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Words Without Borders "stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility." — 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the May 2014 issue


for my friend V.

Sorry. That was my first word.

Not Mama or Dada, not car or bear, but sorry. Just as well. It’s a word I’ve had plenty of use for. I swear a lot. I don’t mean to and that’s why I say sorry. For everything that’s been and all that’s yet to come.

I work out like I swear: plenty and often. What I mean is, I didn’t see the pain in my armpit as a warning straight off, as something to watch out for. When you work out, when you push yourself to the limit, you get used to pain. Just like I’m used to the swear words that pour out of my mouth. It’s like heading down to the supermarket for a carton of milk: it’s not something you think about, just something you do.

It turned out to be my lymph glands. The cancer is being sent through my body along a network of streams and tributaries. There’s no escape. It’s everywhere. Except for my head.

The doctor says I shouldn’t take it personally, the pain in my head.

It’s probably stress. Or too much coffee. I drink gallons and gallons of the stuff to keep me going. Alert, on my toes. It makes me sweat and makes me smell bad but it’s not like that matters anymore.

Sometimes I get angry that the cancer is everywhere, but not in my head. So angry I could tear the head off my body. Every now and then. Admittedly it tends to be when I’ve downed too much coffee. Pull yourself together, I tell myself. Just fucking pull yourself together.

There you have it, my first swear word.


The swearing and the cancer aren’t related, not directly. As far as I know, the swearing came first. The swearing came before Dada and Mama too. First I said Sorry, then I said Fuck. I was too little to remember it, but it’s been recorded in my baby book. Written out in my mother’s girlish hand. I couldn’t tell from the handwriting what she made of it. There it was on the page, no emotion, the same way you might tally up the accounts on a damp Sunday afternoon, so to speak.

These days there’s a new swear word in my repertoire: cancer. I shout “cancer” the whole day long. It’s not black humor or a sorry attempt at a joke. I shout cancer with all my might. It makes me feel better.

I even shout it when I’m out on the bike. Come to think of it, it’s more of a scream. Cancer, I scream as I bike along. “Cancer! Another fucking red light.” “Learn to drive, cancer brain.” “What a cancer of a day.” “Cancerous fucking weather we’re having.” “Get those cancer-ridden kids out of my way.” It’s pretty versatile.

Yesterday, I was biking down Amstelveenseweg when this woman stopped me. She looked like a—what are they called again?—one of those little horses.

A Shetland pony.

Her hair was like a mane and the less said about her teeth the better.

I couldn’t tell what she smelled like because she was on the left of the bike lane, then came her bike, then another bit of bike lane, then my bike and then came me.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But did I hear you use the C-word?”

“What?” I asked.

“Did I hear you use the C-word?”

“If only I knew what that was, lady. But if you mean cancer, yes, you heard right. You can all fucking drop dead of cancer. That’s what I said. Sorry, but I have a right to speak my mind, wouldn’t you agree?”

“But you do realize that people might find that offensive?”

I realized all too well how offensive it might be to people. Cancer had offended my entire body. I was bursting at the seams with offense. And to top it all, the supreme offense, it had decided to skip my fucking head.

“Yes, lady. I get it,” I replied. She had no objections to the F-word, I noticed.

Clearing her throat, she gave a little growl. An odd sound coming from My Little Pony.

“Do you know what I tell my children when they say something they’re not supposed to?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“I get them to substitute another word.”

She paused for thought.



“Why don’t you try canoes?”

Now she was really starting to piss me off.

“Instead of the C-word, why not say canoes? It has a nice solid ring to it, don’t you think? It’ll help you release all that tension, but without hurting a single soul.”

“Canoes?” I asked.

“Exactly,” she said. “Give it a try.”

I noticed she was roughly the same height as her handlebars. Could she be a midget? I’d heard somewhere that midgets are always extra quick to be offended, like they’ve shouldered the burden of every form of humiliation known to man.

“Go on,” she urged.

I coughed.

“Canoes,” I said meekly.

I mean, sorry, I was doing my best but let’s face it: canoes wasn’t exactly going to hit the spot the way cancer had. Speaking for myself, you understand.

“Louder,” she yelled excitedly.

“Canoes,” I roared, at the top of my lungs, thrashing the air with my fists as if I was pounding on a table.

The woman shrank back, clutching her bicycle as if someone was about to come along and wrestle it off her.

“That’s more like it,” she said. “Better for everyone. Cancer is such a universal disease, you see. Shouting it out like that can hurt each and every person in their own way.”

I nodded. I think I understood what she was trying to say. For an instant I wanted to tell her I had cancer myself, that cancer was hurting yours truly, and what did the universe have to say to that? But then I thought: let it go. I mean, it’s not like she was much of a looker and I’m not the sentimental type.

Canoes. There you have it. Starting from today, I’ve been belting it out as I bike along. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m crazy. They give me these weird looks, as if they want to point out my mistake. One more day of that and cancer will be making a comeback.

My wife walked out on me two years ago. It sounds simple and it was: she walked out, simple as that.

There was no blazing fight, no recriminations on her part or mine, no jealous rages, there was no one else. She was simply a woman who stood up and started walking, away from the sofa I was sitting on.

Away from the sofa, then away from the house, away from the street and away from the town.

Up, up, and away.

It happened in no time at all. While I sat there the whole evening on the black leather sofa, knees pressed together. There I sat in the corner of the room and in that time she had left town, left me.

Strange thing is, it didn’t feel like I’d been left. It didn’t feel any different. The only sign my wife had left me was that I shouted louder in the living room. It was only the house and me now, so the decibels didn’t matter any more. We had no problem putting up with each other.

After she walked out, I wanted a new place to live. If she could do it, so could I: up, up, and away. No way was I going to stand for those fuckfaces in the street gawping at me like I was some poor soul. Compassion they call it

At times I felt like strangling one of those stuck-up little housewives. Sounds a bit extreme, I grant you, but I didn’t do it and I never would. I just felt like it, that’s all. It’s not the same thing.

True, I did have the increasingly frequent—and intense—urge to yank a kid off his bike or whack a granny over the head. Thoughts like that came up everyday, just like the sun came up every morning. There was no stopping them.

Let me state once more for the record that all this was played out within the confines of my head. The only sin I committed—swearing aside—was to piss on the odd tree.

At my group therapy session—I thought there was a slim chance group therapy might ease the strain a bit—they said dark forces lurk within every one of us. Their words, not mine. They almost spelled it out—“in every one of us”—as if they were talking to some deaf guy and not me.

They put it all down to frustration.

It’s only logical, they said, when your wife walks out on you just like that. Your everyday certainties, the solid ground under your existence, gradually slip away. It’s spite. You want to hurt the one who did this to you. Call it by its name, Jerry.

There in that therapy group, I called every thought I had by its name. It gave them a bit of a shock, if you ask me, but they sat there on the sidelines and bravely cheered me on. It probably helped that I began every story by saying “Sorry for what’s going on in my head, but I was thinking . . .” and out it all came.

The word Sorry has been my saving grace. A cleaning agent to wipe out every stain.

I left that neighborhood and all those satanic thoughts behind me.

I headed for the city, where no one really knows anyone. Where you can always find someone in worse shit than you, if I can put it like that.

I rent a room in the city center, right above a laundromat. Or whatever the hell they’re called.

Anyway, you can go there with your dirty washing and two guys from Turkey make sure you can take it back home with you in a fresh plastic bag, all clean and ironed.

I can feel the floor shake when the machines hit their last spin cycle. The beginning of the end. A sound I often listen to with mixed feelings.

The Turkish guys are friendly, always say hello. Occasionally they give me fruit. It’s as if they know about the cancer. Maybe they do. News spreads faster than disease.

I go down to the gym every day and work out for a good two or three hours. When I die, I want to die strong.

Truth be told, I’m not supposed to work out because of the armpit and its network of streams. I’m breaking down tissue, giving the cancer more chance to spread. It’s like I’m giving the disease an added incentive by working out.

I asked the doctor, “Any chance it might get better?”

The coward lowered his eyes, took a sudden interest in his white hospital clogs and said, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.’

I knew for a fact he wasn’t the least bit sorry. You learn not to feel sorry in his profession.

What I’m trying to say is, in spite of the armpit, I keep going to the gym.

It’s all I have left, apart from my head, where everything appears to be just fine. My head keeps count for my body. It’s counting down, needless to say.

I’ve developed a real fucking dislike for my wife. No one wants to be walked out on, however much you might want to walk out yourself. Which is why I called to tell her the good news.

Once a woman has loved someone, she keeps on loving him, even if she says she doesn’t. The only exception is a woman with an excess of male hormones, but my wife is all woman. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been so cute about walking out and all that stuff.

I called her and I said: “I’ve got cancer. It’s everywhere.”

She started to cry. It did me a world of good.

To rub it in, I went on: “Everyone has cancer. Each and every one of us, only some find out and others don’t. It’s just a matter of time, and how it develops.”

She said: “I’m coming back to you. For the final months.”

Fuck me, my little stunt was in danger of backfiring big time.

I said: “That’s not what I want, dumpling.”

She took me at my word, thankfully. She wasn’t that much of a cow. She’d learned a thing or two over the last couple of years.

“At least let me come and visit you,” she said.

To this I agreed.

She was due to arrive at two. At ten to two I sat down on the sofa. Exactly the way I’d been sitting when she walked out. As if time had stood still. Except that now I was in another town on another sofa. And of course now I had my fucking canoes for company.

I stirred my mug of coffee. The doorbell rang. The door wasn’t locked so I shouted as loud as I could: “Get the fuck in here, Maris.”

It wasn’t Mariska. It was the Turkish lads from the laundro-whatsit downstairs.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m expecting someone.”

They handed me a present; it was a fleece blanket. There was a cord attached so you could roll it up and take it on a picnic or what have you, handy to tuck under your arm. I took a suspicious sniff at it. I reckoned there must be a reason for the note stuck to the laundromat window that said wash at your own risk and that they weren’t liable for items that went missing. The blanket smelled nice, just like everything that came from the lads downstairs.

“Thanks guys,” I said. “That’s really kind of you.”

They had taken off their shoes and there they stood, in my living room in their socks.

“Are you OK, Mister?” they asked.

I said I wasn’t bad considering. I felt the sudden urge to flex my biceps for them but luckily I realized just in time that I’d be making a laughingstock of myself. I’m not the sentimental type, I really can’t emphasize that enough.

“I’d offer you a cup of coffee,” I said, “but someone will be here soon. My wife.”

They got the message. They didn’t even seem surprised I had a wife they’d never seen before. Off they went, the pair of them, back downstairs to their spin cycles.

Mariska looked rough. Her skin was sallow, not gray but yellow, as if her kidneys were packing up.

“You’re looking good,” I said.

“You too,” she said. “You wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with you. You’ve even had a roll in the hay recently, by the look of things.”

Whether you walk out or not, some things never change.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked. Her voice sounded flat. As if she was a dog that had barked too long, too loud, and too often. It could well have had something to do with the cigarettes.

“I don’t mind anything,” I said.

“So how are you doing?”

“Fair to middling.”

I flexed my biceps for her. Women take a different view of these things. They don’t see it as an act, just part of the package.

“I’ve brought you a present,” she said.

What is it with cancer and presents? Ever since people have found out I’m dying they keep giving me stuff. As if all that stuff is going to take my place before long. DVDs, a sweatband, plants for the windowsill. I sometimes wonder if they’re going to come back and reclaim it all when I’m gone. They usually give you something they’d probably have liked to keep for themselves.

“But I can see you don’t need it.”

“What?” I asked.

“The present.”

Perhaps it was my wife who’d lost the plot. Perhaps the cancer had decided to mess with her head and take over my body.

“I’m the present,” she said. “I walked out and now I’m back. I thought to myself, maybe Jerry would like to sleep with me again during the last few months of his life. Relive old times—that kind of thing. That was my present. But now I can see you don’t need it.”

“No, sorry,” I said. “I don’t feel like it nowadays. It’s the fucking canoes.”

She looked surprised. I’d have paid good money for that look in her eyes, but she gave me that look for free, no charge. Another present. A gift from God, this time.

“The fucking news? Why worry about the state the world’s in, Jer? Wars here, there and everywhere. It’s about you now, Jerry. You. Since when did you get all worked up about other people’s troubles?”

So now she thinks I can’t sleep with her because I’m fretting about what I’ve read in the newspapers. Let sleeping dogs lie. I couldn’t have come up with anything better if I’d tried.

“Well, it does make you think,” I said.

That remark was enough to make her think.

“I mean, I don’t want to cause any offense,” I said.

I was really getting into my stride.

She looked down at her hands, pressed her palms together and pushed them apart, together, then apart again.

“So what happens now?” she asked.

“Waste paper,” I said. “It all turns into waste paper. Forgotten news. What happened yesterday doesn’t matter today. What’s new?”

She was at the end of her rope. I could see it in her eyes. I know my wife’s eyes.

“Has it spread to your head?” she asked.

Downstairs I could hear the washing machines spinning. One last cycle. The glasses in the display cabinet rattled.

“Sorry,” I said.

My wife began to cry softly. Like I said, she began softly. Her sobs grew louder and more violent.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said.

Very slowly I stepped back, and kept backing away. I walked away from everything and counted down.

My first word was Fuck and then, once and for all, Sorry.

"Kranten" © Maartje Wortel. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij.  Translation © 2014 David Doherty. All rights reserved. 

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