Only Truth Gets Spoken Over the Fence

We really only spoke over the fence. But she was more of a friend than friends were at the time.

She lived in the house behind mine. All those years ago, a carport stood where my master bedroom now sits. If you walked to the back of the carport, past the rotting wood eaves, peered through the dirty screen and over the chain link fence, you would stare into Jane’s backyard.

She was a mail carrier and worked odd hours. We met briefly over the fence line when I moved in. She was pleased I wasn’t a renter because people in the neighborhood had a tendency to come and go. She’d been a resident for 16 years.

She wasn’t an attractive woman. She bleached her hair platinum blonde, and it contrasted harshly against the pockmarked, tan leather of her skin. No nonsense and coarse talking, she lived alone. When I first moved in, my hair was long and blond. Her appraisal of me that first time over the fence immediately let me know Jane was an unapologetic lesbian.

The next time I saw her, two months later, I was bald.

When that happened, my new favorite spot became the back of the carport. I placed a rocking chair, a small plastic table, and an ashtray there. At night, I’d rock, hidden in darkness with no head covering, and chain smoke my way through nausea, night terrors, and insomnia.

It was 2:00 a.m. when she appeared over the fence.

“What happened to you?”

“I got sick.”

She let a low whistle out from under her breath. “Now, that sucks balls. Big time. You’re in for a long, hard haul, Baby.”

I smiled because I was accustomed to commentary along the lines of “Oh, you’re going to beat this” and “God has a plan,”and my favorite, “Try to see it as a gift to make you realize what’s important.”

#Stupid-stuff-non-cancerous-people-say-to-make-themselves-feel-better-because-they-think-they’re-making-you-feel-better.

“You’re a hot bald chick. And I hang out with a lotta bull dykes, so . . .”

Again, I smiled. A rarity those days.

“Well, you know where to find me. If you need me. We ladies have to stick together.” And she walked back into her house.

***

A storm was brewing out in the Gulf. Our city hadn’t taken a direct hit since the 1930’s, but the news said it was headed our way. The night before, I walked outside because I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about the tree in Jane’s backyard.

It’s called a Costa Rican Monkey Ear Tree, and it’s got to be at least 200 feet tall. The monkey ears refer to the hard fig shells attached to the branches. They’re black and shaped like a monkey’s ear. When they fall, they’re hard enough and high enough in the air that if they pelt you in the head, they hurt.

In a neighboring city, there’s a tree that’s 200 feet tall and is listed on the register as historic; Jane’s tree is much bigger and thicker in diameter than that one, and it’s not listed on any registry. When the windows are open, I hear eerie screeches and growls, which lead me to believe there are species of animals and insects living in it that have yet to be discovered. It reminds me of the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house. If it falls, it will take out the surrounding houses. But it’s more than that: the roots are so far reaching, they break through the cement of the sidewalks down the street. If Jane’s tree goes down, it’s taking half the neighborhood with it.

It was 3:30 a.m. the morning before the storm. Giving up on sleep, I left bed and went outside. I found Jane standing underneath the tree, looking up at its colossal vastness in the darkness.

Over the fence, in my night gown, I said quietly, “I can’t sleep either. I can’t stop thinking about your tree.”

Without looking at me, she said, “There’s nothing we can do. Worrying won’t change it.”

“I’m still worried.”

“It’s been here for a hundred years, Baby. It will be here long after we’re gone. The tree will win.”

Slightly soothed, I went back to bed.

The storm would take a turn and hit the middle of the state. We would still get residual effects. The next day, when I looked out the window through the sheets of rain and wind, every tree in Jane’s yard was down.

Except her Monkey Ear Tree.

Luckily, our houses wouldn’t sustain damage. Though Jane’s wooden deck was destroyed. When the rain stopped, four of her girlfriends—burly, no-nonsense ladies–came over with a chain saw and cleared out the damage. Jane sent them over to clean up my yard as well.

She would rebuild that deck herself. While she measured and cut the wood boards on her work table with perfect precision, I watched her over the fence, wishing I could love her like I sometimes loved men.

***

I was in the carport getting tools out of the utility closet.

I heard that low whistle and then, “Jesus, Baby. You got FAT.”

I smirked at the familiar voice and looked up. “I’m pregnant.”

“No shit. How did that happen?”

“A pitcher of margaritas.”

She paused, “I don’t mean to intrude. But didn’t Progesterone try to kill you?”

“Yes.”

She was quiet, as she leaned down to pick at some weeds through the fence. Throwing them behind her shoulder, she said “Well, I guess some risks are worth taking.”

“I’ll go back on treatment after she comes.”

“Sounds like a plan. A girl . . . Woot. Good for you. Well, you know where to find me if you need me. Us ladies need to stick together.”

***

I was pushing the stroller in front of her house. The walks were the only thing that calmed the girl down. She did nothing but scream for the first eight months. She wouldn’t sleep through the night for two years. I was back on treatment, working full time, exhausted, and sick all the time.

“Wow. She’s got some lungs. Come up here. Let me see her,” Jane yelled from the swinging bench on her front porch.

I pushed the stroller up and sat down next to her on the swing.

“She sure is a pretty thing,” she cooed, peering into the stroller.

“She has reflux. Bad.”

“You look horrible, Baby.”

“I’m exhausted.”

“He doesn’t help you.” It wasn’t a question.

“No.”

We sat in silence, swinging; Jane taking occasional pulls from her can of Budweiser.

“Let me watch her for a little while. Go sleep.”

My voice broke, and tears pricked my eyes.

“I can’t, Jane,“ I said. “She screams. She turns blue sometimes. She projectile-vomits. She’s the fucking Exorcist.”

“Meh. She sounds like my mother. Go get some sleep. You’re sick.”

Three hours later, I was at her door. Guilty. But feeling better.

“Was she horrible? Did she scream the entire time?”

“Yes,” said Jane. “She’s a beast. Worst. Baby. Ever.”

But her smile was so wide, it made her face look like a puckered leather hand bag.

***

I was getting in my car.

“I sold the house today.”

I froze. Looked over the fence. She was standing underneath the tree with her hands on her hips, looking up.

“Oh no.”

“My mom’s sick. I’m moving her in with me. Closer to where she lives and the hospital. It will be easier to get her in and out of a condo. Less maintenance. I love this house. But it’s too old. Renovations to make it handicap accessible would cost too much.”

A lot of people have left. I’ve never asked one to stay.

“Don’t go.”

She looked down at the ground. Kicked one of the huge roots of her tree.

“I’ll miss you, you know.”

“I’ll miss you, too, Jane.”

I got in my car and cried all the way to work.

***

I rarely talk to the new neighbors. Though they’ve lived there for years.

Call me irrational. Silly. Pigheaded.

But I don’t like them.

Because it will never be their tree. It will never be their fence.

Day 13

“How soon will I lose my hair?”

“Between day 12 and day 15,” the chemo nurse said. Then her eyes lifted, skimming my head in assessment.

“For you,” she added. “Day 13.”

I don’t know how she knew. I didn’t ask. What I’d learn is that chemo (and hospice) nurses are a different breed. They see, feel, and know things normal people don’t. They are also the best needle stickers on the planet: deft and precise. When you know what you’re doing, the stick should never hurt. When your port moves accidentally underneath your skin and flips, those nurses can turn it around from the outside of your skin so quickly you won’t register the pain until after they’re done.

I will always hold chemo and hospice nurses in the highest esteem.

After my first treatment, I was determined not to be sick. I would NOT be a patient. I would continue to do the things I had always done. And when it was done, I would go on and live the life I had always led. Nothing would change. It would be an unfortunate blip on the radar. I’d do my time–the treatment–and when it was done, it would be over. I’d go back to my old life as if it had never happened.

Back then, obviously, I was a fucking fool.

On the night of day 13, I was sitting on a bar stool, buzzed and flirting.

This was business as usual. The object of my affection was particularly good looking, and our chemistry was off the charts. He had an amazing body and a confident sexuality that made my pulse roar in my ears.

That was my forte: Find physical attraction and engage at light speed. Suck every sigh, gasp, and orgasm out of the relationship. Fuck and fight in equal and epic proportions for maximum intensity. Provide lousy or close to no communication outside the physical. Crash and burn the relationship into the ground, and do it all in a three-months—tops–span. Then onto the next.

I was an expert. Maybe I still am.

He was leaning into me and looking down into my eyes with huge promise when I unconsciously ran my fingers through my hair. When I placed my hand back in my lap, I happened to look down.

I know it sounds stupid, but my first thought was that it was cat hair. There was just so much of it, and it stood out so starkly against the back drop of my black tights. At the time, I had three in-door cats and kept a rolling lint brush within reach at all times to “de-feline” myself before walking out the door. My first thought was, “How did you NOT notice all this before you left the house?”

Maybe it’s also because I believed it would come out in strands.

I didn’t know it fell out in clumps.

I didn’t know when it begins, it’s sudden. And rapid.

When I realized what it was, I excused myself to the bathroom. I studied myself in the low-lit mirror, unsure and afraid. Then I gently ran my fingers through, not wanting to cause more to fall out than was necessary.

Despite the light pressure, when I pulled my hand out, it held a clump.

I can’t tell you exactly how that felt. Surreal comes to mind.

I returned to my bar stool and attempted to continue flirting. I tried to pay attention to what he was saying, but soon all I could register was that his lips were moving. I didn’t want to give into the reality of what was happening. I was trying so hard to grasp onto the last vestiges of that life . . . that person I was getting closer to losing with every second.

But my hand would inevitably, despite itself, find its way to my head. When I’d see the hair, I’d quickly brush it off against my leg and let it fall to the ground underneath my chair. Hoping no one would see. I can only imagine how much was there when I left.

When I could no longer focus on what the guy was saying—in defeat–I downed my drink and told him, sadly and regretfully, I had to go.

He was shocked. Didn’t understand what had changed so quickly when it had been obvious we shared such mutual attraction mere minutes before.

I walked out the door and sat in my car, which was parked in the front. Through the large picture window adorned in the blinking neon lights of the bar, I could see him and the chair where I had sat. I watched for a few minutes, not able to start the car. Eventually, another girl sat in my chair. They began to talk. To flirt.

She had long, blonde hair.

In that moment—completely, bitterly, and irrationally—I hated her.

She stole my chair. My sex. My life.

My hair.

The next day, it was worse. I woke up to clumps all over the pillow case, in the sheets, and in the shower drain. No one tells you that it’s a somewhat physically painful process. The top of your head burns, aches, and is sensitive to the touch as the roots begin to die. And it itches like hell.

I had been in denial, thinking maybe I’d be one of the lucky small percent who would get to keep it. I had put off getting fitted for a wig, which had to be ordered.

I was running out of time.

I called my boss and told her I wouldn’t be going into work. I opened the yellow pages and scanned. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I did not want to stay in town. I treated it like some covert operation. As I looked down the list, a name of a business jumped out, and I wrote down the address on a blank envelope. Then I got in my car and drove 45 minutes three towns away.

The shop was in a strip mall sandwiched between two businesses with dingy, ugly storefronts. There was a tattoo parlor and a head shop advertising drug paraphernalia and porn videos.

The bell chimed when I walked through the door. The shop was empty except for a beast of a man who sat at the cashier counter, flipping through People magazine. He glanced up and greeted me. I acknowledged him with a small smile and walked to the far wall that was full–floor to ceiling—with wigs.

I stood there. Just staring. Letting my eyes take in the overwhelming amount of colors, styles, and lengths. I didn’t touch or pick any of them up off the stands. I felt rooted to one spot.

The beast of a man walked over. He was well over 6 feet tall. He was bald with two small, gold hoops in each ear. His shirt, a tropical print with pink flamingos, was opened to mid chest. Two heavy gold chains circled his bulging neck, and their hanging medallions nestled in his thick chest hair. The hands that fluttered when he talked were covered in chunky gold rings.

In contrast, when he spoke, his voice was soft and feminine with a slight lisp.

“Can I help you? What are you looking for, Hon?”

When I didn’t answer right away, he asked, “Do you have a party to go to? Or are you just looking for something fun for a change?”

It was mid-November, or I’m certain he would have assumed it was for Halloween.

Mutely, I shook my head; not looking at him directly, continuing to let my eyes flit over the wall of wigs.

Uncomfortably, he cleared his voice, smiled, and said, “Well, if you need any help, just let me know” and started to turn away.

I needed help. But I didn’t know how to ask.

I lifted my hand and dragged my fingers through my hair. When I pulled it out, I extended and showed him the clump in my palm.

“It’s falling out. It’s going to be gone soon,” I explained. I stopped, knowing my voice would crack if I didn’t.

His eyes widened in understanding. Then lowered and locked onto the implanted port protruding out from under the skin near my collar bone.

“Oh, Honey” was all he said.

I pulled the insurance paperwork out of my purse and handed it to him, pointing at my budget.

“This is more than enough,“ he said. “We can do a lot with this. Let me help you.”

We went through the lines of wigs and some he had in the back. There were so many to choose from. He asked if I wanted to go with something completely different and have “fun” with it. Or did I want to find something close to my current style and color.

I told him the more I could look like me, the better.

He chose some different lengths and tried to match the color the best he could. He explained the benefits and cons of synthetic versus human hair. None of them were an exact match, but he found a few that might work.

He took me in a backroom that had a hairdresser’s table with lit mirror and chair. When I sat down, he gathered up my shoulder-length hair and tucked it into a nylon cap. Then he began to place, adjust, and show me each wig.

He tried to make it fun. Really he did. With his whooshy, animated hand gestures. Even complimenting the ones that looked ridiculous. Despite my wish to keep the color close to my own blonde, he insisted on showing me what I’d look like as a red head, a brunette, and a pink-and-blue-haired punk rocker.

He was kind.

He was so very kind.

Somewhere between the fourth and fifth fitting, I noticed the top of the electric razor peeking out from one of the table’s drawers.

I stared at it for the longest time.

And realized why I’d been sent here.

“Will you shave it off for me?”

He stopped adjusting the wig on my head and stared at me in the mirror with surprise. Then hesitation.

Softly, I told him, “It’s so hard to watch it fall out. Like there’s no control. I don’t think I can do it myself.”

His eyes got glossy and started to fill and brim. He turned away to hide them.

“Of course. Hold on.”

He went to the front of the shop, and I heard the latch turn to lock. When he came back, he took the electric razor from the drawer.

He held it, posed over my head, took a deep breath, and said “Ready?”

I nodded.

Buzzzzzzzzzzzzz

He shaved my head in perfect symmetrical strips starting from the back to the front. As each new strip was revealed, he would rub his hand gently over the skin and say something encouraging. I eventually closed my eyes.

I think he cried while he did it.

I couldn’t.

I felt gratitude there was someone who did. Someone who could.

When he was done, we both stared at my reflection. He ran his hands over the stubble and said, “You have a beautiful head. Perfectly shaped. Many people don’t, you know.”

Deadpan, I said, “I’m just relieved there’s not a Gorbachev birthmark I wasn’t aware of.”

We both burst out laughing.

I paid for two wigs. They had to be ordered and styled, so it would take two weeks. He helped me pick out some scarves and a hat to hold me over. He showed me how to tie the scarves into different styles. He stapled the receipts together, so they would be easy to submit to the insurance company.

We hugged when I left, and I thanked him.

I walked out.

The strip mall was the same, but looked different somehow. Maybe it was the sunshine on the window panes. Or how the light reflected off and onto the sidewalk. It was blinding.

No. It wasn’t that.

I walked in a person.

I walked out a patient.