“Dr. Pepper” by Leanne Sowul

20 November 2020 on Nonfiction  

It was the spring of eighth grade, and Laura and I had fallen for the same guy. His real name was Derek, but between us we called him Dr. Pepper based on his initials, D.R, and occasionally Mr. Green after the T-shirt he wore most often. Multiple code names were required to cloak our constant conversations about him. Our joint crush was thrilling and its exposure my biggest fear, until the cancer diagnosis that would come after school let out for the summer.

Our friend Jessi was the only one who knew that we were both crushing on Dr. Pepper, and she didn’t get it. Derek wasn’t physically built like Kevin or nerdy-cute like Matt. But he was smart and funny, constantly joking around with our teachers, even the aptly-named Ms. Payne who painted over the clock in our classroom so we couldn’t count down the minutes to the bell. I didn’t know the word at the time, but Dr. Pepper had charisma, and Laura and I were enthralled by his confident presence. I sat behind him in English; Laura gazed across the room at him in Social Studies; the three of us struggled through Earth Science together. 

Laura’s crush was more casual— she also liked a boy named Mark. But I was fully devoted to Dr. Pepper, writing “Leanne & Derek” in the corners of my Five-Star notebooks, hiding the scribbled hearts behind my cupped hands whenever he turned around to whisper a grammar-related pun or check whether he’d gotten the right answer for problem twelve. Those were the moments that filled me with bubbly happiness, distracting me from the changes in my own body.

“You’re getting super-skinny,” Jessi said one day in French class, not bothering to keep the envy out of her tone. But I wasn’t trying to lose weight. I was barely conscious of my body at all. There must have been other physical changes, ones that my parents dismissed as teenaged hormones but would later learn were warning signs of something much more serious. I took no notice. My world was the sum total of my friends, my classes, and my secret crush.

In mid-May, Jessi— out of jealousy, perhaps— outed Laura’s and my crush to our entire Earth Science class. Whispers flew around the room, reaching Derek in seconds. “Leanne and Laura BOTH like you!” His cheeks, always a bit ruddy, brightened magenta. That was the last glimpse I had of him before I buried my head in my arms, shielding my face with a curtain of hair to protect me from all the giggling and pointing.

Laura told everyone she didn’t like Derek any more, even though she did; I wore black to school the next day and tried to act invisible. But our crush-revelation still fueled every conversation about the approaching eighth-grade semiformal. Would we go? Would Derek ask one or both of us to dance? Laura had gone to dances in the past, but I’d always been too shy. I finally purchased my ticket on the last day and found a ten-dollar periwinkle dress printed with sunflowers at the mall.

The school gym looked just as I’d feared: girls grouped together, giggling and swaying to the music, while boys gathered in the corners, watching us. Some of the popular girls got asked to dance, but Laura and I were second-tier. Before long, though, my friends and I were dancing with abandon, feeling the swirl of our dresses around our legs, taking up space. I can only fantasize that it was this version of me letting go of my shyness and giving into the thrill of dancing that prompted Derek to approach me when a slow song began playing near the end of the night.

“Do you want to dance?” he asked.

This was how we danced: a foot of space between us, sweaty hands on shoulders and waists. For once, Derek was quiet— no jokes, no teasing. To the outside observer, it must have looked tame. But inside my head: fireworks. My skin was fizzing with nervous joy. The first time I’d ever been asked to dance, and it was a guy I liked— a guy who knew I liked him, and asked me anyway, which meant he must like me back. His lack of conversation, so different from his usual banter, felt significant, as though he trusted me with his quietude. It was the best two-and-a-half minutes of my nascent teenaged life. At the end of the song, he released my hand and we each returned to our friends. I went straight up to Jessi and laughed in her face. In hindsight, I probably should have thanked her for blabbing.

We all waited to see if he’d ask Laura to dance, too, but he never did. She was satisfied by her dance with Mark. Secretly, I rejoiced in the indisputable fact that Derek had chosen me.

For days afterward, I trolled the radio in search of the song we’d danced to, “Lightning Crashes.” I caught it four days later and added it to my crush-struck mix tape along with a Mariah Carey song and some Boyz II Men. As the school year ended and summer began, I daydreamed for hours while listening to that tape, reliving the moment when Derek put his hands around my waist. I listened to it on the morning my pediatrician first felt the lump in my neck. A few days later, I popped it into my Walkman on the way to see the endocrinologist who told my parents and me that a biopsy would be pointless. It was cancer. 

Within days, my list of teenaged firsts expanded to include not only my first big crush, my first mean-girl experience, and my first dance, but also my first hospital stay, my first surgery, and my first dose of synthetic thyroid hormone. My first shot of pre-surgical Demerol delivered my first experience of what it felt like to be drunk. I acquired my first scar, a gash that looked like an extra mouth, twisted into a cruel smile, sewn into my throat. I witnessed my solid, predictable parents fall apart for the first time, then knit themselves back together again, a pattern that would continue over the next four years. As those real and scary firsts accumulated, they all seemed to be happening to someone else. This couldn’t be my real life; my real life was back in that Earth Science classroom, hidden under the covers of Five-Star notebooks, fantasizing with Laura about boys.

School was out for summer, and social media was a decade away, so the news of my cancer only traveled by phone to the kids still in town. Friends brought gifts and hugs to my hospital room. Laura camped out for hours every day. To every stranger who walked in the room, we pretended we were sisters. I got flowers and cards and balloons, but nothing from Derek. “He probably hasn’t heard,” I told Laura.

“I don’t like him anymore,” Laura announced. She told me about a new guy from her theater group who was cuter and funnier than Derek. “And anyway, Dr. Pepper didn’t ask me to dance. He only asked you. So, it’s only fair that I give him up.”

And also, I said, because I had cancer now.

“That too,” Laura said.

It must have been my fourth or fifth day in the hospital when Laura, desperate to cheer me up, started making out with a balloon. I’d been even more depressed than usual after hearing that my doctors would be keeping me in the pediatric wing for at least another day. Laura turned on the transistor radio by my bed, grabbed a bright yellow, smiley-face helium balloon from my bouquet and held it aloft with both hands.

“Who’s this?” she said. “Is it… Dr. Pepper?” She danced the balloon around the room to the beat of the music. It wasn’t “Lightning Crashes,” but it did the trick. I was transported back to our school gym, watching myself dance with Derek. For a few minutes, while Laura twirled around my hospital bed with a ridiculous yellow balloon, I wasn’t the cancer kid. I was ordinary Leanne again, with an ordinary teenage crush, dancing sweaty-handed at a school dance.

Laura hammed it up, making exaggerated kissing noises against the shiny yellow mylar. “Ooh, Dr. Pepper, you’re soooo cute!” she crooned. The balloon bobbed comically in mid-air, and I began to laugh. She twirled, dipping the balloon back in her arms like the finale of a Disney princess movie, and just then, one of my nurses walked in. Laura froze, mid-smooch. The nurse put up both hands and backed out of the room. We burst into hysterical giggling as Laura released the balloon.

At the time I’d thought that moment of unexpected joy was due to my crush and the reminder that there was a normal teenaged world to return to when the scariness of hospitals and surgeries and radioactive therapy was over. I’d already begun to compartmentalize my life: this was the cancer-time, but when it was over I’d go back to my real life. Real life was school and friends and vacations with my family. Real life held space for crushes on boys, giggling with friends, dreaming about school dances. The time in hospitals and doctor’s offices and struggling with post-surgical pain was all something else, another world that I only entered when necessary.

But as time went on, I began to see the real significance of that moment when my best friend kissed a balloon. Laura became the bridge between my two worlds. We were together at school, passing notes in the hallways and sitting together in the cafeteria, and together on the weekends, having sleepovers and movie nights. Other friends joined us in those places, but Laura was the only person I let cross into the cancer-time. My third and fourth surgeries were in Boston, four hours away. She came for both, waiting with my family while I was in surgery, helping to keep my sister distracted and my parents from crying. She was there when I opened my eyes in the hospital room, there when the Demerol wanted me to jump out the window, and there when the surgeons told me that they hadn’t been able to remove every scrap of the new tumor. In the middle of twelfth grade, she was the first person I called when my PET scan finally came back clean. Laura hadn’t merely kissed a balloon for me. She’d stepped up to be my partner, dancing me through four years of cancer, keeping my spirits aloft.

As for Dr. Pepper, I saw him again the first week of ninth grade. The high school was bigger than our middle school, and I didn’t seem to have any classes with him. Finally, on the third or fourth day, I spotted him lumbering down the hall with his L.L. Bean backpack slung over one shoulder, looking as cool and charismatic as ever. As I rehearsed my opening line in my head, he saw me, and his eyes lit. “Hey!” he called, not breaking stride as we passed each other. “Hey,” I said back, unsure if the cacophony of the hallway would swallow my one word.

And then, surprisingly, I felt nothing. No “Lightning Crashes,” no sweaty palms, no desire to close the gap between us. That gap had been filled by my best friend, my bridge between worlds. 

I spotted Laura down the hall, caught up with her, and the two of us walked onward together.

***

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer whose publication credits include Juxtaprose, Hippocampus Magazine, Rappahannock Review, Confrontation, and Mothers Always Write. In early 2020, Leanne was selected to read her essay “The Band Room” at Read 650's sold-out "Gratitude" show at Lincoln Center. She is currently querying agents for her historical novel, The Eugenicist's Assistant. Leanne lives with her family in the Hudson Valley area of New York, where she teaches elementary band, takes long walks, bakes cookies, and reads voraciously. Laura is still her best friend. Please reach out to Leanne at www.leannesowul.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter, "The Joyful Creative," or on Twitter and Instagram @sowulwords. 

Art by Steve Johnson on Unsplash. Artist Website: artbystevej.com 

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