portion of the artwork for Catherine Sinow's short story

Dear Clayton
Catherine Sinow

Remember me, Clayton? Hell, of course you do. It’s Beth, from eighth grade. Well, I’ve got a brain tumor, and I’ll be dead within a year. I know we haven’t talked since middle school, but you’ve been on my mind.

First off I know you’ve got some questions. Cancer questions. Well, I was majoring in history in college. I know, right? Useless, but I couldn’t think of anything else that was even remotely interesting. I started getting these headaches from hell and flunked a couple tests in a row. I was draining bottles of Tylenol and then got scared that my liver was going to fail, so I went to a doctor and he gave me this migraine medication which didn’t do a goddamn thing. Then I had this little thing called a seizure that I would rather not go into detail on. I went through the giant donut (MRI machine—you probably don’t understand the donut reference because your lucky ass probably never had to get an MRI) and found a “mass,” as they call it. A few weeks later I woke up from surgery and touched the painful line of staples running across my head. When my parents drove me home there was a bunch of silent sobbing. It was like they were furious at me but also like I was a precious angel, which was really uncomfortable. When those results came back, it was just like we all feared. Rare, incurable “glioblastoma.” Dead. Death. Dying. Corpse. Coffin. Funeral. Obituary.

I remember you came from a four-child family and your dad was a dentist in that shopping center anchored by Whole Foods. Your grades were through the roof. Mr. Stockton, English teacher for the dumbasses, once said to our class: “Why can’t you all be more like Clayton from Mrs. MacIntire’s honors English? He wrote a college-level essay right here in the seventh grade! Everyone should strive for his aptitude!”

You and I had history class together in eighth grade since, unfortunately for you, there was no honors history. We spent a lot of time flirtatiously arguing about which version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was better: I liked the original by Joy Division, and you liked the cringey Fall Out Boy cover. You said you had 700-plus plays on “Sugar We’re Goin Down.” Where did you even find the time to listen to that song so much? Maybe you multitasked it with those college-level papers. You seem like the kind of person who would say, “The repetition helps me focus.”

That year I started piano lessons, learning all my favorite songs from the Mario franchise (“Dire, Dire Docks”—I hope you know the one). However, you claimed you had been playing the piano for a decade, ever since you were 3. We found a way to turn this into an argument: Sure, one of us had more skill, sure, but just who was the more creative one?

You never would have gone for me. There was that word our classmates always called me: “interesting.” It was a hilarious euphemism that meant “not a real human being.” People treated me like I was garbage. And why would you want to affiliate with garbage?

People teased you for liking me. Jenn Benedict said you had a photo of me hanging on the wall in your room, and Kevin Clifton said, “Clayton wants to stick his dick in the freak.” Then you started ignoring me. You began running away from me, actually. If I approached you, you would just run. At the graduation pool party, you swam away. At the end of the night I glimpsed you in your lame Billabong swim trunks as I pushed open Victor Berkson’s fancy iron gate and left, and that was the last time I ever saw you.

When you did this, Clayton, you wrecked me. I had a few losery friends to keep me floating, sure, but I wanted someone of the opposite sex to really like me for who I was. But no. You were the keystone to my social rejection, something that followed me deep into high school. There I had like three friends, never got invited to any parties, and teachers seemed perpetually annoyed with my existence. I remained a virgin all four years, although I was in a somewhat abusive relationship with a dude who tossed a rock through my window after we broke up. I can’t help but think that this all traces back to you, Clayton.

According to Facebook and a couple Google searches, you went on to become an Eagle Scout, master the piano, and get into West Point. WEST POINT! Don’t you need a letter of recommendation from a literal senator to get into that place? I bet they wrote, “Dear West Point, please let Clayton in your school. He writes college-level papers.”

I ended up at a lame college (CSU CHANNEL ISLANDS, OK? There, I said it), only to drop out junior year after I found out about this tumor. Doctor told me I was good as dead in a season, maybe a year if I got cuffed to some experimental chemo drug. Parents wanted the drugs, said they wanted as much time with me as possible. All right, then. Can’t argue with the free opportunity to watch TV. It’s been two months since the diagnosis and I’m so enriched! I watched the whole show The Wire! It’s amazing! I also just went on a gratuitous vacation to Hawaii and, man, that water is just as crystal clear as it looks on Google Images.

I meet people off Tinder. Guys, girls, nonbinary. People are weirdly into cancer, especially the cisguys. I toss on my cheap red wig, draw on some eyebrows, meet them at gastropubs with high ratings on Google Reviews, and tell them the story. They say “sorry” and bat back with something about how their aunt had breast cancer or whatever. Then we screw in my car, because why not? You don’t even need condoms when you have a year left to live and the chemo makes you infertile anyway. Not even AIDS could ruin your life in that amount of time!

No matter if people call me “strong,” “survivor,” or “inspiring,” I’m actually societal residue who doesn’t contribute to anything. I was once friends with this guy, a Ted Kaczynski type, who said that we should all just kill old people because they contribute nothing. He’s right and that’s me right now. A premature old person who’s only alive so other people can feel like they’re “embracing all lives.” It’s sort of the same thing as giving a homeless dude five dollars, except my family is gonna be in a hole of debt after I die and my brother’ll be stuck at community college. He tells me he’ll try writing an essay about how I died and tons of money went down the drain, with the hopes it’ll give him a ride somewhere. I tell him to stop being so positive. Never got me anywhere but this “glioblastoma.”

Strength isn’t enduring chemo and facing death, as so many people claim. Strength is just normality. I was “strong” when I could go jogging on the beach, put my hair in a ballerina bun, and major in useless stuff like history. All of these simple pleasures are available to you, Clayton. I don’t care if your grandma or uncle or cousin’s best friend had cancer. Not the same. You will die at an old age with someone you love and there’ll be a tear-jerking obituary about your military accomplishments, your extended family, the charities you donated to, and how you started every day by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” at your vintage baby grand. Me? I’ll just be a sad “why do the good die young” display on Facebook. Maybe you’ll hear about me on social media or from your mom through grocery store gossip and feel some kind of profound sadness that makes you grateful to be alive. Then you’ll go do something else.

I met a lot of people in college, even high school, who piled right over my memory of you. There was the depressed Satanist girl who had a Xanax habit; I tried and failed to help her quit, but we did make a John Cusack fanzine. There was the boy from Tel Aviv who always spoke his mind in class and made trance music; he was just my acquaintance, but I had the hugest uncontrollable crush on him. There was the comforting, well-traveled boy with genie pants and a hooked nose who sold everyone weed and sometimes cocaine. There was the girl with long hair who only read books from the “humor” section; I fell in love with her and realized I was bi. There was my dorm neighbor who walked around naked and told jokes that sounded like they came from a Laffy Taffy wrapper. There was the college professor who taught me about critical thinking and introduced me to the works of J.M. Coetzee. And there were the handful of others that I ended up despising, some of whom are getting letters similar to this one. Bottom line is, I’ve met people who filled my life with so much more than you did, given me mountains of information and experiences to turn over. But you were the first to really drive a negative message home, and so you stay. You were the first person to convey to me: “You, Bethany ‘Beth’ Silvas, are destined to lose socially. Nobody loves you, and even if someone did, they’d slip right out of your hands.” Everything that happens in eighth grade is plowed right into our malleable mammalian brains, and we learn forevermore: that’s just how life works.

I wish you could have called me after eighth grade ended and told me, “I’m sorry I kept running away from you, Beth. I liked you a lot, Beth.” And so in this alternate universe we meet up and get froyo and watch hot air balloons in the park and just talk and link fingers. We lie down on our backs and talk about our teen dreams and fears and maybe global warming. We’re soft, vulnerable, innocent people who drink Shirley Temple drinks with straws and eat the Maraschino cherries afterward.

It never happened, Clayton. You were the first person to really break my heart and tell me that I wasn’t made for this world. And so now I’m here to tell you: you were right. My time here’s almost up. So fuck you, and I hope you die, too. But at the same time, I have always sort of loved you in a nostalgic, not-actual way. Nothing will keep me from dying, but you can undo that damage you did. Just run to me and promise me a future together. Talk to me about a future where we have dogs and kids on a ranch-style house in a Southwestern state. Tell me, “I’m so sorry, Beth. I waited so long to fix those horrible things I did.” I would nuzzle up to you and feel sparks of trembling love and say thank you with more meaning than I’ve ever said it in my life. We would nap together and maybe go out for dinner and you’d hijack the restaurant piano and loudly dedicate “Petit Chien” to me and wow everyone. We’d go home and I’d slide back into bed, and you’d light some incense on the side table before joining me. I would say, Thank you for making my last days and weeks a joy, Clayton. Thank you. I love you, Clayton, I love you, you are the love of my life.

Catherine Sinow’s Comments

I experimented with using obituaries as endings for the story, both Beth’s and Clayton’s. In this alternative ending, Clayton, of course, dies an elderly war hero.

Clayton is based on a real person. Shortly before the publication of this story, my mom ran into Clayton’s mom at the grocery store. He’s apparently in the army and is about to get deployed to Afghanistan. I don’t really know what to say to that. I think there was something more, like he knows how to fix fighter jets or something.

In high school, I went to prom with a guy who claimed that he saw Clayton’s dad for orthodontic work and that he ruined his teeth. Prom guy had strange teeth, but in a sort of odd, man-made way.

Someone once read this story and then asked me if I was bisexual. I’m not, but maybe I should take it as a compliment that I can write a bi character decently enough so that someone was prompted to ask? Generally speaking, the intersection of author and character traits is one of the stickiest topics I can think of.

Clayton, if you ever read this, I hope Afghanistan is treating you well (possible past tense). I’d love to hear from you.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 53 | Spring/Summer 2019