By Victoria McCurdy
The human body has a timeline. You don’t know that it’s merely a matter of weeks for Claire’s. You just wish you could pick up these baby lettuce leaves with your fingertips, as it is almost impossible to stab them with the tines of your fork.
“Is lettuce dead?” You stop yourself from blurting to her from across the café table, an emotionally induced Tourette’s threatening.
The leaves are still so seemingly green and fresh, yet the pale root fingers, severed from their nutrient source, no longer plumb the earth. What state are they in now?
Don’t say repose.
Claire, your best friend, has taken you to lunch at this trendy spot, whose name is a series of numbers. Like 123. Only it’s 326. Which is so, so stupid. Until you realize 326 is part of the street address.
“So busy,” you say, looking at the tiny tables wedged with other ladies and their dew-shrouded glasses of white wine. “For a Tuesday.”
“I guess this place is on everybody’s bucket list.” She shoots you a crooked smile.
Today Claire is dressed as Loretta Lynn. A feather-light Loretta Lynn. Her wan shoulders swim in her vintage western shirt with the pearled snaps, a poof of synthetic auburn curls descending past them.
Your waiter Brett arrives bearing a tray of drinks, and with practiced aplomb sets before you the referent horseradish vodka martini, dry, that Claire ordered for you while you were in the restroom. Claire’s former favorite cocktail.
“Happy Birthday, sweet friend.” She raises her un-iced glass of water.
As you lift your martini, a chill of vodka sloshes across your wrist.
“And many more,” you say, then want to die. How many dangerous phrases exist now, you think, in the English language alone.
Claire stirs her salad counter clockwise, pushing the pale-green leaves about with her fork. She’s capable of being precise and piercing. Yet instead of stabbing the greens or scooping them sidesaddle onto her fork with the aid of the blunt-edged knife at her right, she simply stirs.
“What the fuck?” Claire said, several months back, as you stood together at the counter of the big box pharmacy.
The pharmacist was hermetically sealed from the impact of her words behind smudged and scratched-up plexiglass.
“What the actual fuck?” Claire waved the un-fillable prescription for the specialty digestive enzymes the cancer had prevented her body from making. “And this is America.”
You led her by the thin fabric of her hand toward the eyebrow pencils.
“Welcome to fuck face America.” Her head wrenched as you tried to trace an amber line upon her non-existent brow. “Where the out-of-pocket cost of food digestion is twenty-seven hundred bucks a week.”
“Can I say something?” The wide face of one of the ladies from the adjacent table tips into view, as she balances back on her chair’s hind legs to better access your attention.
You blink at the woman, whose face is florid with wine sweat.
“I would kill for that bone structure,” she wobbles at Claire.
Claire’s told you about the odd older men, dressed in leather and jeans, who circled about with unwanted attention, their wizened lust ignited by the cancer-cut of her cheekbones, the purple luminesce that circles and sets off her green eyes.
“But would you die for it?” Claire says to her, upsetting your apple cart. A cart built on the pretense of normal, though you suspect she is trying to curate your last moments together. Compress the coal of her words into diamonds, each more precious than the last.
“Just kill…” The woman’s curled finger extends toward the still living face of your best friend like a middle-aged death reaper. “…for the cut of that chin.”
“Don’t. Touch. Her.” You boom and swipe. Canceling the drunken woman’s hand with the back of your own, knocking her hard enough so she flips, knees to the ceiling.
“Oops.” Claire smiles, ignoring the ensuing commotion.
In the background, chairs scrape, and the ambient chatter jumps an octave. A tray of damp bar towels arrives to clean up the blood.
You remain rooted to this moment on your forty-second birthday, at a table laden with abandoned salads. And there will be no talk of “lasts.” Last lunch. Last birthday celebrated together. Last time you feel such tragedy and irritation at how Claire’s body is also failing you.
You float an ice cube in your lukewarm martini. Chase it clockwise with your spoon. Then capture the tiniest bit for Claire; you are still able to reach her across the table. And as the transitory vodka flush pinkens her cheeks, you seize the memory of this fleeting moment.