Beautiful

Michael Bourne

Usually when Rachel entered a room it was at hurricane speed, a blur of stomped feet and shouted hallos and bright unfurling scarves and coats and hats, but that morning when she came through the revolving doors at Anthony’s, she was so quiet, so unobtrusive, it was as if the invisible swarm of paparazzi that followed her everywhere had finally been sent packing. Seeing her there in the doorway at Anthony’s looking for me was the first time I thought something might actually be wrong. Rachel had done this before, called me in a panic saying she needed to talk to me right away, but in the end it always turned out to be nothing—a role she hadn’t gotten, some scrap of criticism from Daniel Smite, the director who ran our acting studio. I always listened, though, because that was what I did, that was the price of admission, for me, into the glamorous world of Rachel Janson.

One look at her in the restaurant doorway erased all thought of that. Her face was a smudged, ash-gray mess, and her clothes, a navy peacoat over jeans and red hobnail boots, looked like they had been spread out across the floor of her apartment ten minutes ago. “Oh, Sue,” she said when she saw me, but there was no joy in her voice, only relief, as if I were a bitter but necessary pill she had decided to take. I stood up to say hello, but she just slid into the booth, pulling a half-crushed pack of Davidoffs from her coat pocket.

I’d ordered my usual half a grapefruit with toast and coffee, but Rachel wouldn’t eat a thing, wouldn’t even look at a menu. She sat huffing down one overpriced Swiss cigarette after another, watching me pick at my grapefruit until I couldn’t take it anymore and pushed the bowl aside.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “Why couldn’t you tell me anything over the phone?”

Rachel took a last, hungry drag and stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. She was very deliberate about it, crushing the embers and spreading the ashes around as if the rest of her life depended on properly extinguishing this one particular cigarette.

“If I tell you something,” she said, “will you promise you won’t freak on me?”

Rachel had long red hair—not carrot-top red, darker than that, a deep auburn-black, the color of wine when it’s held up to a light. That morning she was wearing it piled up like some crazed, messy turban on top of her head. I knew, because I’d seen the scars, that Rachel cut herself, and I wondered if I were to push up the sleeves of her sweater, whether I would see freshly razored lines on her forearms.

“Have you ever done a self-exam?” she asked, lowering her voice. “You know, here…” She gestured toward her slender, reed-like chest.

I hadn’t, in fact, but I nodded, wondering where she was going with this.

“Have you ever found anything?” she asked.

“You mean like a lump?”

“Sue,” she hissed. “You promised you wouldn’t freak.”

“I’m not. It’s just, are you saying you found a lump on your breast?”

“No, not there.” She checked my eyes, then leaned in across the table, close. “A few weeks ago I was in the shower and I felt something, you know, like a little bump. Here.” She placed her hand gingerly in the crease of her left armpit. “I figured it was a bug bite or something. But it’s been almost a month, and it’s getting bigger. And, Sue, it hurts.”

“Have you talked to a doctor?”

“I thought it was a fucking bug bite.” She had started to cry, quick, gasping little sobs. “Tell me I’m making this up. Tell me I’m just freaking out and imagining things.”

I grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser on the table, looking around for someone who could help us, someone to tell me what to do. But this was 20 years ago. There were no smartphones, no Google searches, no Wikipedia entries to check. It was just me and a crying girl in a crowded New York diner at rush hour, and no one had even noticed us.

“This could be anything, right?” I said. “I mean, people find stuff like this all the time and it turns out to be nothing.”

“Sue, you don’t understand,” Rachel sobbed. “I told you about my mom, right? This is how it started with her. She found a lump on her neck and the next day she was in the hospital. That’s what killed her. Hodgkin’s disease. She was just like ten years older than I am now.”

Something about crying people has always made me want to mother them. I stop being invisible Sue Mooreland from Flower Mound, Texas, and become someone else entirely: bossy, capable, strong as baling wire. I dragged Rachel outside to a pay phone and called the first female oncologist I found in the Manhattan Yellow Pages, a Dr. Geraldine Elliot, on Park Avenue just off East 90th Street.

On the ride uptown Rachel sat curled in a half-fetal ball on her side of the cab staring out at the city rolling by, not crying exactly, just stunned. It had begun to snow, fat, wet flakes falling everywhere, blanketing the city. I couldn’t take all that silence so I tried to come up with stories of people I knew who’d thought they were sick but weren’t. Every time I thought I’d hit on one—a cousin back home who had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s, a friend of my father’s whose heart problems went away when he changed his diet and started exercising—I remembered that in each case, the misdiagnosis had only been a temporary reprieve, that the symptoms the doctors had misread the first time turned out to be signs of something else, nearly always fatal.

At Dr. Elliot’s office, the receptionist sent Rachel in right away while I stayed behind in the waiting room filling out forms, leaving blank what I didn’t know, which was almost everything. Several times I caught glimpses of Rachel walking from one room to another, a few steps behind a middle-aged nurse. Rachel was barefoot, dressed only in the cotton-tissue smock they’d given her, and the slow, lumbering way she moved reminded me, not for the last time that day, of a child walking in her sleep.

She was gone more than an hour and when she came out, she only nodded in a distracted way when I asked what the doctor had said. We didn’t speak again until we were outside on the street.

“What happened in there?” I asked.

For half a block, we walked past the solemn brownstones of 90th Street, the only sound the scuffing of our boots along the sidewalk. “She wants me to come back tomorrow for more tests.”

At Fifth Avenue we turned and walked arm in arm along the empty park, in shock. I kept saying the word over and over in my head: Cancer. My friend has cancer. I was 19 years old. No one I knew had ever been seriously ill before, and the thought of it, that the girl beside me could be dead before I finished college, made the world around us—the honking cabs, the bare, stick-like trees—feel sharper somehow, more real.

“What’re you going to do?” I asked. “I mean, if this—if you’re…?”

“Go home, I guess.” She turned to me. “Would you come with me?”

“To Boston?”

She shook her head. “You’re right, forget it. It’d just be weird.”

We kept walking, Rachel still holding my arm. I knew from our nights at her apartment that after her mother died, Rachel had been raised as an only child by nannies and a succession of evil stepmothers out of a fairy tale. Her father worked at an investment bank and flew around the world doing whatever it is that investment bankers do. He was single again, and to hear Rachel tell it, when she wasn’t in New York, she lived more or less alone with her father’s Filipina maid in a five-story brick Victorian in Back Bay. So when she said it would be weird for me to come with her to Boston, I didn’t argue.

“I’ll call my dad as soon as we get back downtown,” she said.

I hailed a cab and rode with her downtown, past the campus to her apartment on Lispenard Street, just south of Canal. Even then, in the bad old Giuliani days, there weren’t many college students who could afford a loft in Tribeca, and Rachel’s wasn’t just any loft. She had the entire third floor of her building to herself, no walls or partitions, just 2,000 square feet of oak flooring surrounded on four sides by exposed brick and glass. At one end was her living room, an island of leather sofas and blond-wood end tables floating in a pool of yellow light from the street. At the other end, with a view onto a beat-looking yard, was her bright, unused kitchen. In between, taking up most of the apartment, was an open area big enough to roller skate in—part bedroom, part walk-in closet for Rachel’s clothes, which hung on steel dress racks lined up against the wall, or else, as was the case that day, lay spread out all over the floor.

The first time I had gone to Rachel’s apartment, six months before, I had been in New York less than a week. That morning, the first day of Studio, Daniel led us into our windowless classroom on the third floor of the theater building and quietly shut the door. “Good morning, actors,” he said, as we found seats on a set of low risers. “Before we begin, I’d like you to take a moment to look around at the faces in this room. Take your time. Study them. Commit them to memory.” I pretended to look around at my fellow students, but mostly I watched Daniel. He was a small man, dressed all in white, with a shaved head and one of those eerily unwrinkled faces that could have been 25 or 50. His accent was British, clipped and formal, but everything else about him—his clothes, his gestures, his mirthless smile—was impossible to place. “Good,” he said. “In four years, three-quarters of the people in this room will be gone. Some will lose interest. Others will find work on some horrid television program and drop out. Others will, quite simply, be asked to leave. But look around, my lovely young actors, because among you today is a handful of artists—we don’t know who they are yet, but I promise you they are here, in this room—who will one day remake American theater.”

When we broke for the day Rachel invited everyone to her apartment downtown. Even there, in that noisy room full of actors, it was Rachel who stood out. She was beautiful, for one thing, an exquisite, hurt kind of beautiful, pale and pouty, with just enough watchfulness in her eyes to make you want to watch out for her, protect her. But she was alive, too, eyes flashing, mouth running, trying to out-act, out-funny, out-move everything in sight. There is an expression in the theater: we say an actor “takes stage.” Rachel took stage. She demanded stage. She ate stage. Until suddenly she didn’t, and then for a minute, as she yielded the stage to someone else, she became smaller and more ordinary, just another tall, skinny college girl with a lot of red hair who’d had too much to drink at a party.

I spent most of the evening on a sofa in one corner, wondering what I was doing there, how I could have persuaded anyone, least of all myself, that I belonged in New York studying with Daniel Smite. I felt unbearably slow and square and suburban. I was dressed like a boy in cuffed jeans and a crew-neck t-shirt, my hair tucked under a newsboy cap I’d seen in a Soho shop window. For me, this was daring, wild. But here everyone was in costume. One cadaverously slim girl with a close-cropped pelt of frost-white hair wore a chalk-striped men’s suit. Another boy, a dreamy-eyed blond from Wyoming, wore mud-spattered boots and a buckskin coat like he’d just come in from roping calves. I loved it, that here all the world really could be a stage, but from my place on the sofa, I couldn’t stop seeing it through my parents’ eyes. Bunch of fucking freaks, my father would have said. They were freaks. That’s why I liked them. I had turned down a full ride at UT Austin and taken out every kind of loan you can imagine to come to New York to study with Daniel Smite because I wanted to join them, be one of them. But I hadn’t realized how deep Texas was inside me, how much I was still my daddy’s girl—my good, smart, hard-working daddy who’d come up off the farm and made enough selling frozen sides of beef to buy a house with a yard and a pool in Flower Mound, Texas.

That first week in Studio we were assigned to observe our classmates, and at the end of the week walk onstage as one of them. No costumes, no dialogue. Just pure being. I chose for my subject a dark-eyed tax attorney’s kid from Connecticut named Anson Hunter. I picked him mostly because he was so easy. All I had to do was walk onstage and run my hand through my hair, flashing that shy, pretty-boy grin of his, and twenty voices shouted in unison, “Anson!”

Rachel went last that day. When Daniel called her name, she walked onstage without a word and sat down. She took a breath, to signal the start of the scene, then leaned forward, clasping her knee. She pulled her head down to her shoulders like a turtle retracting into its shell, nodding slowly, keeping time to some inaudible beat. Her eyes darted left, then right, tracking an invisible crowd. After a few seconds, she let go of her knee. Then clasped it again. Then let go. Then clasped it again. That was when I got it: She was doing me. I’d had no sense of being watched at her party, certainly not by Rachel, but there was no mistaking it. She had me down, the way I smiled, nodding shyly when someone looked my way, then hastily covering up, pulling my knee halfway to my chest, mortified by my self-consciousness.

Once or twice in the minutes that followed, someone shouted a name, but when Rachel didn’t break character, when she went on looking around the room, nodding to the imaginary beat, we all sat in silence, watching. It seemed wrong, somehow, to identify myself. It frightened me, too, that as perfectly as she’d nailed me, no one had guessed. And so, for three long minutes, until Daniel called time, I saw myself reproduced with uncanny accuracy in the body of a pale, thin, impossibly beautiful 19-year-old girl.


When we got back from Dr. Elliot’s, I helped Rachel get settled, and then, on the excuse of buying her a fresh pack of cigarettes, I slipped downstairs to give her a chance to talk to her dad in peace. When I came back an hour later, I found traces of vomit in the bathroom sink and Rachel passed out on the bed. It was late, and I had already missed a day’s worth of classes, but I didn’t want Rachel to be alone, so I did my best to clean the bathroom and then pulled a chair over to her bed to wait for her to wake up.

I didn’t have to wait long. One minute she was sprawled across the bed snoring softly, and the next she was blinking awake, squinting up at me.

“Hey,” she said. “How long have I been out?”

Even then, exhausted and scared, Rachel was riveting to look at: a long, lean cat of a girl stretching sleepily as she pushed away the sheets.

“Not long, maybe an hour,” I said. “How’re you feeling?”

“Not so great,” she said. “I sort of got sick in the bathroom while you were gone.”

“I know, I saw. I cleaned up in there.”

“Sue, I’m sorry.” She brushed a lock of red hair out of her eyes. “Did anyone call?”

I shook my head. “You didn’t get through to your dad?”

“Just his assistant,” she said, sinking back into bed. “He’s out of town on business. In Budapest, I think. Or maybe Geneva. She wasn’t sure.”

It was hard for me to wrap my mind around having a father who might be in Budapest or Geneva, but even harder for me to imagine that his secretary wouldn’t know which one.

“Did she say when he would call?”

“They’re trying to find him now,” she said. “He’s probably just on a plane or something. Or, you know, out with a client.”

But by midnight he still hadn’t called. Twice more I went back out onto Canal Street, first for Chinese take-out and then for wine and yet another pack of cigarettes at the all-night bodega on West Broadway that carried Rachel’s precious Davidoffs. Both times when I came back upstairs, Rachel was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, dry-eyed and fiercely cheerful. She had left messages at the offices of her father’s firm in London and at his favorite hotels in Budapest and Geneva, but no one knew where he was or how to find him.

It was sometime after two in the morning when we finally gave up. After she turned out the lights, I lay in bed beside her, my eyes shut tight, miles from anything you could call sleep. I was wired from all the wine and coffee and cigarettes, but that wasn’t what kept me awake. It was like this every time I slept over at Rachel’s. I could hear the whisper of the city outside, taxis passing by on West Broadway, drunks muttering out on the sidewalk, but also every sound Rachel made, every intake of breath, every shift in the bedsprings. I felt sure she was awake, too, that she was listening to the slow, regular rhythm of my breath. Beyond that my mind didn’t travel. Back home, I had always been the smart, quiet girl from drama class the sensitive boys came to when they wanted to lose their virginities. That was sex to me, a grudging, pleasureless transaction, my body for their attention, and I had no words, no place in my brain, for the tug between my concern for a friend in trouble and my desire to reach across the bed and touch her—just that, reach out and run my fingers through her hair.

“You awake?” Rachel whispered.

When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see her face, only a dark halo of hair and two bright wet eyes watching me across the bed.

“Yeah. What is it?”

“Sue, I’m so scared.”

“About tomorrow?”

“About tomorrow. About everything. I mean, where the hell’s my dad? I must have called him ten times tonight. Where is he?”

She was crying again, those same hard, gasping little sobs. I eased across the bed and held her bucking in my arms until she stopped. We lay like that a long time, spooned, her long body folded inside my slightly fleshier one, my face nestled in the warm crook of her neck. This we had never done before, not in all the time I’d spent with Rachel. I was glad I couldn’t see her face, that all I had to do was hold her and stroke her hair. God, that hair. There was just so much of it. I buried my face down in it until it was all around me, an intoxicating scent of henna and cigarettes and girl-skin. I lay perfectly still, drunk on the warmth of Rachel’s body, until I heard her first slow even breaths of sleep.


I woke up hungover and alone in Rachel’s bed. In the kitchen, pale morning sunlight slanted in through the windows and a still-warm pot of coffee sat on the stove. On the table I found a scribbled note propped against the sugar bowl:

Sue

Sorry, couldn’t sleep. Going a little stir crazy, had to get some fresh air. I’ll drop by the dorms around noon. Thank you, for everything.

xxoo

R

Still half-dopey with wine, I made up the bed, emptied the ashtrays and wine glasses from the night before, and dragged myself the ten blocks uptown to the dorms. All morning I sat off in a corner of the dining hall drinking coffee and watching the late risers gulp down their eggs and toast before heading off to class. I felt secretive and alone, but it was a special kind of aloneness. I was wanted. Needed. I wrapped myself in the cocoon of my neededness, replaying images from the night before: how Rachel had cried herself to sleep beside me, and how later, when I tried to move back to my side of the bed, she had shifted slightly, pressing my hand to her chest, until I, too, finally drifted into unconsciousness.

We had Studio three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’d never missed a class, so if Rachel and I were out the same day I knew people would notice. I sat in the dining hall drinking coffee imagining that all the gossip flying around the third floor of the theater building until the kitchen staff finally kicked me out and I went upstairs. Outside, it was snowing again, more of those fat, lazy flakes. Rachel wasn’t answering the phone at her place, so I parked myself at my dorm window and smoked half a pack of Rachel’s fancy Swiss cigarettes, watching the snow cover Fifth Avenue in white.

She showed up a little after one, bundled in a ski parka and boots, her wet red hair slicked back from her face. When I hugged her, she smelled of the snowy streets outside.

“Hey, it’s late,” I said. “What time are you supposed to be at the hospital?”

She stared, blinking. “Sue, my appointment was at nine. I just got back.”

“Oh,” I said. I thought of the scrap of paper on her kitchen table, trying to recall if it had said anything about a doctor’s appointment. It hadn’t, I was sure of it. But then I remembered this wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about us. It was about her. “Oh my God, what’d they say?” I asked.

Rachel sat down heavily on the bed. “They found something,” she said. “A mass, they call it. In a lymph node under my arm. They want to start me on radiation treatments tomorrow.”

This time she wasn’t crying. She looked too shocked, too shaken for that. I was the one who lost it. I ran around the room like a crazy person, hanging her wet things over the radiator, finding a towel for her hair, giving her dry socks, as if getting her warm and dry would somehow make the tumor growing under her arm disappear.

While I ran around, Rachel sat on the bed and told me about her morning in a distracted tone, as if she was talking about someone else, perhaps a distant relative. Dr. Elliot had met her at Columbia Presbyterian in Harlem, where they had given her a CAT scan, which showed a tumor roughly an inch in diameter in a cluster of lymph nodes under her left arm. Because Rachel was so young and because they had caught it early, the doctors thought they could neutralize it with radiation and light doses of chemotherapy. If all went well, and the cancer hadn’t spread to her chest or her vital organs, she could be cancer-free in less than a year.

Oh, thank God, I thought, then realized I had no idea what any of that meant. Was radiation therapy different than chemotherapy? What was chemotherapy? Was there such a thing as light doses of it? Until that moment, these had all been words for things that happened to other people, people I didn’t know.

“This all seems so fast,” I said.

“I know, my dad pushed them to move up the radiation treatment,” she said. “I finally got hold of him this morning. He was in Boston all along, out somewhere with one of his babes. Anyway, he knows all the doctors at Dana-Farber. There’s some guy at Harvard who’s like the world’s expert on just this kind of lymphoma.”

“How long will you be in the hospital?” I asked.

“Dr. Elliot’s pretty sure it hasn’t spread. If she’s right, I could be out in a few days. I’ll have to do the first few rounds of treatment up there, but after that I can do the rest here. As long as there aren’t any complications, I won’t miss any school after the first week or two.”

“You’re going to stay in school?”

“They caught it, Sue,” she said. “And medicine has totally changed since Mom had this. I’ll have to drop some classes, but I can stay in Studio.” She laughed, running her hands through her wet hair. “Dr. Elliot says I’ll probably lose some hair. But it’ll grow back, right? And then all I’ll have is a little scar from the radiation, about the size of a quarter. That’s it.”

She kept thanking me for being there for her, for making her go to the doctor the day before, but the more she thanked me, the more I realized the power had shifted between us. Now I needed her. Even with everything she had told me, with everything we had to do to get her on the train to Boston in the morning, all I wanted was to crawl into bed with her—pull the shades, lock the door, turn off the phone, and lie in bed all day and all night until it was time to go Grand Central the next morning.

But of course we couldn’t do that. After a few minutes, Rachel pulled on her wet boots and went out to find her professors so she could arrange to miss a week’s worth of classes. After she left, I tried watching the snow again out my window, but after five minutes I was crawling the walls. I threw on a coat and an old pair of army-surplus boots and rushed out onto the street.

I powered through Washington Square Park, not worrying about the falling snow, letting it settle in my hair, just feeling myself moving in my clothes. Everything about me felt new again. Uncharted. Unexplored. The Moorelands are, above all, practical people. No one in my family had ever shown any interest in theater, not even high school musicals. My sister Bethany led the cheer squad at Flower Mound High. My brother Bill was getting an MBA at Texas Christian so he could help my dad build his wholesale beef business. Theater had been my ticket out, but more than that, the plays I read, the obscure Eastern European directors I venerated, had set me apart, made me the kind of girl that people in my flat, hot, football-crazy corner of the world feared a little. Now for the first time since I’d come to New York, I felt that sense of differentness again, of belonging to a world I had chosen and that had chosen me.

I had planned to work my way down to Rachel’s apartment and wait for her there, but when I got to Lispenard, I kept going, turning west past Varick and Hudson streets into the heart of Tribeca, a part of the city I barely knew. My feet were freezing in those cheap old boots, but I couldn’t stop. There was so much to think about, so much to do. First I had to get Rachel safely to Boston. But then what? Would she really be able to stay in school? What if she couldn’t? What if the radiation treatments didn’t get all of it and she got sick again? What would I do? But of course I knew what I would do. I would help her, ferry her to and from her treatments, help her study and talk to her professors if she was too weak to do it herself. If I had to, I could stay at her apartment to feed her and keep her company —and, God forbid, dress her and bathe her if it ever got that bad.

I crossed the West Side Highway and then I was at the Hudson River. I hadn’t seen it coming, hadn’t smelled water, but suddenly there it was. I walked out onto the esplanade and leaned against the steel railing, stunned by the silence. The snow was still pelting down, the gray of the sky reflected in the gray of the river, which rippled and curled in the wind. Chunks of ice bobbed in the current, hurrying out toward the open mouth of the bay, but I couldn’t see any boats. I couldn’t see much of anything beyond the faint pencil line of the New Jersey shore, and in the distance, the torch of the Statue of Liberty glowing like the lit end of a cigarette. And that made me think of my father. I had such a clear image of him, Glen Mooreland, alone in his office near the Dallas airport, his boots on the desk, his face angled down into the phone, working an Old Gold in his mouth and talking up the Cowboys, trying to sweet-talk a freezer truck of prime beef out of some meatpacker in Amarillo.

For the first time since I’d left the dorms I realized how ridiculous I looked, a 19-year-old college girl standing at the end of an empty esplanade in a snowstorm in leaky boots and a cheap wool coat. Then I thought something new, something I’d never thought before. I thought: This is me. Not Glen Mooreland’s baby girl, not the bookish tomboy from drama class that the sensitive boys sought out in their time of need. This is me, Sue Mooreland, and if I feel like standing out in the snow watching this frozen river, no one can stop me.


By the time I made it back to Lispenard, it was after five and getting dark. Rachel must have seen me coming because she buzzed me in before I even rang the bell.

“Where’ve you been?” she said, standing in the doorway. “I’ve been calling the dorms for the last hour.”

“I took a walk,” I said.

“You took a walk? Sue, it’s a fucking blizzard out there.” She pressed her palm to her brow, taking a deep breath. “Okay, whatever. We’ve got a shitload to do here. I’m supposed to be on the first train to Boston in the morning and I haven’t even started packing.”

Rachel threw dry clothes at me, talking a mile a minute while I changed out of my wet things. I ached to scream back at her, tell her off. So it was fine for her to disappear without any warning, lie about needing fresh air so she could see the doctor alone, but I couldn’t leave her sight for even a few hours? But for the second time that day, I stopped myself and remembered: the girl had just found out she had a tumor the size of a ripe grape in her left armpit. Maybe she had a right to be a little bitchy.

When I came out of the bathroom, she was sitting on her bed sorting through a stack of textbooks she was packing for the trip to Boston. She had two cigarettes going at once, and the room around her was a wreck, clothes and books and loose-leaf binders in disorderly piles on the bed. She was just making things worse, so I shooed her away and started sorting and packing while she sat at the end of the bed, telling me about her day. She had only been able to find one or two of her professors from her academic courses, but she’d had a long talk with Daniel, who had stepped out of a staff meeting when he heard Rachel would be taking a week off from Studio.

“He was really good about it, actually,” Rachel said, sending up a plume of cigarette smoke. “His mom’s a breast cancer survivor. He was in drama school when it happened, and he dropped out for a year to take care of her. But then it went into remission and she’s been cancer-free for 20 years. He got all choked up talking about it.”

I tried to picture Daniel with his shaved head and white-on-white outfits choking up over his mother’s bout with cancer. I tried to picture Daniel Smite having a mother. A part of me, I realized, had thought Daniel magically appeared in our Studio classroom three mornings a week and then vanished again the moment we closed the door behind us.

“I told him I’d be calling you from Boston,” Rachel said. “To give me assignments, that kind of thing.”

I looked up from the stack of manila folders on the bed. “You told him that?”

“It’s true, isn’t it?” she said. “I was even going to ask if you could look after this place while I’m gone. You know, water the plants, let the cleaning lady in.” Her eyes lingered on me. “I can pay you if that’s an issue.”

I’d never seen this side of her before, the rich-girl side. “You don’t have to pay me, Rachel.”

“Then what? I shouldn’t have mentioned you to Daniel? Everybody knows we hang out.”

“I know. That’s not it.”

“What is it, then?”

Rachel was wearing a floor-length kimono-style dressing gown, royal blue with a silken yellow dragon on the back. As we talked it was slowly coming undone, enough that I could see she was naked underneath it.

“I guess I’m wondering what we’re doing here, exactly,” I said.

“Right now, I’d say you’re at my apartment helping me pack for Boston.”

She smiled through the veil of cigarette smoke, and I felt my face burn. Had I imagined the last 36 hours? The panicked early morning phone call, the wine-soaked night waiting for her dad to call, her sobbing herself to sleep in my arms—had I made all that up? As if she’d read my mind, her smile faded and she took my hand.

“You mean last night?” she asked.

“Yeah, last night. I feel like something happened then. Between us.”

“Something did happen,” she said. “I called you on the worst day of my life and you came through for me. You were there for me.”

“That’s it?”

Her eyes shifted, taking me in, and I saw myself for the first time as I must have appeared to her: a plain, uncomplicated girl from the flat, hot middle of nowhere who would, if asked, do anything for her. She edged closer and reached out to me, brushing the hair from my face.

“No, you’re right,” she said. “I know what you mean.”

“I don’t know what you think about me,” I said, “but I’m not—I’ve never touched another girl before. Ever. Not like last night.”

“I know,” she said. “Me, either.”

She was stroking my hair now, running her fingers through it, feathering it back. My hair has always been flat and mousy, the dull brown of dried dirt, but the touch of her hand made it beautiful to me, made me beautiful to me—different, special, chosen.

“When you come back,” I said, “will we—could we ever...?”

“A lot’s going to happen between now and when I come back,” she said. “You know that, right?”

She was still watching me, still stroking my hair, but she seemed distant now, unreachable, as if some microscopically thin layer of molten glass had been poured over her face.

“What if I came with you?” I asked. “Now, I mean. To Boston.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

“Just to get you settled in. I can miss a couple days of Studio. American theater will survive.”

“You don’t understand, my dad’s going to be there,” she said. “My brother, too, and probably his wife and all the rest of them.”

“Your brother?”

“Yeah, he’s flying in from Chicago,” she said. “He’s meeting me at the
train tomorrow.”

“You never told me you had a brother.”

“Well, I do,” she said. “His name’s Larry. His wife Cheryl’s expecting their first child in May. I talked to him just now while I was waiting for you.”

“Rachel, you told me you were an only child. You said you were raised all alone in that big house in Back Bay.”

She never stopped stroking my hair, her hand never faltered, not once. “You misunderstood me,” she said. “I have an older brother. His name’s Larry. His wife is about to have a baby.”

It was the chill in her voice, I think, the cool certainty of it, that spooked me most. “You told me you were an only child,” I said. “You said you and your dad were all alone after your mom died. I remember you saying that. We were sitting right here in this room.”

She leaned over and kissed me on the mouth. It lasted just a few seconds, a pillowy softness of lips, a sour tang of cigarette smoke, but when I felt her body press against mine, felt her hand slip from my hair to my chin, cupping it in her long fingers, whatever resistance I still possessed fell away. When I opened my eyes, Rachel was watching me, a look of almost clinical detachment in her eyes, like a surgeon inspecting her work.

“I don’t want anyone from here visiting me in Boston, anyway,” she said. “It’s ugly, what’s going to happen to me in the next few weeks. I don’t want anyone seeing that. But I’ll call you. I’ll call every day to tell you how I’m doing, and hear about everything I’m missing in Studio.”

I nodded, still reeling, still struggling to turn back the clock to when I didn’t know, when I had every reason to believe what she was saying.

“I could be in the hospital longer than a week,” she said. “There could be setbacks, unforeseen complications. When I come back to Studio I won’t have any hair. I’ll be twenty pounds thinner, exhausted from the chemo and radiation. I’ll need your help. Every day, just getting to class, I’ll need your help. But I want you to know that no matter how bad it gets, I won’t stop until I beat this thing.”

I saw it all now. What was more, behind the sting of humiliation, I felt a strange admiration. She had fooled me completely, and if we played our roles correctly, Rachel the plucky college girl battling cancer, I her faithful best friend, we would fool everyone else, too. But then what? Was this some kind of experimental theater piece? Would we one day step out of character and take a bow? Or would we push the illusion to its logical end, until Rachel was cured or had died of her illness?

In the same deliberate way she had stamped out her cigarette at Anthony’s the day before, Rachel loosened the belt of her kimono and let it slip from her shoulders. Her long, pale body glowed with life, her ribs taut, her limbs lean and willowy, her small, pert breasts resting flat against her chest. She sat a moment watching me watch her, then reached for my hand.

“I want you to feel this,” she said.

I let her guide my hand to the hollowed pit under her left arm. The skin was dry and clean, as if it had been recently shaved and patted down with talcum powder. There was nothing there, just the flat hollow of her arm.

“Do you feel it?” she said. “A little bump—soft, kind of rubbery.”

Whoever I had been before, whoever that shy, ordinary girl was who had left Flower Mound, Texas, for a new life in New York City, she was gone forever.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “I feel it.”

Emily Gilbert