The story opens with the unnamed narrator visiting her friend, who is also unnamed, in a hospital near Hollywood, California, where the friend is dying, presumably of cancer. The friend asks the narrator to “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” The things the narrator tells her friend are funny and light, items of trivia about the first tape recorder in America and the flying patterns of insects, things which may or may not be true. The friend is interested in hearing about the first chimp that was trained to talk until the narrator warns her that the outcome is sad, at which point the friend commands her to stop the story.
When the friend introduces the narrator to her nurse as “the Best Friend,” the narrator is sufficiently attuned to language to note that her use of “the” here rather than “my” implies that in some way the friend views her connection with the nurse as actually being the closer bond now. Feeling guilty, the narrator ponders her reasons for waiting two months to come visit.
The doctor enters the hospital room and the friend flirts with him. Like the nurse, he also seems to have a closer relationship with the friend than does the narrator; he is the “Good Doctor” because he makes jokes about death and disease with her and is “a little in love with her.” He suggests that the narrator go to the nearby beach so that he can be alone with her.
At the beach the narrator muses on other forms of danger, recalling a time in college when the two of them thought they could forestall an earthquake by repeating “earthquake, earthquake, earthquake” because “it never happens when you’re thinking about it.” The verbal repetition, however did nothing to prevent an aftershock during a 1972 earthquake the friends witnessed as college roommates. This thought foreshadows the friend’s impending death: she will continue with her joking references to death, attempting to ward it off, until she dies.
The narrator returns from watching teenagers displaying “aggressive health” on the beach to find a second bed in the room, a bed, she realizes, put there so that she can spend the night. She rattles off more trivia for her friend and they watch a movie together lying side by side while eating ice cream. They achieve their former closeness for a moment when the narrator feels sleepy from the injection given to the friend. The two drift off to sleep, but the narrator dreams her friend has decorated her house in festive streamers. When she wakes, her fear overpowers her compassion and she tells her friend, “I have to go home.”
Though she feels “weak and small and failed,” she also feels “exhilarated” by imagining her escape back to her convertible and visiting trendy Malibu restaurants. The friend throws a fit upon realizing the narrator is leaving, yanking off her protective mask and running out of the room.
The next mention of the friend is when she is “moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried.” Although not stated directly, it seems likely that the narrator has never been back to visit. Addressing the death in this fashion allows her to avoid acknowledging that her friend has died: instead her use of language lets her focus on and highlight the fact that Al Jolson is buried in the cemetery in question; he is the one she can accept being dead.
The narrator enrolls in a”Fear of Flying” class that same day. She also finishes the story about the chimpanzee that her friend did not want to hear. The chimp used sign language to communicate with its baby. Even after the baby dies, the chimp attempts to communicate with it, “fluent now in the language of grief.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.