It had occurred to George before that she was pretty, but seeing her made-up and smiling like this almost crushed him. It took a lot for him to ask Jana, 4 months of longing, 3 weeks of dreading, 5 days of planing, and 6.25 hours of doubting and sweating.
He loved the way she would only pour skimmed milk into her coffee and eat the salad for lunch, it made him guilty but at the same time happy, knowing that if he every married her, she would make him change his diet and all that stuff—he always wanted to live healthy. George got her at right after her trip to the bathroom after lunch and before she made it to her cubicle, he wanted her to feel satiated and clean.
“Ugh...back to work eh? Seems like lunch goes by way too fast...” George fell in beside her as they both walked from the hallway that housed the bathrooms and lead from the cafeteria to the offices.
“Yeah...that's true...” She said slightly, allowing the words to drift out unaffected.
“Oh um, my name is George.” He stuck out his hand.
“Jana, nice to meet you” She turned to face him and allowed herself a little smile that she hoped wouldn't encourage him to much.
“Jana?” He said, veiling his intimate knowledge of her name, “Nice to meet you too. Have you...eh...been here long? I kinda like to think I know everyone here but--”
“Well I've been here since June, but I guess I haven't made the rounds much. I tend to keep to myself.”
“Hmm, I know what you mean. I do that sometimes too.” He felt stupid and worried as they both neared the end of the hall. Time was running out.
“Say, we should eat lunch together, us 'loners,' I mean you’re not doing anything, I'm not, I tend to eat alone--” Jana silently groaned and broke in:
“The thing is lunch is kinda my down time. I use it to relax and think and stuff. Its what gets me through the day. So--”
“Right, I know what you mean.” His voice dropped as a sudden wave of embarrassment overcame him. “That's alright maybe another time, or something. Well, this is my row, I've got that cubicle furthest away from any of the windows.” Even as he finished complaining he regretted it. He gave her a faint wave and walked briskly down to his space. The next day, however, providence had pity on George and things got a bit better.
“George?” The voice startled him from his typing revelry, drawing him towards the open wall in his cubicle.
“Uh, hey, umm...did you..still want to have lunch?” George didn't bother to ask her about her sudden change of mind, but managing a weak affirmation he agreed to meet her for lunch. Unfortunately, a mandatory staff meeting kept the couple from the lunch date, so Jana broke down and agree to have dinner with him.
“So.....when did you want to order?”
“Soon...I mean now. If you’re ready, or we could wait.”
“Well I'm getting hungry and I know what I want so whenever you’re ready--”
“Oh sure, I'm ready, lets see here...I'm just gonna have this chicken dish with the side of vegetables. Waiter!” George asked Jana what she would be having for dinner—a salad, which just about killed George—he ordered the chicken dish with the side of vegetables and they both had iced tea to drink.
The conversations that arose that night were unnaturally meaningful, both George and Jana found themselves fluidly digressing from one topic to another, exposing the expanses of their lives and thoughts in passionate effusion. They began with the simplest of things—favorite movies and music—and quickly shuffled through desires and beliefs, books and families, each of them set upon reaching the goal of disclosing past loves and the inevitable discussion that would follow on the nature of love and the struggles of relationships. Before they arrived at that pivotal talk, he excused himself and headed towards the bathroom. He could have been nervous, but he wasn't.
He used the urinal and washed his hands at the sink. They only had the wall-mounted machines that air-dry your hands which always annoyed George. Since no one else was in the bathroom he gave a little prayer while he washed his face and rubbed his neck which was sore-particularly the left side. As he rubbed he thought about going back out there, he already missed her. He kept trying to imagine her face in the mirror in front of him, but he couldn't. He wished there was some way to get a picture of her. Then he found the bump.
On the left side of his neck, half way down, a small, hard, round bump protruded out. At first he didn't know what to do, if he should touch it or not. But then he remembered that all the rubbing hadn't hurt him so it couldn't be sensitive. He began to wiggle it around and feel it. The last time he had been sick was 3 months ago, or so, and he couldn't think of anyone who had been coughing around him. No one he knew had been sick. A young boy walked in the bathroom, reminding George of the outside; he realized that he had been gone for a long time already.
“Hey, sorry 'bout that, where were we?”
“You were just telling me about high school, something about being bored I believe?”
“Oh yeah, thats right. Well it was mostly boring, just like it is for everyone else but--”
“So did you ever date in high school? That must have made it at least a little interesting!”
“...I saw one or two girls but it was all stupid, you know how it is at that age. I think you date in high school just to talk about dating in high school.” She laughed and he gave a slight chuckle that—he thought—made him seem humble.
“I totally know what you mean. I must have had five relationships between my sophomore finals and my Junior midterms. And I hated them all!” Her laugh cut straight through George.
“That's high school. So what did you do after high school? Did you date a lot in college too?”
“No, not really. I stayed away from relationships for awhile so I could focus on studying, but I did go out once or twice I guess.”
“Nothing serious?” George asked, worrying that he might have been too blunt. Jana took a drink of the iced tea.
“I did meet my husband there, Nathan...so yeah I guess there was that...” The air collapsed around George, quietly suffocating him.
“He's gone now. I lost him three years ago to cancer.”
“Oh, oh I'm so sorry...I didn't know. I'm really sorry to hear that--”
“No, no don't worry about. It's been three years and we didn't have any kids or anything so I guess that was a blessing. It could have been worse I guess. I mean it wasn't that bad, just the first year was really tough, but God's helped me and I'm ok now. I am.”
“Wow, that's amazing that you pulled through that and all.” He knew he sounded awful, but she had stopped talking and so he had to say something. It suddenly occurred to him that he was sweating, and that he hadn't been eating much. He took a bite and watched her hoping that she wouldn't see the anxiety and discomfort in his face. She didn't.
“Yeah well, like I said, that's pretty much the past now. I mean, as much as it can be...” This time he jumped in before she stopped talking.
“Is that why you came to work for us?” He attempted to summon a deeply interested expression. He didn't.
She nodded as she chewed her salad, “I went back to school for a couple years and then almost got hired right away.” He twisted in his seat for a second. “I really poured myself into school that first year, it gave me some direction and motivation. I guess if it hadn't been for that I would still be mourning.”
“Will you excuse me for a moment? I'll be right back.”
Inside the bathroom, George headed straight for a stall. He wasn't sure why, but the thought of being walked-in on frightened him, even though he wasn't doing anything. He felt the bump on his neck and walked the length of the stall---it was one of those large stalls.
Married, (he thought to himself) she was married. At least if she had divorced he would know that she didn't like her old husband. But a widow? Who can compete with a dead man?
He stopped in the corner of the stall, on the far side from the toilet, and prayed quickly and quietly. But his chest continued to pound in him and his thoughts continued to swim rapidly through his mind. I can't leave her out there, (he thought to himself) she'll get suspicious. He wasn't even sure why he felt so disgusted and frightened by this dead man and his wife--his widow. He had been through this before, only last time it was a woman with a job, before that a blond with a skirt, before that a heavy-set girl with a smile, before that there was no one.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” She asked with such a tone of sincerity that George felt like dying himself.
“Yes, yeah I...I feel fine,” sitting down, “my hands got sticky from the salad dressing and I just wanted to clean up before I started to stick to everything.”
“George,” it was the softest sound her voiced had made that night; she let his name drift off into infinity, “I want you to know that I really like this.” As Jana spoke her eyes slowly crawled upwards, meeting with his in a moment of debilitating honesty-a moment he would forever romanticize beyond all hopes and possibilities. Unable to break the stare, George felt the bump on his neck with his left hand and spoke:
“I have to go.”
George paid the check quickly and quietly, occasionally reaching up to his neck to feel if it had grown or shrunk. He wondered if he was imagining it. It was hard and lumpy, it felt unnatural. When he entered his car he was overcome with an incredible urge to get something that would cure him of whatever it was that he had. So, he drove to the nearest supermarket to peruse the drug aisle. During the drive, the thought struck him that he might be dying, maybe a tumor or something like that. All he could think of was dying, and that made him think of Jana's dead husband.
There were a few scattered cars in the parking lot when George pulled in. The lot was poorly lit by rows of lamp posts, some of which hardly seemed to penetrate the dark night. He knew where the medicine aisle was and so he wasted no time finding it. He grabbed a package of something that claimed to, “...ease soreness, swelling, and pain in the neck and back....” it hardly seemed to fit the bulge he felt, but he had to get something.
As he walked back to his car the vast loneliness of the parking lot hit him, the artificial lights which hardly worked anyway seemed to paint everything as weak and phony as the lights themselves. The thought occurred to him again that he might be sick, really sick, and he might die. This wasn't the first time this thought had come to him, but for whatever reason this was the first time that it felt real. After the thought settled in on him he couldn't ignore it, he felt his chest sink down into defeat. He wanted to tell himself that it was unlikely that he had anything deadly; but every time he was close to convincing himself, he realized that if it wasn't this lump, it would be something else. He was going to die and it might as well be now as later. He wanted to cry. He did.
When he got home, he immediately turned on his computer and spent the next several hours searching for symptoms, focusing on terminal things. It wasn't until his eyes could hardly stay open that he decided to go to bed, he reached some level of peace by planning on seeing the doctor first thing in the morning. Lying in bed, just as the creeping feeling of surrendering to unconsciousness swept over him, an image of Jana came to mind and the anxiety returned. The memory of how he had just walked out without any explanation woke him completely, and he soon was back to obsessing over his own death. He rolled over in his bed, unto his stomach so that his face was buried in a pillow and tried to relax, but he couldn't. Looking over at his clock on the nightstand he saw that it was nearing 3 am, he put his head back into the pillow and prayed.
God. I can't sleep. You know my thoughts but. I feel out of control. I don't want to die dear Lord. I don't want to die. save me. Let me sleep. Don't let Jana hate me.
Let me sleep.
Each word seemed incapable penetrating his skull and floating to the beyond. He wasn't even sure why he kept praying other than he knew he should. It felt both pointless and important to him and he couldn't tell which emotion was right. He had always believed, had faith, but the hollowness of his prayer made him question even what he had believed. When he finally fell asleep it was only after an hour of feeling infinitely and unfathomably far from God and everyone.
When George went to leave for his doctor's appointment the next morning, his nervousness reached such a feverish pitch that he felt quite numb, as if everything was unfolding in another world or on TV or in a book. This numbness followed him as he filled out various forms at the doctor's office and as he was moved to a examining room. He sat on the table in the middle of the room and looked forward towards a mirror, the sight of himself in the medical gown forcefully pulled him from the netherworld into the stark florescent light of the room and he felt like he was going to die and he couldn't stand it. He wanted to leave more than anything and never find out about the stupid bump. If he had to die, better to die ignorant, better to die outside of white walls and syringes and yellow gowns. Why waste away before helpless strangers in a foreign building, spending hours waiting in suffocating rooms and filling out eternal forms? He stood up and walked towards the door and would have made it had his phone not rang.
From his pants, which lay along with the rest of his clothes in a small pile on a chair behind him, George's cell phone rang. Turning away from the door, he quickly found the small phone and answered it:
“George, this is Jana...” Her voice was small and thin through the cell's speaker, but it still fell like a familiar melody on his ear.
“...hey...I...I'm sorry about last night I had to take care of something and I...” He wanted to tell her about the lump and about the tumor and about cancer and death and everything but he felt so melodramatic and fake he just couldn't make himself.
“You left because of him didn't you. George, I meant it last night when I said that I liked the dinner, it was good. I didn't think I was going to enjoy it at all to tell you the truth, but I did, and I want to do it again. I'm not saying that I love you, I don't know that. But I do want to have more nights like that, if you can.” Her words seemed to cut straight through all his worries, he forgot death and he forgot the white walls and he forgot his gown and everything.
“I do too...”
“You can't just say that George, my husband's dead, and I miss him, and I will always love him, but if I ever marry again, I will love that man more and I can't see you if you are afraid of a dead man. I can only offer this once, if you want to get to know me, you can't let him stop you. But if you can't do that, let me know now, please.” Her words came faster and faster, each one drenched with exhaustion and passion, and resoluteness.
“Are you still there George?”
“Yes, yeah, I'm here. I want to see you again. As soon as I can.”
“Are you sure? You can't leave me like that again George, if you ever do that to me again I won't talk to you, it will be over.”
“I know, I'm so sorry about that, I was stupid, I was just afraid, but I'm not anymore. I really want to see you. I just have to finish up something here and I'll call you up ok?”
“Ok. Thank you George.”
He hung up the phone and walked back to the table. Pulling his knees up against his chest he buried his eyes in his arms and prayed and he knew he wasn't as far from God anymore and he didn't care about death anymore.
George met Jana latter that same day for the last time and then he died, but he wasn't afraid.