For some reason whenever I ride the tube in London I get introspective. Especially if I am alone, quietly observing the other passengers as the cars clickety-clack along. There is something about sitting there without speaking that makes me wonder what other people are thinking.
Today I needed to take my younger daughter to a birthday party in Northwest London and, being at a friend’s house about an hour away in Southwest London, we had quite a journey ahead of us. For about the first nine stops there were no seats and Charlotte and I stood side by side, holding hands. When I am standing I feel more powerful and imposing, because I am relatively tall. I don’t wonder so much what anyone around me might be thinking. But when I sit down and shrink to everyone else’s size, I start to feel a little vulnerable.
When we made our switch there was one seat available and I told Charlotte to take it. The man next to her looked at me and offered me his seat. I happily accepted and thanked him. I wasn’t sure if he gave it up so that I could sit next to my young child, or because he knew I was a cancer patient.
I started to think about how I perceive myself versus how others perceive me. Do I look like a cancer patient even when I don’t feel like one? And how about when I do? When I am tired and have dark circles under my eyes do people notice? Do I make them feel sad? Or disgusted? Today, did that man look at the five-year-old child by my side and pity her? Did he wonder if she would have a mother in a year or two? Did he think that it was unfair for such a young child to have a mother like me?
These thoughts violated my mind in rapid succession as the train hurtled toward Bond Street, where we would get off and meet my husband. He had finished work for the day and had agreed to take Charlotte the rest of the way to the party, shortening my journey and enabling him to spend some time with her.
We found him on the platform. I handed her off and gave him a quick peck. Then the next train came and they were gone. I started toward the exit (“way out” we call it here). I paused. My hand felt conspicuously empty. I looked at it. Reminded myself that I was no longer holding Charlotte’s hand, that I had relinquished her and the bag containing the birthday present, card and directions to the party to Bill. She was safe. She was okay.
I walked up the short flight of stairs and rode the long escalator up. Stopped in an inexpensive store to study a collection of clip-on flowers for my head scarves. I bought three. Felt a little bit better. Then I emerged from Bond Street Station and looked up Oxford Street. A light drizzle spattered my parka, which I had hoped by now would be stored until next winter. I looked toward Selfridges department store, looming across the street with its grand facade and its flags. Glitzy retail beckoning. But I didn’t want it. Not today.
I crossed the street. H&M was right there. More my speed. Cheap. Almost disposable. I walked in and was assaulted by pop music, whatever sweet perfume they were pushing and brightly coloured sequined tops and tropical-print bikinis. I found the accessories and selected more flowers. I had now amassed a bouquet, but wasn’t ready to leave.
I surveyed the store and picked up an inappropriately short colour-blocked mini skirt and a gauzy leaf-print beach cover-up. There was a long line at the fitting room. I bought everything without trying on. Screw it.
Pure unadulterated retail therapy. Cheap retail. Maybe the best kind and the purest form.
My mood lifted. I’m killing it again, I thought, picturing myself striding out of the house in that striped miniskirt with black combat boots and a black beaded flower perched on the side of my head.
This was one of those days. When I let myself go there. I let myself think about the fact that I have a life-threatening illness. About what it could mean. About what it has meant for others before me. But then I pull myself back. I was just visiting. I won’t linger. I will not. It won’t be me.
It’s okay for me to visit. I never stay long. But then I know that I am really dealing with this and it isn’t all for show. Not just a brave facade. Not just for you. I know what could be. And have chosen to reject it.
Because I’m killing it. Fuck you, cancer.