Carmen got married at eighteen, to a man that was becoming less inappropriately old for her with every passing year. When Dan met Carmen she was in chemo, on a medical break from her senior year of high school. To Carmen, Dan was a future. He was domestic, and caring, and laughter passed over his face in a gleaming streak, catching his eyes, his beard, his teeth. If Carmen had been well she might have wanted somebody more unsteady, someone who would keep her up crying, pining and generally going teengirl crazy.

What Carmen really wanted at eighteen was a love that was everywhere, like God was for some people, or college baseball was for her dad. There was a video going around the internet of a little girl with leukemia that had a wedding with her male nurse. They gave her a white bouquet, and the unlikely pair walked the hospital arm and arm. A dying wish, Carmen knew, was a powerful thing that could turn duty into love. You could make promises to a dying person concerning forever, since they knew nothing about it.

There were probably a myriad of things that could have prompted Dan to marry Carmen. A surprise pregnancy, a death in the family, maybe even a casual ask. Duty spun at the center of Dan’s being. In ancient times, he would have carried Juno across the river, and parted the seas if it meant that one girl with chemically shedding blonde hair would get to live out a childish marriage fantasy.

Carmen’s parents were mostly alright with Dan. Carmen was an adult, technically, and her parents had married young themselves. He was also a good practical addition, able to play nurse when Carmen’s mom was off project managing and her dad was off doing graphic design or whatever he did. Carmen preferred Dan’s care to that of her parents. When she was only a little bit achy, he would bump the heating pad against the more sensitive parts of her and watch her curl up like a pill bug. 

Even at eighteen Carmen knew that Dan liked dollish things, and Carmen at eighteen was a very dollish thing, small and translucent all over. She was also a loud, boyish thing, whose silken, spectral body often made open, angular shapes – more wooden soldier than crystal figurine.

In many ways, Dan had saved Carmen’s life. It was his idea to set up the online fundraiser that would pay for her medical bills, and to upload videos from the hospital of Carmen charming the nurses. Having captured the collective heart of a very small but passionate contingent of the internet, Carmen became subtly famous off a semi-national news story, which was enough traction to get her onto Marty in the Morning, and eventually, the Portland comedy circuit.

At twenty, Carmen beat cancer, and took on comedy full-time. She underwent the local comedian version of a Disney Channel star’s quarter life crisis. She started saying fuck and making jokes about fucking and smoking cigarettes and then quitting immediately because she already had one kind of cancer, and she didn’t need another. She began growing her hair, actively, with horse mane oils and tuna sandwiches with avocado. Carmen could remember the moment she finally felt like she was on the other side of things, on a weepy summer day when she wedged a hand between her hair and her neck, and felt her body making warmth. 

It was a secret worry of Carmen’s that Dan couldn’t love things that weren’t broken. She felt guilty for growing pink and taking up more of the bed with her aliveness.  After all, Carmen was so young for so long that, at the beginning of their marriage, Dan was raising her. 

“Can I have a sip?” Purple-knuckled hands reached for his glass.

“You’re nineteen.”

“Red wine is good for you! I heard it cures cancer,” she added, dropping her eyes into his like marbles.

“That’s crap.”

“C’mon.  Give some wine to your child bride.”

He faced her more fully. “You’re an adult.”

“Then gimme.”

She always cornered him somehow. When Carmen thought about the two of them as a unit, she saw herself running hyperactive circles around Dan, who sat back in a manila-colored armchair, watching her. 


Carmen choked chalky tablets down dry. She inherited a couple things from her sick years, the most valuable being the ability to throw back pharmaceuticals by the handful. Also,  the fluffy non-slip hospital socks, which she replenished in bulk every few months. 

The bathroom was all blue streaks and pink stars around the sides of her eyes. Her head ached off and on the entire month, and now was the worst timing. Carmen flew out of the bathroom and took her place by the wall, while she waited for her name to be called.

Every funny blonde woman in Portland was packed into that aqua-colored waiting room – some regulars at Carmen’s usual clubs, and even the lady from the banking commercial whose whole thing was being horny for lower interest rates. Carmen auditioned for that role, but she never had a shot. No matter how much big girl sex she had with Dan, the industry regarded her as a perpetual virgin — the good kind. Mother Mary, not Steve Carrell. Her last television role was a kindergarten teacher in Kangaroo Classroom (a terrible new PBS show that was canceled immediately). 

“Carmen Gladwell?”

Each syllable was a sharp knock to her skull. An assistant no older than twenty emerged from the far door. Carmen’s head was still beating, but she approached the door with purpose. She heard the banking commercial girl say something. Maybe that she was horny for Carmen to fail, but more likely “good luck”.

Somewhere between entering the room and taking her place in front of the casting panel, Carmen’s vision glazed over like hot shower glass. She blinked to clear the muckiness away, but nothing changed. Some translucent smudge of a person began to speak to her, but Carmen could only register angry yellow flares. She waited for the flares to disappear and began to speak. The sound of Carmen’s own voice was no more comprehensible than anybody else’s. She could not see, and she could not hear, and soon enough her consciousness ribboned out of her body like a tape measure snapping back into place, except instead of everything shooting back in, all of Carmen zipped out, until the vacant body folded on the linoleum. 

Dan was at the hospital when they finally managed to get Carmen back inside of herself. She woke up stinging with humiliation, and the first thing she asked was, “Did the fucking bank girl get it?” and Dan replied he had no way of knowing that, but he was glad to know her priorities were completely out of order.

Him standing over her shielding her from the green cast of the overhead lights was too familiar. She sat up to prove things were different on her end, but Dan eased her back down. One of his hands was as heavy as Carmen’s entire torso, it seemed. A secret: 

When Carmen got high, Dan scared her, because when Carmen got high, she noticed things. Food tasted amazing and she could run so much farther and also, Dan was huge and he could kill her. He had never laid a hand on her in that way, only during sex, and that was because they both liked it. 

Carmen wasn’t high now, but she was aware. Dan had killed a butterfly once, swatted it like it was some lesser bug. He claimed it was a reflex. A killing reflex, Carmen had thought. 

The ER released Carmen after referring her to a neuro-opthamologist. Dan drove her to pick up her car from the strip mall that housed the casting agency. He said his mom got horrible migraines when he was a kid, so bad that she had to use her sick days. Carmen nodded, but truthfully, she felt fine now. She knew the difference between pain that went and pain that stayed.

That night she did a ten-minute set at Green Street Comedy. Dan didn’t want her to go, but he had promised the night to his mother, who needed Dan to grocery shop for her. It was one of Carmen’s especially good sets, an epic tale of mattress-shopping on the hottest day of the Oregon summer. Offstage, she was approached by Becky, another regular who looked too beautiful to be all that funny, and, in fact, was. She had been at the auditions too, running lines with herself in the hallway. 

“Carmen! I didn’t think you’d make it. Is everything okay?”

“Yup. I think that girl from the horny banking commercials was cursing me under her breath.”

“Oh my god. She was there?”


Fuck. And I thought I did pretty good, too.”

“I’m sure you did,” said Carmen, eager not to be talking about herself. 

Becky was nineteen, six years younger than Carmen was now. She went to a local performing arts college, and she knew Carmen as a wizened veteran of local stand-up. Becky was always asking, “Can I run something by you?” in a nervous, hyperprofessional manner. Carmen usually said yes and found herself privy to a vampiric-sounding Gal Gadot impression or a “joke” that was just a fortunate series of events that could only happen to somebody aggressively attractive. Becky had never seen Carmen’s cancer sets. Becky had no idea that all of Carmen’s “hook-up” stories were about the same guy, the one she’d married seven years ago.

“Do you want me to buy you a drink?” Carmen asked.

Becky nodded, and Carmen ordered her a Shirley Temple with vodka.

If not for sickness and if not for Dan, Carmen could imagine her life moving like Becky’s. Carmen walked Becky home to her apartment. If a night-stalking predator wanted to get to Becky, they could have swatted Carmen out of the way without a hitch. Still, Becky let Carmen play the big sister. 


“Can I get you anything?”

Dan was too big to be hunched in the doorframe. Carmen was turned the other way. 

“I won’t bite.” 

Dan came around to her side of the bed. 

“Can I get you anything?”

“That’s okay,” said Carmen. 

“I think you should eat something.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Carmen, and a stinging emptiness bit at her abdomen to call her on her bluff. In truth, Carmen was afraid to eat. When she thought about eating, she was overcome by the fear that the food would only serve to feed that hungry black thing in her brain. 

“Carmen, I need you to try.”

There was a wine spot on the carpet. “I already did this.”

“Be strong.”

Carmen sat up so quickly her head slammed against the headboard. She wondered if the thing felt it. Maybe if Carmen smashed her skull in, the thing would die, and Carmen could go on with her life. 

“Strong? Dan, I didn’t beat leukemia by being strong. I beat it by being twenty years old.”

“You’re only twenty-five.”

“Well, I’m fucking tired.”

“Maybe you should perform. I thought of a joke.” 

 “You thought of a joke?”

“Yeah. What if you did something about a lobotomy. Like, I’ve got a brain surgery scheduled for next week – it’s a lobotomy.”

She cried. Dan had never made her cry before. 

“You’re not even trying, Carmen.”

“Beating cancer is not something you try for, Dan. It happens, or it doesn’t. You get the surgery, you get the radiation, you live or…”

Carmen tried to swallow but choked on a torrent of tears. Dan was looking at her like she was letting him down. He smiled vaguely, a small smile that wanted to grow, but if only she said the right thing. Carmen made Dan sit in the back of the clubs she performed at, so that she didn’t have to see how badly he wanted her to succeed. 

“I can’t just be happy about this,” said Carmen finally.

“You did before,” said Dan, and he had to know he was saying all the wrong things. 

Dan was a cheap laugh, stoic like an old tree until it was brought down heaving by the tickle of a breeze, but Carmen knew a joke was never funny the second time around. She threw up her hands.

“Dan, I am very sorry I am no longer the child you married.” 

“Don’t say shit like that. I hate when you say shit like that.”

Carmen shrugged. Feelings, good or bad, would feed the thing, too. 


Carmen begged Dan to leave her. She would not touch a plate of food he made for her, would not sleep within a foot of him. He was like a warden, forcing her through the day’s activities. She felt his love become frustrated, but he would not release her. Dan could resign himself to misery better than anybody else Carmen knew. It didn’t upset him to be in a bad mood. In fact, he was quite content that way.

Dan would ignore Carmen’s requests to separate, except for the one time. His oafish footsteps were shaking the ground and his giants’ hands were embarrassing themselves trying to be gentle as he fretted around the apartment, making Carmen food, but mostly just making her angry. 

“You’re making it worse!” she screamed at him, deep and full like a belly-laugh. Dan looked impressed. 

By the end of the day, Dan moved out, saying to Carmen that she didn’t want to help herself. How could she, when the surgeons couldn’t even help her, and she was condemned, again, to radiation therapy. 

She moved home and passed her recovery days by the television. She ate spicy foods, which she was certain the thing hated. (Fuck you, Dan, she was fighting back.) Her parents’ care was attentive, but decidedly unsexy, and suddenly Carmen got the appeal of those doctor-strippers that spun stethoscopes around their necks at bachelorette parties. She would ask for one for her twenty-sixth birthday, if she was still around by then. 

The chemo was going well, actually, but Carmen was good at living in the miserable present. She didn’t miss Dan like she feared she might, and he was kind enough not to trouble her with the formalities of divorce just yet, probably because he got off on the idea of being a widower. He would wear the grief well, probably in the hollows of his square face. 


A call came to the house, and Carmen’s dad fit the phone in her hand. She had monopolized the couch, and was stamping less of an impression into it each day.


“Hi, Carmen. This is Myra.”

Recognition sparked in Carmen. 

“I want to get low with those interest rates,” she said quietly. 

Myra laughed. “Yeah. I did say that. This is my legacy.”

“Is this heaven?”

“Myra, remember? Listen, I don’t know if you knew already, but I’ve been seeing that guy you used to go out with around the clubs — are you guys still together?”


Dan sat in the front of the club, knee-level with the stage. His chest hurt from laughing so much, and his table mates were looking at him like he was insane. He’d seen this set at another club the previous Friday, but to Dan jokes were just as funny the second time around, funnier, even. The comedian wrapped, and made her way down the steps. Dan met her there, pulling her in by her shoulders. 

“You were great,” he said, and kissed Becky’s forehead.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.