Diet Soda

The only beverage available in chemo is ginger ale, and it is diet. I don’t realize this until I pour myself a saccharine Styrofoam cup. “Rinse off the top of the can,” my grandma says, unwrapping cheese crackers to offer my aunt and me. I bring wet cans for the two of us. My grandmother says she doesn’t want any, pouring more sound and gesture into the statement than seems possible. My aunt in the reclining chair hears me cough and asks the nurse to get me a mask.

My grandmother has been coming here weekly, off and on, for as long as I can remember, which probably explains why I have only recently realized that this is frightening. There is a way of thinking about the body when you have not known acutely what it is to fear, a way that washes your childhood thin, until you can see through it like tissue paper.

She has been featured in the local cancer center’s calendar as Ms. June, an image we have hanging on the wall of our laundry room. I like to flip through the book. In it, each month’s model is quoted saying something inspiring. She says she trusts God. I tear into the rim of the Styrofoam cup, even though my first-grade teacher told me that ripping Styrofoam is bad for the environment. I decide I trust people in surgical masks, intimations of divinity, the way bodies spiral out of themselves at good kinds of touch.

We talk about the flu, how it’s an emergency in Boston, how reluctant well-meaning people are to get flu shots. I move my mask onto my face when I cough. My grandmother gives me 15 bucks.

“Because I am worried you won’t have any money until you get back to school,” she says. “When you are driving later, I want you to lock the car doors. You don’t know what people can do.”

As I’m about to go, I pour the half-full cup of pale yellow soda down the drain. It burps and fizzles. Afterwards, I drive slowly, conscious of the edges of the road.

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