These are the stories I tell myself

by Brianne Benness

This is the story that I tell myself:

The first time that she calls to tell me, I am busy. I have girls over, and we are about to go out. I’m excited about this night because I am a pretty girl now. I’ve always been a smart girl, and when the opportunity presented itself to show up to college pinker and blonder than before, I took it. And I was amazed at how easily it all happened. Of course, this is a story that I tell myself too, because as a smart (not pretty) girl of 17, I’d already received a number of unsolicited I-love-yous and broken my first solicited heart. So she calls, and I do pick up — which I wouldn’t now — and we agree that we will talk the next day.

I write it down on the last page of my journal: squamous cell carcinoma. I already can’t make this timeline work, but I know that there’s a boy shortly after this. He’s troubled enough that he reminds me of the people that I grew up with. He plays football, and on Saturdays and some Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we get really drunk and maybe drive to the gas station for snacks. Somehow, I go to the gym every day that semester and get blackout drunk probably three nights each week.

The boy and I stop sleeping together, but he still drives me to the airport at Thanksgiving. I am going home to spend my week driving her to chemo. The oven is broken, so I try to broil a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I get back, I leave my suitcase outside of my bedroom. Unpacking is too exhausting to think about. My roommates (I would have called them friends then) ask me to get my suitcase out of the common room. They do not ask what it was like to spend a week driving my mother to chemo and radiation therapy. Or if my stepdad had warned me about her deteriorating appearance, or if he had suggested that she just suck it up and continue the chemo that is killing her faster than the cancer. They do not ask if she has pulled one of the mattresses from my bunk bed into her en suite bathroom so that she can sleep next to the toilet. And they certainly don’t ask what maybe we all need to learn how to ask: if they could just put my suitcase in my room for me.

When I go home that Christmas I see the movie The Family Stone in theatres. They didn’t show it in the previews, but matriarchal Diane Keaton tells her family that she has cancer over Christmas. Then, at the end, they flash forward to the next Christmas and she is gone.

My mom is not gone. Another boy comes to visit me over the break. I’m pulled over at the border when I drive to get him at the airport because my mother’s therapy has somehow made the car radioactive. He and I are not together, but at some point — before or after this? — he tells me that he loves me. I just can’t.

That spring, I tell the football player that things are ok now with my mom. We’re sitting on a couch at a party; this is the first time that we’ve spoken in months. About how his current girlfriend wouldn’t like that he is sitting here with me. About what’s been happening with my mom.

That night at 3am my phone rings. The boy is calling me drunk from IHOP or Perkins or some other place where drunk people go late at night. “I just wanted you to know how happy I am for you that she’s ok.”

***

This is the story that I tell myself:

He’s been different for quite a while, ever since he hit his head. When I stop by with a friend during that week when I was driving Mom to chemo, I have to introduce my friend twice.

I’m sorting through some frivolous childhood grievances, so I don’t call them when I’m home for a week that spring before heading to the lab where I’ll be doing summer research. When I get a passive-aggressive email from my stepmom, it just makes my grievances feel more justified.

I have a new boyfriend. We got together after my mom went into remission. Once, we were high and watching Stepmom with my roommates (friends?). Eventually, one of the girls turned it off because of my crying. Then he turned, looked at me, and said with a uniquely stoned combination of surprise and disdain, “Are you crying right now?” I’m not sure that we need any more movies where the mom dies of cancer.

I agree to stop in and see them on the way to a friend’s cottage. I am driving the boyfriend and some high school friends as well, so I drop them off at the mall before lunch.

They finally got a diagnosis the previous spring. She didn’t want to tell me over the phone because that’s how she’d found out and it was terrible. I don’t need to write early onset Alzheimer’s in the back of my journal.

It takes me a few tries to find the mall again. That night, I weep while angrily shaking my sleeping boyfriend. I’d spent the entire summer trying to explain to him why the Stepmom incident was so upsetting, so I don’t know why his sleep surprised me.

The next night I get extremely drunk and have very angry sex with him. I can’t believe that he could want it while my whole world is breaking apart again, but do it anyway.

My papa died in his fifties while my dad was still finding direction in his life. Dad would always say how he’d needed Papa to know that he would have a happy and successful future before Papa died.

I go straight to grad school. I’m not sure if this is right, but I wasn’t sure if going back was right when my mom was sick either.

I need direction or I know that I will drown. A year before he dies, my father will ask me through the haze of aphasia if I like what I’m doing with my life, if I’m happy.

***

This is the story that I tell myself:

This Hannah Horvath despondency is so typical of my generation that nobody would be surprised that my apartment is a mess and I don’t wash my clothes and I’m neglecting my student loans.

Eating nothing but frozen burritos and pizzas is not a sign that my first two stories are true. It just means that I have succumbed to the prolonged adolescence of my peers.

But some days these stories are true and they define me. Some days I am just a girl whose mother had cancer and her father had Alzheimer’s, and somehow I have grown into a terrible adult. Or haven’t grown into one at all because I can’t stop telling myself what was happening when I should have been doing it.

And I’m hoping that some day soon I’ll be telling another story. One where I know how smart and privileged and lucky I am. And one where I realize that mine are not even the saddest stories that you’ve heard all day.