Toxic Pink and Purple
Jessica Rose (University of Canberra, Australia)
Kalathma sits on the edge of the bed listening to him retch. It’s getting worse and she wonders how the body can be expected to tolerate such unforgiving drugs. She brushes a hand over the embroidered bedspread, noting each small bump in the weave. The bottle says to avoid contact with the skin—toxic. Yet they want him to swallow five a day? Surely what’s deadly to cancer is deadly to the rest of him too?
The toilet flushes and she pushes strands of brown and silver streaked hair away from her eyes, forcing stubborn lips into a smile. But he doesn’t emerge immediately—she can hear cupboards opening and closing, a burst of water in the sink. Her carefully constructed smile falters; small, rough hands in her lap. The ensuite door opens and Sujith’s pale face emerges framed by grey-black hair that hasn’t yet begun to fall out. He carefully lowers himself beside her, feet light on the carpet, pants loose around his waist.
Kalathma stands and draws a comb through his hair. Three months ago he would never have suffered the attention. How things can change in a moment one bright afternoon. She remembers the cheerful stick people drawn in crayon and pinned to the wall behind his head, and the yellow smiley stress ball by his computer. She wonders if Sujith recalls these or if his attention strayed to other things during the numbing diagnosis. Kalathma doesn’t remember the words so much anymore—just the impressions they left; half-moon scars in the palm of her hand.
Sujith pushes the comb away and eases himself onto a pillow. She bites back the admonishing words for newly brushed hair. He is not a child again—not yet. He closes his eyes keeping very still as if the mooring might slip and he will drift away.
The front door opens. Avanthi’s hello spirals up the stairs and into their room. He struggles to sit but Kalathma gently holds him down.
“Rest. I will tell her you will be down later.”
“They can’t know.” Fingers fretting against the embroidered bedspread.
She kisses him lightly on the brow, his sweat on her lips.
He settles back, can feel the toxins. They make him lethargic and tender, his thoughts half there, half not.
She slips from the room, roughly brushing tears from her cheeks. She knows he will not live to see Manisha married. Avanthi’s wedding tomorrow will be hard enough and she’s not sure how much longer they can keep his secret. She tries to smooth the wrinkles from her yellow blouse. The colour reminds her of the doctor’s stress ball and she feels squeezed, smile stretched and out of shape. She and Sujith have been together since she was eighteen—a lifetime. Once he is gone, she doesn’t know that she will ever be smooth again.
Sujith wakes to find he is still alone, sun beginning to sag above the tree line. His mouth is dry, yet another side-effect, and he struggles against the ache in his muscles to reach for the glass of water on the bedside table. He becomes aware of the need to urinate, bladder warring with the rest of his body. He would rather lie where he is forever; it is easier on the bones that way. The effort to stand makes him sway until he finds his balance. He has not fallen yet but the heater burn on his leg is a nasty reminder of what happens when you try to move and are not quite ready. He is beginning to despise his body for the hundreds of small betrayals he discovers each day. Some are old, some new, but all just as treacherous.
He leans on the sink, studying himself in the mirror. He doesn’t think anyone suspects but at the same time he wonders how they could not. Each line on his face shouts sickness. Every second of every day he is unable to forget; his body makes sure of it. That and those toxic pink and purple pills: cheerful, deceptive colours that remind you of rock candy and fairy floss.
He runs a hand through his hair and considers having it cut in the morning before the ceremony. A clump of black and grey strands sticks to his sweaty fingers. Sujith pushes his hand through again and more comes away. He doesn’t notice as he begins to shake, tears snaking down his cheeks. It only had to hold one more day. One more day and Avanthi would be married.
One more fucking day.
The unfamiliar English word is quite satisfying on his tongue. He considers using it more as he shuffles back to the bed, sobbing now, his vision blurred.
An hour later Kalathma finds him this way: hair in his hands, face wet, and repeating that exotic English word. She quickly shuts the door, the afternoon’s girlish laughter with Avanthi falling from her as if it never was.
She lies beside him, reaching for his hand and closes her eyes. She remembers the day Sujith came for the bride viewing: a smiling, quiet young man. It had been an exceptionally warm afternoon, the sun bright against her face. It made her see stars and she had thought that was what she saw in his eyes when he looked at her. Later after they were married, she realised those stars had not been the sun but the curiosity he used to view the world. With him anything had always been possible. He could make the saddest, direst situation somehow seem okay. But not today. Not this time.
She squeezes his hand. It is all she can think to do.
The speeches should have started but no one can find the father of the bride. Kalathma realises she hasn’t seen Sujith in a while and rushes across the lobby towards the elevators. They booked a room: somewhere to dress, store wedding paraphernalia, and an easy place for Kalathma and Sujith to spend the night, rather than making the hour-long drive home. In the wait between the first floor and the ninth her fingers search for weak spots in the silk weave around her waist. She runs the last few steps, not caring if she rips the front of her sari.
Sujith is a tight ball on the bed when she opens the door.
“Sujith?” Her voice seems overly loud.
His eyes are closed but as she approaches she can see he is trembling.
“Suji?” A nickname from his childhood.
He flinches when she touches his shoulder.
“What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”
She feels his forehead: it is hot and slick with sweat. His arms are clenched around his waist.
She picks up the phone.
“I’m calling the hotel doctor.”
Kalathma half expects him to unfurl and convince her it isn’t that serious but he remains a ball on the bed, eyes squeezed shut. She asks reception to tell her daughters he has taken ill and begin the speeches without them. Then, while waiting for the doctor to arrive, she curls around him.
She watches him shake: her brave, loving partner slowly broken by a disease that has mocked his best efforts to become well again. They have always done everything together and now, when it most matters, she cannot accompany him. For the first time in thirty years he is alone and she hasn’t moved. Not a bit. Yet suddenly there’s this extra space between them and within it she can see him, in precise detail, preparing to die.
And she can’t look away.
Kalathma has trouble rising from the bed when the doctor knocks. Manisha and Avanthi are waiting behind him. She lets the doctor past but tells the girls to wait.
Calmly she tries to explain about the cancer, the prognosis and medication. She fails and there are moments during the account when she must remind herself to breathe. The doctor manages to coax some response from Sujith before administering pain relief. His response is dramatic—an almost automatic loosening of muscles. His face looks younger and she has not seen him so relaxed in months.
While these episodes are expected and will become increasingly frequent, an immediate visit to the hospital is recommended. Sujith is adamant he will not go: he would rather wait for his appointment with the oncologist in a couple of days.
Kalathma cannot keep Manisha and Avanthi away any longer and they rush past as she is thanking the doctor.
“Appachi! Are you okay?” Manisha touches his leg.
Tears streak lines down Avanthi’s carefully painted face. “I am so sorry,” she cries. “I did not know you were ill.”
“Chuti,” he whispers. “How could you know when I was hiding it from you?”
“What are you talking about?” Kalathma demands.
“I helped Appachi up here a little while ago because he looked tired.”
“And you didn’t say anything to me? How could you be so careless?” Her voice is hard.
“Kal—it is not her fault. How was she to know her Appachi was suffering from a bad case of gastro?”
He opens his eyes long enough to make sure she understands.
With a sharp breath, “Regardless, this is still your wedding night and you have an obligation to the guests.”
She takes a step forward. “You must.”
“No, Ammi. I am staying here. Diyon and everyone will be fine without me.”
Sujith squeezes Avanthi’s hand. “It would be nice to spend a little more time with our daughter before she leaves us. Don’t you think?”
Manisha crawls onto the bed beside him. After a moment Kalathma collapses onto the couch shielding her eyes. She listens to their quiet talk, and eventually, their laughter.
Kalathma sits in a hard, plastic chair in the waiting room. It is a busy morning and every seat is taken, many by older couples: usually one staring into space or at their hands, the other bravely reading a year-old magazine. Kalathma leans on her knees watching the door. Sujith is somewhere on the other side having an ultrasound. One of this morning’s many tests, both his arms sporting a blob of cotton wool and tape.
He finally emerges looking harassed and she leads him down the corridor to the clinic. He collapses onto a chair while Kalathma searches the magazine pile finding a tattered one that is only a few months old. She flicks backwards and forwards through the photos not bothering with the articles and is a little disappointed when they are called.
She has trouble concentrating after the first five minutes. She had already assumed the wedding was the beginning of the end and the doctor very carefully confirms this. There is some debate over whether it is worth continuing the chemotherapy when it is clear the cancer has spread so far so quickly. He cautiously predicts six months and discusses quality of life and palliative care.
Kalathma stares out the window. There is not a great deal to see: some pipes and the wall of the next building. It isn’t much of a view and she hopes this is not an image she remembers later. She decides all sad memories should contain bright flowers and soft light. Not the harshness of a fluorescent bulb and peeling off-white paint. She searches for some sign of sweetness: a child’s crayon picture. But this room is impersonal: a desk with phone and computer, referral pad and her husband’s file. It could be anyone’s space, anytime. She dislikes this about the public system: the minimalist attitude. As if sickness and death were a small, trivial thing unworthy of a box of soft tissues or a family photo. It is a mistake to suspect the doctors in these rooms are also human, with loves and lives.
Sujith solemnly shakes the oncologist’s hand and in the other he holds a wad of test requests and scripts. Outside they make another appointment. He is stiff from sitting and they shuffle into the main corridor. At the stairs he stops, eyes glazed. But then he smiles, the one she loves and thought was lost, and holds out his arm as if she were the one in need of a little support.
Jessica Rose was raised in the Top End and now lives in Melbourne. She has just begun a PhD at the University of Canberra.