Just one week before, her husband had made them a reservation at Les Amis, the best French restaurant in the Hamptons. There was an expensive bottle of burgundy serving as a candle holder on the table. Layers of colored wax melted around the neck marking the passage of time, the countless dinner dates. She pictured a young couple holding hands under the table, the husband spooning chocolate souffle into the wife’s mouth. Or, more likely, a middle-aged couple like themselves, in quiet argument followed by miserable silence as they sat fuming in the height of elegance on wrought iron chairs that wobbled on the granite pavers.
The courtyard was surrounded by willow trees, reminding her of what a fairy dell might look like, were there such a thing. It was their anniversary, and she had begged him to do something different with her, something he liked. “Take me out fishing on the boat,” she suggested, knowing they would be better off somewhere they wouldn’t have to talk much. “But there’s nothing running,” he complained, “the season hasn’t started,” so he made a dinner reservation instead. This time the fight wasn’t even interesting, and then there was the guilt trip over how much was spent at dinner—two hundred dollars just to sit there and argue. They finished their expensive wine which shone like a ruby in the candlelight, more violet than burgundy.
A week later, she took their 8-year-old son to a contemporary art exhibit at the Met titled, “A Forensic Reading of Images.” They were just leaving the museum when she got the call, the woman on the line telling her bluntly that she needed to come in as soon as possible. The MRI showed what they had feared—her cancer was back, and spreading. Suddenly, she was walking out of a Fairfield Porter portrait of a family picnic into a Philip Guston caricature of loneliness, a pink figure chain-smoking in bed, eyes wide, anxious and paranoid, the incessant clock ticking. Her thoughts grew strange and she was already not herself, giving in immediately when her son insisted that he sit in the back of the SUV so he could watch The Lego Movie on the ride home.
“The white room at the end of the hall,” the receptionist said, smiling. “The doctor will be in soon to discuss the results.” All white. Sterile. But there is no such thing as all white, she thought. There is always the grey shadows in the corners, the different shades of white, the ceiling. Her husband was there too this time, spinning on the stool, giving her a small, sick smile. He pretended to clean his ears with a long cotton swab in a failed attempt at light humor. She was still angry with him for being such a jerk on their anniversary, and most days since, but they had grown to need each other desperately over the years; he was the first one she had wanted to tell, the only one she told.
She recalled an art opening she had gone to in college where a performance artist asked audience members to pair up with strangers, then sign legal documents binding each pair to be friends for a minimum of a week. It was exciting and strange. How do strangers define friendship? She was coupled with a Brazilian artist named Paolo. They met twice for lunch over the course of the week. They spoke gently to one another. They did not hold hands, they did not argue. She tried to remember Paolo’s face as she looked at her husband and reflected on the contract of marriage, her thoughts spiraling as though her mind were hacked by a virus of magic realism.
The doctor pointed at the white oval on the x-ray that represented the mass in her breast, and various other shadowy images she couldn’t comprehend. The undeniable spread of the disease, “as sure as signs of spring,” he said. The doctor used several odd phrases with the cadence of a metronome. It made her want to laugh, though she felt unable to speak. She looked down at her chest as though it were the site of a sacrifice—a shifting territory, like words scratched in the sand. She tried to make eye-contact with her husband. There was so much she wanted to say to him; mainly that she was sorry, that they should have been nicer to each other. I have known you a long time she wanted to say, but he was looking at the doctor, processing his statements, a white hot anger in her husband’s eyes, an accusation: why hadn’t they removed it all the first time?
She knew that look. It was the look her father had the night he found her in tears, scared and ashamed, after the man who lived next door came over drunk while she was babysitting. Her father had marched over to the neighbor’s house, shaking. “Don’t you ever lay a hand on my daughter again,” he shouted from the doorstep. “I should have killed him,” he said when he got home. For years, she worried that he might. Now, thirty years later, she would be outlived by them all. She shivered. Her husband reached out, put his hand on her head, smoothed her hair as though she were a child.
The doctor looked solemn and wise in his coat. He reminded her of a priest. Why do we spend so much more time thinking about our gods than our demons? she wanted to ask him. On the car ride home from the hospital they listened to a Blues song about the devil. There was much to discuss but for now she cherished the quiet. It was early winter, and she gazed out the window at the twisted, forked branches, thought about all the things they were reaching toward, like synapses firing in the wrong direction. Behind them, dark clouds gathered like death itself in the wake of the sun.