I make my way through the crowd, many of whom I know, towards him. His straight brown hair is still wet and has been slicked back carelessly. He looks so dear and near and yet so far away from me. He has always been a deeply mysterious person. Hardly anyone really knows him.
He looks up and sees me. He has the pained blue eyes of a tortured artist. He should have been one. He stands slowly, and, unsmiling, opens his arms to me. With a contented sigh, I go into that place where I have felt safest since I was a child. I breathe in the familiar smell of his soap, so clean, so honest. When I pull away, he looks at me carefully. I can tell that he is in a bad mood. Perhaps he is even angry.
I smile. ‘It’ll grow back.’
‘No, it’s good like that.’
Yeah. You all right?’
‘Take a pew and I’ll get you a drink. What d’you want?’
He raises his eyebrows. ‘And?’
I dimple at him. ‘Vodka.’
He nods and makes his way to the bar. I watch him. He is tall and broad-shouldered and Julie Sugar is watching him eagerly. For as long as I can remember Julie has lusted after Jack. And now that he is studying medicine, her desire for him has grown to unmanageable proportions. She catches my eye and waves. I smile and wave back. Immediately, she begins to make her way towards me. I sigh inwardly. I like her, I really do, but I don’t want to make small talk today. Besides, she is only coming to talk to me because Jack is here.
‘Hey Lana?’ she says. She is dressed from head to toe in shades of pink.
‘So Jack’s down?’ She lays a palm down on the table and drums her fluorescent-pink, plastic nails on it.
‘Are you guys having lunch?’
She looks lingeringly at the empty chair next to me, but I don’t invite her to join us. I know Jack will be irritated and besides, I need to talk to Jack and explain.
Jack comes back and stands beside the table with my drink and two packets of salt and vinegar crisps—our favorite flavor.
‘Hi, Jack,’ Julie simpers up at him, fluttering her eyelashes like a black and white movie star.
Jack smiles tightly. ‘Hi.’
‘Lana was just telling me that you are about to have lunch. Mind if I join you?’ She smiles invitingly.
‘Not this time, Jules… We have private things to discuss.’
‘Maybe next time then,’ she says, and, flashing a hurt smile, flounces off.
‘Thanks,’ I say, and take my drink off Jack.
Jack sits down and takes a sip of his pint. ‘Well, then,’ he probes. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Great. No problems,’ I say.
His eyes narrow on my face, flash down to my clenched hands, then focus on trying to read my eyes. ‘Don’t lie to me, Lana. I know you better than that.’ His voice becomes hard. ‘Has he hurt you?’
‘No, course not.’
‘Then what is it?’ he prompts.
‘I’m just confused, I guess. This is not how I thought my life would be.’
‘Your life? It’s only for a month, isn’t it?’
I press my lips together. ‘It was three months or no deal.’
Jack draws his breath sharply. ‘I wish you hadn’t done it, Lana. You never even told me.’
‘I knew what you’d say. It was a spur of the moment decision.’
‘But to sell yourself.’ Jack looks openly angry.
‘I’d do it all again, Jack.’
‘Yeah, but this treatment you’re paying for, it’s not even properly recognized. I’ve looked up this Burzynski character on the net, and he seems well meaning enough, but it’s not proper medicine, Lana. All his results are anecdotal. Some of his critics are even accusing him of selling hope.’
I lean forward. ‘Do you really think after all these years that the FDA wouldn’t have locked him up and thrown away the key if he was just selling hope? Hundreds perhaps thousands of people have been cured by him,’ I insist passionately. ‘Some people are even calling his method the greatest find of the century.’
‘What kind of assurances have they given you?’
‘None. In fact, they’ve already warned me that Mum’s chances are slim at best. But even if she has only got a one percent chance of recovery, I’m going to take it. I’ve got nothing to lose. Everything else has failed. Maybe she’ll be one of the lucky ones.’
Jack drops his eyes to the scratched wooden table. ‘Remember that time when you were six years old, and I left you outside the newsagent to go in and get some sweets, and when I came out a pervert in a car was trying to persuade you to accept a lift?’
I nod. ‘Of course. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Your face, as you came rushing out, and punched the guy through the window. He hit the gas pedal, swerved, nearly hit an oncoming car, and screeched up the road. How old were you then? Fiftteen?’
‘Yeah. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I leave you for one minute to buy some sweets, and you are almost snatched by a pedophile.’
‘We didn’t tell my mum, did we?’
‘No, we didn’t. You know what, Lana? It feels like I’ve just gone into the sweetshop for some sweets and I’ve come out and a pervert has driven off with you. It feels like I’ve failed you. I thought I was going to study medicine, get a good job, and be a proper brother to you and your mum. And now it turns out you’re out there selling your body.’
‘Please don’t be angry with me, Jack. I can’t bear it when you are.’ My eyes well with tears and I blink them away.
His face softens. There is sadness in his voice when he speaks. ‘I can’t bear it when you cry. I’m not angry with you, Lana. I’m angry with myself for failing you.’
‘You haven’t failed me, Jack. I’m so proud of you. Of everyone we know, you’re the only one who has made it out of this vortex of poverty and hopelessness. I’m not your responsibility. I’m a big girl now. I can take care of myself.’
Jack nods. ‘I know. I just wanted better for you.’
‘It’s not so bad. It’s just sex, Jack.’
‘How’s your mum, anyway?’
‘She’s bad, Jack. Real bad. The good days are less and less. You do see that I had to do this, don’t you?’