The Neighbor Boy

The neighbor boy came by the other day. This is accurate but also misleading. He did not amble by, tapping on the kitchen window next to pies cooling on the sill, and say, Howdy, Missus Cancer Bitch, I’m home for spring break and thought I’d give you a look-see.

No, this neighbor boy came over because his father sent him to pick up a fax. His parents give out my fax machine number as their own. They have a fax machine that’s like Blood Type O, the universal donor. They can send only. They could receive but each spouse has been waiting for the other to buy fax paper. For years.

His father is B, who was whisked to a hospital when his plane brought him home from the AWP convention in Atlanta. B had been home for a few days, and had told the hospital to send him a form on my fax machine.

The NB rang the bell and I buzzed him in. He knocked on the door and I answered it, resplendant in my glasses and long and full Lanz nightgown. It was late Saturday morning and the NB said: You’re taking it easy.

I have breast cancer, I told him.

He was floored. Literally: he sat down on the stairs. No one told me, he said. Cancer brought me closer to this neighbor boy, starting about seven years ago, though I’ve been friends with his parents more than 20 years. He had a twin and I could never tell them apart until the other one had cancer. I used to drive them to soccer practice when they were about 10? and they’d sit in the back like aspects of the same person, riffingoff one another. They both had gifts for mimickry and memorization and sometimes the sound from the back seat sounded like spliced tapes—first part of a speech, then word plays, things that made a sort of logic by association. One of them had mused to me once, All things considered, all kings considered, that…. At the time, I couldn’t tell which one it was. One of them told me more than once that I had a pointy nose like a witch’s. Or maybe each said it once. I told him/them it wasn’t a nice thing to say. My suspicions are it was this neighbor boy, the one who survived.

I learned about giving people what they want the first time his brother was in the hospital. I asked his mother what I could do, assuming she would ask me to buy groceries, which I like doing. I like wandering around the supermarket. Instead she asked me to go home and make sure that the NB wrote a paper due the next day. I didn’t want to do that, but I did. He was smart. They were both really smart, early readers, eager readers, having so much to say their tongues couldn’t keep up with their thoughts. The paper was about pollution, and he did a good job with it. My job was to keep him on task, which wasn’t so pleasant. I learned that what you want to give isn’t necessarily what the other person wants to be given.

The other twin died of a rare sarcoma, one that people rarely survive. He died at the end of January 2001, just before he was to turn 14. His brother is a sophomore in college and told me about his upper-level anthropology course on the drug culture. He was planning to write about the image of the drug dealer in movies of the past 40 years. He was going to start with Easy Rider and go up through Trainspotting. Both are famous and I haven’t seen either. It is tricky with the NB. He is temperamental and won’t answer questions directly. Like a lot of kids. I think of him as a night-blooming plant. You never know when the flower will come so you have to be ready for it. I let him talk. I made comments. He told me he’d loan me some DVDs. He said, Now we’ll have to visit you in the hospital. I said, I’m already out. They didn’t keep me long.

I told him sort of vagely, I think, that I knew cancer was scary for him but that it seemed like mine was caught early and that I would be OK, that a lot of people survive breast cancer.

His twin died of cancer, his father has MS. His life has been full of loss, if that’s not oxymoronic. . His brother was in the hospital on Halloween when they were 12 and I went trick-or-treating with the NB. He was on the cusp of being too old. We went to a historic street nearby, full of families that decorate to the hilt. We both liked it. I got to feel like I had a child. He got to feel like he had a parent with him. Once months later I was in the car with the boys and their father and the sick twin was talking about a camp he was going to for kids with cancer. The NB said, I wish I had cancer. His brother said, No you don’t.