Rachel Lawson deals with death on a daily basis. As a nurse who specializes in the care of terminal patients, she has experienced every aspect of a person’s final days, sitting with those who are dying, consoling the spouses and loved ones, knowing the right things to say, as well as knowing when saying nothing is the best option. All who know her agree she is excellent at her job, but all her experience cannot prepare her for what she knows will be her toughest assignment. As she stares out of the window of the plane taking her from LAX to Hartsfield in Atlanta, her thoughts are of her baby sister, Sharon, and what lies ahead for her sister’s young family.
It wasn’t the path she’d envisioned for herself. When Rachel graduated high school in her small town in Florida, she was considered the best looking girl in her community, and was one of the most popular girls in her school, rivaled only by her best friend, Cherise Santiago. Cherise and Rachel had known one another practically since birth, and as they aged into beautiful young women, they remained close friends — some jokers had taken to referring to them as Siamese twins. If one showed up, everyone knew it was only a matter of seconds before the other made an appearance. Together, they were cheerleaders, actors in school musicals, co-editors of the school paper as juniors, and of the yearbook as seniors. They dated the star players on the football team, and Rachel was idolized by most of the girls in town, but most particularly by her younger sister, Sharon.
Rachel was considered by all who knew her to be a classic free spirit, and as beautiful as she was, she was equally kind and caring. She had the unique ability to make whoever had the pleasure of speaking with her feel like the center of the universe. Nothing, it seemed, was more important to her than spending time with that person. No one had a harsh word for her, and while the other girls envied her, no one hated her. When she and Cherise graduated, everyone agreed that if they didn’t immediately go to Hollywood and become stars, the world would be a much darker place. Rachel and Cherise had lived idyllic lives, praised and pampered. For Rachel, the only dark spot was the death of her little brother, Rob from a congenital heart defect, when they were children, just a few months before Sharon was born.
What most people didn’t know, but what Rachel and Cherise had known for quite a while was that they weren’t simply best friends. In fact, they’d been in love with one another since at least seventh grade, though it had taken them nearly a year to acknowledge it, and at least another year to act upon that knowledge. Once they were certain, they mutually decided to keep it to themselves. The community they lived in wasn’t terribly conservative, but they knew their family, friends, those in their school, and church, would not understand. So they continued to date guys, wore the class rings of their high school boyfriends, and would blush or laugh self-consciously whenever the subject of marriage came up. Neither of them could ever imagine being with someone else.
After graduation, Rachel and Cherise did as everyone expected and headed West to Los Angeles. They had no background in film and television, beyond being avid fans, and had no conception of the work involved in making it in the entertainment industry, but they had all the money they’d saved throughout high school, and as much enthusiasm as anyone could muster for a project. Most of all, they had each other, and once they arrived on the West Coast, they no longer felt constrained by their families or community, and began to openly pursue their relationship.
They spent a few months burning through their savings, while answering casting calls they found in trade papers. They found they were no longer the most attractive women in their community, and in fact, they weren’t even the most attractive in their apartment complex, and their acting skills and discipline were far inferior to the seasoned professionals they found themselves competing against. As their money began to run out, they took jobs as waitresses, first in restaurants, then in bars, and, after hearing from a fellow waitress how much money could be made in adult clubs, they began to waitress in strip clubs, and topless bars. It was here they were finally discovered.
The manager of the strip club where they waited tables took note of their looks, and how the customers responded to them, and approached them about becoming dancers. They were reluctant, until the manager mentioned that it was a good way to break into “the business,” so they auditioned. Their cheer leading and dance training served them well, and before long, both were featured performers, making several hundred dollars in tips each night. From there, they found themselves drawn into the seedy underbelly of late-70s Los Angeles, first as strippers, then “erotic” models, then “soft core” porn films and photos, simulating sexual acts with male and other female models. Finally they graduated to “hard core” porn. Along the way, they acquired major drug habits, using alcohol, cocaine, and heroin to quell the emotions they felt at what they were asked to do on camera. Neither of them appeared under her own name, and they both hid their identities behind wigs and tons of makeup, but they knew what they were doing, even if no one could identify them.
As the early-80s rolled around, the porn industry was hit by a new scourge, that the doctors were calling Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). When it was still considered a “gay disease” many who appeared in “straight” porn didn’t think much of it, even though many actors overlapped the gay and straight genres. Then an actress Rachel and Cherise knew came down with AIDS, and they decided it was probably best to get tested. They went in together one afternoon to a clinic near their apartment. Two days later, after Cherise was unable to join her, Rachel went back to get her results. The doctor led her into a small office and Rachel could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good.
“Ms. Lawson, I’m sorry to tell you, you’ve tested positive,” the doctor said. He went on to outline the woefully few treatment options available, and what she should expect as the disease began to ravage her body, but Rachel wasn’t listening. The words, “you’ve tested positive” kept echoing in her ears, and she rose, not allowing the doctor to finish his spiel, and walked out of the clinic, as the doctor called after her, “Ms. Lawson?”
For the next forty-eight hours, Rachel did nothing but wander around L.A. in a daze. When she grew too tired to continue, she’d collapse onto a bench to rest for a while, but otherwise, she moved from point to point on autopilot, the doctor’s words pounding in her head. One place was no different than the next, she neither noted or acknowledged where she was, or what time of day it was. When she finally came out of the fog, she found herself on at a beach, observing the ocean waves as they came in and out.
She sat, staring out at the waves, the doctor’s words echoing in her mind, and imagined herself walking into the surf, walking until she could walk no further, then swimming until her arms failed her, and she was so far out, she’d have no chance of being saved. Then she’d just sink, let all the air out of her lungs, and allow her body to go under. The tide came in and splashed her bare feet and she realized she had been walking and was now just steps away from the water. It was then that the thought crossed her mind that Cherise had no idea where she was, and Rachel felt she should at least say goodbye. Fearing what would happen if she stayed, Rachel left the beach and wandered back to the strip. It was nearly midnight.
The lights from a storefront caught her eye and as she neared it, she realized it wasn’t a shop, but a small church. Feeling she could use some divine intervention, Rachel went inside, where she found a man with long hair and a full beard, and not much older than she was. He introduced himself as the pastor. Sensing something was wrong, he asked her to sit and invited her to share what had brought her in. She sat with him for several hours, pouring out her heart, telling him of where her life had taken its wrong turn, and finally, of the doctor’s words at the clinic. The pastor embraced her and assured her that she had a home there, and encouraged her to return to Cherise, to let her know Rachel was alive.
What Rachel didn’t know, but what Cherise had discovered that afternoon, was that the clinic had mixed up their records. They went in together to be tested, but Rachel had gone back alone, and the attendant handed the doctor Cherise’s file by mistake. When Cherise showed up on her own, the doctor realized the mix-up, and after giving Cherise the devastating news, compounded it by telling her that he’d mistakenly told Rachel she had AIDS. So now, in addition to learning she would most likely die, she had the added burden of worrying what had happened to Rachel.
Rachel returned to the apartment, and found Cherise in tears.
“What is it?” Rachel said, taking Cherise into her arms.
“I have AIDS.”
Cherise pulled away from Rachel and took her hands. “No. There was a mistake. You’re okay. They mixed up the results.”
The fleeting moment of relief Rachel felt was immediately replaced by sorrow over Cherise’s news.
“Listen to me,” Rachel said. “I’m going to take care of you, okay? I don’t care how bad things get, I’ll be there for you.”
Rachel was as good as her word. She took Cherise to the church she’d found and they joined and became very active. They gave up the drugs and booze, left behind their self-destructive lifestyle, and committed themselves to spending as much time together as possible. As Cherise’s health declined, Rachel devoted herself to caring for her, and when Cherise got to the point Rachel could no longer deal with her at home, she got Cherise into the best hospice she could find, and became a volunteer there so they could be together. After Cherise died, Rachel pursued nursing, and found the one area she could have the most impact, in caring for those facing death. The once vibrant and boisterous party girl had grown into a thoughtful, introspective, and spiritual woman, who projected an overwhelming sense of calm.
Then Rachel received the most devastating news since learning of Cherise’s condition. For nearly a year, her sister Sharon had been complaining about being tired and listless. Despite Rachel’s admonitions, Sharon had put off seeing a doctor, focusing instead on her children, Rebecca and Steven. When she finally went in for a check up, she received the news that she had advanced ovarian cancer, which was spreading rapidly. Upon hearing the news, Rachel quit her job, informed her landlord she’d be leaving and boarded a plane to Atlanta. Rachel knows very well what’s in store for her sister, and she isn’t going to let Sharon, Rebecca, and Steven face it alone.