Seth was leaving to go on the road in two days. I invited him to come up and stay at my house before he left, and he agreed. I was letting it all happen.
When Seth and I got to my apartment, I was surprised to find Chucky sitting at the bar, eating cereal and reading the newspaper.
“No hot date?” I said, walking through the door.
“Not tonight, Fatbutt.” When Chucky spotted Seth behind me, he stood up from the barstool and quickly swallowed a mouthful of cereal.
Seth immediately approached him, hand out for a shake. “Hey, I’m Seth.”
Chucky gave him a firm handshake in return. “Nice to meet you. I’m Charles.” He pulled Seth toward him and then whispered loud enough for me to hear, “We have mafia ties. Don’t forget it, man.”
“Oh shut it, Chuck,” I snapped.
He shrugged and went back to his cereal. Seth followed me into the kitchen. “You want a beer or something?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. Seth stood awkwardly next to Chucky on the other side of the bar while Chucky flipped through the newspaper. My brother and father read the newspaper every single day. It was like brushing their teeth—and for Chucky and my dad, that’s saying a lot. When I handed the beer over the counter to Seth, he smiled his sweet, boyish smile and said, “Thank you.” But something caught my eye as I reached across the counter. It was the voicemail notification on my phone.
“Will you excuse me?” I said to Seth.
“Sure.” He looked at me peculiarly as I grabbed my phone and headed for the bedroom. I overheard Seth and Chucky making small talk, so it was a relief that Seth at least had that distraction.
I hit the voicemail button and recognized Stacy’s voice immediately. “Hi, Charlotte. I talked to Adam. He wasn’t sure if it was okay to call you after all this time but he would love to hear from you. I also think you and I need to talk if you do decide to call him or see him. I’d rather not discuss it over voicemail, so if you’d like to call me back, I’ll be here for the rest of the night.”
I immediately dialed her number. “Hi, it’s Charlotte.”
“Charlotte, I’m so glad you called. Sorry about all the anticipation. I wanted to go and see Adam myself, and see what state of mind he was in.”
State of mind? He is crazy. “Okay . . . and?”
“He was actually in great spirits.” She paused for a few beats. “Charlotte, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he wanted me to tell you that he’s in the hospital. Adam has a stage four glioblastoma.”
“It’s a brain tumor. He has cancer, Charlotte.”
I dropped the phone. A guttural sound escaped me. I lost my breath, clutched my chest, and felt a sharp pain radiate through my lungs. The wind had been knocked out of me by one sentence.
It all made sense. Quitting his job. The parking tickets. The Post-it notes. His odd behavior, which had seemed like spontaneity in the moment.
When I met Adam, he was already dying. And he knew it.
I finally gathered the strength to pick up the phone and lift it to my ear. “I’m sorry, I dropped the phone.”
“I know it’s a lot to take in right now. You left quite an impact on Adam. At the time you two met, part of the tumor was pressing on his brain so much that it was affecting his short-term memory. He couldn’t remember what day of the week it was, or who he had met five minutes before. He painted a lot of women during that time but remembered none of them but you. He tried to find you. He painted the name Charlotte over and over. He wanted to tell you that, for a little while, he believed the story you two had made up. I don’t know what that means, but I guess that will mean something to you.”
I was speechless.
Stacy went on. “They removed part of the tumor and now Adam is much sharper, though the cancer is still wreaking havoc on his body.”
I couldn’t respond. Tears were running down my cheeks.
“Are you there?” she said.
“Yes,” I squeaked.
“There’s something else, Charlotte. After Adam moved out, he asked me to get rid of his paintings. I didn’t have the heart to do it, so I called a gallery owner I know downtown. We went through hundreds of paintings, and she realized they were connected to dozens of murals throughout the city. She alerted some preservationists, who are trying to protect the murals, and now the LA art community is calling him the West Coast Banksy. He wants to keep his identity a secret for as long as possible. If it got out that the artist is dying of cancer, the press would go nuts.”
I thought about the wolves. The winged man.
She went on, “But people talk most about the mural of you in the red dress. Adam wouldn’t tell me the story behind it, but he remembers why he painted it.”
I nearly choked on the emotion rising in my throat. “So where is he? What hospital? Is he dying for sure?”
“It doesn’t look good. He gave me a letter to give to you, and I think you should read it before you see him. He’s at Cedars.”
My brain was so overwhelmed that I had to remind myself to breathe. Seth stood in the doorway. He had only been there for a second, but he was looking at me cautiously.
“I’ll come by tomorrow and get the letter and maybe make arrangements to see him. Thank you, Stacy. Thank you so much.” I was hesitant to say this last part in front of Seth. “He made a great impact on me as well.”
We said good-bye and hung up. Seth was still standing there. He came over and bent his head and kissed me delicately on the shoulder. My throat was tight and I was trying desperately to swallow my emotions. “Tell me what’s going on,” he urged.
“That painter, the guy I told you about . . . he didn’t dog me after all. He was dying; he’s still dying. Of cancer. He’s been trying to find me but . . . the tumor . . . his memory . . . he couldn’t remember . . . oh god.”
Seth just stood there quietly.
“His neighbor has a letter for me. I told her I would get it tomorrow and then go see him.” I collapsed on the bed.
After a few moments, Seth finally spoke. “Should I go home?”
“No!” The thought of being alone terrified me.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know what to say besides I’m sorry. I don’t want this to affect what we’ve started.”
I didn’t want to tell him that it was most definitely going to affect what we had started. Right now, I just wanted him to stay with me.
“I shouldn’t be here, Charlotte.”
“No. Please. Stay.”
He shook his head and turned toward the door.
“You’re leaving?” I asked.
“No, I’m going to get you some tissues and water.”
I hadn’t even realized I’d been crying.
When he came back, I said, “Are you mad?”
“I’m not mad. Of course I’m not mad.”
How could I know what Seth was thinking or feeling? Everything that had happened in the last twenty minutes seemed like a dream. I was barely able to get ahold of my own emotions about Adam, the night we spent together, and this new information.
And what was life like for Adam? Was he withering away, alone and confused in a hospital bed, thinking that we had this amazing connection while I was merrily going on with my shallow life, stalking Match.com and sleeping with baseball players?
“I’ll stay if you want me to,” Seth said.
“Yes, I want you to stay.” I wish I knew how to be alone.
“Do you want to get into bed and talk?” he asked.
He turned off the lights and slipped into the bed beside me. We wiggled out of our clothes and lay in our underwear. “I don’t know what to do,” I said quietly.
“You should get the letter and go see him. He wanted you to have it and he wants to see you. He’s a dying man.”
“Will you go with me tomorrow to get the letter before you go back to San Diego?”
“Can I tell you something, Seth?”
“I’ve been all over the place with my life. I’ve had so many jobs and weird boyfriends. My twenties have been a total joke.”
He turned on his side and pulled me into his arms. “So what?”
“Why are you being so good to me?”
“Because I can tell you’re a good person. I’ve had my share of one-night stands and bad decisions. I just try not to dwell on them.”
“I’ve just been lost, you know? Killing time with Helen. I admire her for taking a leap. I could never do that.”
Seth tensed. “Did you really fall for that guy, in that way?”
“Does it really matter? He’s going to die soon. I usually find a way to sabotage things or seek out the most unavailable people. I did it with Adam without even knowing.”
“I can see why he’d be hung up on you, even with a faulty memory. You’re kind of impossible to forget. Before I even met you, I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
I smiled. There was enough light coming from under the door to see him smile back. Rolling onto my side, I let him spoon me. I wanted to feel like I had done something right, like I deserved Seth spooning me, like I deserved to be Adam’s muse.
But I was still conflicted. Would I always be?
THE NEXT DAY, after brunch, Seth and I headed to Stacy’s. I knocked on the door. When she opened it, Foxy Cleopatra was at her feet. I bent to pet her. “Hi, Foxy.”
When I looked up, I noticed Stacy was staring at Seth—not ogling him, just trying to figure out who the hell he was.
“Stacy, this is my friend Seth.” They shook hands.
“Would you like to come in?”
We followed Stacy and sat at a round table. Foxy wouldn’t leave me alone. Stacy handed me the letter. Seth stayed quiet.
“I haven’t read it,” she said. “But if you want to read it here, maybe I can answer some of your questions. I think he wrote it right after that night.”
I could feel Seth shift beside me.
“Okay.” I opened the letter and read it to myself.
Charlotte. I remembered your name right after you left so I wrote it down. I wanted to tell you but I didn’t want to scare you away even more. I have a brain tumor. Like, the really bad kind. That’s why I seemed forgetful. My days are numbered, lady. I wasn’t joking. I wish I wouldn’t have let you go just now. Now I don’t know how to find you. Everything before you and I were in that bar is a blur, but everything after is crystal clear. Why is that? Is it because I was so enamored of you that you marked my soul and now I can’t get you out of my mind? I hope you come back, but if you don’t, I hope this letter finds you. Last night was far and away the best night of my life. I’ve never felt so connected to anyone before. It was the first time I’ve ever really been scared to die. I think because it’s the first time I’ve ever really wanted to live. I felt like we had known each other forever. I felt something I didn’t think I would feel in this life: love. Like that crazy, passionate shit everyone talks about. You’re everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I know it seems crazy but when you made up that story, at first I believed it and I was confused because it seemed so real, like a memory. And then I realized it wasn’t true. I wasn’t mad at you for lying, I was sad that I hadn’t met you sooner. I was sad that it wasn’t real and that I didn’t have enough time on this earth to love you well. You lit up my night . . . my fucking life, Charlotte. I don’t remember wanting to touch anyone so badly. I would have stayed in this loft with you until the very end, if you would have agreed. I wish I would have asked you.
I’m writing because I wanted you to know that when people talk about “the one,” you were my “one.” Is that crazy? I know I’m not that for you because you have your whole life ahead of you and we only spent one night together, but I still had to tell you. Please find a nice guy who doesn’t give you crap about your toes. They’re the most adorable little sausages I’ve ever seen.
If you’re reading this, then I guess I’ll see you on the other side. Love, Adam.
He thought he would be dead before I read this.
It’s fair to say that by the time I finished reading the letter, I was a blubbering fool. I was hysterical and hyperventilating. It brought Adam back to me, his spontaneity and humor and the way I, too, felt like I had known him my whole life. Seth was rocking me, making soothing sounds and rubbing my arms up and down. Tears were spilling onto the letter, soaking the words.
I crumpled into a ball in Seth’s arms, and he held me as I cried myself to exhaustion.
“I need to go home,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to see him?” Stacy seemed irritated.
“Yes, but I can’t today.”
“I know, he doesn’t have much time left. I will see him tomorrow if it’s the last thing I do.”
Stacy was still shaking her head when Seth and I left the apartment. He carried me effortlessly up the stairs to my place and laid me down in my bed.
Some time later, I woke up to Seth setting a glass of water on my nightstand. When I opened my eyes and looked up at him, he sat on the edge of my bed and brushed my hair back from my face.
“Hey,” he said, his voice low and gentle.
“I gotta get going.”
“I know.” I glanced behind him to the clock. It was ten p.m. I had slept for three hours after an hour-long sobbing fit. There was a big part of me that wanted to tell Seth that he should move on and forget about us. That he should focus on baseball and his career, instead of sitting here consoling me. But as I looked up into his sincere eyes, his solicitous smile, I saw understanding and a man who cared about me.
“You need to see him, Charlotte.”
“If for nothing else, thank him for the mural, but I think there’s more to this than that.”
“I know.” If I went to see Adam, Seth knew there was no way I could just thank him, walk away, and say, Have a nice death.
“I’ll be on the road for nine days, and when I come back, this will all be a distant memory, right? You’ll see him, and then we can move on with our lives?”
I wondered if it would be that easy. I sniffled and wiped my nose with the back of my hand. Seth laughed and then bent and kissed the top of my head.
“Yes, I think so,” I said, though I wasn’t sure at all.
“I know we haven’t known each other that long but I’d like to continue dating you.” He lifted my hand and kissed it. “So . . . I need to be sure you know the game plan before I leave.”
Of course he does. A flash-forward of Seth coaching our little kid’s baseball team flitted through my consciousness. I should have felt good about that, but I was a mess of emotions. I sat up against my pillows. Even though the light from the hallway was illuminating the room enough for Seth and me to see each other’s faces, I clicked on the bedside lamp as well, just to make it that much more real.
“Okay,” I began, my voice shaking. “Tomorrow you’re going to Cleveland and I’m going to see Adam in the hospital.”
He nodded once, encouraging me to continue, so I did.
“You’ll be gone for nine days, and when you come back, we’ll get together and talk about things between us.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Huh?” Where is this going?
“In nine days, I’ll come back and we’ll pick up where we left off in that hotel room.”
I was quiet for way too long. His expression dropped.
“Okay,” I said finally.
He leaned in, pecked me on the lips, and then stood up. I watched with no emotion as he walked out of my room. Just before he left the apartment, he called out, “Lock the door, Charlie.”
He called me Charlie. Am I going to break his heart?