuvia Maid of Mars-1920.jpgrling. Charlene placed it with the cover up in front of her. Thuvia, Maid of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her brain racing, Charlene recalled that Edgar Rice Burroughs had written the popular Tarzan series. This book must be one of his potboilers.

She turned cautiously to the first page. For Timmy, as promised! With love from Grandpa Brent was written on the flyleaf in an old man’s shaky, old-fashioned penmanship. Underneath he’d added, Xmas 1966. It had to be the treasured present of a boy from Carl’s grade school class, or later. Charlene knew adults have even stronger emotional attachments to items from their childhoods than children do. Well, wherever Timmy might be, this book left his possession years ago. She placed a tender palm on the cover as she closed the book and set it by the crumpled stocking.

Next Charlene opened a little bag with a drawstring and dumped out a bizarre collection of markers from children’s board games. The doll’s house teacup and Barbie shoe in the bottom of the bag bothered her the most. Those items were just too weird to find in a man’s box of memories… Charlene placed all of them back into their bag, firmly retied the strings, and went on to the next objects.

She frowned as she turned over used beer coasters. Those might be from the wet bar in the basement of one of Carl’s friends, someone he admired. Had Carl taken them as mementos of a night out drinking? Or were the coasters part of some guy’s foolish beer decal collection?

Charlene thought over who the friend might be as she jiggled the box absently. An object bumped against the bottom, and Charlene peered back into what she now considered Bluebeard’s box. Dislodged now, inside rolled a rare, colored, tiger-eye marble belonging to the little kid next door.

Determinedly Charlene picked up the box and shook it upside down. “What next!” she muttered, and out fluttered a single stamp. She plucked it from the bedspread and held it up in the sunlight. It was from The Cook Islands, 3 cents. Charlene didn’t have to use her imagination to picture a stamp collection belonging to someone who had the misfortune to come within Carl’s orbit. If the owner hadn’t noticed it yet, he or she or they, young or old, new to the hobby or an impassioned and seasoned collector… somewhere at some point, the person would notice a tiny object they had once thought theirs was gone. And they would lament the loss without knowing where it had gone, or who had removed it.

- from my short story “Carl Possessed” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thuvia, Maid of Mars & A Princess of Mars, A. C. McClurg Publisher, 1920. (Photos from Wikipedia)

The Salt Pits

When we talk about salt, we talk most often of sodium chloride. This is NaCl, consisting of the elements sodium and chlorine.

There is a charming tradition in Germany of bringing a loaf of bread and salt to friends when they move into a new home. The saying is that if you have those two items in your house you’ll always survive. Bread and salt are still ceremoniously served to guests in parts of northern and eastern Europe.

Mark Kurlansky writes, “Loyalty and friendship are sealed with salt because its essence does not change. In both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain because it is immutable… In Christianity, salt is associated not only with longevity and permanence but, by extension, wth truth and wisdom. The Catholic Church dispenses not only holy water but holy salt, Sal Sapientia, the salt of wisdom.” [1]

Seeing the hard way salt is won from pits changed forever the way I think about this simple condiment.

We were staying for only a few days in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, and spent a day with a guide and a driver to see a bit of the area. One of the spots we toured was a traditional salt harvesting town. A little settlement lives at and from the pits (and has burned down numerous times). Each time, they rebuild right next to the pits.WR_05_03_176

WR_05_03_164Salty waters are brought up from deep underground

WR_05_03_180and then boiled in open metal pans. Their burning fires glowed and sent off intense heat. The briny steam that rose felt like being in some strange circle of Dante’s Purgatory.

WR_05_03_167

WR_05_03_161Once the water has boiled away the salt is gathered in baskets, weighed, and stored in a barn. WR_05_03_175

WR_05_03_172

WR_05_03_174

WR_05_03_173

Workers then bag and tag the salt, preparing it for market.

WR_05_03_184

Salt is a serious business. The salt from this mine is sent to the north where people still suffer endemic goiters.

I thought of the pits of hell, of work so demanding and hot that it left scars. Just being tied to a spot like this must bake you and make you hard. Or so I thought. Instead, I met workers doing their jobs in neatly ironed clothing. The women all had on jewelry. A group of little children trailed us everywhere, laughing and mugging as children do.

WR_05_03_179

Since that day salt has tasted both sweeter and bitterer, or herber as the Germans say. And in that small word I hear the echo of the coming season, Herbst, Autumn. The summer is burning away and fall is coming. May your harvest tables everywhere include bread and salt.

NOTES: [1] Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (Vintage Books, 2002), p. 7.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Photos of our trips to Laos and Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de. Go to my earlier posts Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient or A Visit to the Food Bank, Part 1 &  2 for more about food.

 

The Death of Robin Williams

Feste the Fool: “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.” —Shakespeare King Lear, Act III, Scene 4

Robin Williams is dead. He killed himself.

Both of these statements shock and sadden me. Put together, they are almost unbearable. Since his passing the nights have been cold indeed, and it’s taken days to reach a place where I can try to write about him.

Caren Miosga is an anchor for the major evening news program in Germany, and German journalism is a serious business. Caren reported the news of his death barefoot and standing on top of her news desk. “O Captain! My Captain!” she recited from there. There is no more fitting way to salute him.

Die einmalige Szene in den Tagesthemen

I remember when he burst onto the world stage. He was incredibly funny, his wit like lightening. His brain and mouth moved so fast that it still takes repeat viewing (and listening) to catch up to him. And even then you wonder how he could improvise like that. He would recite Shakespeare – and play all the roles himself.

A good word to describe him is irrepressible. Robin seemed impossible to hold back, stop, or control. And he embodied the next meaning of the word: very lively and cheerful. But like all clowns he knew the flip side of laughter is sadness. He was a fiercely observant social critic and he spoke about what he saw. As our greatest court jesters have always done, Robin told us the truth.

During the 1980s I lived in San Francisco, and I remember going with friends to the newly opened Hard Rock Café. As we sat there, a murmur rippled through the big room. Robin Williams, two women, and two very young children had just been seated for lunch. As the news spread, people stopped eating and turned in their chairs to stare.

Robin was a guy who’d simply come in for lunch, and looked uncomfortable with all the attention. But he signed autographs and smiled. I was struck by how youthful he looked, and how shy. He didn’t have a glamorous aura. I tried to figure out what was remarkable about how he looked. In the end, I was startled by a sense that he was terribly vulnerable.

And that is the secret to his magic. Robin Williams didn’t just make us laugh. He made us feel the absurdity of our prejudices and fears, and yes, our hopes and desires, too. He reminded us at all times of our humanity. He was searingly honest about his own short comings and dreams. He turned himself inside out with a candor and lovingkindness that made his humor a healing force.

Our world is a sadder place for his passing. It’s a better place for his having lived and shared his immense gifts with us.

He is already greatly missed.

R.I.P. Robin McLaurin Williams 21 July 1951 - 11 August 2014

 

Speed Dating – Part 2

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

Maricela took a deliberate slow swallow from her non-alcoholic beer. “I would go out dancing on weekends, with my friends.” She looked away, her gaze on somewhere in the past. “I drank,” she answered quietly. “I went on short term binges. I didn’t really have relationships, or if I did, they sure were fluid ones. All high-percentage based.”

She gave him a wry smile and raised the near beer in a toast. “I had one black out too many. Finally I figured out I could get the smallest of buzzes from a near beer and it tastes just close enough to the real thing. Most people thing women drink these because they’re trying to avoid the calories.”

Maricela laughed softly; Rick thought she sounded sad. “I don’t judge you,” he was prepared to say, wanting to comfort her. He was shocked when she turned her face to him and he saw she was grinning.

“Holy shit! I was such a wild thing. I had fun, that’s for sure! I only regret I can’t remember more of it.”

Maricela’s utter candor and what sounded like a total lack of shame were attractive. She had no idea how sexy it was, the unfolding mystery of her past – her honesty about it – and the acceptance of both who she was now and what she had been like. She had no idea of the affect this had.

They sat in a bar and grill, perhaps an odd place given Maricela’s most recent story. But when he looked across the table at her she seemed at peace, happy to be with him eating lunch. Maricela talked on, unconcerned. “My friends, the women anyway, sit around and do the ‘Woulda coulda shoulda’ game. Where it went wrong, why it might have gone wrong, how they should have been stronger, or more assertive in their careers, or better mommies, or more giving to their ex-husband. Or rather most of the time, how they should have been less giving to the s.o.b.! In the end it’s all the same.

“Not me.” Maricela pierced Rick with a look. “Regretting the past doesn’t make it go away, or erase the mistakes. As nice as that would be… It’s mental masturbation. You root around in old dirt and feel guilty or bad about yourself over, and over, and over again.

“At first there was no way I was going to do a 12 steps program. Who needs to go into critical self-analysis when you can grow up Catholic? The gift that goes on giving: guilt. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I got a year of therapy to help me figure out why I liked drinking so much.”

“And?”

She laughed out loud again and the sound was truly joyous. “Well, it’s the reason I still drink non-alcoholic beer. I like the taste! I like beer! When I drank, I drank too much. There were no big revelations, which might have been the biggest revelation of all. We go hunting for deep answers, if my father had been more affectionate, if my mother only praised me more. I drank because I worked so hard. And since I weigh 130 pounds, it didn’t take much to help me unwind. I don’t have any buried family trauma, and I don’t have tendencies to be drug dependent. I never even smoked cigarettes, so I didn’t like smoking pot. When I tried smoking a joint it just tore out my lungs.

“But now I am sorry, I’m blathering on suddenly about all this! It’s old history, it’s really ancient. I haven’t gotten drunk in over a decade! It’s no big deal, Rick, I’m not a heroine or anything; I just got a little smarter about how I was living my life and what I want from it. One of the major things though, is I decided, if I met someone I wanted to see again, I have to be up front about who I am and who I’m not. And I am definitely not a drinker any more.”

“Yo, I’ve done some drinking in my time too. Not to worry. I think it goes with the territory of being young and getting older and wiser.” Inside he exulted.

They sat silent for a few minutes and Maricela resumed eating her cooling food. The silence wasn’t awkward; she really did seem at peace with herself and with the long speech she’d just given him. Rick waited until she finished eating and her hands were back in her lap before he reached over and, taking her left hand in his, silently raised it to his cheek. It was dated, the gesture: but Rick meant it.

Much later, Rick woke to feel Maricela’s presence in his bed beside him. She lay curled on her left side, the hand he’d held to his cheek earlier at lunch brushing against him.

- from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

Speed Dating – Part 1

Slowly Rick garnered the pertinent facts about Maricela. She came from a large family where education was a priority. All five of the Howard siblings had at least some graduate school time or professional training under their belts. Maricela was an intellectual prodigy and had gone to college entirely on grants and scholarships. She’d been a natural scholar, the acknowledged golden child of any seminar class. Ironically, his parents moved briefly to Brookville when Maricela had finished up her undergraduate work there; they’d just missed one another.

She worked as a financial advisor with an ethical investments firm, a job she loved since she began there eight years ago. She had been promoted twice and refused the next offer for further advancement, preferring to keep close to her individual clients. Her field of expertise was alternative energies and fair trade. Maricela firmly believed the phrase sustainable and responsible investing was not an oxymoron.

She’d had one, failed, live-in relationship. When she discovered his coke habit she ended the relationship. “It wasn’t just that he lied to me about how much he used,” Maricela explained. “And it wasn’t the way I found out: catching him in the kitchen over the butcher block, for God’s sake. He promised he’d ease up on what he was using, but I know too much about how much fun partying is.

“Speedy drugs weren’t ever my thing. They just made me nauseous and I preferred alcohol anyway, so it wasn’t like I felt holier than thou. It was the way he wasn’t willing to stay clean, and how cagey he was being about the realities of that fact. He kept pretending he was in control of his habit and lied about how much he did. Typical user behavior. It was the set up for more hiding and bullshit stories that eventually made me end it.”

The tone might have made Rick suspicious, because in the voice of the wrong woman it sounded phony. Worse, it sounded like what someone with a martyr complex might say. But Maricela was simply stating the facts. Her ex hadn’t wanted to be honest about needing to snort coke; and Maricela was unwilling to settle for a relationship based on prevarications.

Maricela’s friends held her in affection and quite often in awe. Despite her formidable brainpower her personality was easy and accessible; there was nothing of the intellectual snob about her. She’d cohabitated for the last 3 years with a long time friend named Sarah. Together the two of them had rented the converted loft space.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer the prior spring, Maricela put her own social life on hold in order to be there for her friend. That was the reason why she’d been out of the dating pool. It had nothing to do with an unwillingness to engage with other people. On the contrary: a deep commitment to the people she cared about led Maricela to prioritize how she used her time.

Almost every bit of information Chris and Sybil had offered to describe Maricela turned out to be accurate. The only piece of information they’d gotten wrong was her choice of alcohol. Instead of wine, most of the time Maricela drank near beer.

Rick noted all of these things and thought, This woman is someone worth getting to know, no matter where it leads. Surprised, Rick actually asked himself if he’d be willing to just be friends with her if the physical chemistry didn’t pan out. He was even more surprised when the answer to that question was, yes.

“I’m not being coy about bringing you home with me, you know,” she informed him one day; the two were having lunch. “Trust me on this one. In my earlier days we’d already be there! But Sarah’s really sick. She’s going through chemo, and the procedure is quite simply hell. It’s really important right now that we keep the apartment as germ-free and sterile as possible. You understand, right?”

“Sure,” Rick said, and hesitated. “No, actually, I don’t. I doubt if I can even begin to understand. I don’t think I’d know how to handle it if someone I was close to got cancer,” he admitted. “Or if I could be as supportive.”

Maricela turned what he’d said over in her mind and shrugged. “She’s my best friend. I sit with her when she’s awake half the night throwing up because the poisons in the chemotherapy mean she won’t keep anything down for long. The other half the night she can’t stop crying because she knows she’s getting weaker and weaker, and feels sicker and sicker. She’s really terrified that this is it, she’s going to die, and in the end all the chemo and medical attention in the world aren’t going to make a bit of difference. She’s scared maybe she’s putting herself through hell for nothing. And me along with her.

“Next,” continued Maricela relentlessly, “Sarah lost her hair. It was coming out in patches so Sarah had it all shaved off. Then she went through this awful period where her face puffed up. Her skin was reacting to a combination of the drugs, and she couldn’t go out in bright sunlight because of allergic reactions to some of the other meds. And when you’re a friend, all you can really do is just, be there. It’s not your sickness or your pain.

“Trust me. When you see it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

“The only thing you can do is fetch the bucket, get a cup of herb tea, and offer to do the shopping. Just being there for your friend and not being afraid to do that little extra helps more than anyone imagines. A person with cancer needs you to be normal, because nothing else in their life is any more. Nothing else around them will ever be the same again. I won’t go into the gruesome details about the bouts of depression Sarah endures, but picture your blackest, darkest thoughts. Magnify those by about a thousand and maybe you have some idea of how deep the depression of a person with cancer and on meds is. A cancer patient doesn’t know if it’s her or the heavy-duty medications doing the talking, or thinking, or feeling all those awful things.

“Every day becomes a big surprise, and not one you want to wake up to. Are you going to manifest new symptoms? How’s the old mood going to be, will you feel incapacitated or can you function again? What fun tests, and diagnostics, and medical procedures do you have scheduled this time? What will the news be, and how are you going to be able to bear to hear it? There was a phase where all the test results were bad; every one of them was really horribly grim. Sarah started going in and out of depressions where she couldn’t stand to be around anybody at all. What she was feeling, the agony, the fear, and exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.

“It’s not a question of staying supportive,” Maricela repeated. “Cancer survivors travel to hell and back. All I do is let her know I’ll be waiting there each time she returns.”

Rick listened to Maricela with both admiration and dismay. “I’m not so sure. I’d be scared I’d react the wrong way and make things worse,” he persisted. “Or that I wouldn’t be able to face someone else’s illness. I don’t know if I’d be up to being supportive.”

He looked at Maricela’s face as he admitted that, afraid to see her light brown eyes darken. But he didn’t want to present himself in a false light, especially when compared with the relentless clean light of her frankness. Only honesty was admissible.

He was silent, thinking about all of the relationship games he’d so willingly played over the years. One set of games to get close enough to climb into bed; another set to extricate himself from the mussed up sheets afterwards. When he realized she was waiting patiently for him to talk, or to remain silent, just as he wished, Rick surprised himself for the third time in an hour. He opened his mouth and as if in the third person, Rick heard himself really talk.

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved was ill, much less going to die. I’ve never been in that situation! My mom was always great. She’d make home made chicken soup with egg noodles, nothing fancy, but it was like the great home remedy for anything that ever made a little kid feel bad. I would pretend to have a really, really bad cough, just to get her to make it.

“It’s the only dish I ever make for someone on a regular basis.” Rick was thinking out loud; silent, Maricela listened without judgment as he began to peel away protective layers.

“My mother made soup, but it was about emotional support. When I make it for anyone it’s, soup. The emotional support’s what I get, by recreating the atmosphere of my mom. It’s never about doing something for another person at all.

“Jesus! Why didn’t I ever notice this before? For me,” his voice was almost at a crawl. Maricela actually leaned across the table so she could hear him without having to interrupt to ask him to speak more loudly. “For me, relationships were, are, something to have fun with. It’s all speed dating. I never put much energy into the mutual support aspect of it, beyond being honest and not cheating on a girlfriend as long as we’re together.

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

- from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.