I sit at the bedside of my failing friend. At her request, each time I visit, I read from my book.
“This is great for me,” I tell her. “I need feedback and criticism before I send this out to the publishers.”
“You know me: I love to criticize,” Annette says, and then groans in pain. Over the years, we traveled together up and down the Finger Lakes to catch art shows, concerts and plays. She shared her poetry, went halfsies on exotic dishes at Thai restaurants and taught me to play racquetball. Despite being twenty-four years my senior, the things we have in common have always outweighed our differences. But the past year she has lost her health and much of her former active life. So now we are related in pain and loss.
“What were you feeling then? Optimism? Pessimism? Anger or fear?” she asks after I read a few sentences.
“Needs my feelings,” I write in red ink for later. This I’ve heard before. I read on.
“Wait. ‘A girl is able to tell her doctors’ isn’t right,” she interrupts again. “What are you trying to say?”
“A girl has the right to tell her doctors – Oh. Yeah,” I say and circle in red what I must change later. I continue. “She lay there prone, mortified, vulnerable, waiting for the inevitable pain.”
“What did you say? ‘Marika produces a sound like a roar.’ You can’t do better than that?” She listens raptly as I read about Marika’s struggles with cancer and pain. In almost every other line she finds faults, and pounces on points no one else has noticed or mentioned before.
“You are ruthless. You’re brutal,” I tell her and try to hide my smile. I want to bat her over the head with the bedpan sometimes but her observations are remarkably right. Even on pain-killing drugs that make her fight to keep her eyes open, Annette is sharp. We take a short break and as we reassemble, she arches her back and writhes in pain.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Read more.”
“Are you sure you want me to continue?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” she insists. “I have to hear this. Go on.”
My knees butt up against the bed as I sit sandwiched between her walker and the commode. My feet constantly knock over one or the other of two Lysol spray cans on the floor beside me. And her cat, that I helped pick out at the SPCA, squints menacingly at me from the spot on the bed it hasn’t budged from in all the hours and days I’ve been here.
“Excuse me. Will all your readers know what EcoVillage is?” she asks. “And what does ‘unconsidered debris’ mean?”
I read painstakingly slowly at my voice’s maximum volume and enunciate so she can hear each word. She stops me in the middle of every third, fifth or sixth line to demand correction or clarification. It is like we are clearing a minefield of internal explosive devices; I never know when she will plant an objection or a question that will rip my sentence to shreds.
“Hold it. ‘PEPPER the sky with endless SWARMS of doves’ is too violent to describe sending out kisses. You need to find better words,” she says. She blasts apart so much of what I’ve written but somehow leaves it, and me, in better shape. And I can’t help but notice she’s having fun in the process.
“It’s been over two hours. I need to go soon,” I say.
“Can you come back tomorrow and read more?” she asks.
“I’d love to but – it’s not too painful for you to listen to this?”
“Oh no, it makes me feel BETTER. Please read on,” she says as she winces, gasps and clutches her side and her middle.