Chapter Eighteen

There was a new girl on the ward, an older girl named Melanie. She had been in remission and now was out. She had olive skin and blondish hair, a sort of Diane Lane or Jane Fonda look.  Her eyes were an amazingly bright hazel.

She was depressed and scared. I could see that. Her face was sort of locked in a stare, no matter what she was looking at. I guessed that the end of her remission had ruined her nerves.

She went to her bed without speaking to anyone. She lay down with her eyes closed. When it was time for dinner one of the nurses had to come and get her.

“It’s all right, Melanie. It’s going to be fine.”

But the girl would not utter a word to anyone. She ate in silence and returned to her bed. She had a book to read. She put on glasses.

After about an hour I went over to her bed.

She didn’t notice me at first. She was absorbed in the book.

I touched her arm. She jumped. “What are you doing?” she cried.

I tried to reassure her with my smile. At first it didn’t work.

“Go away,” she said.

I stood where I was. I pointed to my mouth and shook my head.

“You can’t talk?” she asked.

I nodded.

This must have propitiated her, because she put her book down and looked at me.

“What’s your name?”

I took her pen and wrote Max on her notepad.

“Max,” she said, weighing the sound of the name. “Max who?”

“Robinson,” I wrote.

“Like Robinson Crusoe,” she said.

I just looked at her.

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

I held up six fingers.

“Six weeks?” she asked. I nodded.

She studied me. Her eyes ran down my body and back up again.

“Go away,” she said. “But you can come back later.”

That night she read to me from her book, which was The Wind in the Willows. I had read that book, but I didn’t tell her that. Reading out loud seemed to calm her.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked after finishing the first chapter. “Are you a deaf mute?”

I shook my head. I picked up her pen and wrote autistic.

“Autistic?” she asked. “You don’t seem autistic. How come you’re not banging your head against the wall?”

I wrote, I’m not that bad off.

“Not that bad off,” she said pensively. “Not like me.”

You’re not bad off, I wrote. You’re pretty.

Reading this, she said, “Go away. No false hopes. Remember that if you ever talk to me again.”

But the next night she motioned for me to join her again. She had a different book, Twelve Stories and a Dream by H.G. Wells. She read to me from the story “A Dream of Armageddon.”

It was a beautiful, haunting story. A man falls asleep and wakes up in a different time and place, probably the future. There he falls in love with a woman. Their love is passionate, romantic, like something out of a fairy tale.

But there is a war going on, and their love is menaced by the war.

Each night the man would fall asleep, forget the real world he lived in, and be in the world of the beautiful woman and the war. His real life ceased to have any value for him. He lived only for the world of his dream. The dream was a great crusade, a long adventure, filled with danger and passion. It made real life seem like drudgery, a meaningless routine. His daytime life was now the dream, and the nocturnal dream was his real life.

Melanie read me the whole story that night. I didn’t move or say a word as she read. I was very moved as she read the sad ending. It must have shown in my face.

She looked at me. “You’re all right, Max,” she said. She touched my hand. “Now go to bed. I need to rest.”

I touched her hand before I left. She gave me a half-smile filled with irony.

“Sleep well,” she said.

The next time I was with her I had tears in my eyes. It seemed impossible, these days, not to have tears in my eyes half the time.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

I started to write something down, but she stopped me.

“It’s Bart, isn’t it?”

I looked at her in surprise. I didn’t think she knew Bart.

“I didn’t know him, but I’ve heard about him,” she said. “Max, you’ve lost a brother. That’s a horrible thing. You have every right to cry as long as you want and as hard as you want. Death sucks. Death is shit.”

Her cynicism was refreshing. Whenever a person dies, people repeat the same refrain: You have to move on. Or, in a modified way, He would want you to move on.

No one ever says “You have a right to your grief. You have a right to feel horrible.”

Perhaps  because she herself was out of remission, Melanie could understand this. She was very bitter. She told me about her family. Her parents were divorced. She had two natural brothers and six step-siblings. All of them were in perfect health.

“I’m the one who gets to die,” she said bitterly. “And believe me, Max, some of them are worthless human beings. But they get to live.”

Hearing this, I thought of the story about the tree falling in the forest with no one to see it fall. It occurred to me that the tree was alone in its dying. There was no one to care, no one to help, so the tree was abandoned, forsaken. Melanie acted as though there wasn’t a soul in the world who really cared whether she lived or died.

I told her my parents were separated. I told her that the death of Bethany and my autism were the cause of their separation.

“Don’t believe that, Max,” she said. “It’s their problem. They’re the ones who are at fault. They prefer their own convenience to your well-being. I know all about it. I saw my parents split up. They didn’t care about me and the boys. They were sick of each other, so they did what was good for them, not for us.”

I tried to tell her my father did love me. She accepted this grudgingly. “Well, that’s something anyway,” she said.

After a couple of weeks Melanie began to hold my hand as she read. She would hold my hand with her right hand and turn the pages with her left. She was left-handed.

I read in The Catcher in the Rye that Holden Caulfield felt he could hold the hand of his sister Phoebe without worrying that his hand would sweat or that he would squeeze her hand too tight. That’s how it was for me with Melanie. I felt very comfortable with my hand in hers. I felt as though we had been holding hands all our lives.

Melanie began to hang out with me during the day, but she never joined in the games I played with other kids. She never talked to anyone else.

The next thing she read to me was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It was a strange book, strangely written, but it was good. The love between Cathy and Heathcliff was forbidden and dangerous, just like the man’s love for the woman in “A Dream of Armeggadon.” In the end it led to tragedy.

I could feel Melanie’s fascination with death as the ending of both the story and the novel.

“Their love is greater than death,” she told me.

I nodded. I wrote on her pad, Love lasts longer than death.

“You’re right, Max.” She touched my cheek. “It does. You’re pretty young to know a thing like that.” She brought my hand to her lips and kissed it. She kissed my fingers one by one. She smiled.

I thought of Bethany. My love for Bethany was only strengthened by her death. Unfortunately, so was the pain of the loss. I hated the fact that she was dead, I hated the world without her. But I still loved her, and that love would last as long as I lasted.

Melanie was growing up. She was getting taller, and her shape was getting more mature. But at the same time the leukemia was killing her. She was getting thinner, her color was getting worse. Her hair was falling out. When I observed this, my heart sank.  I felt that the death that had taken Bethany was now taking this girl in the prime of her growth.

One day she came back from her appointment and told me her numbers were up. Hemoglobin far too high, platelets almost gone.

“It’s over, Max. I’m going.”

She lay down on her bed and stared at the ceiling.

That night she woke me up in the wee hours.

“Come with me, Max.”

We left the ward and went down a corridor to an empty room. The patient in the room had died a couple of days before.

Melanie sat on the bed, looking at me. “I want you to make love to me, Max.”

I stood looking at her. I was in my pajamas. I was bald from the chemo. I didn’t feel presentable. I thought I looked awful.

“It has to be you, Max,” she said. “You’re the only person I trust. You’re the only person I’ve ever loved.” Quickly she removed her hospital gown. She was naked under it.

I moved closer to her. I loved her too, but I didn’t see how this could happen.

“You don’t have to fuck me,” she said. “You can use your hand if you have to.”

I took my pajamas off and got into the bed. For a long time there was just closeness, a lot of touching. I could feel her despair. Tears were running down her cheeks. Her hands felt tentative on my skin.

Somehow, despite my inadequate equipment, I managed it. I got on top of her, she spread her legs, and I got inside her.

“Good boy, Max. I love you.”

If only I could tell her I loved her too! But I couldn’t.

“Sweetheart,” she said through her tears. “I know you love me.”

I was deeper inside her. I felt I was touching the core of her hopelessness. A terrible heat came over me and I pushed harder.

“Yes, Baby,” she moaned. “Love me, love me, Max.”

I barely managed to hold on until she had her orgasm. It was a lovely sound, the gasp in her throat, and I felt her body clutch me. We lay that way for a long time in the darkness. I felt that death was all around us. A horrible death that had been a partner in our intimacy.

“If I grew up and didn’t die,” she said, “I would tell people I lost my virginity with an 8-year-old autistic boy who had leukemia, on a hospital bed.” She laughed. “That would make a conversation piece, wouldn’t it?”

“You’ll have to tell them for me, Max,” she said. “That is, if you get out of here.”

I whispered something in her ear. It wasn’t a word, but I tried to make it sound like a word.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, Max, I know.”

Five days later she was dead.