- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
This item may be
Check for Availability
She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind
her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as
if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other
times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her
bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor —the zipper, the
grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool with
wheels and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she'd stopped
speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was
distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and
he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last
what was wrong.
Teresa held her earrings in the palm of one hand—dried violets
pressed between tiny panes of glass—and put them on, still getting dressed
after hours of going from one room to the next in a hospital gown. She
examined her shirt for lint and cat hair, errant pieces of thread, and primly
picked them off. She looked at Bruce, who looked out the window at a ship in
the harbor, which cut elegantly, tranquilly along the surface of the lake, as if
it weren't January, as if it weren't Minnesota, as if it weren't ice.
At the moment she wasn't in pain and she told the doctor this
while he wrote. "There are long stretches of time that I feel perfectly fine," she
said, and laughed the way she did with strangers. She confessed that she
wouldn't be surprised if she were going mad or perhaps this was the
beginning of menopause or maybe she had walking pneumonia. Walking
pneumonia had been her latest theory, the one she liked best. The one that
explained the cough, the ache. The one that could have made her spine into
"I'd like to have one more glance," the doctor said, looking up at
her as if he had risen from a trance. He was young. Younger. Was he thirty?
she wondered. He instructed her to take her clothes off again and gave her a
fresh gown to wear and then left the room.
She undressed slowly, tentatively at first, and then quickly,
crouching, as if Bruce had never seen her naked. The sun shone into the
room and made everything lilac.
"The light—it's so pretty," she said, and stepped up to sit on the
examining table. A rosy slice of her abdomen peeped out from a gap in the
gown, and she mended it shut with her hands. She was thirsty but not
allowed a drop of water. Hungry, from having not eaten since the night
before. "I'm starving."
"That's good," said Bruce. "Appetite means that you're healthy."
His face was red and dry and cracked-looking, as if he'd just come in from
plowing the driveway, though he'd been with her all day, going from one
section of the hospital to the next, reading what he could find in the waiting
rooms. Reading Reader's Digest and Newsweek and Self against his will but
reading hungrily, avidly, from cover to cover. Throughout the day, in the small
spaces of time in which she too had had to wait, he'd told her the stories.
About an old woman who'd been bludgeoned to death by a boy she'd hired to
build a doghouse. About a movie star who'd been forced by divorce to sell his
boat. About a man in Kentucky who'd run a marathon in spite of the fact that
he had only one foot, the other made of metal, a complicated, sturdy coil
fitted into a shoe.
The doctor knocked, then burst in without waiting for an answer.
He washed his hands and brought his little black instrument out, the one with
the tiny light, and peered into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She could smell
the cinnamon gum he chewed and also the soap he'd used before he
touched her. She kept herself from blinking while staring directly into the
bullet of light, and then, when he asked, followed his pen expertly around the
room using only her eyes.
"I'm not a sickly woman," she declared.
Nobody agreed. Nobody disagreed. But Bruce came to stand
behind her and rub her back.
His hands made a scraping sound against the fabric of the gown,
so rough and thick they were, like tree bark. At night he cut the calluses off
with a jackknife.
. . .
The doctor didn't say cancer—at least she didn't hear him say it. She heard
him say oranges and peas and radishes and ovaries and lungs and liver. He
said tumors were growing like wildfire along her spine.
"What about my brain?" she asked, dry-eyed.
He told her he'd opted not to check her brain because her ovaries
and lungs and liver made her brain irrelevant. "Your breasts are fine," he said,
leaning against the sink.
She blushed to hear that. Your breasts are fine.
"Thank you," she said, and leant forward a bit in her chair. Once,
she'd walked six miles through the streets of Duluth in honor of women
whose breasts weren't fine and in return she'd received a pink T-shirt and a
"What does this mean exactly?" Her voice was reasonable beyond
reason. She became acutely aware of each muscle in her face. Some were
paralyzed, others twitched. She pressed her cold hands against her cheeks.
"I don't want to alarm you," the doctor said, and then, very calmly,
he stated that she could not expect to be alive in one year. He talked for a
long time in simple terms, but she could not make out what he was saying.
When she'd first met Bruce, she'd asked him to explain to her how,
precisely, the engine of a car worked. She did this because she loved him
and she wanted to demonstrate her love by taking an interest in his
knowledge. He'd sketched the parts of an engine on a napkin and told her
what fit together and what parts made other parts move and he also took
several detours to explain what was likely to be happening when certain
things went wrong and the whole while she had smiled and held her face in
an expression of simulated intelligence and understanding, though by the end
she'd learned absolutely nothing. This was like that.
She didn't look at Bruce, couldn't bring herself to. She heard a
hiccup of a cry from his direction and then a long horrible cough.
"Thank you," she said when the doctor was done talking. "I mean,
for doing everything you can do." And then she added weakly, "But. There's
one thing—are you sure? Because . . . actually . . . I don't feel that sick."
She felt she'd know it if she had oranges growing in her; she'd known
immediately both times that she'd been pregnant.
"That will come. I would expect extremely soon," said the doctor.
He had a dimpled chin, a baby face. "This is a rare situation—to find it so late
in the game. Actually, the fact that we found it so late speaks to your overall
good health. Other than this, you're in excellent shape."
He hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling and
"Thank you," she said again, reaching for her coat.
Carefully, wordlessly, they walked to the elevator, pushed its translucent
button, and waited for it to arrive. When it did, they staggered onto it and
saw, gratefully, that they were alone together at last.
"Teresa," Bruce said, looking into her eyes. He smelled like the
small things he'd eaten throughout the day, things she'd packed for him in
her famously big straw bag. Tangerines and raisins.
She put the tips of her fingers very delicately on his face and then
he grabbed her hard and held her against him. He touched her spine, one
vertebra, and then another one, as if he were counting them, keeping track.
She laced one hand into his belt loop at the back of his jeans and with the
other hand she held a seashell that hung on a leather string around her neck.
A gift from her kids. It changed color depending on how she moved, .ashing
and luminescent like a tropical fish in an aquarium, so thin she could crush it
in an instant. She considered crushing it. Once, in a quiet rage, she'd
squeezed an entire bottle of coconut-scented lotion onto the tops of her
thighs, having been denied something as a teenager: a party, a record, a pair
of boots. She thought of that now. She thought, Of all the things to think of
now. She tried to think of nothing, but then she thought of cancer. Cancer,
she said to herself. Cancer, cancer, cancer. The word chugged inside of her
like a train starting to roll. And then she closed her eyes and it became
something else, swerving away, a bead of mercury or a girl on roller skates.
They went to a Chinese restaurant. They could still eat. They read the
astrology on the placemats and ordered green beans in garlic sauce and cold
sesame noodles and then read the placemats again, out loud to each other.
They were horses, both of them, thirty-eight years old. They were in perpetual
motion, moved with electric fluidity, possessed unconquered spirits. They
were impulsive and stubborn and lacked discretion. They were a perfect
Goldfish swam in a pond near their table. Ancient goldfish.
Unsettlingly large goldfish. "Hello, goldfish," she cooed, tilting toward them in
her chair. They swam to the surface, opening their big mouths in perfect
circles, making small popping noises.
"Are you hungry?" she asked them. "They're hungry," she said to
Bruce, then looked searchingly around the restaurant, as if to see where they
kept the goldfish food.
At a table nearby there was a birthday party, and Bruce and
Teresa were compelled to join in for the birthday song. The woman whose
birthday it was received a flaming custard, praised it loudly, then ate it with
Bruce held her hand across the table. "Now that I'm dying we're
dating again," she said for a joke, though they didn't laugh. Sorrow surged
erotically through them as if they were breaking up. Her groin was a fist, then
a swamp. "I want to make love with you," she said, and he blinked his blue
eyes, tearing up so much that he had to take his glasses off. They'd tapered
off over the years. Once or twice a month, perhaps.
Their food arrived, great bowls of it, and they ate as if nothing were
different. They were so hungry they couldn't speak, so they listened to the
conversation of the happy people at the birthday party table. The flaming
custard lady insisted that she was a dragon, not a rabbit, despite what the
placemat said. After a while they all rose and put their heavy coats on,
strolling past Teresa and Bruce, admiring the goldfish in their pond.
"I had a goldfish once," said a man who held the arm of the
custard lady. "His name was Charlie." And everyone laughed uproariously.
Later, after Bruce paid the bill, they crossed a footbridge over a
pond where you could throw a penny.
They threw pennies.
On the drive home it hit them, and they wept. Driving was good because they
didn't have to look at each other. They said the word, but as if it were two
words. Can. Sir. They had to say it slowly, dissected, or not at all. They
vowed they would not tell the kids. How could they tell the kids?
"How could we not?" Teresa asked bitterly, after a while. She
thought of how, when the kids were babies, she would take their entire hands
into her mouth and pretend that she was going to eat them until they
laughed. She remembered this precisely, viscerally, the way their fingers felt
pressing onto her tongue, and she fell forward, over her knees, her head
wedged under the dash, to sob.
Bruce slowed and then pulled over and stopped the truck. They
were out of Duluth now, off the freeway, on the road home. He hunched over
her back, hugging her with his weight wherever he could.
She took several deep breaths to calm herself, wiped her face with
her gloves, and looked up out the windshield at the snow packed hard on the
shoulder of the road. She felt that home was impossibly far.
"Let's go," she said.
They drove in silence under the ice-clear black sky, passing
turkey farms and dairy farms every few miles, or houses with lit-up sheds.
When they crossed into Coltrap County, Bruce turned the radio on, and they
heard Teresa's own voice and it shocked them, although it was a Thursday
night. She was interviewing a dowser from Blue River, a woman named Patty
Peterson, the descendant of a long line of Petersons who'd witched wells.
Teresa heard herself say, "I've always wondered about the art—I
suppose you could call it an art—or perhaps the skill of selecting a willow
branch." And then she switched the radio off immediately. She held her
hands in a clenched knot on her lap. It was ten degrees below zero outside.
The truck made a roaring sound, in need of a new muffler.
"Maybe it will go away as mysteriously as it came," she said,
turning to Bruce. His haggard face was beautiful to her in the soft light of the
"That's what we're going to shoot for," he said, reaching for her
knee. She considered sliding over to sit close to him, straddling the clutch,
but felt tied to her place near the dark window.
"Or I could die," she said calmly, as if she'd come to peace with
everything already. "I could very well die."
"No, you couldn't."
"We're all going to die," he said softly. "Everyone's going to die,
but you're not going to die now."
She pressed her bare hand flat onto the window, making an
imprint in the frost. "I didn't think I'd die this way."
"You have to stay positive, Ter. Let's get the radiation started and
then we'll see. Just like the doctor said."
"He said we'll see about chemo. Whether I'll be strong enough for
chemo after I'm done with radiation, not about me being cured, Bruce. You
never pay attention." She felt irritated with him for the first time that day and
her irritation was a relief, as if warm water were being gently poured over her
"Okay, then," he said.
"Okay, we'll see. Right?"
She stared out the window.
"Right?" he asked again, but she didn't answer.
They drove past a farm where several cows stood in the bright
light of the open barn, their heads turned toward the dark of the woods
beyond, as if they detected something there that no human could. A
Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Strayed. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
What Our Readers Are Saying