*This is a fictional short story I wrote as a part of my list of 25 goals to accomplish before I turned 25.
This Isn’t Funny
A Short work of Fiction
by Joanna O’Hanlon
“Hi!” she said, smiling while leaning in to give him a peck on the lips when he opened the door. He looked confused. He wasn’t expecting her. He was glad she was there, she just always told him when she was coming over. But she hadn’t this time.
He had been curious and slightly annoyed when the doorbell rang.
He was home alone — well, at his parents’ home, which used to be his home, but now it felt unnatural for him to be spending all his time there. To be staying, no, living, in his childhood room. At least it didn’t have bunk beds anymore for he and his older brother. But, still. They kept those goddamn bunk beds forever. Even after his brother had left for the army, and he knew he’d never come back. But still they kept them. Wouldn’t let him nix the top one and pretend to be the only actual inhabitant of that room. No, Bill’s stuff had to have a place to stay in case he needed to move home again. Or visit. Now that Bill had been married for 10 years and lived on the other side of the country, they’d finally agreed to get rid of them, and get a queen bed for the room. It’s about freaking time, he had thought when they finally made the change. That was about two months before he got the diagnosis and moved back in with them. Two months before everyone started to know, to say, that he was dying.
So he was home alone, in the middle of the day, watching CSI reruns on daytime TV when the doorbell rang. He’d thought maybe it’d be one of those young, bright-eyed, naive Mormon boys in their white shirts and name tags. He was annoyed at the thought because they were the only people who wouldn’t just shut up when he dropped the “thanks, I would, but I’m dying” bomb on them. That was just fuel for them. If only they didn’t come to his parents neighborhood so much. But they did.
He’d started to play a game with them: “How fast will your drop your convictions” is what he called it in his head.
He’d invite them in and then offer them a coke. They’d say they couldn’t drink caffeine. So he’d bring them a beer.
Soon he would ask them if they wanted to call their parents. He wouldn’t tell. He promised. Or maybe they’d like to Skype with their girlfriend. He had FaceTime on his phone. It was so simple… wouldn’t she be so happy? Their girlfriends must miss them so much. Maybe too much. “Maybe distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder… ” he would say, trailing off at the end, sounding sad and concerned for them.
And lastly, if they asked to use the restroom, he’d be sure to call out, “the playboys are under the sink!” as they walked into the bath room. He’d never been a big playboy fan himself, but he’d bought a copy specifically to put under the sink. Just in case he actually got them to abandon their convictions.
That’s the thing when you’re dying, he thought. It brings out the devil in you a little.
He didn’t mind religion. And he actually didn’t have anything against these guys that would come to the house other than the fact that he was bored out of his mind, sitting at his parents’ house, with nothing to do, waiting to die. And it annoyed him that they cared about more than death. It’s insensitive to talk to a dying man about his soul – he thought.
But when he’d opened the door, already with a coke in his hand, ready to start his game, but not really feeling up to it, she’d been standing there. In a yellow sundress with an old fashioned picnic basket in her hand. She kissed him briskly and then slid past him through the doorway into the living room in the way she always did. She was fit and thin, but not skinny. But the way she moved – light as a feather – and the way she smiled and always knew what she was doing, where she was going — it made her seem like she was much more slender and dainty than she really was. It was endearing. She never seemed fragile, no. She reminded him of the wind. Powerful, but graceful and light.
He was moving slowly, turning to follow her into the living room when she’d already popped herself down onto the area rug and was sitting, cross legged, shoes off, looking up at him with a look of self-contentment in her wide smile.
His confused look gave way and he laughed. She was beautiful. Like a piece of art. Too goofy and too excited for the girlfriend of a 25 year old cancer patient. That’s what made her perfect. Everything else in his life had gone dark. Even the Mormons, when concerned about his soul, got a graver facial expression when they knew he was sick. But she kept smiling. Kept laughing. And with that yellow dress — man, she just looked like sunshine.
“What are you doing?” he couldn’t help but smile at her as he asked it.
“Well, we’re having a picnic!” she said, confident, pleased with herself for the idea. “But I wasn’t sure how well you were feeling today, so we’re just going to have it here, on this rug.” She softened a bit as she said the last part, her tone asking the undesired question — “Are you feeling up to it?”
“Picnics shouldn’t be on rugs,” he said, his smile slipping. These moments were not uncommon — the ones where she was a beam of light, reminding him that he was 25 and alive, and when, instead, he could only think of the fact that he was 25 and dying.
He plopped down on the couch behind her, to the side of where she was sitting on the floor. He sighed, leaned his head back on the back of the couch, and reached his hand down toward her, open.
She twisted her torso around toward his legs, and reach her hand up to his open one, lacing her fingers through his.
“We don’t have to, buddy, if you don’t want to,” she said softly. She was tracing the outline of his fingers and hand with her index finger — something she always did subconsciously when she was comfortable or comforting him. Same as the way she called him “Buddy.” He always noticed both of these things, but never had said anything. They were those things that made him feel normal and young and in love. He knew her. Her little quirks. Her ways. The ones he wasn’t even sure she was aware of.
He still didn’t say anything, just left his hand open to be traced, flexing his fingers up one at a time as she followed their edges.
“I just know that you’ve been bored, and I love being with you even when we’re doing nothing. But I’ve been trying to think of how we could do something that we used to do. Nothing big, just the simple stuff. Like just going out to eat or stuff like that. So this was what I came up with… ”
She felt herself rambling. “I know, it’s kind of a stupid idea… with the picnic basket and everything…” she finally trailed off.
He was listening. Thinking. She knew this. He took a long time to respond sometimes these days. There was a lot on his mind, she knew. And unlike her habit of thinking things through out loud, he didn’t say what he thought until he knew what he thought.
She had learned this about him before they knew he was sick. Now it was even more exacerbated. But she was OK with it.
She sat for a few more minutes like that, sitting on the ground with her head leaning gently against his leg, tracing his fingers. She had his hand memorized. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember his different features while she waited in the silence. She’d been doing that a lot more recently. Trying to memorize every piece of him while she could.
“It’s just,” he said finally, still with his head back, staring blankly at the ceiling, “you can’t have a picnic on a goddamn living room rug. And I don’t think I can handle going up to apple hill or down to the river or anywhere where a goddamn picnic should happen.”
“Careful there, Holden Caulfield. The whole phony world isn’t out to get you,” she smirked as she said it. He brought his head upright and flicked her hand playfully.
“You know what I mean!” he said, a little exasperated, a little playful. She gave him a sad smile.
“I know. I know, buddy. It’s ok. We can just call it what it is, and eat our sandwiches on the couch and watch TV like normal Americans. No picnic. No goddamn pretending.” She glanced at him to make sure he’d caught her little quip.
He’d been saying goddamn a lot. He got it from one of those CSI characters who he couldn’t stand at first, and now he was talking just like him. The word also lent itself to sad, angry, dying 20-somethings.
But that’s not who he wanted to be.
He grabbed her hand and pushed himself up, pulling her to a stand with him.
“Nope,” he said stubbornly. “You’re right. We’re gonna do this. It’s gonna be great.”
“Really??” She said, her excitement coming back again. Even if he wasn’t stubborn, and feeling slightly hurt by the Holden comparison, he wanted to do as many things as possible to make that smile of hers shine. It was like medicine that didn’t make you barf your guts up and have your hair fall out — which, by the way, is the best kind of medicine.
“Let’s go into the back yard though.”
“Yes! Brilliant idea!” She squealed a little. Her dress swirled with how quickly she turned around and bent down to grab the picnic basket.
He followed her outside, guiding her through the door with his hand on her lower back. This was one thing she loved — the guy’s body was dying, but his chivalry was alive and well. Not in the macho-man way. But in all the simple things. Her glass was always filled. Her door always opened. It was like he was still trying to impress her — and he did. He always would.
She spread out the blanket and brought out a few throw pillows from the couch and they set their picnic space up like the magazines and movies tell you it’s supposed to be. They’d never actually picnicked like this before, with the basket and all. But for a pretend back yard picnic, it was actually pretty great.
“Look!” she said. He looked where she was pointing, over by the tree. There was a squirrel almost all the way down the tree, clinging to the trunk, deciding his next move.
“How cute! Look at him!” She was already up with a piece of sandwich in her hands going toward the squirrel before he could say anything. “See, we didn’t need to go somewhere else. This is so picnic-y! We’ve got a squirrel. It’s like we’re in Central Park.”
He’d seen this squirrel before. It had a nest up in that tree and whenever he’d left the sliding glass door to the back yard open and just had the screen door closed, it would come up to the door, look directly at him, and begin gnawing on the screen. No matter what he’d done or how loudly he’d yelled, this goddamn squirrel would not stop. Not until he got up from the couch, walked all the way across the room and finally started to open the door. Then it would run away and run half way up the tree and just stare at him, taunting, waiting. One day it had actually tried to dart inside when he’d opened the screen door. He’d tried to kick it and had missed, but had scared it enough to do the trick. That had been the last straw though. He had vowed, one day that stupid fur ball was going down.
She was getting close and he was trying to say “No, babe. Don’t feed that little bastard…” when the squirrel darted down, grabbed the sandwich piece, and bit her finger.
“AHHH!” she screamed! That freaking squirrel bit me!!” She yelled, laughing and in pain. She couldn’t believe it. “He FREAKING bit me!”
He picked up a rock and threw it at the tree, but the squirrel was already up and gone to the trees in the neighbor’s yard.
“Well,” he looked at her with his sarcastic smirk, “you were the one who wanted to have a picnic…”
“Inside! On the living room rug!” She couldn’t stop laughing. “But this really hurts! I’m going to get rabies. And go crazy. And then people really won’t know how to handle you. ‘Oh no, there’s the dying cancer kid with the crazy rabies girlfriend. Look away! Look away!’ Is this what you want?”
Her ability to make everything about her always made him laugh. He had cancer. And she was looking for sympathy for pretend rabies. From a pretend picnic.
“Let me see this rabies bite,” he said after he’d stopped laughing at her.
“THERE!” she said like a toddler, shoving her finger in his face.
“Here I’ll kiss it and make it better,” he said playfully,
“No!” She pulled her hand away. “Then you’ll get rabies too. Stop trying to steal my thunder, ya jerk.” She stuck her nose up in the air as she marched back to her side of the blanket and took her seat again.
They ate the sandwiches, and drank champagne out of those plastic wedding champagne flutes that you have to pop together, and he entertained her fancy notions of “It will be fun! Feed me these grapes like I’m a Roman royal!” And she’d made a cake – his favorite, not hers — German Chocolate.
He couldn’t believe she remembered. He told her this was his favorite when they first, first met. Before they were friends, or “talking”, or dating or anything. You know, when you play those get to know each other games and you text back and forth random questions about each other. She’d asked what his favorite dessert was. That was one of her very first questions. And then they’d never talked about it again.
He hadn’t had it in years. Not because he couldn’t, just because he was too lazy to buy a box mix and make it, and most people in his life liked other things better. He wasn’t really a sweets guy, anyway. So his splurges had always been for chips and crap like that.
The last time he’d had German chocolate cake was on his 9th birthday. His brother was still at home, his parents still seemed happy, his grandparents were even there visiting. It had been his best birthday.
“What’s this for?” he asked, memories flooding him. Maybe she forgot and it was just coincidence.
“Well obviously we needed dessert,” she said as if this were the same as “obviously we’ll be breathing air today.”
“And this is your favorite, right?” she said simply, distracted while she was pulling the cutting knife out of the picnic basket.
“Yeah,” he said, staring at her. She was unaware of his eyes, of his awe. He always looked at her with a kind of awe. Everybody else noticed. She just kept doing her thing, though. Unaware or unabashed by it all.
“Yeah, it is.”
“So I baked one!” He thought she was so cute when she was proud of herself like this.
She was still looking down, fussing with the make-shift cover she’d made for the knife when he saw the squirrel. He couldn’t say anything before it had run, no leapt!, directly up the blanket and landed on the cake.
He swung at it with his fist, but it dodged him, jumping onto the picnic basket and his hand went straight into the cake. He was up on his feet faster than he’d moved in months. This was it, he was going to catch that squirrel and end this.
The squirrel hopped from the picnic basket onto his girlfriend’s chest, clinging to her dress, scratching her. She screamed.
“Get it off me!” she said trying to push it off with her hands. He grabbed for the squirrel, but the damn thing dodged his grip and skittered up his arm and literally to the top of his head. It was holding onto his hair, he was spinning in circles, frantic, not sure what to do, when he grabbed for it and finally caught it. The squirrel bit him square on the hand between his thumb and index finger, right in the webbing.
The squirrel locked his jaw, biting down on him and he started flinging his hand up and down trying to shake it off. He was in this angry frantic shake when he heard a laugh.
She was laughing. Softer at first, and then it was her full belly, fill-the-whole-backyard loud laugh. She was laughing at him! The squirrel was biting down on him in a death grip and he was ready to kill this varmint and she was laughing!
“Stop laughing!” He yelled, still shaking his hand up and down as hard as he could, obviously panicked and in pain. “This isn’t funny!!”
“I’m sorry!” She breathed in between her bursts, “I can’t stop!”
“This isn’t funny!” he yelled again, louder. He ran close to the tree and just as he tried to smash the little bastard’s body against the trunk to get him to let go, the squirrel let go of his hand, and jumped onto the tree scampering up, and his fist hit the trunk of the tree at full swing.
“Ahhhhhh!” he screamed. “ARGHHHHHH!!!! AHhhh ha! ha.” He screamed, and as his breath sputtered, it turned from a scream of rage and pain to a chuckle. He felt his anger deflating and he continued to hear her loud laughs from behind him.
When he turned around, in a instant he took it all in. He saw her and her yellow dress with little rips and with chocolate cakes smudges from the stupid animal. And he saw the cake, ruined, his bleeding, hurting fist still bearing a large portion of it, and the picnic set-up scattered by the panic dance with the squirrel. And there she was still laughing. He bent over, hands on his knees, catching his breath, when he saw her start to flail her hand up and down mimicking him while her loud laughs washed over him like waves.
Then he smirked.
“This isn’t funny!” He imitated himself in a sing-song voice, still bent over, looking up at her bright, open-smile face. And then he got caught in her happiness. “It’s not funny!” he said again, laughing, and starting to fling his hand again and spin in circles. re-creating his squirrel hatred dance.
She had flopped herself over, laying down on the picnic blanket, shaking with laughter. She couldn’t catch her breath. He kept going like this until his energy gave out, which was soon, and then he went and laid down on the chocolate covered blanket behind her.
“It’s not funny!” he laughed again, softly, close to her, as he playfully bit her shoulder.
“Hey, don’t bite me!” she yelled.
“Sorry, can’t help it. I’ve got rabies now, too.”
Their laughs died down and they laid there in the messed up picnic for a moment before he said anything.
“How’d you remember this was my favorite dessert?” he asked.
“I remember everything about you. I’ve been memorizing you since the day we met.” It was a weird thing to say, but it was out before she knew what she was admitting to.
“But,” he paused, hesitating, “but we met way before I was sick.” He couldn’t put into words the question he implied.
“I know,” she said without missing a beat. “But we’re all dying sometime. I just knew you were someone I want to remember.”
His throat tightened. Something like gratitude and wonder and love stung at his tear ducts. He brushed past it quickly.
“Well, now that you have rabies, your time may be short. I guess it’s good you got a head start,” he said.
“Exactly! ” she smiled again. “Also, as I’m now dying, I better start to get some special treatment or something. That’s how that works right? Do they have a make a wish foundation for 20-somethings with rabies? Maybe I should have a statue carved of me so you remember how beautiful I am. Will you love me still when I start foaming at the mouth? We should have another picnic before then…”
He kissed her to shut her up. That’s what he let her believe, at least.
Nobody dared to laugh at death and prepare for it like she did, he thought. He didn’t understand it, but she, this living ball of sunshine, was teaching him how to die.
* * *
His cancer was fast moving. That was the last of the good days. Within two months, he died.
And when he did, she wept and screamed, and camped out all day in his parents back yard with a 22 until she killed that goddamn squirrel. And on the day of his funeral, she wore her yellow dress with the little rips in it from the squirrel’s claws. And through tears, she laughed, sadly, at him again as she told the story to her table of friends at the funeral reception. “‘It’s not funny!’ he yelled at me. But there’s nothing NOT funny about a sad dying guy fighting off a squirrel covered in chocolate cake.”
“You shouldn’t laugh at a time like this,” an older woman said, scornfully, passing by their reception table. “Disrespectful…” she muttered.
“Did she not hear the part about the goddamn squirrel pouncing on the chocolate cake like we were in a freakin’ cartoon?” she asked her friends, feigning a smile, but feeling that tightening in her throat and chest.
Her friends chuckled a little, and the conversation went on to other, less humorous memories about him.
She wept in her car in the parking lot when she left. And ugly mascara tears dripped onto her yellow dress near the little rips where chocolate stains once were.
It would be harder to laugh now, she thought. Not because of grief or death or crap like that. Ok, maybe some of that. But mostly because nobody let her, encouraged her to laugh at things like he had.
She’d memorized that way he looked at her when she laughed like that — like he thought she was sunshine in Seattle, she thought. He’d looked at her that way since the first day she met him. She’d pretended not to notice it. But he made her feel like she was sunshine in a world where everyone was wearing sunscreen. Everyone but him.
She was just now realizing, he’d been helping her discover how brightly she could live.
“Goddammit, buddy. I miss you,” she said out loud to her empty car.
She took a deep sigh, then mimicked again, “‘It’s not funny!!'” her burst of laughter louder this time, tears and mascara still on her cheeks. “‘It’s not funny!'”
She kept saying it and playing the scene over and over in her mind as she drove away, both laughing and crying at the same time.
Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
Other places are
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