Until There's a Cure
A rare encounter at a small-town gas station: a late-middle-aged pump attendant, missing at least half of her teeth (so far a common enough occurrence in these — or any other — parts of this meth-blighted county), noticing my silver bracelet and pushing up her sleeve to reveal its exact likeness; then, as if to quell my silently rising doubt, turning it on her wrist with an apparent tenderness and satisfying me fully: there — the only ornamentation on an otherwise featureless band — was the tiny ribbon, argent and embossed.
"Until There's a Cure," I thought aloud the words engraved on the inner lip of the bracelet.
To this, the woman nodded so somberly that there seemed a redundancy in asking whether she had lost somebody, too. The brief silence we then shared felt heavier and more rife than any that can fall between complete strangers. After she'd walked away to attend to the other vehicles, and with the gas still flooding my line, I marveled to my husband over the chances of it: the bracelet itself was over twenty-five years old, its advent in my family predating the AIDS-related death of my Uncle Jimmy. Moreover, it was one of a limited edition; yet here, in this postage stamp of a town on the Oregon Coast, I had come upon another.
While my husband was inside the station, the woman returned to my pump — somewhat prematurely, it appeared — in order to check my line. Rather than walk away again, however, she proceeded to hover near the window of my vehicle. Then, suddenly:
"Do you ever take it off?" she asked in her gravelly manner, to which I replied in the negative. "Not," I mused inwardly, "Until There's a Cure."
Something in my response — perhaps in how nearly my relationship to the timeworn metal band mirrored her own — seemed to lend her a permission to probe the affinity of our experience a little further.
"Do a lot of people think that the ribbon stands for breast cancer?"
I nodded. Here, the pump behind her emitted an urgent-sounding beep, and she disengaged the hose from my fuel tank. My husband had since returned to car, but I hesitated to turn the engine over. It was as though neither the woman nor I had been released from our chance sympathy, which was founded, at once, upon an artifact so trivial, and a truth so large, but so lonely...
"...And when you tell them what it really stands for, do they look at you kind of weird?"
Yes! Yes! I wanted to exclaim, That's exactly how it is! And if my Uncle Jimmy were to come back now so that I might know him in the flesh instead of just through stories and pictures (like his black-and-white actor's photograph, the one hanging above my Aunt Ann's bed, which shows him sitting across from a dog at a table dressed for tea and fixing the photographer with a single brow arched above an absurdly decorous expression), he would find the world barely less apathetic than it was when the president refused to speak the name of the plague that was killing our artists. Yet how I would have loved him. How I love him still; despite never having known him.
Instead, to her question, I replied, "Always," forgetting that this was no longer true.