Authors: Rebecca Serle
The chemo goes from good to bad to gruesome quickly, too quickly. Next week she’s sick, the following one she’s weak, and after that she is sunken, her body practically concave. The one saving grace is that her hair doesn’t fall out. Session after session, week after week, not even a strand.
“It happens sometimes,” Dr. Shaw tells me. He comes to her chemo sessions to check up on her and run through any recent bloodwork. Today, Jill is there. Which might explain why Dr. Shaw and I are in the hallway, a whole room away from where Bella’s mother pretends to be dutiful. “A patient who doesn’t lose their hair. It’s rare, though. She’s one of the lucky ones.”
“Lucky.” I taste the word in my mouth. Rotted.
“Poor choice of words,” he says. “We doctors aren’t always the most sensitive. I apologize.”
“No,” I say. “She has great hair.”
Dr. Shaw smiles at me. Colorful Nikes peak out from the bottom of his jeans. They point to some kind of life beyond these walls. Does he go home to children? How does he shake the everyday of these patients, shrinking inside?
“She’s lucky that she has such a good support system,” he tells me. It isn’t the first time he’s said it. “Some patients have to do this alone.”
“She has two more weeks of this,” I say. “And then she’ll do another test?”
“Yes.” We’ll check to see if the cancer has been localized. But you know, Dannie, because it’s in the lymph, it’s really about containment. The likelihood of remission in ovarian cancers . . .”
“No,” I say. “She’s different. She has her hair! She’s different.”
Dr. Shaw puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. But he doesn’t say anything.
I want to ask him more. Like whether he’s seen a case like this before. Like what we should prepare for. I want to ask him to tell me. Tell me what is going to happen. Give me the answers. But he can’t. He doesn’t know. And whatever he has to say, I’m not interested in hearing.
I go back in the room. Bella’s leaning her head against the side of her armchair, her eyes closed. She opens them when I’m in front of her.
“Guess what?” she tells me, her voice sleepy. “Mom is going to take me to dinner and to see the Barbra Streisand musical. Do you want to come?”
Jill, dressed in black crepe slacks and a floral print silk blouse with a pussy bow, leans over. “It’ll be fun. We’ll go to Sardi’s before and have some martinis.”
“Bella . . .” I can feel the anger start to simmer in me. She can barely sit up. She’s going to go to dinner? To a theater?
Bella rolls her eyes. “Oh, come on. I can do it.”
“You’re not really supposed to be out right now. Dr. Shaw did say that, and he definitely mentioned that alcohol could interfere with your medi—”
“Stop! What are you, my parole officer?” Bella fires at me. It feels like a shot to the stomach.
“No,” I say, calmly. “I’m not trying to keep you from anything; I’m just trying to keep you well. I’m the one who has been here, and who has listened to the doctors.”
Jill doesn’t even bristle. She doesn’t even seem to understand the slight.
“So have I,” Bella says. She reaches down and tugs her blanket up. I see how thin her legs have become, like two arms. She notices me noticing.
“I’m going to get some iced tea,” Jill says. “Bella, can I get you some iced tea?”
“Bella doesn’t drink iced tea,” I say. “She hates it. She always has.”
“Well,” Jill says. “Coffee then!” She doesn’t wait for a response, just saunters out of the room like she’s in sweaters and headed now toward the shoe department.
“What is wrong with you?” Bella hisses when she’s left.
“What is wrong with me? What is wrong with
? You can’t do this tonight. You know that. Why are you acting this way?”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don’t need you to tell me how I feel? That maybe I know?”
“No,” I say. “It didn’t, because that’s ridiculous. This isn’t about how you feel, which by the way, is like shit. You threw up three times in the car on the way here.”
Bella looks away. I feel struck by sadness, but it does not push the anger out. Because that is what I feel: angry. And for the first time since her diagnosis, I let it take over. I let the righteous indignation burn a hole through me, through her, through this godforsaken chemical den.
“Shut up,” Bella says. Something she hasn’t said to me since we were twelve years old, in the back of my parents’ station wagon, fighting over god knows what. Not her life. Not cancer. “I’m not your project. I’m not some little girl you have to save. You don’t know what’s better for me than I do.” She struggles to sit up and winces, the needle in her arm shifting. I am overcome with a helplessness so deep it threatens to topple me into her chair.
“I’m sorry, Bella. I’m sorry,” I say, gently now. For all the things she’s going through, for everything. “It’s okay. Let’s just finish, and I’ll take you home.”
“No,” Bella says. There is a ferocity in her tone that does not give. “I don’t want you here anymore.”
“Don’t Bells me. You always do this. You’ve done this forever. You think you know everything. But it’s my body, not yours, okay? You’re not my mother.”
“I never said I was.”
“You didn’t have to. You treat me like a child. You think I’m incapable. But I don’t need you.”
“Bella, this is insane. Come on.”
“Please stop coming to these appointments.”
“I’m not going to—”
“I’m not asking you!” she says. She’s practically screaming now. “I’m telling you. You need to leave.” She swallows. There are sores in her mouth. I can tell it takes effort. “Now.”
I wander outside. Jill is there, juggling a coffee and a tea. “Oh, hello darling,” she says. “Cappuccino?”
I don’t answer her. I keep walking. I keep walking until I start running.
I take out my phone. Before I am down the hall, before I have any clear grasp on what I’m doing, I’m scrolling to his name and hitting the green button. He answers after the third ring.
“Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong? Is she okay?”
I start to speak and then, instead of words, I’m met with big, hiccupping sobs. I crouch down in the corner of the hallway, let them rake over me. Nurses pass by, unmoved. This is the chemo floor, after all. Nothing new to see here. Just the end of the world over and over and over again.
“I’ll be right there,” he says, and hangs up.
“She doesn’t mean it,” Aaron says. We’re sitting at a diner on Lexington, some late-night one named Big Daddy’s or Daddy Dan’s or something like that. The kind of place that can’t afford to be downtown. I’m on my second cup of strong and bitter black coffee. I don’t deserve creamer.
“She does,” I say. We’ve been going through this script for the last twenty minutes, since Aaron ran up to the hospital’s double doors to find me crouching outside. “She always felt this way. She just never said it.”
“She was so angry with me. I’ve never even seen her like that before. Like she wanted to kill me.”
“She’s the one going through it,” he says. “Right now, she has to think that she’s capable of anything, even alcohol.”
I ignore his attempt at levity.
“She is,” I say. I bite my lip. I don’t want to cry anymore. Not in front of him. It’s too vulnerable, too close, too near. “I just can’t believe her parents are behaving this way. You don’t know what they’re like—”
Aaron removes an invisible eyelash from his face.
“You don’t know,” I repeat.
“Maybe not,” Aaron says. “They seem to care. That’s good, right?”
“They’ll leave,” I say. “They always do. When she really needs them, they’ll be gone.”
“But Dannie,” Aaron says. He sits forward. I can feel the air molecules around us stiffen. “They’re here now. And she really needs them. Isn’t that what matters?”
I think about his promise on the street corner. I always believed it was just Bella and me. There was no one she could count on but me. There was no one who would really be there, forever, but me.
“Not if they’ll eventually leave,” I say.
Aaron keeps hovering closer. “I think you’re wrong.”
“I think you don’t know,” I say. I’m starting to believe it was a mistake calling him. What was I thinking?
He shakes his head. “You mistake love. You think it has to have a future in order to matter, but it doesn’t. It’s the only thing that does not need to become at all. It matters only insofar as it exists. Here. Now. Love doesn’t require a future.”
Our eyes lock, and I think that maybe he can read it there. Everything that happened. That maybe, somehow, he has reached back. That he knows. In that moment, I want to tell. I want to tell him, if only so he can carry this thing with me.
“Aaron,” I start, and then his cell phone rings. He takes it out.
“It’s work,” he says. “Hang on.”
He stands up and leaves the booth. I see him gesturing out by the glass doors emblazoned with the diner’s name: Daddy’s
The waitress comes over. Do we want any food? I shake my head. Just the check, please.
She hands me the bill. She hadn’t expected us to stick around, I guess. I leave cash on the table and get my bag. I join Aaron at the door, where he’s hanging up.
“Sorry about that,” he says.
“It’s okay. I’m going to head out. I should go back to the office.”
“It’s Saturday,” he says.
“Corporate law,” I mutter. “And I’ve been gone a lot.”
He gives me a small smile. He looks disappointed.
“Thank you for meeting me,” I say. “Really, thanks for showing up. I appreciate it.”
“Of course,” he says. “Dannie—you can call me anytime. You know that, right?”
I smile. I nod.
The bells on the door jingle on my way out.
It’s the first week of November, and Bella won’t speak to me. I call her. I send David over with food. “Just give her a little time,” he tells me. I don’t express the absurdity of his statement to him. I can’t even think it, much less say it out loud.
Dr. Christine is no more surprised to see me back in her office than I am to be there. She wants to know about my family, and so I tell her about Michael. I remember him less and less these days. What he was like. I try and focus on the details. His laugh, the strange way his forearms hung from his elbows, like there was just too much limb. His brown, curly hair, like baby ringlets, and his wide brown eyes. How he used to call me “pal.” How he’d always invite me to hang out in the tent in our backyard, even if his friends were over. He didn’t seem to have any of the hang-ups older brothers usually have about their little sisters. We fought, sure, but I always knew he loved me, that he wanted me around.
Dr. Christine tells me I am learning to deal with a life I cannot control. What she doesn’t say, what she doesn’t have to, is that I’m failing at it.
I still go to the chemo appointments, I just don’t go upstairs. I sit in the lobby and read through work emails until I know Bella’s finished.
The following Wednesday, Dr. Shaw walks by. I’m sitting on a cement ledge, some fake foliage dangling below me, doing some paperwork.
“Humpty Dumpty,” he says.
I look up, so startled I nearly fall.
“Hi,” he says.
“What are you doing here?”
“Bella,” I say. I gesture with my free arm, the one not holding my array of folders, upward, to the room where Bella lies, chemicals being pumped into her.
“I just came from there.”
Dr. Shaw takes a step closer to me. He peers at my binder disapprovingly. “Do you need some coffee?” he asks.
I found some crappy vending machine stuff earlier, but it’s wearing off quickly.
“It kind of sucks here,” I say.
He holds a pointed finger out to me. “That’s because you do not know the tricks. Follow me.”
We wind through the ground floor of the treatment center to the back and down a hallway. At the end is a little atrium, with a Starbucks cart. I swear, it’s like seeing Jesus. My eyes go wide. Dr. Shaw notices.
“I know, right?” he says. “It’s the best-kept hospital secret. Come on.”
He leads me to the cart where a woman in her mid-twenties with two French braids smiles wide at him. “The usual?” she asks.
He turns to me. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a tea drinker. That’s why Irina here has to know my order.”
“The hospital is big on coffee?” I ask.
“More manly,” he says, gesturing for me to step forward.
I order an Americano, and when our drinks are ready, Dr. Shaw takes a seat at a little metal table. I join him.
“I don’t want to keep you,” I say. “I appreciate the coffee referral.”
“It’s good for me,” he says. He takes his lid off, letting the steam rise. “Do you know surgeons are notorious for having the worst bedside manner?”
“Really,” I say. But I know.
“Yes. We’re monstrous. So every Wednesday I try and have coffee with a commoner.”
He smiles. I laugh because I know the moment requires it.
“So how is Bella?” he asks. His pager beeps and he looks at it, setting it on the table.
“I don’t know,” I say. “You’ve seen her more recently than I have.”
He looks confused; I keep talking.
“We had a fight. I’m not allowed upstairs.”
“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
I’m cognizant of the time, of how little he has. “I’m controlling,” I say, getting to the punch.
Dr. Shaw laughs. It’s a nice laugh, odd in this hospital setting. “I’m familiar with this dynamic,” he says. “But she’ll come around.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“She will, “ he says. “You’re here. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t try and make this experience above the simplicity of humanity, it won’t work.”
I stare at him. I’m not sure what he means, he can tell.
“You’re still you, she’s still her. You still have emotions. You’ll still fight. You can try and be perfect, but it will backfire. Just keep being here, instead.”
His pager goes off again. This time he snaps the lid back down on his cup. “Unfortunately, duty calls.” He stands and extends his hand. “Hang in there,” he says. “I know the road isn’t easy, but stay the course. You’re doing good.”
I stay sitting near the Starbucks cart for another hour, until I know Bella has finished treatment and is safely out of the building. When I head home I call David, but there is no answer.
The following week, I’m not at the hospital but, instead, on a plane with Aldridge to Los Angeles. Aldridge is seeing another client while we’re out there, a pharmaceutical giant who sends their jet for our use. We board with Kelly James, a litigating partner I’ve never said more than twenty words to over the course of my nearly five years at Wachtell.
It’s a ten-seater, and I take the one in the rear, by the window. I lean my head against the glass. I said yes to this trip without considering what it means. It is, of course, an answer to Aldridge’s original question. Yes. Yes I’ll take on the case. Yes, I’ll commit to this.
“You’re doing the right thing,” David told me last night. “This could be huge for your career. And you love this company.”
“I do,” I say. “I just can’t help but feel like people here need me.”
“We’ll survive,” he said. “I promise we’ll all survive.”
And now here I am, flying over an endless mountain range in pursuit of the ocean.
We’re staying at Casa del Mar, in Santa Monica right on the beach. My room is on the ground level, with a terrace that extends onto the boardwalk. The hotel is shabby chic Hamptons meets European opulence. I like it.
We have a dinner meeting with Jordi and Anya tonight, but when I reach my room, it’s only 11 a.m. We picked up half a day on our way across the country.
I change into shorts and a T-shirt and a sun hat—my Russian Jew skin has never met a sun it particularly got on with—and decide to take a walk on the beach. The temperature is warm and getting hotter—in the mid-eighties by lunchtime—but there’s a cool breeze off the ocean. For the first time in weeks, I feel as if I am not simply surviving.
We go to dinner at Ivy at the Shore, a restaurant practically across the street from Casa del Mar, but Aldridge still calls a car. Kelly is in town to see another client, so it’s just Aldridge and me. I’m wearing a navy shift dress with lilac flowers and navy espadrilles, the most casual I’ve ever been in a work environment. But it’s California, these women are young, and we’re by the ocean. I want to wear flowers.
We get to the restaurant first. Rattan chairs with floral backs and pillows pepper the restaurant as diners in jeans and dinner jackets clink glasses, laughing.
We sit. “I’m going to insist on the calamari,” Aldridge says. “It’s delectable.”
He’s wearing a light asuit with a purple paisley shirt. If you photographed us together, you might think it had been planned.
“Is there anything we should go over?” I ask him. “I have the company stats memorized, but—”
“This is just a get-to-know-you meeting, so they feel comfortable. You know the ropes.”
“No meeting is just anything,” I say.
“That is true. But if you try for an agenda, you often get an undesired outcome.”
Jordi and Anya arrive in tandem. Jordi is tall, in high-waisted pants and a cowl-neck sweater. Her hair is down and wet at the ends. She looks like a bohemian dream, and I am reminded, for not the first time, of Bella. Anya wears jeans, a T-shirt and a blazer. Her hair is short and slicked back. She talks with her eyes.
“Are we late?” she says. She’s skittish. I can tell. No matter. We’ll win them over.
“Not at all,” Aldridge says. “You know us New Yorkers. We don’t know anything about your traffic patterns.”
Jordi sits next to me. Her perfume is heady and dense.
“Ladies, I’d like you to meet Danielle Kohan. She’s our best and brightest senior associate. And she’s been a huge boon to your IPO evaluation already.”
“You can call me Dannie,” I say, shaking each of their hands.
“We love Aldridge,” Jordi tell me. “But does he have a first name?”
“It’s never to be used,” I tell her, before mouthing:
Aldridge smiles. “What are we drinking tonight?” he asks the group.
A waiter materializes, and Aldridge orders a bottle of champagne and a bottle of red, for dinner. “Cocktails, anyone?” he inquires.
Anya gets an iced tea. “How long do you think this will take?” she asks.
“Dinner, or taking your company public?” Aldridge does not look up from his menu.
“I’ve been a big fan of yours for a while now,” I say. “I think what you’ve done with the space is brilliant.”
“Thank—” Jordi starts, but Anya cuts her off.
“We didn’t do anything with existing space. We created a new one,” she says. She eyes Jordi as if to say—
lock it up
“I’m curious, though,” I say. I aim my question at the both of them, equally. “Why now?”
At this, Aldridge looks up from his menu and grabs a passing waiter. “We’d like the calamari immediately please.” Aldridge winks at me.
Jordi looks to Anya, as if unsure how to answer, and I feel a question answered before it has been raised. I swallow it back down. Not now.
“We’re at the point where we don’t want to work as hard as we have been on the same thing,” Jordi says. “We’d like the revenue to be able to turn our attentions to new ventures.”
I feel the familiarity in her speak. The measured, calculated words. Maybe it’s all true, but none of it feels authentic. So I push.
“Why give away control of something you own when you don’t have to?”
At this, Jordi busies herself with her water glass. Anya’s eyes narrow. I can feel Aldridge shift next to me. I have no idea why I’m doing this. I know exactly why I’m doing this.
“Are you trying to talk us out of this?” Anya asks. She directs her question to Aldridge. “Because I was under the impression this was a kick-off dinner.”
I look at Aldridge, who stays silent. He is, I realize, not going to answer for me.
“No,” I say. “I just like to understand motivation. It helps me do my job.”
Anya likes this answer, I can tell. Her shoulders drop perceptively. “The truth is, I’m not sure. We’ve spoken a lot about this. Jordi knows I’m on the fence.”
“We’ve been at Yahtzee for almost ten years,” Jordi says, repeating what is no doubt a familiar line. “It’s time for something else.”
“I don’t know why we have to give up control in order to have that,” Anya says.
The champagne arrives in a flourish of glasses and bubbles. Aldridge pours.
“To Yahtzee,” he says. “A smooth IPO process and a lot of money.”
Jordi clinks his glass, but Anya and I keep our eyes on each other. I see her searching me, asking the question that will never be spoken at this table:
What would you do?