December 2011 – January 2012


This helplessness

By Steven Amsterdam
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of choices for treatment here.”

“You mean I don’t have a lot of choices?”


“Then I’m the one who’s afraid.”


Nick drove from the clinic over to Greta’s office. They would continue with the evening as planned. Greta was a marvel. Again, she was wearing an assortment of skirts and leggings and scarves that dazzled him.

The week before, they had made their way through most of their layers, playing a kind of confessional strip poker. He gave an honest account of why his last girlfriend left and Greta took off her top. Then she told him all about her car accident, showing the scar on her shoulder, and he dropped his pants. They ended up next to each other on her couch in only their underwear. Just talking and kissing, switching from the fascination of one activity to the fascination of the other, until the night air became too chilled for them to keep sitting on the couch. He offered to go home. She let him. They were taking their time.

Greta was waiting on the street with a friend. As Nick pulled up, the friend looked at him and whispered something in Greta’s ear. He heard Greta’s reply, “I know,” which was accompanied by a proud smile.

“Nick, this is Michelle, the one I work with.”

Michelle waggled her fingers.

He asked, “Are you coming to the movie too?”

She gave Greta an impressed shove. “He is sweet. And smart – sucking up to me.” Michelle stooped to the car window. “It’s too early in proceedings for my full assault, but don’t worry: you’ll still have some fun tonight.”

“All right. Enough,” Greta said. She hugged Michelle and sent her off. Getting into the car, she leaned over her handbag and gave Nick a kiss. It was comfortable.

“Michelle is aces,” Greta said, as they slipped into the stream of afternoon traffic. She fingered the dashboard with both hands like it was a piano and asked him, “And your day was …?”

Nick said, “Let’s start with yours.”

Fortunately they had already decided on an early show. The problem of face-to-face could be avoided until he knew how he was going to tell her. The movie, though, which was about absolutely nothing, didn’t offer him enough time to come up with the right words. He kept being distracted by her hand on the armrest, his shoulder where it leaned against hers. She caught him gazing at her in the movie’s light. Pushing his face away with a laugh, she whispered, “Keep your eyes on the screen.”

At the pier afterwards, the two of them sat on a bench eating fish and chips out of cardboard containers on their laps.

Gulls floated above them. The moon went behind a cloud. They listened to the easy rhythm of the ocean knocking into the dock. If he hadn’t been thinking about pancreatic cancer, he could imagine that they were having the first of ten thousand easy silences.

Greta dug a chip into his tartar sauce suggestively and grinned. After a quiet minute, she said, “Don’t you find something a tiny bit sad in all this?”

It would have been the perfect point of entry and he was about to tell her everything, but she took his hand and squeezed it. “I mean a sweet sadness. Where we’re at right now in our little starting-out relationship. This helplessness.”

With their fingers still greasy from the fish and their mouths still sticky from Coke, they kissed.

Greta lived in three rooms of a renovated captain’s cottage near the old port. When they got there he would say something. As he navigated the car through the crooked alley, his head began to hurt from the dishonesty of the past few hours. Was it simply an innocent wish for one final uncomplicated evening? No, he was being greedy and unfair and he had to tell her tonight. His skin flushed with shame. He felt queasy. The row of white buildings on either side of them seemed to shudder with his body. The car stumbled on the cobblestones. The whole wide world was symptom and sympathy.

Greta was right there next to him, though, easy and alive, searching through her bag for her keys.

“I have cancer,” he announced. Greta locked her finger through the key ring. “I found out today. It’s advanced. Inoperable.”

She looked up at him. “Cancer of the …?”

“Pancreas. And some of its neighbours.”

“Crap,” she said, leaning back against the vinyl. He pulled up in front of her door. “Let’s just park it here.”

The car idled.

“There’s no point in me coming in. I should have told you earlier, but it’s only a third date and …”

“What, you’re going home now? Turn off the engine and come in. Don’t be a freak.”

If he looked straight ahead, toward the end of her little street, he could picture telling his parents. He saw himself moving in with them. They would sit in the waiting rooms together, they would feed him his favourite foods. His cousin had just become a doctor. When they were little they had put on puppet shows at family gatherings. She would help too. He wouldn’t be entirely on his own.

Greta was trying to be nice now and he decided to let her.

She switched on all the lights and put up water for tea. Nick stood half in and half out of her kitchen, as if he’d lost his right to stand close to her.

“You’re wonderful,” he said as she set out their mugs, “but you can’t waste any time even considering this. It wouldn’t be reasonable.”

Greta positioned herself on the couch and patted the seat next to her until he came over and sat down. She made some complicated sigh. He rested his hand on her back as consolation. It was permission to let him go.

“It’s ok,” he said. “No one would expect anything else.”

She leaned forward, away from his hand. “I’m just trying to see how I feel. Am I at least allowed to do that?”

From over the bubbling of the kettle, they heard a low noise from outside. The sound of wood snapping. Metal scraping against metal.

“What’s that?” she said.

They both stood up.

Water sprayed in under the front door.

Nick moved toward it, but she grabbed onto his arm as the rumbling increased.

Water broke the windows and pushed the door down. It came in fast.

Nick and Greta jumped to the back of the room and onto the table as the flood reached up for their feet. Half of the main wall tore away as if it were a prop. They were wordless as the cold wrapped their ankles and swallowed their legs. Where the wall used to be they saw that the ocean had enveloped the street and was unrolling across the port. It came steadily, rising up, rising higher than their heads, higher than the ceiling.

The water went much further than the two of them, breathing out until it covered the town and breathing in as it all rolled back to the sea.

Steven Amsterdam

Steven Amsterdam is a Melbourne-based writer and palliative care nurse. He is the author of Things We Didn’t See ComingWhat the Family Needed and The Easy Way Out.

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