I'm walking into the cancer institute even though we were told it wouldn't come to chemo. That the mastectomy would take care of it, the double mastectomy for good measure, but something about biopsies, invasiveness, probability meant that a cell could have been missed. And that's all it could take, really—a single cell kicking off, snowballing at random, starting this all over—so Ashley said fuck it, let’s stomp it out.
The room is cream, cozy, a recliner alongside an IV pole from which they'll hang poison. A window overlooking the Ohio, trees fat and green on the far banks, springtime. New life and shit. Ashley settles into the recliner, kicks back her feet as if she's at the movies, and I picture the rundown theater in a strip mall in Muncie where we saw Juno on our first date, where we laughed about blue slurpees and boysenberry-scented condoms until we buckled over, fell into one another. Where I put my hand on hers, squeezed it. Felt like my future hinged on the outcome and swallowed down nerves, maybe puke until she squeezed back. Exhaled, traced my thumb across the lines of her palm.
Ashley says my name and I don't respond, so she says it again, swats at my arm. I look up, apologize. The nurse asks me if I want anything, a snack or maybe a soda, and I laugh, say I'm good because of course I'm good, I'm not the one in the recliner. I’m the one who holds the post-visit instructions, drives home. Monitors symptoms. Ashley bites her lower lip, smiles, asks the nurse if he could bring me a Diet Coke. He nods, of course, says he'll be right back. He returns with two bags, hangs them on the IV pole. Neither contains Diet Coke. I can't ask him about this because I didn't ask for the Diet Coke and Ashley is getting a needle in her arm that’s it, the medication that will knock her out and take her hair and her taste and supposedly her sex drive. I picture the time we made out to Aerosmith, laughed because we made out to Aerosmith, made out again. The way her hair shone, golden and curly against her red futon mattress. I whisper, "dream until your dreams come true," and the nurse asks me if I have any questions. I tell him I don't.
It takes a couple days for the effects to set in. When they do they come fast, sucker punch her. Twelve-hour naps, hot flashes that fade into chills, nausea. I offer her a snack, but she's lost her appetite, says things have lost their flavor. Something about taste receptors or nerve endings—singed, she says, like the tingling on her scalp, the heat in her fingertips that she treats with gloves we leave in the freezer. I make jalapeño poppers one night, put them in two piles on a plate that I balance on my forearm while I carry a cup of water, an icepack, a romance novel she ordered because of BookTok, maybe Twitter.
She turns her head when I walk in, eyes closed, forehead sweat-slicked. I set the poppers on the dresser, the water and book on her nightstand, and sit down next to her. Shake her shoulder, ask her to eat, drink. She says no, rolls over. I kiss her shoulder, apologize.
I go downstairs, dump the poppers in the trash. Rinse the plate, the baking sheet, our daughter's Spider-Man cup. I convince myself I hear something from our room, walk upstairs, crack the door. Mutter an apology when Ashley’s eyes flutter. I walk back downstairs, put more dishes away, straighten the kid’s toys, hop from one room to the next like a bird with its wings clipped. Dust the bookshelves, vacuum the rug, scrub at the stain in the kitchen tile left by the previous owner. Run out of shit to do, go up to bed, lie on my side. Reach across the mattress, grab her hand, run my thumb across her palm. She wraps her fingers around it, chilly and wet, and what a treat it is to hold onto something so familiar and so distant, to string yourself up in support of someone, submit to the vulnerability of doing your best, staying the course, moving ahead in a new and terrifying way.
Adam Shaw lives with his wife and daughter in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel The Jackals and the memoir Sportsman’s Paradise, and his work can be found in Pithead Chapel, HAD, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. He can be found online at theshawspot.com.