Interesting fact: Toucan cereal bedspread to my plunge and deliver.
It’s okay if you can’t make sense of that. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t grasp it, either. The most vital things we hide even from ourselves.
The topic of dead wives actually came up not too long ago. My husband and I talked about it while walking home from a literary reading. It was San Francisco, which means winter rains, and we’d just attended a reading from a local writer’s short-story collection. The local writer was twentysomething and sexy. Her arms were taut, her black hair shimmered. And just so you’re clear, I’m going to discuss the breasts of every woman who crosses my path. Neither hidden nor flaunted behind white satin, her breasts were utterly, excruciatingly normal, and I hated her for that. The story she read was about a man who decides to date again after losing his wife. It’s always an aneurysm, a car accident or the long battle with cancer. Cancer is the worst way for a fictional wife to die. Anyway, the man in the story waits an appropriate amount of time after his wife’s loss—sixteen months!—before deciding to date again. After so much grief, he is exuberant and endearing in his pursuit of a woman. The first chick he talks to is totally game. The man, after all this waiting, is positively frisky, and the sex is, like, wow. The fortysomething widower nails the twentysomething gal on the upturned hull of his fiberglass kayak. And there’s even a moral, subtle and implied: when love blossoms, it’s all the richer when a man has discovered, firsthand, the painful fragility of life. Well, secondhand.
Applause, Q&A, more applause.
Like I said, it was raining. We had just left the Booksmith on Haight Street. The sidewalk was littered with wet panhandlers. Bastards that we were, we never gave.
“What’d you think of the story?” my husband asked.
I could tell he liked it. He likes all stories.
I said, “I sympathized with the dead wife.”
To which my husband, the biggest lunkhead ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, said: “But…she wasn’t even a character.”
This was a year after my diagnosis, surgery, chemo and the various interventions, injections, indignities and treatments. When I got sick, our youngest child turned herself into a horse: silent and untamable, our Horse-child now only whinnies and neighs. Before that, though, she went through a phase we called Interesting Facts. “Interesting fact,” she would announce, and then share a wonder with us: A killer whale has never killed a person in the wild. Insects are high in protein. Hummingbirds have feelings and are often sad.
So here are some of my interesting facts. Lupron, aside from ceasing ovulation, is used to chemically castrate sexual predators. Vinblastine interrupts cell division. It is a poisonous alkaloid made from the purple blossoms of the periwinkle plant. Tamoxifen makes your hips creak. My eyebrows fell out a year after finishing chemo. And long after your tits are taken, their phantoms remain. They get cold, they ache when you exercise, they feel wet after you shower, and you can towel like a crazy woman, but still they drip.
Before my husband won a Pulitzer, we had a kind of deal. I would adore him, even though he packed on a few pounds. And he would adore me, even though I had a double mastectomy. Who else would want us? Who else, indeed. Now his readings are packed with young Dorothy Parkers who crowd around my man. The worst part is that the novel he wrote is set in North Korea, so he gets invited to all these functions filled with Korean socialites and Korean donors and Korean activists and Korean writers and various pillars of the Korean community.
Did I leave out the words beautiful and female?
You’re so sensitive to the Korean experience, the beautiful female Korean socialite says to my husband.
Oh, he’s good about it. He always says, And this is my lovely wife.
Ignoring me, the beautiful female Korean socialite adds, You must visit our book club.
If I could simply press a button every time one of them said that.
But I’m just tired. These are the places my mind goes when I’m tired. We’re four blocks from home, where our children are just old enough not to need a sitter. On these nights our eleven-year-old son draws comics of Mongolian invasions and the Civil Rights Movement—his history teacher allows him to write his reports graphically. (San Francisco!) Our daughter, at nine, is a master baker. Hair pulled into a ponytail, she is flour-dusted and kneading away. The Horse-child, who is only seven, does dressage. She is the horse who needs no rider.
But talk of my children is for another story. I can barely gaze upon them now. Their little outlines, cut like black cameos, are too much to consider.
My husband and I walk in the rain. We don’t hold hands. I still feel the itch of vinblastine in my nail beds, one of the places, it turns out, that the body stores toxins. Have you ever had the urge to peel back your fingernails and scratch underneath, to just wrench until the nails snap back so you can go scratch, scratch, scratch?
I flex my fingers, rub my nails against the studs on my leather belt.
I knew better, but still I asked him: “How long would you wait?”
“Wait for what?”
“Until after I was gone. How many months before you went and got some of that twentysomething kayak sex?”
Adam Johnson, Interesting Facts, [In:] Fortune Smiles: Stories, 2015.