From Catapult Books “As soon as you agree to soup.”: Excerpts from Erin McGraw’s ‘Joy’
“We need more soft bedding; everything now is hopelessly stained. We need better antiemetics. We need a miracle, and somebody to say so. It’s not going to be him.”
Below is an excerpt from Erin McGraw’s fiction collection Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories , now available from Counterpoint Press.
Sunny arrived the day before my wife, Laurie, started chemo. She’d already had surgery that took away her ovaries and her uterus; the chemo was, her oncologist said, “to clean house.” Laurie posted a Facebook update, and inside two hours Sunny was at the house with a basket of gifts—special lip balm because chemo does such a job on moist tissue; vitamin E lotion for her arms after all the needle sticks; hot pink socks that didn’t look like sickroom clothes. I don’t know how she knew what Laurie would need. Sunny was as new to this as we were.
From work, I called home throughout the day to make dumb jokes or ask what Laurie wanted for dinner, though I already knew she didn’t want anything. Sometimes Laurie would say, “Sunny’s here,” and I’d hold off telling her I loved her, suddenly shy over the telephone. One day Sunny answered the phone and ice ran through me, but she only said that she happened to be close to the phone, and then she handed it over to Laurie. Sunny answered all the time after that.
Laurie and I never asked Sunny to come; she just came. She spent her nights at home researching side effects of Taxol versus Taxotere, and came with us to oncology appointments armed with questions. “Are you a family member?” the doctor asked.
“Almost,” Laurie said.
“Just a friend,” Sunny said, smiling down at her folded hands.
“Quite a friend,” the doctor said, his voice scrubbed of emotion or judgment, so I heard emotion and judgment. What did he care if we came in with a clown car full of people? I wished he would stick to the subject.
The subject, when the subject is cancer, takes over the room. Protocols, test studies, carboplatin, neuropathy, IP, IV. Sores, rashes, nausea. Percentages. After the initial consult we didn’t once mention our plan to raise chickens in the backyard for the children we now were not having. At a working lunch somebody ordered chicken salad, and I had to go outside and spend five minutes getting a grip on myself.
“You didn’t see it coming?” people ask, as if they themselves would have hidden in a safe interior room with plenty of batteries and bottled water. Laurie and I played tennis the day before the diagnosis and she beat me, straight sets. She had gone for her annual physical and something funny showed up in the blood work. That was all. No tiredness, no distension of the belly, no weight loss. Laurie would have been overjoyed with some weight loss, at first. The joke everybody makes.
Even the oncologist sat there looking at Laurie’s chart and shaking his head. “Sometimes it happens like this, like lightning out of a blue sky. I’m so sorry.”
Then home, then tears, then phone calls and emails and people I’d barely heard of, friends of Laurie’s from work or tennis club. Then Sunny. She had been at Laurie’s company, and they still got together a few times a year for lunch or a movie. She was just a name my wife mentioned from time to time.
The first time Sunny called me at the office and asked me to bring home dinner, I was happy to help. I couldn’t expect her to make dinner for us every night. The second time, she told me which Thai takeout place to go to for hot and sour soup. When I got home she had washed and folded all the sheets, which surely was worth some tom yum goong. “You didn’t ask for fish sauce?” Sunny said, rummaging through the bag.
She was my wife’s best friend now.
Laurie’s descent wasn’t even. She would level out for weeks at a time, when we would tell each other that she had hit bottom, and this round of sores and invisible, agonizing pain was the worst, and suddenly she would be much worse, as if she had been clinging to the side of a well and was losing purchase. She slept so lightly that I was afraid to fall asleep myself; some errant twitch or snore could wake her from her wan rest. Sunny said it would make sense for me to sleep in the guest room, and she was right, but I wasn’t about to sleep in the room for strangers, where Sunny often left her bag of knitting. Instead I got a cot and pushed it next to Laurie’s bed. At night I rolled as close as she could bear and breathed her smell, now a sour mix of chemicals and the nausea that was at best partially controlled.
I couldn’t begin to feel what she was going through. Sunny told me this before launching into a list of Laurie’s symptoms and complaints, the intimate details Laurie herself didn’t tell me. Sometimes bowel discharge came through her vagina. Sunny had to change the sheets several times a day. Laurie had bought those sheets, and even though they cost the earth, she assured me she had gotten a deal. She taught me that sheets could be special.
Sunny’s coffee drinks in the refrigerator. The TV tuned to Sunny’s channel. She liked to watch talent shows and set the kitchen radio to a classical station that I changed every morning so I could hear the news.
Today I come home with the Italian wedding soup Sunny stipulated and hear Laurie’s laughter pealing from the bedroom. It’s been months. I hurry in to find Sunny sitting on the bed, the two of them looking at our wedding album.
“Memory Lane!” Laurie says. Her face is shining, and if Sunny hadn’t been there, I would have kissed my wife.
“That was some haircut,” Sunny says to me.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I protest.
“Honey, it was awful, but I married you anyway.”
“What prompted this?”
“I wanted one moment in this house that wasn’t about being sick.”
My smile falls off my face, but Laurie is back to looking at my haircut and doesn’t notice.
Since they look comfy on the bed, I go to the kitchen and put together a tray with soup and grapefruit juice—Laurie likes it now—and a rose from outside in a bud vase. Sometimes a rose makes her smile. From the bedroom comes another whoop of laughter, and for a piercing mo- ment, I wish I could bring Laurie a glass of wine.
“What is it this time?” I say at the doorway, after pausing to get my voice right.
“Look at your face ! Talk about a thousand-yard stare. You look like you just got a death sentence.” She holds up a picture of us at the altar, and she’s right—my eyes seem focused on something far away and frightening. I tighten my grip on the tray and set it gently over my wasted wife, willing her to look up and meet my eyes. Which she does, briefly.
Both of us jerk a little when we hear his car in the driveway. I’ve seen Laurie do it in her sleep—the slight tightening, the unconscious smoothing of the mouth—and I know she’s dreaming of him. It’s not something to discuss.
I’m getting as sensitive as Laurie, and when he comes in I can smell his lunch burrito and the Sharpie ink that has bled onto his fingers. Next to the bed he stands awkwardly, still holding his briefcase. Since the time she winced when he picked up her hand, he doesn’t touch her, but he asks her how today was. “A little better,” she says when it wasn’t too bad; “a little worse” when it was a lot worse. I’m not saying that she’s a hero. She’s just sick of questions.
He has nothing but questions, and she understands that. How is he supposed to know, if he doesn’t ask? She does the same thing. “How was the phone conference? How did the meeting with Mitch go?” She closes her eyes while he answers, and then he tiptoes out of the room. In grief, his face is like a joint wrenched out of its socket. I ask if he remembered to bring home soup. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need soup.
We need more soft bedding; everything now is hopelessly stained. We need better antiemetics. We need black-out shades in the bedroom. We need a decent place for me to sleep. We need a miracle, and somebody to say so. It’s not going to be him.
“He wishes you weren’t here,” Laurie said once, after he left for work.
“So do I,” she said. That shocked me, and I started to protest, but she grinned at me and winked. “He wouldn’t let me say that. He thinks it’s rude. He loses track of what’s important.”
“No shit,” I said.
Was that before or after I started going with them to appointments? I should keep a journal that I’ll be able to refer to one day while I write about these muffled, beautiful days. Muted Light: A Friend’s Journey with Cancer .
You say “friend” and “caretaking” and people assume a relationship that stretches back to kindergarten, memories of camp and proms and first cigarettes. I don’t know why a friendship that started at the office basement vending machine is less legitimate. The first month Laurie and I knew each other, all we talked about was Cheetos. Before she got sick, I didn’t know her husband’s name. I heard cancer and I came.
Laurie caught me by the hand once. Even that small exertion just about undid her. “In case he doesn’t say it, thank you.”
“Of course he says it.”
She gave me a look that bundled up Oh, come on with Don’t make me say it . She’s perfected communication with a twist of the mouth and a tilt of the head; sometimes we go through whole days on only a handful of words. Didn’t somebody once say that real intimacy occurs in silence? I keep learning lessons, and I don’t know where to put them. Reaching Through the Silence: Accompanying a Friend with Cancer .
On the good days, at first, she could sit up in bed and we would talk while she pretended to eat the soup I gave her. She was engaged to be married twice before she finally made it to the altar. Her eventual mother-in-law gave her a stack of baby clothes as a wedding present. “I tried to make a joke about it, and she said, ‘It’s not as if you’re young.’ I was thirty-one.”
“How old are you now?”
She looks fifty. But then, I do, too, and I’m forty-four and healthy as a horse. I’ll nurse everybody I know, and I’ll outlive them all. My job is to be the one who lasts.
After he comes home one night, I meet him in the kitchen, where we can talk. “Have you made plans about a funeral?”
His face goes white. “What did Laurie say to you?”
“Nothing. What has she said to you?”
“We don’t have to think about that yet.” It isn’t the first time a man has looked at me with hate. I lost my job at Laurie’s company because the man in the cube next to mine didn’t think the office was a place to chew gum or listen to light classical, even with earbuds. I kept a log of his non-work calls, but in the end no one let me produce it; I came back from a meeting and found a box on my desk with my pictures and MP3 player in it. “We’re down-sizing,” my manager said, though no one was fired but me, the unmarried woman who knits. Laurie didn’t call. Much later, when we became Facebook friends, she said she hadn’t known, and that might be true.
“Just pay attention,” I say. “It won’t hurt to think about songs she especially likes. Not hymns. She doesn’t like those.”
“No,” he says. His tone is humble, and I smile at him.
He shakes his head. “No.”
“He thinks he’s strong,” I say to Laurie the next day, and she looks at me with surprise.
“No, he doesn’t. He always says I’m the strong one.”
“Then he wants to look strong.”
Laurie shakes her head. “Where do you get this stuff?”
That night she sits up and smiles when he comes home. He’s brought pasta e fagioli from the good Italian place, and she makes a big deal about the rich smell, spangled with basil, as if he’d made it himself. “Why don’t you take some of this, Sunny?” It takes me a moment to recognize that she’s sending me home. He’s sitting on the bed, looking at her with a cocker spaniel’s pure adoration.
“Thanks all the same. I don’t like beans.” I might as well have said that I didn’t like carburetors. When Laurie starts to cough, he holds his hand half an inch from her shoulder. Touch her! She’s already broken!
“Thank you for everything, Sunny,” he says.
I will be back tomorrow. The Endless Present: A Friend’s Slide to Death . In front of the coat closet, twenty feet from Laurie’s room, I slip on my coat and softly hum a bit of the aria that was just on the radio: il nome mio nessun saprà . It’s the only line I can remember, but it’s beautiful when Pavarotti sings it, and I could have worse songs in my head.
Hearing steps in the hall, I straighten my legs under the covers and close my eyes. I am just on the lip of remember- ing, every cell straining, like the edge of orgasm. In front of the door, the steps stop, then back silently away while my brain reaches in every direction, almost touching the thing I want.
And then falls short again. I spend hours like this, dancing at the brink of a memory that teasingly winds around me. The things I used to know flicker like fireflies, and I clumsily lunge and clutch at them. Probably I am the dog chasing the car; what would I do if I caught it? While my body busies itself with dying, my mind is bright with what it used to know.
I became a good ice-skater once I got my own skates, and could sharpen the blades. They hissed over the ice and I felt dangerous. I never hurt anybody else, but once I sliced my own leg while I was lacing up and needed four stitches. When I was thirteen I broke my ankle, and that was it for skating, though now, if I try, I remember the scrape of metal on ice, and the high laughter of the girls with elaborate hair who wobbled at the side of the rink. The salty grease of the cheese fries. The screechy video game music bouncing over the ice.
In college, I saw a plum tree in bloom, the first time I’d ever seen one. I collapsed at its base and gazed at the blue sky behind the screen of pink blossoms for an hour, straight through my geology quiz on sedimentary rocks. To this day I don’t know what breccias are, and I’ve done just fine.
Except for the nausea, which is almost constant. The doctors told me that antiemetics are good now. I’m lucky, they told me.
The footsteps come back, and I close my eyes again, though the trick won’t work twice in a row.
“Don’t you want some soup? You need to eat something.”
“Please? For me?”
I open my eyes. “I’m tired of throwing up.” Sunny’s face is warped into a caregiver’s look of concern, as if she’s being graded on her performance. “Smile,” I say.
“As soon as you agree to soup.”
She stumps away, making sure I hear her annoyance. That makes two of us. Left uninterrupted, wobbling on my unsteady raft, I am nearly happy.
Pain keeps me company, patiently gnawing. The pain is a lap-sized creature with rich fur and spiky teeth constantly growing in. The only way the animal can stop its own discomfort is to gnaw. One of us has to hurt, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be me.
“The new drugs do a good job controlling pain. If it ever gets too much for you, we can help,” say the doctors. Right now, I’m interested in the creature. It’s been a while since I’ve had a pet, and I like the plush, velvety fur.
I crave, of all things, cheesecake. This is not something to tell Michael, who would bring home four of them when I can’t even hold down a soft-boiled egg. But while my brain is ranging amid the glittering memories like a boy with a stick, I imagine thick, sweet cream cheese and imagine that I want it.
When I was a girl, we had a piano made of brown wood. Our kitchen walls were yellow, and my mother washed the white café curtains twice a year. These are not the memories I’m reaching for, though I hold on to the unexpected smell of bleach in the kitchen that lasted a day or so.
A cloud spied through skeletal trees, billowing like whipped cream. A tendril of music, not quite pretty. The smile of the first man I went to bed with. None of these.
During the day it’s Sunny in the apartment; at night it’s Michael. They try to hide their quarrels from me. The day I married Michael, my shoes pinched. I don’t remember the day I met Sunny.
My mother had hatboxes. My sister drowned when I was eight. She had lumpy braids and wore drugstore cologne, and she taught me cat’s cradle. There is no reason for that to make me cry.
Sunny must be hovering just outside the door; at the first sniffle she bursts in. “What’s wrong? What hurts?”
“Do you want me to call the doctor?” And then, in an unexpected blossoming of something like insight, “Are you afraid?” She leans in, ready to take my fear away. Once, somewhere, I watched water fall over a stone.
I dredge up a smile and paste it crookedly on my face. I’ve sat at sickbeds, too, and it isn’t easy. I should be nicer to her. “If you go away, I’ll eat some soup later.”
“No, you won’t.”
For that I give her a real smile. “I’ll try.”
“You need to fight. You’ll win if you just fight.” Her broad face is fiercely cheerful, stupid as a cabbage, and my eyes brim again. She doesn’t understand a goddamn thing.
I’m still crying when Michael comes home, and I hear the whispers at the front door. Next to my bed, he says, “What changed?”
I watch him keep himself from saying, Sunny said . We smile at each other, and I wipe snot from my nose.
“Do you want me to sleep next to you tonight?”
“Yes.” He wants me to make a choice, so I do. Eventually, after carefully not making any noise, he will drop off to sleep. Then I’ll be free to turn my back on him and push my mind harder while my back arcs against the pain that’s generally worse at night. Gritty sand on a linoleum floor. The shock of ice against skin. A baby’s shriek cutting a room in half. Dizzying, almost sickening honeysuckle.
The slam of a car door. My skating coach’s whistle. Library’s clean must.
Cold ashes. Cat’s sharp whisker. Petals.
Sesame seeds. Gravel. Perfume. Water. Light.