I am not so many handticks from thirty years old and my hourly wage is only Canadian pennies more than it was when I worked at Taco Bell a decade ago. My current place of employment isn’t as pastel as the Gap or refried as Applebees or money as Wall Street and I have to wear a headset and pretend that Christmas carols don’t make my inner Jew bristle. It hasn’t actually been that bad so far, although I’ve only worked for five hours and that includes the nap I took during a PowerPoint on how to greet people today. This particular big box bookstore might actually be kind of fun—it’s quintessential stoner work, and even though I’m not a stoner, I like working with them because they make me look smart. Regardless, I’m still looking for someone to blame this employment situation on. I should be entering my last semester of graduate school, studying for comprehensive exams, working on my thesis, and wavering between spending my graduation money on a gold tooth or a power suit. But I’m not sending out CVs or introducing myself as Dr. Herzog in my bathroom mirror just to get used to the feel of the words on my tongue. Nope, instead of entering the professional world, I’m cashiering my way through seasonal employment and wondering if lo mein or pizza is more appropriate for Christmas take-out.
I suppose this job thing is another no-one-to-blame-but-yourself-situation, but I prefer to attribute my minimum wage earnings on my particular blend of nucleic acids. Some people are planners: some of us innately prefer to wait for situations to self-correct, like the rotting banana in your fruit bowl that will decompose and disappear in just seven short years, saving you a trip to the compost pile. As fundamentally as I’m not blond or diabetic or under four feet tall, I’m also not a five-year-plan-planner, or, for that matter, a five-minutes-from-now-planner. If you asked me if I’d like to get dinner at the end of this sentence, I’d be like, “Huh? Why don’t you ask me when I get to the period? I can’t think that far ahead.” This obviously flawed practice has infiltrated all parts of my decision-making process. You want to see if I can fit inside that mailbox even though I’m supposed to be on the bus in forty-five seconds? Sure! Forty-five seconds or an hour? It’s all the future!
There is one part of my life, however, that is immune from this type of juvenile thinking: I have been preparing for disaster my entire life, be it nuclear winter, vegan jihad, a neighborhood takeover by Steve the Mailman. I can barely get through the morning without peeing on myself because by the time I’ve realized that my bladder is full it’s already empty, but I am ready for far-reaching disasters, especially the ones that will probably never occur in my lifetime and/or zip code. When I’m in a particularly stressful yoga pose, for instance, I don’t try to achieve a state of meditation or mindfulness; I think about how much better shape I’ll be in than the other detainees at Gitmo. When I bathe, I ask whoever I’m living with to hold my head under water so I’ll be ready in case of a water-boarding party. No matter how much I struggle, I say, Don’t let me up. I need this. I know this is crazy. I’ve never thought that burning every employment bridge I’ve had might be problematic for my long term ability to have a cell phone and/or health insurance, and now I have all the earning power of a seven-year-old Cambodia with missing pinkies. And yet, I’ve been mentally preparing for disease and disaster since I was a child. As a five-year-old, when my twin sister asked for Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls for Christmas, I wanted a fire extinguisher and a hacksaw. Other kids wanted to swing, I wanted to learn CPR. While most of friends would rather watch indie films that not only challenge your cultural assumptions but also make you look intelligent, I prefer to watch Bruce Willis and take notes while he dismantles bombs.
I can’t plan a dinner party, but I have disaster contingency plans locked in a fireproof safe. I like to think this is the mark of the truly pragmatic, but it might be less about survival and more about anxiety. When I lived in Portland, what started as slight and totally reasonable fear that any bridge I was on was about to wave like a homecoming queen on the back of a convertible and flip my unprepared ass into the water below turned into full-blown panics attack anytime I saw an elevated roadway. If I spotted a ten-foot-high dam in the distance, I would pull the car over and stick my head between my knees and hyperventilate until my girlfriend agreed to switch seats with me so I’d stop getting snot on the upholstery. The bridge anxiety abated with cognitive behavioral therapy and a prescription for Valium, but when I stopped stressing about bridge collapse, I became paranoid about earthquakes and other natural disasters. Over dinner, I made my girlfriend recite our plan in case of the second coming. We’ll meet under the Burnside Bridge. But what if the river is flooding over the bridges? Shit. Once I realized that there was no way to plan a meeting spot without knowing what the nature of the disaster would be, I bought us matching Walkie Talkies, insisting that even if they seemed impractical, this simple technology would be our salvation when the phone lines went out.
This fear lives inside me like a blood-borne illness but the symptoms come and go in waves. Living in a small North Carolina town has greatly reduced my fear of terrorist attack, volcanic eruption, and killer bees. Because it’s almost impossible to be afraid when you live in a town where the most terrifying sight is a group of moms hula-hooping on the co-op lawn to a high school jam band, it’s cancer that has replaced natural disaster in the dark hole of my mind. I see it everywhere. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a healthy young woman who rarely gets sick even when those around cough and wheeze, I see disease. On nights when everyone else is playing bingo or working late, I put on the bald cap I bought for my Howie Mandel costume a few years ago and stare at myself in the mirror, preparing for the day when it’s not a five dollar piece of latex that I’ll see but my actual bald head, soft and vulnerable and slightly flat from not being held enough as a child. I cover my eyebrows in concealer and suck in my cheeks. Better get used to it, I think. I look at my face and wonder if my friends will buy Livestrong bracelets and wear pink ribbons, if anyone will offer to shave their head in solidarity, a gesture I will appreciate while insisting that there’s no reason to cut that beautiful hair. I think about the ways I’ll have to change my lifestyle. Might as well buy some heavy sweaters and take up a comforting hobby; give up coffee now so I don’t have to deal with caffeine headaches on top of chemo. There goes the occasional cigarette and hamburger.
Worrying about myself, about my own disease and dismemberment and death, is far easier than worrying about other peoples’. When you love someone, the world is beautiful and terrifying at once. This is the world that made the person you love, that brought her into your space and you into hers. But it is also that world that could swallow her as easily and thoughtlessly as a piece of dust floating in the wind. With enough preparation, I can survive it all—lymphoma, nuclear wind, meteors falling from space and crushing everything but my underground bunker. I will survive just fine, my concrete walls intact, my air filtered, my water supply clear, alive and glad to have spent the energy I could have used finishing school or finding work on more practical things like stockpiling food and Geiger counters. But if she doesn’t show up at our meeting place, if the Walk Talkie doesn’t beep, if I never know what happens, I will wish for the poison to drift through a crack in my bunker, causing my skin to slough off like sheets of filo dough and my eyes to turned upward and inward before falling out and rolling across the sterile floor. I will wish that I had let the cancer take me instead of fighting to survive because there is no survival without her, without you, without the people who will hold ice cubes to my lips when the radiation that will save me feels like it is killing me; the people who will say that I look better even though I will see their fear as clearly as the hair falling from my scalp; the people who make me want to live when breathing itself hurts. There is no contingency for this, no plan b, no mental preparation, just the hope that if it does happen, if she dies with the rest, I won’t be far behind, wishing that I hadn’t fought so hard, that I let the cancer take me when it could have, knowing that this final wish is the most selfish: that she, that all of you, would have outlasted me, that you would have to mourn my death so that I wouldn’t have to mourn yours; wishing that I had spent my time planning for the future that approaches rather than the one that ends it all.