When or How it Decides to Manifest
by Lynn Steger Strong
“They’re saying now,” she’s on the couch on her computer. It’s almost nine o’clock. She has, as she often does, put both kids to bed while he was still at work. “They’re saying we’re all walking around with the cancer cells inside us,” she says. “That it’s less a matter of catching or developing than it is of when or how it decides to manifest.”
He kisses her, quickly, chastely; she stays still and doesn’t move to kiss him back.
She pulls her feet up on the couch and sets down her computer.
“You eat?” he says.
She shakes her head.
“Order something?” he says.
She shrugs. They’ve been blacklisted from their favorite Thai place. She interrogated the delivery guy about the antibiotic levels in the chicken; their address was put on some kind of refuse-service list.
He scrambles four eggs with kale and cheese, toasts bread, and serves her a small portion.
“Eat,” he says.
She consumes a quarter-fork full, watches him empty his plate.
“How were they?” he says.
She picks at the eggs; he means the children. She pulls her computer back onto her lap, setting down the food.
Watching her eat used to be one of his favorite past-times. All one hundred twenty pounds of her used to consume an entire shoebox size container of sweet potato fries without a second thought.
“There was a shooting in Virginia.”
“Viv,” he says. He’s careful with her, quiet. He takes her plate and finishes her eggs.
“They’re fine,” she says. “The girls are great.”
“You guys have fun today?”
He knows better than to ask her what they did or if they left the house, to impose any sort of judgment, meant or not, on how they spent their day.
“About the same.”
“Did you…” there’s nothing he can think to ask that might not upset her.
She preempts him: “How was your day?”
“Fine,” he says, not remembering any longer how he spent it, so focused suddenly on taking care with her.
“They broadcast the shooting online, in real time,” she says. She shakes her head. “I couldn’t.” she stops again.
“Viv?” he says.
“It was a newswoman and her cameraman. Local TV. Both in their twenties.”
She taps the mouse pad with her finger, slides it up then off then up again, stares down at the screen.
“It’s everyday now,” she says. She whispers: “Violence.”
She scrolls through three separate tabs all filled with news sites. She has Twitter open. Facebook. She’s wearing gray cotton pants that he thinks might be the same gray cotton pants she’s worn everyday the last three years. He knows that she must change them. She must shower, wash them. He’s almost positive she still sometimes goes outside. He scrolls her Instagram feed, which she updates daily. There is, at least once a week, a picture of one or both their girls at a playground or the park. But when he thinks of her now when he’s away from her, he can only see her here, in these gray cotton pants, cross-legged on the couch, phone in her hand, computer in her lap.
“How was school?” he says.
“School” is a loose term, not quite right, but what they say. They send the three-year-old to an apartment a block from theirs three days a week, four hours, so she can play with other children, spend time in the backyard. Their downstairs neighbor takes her. The plan at first was to alternate the days. But, though he hasn’t asked, he thinks somehow the routine has become such that the neighbor takes their daughter and her own son everyday. He has heard, from his three-year-old, who is not always reliable, that she sometimes spends all afternoon with this same neighbor, that sometimes the neighbor takes her little sister too.
“She doesn’t answer my questions,” she says. She’s talking about the three-year-old. Sometimes, when he comes home before they are in bed, the three-year-old talks so much, and so fast, he worries it’s the first she’s spoken the whole day.
“She loves it, though,” she says. She smiles.
“She’s so social,” he says.
She nods, eyes the screen again. Twice, she scratches her cheek, and then her leg; her cheek again. He almost stops her. He moves to pull her hand from her face; her pale skin smarts and red lines spread. He holds his arms across his chest.
“There have been 203 days so far this year, and there’s been a shooting everyday.”
“Did they go to sleep okay?” he asks.
She looks at him before she answers. She wants to force him to engage with her, but decides instead to let him lead her away.
“Oona cried awhile.”
He winces, at the sound of their younger daughter’s name. He thinks, not for the first time, that he should have refused to let her choose when she’d become so obsessed with this coupling of syllables that he thinks now might not even be a name. He imagines sometimes the officials at whatever places she will go one day to do official life type business smiling sideways at her, thinking her silly, not quite worthy of respect.
“The construction started again,” she says. “Near sixth ave.”
He nods, “I saw.”
“It’s just not as if they know, you know, what they’re digging up when they gut those old houses. The guys doing the work are always wearing masks.”
“Viv,” he says. “They’re ripping concrete.”
She shakes her head.
She does not push this, he knows, because she does not want to have the conversation that involves their maybe moving. The only thing that scares her more than the errant cancer lurking in the house that’s being gutted down the block is moving to a place where there’s no noise, where she would have to put their children in a deathtrap-slash-car daily, where, were she ever to want to leave the house, there might not be endless options of all the different places she might (but does not ever) go.
“Oona said ‘ball’ today,” she says.
He already knows this because she posted it on Facebook. Because he keeps a tab open on his work computer, gets alerts any time she posts.
He says: “That’s great!”
“Lil had ten times this many words at this age,” she says.
Ten times being not that many, because their younger daughter now only says “dada” and “ball”.
“She’s fine,” he says. “Kids are different.”
She nods. “Of course.”
“You want to watch something?” he says. What he wants to do is talk to her. He wishes he could think of something they might talk about.
“In bed?” she says. He nods, knowing then she’ll fall asleep.
She goes to their room. She keeps on the cotton pants; the tank top with the flap-down-for-nursing-Oona straps is tight around her waist and breasts. She’s thinner than she’s ever been. She’s always been thin, but she’s only angles now; her wrist and shoulder bones jut threateningly. Sometimes, when he sees her nursing Oona, who is big and healthy, thickly-thighed, he wants to pull his wife free of their youngest daughter, who covers the full expanse of her mid-section, her legs splayed across her lap. He wants to strap up her tank top strap and tell her to please just keep whatever nourishment she’s offering for herself.
He reaches for her as she clicks through Netflix. He rests his hand between her legs. She’s strong down there still, does yoga, he has pieced together, often during naptime, and she squeezes with her thighs until he pulls his hand away.
“Drama?” she says.
He pulls the blanket he keeps for himself up from the bottom of the bed as she hogs the duvet.
“Sure,” he says.
The show starts and she gets out her phone scrolling through Twitter while the intro plays. He almost reaches for her one more time, then grabs his phone instead.
She falls asleep within the first ten minutes of the TV show. He lets it keep playing, some darkly-lit drama about a cartel murder in Mexico, a low line of angry, mumbled Spanish falls off of the screen.
He pulls her phone from her chest and refreshes her email: Anthropologie, the New York Review of Books, the Gap. Amazon recommends three books. There are seldom emails from friends any longer, only maybe once a month an offer to freelance from her life before.
He goes to Sent mail. One to her sister itemizing in almost impossibly dull sentences what she’s been up to with the girls. She isn’t close with her sister and this should not be surprising. Kids is the only reason they’ve ever had to interact. He still hates seeing her like this though: dull and just so much exactly like every other woman who has little children: potty training, sleeping, developmental milestones.
He searches her tabs. Vox, Amazon to order diapers, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN. Her recommended articles are all disease-related and from Motherlode. Her direct messages on Facebook are from her mommy group, meet ups and birthday parties he knows that she gave up on long ago.
She’s googled 18-month-old sleep regressions. Oona’s almost 18 months and hardly sleeps. She’s googled number of words normal for 18-month-old. The same again for when they’re three. She’s googled yeast infections, which she claimed to have last week, and he tried hard to believe. She’s googled the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. The week before it was ovarian cancer, the week before that an auto-immune disease. Signs of bedbugs, he sees and looks over at the worn red skin on her shoulders up by her clavicle. For weeks now, she’s been convinced they have bedbugs. He’s checked for her, with her. They’ve stripped all the beds. He’d almost wished that they had found them: something they could work together at, a clear enemy they might then be galvanized against. The mattresses were clean though, as were the sheets and blankets. She’d run all their clothes through the industrial-sized driers down the street just to be sure.
There are large swathes of dry red skin from her still-constant itching spread up her arms, across her clavicle. He rubs a finger briefly over top her chest up by her neck.
“Viv,” he says.
He scrolls again through her Instagram, his hand still resting on her chest: Oona, Lil, then Oona, Lil, Lil, Oona placed on Lily’s lap, first foods, first smiles, first days. He stops on one, pre-either baby: Vivian, her pants neither gray nor cotton, smiling, as if the world is not bearing down upon her every second at full force.
He sets down the phone and reaches for her. He loops his arm around her waist, hipbones against his forearm, in his hand. She’s half asleep and mumbles something, squirms beneath his grasp before rolling closer to him, giving in.
He pulls her gray pants down, but she stops them before they fall below her ankle. He slides two fingers up into her. He kisses her. She runs her hands over his back and sighs a sigh that he’s chosen to think means she’s enjoying what he’s doing as he enters her.
He’s slow and careful. She kisses him, grabs hold of his face.
Oona starts to cry and he feels his wife tighten underneath him; she looks past him toward the door.
“Don’t, Viv,” he says.
He holds her shoulders harder than he means.
“Dada,” Oona wails. “Baaaallllll,” she cries.
Then Lil—they share a room—“Mommy,” their older daughter says.
“Vivian,” he says. He’s still inside her.
She lies very still and lets him finish. She pulls on her tank top.
“Just leave them,” he says.
She looks at him, wiping herself with his boxers, pulling her pants up.
He grabs the duvet as she leaves.
Lynn Steger Strong‘s first novel, HOLD STILL, will be published by Liveright/Norton in March 2016. She teaches writing at Pratt Institute and Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Photo: via Creative Commons