Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chapter 10~~Excision

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

Back in the dressing room, Jo found she couldn’t pull on her clothes fast enough. Out in the lobby, she pulled Larry out of his chair.

“How was it?” he wanted to know. But she shook her head and kept her mouth closed until they were outside the office. “Let’s talk about it later,” she said then. “It’s visiting hours at the psych ward. Let’s go see Ed.”

Now that they knew the procedure, gaining admittance seemed easier, and once inside, they boldly ventured down the forbidden hall to Eddy’s room. They found him sitting on the window sill. “Hi Mom, Dad,” he said, unsurprised to see them. “Come over here. I want to show you something.” Jo walked to the big window. “See that bike down there?” he asked. Three stories down, by the fire escape, leaning against the back of the building, was a bicycle.


“They left it for me. They keep doing things like that -- leaving openings for me to escape. They are hoping that I’ll take the hint.”

She glanced around at Larry.

“Who do you mean by ‘they’ Eddy?”

“You know. The people who work here. The ones who are connected to the larger organization.”

“What organization is that?”

“Come on, Mom. You know I can’t tell you.” Eddy lounged on the ledge which framed the non-opening window. He wore the now-familiar hospital gown -- white with small blue flecks -- and green slipper socks. He was careless about how he held his legs; Jo hoped he was wearing underwear. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, he was in a surly mood. They had transferred him to a newly-opened teen ward. After a few minutes of random conversation, a nurse called Eddy out of the room to go over the new rules while Jo pawed through his crumpled pile of personal papers, finding the questionnaire about his family. (My mother is Xena. She’s practically a lesbian ... ) When he came back, she accidentally provoked him.

“The nurse says you’re not being cooperative,” she complained. “Why don’t you participate in group therapy so you can get privileges? Then you could listen to the meditation tape I brought you.”

He cleared his throat and spit on the wall. A big wad of green phlegm stuck there, not moving.

“I think we better go now,” Larry responded, putting his hand on Jo’s elbow and steering her toward the door.

“No, no,” Eddy protested. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I won’t do it again. Stay awhile longer.”

The glob of green phlegm stuck tight to the wall and became a fourth party, a silent witness.

“Are you going to clean that up?” Jo asked Eddy.

“No. I mean yes.”

“When are you going to do it?”

“Later. After you leave.”

But when Eddy called home that afternoon, Jo asked him, “Did you clean up the wad of spit, yet?”

“Not yet, Mom.”

She pictured it on the greenish wallpaper, and worried that the housekeeping staff wouldn’t notice it.

Then on Wednesday, when she brought along two of her sisters, Eddy had been moved to yet another room, and Jo forgot to check on the phlegm.

Eddy had been transferred back to the adult unit, he told them, because all the other teens had been released. The black girl who mostly cried in her room but sometimes stared blankly at Teletubbies on the TV in the common area, the white boy in a baseball cap who wouldn’t stop talking, the blonde girl with bandages on both forearms⎯they had all gone home.

“I guess those other people are saner than I am,” Eddy said.

Despite the hospital’s decision to keep him longer, he sounded coherent and rational that day. He didn’t talk of escaping, or mention conspiracies, or spit on the wall, so Jo was feeling optimistic as she drove home past Burlingame High School, with its marble-columned porch and sweeping circular driveway circumscribing lush grass and stately redwood trees.

A train was traveling in parallel to their right, behind a stand of eucalyptus. Her sister Jane sat in the back seat. Her sister Jean was in the passenger seat up front. Jo wasn’t expecting a call. They had told her at the Women’s Center that the results of her biopsy wouldn’t be back for three days, at least. So when her cell phone rang, she reached innocently for her handbag with one hand, nestled it on her lap, and began digging around in it while keeping her eyes on the road. When she finally pulled it out of the bag, it was one ring short of going to voice mail.

“Hello?” she said triumphantly, proud of her ability to drive and manipulate her cell phone at the same time.

“May I speak to Josephine Kasten?”

“This is she.” Her ribs clenched. No one calls her Josephine.

“This is Dr. Brand from the Women’s Center. I’m calling to tell you that your biopsy report has come back, and you do have what I suspected, ductile carcinoma in situ.”
Everyone in the car could hear Dr. Brand’s sentence emanating from the cell phone next to Jo’s ear. Jean started to loudly cry. Jane reached around from the back seat to hush and comfort her. Jo switched the phone to her right ear to block the sound, carefully keeping her left hand on the steering wheel, her right foot on the gas pedal -- carefully advancing the car down Carolan Avenue, past the lush grass and trees.

“What does that mean?” she asked in a businesslike tone that matched the doctor’s.

“It’s a form of breast cancer. But the good news is, if you have to have breast cancer, this is the best kind to have. The ‘in situ’ part of the name means it hasn’t traveled anywhere. What we found in the biopsy was not invasive cancer. Nonetheless, it will have to be excised. The next thing you need to do is make an appointment with your primary care physician and ask her to refer you to a surgeon.”


That’s a word you don’t hear often.

“You’re going to want to call your primary up right away.”


Jo closed the phone and thought only of Larry, ignoring Jean’s tears and Jane’s susurrations, barely registering what the doctor had said.

“Have I mentioned that Larry is a handsome man?” Jo broke off to ask me.

“No. You’ve hardly mentioned your husband at all. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were pretending to be single.”

“You wish. He’s a French and Arab mix, tall and thin, with wild, masculine eyebrows and thick, black hair gone silver at the temples⎯very distinguished. It used to be thick, anyway, thick and curly and radiating off his head like a white boy’s fro. But lately, I can see through his hair to bits of scalp. And one time, when I fished a great ball of hair from the drainpipe in the shower, I noticed that most of it was his blacksilvergray.”

“Thank you for sharing.”

“You’re welcome!” She smiled to herself for a moment before offering coyly, “Larry thinks that I’m good looking, too.”

“Not surprising.”

“One time he showed a picture of me as a teenager in a pink ruffled bathing suit to our neighbor. ‘See that!’ he said, pushing the photograph under Scot’s nose. ‘That’s who I married!’”

“I think I remember that bathing suit.”

“No you don’t.” Jo blushed.

Larry wasn’t supposed to lose his hair. Jo’s father always said that male baldness is a sex-linked gene which is passed down through the mother -- if the mother’s father keeps his hair, her sons will, too. And though she never met Larry’s maternal grandfather in person, she’d seen pictures of him with thick, steely-gray hair in advanced age.

Jo wasn’t supposed to lose her hair, either. Girls don’t -- except cancer patients. But those were other women. The bald ones. Jo had always been a lucky person. Didn’t the doctor confirm that? The good news is that if you have to have breast cancer, ductile carcinoma in situ is the kind to have. It’s not the traveling kind. It’s stationary. It doesn’t like to intrude. “They won’t need to make me bald,” Jo thought after getting the phone call. “They’ll just perform an excision -- just cast the devil out -- just render the cancer ex situ: off site.”

Jo had hoped, when she married Larry 20 years before, that one of their children would inherit his magnificent hair, so voluptuous and appealing that just putting your fingers in it communicated a sense of largesse. But none did. Rose has straight, thick henna-red hair. Eddy’s hair is dusty brown and lank. Michael is a blonde Arab. Not one of their children inherited Larry’s voluminous hair.

But, the other child -- the one she aborted one month after beginning a sexual relationship with Larry -- that child might have had his hair.

“Did you know I had an abortion?” she broke off a second time to ask me.

“You hadn’t mentioned it.”

“Well I did.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

During the two weeks that Jo considered keeping the baby, she envisioned a daughter who looked Arabic, like her father, with big, liquid brown eyes and luxuriant black hair. Jo saw a little girl with a thin frame, like Larry, and lean, artistic fingers, standing before her in a white dress.

Paradoxically, deciding to go ahead with the abortion was what convinced Jo to marry Larry. He already had many of the elements she desired in a mate. He was smart, he was funny, and she liked his dark, boyish looks. But he was so extraordinarily shy she wasn’t sure the relationship would move forward. He had driven her home from the newsroom of San Francisco State University’s Golden Gater for two months before he kissed her, and even then, she had to engineer the event.

“You can kiss me now, if you want to,” she told him one night outside her flat in the Mission District, sitting on her side of the bench seat in the phlegm-green Valiant Larry had inherited from thick-haired Grandpa Dabu. He moved across the seat with alacrity and took her head in both hands. His smooth, purple lips tasted of almonds. His moustache tickled her nose. It was a more than satisfactory kiss.

But Larry had other deficits besides shyness: he suffered from a perennial lack of enthusiasm; he wasn’t enamored of life; and with his cynical humor, he seemed vulnerable to depression. Besides, at 25, she wasn’t yet in the market for a serious boyfriend. But when she accidentally got pregnant, despite the enormous, thick plastic diaphragm that she filled with spermicide and maneuvered up her vagina with difficulty every time she had sex, Larry’s reaction couldn’t be ignored.

“I’ve got a problem I need to talk to you about,” she told him one evening after school. They were sitting at the round table in her small kitchen, drinking cranberry juice. The room was cramped and cluttered, but cheerful. Light poured in from a skylight overhead and a small window overlooking the fire escape. Photographs and magnets covered the refrigerator. A few random dishes waited rinsing in the sink. Jo’s three roommates could be heard in other parts of the flat. Both a television and a radio were blaring. It seemed likely that they’d be interrupted any time.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Larry looked at her guardedly, wondering what she might be planning to spring on him. Her behavior was still almost completely unpredictable to him. They’d only been sleeping together for a month.

“Well, I guess I’m pregnant.” Jo watched his face closely, to see how this news would affect him. “I took a pee test.” Unbelievably, undeniably, he registered relief.

“Really?” He seemed happy. It was inexplicable.

“Really. Yes,” she nodded, looking down at her glass, unable to suppress a smile in spite of her heavy mood. “What are you looking so happy about?” she couldn’t help teasing him. “This is a serious situation.”

Larry nodded, adopting a sober posture right away. He reached across the table and put his hand over hers. His effort to behave with maturity seemed almost comical. “Well, what do you want to do about it?”

“Here it comes,” she thought, “the rationale for an abortion. He was probably just happy for one fleeting moment when he realized I wasn’t dumping him. Or maybe he’s glad to have his potency validated -- some kind of male pride in his healthy sperm.” “I don’t know,” she said aloud. “I really don’t see how I can keep it.” In spite of her intentions, she started to cry. “I haven’t got a job. I haven’t got a college degree. I haven’t got a good place to live.” She spread her hands to indicate the inadequate party flat. The smell of marijuana wafted from a back bedroom. The refrigerator had nothing in it but beer.

“But I really don’t want to have an abortion, either,” she continued. Her voice sounded soggy. “I always told myself that I believed in a woman’s right to have an abortion, but that I would never have one myself ... It’s not fair! I used a diaphragm every time! I don’t see how this could have happened.”

Larry scooted his chair closer so he could put his arm around her. He tried to mesh their bodies smoothly, but was all angles and bones. His knees collided with hers. His back arched awkwardly. Their huddled bulk was blocking both the doorway and the refrigerator. He leaned his head over and put his cheek next to Jo’s, making a sort of private space with his halo of hair. “You can keep it if you want to,” he murmured. “I’ll help you. Do you want to get married?”

“Married?!” she pulled back to look him in the eyes once again. Was he serious? Was he insane? No one had ever offered to marry her before, and she couldn’t help feeling a flash of exhilaration, despite her despair. But then her rational mind took over. “How could we get married now?” she asked him. “We hardly know each other.”

He seemed surprised by this obvious drawback. “We still could. If you wanted to ... ”

“Look Larry,” she decided she had to be the grown up, the one with both feet planted firmly on the ground. There was something strangely threatening in his proposal of marriage. What if he was a radical Christian who would insist that she carry the baby to term? He’d never mentioned Jesus before, and it didn’t seem likely, but then neither did the proposal of marriage. “There’s something else I need to tell you.” she plowed ahead.

“What’s that?” His eyes were beautiful behind his wire-rimmed glasses. Deep brown. Almost liquid. Tender. Welcoming. She felt an overwhelming desire to take him back to her bedroom and make love to him.

“Well ... ” She didn’t want to tell him what she had to say next. She didn’t want him to withdraw his proposal. She didn’t want him to fall out of love with her. She didn’t want him to stop driving her home from school, to stop following her around the journalism room with his big, hungry eyes. She didn’t want him to decide that she was a slut, to discard her like a used condom. She felt suddenly tired of the passionate fervor with which she had been grieving past hurts with promiscuity and alcohol. She felt suddenly ready to turn over a new leaf. But there was no getting around the confession before her -- no turning back now. It had to be done. Besides, what she was about to say would act as insurance against any Christian crusading. It would be a test of his mettle -- an initiation rite.

“I’m not entirely sure it’s your baby,” she blurted, with the same bravado she used when jumping into a river from a high bridge.

His face was blank, unreadable.

“You’re not?” he finally said.

What was going on behind those John Lennon glasses? Had he already crossed Jo off his list of potential life partners? She waited fearfully. When he said nothing more, she stumbled ahead.

“I’m pretty sure it is,” she offered hopefully. “I mean, we’ve made love like a hundred times this month, right? But two times I made love to other people.”

“Two?” He was still unreadable.

“Yes. Right at the beginning. When we weren’t really a couple yet.”

“Who were they?”

She began to feel agitated. Was he going to get angry now? Was he going to expect an apology? In her heart of hearts, she didn’t figure she owed him one. They weren’t engaged. They weren’t married. They barely knew each other. Still, she didn’t want to prolong the discomfort by equivocating. Straight through with the truth was bound to be best. If he decided to dump her, so be it. He was too skinny, anyway. Too inexperienced. Nothing of significance had ever happened to him, while she’d already lost her parents and become both a slut and a lush! She wrote poetry. He had pimples -- a whole swath of pimples blooming across his back.

“One was Mike Rivers,” she said, naming a professor at school who was also a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I practically forced myself on him. He wasn’t really interested. I don’t know what I was thinking, why I seduced him. I guess I wanted to hang around the Chronicle newsroom. I’m pretty sure he already has a girlfriend on the paper. Besides, he’s about a hundred years old. There’s no way I’m going to tell him I’m pregnant. He wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested.”

Larry nodded and waited.

“The other was Jeff Cage,” she named an old friend from Stockton. “We’ve been flirting with each other for years, and before I started going out with you, we tried being boyfriend and girlfriend for about two seconds. But it didn’t work out. He got angry one night and threw me out of his apartment. I don’t think he’s someone I could depend on. Besides, he’s a hardcore alcoholic. He wouldn’t be a good father. I’m not going to tell him either.”

She stopped talking and awaited his condemnation. She had no idea what he was going to say next. They had drawn apart by this time, sat separate in their independent chairs.

“Look Jo,” he began matter of factly. “If you don’t want to get married, but you still want to keep the baby, and you don’t want to bring it up with either of those other guys, I’d be glad to be the father.”

Her mouth dropped open.

Where was the recrimination? The jealousy? The hurt pride? Were they just going to skip over all that? It began to dawn on her that despite his drawbacks, Larry was at least as interesting and unpredictable as she considered herself. It began to dawn on her that he would make a damn good partner.

“You’re kidding.” she finally mumbled.

Larry shook his head. “I think it would be fun.”

“Well, it’s tempting,” she scrambled to regain her dignity. “Because my father died this year, you know, and this baby could be his reincarnation.” She put her hand on her stomach. It seemed unbelievable that her regret and alcohol-suffused body was capable of creating a new life. Still, she thought she felt something inside. Some lightening. Some inspiration. Some forgiveness. Larry sat quietly, waiting, apparently undisturbed by this revelation of her uncertain belief in Hindu theosophy. She began to feel calmer, safer, less pursued by the Furies, more capable of steering her fate. But there was one more land mine she needed to negotiate. “But what if I decide I want to have an abortion? How would you feel about that?”

Her chief roommate -- the one who held the lease -- appeared outside the door to the kitchen and barked playfully at them to move out of the way. They scooted back in their chairs, staring at each other, as he pulled a beer out of the refrigerator. “What’s going on in here?” he wondered, leaning back casually against the counter as he twisted off the top. “What are you two up to tonight?”

“We don’t know yet,” Jo answered, giving him a brief glance before returning her gaze to Larry. “Right now we’re just having a kind of ... private conversation.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” the roommate looked first at Jo, then at Larry. “God forbid you should have your private conversation in the privacy of your room,” he teased her. “But hey, that’s okay. I know when I’m not wanted. Fine then. Be that way.” He tossed an imaginary hank of hair over his shoulder as he left the room.

Larry still didn’t answer.

“What would you think?” she pressed him.

“If that’s what you want to do, then I’ll support you,” he said. “But I don’t want you to think it’s your only option.”

So that pretty much covered the gamut. He would marry her. He would act as the father of her child if she didn’t want to get married, even if the baby wasn’t his. He would drive her to the abortion clinic, if she chose that. Once all the power was placed in her hands, it took two more weeks for her to decide. It was partly because she had begun to fall in love with Larry that she finally made the choice. It seemed possible that they might make it, might make a successful marriage -- under different circumstances. Perhaps if they were graduated, employed, monogamous, sufficiently domiciled, and had known each other for more than three months, she kept thinking. Then there was the ill-conceived phone call to his parents, whom she’d never met. Even as he reported it to her, he wasn’t entirely aware that he had done something wrong.
It went something like this:

“Guess what Mom and Dad. I have a girlfriend.”

“That’s nice son.”

“And guess what else. She’s pregnant!”

“What?! ?! (this would be his father speaking). You’ve only just met her. How do you know it’s yours?”

“She’s 90% sure it’s mine!”

When he related that phone call to Jo, her first thought was that his parents were going to think she was a slut. Her second was that her child would have no grandparents. Jo’s parents were dead, and Larry’s parents would never be sure that this grandbaby was theirs -- not to mention the animosity they might justifiably feel for the woman who had apparently trapped their son into marriage with the oldest trick in the book.

So Jo made the decision to abort, and her other child -- the first one, the lost nomad with luxuriant black hair -- was excised.

Jo doesn’t remember undergoing the procedure, only the crowded waiting room on Van Ness Avenue, where Larry sat beside her and held her hand. Afterwards, he took Jo back to his flat on Larkin Street and spread a sleeping bag on the floor in front of the television. She had told him she wanted to watch soap operas all afternoon and eat gourmet food. As she lay on the floor swathed in blankets and pillows, he brought her an array of delicacies: duck liver pate in a glass bowl and a small silver knife to spread it with; round, white, water crackers on an enameled tray; a jar of black caviar; cream cheese; thin slices of a sourdough baguette; cut green apples; Vermont white cheddar cheese; round Lindt chocolates with caramel filling wrapped in fancy blue paper; Planter’s fancy mixed nuts, and a bottle of Silver Oak, the most prized red wine that they served at I Sorrelli, the restaurant where Larry had been working for the past year and would continue to work for the next 20.

Erica on All My Children was tied to a chair in a leaky basement, struggling to escape her psycho kidnapper, who loved her so much he felt compelled to kill her when she threatened to marry another man (his twin brother -- also albino).

That was the afternoon that Jo decided she had grieved over her dead parents long enough. She decided the time had come for her to stop being an alcoholic slut loser. She released herself from her prison of penance for past sins.

That was the afternoon she noticed what Larry’s eyes looked like when he took off his glasses. She decided to call him Lawrence. She fell in love.

Although she doesn’t remember her own abortion, she has a pretty good idea of what must have happened that day from one she attended when a friend asked for support through hers. The young woman lay on a narrow bed in a dark room under a blue plastic and white paper blanket. The doctor had a white paper mask over his face, like a roadside robber who wanted to keep his identity secret. He told Jo to stand behind him, back by the machine; he wouldn’t let Jo stand next to her friend and hold her hand. The machine was cylindrical, with a long, crenellated hose, like a vacuum cleaner. A receptacle on top was made of clear plastic. When he flipped a switch, a voracious noise filled the room and bits of bloody tissue began splattering against the sides of the machine. Jo’s throat filled with vomit and she felt faint.

You’d think Jo would be able to remember that apocalyptic noise, anyway, or whether her own doctor was a man or a woman. But she doesn’t. She’s very good at forgetting -- forgetting her abortion, forgetting what happened the night her mother died, forgetting her father’s funeral (Was she drinking whiskey? Or gin?). Forgetting to get an annual mammogram for five years.

Then after her abortion, after she had married Larry good and truly and Rose became their firstborn child, the baby didn’t look Arab at all, but Irish, like Jo. Jo remembers a few weeks after Rose was born, sitting on the beach at Santa Cruz with one of her sister Jean’s friends and looking at her plump, pink child sleeping peacefully under an umbrella in her plastic baby seat -- so healthy and sweet smelling she was practically edible.

“I had an abortion a few years ago,” Jo confessed suddenly to the woman whom she barely knew. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

The air was crisp and wet with salt water; the Pacific ocean made loud, sibilant noises that pressed against the back of Jo’s neck. Beneath her towel, the brown grains of sand cupped her butt warmly. Off to the right, beyond a bluff, they could see the tips of the tallest rides at the Boardwalk -- the ferris wheel, the Hammer, the Giant Dipper -- and every two minutes they could hear the rhythmic screams of exhilerants on one of the country’s oldest roller coasters.

“Why not?” Jean’s friend -- what was that woman’s name? -- asked.

“I don’t understand,” Jo continued. “Why does this baby get to live, when the other one didn’t?”

Jean’s friend turned her broad face toward Jo. She had chin-length silver hair which she tucked behind one ear which she tucked behind one ear as she wondered, “What makes you think it’s not the same one?”

The idea startled Jo.

Scientifically, of course, Rose couldn’t have the same body as Jo’s little Arab girl. The fertilized egg was excised by the abortion machine. But spiritually, Rose could easily be the same soul inhabiting a different body. After the abortion, she might have gone back to an ethereal waiting room until Jo was ready to be her mother. And then, when Jo was graduated and employed and married and sober and living in her own little house with Lawrence, Rose could have re-inhabited her womb.

So that’s how Jo looked at it from then on. That’s how she expunged the guilt of her abortion. Twenty years and three live births later, there was no baby in her womb, but something else was growing inside her, something dangerous that the doctors wanted to excise.

After the doctor told Jo she had cancer, she continued driving the car home. Jean continued crying, but Jo felt no pity for her. Jane continued comforting Jean, but Jo felt no gratitude. When they pulled up in front of Jo’s house, she briskly went into the living room and sat down by the phone.

“I want to call Larry,” she curtly told her two sisters when they came in behind her, preempting any attempts they might make to talk.

“Okay,” Jean said. “I’ll go into the back room.” Jane went with her.

Jo sat down and called the familiar number, felt relieved when he answered the phone.
“Hellooo,” he said, drawing out the first syllable playfully. When Jo heard his voice, she could tell that he was happy. He sounded relaxed and comfortable. She wasn’t glad to be delivering her news.

“Hi Larry. It’s Jo,” she started stupidly, as if he might not recognize her voice.

“Well, they got the results of my biopsy back.”

“Uh huh?”

“And I’ve got breast cancer.”

A moment passed before he answered, suddenly serious, “You’re kidding.”

“No. That’s what the doctor told me just now.” She heard her voice changing tone, becoming vulnerable.


“He said I have to make an appointment with a surgeon.” She felt pitiful, as if she was pleading with someone.

Larry didn’t answer.

“I just wanted to tell you.” She was confused -- agitated. She wanted to get off the phone. “Jean and Jane were in the car with me when he called. But I didn’t want to talk to them, Larry. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Okay. I’ll come home right now.”

“Right now?”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

“Okay,” She felt the tears beginning to rise behind her cheekbones. “I’ll be waiting.”

After she hung up the phone, Jean and Jane came out of the back bedroom. “I guess I’ll head on home now,” Jean said with mock cheer.

“Okay. I called Larry. He’s coming home right away, so I won’t be alone.”

“Good. I feel better now. I looked up your diagnosis on the Internet. It’s called zero stage cancer. Some sites even called it pre-cancer. I don’t feel so worried about you now, Jo. I’m sure you’re going to be okay.” Jean gave a big, beaming smile, as if the crisis was over.

“Good.” Jo moved closer and hugged her sister. "I don’t mean to be cold, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”

“Okay. I’m leaving. I’ll see you in a day or two.” After Jean left, Jane said goodbye, too.

“Call me whenever you’re ready,” Jane said in her most maternal voice. The eldest of the five sisters, Jane had been their family’s surrogate mother ever since their real mother died 25 years before.

“Let me know if you want me to go with you to meet with the surgeon,” Jane offered. “Sometimes it’s best to have a third party there to take notes because, I can pretty much guarantee you, you aren’t going to be able to remember a thing he said 10 minutes after you leave the office.”

“Okay. Thanks. I’ll ask Larry what he thinks.”

Jo’s comment sounded strange in her ears. She would ask Larry? Already, her personality seemed to be shifting. She wasn’t jealously guarding, but blithely giving her power to Larry. She wouldn’t think for herself. She didn’t want to. She wanted someone else to think for her.

After Jane left, Jo sat back down by the telephone. A moment later, she called Larry again.

“Hello, Larry?”

“Yes.” Jo could hear street noise in the background. Larry was on his bike, pedaling.

“I just wanted to tell you that it was zero-stage cancer -- so you wouldn’t worry. The doctor said if I had to have breast cancer, this was the best type to have.”

“I’m almost home. I’m just at Safeway,” he said breathlessly.

“Okay,” Jo answered. Safeway was only four blocks away. “I’ll see you in a minute.”

Soon after, he walked in the back door. Jo went into the kitchen to meet him, and they hugged silently before moving together into the bedroom. No one else was home. Larry sat down on the bed, and Jo stood before him, pulling his head into her belly, putting one arm around his back. Before anyone said anything, he started to sob.

Larry cried with his face in Jo’s stomach. She stood before him and felt strangely proud. When she was tired of standing, she lay down on the bed beside him and continued cradling him in her hands. It was sweet, sweeter than almost any other moment in their marriage. But when his crying didn’t stop, she began to wonder, was he afraid she was dying? Or was he afraid that she might lose one of her breasts -- that his wife would become a mutant, that he would no longer have an attractive sex partner?

“Don’t worry,” she murmured. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here.” Then his sobs grew louder, so she knew. She felt strong, well loved, numinous, as if her diagnosis made her something special -- as if God had chosen her to undergo this ordeal.

“I’m sorry,” Larry finally mumbled as his sobs subsided. “I guess I can only handle one family crisis at a time.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind it. I’m feeling numb now. But later, I’m going to need you to be strong for me. Later⎯when I get scared.”

Cut Off will be published in June.


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