Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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We have been married for twenty-two years. Everything was fine until, twelve years into it, we had kids. Our children changed us. They brought out in B. a love so fierce, so focused, that I fell off the edge of his world, plunging into some sea where, no matter how much I flounder and flail, he fails to toss me a line.
My children often seem to be apparitions, floating forms, people of poured glass, ghostly and beautiful and beyond my reach.
I recently told my husband that if we want to save our marriage — in which whatever common ground we had has long since eroded into rubble and slid down some steep slope — then we need to spend time together without the children. It works like this, I told him: The husband and wife are a team of two. That team has to be the priority, or the family collapses.
It works like this, my husband told me: We need to do more things together as a family. If I would join them when they play Scrabble or Clue, then our marriage would improve.
I don’t see how Scrabble could possibly restore the romantic bond that drew B. and me together way back when: him with his strawberry-blond hair and pale-sky eyes; me with my mahogany hair and hands the size of starfish. We made our own wedding invitations, taking pictures of our faces and cutting them in two and then pasting half of his face to half of mine and xeroxing the image one hundred times. I found a copy of the invitation the other day, and I can see now that the joined faces look rather like some kind of crash, and if you peer at the paper closely, you can see the ragged rift between the half husband and the half wife, a subtle seam between us.
Right from the start my husband and I were radically different people, and over the years our differences have deepened. He is an engineer and a committed rationalist, approaching every problem by breaking it into its component pieces and searching for a solution in a process utterly devoid of emotion, which B. says clouds the mind and obscures the necessary steps. I approach problems by listening for their emotional undertones in an attempt to find the hidden issue, peeling back life’s layers, lifting lids to peek inside. In his youth my husband did drugs and holds dear his memories of special LSD experiences in which he saw whatever it was he saw. I am terrified of drugs and believe that I lack the mental stability to endure a psyche-shattering psychedelic trip. While making dinner or driving, my husband listens to lectures on genomics or history. While washing the dishes or walking on my treadmill, I listen to country music, which he can’t stand. “Headphones,” he tells me. “Get headphones.”
Six months or so ago, my husband brought home two boxes that he laid side by side on the counter. The labels were printed with a stylized image of an X chromosome beside a company’s logo. “We spit into the test tubes,” my husband said, tapping the top of one box, “and then send it off, and in six weeks we’ll get back our genomes, completely analyzed.”
I told him I didn’t need to have my genome analyzed. I already knew that I am Jewish, that my people come from eastern Europe, and that breast cancer and diabetes both run in my family.
“You might find out something you never knew,” my husband said. “You might find out that you are not as Jewish as you think. You might find out that you are at high risk for a disease you can do something about.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and I also might find out I’m at high risk for a disease I can’t do anything about, like Alzheimer’s. If I know that’s in store for me, it will ruin whatever time I have left.”
My husband said he was going to do it — for the kids. They deserved to know what they’d inherited from us. And right then and there he tore open the package, the X chromosome ripped in half. Inside, packed in wadded cotton, were a test tube and a little instruction booklet, which he thumbed through. Then, snapping open the top of the tube, he began to spit. And spit, and spit, and spit. The tube had a red line about a third of the way up, indicating the fill point.
“My God,” my husband said after several minutes. His saliva, which had a strange pinkish tinge, barely filled the bottom. “I never realized how hard it is to salivate.”
The instruction booklet said that rubbing your cheeks would stimulate your salivary glands, so he put down the test tube and started massaging. “Let me,” I said, and I massaged his cheeks — the first time we’d touched in who knew how long. His face was covered with stubble, a barely there beard the color of a sunset, russet orange and wiry but also soft. I pressed in, imagining his salivary glands filling with viscous liquid, his mouth starting to moisten. “Now,” he said in a burbling sort of way, and he spit again, this time producing a big bubble that hovered over the vial and then burst, dripping down the sides. After about twenty minutes he finally reached the red line, the spit frothy and still with its strange pink hue, like a magic fluid. And indeed it was. From this liquid the scientists at the chromosome company would uncoil my husband’s DNA. I pictured them separating the strands with long knitting needles, the code tumbling onto the table with a rattling sound: A, C, G, T — adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine — the basic building blocks of DNA, four letters that, in near-infinite combinations, make us who we are. I envisioned the scientists assembling and interpreting, pressing their ears to each consonant and vowel as if to better hear its history. And once they had completed their task, they would send B. the results, his whole life’s script, complete with a cast of characters and plot points where disease might dwell.
Later that night, alone in the bedroom, my husband asleep on the couch downstairs, I massaged my own cheeks and spit into my hand. My spit did not have a pinkish hue. It was just a milky dab of wetness on my palm, seeping into my lifelines, darkening them, deepening them. What, really, did I know? I knew that my great-grandmother’s name was Mindle, and that she’d been a seamstress in Minsk. But my whole long line, lush with possibilities — that I did not know. Did I want to know? The chromosome company’s pamphlet said that the genetic testing would reveal my ancestry going back tens of thousands of years, back to a time when two species of humans roamed the earth: Homo sapiens, who survived and thrived and at some point about ten thousand years ago discovered the power packed inside seeds and started the agricultural revolution; and the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and Asia during the most recent ice age and eventually died out. If I spit into that tube, I might find out that part of me comes from a land of snow. Or the opposite: I might find out I have Sephardic Jewish ancestors, that my lineage winds through red deserts and over crumbling cliffs. I might find out I have a bit of African in me, Caribbean color snuffed out by the pallor of my Caucasian covering. And there was a practical side to this, too. In all likelihood I’d get back a report that would be useful to my children. I’d know, for instance, whether or not I carried the genetic mutations for breast cancer, a disease for which I’d already undergone a bilateral mastectomy ten years earlier. Breast cancer can be entirely unrelated to genes, or it can arise from a DNA code gone wrong, a major misspelling in the sequence that I could have passed on to my daughter or my son. I looked up at the ceiling, which seemed to spin. Then I went downstairs to retrieve the second, unopened, kit from the kitchen counter. I broke the band around the box, lifted the lid, took out the test tube, peered into its slender chute, touched the red fill line, and felt my mouth begin to water.
I went and told my husband that I was going to take the test. He massaged my cheeks for me, kneading the sides of my jaw, which was continually clenched, even in sleep. (I was often awakened by the sound of my own grinding.) It was past midnight. The children were dreaming. The moon’s light came trickling through the kitchen windows and cast long shadows on the floor, shadows that looked like liquid, shadows we stood ankle deep in, B. moving his fingers around my cheeks and I lowering my head and aiming into the tube, my spit suddenly coming fast and furious. Within minutes I had hit the fill line. My husband then took the tube from me gently, carefully, treating it with a reverence that made my heart ache, for he’d once held me the way he was now holding my saliva. He capped the tube, slipped it into a preaddressed envelope, and said, “I’ll send it out in the morning.” I nodded. I could still feel his fingers on my face. My flanks burned. His eyes looked sunken, sleepy. He usually crashed on the couch while I slept alone in what our children called “the big bed.”
“Come upstairs with me,” I said, extending a hand.
He shook his head. “You’re going to read,” he said, “and I need to get up early.”
Why didn’t I tell him that I wouldn’t read, that as soon as we slipped between the sheets, our sheets, I’d snap off the light? Why didn’t I insist, persist? Habit, I suppose, and also the terrible fact that I prefer to sleep alone with books piled high around me, as if to form a wall with words.
Between my husband and me stretched a long, flat plain of silence and arguments unresolved. We argued about who’d said what and when. We argued about who did the dishes and who did more of the child care and why I wouldn’t play Monopoly with them and how we spent our money. Each argument was small and inconsequential on its own, but they accumulated like the debris that got in our gutters.
Now, though, something had shifted. B. and I had embarked on a joint venture, a project involving test tubes and spit. The very next day he rose before dawn and left for work, taking the test tubes with him. Four hours later he called me from his desk to say that he had mailed them in. And five days after that, we each got an e-mail message in our separate in-boxes: “Congratulations! Your sample has arrived at our lab.” I pictured our test tubes lying side by side, surrounded by smart strangers who would study our spit, drawing from that sticky lubricant the long loops of our DNA, which tethered us to people in a past we had never known. My husband and I were experiencing a shared state of anticipation: A little fear. A little hope. On the outside nothing had changed, but between us was a simple string, attached to him and to me. We didn’t discuss the string, but it kept us connected across minutes and miles, in dreams and in daylight: two people, hitched and here.
B. got his test results back before I did. The envelope came in the mail on a Friday in March, hand addressed, the letters lacy and elegant. I studied the handwriting closely, as though its form or style might reveal something about the contents. A hand-addressed envelope from a big company suggested significant information, findings that required softness, a personal touch — which could have been good or bad. Perhaps the company was writing to tell him that he came from British royalty; or perhaps he harbored some dreadful disease, and the company wanted to ease the pain by personalizing its response. The thick white envelope was completely opaque, even when pressed right up to a light bulb. Finding that the seal had puckered in places, I used my pinkie to try to pry the flap open, stopping only when I made a tiny tear: evidence of my snooping. I knew better than to rip open that envelope. B. was a deeply private person. I’d once asked him about his most erotic fantasy. This was many years earlier, when we were still lovers and lying naked in bed on a warm evening in June, the skylight propped open, a silver plane crossing the band of blue sky. I had already told him mine. He thought for a long time and then said, “Eating red, ripe strawberries with whipped cream.”
I turned to him and looked into his eyes, because the eyes always reveal the lie, even a harmless one. “That couldn’t really be your most erotic fantasy,” I said.
“Red and ripe,” he replied. “And fresh whipped cream.”
I pressed and prodded but could get nothing more. Frustrated, I moved away from him then, opening a space on the sheet between us, and into this space fell the shadows of oncoming night. I’d revealed to him a deep and dark and personal secret about myself, and he’d responded with a low-calorie dessert. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew he wanted what everyone wants — or some version of it, anyway: to hold or be held, to hit or be hit, to be entered and exited and turned inside out with lust and longing. But he wasn’t going to admit it to me and maybe not even to himself. Years later, in a rageful attempt to crack the opacity that cloaked my husband, I prowled through his closet while he was at work and found the proverbial stash of porno magazines: girls with enormous breasts, women with their bottoms thrust into the air. We’d been married well over a decade by then. Sex between us had slowed to a trickle but hadn’t stopped. I didn’t mind the magazines. In fact, they were heartening. In a way they brought B. home to me. Here he was, a man like any other, full of desire. For days afterward it seemed I could see the red haze of his heart beneath his chalk-white chest: a complex, coiled muscle beating in its niche. I wanted to ask him why he’d said strawberries when what he really liked was ivory asses hoisted by high heels, the aperture barely visible in the V where the taut thighs met. I wanted to ask him why he couldn’t tell me his real fantasies and desires, but that was a conversation I didn’t know how to start. It also would have required me to admit that I’d been spying. And so we continued on as before. A marriage can be many things. Ours was a series of secrets and small betrayals, little lies that poison you like an odorless gas you don’t even know you’re breathing until you stop.
Standing there holding B.’s envelope, thinking of the pin-up girls and their breasts pouring out of bustiers, I considered simply tearing open the flap so I could read his results and know him before he knew himself. I thought of the scientists patiently decoding my husband, how he’d offered up his body to them in a way he so rarely had with me. Our sex, before it had stopped, had typically been with the lights out and his eyes clamped shut — the kind of sex that leads to loneliness, if that’s possible. Sometimes during sex with B. I would imagine I was someplace else. I’d think of the enchanted doorways in children’s books, three upright planks of wood in the middle of a grove of evergreen trees, the children approaching and then, in a big rush of courage, walking through into another world of blue pools and fruit trees and big birds with crimson beaks and eggs that gushed gold when you broke them. I have always loved doorways and cupboards and windows for their fairy-tale possibilities, and thus my excitement when, last year, I discovered that the wall in our hallway was hiding a set of shelves. With the sharp point of a pry bar I tore into that white plaster, feeling it give way with a soft crumple, and there they were: three shelves hidden all this time in our house, so deep you had to stretch to touch their backsides, and I imagined that I pushed through and found still more cubbyholes giving way to more cubbyholes that grew into rooms, our whole house unfolding and giving up its gifts. I wandered through those rooms, looking for B., who appeared at a distance I could never seem to close.
The children adored B., and he spent all his free time with them. I was the parent who made the dentist and doctor appointments, who sorted through clothes and closets, who registered for schools and camps and kept vaccination histories in a file. I didn’t doubt that my offspring loved me, but I knew I did not enchant them the way B. did.
In real life B. was angry that I’d taken down the wall, and he did not find the cubbies I’d revealed whimsical or useful. “I wish you’d asked me first,” he said. Such a reasonable request. I wish you’d asked me first. Like the letters that compose our DNA, B.’s seemingly simple statement was in reality a coded message that, if opened up, would have revealed years of animosity between us. I was often making changes to the house, rearranging the furniture so that, when he came home at the end of the day, nothing was where it had been. Or, worse, I would hire contractors to take apart the bathroom and lay the tile I had found and fallen in love with, all without asking him first. In my defense, B. appeared to care little about his surroundings, leaving a trail of dust and debris, of smelly socks and popcorn boxes wherever he walked. It was easy to find him: just follow the dirt. So why was it, then, that I could never find him?
And now here I was with his envelope in my hands. I picked up the phone and called him at work but got his voice mail. “Please leave your personal data after the beep,” his message said. I did not leave my personal data. I hung up and called back: voice mail. I hung up and dialed a third time, listening to the tinny ringing and the click when he finally answered.
“Hi,” I said. “Your test results have come in. I have the envelope right here. Want me to open it and read to you what it says?”
“No!” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll read my results when I get home.”
“I’m curious,” I said.
“Don’t,” he said, and then he paused. I could practically hear his memory working, calling up images of me tearing down a wall or ripping up the carpet in search of the planks beneath, always wanting to explore and expose. “Lauren,” he said, “don’t touch my mail.”
His tone was so serious that I dropped the letter and watched it land on the countertop. “OK,” I said, “I won’t touch it,” and we hung up. Out of childish anger I flicked his letter to the floor and let it lie there. Then, with a sigh, I slowly bent down, one hand at the base of my back, as if I were a hundred years old, and retrieved the envelope.
The day darkened, the children arrived home from school, and then B. from work. “Where’s the letter?” he asked. No Hello. No How are you? Just Where’s the letter? I pointed to it. He swept it up and, kissing each child on the crown of the head, disappeared into his study.
I expected he’d be in there for some time, reading and digesting the information, but not more than three minutes had passed when the door flew open and B. marched back into the kitchen, where I’d started to slice an onion for a recipe. He paused, thrust out his chest, pounded it three times with a fist, and said, “I’m pretty much pure Viking.”
“Pure Viking,” I repeated, not knowing what, precisely, that meant.
He said his ancestors were all from northern Europe — Norway, Iceland, those countries.
I nodded. The envelope that contained his results had been quite thick. I asked what else the report had said.
“That’s pretty much it,” he said. There were no health risks he might have passed on to our children.
“The report looked really long to me,” I said.
B.’s eyes turned to slits. “How would you know?” he asked. “You didn’t read it, did you?”
“Was the envelope opened?” I said. “Isn’t it obvious that I didn’t read it?”
He then declared that I was in one of my “moods” and said he was going to play with the children instead. “Come on, kids,” he called as he retreated from the kitchen. “Let’s make a movie.” I heard our son and daughter thudding down the stairs and B. unpacking the video camera in the living room and snapping the tripod legs into position. What would their movie be about? I should have gone in there and joined them. I should have put down the onion, turned off the stove, and plowed into the center of the group. How had I come to stand so outside of my own family? Had I been exiled, or had I exiled myself? The children adored B., and he spent all his free time with them. I was the parent who made the dentist and doctor appointments, who sorted through clothes and closets, who registered for schools and camps and kept vaccination histories in a file. I didn’t doubt that my offspring loved me, but I knew I did not enchant them the way B. did. Right from the beginning he’d been able to enter their worlds, reading aloud Greek myths, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and all seven Harry Potter books. During car rides he would tell the children about his travels before he’d met me, when he’d wandered the globe as a free man, eating goat’s-head soup in Indonesia and drinking the blood of a cat in Africa and meeting wise men in India who’d given him amulets and charms he still has today — silver pendants with ruby rocks blazing in their centers, an emerald-green bead of glass. B. kept these treasures, along with assorted treasures from other countries, in a cardboard box in his office closet. Once, I’d walked by his door — usually closed but this time ajar — and seen him holding up a Tibetan tapestry. I’d stopped and stared. He was just admiring this piece of exotic cloth, sewn with seed pearls and flecks of glitter, embroidered with glowing scenes of elephants and forests. He gripped the translucent textile in two hands, stretching it so he could see it better. I studied him studying his past, the travels he’d taken long ago, and I imagined he was wondering: How had settling down come to claim him so completely? By what means does a relationship erode, and what do you do when even the erosion — which is itself a form of movement — stops, and everything stands still, stuck? How do you find your way out of that fairy-tale forest?
In the living room where they’d set up the camera, B. began to tell the children tales of Viking warriors. “You descend from people who conquered the true north,” he told them, “who came to Iceland in boats they made by hand, strong people, fierce people.” B. told the children about the old Norse gods: Odin, the Allfather, a war god and a poetry god; and Thor, the thunder god who battled the World Serpent and tossed him back into the sea. On and on my husband went about Freya and Loki, communicating to the kids that this was their heritage, when the fact of the matter was that our children were half Jewish, and thus were also inheritors of another set of ancient tales.
It wasn’t long after that when I decided that our family should have a Passover Seder. It was time the children learned their whole heritage, not just half of it.
One night at dinner I announced that this year we were going to celebrate Passover.
“Cool,” said B., chewing thoughtfully. Then he put down his fork. “What exactly does Passover celebrate?”
“The Jews,” I replied, and I looked at our two kids across the table. “The Jews, which both of you are, were once slaves in Egypt, and Passover celebrates their escape from slavery.”
The children continued to eat, clearly unmoved by the fact that their ancestors had once been slaves.
“You are,” I said, my voice rising in a way I did not like, “part of a tiny, tiny tribe of people, a people so persecuted that it’s a miracle Judaism even still exists.” I explained how the Jews had wandered for forty years in the desert before finally reaching their promised land. I tried to make my story as colorful and compelling as possible: Moses. The burning bush. The parting of the Red Sea. The Ten Commandments handed down from on high. A land of milk and honey and unleavened bread. Blood on doorways. Plagues of locusts and toads. But it had been so many years since I’d practiced Judaism that the pieces of the Passover story didn’t cohere, and my tale fell flat. “What matters,” I said to the kids, “is that you know you’re Jewish, that you understand you come from this tribe of people who survived against all odds. You have Jewish blood in you.”
B. said there was no such thing as Jewish blood. “Judaism is a religion, not a bloodline.”
“It’s both,” I said, the kids drifting away as we faced off.
“That’s what the Nazis thought,” B. replied. “They thought that Judaism was a bloodline, when in reality it’s a set of beliefs and practices that have nothing to do with the way we, in this house, live our lives.”
I insisted that you didn’t have to practice Judaism to be a Jew. “Judaism is something you are; not something you do.”
“I disagree,” B. said, “but I’m happy to have a Seder.”
In the days before Passover it would have been easy enough to go online and reacquaint myself with the great Old Testament stories, but I didn’t. Why not? Did I need to see my genome-analysis results before I could claim the traditions and tales that I knew were mine, and therefore also my children’s? I remembered enough from my childhood to know what it was to be a Jew: the haunting call of the shofar, that polished horn the cantor blew in temple; the names of the dead read aloud as congregants sang Kol Nidre and rocked back and forth. But I didn’t do it, because I feared boring my children. I feared I could not compete with B., who had a storytelling flair he rarely showed in ordinary conversation, his tone undulating, his voice strung with suspense. I am a writer, not a storyteller. When you tell a story out loud, you put yourself at the center of attention; you are the sun, and the audience is drawn by your gravitational pull. In our family B. had the pull. I stayed off to the side with my solitary activities: reading, writing, daydreaming of doorways in forests. My temperament was solitary and often melancholy, whereas B.’s, despite his love of data and his engineering inclinations, was bright and elfin.
Still, I hadn’t expected that B. would respond to the scientific analysis of his self with this set of stories from thousands of years ago. I would have thought he would meet science with science, and the fact that he hadn’t was evidence that he could still surprise me. At this thought a small flame flickered somewhere in my middle, in a hollow that once hadn’t been hollow. It hurt, this place, not just sometimes but all the time, a burl of grief for which I could not find any tears, though I longed for them. I wanted to cry in front of B., to cry with B., both of us mourning what we had lost: How he used to call me “pie” (short for “sweetie pie”). How we used to go to movies and eat Thai takeout straight from the boxes, stabbing the fragrant mangoes with chopsticks, holding back our heads and popping the bites into our opened mouths. How, when we made love, I could smell him, a smell so particular it was like an olfactory signature: a little grass, a little sweat, a little sadness — a complex scent that told me I was home. I missed these things and badly wanted them back. B. often said they would come back once the kids were grown and we found ourselves alone again. Until then, however, there was no room.
“Aren’t you lonely?” I’d asked him once.
“Yes,” he’d said. “Very.”
With my marriage at a standstill so complete even the smallest shift felt seismic, that flame inside me flickered again.
About one week into April, when the buds on the magnolia trees were still in a fetal furl, I received my results: a colorful array of graphs and pie charts and percentages that, at first glance, made my mind swirl. It was Friday, and B. was home, helping our daughter with her biology homework, explaining covalent bonds and how they break. Part of me wanted to call him into my study so he could help me sort through the document, but another part of me wanted to figure it out on my own and then announce to my husband precisely who I was, where I’d come from, and, most important, the places where our genomes overlapped. After staring at the screen for some time, I came to understand that 3 percent of my genes come from the Neanderthals (the average person of European or Asian descent has between 1 and 4 percent), which means that, hundreds of thousands of years ago, during that time when two distinct species of humans coexisted, there was crossbreeding. This fact made me feel oddly happy and full of possibility: if Neanderthals and Homo sapiens could find enough common ground to mate, then surely B. and I could, too.
On the second page of my report was my lineage, traced back thousands of years. While B.’s ancestors came from Iceland and northern Europe, mine came from eastern Europe and were 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. I do not carry a gene for Alzheimer’s, nor for Parkinson’s, and, more significantly, I do not carry any of the mutations for breast cancer. So if my daughter ever gets the disease, it will not be because of the DNA I have passed on to her. My report told me that I am at significant risk for deep-vein thrombosis and high cholesterol, that I have wet earwax, and that I am genetically prone to like sweet and salty foods. For the most part it was a bit of a dud. Who cares about earwax? And I didn’t need to spit into a test tube to find out what tickles my taste buds. But the report confirmed what I’d secretly been fearing: that my husband and I have absolutely no crossover in our bloodlines. He is from one people, I am from another, and that’s that. The two genome reports, if laid side by side, described two vastly different human beings with two vastly different heritages, people whose differences extended past the surface and went straight down to the cellular level. Whatever optimism I’d been harboring since the start of spring vanished.
That night B. and I had a huge fight about money. Our bank account was, once again, dangerously low. We’d have to dip into our savings to pay our bills. He blamed my horses.
“The whole purpose of buying this property,” I said, “was so that I could have horses.”
“They are a purely discretionary expense,” he said. “And it appears you care more for them than you do about our kids’ college education.”
“Untrue!” I shouted, and I shot back that he spent too much on computers and refused to do a budget with me.
He claimed a budget wouldn’t change the fact that we were not rich enough to afford horses.
“How can you say that,” I asked, “when we haven’t even looked at the figures?”
“I’m tired,” B. said. “I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
I felt slapped. The night before, I had awakened from a nightmare and gone downstairs to find B. asleep on the couch. Waking him, I’d explained that I’d had a bad dream and asked if he would sleep with me for the rest of the night. Without answering, he had risen and followed me upstairs and climbed into bed beside me. But then, rather than hold me, he had turned his back and pulled a pillow over his head. Still, we were under the same covers again. It was a start.
My husband and I have absolutely no crossover in our bloodlines. He is from one people, I am from another, and that’s that. The two genome reports, if laid side by side, described two vastly different human beings with two vastly different heritages, people whose differences extended past the surface and went straight down to the cellular level.
My husband and I have absolutely no crossover in our bloodlines. He is from one people, I am from another, and that’s that. The two genome reports, if laid side by side, described two vastly different human beings with two vastly different heritages, people whose differences extended past the surface and went straight down to the cellular level.
And now here he was telling me he could not get a good night’s sleep in our marital bed.
“Why not?” I asked. “I was completely quiet.”
“I just couldn’t,” he said. “In fact, you thrash around.”
I had an image of myself struggling to stay afloat in a giant ocean, the horizon gray, rain falling from the sky. I was swimming and swimming and could not get any closer to the shore.
My husband walked out of the room, headed for who knows where. I sat down in a chair. I couldn’t get enough air, as if my lungs were stuffed with wadding. I thought of the basics of genetic code, the letters A, C, G, T. I vaguely remembered reading about a man who had transcribed his genome onto paper, and it had filled three one-thousand-page books — impressive, for sure, but still too small, I thought, to hold the whole of a human being.
The house was oddly quiet. Darkness fell. The headlights of passing cars swept over the walls and the woodwork and also my feet, my two bare feet on which I could have risen and walked out of there for good if I’d wanted. I heard the horses whinny and pace, whinny and pace. Animals know when storms are approaching; they smell it on the breezes blowing past. I sat there in a straight-backed chair and listened to the heartbeat of the house. The children were not home. I could hear my husband shuffling in his office. I wanted to burst through his closed door and say something, anything, but what? Please, I might say, and nothing more. I could not go to him and kiss him, because too great a gulf had formed between us, and it would have been as inappropriate as kissing a stranger. But I could say, Please.
I stood up and headed down the hall to his office. The hall was darker even than the rest of the house, because it had no windows. My footsteps echoed. I saw the crack of light beneath his door, heard the sound of a clicking keyboard. I was going to walk in there and say, Please, and see if that monosyllabic plea could somehow restore us to a state of union. The closer I got to his office at the end of that long, narrow hallway, the more I smelled a familiar and pungent scent. The smell had body to it. It felt physical, palpable — not a bad smell but a ripe one, as if someone had left out a plate of fruit for a few days too many, the browning bananas and apples with their black bruises. I was getting closer to the door with its line of light and also to this strangely comforting odor, whose source I discovered right outside my husband’s office: a wicker laundry basket piled high with his sweaty T-shirts and crumpled clothes. I put my hand on the mound of dirty laundry, then lifted my palm to my nose and took in the scent of him. I felt happy because, well, here he was, the man I’d married, his scent the same now as it had been twenty-odd years earlier when, after the wedding ceremony, we had headed to our hotel room to make love; the same as it was whenever he came close to me — the smell of a fall garden, of musty mathematical equations in a dank but beautiful book. There, with my hand on his pile of clothing, I recalled an experiment I had once read about: A group of men wore simple cotton T-shirts for a couple of days, perspiring in them, sleeping in them, and finally peeling them off and giving them to the researchers, who then asked female test subjects to select the T-shirts that smelled the best to them. The researchers found that each woman consistently rated highest the T-shirts from the men whose immune systems contained important components that hers lacked, thus ensuring that any offspring they produced would have a robust defense system. In other words, women are drawn to men who have deep genetic differences from them — immunologically, at least. Why would this be? Because evolution does not want us to pick mates with genomes that are the same as ours. Evolution wants diversity; the more, the better.
I think of evolution as a kind of god. It is the primal force that decides which species survive and which do not. It creates adaptations and mutations that allow certain species to flourish while others fail. It guards against incest and drives us toward mates whose genomes differ from ours, because divergent genomes make for healthier children. I don’t doubt this for a minute. But, as a psychologist, I also have read studies showing that couples who share interests are more likely to have successful marriages than those who don’t. Thus we are caught in a complex bind when it comes to marriage: we are drawn unconsciously toward partners who deeply differ from us in order to create healthy offspring, but once the offspring have sprung, so to speak, we are left with a partner who may be more foreigner than friend. What is one to do in such a situation? Say, simply, Please, and hope that single, simple word ferries you and your spouse to some single, simple place where you can stitch your relationship back together? Obviously that won’t work. So, really, what is one to do? B. and I have had our children, and thus the force that drew us together has done its job. We have procreated. We have produced two sturdy, intelligent beings who I’m sure have benefited from the divergent genomes of their parents, and who are fast growing up and entering a world where those parents will be less and less relevant. One day soon, as B. has reminded me, he and I will be the solitary pair that we once were — only he’s leaving out an essential piece of the equation. What if, after the kids have left the nest (soon now, soon), we find our differences insurmountable? B. will forever be a man whose ancestors sailed the seas in boats they’d carved by hand, whereas I’ll forever be a woman whose ancestors were seamstresses and rabbis who cultivated small, bookish lives in crowded conditions. I will always be a woman of words, a writer, and B. will be an engineer with big ambitions, ready to conquer whatever world he steps into.
I carried my husband’s laundry downstairs to the basement and emptied it into the huge washing machine, stopping to smell his T-shirts as I did. Sure enough, that little flame in the hollow I wished were not there flared and flickered before settling down to its soft and steady burn. The laundry detergent was deep blue and viscous; I drizzled it over the clothes, watching it pool here and there, and then I slammed the lid shut and started the machine.
Feeling the need for light, I flicked on switches as I ascended the stairs. Where were the children? Should I have worried? It was nearing 6 PM, and only my husband and I were home. They must have made plans; I remembered as much in a haze. I turned on the hall lights and heard the telltale ping of a burned-out bulb. In the kitchen I flicked every switch, and the lights burst on almost theatrically. In the living room I rolled the dimmer all the way up until the furniture seemed to pulse with light: the couch pillows still holding the shape of the last person who’d sat there, the socks strewn in corners, the swirl of a cobweb up by the ceiling. I continued to make my way through the house, illuminating every space, ending in the master bathroom, where I turned on the shower, took off my clothes, and stepped under the spray. The steam rose up my legs and wound around my torso; the soap bubbles were slick on my skin. My skin. For how long could it go without touch? I ran my hands over my navel, my shoulders, my armpits, my neck, feeling the taut tendons, reaching behind myself to touch the vertebrae, hard knobs strung with fibers of nerve. I took the cake of soap between my palms and rubbed, creating a sweet-smelling froth, which I used to wash my chest, my hand passing between the two saline implants that are now my breasts and then lifting each sac and washing beneath.
And that is how I found it. I was scrubbing the skin under the left breast, digging in so hard I could feel bone, when I came across a nub of hardness, a little knot, a tight-pressed piece of gristle like a bur. Ten years earlier I’d had my breasts taken off and whisked away as if they were appendages one could simply unsnap from the body and send sailing down a dark river, never to be seen again. I woke up from my mastectomy in a dim recovery room, where there were many beds and many other people also waking up, stirring and groaning, and a machine beeping arrythmically, and a nurse standing over me saying, “Breathe, breathe,” which scared me, because she made it sound as if maybe I weren’t breathing. And then B. was there, flowers blazing in his fist, and the wheels of my bed were unlocked, and I was rolled through the labyrinthine hospital to my room, which overlooked the Charles River from the tenth floor: sails on the water and tiny people walking still-tinier dogs on leashes that looked like pieces of string. The pain — well, the pain I was not prepared for. My whole chest was on fire. They had to peel off the blood-soaked bandages, and I looked down and then regretted that I’d done so, my chest a train wreck of angry wounds and big black stitching and fresh pools of blood, as if a bomb had gone off in my heart, leaving me with only shreds of skin. And pain. They brought a morphine pump, and I pumped that juice into my body and felt the pain take its teeth out of me and walk across the room, where it hunched, waiting for a chance to bite again. I kept pumping. The next morning a gaggle of medical students came to observe the bomb site, again unwrapping the crusted bandages. (This time I had the good sense not to look.) It took me many weeks to heal from my mastectomy, but not once did I regret it, even when it became obvious that the plastic surgeon had botched the job, giving me two asymmetrical mounds with no nipples.
“If you want nipples,” the plastic surgeon told me in a post-operative visit, “we can take some tissue from your tongue and create them.”
No. Enough was enough. I’d go without.
And so I had, and fairly happily, been freed from mammograms and breast exams and MRIs and worry, until now with this little knot, this bur beneath my skin.
I stepped from the shower, my heart beating so fast I looked down to see if it was visible. I said B.’s name, then called it again, louder. I didn’t bother wrapping myself in a towel, which was unusual, because, in our estrangement, we had become shy and no longer showed each other our unclothed bodies. But the bur, the knot, had changed that. B. came to the doorway of the bathroom, his eyes widening as he saw me standing there naked.
“I found a lump,” I said.
We both knew that a recurrence after a mastectomy would be a very bad thing. The oncologist had told us, after she’d sent my breasts sailing down the dark river, that women rarely have recurrences after a bilateral mastectomy, and when they do, it’s usually in the bone and comes with a poor prognosis. My legs wavered like skinny stems in a high tide. “What’s wrong?” B. asked, as if he hadn’t heard me the first time, and I said again, “I found a lump,” and then the tears I’d thought I’d wanted for so long burbled up, and I wondered whether you could analyze a genome using tears instead of spit.
“A lump,” B. said, still standing on the other side of the threshold, on the other side of the world, and I said, “Yes,” and then I rode on that little raft of a word across the tiled floor and almost — but not quite — into his arms. “Feel this?” I asked, and I lifted the pathetic saline sac, and he extended his hand to knead the flesh around my ribs, touching the hollow where my heart beat. “Over to the left,” I whispered, and his fingers landed right on the spot, massaging, measuring, contemplating, and pressing as if to assess what he could not — the danger. And though I thought I was in danger, endangered, about to be extinct, as B. touched me, I felt something unwind like a piece of twine between us, undoing years of rigid posturing. My knot gave way to an opening, and we went through it.
With his free hand B. wrapped me in a towel — I was shivering — and together we stepped through a door, back into a time when I’d first been diagnosed and B. had cupped my breasts the night before the surgeon had sawed them off. Later, when B. had seen the botched reconstruction job, he had found the heart to say, “It’s not that bad,” and when I’d asked him to touch them, he’d said, “Of course I can touch them,” and then he’d gingerly caressed my prosthetic no-nipples breasts, cradling first one and then the other, his thumb circling the spot on each where a nipple should have been. And even though I knew it wasn’t possible for me to feel his touch — the saline sacs had no nerves in them — I nevertheless experienced a tingle when he rounded what would have been the areola. Mine had been huge and, in pregnancy, had darkened to a mahogany color with nipples a deep, burnished pink topped with the golden goo of colostrum. All gone, that. And here my husband was, touching what was left — or, rather, what had been added, like two new rooms, so to speak — and then he had kissed them and said, “Welcome.”
And even though you can’t go back in time, even though time is not a knot that can unwind, as he wrapped me in a towel and steadied the reeds that were my legs, I nevertheless imagined his voice saying, Welcome.
There’s a story I particularly like of a Zen student who complains to his master that focusing on his breathing during meditation is boring. The master grabs the student and plunges his head into a stream and holds him under for some seconds, then yanks him back up into the shining, abundant air and asks, “Still boring?” Illness — or, more specifically, the threat of death — has a way of putting an edge on everything, of bringing bounty where before there was none. It’s not a question of making lemonade with lemons or anything like that. It’s a question of having the film pulled back from your sticky eyes, the bandages removed, the blinders ripped off so you can take in the view, which is filled with light, light, light. The kind of light you don’t want to linger in, because it has an ominous, heavenly quality. The kind of light that illuminates even the most delicate details, so you can see everywhere the scratched and the marred. There was a time when I thought that I might die, when death seemed imminent, and I moved through a world that was brilliantly lit with this light and beautiful in its flamboyant decay. And then, when I learned I wasn’t about to die, the light left me, but not the memory of its glow.
We are all, no matter what our genome or genetic differences, wired to die. And we know this. And this knowledge perhaps makes us more alike, in the end, than different. This knowledge means that we all share a personal pain that is common across cultures and continents and that provides a bridge to every other human. Some of us deal with the fact of our deaths by writing books or having children to preserve our genomic signature into centuries beyond. Others do things that to me seem strange, like cryopreserve their bodies in the hope that someday scientists will figure out a way to reanimate the dead. What the knowledge of death did for me this time around was get me to make an appointment with my oncologist, who put me in a CAT-scan machine that clicked and whirred and then finally stopped.
“Well?” I said, sitting up, clutching the flimsy paper robe around my vulnerable body.
“A bone spur,” she said, smiling. “It’s just a bone spur.”
I was beyond relieved that my latest brush with death had turned out to be just that: a brush, a drive-by. But, nevertheless, seeing my horizon — and knowing that, sooner rather than later, I would shoot past it — had altered my psychology once more, however briefly. In that moment of reprieve, even pancakes seemed sacred, and a grilled veggie burger was like a gift from some god — Thor or Yahweh, no matter.
“I’m fine,” I said to B. when he came home. “It was just a bone spur.”
“A bone spur,” he said, more to himself than to me, a look of genuine relief on his face, and it occurred to me that maybe he didn’t want to lose me, that he might miss me after I am gone, although I am still not sure why. Perhaps, even for radically different couples, even for estranged couples, there exists some kind of connection built of shared memory, of the once-was love. The genome results showed that B. and I have deeply divergent bloodlines, that our DNA is different, but those differences are actually quite small compared to the thousands of similarities that the whole human species shares. We all have neurons in our brains that recognize the softness of a smile; we are all capable of laughter, terror, loneliness, love; we all feel hot and cold, the tenderness of a touch and the severity of a slap; we all know right and wrong; we all sleep, and every one of us dreams.
I have a hunch that B. and I will find a way to stay together, despite the distance between us, despite the fact that we share neither bedroom nor bed, despite the fact that we have not kissed in years. I think that something, I don’t know what, will pull us through, which may not be for the best. God knows, there are good-enough reasons for us to separate, especially once the kids are grown. But perhaps we can draw on the history that we have together, a history belonging only to us: a wedding, a wedding night, pregnancies, the blood of birth, affections and nicknames and sex that meant something, once upon a time. In the end maybe we can call on those thousands of similarities in all humans to forge a path wide enough for both of us to walk on.
Lauren Slater’s essay “Bloodlines” [March 2015] was splendid. Although DNA testing has scientifically quantified our differences, there are many qualities that make us the same. None of us chose to be born, and none of us wants to die. The time between is our opportunity to find meaning in the mystery. We share feelings that cannot be measured by any scientific test: loneliness, fear, envy, hatred, love, compassion. Many times we imagine these feelings are unique to us, but they are all aspects of being human.
I recognized myself (an engineer on the obsessive-compulsive, left-brain end of the scale) and my former spouse (an artist on the emotional, right-brain end) in Lauren Slater’s essay “Bloodlines” [March 2015]. Our distorted perceptions of each other made it difficult to find common ground. After years with no relief, my wife summoned the courage to end our codependent relationship, resulting in a better quality of life for us and our family.
It is now twenty years after our divorce, and I still ask myself: What did my children learn about relationships from my first marriage? I sympathize with the Slater family. There are no easy answers.
Although my husband and I chose to remain childless, our marriage is quite similar to Lauren Slater’s. I thank her for articulating what has been happening in our relationship, and for helping me to stay in it despite its imperfections. My spouse and I resemble roommates more than we do a married couple, but we have remained friends, and I would be lost without him. As I get older I am learning to treasure that friendship.