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July 15, 2024

The Other Side of This Life

By Doug Hawley

After a string of losses, at last something good was coming my way. My wife of fifteen years had left me a month ago, leaving me a financial and emotional wreck. Rather than a home cooked meal and a glass of wine for dinner as it was early in my marriage, I’d been eating bar food and drinking too much. My new assignment at Multipor magazine at least meant that my boss hadn’t decided to fire me.

In fact, it was much better than that. As much as my other woes were dragging me down, I could see some kind of award, maybe even a Pulitzer if I did a good job. I suppose that some didn’t see the potential in the story that I did. The research arm of XHSU had received a huge grant to find a cure for or more likely cures for cancer. I was to report on their progress, but more importantly, divulge the personalities of the leaders. Multipor magazine depended more on scandal and celebrity than science.

“It’s no cure for cancer” has been a cliché for something which isn’t too difficult, but curing cancer has been the unattainable holy grail of medicine for as long as there has been medicine. There are both skeptics and optimists about the chance of XHSU getting there. It had already made significant progress and had great funding and doctors. Still, progress was incremental.

The institution gave us full access. Their stated objective was to get more funding. My suspicion that it was also to get more press for some of the prima donna doctors was quickly confirmed.

I met Sheila Hopkins, the project leader first. Of course, I have to tone it down, when writing my article, but she is the coldest fish that I’ve ever met, and that includes real fish. The body language, her talk, her dress and her body all said loudly “I’m all business and I won’t waste any more time with you than I absolutely have to.” As quickly as she could, she outlined the approach that she and her staff were taking – find a way for anti-bodies to attack and kill any cancer cells. The problem was that the cancer cells ‘wanted’ to survive and had clever adaptations to hide from those anti-bodies. The approach that XHSU was taking was the same general one that had limited success with other cancers – ‘educate’ the anti-bodies with modified bacteria or viruses to break through the cancer defenses. No one approach would work for all cancers, but under her direction, team doctors would attack the worst cancers – lung, breast, ovarian and prostate first.

Hopkins was such a cliché of a frigid, anti-social woman that I thought that I must have gotten the wrong impression from our first meeting. Later interviews confirmed that my first impression was the right one.

After a couple of interviews with more or less normal doctors, I had the misfortune of interviewing a self-promoting asshole “Hi, I’m Jason Jensen, but call me JJ.” How was he an asshole? Let me give a partial inventory. As nearly as this ink stained wretch could determine, his suit cost over a thousand dollars, and his haircut, maybe only a hundred. He subtly or not so subtly ran down every other person on the team. He called Hopkins “his associate” when she was clearly his boss. Because he must have felt that was inadequate, he mumbled something about her “playing on the other team,” not that he objected. I believe that comment came from his alleged attempts to get next to her. He claimed that his two divorces were caused by work pressures, but the majority opinion was that he couldn’t keep it in his pants. Have I mentioned his cologne? Quantity over quality.

It was easy for me to invent an excuse to turn down dinner with him. I didn’t need any more of his wonderfulness and everyone else’s inadequacy.

Back at home I backgrounded the two most interesting interviewees. Hopkins came from a middle class family. At every level in school she was freaky smart. The only thing unusual outside of that was that her only sibling, a much younger brother, had died in an accident. That was the only thing that I could find that could possibly explain her blandness and lack of affect. Jansen was much easier to explain. His father had been a state representative with unrequited ambition for higher office. His mother had been the state attorney general. Hopkins earned everything that she got the hard way. Jensen made it by his parent’s influence and money. The twice divorced doctor profile resembles one of our former governors in some ways. I would bet money that he’s hoping for a repeat of that former governor’s success without repeating the part about resigning in disgrace.

Something was nagging me about the interviews, but try as I might I couldn’t bring it to the surface.

The next day I only interviewed Hopkins. I had decided to try to break her of her ‘just the facts’ attitude. My bait was to taunt her with criticisms from doctors at the University Of Spokane Medical School. They claimed that what she was trying had only had limited success and no potential. Grim faced as always, she said “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” As soon as I heard that, my puzzle was solved. She could see it on my face and told me, “You know I’m really busy, can we finish this over dinner tonight?”

I agreed and we set the parameters. I wasn’t surprised that she mentioned a place known for its discretion and privacy.

I must back up a little. Wife Ellen and I had grown apart after fifteen years. She had her part time accounting job, her social circle and two or three volunteer activities that I don’t even remember. Yes, you can say bad husband. I mostly drank into the night with reporters and sometimes availed myself of hookers before and after the divorce. Even though I deserved it, and maybe hadn’t loved her for years, it hurt a lot when she left.

A year after Ellen divorced me; I was solicited by an unbelievably attractive prostitute while I was out drinking. Tall, blonde, hourglass figure, husky voice, she had it all. She said her name was Sephora, and I spent the most exciting night of my life with her. On our way out of the door, a drunk almost knocked me down. She shrugged and said, you guessed it, “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” It struck me at the time that in some cases they do eat you, but that’s not the point. Remembering that night, I realized that Sheila is Sephora.

At dinner, the first thing that Sheila said was “Before I talk anymore, you must agree to two things. First this is all off the record and second, you won’t try any two bit therapy on me.” I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed.

“If you are any good as a journalist, you did a background check on me for your article. You probably know that my only brother died in an accident. If you were really thorough, you know that I was really close to Bobby. I was even kind of a second mother to him because I was ten years older. He really looked up to me and I got a kick out of helping him with schoolwork. Ah shit, that horrible day. For some reason, he was really bugging me. ‘Sheila’s got a boyfriend. Sheila’s kissing Johnny. Suck face. Suck face.’ At least that’s what I remember. I got annoyed beyond reason and yelled at him ‘Go play in the street, you little shit.’ He gave me a really hurt look and ran out into the street without looking and was hit and killed.

“I never told anyone why he ran into the street. I claimed that I couldn’t explain it. They made me go into counseling which is where I learned to hate the shrink industry. ‘How do you feel about that?’ ‘Do you have feelings of guilt?’ So much helpless, hopeless, useless bullshit. Of course I felt guilty, but I never told them the depth of my guilt.

“You may think that my slut side is an attempt to punish myself. No one really knows why people do things. Usually we rationalize decisions and behaviors rather than understand them. No one knows what I would be doing now without watching Bobby die. My interest in curing cancer may look like I’m trying to balance my life by saving lives, but I was interested in biology well before the incident.”

As she went through her story, I was thinking just what she imagined I was thinking, but she was right about reaching easy conclusions.

“Do you have any questions now?”

“Quite a few now, but let me start with a simple one. I paid for your services. Why do you charge for sex? Not that it wasn’t worth it, but you don’t need the money.”

“Fair enough. In case you don’t remember, I didn’t ask for anything. You and some others think that I’m a whore and leave various amounts of money. When that happens, the housekeeper gets a very good tip. Next.”

“Sheila and Sephora don’t look, smell or sound much alike. How do you do that?”

“Smell is easy. Sheila is fragrance free and Sephora goes in for exotic fragrances. I lower my voice when I’m Sephora. Looks require a little more work. Underwear makes Sheila stick-like and Sephora voluptuous. I’m 4 inches taller as Sephora with stiletto heels and the wig makes me blonde.”

“How do you keep your lives separate?”

“My lives are separated by the clock. On the nights I decide to be Sephora, I usually am her from about 10pm to 2am. I never stay away from home all night. I live in a neighborhood where we all lead anonymous lives. We don’t have block parties or anything like that. I suspect that I may have some very kinky neighbors but they don’t pry into my life and I don’t hang out with them.”

“Are you Sheila or Sephora?”

“I don’t have multiple personalities if that’s what you think. I’m Sheila and Sephora is an act. That isn’t quite honest. I’m a little bit Sephora.”

“Have you ever had any continuing interest in any of your pickups?” After I asked this, I blushed a little bit when I realized why I had asked it.

Sheila paused “Rarely. Nothing I’ve ever acted on.”

I hope that I kept my optimism at her response hidden.

“Have you ever been close to having your cover blown?”

“Once that asshole Jason Jensen was at the same dive bar that Sephora was. I had to leave, because if he hit on Sheila, he definitely would hit on Sephora, and I couldn’t risk being identified.”

I wrapped up the article a little later. While attempting to appear objective, it was easy to use quotes and information from various sources to make Sheila clearly the genius that she is and Jason the dick that he is. The words of others supported Sheila, but Jason’s own words sank him. The article suggested, but did not say, that cancer would largely be eliminated in about five years.

My article was controversial with a lot of supporters and detractors about my prediction of a cure. It ended up collecting a couple of local awards, but no Pulitzer, and I got a raise.

I’m drawn to Sheila / Sephora, but don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if it is Sheila’s brilliance or Sephora’s sensuality that obsesses me. I have the faint hope that I’m one of the rare ones that Sephora liked. I’ll call Sheila tomorrow and hope for the best. Maybe knowing both of them will give me an edge.

Originally appeared in Scarlet Leaf, Café Lit.

Article © Doug Hawley. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-07-24
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
09:42:37 AM
Enjoyed the read @Doug Hawley. I liked how you fleshed out the characters, background and kept the tale crisp..
Doug Hawley
09:45:04 AM
Thanks KPT - comments keep me going.
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