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The Perfect Thing to Say

“We’re going to have a quiet New Year’s this time,” Ken said, speaking from his office phone. “If you want to come over, it’ll just be the three of us.”

“I’d like to bring something,” I said.

“Why don’t you bring a movie? Something light—really light.”


“We’ll just get take-out. You like Su Hong, don’t you?”

“Su Hong is fine.”

“Then we’ll do that.”

Ken sounded tired. He had always had trouble sleeping. But he was having a particularly hard time since the oncologist told him and Pam that her chemo wasn’t working anymore and that it was probably time to stop.

He was silent for a moment, my cue that he wanted to talk.

“How are you two doing?” I said.

“About as well as can be expected. Pam’s handling it much better than I am. But they’ll be times like—.” His voice began to break, but he managed to go on. “Like last—last night. She felt well enough to make love and really wanted to. We were in the middle of it, and she started to cry. I held her. Then I started to cry. And she held me. And we just lay there holding each other and crying.”

He was silent again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, groping for words that didn’t sound overused. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for both of you.” There I went again—well intended but so inadequate.

“She’s only fifty-four,” Ken said. “Or she will be fifty-four if she makes it to March 12.”

“What does the doctor say?”

“Three months. Maybe four. Maybe two. You’re never sure.”

I had known Ken since college. Pam was his second wife. They met only seven years ago and snapped into place instantly like the right two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then, when my wife and I separated and divorced, they “adopted” me for more than a year. The three of us went to movies and concerts. They had me over for dinner, it seemed, all the time. They even brought dinners over to my dingy divorce apartment. I couldn’t have asked for better friends. And, during this time, I became more aware of how delighted they were just to be together—how bright Ken’s eyes became whenever Pam entered the room, how freely Pam laughed whenever Ken said something funny.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” Ken said now.

“First, just focus on the time you still have together,” I said. “Take one day at a time.” God—so many clichés. I kept wondering what I could say that might be helpful or even comforting without sounding so trite and hollow. And I kept coming up blank.


Four days later, I was over for New Year’s Eve with a Ben Stiller comedy on DVD.

Pam wore the wig she’d been wearing for months and looked pale. But, despite everything, she was her usual gracious self. She had managed to make some appetizers, Ken and I went for the take out, and the three of us had a light, wide-ranging talk during dinner. The one subject we all carefully sidestepped was the future.

Afterwards, we watched the movie—peppering it from time to time with comments of our own. It ended a few minutes before midnight. And Ken pulled a bottle of champagne from the refrigerator, popped the cork, and poured glasses for us all. Pam turned on the TV to hear the countdown to the New Year. “Eight, seven, six…,” we chanted along with the people on TV. And, at the stroke of midnight, I hugged both of them and, in a strong, rousing voice, said: “Happy New Year!”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I blushed, released them from my hug, and dropped my head, astonished at my blundering. There must have been something else I could have said—something that wouldn’t have sounded so stupid and callous in this situation. I’d fretted about being trite. Now, I’d blurted this out.

But, a moment later, Pam placed her hands gently on my cheeks, raised my head, and looked straight into my eyes. “That’s all right,” she said. “I’m going to make this year as happy as I can. And I hope you do, too. That wasn’t the wrong thing to say; it was the perfect thing.”

With that, she kissed me on the cheek, picked up her champagne glass, clinked glasses with Ken and me, and sipped her champagne.


David Meuel began writing flash fiction last year at the tender age of 60 and has published more than 25 pieces in such online magazines as Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, and LITSNACK. He lives in San Jose, California, and works as a freelance marketing writer serving several Silicon Valley companies.


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