This hotel in Cancun was rated very highly, one of a chain he and Jeanette were familiar with in the States. He knew he could rely on first-class accommodations, attentive staff, and top-notch meals served in a serene atmosphere conducive to quiet conversation.
Alan, a retired prep school teacher, and his cousin Jeanette, an attractive woman with sleek silver hair and deep blue eyes, had a most advantageous relationship as congenial traveling companions.
They enjoyed the same sorts of hotels, the same type of foods, the same tourist attractions, concerts and plays, and they always had a lot to talk about. They booked side-by-side hotel rooms, so that gathering for sightseeing or heading down to meals was expedient; a polite knock on the door by either one was all that was needed to rouse the other.
They gave the impression, he hoped, of being well traveled, wealthy – but not boorishly so – and cultured. He suspected that people they encountered probably took them for an aging married couple, dignified in their appearance, with an affable manner. That they were socially reserved but moderately approachable was what led, he supposed, to a remarkable occurrence.
It had been six years since Alan’s wife Anne had died. After she’d learned of her illness, Anne had told him she wanted no fuss, no friends to be contacted, nobody to know of her excruciating pain, and, finally, no sympathies to be expressed when she succumbed. She permitted Alan into her hospital room only occasionally. Thus he was spared the sight of her pale bedraggled face on the pillow. She chose to bear her suffering alone and with great dignity, Alan thought. The cancer took her swiftly. Her death was marked by a modest memorial service for family only. Afterward Alan went stoically on with his life, stumbling emotionally from time to time, missing her quiet presence and the simple, uncluttered domestic routine they had shared for many years. He did not contact any friends until months later, according to Anne’s wish.
Seeing his second cousin Jeanette at the memorial service had been a godsend. He hadn’t heard from her in many years, and he discovered she was quite a sensible woman, so when the time was right, he contacted her and invited her to accompany him to a chamber concert in the city. She accepted, and they had an enjoyable evening together. Soon their relationship as cultural and traveling companions was firmly established.
It was Jeanette who had suggested this trip to Cancun. Their outings were predictable, Jeanette leading the way on sightseeing jaunts, with Alan lagging behind. After dinner on the last night of their stay they’d come up to the hotel’s Club Lounge on the fourteenth floor for a brandy and a few hands of gin rummy. They settled themselves at a handsome veneer card table and took in the stunning view of the cold black ocean and boat lights winking in the distance.
Alan nodded to some other guests they had met briefly during the week. One couple – Jameson, he thought their name was – was at a nearby table, leaning in toward each other, engrossed in what seemed to be a serious discussion.
They had met the Jamesons on their first day at the hotel and had chatted with them as they’d waited to be seated for dinner. The woman’s name was Barbara, Alan remembered; she was a Presbyterian minister on holiday from her church somewhere in the Midwest. She was a hardy sort of person, middle-aged, with a shock of curly brown hair above a tanned face. He had caught several glimpses of her during the week, and they had exchanged cheery hellos, but here in the lounge she was frowning and crumpling a cocktail napkin, sliding it from side to side on the table in front of her. Her husband was nodding as she spoke.
Jeanette threw down her cards. “Gin!! Alan, I beat you again. So sorry. Another hand?” She swept the cards from the table and began to shuffle.
“All right,” he said, “give me one more chance for a win.” As he was about to slide his cards from the table, he caught the eye of the Jameson woman. She was looking at him, staring directly at him as though assessing his fortitude. He gave her a quick smile, but her face remained blank. After a moment she rotated her head slowly and returned to conversation with her husband.
“That woman …” Alan began, leaning in to Jeanette.
“That woman – what’s her name, Jameson? – she was staring at me just now. I wonder…”
“What? You’re whispering. You know I can’t hear you when you whisper.” Jeanette sorted the cards in her hand, snapping each one as she slipped it from one position to another.
Damn, he thought, why won’t she get one of those hearing aid things? “Nothing. Never mind.” He sorted his cards and focused on the game.
Soon he noticed the Jameson man stand up, kiss his wife on the top of her head and quietly exit the lounge, leaving her by herself. Strange. A moment later he caught her watching him again; she had in fact twisted in her seat, looking as though she was about to catapult herself toward him.
Alan shifted in his chair. He felt an expectation he was supposed to do something. At last he smiled at her, as it would be rude to ignore her.
The woman rose abruptly and approached their table.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t mean to disturb your game. I’m Barbara Jameson, we met the other night before dinner? Rob has turned in, and I’m just not ready to call it a night.”
“Oh, then join us!” said Jeanette, patting the empty chair between them. “We’re happy to have your company.”
Alan, annoyed by the intrusion, put down his cards. “By all means.” So much for a quiet evening. “Can I order you a drink?”
“No, no thanks, I’ve had enough.”
“Say,” Alan said, ”we visited Chichen Itza the other day. It was amazing. Did you get there?” He felt the most-visited tourist attraction in the area was a good conversation opener.
“It was magnificent, wasn’t it?” the woman said. “We went on Wednesday’s tour. I was simply astonished!”
Barbara proved to be a charming conversationalist. Flushed and eager, she spoke about the astounding scale of the ancient buildings. Soon the three of them were comparing their impressions of the Mayan ruins, exchanging observations about the guide who led them around the site, the luncheon they were served, the oppressive heat, and the long drive. Barbara actually did most of the talking.
“I must say,” offered Jeanette, when she could get a word in, “the trip exhausted me. A long, long day.” She laughed, acknowledging the drawbacks of advancing age.
“I know,” said Barbara, “I was a bit tired myself.” There was a hint of a pause, merely a beat. “I’m dying of cancer, you see.” Another beat. “But the Temple of Warriors was what fascinated me. Climbing those steps gave me such a feeling of ascendance. Exhilaration, as though…”
Alan heard nothing more. I’m dying of cancer. The words stunned him.
“Actually, this is a stopover on our way back from Antarctica,” Barbara said. “Oh, my, what a lovely time we had there.” She launched into a long description of ice and fiords and various penguin species.
Alan’s heart was rattling away. The woman had just said she was dying. Perhaps he’d misheard her. No, he could not have mistaken those words. Jeanette was merely nodding and smiling at Barbara. She must not have heard the part about dying of cancer.
“So, it’s been a marvelous two weeks,” Barbara continued. “I’ll have to check back with the Mayo Clinic as soon as we get home, but this trip, probably my last, has been a great blessing.”
He felt it might be appropriate to say, “Excuse me, did you say ‘the Mayo Clinic’?” but he was too shocked by the mention of her dying. The image of Anne’s frail figure draped along the sterile hospital bed washed over him. His inability to be of use to her, to save her, the horrifying helplessness that had paralyzed him day after day, the fear of what he might have to witness, all returned and filled him with dread.
“The clinic’s getting my money, what little there is, when I’m gone,” Barbara went on. “Terrific people there. Magnificent place.” She proceeded to describe her husband’s agreement with her decision to endow the clinic. Alan looked at Jeanette in alarm. Was she getting any of this? She was acting as if it was any ordinary conversation.
At last Barbara rose. “Well, my friends, I’m heading down to my room. It’s been a long day. But I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Thank you so much for letting me join you.” She excused herself, wishing Alan and Jeanette a safe trip home.
“Jeanette, can you believe that?” Alan asked in a hoarse whisper, though Barbara was well out of earshot.
“I said, do you believe that?” he said, loudly this time. How irritating her deafness was.
“I heard you, Alan. Believe what?”
“She’s dying of cancer!”
“Oh, my God, you didn’t hear that part. One of the first things she said. She said, ‘I’m dying of cancer.’”
“Oh.” Jeanette pondered for a moment. “Then that would explain all that business about the Mayo Clinic. Oh, dear, what a shame.”
“But, Jeanette, it was so strange. She just dropped it into the conversation – ‘I’m dying of cancer’ – like it was nothing!” His face was on fire.
“Oh, yes, how peculiar. I wonder why she did that.” Jeanette seemed only mildly curious about Barbara’s remark.
“Jeanette, it was more than peculiar. It was bizarre! You don’t tell complete strangers you’re dying of cancer. You don’t just drop that bomb on people you barely know.”
“Well, maybe she was trying to elicit some sort of response from us.”
“No! She never gave us a chance to utter a word. She just nattered on about penguins.”
“How odd. She doesn’t look ill, just a bit tired. Are you sure you heard right?”
“Yes. And it’s more than odd. It’s preposterous to say ‘I’m dying of cancer’ out of the blue. What on earth was she thinking of?” Alan’s voice had risen in pitch, the sound barely squeezing out of him.
“Well, I don’t know, Alan. But you seem quite annoyed by it. You’re getting yourself all worked up.”
“Why, I just think it’s remarkable, that’s all, astounding that someone would say something like that.” He retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “Why do these things have to happen to me? It’s very upsetting.”
“I can see that. Now, I’m rather bushed, so I’m heading off to my room.” She stood up, gathering her sweater from the back of her chair.
“But why would she say such a thing?”
“Alan, she’s a minister, a woman of faith. Maybe she has a broader view of death than we do. Are you coming?”
“No, I’m going to order another brandy.” He scanned the room for the waiter. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes. Early breakfast tomorrow, so we can make our flight.” She said goodnight and headed for the elevator.
Alan twisted and turned in his chair. Where was that damn waiter?
Barbara slipped her key card into the door slot, waited for the blinking green light, and leaned her weight onto the heavy polished chrome handle. The door latched noisily behind her. Her husband was propped up against his pillows, reading.
“Well,” he asked, peering over his glasses, “did you do it?”
“Yes. Yes, I did.” Barbara let her evening bag drop onto the bedspread.
“And?” He laid his book on the blanket.
“It wasn’t too bad. I said it, and then I just rambled on about our trip, about what a lovely time we’ve been having.” She sat on the edge of the bed; her body caved in. “But I got the words out. That was the important thing.” She sighed. “I even told them about the clinic.”
“And their reaction?” he said, removing his glasses.
“Well, they didn’t have much, really. They seemed all right with hearing it. No shock, no damage done.”
“Good. Did it help? Do you feel you’re ready?” He smiled to encourage her.
She paused as she ran her fingers through her hair. “Yes, I can do it now.” She turned to him. “I’m ready to tell them. All my friends, my dear parishioners. I can tell them now.” She pursed her lips, and she sighed again, a thin stream of air escaping.
“Good, my love.” Her husband held out his hand. “Now, come to bed.”
Author's Comment “The Rehearsal” was prompted by something that happened to a friend of mine. A woman he barely knew announced in conversation that she was dying of cancer, which he found horrifying. After he told me about her, I kept puzzling over what her motivation might have been. Thus the story was born. As I wrote, the story evolved into an array of difficulties people have when facing their ultimate outcome.