Authors: Rebecca Serle
I shake my head. “She’ll never be able to have kids. They’re taking out her entire uterus, both ovaries . . .”
David winces. “Damn,” he says. “Damn, Dannie, I’m so sorry.”
I close my eyes against the rising tide of pain from my feet. The knives that are now burying themselves into my heels.
“Take them off,” I tell him. I’m practically panting.
“Okay,” he says. “Hang on.”
He goes to the bathroom and comes back with baby powder. He shakes the bottle, and a cloud of white dust descends on my foot. He wiggles the heel of my shoe. I feel nauseous with pain.
Then it’s off. I look down at my foot—it’s raw and bleeding but looks better than I thought it would. He dumps some more powder on it.
“Let me see the other one,” he says.
I give him my other foot. He shakes the bottle, wiggles the heel, performs the same ritual.
“You need to soak them,” David says. “Come on.”
He puts an arm around me and leads me, wincing and groaning, into the bathroom. We have a tub, although it’s not a claw-foot. It’s always been a dream of mine to have one, but our bathroom was already built. It’s so stupid, impossible even, that my brain still relays this information to me now, still notes it—the missing feet of a porcelain tub. As if it matters.
David begins to run the water for me. “I’m going to put some Epsom salts in it,” he says. “You’ll feel better.”
I grab his arm as he turns to go. I cling to it—hold it against my chest like a child with their stuffed animal.
“It’s going to be okay,” he tells me. But, of course, the words mean nothing. No one knows that. Not him. Not Dr. Shaw. Not even me.
Bella will not return my calls or texts, so finally, on Saturday night, I dial Aaron.
He picks up on the second ring. “Dannie,” he says. He’s whispering. “Hey.”
I’m in the bedroom of our apartment, my bandaged feet kneading the soft carpet. “Is Bella there?”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line.
“Come on, Aaron. She won’t return my phone calls.”
“She’s actually sleeping,” he says.
“Oh.” It’s barely 8 p.m.
“What are you doing?”
I look down at my sweatpants. “Nothing,” I say. “I should probably get back to work. Will you tell her I called?”
“Yeah, of course,” he says.
All at once I feel irrationally angry. Aaron, this stranger. This man, who she has known for less than four months, is the one in her apartment. He’s the one she’s turning to. He doesn’t even know her. And me, her best friend, her family—
“She needs to call me,” I say. My tone has changed. It bears the fire of my thumping thoughts.
“I know,” Aaron says. His voice is low. “It’s just been—”
“I don’t care what it has been. With all due respect, I don’t know you. My best friend needs surgery on Tuesday. She needs to call me.”
Aaron clears his throat. “Do you want to take a walk?” he asks me.
“A walk,” he says. “I could use some air. It kind of sounds like you could, too.”
I’m not sure what to say. I want to tell him I have too much work, and it’s true—I’ve been distracted all week trying to prepare the documents we need for signature. We still don’t have everything from CIT, and Epson is getting anxious; they want to announce next week. But I don’t say no. I need to talk to Aaron. To explain to him that I have this, that he can go back to whatever life he was living last spring.
“Fine,” I say. “The corner of Perry and Washington. Twenty minutes.”
He’s waiting on the curb when my taxi pulls up. It’s still light out, although it will fade soon. October hangs a whisper away—the promise of only more darkness. Aaron is wearing jeans and a green sweater, and so am I, and for a minute, the visual as I pay the driver and get out of the cab—two matching people meeting each other—makes me almost laugh.
“And to think I almost brought my orange bag,” he says. He gestures to the leather Tod’s crossbody Bella gave me for my twenty-fifth birthday.
We start to walk. Slowly. My feet are still sore and raw. Down Perry toward the West Side Highway. “I used to live down here,” he says, filling the silence. “Before I moved to Midtown. Just for six months; it was my first apartment. My building was a block over, on Hudson. I liked the West Village, but it was kind of impossible to get anywhere on public transport.”
“There’s West Fourth,” I say.
He moves his face in a sign of recognition. “We were above this pizza place that closed,” he says. “I remember everything I owned smelled like Italian food. My clothes, sheets, everything.”
I surprise myself by laughing. “When I first moved to the city, I lived in Hell’s Kitchen. My entire apartment smelled like curry. I can’t even look at the stuff now.”
“Oh, see,” he says, “I just always crave pizza.”
“How long have you been an architect?” I ask him.
“Since the beginning,” he says. “I think I was born one. I went to school for it. For a little while I thought maybe I’d be an engineer, but I wasn’t smart enough.”
“I doubt that.”
“You shouldn’t. It’s the truth.”
We walk in silence for a moment.
“Did you ever think about being a litigator?” he asks me, so suddenly I’m caught off guard.
“I mean, I know you practice deal law. I’m wondering if you ever thought about being one of those lawyers who goes to court. I bet you’d crush at it.” He gives me a one-eyed smile. “You seem like you’d be good at winning an argument.”
“No,” I say. “Litigating isn’t for me.”
I sidestep around a puddle of liquid on the sidewalk. In New York you never know what is water and what is urine.
“Litigating is bending the law to your will, it’s deception, it’s all about perception. Can you convince a jury? Can you make people feel? In deal making, nothing is above the law. The written words are what matters. Everything is there in black and white.”
“Fascinating,” he says.
“I think so.”
Aaron lifts his hands from his sides and rubs them together. “So listen,” he says. “How are you?”
The question makes me stop walking.
So does he.
I turn slightly inward, and he mirrors me. “Not good,” I say, honestly.
“Yeah,” he says. “I figured. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.”
I look at him. His eyes meet mine.
“She’s—” I start, but I can’t finish it. The wind picks up, dancing the leaves and trash into a veritable ballet. I start to cry.
“It’s okay,” he says. He makes a move forward, but I take one back and we stand on the street like that, not quite meeting, until the river quiets.
“It’s not,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
I swallow what remains of my tears. I look across at him. I feel anger hit my bloodstream like alcohol. “You don’t,” I say. “You have no idea.”
“You don’t have to do this, you know. No one would blame you.”
He peers at me. “What do you mean?” He seems to genuinely not understand.
“I mean, this isn’t what you signed up for. You met a pretty girl, she was healthy, she’s not anymore.”
“Dannie,” Aaron says, like he’s choosing his words very carefully. “It’s important that you know that I’m not going anywhere.”
“Why?” I ask him.
A jogger passes by and, sensing the tension of the moment, crosses the street. A car horn honks. A siren whirls somewhere down Hudson.
“Because I love her,” he says.
I ignore the confession. I’ve heard it before. “You don’t even know her.”
I start walking again. A kid zooms past us with a basketball, his mother sprinting after him. The city. Full and buzzy and unaware that somewhere, fifteen blocks south, tiny cells are multiplying in a plot to destroy the whole world.
I don’t. And then I feel Aaron’s hand on my arm. He yanks and turns me around.
“Ow!” I say. “What the hell.” I rub my upper arm. I am, all at once, overcome with the urge to slap him, to punch him in the eye and leave him, crumpled and bleeding, on the corner of Perry Street.
“Sorry,” he says. His eyebrows are knit together. He has a dimple in the space above his nose. “But you need to listen to me. I love her. That’s the long and short of it. I don’t think I could live with myself if I bailed now, but that’s not even relevant because, like I said, I love her. This isn’t like anything I’ve ever had before. This is real. I’m here.”
His chest rises and falls like it’s taking physical effort to be upright. That I understand.
“It’s going to be more painful if you leave later,” I say. I feel my lip quiver again. I demand it to stop.
Aaron reaches out to me. He takes both my elbows in his palms. His chest is so close I can smell him.
“I promise,” he says.
We must walk back. I must call a car. We must say goodnight. I must come home and tell David. I must, at some point, fall asleep. But later I don’t remember. All I remember is his promise. I take it. I hold it in my heart like proof.
On Tuesday, October 4, I arrive at Mount Sinai on East One Hundredth Street an hour before the scheduled surgery. I still haven’t spoken to Bella, but I come to her pre-op room to find both her father and mother there. I don’t think they’ve been in the same room in over a decade.
The room is loud, even boisterous. Jill, her hair blown out and impeccably dressed in a Saint Laurent suit, chats with the nurses as if she’s preparing to host a luncheon, not for her daughter’s reproductive organs to be removed.
Frederick chats with Dr. Shaw. They both stand at the foot of Bella’s bed, arms crossed, gesturing amicably.
This isn’t happening.
“Hi,” I say. I knock on the side door that is obviously already open.
“Hey,” Bella says. “Look who made it.” She gestures to her father, who turns around and gives me a sideways wave.
“I see that,” I say. I put my bag down on a chair and go to Bella’s bedside. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she says, and I see it right there—the indignant stubbornness that has been avoiding me for the past week. Her hair is already in a cap, and she’s wearing a hospital gown. How long has she been here?
“What did Dr. Shaw say?”
Bella shrugs. “Ask him yourself.”
I take a few steps down. “Dr. Shaw,” I say. “Dannie.”
“Of course,” he says. “Notepad woman.”
“Right. So how is everything looking?”
Dr. Shaw gives me a small smile. “Okay,” he says. “I was just explaining to Bella and her folks here that surgery will take about eight hours.”
“I thought it was six,” I say. I’ve done extensive research. I’ve barely left Google. Filing statistics. Researching these procedures, recovery times, added benefits of taking out both ovaries instead of one.
“It could be,” he says. “It depends on what we find when we get in there. A full hysterectomy is usually six, but because we’re also removing the fallopian tubes we may need more time.”
“Are you performing an omentectomy today?” I ask.
Dr. Shaw looks at me with a mixture of respect and surprise. “We’re going to do a biopsy of the omentum for staging. But we will not be removing it today.”
“I read that a complete removal increases survival odds.”
To his credit, Dr. Shaw does not look away. He does not clear his throat and look to Jill or Bella. Instead, he says, “It’s really a case by case.”
My stomach turns. I look to Jill, who is up by Bella’s head, smoothing her cap-covered hair.
A memory. Bella. Age eleven. Crawling up into my bed from the trundle because she’d had a nightmare.
It was snowing and I couldn’t find you.
“Where were you?”
“I don’t know.”
But I did. Her mother had been there for a month. Some kind of two-and-a-half-week cruise followed by a specialized spa.
“Well, I’m right here,” I said. “You’ll always be able to find me, even in snow.”
How dare Jill show up. How dare she claim ownership and offer comfort now. It’s too late. It has been too late for over twenty years. I know I’d hate Bella’s parents even more if they didn’t show today, but I still want them gone. They don’t get the place by her side, especially not now.
Just then Aaron walks through the door. He’s holding one of those carry trays full of Starbucks cups and starts handing them out.
“None for you,” Dr. Shaw says, pointing to Bella.
She laughs. “That’s the worst part about this. No coffee.”
Dr. Shaw smiles. “I’ll see you in there. You’re in great hands.”
“I know,” she says.
Frederick shakes Dr. Shaw’s hand. “Thank you for everything. Finky speaks very highly of you.”
“He taught me a lot of what I know. Excuse me.” He makes a move toward the door and stops when he reaches me. “Could I speak to you in the hall?”
The room has descended into caffeinated chaos, and no one notices Dr. Shaw’s request or my exit.
“We’re going to try our best to get all of the tumor. We’ve categorized Bella’s cancer at a stage three, but we really won’t know definitely until we take tissue samples of the surrounding organs. And I know you raised a concern about an omentectomy. We’re just not sure how far it has spread yet.”
“I understand,” I say. I feel a deep, wet cold creep from the hospital floor, up my legs, and settle in my stomach.
“It’s possible we may need to remove a portion of Bella’s colon as well.” Dr. Shaw looks to Bella’s door and back at me. “You are aware that you are listed as Bella’s next of kin?”
“You are,” he says. “I know her parents are here, but I wanted you to be made aware, too.”
Dr. Shaw nods. He turns to leave.
“How bad is it?” I ask him. “I know you can’t tell me that. But if you could—how bad is it?”
He looks at me. He looks like he really would like to answer. “We’re going to do everything we can,” he says. And then he’s striding toward the operating room doors.
They wheel Bella into surgery with little fanfare. She is stoic. She kisses Jill and Frederick and Aaron, who Jill has clearly taken to. A little too much. She keeps finding excuses to grab his forearm. Once, Bella looks at me and rolls her eyes. It feels like a candle in the darkness.
“You’re going to be great,” I tell her. I bend over her. I kiss her forehead. She reaches up and grabs my hand. And then let’s go just as abruptly.
When she’s gone, we’re moved into the big waiting room, the one filled with people. They have sandwiches and board games. Some chat on cell phones. A few have blankets. There is laughing. Yet, every time the double doors open, the entire room stops and looks up in anticipation.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get you a coffee,” Aaron says. We choose seats by the window. Jill and Frederick pace a few feet over on their phones.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ll go down to the cafeteria or something.”
“Yeah. It’s going to be awhile.”
“Had you met her parents before?” I ask Aaron. Bella never mentioned it, but now I’m not so sure.
“Just this morning,” he says. “Jill came and picked us up. They’re kind of a trip.”
“That bad, huh?” he asks me.
“You have no idea.”
Jill saunters over. I realize she’s wearing heels.
“I’m putting in an order to Scarpetta,” she says. “I think we could all use some comfort food. What can I get you two?”
It’s barely 9 a.m.
“I’ll probably just go down to the cafeteria,” I say. “But thank you.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “I’ll order some pasta and salad. Greg, do you like pasta?”
He looks to me for the answer. “Yes?”
My cell phone rings then. David.
“Excuse me,” I tell the group, which now includes Frederick, who is looking over Jill’s shoulder at her phone.
“Hey,” I say. “God, David, this is a nightmare.”
“I imagine. How was she this morning?”
“Her parents are here.”
“Jill and Maurice?”
“Wow,” he says. “Good for them, I guess. Better they be there than not, right?”
I don’t respond, and David tries again. “Do you want me to come sit with you?”
“No,” I say. “I told you. One of us has to keep our job.”
“The firm understands,” David says, even though we both know that’s not true. I didn’t tell anyone about Bella’s illness, but even if I did, they would be supportive as long as it didn’t get in the way of my work. Wachtell isn’t a charity.
“I brought a ton of work with me. I just told them I’m working remotely today.”
“I’ll come by at lunch.”
“Call me,” I say, and we hang up.
I sit back down in my chair. “There’s a free latte,” Aaron says, handing me a Starbucks. “I forgot to make Jill’s nonfat.”
“How could you,” I say in mock horror, and Aaron chuckles. It feels wrong here, that sound of joy.
“I guess I was a little focused on my girlfriend’s cancer.” He gives me an exaggerated headshake. “How dare I.”
Now I’m the one to laugh.
“Do you think this counts as blowing it with her parents?”
“There’s always the chemo,” I say. And now we’re both in hysterics. A woman knitting a few chairs over from us looks up, annoyed. I can’t help it, though. It feels nearly impossible to get any air, that’s how hard we’re laughing.
“Radiation,” he says, gasping.
“Third time’s a charm.”
It’s Frederick’s stern look that sends us up and out of our seats, sprinting toward the door.
When we’re in the hallway, I take big, gulping breathes. It feels like I haven’t had air in a week.
“We’re going outside,” he says. “You have your cell phone?”
“Good. Yours is the update phone. I made sure on the chart.”
We head down the elevators and the double doors spit us out onto the street. There’s a park across the way. Small children dangle from swings, surrounded by planted trees. Nannies and parents bark into their cell phones.
We’re on the sidewalk, the length of Fifth Avenue splayed out before us. Cars push one another forward, egging the others on. The city inhales and inhales and inhales.
“Where are we going?” I ask him. My bones feel tired. I lift my leg up, testing.
“It’s a surprise,” he says.
“I don’t like those.”
Aaron laughs. “You’re gonna be fine,” he says.
He grabs my hand, and we’re turning down Fifth Avenue.