first person

Did My Girlfriend Lie About Having Cancer?

I’ll never know for sure, but she forever changed my approach to relationships.

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

I met her — the woman I’ll call Chelsea — on a crowded dance floor. I’d been single for two months and felt unmoored. She was charming and chivalrous in that classic butch-for-femme way. She wore a masculine type of cologne that made her smell like whiskey, green grass, and campfire, and her quick wit and easygoing nature made me feel comfortable. We got in a cab at the end of the night and went back to my apartment. When we woke up the next morning, I was happy that I’d finally started the process of getting over my ex-partner after the breakup of a five-year relationship.

I used to fall in love quickly and ignore every potential warning sign, content that I had found someone. Then I fell for Chelsea, who helped me understand that not everyone is, in fact, good at heart.

Of course, we’re all flawed. It’s a truism that lesbians of my generation tended toward a series of chaotic relationships after coming out, most of us forming our own replacement family structures while barely out of adolescence. During my first dyke march in Ottawa in 1995, my girlfriend’s roommate chased her partner through the parade with a BB gun, which was considered a bit alarming but mostly funny. I still think of it whenever I hear the song “Macarena,” which played from a speaker on the back of a truck cruising down the street as parents shielded their children’s eyes. Coming out at a time when you could be fired from jobs or attacked in the street was an ordeal that made us act out in our love lives as a type of trauma response.

When I took Chelsea home, gay marriage had only recently been legalized. Pleasure-seeking political queers now felt pressure to get on with a type of adulthood not previously accessible to us. We watched our friends walk down the aisle to soft remixes of 1980s love songs while agreeing intellectually that marriage equality was the wrong fight.

I wasn’t immune to this pressure. I was eager to find someone and settle down. “Am I going to be alone forever?” I probably asked in my LiveJournal. I did not make considered choices while in this frenzied state.

As Chelsea wandered around my apartment that morning, collecting her things, she told me in an almost offhand way that she was undergoing radiation for cancer and that her final treatment was that week. She said something like “Soon I’ll know if they got it all or if I’ll need chemo.” I was thrown by how casually she dropped this into morning-after conversation.

My heart sped up as I leaned against my doorframe, saying good-bye to this stranger. We’d only been sober together for a total of 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 threw back shots and pints of beer until 4 a.m. or if it was suspicious that she divulged this kind of personal information to me right away. I was immediately worried about someone I’d only just met. Drawn in.

Chelsea and I began dating almost immediately, in that U-Haul-cliché kind of way. I was excited to introduce her to my friends and to spend as much time with her as possible that honeymoon summer. A few weeks into dating, she got the news that her cancer was in remission. But she still seemed plagued by calamities. Rarely did weeks pass without some huge fight with bosses, friends, her landlord. I began to notice that in her telling of every story, she was always the victim, rarely offering up any perspective on her responsibility. Sometimes it felt exhausting to be her main support person, but for a writer with a humdrum day job — I was waitressing, working as a freelance arts critic, applying to M.F.A. programs — it was enthralling to be with someone for whom life was rarely boring.

Things Chelsea said didn’t always add up, but she could talk her way out of almost anything. A few months in, money disappeared from my roommate’s dresser top. Chelsea was the only person who was in a position to take it, but she wouldn’t admit it. She told stories about a best friend who had killed herself and claimed to have walked in and found the body. I could never find evidence that this friend existed. She may have, but my gut feels otherwise.

One night, we had a fight and I asked her to leave, and she texted me later saying she had to go to the ER for a pain in her abdomen. I knew something was off. I told her I would accompany her to the hospital, but she said she wanted to go by herself. I called the ER to ask if she’d been a patient. They said no.

Eventually, Chelsea admitted that she had lied about the hospital visit and could not explain why she did it. She promised to go to therapy with me, to sort herself out, if I didn’t break up with her. We went, and I watched as she talked circles around the therapist. Throughout the session, Chelsea would expertly shift the conversation from taking responsibility for her lies to other aspects of her life and childhood the therapist appeared to be rapt by. Before I knew it, the session was over and nothing had really been addressed in a serious way. We never went back.

When someone tricks and humiliates you, it is tempting to forget that a relationship is co-created. But I can now see my own stake in it, the ways I contributed to our dysfunction and kept it alive. For more than a year, I was drawn back in after every fight, convinced by her uncanny ability to say what I most needed to hear in order to get back on the roller coaster. Until the final shoe dropped.

For a few months after catching her in other lies, I began to suspect the cancer wasn’t true. But even asking the question of others who knew her felt like a betrayal — what if I was wrong? Finally, I felt as though I had no other choice and reached out to her family, who told me that they believed the cancer was a lie.

After that conversation, I went for a walk to clear my head. I ducked into the alcove of a long-abandoned store and started scream-crying into my flip phone. “You lied about having cancer!” I yelled. “You’ve never been sick at all!” I sounded like a lunatic. I was making these awful mammalian sobs of disbelief. People stared — even the guy who stalked the neighborhood with a shopping cart full of beer and raged at strangers.

I don’t remember what she said in that moment. It’s possible that I was actually yelling into her voice mail.

Later that evening, I ran into my neighbor, Chelsea’s friend, and told her breathlessly about what I’d discovered. “Oh yeah, of course she’s lying about cancer. She lies about everything. It’s kind of sad, really.” I was so angry at her for being blasé about it. Why didn’t anyone warn me? It never occurred to me that people in her life might be silently humoring her about something so serious. I spent weeks after this moment feeling like a shell of myself, wondering how I could have been so stupid to believe something that, looking back, felt so obvious.

After the spectacle on the street, I tried to organize an intervention with Chelsea’s friends so she could get help. If this were a form of mental illness, should we not support her the way we would if she had something more common like anxiety disorder or depression? But she wasn’t interested and soon ghosted me. She moved on to newer friends, probably appearing in their lives as quickly and intensely as she’d appeared in mine. I was still devastated and wanted to save her. Now I can see that this urge to help her was about trying to avoid feeling like I had been a sucker, that she had taken advantage of me.

I haven’t spoken to Chelsea in years and have no interest in knowing her. But after our relationship ended, I did often feel bad for her, for the pain she must have been in to live her life this way and the work it would have taken to change course. It’s hard enough to shift entrenched patterns, harder still when those behaviors involve a complicated fantasy life.

I often wonder if she just wanted attention and love — things I was willing to give her without a fake terminal illness. The hardest thing to wrestle with was the fact that I’d spent endless nights caring about someone who was in some ways unknowable. Because what really hurt wasn’t just being lied to — it was simply realizing she didn’t love me back.

Zoe Whittall’s latest novel, The Fake, will be published on March 21 by Penguin Random House.

Did My Girlfriend Lie About Having Cancer?