Peer Education
A Short Story by Alice Clark
Written using the suggestion "Success"
Originally featured on 05-12-2009
As part of our series "The Summer of Our Hopes and Fears"

Amy likes to have a smoke after her substance abuse workshops. They get her all riled about individual rights and about what it means to die. Those pictures of the cancer patients, mouths agape in bed. The fact that we all know about death and we talk about dead people, like gossips, having never experienced. Presumptuous.

She wants to talk about what it was like to hold hands with a woman when she wilted at hospice on Tuesday. The greyness of it. The way that she owned it and let her hand rest on her sternum. Feeling the breath go out.

When she presents her power points though, she can’t talk about that. She needs to focus on the statistics and the positive changes that take place in the body after you quit smoking. The way you could do better at your track meets. This is what Peer Education is about. College students don’t care about lung function and they don’t care about lesions on the inside of cheeks. Because the truth is their lungs are probably strong enough to slough the stuff off for at least another decade and the lesions won’t happen unless their immune systems crash. It’s hard to beat a twenty year old body. Like tanks, they take abuse, and college students inherently know this.

She sat there telling me this while I ate small cookies at the tiny café on the edge of campus. Amy’s twenty seven, but wouldn’t tell you she’s nervous; she likes to be a soothsayer. We were perched on black vinyl stools at a bistro table. Backs crooked. She told me that the saddest thing in the world is a girl with a 100 calorie pack of Oreos. Both stringent self-control and shameful indulgence. Plus, they’re not even real, just flat black disks with bits of white artificial cream. She was exactly right. I ordered a milkshake.

Amy cares about lungs more than she’d like to admit, but she also knows why people kill themselves slowly, and she encourages both self-care and abandon. She won a huge scholarship this year for effective programming. For her public demonstrations. Something like The Truth campaign. She used the money to start the peer education group because she thought young messages would be effective. The money came through the counseling center though, and they do love their power points.

I told Amy I have lymphoma late on a Tuesday. Accidentally. I walked by her dorm room and her door was open. She was bent over her desk, engrossed in something other than the time or date. I sat on a neon pink futon and told her I had to leave school. The neighbor’s gangster rap rumbled through the concrete block around us. I told her that I was pissed that I was so young and that something in me, that bit that’s supposed to protect the young with its optimism and defiance, had somehow failed me, in favor of the subtle rotting of middle age. My hair was becoming dull no matter how much twenty dollar hair spray I used while listening to The Shins and primping for clubbing. I told her that I’d be moving home with my mother. Getting a central line. She looked up, eyes direct, and told me to enjoy it. That she wanted me to exist in it. To be good at dying and to be loud about it and I liked the irreverence in her. The way she didn’t tell me it would be ok.

I saw her youth and saw that it was the best of it and I wanted to sponsor her, let her be louder and keep running with it, as long as she could mock death, until somewhere deep into her forties, clutching her crushed cigarettes and neon pink demonstration signs.

Read More By Alice Clark

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