Over lunch, Kate’s beautiful friend Josephine, with whom she taught at Louisiana State University, revealed that she was facing a health scare and needed Kate to drive her to a doctor’s appointment for a procedure during which she would be put under twilight sedation. The fear was colon cancer, unlikely but grim. Jo was thirty-four, two years older than Kate, but Kate thought of them both as young, too young for tests. Girls, really. They were emerging writers-in-residence, shared a cramped office. Jo was a poet. She wore brown leather cowboy boots with rosy-hued cotton skirts, and was debating whether to get bangs. The engine of her car, an ancient gray Volvo with a broken side-mirror, was pretty much shot. The mechanics at the garage fixed it out of pity for her; they lost money on the repairs. Her life ran on charm.
They sat eating lunch at their desks, the door cracked open for air. Outside, the March sky was the color of pencil lead. Jo spread her apple slices and spinach salad before her and began picking at them without any real interest. Kate removed her tuna fish sandwich, to which she’d added sriracha for excitement. The hot sauce had bled through the bread. She liked the effect: batik.
‘The doctor said he’s going to look down my throat,’ Jo said, ‘and then flip me over.’
Kate’s mouth was full of tuna fish, but she raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes to suggest she found this disturbing.
‘Those were his exact words,’ Jo continued. ‘“Flip me over.”’
‘It sounds . . . unprofessional,’ said Kate.
‘Doesn’t it? It sounds bad.’
‘I know. I wish he hadn’t used that phrase.’
‘He didn’t mean it that way, I’m sure.’
‘No. But still.’ Jo sighed. ‘You’re under, and they can lift you up and move you like a rag doll. They can do whatever they want.’
A plump-cheeked blond girl of eighteen or so peeked into their office. Not recognizing either Kate or Jo, the girl drew back and said ‘Oops!’ before walking away. This happened with surprising frequency. The students drifted across campus as if lost. They came into the wrong office and asked where Professor Mitchell was, or the psychology department, or if they could borrow a stapler. Usually Kate did not have an answer to their questions.
‘Who are they?’ Kate asked Jo. She and Jo both hailed from New England. They liked to discuss their confusion about the students.
‘They run the gamut. What do you mean?’
‘The crappy ones. The kinesiology majors.’
‘I assume they’re all from Shreveport.’
‘Shreveport. Poor kids.’
Jo smiled and twisted her hair up in a messy topknot. She was tall and slender. Her hair waved in a fetching way; this was the reason she had not gotten bangs. When she felt tension enter the room, she went blank, and her face took on a distant aspect. Had Kate and Jo been friends in high school, Kate knew Jo would have been the girl at the party who left without telling anyone, the girl with the older boyfriend, the girl whose friendship was always in question because one was never sure she didn’t have an entirely different set of cooler friends. They had met in August a year-and-a-half ago, after being assigned to share an office. Over her desk Jo had tacked a black-and-white photograph of Frank O’Hara, scowling down at them. Kate had liked it – and by extension Jo – before even meeting her. Jo seemed to understand Kate effortlessly. But then Jo’s whole life looked effortless. This was not, of course, true; Kate knew better than to believe such a fantasy.
‘Kate?’ Eli called from the kitchen that evening.
She stood silent in the living room of their bungalow, holding a small leather box. Searching his coat pocket for the car keys, she had found this. She was quietly awed by her own panic. The unknown quality of its contours made her want to remain still and observe it. It had the vastness of a snowy field in winter, ringed with trees and glittering icily in the sunlight. She could spread her arms and spin around and collapse in that wide, empty space, as she had done as child, alone in the woods near her house, and not a person would know; the experience would be hers alone.
Should she open the box? She hesitated. She ran a finger over the lid. It felt like a once-living thing, the leather supple and textured. Flipping the lid up, she found a platinum ring with a triangle of diamonds sparkling at its center.
They had never discussed engagement, at least not seriously.
‘Kate?’ his voice came again, more insistent.
Her heart jolted. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until, at the sound of his voice, she exhaled. ‘One sec,’ she called.
She replaced the box and joined him in the pale-green-tiled kitchen, where he stood unpacking chicken breasts and tomatoes and Kalamata olives and the good salty feta cheese she liked. His gray suit jacket hung on a tall-backed stool by the kitchen island. He’d worn it to give a public presentation on the wetlands conservation work being done by the coastal sustainability studio he directed; he had shrugged the jacket off as soon as he walked in the door. He was happier out in the swamps and marshes, in jeans, collecting samples.
‘Yes?’ she asked.
Eli didn’t answer right away. He put a small, lustrous cluster of variegated yellow heirloom tomatoes in the refrigerator, his lanky frame doubled to reach down low. He was tired from his presentation and irritated because after work she had been spaced out, vacant. Rattled by Jo’s disclosure, she had found herself unable to focus. ‘What was that?’ she’d asked him in the car and failed to listen a second time, and he’d switched on the radio.
‘Did you say you were going out?’ he asked at last, turning from the refrigerator’s thin light. He’d pushed up the sleeves of his white dress shirt, and the thick, soft hair on his arms shone gold.
‘Maybe you could pick up takeout.’
‘But you said you wanted to cook more.’
‘Yes, but I faced the public, and now I’m demoralized.’
‘I could make a salad,’ she offered.
‘I need spicy food to burn away the memory.’
‘Fine,’ she said, softening.
‘I’ll call it in,’ he said. ‘Pad thai and green curry and that okra thing OK?’
‘Whatever you want,’ she said. She smiled. He smiled back, all forgiven, and, moving past to place the call, put a friendly hand on her ass.
She drove to the takeout place. On her way, she stopped by Jo’s apartment. The shades were drawn. Far back in the apartment a lamp glowed. Jo was, she bet, taking a bath. It was a habit she had when she was upset. Kate could use a quiet, soothing bath herself. The ring had discomfited her. She and Eli had been together three years, yes, but she still thought of the relationship as temporary. She liked things the way they were. Couldn’t time just stop? She did not want to die. She did not want Jo to die. She did not want their lives to change. With the day’s news, and now this development, things were moving in the wrong direction.
On Wednesday, in the waiting room before the test, Jo asked Kate to distract her. ‘Tell me about love,’ she said. She stretched her long legs out in front of her, crossing her ankles. Her cowboy boots were scuffed. ‘What is it like? I’ve forgotten.’ Jo’s husband was a filmmaker. Kate had been the sole bridesmaid at their tiny wedding. Rob was away in Europe for five months now, shooting footage, which was why he was not here today. He made documentaries that earned critical acclaim but not much money, though he got the occasional grant. Jo mailed him poems written on the backs of postcards, and they Skyped, but the time difference and his cheap Lisbon hotel’s unreliable Internet made it hard.
‘Not love. You mean sex,’ Kate said.
‘Yes,’ Jo said. ‘I suppose I do.’
‘Now, love: love kills slowly.’
‘That much we know,’ Jo agreed.
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, Jo’s mother had mailed her a makeup kit in cardboard packaging with this slogan printed in eighties-style black cursive across a bright purple background. Jo tore off the slogan and deposited it in Kate’s mailbox one Sunday morning, a note scrawled on the plain cardboard side: Stopped by. You weren’t here. Turn over for sound advice!
‘Can I ask you something weird? A weird favor?’ Jo said, leaning forward.
‘Look at my nose? Here?’ Jo pointed to a mole.
‘Does it look – significant?’
Kate examined it. The mole was shaped like South America, the bottom half thinning out and hooking to the right.
‘Like it’s changed?’ Jo laughed. ‘Not that you’ve examined this particular mole on my nose before. I don’t know. Stupid question. Irregular?’
‘Maybe a little.’
Jo sat back. ‘I’m turning into a hypochondriac! I’m going to go in and have it looked at, I guess.’
‘Does skin cancer run in your family?’
‘No. We tend toward illnesses of the spleen. Hypomania, displaced rage.’ Jo sighed. ‘But my mother always said I was the boring one, that I lacked imagination. Maybe skin cancer it is for me.’
Kate wrote the name of her dermatologist on a loose magazine subscription slip, and, below, the number, copied from her telephone. ‘If you need a recommendation, I like Dr McKiver. She’s brisk and pleasant.’
‘Great,’ Jo said wryly. ‘Brisk and pleasant. Nonjudgmental, too, I hope. If I have skin cancer of the nose, I want to use it as an excuse to get the nose job I dreamed of as a teenager. I’ll get a pixie cut, too, and come out looking like Audrey Hepburn.’
‘I’d miss your old nose,’ Kate said. Jo’s nose was thin and aristocratic, sloped down and tapered like a spoon.
The nurse called Jo back for the procedure, chart in hand. Jo gave Kate a little wave. ‘Goodbye for now,’ she said, rising.
‘You won’t feel a thing,’ said Kate.
‘That’s what scares me,’ Jo replied, but with a smile, to maintain plausible deniability.
The procedure was quick. Kate read a magazine in the waiting room. Coming out of anesthesia, Jo was sweet and dopey. She held Kate’s hand. She kept trying to tell a joke and forgetting the punch line. It had to do with a priest; that was as far as she could get. Her short-term memory of thirty seconds meant that twice a minute she would smile a slow, astonished smile and say with wonder to Kate, ‘You’re here?’
If Jo had cancer, Kate would like to volunteer to die in her place.
On Saturday, Eli had to go out with a visiting scholar from Brazil to help him collect samples. The subject of the scholar’s investigations was the death of saltwater marsh grasses in the swamplands west of New Orleans. Low-lying, uncultivated areas at the bottom of the country became pools of toxicity. The marsh grasses leached household chemicals and run-off pesticides from the groundwater. But the scholar’s hypothesis about what was causing the miles of dead grasses was even more pernicious: depleted petroleum deposits and missing saline formation water, pumped out by oil companies. The land collapsed from beneath. When the marsh grasses withered, the wetlands withered. In aerial surveys the brown patches of dead grass looked like tea stains. Displaced birds flew toward the cities and nested there: the pileated woodpecker, the white ibis.
Meanwhile, red algae bloomed off the southwest Florida coast. Dead manatees were washing up on shore; they ate the algae, which poisoned them. So far, the newspaper said, the official death toll was 241, and the algae was getting worse. Phosphorus from fertilizer, Eli told Kate when she read this to him over breakfast, plus higher temperatures.
Kate returned to reading the story. It was agitating her.
Eli had made blueberry pancakes with walnuts, her favorite breakfast. He put a hot stack of pancakes on a plate for her, which he set next to a jar of raspberry jam and bottle of maple syrup, then served himself.
Sitting, he drew a chair close, touched her arm. ‘Would you ever consider . . .’ he began.
Kate put down the paper. These were not the words she had been expecting to hear this morning, and, at the same time, they were the words she had been panicking over. She concentrated on keeping her face still and waited to see how he would complete the sentence. Marriage? Children? She felt the way she did when a student approached, about to ask yet another unanswerable question. Just down the hall, I think, she would tell him. If you don’t see it, ask the administrative assistant.
He gazed at the stove, smoke from the pancakes dissipating in a blue haze, and returned his gaze to her face. ‘Going in on a cell phone plan with me?’
Her relief was huge. ‘It would depend.’
‘The carrier of your choice.’
He smiled, and she felt an admiration for him, followed by a pang of love. He was so practical. She was always drifting off into too-theoretical realms. He rolled up his sleeves and waded into the water and collected a sample right here on earth, the place they did, after all, live.
In her relief, she relaxed, and, relaxed, she opened her mouth to tell him how she felt, this sudden adoration, but instead what came out was, ‘I found the ring.’
‘You did?’ he said, his voice surprised.
‘It was an accident,’ she added quickly.
He adopted the pained squint he wore out on the bayou water when the sun hit his eyes directly.
‘I was planning to ask you on my birthday.’
‘What better present could there be?’
She could think of a few.
‘Did you like the ring?’ he asked.
She kept quiet; she had not. Or maybe she just couldn’t imagine wearing an engagement ring at all.
‘The ring isn’t important,’ he continued. He was hurt, and he disliked it immensely when a plan of his failed, but he was struggling to get over it, to keep his voice light. ‘We can choose a new one together.’
‘We have to choose a cell phone carrier first.’
This time, he did not smile. She had an awful feeling she’d ruined everything, and she didn’t know how to fix it. ‘This isn’t how I imagined this conversation going,’ he said. He rose, kissed her once, showily, to cheer her up, and once for real. ‘Let’s talk about this later.’ She hated herself for hurting him. Why did she have to ruin things? Seeing her expression, he continued, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure things out. We’ll do it in a way you like.’ She nodded, though she wasn’t sure if she should believe him. ‘There are more pancakes if you want them,’ he said on his way out the door. ‘And,’ he added, ‘maybe you should stop reading about the manatees. I don’t want you sitting here by yourself while I’m gone, thinking about how the world is about to end.’
Later that day, she called Jo and left a message. She asked if Jo wanted to get coffee that afternoon or a drink that evening, since Eli was having dinner with the scholar, but by 4 p.m. she hadn’t heard back. This made her impatient. She wanted to tell Jo about the ring, and to inquire about the test results. Surely by now Jo would have heard; the doctor had said he would call. Jo was private, not the type to report back, so Kate would likely have to ask. Restless, she put on rain boots and Eli’s old blue sweatshirt, rolling the sleeves, and went for a walk around the lakes near campus. The sky was cloudy. At five, unable to wait any longer, she took shelter from the light drizzle, and, standing beneath the overpass, called Jo again. The pigeons huddled in the high-up nooks of the structure, immune to the hollow, thundering noise of the traffic above.
‘Hello?’ Jo’s voice said, a little foggy – or was it the connection? The muffled whoosh of the cars overhead echoed off concrete.
‘Is Apparel and Merchandising an actual major?’ she asked.
Earlier that semester, she had tried to help a student majoring in this subject choose a topic for a research essay. ‘What are the controversies in the field?’ she had asked the girl, a stock question. ‘What current debates do you find most interesting?’ The girl had looked at her in confusion before saying in a slow but friendly way, with a dose of pity, ‘I mean, it’s just clothes.’
‘No,’ Jo said, firmly. ‘Apparel and Merchandising is not a major. Entrepreneurship is not a major. Social Drinking is not a major.’
‘The truly dismal science.’
‘So when do you get the results?’ Kate asked.
Jo was quiet.
‘Didn’t the doctor say he’d call?’
‘His office called. I have to go in and talk to him. His next opening isn’t for two weeks.’
‘He misses you!’ Kate said.
‘Or I have cancer.’
‘You don’t have cancer.’ She tried to sound certain. ‘You’re too young. You’re too beautiful. Besides that, you’re a newlywed and a poet. It would be a Lifetime movie.’
A soft sigh. ‘Broke as a joke,’ Jo said. ‘My mother used to say that to me. Who says that? Was she trying to be some wisecracking mobster tough guy? She grew up in Connecticut.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘I talked to Rob. He thinks I shouldn’t worry. It’s probably nothing. But there was blood last night where there shouldn’t be. It’s alarming, you know?’
Jo paused, said, ‘You mentioned in your message having news?’
‘Oh, yeah – it’s nothing big.’
‘Tell me! I could use a distraction.’
Kate hesitated. ‘I found a ring. An engagement ring.’
‘What?’ Jo’s voice was happy, excited.
‘I know. But I wasn’t supposed to find it, and I told Eli.’
Now Jo’s voice became cautious. ‘What exactly did you tell him?’
‘Only that I found it. I’m not sure why. It was some small part of myself, a part that wanted to spoil things, I think.’
‘But he adores you, and you adore him. You two seem destined.’
‘Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe it’s too soon.’
‘How many years has it been? Three?’
‘A little more.’
‘Three years isn’t nothing. Rob and I had been together eighteen months.’
‘So what do I do?’
‘It sounds like you have two real options: marry him or break up.’
Overhead traffic rumbled. A frayed rope swayed from a cement beam. It had a sinister look, and she could not imagine its original purpose. One thing she knew: not for nothing did the sunsets in Baton Rouge rival those in LA. The air was filthy, the pinks and oranges vibrant and deep, like a lily or marigold, or a chemical burn.
A ring had entered the house. It was a small bomb, a potentiality. What else entered a house? A child. A bride. A plague.
Her heart sounded in her chest, tapping out a staccato rhythm. From the Italian for ‘detached’, she remembered her fifth-grade piano teacher saying: each stroke separate. Like the black dot set above or below the round musical notes.
She went for a run around the lakes. It had been a long time since she’d run. High in the cypress trees the birds creaked like leather. She breathed shallowly, through her nose: the wrong way. She listed each person with whom she had had sex, chronologically and then in descending order of age. The oldest was now forty-seven. The youngest was thirty.
Eli suggested they drive to New Orleans, see if they could find a ring she liked better. They began in the less expensive antique jewelry stores on Royal Street, worked their way up to the pricier stores near Esplanade. The salespeople were attentive, eager. They offered her drinks: champagne, wine, beer, a whole array of alcoholic beverages. They praised and congratulated her, told her how happy she must be, and they turned to Eli, congratulated him on his fine choice of fiancée, as though he had ordered her from a menu. Next came a litany of questions. Question after question about what she imagined and desired in the way of a ring, a wedding, a life. Questions she had not ever considered. Questions she had considered, but had failed to resolve.
Did she want to see what this diamond looked like in natural light? Dutifully, she followed the woman to the street. It looked like . . . a diamond. Did she want, just for fun, to see a bigger diamond? The saleswoman emerged from the storeroom, the new stone pinched between black tweezers like a specimen. It looked like – yes – a bigger diamond! They escaped, entered another store; the questions did not stop. Did she want to put her hand on a black background, beneath this special camera, for a high-resolution picture of her finger with one of these rings on it, a picture the store would email to her? Did she want to take a brochure about the diamond-buying process? A business card, just in case? Did she want to try on an enormous ruby ring worth a half million dollars?
This last offer was made at their final stop. The rings here drew tourists.
The man slid the ring on her finger.
It was heavy. She felt like Cleopatra.
‘The ruby is called “dove’s blood,”’ he told her, and she thought of how the doctor had shown Jo the initial test results, a grainy black-and-white image of her organs called up on a computer monitor, to show where the blood was leaking: here, and here.
She did not want any of it.
‘Thank you,’ she said, handing back the ring, and on the street, to Eli: ‘I think I hate America. I think I’m a socialist.’
‘You don’t hate America. But you might be a socialist.’
‘Maybe I don’t want a ring.’
‘Let’s sleep on it,’ he said. ‘It’s like cafeteria food: nothing looks appealing in such big quantities.’
‘That’s the problem with marriage. Licenses! It’s a joke. They’ll give one to anybody over, what, fifteen or something, depending on the state?’
‘Human rights and all that.’
‘Which I support. But maybe marriage should be a privilege. Or, you know, handled through a lottery system.’
‘That philosophy might be at cross purposes with your new commitment to socialism,’ he said. ‘Or,’ he added, ‘on second thought, totally congruent with its more virulent forms.’ But he gave her hand a squeeze.
Later that week, Kate and Jo met for coffee, an invitation extended by Jo in the form of a note left on Kate’s desk. The student union, with its independent coffee stand, was undergoing renovation. They had to go to Starbucks. Kate missed the student who had staffed the coffee stand in the afternoons, a bookish girl who rang customers up with a paperback open by the register, her finger marking her place on the page. Once Kate had asked what she was reading and the girl flipped over the book to show the cover of Absalom, Absalom! In a city where Kate had asked the manager at Barnes & Noble where she might find a memoir shelved only to watch him type ‘Memoir’ in the title field of his computer database – no, she had explained, it was a genre, or a subgenre, not a title, at which point he directed her to the fiction section – seeing a person reading Faulkner pleased her. She had taken a modern American literature seminar her senior year in college. She hadn’t much liked that book, but she enjoyed the kinship she felt with the girl.
Over their coffees, Kate and Jo discussed the man who evangelized outside the student union. He distributed yellow pamphlets written in the second person and illustrated with a pair of stick figures, one male and one female, likeable, everyday people who enjoyed having a good time, drinking and dancing and cavorting, but who at the end – spoiler alert! – went to hell. Hell! It seemed like an awfully steep price to pay for a daiquiri and a turn around the dance floor.
‘I keep hoping it will turn out differently,’ Kate said.
‘It won’t,’ said Jo.
Since the call from the doctor’s office, she had turned fatalistic.
‘So do you want to be my bridesmaid?’ Kate asked.
‘Are you engaged?’ Jo said, perking up.
‘No, not yet.’
‘But you’re lining up your wedding party?’ Jo studied her the way she might a student with no particular aptitude or evidence of scholarly commitment who expressed an interest in graduate studies.
‘Not the party,’ Kate said, feeling suddenly shy and confused, ‘just you.’
‘OK,’ Jo said slowly, stirring her coffee. ‘I mean, of course. And that goes for whenever you get married and whomever you marry.’
‘I thought you liked Eli.’
‘You said you thought we were destined to be together.’
‘Well, yes and no.’
‘What do you mean, yes and no?’
‘You seem to be hesitating, that’s all,’ Jo said. She rarely gave advice. Now, though, she leaned back and scrutinized Kate’s face. ‘He’s terrific, you’re terrific together, but, you know. It’s like that thing I had with the archeologist, the one who was such a good cook. He was great. The sex was great. He used to make these incredible chicken tagines with rose olives, which I’d never had before, and he was so sweet to me. We moved in together. Then I kissed a friend of his in our kitchen. He was outside saying goodbye to another friend, and he saw me through the window. I was a little stoned, and I used that as an excuse. It was just an excuse, though. Three months later, I knew.’
‘Break up with him now if you know that’s what you want.’
‘We can’t break up,’ Kate joked. ‘We just signed a lease renewal. Can you imagine the trouble?’
But when Jo spoke, she was serious. ‘If you don’t want to marry him, it will be less trouble in the long run. You have to ask yourself: which is the better trouble to have?’ Jo continued to study Kate’s face, which Kate tried to make neutral, though she was worried that this was coming across as hostility to the argument, or, worse, to Jo herself. ‘I’ve been thinking about our conversation all week,’ Jo continued, ‘and I want to say this: if you want to marry him, you should.’
‘But if you don’t want to marry him, admit it to yourself now. It’s the only kind thing to do. Otherwise, you’ll just break his heart over time, in a slow way.’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘People lie to themselves all the time.’
‘And you think I am?’
‘I think that when marriage is involved, sometimes we want to live a life that is scripted by the world, not by our own desires.’
‘And when Rob asked you, you were totally sure.’
‘I was,’ Jo said, her voice measured but firm. ‘And I think that if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you know what you want, too. It can be a problem of yours. You want to please other people, and it’s a generous impulse, but it’s not always kind.
‘When I was dating Samantha’ – this was Jo’s ex-girlfriend, with whom she had lived in Chelsea for a few years while she was at Columbia – ‘I told myself we could have a future together, even though she was too much for me. Too much swagger, too much ambition. She was sexy, and she was exciting, and she made a ton of money, but I couldn’t keep up, or I didn’t want to. She wanted an apartment in the city and a house upstate, dinner parties every weekend, and I wanted a quieter life. We all lie to ourselves sometimes, especially when telling that lie might make our lives easier. Just be sure this isn’t one of those times, because it’s too serious.’
Jo called the next afternoon, a balmy, clear-skied Friday in mid-April. Neither had to be on campus. The call was a surprise; Jo usually texted, if anything. On the phone, her voice sounded subdued. Jo asked if Kate wanted to come over and sit on the porch a bit, take advantage of the beautiful weather. Kate didn’t know what to make of this; was it a casual invitation or was there something urgent on Jo’s mind she didn’t want to discuss on the telephone? She said yes and, though Jo’s rebuke still smarted, walked the ten blocks to Jo’s apartment as fast as she could. She was a little out of breath when she arrived, and she waited a minute before ringing the doorbell.
When Jo answered the door, she looked like her usual self, if a bit wan in the dim interior light. Her hair was braided and she wore yoga pants.
‘Iced tea?’ Jo asked. ‘Or I have water.’
‘Iced tea,’ Kate said.
She took the cool glass Jo offered. On the porch, they sat on the swing, pushing it lightly with the balls of their feet. The porch was painted white above gray floorboards, the ceiling done in robin’s egg blue: a minor, cloudless sky. Kate tilted her head back and imagined the blue growing lighter with the sun’s emergence, the sun shining down. The actual sun was sinking to the west behind their neighborhood, shadows elongated on the dry April grass.
‘Do you ever wish you understood astronomy?’ she asked.
‘All the time,’ Jo said.
‘All these systems behind the world, keeping order, and I hardly understand a single one of them.’
‘You understand a few.’
‘Pieces,’ she conceded. ‘Some aspects of science, literature, language – a little bit. I wish I knew a foreign language, like you. It feels like such a failing that I can only speak one.’
‘I am alarmed by what I don’t know,’ Jo said. ‘The other day I lit a match and I thought, I don’t know what fire is. What is fire?’
‘A plasma. Fourth state of matter.’
‘I thought matter only had three states.’
‘In a way it’s true: plasma is an ionized gas. It’s actually the most common state of matter.’
‘And you say you don’t understand anything.’ Jo sipped her iced tea. ‘I talked to the doctor.’
‘He said I’m OK.’
‘Or more or less OK.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It might be colitis or it might be Crohn’s disease.’
‘But not cancer.’
‘And these other things are treatable?’
‘Yeah. He gave me a specific diet, medication.’
‘This is good! Good news. Not ideal, but good.’
‘Good.’ Jo looked off in the distance. ‘Manageable. But it makes you think, God, this is the start: my body is going to fall apart.’ She paused, began again: ‘The dermatologist called. She didn’t ask me to come in. She told me over the phone: it’s malignant.’
‘No. I made an appointment for May 5.’
‘I can drive you if you need.’
‘That would help.’
‘So the dermatologist removes the mole and that’s it? Or . . . what?’
‘She said she doesn’t think it’s spread, so yeah. She removes it and we monitor it and make sure nothing comes back and nothing new appears. Unless it’s already in my lymph nodes, which is unlikely, but not impossible.’
‘Then the prognosis wouldn’t be great.’
Kate felt overcome. She gave Jo a hug. Jo hugged her back, stiffly, not leaning in, and Kate pulled away and patted her arm: two awkward bodies not meeting the way they should, failing to reach the fourth state of matter. ‘Sorry,’ Kate said. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
For Eli’s birthday they took a boat out on the Atchafalaya Basin through the warm, humid afternoon. He drove the motorboat. Motoring into the thicket of old-growth cypress trees, the waterway became thin. It looked like a hedge maze. Overhead, tree cover made a cathedral. Birds flew up across the path. Cypress trees had been heavily logged, first by French and Spanish and Acadian settlers for lumber and later for mulch by WalMart and Home Depot. Such logging had long been illegal, but the state department responsible for enforcement had limited resources, including, until recently, not a single helicopter, which was the only way one could see into the swamps. The surviving trees were moss-covered beauties, hoary and skeletal and monolithic.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said, ‘you’ve been tense about this engagement business. If it isn’t fun, we’re doing it wrong.’
She felt her eyes tear up.
‘I cannot believe,’ she said, ‘that I can’t even do this right.’
‘Come here,’ he said. She climbed across the seat and sat on his lap, put her head on his chest. Their skin was sticky. His armpits smelled like deodorant and the clean, sweet tang of new sweat, and she inhaled and inhaled. ‘That’s it,’ he said. He rubbed small circles on her back, below the small, sharp bone of her shoulder. He pushed on it with his thumb, finding the hardness.
‘Happy birthday,’ she said. ‘I love you.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘I’m scared, I guess. Is that a totally shitty thing to hear?’
‘I’m not going to lie: it’s not ideal,’ he said. ‘But it is pretty normal. I mean, this is only one of the biggest decisions we’ll make in our lives. When you think about it, it’s not rational not to be scared. Which makes you the more rational one.’
‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘it’s no surprise: you question everything. Nothing’s easy for you, because nothing’s a given. It’s kind of a pain in the ass sometimes, but that’s OK. I’ve learned to live with it. In fact, it’s part of why I love you.’
‘You’re crazy. It’s a character flaw, not a reason to love me.’
‘And yet,’ he said, ‘I do.’
The next day, Kate and Eli went to Forever 21. Getting a fake ring was her idea: this way, she could try it out, see how she felt. They bought a yellow gold ring with a small diamond, made of plastic, and a ring shaped like a wolf’s head. In the mall’s florescent light, drinking milkshakes from the food court, she felt a small surge of hope. ‘Would you really want to marry me?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ Eli said. ‘Most things are, at best, theories. But not this. This is true.’
The night before Jo’s surgery, Kate and Eli were reading in bed. They each examined their media of choice: for her, a creased copy of the New York Times Magazine left over from the weekend, for him, his iPad. He enlarged an image, tapped the screen, paused an ad as the horns of the jingle began to play. She glanced over. The screen cast light across the bedspread and glazed his cheekbones white. His absorption was total. She may as well be looking at the moon.
A text broke his reverie. With a sigh, he set the screen aside and took up a report he had to read for work.
‘How’s the coast?’ she asked him.
‘The coast,’ he said, ‘is fucked.’ He highlighted a sentence in the report. The highlighter squeaked on the paper, a deep yellow pool forming where the tip caught.
His hand lay on the blanket. She took it and held it.
‘Is everything fucked?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Everything is not fucked.’
She admired his confidence. She liked to watch him in these moments to see how it was achieved, the way one might watch those orange Japanese beetles fly in a stuttering way on their improbable wings.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do.’
She felt relief. For now, this was enough: she had done her due diligence. She had it on good authority that despite all appearances to the contrary, the world was not beyond repair. A scientist had told her so.
Before the surgery, Kate gave Jo her fake engagement ring. ‘For good luck,’ she said.
‘They said to remove all jewelry before going in, I think,’ Jo said.
‘Keep it in your pocket.’
‘I’m pretty sure I have to change into a robe,’ said Jo, but she slipped the ring into the pocket of her jeans.
In high school, Kate had been friends with a girl whose father had had a secret family in Nova Scotia, a second wife and a son, and one day he’d disappeared without warning. Shortly thereafter, his second wife had died, and he’d ordered three gravestones, one for each member of the second family, and when he died, he was buried beside her with a gravestone that read, ‘Beloved husband of Olivia and father of Mark, whom he cherished.’ But later the girl and her mother had learned his whole awful secret, and, with his son’s agreement, they had replaced his gravestone with a new one engraved with only his name and birth and death date. No beloved. No husband, no father. No cherished.
The image struck Kate as tragic both because it embodied an inadequate attempt to right a terrible wrong, and because it pointed to a person’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of death.
Write what you might in stone, it didn’t matter. Once you died, you had no say. Another good reason not to do it.
After the surgery Jo did in fact look like she’d had a nose job: her nose was wrapped in a cocoon of white gauze and taped across the bridge. Bruising had begun around her right cheekbone. The miracles of local anesthetics meant Jo was lucid this time and not so easily astonished.
‘Brisk and pleasant and took half my nose,’ Jo said when the nurse wheeled her out.
‘The edge was irregular. She had to go deeper than she’d thought.’
‘So the ring wasn’t good luck.’
‘I didn’t die.’
‘You didn’t die.’
‘But I am disfigured. She said we’d talk about scheduling reconstructive surgery once the bandages come off.’
‘Not half your nose.’
‘No. I’m exaggerating to cheer myself up.’
Kate accelerated through a yellow light, glancing at Jo, who had tilted her seat back and reclined, staring up at the unlit dome with sunglasses on, like a film star. ‘This will give your nose character.’
‘You sound like my mother.’
‘Broke as a joke.’
‘Love kills slowly,’ said Jo, and closed her eyes.
At Jo’s door, Kate asked if Jo wanted her to come in. ‘Tell me what I can get you. A movie to watch, a magazine, trashy French onion dip?’
‘Not a thing,’ Jo said. ‘I don’t need a thing. I think I want to sleep.’
Kate turned to go. ‘Here,’ Jo said, handing her back the ring. ‘I’m sorry for what I said before. You should marry him. I don’t know why I was being so cynical. Whenever he unearths the new ring and asks you, you should say yes.’
‘Love kills slowly,’ Kate said.
‘Always,’ Jo said. ‘Always.’
Image © Lorna McInroy