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Creative Non-Fiction: "Emissions" by Corbin Lewars


On a solo vacation in Maui, I decided to join Match.com. It was easy to join a dating site while 3,000 miles away from home. It wasn’t so easy to do just two weeks after completing chemotherapy.

“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” I said to myself when my heart started racing. “They can’t jump out of the screen and talk to me.”

I’d been divorced for six years so was (unfortunately) no stranger to dating sites. After a couple of long-term relationships, which probably should have been short-term relationships, I decided to take a year off from dating to focus on my friendships, writing, and self. Earlier that spring, I felt like I was on the cusp of something new and exciting. Illusions of grandeur caused me to think I was entering a new phase of enlightenment due to my solo hiking trips, meditation, and vigorous yoga practice. 

Really it was Stage 3 breast cancer.

“Shit, I didn’t see that coming,” I said, over and over again. I was forty-three-years-old and in great health. Or at least thought I was. 

The nine months that followed were a blur of medical procedures, including a mastectomy, radiation, and six months of chemotherapy, which ended in December. In January, I took myself to Maui in hopes of starting the year refreshed and rejuvenated. My Maui agenda was to sleep, sit in the sun, sleep some more, and maybe read a book if I had the energy and mental prowess to embark on such a complicated task. Joining Match was not on the agenda, nor was it something I enjoyed doing even while healthy and fit. But after a week of sleeping and lying in the sun, I remembered my new year's resolution was to have more joy and feel alive again. Lying in bed in Maui started to feel a little bit like lying in bed during chemo. I was tired of being sick and fearing death. I wanted to laugh and have fun again.

While walking on the beach one day, I met Judy: a spry, sassy, seventy-year-old clad in a bikini. She embodied living life boldly and she became my partner-in-crime for the rest of my vacation. After hiking together, going out to sushi, and drinking wine while hot-tubbing for several days, I pled exhaustion.

“I can’t keep up with you. I’m just going to eat some leftovers tonight and go to sleep early.”

“All right,” she said. “But you know, you can’t keep using the cancer excuse forever. Time to get on with it.”

I nodded and shuffled off to my condo, where I promptly fell asleep. I had worked and tended to my children all during treatment, so getting back to my responsibilities wasn’t what Judy meant by “getting on with it.” Nor was she talking about fostering my friendships. My friends had accompanied me through all of my appointments, cooked for me, helped me shuttle my kids to their activities, and sat with me when I was sad, scared, sick, or - on my worse days - all three. Judy was instructing me through the idea of getting on with living my post-cancer life. Ideally, without fear.

If I was honest, I had to admit that taking the year off from dating had started as a healthy choice to focus on myself after so many years of focusing on my marriage and other relationships. But later it became an avoidance tactic. Dating was exhausting and hard on my ego. Being in unhealthy relationships was even more exhausting and even harder on my emotions. Choosing to take a break from it all felt great. Being forced to take a longer break from it because I was sick felt…well, I never thought about it. I was too busy trying to stay awake and vomit-free for a few hours so I could work. But I hoped vomit and cancer were behind me now. 

So, as Judy said, it was time to get on with it. 

This rationale gave me the motivation and courage to click “Join Now” on Match. Ten seconds later, I put my computer under my bed. It remained there for the rest of my vacation. Screw Judy, I thought at times. That’s all I can handle for right now.

Once I returned to rainy Seattle, I opened up my Match account and was surprised to find several seemingly interesting and attractive men had emailed me. For a moment, this made me smile. Then I panicked. How would I find the time and energy to date? And how would I explain my bald head and pulverized body? I may have basked in the sun and slept twelve hours a day while in Maui, but I was still bald, wan, and breastless. My head was grey in pallor and sickly looking, and the little bit of hair that was growing back was doing so in small ashen patches. I looked more like a lizard than the sexy Sinead O’Connor doppelganger I aspired to be. Chemotherapy didn’t merely kill the hair follicles on my head; it killed all of my hair follicles, removing even my eyebrows and eyelashes. I complained about my mole-like state to my best friend, Jill.

 “Wear your wig, pencil in your eyebrows, go get some false eyelashes, and you’re good to go.”

“I think I’d rather look like a mole than a drag queen, but thanks. And I’m just using that as an excuse.”

“I know,” she said. “And this may seem weird, but I think dating for you is going to be different this time. Cancer has deepened your commitment to some things and helped you let go of other things. To put it simply, you don’t have time or energy for bullshit anymore, so if the guys who are emailing you aren’t emotionally evolved and on your level, you’ll know that right away and move on.” 

With Jill’s encouragement, I sorted through my Match emails. The first one was a list of criteria the man was looking for in a woman, followed by another list of things he didn’t do and didn’t like. Even on my clearest days I didn’t think I would be able to keep that straight, but in my demented post-chemo state I was sure I wouldn’t. I passed on him and went on to read a few more. One email was from a man in Olympia, which was over an hour commute from Seattle, so I passed on him as well. Another message was from a man in Seattle who was about ten years older with two grown kids. He was an attractive marketing executive who seemed smart and interesting and showed a sense of humor in his message. We emailed back and forth several times and he was engaging, funny, heartfelt. He was a nice balance of asking questions as well as providing information about his life. I agreed to meet him for coffee and smiled to myself. 

I guess I’m ready to do this, I thought.

The following day, that thought changed to What the hell was I thinking? I told myself it was just meeting for coffee and didn’t have to be anything more. I would keep the conversation simple and limit the date to an hour. Surely I could survive an hour, right? I was busy at work that day, which helped me not to overthink and panic. Or cancel. He met me at my office at five o’clock and I was pleasantly surprised to see he was even more attractive in person than in his pictures. He didn’t run in horror upon seeing me, so I supposed Jill’s advice about the wig and eyebrow pencil had paid off. He held the door open for me - a good sign - and we walked down Market Street, battling the wind, rain, and crowds that were already filling the bars and restaurants.

Miro Teahouse offered a reprieve from the cold, wet, dark night with its bright ambiance, rich aromas,  and warmth. My phone rang as we walked in. I normally ignored my phone when I was with people, but when I saw that it was my son I excused myself.

“Of course,” the man said. “I’ll order for you. What would you like?”

“Some herbal tea,” I replied.

Miro Teahouse had three walls devoted to tea and a three-inch binder explaining most of them. Ordering “some herbal tea” was parallel to entering Costco and asking someone to “get me some stuff.” Tea was Miro’s thing. But it was rare for my son to call me, so saving this man from the waiter's disdain was forgotten and answering the phone became my priority.

“Hey honey, what’s up?” I answered.

“I don’t feel very good.”

“I’m sorry. Want me to bring you some ginger ale when I come home?”

“Sure,” he said. “When are you coming home?”

“I’ll be there in about an hour.”

He hung up without saying good-bye. At the age of eleven, Conor had yet to master the art of talking on the telephone. Right after I hung up, the man approached with “some herbal tea” and banana bread. We started chatting about kids, vacations, our work, and Seattle but were soon interrupted again by my phone.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “It’s my son and--”

“No need to explain,” he interrupted. “Talk to your son.”

“Hi honey,” I answered once again. “Oh really? So it’s chunky. Wow, I’m sorry. Did you make it to the bathroom at least? Good.” Five more minutes of barf talk ensued. 

While comforting Conor and making sure our housemate knew where to find the Pepto-Bismol, part of my brain was thinking, This is the least sexy date ever.

After hanging up, the man graciously asked if I needed to go home to tend to my son.

“I’ll leave in a few minutes. Jenn, our housemate, is practically a member of the family. She’s lived with us off and on for years so he’s really comfortable with her. Plus, it’s not as if I want to go home and clean up barf. It sounds like a--”

Shut up, shut up! I scolded myself. Stop talking about vomit and try to act normal.

I asked him about his kids. I even resorted to commenting about the weather, but soon enough we were back to talking about my kids, specifically my vomiting son. From there it was a slippery slope to cancer. I explained that Jenn had moved back in with us to take care of me because I was sick.

“Or, I had cancer. It’s confusing,” I babbled. “They say I’m cancer-free, but I can’t say I’m cured for another aseveral years. Anyway, it was a nightmare.”

“I’m so sorry, that must have been really hard.”

If I'd had any common sense I would have stopped there. I would have taken a deep breath and reminded myself to talk about the weather again. Or better yet, I would have gone home. But our date was a horror movie. So, instead, I told him about chemo, that I didn’t have a boob, that once I thought I was going to die, and finally I pulled my wig off to show him my lizard head. By the time I caught myself it was too late to try and change the subject. There was no graceful way to go from talking about my mortality to asking him if he’d read any good books lately.

He said he had helped his brother through brain cancer. After explaining his brother’s treatment, I said I was sorry and took the opportunity of momentary lucidity to excuse myself and say I needed to get home to my kids. He walked me to my car and, while doing so, I refrained from talking. At least aloud. I had a running monologue with myself inside my head. 

I have forgotten how to date. Being single for a year and a half has made me socially inept. What a disaster.

Mercifully, we arrived at my car a few minutes later. He hugged me good-bye and we endured that awkward pause that occurs after meeting someone for the first time and not being sure if you'll ever see him again. 

“I just want to say," he began his parting goodnight. "You seem to be handling your cancer really well and I never would have  known you had it if you hadn’t told me."

Damn! I thought. I should have kept it about movies and the weather! 

Out loud I replied, “Thank you.”

We hugged again and I drove home thinking, I will never see that guy again. But at least I got my first post-cancer date out of the way.

Once home, I spent the next couple of hours bringing Conor cool washcloths and emptying out the bowl by his bed. Around nine o'clock, completely exhausted, I flopped into bed ready to forget about the dreadful evening. 

My phone pinged with a text from the man from Miro Teahouse.

"I hope your son is feeling better. I’d like to see you again. Are you free for dinner this weekend?"

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