A life-threatening illness changes the world as you know it. It will rob you of many things, but the most precious thing it will rob you of is your singularity. All victims alike . . . all patients anonymous in their semi-swaddled bravery . . . all those chosen for bedside watchers, hand wringers, strapped into the same roller coaster ride from hell. You might struggle against the chains of this conformity, but your energy and spirit are sucked dry fighting other battles; there’s no breaking free.
I wasn’t going to tell Ross immediately, but picking him up at the airport limo drop-off that terrible Sunday night, my face gave me away. It had been a blessing that he’d been away up until now, and I had managed to remain relatively calm the whole weekend after getting the test results, walking round and round the house, talking earnestly to myself, sorting out my plans to beat this thing, continually peering out the windows as if the answer were to be found casually sitting in a chair in the yard. But as soon as I saw him, my resolutions evaporated and my eyes welled up. Seeing my face, my trembling chin, Ross immediately forgot his greeting kiss, demanding “What’s wrong?”
“Wait till we get in the car,” I said.
“It’s not your father, is it?” he asked, now really concerned, as we quickly walked out to the parking lot. “Something’s happened at home?” I just waved my hand at him to shut up. The mounting panic had choked off my voice. Ross had been looking forward to my joy at seeing him again, to seeking soft solace after a frustrating and discouraging trip; this 180 degree turn of events took his own breath away.
I told him everything once in the privacy of our car. I could barely get the words out, they were so huge, so ugly; pulling, tugging on those serpents until they slid out of my mouth and slapped down on the floor, terrifying in their writhing presence. I didn’t know how he would take it; I thought he might be brave and reassuring to help me, be my ballast, but after a few minutes of refusing to believe it and then questioning my understanding of the situation, he flew into a vulgar rage.
“What the fuck is wrong with us?” What the fuck!” He viciously punched the dashboard with the heel of his hand so hard he rebounded back against his seat. “We can’t get two steps ahead and some kind of goddamn shit has to happen.”
“It may not be that bad,” I countered, still in denial.
He looked at me incredulously, gripping the hair on top of his head. “It’s goddamn. . . it’s no joke, Amy!”
“I know,” I replied limply. His reaction was making me cry. I was dying for some comfort; I just needed to be held, but Ross was lost to me in his own rage. Bitterness toward him welled up in me at that moment, this railing against the supposedly inevitable, this wailing for the already dead was destroying my carefully constructed house of cards. I had been so brave so far. He should have taken his cue from me, but he couldn’t control this rage, it was racing around inside him, making him rock back and forth, his hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly they were mottled red and white. Car engines were roaring all around us, lights blinding us, as the rest of the limo passengers got in their cars and left the parking lot, leaving us stranded in our misery. A strange and detached chill sunk over me watching Ross in his fury—here’s a chance to gain some insight into men, I thought—I had twisted the emotions inside, eating away at myself; this, however, was going to explode. He swung toward me and I thought he was going to hit me, the first time ever I had to brace myself for that; he was acting so strangely, I was feeling so strange, it was as if we had both become different people. Suddenly he spun around in the opposite direction and smashed his fist through the glass, punching out the side window, shattering it into hundreds of sea-glass green, knobby pieces—safety glass, a safety valve. My mind flooded over with overwhelming loathing; my skull tingling, the skin crawly over flesh and bone. I spasmodically opened my door and walked around the front of the car to the driver’s side. ‘I’m all alone, all alone here, all alone,” I kept repeating to myself.
Ross was motionless, his head resting on the steering wheel, his arms limp at his side. “Move over,” I ordered, without a trace of pity. Without protest he jerked himself to the other side of the car. I swept the glass beads off the seat onto the parking lot concrete, got in and slammed the door shut, tearfully wrenched the driver’s seat back up closer to the steering wheel, and drove out of the lot, the air rushing through the gaping hole in the door. Ross wouldn’t look at me, but stared out his window, eyes glistening, biting his thumb.
“When were you going to tell me you wanted kids so soon, when you got pregnant?” he asked bitterly. I didn’t answer and he didn’t say anything else.
* * *
I drove into our driveway and put the car in park. Getting out of the car without a word, Ross opened the back door of our house, leaving it wide open, and never looking back, strode into the living room and turned on the TV, setting the volume at an earsplitting level. He sat there staring at the screen. I went upstairs and sat on our bed, looking out the window. With difficulty I pushed up the screen, then stuck my head out into the cooling night air; it didn’t matter now if bugs got in or if I got mosquito bites. Slowly, gradually, the sea breezes brought back my feelings for Ross; my heart broke for him sitting down there all alone, the television flashing strobe-like distress signals out across the front lawn, blaring like a siren. He had such a big heart; he was one of the few truly wise and compassionate people I knew, and he paid a terrible price for it again and again. Not a beau ideal, my ideal. He had lost so many people in his life, how would he stand this? At what point would he shut down, at what point would he go under? How could I bear the thought of losing him, of losing everything? Panic washed over me, blackening out my vision, making me lose my balance. I gripped the sill, fighting for my consciousness. I went down to him and turned off the set, the blood pounding in my ears at the sudden silence. I knelt at his feet and rested my head and hands on his thigh.
“I’m so sorry, Benny,” I said softly. He laid both his hands on my head, the knuckles of his right hand swelling up red and purple, and silently, tenderly twisted his fingers through my hair. After a little while, I moved between his knees, putting my arms around his waist, looking up at his face. God, I loved that face. “Make love to me, Ross,” I whispered. He gathered me up in his arms and took me up to our bed. He tried, but he couldn’t.
We lay there in the darkness, in each other’s arms, but separate and frightened, the stillness pierced only once by Ross saying brokenly, “I can’t lose you, JJ . . . how could I ever let you go?” I would never forget the pain in that voice, it cracked my very soul. I was terrified, terrified this poor Benny had already lost his JJ, terrified that I had already turned into a strange other being, someone he could not make love to.