Going upstairs near midnight, the house below her now dark, the thought came to her that afterwards she would be alone at night. This house would be empty around her, and she would be alone, too, in the apartment, in the city.
Anne had gone downstairs to turn off the kitchen lights. She was wearing an old flannel bathrobe over a faded pajama top, with only underpants beneath it. The cool air made a draft in the stairwell and she felt it on her bare legs. When the thought came to her she stopped, halfway up the stairs, and put her hand against the wall. She could feel the dark house around her.
Alex was upstairs, already in bed. He would be lying on his side, ready to sleep. Maybe already asleep. In the past he had been mildly insomniac, but now he slept easily. It was the medications; his body was being taken over by this. He had also become very thin. His body was preparing itself, the bones rising up to the surface.
Before, he’d been a bulky presence in bed, solid under the covers, his belly a comforting hump. He’d given off heat like a furnace. At night, when Anne was cold, she’d pressed herself against him. She’d always done that, and he’d always reached out for her, pulling her against him, offering his warmth, himself. But now he was diminished, on the ebb. He was turning frail and meager. There was little of him left, and whatever he gave off it seemed wrong for her to take.
One of the worst things about this was that she could not talk to him about the worst things. The two of them still talked to each other as though things would come out all right. “When this round is finished,” they said, or, “As soon as these tests are done.” As though it were an exam they were going to take, and as though, after that, everything would be over and they could go to Italy as they’d planned, where, for some reason, Anne had never been.
When there were moments like this, on the stairs, she could not tell him. She was alone with the thought. But all the things about this were the worst. There were no good things.
That first day, when Alex called her at work, she’d forgotten about the tests. He’d had them weeks earlier, and he hadn’t used the word then. When the phone rang, she was in her office with Walter Cohen, another litigator. They were in the middle of developing an argument for a corporate client, a complicated issue involving international leasing agreements. The call had come through, though Anne had asked not to be disturbed. When she heard Alex’s voice, her first feeling was irritation.
“Hi.” Perhaps her irritation had been evident. This was something she thought of later. “What’s up.” Not a question, really, but a challenge.
“The tests came back,” Alex said.
“What tests?” she asked.
Walter looked down and began writing on his yellow pad, to show he was not listening. Anne was tapping her pen lightly against her desk. Alex couldn’t have heard that, the tapping, her impatience.
“Cancer,” he said, and everything changed.
She had to get the room empty, had to clear out courteous Walter and his yellow pads, get rid of the loose sheets littering her desk; erase from her mind her thoughts about trade infringement. All of that became—instead of central—extraneous. She had to clear out everything, everything except this calamitous news, the single word black and growing, seizing territory, swelling unthinkably, blocking out everything else.
She motioned to Walter, saying something (what?), and then swiveled her chair so she faced the wall. She heard Walter standing up, gathering his things, then she stopped hearing him.
“Okay,” she said, though it was not.
She held the phone in both hands, her eyes closed, as though, if she focused hard enough, she could take everything in and deal with it. As though she could win.
“Yes,” she said, listening. The first thing was to gather information. “Yes,” she said, nodding, her eyes still shut.
What you did was rise to the challenge, and it seemed at first as though you would be able to win. Hepatocellular carcinoma, prothrombin time, ethanol oblation: there was a new language, to start with. You could learn it and you could win. That was what you imagined. Wasn’t that what you did? Rise to the challenge? You asked what the options were.
The next time Alex saw his doctor, Anne went with him. She brought a yellow pad. As though this were a case, something she would come up against, later, in court, and for which she would prepare. At the top of the page she wrote the date and the doctor’s name. She thought they were coming in at the beginning of everything, as you did with litigation, but it turned out that it was only the beginning for them. The other side had had a head start.
“Your options,” said the doctor, nodding at her question. He was burly, with a square face and kinky gray hair. He leaned back in his chair, pushing himself away from the desk and clasping the armrests. He wore a white lab coat, unbuttoned, over his suit.
What they had not asked him, Anne noticed later, was the prognosis.
Now, upstairs in the darkened house, Anne opened the bedroom door quietly, in case Alex were asleep. The light on her side of the bed was on, and he was lying on his side, turned away. He didn’t move, and she closed the door very gently. Noiselessly, she hoped. She could, at least, spare him the noise of the door closing.
She took off her bathrobe, shivering, and laid it on the chair by the bed. There was almost no furniture in the house; what there was had come from yard sales, a local auction. Tattered rag rugs, battered wooden chests, ugly oak bureaus. She’d never put her mind to it, furnishing this weekend place. On her side of the bed there was no table. The lamp stood on the floor, her book beside it.
The window was open, and the air flowing in from outside was cool. Their house was miles from anywhere, set in poor farmland, Columbia County. They had no friends here, they saw no one. They spent their time alone together. They took long walks, pacing the length of the hay fields, the cornfields, the cow pastures. Turning at the corner of the field, beneath the wide windy sky, starting the next leg. Looking at the low farmland horizon, feeling the wheeling turn of the planet. Their hands deep in their pockets, their words torn away by the wind. There were still pheasants in this landscape, running urgently through the weedy brambles, making their loud stuttering call as they rose heavily into flight. Would she go on these walks alone?
Anne got into bed, sliding carefully under the covers. Her legs were now chilled, and she moved gently nearer him. She could feel what his body gave off, a diminished glow, faint, failing. She moved closer, offering her own heat.
In the beginning, things had not seemed so bad: there was so much to do. A battery of tests. (And it was just that, a battery, a fusillade, a battering.) All that motion: phone calls, doctors’ appointments, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, liver-function analyses, angiography. It had seemed as though they were getting somewhere. Each of these medical procedures was important, like tiny nails they were hammering into a sturdy structure, each one making it tighter, stronger, more solid, sealing it up. They were accomplishing something. They were taking action, building their defenses. Attitude was important, everyone said so. Anne throve on challenge. Litigation was adversarial, and she’d always liked conflict. Alex’s nickname for her was PB, for Pit Bull.
But it turned out that what they were building was an airtight diagnosis. Each of the tests confirmed further, more certainly, that there was no way out.
Finally Alex took medical leave from work. He was a lawyer, too—corporate law, in a different firm. When he’d told his managing partner, Anne told her friend Gillian, at her own firm.
Gillian, much milder than Anne, was in Trusts and Estates. She was short and stocky, with a small permanent frown line and fine blondish hair pulled back with a velvet bow. She was quiet and conscientious, charitable. Anne admired her, though sometimes Gillian’s charity made her impatient. The two often had lunch in the office together; that day they were in Anne’s office, Gillian sitting in the client’s chair. They were having mushroom soup, and it was raining. Water was sluicing down the windows in big horizontal sheets.
“Alex is taking a leave of absence,” Anne said. When she added, “for medical reasons,” she saw Gillian’s expression change. That was one of the bad moments: she could not take back what she’d said. It had been spoken. Gillian’s eyes turned attentive and kind, and Anne felt suddenly enraged. She wanted to stand up and point her finger at Gillian and command her not to think something that she had not been authorized to think. She could see from her eyes what Gillian was thinking, but Anne had not yet given her permission to think it. No, Anne wanted to say, raising her voice, Stop it. It’s not what you think. Anne had always been bossy, aggressive. It had made her a bad girl, a good litigator.
But what did she mean, It’s not what you think?
In fact, it was just what Gillian thought. What Gillian thought was the truth. Something that Anne refused to accept right then. But that was what lay at the end of all this, she knew now, though she and Alex had thought, or believed, that there was another possible ending. Looking back, she could see that they’d kept thinking that they’d come up over the crest of a hill and find the broad valley—Italy—waiting for them. If they could just get through this set of tests, just complete this course of medications.
But that was not what lay before them, Italy.
“Your options,” the doctor had said, leaning back in his chair away from them. He’d listed possible treatments: tumor ablation, cryosurgery, hepatic artery embolization. But there were no options, really. The only cures for liver cancer were surgery or transplant, and the kind of cancer Alex had wouldn’t permit either. Anne stared at the doctor, trying to figure a way to rephrase the question, to put the pieces together differently so that it all made a different shape, a different pattern.
From the start there were periodic blood tests, to track the progress of the disease. (Anne hated the use of the word progress, as though this were something positive, action to be applauded. Would you talk about the progress of a serial killer?)
Three months ago there had been a pause in the “progress”; the blood tests showed that nothing was happening. Anne asked the doctor what it meant. Spontaneous remission, the doctor told them. Sometimes that happened. From his voice she understood it was not to be trusted.
But since then it had seemed that things were fine. Weren’t they? Alex was weak, frailer than he had once been, but he was not growing weaker. Wasn’t that right? It was hard to be sure, watching from day to day. Attitude was important, and she willed him to be well, she ordered the spontaneous remission to continue. Something was governing this, there was some reason for the remission to occur. Why would her will not contribute to the process, whatever it was?
The disease was mysterious, anything might tip it in either direction. They were using alternative treatments, of course. Alex was getting acupuncture, he was eating vegan, he was taking all those herbs and vitamins, little packets of powder, huge pills and capsules, he was sipping steaming cups of infusion. All of this might help, who knew? It might cause an infinitesimal shift. Those diabolical cells, which had been called into action by some unknown mechanism, might cease their multiplying as a result. They might halt. The immune system might be stirred, called up into service like a victorious army to quench this traitorous uprising.
Oddly, as Alex’s body was shrinking, Anne’s was growing. Food had never held any interest for her before. She’d seen meals as necessary, and they made a neat division of the day, but eating itself bored her. She’d always been rail thin, but now weight was arriving on her body. Now she picked up a candy bar with a magazine, a pastry when she got coffee at the office. At lunch she had two courses, then dessert. Some of her skirts and pants were too tight around the waist. She put them at the back of her closet. Shopping was not possible now. Nothing that was not essential was possible now. Everything in her life was on hold. It was the way she felt during a trial.
When Alex’s son, Jason, heard about the diagnosis, he flew back to New York. Jason lived in Albuquerque, where he worked for a radio station. He was in marketing, though he wanted to be a producer, have his own show. Anne thought that was what he wanted. Had he actually said this, or was it just what she assumed? She felt she had not paid enough attention to Jason. To anything.
Jason met them in the apartment. Alex hugged him as though nothing were wrong.
“You look great,” Alex said, his voice warm and untroubled. He pulled back to look at his son.
Alex had still been robust then. There was only a subtle change in his skin color—a sort of yellowish sheen, the beginning of jaundice. She’d kept close track of those things, as though keeping close track could make a difference. His skin had turned faintly yellowish: Fact.
“Been working out?” Alex asked.
“Some,” Jason admitted. “I have a new gym.”
“Shows,” Alex said, nodding. “How often do you go?”
“Twice a week,” Jason said, “all I can manage.”
“How are the kids?” Alex asked.
Alex and Jason looked alike, except for their coloring. They were both tall, with wide faces and heavy, overhanging brows. Neanderthal, Jason called them.
“Kids are great,” Jason said.
It was Alex’s choice, how the evening would go, what they talked about. At dinner they discussed who would win the Masters. Anne listened. She knew the players, from years of these conversations, but golf was too slow for her. Those affectless swings, the tiny ball bounding away inconsequentially into the distance.
What Anne liked to watch was show jumping, the impossible arcs of the horses, the intensity of the riders. She liked the attentive quiet of the audience, the thudding of the horse’s hoofs as he approached the next jump, gathering rapidly in speed and urgency. Then the sudden absence of sound as the horse made his leap—the long breathless silence while he was airborne.
She watched Jason talking to his father. His black hair was cut very short, and he wore narrow rimless glasses. When he was amused he puckered his mouth to one side in a funny lopsided grin.
She wondered how she and Jason would do, when they were left alone. Would they stay in touch? How often would they see each other? She had met Jason when he was 15, a shy, skinny, geeky kid whose mother hated Anne.
She was fond of Jason, but she hesitated to use the word love: wasn’t it presumptuous to love someone else’s son? Someone whose mother would go crazy if she knew? Anne was fond, too, if that was the word, of Jason’s wife, Sheila, who had thick, frizzy blond hair, wore hippie-dippy clothes and talked earnestly about chi. But Anne wasn’t really close to Sheila. There had never been time to bond, on their quick visits west. Or she’d been too impatient to do it. That was her sin—was it? Impatience?
Anne had no children: she’d been too impatient for that, too. She’d met Alex in her late 30s; she’d thought there was still time. Before, when everyone was in their early 30s, children had seemed an insane idea, a royal nuisance. People with children were handicapped: unable to travel, too tired to go out, in bondage to babysitters and feeding schedules. Anne had felt secretly smug. Gillian had had black circles under her eyes for six years. What was the point of all that inconvenience?
Now Anne could see the point. Now her friends had these interesting, agreeable adults in their lives, people to have lunch with, go on vacations with, talk to. Gillian (who had made partner and had not sacrificed her career) had lunch with her daughter once a week. She asked Amanda’s advice—about people, work, where to find stuff. Politics, the Internet. Amanda knew things her mother had no way of learning. She was smart and nice. She worked for The New York Times: just a kid!
These grown-up children—it was like discovering a new tribe, somewhere deep in the interior, one with a whole set of skills you had never acquired. There they all were, going steadily about their business, sending text messages, knitting sweaters, eating raw fish.
It would be a relief, Anne thought, to have someone to share this with now. (It had turned out to be too late, when she’d gotten around to it, to have children.) She pictured her own daughter: a sweet-faced young woman with shiny hair, working in the development office at a museum, listening intently over miso soup. Or maybe tall and skinny, boldly transgressive, with spiky bleached hair, red high-top sneakers. Offhand, cool. In a rock band. Still, she’d be a friend. She’d teach Anne the difference between good and bad rap. Or whatever it was now.
“You can’t make that assumption, Dad,” Jason argued, shaking his head firmly. Alex lit up at this: he loved being contradicted by his son.
“Oh, you forbid it?” he asked, grinning.
Jason nodded. “I do. Sorry.”
Listening to them, Anne wondered if she had fewer friends than most people. She hadn’t made much effort to have friends—it was like children. She liked Gillian; there were other people she liked, but they weren’t people she asked for help. She’d always focused on work and on Alex, together they consumed and satisfied her. She’d always had the habit of solitude. She never confided in people, she asked little of her friends, and now it was too late. Wasn’t it? You couldn’t suddenly start up a friendship at a time like this, it would be like not praying until an emergency.
“The remarkable thing,” Jason went on smoothly, “is that you’re so ignorant about your own ignorance.”
Alex choked with laughter. Jason watched, grinning. They were a pair.
At the end of the evening Alex and Jason hugged again, more loosely, more affectionately.
“Thanks for coming,” Alex said. “It means a lot.” He patted Jason’s buff shoulder.
“Any time,” Jason said, nodding.
They were on the sidewalk by then, the air around them cool. They were in Greenwich Village, on 10th Street. The small struggling city trees were beginning to drop their leaves. A car bumped slowly down the cobblestones past them. Anne hugged Jason, pressing herself tentatively against his male chest, which was neither her child’s nor her mate’s. It always felt awkward, but what else should she do? Take him wholly in her arms, as though they owned each other? Who was it that you owned? She’d always thought she and Alex owned each other, though now she was learning the limits of her rights.
Last Thursday they’d gone in to see the doctor, to hear the latest test results. They sat side by side in the waiting room, Alex leafing through The New Yorker. In these fancy doctors’ waiting rooms there were the latest magazines, good ones, not the weird, obscure hobbyists’ ones that came as freebies. Alex began to read something, frowning slightly, holding the magazine up in front of him. His hand was shrunken, the veins and tendons stood out beneath the skin. Anne put her hand on his knee. Without looking up Alex put his other hand on hers. His hand felt cool. It was like an alarm bell.
The nurse opened the door and said Alex’s name without smiling. Did her job ever allow her to smile? There was never any good news in this office. Anne smiled at her, though, in a craven propitiatory way, as the nurse ushered them in. At that moment Anne still felt hopeful, the remission was still occurring, things still hung in the balance.
As they sat down together across from the doctor, Anne felt in her body the shock of what they were about to learn. She felt the energy draining from her when she saw the way the doctor leaned toward them, the quiet steadiness of his voice. The way he looked up at them, the papers in his hand.
“I have the latest results.” The tone of his voice held a warning, and Anne had to resist the impulse to put her hands over her ears, to keep from knowing, for one more minute. “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
“Not,” Anne said, nodding politely, as though this were a client conference, and she were keeping track of information.
“Not good news,” the doctor repeated.
“But why not?” Anne asked stupidly.
The doctor folded his hands on the desk. “I’m afraid we’ve run out of options.”
Afterward, Alex headed back out to the waiting room at a shuffle. His walk was becoming effortful, as vitality drained from his limbs. Lifting the foot off the floor was difficult—but she took his side on this. Why should you lift the foot up, when you could slide it along the rug, the sidewalk? She felt ferociously protective of his feet, his steps, his energy. He should not be lifting his feet.
They took a cab back to the apartment. Anne took his hand; he was turned away, looking out the window. The driver was listening to Rush Limbaugh, his raucous, intolerant patter. “How can you win the hearts and minds of people who don’t have any? Think about that,” Limbaugh demanded. “These people are human debris. Human debris.”
“That’s it,” Alex said. “Now all we do is wait.”
For a moment she conflated the two things—“Human debris” and “That’s it.”
“No,” she said reflexively, but did not know how to go on. She reached up and smoothed the hair away from Alex’s forehead. He did not move.
What sort of comfort could you give? Sitting next to him in the back of the cab, she felt herself helpless, separate. He was trapped inside his body, alone.
“You might have another spontaneous remission,” she said, but she hardly believed it.
Alex looked at her.
“Lovey,” he said, and Anne began to cry. It was a surprise to her, she couldn’t help it. His face was so sad.
Now, in the bedroom, Anne turned out the light and lay still, listening to him breathing. She felt the room quiet around them, the cold air turn still. Outside, the fields stretched out around their house, the flattened cornstalks lying in jumbled rows.
When Alex spoke it was without moving, his long diminishing body turned away from her.
“I think we should get married,” he said.
Anne was silent.
“I want to,” he said.
“Now’s the time,” he said.
She hated the idea. She’d always wanted to stay single. If she’d gotten pregnant she’d have gotten married, but to do it now, because of this, would mean giving in, admitting they were beaten.
“I don’t think Jason would like it,” Anne said.
“I’m not asking Jason,” Alex said. He put his hand out in the dark, it landed clumsily on her face.
“Don’t ask me,” Anne said.
Alex sat up and turned on the light. There was a table on his side of the bed. “I’ve been thinking about what I want to do. Say I have six good months left. I want to finish reading Dickens. I want to read all of him and I want to own all the books. Not first editions, not fancy ones, just good hardcovers. I want to learn how to bake bread. I’d like to go on a golf trip with Jace—maybe someplace in the Caribbean. That will have to be soon.”
A golf trip: Alex’s feet shuffling across the doctor’s smooth carpeting, his shrunken hands.
“If you want to, we’ll do it,” Anne said, wondering if she should go with them.
“And I want to get married,” Alex added.
“No,” Anne said.
There was a silence. Alex stroked her face.
“It means you will die,” Anne said.
“I will die,” Alex said.
Anne rolled away from him and sat up, her back to him. She closed her eyes. All of this was being imposed on her. His yellowing skin, those terrible shrunken hands, the flesh melting away beneath the skin. The pathetic shuffle of his feet, and the way the doctor looked at them, pityingly. The way Gillian had looked at her, and the way the doctor had said quietly, “We’ve run out of options.” She had not given permission for any of this to happen.
She felt her throat thicken with anger. Now this business—it would be the end of her. Tricked into becoming something she’d never wanted to be, only to be transformed at once into something even worse.
“Stop it,” she said, facing away from him. “It’s bad enough the way it is.”
“It’s bad for you?” Alex asked.
“I know it’s terrible for you.” Anne turned to him. “But I’m in this too. I wish I could do something more for you. I wish I could wrap myself around your body and draw the cancer out. I’d do anything. But I won’t marry you.”
“Anne, it’s just one thing.” Now he sounded angry.
Anne got out of bed and stood on the bare floor. “Don’t you do this to me.” The room was filled with cold air and she began to shiver.
Alex sat up, leaning on his elbow. In the lamplight, his shadow fell upward, against the plaster wall. “Look at this house,” he said. His voice was stronger now. “It’s a slum. It looks like a secondhand shop.”
“I never thought you cared what it was like,” Anne said, shaken. “I thought we agreed on that.” Hadn’t they?
“We didn’t agree on it. You never asked me,” Alex said. “You never wanted children. You never asked me about that.”
“I wanted them,” Anne said.
“Not early enough to get them.”
“But did you want them? So much, I mean.” She put her arms around herself, hugging herself for warmth. It was a shock, all this anger, directed at her. Had he been feeling this way for years?
“I wanted them,” Alex said. “But you didn’t, so we didn’t have any. I had Jason.”
“Is this going to be a list of all my failings?” Anne asked. “All the things you’ve been saving up?”
“I haven’t been saving up,” Alex said. She could not see his face, it was in shadow. His voice was quieter now but still hard. “I’ve always loved you. You are who you are. It was more important to you not to get married than it was to me to get married, so we didn’t. But now it’s important to me.” He stopped.
She could see it, the two of them before a justice of the peace, Alex frail, tottering. Their friends grouped discreetly in the background. Jason, his hands folded, Sheila in her robes and beads.
Anne put her hands up to her face. She began to cry. “Please don’t ask me.”
Alex did not move, his face turned to her, the shadow behind him still on the wall.
“Why didn’t it work?” she cried. “The acupuncture, those awful stinking herbs, all those meditations and massages, why didn’t they work?” She sobbed. “Why are we being left stranded here?”
“We aren’t stranded,” Alex said. He sat up all the way. One thing about Alex, either awful or wonderful, was that he was calm. “We aren’t stranded. We’re in this together.”
“We aren’t in this together,” Anne said, still crying. “You’re leaving me.”
“Come here,” Alex said to her, beckoning.
“No,” sobbed Anne. “Don’t try to comfort me.”
Alex got out of bed. She heard his footsteps on the bare floor. His footsteps were light, he hardly weighed anything. He walked around the bed to her side and put his arms around her.
“Do you think I like it?” he asked, in her ear. “Do you think I want to leave? I hate this. I hate it more than you do.”
She cried harder, and he rocked her.
“You don’t have to use my name,” he said. “You don’t have to tell anyone. We can do it without anyone knowing. You can keep it a secret forever. You don’t have to be a widow. I don’t want you to be a widow. But I want you to be my wife.”
The tears were running down her cheeks and her neck. She was freezing.
“It’s something we can do,” he said. “We’d be saying we can still do something important. We’d be saying fuck you to cancer.”
There was the word. Now it was loose in the room.
“Don’t say it,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut.
“I know you hate to lose a case,” he said. “But let me make my argument. Look at me.” He drew away from her. “Look at the man you’ve spent 18 years with.”
He was still in shadow, but she could see the low, wide brow, the big nose, fierce eyebrows. The glowing eyes.
“It’s come back,” he whispered. “It’s time to choose up sides. I want you on mine.”
There was a night wind picking up, catching on the corners of the house. Anne’s feet on the bare floor, her legs, were freezing, and she could feel Alex, once her great powerful furnace, beginning to shiver in the chill draft. It was terrible, the thought that he could no longer keep himself warm, nor her. She could not do it for him. She could not keep him warm.
They could not stand here arguing, it was too cold. They would have to get back into bed and put their arms around each other against this rising, deadening chill, the blackness of the night. Argument would not avail.
Maybe just this, holding each other, mindless, clinging, fierce, was all they could do. It was like the absence of sound as the horse made his leap—the long breathless silence while he was airborne, everyone attentive, still, waiting for the landing.
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