By Katja Zurcher
Elizabeth Grace Roland prayed every night to wake up with cancer. Just as her husband Hugh found a steady rhythm with his snores, she would turn onto her side, tuck her arm under the pillow and whisper please, please, please. She was specific with her cancer. She wanted breast cancer like her best friend Hilary fought last May. It was feminine and almost sexy. Everyone wore pink ribbons, Hilary’s name on their lips. There had been the double mastectomy, and for the second go around Hilary got to choose: perky C cup implants. Elizabeth knew it was the kind of thing she would always have to keep to herself. A private indulgence, like sneaking dark chocolate or that extra glass of wine.
It was July. The Mississippi River had flooded that spring and though the water had receded, Memphis still felt bogged with the swampy mire. The house was swollen, doors and windows sticking to their frames. Even with the air conditioning rattling tired through the vents, the four o’clock sun shone through the windows and spread itself thick and hot across the kitchen the same way it did at noon. Elizabeth was struggling to slice open a cantaloupe, pressing down with both hands on the handle of a large kitchen knife. The fruit was Hilary’s idea. Perfect Hilary with her perfect solutions. Elizabeth tried to keep fresh produce in the house for her poor, fat daughter, Jordan. Though the cancer would solve that as well; Jordan would lose weight from all the worry.
She imagined how she would carry her burden, the knowledge of her cancer, alone at first. She would bravely try to spare the family, but Hugh, somehow more tragically handsome in her mind, would coax it out of her. She stroked his hair as he cried silent tears into her lap. No he cried. No, I can’t live without you. You’re my everything. My life. I’ve been a fool.
There was a light parade of taps on the windowed patio door, and Elizabeth turned to see Hilary wiggling her fingers from behind the glass. She never used the front door. Elizabeth motioned for her to come inside and abandoned the cantaloupe on the cutting board, knife still sticking out at an angle.
“Good law, it’s a hot one,” Hilary said. Like the air, her accent was always thicker in the summer. She placed a hand on Elizabeth’s arm, leaned in and kissed at her cheek. Hilary wore a low cut halter, her skin already August tan, but Elizabeth took solace in the way the flesh hung loose around her arms. She obviously wasn’t getting her money’s worth in that Pilates class she bragged about.
“Drink?” Elizabeth asked. “I think Hugh mixed mint julep last night.”
Hilary smiled. “You know me too well.”
Leaving the refrigerator door open so she could feel the chill grazing at her back, Elizabeth refilled her own short glass and poured a fresh one for Hilary. She loved the color, amber and green, mint leaves swirling to the bottom. And she loved the smell. It was calming and soft, even when Hugh claimed it was too strong. It reminded her of Alabama football games in college and the smell of bourbon spilled down her dress and on Hugh’s breath.
“Thank you, darlin. I needed this,” Hilary said. She sat at the kitchen table and took a careful sip, holding it in her mouth. “You know I adore summer, but I’m set for this one to end.”
Elizabeth remembered a time herself when she couldn’t bear the long summer days. It was her first in Memphis, her first as a new mother, and she’d never felt so desperate in her life. Though she and Hugh had only been married a few years, they had fallen into marital routines of the middle aged. And he was never home. Hillary was her life preserver. She too had a new marriage and a new baby, and when she moved into the house two doors down, Elizabeth felt like she’d been rescued. Hilary’s nanny looked after both the babies while the women spent afternoons on the patio, drinking with the sliding glass door open so they could feel the air conditioning.
One afternoon in particular, Elizabeth drank so many cocktails on Hilary’s patio that she couldn’t manage the clasps of her shoes. She walked home barefoot, dangling her sandals by a finger. It wasn’t until she stumbled through the backdoor that she realized she had forgotten the baby. The phone was ringing with certain insistence, Hilary for sure. She dropped her shoes and ran to it, swinging around the doorframe with one hand and grabbing at the phone with the other. Before either could speak, they both burst into laughter. From then on it was their special secret, and they would whisper to each other at random moments for years to come, don’t forget the baby!
As Hilary whined about the heat, Elizabeth nodded, and crunched a mint leaf between her teeth. “I hear it’s record for Memphis,” Elizabeth said. “Hasn’t been this hot since the sixties.”
Hilary leaned her elbow on the table and swirled the ice loudly. “It’s bringing the wild out in people. I can’t stop thinking about that boy who jumped off the Peabody.” She shuddered. “And I read a police officer was shot downtown.”
“I’ve heard robbery rates go up in the summer.”
“So you think it’s true?”
“That the heat makes us do crazy things.”
Elizabeth ran a hand across her forehead. “I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”
“Cause tonight I’m telling John I want a divorce.” She grinned and raised her glass to her face. Either to toast or to hide behind it.
“What the hell, Hil?” Though Elizabeth couldn’t say why she really cared.
“I just have to remind him I’m not a sure thing.”
“But you are a sure thing. You’re married.”
“He’s been taking me for granted ever since my recovery. We both know I’m cute enough to find someone new.”
“What if he takes you up on that offer?”
“Please. We both are married to big, brawny southern men. They think they’re the ones who do the leaving. It would hurt his pride too much.” Hilary winked. “And he would be lonely and miserable without me. I have to rattle his cage a little. I’m not sweet like you, though, bless your heart, I wish I were. I can’t settle. I’m not made like that.”
Elizabeth’s hand covered her mouth, and she had a sudden urge to tip up the bottom of Hilary’s drink, dumping the julep onto her smug little face. She had a wonderfully clear image of her surprised scream and sticky, running makeup.
Hilary’s glass was empty, and she scooted it towards Elizabeth. “I’m being naughty today, aren’t I? Afternoon cocktails, just like old times,” she laughed, untangling her hair from one of her gold earrings. Elizabeth returned to the refrigerator for the pitcher, and she thought that if Hilary wasn’t watching, she would spit right in there with the ice. If someone had asked her, she wouldn’t be able to tell them why exactly. It was beginning to worry her how fast the anger came now. Things she used to suffer with ease now pushed her to the edge. Some days were a constant inward scream without breath. She wanted to run and kick and rip and yell until she collapsed. Maybe Hilary was right, and there was something wrong with the summer.
She looked out at the dead yard. Corpse grass that crunched underfoot. The sprinklers ran every morning at four, but they didn’t help. Elizabeth was usually awake, sheets kicked to the foot of the bed. One night she went downstairs and watched them from the shadows in the kitchen. Sometimes when the wind picked up they splattered water against the glass door, and when she stepped out onto the patio they misted her face. It made the hair around her face curl like a child’s. She wandered between the spitting heads and sat in the middle of the yard. She didn’t go back inside until they stopped, and she was soaked. Hugh found grass in the bed that morning. She waited, but he didn’t ask.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Elizabeth heard Hilary say, and she turned to see Jordan walk into the kitchen. Jordan was chewing on her cuticles, and she answered Hilary with her hand still in her mouth. She was wearing a black one-piece swimsuit that looked like maternity wear. The elastic around the bottom dug into her legs and made odd bulges that didn’t belong there. Jordan had always been a plump little girl, but at sixteen, it wasn’t cute anymore. It was bordering on tragic. Elizabeth blamed all those plus size models who tried to make fat look fun. Jordan opened the refrigerator.
“Your mama’s cutting a cantaloupe,” Hilary said. “Why don’t you wait for that?” She tried to catch Elizabeth’s eye.
“No thanks, I’m good,” Jordan said. She squatted to search the bottom shelves, and her thick legs folded up like a toad’s.
“Jordan,” Elizabeth said. Jordan didn’t look up. “You don’t need to be snacking right now.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“No, you’re not,” Elizabeth said. She put her hand on the refrigerator door. “You already had lunch.” Aren’t you embarrassed, she wanted to say. Aren’t you embarrassed by the way Hilary is eyeing you? Don’t you have any pride?
“Your mama’s right.” Hilary made a strange laughing sound through her closed lips.
Elizabeth pushed the refrigerator door and let it suck shut in front of Jordan’s face.
Mothers were supposed to treasure their children. It was programed in there somewhere. When Jordan was born, Elizabeth waited for it to happen, but no matter how anxiously she searched Jordan’s miniature screaming features she never felt anything fierce or primal.
There had been a tornado back when Jordan was still in diapers. Hugh was at work, and Elizabeth crouched with Jordan in the coat closet with the T.V. turned up full volume so they could hear it through the closed door. She had left a window open in the living room, something she had heard about air pressure, but as the jackets swung above her head, she wanted nothing more than to run out of the closet and close it, as if the tornado could quietly slip in and devour them all. When the power went out, silence shot through the house and even Jordan stopped crying. Elizabeth strained to hear the wind. She’d been told that twisters sounded like freight trains rushing down the tracks. She thought of news stories where mothers died in storms, shielding children with their bodies. As Jordan tried to climb into her lap, Elizabeth crossed her arms, pushing her back firmly against the closet wall.
It was evening by the time Hilary stood to leave. As Elizabeth walked her to the door, Hilary grabbed her hand. “I’ll call to let you know how things go.”
“Great,” Elizabeth said. For a moment, Hilary’s eyes lost their confidence, and she looked older. “Just don’t forget the baby,” Elizabeth added. Hilary smiled, maybe relieved, and kissed at Elizabeth’s cheek.
Exhausted and glad to be alone again, Elizabeth went out to the pool. Jordan had made herself scarce, probably when she saw Hilary gathering her things. She knew where Jordan went when she disappeared like this. There was a rosemary bush that grew against the house; the inside hollowed just enough to fit a sitting body. Jordan crawled under the bush with books and snacks, thinking herself hidden away. The needle-like leaves clung to her hair, and Elizabeth always felt she was vacuuming them off the kitchen floor. But she never told Jordan she knew. Sometimes Jordan would give her a book. “This one,” she would tell her mother even though Elizabeth hated to read. “This one, you will love. I promise.” When she opened them, the pages smelled of rosemary. Lately, Elizabeth had a horrible image of Jordan at thirty, still crouched under the bush with a book and a bag of cookies.
Elizabeth sat on the edge of the pool, dangling her legs. If she sat still enough, the water stopped moving, and she imagined she could walk straight across. She loved the way the pool looked at night with all the outside lights off, as if the bottom dropped out and the dark water fell to unknown depths. The patio door opened behind her.
“I thought you’d be ready by now,” Hugh said.
Elizabeth rested her chin on the curve of her shoulder. “Ready?”
“For our dinner reservation at Automatic Slim’s. I told you this morning.” He stood so close that his jeans brushed her arm. He was almost stepping on her fingers. “You forgot, didn’t you? You still have time to take a shower.”
That morning? She didn’t remember speaking to him, seeing him even. He still worked long hours; that much hadn’t changed since they were first married. All she knew was that he worked in finance, and when friends asked for specifics she just smiled and shrugged. “Oh, something with numbers. Completely over my head.”
Elizabeth didn’t stand up. Instead she straightened her right leg and watched as it slowly broke the surface of the water. She wondered if he’d be mad if she dropped it back down and splashed him. Something was wrong, but she wasn’t ready to tell him. Sometimes her brain just itched. When she woke in the mornings, Hugh was gone for work, and often she would lie for hours, watching the sunlight creep across the carpet in streaks, or she slept until there was no sleep left in her. She would decide to go for a swim, but as she took off her shirt, she would find that her hair was damp and her swimsuit already wet in the bathroom sink. She would cut fruit for Jordon only to see it already sliced and placed in Tupperware. Once she found strawberries in the upstairs medicine cabinet.
She let Hugh help her to her feet, and once she was upright, he didn’t let go of her hand. He ran his thumb over the bones of her wrist and frowned.
“Have you lost more weight?” he asked. He encircled her wrists, one in each hand. “You’re hardly here.”
“Your jeans are about to fall off.” He was still holding her wrists. “Are you eating?”
“Of course I’m eating. Why wouldn’t I eat?”
“You tell me. Is that why you’re sitting out here instead of getting ready?”
She wanted to rip her hands away and tell him that she wasn’t going to dinner. She didn’t feel like it. Maybe he could take Kathleen Wood instead. Elizabeth wanted to scream at Hugh. How could you let our daughter find out? How could you not be more careful? It’s one thing to know your father is having an affair, but it’s another thing to know that your mother is letting it happen.
Elizabeth had watched Kathleen and Hugh from the corner of the bedroom window as they swam naked in the pool. She was waiting for the sound of the sprinklers when she heard splashing and hushed laugher, and looking back she didn’t remember wondering why Hugh wasn’t in bed. Divorced Kathleen Wood who lived three houses down and had a twelve year old son. She stood in the shallow end of the pool, and her breasts were two swelling white bulbs balancing on the water. Elizabeth watched as Hugh kissed her lips and down her neck, and then his head disappeared under the surface into the dark. For a moment Kathleen was alone, her head so much smaller with wet hair instead of her teased blond halo. She felt nothing. Wasn’t the spurned wife supposed to rage or disappear into her sorrow?
She knew very little about Kathleen except that she had recently moved to Memphis from Montgomery, and she had a thick accent like Hilary, the kind men adore because it makes women sound stupid and kind. She hadn’t told anyone, not even Hilary. But Hilary must have picked up on something because she constantly reassured Elizabeth that Kathleen was fake. Cheap fake nails, fake hair and, here Hilary would raise an eyebrow, who knows what else. “Even her accent sounds fake,” Hilary said. “I bet she’s not even from Montgomery.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll go upstairs now. I’ll be quick.” Elizabeth jerked her wrists out of Hugh’s grasp, and he stumbled backwards, almost into the pool. She didn’t reach out a hand to stop him. As he regained his balance, he knocked into the glass of mint julep on the ground, and it tipped and shattered, some of the shards tumbling into the water. She hurried inside, leaving him in the dark, cursing and crawling on his hands and knees to collect the pieces.
In the kitchen, she saw that he had finished cutting the cantaloupe for her, and it sat next to the knife in naked crescent moons. As she took the knife to the kitchen sink, she lightly tapped her finger on its point. It was dull. They were all probably dull.
Elizabeth turned on the shower as hot as she could stand it and tipped her head back under the water. When they were young and still took showers together, Hugh complained about how hot she liked it. She wanted to feel as if she were burning off the dirt and the sweat instead of washing it off. She liked to imagine that she could burn everything away.
The summer after graduation she almost broke it off with Hugh. He and some friends went to Europe, leaving her behind to answer phones for her daddy’s law firm. She probably could have tagged along if she had asked, but she didn’t. She had too much pride. And she wanted him to want her. Hugh sent her postcards, three to be exact. Though he didn’t write anything romantic, she propped them against the lamp on her nightstand, so she could look at them as she fell asleep. Then she met Greg. Greg was older, wore glasses that made him look like Clark Kent, and he took Elizabeth dancing on the weekends. She planned on telling Hugh when he returned in August. She would have just ended it over the phone if her mama hadn’t convinced her not to. “Look him in the face one more time,” she told her. At the end of the summer, Hugh came back skinnier and with longer hair, and he said that he left her something in Bruges. He said that once they were married they would go back to Europe together and find it. She went home and pulled his three postcards out of the kitchen trash.
As she rubbed shampoo into her scalp, she felt her chest start to tighten, and there was a kick in her pulse. Putting her hand on the tile wall to steady herself, she noticed that she was shaking. The running water felt like hot blood in her body. She reached for the razor and heard the bathroom door open.
“What do you need?” The razor was dull with built-up deodorant.
“Can I borrow your nail polish? My red is all dried.”
“Just remember to put it back.” She heard Jordan pawing through a drawer. “And please look neatly!” she called over the water. Her chest was still tight; her hands were still shaking, and she could feel a tingling in her brain, the itching. It crept down her neck and into her arms, itching just under her skin. She lightly scraped the razor over her arm. She pressed harder. The blood didn’t appear at first, but when it did, the water swept it away.
“I can’t find it,” Jordan said.
“Don’t whine. It’s unattractive,” Elizabeth said as she drew the razor fast across her arm again. The top of her arm, not the delicate underside. It took a few tries to cut, and the cuts were small, like cat scratches. That’s how the scabs would look. No one would notice. They weren’t desperate. When her hands started shaking too hard, she held her arm out of the water and let the cuts bloom. They stung without the shower running over them, and she ran her finger across the lines, smearing the red.
It became hard to breathe in the steam, so Elizabeth turned the water off and stepped out. Jordan was gone. For once that day the air felt cool as it touched her body, and she didn’t reach for a towel. Instead, she walked dripping into the bedroom. She had to find something to wear for dinner.
“Elizabeth?” She turned and saw Hugh standing in the doorway. He looked down the hall and quickly closed the door behind him. “Why aren’t you ready yet? I’ll have to push the reservation back.”
Elizabeth crossed her arms, cuts facing out, across her bare chest.
“You’re dripping everywhere.”
“I cut my arms on the rose bushes,” Elizabeth told him. They didn’t have rose bushes. He would know this, and the realization would come on him suddenly, like a slap in the face.
“I’m sorry, hon.” He disappeared into the bathroom. “I hope you used peroxide.” He came back with a towel to wrap around her, as if he were ashamed of her nakedness. She let him drape it over her shoulders.
“I don’t think I can do dinner tonight,” she told him. She gathered the towel tightly and squared her shoulders as she constantly imagined herself doing.
“It’s my favorite place. We never get to go.”
She took a deep breath. “When I was in the shower—” she looked away from his eyes. “—I found a lump in my breast.”
“A what? A lump?”
“Yes. A lump. In my breast.”
“Well, let me see.” She let the towel slide off her shoulder. He reached out and grabbed, probably with the same expression, that indentation between his eyebrows, that he had when he cut up the melon downstairs. “I don’t feel anything.”
‘It’s there,” she told him. “It’s a lump.”
“I honestly don’t feel a thing, but for your peace of mind, make a doctor’s appointment for Monday. I’ll call the restaurant while you dry your hair.”
With an inward push, Elizabeth tore herself away from him and ran to the bed. “You want me to die,” she said.
“What?” Hugh raised his hands in front of him. “Who’s dying?”
“You don’t care about my cancer!” She could hear her voice, high and pathetic, surprising even herself. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Hugh sat down, careful not to touch her. “I think the heat might be getting to you,” he said. “Did you drink enough water today?”
“It’s not the goddamn heat!” Elizabeth yelled and threw a pillow across the room. It hit the dresser, tipping over a picture frame.
There was a knock at the door. Neither answered, and the knock came again. “Is Mom okay?”
“Everything’s fine. Go to your room,” Hugh said.
“But Dad—” The door began to open.
“Close the door and go to your room!” Now Hugh was yelling. He turned to Elizabeth, and there was no sympathy in his face. “We’ll make an appointment for Monday.” Before she could answer, he went to their closet and returned with one of her nightgowns.
She stood up, leaving a wet spot on the bedspread in the shape of her curled body. “You know what? Maybe I just want a divorce.” Her voice was quiet and even. He held the nightgown out for her. When she wouldn’t take it, he dropped it on the floor in front of her and closed the door behind him.
Copyright 2014 Zurcher