An extract from an anthology about how the experiences of sickness and incapacitation change our bodies and identities.
This following is an extract from a book called Signs of Life – an Anthology about how the experiences of sickness and incapacitation change our bodies and identities curated by physician and writer Sarah Sasson. This fictional short story was written by Jann Everard.
The light is hazy, low winter sun through sheer curtains. Two La-Z-Boy recliners sit empty and sagging on shaggy brown carpet.
‘Where are your roommates?’ Ann asks. She pulls at a brass button that dangles from the pocket of her jeans. The single thread that holds the button breaks.
Will’s gaze drops to her knees. ‘At the library,’ he says.
She makes the first move, drawing him down to the carpet to sit astride his hips. It doesn’t take long before they both shudder and cry out. She slides next to him and turns her cheek to the carpet’s rough fibres.
His hand brushes her thigh. ‘Annie?’
She wants him to initiate more, to feel the hard eagerness of her breasts. ‘What do you like about me?’ she asks.
He leans forward. Through the thin Indian gauze of her shirt, she feels teeth graze her nipple. ‘What’s not to like?’
Against Ann’s closed eyelids, morning sunlight glows red and gold. She presses into the foam mattress, the flatness of her chest still a surprise. Cheap sheets, bought in a needless moment of thrift, scratch her skin and evoke again Will’s raspy carpet. It must be the sleeping pills she’s taking; her dreams are all from the past.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she reaches for her glasses, then stretches upright. She has been declared ‘cancer free’—free to carry on and to live normally. She circles her hips left, then right, sensing a brightness in her pelvis, an elasticity that’s been absent for some time, until this morning’s dream. She feels more positive than she’s felt in weeks.
Down the hall, the spare bedroom door is closed, but the light is on. It creates a yellow strip on the floorboards that catches her eye. So, Martin is up. He’s become an early bird, often showered and shaved long before she wakes.
The bathroom door is ajar, her husband’s face reflected in the mirror above the sink. She hesitates, needing badly to relieve her full bladder. In the past, she would have joined him in the bathroom, unembarrassed to strip or pee in front of him as he stroked the razor over his skin, to take a moment to enjoy his naked body, confident that he enjoyed her nakedness too. But these days, she is unsure of the rules.
‘Morning,’ she calls.
‘I’ll be out in a sec,’ he answers.
The damp heat of the bathroom washes over her as he opens the door and gives her a peck on the cheek. The kiss is spare and dutiful, and her earlier positivity seeps away. She slumps against the wall.
‘You didn’t sleep well?’ he asks.
‘I slept fine. How about you?’
He won’t meet her eyes. ‘Did you have to take anything for the pain?’
‘I’m fine. Are you okay?’
His smile is forced, his nod too jaunty. She reaches out to rub a speck of shaving lotion off his jawbone. But he jerks back, glancing towards then away from her pajama top where it lies flat against her chest. Dropping her hand, she crosses her arms and rubs her shoulders, pretending to be cold.
‘Are the kids coming home this weekend?’ he asks, red-faced now, and restless.
‘They’re driving down on Friday. Should be here for supper.’
He nods. ‘That’ll be nice. Some company for you.’
She’s about to point out that he is company, too, but instead says, ‘I have to go,’ and shrugs towards the bathroom. He twists away, giving her ample room to get by.
Behind the closed door, she runs the bath, turning the hot water to full so that the mirror steams and reflects nothing. She adds bubbles from the pink bottle that stands next to the pink soap and the pink hairbrush—all well-meaning gifts. When she’s immersed in the tub, her small belly bobs above the waterline as her breasts once did. It stirs another memory from when she was a student, this time of Will carving a bar of Ivory soap into the hourglass shape of a woman’s body. While they were in the bath together, he’d lathered her leg then scraped his razor over the creamy foam in long sweeps. The bar had floated on the scummy water: two proud cones, the nipples tipped with her coral nail polish.
She glances down at her scars to push away the mental images. It’s time to face the day. And reality. It’s time to be forward thinking. To use positive self-talk.
She shaves her legs and underarms, tweezes a few stray hairs from her inner thigh, another that has sprouted near her navel. She will not let herself go. She will ‘Look Good, Feel Better’, just as the ladies at the workshop advised. She will be encouraged by the social workers who write in their pamphlets that ‘issues of sexuality with your partner are common and can be worked through’.
In all their years of marriage, Martin has never shared the bath with her. ‘It’s too small, too awkward to incite intimacies,’ he complained. He always preferred the bedroom, where he would approach her from behind, cupping her breasts as she brushed her hair before the closet mirror. Martin was first to notice the lump. Martin, who has been her confidant, her partner in all things; who is father to her children. If she had been more vigilant, her cancer might have been discovered earlier, the need for a double mastectomy avoided. Martin might still be sleeping with her in the master bedroom. He has not touched her intimately since the surgery.
She tries to hold back, tries to make this the first tear-free day since her diagnosis, but gives up. So many stressful weeks have gone by. On which night, disrupted by her worry or pain, did Martin move to the spare bedroom? She’d encouraged it, anxious that he not suffer because of her sleeplessness. But the arrangement, intended to be temporary, now seems permanent.
Not long ago, she read a novel featuring a married couple. Years into their marriage, the wife told the husband that, from that day, everything would stay the same except she was‘done with all that’.In the story, things did stay the same, except the man slept with a neighbouring widow instead of his wife. That wasn’t the important part of the story, not the main plot. But Ann still wonders, long after she returned the book to the library: without sex, how could things possibly stay the same between the man and his wife?
‘I’ll be late tonight. We’re hammering out a contract with the city. I don’t know what my schedule will be like for a while.’ Martin pours coffee from the enamel carafe Ann likes them to use at the breakfast table. He hands her the creamer, reaching for his cell phone as if to give authority to his words.
She pads barefoot to the far side of the kitchen, removes a spoon from the drawer and taps it against her palm. Has he forgotten that he promised to be free tonight? Not promised exactly, but she’d asked him whether he had plans and thought it was clear she wanted him to set them aside. ‘I hoped we’d trim the forsythia back this evening. And plant the annuals. Have the chance to catch up on things.’
Again, he gazes past her. ‘I know we’re late getting the plants in,’ he says.
She’s unsure whether he’s missed her intended message or is avoiding it. They need to talk now that the immediate crisis is over, her surgery successful, life moving on. The social worker suggested a quiet evening together doing something they enjoy. ‘If your partner is not a great talker,’ she said, ‘sometimes you have to do it yourself. Talk, talk, talk—he may not talk back, but he’ll be listening.’
Martin sighs. ‘I’m sorry. There’s so much going on at work that I need to be on top of. I think you should hire someone to help with the garden.’
She stares out the kitchen window at a tulip, perfectly formed, sexually red. Does she dare ask him, right at this moment, whether she is still attractive to him, whether it would help if she had breast reconstruction surgery, how he feels about false breasts? Does the idea of implants repulse him more than no breasts at all? It took ten months after each of the boys stopped nursing before he reclaimed her nipples.
‘I have an appointment with the surgeon tomorrow,’ she says.
As she waits, the coffee grows cold in her hand. He doesn’t ask whether he should join her. He squeezes her shoulder as he leaves the kitchen. Moments later, the automatic garage door makes its usual grating sound six inches before it snugs up against the roof. The digital clock is silent as the readout changes from 7.45 to 7.46.
She moves to her desk in the kitchen nook. Her phone beckons with its beeps and reminders from her calendar: tomorrow’s consultation, a follow-up with her GP in three weeks. She could cancel the appointment with the surgeon, but what would she say to the receptionist? There is no need to reconstruct my breasts. There is no foundation on which to attach them. She puts the phone back down.
Jann Everard’s short fiction has been published in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in The New Quarterly, Humber Literary Review, Belmont Story Review, Prairie Fire and EVENT. Jann was the winner of The Malahat Review’s 2018 Open Season Award for Fiction. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
Sarah Sasson (Editor) is a physician-writer from Sydney, Australia. Her poetry, short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in Australia, the UK and USA, appearing in Meanjin, Oxford Writers’ House, Medium, Unsweetened, Grieve Anthology, Intersection Stories, Translating Pain and Orris Root. Her work explores themes including human relationships, memory, medicine and biology.