“Talk to Herb, Ma,” I say and walk down the hall.
Then I call Nick. Most of our relationship, I’ve wanted him to be more expressive. Often, when we are together, he withdraws and watches two or three old movies in a row—if he doesn’t, he says, he’ll think about his life, which he can’t bear. In the morning, he moves the television so that he can watch Lucy reruns from the shower. Right now, however, I have this feeling that if he falls apart I will fall apart, and I need him to be strong.
“I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get emotional, because it’s going to sound worse than it probably is,” I say.
I have the feeling, at the other end of the line, of a man who has been slugged in the stomach.
“You just got to give me a minute. I wasn’t expecting this,” he says.
Then Herb and I head downtown. Normally, a glass of wine puts me to sleep. Now we go to the back room of the Lion’s Head, where we are known as The Ones Who Only Eat, and I order a margarita. I get a second one. Then I talk tactics. The position I am taking, I say, is not that I have cancer, but that I had a cancer and they cut it out. I am not doing an avoidance number, we will research the hell out of this and get the best people in the business, but until it is established otherwise, I consider myself healthy. I go tottering off to my place. I am not sure whether the sense of unreality is coming from the news I have received or the drinks. The Xylocaine is wearing off, and with every step, even in a bra and bandages, my breast bounces and hurts. Luke had offered me a prescription of Tylenol 3, but I’m a little afraid of drugs, and I didn’t think I needed it. Now I see I do. I call up the pharmacy to have the drug sent over. Even with the Tylenol my breast feels as if someone has stabbed me. I know I should talk to my brothers, who by this time have probably had thirteen conversations with Ma, but I am too tired. I go to bed, exhausted, wanting to be taken care of. I think of my grandmother Wadler, round, warm, and cushiony, the one member of the family who thought I was perfect just as I was, and wish she were still around. I think about Nick, who has said he will get out of work as soon as he can and pick up supper, and wonder what is keeping him. He calls, eventually, from the street near his bar. The bank must have messed up, he says, he can’t get any money from the machine, he’s got maybe three dollars. I go to meet him at Balducci’s, bumping into Sigmund Freud on the way. “You understand the message he is sending you,” Freud says. “You vill not depend on him for nossing.” I banish him from my consciousness by taking him to the deli department and giving him a number and telling him to pick up some derma. There is no derma in Balducci’s. By the time Freud figures it out. I’ll have lost him.
When Nick and I get back to my place, just on a point of pride, I set the record straight.
“I’m still the same person I was yesterday,” I tell him. “If we break up every three weeks, we break up every three weeks. I don’t want you to treat me any differently.”
Which, as it turns out, is the stupidest thing I will say in the course of this whole illness.
And also, as far as Nick is concerned, the least necessary.
They have an interesting way of dealing with illness in my family. They form little whispering cabals, deciding who can ‘take it.’ This is to protect the people you love.
If this were ancient Egypt, and people were buried with the things they used most often, the executors of my estate would have no problem making a decision: They would plant me with a phone in one hand and a Diet Pepsi in the other, and if it turned out there was life after death, I would be on the phone, talking to one of my girlfriends or having an emergency session with my shrink. It being late when I am prone to anxiety attacks, I would probably reach a machine:
“It’s Joyce. It isn’t a question of life and death—well, actually, it is, but I mean I can handle it—um, anyway, this death thing has turned out to be a little more stressful than I thought, and if you have some time, can you give me a call? If it’s not inconvenient. Otherwise, I’ll see you the regular time Thursday. One good thing about this, you won’t have any trouble getting me to lie down.”