Authors: Rebecca Serle
“We can’t go far,” I say. I’m practically running to keep up, he’s moving so quickly.
“We’re not,” he tells me. “Just up. Here.”
We’re at the back entrance of a doorman building on One Hundred First Street. He takes an ID out of his wallet and swipes the key fob. The door opens.
“Are we breaking and entering?”
He laughs. “Just entering.”
We’re in what appears to be a basement storage unit, and I follow Aaron through rows of bikes and giant Tupperware containers with out-of-season items into an elevator in the back.
I check my phone to make sure I still have service. Four bars.
It’s a freight elevator, old and lumbering, and we shuffle our way to the rooftop. When we step off, we’re greeted by a tiny stretch of grass surrounded by a concrete terrace and beyond that, the city splayed out before us. There’s a glass dome behind us, some kind of party venue.
“I just thought you could probably use a little bit of space,” he says.
I walk tentatively toward the terrace, run my hand along the marbled concrete. “How do you have access to this place?”
“It’s a building I’m working on,” he says. He comes to stand beside me. “I like it because it’s so high. Usually buildings on the East Side are pretty squat.”
I look at the hospital, dwarfed below us, imagining Bella lying on a table, her body splayed open somewhere inside. My grip on the concrete tightens.
“I’ve screamed up here before,” Aaron tells me. “I wouldn’t judge if you wanted to.”
I hiccup. “That’s okay,” I say.
I turn to him. His eyes are focused below us. I wonder what he’s thinking, if he sees Bella the way I do.
“What do you love about her?” I ask him. “Will you tell me?”
He smiles immediately. He doesn’t lift his eyes. “Her warmth,” he says. “She’s so damn warm. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” I say.
“She’s beautiful, obviously.”
“Boring,” I say.
He smiles. “Stubborn, too. I think you guys have that in common.”
I laugh. “You’re probably not wrong.”
“And she’s spontaneous in the way people aren’t anymore. She lives for now.”
A ping of recognition in my chest. I look to Aaron. His eyebrows are knit. He looks, all at once, like it’s just occurred to him, what that really means. The possibility ahead.
Ding ding ding
. And then I realize it’s my cell phone that’s ringing. It’s been in my hand, vibrating and tolling.
“Ms. Kohan, it’s Dr. Shaw’s associate, Dr. Jeffries. He wanted me to call and give you an update.”
My breath holds. The air stills. From somewhere in the distance, Aaron takes my hand.
“We’re going to take a biopsy of her colon and abdominal tissue. But everything is going according to plan. We still have a few hours ahead of us, but he wanted you to know so far so good.”
“Thank you,” I manage. “Thank you.”
“I’m going to get back now,” he says, and hangs up.
I look to Aaron. I see it there, the love in his eyes. It mirrors mine.
“He said it’s going according to plan.”
He exhales, drops my hand. “We should get back,” he says.
We reverse the process. Elevator, door, street. When we get to the lobby of the hospital, someone calls my name: “Dannie!”
I turn to see David jogging toward us.
“Hey,” he says. “I was just trying to check in. How’s it going? Hey man.” He extends his hand to Aaron, who shakes it.
“I’m going to head back up,” Aaron says. He touches my arm and leaves.
“You doing okay?” David folds me into a hug. I reach up and embrace him.
“They said it’s going well,” I said, although that’s not entirely the truth. They said it’s going. “I don’t think they need to get into her stomach.”
David’s eyebrows knit. “Good,” he says. “That’s good, right? How are you?”
“Have you eaten?”
I shake my head.
David produces a paper bag with a Sarge’s logo, my bagel with whitefish salad.
“This is my winner’s breakfast,” I say sadly.
“She’s got this, Dannie.”
“I should head back up,” I say. “Shouldn’t you be at the office?”
“I should be here,” he says.
He puts a hand on my back, and we go upstairs. When we get to the waiting room, Jill and Frederick are still on their cell phones. A pile of Scarpetta’s takeout sits upright in a chair next to them. I don’t even know how they got them to deliver this early—I don’t even think they’re open for lunch.
I brought my computer and I take it out now. The one good thing about the hospital: free and strong Wi-Fi.
Bella has told very few people. Morgan and Ariel, who I email now, and the gallery girls, for logistical reasons. I update them, too. I imagine these tiny, waiflike women contending with their beautiful boss having cancer. Does thirty-three seem ancient to them? They haven’t even crossed twenty-five.
I work for two hours. Answer emails, punt calls, and research. My brain is a haze of focus and paranoia and fear and noise. At some point, David forces the sandwich on me. I’m surprised by my appetite. I finish it. David leaves, promising to come back later. I tell him I’ll meet him at home. Jill steps out and comes back. Frederick goes in search of a charger. Aaron sits—sometimes reading, sometimes doing nothing but staring at the clock, at the big board where they list where patients are. Patient 487B, still in surgery.
It’s creeping toward late afternoon when I see Dr. Shaw walking through the double doors. My heart leaps up into my ears. I hear the pounding, like gongs.
I stand up, but I do not run across the room to him. It’s strange the social normalcies we hold strong to, even in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. The rules we are unwilling to break.
Dr. Shaw looks tired, far older than his age, which I’d put around forty.
“Everything went well,” he says. I feel relief course through my body right along with my blood. “She’s out and recovering. We were able to get all the tumor and any cancer cells to the best of our ability.”
“Thank god,” Jill says.
“She has a long road ahead of her, but today went well.”
“Can we see her?” I ask.
“She’s been through a lot. One visitor for now. Someone from my team will come over to take you back and answer any further questions.”
“Thank you,” I say. I shake his hand. So do Frederick and Jill. Aaron is still sitting. When I look back at him, I see that he is crying. He holds the back of his hand against his face, swallowing his sobs.
“Hey,” I say. “You should go.”
Jill looks at me but doesn’t say anything. I know Bella’s parents. I know being with her in the recovery room, unchaperoned, scares them. They don’t want to make decisions about her care, not really. And so I will. I always have.
“No,” he says. He shuffles his hands in front of his face, diverting attention. “You should go.”
“She’ll want to see you,” I tell him.
I imagine Bella waking up in a bed. In pain, confused. Whose face does she want hovering above hers? Whose hand does she want to hold? Somehow, I know that it’s his.
A nurse comes back. She wears bright pink scrubs and has a stuffed koala clinging to the pocket of her shirt. “Are you the family of Bella Gold?”
I nod. “This is her husband,” I lie. I’m not sure what the rule is for boyfriends. “He’d like to go back.”
“I’ll take you,” she says.
I watch them disappear down the hallway. It’s not until they’re gone, and Jill and Frederick are cornering me, asking questions, demanding we get the nurse back, that I feel happy for Bella for the first time. This is the thing she’s wanted forever. This, right here. This is love.
Bella is supposed to spend seven days in the hospital, but because of her age and general health she’s released after five, and on Saturday morning I meet her at her apartment. Jill has gone back to Philadelphia for the weekend to “take care of some business,” but hired a private nurse who runs the place like military quarters. The apartment is spotless when I arrive, more orderly than I’ve ever seen it.
“She won’t even let me stand up,” Bella says.
Every day she has looked better. It’s impossible to understand how she could still be sick, how there could still be cancer cells in her. Her cheeks are now rosy, her body has regained its color. She’s sitting up in bed when I get there, enjoying scrambled eggs and avocado, a side of toast, and a cup of coffee on a tray.
“It’s like room service,” I say. “You always wanted to live at a hotel.”
I set the sunflowers—her favorite—I brought on the nightstand.
“Where is Aaron?”
“I sent him home,” she says. “The poor guy hasn’t slept in a week. He looks way worse than I do.”
Aaron has kept vigil at her bedside. I went to work, slogged through the days, and came in the morning and night, but he refused to leave. Watching over the nurses, her monitors—making sure no misstep was made.
“He’s back in Paris,” she says. “Everyone needs to understand that I’m fine. Obviously. Look at me.”
She holds her hands above her head in proof.
Chemo doesn’t start for another three weeks. Long enough for her to recover, but not long enough for any cells to spread in a significant way—we hope. We don’t know. We’re all grasping. We’re all pretending now. Pretending this was the hard part. Pretending it’s over and behind us. Now, sitting in her sunny bedroom, the smells of coffee surrounding us, it’s easy to forget it’s a pretty, dressed-up lie.
“Did you bring it?” she asks.
From my bag, I produce the entire season of
, a WB show from the early two thousands that performed so poorly it apparently doesn’t warrant streaming on any service. But when we were kids, we loved it. It’s a sitcom about the behind-the-scenes of a fictional WB show. We were so meta.
I ordered the DVDs and brought my old computer—the one with the DVD player from ten years ago—with me.
I take it out now and reveal it to her.
“You think of everything.”
“Just about,” I say.
I kick off my shoes and crawl into bed with her. My jeans feel too tight. I abhor people who walk around in workout clothes. It’s the entity of the reason I could never live in Los Angeles: too much Lycra. But even I have to admit, as I tuck my legs in underneath me, this would feel more comfortable with some stretch. Bella wears silk pajamas, embossed with her initials. She makes a move to get up.
“What are you doing?” I say, springing into action. I toss my body across hers like train tracks. I lunge.
“I need some water. I’m fine.”
“I’ll get it.”
She rolls her eyes but tucks herself back into bed. I leave the bedroom and go into the kitchen where Svedka, the nurse, is furiously washing dishes. She looks up at me, her face practically murderous.
“What do you need?” she barks.
She pulls a glass down from the cabinet—a green goblet from a set Bella bought in Venice. While the water is being poured, I look out over her living room, the cheerful color, the bright spots of blue and purple and deep forest green. Her window drapes hang in soft folds of violet silk, and her art, collected over the years from everywhere she’s gone—high and low—lines the walls. Bella is always trying to get me to buy pieces. “They’re investments in your future happiness,” she tells me. “Only buy what you love.” But I don’t have the eye. Any art I own, Bella has picked out for me—usually gifted.
Svedka hands me the water glass. “Now move,” she says, cocking her head in the direction of the bedroom.
I find myself bowing to her.
“She scares me,” I say, handing Bella her water and getting back into bed.
“Leave it to Jill to find a way to imbue this situation with even more anxiety.” She laughs—a tinkling sound, like twinkle lights.
“How did you even get these?” Bella asks me. She takes the computer and opens it. The screen is dark, and she hits the power button.
“Amazon,” I say. “I hope it works. This thing is centuries old.”
It sputters to life, groaning at its own old age. The blue light flashes and then stills, then the screen appears in a flourish, as if presenting—
still got it.
I tear the last of the plastic and pop in a DVD. The screen buzzes and we’re met with old friends. The feeling of nostalgia—pleasant nostalgia—the kind imbued with warmth and not melancholy, fills the room. Bella settles herself down and nuzzles her neck into my shoulder.
“Remember Stone?” she says. “Oh my god, I loved this show.”
I let the early two thousands wash over us for the next two and a half hours. At one point, Bella falls asleep. I pause the computer and slip out of bed. I check my emails in the living room. There’s one from Aldridge:
Can we meet Monday morning?
9 am, my office.
Aldridge never emails me, certainly not on a weekend. He’s going to fire me. I’ve barely been in the office. I’ve been behind on due diligence and late to respond to emails. Fuck.
“Dannie?” I hear Bella call from the other room. I get up and run back to her. She stretches lazily, and then winces. “Forgot about the stitches.”
“What do you need?”
“Nothing,” she says. She sits up slowly, squinting her eyes to the pain. “It’ll pass.”
“I think you should eat something.”
As if we’re being bugged, Svedka appears at the door. “You want to eat?”
Bella nods. “Maybe a sandwich? Do we have cheese?”
Svedka nods and exits.
“Does she have you on a baby monitor?”
“Oh most likely,” Bella says.
She sits up farther now, and I see that she’s bleeding. There is a dark crimson stain on her gray pajamas. “Bella,” I say. I point. “Stay still.”
“It’s fine,” she says. “It’s no big deal.” But she looks woozy, a little bit nervous. She blinks a few times rapidly.
Ever alert, Svedka returns. She rushes to Bella, pushes up her pajamas, and, as if she were a clown, pulls gauze and ointment from her sleeve. She replaces Bella’s bandages with fresh white wrappings. All new.
“Thank you,” Bella says. “I’m fine. Really.”
A moment later, the door opens. Aaron comes into the bedroom. His arms are laden with bags—errands, gifts, groceries. I see Bella’s face light up.
“Sorry, I couldn’t stay away. Should I make Thai or Italian or sushi?” He drops his bags and bends down and kisses her, his hand lingering on her face.
“Greg cooks,” Bella says, her eyes still locked into his.
“I know,” I say.
She smiles. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”
I think about the pile of paperwork I have, Aldridge’s email. “I think I’m going to head out. You two enjoy. You might want to put on some armor before entering the kitchen,” I say. I look toward the door at Svedka, who is scowling.
As I gather my things, Aaron climbs into bed with Bella. He gets on top of the covers, still in jeans, and he gently shifts her so she’s in his arms. The last thing I see when I leave is his hand on her stomach—gently, tendering, touching what lies beneath.