The last time they went to the Museum of Contemporary Art together downtown, they left after fifteen minutes. They’d hardly unzipped their jackets before Jesse wandered straight through a black curtain and into a small, dark movie theater with a few stray folding chairs on the floor and a swirl of golden streamers dangling from the ceiling. Abigail followed him inside. The room was so tiny that when they stood shoulder to shoulder, their feet almost touched the walls on either side. On the grainy screen in front of them a young couple, naked from head to toe, took turns cupping their hands over their mouths and screaming into one another’s faces. Jesse lasted less than ten seconds before snapping right around and waltzing back through the curtain. He took the fabric nose-first, having not even removed his hands from his pockets. Abigail stumbled out behind him, clutching his shoulders and burying her face into the back of his coat to muffle her giggles.
“Nope,” was all Jesse said once he was back out on the main floor.
“I don’t think they’ll win any Emmys this year, do you?” Abigail asked in between gusts of waist-buckling laughter.
“They’re no Mike and Molly,” Jesse said, which was their favorite Wednesday-night TV show.
“I guess not,” Abigail snorted, and even though they tried to peruse a few more exhibits, every time things got too quiet or serious, Abigail would cup her hands over her mouth, get right up close to him, and pretend to yell in his face. And then they would laugh together until they had to leave whatever room they were in because they were disturbing the other patrons. It couldn’t go on for long, and so after a quick glimpse in the gift shop on their way out, they drove to Arby’s and ate a truckload of curly fries for lunch.
For years they’d made jokes about themselves and imagined others poked fun at them behind their backs. Jesse and Abigail Stumpf, “Not the most cultured fish this side of Lake Michigan,” or “Not the brainiest couple at the ballpark.” They weren’t offended by the teasing but instead were delighted to be the subjects of such good-natured ribbing. There was a mutual and affectionate understanding amongst everyone. Nothing could ever get too serious when Abby and Jess were around, which was part of what made them such a great duo. If ever one of them felt like getting silly or fleeing an uncomfortable circumstance, the other would play along and turn the situation bearable with their childish antics or playful sense of humor. They hung around some people who liked going to plays or eating at fancy restaurants in Logan Square, but they were curly-fries and Mike-and-Molly people, and everyone seemed to love that about them.
So, when Abigail was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in November, they hit the kind of unfamiliar and insurmountable wall for which they had no simple solution. For people who had avoided things like big words and complicated plots, terms like inoperable, metastasis, and neoadjuvant therapy turned their plain life into an acutely technical nightmare. However, the worst part wasn’t the scientific jargon that was being spoken to them but rather their own failure to speak back in any sort of rational or relevant way. For too long their only language had been humor, and to realize that jokes held no currency in this new territory was its own particular hell.
On the afternoon that Abigail got her results, Jesse came to the hospital and drove her home. They made the entire trip in silence, Jesse wondering if he should turn on the radio, but having some obscure fear that the song that came on might be too happy or someone’s broadcasting voice might come off as too chipper for the occasion. He remembered thinking that nobody made a radio station that catered to couples who had just heard the worst news of their entire lives, and once he had that thought, he just kept spiraling. Nobody made grocery stores for sick people, train stations, or backyard barbecues. And they definitely didn’t make cheery little guides for how to survive a car ride home from a hospital after finding out your world just got flipped upside down. In fact, nothing in the whole wide world was designed to console a person who either had a terminal disease or someone who loved a person who might die. And then he really, really wanted to cry, but he knew he couldn’t, and because he couldn’t cry he couldn’t even look over at his suffering wife in the passenger seat, and because of that he just sat there and gripped the stupid steering wheel like the big dumb doofus that he was.
Before, when one of them got the flu or diarrhea and they had to stay home from work, they’d make up foolish little puns to raise each other’s spirits. Abigail had a job as a housecleaner, and so Jesse would say something like, “Looks like you picked something up at work.” Or because Jesse was a carpenter, Abigail might say something like, “You really got nailed this time,” and it helped every time. Jesse figured pure laughter alone might have shortened each of their illnesses by two or three days. He thought about how he always used to make lude and inappropriate comments about her boobs when they were messing around. “Tough titties,” he liked to say when Abigail was miffed over something minor like leaving the toilet seat up or tossing his underwear on the floor. He knew that the word “titties” really got under her skin. She said it “sent a shiver through her.” And so, of course, he used it. He’d used that awful, infantile phrase dozens of times, and now it made him feel like puking. He hated himself for it.
In the first few days after the news, nobody talked much at all, and so it was difficult to tell which was taking the news harder. Jesse knew it was crazy to think that his head was spinning more than Abigail’s, but there was also no way to tell for sure. He knew that he spent about sixteen of every seventeen waking hours each day worrying about the prognosis and pretending that he wasn’t. Maybe she was doing the same thing. Maybe she didn’t take one single hour a day to think about trivial shit like the upcoming football games on Sunday or which place had the best bratwurst in town like the idiot that he was. Only time would tell which one of them would crack first.
Stalwart Construction, the contractor Jesse worked for, had recently begun taking on larger, more industrial projects. It used to be that he spent most of his day with a nail bag around his waist, hanging trim, and finishing jobs like door framing or cabinet installation. Now, he dealt with steel struts and pillars that were designed to withstand several cubic tons of pressure and relied on huge cranes to hoist them into place. Last week, he was asked to join a team that was working on a six-story hotel in the West Loop. The thing that made the structure unique, according to the blueprints they were given, was a fifty-foot enclosed walkway that bridged the main lobby and the parking garage in the back. In order to pull it off and make sure the thing was sturdy enough for heavy pedestrian traffic, he and his crew needed to perform something called a tensile test. Jesse couldn’t imagine what he’d done during his previous performances that led someone to think he’d be a good fit for an enterprise as mammoth and treacherous as this one. The thought alone made him dizzy.
A tensile test, in the most rudimentary terms possible, was an evaluation to see how much stress a material, such as titanium, could handle before it began to bend or curve. But there was more to it, according to Big Gene. Gene was the foreman for the hotel project. He was about five and a half feet tall and weighed almost two hundred and fifty pounds. He sort of looked like one of the bulbous mixers they used to sift the cement, only he had these big tufts of hair all over his back and arms and chest, and he had a head that was a little too fat to pull a hardhat down all the way.
“It’s not just about the breaking point,” Big Gene said, “but also the modulus elasticity and the yield strength.” He kept going, but Jesse wasn’t listening. He was trying to, but he couldn’t.
He was thirty-seven years old. This was an age where you felt concerned enough about your health to quit smoking and dial your drinking back to like ten beers a week, but not so close to death that you had to make any fundamental changes in how you lived your life. There were glimpses of how tragedy could show up unannounced, but they were pretty far removed. He was still Jesse, the guy who once took five straight shots of Jager and threw a perfect bullseye on the dartboard at Rossi’s. Bad things still happened to other people. People like his Mom’s old business partner, Veronica, who slipped and fell on an icy patch of sidewalk and smashed her skull to pieces. And of course, even the breast cancer hadn’t happened directly to him. Even now he was spared the full impact of tragedy and trauma, and so that meant he was either right about “Still being Jesse” or he was dead wrong, and he wouldn’t know for sure until it was too late. That was thirty-seven now, today.
“Are you listening?” Gene asked.
“Huh?” Jesse said. “Yeah. Yes, of course. Go on.”
“Okay, so there’s something called Hooke’s Law. Think of it as an X and Y axis, strain along the vertical axis and stress across the horizontal.” He put his arms out in front of him like a cross, his left one pointed straight up and his right one, fingers touching the elbow, laid out flat across the bottom.
Nothing was ever going to make sense again like it used to, Jesse thought. Whatever happened to drifting through life, ignoring all the horrendous stuff that everyone knew could happen someday but was always packed far, far back in the recesses of your brain, always thousands and thousands of miles away? Here he was not even forty, and all the rotten shit was sitting right here at his feet already, like some evil cartoon villain had sped up time and come thrashing into his space just to fuck with him, just to see how much he could take.
At the hospital, while Abigail received her second round of chemotherapy in two weeks, Jesse sat in a wooden chair with a green vinyl cushion. He held Abigail’s hand and stared at a painting of two shaggy dogs hung above her bed. They were snuggled close together, their grazing noses posed in a mock-kissing fashion. He didn’t know jack about dog breeds, and he wasn’t a dog person at all, but he had to admit that these two pooches were pretty cute. Abigail gently squeezed his fingers. There was a soft, rhythmic beeping coming from the machine connected to her IV drip.
“And so the x-rays confirmed the in-situ results that I mentioned,” Dr. Orso was saying. He was bent low over Abigail with his head and eyes so close to the tube in her arm that Jesse thought he might topple over.
“In-situ?” Jesse asked. “Sorry, what does that mean?”
“He just told us,” Abigail said, but not with any irritation or malice. Her smile was so warm and her grasp so soothing, that Jesse felt his body go limp with shame.
“Non-invasive,” Orso said, rising back up from where he’d been teetering. “It’s a good thing. No uncontained spread.”
Dr. Orso was their oncologist. He was a nice enough guy, mid-forties, balding and gray around the ears, but with the kind of firm and trim figure that one hoped to expect from their physician, a professional who knew the ins and outs of optimal fitness. Jesse remembered thinking how when he was assigned to their case, nobody stopped to question his authority or level of expertise. There was no second-guessing or deep research into his career. Neither of them scoured the web or poured over medical journals to find out which hospital or doctor was the best choice for a woman in her mid-thirties with stage-three breast cancer in the Midwest with very little family history, etc., etc. And, of course, it wasn’t as if they could get advice from their thirty-something friends who were all still young and happily naïve enough not to have any knowledge about the dismal and depressing world of cancer treatment.
A few years ago, when Abigail and Jesse were considering whether or not to have kids, they thought about all of their friends who had children, and about how they were always stressed out and tired and locked inside their homes. They hardly ever saw Pam and Jacob anymore. For years they played on the same bowling team, drank gin and tonics together late at night, and even went on a few road trips to places like Lake Geneva and Starved Rock where they ate so many psychedelic mushrooms that Jacob thought Pam’s hair was some kind of pasta salad and tried eating it with a fork. When Jesse and Abigail decided not to have kids they felt good about their decision. They didn’t want to turn out like everyone else with their minivans and strollers and sippy cups. They wanted booze and adventure and the kind of freedom that only came from late Sunday nights at Lincoln Lanes with musty bowling balls and sticky Velcro shoes. Most people took the plunge and had babies, but not Jesse and Abigail. They had something different. At least, it felt that way at the time. A few days ago, while Jesse was on a lunch break at work, he started looking up causes of breast cancer on his phone. Instead of finding what caused it, he ended up getting sucked into an article about what might help prevent it. It turned out, according to the CDC, that when women had children and breastfed them for at least six months, it might make the mother less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer later on in life. Something about “shedding tissue with potential DNA damage.” Here they were thinking they were doing something right for their lives, and nothing could have been further from the truth. That wasn’t rare or exceptional. That was just plain old life jumping out and kicking you square in the ass when you least expected it. A gutter ball straight to the nut sack. And why was it, after all these years of human evolution, that still nobody ever seemed to expect it or see it coming?
“Okay, that should do it for the infusion,” Dr. Orso said, sliding the needle out from Abigail’s arm. He moved over to the monitors and carts behind Abigail’s bed where all the tubes and bags and wires were hanging from metal hooks. He began rolling the apparatus away from them, stowing it away in a distant corner.
When they called Pam and Jacob to tell them about the cancer diagnosis, they were kind and consoling at first, but by the end of the conversation they had turned everything around, so that they were the center of attention. It turned out that the same week Abigail was diagnosed, Pam and Jacob had adopted a dog from the local animal shelter. The way Pam talked about it, it was like she was saying that maybe they had balanced things out by saving a dog from being killed, like everything was even now. Abigail had been thrust into a terminal disaster at the same time they had saved a dog from his own perilous circumstances. The yin and yang of the universe… Why does everyone always feel like they are so amazing for adopting a dog? It’s a dog. You know who else owns a dog? Everyone! Christ, Jesse thought. You take home one stray dog, and all of a sudden you’re some kind of hero? Who cares? They thought they were so fucking special.
Jesse felt a warm and soggy feeling in the pit of his hand. When he looked down he saw that Abigail had been squishing it in her palm the entire time, so that the whole mass of fingers and flesh were one big pink and sweaty mess. “So, now what, Doctor?” Jesse asked.
Dr. Orso cleared his throat. He sat down with such care and grace on the edge of Abigail’s bed, that it had the odd effect of making him seem more like a concerned aunt come to chat rather than the somber physician that he was. “Well,” he said, “You’ll come back again for another round in two weeks.”
“Not one week?” Abigail asked.
“That’s good, right?” Jesse said. He recalled Dr. Orso telling them in the beginning that it could be one or two weeks between treatments depending on severity.
Dr. Orso took a deep breath. He stood from the bed and walked over to the sink where he began washing his hands. “It is too soon to tell much,” he said. “I don’t like to say a lot at this stage because I know how much people want positive news, and I understand that. All I can say is that these initial steps seem to be working so far. It’s not… we’re not done yet.”
Abigail pumped his hand again. It made a little moist squeak, and Jesse squeezed back this time. When they looked at each other both of them were smiling just a little bit, and it felt so soothing to see each other in that light again, even if only for a moment. Jesse had almost thought the doctor was going to say “out of the woods.” They weren’t “out of the woods yet.” And as he waited for the expression to come, he realized that he wasn’t sure if that was what he hoped he’d say or just what he assumed he would.
“I’m going to check just one more thing before you go,” Orso said. He came at Abigail with both hands jutted out in front of him like he was about to tickle her. He put one palm on her ribcage just below her left boob. “Does this hurt?” he asked, pressing down into her side.
Jesse watched as Abigail grimaced and squirmed. “No,” she said, “that’s not too bad.” Her words were coming out as little grunts.
“Not too bad,” Orso said, “or it doesn’t hurt at all?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Abigail said. Now her voice was all breathy and staggered.
When he went in for another squeeze, Abigail shot Jesse a look. Both eyes bulged wide open and framed by high arching brows. She seemed to be using her head as a signal, wagging it back and forth, begging him to say or do something.
“Um,” Jesse said, following Abigail’s cue, “is this necessary?” He kept watching her head and eyes, hoping for some gesture of confirmation. Judging by how she relaxed her forehead and narrowed her gaze, this was what she wanted.
“I’m checking her threshold,” he said. He said it with such ease and confidence that Jesse almost felt dense for asking.
“Okay,” Jesse said, but with a fair amount of hesitation and caution in his tone. So, when Dr. Orso cupped his thumb under her left breast and dug his fingers in around the sides, Abigail’s eyes came flapping open again and her head jerked backward.
Doctor Orso stopped pressing and lifted his head up. “Look,” he said, “it doesn’t mean you’re weak or lame if you say something hurts. I’m mostly just checking to see if you need a prescription for the pain.”
“I don’t need one,” Abigail said. Her tone was a mixture of sad and stubborn. She used her heels and hands to wiggle her shoulders up higher on the bed. She sat up straight against the wall and wiped some snot away from her nostrils. It was the first time Jesse had seen her show any real emotion since the whole thing had started a couple of weeks ago. And now here she was, his wife, ten pounds lighter in the stomach, two shades paler in the face; no hair and no spunk. The bandana on her head was coming loose, and underneath Jesse could see the little sprigs of freshly buzzed stubble. There was something in the way her bottom lip went twitching up and the top came curling down over it. The way she yanked at her gown as if she was in a fight with the strings that tied it together… and how all of this was so completely, totally out of character for her. That was when it seemed like it was just her and him in this world of cancer. Most of the time, he told himself that cancer was a common part of life for millions of people every day, but sometimes, like this, it seemed like they were all alone. Everybody knew that cancer was out there with its teeth all sharp, but nobody ever thought it would bite them, and when it did they tried not to feel unique or different, but of course it’s never any use. Deep down inside, human beings are wired to feel significant and singular, as though they are the only ones who have experienced things like love and loss of joy and pain in some specific way that is all their own. That was what he and Abigail had, God damn it. God damn it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Doctor Orso was trying to cut the tension, backing away from the bed and itching his ear. “I have some pamphlets for you to take with you that help explain your palliative care,” he said. He went to a drawer in the corner of the room and began wheeling it open.
“What is…?” Jesse started to say, but then Abigail was tottering up onto her feet and waving him away at the same time. “Never mind. Here,” he said, trying to grasp Abigail’s elbow as she swung up off the bed.
“I’m fine,” Abigail said, swatting his hand down. “Sorry,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “I’m not hurt,” she repeated. She banged the door open and waddled out into the hall in her gown and bare feet.
Jesse lunged and caught the door in his hand just before it slammed shut. Dr. Orso bent to pick up the sheets that had fallen when Abigail came bursting out of the bed.
“She isn’t going to break,” Jesse said.
“That’s a good thing. She has a lot of mettle. That will serve her,” he said, folding the sheets and laying them back across the bed.
“We’re being tested. This is a tensile test.”
“What does that mean?” Dr. Orso asked.
“It’s a construction thing that I know about. I’ll tell you more later, or you could look it up,” Jesse said.
“I just might do that,” Dr. Orso said.
Jesse let the door fall gently closed behind him. Through the window, he could see Dr. Orso stretching into a new pair of blue rubber gloves, preparing to greet his next patient, another Abigail or Annie or even Jesse.
By Monday, they were ready to officially begin construction of the walkway. The final test would be done by late morning, and if everything went well they could start breaking ground, compacting the soil, and pouring the abutments after lunch. The final inspection involved one more tensile test. Gene called Jesse into their work trailer. Setting in the middle of the floor was a shiny new machine that looked like one of those full-body scanners at the airport, but with a set of metal clamps dividing the center like two halves of the same steel jaw.
“This is a UTM,” Gene said, stepping back with a wide grin. He put his hands on his hips and spread his feet. He looked so proud to be presenting it to Jesse for the first time, as though he himself had been the one to create it with his bare hands. “UTM stands for Universal Testing Machine. I’ll tell you before you ask. The reason it is considered ‘universal’ is that it can perform a multitude of tests on both tensile and compressive strength materials. The tests can be equally diverse in terms of the range of materials, components, and structures.”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Jesse mumbled, but he was pretty sure Gene hadn’t heard him.
“Watch this,” Gene said. “He picked up a pencil from the desk beside him and wedged it carefully in between the two rigid metal clamps. “Stand back,” he said, swiping his arm out to brush Jesse a few feet farther from the apparatus. When he was satisfied with Jesse’s distance and stance, he nudged forward and pressed a small red button at the right side of the contraption. A loud humming sound came buzzing out as the set of teeth pinched tight together. Within the next second a piercing snap! Shards of the pencil went exploding out in all directions. “Whoa!” Gene said, laughing and stomping his foot. “Wasn’t that something?” He said. “Did you see that?”
“I did, yes. That was ferocious! We should have been wearing like two pairs of goggles for protection,” Jesse joked.
“Oh, shit!” Gene said. “Fuck, you are totally right.” He scurried over to a shelf by the door and yanked down two pairs of clear plastic goggles with elastic bands. “I forgot. Holy shit! Don’t tell anyone I forgot,” Gene said. “Put this on.”
“Haha!” Jesse said, stretching the goggles down over his face. “Don’t worry. I was only kidding. I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“Okay, cool,” Gene said, clearing his throat. He turned several tiny circles in a row, trying to locate something he’d apparently misplaced. He didn’t want to tell Jesse what he was looking for, and so he played it off like he was just casually browsing the room for any other safety code violations. Jesse could tell he wanted a redo on the entire situation, and Jesse wanted to let him have it. “Ah, yes, here we go,” Gene said. He moved to a counter at the back of the room and picked up a small piece of metal in the shape of a miniature baton. It fit snugly between the large span of his chubby splayed fingers. “This is the sample we’ll use for dexterity,” he said. “You might be wondering why we assess such a small piece compared to the huge slabs of steel we’ll be using. That’s because this little bitch right here works as a representative slab that will serve to mimic the whole morphology in its entirety. The molecular structure will not change whether the model is big or small.” Again, he held it up for Jesse to examine, the way a professor might present something to a class of civil engineering students. As hard as he tried, Jesse could not muster even the slightest bit of interest in the lecture. When Gene realized that Jesse was not as excited as he had hoped, he cleared his throat again and went about adjusting the metal tube into place.
“We put it in vertically because this way the whole gauge length can be measured,” Gene said, switching the beast on again. It rumbled to life, making it hard for Jesse to hear what he was saying over the grinding sound. “Throughout the evaluation, the piece will slowly and constantly be elongated with a standardized speed. The force opposed to the elongation will be recorded and…”
Jesse couldn’t wait to go home and see Abigail. If he was right, this had a decent chance to be one of her “good days.” The pattern seemed to be that after each drug treatment, there was a period of intense discomfort. She called this miserable span of time her “chemo coma.” For two to three days following the injections, she’d lose her appetite, stay in bed and scarcely be able to look at her phone screen for a few minutes without acute pain behind her eyes. And then, sometimes, if they were lucky, there would come a clearing. The clouds would part just long enough for her to step out of bed, pour her own cup of coffee, and maybe even take a walk to the beach. Every time the moment approached, Jesse could feel himself getting tense and fearful, nervous that the cycle would not repeat itself this time, that it would be postponed or worse yet terminated forever. The one way he could tell if she was feeling better, without fail, was if she was on the couch when he got home. This meant that she had moved from the bedroom to the family room, and it usually also meant that she had fixed herself some breakfast, and there would be dishes on the coffee table and leftover crumbs on the counter in the kitchen. Oh, how he longed to see those crumbs! When he came through the door, and walked around the corner into the family room and saw those scattered remnants of robust activities, he felt he could almost leap with celebration!
“This, this right here,” Gene was saying. He was standing up close to a modified computer screen along the back panel of the machine. There looked to be some sort of diagram on it; a chart with ninety-degree coordinates and a slanted curve down the center. “The material behavior can best be observed in a force elongation diagram.” Again now, for the third or fourth time, he was teaching some lesson to a group of non-existent pupils who must have been seated in an imaginary lecture hall just over his left shoulder. He pointed to the screen with his index finger while he talked, just the way an expert instructor might do to illustrate some fascinating point to his rapt audience. “The force F is being plotted upward –”
“Abigail has cancer,” Jesse said.
Gene stopped talking. He swallowed hard. For a few moments, the machine kept purring away beside him, the lines on the screen widening and narrowing under some pretense that Jesse did not care and would never care to understand. After a while, Gene reached over and flipped the off switch. The gears jerked suddenly then wound down to a silent halt. The two of them locked eyes and did not let go for some time. Gene was the first one to look away.
“Is it the good kind?” Gene asked. He was already kind of crouching and backing away before he finished asking, like the way somebody might duck and cringe after lobbing a flammable object into a campfire.
“No,” Jesse said. The words “good” and “cancer” sounded so abhorrent together that all he could do to stop from punching the wall was grit his teeth together. They were scraping together like mad. It sounded like someone chomping ice inside his skull.
“I mean,” Gene said, “not good, but… well, you know. I don’t know,” he said. “I just… my sister’s friend had cancer and she beat it, you know? Some are worse than others, I guess. It’s not as hard as it once was. I mean, she’s still alive and kicking.” He put a knuckle in his mouth and bit down. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Jesse nodded his head. He didn’t know if he could respond verbally without yelling, but he found that his head and neck would work if he willed them to. Still nodding, he approached the UTM with his hand stretched out. “So, this is it, huh?” he said. “This will determine whether actual people can walk across our actual bridge, or if they will all come crashing down to the ground.” He reached his hand out to touch the piece of metal inside the clamps, and as he did it, he felt a sharp spasm of pain go shooting through his elbow. He grunted and jumped back. Gene had karate-chopped his arm down to his side at the last second.
“Jesus, man!” Gene said. “Don’t touch it. That son of a bitch is red hot from all the friction. You’ll burn your fucking skin down to the bone!” He was huffing and puffing, holding his palm to his heart and bending forward over his knees.
Jesse was rubbing his elbow, trying to work some feeling back into it. He didn’t feel like being in that room anymore with the sawdust on the floor, the blueprints laid out on the easel, all the stupid hammers and screwdrivers resting in their dumb little toolboxes, practically screaming their ineffectual nonsense into the void of this dusty fucking trailer.
“I’m going home,” Jesse said. And then he walked out the door, got in his truck, and drove the ten miles home in the kind of numb stupor that leaves the driver unable to recall a single detail from the entire ride afterward.
When he came through the door he found that he was up on his tiptoes for some strange reason. It appeared to be an involuntary reaction. He was so racked with nerves that he seemed to be rising off the carpet with them. When he discovered what was happening, he willed himself back down onto the soles of his feet. He could hear the TV out in the family room, some kind of sitcom with peals of laughter, which in terms of signs was about as good as they come. He ripped his boots off and chucked them onto the floor.
“Abigail!” Jesse called, as though she were far away or perhaps not the only person who could possibly be in the house.
“Who else?” She said.
Jesse found her sitting up on the couch with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, a mug of tea in her hands, and a pleasant peachy complexion to her cheeks. There was an old Everybody Loves Raymond rerun on the screen. Ray’s mom was slapping him on the back of the head for some reason, and the live audience was going berserk. Abigail hit the off button on the remote and tossed it onto the couch. Now Jesse was around the couch in front of her. He noticed that the blanket was not only around her shoulders but also up over her head as well, which made her look even more vulnerable and angelic. He smiled and, seeing his smile, she smiled back. She was sitting with her legs pretzeled underneath her butt. It was that way of sitting people used to call Indian-style but weren’t allowed to anymore. Sometimes Jesse still did, but he got in trouble for it. She looked like a small child pretending to be a ghost.
“What?” She said. She put her mug on the coffee table and looked at him.
Jesse didn’t know the right way to put it. He didn’t know how to express his joy or share his relief in any casual kind of way. “Your vital signs look good,” he said.
Abigail laughed. “Haha! Well that just sounds so amazing, doesn’t it?” she said. “Decent blood pressure, eh? Pulse rate? Check! Body temperature? Check! I check all the boxes!”
“Shit,” Jesse said. “That came out wrong. I’ve been just pummeled with technical lingo all day. It must be wearing off on me.”
“No, no, I like it. I feel like I’m getting homebound services right now from a certified nurse.”
Jesse was happy that she was cracking jokes, but he also felt that he had wasted an opportunity to have a sweet moment with her. “Yeah, sorry,” he said, scratching his head. “I’m out of sorts. I had a shitty day,” he said, and then realizing that this moment should not be about him, he changed course. “How was your day? I just meant that you look really good. That’s all. You know me, Mr. Eloquent.”
“I do feel pretty good today,” she said. “Thank you for noticing.” The way she cocked her head to the side and rested it on the couch cushion, with the afternoon sun angling in through the window and falling across her cheeks, Jesse thought he might see an actual halo appear.
“I always notice you,” he said. “I don’t say it enough, maybe.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “You are allowed to have your own stuff going on.” She yawned, but then right away recovered her luster. “I had a kind of crappy workday, too.”
Jesse sat down on the couch beside her. He put his arm around the blanket cloaking her back and snuggled into it. “You had work today? What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said. “I didn’t go to work, naturally, but I did have a conversation with a client.”
He put his hand on top of her arm. She felt sturdier today somehow, heartier. Even her shoulders seemed to be high and firm rather than limp and droopy like they had been yesterday. “Oh yeah, which client?”
“You remember Ms. Tierney?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “The one with the hair so white it’s blue.”
“Like a cornflower,” she said. “Anyway, she called and asked why I wasn’t there to clean her apartment yesterday, and I told her that I had forgotten to call her. I apologized. I said that I had thought that I called all of my clients to let them know that I had cancer, but that I must have accidentally forgotten to call her.”
“Yeah?” Jesse said. “And?” He scooped the blanket back from her forehead and ran his hands through the prickly bristles on top of her head.
“Well, there was this long pause,” Abigail said, “and then, after a lot of awkward silence she finally said, ‘so does that mean you won’t be coming by next week, either?’ ”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Jesse said. He dropped his hands to his hips and looked at her sideways. “You have to be kidding. Tell me you’re fucking kidding.”
Abigail shook her head. She was holding back laughter, shaking and blinking the same way she had been all of those months ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“All right!” he said. “That’s it!” He launched up from the couch and moved in front of the coffee table, where for one deranged second he thought about getting up on top of it. He decided against it. “We need to make a list or something.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“We need to make a list called, ‘Shit You Don’t Ever Fucking Say When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer!’ ”
“Right!” Abigail said. She laughed and clapped her hands together at the same time. This was something that she used to do all the time, and the return of this familiar gesture egged Jesse on even further.
“Do you know what Gene said today when I told him you had cancer?” Jessed asked.
“If I was coming in to join the crew next week?”
“Haha! No!” Jesse said, “but that’s hilarious. Close. What he said was…” and he could feel himself getting into character, hiking up his belt and puffing his chest full of air.
“Are you pretending to be Big Gene?” Abigail said.
“An’t no way,” Jesse said, imitating Big Gene’s thick Chicago accent. Abigail roared.
“Yes!” she said, clapping her hands together again. “Big Gene is here!”
“Aye!” Jesse said, loosening up his jaw and shoulders for what was about to be a big show. “Aye, is eh, Abby, dat yer wife? She got duh bayd kinda cancer dare or what?”
“The bad kind?” Abigail said. “Is that what he said?”
“Yeah, yeah, dats right,” he said, staying in character, “Beecuss, ya know? I got dis fren’ who uh, she kicked it, ya know? An’t even sick no more.”
Abigail was laughing and clapping, holding her side and rocking back against the couch cushions. “That’s hilarious. Okay, okay, stop! That’s enough. Shew!” she said, trying to steady herself and wind down the heavy breathing a bit.
Jesse released himself from the role, let his belly and torso and knees settle back into their normal posture. He cleared his throat and sat back down next to Abigail again.
“What is wrong with people?” he sighed.
“They are morons,” Abigail said. “Don’t let it get you down. Most people are morons.”
“You have that right,” he said. “Idiots.”
A silence followed, but not the kind that had come glooming in over the last few weeks. This was a comfortable quiet, the kind that felt safe and proper and well-earned. Jesse could see the rise and fall of Abigail’s chest under the blanket. She was still trying to catch and stabilize her breath. There was a low whistling coming from her nose. He put his feet up on the table, crossing them at the ankles. He hadn’t felt this relaxed in almost a month. He thought about Big Gene and Ms. Tierney and Doctor Orso. Even Jacob and Pam. All of them had said and done things over the last few days that seemed so thick and inconsiderate, almost cruel. He wondered how they could be so stupid. What was wrong with them? Didn’t they know anything? He wouldn’t be like that if the shoe was on the other foot, he thought. There was no way…
But maybe… Doubt began creeping in. How did he know how we would be? It wasn’t until about twenty-five days ago that he could even imagine, even fathom what something like this could be like. What if… what if people weren’t trying to be rude but rather didn’t know what to say because they felt awkward or scared or off-balance or all three? He’d felt those things before. He’d said some foolish things in his life, boy. One time he asked his neighbor if she was pregnant, and not only was she not carrying but she was on some kind of antidepressant medication that made her look bloated and waxy. Her brother had died or something… something about a car crash… Boy, okay, he was starting to feel stupid himself now. Maybe he was the one who should have been more understanding. He felt that sharp and tingly shiver that runs down your spine every time you get a jolt or a flashback, some memory that shakes you up and makes you want to cringe all over inside and out.
Jesus, he felt shitty all of a sudden. He felt all hot and clammy. He wiggled his way a little further down the couch, careful not to offend Abigail but also aware that he needed some room, some air. Now he was the one breathing all funny.
“Hey,” Abigail said in a loving tone. She put her hand on his knee and pinched just a little bit, just enough to tickle the kneecap and give him something else to think about other than his own paranoia for a second. “You wanna watch some TV?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jesse said, hoping he hadn’t responded too fast or with too much zeal.
Abigail gave his knee one more jiggle before letting it go and reaching for the remote. She turned the TV on, and right away there was the cascading laughter again. The bright colors filling the screen, the stock footage, and usual banter… For a moment Jesse felt disappointed with himself, tricked into being soothed by something so simple and mindless. Maybe that’s what Tierney and Orso and Gene and Jacob and Pam were feeling right now, too. Duped. Maybe they were trying to get a bad memory out of their heads, too. Everyone had them, didn’t they? Maybe that was important to consider. Suddenly, it seemed imperative to consider. Was that the word, he wondered. Imperative? That wasn’t a dumb thing to be confused by, was it? No, he thought. No. That’s okay. We’re all here, Jesse thought. Here we are. On the sofa. In a family room somewhere. With our feet up if we’re lucky. With someone we love if we’re really charmed. Something distracting on the boob tube… We’re all here together. What was the word for that? He didn’t think he’d ever known. They ought to make a word like that more accessible and common.
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash