Annie realizes while she and her boyfriend, Adam, are Christmas shopping that lately she doesn’t enjoy his company very much unless they are both drinking. They have spent the evening driving each other crazy in department stores, blaming each other for not knowing what to buy or how much to spend, for the unending carols leaking out of every intercom. But now they are in a bar, a neutral public space, where they can drink whiskey sours and make friends with the waitress and treat each other, as they were taught, the way they would like to be treated.
“The whole reason Christmas exists is to remind me, personally, of how many problems and how little money I have,” says Adam. “It’s really quite unfair.”
“I read somewhere it has something to do with Jesus.”
Adam frowns, pretending to think. “No. No, I don’t think that’s right.”
Annie also takes issue with Christmas, on principle. It’s too pushy, too invasive, and, worst of all, too cute. To avoid using up all their remaining vacation time, they will be spending Christmas apart with their separate families for the first time in three years. Their flights are in ten days. She hopes they will remember how to miss each other over the holiday. Her mother is worried in her flighty, birdlike way, but Annie keeps reminding her they’re not that kind of couple that needs holidays in order to feel close.
Annie keeps ready-made responses on hand for questions concerning her relationship. When family members ask why she and Adam still do not live together she says, “You know, Katharine Hepburn says men and women should never live together. They should just live next door to each other.”
She can tell when someone doesn’t know who Katharine Hepburn is because they will nod agreeably, like they assume she must be some kind of doctor.
She supposes she should try to answer questions about herself seriously, rather than with a deflective joke. The jokes she tells are not even funny, they’re just odd and make people smile and go, “Huh!” Adam, at least, thinks she is funny.
Annie looks under the table into their bags. “My God, what have we done? Who would buy this stuff?”
“The cynical and the desperate,” says Adam, through a mouthful of ice.
“I’ll be cynical if you be desperate,” says Annie, feeling very weary all of a sudden.
“Baby,” says Adam, laughing, like it’s the funniest thing. “We don’t have to agree to that. We already are.”
Lately she’s started to invent stupid little truths that she can repeat to herself. Today she thinks, Love is seasonal, like Christmas. It’s also over-hyped, like Christmas. For instance, at the bar she felt in love with Adam, but now she is lying on his bed, staring at him and wondering, What is with this guy? He is glaring at himself in the mirror and stretching his arms in the air.
“I need to work out,” he says.
She exhales into the pillow, wavering between wanting to be supportive and not wanting to encourage him to berate himself for another ten minutes.
“Leave your skinny body alone,” she says. “I like it. It fits into mine.”
“I have the time to work out and I never do it,” he says.
She grabs his elbow to pull him onto the bed. “I know a good workout,” she says, though she is not really in the mood.
They’ve had a few too many drinks to have sex, so she just slips her hand into his boxers to massage him until he falls asleep. She is working her way down between his legs when her fingers run into something and she falters. There is a lump, small and perfectly round, propped up under his skin. She slows, wondering if she should stop, but he is breathing heavily now and his fingers are wrapped tightly in her hair, so she keeps going, wanting it to be over so she can figure out what to do.
Finally he stops breathing and holds his breath while he comes, and she catches all of it so it won’t get on him or the sheets. She grips the sticky mess in her fingers and watches him fish around for a shirt or a towel. Whenever she puts her hand under an automatic soap dispenser and it shoots the slimy liquid into her palm she thinks of a boy coming into her hand. Everything mimics sex, she thinks, another truth. He produces a T-shirt for her to clean herself off with and then throws out an arm so she can lie in the space by his chest.
“I felt something just now,” she whispers.
He looks at her questioningly. There is something mildly fearful in his expression. She has seen this look from him before: it is the fear of anything romantic. Like she is thinking, Baby, I felt something just now. I felt something stir in my heart while I was touching your balls. He is so clueless. He doesn’t know anything about her.
“I felt something on you,” she clarifies. “On your—” she gestures to the area. “On your testicles.”
The medical word hangs in the air. His mouth tightens and the color drains from his face. He throws the tangled sheets aside and goes into the bathroom. She grips her face in her hands, smelling the scent of him. Her heart is beating rapidly throughout her entire torso. The more she listens to it the more anxious she becomes. Maybe she has a heart murmur. Maybe they are both dying of medical complications. Maybe the cardio section of the hospital and the testicular section are next to each other, and they can visit each other while they’re being treated.
He comes back in, ashen-faced. “There’s something there,” he says, and lies down.
There is no right thing to say. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” she says. “Make an appointment in the morning to get it checked out. It’s probably nothing.”
He nods at the ceiling. He doesn’t seem to want to be held so she lies next to him and runs her hand up and down his arm, feeling her own heartbeat.
The next morning they peel themselves out of the sheets and go to work. He texts her that his appointment is on Wednesday. They have three days to wait. “I’m not telling anyone,” he texts, “until I know there’s actually something wrong.” Annie gets the feeling he’d prefer she didn’t know, either.
She eats lunch sometimes with her coworker Bettina, a veterinary technician at the clinic Annie works at in Jamaica Plain. Annie is grateful to talk to someone she does not have to say “Merry Christmas” to. Bettina is as disinterested in people as Annie is in animals and she especially does not like Adam, who she has only met twice. Annie is jealous of Bettina. Bettina is an emotional nomad, attached to nothing.
There are no surgeries scheduled until late afternoon, so Bettina takes a long lunch and they go to the café next door, crunching through the frozen, graying snow.
“Have you ever had a medical scare?” asks Annie after they sit down.
Bettina considers this. “Not really. Does a pregnancy scare count?”
“Are you comparing pregnancy to a medical condition?”
“Doesn’t every unmarried girl see it that way?”
“Oh,” Bettina shrugs. “Well, that’s all I got.”
Annie wonders if she should have brought this up with Bettina, but she goes on. “I had one once.”
“What was it?”
“It was nothing, obviously. Even less impressive than pregnancy.”
Bettina smirks. “I can’t help it. Every person who works in medicine thinks the same way. You know why so many doctors smoke cigarettes and have shitty eating habits? They’re not shocked by the deterioration of the body. It’s nothing but a conundrum to be solved with scalpels and pharmaceutical research. A shriveled-up organ is as familiar as your own face in the mirror.”
“That sounds awful.”
“Seriously, doctors pop pills like it’s nothing. For everything. The other technician is swiping tranquilizers because she’s having a little trouble sleeping.” She throws up her hands. “What, doesn’t it make sense? You get used to things, you get reckless.”
“God, don’t tell me you’re so desensitized you need animal tranquilizers to get through the night.”
“I’m a simple product of my environment,” Bettina blinks innocently. “But don’t worry, there’s always religion. At night we all gather back in the operating room and worship an old copy of Gray’s Anatomy.”
“Can I join?”
“No liberal arts majors allowed. Tell me your medical story.”
“But it’s so stupid,” says Annie to her coffee cup. “My dentist found a growth on the inside of my mouth and said it looked similar enough to mouth cancer to go have it looked at. It wasn’t anything, just an infected saliva gland.”
Bettina rubs her eyes, looking tired. “Everything looks like cancer. I mean, a lot of times it is.”
She says it so casually that Annie winces. It seems like a diagnosis: if it looks like cancer, if it scares you like cancer, then it’s probably cancer. After a pause Annie says, “I remember my mom bursting into tears when we left the doctor’s office.”
Bettina waits for her to go on, running her tongue thoughtfully along the front of her teeth. Annie can tell that she’s trying to figure out what Annie is getting at. Finally Bettina says, “Come on, I look at the insides of animals all day; let’s talk about something else.”
Annie gulps her coffee, wanting to feel energized. They had found the growth over four years ago when she was twenty-three, her perspective limited by her small-town upbringing. She had never even left the country. But she was startled into action and made many promises to herself to waste nothing and no time. The world became dizzyingly abstract for her. She dumped her current boyfriend, quit her job, and toured Europe for a month with a friend. She has blurry memories of leaning out the windows of cars being driven too fast, screaming joyfully. She slept with a few too many people, drank a little too much. When Adam met her she had already gotten her job at the clinic and most of her friends had moved to different cities, but she was still in this state of silly carelessness. She prodded him to go to shows and on weekend road trips. Anything that required motion.
Then after a while there had just been life—daily life. She can’t quite determine when that started. All that running around and going to different places, and she never actually went anywhere. This year, now that many of her friends have moved, she is beginning to feel self-conscious, like a dog caught chasing its own tail.
She doesn’t know if she should bring this story up with Adam. He will take it all wrong, think it’s condescending. But she wants to know what Adam imagines he will do when he gets the results from the doctor, whatever they are.
“My boyfriend says I dwell on things for too long,” Annie admits cautiously, not sure how personal she is allowed to be with Bettina.
Bettina just smiles and raises her cup. “Ah, love. The fastest way to feel incapable of functioning in reality. How is love, by the way? It hasn’t called me up in a while.”
“Oh, it’s—it’s…” Annie opens her palms and stares at them. “It’s like you’re at an airport bar, having a great, pleasant time, only you’re waiting to get on a plane to someplace you really don’t want to go at all.”
“So where is the plane going?”
“Um. Commitment? Maybe death?”
Bettina cracks up. “That’s good,” she nods, sucking down the last of her coffee. “I like that.”
Adam spends the next night at her apartment. They shower together in an attempt to be romantic, but they mostly just talk about the latest televised court case, argue about it lightly, arrive at an agreement, and soap each other down. He will not let her touch him below the navel.
They get in bed and when she straddles him he just kisses her and gently eases her away. They both pretend to sleep, listening to each other’s breathing. She should say something really beautiful that no one else can say, about how he is so much funnier than her, and how she wishes she had so many of his qualities, like his loyalty to friends and his ability to not take things so damn seriously. He is so good in so many ways. He knows about her petty anxieties and hatreds and does not treat them like trash she keeps forgetting to take out. Here is a person whose humor she knows and understands. Who has told her things about himself he won’t tell anyone else. She should tell him how much he matters to her, even though he is kind of lazy and cynical. But now she can’t tell whether he is sleeping or just pretending to be asleep.
She decides not to accompany Adam to his appointment, after a long and uncomfortable exchange of “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” and “I won’t go if you’d rather go alone. Do you want me to go?” They are stiff and polite. She goes to work and waits for him to call. Bettina comes over with a big red holiday bow in her hair, and fits another one in Annie’s ponytail.
“It’s so ironic,” she says, mussing up Annie’s bangs and stalking off like a big feline.
Annie keeps the bow, hoping it will help her remember to have a little perspective. She is complimented by every single customer.
During her break Adam calls and says the doctors are calm but concerned about the lump. They’ve decided to do blood work. He’ll know in a couple days. Their separate flights home are in six days. The thought of separation makes her nervous. She pulls at the red bow in her hair. Life sure is funny, she thinks, angrily. She is not committed to this truth.
Usually she is consoled by research but she does not research the lump. Instead she imagines what it would be like if Adam had a potentially fatal disease, with a long road to recovery. She marvels at the possibility of being needed by someone, of the certainty of their relationship as long as he was sick. He could not be alone during this, and that meant she would never have to be alone either. She is on the brink of a real fight, one from which she could emerge wiser, sturdier. Unless all of it—the waiting rooms, the radiation therapy, the obligation to love someone she was stuck with—just broke her. Unless the two of them managed to make each other so miserable that she would feel like the one with cancer. Selfish, selfish, she thinks, looking at the people in the waiting room as they worry, gooey and maternal, over their blinking animals.
A customer leaves his puppy in a kennel on the desk in front of Annie while he runs out to get something from his car. Annie stares at the puppy, who studies her worriedly.
“Teach me how to be nice,” she says to the puppy, but he just continues to worry.
From the speakers right above her desk, Dean Martin is singing “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” like the happiest bastard in the world.
She leaves work and makes Adam eggplant parmesan for dinner because it’s comforting, and that’s what she’d like to force herself to be. She makes a huge pitcher of margaritas as an appetizer. They drink and complain about work. This mostly involves the merciless mocking of clients and coworkers.
“I’m not free to be mean around anyone but you,” she tells him while she absentmindedly chases her straw around her cup with her mouth. He tells her she looks retarded and reaches out to hold the straw for her, laughing at her outright. They are two Christmas-hating jerks. She did not realize how heavy the weight had been sitting in her chest until she noticed how light she felt laughing with him.
“Everything is going to be fine, you know,” she says. “With—well, you know. I’m going to be there for you,” she says.
Adam starts to stack their plates, looking fidgety. “Thanks,” he says. “Really. But let’s not talk about it, okay? I just managed to forget about it for a while.”
“Why can’t we talk about it?” She is startled by the pleading sound in her voice. “We don’t have real conversations anymore, about anything.”
“We don’t have real conversations? Let’s talk about the real possibility of testicular cancer then.”
He looks past her at the wall, his brow furrowed with anxiety. She takes a long drink and doesn’t say anything. She feels bad for pushing him, then irritated. Now his outbursts are justified, rather than the result of a bad attitude. Now he has a lump that he carries around all day that lets him be as bitchy and depressed as he wants.
This was going to become his excuse for everything. You can’t fault a guy with a lump. That was a truth she had not known about.
He finally looks back at her and leans forward. “What do you want to talk about, Annie? You already know what I’m going to say before I say it.”
She is grateful for the softness in his voice. “Yeah, I know you. I know you like the back of my head.”
He coughs, laughing into his drink. “What? Hand. The phrase is, back of your hand.”
She pauses. “Oh. I’ve been saying it wrong.”
“What you said doesn’t make any sense.”
“I always thought it was just an idiom.”
He laughs, and she does too, though this kind of misunderstanding makes her uneasy.
“How well do you know the back of your head?” he asks.
“The best,” she replies. “More than all my other body parts.”
“Don’t get a metaphor going.” He takes on a tone of mock gravity. “They’re very dangerous. They have implied meanings.”
“What’s wrong with metaphors?”
He thinks for a moment. “I don’t like being told something that actually means something else. It makes me feel like I’m being tricked.”
Usually she loves Adam’s directness, his ability to simplify things until they are manageable. But her feelings are complicated, and she does not want to hear them reduced by Adam so she just nods in agreement.
He takes her hand and plays with the rings on her fingers, his face shiny and suffering. It is tiring to look after someone else’s feelings all the time. Annie knows this, too. She thinks, Being a girlfriend means being a mother and therapist, combined.
No, that’s not right. She does not really believe this terrible thought.
“Maybe we should take a yoga class or something. Or learn meditation,” she says suddenly. “Or maybe one of us should get a dog.”
“Let’s just see what the doctors say, Annie.”
“I didn’t mean for getting through this,” she says. “I mean in general.”
He frowns. “What do you mean, in general?”
Annie gives up and starts clearing the table. Do they lack expectations? Can’t they each want the other to be better? She’d been taught that unconditional love was the ultimate prize in life, but that was a racket. At some point, she has learned, a person wants to be able to live up to something.
Bettina has a coupon for dinner for three at a restaurant in downtown Boston, and she invites Annie. “I’m bringing my cousin, too,” she says. “He’s one of the nicest guys. And cute.” She still does not know about the lump.
Annie needs to go out, so she goes along. The cousin’s name is Richard, and he is attractive and charmingly shy. They drink until she doesn’t feel bad about having a good time.
“I wanted to take a year off and just travel and work shitty jobs, but I mean, that doesn’t look very good,” Richard is saying of his lucrative job at a bank.
She snorts while she guzzles down the last of her whiskey and ginger ale. “It doesn’t look good? To who? Your biographer?”
Her wit is subtle and sharp, and she rarely uses it around her boyfriend. She is taking a lot of shots at people and ideas that night, which Bettina enjoys immensely.
Richard raises his eyebrows. “To employers,” he says. “Don’t tell me you don’t think about that.”
Annie shakes her head, laughing apologetically. “I wasn’t trying to be mean. I never learned to care about my career like that. I have friends who are always keeping score on who’s ahead. Like there’s someone adding up the points to put in your obituary or something.” She plays with the zipper on her dress. “I just don’t want to compete.”
“Annie likes to have time to be a free spirit when she feels like it. She picked the job at the clinic because it’s easy to take time off,” said Bettina. She gives Annie a knowing, playful smile. “I feel like you’re always driving off to the beach or to the city. Earlier this year she took a road trip to Graceland because she liked the Paul Simon song.”
“How was it?” Richard asks Annie. He is smiling now.
“Tacky and glorious,” she replies. Her cheeks brighten at the hint of praise in Bettina’s tone. She feels guilty for a moment, for not always noticing how well Bettina has gotten to know her. Maybe she will invite Bettina over for dinner and ask her about her family and childhood. Maybe she can tell Bettina about her restlessness and Bettina will give her the calm, stoic advice of a doctor.
“Okay, then,” says Richard. “What is important to you, if not your job?”
Annie raises her glass, then stops. She should answer this seriously. She should come out with the real answer to this question, now, during this point in her life when there are things on the line.
She stares at her glass and realizes she really is drunk. “The company of friends,” she says. “And taking good care of the people who understand you. While you can.”
Richard clinks her glass. She can tell from his smile that he has decided he likes her. He seems to radiate warmth and good sense.
Afterwards Bettina leaves them, indiscreetly, out on the street alone while she runs in to use the bathroom before they move on. She smiles at Richard, at his gentle humor and his self-confidence.
“We should hang out,” he says to her. “Just the two of us sometime. I’d like to get to know you better.”
She sputters a laugh. “I’ve been on my worst behavior tonight. I’m sorry, I’m going through a lot of stress right now.”
“I think you’re pretty brilliant.”
She is expanding inside, from liquor and the sudden realization that another person might find her attractive. That another person could exist.
“I like that you feel strongly. I like that you speak up.”
“Stop,” she says unconvincingly.
“I’m sorry,” he says, laughing. “I’m giddy. I’m drunk. I’m coming on way too strong. I just want to hang out with you.”
Bettina stumbles back out, and they all go out to a bar together. Bettina picks one with walls plastered with vintage advertisements and kitschy junk. The bar plays country music and they drink beer, which Richard pays for. Annie does not want to make fun of the decorations, or the music, or anything, and she revels in the feeling. The windows are steamed up from the heat in the bar, making her feel entirely encased from the outside world. She tilts her body towards Richard and points to the jukebox in the corner. She says, with slurred sincerity, “I like songs that sound happy but they’re actually sad.” Richard grabs her elbow.
There is only one other couple dancing, obliviously, but Richard pulls her out and they sway, trying to balance themselves in the spinning room. She leans her whole weight into him, this nice guy, and she can feel him smile into her neck. It is so nice to be around a new person. It is so nice to talk to someone who doesn’t know her bad habits, or her insecurities. Bettina finds a bear of a man to dance with, and she grins wickedly at her companions while he spins her.
Annie gives Richard her number while Bettina isn’t looking, and after a while they stagger out onto the frigid street. They sit next to each other on the train. The conversation is easy, and they all beam at each other.
That night she sleeps alone. Hope and guilt take turns wreaking havoc on her conscience. It occurs to her that it was mean, really mean, of Bettina to take her out with her cousin, lump or no lump. There was no other word for it.
And yet she could not blame Bettina for her own behavior.
“Your boyfriend might have cancer,” she says to the ceiling. “What is the matter with you?”
She is not hard, or wise, or cynical. She doesn’t know any truths, she has no worldview. She is stumbling around in a cluttered room, and all the people in her life are in this room, watching, startled and upset by her stupid clumsiness.
She sits up. “Your boyfriend might have cancer and it’s almost Christmas.”
This is too much. She bursts into tears, praying her ever-absent housemate is not there to hear her sobs through the wall.
The next day she goes to Adam’s apartment to watch a movie. He throws the door open in a rush, and in a breathless voice says, “Everything’s okay.”
“What is?” she says stupidly.
“I just got the call. My blood work came back fine. It’s just a cyst. It’s a spermato—I don’t know how you pronounce it. They don’t even have to remove it. Or anything.”
Her mouth hangs open and she blinks. “So it’s nothing?”
They drink almost an entire bottle of wine in a weird, breathless celebration. Drunk, he holds her close and presses his face in her hair. “I was so scared,” he says.
They quiet down and start the movie after a bit. The silence between them is strange and heavy. Annie knows what it is to be on his side of the equation. The feeling of preparation, of gathering one’s strength, of imagining the bravery that would be required, the isolation. The trips to the hospital, the hand-holding. All that gone. It was as if the doctor had said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to be brave or strong. You get to keep being regular old you.” She knows the disappointment that cuts through the relief like oil mixed with water. It is the disappointment of something very important being taken away from you.
She remembers the obligation to be grateful, because it was a horrifying fate she’d avoided. She’d felt she must recognize that her life was good—it was fine—so who was she to be dissatisfied?
“Adam,” she whispers, and he murmurs sleepily in reply. “What would you have done if it was cancerous?”
His eyes flutter open. “God, I don’t know.”
“So, you didn’t make any plans?” she asks him.
“Plans?” He wraps his arms around her waist and closes his eyes. “What plans could I make? I just tried not to think about it. Three of my four grandparents had cancer, so I expected the worst.” He lowers his voice, sounding embarrassed. “Yesterday I got so depressed and anxious I convinced myself that I was going to die and nearly cancelled all my yearlong magazine subscriptions.”
“You did not,” she says.
“I did. How stupid is that?”
His voice is earnest. So he had not glamorized the pain of illness. He had felt nothing but fear. She rolls this idea over in her mind. Maybe his fear means he will transform in greater ways than she did after the growth in her mouth terrified her into action.
Though maybe it means nothing in particular at all.
“It’s not stupid,” she answers. “Not at all.”
He lets out a relieved sigh at her answer. “I also took back all those terrible things I said about God in college; maybe that helped.”
She will not let this be a joke. She can strum up some wisdom from this experience. She will trade in all the little truths she’s invented for nicer, kinder thoughts, for as long as she can.
“Good, Adam. It’s good not to have any grudges.”
She wraps her fingers around his hands, which are pulled close to his chest, and they lay quietly. Adam begins to drift off, his breathing deep and regular. She thinks about Richard and starting all over again with someone new. She is not so sure she wants to take any chances. She wonders what in God’s name she will say when Richard calls her.
But she believes in new beginnings. They were risky and snuck past you, but they were real. You could shed your life and go charging forward into something else.
The trick was not to leave the wrong things behind.
She reaches out the table to grab the wine bottle. It is too far away, and her other arm is stuck under him. She lets her hand flop down, and she strokes his hair for a while. At this moment, she loves him as greatly as she ever has. She thinks there must be a way to make the feeling last, if one just tries hard enough.
Her other arm goes numb, and she thinks, Just get up, Annie.
She pries herself out from under him, and he grunts in his sleep but does not wake up. She sits up, with him slung across her lap, and reaches for the wine bottle. She tips the rest of the wine into her mouth and then stays still with Adam lying across her, her fingers slowly rubbing his hair. She is wide awake.