"I'm not a sickly woman," she declared.
Nobody agreed. Nobody disagreed. But Bruce came to stand behind her and rub her back.
His hands made a scraping sound against the fabric of the gown, so rough and thick they were, like tree bark. At night he cut the calluses off with a jackknife.
The doctor didn't say cancerat least she didn't hear him say it. She heard him say oranges and peas and radishes and ovaries and lungs and liver. He said tumors were growing like wildfire along her spine.
"What about my brain?" she asked, dry-eyed.
He told her he'd opted not to check her brain because her ovaries and lungs and liver made her brain irrelevant. "Your breasts are fine," he said, leaning against the sink.
She blushed to hear that. Your breasts are fine.
"Thank you," she said, and leant forward a bit in her chair. Once, she'd walked six miles through the streets of Duluth in honor of women whose breasts weren't fine and in return she'd received a pink T-shirt and a spaghetti dinner.
"What does this mean exactly?" Her voice was reasonable beyond reason. She became acutely aware of each muscle in her face. Some were paralyzed, others twitched. She pressed her cold hands against her cheeks.
"I don't want to alarm you," the doctor said, and then, very calmly, he stated that she could not expect to be alive in one year. He talked for a long time in simple terms, but she could not make out what he was saying. When she'd first met Bruce, she'd asked him to explain to her how, precisely, the engine of a car worked. She did this because she loved him and she wanted to demonstrate her love by taking an interest in his knowledge. He'd sketched the parts of an engine on a napkin and told her what fit together and what parts made other parts move and he also took several detours to explain what was likely to be happening when certain things went wrong and the whole while she had smiled and held her face in an expression of simulated intelligence and understanding, though by the end she'd learned absolutely nothing. This was like that.
She didn't look at Bruce, couldn't bring herself to. She heard a hiccup of a cry from his direction and then a long horrible cough.
"Thank you," she said when the doctor was done talking. "I mean, for doing everything you can do." And then she added weakly, "But. There's one thingare you sure? Because . . . actually . . . I don't feel that sick." She felt she'd know it if she had oranges growing in her; she'd known immediately both times that she'd been pregnant.
"That will come. I would expect extremely soon," said the doctor. He had a dimpled chin, a baby face. "This is a rare situationto find it so late in the game. Actually, the fact that we found it so late speaks to your overall good health. Other than this, you're in excellent shape."
He hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling and swinging.
"Thank you," she said again, reaching for her coat.
Carefully, wordlessly, they walked to the elevator, pushed its translucent button, and waited for it to arrive. When it did, they staggered onto it and saw, gratefully, that they were alone together at last.
"Teresa," Bruce said, looking into her eyes. He smelled like the small things he'd eaten throughout the day, things she'd packed for him in her famously big straw bag. Tangerines and raisins.
She put the tips of her fingers very delicately on his face and then he grabbed her hard and held her against him. He touched her spine, one vertebra, and then another one, as if he were counting them, keeping track. She laced one hand into his belt loop at the back of his jeans and with the other hand she held a seashell that hung on a leather string around her neck. A gift from her kids. It changed color depending on how she moved, .ashing and luminescent like a tropical fish in an aquarium, so thin she could crush it in an instant. She considered crushing it. Once, in a quiet rage, she'd squeezed an entire bottle of coconut-scented lotion onto the tops of her thighs, having been denied something as a teenager: a party, a record, a pair of boots. She thought of that now. She thought, Of all the things to think of now. She tried to think of nothing, but then she thought of cancer. Cancer, she said to herself. Cancer, cancer, cancer. The word chugged inside of her like a train starting to roll. And then she closed her eyes and it became something else, swerving away, a bead of mercury or a girl on roller skates.
Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Strayed. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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