What are you waiting for?
My life was a mess. These two questions changed everything.
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This is the big one—you ready? I asked my boyfriend, David. If you were diagnosed with cancer, what would you change?
David was silent on the other end of the line, considering the question. Not a whole lot, he said finally. I’m pretty good. Maybe take a few more auditions?
I deflated. This was not at all the revelatory response I’d expected.
What about you, hun? he asked.
I surveyed my brother’s Manhattan studio apartment: the filthy clothes spilling out of my duffle, the stacks of books for classes I was failing, and the guitar I lugged around but still couldn’t play. I scoffed at the absurdity of what I was about to tell him.
I couldn’t have known it then, but my answer would change everything.
In the beginning, looking at David felt like staring into the sun: I had to dare myself to do it.
He was reclined in a folding chair across from me in a circle of acting students, this stunning man with shock-blue eyes, a broad smile and deep dimples. Classically handsome in a way I thought only existed inside the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog. We were at the Austin State Theatre, where I’d enrolled in an adult acting class during a semester off from college. His name was David, he said; he was a cyclist and a sometimes-actor and owned a brewery in town. Hey I love that place, somebody chimed in. Great sandwiches. I felt a curious pride at his success.
I introduced myself shyly, looking at everyone but him, saying what felt like the most exciting thing about myself at the time: I had just returned from living in the Middle East, I was 19, I was studying in New York. I glanced at David and saw he was beaming at me. My eyes shot to the floor, cheeks ablaze.
On the drive home, I called my best friend, raving. The. most. Beautiful. Man! I can’t even look at the guy!
It had been the year from hell. I’d returned home to Texas that summer, having flunked or withdrawn from nearly all my freshman classes. Depressed and bulimic, I’d devised a grand plan to circumvent my problems by studying Arabic in Beirut for the summer, and then the war broke out. So I did the next obvious thing: I moved to Austin and took a job as a shot girl slinging $2 test tubes of Jägermeister at a New Orleans-themed bar on 6th Street. Catastrophe ensued. I told my parents I needed another semester to get healthy, and enrolled in a local acting school. I couldn’t face myself. Why not practice being somebody else instead?
After our first class, I got a voicemail from David. He’d been assigned my scene partner. The two of us would be performing the opening pages of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, a scene where two lovers are embroiled in a heated argument. Why don’t we run lines in the park next week? He asked. I hung up and sent my best friend a flurry of expletive-filled texts, near-hysterical with glee.
One week and 16 outfit changes later, David and I met at a cafe near Barton Springs. Over taco salads, he told me about his divorce and meditation practice. He asked about college, my family and I offered broad strokes about my studies and time in Egypt. He listened intently, enthusiastically—I was surprised by his interest. Surely, he was just being nice. I wagered he was at least 15 years older than me, though pieces of our lives felt in sync. Like me, he’d grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, a doctor’s kid. He said something about me being an old soul I thought, holy shit is he hitting on me?
He suggested we walk to the park to run the scene. I want you to feel comfortable trying new things with me, he said as we strolled along the water. Push me, scream, act like a lunatic—surprise me. I agreed, a jumble of nerves, worried I was sweating from the inside of my palms.
We stopped at an empty baseball field. David transformed into Eddie, a man who’s traveled to a motel room to meet May, his former lover, eager to convince her to leave her life and move into his trailer in Wyoming. He opened the scene in a deep, Southern drawl:
May, look. May? I’m not goin’ anywhere, David said. You want me to go?
I fumbled my line, and giggled. Can we start over? I said, apologetically. You can try things, too.
Sensing my nerves, David moved toward me until he was a few inches from my face. You want me to go? He asked, slower this time.
I shook my head. My heart pounded. I turned away from him to go.
Before I could move any further, David gripped my shoulders, pulled me into him, and kissed me. Hard. Oh my god, with tongue. The scene evaporated. I kissed him back, delirious. But whose tongue? David’s? Or Eddie’s?
I pulled myself from David and somehow finished the scene, parroting my lines from planet holyshitholyshitholyshit and then we were kissing again, on the bleachers, in the dugout, sitting on a rock by some guy with a guitar inexplicably serenading us with Let it Be. Several hours and Bohemias later, he leaned in through my driver’s seat window and kissed me goodnight. I pulled off into the night, stunned.
For a brief moment, we tiptoed around a relationship. Reasoned we could keep it professional by casually running lines at his place over glasses of cabernet, fresh firewood blooming in his fireplace. What could go wrong? It didn’t take long before we ended up in bed, gave up the ruse, and fell madly, stupidly in love.
David had a whole life. He was 41 and had built a beautiful home with exposed beams and a stone shower that overlooked the pecan trees in his yard. I’d never had a boyfriend, just a series of brief, intense rendezvous with men who lived in other cities, presenting myself as this worldly woman a few years older than I was. Mostly, they were drunken hookups that I conflated into meaning way more than they did. I was lonely, and I just wanted someone to fix my fucking sadness. Juxtaposed against the chaos of my life, David’s stability was a balm. On Sunday mornings, he’d hold me under the shower's warm water while church bells chimed from across the road and I’d think: This is it. This is what I'd been waiting for.
I told him enough of the truth: earlier that summer, I’d been raped by a friend in my hometown. I’d pressed charges and wanted to stick close to home during the investigation. I didn’t tell him my mental health was in shambles long before the assault, and the investigation, while very real, had given me cover for a badly-needed break. That I was snorting Adderall to get out of bed each afternoon and shooting tequila at night to soften the comedown. That sometimes, I took tequila shots before driving to his house, gargling the Listerine I kept in my glove compartment to paper over the smell.
I slept at his place every night and eventually, stopped showing up to the bar for my shifts. Why go back the beer tub? I could spend long afternoons in bed, and rouse myself up an hour before he was back for the day. Do my makeup, put on a pretty dress and go out for dinner. With my gaze fixed on David, the mess of my life disappeared.
December arrived, along with my impending return to school. David and I flew to Mexico, driving down the Pacific Coast with nothing but a case of Bohemia and a Lonely Planet Guide, popping into little bungalows along the way. We spent New Year's Eve dancing and drinking on a rooftop bar overlooking the ocean. We shared a table with an older married couple who, like us, had two decades between them.
How long have you been married? the wife asked us.
A few months, David said and winked at me.
The words electric coming out of his mouth. We indulged the charade that night, and the rest of the trip. Daydreaming about getting married, starting a family. A fantasy in which I wouldn’t have to face my ambivalence about school, the terror of the investigation, or my burgeoning addiction. Where I could simply put on a pretty dress, and be his.
Then the trip ended, and I was ripped back into reality.
Returning to college in New York served little function except to remind me that I was totally ill-equipped to be in New York. I’d lost touch with all my friends, too ashamed to explain why I’d taken the semester off. That winter was harsh, and isolated in my dorm, it was impossible to deny my depression had gotten worse. I thought it was the dorm that depressed me, so I avoided campus and crashed at my brother’s vacant apartment in the city. I blew off papers to make increasingly pained calls to David every night, counting the days until our monthly cross-country visits. When I did see him, I felt this growing sense of dread.
One night I was mindlessly scrolling the internet when I came across a post. It was written by Tucker Max; the story of a friend of his who’d been diagnosed with a malignant tumor and then completely turned her life around.
What would you do if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness? Tucker wrote in the post.
The question flipped a switch in me. For the first time in months, I felt something like excitement. I called David, eager to share it with him.
Well, what would you change? David asked.
I took a deep breath. Everything—I would change everything, I said.
I wouldn’t be in New York. I'd leave college, move to Texas, volunteer and start writing and performing songs around Austin.
It was ridiculous. I wasn’t a singer, I’d never written a song. I could barely hold a guitar upright, much less play it. Besides, by most outside measures, I had it made. I was at a prestigious school, my tuition paid for.
But internally, I was mining down a quiet path of self-destruction. Nothing made sense to me, and the pain was seeping through.
That David wasn’t as equally dissatisfied only made me feel worse. Suddenly, my despair was exposed at full volume. It had never occurred to me until that moment that it wasn’t completely normal to hate everything about your life. Everything—but your boyfriend.
The post ended with a single question: Why are you waiting for cancer to make those changes?
April Fools Day, David broke up with me. I sincerely, then desperately, hoped it was a bad joke. It wasn’t. I sobbed, devastated, and pleaded with him to reconsider. He wouldn’t. I pressed him for a reason.
I’m not going to marry you, he said finally.
The bubble popped. Intuitively, I knew he was right. I was nowhere near ready for marriage, for kids, for things I knew he wanted and deserved. Still, without him, I had nowhere to hide. What are we supposed to do now? I asked him, despondent.
We find other people, he said.
David was my first love. He showed me what it was to be cared for and valued, and I was lucky to have that so young. But he needed to leave; for himself, and for me. Love can offer us a buoy through tough storms, but it cannot rescue us. Only we can do that.
After David left, things would only get worse. My life and family would rupture in ways I could have never predicted. And on a night when my brother’s life hung in the balance, and the vodka and stale cereal had briefly lost their appeal, I would pace my brother’s apartment until I had no cry left. And I would think back to a Christian hymn I sang as a child and remember the acoustic guitar I kept there. I would pull the guitar from its case and curl up with it through the night, my fingers and voice searching for the melody like a prayer. And at daybreak, I would ride the train to campus with a notebook filled with lyrics and a scratch recording, resolute in my decision to leave. I had written my first song.
It would be the first step in a long, winding journey back to myself.
I am thinking of this story now, a year after leaving a fiance, two partners, and a farm where I had once imagined I would grow old. A year in which I’ve lost count of the nights spent crying on the kitchen floor, that holiest of places. I haven’t gotten many of the things I wanted, but given so much of what I need. Each time, confronted by the things in my life that needed to change. Reminded that my pain won’t kill me, but running away from it might.
Maybe you too have spent a few nights on the kitchen floor. Maybe you’ve lost a partner, or a job, or you wake up paralyzed or ambivalent, crushed by the collective weight of a series of choices it feels like somebody else made. What if, for a moment, you lived inside of this experiment: If you were diagnosed with cancer and you knew you might die, what would you change?
What are you waiting for?
Readers like you make this publication possible. To support my work, consider becoming paid subscriber.
Not sure what I’d do. One thing I’d need to do is get rid of a lot of things in my house so someone else wouldn’t have to do that. :-) Thanks for sharing, Aly. Hugs…
Beautiful and exquisite!! It brought me to tears!! Thank you for sharing ❤️