I exit Union Street station in Brooklyn and on the 21st step, three red-stenciled words appear: MERMAIDS ARE REAL. I’ve come from Midtown at rush hour so my heart rate is too fast and my feet are two sizes too swollen to find it charming at this exact moment. The image of mermaids, of oceans, of anything colorful, really, inspires an eye roll more than anything else as I climb up onto the sidewalk from underground, breathing in the pollution and tobacco. Two blocks down, I find myself face to face with the South Brooklyn Casket Company, and its intersection smells purely and exclusively like vomit.
Standing here across from the casket company, I think about my best friend Leslie. For whatever reason, maybe it’s the smell, the caskets, whatever, I am thinking morbid thoughts, specifically about Leslie’s casket. But I remember that she would never choose to be buried. She would most likely want one of two things: her ashes spread in the Pacific, or to donate her body in its entirety to science. The former because I and she and everyone who knows her believe that she was not born like the rest of us were born; she crawled out of the ocean. The latter because it is remarkable that she got cancer in her left breast at the age of twenty-four and that body — that beautiful and genetically mutated body — probably ought to be studied.
When I received the initial text message at the beginning of all of this, I had just swallowed twice the recommended dosage of Nyquil in an attempt to fight off a late winter cold. “I’m about to one-up you so fucking hard,” she told me. “I think I might have breast cancer.”
Two weeks later we stood on a rock overlooking the Humboldt Bay sunset and she let me feel the tumor in her chest. It felt exactly how I imagined a tumor would: bumpy and hard and solid, rock-like and foreign. Two months after that there was the biopsy, and then the diagnosis. The unforgettable slow motion phone call came next at 5:34pm on a Thursday in late May. She was coming back to Sacramento the next day to meet with doctors and make a plan for treatment. It seemed to all happen overnight, but it didn’t. Somehow, slow and steady, my very best friend had breast cancer.
I drank more that summer than I ever have in my life—and that’s including my college years spent in England. I could not stand to stay entirely sober for any extended period of time. I did my drinking first socially and casually, then isolated and alone. My collection of glass bottles and aluminum cans and even the embarrassing occasional wine box grew larger and more varied. I kept it in my room, doing the recycling in shifts, to avoid any shameful run-ins with my roommate or friendly downstairs neighbors. But I also saw more of Leslie than I had in the seven years since we’d graduated high school. Her cancer brought us physically close, forcing her to move back to Sacramento to receive care.
The first-ever creative writing class I took was a poetry seminar at my community college in Sacramento. I think back to what I’m sure is now a humiliating portfolio, but recollect page after page of Leslie. A poem about the first time we ate a pot brownie and go so high she thought her jaw was broken and I ate so much spaghetti that I threw up. A poem about a Polaroid of me and her, mid-dance, heads down, her long blond hair flying to the left and my brown curly hair a tangled mess, flying to the right.
We have always been close, maybe not geographically, but in all the other ways that matter so much. I think about the last thirteen years of my life and every memory has a piece of Leslie in it somewhere. Leslie my new friend, the shy blond girl in my Home Economics class in seventh grade. Leslie that girl who makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. Leslie my fan. Leslie my use. Leslie with cancer.
Leslie and I having one of the first of many sleepovers, late one night, in her twin bed, both twelve years old with hips just narrow enough to rest comfortably in a bed of that size, observing the glow-in-the-dark solar system on her ceiling as she tells me, “I wanna be a marine biologist.”
Leslie and I, splashing around in her pool, front-flipping, back-flipping, hand-standing, seeing who can stay under the longest before coming up to breathe. It is July, and we are fourteen going on our first year of high school. Fourteen going on tequila. Fourteen going on driver’s permits. It’s one of those Sacramento days so hot that you can see the heat boiling off the asphalt. The pool is soupy in the oppressive sun that blinds us from above. Her parents are out, so we sneak into the liquor cabinet and each take a sizeable gulp of Jose Cuervo, fighting the urge to throw up before lying back down, fingers and tongues purple from the blackberries we’ve picked from the trail by her house.
Leslie and I, in community college, the two of us taking the Amtrak to San Francisco to spend weekends with my brother. We share her iPod, each with one bud in one ear. Ratatat, Bob Dylan, The Fratellis, M.I.A. She draws funny cartoons, like the Man Without a Mouth, who she swore was based off of an actual human being but I still think she’s fucking with me. We take the train to Emeryville and catch the bus across the Bay Bridge. We get on the 71 from Market Street all the way to the top of the Haight for a slice of pizza and maybe a piercing. On one occasion, she gets the rook of her left ear pierced. In the photo of it she lies on her back, gazing at me expectantly as I hold her hand, not entirely dissimilar from her chemotherapy session six years later. The piercer crammed the needle through her rook and we both heard it crunch. No such noises in chemo.
Leslie and I, in London in the springtime, when she comes to visit me and I take her on double decker buses where we sit at the front seat, top level, watching London go by. We wind our way north: through flat and sprawling Green Park, Oxford Circus mania, stunning grey architecture of Bloomsbury and the British Museum under the stunning grey London sky, past Euston and King’s Cross and finally to Camden Town for £1 spring rolls and aging punks. We share raclette at Borough Market on Saturday day, sip Prosecco on the Thames on Saturday night. Get drunk, godancing, spend Sunday hungover in the twin bed of my dorm room—much less comfortable at twenty-one than twelve. I show her my favorite British sitcoms. She laughs until she falls asleep.
This summer, from the bleachers, after all these years of vibrant living, I watched my best friend fight cancer. I brought peppermint tea after the lumpectomy, brought her excessive amounts of stargazer lilies, took her to the movies, took her for her first post-surgery pint of beer, scrolled through Pinterest for wigs, bare henna-tattooed heads, crocheted beanies, hung out with her for hours at the hospital and had such a good time that I kept forgetting she was sitting there with an IV dripping what she described as “toxic fucking waste” into her body. She kept me updated about every appointment, every shot, every major medical decision. She very generously let me involve myself in all the ways I needed to in order to make myself feel better. I watched my best friend fight cancer but I also watched her laugh as much as she laughs, bitch as much as she bitches, eat as much as she eats, wake up and do the damn thing like she wakes up and does the damn thing. What I’ve learned from Leslie is that the woman with cancer becomes the radical fighter while everyone spinning wildly in her orbit tries to hold themselves together—sentimental and emotional best friends included. Sometimes I think that the hardest thing for Leslie was dealing with how hard it was for everybody else.
And so as I walk through Brooklyn, past casket companies and pairs of best friends eating chips and salsa and drinking margaritas, I consider Leslie. So always alive, and so bright, diving in the Pacific and exploring tides for the intertidal research project at Humboldt State. I consider Leslie in her wetsuit in the photo on my desk – long blond hair a tangled wet mess in the wind; skin freckled from the day in the sun. I consider Leslie running up into the misty redwoods of Arcata, Leslie at work, making lattes and heating up croissants on the days that she didn’t have biopsies or consultations. And now, months later, so bald and getting so thin and feeling so nauseous. She sends me photos. We laugh about potential baldy Halloween costumes, scoff at Pinktober, hot pink KFC buckets and fracking drill bits, the overall onslaught of pink ribbons. This week, thousands of women went braless in a half-assed attempt to bring awareness to breast cancer. Leslie unsurprisingly interpreted this as “douchebaggery”.
I’ve walked all the way to the apartment in Brooklyn that is serving as my home but that isn’t home at all. I drag myself up the steps and turn on my bedroom light for only a moment before turning it back off and landing on my air mattress in a sigh, catching a glimpse of that photo, of Leslie with her long blond hair a tangled wet mess in the wind; skin freckled from the day in the sun. I study it in the dark, realize what I am actually seeing.
She had been diving that day, on the northern California coast, and she had picked two sizable abalone off the ocean rocks. In the photo she holds their shells, one in each hand, both covering her chest in Ariel fashion. She is smiling, her mouth open in a laugh, blue eyes squinting in the bright sun. The photo was taken in June, when she had cancer, but when we didn’t know how worried to be, how serious it may or may not be. Trivial things like cancer do not stop Leslie from crawling in and out of the ocean.
I roll over onto my other side and close my eyes, thinking about the red graffiti on the 21st step at Union Street station in Brooklyn. I think about muses. And mermaids. And find, out of necessity and with unmitigated certainty, that they are real.
Photos via Instagram/Leslie Booher
More from BUST