Chapter Six
Sara

  One day back in June, Sara was still alive and I was working in the tissue culture lab, trying

hard to concentrate on splitting some Chinese Hamster ovary cells. Why Chinese Hamsters

and not American, Icelandic, or some other rodent breed? I didn’t know. You see any fancy

letters after my name?  Senior Assistant Biologist is Cancer Research Institute lingo for

laboratory peasant. That’s just one level above the rats.

 I tipped the clear plastic flask marked CHO upwards and carefully decanted the old

brownish liquid--Fetal Bovine Serum--into a bright orange biohazard waste bucket. I took off

the now contaminated glass pipette tip carefully and discarded it into the sharps container.

With a push off from the floor, I lifted my feet up and rolled back on the chair. I caught a

glimpse of the clock above the door then scooted forward again on shoe tips. I tossed away

my old pair of gloves, grabbed new ones from the size XL box then washed them in 70%

ethanol.

  While I waited for the alcohol to dry, my thoughts wandered to the upcoming trip. In

just a few days I was flying back East. Sara had mentioned the warm weather in New Jersey

and that she really missed going to the beach.

 Despite my safety concerns, I bought a Wild West Airlines ticket to Philadelphia

for the upcoming weekend. On short notice, it was all I could afford. Wild West Airlines--I

frowned in disgust--the discount super center with wings.

 Mindlessly, I checked my gloves. Still wet. I took off my safety glasses, rubbed my

forehead, and tried to get my mind on something else. But how could I? The flight attendants

on Wild West Airlines were going to sing and dance. The pilot would cheerfully inform me that

they were proudly, “The airline that loves you back.”  

 I didn’t want to be entertained or loved. I just wanted to have faith I wasn’t going to crash

and burn. Wild West wouldn’t even let me chose my seat assignment, even after I called their

1-800 number and waited twenty two minutes--yes, I timed it--to speak to a representative.

 “I’m just more comfortable in a window seat,” I told her.

 “I’m very sorry, sir,” the voice replied with a pleasant southern drawl.  “Our seating is

strictly first come, first serve. Is there anything else I can help you with?” She sounded sincere,

but I imagined her eyes rolling in the direction of a gum chewing neighbor with matching

headset.

 “No, if you can’t reserve me a window seat, that is all, thank you,” I said in surrender.

 “Thank you for calling Wild West and have a great day!”   

 How could I have a great day?  A Boeing 767 carried fifteen tons of highly volatile fuel as it

traveled five hundred miles per hour at thirty thousand feet above the earth. Was Wild West

aware they were selling tickets to fly on a jet plane and not to an all you can eat buffet?  I

wanted a flight crew, not a comedy club. And how could they be the airline that loved me back

if I didn’t love them first?  

 Do you remember Budget Jet Flight 529?  It was a DC 729, the one that had crashed into

the Everglades. All one hundred and nine passengers died after the plane caught fire mid-

flight and nosedived into an alligator-filled swamp. Budget Jet had cut corners by purchasing

retired planes from other airlines and refurbishing them. Their flight crews were among the

lowest paid and most inexperienced in the business. After the crash, the Federal Aviation

Administration forced the airline to ground their fleet and conduct a safety investigation.

The first inspection was deemed inadequate and a second was ordered. The fiasco was

In the headlines for weeks. Had they gone out of business? You never heard ads for Budget

Jet anymore, right? Nope, they just changed their name to Sky Tran and were doing just fine.

Heck, they were one of the pioneers of discount airfare  

 Sky Tran--with tickets starting at $39 round trip, you are now free to travel the country!     

 My gloves had dried, but it was hard to get back to work. I carefully connected an

autoclaved glass pipette tip to the vacuum line and snickered. Discount airline…I’d fly this

oxymoron, but only for Sara. It was a no-brainer, really. She needed someone to cheer her up.

I stretched my neck and took in the laboratory surroundings with a sigh.  I needed a workspace

with a window. At least it was almost lunchtime. A fish burrito at Roberto’s was always

something to look forward to.  

 I was in the middle of adding fresh serum to the CHO cells when Dr. Utley--

intimidating at just over five feet tall--appeared at my side. I kept my gloved hands under the

vacuum hood and sheepishly looked up. With tense shoulders I braced myself for the update,

the first one in three weeks.

 She announced it straightaway. “I’ve spoken with Sara’s doctors.”

 I held my breath and traveled to Alpha Centauri and back in half a second.

 “The last results look surprisingly good,” she said.

  “That’s great!”  My heart skipped a beat.     

 But behind white rimmed safety glasses Dr. Utley raised a thick grey eyebrow. “Lukas, you

still need to understand that the average life expectancy for someone with Stage IV Melanoma

is less than six months…”   

 A few days later I was at the Philadelphia Airport waiting at the curb for Gabriel to pick me

up. Emptying my pockets, I threw the boarding pass stub and some gum wrappers into

a trash can. I spotted a Wild West Airlines advertisement across the street and shook my

head. They had eliminated the in flight food service; what an absurd way to save money!  Still,

overall, I had to admit that the flight wasn’t so bad. There was no dancing flight attendant

routine and no songs came from the cockpit.  I leaned against a sign post and took in the

bustling flight arrival pick-up area. Being here, alive with both feet on solid ground,

that was what mattered. Still pondering the news about Sara, I focused solely on the

good parts: there was no progression of the cancer; her liver remained tumor free.

 It turned into a late night at the bar with Gabriel and maybe one too many Samuel Smith’s

Oatmeal Stouts. A hangover greeted me the next morning, but the behind-the-eyes-

headache didn’t slow me down at all, not a chance. I was out of Philadelphia and crossing

over the Walt Whitman Bridge at seven thirty in the morning. Halfway through a twenty four

ounce Wawa coffee I was shipshape again. It was a warm, blue-sky Saturday. I sang out

loud to whatever came on the radio, it didn’t matter--only one thing did. I squeezed the

steering wheel tight then stretched my fingers outward and bounced a little in my seat. I hadn’t

felt like this about anyone in years, maybe ever. It had been a long wait, but my luck was

changing. The ship was coming in. I could feel it.

 “Play it cool, at least a little,” I told myself in the rear view. “Don’t screw this up.”  

 And remember, you didn’t really fly out here just for her. Someone gave Gabriel box seats

for the Phillies game tomorrow and Yo la Tengo--one of your favorite bands--is playing at the

Trocodero.

I scanned the road ahead for upcoming hazards then looked into the mirror again.  

Removing one hand from the steering wheel, I used it to practice my casual questioning

technique.

 “Um, Sara, I have two tickets to the Yo La Tengo show Sunday night. Would you like to

go?”

 I turned the radio back up while nodding in approval. Not bad, but those eyebrows

would need to be lower for the real performance.

 I found the Meads’ house without any trouble. I’d been there once before back in

April. It was cold and windy that day, the daffodils by the mailbox--the very same one

my letters arrived in--laid low in the sustained gust. But that was just an afternoon spent

inside the house, Chinese takeout and Trivial Pursuit with her parents. Today our

destination was the beach. I left the car at the curb and walked up the stone path

to the door in a state of bashful exhilaration, both hands in my pockets.  

 She was dressed in white pants and a red hooded sweater with a blue Hawaiian print

beach bag slung across her shoulder. Her green eyes were bright and her makeup subtle.

I noticed some sparkle in her pink lips. She must have been thinner, more

pale, or something, but I didn’t notice it. I tended to focus on the good qualities and in spite

of her condition, Sara retained them in excess. I was still in uncharted territory, a novice

experiencing a previously unknown female upper echelon.

She held open the screen door and I stepped inside, just far enough so as not to be hit

in the back when it shut. I wasn’t sure what her parents thought of me then. I’m still not.

 “Hey. You are all ready to go?” I stammered.

 Foiling our moment for a hug or kiss on the cheek, Mrs. Mead burst out of the kitchen.  

Shorter than Sara and very thin, she held her mouse-like hands out in front, poised for

domestic activity. The family resemblances were not easy to find. They had the same full,

rosebud upper lip and triangular chin. Those big green eyes were there too, but Mrs. Mead’s

darted nervously and often hid from view behind thick framed glasses. Sara kept her eyes

on you; she could reach through them with an attentive stare and leave you floundering in a

wake of unspoken secrets. With a sudden feeling of anxiety, I leaned back into the

screen door for support.

 Mrs. Mead grinned meekly at Sara and held out a grocery bag filled with what

looked like only healthy snacks. I spotted apples, whole wheat bread sandwiches, carrot

sticks; it was doubtful that the pint sized cartons of orange juice in there were an item

regularly stocked in the Mead household. They must have been purchased exclusively for the

trip.

 Sara rolled her eyes. “Oh Mom, I haven’t been to the boardwalk in so long and you

want me to eat this?”

 Focused on something distant, Mrs. Mead stumbled over a retort. “Sara, you have to be

careful. You need to keep up your strength. Don’t overdo it.”  Her eyes quickly passed over

me and she twitched her hand in my direction.

 “Hello, Lukas. Promise me you won’t let her fill up on fries and hot dogs.”

 I reached out carefully, gave her hand a gentle squeeze, and used my sincerest voice. “I

promise.”

 Sara smothered a giggle, but I held a serious expression. I wasn’t about to let this day

be called off on account of boardwalk concessions.

 “’Bye mom, I’ll call if we’re going to be out late.”  Sara leaned in, kissed her Mom on the

Cheek, then led the way. She moved briskly out of the door, taking in the morning sun.

 I nodded and took the bag of snacks from Mrs. Mead’s outstretched hand. “Thank you.”

 Catching up quickly, I held open the passenger door and Sara moved fluidly into the

seat, arms hugging the beach bag on her lap. When I looked down and noticed those short

wispy hairs peeking out from under her knit cap, I hesitated only briefly before carefully

closing the door. The last time I saw her she was still a thick-haired strawberry blonde.

   Stage IV Melanoma?  Less than six months? I walked around to the driver’s side, shaking

my head. Sara had practically skipped into the car. This was good, all of it.  I turned the key;

the engine was still warm and it came to life without a second of hesitation. I shifted into first

and joined Sara in waving goodbye. But her mom could have been giving me the finger for all

I knew; at that moment my attention was focused elsewhere.

   An hour later in Ocean City, the morning ocean breeze was cold. We had the

beach to ourselves and sat side by side on the sand bundled up together in a flannel

blanket. Sara leaned her weight into me and asked about the places we would go when she

visited San Diego. With closed eyes she listened to me describe the secluded desert palm

groves in Anza Borrego. I knew where I’d take her first, a beautiful spot where we could set up

camp right next to the water. We’d spend the day taking in the sun and wading in cool, spring-

fed pools.

 “You have to see the night sky in the desert,” I said, eyeing the wind swept

Atlantic surf as it rolled in. “If you don’t mind sleeping without a tent you’ll see a few

shooting stars. And sometimes the moon rises after you’ve fallen asleep and hits you in the

face like a flashlight. You half wake up, look around, and everything that was black

nothingness before is now illuminated: the ragged mountains, palms, boulders, and scrub

brush.”  I rubbed a few grains of multi-colored beach sand through my fingers. “Everyone

should experience the desert at least once. I mean really see it, not just through the window of

a car.”

 Was I getting carried away?  Self consciously, I looked over at Sara. Her eyes were still

closed, but I could tell she was smiling at the picture in her mind. I took hold of a loose end of

the blanket that was flapping in the breeze and pulled it tighter around her shoulders. A big

Herring Gull flew in close, suspended himself above us for a moment, then let the wind push

him back towards the boardwalk.

 I reached into the bag Sara’s mom had prepared and took out an apple for each of us.

For a long time we sat in silence, munching on healthy snacks. I stood up to stretch and

tested the water with bare feet. The sun grew stronger and I lay down on the sand. Sara

leaned her head and shoulder sideways across my chest. After a minute, she took my arm

and pulled it over her. I looked straight up into the sky and was reunited with a

feeling that had been eluding me for a long time. Contentedness. I had forgotten what it felt

like. With a warm feeling inside I watched a small morning cloud twist into a new shape. Any

other day that sky would have been partly cloudy instead of mostly sunny. I was aware of

every part of her that was touching me.  

 “Luke?”  Sara asked in a small voice. She opened her mouth in hesitation, assumed a

calm stillness, then continued. “Do you believe in God?”

 I opened my eyes; Sara turned her head and looked up at me, staring. Where did that

come from?  I had an answer , but I took some time to put it together.   

 “Yes.” I lifted my head and nodded. “Actually, I think everyone does in some way or

another.  I don’t think it has to have a label. I do believe in God, but I don’t know how to put it

into  words. Does that make any sense?”    

 “Have you ever read the Bible?”

 “Most of it, and I enjoyed what I read, but I’m not sure it should be used in the way

that it is sometimes.”

 Sara pushed herself up, adjusted her cap, folded her arms across my chest,

then rested her head on top. She rubbed a finger along my neck and sighed.

 “I made friends with a nurse from the doctor’s office. She asked me if I’d like to go to

church with her. She’s picking me up tomorrow. We’re going to spend the whole day

together. I’m even having dinner with her family. Do you think that’s crazy?  I don’t even

really know her.”

 I bit down on my bottom lip--the first disappointment of the day. The Yo La Tengo concert

with Sara tomorrow was out.

“Of course that’s not crazy.”  I faltered for a moment, “What church are you going to? Saint

Michael’s?”

 Sara looked closely at her hands.

 “No. It’s out in Alloway someplace. She says it’s called Church on the Move.”

 “Sounds like a born again Christian Church,” I said.

 She inspected a fingernail. “It is.”

  “Just because it is a born again church doesn’t mean they’ll be speaking in tongues

or conjuring up the Holy Ghost. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, but if you do

want to go don’t feel bad about it. It’s okay. There’s nothing crazy about wanting to

go to church.”  

 With her hands still on me, Sara sat up and we stared at each other without saying

anything. I wanted to kiss her, but I was pinned down; she would have to come closer. I

couldn’t move and she didn’t. Finally she lifted a hand and smacked me on top of the head.

 “Luke, why didn’t you ever ask me out in high school?”

 “Who? Sara Mead, captain of the girls soccer team?  You were out of my league.”  

  An old man with a Siberian Husky walked past us on the wet sand, just out of reach

of the incoming wash.  I rubbed my chin and smiled. “You still are.”   

 “Don’t sell yourself so short. You’ve been on my list for a long time.”  Sara suddenly

jumped up. “The shops on the boardwalk are open now.”  She poked a sandal into my belly.

“Come on, lazy boy. Let’s go!”

  We played a round of pirate-themed miniature golf. It was a close game until

I triple bogeyed thirteen--the infamous pirate ship windmill. The Sunglass Hut, souvenir gift

shops--Mick’s Boardwalk Fries was passed by in silence. Sara used the public bathroom and

was in there a long time. I leaned over the railing and waited, staring at an oil tanker on the

horizon, so far away it seemed motionless. Just as I started to get worried, Sara sneaked up

from behind, put her arms around my neck, and jumped up on my back.

 “Giddy-up! To the Boardwalk Mall,” she hollered.

 She’d changed into shorts and a tank top. The blue beach bag in her hand swung back

and forth in a steady rhythm, revealing at the end of each pass smooth tan-less legs and small

high arched feet with recently painted pink toe nails. Inside the mall Sara slid off my back and

left me aching for more physical contact.

 You should have walked slower, dummy. You should have savored it more.

 She touched my shoulder; there was color in her face, her eyes were bright.

“Let’s buy something crazy for each other!”  Already heading off in the direction of the surf

Shop, she spun around and caught me eyeing the jewelry stand. “But nothing expensive!”

 The Boardwalk Mall isn’t very big, and though we avoided making eye contact

while we shopped, I couldn’t help keeping track of her location. About half an hour later the

purchases were made and our rendezvous occurred in the music section. After feigning  

the coincidence of our encounter from across the pop rock music rack we both held up our

bags.

 Outside on a bench we exchanged the gifts and traded childish smirks meant to conceal

feelings that had more consequence. She insisted that I open mine first. I reached in. It was

something cotton, white with a portrait: a John Lennon tee shirt!

 I held it up and looked at both sides. “It’s great!  Thank you.”

She gave me a kiss on the cheek and pushed the words through teeth held in a wide smile.

 “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”  

“Beautiful Boy, from Double Fantasy,” I mumbled.

 I almost cried. It was too perfect. I figured the seagull crap must surely be on its

way down, a direct hit across the forehead. After regaining my senses I held out my gift and

scanned the perimeter.-No bird poop, not even a near miss.

 Sara pulled it out of the bag. Between her hands, the sequined skull and cross bone

pattern flashed in the sun. She hesitated.

 “Um, it’s a bandana.” I took in my bottom lip and bit down.

 At first she just shook her head. Then she giggled quietly. Finally she took in a big

breath of air and laughed out loud. “Oh, Luke, I love it! This is perfect!”  She spun on her

heels. “I’m going to put it on right now.”   

 We each went into the bathroom this time. I put on my new tee shirt and smiled at

John in the mirror. “Everything is clearer when you’re in love,” he said.

 Sara came out of the bathroom, laughing, twirling with her arms out. I had my camera

ready. She moved to the railing and I took a picture for every new pose she struck.

“Let’s take one of us together!” she demanded.

I held the camera out and she leaned her head onto my shoulder.

A dad on the bench next to us walked over. Would we like him to take a picture for us?

Of course we would. He stepped back and lined up the shot.

 “Yer still out of me league,” I said in a lousy pirate voice.

Click. "It looks great!”

“Thanks.”

 Newly attired, we strolled down all the way to the other end of the boardwalk with the

mid-day sun warm on our backs. For lunch we sat at the counter and had pizza at Mack and

Manco’s.

 There are many ways to eat pizza. Sara Mead was a folder. She first dabbed the

grease off with a napkin then picked up the slice with both hands and squeezed it to make

a V. I ate the first half of each slice with a knife and fork then picked up the rest.

 “Pizza is healthy food.” I reached for another slice. “Put pepperoni on it and you’ve got

all four food groups.”

 Sara shook her head and leaned forward to sip some ice water through a straw. “Coming

to Jersey must be kind of boring compared to San Diego,” she said.

 I wiped my mouth with a napkin. “I actually like the beaches here better. The mountains

don’t compare, but the Delaware Water Gap is nice and the Pine Barrens, too. New Jersey has

a lot of great places.”

  Her drink almost empty, she held the straw with two fingers. “I’ve never been to the Pine

Barrens.”

  A large man behind the counter tossed a pizza and we both looked up. With thick, tattooed

arms he spun the dough on a closed fist then lifted it high in the air, letting it almost touch

the ceiling. He brought it down onto a wooden tray, now a perfect circle. Sauce and

cheese was added in matter of seconds. Then he loaded the pizza into the wood fired brick

oven and closed the glass door.

 I turned towards Sara. “It’s still pretty early. We could take a little detour on the way

home. You should see the Pine Barrens. I mean, if you want to.”

 “That sounds nice.”  Behind a forced smile, sadness flashed in her eyes, but only for

a second. The brightness quickly returned.

   She was contagious with liveliness, a human quality that was becoming endangered for

our age group. I looked hard at her, tried to memorize everything I saw. Even if it doesn’t

work out between us, I thought, as long as she gets better…I’d do whatever I could. The rest

would work itself out. I swept some crumbs off the counter and into my hand, then brushed

them onto the paper plate.

 Forcing myself to search the unshared dark spaces of my mind for confirmation, I smiled

inwardly at the unselfish results. It really was what mattered most to me. I would have been

content with nothing more. “With or without me,” I pleaded in silence, “just let Sara get better.

Just let her get better.”