Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Part Six - The Proposal

I am back in Fells Point, Baltimore. This time with my daughter, Ling, the world's best son-in-law, Pete, and our two dogs. It is the beginning of spring. The sun is warm and the air is refreshingly crisp. It is easy to distract ourselves from the reason we are here, as we mindlessly meander uneven cobblestone streets brimming with hip restaurants, festive pubs, boutiques, and galleries.

It's been 10 years since I was treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. So much has changed since then. Both dogs that accompanied me, and gave me so much love and emotional support, have died and I am down another husband (due to divorce, not death). The treatment I received then was humbling and humiliating - four consecutive days of internal, high-dose rectal radiation, three surgeries, and a battery of tests. I lost count of how many people had their fingers up my ass or how many times I was sodomized by the radiation "wand."

After the surgical placement of radioactive seeds around my tumor, a team of medical professionals inserted the wand, estimated the correct position, and then scurried out of the room to X-ray me. The X-ray showed the correlation between the seeds that surround the tumor and the placement of the wand. More often than not, they would get it wrong - too far in, too far out, too far left, too far right - which meant they needed to hustle back in, remove the wand, and reposition it. I don't know what bothered me more, the fact that they performed this abrupt pull-out and reinsertion without so much as a dinner invitation, or that they left me alone on a table, with a wand up my ass, during the X-ray process.

After day two I asked for lorazepam. A lot of it. And lubrication. Prior to this diagnosis, I wasn't accustomed to having objects shoved up my ass, so the process was... unpleasant.

This is now my reference point when considering ongoing cancer treatments or any diagnostic measures. "Do you have to shove anything up my ass?" I ask. If not, whatever they have in store for me doesn't seem so bad.

At the time, internal radiation therapy was new for rectal cancer. The research came from McGill University in Canada. I was the 16th person in the United States to receive it. I need to pause here to remember, with love and gratitude, Ricky, who found the trial and forwarded it to me. I met Ricky through my blog back in 2012. She too was diagnosed with breast cancer and like me, was disfigured by "Dick Dock," Memorial Sloan Kettering's chief plastic surgeon. Sadly, Ricky lost her battle with cancer in 2017.

The tumor was undetectable after the radiation but I elected to go ahead with the surgery so they could prove I had a complete pathological response. It also gave me peace of mind. But if I could do it all over, I would have elected not to have 18 inches of my large intestines, including the sigmoid section of my colon and rectum, removed.  It also meant I would be sporting a stoma (and the dreaded "bag") for 9 months until my chemotherapy treatment was complete. Once recovered, I'd be back for another surgery, this time they would use part of my colon to create a faux rectum. What they didn't focus on (or I blocked from my memory), was quality of life issues - a condition known as LARS (lower anterior resection syndrome) - that I would face for the rest of my life. For more information on LARS feel free to Google, but trust me when I tell you, I am a high-stakes gambler every time I pull on a pair of white pants.  

Because how we react to situations shows the true spirit and character of someone, this is one of those situations I am most proud of.  After tossing my husband (whom I loved very much) out of the house for his online fantasy infidelity, and after surgery left me with a stoma and an underlying, bulbous hernia that I called, "my baby head," I was one chemo treatment in when I traveled to New Orleans with my daughter, two of her friends, and my best monkey friend, to celebrate Halloween. I wore a black pleather, naughty nurse outfit with snaps down the front. Underneath, I spirit-glued grotesque, faux scars over my real mastectomy scars, and wore black Spanx boy shorts to cover my dreaded bag. All night long I ripped open my dress and watched people gawk at my mangled breasts. I was also pushing the arrest button, knowing it is illegal to expose your breasts in New Orleans if you are a woman and if (this is the important part) you have nipples. But my nipples are also faux, as is my areola, so I'm free to taunt my faux foobs up and down Bourbon Street. 

Mr. Jones continues to text and call during my time at Fells Point. Noticeably absent is Airport Man. 

"They postponed my PET scan," I text Airport Man. 

"It's back on for 3:00 pm," I update him hours later. 

When the procedure finally begins, I text him a picture of the radioactive vile of glucose being injected into my arm. 

Still no response. 

This is the first time I recognize a pattern. If things get heavy, he disappears - reappearing 24 to 48 hours later with an upbeat, obnoxiously positive text that avoids the situation altogether.

"How is the weather there?" He asks the following day.

As hard and illogical as it is for me to admit, I need him. I need him to distract me from my cancer. Even with the tenderness sent my way by Mr. Jones, it's Airport Man I want. 

"Listen, Sweetheart, you're going to marry me," Mr. Jones announces over the phone after the PET scan is over. "You're going to be fine. I'll make sure of it. You'll get the best treatment available and I'll never leave your side."

"I can't marry you," I tell him, "I'm dating someone." 

"He doesn't count," Mr. Jones counters, "He's already married!" I have been honest with Mr. Jones from the beginning, and he has been completely transparent with me. 

Ling and Pete do their best to keep me focused on having fun and I am grateful for the love, dedication, and support they show me. 

We have a long, liquid lunch at the outdoor bar at Sagamore Pendry - a luxurious, recently restored, 1914 building that is now a five-star hotel in the heart of downtown Baltimore's, Recreation Pier. 

"You don't need a man, Mama. You have us," Ling reminds me. 

"Mr. Jones asked me to marry him," I tell her. 

"You can't marry him!" she insists. 

Maybe we will get married here, I imagine, letting my Calgon Moment take me away.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Part Five - Me and Mr. Jones

  We have a thing..... going on. 

In the spring of 2019, I was hyper-focused on 3 days of Peace, Love & Music - the upcoming golden anniversary of Woodstock. As the date grew closer, plans for the event shifted, including the location and musicians that would perform. Eventually, everything was canceled. This worked out perfectly for me since I 'accidentally' bought a block of tickets, at an inflated price, from a third-party scalper, and cancelation of the event was my only shot at redemption. 

This left Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the grounds of the original Woodstock when the land was owned by farmer Max Yasgur, the only ticket in town to host this once-in-a-lifetime, 50-year celebration. 

The three-day commemoration highlighted performances by Woodstock '69 artists including a hello from Melanie, and music by Arlo Guthrie, Edgar Winter, Santana, and John Fogerty. Other performers including, Ringo Starr, The Doobie Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears, Grace Potter, and The Tedeschi Trucks Band played songs that were originally performed at Woodstock.

I arrived early Saturday, dressed to frolic with fellow Woodstock worshipers, in a faded t-shirt, tattered jeans, and a teal blue wig adorned with a crown of feathers, flowers, and horns.

When the evening grew closer and the rain set in, I found shelter in one of the craft tents. Here, a woman of similar age approached me and asked if I was single. Not knowing where this was going but inebriated to the point of being intrigued, I let her know my heart was wide open. 

"Don't move," she said. "I want you to meet my friend. He's going to love you," she assured me, "And," she added, "He's a great catch." 

Two sips of my drink later, she returned with a tall, trim, clean-cut, prominent-looking man that she clearly lionized. Dressed in pressed jeans and a crisp, new tie-dye shirt, he looked out of character and stiff.

He stood like a bull before me - his eyes focused, his breath strong and steady. Under a halo of fluorescent lighting meant to illuminate art, he leaned in and gently kissed me.

"Come with me," he said, taking me by the hand and leading me toward the main stage inside the amphitheater.

Noone challenged us as we weaved our way past checkpoints, ushers, and security, to fourth-row center seats. "You can sit on my lap," he prompted, then cradled me in his arms.

I stayed in his arms while Carlos Santana introduced his wife on drums - Cindy Blackman Santana. I stayed in his arms as they played Black Magic Woman. Like hippies from the 60's, we entangled ourselves in laughter and kisses while Carlo's guitar strings sang Europa.

We stayed until the start of the encore - until this big cat leaned in and said, "I have to go, Sweetheart. Call me sometime," then handed me his card. 

A game of cat and mouse pursued - he, too preoccupied with his life to hunt, and me, patiently waiting to pounce.

It would be several months before we met again, this time at a history New York City mid-town landmark - a former piano bar dating back to the 1930s, appropriately named the Monkey Bar. Rumor has it, the mirrored paneling mimicked the scandalous behavior of its prohibition patrons ("Monkey see, Monkey do"). In the 1950's the mirrors were replaced with spectacular hand-painted monkey murals by caricaturist Charlie Wala. This was also where, in my 40s, a man caught my heart and I knocked it out of his hands when I discovered, months later, that he was married (aka, Mr. Wonderful).

The plan was simple, drinks then dinner. He would stay at the adjoining hotel, Elysee, and I, like Cinderella, had a midnight car service scheduled. 

He paced outside the restaurant, engulfed in a plume of smoke as he sucked on a Marlboro red. I was 35 minutes late.

I caught his look of confusion when I stepped out of the town car - my hair now chestnut brown and short, my eyes shielded in tortuous shell glasses, my body conservatively dressed in a loose-fitting, tiger print cashmere sweater, cropped wide-legged black merino wool pants, and ankle-high black crocodile, stiletto-heal boots.

He greeted me pensively, tossed his lit cigarette on the ground, and ushered me inside. With a warmth I expected for me, he smiled at the maitre d', greeted him by name then pressed a one-hundred-dollar bill into his palm. "Booth in the back, Francisco," he said with a tight-lipped smile.

He drank bourbon straight through dinner. Then had a double for dessert.

When it was time for the check he told Francisco he wanted two, crisp menus as souvenirs. The flip side of the menu illustrated two, finely dressed monkeys gliding down 54th Street - tails raised high and proud. 

As the waiter handed him the menus, he leaned in and whispered, "Don't leave. You have your own room." When I hesitated he added, "I made reservations at Tavern on the Green for breakfast."

We never made it to breakfast. A tour of my room included a make-out session that ended abruptly when he offered too much information. 

"Last time I was with a woman..." he boasted.

Oh please stop, I thought, my disapproval punctuated by my furrowed brows. 

"I had a heart attack while she was giving me a blow job," he added. 

"Oh hell NO! Please stop," I insisted. This time out loud. 

"If she didn't give me mouth to mouth, I'd be dead," He elaborated. 

"Way too much information," I said. This time, even louder. 

"Guess I got my money's worth," he chuckled - suggesting this was a paid service.

"You're obviously wealthy enough but not healthy enough for sexual activity," I snapped. 

I spent the night alone in a crisp, king-sized bed. 

We shared complimentary coffee in the lobby the next morning. He left in his oversized red pickup truck before my driver arrived. Neither of us waved goodbye.

For the next four years, we would exchange random, meaningless, late-night texts. Without fail, the morning after, I would review our thread and delete it.

I was seated solo at the Monteleone's revolving carousel bar, located in the lobby of the same haunted hotel where I left Charlie just days before - enjoying one final drink in New Orleans before heading to the reality of home, when my phone buzzed.

"How you doing, Sweetheart?" he texted.

I briefly considered ignoring him but a mid-day text from Mr. Jones was out of character.

"I'm in New Orleans," I answered. 

"Good for you," he texted, then added, "I've been thinking about you."

I don't remember if I told him over a text or a call, but he attached himself to me the moment I released the words, "I have cancer, again."

Unlike Airport Man, Mr. Jones wanted to know everything about my illness. Unlike Good Time Charlie, distance did not deter him. And to my surprise, I let him in. 

At his urging, I sent him copies of my medical documents, names of doctors, and even my daughter's contact information. "If I can't get ahold of you I need to know you're alright," he insisted.

When I told him I was headed to Baltimore in two days for a PET scan at Johns Hopkins, he offered to take me. When I told him I was driving down with my daughter and son-in-law, he offered to meet me there and take us to dinner. When I checked into the hotel there was a large bouquet of flowers waiting for me at the front desk. The card read, "Thinking of you. Love always, Mr. Jones." When I texted him a picture of the flowers he was annoyed by the arrangement and sent a second. This time the card read, "With all my love. I hope you have a wonderful day today. Thinking of you always. Love, Jimmy Jones."

Jimmy Jones... it was a moment that felt as 'big' as when Big's name was revealed on Sex and the City

He must have told me before, right? I thought. I wouldn't have agreed to meet a man for dinner not knowing his first name? I wouldn't have stayed semi-connected to someone for four years not knowing his first name?

But I swear, if he told me before, I completely forgot.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Part Four - Button Down Blues

With champagne on ice, Charlie reaches into his backpack and pulls out an XXL, slim fit, navy blue, dress shirt with pearl-white buttons. Like him, it is timeless.

"Try this on," he says. "It's my favorite."

The room is the perfect balance of old and new. Crown molding and high ceilings accented by sweeping silk curtains and king-sized, luxurious bedding in hushed tones of French blue.

I step into the bathroom and set off low, ambiance lighting. Door shut, I undress slowly and stare at my tempered reflection in the mirror. His shirt feels like home on my skin. 

He stands tall and proud - undressed at the foot of the bed. His hair is tousled. It is my first glance at his tanned, tight body. I pause to watch his chest slowly heave. He smiles and I blush.

This southern California surfer boy left the beach long enough to obtain a law degree and a master's in literature.

"Where have you been all my life," he asks. "East Coast baby," I tell him. "Ah... Biggie territory," he says.

Like me, Good Time Charlie worships music and his taste is as vast and as varied as mine. 

He pours two glasses of champagne, sets them on the side table, then climbs onto the bed - positioning himself upright, in the center of a mound of down pillows.

"You wear my shirt well," he says, then pulls me towards him. And I believe him.

He runs his hands through my hair, pausing to lift the collar of the shirt. It brushes against my neck and I quiver.

We toast to us, two coasts colliding, and as I lift the crystal-fluted glass to my lips, I mutter, "I have cancer." 

He wipes my tears away, but my fear consumes me. He wraps his body around me, but my fear consumes me.

He cradles me until his breath deepens, and his mouth parts. He sleeps peacefully beside me but I am unable to rest. My fear consumes me. 

I stay until the sun slowly rises. 

"I have to go," I whisper, kissing him gently.

"Don't," he pleads. But I am already gone. My fear consumes me.

"Was it the ghost?" he asks. 

Throughout the night, while we lay motionless in bed, censor-controlled lights flicker from inside the closet, from low corners of the room, from under the bed, and from inside the bathroom. At one point, classic, concerto music could be heard coming from a ceiling-mounted speaker in the shower. 

This paranormal activity does not frighten me. Will death silence me, I wonder.

He insists I take his shirt. I hold it like a prize I didn't earn. And leave.

I walk the four blocks down Royal Street to my hotel - careful to stay out of the spray and step over the puddles from ongoing street washing. The room I share with Robin and Jeanie is darkened by blackout curtains when I quietly step in. 

Here, I do not struggle. I am not undone by my fear. I am free to let my angst settle. Here, I am softened and soothed, loved and accepted.

I am not used to high-quality men, I remind them. But they know my dating patterns better than I do. 

After the divorce of my third husband - ending a 20-year relationship, 13 of those in marriage - I gave myself the time and space to learn how to love myself and adjust to living without a man for the first time in my life. Then I dove, head first, into familiar, shallow waters.

One man, a devout catholic and lover of the arts, particularly ballet, recently revealed that he is gay. This explains why that "spark" was missing. Another was not willing or able to communicate emotions - an avoidance trait my ex-husband mastered. 

The rest never evolved past a date or two, but they certainly were memorable. 

Lou, a brawny man who had 10 drinks during our first date, became overly concerned when I stood on a two-foot tall stone wall that bordered the parking lot as we exited the restaurant. Against my wishes, he picked me up to remove me from the dangers of a two-foot tall stone wall, dropped me onto the pavement, and fell on top of me - fracturing my sacrum in two places. 

Randy was in the music business. After a few dates where things didn't progress past a quick kiss goodnight, I invited him to my house for a homecooked meal. Halfway through the beef bourguignon, he vanished. Later, I discovered $311.00 cash on my bedside table. I never heard from Randy again but days later realized I was missing multiple pairs of my Wolford panties. I am uncertain if they were clean or dirty but I no longer buy expensive panties, instead, like everyone else I shop on Amazon. 

On my first date with Richard, he insisted I call him Dick. This didn't fit. His profile name was Richard and everything about Richard was refined and proper. There was a picture of Richard in a double-breasted navy blazer and paisley bow tie, one in a seersucker suit, and one in pajamas sipping coffee. Not sexy jammies, showing off six-pack abs - this was a pajama set with matching top and bottoms in navy with white piping.

Richard's plan was for me to meet him on his turf, in a neighboring New York village, but after reviewing this idea with a close friend, and cofounder of our, "How to Pick the Wrong Man," club, I changed course and asked him to meet me in town and I would drive us to a private beach in Old Greenwich to watch the sunset.

"I'll pick up a guest pass," I told Richard. 

"I'll bring the wine," he offered. "What do you like to drink?" he asked. 

"Oaky, California Chardonnay," I say.

He showed up wearing a circa 1990, faded pink polo shirt and loose-fitting, Nantucket red shorts - a color combination that instantly made me nauseous.

We set up chairs along the rocky, eastern shoreline and he opened his bottle of wine. 

"No chardonnay grapes in this," he boasted, then poured two glasses of a fruity, Sauvenign Blanc.

Richard talked about his work. I asked how his wife died, as his profile stated he was a widower. 

"Lung cancer, 4 years ago. I am raising our daughter on my own. She is 20 and an amazing student...(more about the daughter and her accomplishments)." 

When he finally took a breath I asked, "What kind of lung cancer?" 

"Oh, I don't know," Richard said, annoyed by my questioning. 

"Did she suffer long?" I asked. 

"No, it was quick," he answered. 

Halfway through the bottle, and with a hazy overcast that removed any chance of catching a fiery sunset, Richard felt compelled to discuss one of his sexual escapades.

"The first woman I brought to my bed after my wife died (as though there is a line of women waiting), opened my wife's bedside table (who does that?), and saw hundreds of sticky notes with little sayings she wrote over the years."

Finally, Richard had something interesting to say.

"What were they about?" I questioned. 

"Nothing important," he said. 

"What did you do with them?" I asked. "I'm sure your daughter would love to read them." 

"I put them all in a garbage bag and tossed them," he said. 

For the rest of the date, I remained mostly silent as he elaborated on the women he dated, how important he is, and the responsibilities of his job. 

How could he throw the sticky notes away, I thought. And how does he not know what kind of lung cancer his wife died from?

As we headed down the home stretch to his car, Richard turned in my direction to say, "You are very negative, Shannon."  

I am so floored by his statement that I pull my car over and ask him to repeat it, convinced I heard him wrong. When he repeats the same words, I give him the direction he clearly needs,

"Get out of the car, DICK!" 

"What?" he asks. 

"You heard me. GET... OUT... OF... THE CAR, DICK!!!!" Repeat. 

Pulling away, I glance at the rearview mirror and see a pathetic man, in poorly matched clothing, holding an empty bottle of subpar wine.

Now I get it. Dick suits him well.

There was the personal injury lawyer who showed me pictures of dead things on his phone during our first date. This included a dead woman whose face had been eaten off by her shih tzu. He showed me this after oysters and before the halibut. These were pictures he stored in his iPhone. I have pictures of myself, concerts, flowers, friends and family. Everything in my phone is alive.

Booty Call lives dangerously close - on the other side of the river. I initially thought this was a great idea until he started showing up unannounced. Once he showed up drunk, playing air guitar and singing Elton John songs at the top of his lungs. Another time he showed up in bike shorts. This ruined it for me. I think it was the ass padding or the way his shorts hugged his crotch. Or maybe it was his helmet. I also learned that everyone knew him in our sleepy little neighborhood and no one liked him. Not even the waiters and bartenders from our neighboring restaurant. Once, we were having drinks at a local pub when the bartender leaned over and said, "He's a total asshole."

Mr. Basketball was the exception. Polite, attentive, generous, engaging, and nice. Too nice. The kind of man I could destroy if given the chance and I was in the middle of a string of losses and couldn't process this new game strategy. 

And then, there is Mr. Jones. 

To Be Continued...

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Shannon E. Kennedy


Photo by Joan Harrison