Did my girlfriend lie about having cancer?
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
I met her—the woman I’ll call Chelsea—on a crowded dance floor. I had been single for two months and was unattached. He was charming and chivalrous, in that classic, pro-female way. He wore a manly type of cologne that smelled of whiskey, green grass and campfire, and his quick wit and easygoing nature made me feel good. At the end of the night we got into a taxi and went back to my apartment. When we woke up the next morning, I was happy that I was finally getting over my ex after the breakup of a five-year relationship.
I used to fall in love quickly and ignore all possible warning signs, the knowledge that I had found someone. Then I fell in love with Chelsea, who helped me understand that not everyone has a good heart.
Of course we are all flawed. It’s a cliché that lesbians of my generation tend to have a series of chaotic relationships after coming out, most of us creating our own surrogate family structures while barely out of adolescence. In 1995, during my first obstacle course in Ottawa, my girlfriend’s roommate chased her partner through the parade with a BB gun that she thought was a little alarming, but mostly funny. I still remember hearing the song “Macarena” playing from the speakers on the back of a truck cruising down the street as parents shielded their children’s eyes. It was an ordeal of being fired from a job or attacked on the street that caused us to act as a trauma response in our love lives.
When I brought Chelsea home, gay marriage had only recently been legalized. Pleasure-seeking political freaks now felt pressured to become a type of adulthood previously unavailable to us. We watched our friends walk down the aisle to soft remixes of 1980s love songs while intellectually agreeing that marriage equality is the wrong fight.
I was not immune to this pressure. I really wanted to find someone and settle down. “Will I be alone forever?” I probably asked on LiveJournal. I didn’t make informed decisions while I was in this crazy state.
As Chelsea wandered around my apartment that morning gathering her things, she told me almost in no uncertain terms that she was undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, and that her last treatment would be done that week. He said something like, “I’ll soon find out if they got it all or if I need chemo.” I was struck by how casually he dropped this into the conversation after breakfast.
My heart raced as I said goodbye to this stranger, leaning against my door frame. We were only sober together for about half an hour. Did I have a one-night stand with someone who might be dying? I didn’t stop to wonder if people with cancer were throwing back beer and pints until 4 a.m., or if it was suspicious that he was giving me such personal information right off the bat. I was immediately worried about someone I had just met. Pulled in.
Chelsea and I started dating almost immediately, in that clichéd U-Haul way. I was excited to introduce her to my friends and spend as much time as possible with her on that honeymoon summer. A few weeks into her date, she got the news that her cancer was on the mend. But he still seemed to be plagued by adversity. Weeks rarely went by without a huge fight with bosses, friends, and the owner. I began to notice that in every story he told, he was always the victim and rarely showed any responsibility. Sometimes it felt exhausting to be the main support person, but as a writer who worked a day job—waitressing, freelance art critic, applying to MFA programs—it was fascinating to be with someone whose life was rarely dull. .
What Chelsea said didn’t always add up, but she could say almost anything. A few months later, the money disappeared from my roommate’s dresser. Chelsea was the only person in a position to take it, but she didn’t admit it. He told stories about a best friend who killed himself and claimed to have walked in and found the body. I have never found any evidence that this friend exists. Maybe so, but my stomach feels otherwise.
One night we had an argument and I asked her to leave and later she texted me that she had to go to the ER because her stomach hurt. I knew something was wrong. I told him I would accompany him to the hospital, but he said he wanted to go alone. I called the ER to ask if he was sick. They said no.
Eventually, Chelsea admitted that she had lied about the hospital visit and could not explain why she did it. He promised that he would go to therapy with me, that he would fix himself if I didn’t break up with him. We left and I watched her talk in circles around the therapist. Throughout the session, Chelsea expertly steered the conversation from taking responsibility for her lies to other areas of her life and childhood that the therapist seemed to be fascinated by. Before I knew it, the meeting was over and nothing was seriously discussed. We never went back.
When someone cheats and humiliates you, it’s tempting to forget that a relationship is a co-creation. But now I see my stake, how I contributed to our dysfunction and kept it alive. For over a year, he pulled me back after every fight and convinced me that he had an uncanny ability to say what I most needed to hear to get back on the roller coaster. Until the last shoe dropped.
For a few months after being caught in other lies, I suspected the cancer wasn’t real. But even asking the question to others who knew him felt like a betrayal—what if I was wrong? Finally, I felt I had no other choice and approached his family, who said they thought the cancer was a lie.
After the talk, I went for a walk to clear my head. I hid in the booth of a long-abandoned store and started screaming and crying into my flip phone. “You lied about having cancer!” I yelled. “You were never sick!” I sounded like a crazy person. I sobbed in disbelief at such monstrous mammals. People were staring at him—even the guy who was prowling around with a shopping cart full of beer and raving at strangers.
I don’t remember what he said at that moment. It’s possible I yelled into his voicemail.
Later that evening, I ran into my neighbor, Chelsea’s friend, and breathlessly told her what I had discovered. “Oh yes, of course he’s lying about the cancer.” He lies about everything. Kind of sad, really.” I was so mad at him for being upset. Why didn’t anyone warn me? It never occurred to me that people in his life would silently humor him about something so serious. For weeks after that moment I felt like a shell, wondering how I could have been so foolish as to believe something that seemed so obvious in retrospect.
Then A sight on the street, I tried to organize an intervention with Chelsea’s friends so she could get help. If this was a form of mental illness, shouldn’t we be supporting him as we would if he had something more common like an anxiety disorder or depression? But she didn’t care and soon tempted me. He moved on to new friends who probably appeared in their lives just as quickly and intensely as they appeared in mine. I was still broken and wanted to save him. I can see now that this urge to help him was to try to avoid feeling like I was a loser, that he was taking advantage of me.
I haven’t spoken to Chelsea in years and I don’t care to know her. But after our relationship ended, I often felt bad for him because of the pain he would have had to live his life this way and the work he would have had to put in to change course. It’s hard enough to change ingrained patterns, even harder when those behaviors involve an elaborate fantasy life.
I often wonder if all he wanted was attention and affection—things I was willing to give him without faking a terminal illness. The hardest thing to deal with was spending endless nights caring for someone who was in some ways unrecognizable. Because what really hurt me wasn’t just being lied to—it was simply realizing that he didn’t love me back.
Zoe Whittall’s latest novel, The Counterfeitwill be published on March 21 by Penguin Random House.