So much Pierre had yet to do despite twenty-eight years on this planet.
The to-dos came to him in threes (usually after his morning bowel movement). He didn’t know why they interrupted whatever thought he was having at the time, or why they did so in that particular number, but he kept a list on his phone app, and decided he needed to complete each task.
He’d had acute myeloid leukemia. His doctor put his chances of surviving the stem cell transplant at 70%, his chances of finding a perfect match donor also 70%. Multiplied together, Pierre’s probability of survival at that moment was just 49%.
“Fifty-fifty. Isn’t that everyone’s odds every day?” Pierre asked.
The doctor chuckled and later apologized for doing so.
Two years later, Pierre was still here. He’d recovered and now had an unknown number of years to do everything he’d ever wanted to do with his life. The only problem: he’d never kept a bucket list, never even considered death until the doctor kept uttering phrases like “life-threatening condition” and “you can die from” blah-blah-blah (spoiler: just about anything and everything). But now the list was making itself, like a divine revelation.
Pierre packed a sizable backpack and set off to complete his first list.
- Make a black friend
- Fire a gun
- Learn to drive stick
He rented a car with manual transmission and managed to clumsily drive across the Lincoln Tunnel to a firing range in New Jersey (stop, start, stop-start, beep-beep!). The shooting instructor fortuitously happened to be African American. His name was Jesus. Pierre asked Jesus many questions about himself. A Republican who bragged about his litter of assault rifles like a parent brags about his children, Jesus was married to his male partner, a theater publicist in the city. Pierre invited the couple to dinner when he got back to New York and left his phone number because that’s what friends do.
- Spend a day with a child
- Catch a fish
He drove west blindly. His inability to simultaneously manage the clutch and gearshift combined with his repeated stops on the side of the road to consult the internet for instructions on how to drive stick slowed the progress of his journey. He hated that word “journey.” While he was ill, he never went anywhere. A journey had a road with signs and mile markers. A journey could not be had from the inside of an isolation ward. Even if this were his final journey, at least he would be using the correct word. He also hated the phrase “fighting an illness.” He didn’t fight anything. He lay there while doctors poisoned him and took him to within an inch of death, before bringing him back to life. He couldn’t eat for weeks because food tasted like wet paper and the inside of his mouth and his throat were covered with little ulcers from the chemo. He lost fifty pounds. He couldn’t remember five hours of his life because the busulfan triggered a seizure. He couldn’t have won a fight with a toddler.
High on coke, Pierre went to a playground and watched two girls playing some sort of game with their hands. They clapped in unison, then struck their palms together. One of the girls wore a bike helmet. A woman, perhaps a mother to one or both, was locking up her cruiser cycle against the chain-link fence.
“What’s the name of this game?” Pierre asked the girls.
“Patty cakes,” they replied in unison.
“Can you teach me how to play?”
Soon, they were playing patty cakes like an oddly cast color guard trio. The woman approached. She smiled at Pierre like she was afraid. He asked the girls to play faster. Faster. More. He invited the woman to join in.
“Have you ever played this game before? It’s fucking awesome!” Pierre shouted.
“We have to go,” she said, her voice tremulate.
Pierre continued to patty-cake. “But you just got here!”
“We have to go,” she repeated, grabbing a hand of each of the girls.
Pierre had difficulty explaining his actions and whereabouts to Jeanne, his girlfriend of eight years. She had nursed him back to health, cooking every meal Pierre had eaten both inside and outside the hospital. He’d been severely immunocompromised, so they had to adhere to a strict low-bacteria diet, which meant raw fruits and vegetables were excluded and meats had to be cooked to the point of toughness. On top of these restrictions, Pierre was a picky eater who only ate foods the texture of mush. He would have rather starved than consume legumes, asparagus, or quinoa. A college administrator, Jeanne became the sole breadwinner of their household, after Pierre couldn’t return to his job teaching fourth grade because kids were germ explosives. She had collected his stool samples because he was unwilling to confront his waste. Pierre told Jeanne the illness made him realize that he had many things left to do in this life and he couldn’t wait any longer to do them. She asked him to come home and rationalized that perhaps the donor’s stem cells and the new bone marrow and blood they produced were the reasons for Pierre’s strange behavior (and made a note of emailing the doctor about this as soon as possible). Pierre promised to call each week around the same time because he agreed it was unfair for Jeanne to be worried. He didn’t want to break up per se, but Jeanne deserved a present partner like anyone else. Though he didn’t say this aloud, in his mind, Pierre had already crossed “find true love” off his list.
- Start a fight
- Urinate on a church
- Run a 10K
When he pissed on the steps of a chapel in a town in Ohio, a priest ran out and threatened to call the police. Pierre zipped up and swung a closed fist at him. The priest dodged and tackled Pierre, knocking his wind out. The holy man hulked over him.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You’re not supposed to say hell,” replied Pierre.
“I’m calling the police,” said the priest. “Unless you want to come in and discuss your problems.”
“I had leukemia for no fucking reason,” Pierre said, getting to his feet. “I was a decent person. I never hurt anybody. I tried to treat others with respect even when I didn’t want to. I never smoked or did any drugs, not even cocaine! I was an above-average boyfriend. I listened and gave gifts. No cheating or anything—porn only on occasion. Why did God try to kill me?”
“Ah,” the priest said, nodding, his arms akimbo. “I understand now. You—”
Pierre punched him in the jaw and sprinted a half mile into a park, inside of which was the start line to “Run For A Cure,” a 10K race that benefited breast cancer research.
- Sex with a man
- Hunt game
- Swim in the ocean
He asked the front desk guy at the hotel where one could find a john.
“Like a toilet?”
“No, a male hooker,” clarified Pierre.
The guy’s response (“um…”) was useless. Pierre had driven eighteen hours straight to New Orleans, peeing in plastic water bottles along the way. He waited until after dark and asked the same question of a bartender on Bourbon Street.
“I don’t even know if I can do it,” Pierre said. “You know, like, get it up.”
The bartender started giving him free shots of bourbon. Pierre was so drunk that by the time he took the drag queen to his car, he had to settle for a lousy hand job that lasted forty-five minutes because indeed he couldn’t get it up. While the john worked (and worked), Pierre reviewed in his head the functions of the various gearshifts on a car with manual transmission. Afterward, he walked alone into Lake Pontchartrain (thinking it was the Gulf of Mexico), imagining he was Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. But the water was cold and oily, and he remembered that he wasn’t Jesus or a particularly good swimmer. Pierre stumbled ashore, freezing and nauseous, and puked up liquor and seawater before passing out as the sun rose.
- Start a fire without matches
- Commit arson
- Beg for change in the streets
He took a hunter education course to complete his previous list, and consequently, received some rudimentary instructions on how to start a campfire. That night, he chose, as his begging place, the awning of a hardware store on the main drag of the small Texas town. He called Jeanne and reported that he was sleeping on a sidewalk, and that he had collected just fifty cents in three hours, and the temperature was below freezing, and he was wearing nearly every piece of clothing he’d packed. Jeanne made a few exasperated noises and formed some half-words before managing to say:
“Please come home already. Talk to me. Tell me everything.”
It was a tempting offer, one that brought tears to Pierre’s eyes. “Part of me wants to,” he said. He waited for a response. But none came. His phone battery died prematurely in the cold.
Pierre picked up his Swiss Army knife and flint, the tools necessary to complete the latest list. He began striking one of the blades against the flint repeatedly. He must have been at it for two hours. He couldn’t get the sparks to light the tiny mound of shredded newspaper and cardboard bits he’d gathered. All he could achieve was a snail’s trail of smoke. He decided that smoke counted and struck “starting a fire without matches” and “commit arson” off his list.
- Help someone in need from another country
- Become fluent in Spanish with Jeanne
- Raise decent children
This morning’s list surprised Pierre. It was not one that could be executed upon quickly. It required that he plan for the long-term and presume he would be in good health for many years. Jeanne would have to take him back. They’d have to adopt; the chemo left Pierre infertile. Still, for some reason, in a parking lot in Arizona between a pancake house and a strip club named Pinky Perrito, very full after consuming an All-Star Special™ breakfast, Pierre drew a blank on other to-dos and slept most of the day.
- Sing karaoke
- Smoke crack
- Drive a Ford truck
Outside the Sing-Sing House (a local nickname; the establishment’s signage consisted of seven Hangul characters with no English translation), Pierre borrowed the owner’s Ford pickup and did donuts in the empty parking lot, while puffing on a crack pipe. This was the way life should be, he thought, as he drove around and around, getting increasingly dizzy as his heart rate accelerated. This was ecstasy. This was the feeling the Romantics wrote about in their poems. (He couldn’t remember any of the poets’ names.) The dizziness led to nausea, which led to him choking on crack smoke, which led to him having a coughing fit and slamming on the brakes. The owner of the truck sprinted out of the Sing-Sing House and at Pierre, face stricken with fear over the state of his vehicle.
- Ride a skateboard
- Go to an S&M party
- Get a mani-pedi
Pierre was in San Francisco. For a week and a half, he had been ignoring phone calls regarding the rental car, which he had originally reserved for just three days. By now, the company had likely reported the vehicle stolen. He planned to leave it and continue his journey on foot, hitchhiking and using public transportation when prudent. He’d been wearing the same clothes for four days and smelled as one might expect under that circumstance. He had withdrawn all the cash from his checking account, the one he didn’t share with Jeanne. He paid for his mani-pedi with a hundred. Regarding the many scrapes on Pierre’s knees and elbows from teaching himself to skateboard, the Vietnamese woman commented loudly to her co-workers in her native tongue, and they responded with copious laughter. Pierre thought they were amused at the concept of a man getting a mani-pedi.
“I have a party to go to tonight,” he explained.
- Help someone in need from another country
- Become fluent in Spanish with Jeanne
- Raise decent children
His ass was sore from the paddling he’d received at the bondage party. His hands were oleaginous with lube that he couldn’t seem to wash off. Skateboarding had been a failure; he simply couldn’t stay upright. He had tossed the board, the pads, wrist guards, and helmet. He boarded a bus west and disembarked at the end of line. The ocean was before him, singing its ever-living aria. Where else could Pierre go? What else was there to do? His imagination had run dry.
He limped toward the water. He couldn’t move his left hand without sharp pain and wondered if his wrist had been broken in one of his many falls at the skate park.
Pierre suddenly wanted to tell Jeanne about that day, a few weeks before these lists started coming to him, he passed a church with a sign out front that read: “7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily / open for meditation or prayer or just to hang out!”
Inside, he sat in the pews and stared up at the stained-glass panels until the colors bled into one another and every apostle’s face looked like Jesus. The church smelled of a pillow freshly slept upon by God. It was so quiet and peaceful. Pierre realized his existence was utterly meaningless, and to his surprise, he was relieved.
Why had he survived while better people died?
Outside the chapel, the street was so noisy and crowded with those wanting and getting things. The weather was hot and humid, and you could smell it all: sweat, exhaust, spittle, the tears of children. The scent of the eucalyptus trees recalled that of semen. City workers were tarring the pavement. Everywhere it smelled of beginnings with no end. He remembered how powerful the smells were when he finally left the hospital. A wayward breeze could make him double over with nausea. If you haven’t gone through it, you’ll never understand what it’s like to receive a death sentence, to separate from the ranks of the young and healthy forever, to have a pretty good idea that if you made it through the cure, some other cancer would likely kill you later. You might realize that when you were healthy, you squandered your life. The regrets come at you like angry bees and you have to tell yourself to write them down three at a time or you’ll have a panic attack. You think about telling Jeanne how you feel, but you know she won’t understand—because she’s healthy. She’s just trying to restore your life to the way it was, when every option was open, and you were free and your lives had seemingly infinite possibilities. But in reality, you two were just like everyone else. Crossing off the day’s to-do list. Mistaking errand-running for living.
A block from the ocean, a brown man pulled alongside Pierre on a bicycle, and in its basket was a red pizza box sleeve.
“Yo soy Pierre y yo soy de New York y me gusta vivir y ninos no me gusta chemotherapie,” said Pierre. He had stopped by a bookstore and purchased a beginning Spanish textbook.
“I do not know what you are saying,” replied the guy. He locked up his bike, lifted the sleeved pizza box out of the basket, and added, “Sorry, I have no change.”
Pierre realized the pizza fellow was likely from India. “Here,” he said, taking the box from the delivery guy’s hands, ignoring the pain in his wrist. “Let me help. Tell me where you want to go.”
The guy looked at Pierre like he was insane, but allowed him to help. When the elderly woman offered Pierre a tip, he pointed to the delivery guy.
Afterward, Pierre drifted alone to the beach, flung off his shoes, and savored the feeling of the coarse, sharp sand on the soles of his feet and betwixt his toes—the pain and discomfort meant he was alive. He glanced down at his phone. A long list of unreturned calls, more from the rental car company, a few from Jeanne. He opened his list app and saw most of his to-dos were fully crossed off—completed. He glanced at the ocean, roiling, beckoning, waves rising and folding over and over like days. I could keep going west, Pierre thought. Or do the remaining items on the list.
He called Jeanne and asked if she wanted to take Spanish lessons with him.