Despite tests and retests—her mammogram dittoed across clinic walls like some sick Warhol print—Sarah had not understood her disease until she’d sketched the body it was quickly dismantling. Yet facets of dying remain welcome. There is the peculiar silence. No one can understand what she is going through. No one is fool enough to try. They are much too busy, and satisfied, fidgeting with her body. Death, it occurs to her now, watching Philip fold and stack towels on the bed near her feet, it’s like a sound-proof booth in an old quiz show. Through the glass the audience can express commiseration, but words simply do not penetrate. And as she arcs her hand, softening a detail on her sketch-pad, it occurs to her, that too is what she once loved about her art—the exclusivity, the surprise even in making copies, recreating the original as one’s own.
Inside the glass booth, she decides, dying is a pantomime, a performance art without rehearsal; always finale, always debut: each day a fresh nuance in the languorous touch of a glass, a wistful grin, the daily papers growing heavy with old news, the laughter of children in the adjacent yard, the tea strainers and folding of warm clean towels. . . death is a kind of duty which the grief of others makes sure—mimicking sorrow, gesturing false hope behind the glass plate—that you perform.
“I washed the ones you were using already,” he says to her, “since the nap is less stiff. Your skin has been so sensitive lately.” (She smiles.) “How’s the cocktail?”
To counter the burning in her lungs and liver, the gnawing through her bones, she is allowed to give herself morphine. She floats now upon her bed, anchored to earth by the drip-bag, and sheathed in sunlight from a southern window. And death’s grip, like that of a fairy-tale giant, remains paralyzed by the magic spell. She rolls her head from side to side in the strange mix of heavy and light the drug brings, as though her soul were leaden while her body fades. She’s tempted to laugh.”I’m okay. Maybe, a little less.”
He turns the plastic dial down one number. She reaches out, her elbow bulbous inside her skin, to touch his leg. What can she say to this man she must abandon? She kisses his brow as he leans awkwardly down. She whispers, “You wonderful, sweet. . .” He whispers, “You’re high.”
There had been bad moments, of course. The shock following the initial report. Her breasts carved away and sealed up in specimen jars—things no one could imagine. And he is so good-natured; it had. thus taken time to appreciate how it all weighed upon Philip.
Without colleagues of his own, here in a Midwest that had never been part of their plans, his research had slowed to a halt while her career took off. And when he announced he was turning his dissertation on the English Civil War into a book, she’d been unsure whether to be encouraged, or detect a fiction it would require years to dispel. She’d felt his resentment at department parties, whenever called upon to play faculty spouse. She saw his bitter pleasure in being the perfect host, even in other people’s houses.
It was his capacity for self-punishment that had kept her quiet after she’d winced, finding the tiny node, lying on the beach in the Caribbean three springs ago.(Face down on the sand, her top undone, she thought a knot in the strap had been trapped beneath her.) But once the diagnosis was sure, and she did suspect his panic, she became a better patient.
“I made shortbread this morning. I’ll set you up before I go to the library.”
“Yes.” Her mind is clearing but her mouth is still loose. “Will you be long?” He says no, bringing corners together.
To show him she wanted to get well, she bought books and read articles. She even attended a support group. Women in pastel warm-up suits, sitting on big pillows, talked of husbands and children left alone. They wept for eating too much fat or smoking cigarettes. . . Such good little soldiers, such diligent students of where they went wrong, so impeccably blameworthy.
She could not tell Philip she’d quit the group. The diagnosis had brought silence like a deafening fog into the house—shutting cupboards gently, catching the kettle before it screamed—as though a loud noise might break the unravelling thread of life. And into that quiet, like a flat white stone into dark water, sank the sounds of real joy—wavering, flashing in unexpected currents, while her body withered, and shared laughter fell from sight. Except when she left for her group. Except when his stoic grin brightened toward something deeper.
So she would leave, to bury herself in a corner of the medical-school library, among subterranean graduate students, reading histories. At home she pretended to continue her work on 17th-century royal portraits. She talked of tenure here or their getting jobs together at some private college back east. But in the library she pored over medieval and renaissance anatomies. Bearded, austere men standing over corpses (why so often women?) ripped open to the world. Even more fascinating, a whole genre of live bodies with viscera exposed. For more than an hour once, unconsciously touching her own belly, she gazed at a 16th-century German print: a woman sitting on a squat stone block, her smooth legs spread, hair wrapped up in braids except one hank in sexy disarray, her abdomen peeled and each organ—liver, kidneys, bladder and womb—hovering in a black vacuum. Like a whore on an auction block, moonlighting as a butcher’s display.
This was the first plate she copied. She had only a blue ballpoint and an envelope, yet she had to feel the image translated through her own hand. She had not drawn in years. It was as painful as stretching a cramped limb. She glanced up, self-conscious, to see an Asian woman bent over molecular diagrams. She tried again.
Her raw talent had survived, but the training from high school and her first year in college skittered away just ahead of her fingers in each too-heavy shade and line. In her enormous early ambitions, she’d studied Durer in detail and shading, Monet in her use of color, the epic lighting in Delacroix . . . . So when she turned away, she’d turned completely. She had not so much as sketched in more than ten years since breaking herself from studio art to art history, avoiding the creation of images obsessively—even giving directions in neat verbal instructions rather than draw a map. At first, she’d told herself she could work in off hours. But the moment she tried, like an addict, she would miss classes and sleep as a painting teased mercilessly to express a real vision.
Yet once the anatomy was done (her hand sweating, her stomach in a knot) she noted that she’d kept the hair trim, and had made the legs heavier. And in comparing the copy to the original, her stress was transformed. Perhaps because she felt her death so near, and searched for no other promise, she saw only what was good and true, and felt a strange elation. In the following weeks, she sustained this feeling by drawing similar plates, eventually taking the work home. To spare Philip worry that she’d grown morbid, when he was in the house she copied classical sculpture—the Farnese Hercules, Laocoon, the Barberini Faun—ignoring heads and limbs to focus on torsos. Philip seemed encouraged at her new work. But she sensed too, settling at the bottom of his smile, a silt of envy.
“The shading is wonderful,” he’d said once, sitting on the edge of the bed, just in from shopping.”You haven’t lost your hand.”
“Yes. But it’s the eye that’s gone. All I can see is history and precursors. I have trouble finding the body on the paper.”
“You could try this,” and he’d lifted his shirt, exposing, as a joke, his own pale ribs and chest, and she’d wondered if he weren’t jealous, as though she were being unfaithful in drawing the bodies of masculine gods. She still does not know why she had reached out with her pen and—while he remained uncannily still, as though they had agreed— she drew the outlines of heavy pectoral and abdominal muscles across his skin. He watched her hand as though observing his own painless dissection. Then he’d finished it by posing, flexing his arms, pushing up his biceps. And they had laughed again; across ambivalence and unspoken concern, they had laughed the most raucous-forced notes to wander those rooms in weeks. Yet she listened to how long he took in the shower, the rush of water unvarying as he scrubbed away her joke. There was no sequel, because she could not show him the other sketches; she could not explain how the riddled abdomens, the precipitous laterals of sculpted male bodies bore the shading and texture and complexity, the heroic sacrifice woman’s bodies could offer only in being cut open.
Philip stands to stretch his back. In the gray flannel shirt he wears to do housework, its tails bearded with loose threads, it strikes her to the heart—a vision of him as an old man, and how her own death will age him. She tries to continue her drawing of a mirrored corner of the room. But as Philip begins folding sheets, despite the thinning of the drug, her thoughts wander to Dr. Michaels’ cool fingers, outlining the tumor in the first X-rays.
She recalls the chill in her breast while his hands ran over the image and she’d remembered their drive south to New Orleans, the summer before she started her job, only weeks after moving from the East Coast. She recalled the road as blurred trees behind Philip’s profile singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and corn fields wheeling away while she made sandwiches in her lap. But only days later, in a French-Quarter cafe, she’d gazed at a heat-sensitive photo of the entire Mississippi valley: patches of blood-red hot, cooler yellows, and suddenly their own experience of that landscape was made irretrievably distant. As though they had been blind to the larger truth and authority in the photograph. In Michaels’ office, she’d crossed her arms over her breasts as his hand traced their X-rayed interiors, and in every word, every translation of technical into lay language (subtly flexing his own well-muscled body, excited because her tumor was “classic,” a textbook case) in every poke of his silver pen, her breasts were already being taken, as incomprehensible as geography, except to radiation. And once they were gone—right, then left—Michaels himself became repulsive. This man whose hands had been inside her, his muscles working to find what was of interest beneath her surface (a beardless son of the men in the plates, towering over eviscerated bodies), she’d felt how he seemed to relax only when his hands were on her body as he mentioned showing her early X-rays to his students, aching for her to die and complete the smooth curve of her pathology. Though she could explain it to no one, his touch became terrifying, and she insisted on a new doctor.
Was that why she’d drawn these women set up like anatomical tarts? Taking the power role, tracing these women’s organs as Michaels had fondled hers?
This thought had upset her. Recalling it now, she tears her mind away from Michaels and raises her head slightly, letting cool air beneath her neck, and tries to sketch. Her hand is hers again as the drug weakens, but it is like drawing in bad light, her fingers beneath the morphine’s shadow. She wonders, how many hours had she sat cross-legged, her hips numb in cold-stone museums, recreating the strokes of Degas and da Vinci, and always perfectly—her hell to be the brilliant copyist. Yet now she was not hoping to reproduce a style. She was attempting to reclaim the very bodies dissected in words by Michaels and his students. Still, she’d felt a land of trespass. The saving grace of the plates was that faces and bodies were generic, mere masculine ideals of sex, ransacked for their contents. But the idiosyncracies of her own hand granted these women personalities, stripping away their anonymity in the very gestures by which she grasped after her own body. She did not stop, but she felt as though indulging in a practice less morbid than traitorous.
“Would you like some tea?” he asks her, stacking the towels on one arm. With a nod back, he flips the thick brown hair from his eyes, a habit that has always touched her. She feels a rush of thanks, washing through her bones and blood and scraping pain from the fog of sensation—thanks that he is not one of them, not a Michaels or . . .the thought sinks. The drug’s farewell is like waking from a pleasant dream, her body resuming weight and density sufficient for pain. She twists her head back toward the window. It is a bright day, luxuriant with dry summer.
She winces. Gravity has reached up and gripped her spine. He sees and, spilling the towels—”Here”—darts to turn up the drip two numbers. She closes her eyes tight, then opens them, riding above the pain by focusing on the sun through the lace curtains as it veils him in delicate shadows, like a shifting tatoo over face and arms. His hands open. And because there really is nothing he can do, he offers again to make tea. She says yes. But he asks, “Or would you rather sleep?” Despite his thin chest, he has strong hands, like his father the cabinet maker—”No”—she forces calm into her voice, “But tea . . .tea would be lovely.”
The pain softens. She breathes. Her body begins to rise again, again grows light.”Thank you”—hands like her grandfather’s though his memory reaches only to her 11th year, when he was himself (her mind totters upon the gently rising curve of the drug) just 55, a craftsman of expensive carved picture frames.(Philip sees her relax, and strokes her hand.) As a girl she felt fully herself only in his workshop set back 30 yards behind her grandmother’s rambling Montreal house through the garden of endive and dill and cabbage, the stone wall hoary with mold and lichen, set so far because grand-mere could not stand the smells of paint and lacquer; “Comme la cuisine du diableV’ her grandmother cried whenever the wind shifted, though it was the smells that had seduced Sarah first.(As Philip turns, her body rising above the bed and sensation, she feels drawn after him in the mild draft of air.) The bite of rubbing oil and varnish in the ramshackle building, the dusty dry loft of warm cherry and cool maple, poplar for turning on the old peddled lathe, the workbench cut and gouged by tools, blistered with dripping glue— like a low landscape; the smudged windows that radiated a strangely opaque light in the even 23 degrees centigrade—the brass thermometer her Titi had brought from his home near Rouen before the First World War he said, exhaling smoke, and she could watch the wood—oak and cedar and mahogany—sculpted into reliefs of branch and leaf and claw like the creation of new life; for a time she’d dreamed of designing interiors, imagining for each picture frame its proper room though she was not even allowed to be in the shop, for her grandmother feared an accident, her mother how her clothes smelled of her grandfather’s rank French cigarettes. . .(Philip’s hands continue refolding towels while her fingers rest on the sketch pad, the corner of the room reflected in the mirror; she can feel the charcoal and paper, sees the three reflected planes but these sensations drift wide apart). . . the scraps of birch and walnut her Titi would give her to cut and sand, making a relief of the whole family with Titi in dark cherry holding a cigarette of maple, and Whisk the cat in pine, while he pressed delicate gold leaf to intricate wood foliage, singing “Plaisir d’amaur ne dure qu’un moment I Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie,” singing to her in the sweetly grumbling sad voice he gave to no one else and he turns, lifting his thick cap to wink at her until her mother rings the brass ship’s bell on the back porch and it was he who had made her want to be an artist—his mischievous green eyes, the left always so wickedly lazy as though the very diable were peeking encouragement. And after they’d returned from the cemetery Sarah ran out through yellow sunshine, down the path through the garden, dill plants whipping her legs as she sobbed into the shop where she felt like hunger the absence of his bent shadow on the dusty floor, his smoking wink, his voice singing for her as she folded sandpaper the way he’d shown her, like the point of a tiny trowel, to reach inside delicate filigree as her mother came in—stern and teary—plucked the cigarette away and slapped Sarah hard, twice across the mouth. She smeared her own face with red walnut stain (“Sarah-Sarah, burnt in the Sahara!”), pungent, penetrating, it would not come off for weeks though her mother never really tried, shame a better punishment than the scrub brush my young thing; on the playground they called her wetback and pushed her into the circle of little Mexican and Puerto Rican girls (“Sarah-Sarah, burnt in. . .” ) but she just sat silently at the edge of the yard for she knew now. She knew.
She was an artist. She was an artist and whatever that meant (at 11 she only dimly suspected, though it was surely romantic and grand), her grandfather’s faith would sustain her in this secret part of herself, inside her marked skin.
The bathroom cupboard, muffled by the towels and blankets inside, thumps shut. She opens her eyes. Her body reconverges from the corner and paper and pillow. His shoes squeak, turning on the tile. She breathes deep. Raw air brings her back to the surface of the bed.
She regrips the charcoal, then gently shifts her body to reorient the extremities into a whole. She focuses. Where the walls and ceiling meet in the upper corner, in the mirror’s upper curve, there are speckled flaws in the glass’s tain. It is a hard detail to keep upon the plane of glass and free of the walls. She tries and erases, and feathers with the edge of her palm as she tried in the mirror of her room after her Titi’s death when she felt so alone. When she was not drawing, she read about artists—Van Gogh and Claudel and Kahlo—anyone who had burned brightly, dying young or insane or unappreciated. And soon it was this rich fantasy life that she inhabited. For seven years, amid acrylics and oils, charcoal and graphite and water color, she was convinced that, like magic potions, the scents and odors would transport her physically into that world—until the second year of college, when it became clear: she lacked brilliance; the talent, one instructor commented, residing entirely in a workman-like hand rather than in her eye. And in her forced exile, in every glowing response to her term papers on Renaissance perspective, or graduate essays on restoration techniques, she felt her Titi wink to say, We only frame what others have created, but we get along, plaisir d’amour, ne dure. . .
She listens to Philip stacking sheets in a drawer. She breathes deep again, rests the charcoal, crosses her arms loosely over the flat of her chest.
The day she drew her death, tracing in pencil her own ruined body, she did not think, If only I’d eaten less fat, or not smoked at parties, or avoided solvents and cadmium paint. What keeps coming back is the thought, If I had only been brilliant. From the first days of her diagnosis, despite the horror, she had been subtly unnerved that she did not want more life. She only wished that her life, what she’d already been granted, had blazed.
Stretched across the yellow wall, she watches the shadow of her lamp veiled in lace. She looks long enough to see the sun move. Her life had not blazed. And all of her fear of falling and falling into endless mimicry at the end of that long leap, scared down the valley path of research and teaching, this is all made flesh in a single problem as he comes from the bathroom wearing his wan smile, poised to ask if there is anything she needs to ease the anguish infusing her body as she had once hoped it might be filled with art—the problem of helping Philip survive.
And yet there are moments (he suggests a bit of cinnamon in her tea, then vanishes into a mild clatter of cups and kettle) moments when she wonders if he will do so badly without her. She remembers the vacation when she first detected the lump. Her third year in the department, she’d grown slightly mad with worry over her book project. Still, they enjoyed the long flight, drinking too much, taking pictures through the window like crass tourists. They were only to be away for a week. But once they were checked into their bright room, she could not relax; she forced herself to swim with him, and explore throughout the day, finding craft shops of brightly painted wood, eating fried goat and plantains at open-air stands. . . yet a part of her mind awaited night, while he slept, when she could write and read in the tiny bathroom. Then, the third morning, before she woke, he posted her research materials to her office back home.
Equatorial sunlight pushed through the window slats, striping him side to side and giving him unnatural width. She still could not believe what he’d told her. She saw his flexed fist, and a simmering anger. Sitting up under the sheets, her thin legs were draped in linen like a Giotto Christ.
“Everything? I have nothing to work on?” His jaw rippled. “Can you have grown this resentful of my work?”
“You haven’t slept decently in weeks. What was the point of coming? We’re only here for five more days.”
“If you had anything of your own. . . Don’t talk to me about mysake. I could have given you a chapter to work on. If you can’t get your own research together, you could help me. Somebody has to feed us while you do your ground-breaking work.”
Her bitterness shocked them both. Then he yelled. Though a gentle man, he pulled her from the bed and held her before the mirror, forcing her to look at her wasting limbs.
And this, she sees now, this was his strongest act of their life together. Later, when she felt the lump, lying on a remote beach, she had made love with him as though she could share her fear, and so defeat it. She’d climbed atop him there in the clean air and warm sun, feeling his cock gripped in her lips, rocking it up and down to milk the weakness from him. But that night, alone in the bathroom before they went to dinner, she held her hands over her small breasts, pressing them out of existence. Her look had always been boyish, with her thin frame, short red hair, and muscular jaw. And behind the glass, it seemed not so great a change. It was when she crowned her hands over her brow (she did not know she was ill, she told herself, let alone that she would need treatment), obliterating her hairline, her childhood romance with a young death ran into the cool marble of fear.
At home she put off the test, still plagued by the thought that it was an image, a romantic idea that would kill her. But while she watched herself again missing meals and sleeping too little, she also saw Philip fail to intervene. And she saw, too, how his intellectual life in fact had become her own. Critiquing her articles rather than doing his own work, or allowing whole days to slip into replacing a porch step or turning earth for the garden while his dissertation grew old. She remembers now, hearing the kettle start to sing, a comment of English friends during their year in Brussels, after the birth of the couple’s first child.”Our relationship is on a back burner. We’ve become Danny Inc.” That was what had happened to her and Philip, even before her illness. Like some 50’s housewife, his life—she hears it as he moves around the kitchen—was becoming absorbed, and erased, in hers. Sarah Inc.
The morning that phrase occurred to her, she came into the bedroom where he was reading her chapter on Velazquez. She dropped the shoulder of her nightgown. She had already sensed, staring into the back yard, watching spring mellow into summer, sensed his deep loneliness. She did not know how else to get him back; except to show him she too could be weak.?
What had she felt as he stood on his bare feet, his hand rounding her breast, deftly searching? As their eyes locked, she had imagined herself breaking down, but of course they only said the inevitable things: it was probably nothing, a cyst, though he made an appointment and she was encouraged when he became angry the second time she put it off, coaxing him toward the rage he’d expressed in the Caribbean, the rage that might place them on an even footing once again.
But what she did not feel as his hand explored her, what she could not have suspected was the sense of isolation once the malignancy was confirmed, and parts of her body, hair, breasts, muscle, were taken away; no one could share that—no one could prepare you. Least of all could anyone have imagined her relief, that after telling herself her early dreams had been sheer romance—that she didn’t want what was eating her soul to live without—no one could have prepared her for the conviction that it was better to die soon, of a thing mapped and tested, than later of a lingering question.
And no one could have said to her, you will wake from your first surgery with a mysterious sense of integrity, you will feel an ironic wholeness once your body looks the fragment you have felt inside for so long.
She remembers waking, the film she had to blink away, machine bleeps, a scuffled chair, her own gasp around the tube shoved through her nose. And then the absence. The feeling—in this ammonia-smelling world—the sense of nothing atop her right rib cage. . . Philip’s hand finding hers between the bedrails and tubes. . . the nurse’s saccharin smile. And then the chiselled words, as though spoken by someone in the room: this is the world after. This is the real you. A part. A remainder. Yet it was not until she’d drawn it, a week after the final surgery, that she fully understood.
He turns the radio on low while the tea steeps. Voices joust, a talk show, discussing some issue that will be played out after she is gone. It was at her last clinic appointment, before the first surgery, she insisted on keeping one X-ray. The exposure—her breast flattened from the side—was too light to be useful: a sky-gray traversed by small lines like a river delta skirting the malignant white island. Dr. Michaels was suspicious when she asked, as though she’d demanded his tie pin. Philip did not comment on the string-tied envelope, in the waiting room or on the drive home.
The first moment he was away from the house, she held it to the bedroom window. It was then late fall and the sun poured in low from the south. The lines in the exposure were projected onto the front of her blouse. She looked down and saw her lethal breast, stenciled sideways like a cubist detail across the white linen covering her flesh. She pulled the shade on the other window, then found tape and newspaper.
She taped the paper around the borders of the exposure, covering the southern window until the only light in the room was what filtered through the X-ray. Then she took off her clothes.
Like the death-beam in some cheap movie, the X-ray breast was projected over her own. She touched the brightest spot on her pale skin—the trace of her tumor. She was trained to read images, yet she could decipher neither what was being revealed nor her own motives. It was as though she had proved Michaels right, that it was presumptuous to claim to know her own body better than he, and she felt ridiculous. She stripped the windows and threw the envelope and exposure to the back of her closet. And when Philip came home she made love with him for the first time since the diagnosis. Perhaps the last time, they both knew, with her whole.
Once the surgery was done, and done again a few months later (the second was welcome; the asymmetry as repulsive as the absence), she entered into a brief remission. It was the morning she woke to feel the liquid returned to her lungs that she again darkened the room and taped up the X-ray.
Fall had become a mild winter warming toward spring. The sun was at nearly the same angle as before. But now the image of her breast, in profile, was cast beyond her flattened body, onto the wall beside the door. She tore a sheet from her sketch pad and taped it to the spot. With her bedside lamp on its low setting, by playing with angles, she finally managed to project her silhouette onto the paper without washing away the thin projection of her missing breast. With a pencil, at arm’s length, she outlined the profile of her body, reunited to the machine’s memory of her breast.
When it was done, she sat on the edge of the bed with the sketch on her knees, her fists tucked tight in her armpits. This was the drawing that made her feel death in her heart and gut—death’s work, death’s image. . . She forced her mind to the words, remaining there dangerously long as she heard Philip drive in. But there was some secret the proper title would unlock, as though in the ordering of letters lay the combination. It came to her in a semi-conscious dream.
Her own torso—headless, armless, the breasts cracked away—was twisted at a painful angle, a classical fragment, set up in a niche in a slowly curving corridor. There were other niches but they were shadowed. She came close and saw her scars—like seams waiting to be filled—and understood that the corridor had been created for her alone; and then she saw them receding toward a vanishing point: repeated versions of her own body, neck to waist, covering the history of her life. Infant, child, a delicate pubescent torso, young woman and adult. Two breasts. One breast. None.
She’d woken with a start. She called to Philip but there was no answer. She stood before the bureau mirror, stripped oif her T-shirt and held her arms tight behind her back to approximate the image in the dream. She stared at the scars where her breasts had been, her ribs visible through the abject nakedness of missing flesh. And she knew immediately what the dream and drawing had tried to tell.
If her art had not filled her life, in turning away, her own body had become this single work, recording the hours in her grandfather’s shop breathing paint and lacquer, the paling years in libraries, her disappointment, her love for Philip. . . and the theft, at the hands of radiologists and surgeons. She took the sketch of the X-ray from the back of her closet. It was this image, a classic of its type, that had made them cut—that had justified their desire to slash and sculpt her; this image, as surely as the scalpel, that had carved her away.
She sat on the edge of the bed, pressing her eyes shut with her fists. She recalled Camille, Vincent, Frieda, and felt with them an intimacy in her very blood. She wept briefly. Then a strange sense came to her—the strangest of all.
The day was blustering; shadows sprang across the mattress as the sun found a break, then vanished. And beneath this show she felt it. She was happy.
She could not say why. But something was unspeakably good in this moment. And happiness—she embraced Philip as he came through the back door juggling books and groceries, drunk with the smell of him and bread and brown paper—happiness allowed her to give up. Her condition degenerated quickly, for she refused all treatment. Her hair started to grow back and she smiled at her restored image in the mirror. It was then too that she stopped sketching anatomies.
Instead she drew interiors. Rooms with tall, fully-draped windows, complicated doorways, designs from her early imagination of the rich houses where her Titi’s picture frames would hang. And then she began drawing this room: curtains and bureau, rumpled sheets, window frames. Her own gallery. Her exhibition space. And she remembered.
Before she learned to regulate the flow of morphine, one day shortening into two or three with the softening of the pain in her joints and spine, she had a fantastic mix of dream and memory, of the torso Belvedere twisting itself straight and impatiently, limblessly straining to serve her coffee and tart. Then their meddling landlady, Mrs. Matheson, the time they came home from a department party to find her dog clawing the couch (she heard Mrs. Matheson’s voice, from the kitchen? talking at Philip). And her sister’s tantrum when she was six and Sarah 16, because Susan could not drive the gargoyle Philip had bought for the house before she showed him, rising up on its stone wings and crashing through the window into the sky above his parents’ home, his brother Frank grabbing her on the laundry porch and her feeling offended yet excited, Frank’s way of getting even because Philip was the beloved son. Frank the first, where you make your mistakes, like her own parents had done she told Philip arguing over his brother and the things they had in common, his father a wood craftsman like her Titi, though they never talked about these things at first—so caught up with each other, with the mass and touch of their bodies, as though newly discovered that sophomore year in college, the year she abandoned her art and the attention he gave her, almost filling that absence, still fresh all through graduate school, and in their Brussels apartment, on Lambermont overlooking the park somehow a thrill to be fucking in a foreign country.
While in other moments, she thinks: I will not be so badly remembered, or die like King Hamlet with my sins upon my head, they will remember kindly that Fourth of July picnic after my first year, the one I put on to return the rounds of invitations—every couple in the department, never suspecting I was being recruited to sides in old rivalries, I have always been a little naive about these things, not because I can’t be suspicious Philip jokes I’m a cynic I always liked to say the things no one should dare with Susan’s rages and my father’s Lutheran guilts; and mother’s life a running denial of her mother’s aching Catholicism yet so intent on confessions and penance writing 500 times “I will not hit my little sister” and playing with her bracelets like a rosary after we’d been to the Met and I became so enamored of Ingres’ “Le bain turc” with the women draped upon each other; from a library book I sketched outlines on tracing paper, Titi said you must practice and be precise and shy from nothing but the way she found me my God, the poor woman, sprawled across my bed drawing nipples and vulvae and, yes, it felt good on the old Flintstones bedspread because it was naughty she thought I’d been spying on her how else could I know it was the Polaroids snuck in odd minutes from her night table never thinking my father had taken them and the shame she must have felt at his ogling flashbulbs damning her to hell she nearly choked not understanding how I felt about Titi’s things father leaving the paint and oils open like salt flats and finally wrapped in bloody butcher-paper for the trash I just laughed, ashamed for her and scared as though we did not share the same body parts (orgasm a rumor started by bad girls to make you sin) and yet how strange just a week later when I started to bleed, my panties like the bloody paper with its swipes from the pork roast to celebrate father’s one drunken promotion to branch manager I screamed at her to show me they never explained in class and my father pounding the bathroom door with Susan toddling in the dry tub and she pulled the curtain, my poor mother, the poor thing, Titi needed a son and grandmother honestly dreaded a daughter after her sister in Paris with her tough old lesbian lover overlooking Trocadero, Gran living like a widow long before he died coming from the shop only to eat and sleep, it seemed like the center of the world I felt that erotic relation with all the paraphernalia of art though god knows I was never highly sexed as they used to say, yet Rodin’s Age of Brass or a Bernini just running my eyes over them. . . in some cold museum Donatello’s David comes to life—a recurrent dream in college—all dark burnished bronze and shining in his lovely girlish flowered hat like we used to get for Easter his body lithe and slender and so suggestively androgynous come from waging war at a garden party and we walk out of the museum along a stream bank, the sunlight blazing from his surfaces the water and sky and trees and richly scented flowers—peonies and gardenia—reflect and flow across him like a passing mirror even when we lie down the images keep flowing he is a slender river of landscape and we kiss like children just the edges of lips yet all the heat in him, the fires to melt brass and copper enter into me and I am burning with sex and when we make love—I am a girl dressed in clean white butcher paper, breastless, he tears gently and neatly—and I am entered by the sky and white peonies and lazy, gentle stream that rolls across his body tenderly insisting between my tender lips and I wake in my cold room and warm blankets, alone in my young skin, then with Philip at my side and the sticky dampness and I cry.
Her eyes open. Her heart rises seeing Philip come into the room bearing the last of the lilacs from the yard, on the tray with mugs of tea, and shortbread.
As he sets the tray on the floor and carefully shifts her legs so he can sit, she manages to reach over and turn the drip back down. Then, his perfect concern makes her heart tighten and she clutches his arm. Seeing her eyes, he says, “Somebody been spiking your morphine?” but she will not be put off.
“You remember—when I showed you, the first time. I came in here.” “Yes.”
But she is still drugged and cannot finish. He is accustomed to her lapses. He will not insist. He starts to hand her a mug. She wants to say, when she came to him, to let him feel, she had wanted to share it; she had known already for months but if she explains he will see why she’d delayed—to spare him, because he is not strong. “Here. Drink.” “Please. —” “Here.”
The morning she let him feel the spot inside her breast, she’d been standing in the kitchen for nearly an hour before he awoke. It had rained during the past week. Philip had talked about trimming the trees to bring more sun to the grass where it was drowning near the back of the house. That is what she so loves in him. He is a caretaker, a good-looking man, competent in the kitchen, meticulous with the laundry or re-glazing a window. She wanted to show him the lump in order to say how she relied upon him, that whatever success she’d had in her career, she could not have done it without him. It was for him she’d come into the bedroom and dropped the shoulder of her gown. And when he touched her, carefully, she realized his sensual appeal: the depth of the attention he could give, a comprehensiveness, like the Donatello, as though his body made flesh of the surrender to vision, of the tender elegance of a landscape.
She remembers, when their eyes met that morning, as his hand cupped and pressed, exploring the shallow rise, the brown nipple’s sudden stiffness, she remembers feeling both saddened and aroused; conscious of the pea-sized spot, internally turning away from the knowledge that this could be the last time his touch would speak both sex and concern, his worry filling the very air between them, the hands of the lover becoming those of the tender nurse. And she remembers how, even at that early moment, she’d felt her breasts wither. So she had insisted on making love, after they had talked, after he’d made the initial appointment. And in the following weeks, before the test and diagnosis, she would wake in the night and fuck him strenuously to steal away the lover she knew was becoming trapped inside his good heart.
She takes the mug, but sets it on the night table. She pushes her sketch pad away and makes him lie beside her. He knows these moods, and because he believes they bespeak her fear of the end, he turns his face down as she holds him, stroking his back. She looks at the wall, where the sketch sheet was once taped. She decides she will find a moment to destroy that page, to spare him confusion and hurt when he must go through her things. And what will he do with them? Even he could not speak for the man he will be then. Through his shirt, she traces the riddled path of his spine. This sense of loss, that in dying she will take something of him too and he will become another man, stronger but harder, this fills her with a desire simply to continue to be here, for him to care for.
“You have to promise me something,” she says into his hair. He nods.”You have to promise me. . .” but the morphine, or fatigue, her thought dissolves, into the empty longing to have the thought back. He does not ask again. He only turns his face to her and she kisses his brow, his nose, his mouth. Their tongues delicately touch and suddenly she feels his warmth as she does the sunlight flooding the room, igniting the scent of lilacs, making her skin and blood translucent to his concern, to the movement of his heart. “I want you to. . . .” “Yes.”
“I want. . .” to tell him it is here she feels triumph over the years of self-doubt; here is her masterwork; absorbing his mild gaze, her genius simple as sensing his hand carefully avoid the plastic tubing to her wrist and surround her weightless flesh—surrounding the silver pool of absence spreading from the center of her awareness—pulling the remains of her body close to his.