The next morning, we awaken late and fuzzy-headed, then repair to our bamboo chairs under the coconut palms, speech-less on the sun-baked Caribbean beach. Creatures of habits, good and bad. The azure slash of sky edges the pale rolling pith of horizon that defines our world. Glare, like a lancet under the rims of my dark glasses, forces me to drop my chin to my chest and peer through the slits of my lashes. We spread our blankets and stare over our feet at the crowds ebbing across the raked sand like land-locked fish. In the distance, the sea is a surging pulse of lime, emerald and translucent, each wave a juicy fragment, detonating slants of light through the limpid sea. I feel like I’m poised on a tilt-a-whirl. I tilt my journal to the shade and try to lose myself in words. Like little birds, they tilt and wheel behind my eyes, no matter how still I stay. My mind’s a disordered dreidel that I cannot quiet.
I write down the date on a Post-it note, bookmarking the page for later. He murmurs: I turn. My husband’s eyes, restless behind bronze-tinted lenses, furtively track the parade of near-naked bodies on the shoreline. His gaze, as intrusive as fingers teasing meaning from flattened Braille, skims lust from a taut nipple here, strokes the tanned curve of fleshy thigh over there. I’m reminded of a predatory animal. He used to stare at me like that and I used to like it. How long has it been? I shake the nuisance musings from my mind; better to disengage, instead of think. When I ask if he’d like a sandwich, it’s as if my lips haven’t moved. The door of our conversations has swung almost shut and I’m the one with my hand nudging the knob.
Off to my right, I hear someone yell in a German-accented voice, Pa-tri-cia. Pa-tri-cia! I’d known a Patricia. Trish. A former colleague. I’m poked by a probe of survivor guilt. Surreptitiously, I hike up my bathing suit strap. With my pinkie-finger, I trace the puckered ridge of scar-boundary between my right breast and where my left used to be. That’s the story I’ve wanted to write for a long time.
Like me, Trish jumped into an early marriage. Unlike me, she was barren until she conceived at age 45, with a one-night stand man. That he was not her husband didn’t faze her, considering. The child, a boy they called Sam, was born with multiple afflictions. He improved, though, and at 17 months of age he was a jolly, beautiful toddler thought to be beyond the grasp of experimental treatments. Then, one morning, Trish found Sam splayed in his crib, dead, taken without even a warning cry. Two months later, scarcely emerged from her grieving, she probed a random lump in her right breast. Needle biopsy. Fibrous and non-threatening, she was told. Disbelieving, she sought a second opinion. Then a third. Cancer. Aggressive.
I knew when I discovered mine, when I was diagnosed, that my journey would be different. I had my children still. My husband’s refuge was, as usual, a simmering detachment. This time though, it was muted by my ‘condition’. He didn’t hover. I was the one who froze, rabbit-like. Instead of raging as she did at the snake eyes chance had dealt, I acquiesced, just as I’ve always done with the important decisions. We reconnected, Trish and I, commiserating, travelling in tandem for a time, breaching our scared solitudes during rehab, debating vitamin regimens and prostheses versus reconstruction after mastectomy, sharing our secret awfuls. But I was never good at arcane languages and resisted sharing her familiarity with the lingua franca of the disease. The bonds of our closeness unraveled: I got better and she did not.
After serial rounds of chemo, she went into remission and began to knit the tattered threads of her mid-life back together. Eight months later, she visited the doctor with a persistent back ache. The roots of carcinoma had spread. I called when I heard from a mutual friend that she was back in treatment, and asked how she was doing, fearful of what she’d say, afraid that I’d be expected to be positive, knowing that my cheer reserves were tapped out. Aside from the pain and some shortness of breath, she’d said, she felt not too bad, considering. Trish and her husband escaped to Arizona in the midst of a bleak Ontario winter, to mend and re-group. After four good days, she awoke up one morning, said that she was tired of the pain, told him that she loved him and died that afternoon. I’d never have her courage for that fight, but I’m trying to learn.
On the lounge at the beach after brunch, I pick up my pen and write like a madwoman. When I take a break and sneak a look at my husband reclined on the other chair, I know he senses that I’m watching, but his eyes…his eyes. He feels no need to change. It’s partly my fault, I know, because I’ve always compromised, avoiding confrontations, believing that with my compliance, I could make any ‘thing’ better. I was wrong. I can’t blame him – I’d never pushed for change. I accept that I was afraid. That asking would expose the cracks of our discontent to the sting of open air.
“What are you thinking,” he says without looking at me. That’s what our conversations have become – glancing syllables that sometimes land with a thud, connect with a wince and occasionally disappear in transit.
“Nothing, really,” I reply as usual. He says that he’s thirsty. I know it’s not for me. Hasn’t been for a long time. Of course, I lay down my book, slip into my cover-up and wend my way past the SPF-40 conga line to the beach bar. The afternoon-shift mixologist’s right eye droops in a languid wink as he uncaps a Red Stripe beer and tops off my rum punch with a clutter of fruit garnish. His name tag reads: Canary. A conversation-starter, no doubt. He catches me looking and starts to smile, anticipating some seaside banter. No, mon. I reach across the Formica to accept the tall sweating glass. His bitten-to-the-quick index and middle fingers flutter meaningfully against the back of my hand but withdraw when I shake my head and turn away. It’s not you.
My husband grunts his thanks, drains the bottle then leans back with his wrist over his brow, resuming his surveillance. Not now. Unlike my husband, I’ve never had eyes for anyone else. I’d overlooked the smudged lipstick on collars and unexplained chits for flowers I’d never opened. When we’d spoken of it, Trish had snapped that it was my loss. I know she thought me weak, not taking opportunities as they’d been offered. After regretting that I’d betrayed what I thought of as a conjugal trust of sorts, I finally countered that it was my choice. She’d mouthed the word ‘fidelity’ as if it was something perverse.
One-handed, I shake the sand from my towel and sit astride the chaise. With my tongue and forefinger, I strip the pulp from the fruit impaled on the umbrella toothpick, relishing the sting. Without thinking, I press the orange slice to my nostrils, inhaling the sharp tang of the bright flesh. My chest tightens with the swell of memory of the aftershave he used to wear when we were dating. I fling the skin into a pile of drying sea grape leaves and begin to write again.