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The Adventures of Cancer Chick and HIV Boy

Prologue

We're suckers for plot twists. Bruce Willis was really dead, Jason's mother was chopping up the camp counselors, all of them participated in the titular murder on that train through Asia - these twists and turns and curveballs in the path of expectation were juicy and delicious. That's the good news.

The bad news is that they have turned us into the sort of folk that try to figure out the zig-zagging story before the killer is unmasked, so to speak. We pride ourselves on being able to see the plot twist before anyone else does and often brag about it endlessly upon exiting the movie theater or closing the book.

But even we didn't see these plot twists coming. Rick never would've guessed that at 34 years of age he would find out he was infected with HIV - a disease he thought he was smart enough not to get. And Mary wouldn't have dreamed that a couple of months after Rick's big news that she would be diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized to the liver.

Kind of makes the whole "I see dead people" thing pale by comparison, doesn't it?

This is our story, for what it's worth. We are unremarkable in just about every way, except for perhaps our lousy timing, so if you're expecting something more than just the story of two friends who loved one another and amused one another through some of our darkest days then perhaps you should go check out what Oprah is pitching this month.

We're not promising any grand insights into life or death or the meaning of either, since it is our fervent belief that such insights, if they happen at all, are reserved for the moment when you leave this mortal plain. It's the ultimate joke, really. You finally understand the meaning of life at the very moment yours is over. God has a wicked sense of humor.

No, this is just a story. Two friends. Two diseases. Two plot twists in the grand movie that we call life. Feel free to make popcorn.

Episode 1: Superheroes Meet; Rick's Version

I met Mary when I was working at a large talent agency in Los Angeles that shall go unnamed unless there is an agent at that company that wants to champion this book and then, well, all bets are off. Talent agencies such as this one are the ultimate Hollywood cesspool, reeking with the detritus of multi-million dollar deals and expensive shoes.

But I was young - around 22 - and the very fact that stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michelle Pfeiffer walked by my window, and occasionally ducked into my office to grab a drink from the water fountain and completely ignore me in the process, made me practically giddy. My weekly phone calls to the parents and friends in Iowa were filled with breathless details about the latest celebrity that I caught a glimpse of and everyone, including myself, was suitably awed by the grand Tinsel Town magic of the whole thing.

That lasted about a week. Then I started to smell the aforementioned cesspool and it all went downhill from there.

Don't get me wrong. I know that Hollywood is a business and that people need to make money off of it but seeing men and women in $1,000 suits driving cars that cost more than most houses wouldn't have bothered me so much if these men and women didn't act as if those expensive suits and cars made them better than guys like me who shopped at K-mart and drove crappy '81 Mustangs with leaking roofs.

I was the dispatch manager, which meant that I was in charge of a staff of messengers who delivered the latest blockbuster scripts to the biggest blockbuster stars in the hopes that the two would converge into some blockbuster box office somewhere down the road. I'd like to say that I had some sort of hand in the making of Hollywood magic but the reality is that I just shuffled paperwork around, pointed, and generally allowed these "very important" people to make my life miserable.

Mary worked for one of the agents in the building and so we met one day by phone first I would imagine, although the details all these years later are a bit sketchy. But it makes sense that she probably called me to tell me she needed a messenger to deliver something dreadfully urgent that might mean the difference between the human race surviving or not - or at least I'm sure that's how the agent thought of it.

I still don't remember how or why we connected or what made us pick each other out in that particular cesspool as being someone that might be worth knowing, but ultimately I think the two of us coming together as friends was one of those twists of fate that shouldn't be looked at too closely. It's like finding out how the magic trick was done. It just isn't as interesting when you look at it again.

I'd prefer to just remain in awe of it.

Episode 2: Superheroes Meet; Mary's Version

I got my M. A. in film and television from UCLA, a happy event tarnished by timing, as I was just in time to hit the job market during a massive writer's strike. (No, no, not the one that just happened, the one that was years aqo, you whippersnappers.) I bounced between temp jobs, before landing what seemed like a good gig at a major talent agency. It wasn't that I wanted to be an agent--though I had managed a band during college and would for some years book shows and do other agent-like things in the Hollywood club scene--but I did want a steady paycheck doing interesting work. The work certainly was interesting--my boss was a casting agent, which meant her job was to try to place as many agency clients in upcoming movies as possible--but it also was stressful in that particular Hollywood way--my boss was, oh, let's say demanding and exacting, and leave it at that. After all, I'm not a licensed psychotherapist, so it wouldn't be ethical to make a clinical diagnosis.

Not one to engage in Hollywood notions of hierarchy, but one who does notice things people put on their bulletin boards, one day when I stopped to chat with the guy who coordinated the messengers (oh, please, darling, just not done; you only notice the messenger office when they don't break the laws of physics and get your package to its destination within moments of the request for delivery), and observed he had a Bloom County strip pinned up. This particular one was a poignant, yet still funny, strip about the untimely death of Gilda Radner. I love Bloom County. I loved that strip. No one else in the company had a sense of humor, near as I could tell. So I talked to Rick about it.

That's what life turns on. Not dimes, but pieces of newsprint. On small decisions made with very little, if any, thought at all. Sometimes, I like to scare myself, the fun kind of scare, the kind you get watching horror movies, by imagining what would have happened if he hadn't taped up that strip, if I hadn't noticed it, if we hadn't talked. It really freaks me out, but then I can calm down by reminding myself that I don't have to worry about that, or the guy with the ax who is in the house with you, because it's only make-believe.

Rick and I went out to dinner shortly thereafter, and quickly ascertained several important things: 1) We both have the same sense of humor and got along like we had already known each other our whole lives. 2) He is gay and a man. 3) I an straight and a woman. There was nothing to do for it but become best friends for the rest of our lives.

I think we've done pretty well so far.

I know I have a lot of living left to do in order to have enough time to be as good a friend to him as he's been to me.

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