33, from Washington, D.C.
Holt’s mother told her that she began telling stories as a toddler. By 7, she was already dreaming of the writing life in New York—the practical version, where she wrote ad copy for a living and fiction in her spare time (which is exactly what happened). Holt, who’s lived in Moscow, London, and Amsterdam, is writing a novel that draws on the expat life, but the story excerpted here was inspired by a more private experience—the death of her mother from cancer.
In Her Teacher’s Words
Holt’s “prose crackles,” says Michael Cunningham, who runs the fiction section of Brooklyn College’s M.F.A. writing program, which she is graduating from this spring. “She understands that, in fiction, the sounds of words matter as much as their meanings.”
From “Evacuation Instructions”
They are getting ready to spend a weekend in the country, in the wilds of Connecticut. There will be swimming and she’s trying to find a particular bathing suit.
“That brown one, she says, that makes me feel like I’m in St. Bart’s.” She is bending over, probing corners of her closet that she rarely enters. “What time are they expecting us?” she says.
“Lunchtime,” he says. “They’re having a big lunch in the garden. Sheila’s usual approximation of Tuscany.”
He is looking at their picture in Vogue. In the photograph he is in profile, looking at her. The light has caught his bald spot.
“My God,” he says. “I’m old.”
“You’re not old,” she says from the closet. “You look very dashing.”
“I’m forty-four,” he says.
“Ah-ha!” She stands triumphantly, holding the Lycra suit aloft like an Olympic medal.
“I’ll drive,” he says.
His wife usually likes to be behind the wheel. But today she takes the passenger seat without complaint. She fastens her seatbelt. It’s a perfect July day. Cloudless, the sky is an empty promise.
When they pull into the driveway of the house, they can hear the dogs barking. Every time they see Sheila, she seems to have more dogs. He carries the bags inside—he likes these opportunities for chivalry—and his wife follows. He pushes open the screen door and then four dogs—two black ones, poised and alert; one fat and golden, with drool slipping out of its mouth; the last small and quivering and a mottled white—come bounding down a long hallway, pushing worn rugs out of place in their enthusiasm. There are few things more comforting than other people’s chaos.
They spend the night in the guest room. And as they fall asleep with one of Sheila’s black dogs sandwiched between them his wife takes his hand, and sighs. It’s a long, wistful exhalation. It’s a sigh that causes the dog to shift position, so that there are suddenly canine toenails pressing into his stomach.
“Sweets?” he says, but she is already asleep.
He awakes to the sound of the dog licking. The dog gulps when he swallows; his licking is greedy and vaguely sexual. He opens his eyes and sees that the dog is licking his wife’s face. Licking up the blood as if he was hired to do it.
He shakes her, watches her sit up, sees the blood roll down her chin, faster now, and the dog sits up, leans closer to her, tilts his head, extends his slimy pink tongue. The dog is scruffy, of a breed he can’t identify. It has no business here. His wife looks at it, for a moment, as if pleading for mercy.
He breaks the speed limit on the way back to the city, heads straight to the hospital and then lets her off before he goes to park. Alone in the garage, he wends his way through the dark rows of cars, and suddenly feels like he can’t breathe. If he has a heart attack, here in this forsaken place, would they find him? Would an ER nurse wander out here for a smoke break and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his crumpled body?
He finds his breath again, shallow and heaving at first, but then he’s moving into the light outside the garage and crossing the concrete toward the hospital entrance. You just have to make it inside, he thinks. Then you’re in good hands.
“How can it be malignant?” she says.
He can’t believe it either. His wife’s body is rife with tumors. The oncologists say she will be lucky to live six months. The first tumor was in her nasal passages but there have been many tumors discovered since. The doctors announce their detection as if shopping for fruit. This one the size of a grapefruit, this one a plum.
He devotes hours of every day to research. He trolls the Internet for information about clinical trials for which she might be eligible. Their options are limited; she’s already Stage IV and most trials are only open to patients in whom the disease has not advanced so far. Applying to clinical trials is like trying to get into college. They discover a meritocracy based on immune systems, in which certain patients are valued for the unique way in which their bodies respond to the challenge. His wife’s doctors present case studies of patients for whom various treatments worked, and it brings out his wife’s competitive streak.
“I can handle this one,” she says to her oncologist one day.
They are trying to persuade him to recommend her to the team running a particularly compelling clinical trial. “I don’t know,” the doctor says, sucking in air to punctuate his doubt.
“I want to try it,” she says, as if they are talking about scuba diving or hang gliding, instead of a toxic cocktail that will be administered into the bloodstream via IV.
They have read the literature; the treatment has been effective in a mere five percent of patients. But his wife is used to being a success story.
“We’ll see,” says the doctor. “We’ll see.”
He imagines making his case to the doctor leading the trial. Exhibit A: the X-ray with the original tumor. Exhibit B: a CAT scan that reports metastases as if they are geological formations. He’d put his wife on the stand to display her incredible endurance. He reads turgid medical journals, clipping any articles he finds relevant. There are drugs that sound like the stuff of science fiction: Interleukin II, Gemzar. There are various immuno-therapies described in militaristic prose. Targeted attacks on rebel cells. It reminds him of his wife’s reports from Kinshasa. He dedicates a file box to the case and labels folders for insurance claims, prescription information, records of radiation sessions. When she is finally admitted to the trial, he considers it his victory.