Coming of Age in the Bennett Children's Hospital
I step close to the mirror and remember my vision is cloudy. There’s another bruise on my knee, my lips are chapped, and there are dark circles under my eyes. I’m no princess, who am I kidding? I’m Cancer Girl. Plain as day, anyone can see it. No wonder Josh wants nothing to do with me. He’s probably crushing on some cute healthy girl from his high school and I never had a chance. I’m a walking ghost. I remind him of his condition and I’m going to have to muster some kind of courage just to go back to his room.
I stand naked a while, because it feels subversive though I know it’s not. Naked bodies are common in a hospital. No one walking in would think a thing. They’d excuse themselves and apologize, but they walk in on us all the same. Two quick taps on the door is the courtesy knock. The door is never locked and the nurses never wait for a response. Two taps and the door flies open. They’re too busy to wait. I stand and expect someone to walk in. But then I’m bored, so I put my jammies back on and I crawl into bed. I want to fall right to sleep, so I don’t have to wait anymore for tomorrow, but sleep won’t come. I’m in the half-dark of my room with my eyes open or my eyes closed; the TV on, the TV off. It really doesn’t matter. The seconds tick, and time passes, but I don’t seem any closer to morning.
Michelle tap-taps at my door and I sense her moving around the room. There’s a nightlight so they can see and read the charts. She sometimes eases me awake for pills, injections, to take my temperature, or a blood pressure reading. I’m used to the interruptions and there’s one version of the afterlife I imagine as my hospital room at night, with soft light, the hum of the fluorescents in the hallway, and the fevered confusion of what’s real. When time is still and I don’t think. Not about anything.
Once I woke up to Michelle praying over me. She whispered and I distinctly heard her say, “Dear sweet Jesus,” an urgent prayer and it scared me. I pretended to sleep while she kept on. No one’s danced around the fact that I might die, but it made me think something’s been left unsaid. As much as I like Michelle, as a friend, and as someone I can talk to, it made me think I shouldn’t go to her with questions about God. Because her praying was so sure—with pinched eyes like she could just squint herself to the head of God’s line. But don’t I want to be heard; haven’t I tried prayer? I love Michelle and know she means well, but sometimes she doesn’t get it.
I open an eye and see Josh standing there.
“You’re awake,” he says.
He’s barefoot, with his black knit Oakland Raiders cap on his pale head and an old salmon terrycloth robe around his bony frame, the least gangsta dude on the planet despite his attempts. He shifts his weight back and forth.
“I was thinking,” he says. “And my mom said I should have kissed you.”
I sit up. “You told your mom?” I am so awake.
“We’re close,” he says. “Just because you don’t get along with your mom…”
“We get along.”
“She wants to take us out,” he says. “All of us. Her treat. Your mom will be here tomorrow, right?”
“She cries,” I say.
“Just see how you feel,” Josh says and he moves closer. He lifts the covers to climb into my bed. He has nothing on under that gross robe and we both know it.
I want to say he’s not invited but don’t have the energy. This is all a surprise. The last time Josh visited my room was when he had a screamer next door and he couldn’t take it, not even with BET up loud.
I close my eyes and he presses against me, his face so close I feel his breath.
“Just because we kiss doesn’t mean we’re dating,” Josh says. “My mom says I can keep my options.”
“Josh,” I say, “do you know anything about women? Do you know how unromantic that sounds? Why would I even want to kiss you now?”
I open my eyes and stare at him. Not an unwelcome stare but to wait him out, to see if he makes the first move. I’m expectant and for once I think this gets through to him. He senses what I want and puts an arm around me. I hug my mom and I hug Michelle all the time—but this is different. I’ve wanted to be wanted for so long I give in and hold him tight. We use all our strength and it’s really nice. Without knowing, I’ve longed for this. He pulls away but I don’t let up. He pushes me back but with a reassuring look that it’s OK. He only wants the space between us so he can kiss me.
“Oh Josh,” I say, which is corny, but it’s exactly how I feel. How can we be like this and he doesn’t want to date me? How can he deny what’s obvious?
The kiss becomes less intense as it wears on, but our lips move together and our tongues French. I’ve got the metallic taste in the back of my throat and Josh’s mouth is dry. We don’t lack passion, but our bodies won’t put up with much of this. I try to enjoy the moment, my first kiss. His first kiss. But if I concentrate, it feels ordinary. Like licking envelopes, or chewing on a paper wad.
“Josh,” I whisper, but he’s on me again, so I guess we won’t really be talking.
After three or four prolonged kisses, after he’s moved his hands up and down my back enough to bore me, he places a hand on my boob, the one nearest my heart. This is unexpected and I shudder. I lay back. I’m completely his. He runs his hand over my flannel jammies and it gets him hot. In seconds he’s overcome with desire. He reaches for the buttons like he can’t unwrap me quickly enough. And I let him. He squirms out of his robe and there we are, pressed against each other, both of us bare. This is too fast. This is sooner than I want. But we’re kissing and not talking, so I let him feel me. I hold on and breathe him in, his heat and his chemical stink. This can’t be good for us. Surely this will stress our hearts. We’ll both be exhausted tomorrow, so I don’t know what he’s thinking, wanting our moms together for dinner like somebody’s birthday. And I feel him rub himself against me. He’s letting me know he’s pointy and he wants me, but I won’t touch him there, not yet. I’m curious, but I don’t want to lead him on any more than I already have. I don’t want him trying. They rap about sex a lot in his songs. Dirty sex. Throw-away sex. Thankfully, he has no idea what he’s doing and he’s nowhere near Virginia. I just want to kiss him. Me and his mom both thinking Josh was all about a kiss. Who knew this lil’ gangsta was so lusty? He’s humping and breathing and I’m unsettled by his seriousness. Part of me wants to laugh. This is all boys are made of. All of them. This is how men are, every one of them. Josh is no different from the men Michelle warned me about and the only thing special about him is he’s my first.
John Minichillo's work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Night Train, Wigleaf, Monkeybicycle and elesewhere. He teaches in Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and son.
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