Joint Winner of The Letter Prize for Short Fiction
She sits on the subway, one hand wrapped around the silver pole in front of her, the other hugging a black suede tote to her chest. When the train moves, she feels its vibrations inside her body. Her torso sways with the rattling of the subway, moves side to side as if dancing to an invisible beat. If only she could shake the bad cells right out of her body.
Cat stares through the dirty window into the blurred landscape outside the train. It’s not like she has never imagined this scenario – she used to try it out in her head to see how she might react. But there was much more drama in those imagined scenarios than there had been in real life. When the doctor told her, she felt like she had been punched. Her breath caught, just for a second.
Blackness consumes the train as it passes into a dark tunnel. Then suddenly, it is light again. The train rattles past a series of buildings that all look alike.
“My days all look alike,” she told Marguerite just a week ago. It was a long distance call, but she called Marguerite via one of those apps that made the call free, as long as you were both connected to Wi-Fi, so Cat felt like it was okay to wax existential, just as she might if her friend was still a few blocks away. Marguerite was, at that moment, in Paris, had moved overseas six months before, when her boyfriend secured the post of Parisian correspondent for his paper. A freelance photographer, Marguerite packed up her camera and picked up her life, something Cat could never imagine doing.
“I need to change something,” she had told her friend, wistfully imagining Marguerite sitting in her French flat on Boulevard St. Michel, or at a sidewalk café, cell phone in one hand, café au lait in the other. It wasn’t just that she was bored with her job at the museum, she thought, as she sipped from her own Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup. She was discontented. Tired. She felt like she was racing through her days – they blurred together like the buildings and trees outside the train.
Her interactions with her kids now occurred mostly over the phone – they were both at school, one a couple hours’ drive away; the other, a couple hours away by plane. Ali, in medical school, was overscheduled, rarely slept, could never fit it all in. Jess, a college freshman, just didn’t fit in. She worried about them at night, when she should have been sleeping. She worried about her deadlines. She worried about whether she had made a wrong turn somewhere in her career, whether she had missed the path that would lead to work that truly fulfilled her. She worried while Jamie slept soundly beside her, his calm, rhythmic breathing a steady accompaniment to her nighttime anxiety.
Now she really has something to worry about. As the subway lurches to a stop, she clutches her bag to her body more tightly, and becomes conscious of the fingers on her left hand as they slightly graze her right breast. She thinks of what lies beneath her fingers, lurking just beneath the surface of her breast. That what is inside this breast can kill her.
The subway starts moving again, and she focuses her gaze on the scenery outside the window. The train has entered Brooklyn, there is more greenery, she is almost home. Jamie won’t be home from the hospital for a few hours. She doesn’t want to tell him over the phone. He’s not a phone person. He won’t give her the kind of reaction she wants over the phone. What kind of reaction does she want?
She used to worry about Jamie getting cancer. It was in his family. She would force herself to think the unthinkable. She tried to imagine what she would do differently if she knew they only had a fixed amount of time. She didn’t really consider that she would be the one to get cancer, though she did sometimes absently run her hand over her breasts in the shower, to make sure there was nothing unusual. She worried, occasionally, about that one lump under her left arm, even though the mammogram and an ultrasound showed that it was just breast tissue, even though it appeared and disappeared with her menstrual cycle, which supposedly meant it was not cancer. She wasn’t even worrying about the right breast. Her body has tricked her.
The train stops again, and a woman gets on with her daughter. The mother places the daughter in front of her, then grabs onto the pole in front of them, encircling her child with her own body, so that the child is held securely between mother and pole. She knows that the cancer will not kill her, because she cannot imagine her daughters without her.
“What if you die?” Jess had asked her once, back when she was still a tween.
“I’m not going to die,” she had answered, wondering, What if I died? Who would listen to Jess’s detailed recounting of the subtle ebbs and flows of her friendships? Who would reassure her when she felt friendless? She lay down with Jess that evening, staying with her until she fell asleep. I have to stop doing this, she thought. I don’t want her to need me so much.
Back home, Cat stares out the window above the kitchen sink, looking out onto the tiny patch of grass and miniature brick patio that she and Jamie ironically refer to as the “backyard.” A little bistro table and two French-looking wrought iron chairs fill the entire patio, and she has crammed as many perennials as possible into the thin strip of a soil that surrounds the “lawn” and separates it from the tall, wooden privacy fence that blocks out the neighboring properties. The greenery of the allium, the daffodils and the tulips are just pushing up out of the recently-thawed soil. By late spring, the bed will also be crowded with irises, peonies, and the foliage of summer flowers like Shasta daisies and catmint.
The sight of her flowers emerging in spring always fills Cat with a sense of anticipation and even a bit of wonder. It amazes her, really, that they actually come back, year after year, especially here, in the city, where the urban street sounds seem a contradiction to the unfolding of this annual pastoral drama. In the coming weeks, she will start to wander outside with her coffee in the mornings to monitor her garden’s progress. She wonders how many springs she has left to enjoy this simple ritual.
Without thinking, she picks up the phone to call Jamie. She hangs up without dialing. Yes, she should definitely tell him in person. But she shouldn’t assault him with it the minute he comes home. Maybe over dinner. A glass of wine. A Manhattan? He has taken to drinking bourbon. Maybe after a Manhattan.
“I have cancer.” She doesn’t want to just blurt it out, she thinks, her hand still resting on the phone’s receiver. He doesn’t even know she had the biopsy. She doesn’t know why she didn’t tell him. He is a doctor after all. The truth is, she hadn’t told anyone. It was probably just like those notices she got every year after her mammogram that said she needed to come back for an ultrasound, she had thought. Because of her dense breasts. She removes her hand from the phone, starts pacing around the kitchen. She’ll make him a nice dinner. They should have one more nice dinner without the knowledge of it hanging over them. It will be her gift to him: one last leisurely meal, one more collection of moments unburdened by worry, expectation, uncertainty, dread.
They’d both begun to anticipate these hours just after work, she thought – the cocktail or glass of wine by the fire, the carefully curated meal, often plucked from a newly-arrived food magazine or their favorite foodie blog, Dinner: A Love Story.
She will make his favorite meal, she thinks, eggplant parmesan and spaghetti. And open a really good bottle of red wine – one of the bottles from the left side of the wine cellar. She doesn’t know her wines that well. But she knows that the bottles lined up on the racks against the wall with the light switch are the “special” bottles, the ones they save for special occasions. She’s sure this wasn’t the kind of occasion Jamie had in mind when organizing his collection, but she thinks a good bottle of wine is definitely in order.
She pulls open the fridge door and peers inside. Eggplant? Check. Garlic? Check. Basil? No. “Basil, basil, basil,” she mutters to herself as she pulls the “Shopping List” pad from a drawer. She’s a list-maker and has amassed an extraordinary range of purposeful pads designed specifically for the task. From “Things to do” to “Pros and Cons,” every list has its special designated notebook – there is even a “Notes to the Babysitter” pad, left over from the era before she became an empty-nester.
Searching in the pantry for canned tomatoes, breadcrumbs, and spaghetti and finding only the breadcrumbs – she adds the other items to her list. As she turns around to exit the pantry, her right breast brushes against the door. She had been distracted, but, again, feels punched. Cat has never been so aware of her breasts. Putting down her list and pen, she walks slowly to the bathroom. She lifts her sweater over her head and places it on the small gold-leaf table in the corner. Stares into the mirror at her breasts, at the way they spill slightly over the top of her blue lace bra. Studies the shadows along the inner curves of her bosom. Runs her finger along her cleavage.
Behind her back, she unhooks her bra, letting it drop to the floor. Her breasts droop, slightly, but she’s been exercising, so they still have some firmness. The skin is smooth, white, the nipple and areola a light, light pink, only slightly darker than the rest of the breast. She holds her hands protectively over her right breast as if it is something precious.
She moves her hands so that they are cupped under each breast, never taking her eyes off of her reflection. She hasn’t yet decided if she will opt for the lumpectomy or the mastectomy, but suspects she will choose the mastectomy. Otherwise she will worry always about it coming back. Of course she’ll get reconstruction. But she can’t imagine looking in the mirror once it’s done. She’s afraid she will no longer recognize her own body.
Cat was pretty flat-chested in high school – and envious of her friends whose sweaters delineated distinct and prominent curves, whose tank tops revealed actual cleavage. She didn’t really have much to speak of in the way of breasts until her first pregnancy. She experienced cleavage for the first time when she was breastfeeding Ali – and wore an underwire bikini all summer to flaunt her newfound form. Jamie, mesmerized, couldn’t stop touching them. How ironic that the very thing she had once pined after might end up killing her.
She slips back into her bra. Grabs her sweater and pulls it on as she heads toward the door. She will go to the market, get the ingredients for dinner. She will do this for Jamie. Before he knew it, he would have to be doing things for her.
She cracks two eggs in a bowl and whisks them quickly until they froth. Then pours the breadcrumbs into the other bowl. Holding the first eggplant with her left hand, Cat slices it thinly with her right. Watching the knife slide gently through the vegetable’s shiny black skin gives her the chills. She picks up one disc of eggplant at a time, dunks it into the bowl filled with egg, into the second bowl to coat each side with breadcrumbs, and then throws it into the skillet, where the oil has already been heating up. The eggplant creates a satisfying sizzle as it hits the oil. She repeats the process until the pan is filled, then moves to the other side of the island, where she has assembled the sauce ingredients.
She sticks the clove of garlic into the blue rubber tube that she and Jamie have just bought at the garden show. Somehow she had dragged him there on Sunday, and they had both been mesmerized as the woman behind the counter in one of the booths rolled garlic cloves in these rubber tubes, magically separating them from their skin. They agreed they had to have the magical garlic peeler. Cat rolls the tube back and forth on the counter until she hears the crumpling of the garlic skin. She dumps out the contents of the tube and voila, the garlic tumbles out, stripped of its skin, and she watches as the skin flutters down around it.
After slicing the clove of garlic into ultra-thin slivers, she dumps them into the hot olive oil in the second skillet. Tzzst. She sprinkles a generous amount of crushed red pepper into the oil as well. Pushes the garlic and crushed red pepper around in the oil, and then moves back to the other skillet to flip the eggplant as the aroma of the garlic and eggplant wafts up around her. She opens the cans of tomatoes, pours them over the garlic and red pepper, and turns that burner down to a simmer. She chops the tomatoes into smaller pieces with the edge of the spatula and then covers the pan. She slides the spatula under each eggplant round to make sure both sides are browned, then removes them one by one to a plate sitting beside the stove. She is about to repeat the process when the phone rings.
She wipes her hands on a dishtowel and grabs the phone.
“Hello?” She tucks the phone between her ear and her shoulder and starts slicing the next round of eggplant.
“Oh hi, Ali, what’s up?” She won’t tell Ali what is up with her. She imagines that if she tells Ali, her daughter will get all clinical, asking her a million questions about what stage it is and what the doctor said and did she get a second opinion and how it’s less invasive to have the lumpectomy and that women who have mastectomies don’t live any longer than those who get lumpectomies. She will go into doctor mode, even though she’s not yet a doctor.
Cat smiles to herself, realizing that Ali probably inherited that tendency from Jamie. Or perhaps it was just a doctor thing. Jamie also tended to adopt his “doctor voice,” as Jess called it, when he talked about anything medical. Dare to bring up a medical complaint, – or offhandedly mention that a friend or family member was suffering from some malady – and he became a quasi-biology teacher, spouting statistics, attempting to put said medical complaint into scientific context. Jamie was also quick to brush off any symptoms being suffered by Cat. As an anesthesiologist, he was typically tending to patients who needed surgery to cure whatever ailed them, so Cat’s ailments were minimal compared to what he dealt with on a daily basis. Well, she thinks wryly, he can’t brush this one off. But she isn’t ready to tell Ali.
“I’m on my way back from anatomy lab – it is so disgusting – they don’t use formaldehyde to preserve the bodies anymore – they use this other stuff that has this side effect of stimulating your appetite, which is just really so gross because you’re standing there dissecting this person, right, and you are starving, so it just makes you feel like such a cannibal…” Talking to Ali is really more like listening to Ali, since it’s hard to get a word in, but listening to Ali is on Cat’s list of top favorite things to do, so she listens to Ali’s stream of consciousness as she chops her eggplant. But while she usually finds Ali’s patter strangely relaxing, today she can’t help picturing the cadavers and their breasts and the young surgeons-in-training with their knives poised uncertainly above the lifeless flesh.
She takes great care in setting the table. She pulls out her favorite placemats, the flax-colored linen ones that they picked up at an outdoor market in Provence, during a recent trip to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Traipsing downstairs to the closet in the basement where they keep the extra dishes, she pulls out a couple of their special plates – the Annie Glass with the thick, gold-painted rims. Back in the kitchen, she threads white linen napkins with topaz colored beads dangling from their edges through gold linen-wrapped napkin rings, and places them in the center of the plates. White linen is probably not the best choice to accompany a meal featuring tomato sauce, but she likes the way it looks on the plate, and she wants everything to look just right tonight. She retrieves the over-sized red wine glasses from the cabinet above the wet bar, and decides to forego the water glasses. Jamie never drinks water anyway, and tonight, she thinks, she probably won’t drink water either.
When she hears Jamie’s car pull up, she lights the candles and turns on the music. Jean-Pierre Rampal and Claude Bolling. They haven’t listened to the duo for ages, but their music reminds her of an insouciant stage in their relationship, when they had little to worry about and unknown things to look forward to. Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio – it was always one of Jamie’s favorites.
“Wow, I haven’t heard that in a while,” Jamie says as he throws his jacket carelessly on the bench outside the kitchen doorway and walks into the kitchen as the jacket slides to the floor. “It smells good in here,” he says, peeking into the oven. “Yum.”
“Nice,” he says reaching over to touch the silky-smooth ends of her hair. She had flat-ironed it this morning. What will he think when she has no hair?
She places a pot of water on the stove to boil. Jamie raises his eyebrows when he notices the table. “What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion. I just decided we should have a nice dinner tonight,” she said. “I made you a Manhattan.”
“I didn’t know you knew how to make a Manhattan.”
“I’ve been watching you,” she says, handing him his cocktail and pouring herself a glass of sauvignon blanc. “And I may have done a little research on the Internet. How is it?”
“Per-itty good,” he says, imitating Larry David, one of their favorite comedians. “Per-itty, per-itty good. Did you hear from the girls today?” He rifles through the pile of mail, as Cat peers into the oven, where the mozzarella topping the eggplant Parmesan is starting to bubble and brown. Closing the door, she turns down the temperature. “Ali called – she had anatomy today.”
“Remember the time I took you into the anatomy lab at night?” he says, laughing. She remembers how she felt like they were doing something slightly forbidden as he led her down the hospital hallway to the lab. How they’d checked to make sure nobody was around before he ushered her in to the room. The main fluorescent fixtures were off, but there were dim lights under the counters that remained lit. She remembers rows of stainless steel tables with bodies covered by blue tarps – you could just make out the silhouette of the prone human forms beneath the tarps. It was creepy. An arm of the body closest to Cat had slipped from under the tarp and hung over the side of the table. Jamie made a move to lift a tarp off the cadaver closest to him and she motioned for him to stop.
“That’s okay, I’ve seen enough,” she had said, inching back toward the door. She felt like her presence in the lab was intrusive, somehow – disrespectful. And knowing that there were all these dead bodies in the room had given her the chills, made her feel like a character in a horror movie.
“What, do you think they are going to wake up or something?” Jamie had made his scary face then – the one that made her laugh and also spooked her. And then in his mock horror movie voice: “Maybe they’re not all dead….” She’d bolted out of the lab, and he had followed, laughing.
“Yeah, I remember…” She peeks in the oven again and grabs the oven mitts that she has left on the island and pulls out the eggplant. Places it on the granite and then lifts the lid of the pot on the stove to see if the water’s boiling. She grabs a handful of angel hair from the box, breaks it in half and throws it in the pot.
“Nothing from Jess?” he says, taking a swig of his Manhattan, then picking up the Times and fishing out the crossword puzzle.
“All quiet on the Jess front…”
“That’s unusual,” he says. “Hey, what’s a five letter word for one who sniggles?”
“Sniggles? No idea. But dinner is just about ready. Sit down.”
She sips her wine and watches him eat. She wants to have a relaxing dinner, savor the moment – shouldn’t she start savoring every moment just in case? But her news casts a shadow over everything. Will she feel too sick to cook? Will she feel too sick to eat?
“This is great,” Jamie says. She makes herself smile. She won’t ruin the dinner.
He glances down at the crossword puzzle, which, to her dismay, is folded beside his plate and still drawing his attention away from the meal she has made him – and, well, her.
“Get cozy together,” he says. “Eight letters.”
“How about we eat this meal together, and you do the crossword puzzle later?”
He doesn’t look up. “I want us to do it together,” he says, scribbling in the answer to some unspoken clue.
“Well, I want us to do this together,” she says. “This meal.”
He looks up. “What’s up with you? We can do both together.”
When she doesn’t respond, he pushes the crossword puzzle to the other end of the table.
“Okay, okay,” he says, putting his hands up in surrender. “I put it away.” He leans forward and grins. “Let me just stare lovingly into your eyes.” He stares lovingly into her eyes. She laughs and shoos him back to his side of the table.
“You know that’s not what I mean. What’s going on at work?”
“Sucks as usual. Politics and more politics,” he says, waving his fork, then using it to harpoon another piece of eggplant. “Anders is being an ass as always – the administration is putting on the pressure for us to join the hospital. There are only a few independent groups left – us, the radiologists and the orthopods. Oh — we interviewed that guy from that small hospital in Texas today –” Jamie keeps talking, but Cat has tuned him out. She is thinking about how nobody ever asks her about her day, how everyone in the family just talks at her and expects her to listen.
“Do you? Hello, Cat – are you in there?”
“I said, his wife is flying out to join him this weekend, do you think we could, I don’t know–”
“The guy we’re interviewing.”
“So do you think we could invite them over, or take them to some fun restaurant that will make them see how much more hip Brooklyn is than Wako, Texas?”
“Jamie, I can’t.”
“I can’t do this now.” She gets up abruptly and walks toward the sink.
“What are you talking about? What are you doing? Can’t do what?”
“I have cancer.”
“I have cancer.”
“What do mean you have cancer? Do you feel a lump somewhere or something? Is this a Google diagnosis?”
“I have breast cancer. I had a biopsy last week, and I went into Dr. Levine’s office today, and she told me that I have breast cancer.”
“You didn’t tell me you had a biopsy,” he says, getting up out of his chair. “How could you not tell me you had a biopsy?”
She couldn’t believe he was making this about her not telling him she had a biopsy. “I didn’t think it would be positive.”
“Okay, tell me everything.” He sits back down and leans toward her. “What exactly did she say? Do you have the biopsy report? Did you ask them to send me a copy of the report?”
“No, that wasn’t actually the first thing that came to mind–”
“What stage is it? Is it ductal carcinoma in situ? Adenocarcinoma? Lobular carcinoma?”
“I don’t know – some kind of carcinoma – I have it written down – but it’s stage 2a – let me check…” Cat pushes out her chair and walks over to her bag, which is on the counter, and fishes around for the small to-do pad she had scribbled notes on in the doctor’s office.
“Stage 2a, hmm. Well I would have rather heard in situ or stage 1, but 2a is still pretty early and treatable…”
Jamie is back up and pacing now, a nervous habit he has. She wishes he would just stand still and try to be comforting, but he has shifted into clinical mode, and is already concocting an action plan.
“I’ll call Ken Silver, he’s a breast guy – or maybe Jon Axelrod – he’s in oncology – I’ll see if he can get you in this week…” He pauses and looks at Cat expectantly, points at the paper in her hand. “Well? What type?”
“I’m looking,” she says, turning her to-do list sideways to read the words she has scribbled up the side of the page. “Stage 2a adenocarcinoma…”
“Okay, okay” his pacing is getting slightly more frantic, he is no longer pacing the length of the kitchen; instead, he is taking just a few steps and then walking in the other direction, taking a few steps, and turning again. “That’s the most common kind, and very treatable, so that’s good. Where’s your laptop?”
“Yeah—your laptop. Let’s get some information.” But he has already grabbed his phone from the island, and is typing with great concentration, not looking at her at all. This isn’t what she imagined. But she is too tired to feel slighted, not to mention curious about what he will find. She has resisted the urge to pull out her computer and plug in her diagnosis, but now that he has instigated it, she can’t help but draw closer to look over his shoulder and see what the Internet has to tell her about her prognosis.
They stay like that, huddled together over his phone, for a long time, as the dinner grows cold on the table behind them.
They lie spooned together in bed, not talking, but both, she suspects, equally awake. She wishes he would say something, though she’s not sure what it is she wants him to say. She wonders if he wonders if this is the thing she will die of. Even if it’s “treatable,” she knows it could come back, that this could be the thing that ultimately kills her. If he was the one who had it, she knows she would obsess about this endlessly, that she would reframe her idea of how they should spend their time. She wonders if this will change things for him, or if he will come home tomorrow, bring the crossword puzzle to the table, ask her to help him figure out the clues.
Maybe she’ll go to Paris, visit Marguerite. She has accrued a few weeks of vacation time – it’s never a good time to leave, but now she realizes that the museum can get along without her for a few weeks. Someone else can do the press releases, the listings. Provence was magical, but she’s been longing to get back to Paris since her year abroad during college – and she will be there with Marguerite, just like when they were 19.
Maybe she can even start painting again there. She hasn’t done it since college, and in the back of her mind she always thought of it as something she would pick up again some day. But some day could be a long way off and what if – ? Jamie pulls his arm away, turns over. She shifts onto her back and turns her head to look at him. And notices that his back is shaking, ever so slightly. And then realizes that he is crying, silently. She turns toward him and hugs into his back.
Lori Miller Kase is a Connecticut-based writer whose articles, essays and fiction have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Brain, Child, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Literary Mama. She has received several “Excellence in Journalism” awards from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, and an honorable mention in the Women On Writing Creative Nonfiction Contest. She studied fiction writing at Wesleyan University, where she received a Master of Arts in Liberal studies, and at Brown University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature. She occasionally shares what she’s learned with elementary and middle school students. She is also Health Editor at Large for CoveyClub, a website for women 40+. She recently completed a young adult novel, and is working on a collection of short stories.