Interesting fact: Toucan cereal bedspread to my plunge and deliver.
It’s okay if you can’t make sense of that. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t grasp it either. The most vital things we hide even from ourselves.
The topic of dead wives came up a few months ago. My husband and I talked about it while walking home from a literary reading. It was San Francisco, which means winter rains, and we’d just attended a reading by a local writer from her short-story collection. The local writer was twentysomething and sexy. Her arms were taut, her black hair shimmered. And just so you’re clear, I’m going to discuss the breasts of every woman who crosses my path. Neither hidden nor flaunted beneath white satin, her breasts were utterly, excruciatingly normal, and I hated her for that. The story she read was about a man who decides to date again after losing his wife. It’s always an aneurysm, a car accident, or a long battle with cancer. Cancer is the worst way for a fictional wife to die. Anyway, the man in the story waits an appropriate amount of time after losing his wife — sixteen months! — before deciding to date again. After so much grief, he is exuberant and endearing in his pursuit of a woman. The first chick he talks to is totally game. The man, after all this waiting, is positively frisky, and the sex is, like, wow. The fortysomething widower nails the twentysomething gal on the upturned hull of his fiberglass kayak. And there’s even a moral, subtle and implied: when love blossoms, it’s all the richer after a man has discovered, firsthand, the painful fragility of life. Well, secondhand.
Applause, Q&A, more applause.
Like I said, it was raining. We had just left The Booksmith on Haight Street. “What’d you think of the story?” my husband asked.
I could tell he liked it. He likes all stories.
I said, “I sympathized with the dead wife.”
To which my husband, the biggest lunkhead ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, said: “But . . . she wasn’t even a character.”
This was a year after my diagnosis, surgery, chemo, and the various interventions, injections, indignities, and treatments. When I got sick, our youngest child turned herself into a horse; mute and untamable, our horse-child now only whinnies and neighs. Before that, though, she went through a phase we called Interesting Facts. “Interesting fact,” she would announce before sharing a wonder with us: A killer whale has never killed a person in the wild. Insects are high in protein. Hummingbirds have feelings and are often sad.
So here are some of my interesting facts. Lupron halts ovulation and is used to chemically castrate sexual predators. Vinblastine interrupts cell division. It is a poisonous alkaloid made from the leaves of the periwinkle plant. Tamoxifen makes your hips creak. My eyebrows fell out a year after I finished chemo. And long after your tits are taken, their phantoms remain. They get cold, they ache when you exercise, they feel wet after you shower, and you can towel like a crazy woman but still they drip.
Before my husband won a Pulitzer, we had a kind of deal. I would adore him, even though he’d packed on a few pounds. And he would adore me, even though I’d had a double mastectomy. Who else would want us? Now his readings are packed with young Dorothy Parkers who crowd around my man. The worst part is that the novel he wrote is set in North Korea, so he gets invited to all these functions filled with Korean socialites and Korean donors and Korean activists and Korean writers and various pillars of various Korean communities.
Did I leave out the words “beautiful” and “female”?
“You’re so sensitive to the Korean experience,” the beautiful female Korean socialite says to my husband.
Oh, he’s good about it. He always says, “And this is my lovely wife.”
Ignoring me, the beautiful female Korean socialite adds, “You must visit our book club.”
If I could simply press a button every time one of them says that.
But I’m just tired. These are the places my mind goes when I’m tired. We’re four blocks from home, where our children are just old enough not to need a sitter. On these nights our eleven-year-old son draws comics of Mongolian invasions and the civil rights movement — his history teacher allows him to write his reports graphically. (San Francisco!) Our daughter, at nine, is a master baker. Hair pulled into a ponytail, she is flour-dusted and kneading away. The horse-child, who is only seven, does dressage. She is the horse who needs no rider. But talk of my children is for another story. I can barely gaze upon them now. Their little outlines, cut like black-and-white cameos, are too much to consider.
My husband and I walk in the rain. We don’t hold hands. I still feel the itch of Vinblastine in my nail beds, one of the places, it turns out, that the body stores toxins. Have you ever had the urge to peel back your fingernails and scratch underneath, to just wrench until the nails snap back so you can go scratch, scratch, scratch?
I flex my fingers, rub my nails against the studs on my leather belt.
I knew better, but still I asked him: “How long would you wait?”
“Wait for what?”
“Until after I was gone. How many months before you went and got some of that twentysomething kayak sex?”
I shouldn’t say shit like this, I know. He doesn’t know a teaspoon of the crazy in my head.
He thought a moment. “Legally,” he said, “I’d probably have to have a death certificate. Otherwise it would be like bigamy or something. So I’d have to wait for the autopsy and a burial and the slow wheels of bureaucracy to issue the paperwork. I bet we’re talking twelve to sixteen weeks.”
“Getting a death certificate,” I say. “That has got to be a hassle. But wait — you know a guy at city hall. Keith Whatshisname.”
“Yeah, Keith,” he says. “I bet Keith could get me proof of death in no time. That dude owes me. A guy like Keith could walk that death certificate around by hand, getting everyone to sign off in, I don’t know, seven to fourteen days.”
“That’s your answer, seven to fourteen days?”
“Give or take, of course. There are variables. Things that would be out of Keith’s control. If he moved too fast or pushed too hard — a guy could get in trouble. He could even get fired.”
“Poor Keith. Now I feel for him, at the mercy of the universe and all. And all he wanted to do was help a grieving buddy get laid.”
My husband eyes me with concern.
We turn into Frank’s Liquors to buy some condoms, even though our house is overflowing with them. It’s his subtle way of saying, For the love of God, give up some sex.
My husband hates all condoms, but there’s a brand he hates less than others. I cannot take birth-control pills because my cancer was estrogen receptive. My husband does not believe what the doctors say: that even though the effects of Tamoxifen mimic menopause, you can still get pregnant. My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.
“You think there’d be an autopsy?” I ask as he scans the display case. “I can’t stand the thought of being cut up like that.”
He looks at me. “We’re just joking, right? Processing your anxiety with humor and whimsical talk therapy?”
He nods. “Sure, I suppose. You’re young and healthy. They’d want to open you up and determine what struck you down.”
A small, citrusy ha escapes. I know better than to let these out.
He says, “Plus, if I’m dating again in seven to fourteen days —”
“Give or take.”
“Yes, give or take. Then people would want to rule out foul play.”
“You deserve a clean slate,” I say. “No one would want the death taint of a first wife to foul a new relationship. That’s not fair to the new girl.”
“I don’t think this game is therapeutic anymore,” he says, and selects his condoms.
Interesting fact: Tamoxifen carries a dreaded Class D birth-defect risk.
Interesting fact: My husband refuses to get a vasectomy.
He makes his purchase from an old woman.
Her saggy, old-lady breasts flop around under her dress.
The cash-register drawer rolls out to bump them.
My friends say that one day I’ll feel lucky. That I will have been spared this saggy fate. After my bilateral, I chose not to reconstruct. So I have nothing, just two diagonal zipper lines where my boobs should be.
We turn south and head down Cole Street.
The condoms are wishful thinking. We both know I will go to sleep when we get home.
Interesting fact: I sleep twelve to thirteen hours a night.
Interesting fact: Taxotere turns your urine pink.
Interesting fact: Cytoxan is a blister agent related to mustard gas. When filtered from the blood, it scars the bladder, which is why I wake, hour after hour, night in and night out, to pee.
Can you see why it would be hard for me to tell wake from sleep, how the two could feel reversed?
“What about your Native American obligations?” I ask my husband. “Wouldn’t you have to wait a bunch of moons or something?”
He is silent, and I cringe to think about what I just said.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You’re just tired,” he says.
The rain is more mistlike now. I hated the woman who read tonight. I hated the people who attended. I hated the failed wannabe writers in the crowd. I loathe all failed wannabe writers, especially me.
I ask, “Have you thought of never?”
“That there’s never another woman.”
“Why are you talking like this?” he asks. “You haven’t talked like this in a long time.”
“You could just go without,” I say. “You know, just soldier on.”
“I really feel bad for what’s going through your head,” he says.
Interesting fact: Charles Manson used to live in our neighborhood, at 636 Cole Street.
Manson’s house looms ahead. I always stop and give it my attention. It’s beige now, but long ago, when Manson used this place to recruit his murderous young girls, it was painted blue. I used this house as a location in my last novel, a book no one would publish. Where did all those years of writing go? Where does that book even reside? I gaze at the Manson house. In researching my novel, I came across crime-scene photos of Sharon Tate, the most famous Manson stabbing victim. Her breasts are heavy and round, milk-laden, since she is pregnant, with nipples that are wide and dark.
I look up at my husband. He is big and tall, built like a football player. Not the svelte receivers they put on booster calendars, but the clunky linebackers whose bellies hang below their jerseys.
“I need to know,” I say. “Just tell me how long you’d wait?”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and holds my gaze. It is impossible to look away.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he says. “I won’t let you leave without us. We do everything together, so if someone has to go, we go together. Our 777 will lose cabin pressure. Better yet, we’ll be in the minivan when it happens. We’re headed to Pacifica, hugging the turns on Devil’s Slide, and then we go through the guardrail, all of us, you, me, the kids, the dog, even. There’s no time for fear. There’s no dwelling. We careen. We barrel down. We rocket toward the jagged shore.” He squeezes my shoulder hard, almost too hard. “That’s how it happens, understand? When it comes, it’s all of us. We go together.”
Something inside me melts. This kind of talk, it’s what I live on.
My husband and kids came with me to the hospital for the first chemo dose. Was that a year ago? Three? What is time to you — a plucking harp string, the fucking do-re-mi of tuning forks? There are twelve IV bays, and our little one doesn’t like any of the interesting facts on the chemo ward. This is the day she stops speaking and turns into the horse-child, galloping around the nursing station, expressing her desires with taps of her hooves. Our son recognized a boy from his middle school. I recognized him, too, from the talent-show assembly. The boy had performed an old-timey joke routine, complete with some soft-shoe. Those days were gone. Here he was with his mother: a hagged-out and battered woman beneath her own IV tree. She must have been deep into her treatments, but even I could tell she wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t talk to her. Who would greet a dead woman, who would make small talk with death itself? I didn’t let my eyes drift to her, even as our identical bags of Taxotere dripped angry into our veins.
It’s how people would later treat me, it’s exactly the way I’m treated today when I come home to find my husband sitting on the couch with Megumi, a mom from the girls’ grade school. My husband and Megumi are talking in the fog-dampened bay-window light. On the coffee table is chicken katsu in a Pyrex dish. Megumi wears a top that’s trampoline tight. She has a hand on my husband’s shoulder. Even though she’s a mother of two, her breasts are positively teenybopper. They pop. Her tits do everything but chew bubble gum and make Hello Kitty hearts.
“Just what’s going on here?” I ask them.
They brazenly ignore me.
I got to know Megumi on playground benches, where we struck up conversations while watching our daughters swing. I loved her Shinjuku style and she loved all things American vintage. We bonded over Tokidoki and Patsy Cline.
“I love your dress” is the first thing she said to me.
It was a rose-patterned myrtle with a halter neck.
“Interesting fact,” I told her. “I’m from Florida, and Florida is ground zero for vintage wardrobe. Rich women retire there from New York and New Jersey. They bring along a lifetime of fabulous dresses, and then they die.”
“This is something I like,” she said in that slightly formal way she spoke. “No one in Tokyo would wear a dead woman’s dress.”
Then she apologized, worried that she might have accidentally insulted me. “I have been saying the strangest things since moving to America,” she admitted.
Our family was actually headed to Tokyo for the launch of my husband’s book in Japanese. Megumi used sticks in the sandbox to teach me kanji that would help me navigate the Narita airport, the Shinkansen, and the Marunouchi subway line. She asked about my husband and his book. “Writers are quite revered in Japan,” she told me.
“I’m a writer, too,” I said.
She turned from the kanji to regard me anew.
“But no one will publish my books,” I added.
Perhaps because of this admission, she later confided something to me. It was a cold and foggy afternoon. We were watching a father push his daughter high on a swing, admiring how he savored her delighted squeals in that weightless moment at the top of the arc.
“If my life was a novel,” Megumi suddenly said, “I would have to leave my husband. This is a rule in literature, isn’t it? That you must act on your heart. My husband is distant and unemotional. I didn’t know that until I came here. America has taught me this.”
I was supposed to reassure her. I was supposed to remind her that her husband was logging long hours and that things would get better.
Instead, I asked, “But what about your kids?”
Megumi said nothing.
And now here I find her, sitting on my couch, hand on my husband’s shoulder!
I’m the one who introduced them. Can you believe that? I’m the one who got her a copy of his novel in Japanese. I watch Megumi open her large, dark eyes to take him in. And I know when my husband gives someone his full attention.
I can’t make out what they are saying, but they are discussing more than fiction, I can tell you that.
Something else catches my eye — arrows. There are quivers of arrows everywhere — red feathers, yellow feathers, white.
In the kitchen is a casserole dish wrapped in aluminum foil. No, two casserole dishes.
I discover a hospital band on my wrist. Have I left it on as a badge of honor? Or a darkly ironic accessory? Is the bracelet some kind of message to myself?
Interesting fact: The kanji for “irrational,” I learned, is a combination of the elements “woman” and “death.”
There was an episode not long ago that must be placed in the waking-and-sleeping-reversed column. I was in the hospital. Nothing unusual there. The beautiful thing was the presence of my family — they were all around me as we stood beside some patient’s bed. The room was filled with Starbucks cups, and there was my brother, my sisters and my parents, and so on, all of us chatting away like old times. The topic was war stories. My great-uncle talked about playing football in the dunes of North Africa after a tank battle with Rommel. My father told a sad story about trying to deliver a Vietcong baby near Cu Chi.
Then my brother looked stricken. He said, “I think it’s happening.”
We all turned toward the bed, and that’s when I saw the dying woman. There was a wheeze as her breathing slowed. She seemed to get lighter before our eyes. I’ll admit I bore a resemblance to her. But only a little — that woman was all emaciated and droop-eyed and bald.
My sister asked, “Should we call the nurse?”
I pictured the crash cart bursting in, with its needles and paddles and intubation kit. It was none of my business, but Leave the poor woman be, I thought. Just let her go.
We all looked to my father, a doctor who has seen death many times.
He is from Georgia. His eyes are old and wet, permanently pearlescent.
He turned to my mother, who was weeping. She shook her head no.
Maybe you’ve heard of an out-of-body experience. Well, standing in that hospital room, I had an in-the-body experience, a profound sensation that I was leaving the real world and entering that strange woman, just as her eyes lost focus and her lips went slack. Right away, I felt the morphine inside her, the way it traced everything with halos of neon-tetra light. I entered the dark tunnel of morphine time, where the past, the present, and the future became simultaneously visible. I was a girl again, riding a yellow bicycle. I will soon be in Golden Gate Park, watching the archers shoot arrows through the fog. I see that all week long, my parents have been visiting this woman and reading her my favorite Nancy Drew books. Their yellow covers fill my vision. The Hidden Staircase. The Whispering Statue. The Clue in the Diary.
You know that between-pulse pause when, for a fraction of a second, your heart is stopped? You feel the resonating bass note of this nothingness. Vision is just a black vibration, and your mind has only that bottom-of-the-pool feeling when your air is spent. You see the insides of this woman’s body, something cancer teaches you to do. Here is a lumpy chain of dye-blue lymph nodes, there are the endometrial tendrils of a thirsty tumor. Everywhere are the scattered Pop Rocks of calcifications. Your best friend, Kitty, silently appears. She took leave of this world from cancer twelve years earlier. She lifts a finger to her lips. Shh, she says. Then it really hits you that you’re trapped inside a dying woman. You’re being buried alive. Will be turns to is turns to was. You can no longer make out the Republican red of your mother’s St. John jacket. You can no longer hear the tremors of your sisters’ breathing. Then there’s nothing but the still, the gathering, surrounding still of this woman you’re in.
Then pop! — somehow, luckily, you make it out. You’re free again, back in the land of Starbucks cups and pay-by-the-hour parking.
It was some brain-bending business, the illusion of being in that dead woman. But that’s how powerful cancer is, that’s how bad it can mess with your head. Even now, you cannot shake that sense of time. How will you ever know again the difference between what’s past and what’s to come, let alone what is?
My husband and kids missed the entire nightmare. They are downstairs eating soup.
Interesting facts: The Geary Boulevard Kaiser Permanente Hospital is where breasts are removed. The egg-noodle wonton soup in their cafeteria is divine. The wontons are handmade, filled with steamed cabbage and white pepper. The Kaiser on Turk Street is chemo central. This basement cafeteria specializes in huge bowls of Vietnamese pho, made with beef ankles and topped with purple basil. Don’t forget Sriracha. The Kaiser on Divisadero is for when the end is near. Their shio ramen with pork cheeks is simply heaven. Open all night.
My Vulcan mind-meld with death has strange effects on our family. Strangest of all is how I find it suddenly hard to look at my children. The thought of them moving forward in life without me, the person whose sole mission is to guide them — it’s not tolerable. My arms tremble at how close they came to having their little spirits snuffed out. The idea of them making their way alone in this world makes me want to turn things into sticks, to wield a hatchet and make kindling of everything I see. I’ve never chopped a thing in my life, I’m not a competent person in general, so I would lift the blade in full knowledge that my aim would stray, that the evil and the innocent would fall together.
Interesting fact: My best friend, Kitty, died of cancer. Over the years, the doctors took her left leg, her breasts, her throat, and her ovaries. In return, they gave her two free helpings of bone marrow. As the end came, I became afraid to go see her. What would I say? What does goodbye even mean? Finally, when she had only a few days left, I mustered the courage for a visit. To save money, I flew to Atlanta and then took a bus. But I got on the wrong one! I didn’t realize this until I got to North Carolina. Kitty died in Florida.
My husband soldiers up. He gives me space and starts getting up early to make the kids’ lunches and trek them off to school. The kids are rattled, too. They take to sleeping with their father in the big bed. With all those arms and legs, there’s no room for yours truly. They’re a pretty glum bunch, but I understand: it’s not easy to almost lose someone.
I spend a lot of time in Golden Gate Park, where my senses are newly heightened. I can see a gull soaring past and know exactly where it will land. I develop an uncanny ability to predict the weather. Just by gazing at a plant, I can tell its effects upon the human body.
Interesting fact: The blue cohosh plant grows in the botanical gardens just a short stroll into the park. Its roots are easily ground into a poultice, and from this can be extracted a violet oil that causes the uterus to contract. Coastal Miwok tribes used it to induce abortions.
All this is hard on my husband, but he does not start drinking again. I’m proud of him for that, though I would understand if he did. It would be a sign of how wounding it was to nearly lose me. If he hit the bourbon, I’d know how much he needed me. What he does instead is buy a set of kettlebells. When the kids are asleep, he descends into the basement and swings these things around for hours, listening to podcasts about bow hunting, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Native American folklore.
He sheds some weight, which troubles me. The pounds really start to fall off.
He gets the kids to music lessons, martial arts, dental appointments. The problem is school, where a cavalcade of chatty moms loiter away their mornings. There’s the Thursday-morning coffee klatch, the post–drop-off beignets at Reverie Cafe, the book club at Zazie. These moms are single, or single enough. Meet Liddi, mother of twins, famous in Cole Valley for inventing and marketing the dual-mat yoga backpack. She’s without an ounce of fat, but placed upon her A-cup chest is a pair of perfectly pronounced, fully articulated nipples. There’s rocker mom Sabina, heavy into ink and steampunk chic. Octopus tentacles beckon from Sabina’s cleavage. And don’t forget Salima, a UCSF prof who’s fooling nobody by cloaking her D’s under layers of fabric. Salima will not speak of the husband — alive or dead — she left in Lahore.
“How are you getting by?” they ask my husband.
“Let us know if you need anything,” they offer.
They give our kids lifts to birthday parties and away games. Their ovens are on perpetual preheat. But it’s Megumi who’s always knocking. It’s Megumi who gets inside the door.
Interesting facts: Chuck Norris kills dozens of bad guys at once in Missing in Action III. Clint Eastwood takes up the gun again in Unforgiven. George Clooney is hauntingly vulnerable in The Descendants. Do you know why? Dead wives.
Interesting fact: One wife that didn’t die was Lady Mary Montagu. My M.F.A. thesis was a collection of linked stories on Lady Montagu’s struggles to succeed as a writer despite her demanding children, famous husband, and painful illness. I didn’t have much to say about the subject. I just thought she was pretty amazing. Not a single person read my thesis, not even the female professor who directed it. Write what you know, that’s what my professor kept telling me. I never listened.
One afternoon, I wander deep into Golden Gate Park, beyond the pot dealers on Hippie Hill and the rust-colored conning tower of the de Young Museum. I pass even the buffalo pens. In the wide meadows near the Pacific Ocean, I discover, by chance, my husband and children at the archery range. What are they doing here? How long have they been coming? They have bows drawn and without speaking are solemnly shooting arrows downrange, one after another, into heavy bales. The horse-child draws a recurve, while my daughter shoots Olympic and my son pulls a longbow with his lean and beautiful arms. My husband strains behind a compound, its pulleys and cams creaking under the weight. He has purchased hundreds of arrows, so they rarely pause to retrieve. When the sunset fog rolls in, they fire on faith into a blanket of white. When darkness falls, they place balloons on the targets so they can hear the pop of a well-placed arrow. I have acquired a keen sense of dark trajectories. I stand beside my husband, the power of a full draw bound in his shoulders. I whisper release when his aim is perfect. He obeys. I don’t need to walk through the dark with him to see the arrows stacked up yellow in the bull’s eye.
Later, he doesn’t read books to the children before bed. Instead, on our California king, they gather to hear him repeat a story he has heard podcasted by Lakota storytellers. My husband never speaks of his Sioux blood. He has never even visited the reservation. All the people who would have connected him to that place were taken long ago by liquor, accidents, time-released mayhem, and self-imposed exile.
The story he tells is about a ghost horse that was prized by braves riding into battle because the horse, being already dead, could not be shot from under them. It was afraid of nothing; it reared high and counted its own coup. Only at the end of the clashes do the braves realize a ghost warrior had been riding bareback with them, guiding the horse’s every move. In this way the braves learn the gallop of death without having to leave this life.
The horse-child asks, “Why didn’t the ghost horse just go to heaven?”
I suddenly realize it’s the first time I’ve heard the horse-child speak in — how long?
My daughter answers her. “The story’s really about the ghost warrior,” she says.
The horse-child asks, “Why doesn’t the ghost warrior go to heaven, then?”
My daughter says, “Because ghosts have unfinished business. Everybody knows that.”
My son asks, “Did Mom leave unfinished business?”
My husband tells them, “A mom’s work is never done.”
A health issue can be hard on a family. And it breaks my heart to hear them talk like I no longer exist. If I’m so dead, where’s my grave, why isn’t there an urn full of ashes on the mantel? No, this is just a sign I’ve drifted too far from my family, that I need to pull my act together. If I want them to stop treating me like a ghost, I need to stop acting like one.
Interesting fact: In TV movies, a ghost mom’s job is to help her husband find a suitable replacement. It’s a venerable trope — see Herodotus, Euripides, and Virgil. For recent examples, consult CBS’s A Gifted Man, NBC’s Awake, and Safe Haven, now in heavy rotation on USA. The TV ghost mom can see through the gold diggers and wicked stepmoms to find that heart-of-gold gal who can help those kiddos heal, who will clap at the piano recitals, provide much-needed cupcake pick-me-ups, and say things like, “Your mom would be proud.”
I assure you that no such confectionary female exists. No new wife cares about the old wife’s kids. They’re just an unavoidable complication to the new wife’s own family-to-be. That’s what vasectomy reversals and Swiss boarding schools are for. If I were a ghost mom, my job would be to stab these rivals in the eyes, to dagger them all. Dagger, dagger, dagger.
The truth is, though, that you don’t need to die to know what it’s like to be a ghost. On the day my doctor called and gave me the diagnosis, we were at a party in New York. Our mission was to meet a young producer for The Daily Show who was considering a segment on my husband. She was tall and willowy in a too-tight black dress, and while her breasts may once have been perfect, she had dieted them down to nothing. Right away she greeted my husband with Euro kisses, laughed at nothing, then showed him her throat. I was standing right there! Talk about invisible. Then my phone rang — Kaiser Permanente with the biopsy results. I tried to talk, but words didn’t come out. I walked through things. I found myself in a bathroom, washing my face. Then I was twenty floors below, on 57th Street. I swear I didn’t take the elevator. I just appeared. Then I was on a bus in North Carolina, letting a hard-drinking preacher massage my shoulders while my friend was dying in Florida. Then it was my turn. I saw my own memorial: my parents’ lawn is covered with cars. They must buy a freezer to store all the HoneyBaked Hams that arrive. My family and friends gather next to the river that slowly makes its way past my parents’ home. Here, people take turns telling stories.
My great-uncle tells a story about me as a little girl and my decision to wed the boy next door. My folks got a cake and flowers and had the judge down the street preside in robes over the ceremony. The whole neighborhood turned up, and everyone got a kick out of it. The next day brought the sobering moment when my folks had to tell me the marriage wasn’t real.
My brother tells a story about my first Christmas home from college and how I brought a stack of canvases to show everyone the nudes I’d been letting the art-major boys paint of me.
My mother tries to tell a story. I can tell it will be the one about the Christmas poodle. But she is overcome. It scares the children the way she folds up in slow motion, dropping to the ground like a garment bag. To distract them, my father decides on a canoe ride — that always was a treat for the kids. Tears run from their eyes as they don orange vests and shove off. Right away, the horse-child screams that she is afraid of the water. She strikes notes of terror we didn’t know existed. My son, in the bow, tries to hide his clutched breathing, and then I see the shuddering shoulders of our daughter. She swivels her head, looking everywhere, desperately, and I know she is looking for me. My father, stunned and bereft, is too inconsolable to lift the paddle. My father, who performed more than fifteen hundred field surgeries near Da Nang, my father, who didn’t flinch when the power went out at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, my father — he slowly closes his pearl-gray eyes. They float there, not twenty feet from us, the boat too unsteady for them to comfort one another, and we onshore can only wrench at the impossibility of reaching them.
Back inside the New York party, I realized time had ceased to flow: my husband and the producer were laughing the exact same laugh, the lime zest of their breath still acrid in the air, and I saw this was in the future, too, all these chilly women with their iron-filing eyes and rice-paper hearts. They wanted something genuine, something real. They wanted what I had: a man who was willing to go off the cliff with you. They would come after him when he was weak, I suddenly understood, when I was no longer there to fend them off. This wasn’t hysteria. It wasn’t imagination. I was in the room with them. Here they were, perfect teeth forming brittle smiles, hips hollow as sake boxes.
“That story is too funny,” the producer said. “Stop it right there. Save it for the segment!”
In a shrug of false modesty, my husband accidentally sloshed his soda water.
“Well,” he said. “Only if you think it would be good for the show.”
I suddenly put my hand on the producer’s arm. She turned, startled, discovering me.
I used my grip to assess her soul — I felt the want of it, I calculated its lack, in the same way Lady Montagu mapped the microscopic world of smallpox pustules and Voltaire learned to weigh vapor.
You tell me who the fucking ghost is.
There is a knock at the door. It’s Megumi!
My husband answers, and the two of them regard each other, almost sadly, for a moment.
They are clearly acknowledging the wrongness of whatever it is they’re up to.
They head upstairs together, where I suddenly realize there are Costco-size boxes of condoms everywhere — under the sink, in the medicine cabinet, taped under the bedside table, hidden in the battery flap of a full-size talking Tigger doll!
Megumi and my husband enter our bedroom. Right away, the worst possible thing happens — they move right past these birth-control depots. They do not collect any condoms at all.
My kind of ghost mom would make it her job to stop hussies like Megumi from fucking grieving men, and if I were too late, it would be my job to go to Megumi late at night, to approach her as she slept on her shabby single-mom futon, and with my eyedropper dribble one, two, three purple drops on her lips, just enough to abort the baby he put inside her. In her belly, the fetus would clutch and clench and double up dead.
Megumi and my husband do not approach the bed. They move instead toward the armoire, beside which is a rolling rack of all the vintage dresses I could no longer wear once I lost my bustline. I moved them to the rack, but couldn’t bear to roll them out of the room.
Megumi runs her fingers along these dresses.
She pauses only to eye a stack of my training bras on the dresser.
Interesting fact: While you can get used to being titless, the naked feeling of not wearing a bra is harder to shake. You just become accustomed to the hug of one. I recommend the A-cup bras from Target’s teen section. Mine are decorated with multicolor peace signs.
Megumi selects a dress from the rack and studies it — it’s an earthy pink Hepburn, with a boat neck, white trim, and pleated petticoat. At the Florida university where I met my husband, I was in his presence three different times before he finally noticed me. I was wearing that dress when he did. I wonder if he remembers it.
Megumi holds the dress to her body, studying herself in the mirror. Then she turns to my husband, draping the dress against her figure for his approval.
Interesting fact: The kanji for “figure” is a combination of the elements “next” and “woman.”
I study my own figure in the mirror.
Interesting fact: The loss of breasts doesn’t flatten your chest — it leaves you concave and hollowed-looking. And something about the surgery pooches your tummy. My surgeon warned me about this. But who could picture it? Who would voluntarily conjure themselves that way?
Megumi waits, my dress held against her. Then my husband reaches out. He has a faraway look in his eyes. With his fingertips, he tugs here and tapers there, adjusting the fall of fabric to the shape of her body. Finally, he nods. She accepts the dress, folding it in her arms.
I do not dagger her. I stand there and do nothing.
Interesting fact: My first novel no one would publish was about Scottsdale trophy wives who form a vigilante group to patrol their gated community. It contains, among other things, a bobcat killing, a night-golfing tragedy, the illegal use of a golf-ball-collecting machine, and a sex scene involving a man and a woman wearing backpack-mounted soda pistols. It was called The Beige Berets.
Interesting fact: My second novel no one would publish concerns two young girls who have rare powers of perception. One can read auras while the other sees ghosts. To work the ghost angle, I had their father live in Charles Manson’s old apartment. To make the girls more vulnerable, I decided to kill off their mother, so I gave her cancer. To ratchet up the tension, I had a sexual predator named Mister Roses live next door. My husband came up with the name. In fact, my husband became quite enamored with this character. He was really helpful in developing Mister Roses’s backstory and generating his dialogue. Then my husband stole this character and wrote a story from Mister Roses’s perspective called “Dark Meadow.” I can’t even say the name of this novel without getting angry.
My husband does not return to the novel he was working on before my cancer. After the kids are asleep, he instead calls up the website Bigboobsalert. He regards this on slideshow mode, so ladies with monstrous chests appear and fade, one into the next. My husband has his hand lotion ready, but he doesn’t masturbate. He stares at a place just past the computer screen. I contemplate these women. I can only see in their saucerous nipples and pendulous breasts the superpower of motherhood. Instead of offering come-hither looks to lonely men, these women should be feeding hungry babies, calling on foundling wards and nursing the legion orphans of the world. We should air-drop these bra busters into tsunami zones, earthquake epicenters, and the remote provinces of North Korea!
I kneel beside my husband, slouched in his ergonomic office chair. I align my vision with his, but I can’t tell what he’s looking at. Our faces are almost touching, and though he is lost and sad, I still feel his sweet energy. Come to bed, I whisper, and he sort of wakes up. But he doesn’t rise to face our bedroom. Instead, he opens a blank Word document and stares at it. Eventually, he types “Toucan cereal.”
“No!” I shout at him, “I’m the one who got cancer, I’m the one who was struck. That’s my story. It belongs to me!”
Interesting fact: Cancer teaches you to see the insides of things. Do you see the “can” in “uncanny” or the “cer” in “concern”? When people want to make chitchat with you, even though, if they took the time, they could see that under your bandanna you have no hair, it’s easier to just say to them, “Sorry, I have some uncanny concerns right now.” If you’re feeling feisty, try, “I feel arcane and acerbic.” Who hasn’t felt that?
But sometimes you’ve got chemo brain and your balance is all woo-woo and your nails are itching like crazy and you don’t want to talk to anybody. Be prepared for that.
Person 1: “Gosh, I haven’t seen you in forever. How’s it going?”
You: “Toucan cereal.”
Person 2: “Hey, what’s new? I’m so behind. I probably owe you like ten messages.”
You: “Vulcan silencer.” Smile blankly. Hold it.
Our daughter takes on my voice. I study her as she admonishes her brother and the horse-child to take their asthma medicine and do their silent reading before bed. When lice outbreaks arrive, she is the one who meticulously combs through their hair after my husband succumbs to frustration and salty talk.
I keep a hairy eyeball wide for Megumi. She doesn’t come around, which makes me all the more suspicious. I wonder if my husband took some of that Pulitzer money and bought a “studio” in the neighborhood. You know, a place to hide your book royalties from the IRS and “get some serious work done.” I flip through his key chain, but there is nothing new, just keys to the house, his Stanford office, the Honda Odyssey, five Kryptonite bike locks.
I use my powers of perception to scan the neighborhood for signs of this so-called writer’s studio. I try to detect the effervescence of my husband’s ever-present sparkling water, the shimmer of his condom wrappers, or the snap of Megumi’s bra strap. My feelers feel only the fog rolling in, extinguishing the waking world block by block, starting with the outer avenues.
Interesting fact: The Miwok believed the advancing fog could draw one into the next world.
Interesting fact: Accidentally slipping into the afterlife was a grave concern for them. To locate one another in the fog, they darkened their skin with pigment made from the ashes of poison-oak fires. They marked their chests with the scent of Brewer’s angelica. They developed signature calls by which they alone would be known.
For some reason, my family skips archery tonight. And there is no Native American story when the kids are put to bed. Even Bigboobsalert has to wait. In his office, my husband calls up his document and continues stealing my story. I don’t shout at him this time. He is a slow and expressive writer. He works most of the night.
Interesting fact: My third, unfinished novel is about Buffalo Calf Road Woman, the Cheyenne warrior who struck the felling blow to Custer at Little Bighorn. I wrote about her life only because it amazed me.
My husband has my research spread before him: atlases of Native American tribes and field guides for botanicals and customs and mythology. I think this is good for him.
I’m there when he hits one last Command-S for the night.
I follow him upstairs. The children are sleeping in the big bed. He climbs in among their flopped limbs, and I want to join, but there is no room. My husband’s head comes to rest on the pillow. Yet his eyes remain open, growing large, adjusting focus, like he is trying to follow something as it disappears into the dark.
Interesting fact: My husband doesn’t believe that dreams carry higher meanings.
Interesting fact: I had a dream once. In the dream, I stood naked in the darkness. A woman approached me. When she neared, I could see she was me. She said to me, or I guess I said to myself, “It’s happening.” Then she reached out and touched my left breast. I woke to find my breast warm and buzzing. I felt a lump in a position I would later learn was the superior lateral quadrant. In the morning, I stood in front of the mirror, but the lump was nowhere to be found. I told my husband about the dream. He said, “Spooky.” I told him I was going to the doctor right away. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “It’s probably nothing.”
Eventually, my husband sleeps. An arm passes over one child and secures another. All the pillows have been stolen, then half-stolen back. The children thrum to his deep, slow breathing. I have something to tell him.
Interesting fact: My husband has a secret name, a Sioux name.
He’s embarrassed by it. He doesn’t like anyone to say it as he feels he doesn’t deserve it. But when I utter the Lakota words, he wakes from his sleep. He sees me, I can tell, his eyes slowly dial me in. He doesn’t smile, but on his face is a kind of recognition.
Through the bay windows, troughs of fog surge down Frederick Street.
“I think it’s happening,” I say to him.
He nods, then he drifts off again. Later, this will have been only a dream.
I near the bed and regard my children. Here is my son, his back grown strong from pulling the bow. Still I see his little-boy cheeks and long eyelashes. Still I see the boy who nursed all night, who once loved to hug fire hydrants, who ran long-haired and shirtless along a slow-moving river in Florida. His hair is buzzed now, like his father’s, and his pupils behind closed eyes track slowly, like he is dreaming of a life that unfolds at a less jolting pace.
My daughter’s hair is the gravest shade of black. If anyone got the Native blood, it is she. Dark skin and fast afoot, she also has fierce, farseeing eyes. She is the one who would enter the battle to save her brother, as Buffalo Calf Road Woman famously did. Tonight she sleeps clutching my iPhone, the alarm set for dawn, and in the set of her jaw I can feel the list of things she’ll have to accomplish to get her siblings up and fed and off to school.
And then there is the horse-child.
Interesting fact: My youngest’s love of interesting facts was just a stage. When my illness turned her into a horse, she never said “interesting facts” again.
Interesting fact: Horses cannot utter human words or feel human emotions. They are resilient beasts, immune from the sadness of the human cargo they carry.
She is once again a little human, a member of a weak and vulnerable breed. Who will explain what she missed while she was a horse? Who will hold her and tell her who I was and what I went through? If only she had never been a horse, if only she could remain one a little longer. What I wouldn’t give to hear her whinny and neigh her desires again, to see how delicately she tapped her hoof to receive a carrot or sugar cube. But it is over. She’ll never again gallop on all fours or give herself a mane by drawing with markers down her back. It will just have been a stage she went through, preserved only in a story. And that, I suppose, is all I will have been, a story from when they were little.