Fiction | December 01, 2010
Emma Won't Get Better
Emma won’t get better. For several days my wife, Lana, and I said these words to each other with one part normal parental concern and one part head-shaking admiration. As if it were just another instance of her willfulness. Our little head-waggling, snaggle-toothed, toddling one- year-old was refusing to get all the way better out of sheer orneriness. Over the next several months, after seventy-three needles, fourteen catheters and a number of scans and x-rays, all of which required holding her down, these four words became the doctors’ consensus, and the central fact of our lives: Emma won’t get better. The pain might subside for a while, the fever would come and go. But Emma won’t get better.
It started as a fever. A little fireball radiating heat in the sagging California King that had come with our apartment, where Emma slept nestled under Lana’s arm, curled above Lana’s bent legs, so intertwined with Lana that they seemed like a single organism. And in fact I liked to joke that they were “a single contiguous system” because of Emma’s incessant night nursing. When Lana dutifully poured her bedtime glass of water to take the horse-pill prenatal vitamins she’d been taking since pregnancy, I saluted the glass. “See you in Emma’s diaper.” The jokes were holdovers from our first daughter, Maddie, now five, and they’d become a hallmark of our marriage—little sayings we repeated over and over again. They marked the time and made it ours, like a present-tense nostalgia. And they bolstered us when we were new-parent tired and couldn’t live up to the parenting style we’d prescribed for ourselves.
One hundred and three-point-eight degrees under the arm. We paged the pediatrician on call. She called back ten minutes later. She said Tylenol, which we’d already done, and she assured us that 103.8 in itself was not something to worry about, which showed how much I knew. If it went up significantly, we should go to the emergency room. I told her we’d already be there if Emma hadn’t finally fallen back asleep. The doctor chuckled along with me. It was quarter to three in the morning. Emma already felt cooler to the touch—the Tylenol was working. The doctor assured me again that the fever would have to be significantly higher to be dangerous on its own. “You have treated the parents wonderfully,” I said. The doctor said it was a big part of her job.
The next morning at the Tucson’s Children’s Practice, there were no immediate signs of infection in the nose or throat or ears, so they collected urine. The nurse pushed apart Emma’s labia, suddenly exposing the raw pink inside part of her, and taped on a clear plastic bag, and we closed it up in her Elmo diaper and walked her around for the next two hours, waiting for her to pee. We walked through the hardscrabble parking lot and then headed west on Speedway—the only pedestrians for miles in this part of the city. Every couple minutes we checked her diaper. “She’ll show us,” we said. Lana and I joked about a family stroll on Speedway, once written about as the ugliest ten-mile strip of roadway in America. We tried to get Emma to drink from her sippy cup, but she pushed it away with her fingers emphatically outspread. Even that can be cute in a one-year-old.
Her urine came back positive for blood and white cells. She had a urinary tract infection. Lana leaned against the examination table with Emma stretched sideways across her, nursing below Lana’s pushed-up sweater. At this point, nursing was the only way Emma would keep quiet. Lana blanched as the doctor spoke. Lana comes from the kind of working-class people who are intimidated by doctors. “Antibiotics,” I said quickly. “Antibiotics should take care of that, right?”
The doctor agreed, but it was unusual for someone this young to get a UTI, she said. Once the infection cleared, we’d need more tests to check for reflux from the kidneys to the bladder, an anatomical abnormality that can predispose kids to UTI’s. If she had reflux, Emma would need prophylactic antibiotics for up to three years until she grew out of it. Emma slipped off the nipple and wailed, right on cue. Lana’s breast was fully exposed, her enlarged nipple and areola moist, and her hair seemed to have sprung loose from her ponytail. I thought she might faint.
The thing about Lana and me is that even beforehand we appreciated what we had. I suppose we thought this made us different from most people. And I think we both believed that at some unspoken, karmic, superstitious level it protected us too. We didn’t have much money compared to the people we’d gone to college with or grown up with in St. Louis. We still lived in our thousand-square-foot apartment by the railroad tracks with no prospects of buying anything soon. And we were both going through tough stretches at work, stretches where we’d look around at meetings for someone else to wink and say, “Yeah, right, whatever,” but nobody did. Everybody at both of our workplaces was drinking the Kool-Aid, or at least maintaining that façade, and it made us feel even more like malcontents. Whenever we caught ourselves complaining, though, we’d stop. Look at these girls, we’d say. Do you know how much money people would give to have this? We just have to make sure they play team sports so they don’t turn out like us. We kept a spiral notebook open on the corner of the kitchen counter and wrote down little things they did. Maddie would grab Emma under the armpits and lift her feet off the ground, and Emma would squeal with such absolutely pure delight, a sound she didn’t make for anybody else. Emma marched around after Maddie with furrowed brow and lips puckered past the tip of her nose. What did we do to get so lucky? We would actually say these things to each other out loud. Or they’d be industriously doing their own things, Maddie sitting at the glass coffee table cutting snowflakes out of construction paper, Emma exploring the graying, hand-me-down plastic kitchen, taking things in and out of the tiny oven, and one of us would catch the other’s attention, and we’d stop what we were doing and just watch them. How incredible is this? Lana or I would say. Maybe all parents of healthy children do that, but I think we did it more than most. I mean, look at the choices we’d made: working so much less so we could be with Emma and Maddie more; co-sleeping; wearing them around all the time in slings; exactly zero baby-sitters for the first year. I’m not saying you can measure love this way, everybody’s got their own approach; I’m just saying we reminded ourselves every day not to take it for granted, and we laughed an awful lot, even with little Emma, who, long before we knew she was sick, refused to sleep much more than an hour and a half at a time, day or night, which meant we were exhausted all the time.
It’s a strange thing to be the one going through a tragedy. All day long you bump into people, especially in a place like Tucson, and they are nice, but their lives go on. Sometimes you see it on their faces, the realization: when they’re just being polite, asking you how you are, and their public face crumples because they suddenly remember. You do your best then to let them off the hook. Even employers want to be nice (and Lana’s boss is one of her best friends), really they do, but they can’t keep paying you if you’re not doing your job. Not indefinitely. Everyone knows this, but no one wants to have to say it. Really, the decent thing is not to put someone in the position of having to say it.
Voiding Cystourethragram. VCUG. That was the first of the technical jargon I would learn. They use a catheter to inflate the bladder with radioactive contrast; then through fluoroscopy they track the progression of urine from the kidneys to the bladder to the urethra. The technician’s name was Maude—Lana always learned their names, even before we became veterans of this kind of thing. Maude draped me with a lead apron to protect me against any stray radiation from the beam they would be directing at our twenty-two-pound one-year-old. The apron had an extra flap that I affixed around my neck. We undressed Emma, and she toddled merrily around the room for a minute, her baby’s belly hanging over, her bare butt surprisingly wide and saggy for fourteen months. “A grade-A American ass,” we liked to say. I could smell the onion smell of my own armpits—something I only notice when I’m nervous. Eventually Maude told Lana to pick up Emma and lay her down on an eight-inch-wide board on the table. They strapped Emma to the board, then draped her chest and neck and legs with lead as well, leaving her bare in the middle. Emma reached both hands out for Lana to pick her up. She looked back and forth between Lana and me pleadingly. After Emma was strapped in, Maude took another few minutes to get everything in place. Lana dug her nails into her palms. “She’s not in any pain,” I whispered. A portable Sony DVD player played an episode of Dora the Explorer where Emma could see it if she turned her head, and eventually Emma stopped crying and watched the show she’d seen many times with Maddie.
We were situated at Emma’s head, Lana alongside the table, me a little further removed at the end. The technicians were on the other side of the equipment that hung over Emma, so I couldn’t see what they were doing. I could tell when they inserted the catheter, though. Lana sang to Emma now—with the insertion of the catheter, Dora no longer held Emma’s attention. At this point the doctor came in and introduced himself. He had an athletic build, slick, close-cropped black hair, a strong, stubbled chin. No doubt he was a Big Deal in the hospital. A gray T-shirt peeked out from underneath his green scrubs a symmetrical inch or so beyond each sleeve, in a way that wouldn’t have been accidental. “This crying is good.” He projected his gravel voice over the sound. “We’ll want her to cry even a little more when we inflate the bladder. It’s very little radiation, really, not a big deal.”
“Sure,” I nodded. “We understand.”
The doctor stood between the machine and a screen that hung from the ceiling. That something was wrong was apparent immediately. The doctor squinted at the screen, tilted his head. He checked the contrast drip and moved around the camera. He had Maude rotate the board Emma was lying on, toward him and away from him. With each movement, Emma’s crying peaked again. On the screen, I could make out the ghostly contours of Emma’s kidneys, her bladder filling with contrast, the ureters connecting kidneys to bladder. Even I could see that the kidneys and ureters didn’t look the same on both sides. Emma’s pelvic bones looked like sallow white wings, and even the crack of her little ass was visible on the screen. For some reason it was the crack of her butt cheeks pressed together that got to me. Lana huddled over Emma’s face, still forcefully singing the lullaby, as if she could block out everything else, including the pain. The doctor seemed annoyed at the machine for whatever it was telling him. “There’s something here I hadn’t expected,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“I can’t say for sure.” He clicked the machine off efficiently.
“It’s not reflux?”
“No. But I’ll need more tests to be sure what it is.”
“What?” Lana said.
But Doctor Strong Jaw was pulling off his plastic gloves, moving on to the next thing, whatever that was. I could see how it worked in his mind: he could do compassion when he needed to do compassion, but now wasn’t the time for it. He hadn’t said anything definitive yet. I could even appreciate the logic of this position.
“There’s no reflux,” I said to Lana, but it not the good news we had expected it to be.
Lana’s face would color red, her eyes stream tears without warning. She was short with me all the time. I could see that the things that she had teased me about throughout our relationship had now become nearly intolerable—the way I took off my pants with my feet, got into a car head first or leaned over the bowl to shovel cereal into my mouth, how loud I was on the phone. Everything was the last straw. The truth was, Lana annoyed the hell out of me, too. She accidentally kicked my shoes under the couch; she drove slower if I was the one who had made us late. Mostly, though, it was that her emotions were always right at the surface, major tears never more than a moment away. You don’t get a larger percentage of the grief, I wanted to shout at her, just because you’re the mother.
I tried to cry when Lana was crying, when we were discussing everything and deciding what to do next, when we were hearing the latest results, but nothing happened. Then I went to the optometrist to get new contacts. I couldn’t hold my eyes open for him to examine. I couldn’t focus on the lines of letters while he changed lenses: “Clearer now? Or now?” The tears burned and made me blink. I asked myself if I felt anything particular, but I didn’t recognize anything new other than the burning in my eyes. I sat back in the chair and tried to collect myself. After a minute, I put my head back in the equipment. But it was no use. “I’m sorry,” I said and picked up my backpack and walked out while the optometrist slid his rolling chair out of my way.
A strange feeling of recognition was what I felt most. How many times in her year of life had I written out Emma’s full name? Now I filled out privacy forms, insurance forms, assumption-of-risks forms, permission-to-treat forms, copy-of-orders forms, permission–to-release–medical-records forms. I filled out my own name next to Emma’s. I wrote “Father” in the blank. This is my life, I felt each time, this is happening to me. I needed the forms to be sure. What a paltry emotion, beside all we were going through, beside Lana’s streaming tears. Emma quickly learned to recognize waiting rooms for the pain they foretold, so I would go in first to register and fill out the forms, and Lana would find something to entertain Emma nearby—those kinetic sculptures with all the balls and bells or even the previously unknown-to-her McDonalds with its french fries and Happy Meal surprises—until I called Lana’s phone to say that it was time. Then she would carry Emma down the hall screaming.
Each time, Lana used both the person’s name and Emma’s in the lead-up to the procedure, I’m so sorry, James, Emily, Madeline, Ron, but can I ask if you have every little thing ready before we put Emma in place? Almost every time, the tech would then open a packet of swabs or unwrap the sterile catheter or recalibrate the machine—another minute or so of preparation during which Lana could continue to nurse Emma comfortably in her lap. While she was nursing, Lana calmly explained the upcoming procedure to Emma in full, incongruous detail in a voice we could all hear. I knew what she was doing—it reminded me of the flight attendant announcing the destination before takeoff, so you can still get off if you’ve boarded the wrong plane—but it irked me anyway.
And each time, the moment the procedure was over, Lana would pull up her shirt and bra, lean over the table and put her nipple in Emma’s mouth—even while the technicians or nurses were still unstrapping her—and Emma would stop crying. It made for quite a contrast, the distinctive, elemental sound of Emma suckling amidst all that massively whirring and clicking technology. The first couple times, Lana joked self-consciously about exposing herself to the staff, about being the crazy, overprotective mom.
Emma has never slept through the night. We assumed it was temperamental—she comes from a long line of insomniacs on my side. She awoke angry, with a demanding howl. “Zero to sixty in no time flat,” we would say. She was looking for the boob, indignant that it wasn’t already in her mouth. We were exhausted but also strangely tickled to watch her personality emerge. “Remember how fast it goes,” Lana and I told each other, nodding at Maddie, our heavy sleeper, on a mattress on the floor. “Soon it will be gone, and we’ll miss this time, all of us in the bed.” Of course, it was Lana’s nipple in Emma’s mouth, but I was just on the other side of her, lying on my side so that our bodies enveloped her, and it could be either one of us who said these lines. We liked her feistiness; feistiness was a trait that would serve her well in plenty of contexts down the road.
It’s one of those countless commonplaces of parenting no one forewarns you about—and it’s so simple and profound that no one could prepare you anyway: babies can’t tell you what’s bothering them. Was Emma waking up because of a temperamental predisposition? Or normal baby stuff like teething or gas? Or because she was making a cognitive or emotional leap? Or was Emma waking up because of pain from the abdominal growth that would kill her? Emma made little kneading motions with her hands on her belly or thighs, motions that reminded me of the way I rub my ankles together when I’m in the throes of insomnia. And my pain is merely existential.
For naps, she would actually go down faster with me than she would with Lana. Because she knew there’d be no nursing. But it only worked when Lana wasn’t home. So, sometimes we would pretend. Lana would hand me Emma, then pull on a jacket and kiss us goodbye. She’d open and close the door at the front of the building, too, so Emma could hear the echo in the hall outside our apartment. Maddie loved being in on the joke, and she would snicker on the couch and cover her mouth while she waved. “Goodbye, Mommy. Have a great day.” Emma wouldn’t cry at all. Then I could take her back to our bedroom, set her face down on our bed, and sometimes she wouldn’t move a muscle before she fell asleep with her diapered butt in the air. If she knew Lana was home, though, she would push herself up while I lay there and cry her demanding cry with her eyes fixed on our bedroom door. Sometimes she swiped at my clothes with her baby hands as if she could fling me bodily off the bed.
Since the diagnosis, Lana won’t pretend to leave anymore. She takes Emma to bed herself every time because that’s what Emma wants, even though I think it’s easier on us all, Emma included, for me to do it. I don’t say anything, though. Before the diagnosis we often used the language “put her down” or “put her to sleep” when it was time for a nap. We don’t use that language anymore.
We did the ten-week experimental protocol in Phoenix. Then we stopped. Pretty much cold turkey. We came to the decision together on that tenth drive back, with almost no discussion. We were done. There was some mild relief in the decision, but mostly over that barren, ugly hundred miles of dusty brown desert between the last strip malls of Phoenix and the first strip malls of Tucson, there was just wave upon wave of sadness. Lana’s sobbing felt bottomless. A bubbling natural spring of grief. My own tears dripped silently down my face at last. Emma was asleep in the back in her spotted-cow car seat after another day of low-grade torture and double the recommended dose of infant Tylenol; Maddie was at our friend Rainy’s playing with her son, Finley. Emma still looked almost like a normal toddler, though she had started to lose weight and her hair had lost its natural sheen. And she had more of the everyday scratches and bruises than normal toddlers because it took her longer to heal. A delta of veins was visible through the pale skin of her forehead. She was still happy much of the time. Lana had pinned Emma’s hair up in a silly purple clip, no bigger around than a nickel, but now the clip dangled by a strand over her left eye. Only when we changed Emma’s diaper could we see the rawness, from the catheters, that never quite had the chance to heal.
We weren’t going to see the specialists my father had lined up at MD Anderson in Houston or the Mayo Clinic in New York. We weren’t going to visit the experimental clinic in Mexico. We weren’t even going to drive her back to Phoenix for the final consultation at the clinic, no matter what the oncologists said. A little later, Lana asked to drive, and I set my iBook in my lap and composed a three-sentence e-mail for our family and good friends. We didn’t expect everyone to agree with our decision, but we expected them to respect it. We appreciated everyone’s concern and love, but we weren’t going to discuss it anymore or defend it at all. We were smart people, we’d done our research, and we loved our daughter more than anything, but we were convinced Emma wouldn’t get better.
I started to read the e-mail aloud to Lana: “Dear Family and dear friends.”
“I’d like you to listen to it. It’s from both of us.”
“Just listen to it, will you?” We were both gritting our teeth to keep our voices down, but there was no need with the wind roaring in the gapping windows of our old Civic. “It would be nice to feel like we were working on this together.”
“You want me to sign some waiver form? I stand by every single word. I endorse it one hundred percent. You can sign my fucking name first if you’d like.”
I shut the laptop. My palms were sweaty, shaking. “Fine,” I said, after a while.
Gray desert grit had collected in the moisture where Maddie’s bangs stuck to her forehead when we picked her up at Rainy’s. I loved that Maddie, usually so girly, could give in to Finley’s sweaty boy play. And God, how I hated yanking her from the obliviousness of childhood play and strapping her into our car. She didn’t need telling to keep quiet, and Emma didn’t budge as Maddie climbed onto her booster seat. I was even able to extract Emma from her car seat and carry her in to our bed when we got home—the first time since she’d been in a carrier seat.
Lana made the girls Trader Joe’s organic mac and cheese. She sliced up strawberries and sautéed carrots and put them in plastic ramekins so that they could help themselves and Emma could eat the same food as Maddie. Lana thought ahead about these kinds of things. I set up Maddie with a show on the DVR and sat watching it with her on the couch while Lana prepared dinner. These were our usual domestic roles, our usual ways of disappearing and being present at the same time at the end of a long day, moving the evening toward bedtime. But when Emma finally awoke, all she wanted to do was nurse. We tried her high chair; we tried strapping in a booster seat; we tried allowing her to roam the kitchen, eating one noodle of mac and cheese at a time. Emma’s crying had moved out of baby neediness into something truly expressive and sad at about the same time she’d learned to walk, and now nothing put a stop to it besides Lana’s breast. Before we knew Emma was sick, when we thought she was just going through a longer phase of the same neediness that Maddie had gone through at this age, Lana would say, “It’s hard emotionally, always having someone sucking on you.”
Lana nursed at the table long enough to get down a few bites of salad herself, then stood up with Emma still latched across her and walked toward our bedroom. “Looks like dinner’s over for me,” she said. Twice Lana tried to emerge from our squeaky mattress and box springs. She made it as far as the door to the bedroom before Emma cried out. Maddie and I kept up brave faces for each other at the kitchen table, leaning forward, making a show of the suspense we really felt about whether Mommy would make it out of the room without waking Emma.
“It’s no use.” Lana stuck her head through the doorway. “I might as well stay with her, give her what she wants. I’m exhausted anyway.” Normally Lana nursed Emma to sleep and then came out of the bedroom. Then we’d watch something on cable, both happy to be silent together for an hour, but since Emma had been sick, we spent our after-bed reprieve in front of the computer, researching on the Internet, e-mailing doctors and insurance companies and support groups, talking about treatment options.
“You look cute,” I said. Lana has classic, sculpted Nordic good looks—high cheekbones, sharp jaw line—and pallidness is often quite becoming on her, giving her an ethereal, almost otherworldly beauty. It had long been a joke between us that she looked her best when she was closest to collapse. “The price of beauty,” we said. The morning of our wedding she threw up in the bushes outside the St. Louis Art Museum after a night of bachelorette bar-hopping inflicted on her by a couple of swim team chums from high school. The wedding pictures of her are stunning.
Normally any compliment elicits a smile from Lana, but the reflex had been extinguished. She kissed me with desert-cracked lips and then leaned her forehead against mine. It was the same position we had assumed during our actual wedding ceremony while the rabbi spoke under our homemade Huppa. Of course, everything was harder for her because she could nurse. But it was easier too. I had no way to soothe Emma that compared. Even with a healthy baby, it’s hard not to keep a running tally.
Maddie and I read two stories on the couch and then snuck into the bedroom where Lana and Emma were already asleep. Lana was topless, still in the jeans she’d worn all day, half on her back, half on her side, where Emma, in just a diaper, was attached to her breast. Neither opened her eyes, but at the slight creak of the door, Emma’s lips made the familiar smacking noise for several seconds. Behind them, our sound machine whirred its white noise on the sunken windowsill. Maddie had been back in our room on a mattress on the floor ever since Emma’s birth. She’d felt “left out,” she’d said, with Emma in our bed. Then, we had congratulated ourselves that she could articulate these feeling, and we weren’t about to make any changes now. Maddie was particular about the comforter, that it lay flat and even on both sides. But I didn’t have the patience to wait out her little ritual. I kissed her goodnight and closed the door while she was still sidling around her bed, tucking and re-tucking the comforter tight against her mattress on the floor.
So, at seven PM, on the night that we admitted to each other that Emma wouldn’t get better, my entire family was down for the night in our front bedroom. It would be four hours before I would even begin putting off going to bed. By telling myself—one dish, one fork, one pot at a time—now I am wiping, now I am rinsing, now I am putting it in the dishwasher, I was able to clean up the kitchen. Then I picked up around the rest of the apartment. Wipe just this countertop, I said to myself; put just this medicine dropper onto the cabinet shelf. There is only this present moment. I finished all the obvious straightening up and thought about how, in spite of everything else, Lana would notice and feel some slight surprise and gratitude and relief. Then I took my keys off the sideboard and went to my car and drove to Mona Moss’s house.
If there is some sort of cosmic karmic reckoning, a heaven and a hell (and as much as I’d like to believe there is for Emma’s sake, I haven’t seen any evidence), then Mona Moss will be a major strike against me. I got to know Mona when Lana and I were still doing the long-distance thing, a thousand miles apart, when we were anything but a foregone conclusion. Mona was the first person I looked up when I arrived in Tucson. She’d been a college acquaintance, good friends with good friends of mine, a few years older than I and slightly out of my league, a beautiful rich girl from the desert, a member of one of the few really old Tucson families. In the time since we’d last seen each other, she’d married her high school sweetheart, only to discover a year later that he’d had a series of affairs with men, not particularly under cover, in certain Tucson circles. I learned all this only in bits and pieces over time. A tight-knit group of friends had been publicly, embarrassingly, exploded, and all of them had taken Mona’s side, though I could sense in the hush that followed her around that she had been diminished in their eyes. I’m sure that a large part of the reason she latched onto me when I showed up on her doorstep, friendless, a year after her divorce, was that I knew none of these people.
I’d come to Arizona mostly because it felt as far away as I could get in my Civic from my father and his list of acceptable future paths. The jagged brown desert terrain and ugly low-rise commercial sprawl were so different from the deciduous woods and planned business districts of suburban St. Louis, where I’d been raised, that I could barely conjure my old man out here. I never would have believed I’d come to find the desert beautiful. The social work program I applied to on a whim once I was already here, but the further I got into the process, the more convinced I became that it was the right thing to do. That it was such unassailably good work and yet wouldn’t even register on my father’s career radar appealed to me on a fundamental level.
Mona and I went everywhere together. She had the schedule of a rich girl who had been wronged, working at her brother’s company. Without either of us making a point of it, she paid far more often than not. Physically, Mona was every bit as beautiful as she’d been in college. She was compact and self-possessed, even in her embarrassed sadness, walking on her toes, leading with her considerable chest. She had a small, delicate-looking nose, perfect teeth, wavy brown hair that bordered on wild. Her only truly remarkable feature, though, was her full lips. She rarely wore makeup other than the moisturizer on her lips that she reapplied constantly in the desert climate, keeping them moist to the point of looking nearly obscene.
In the process of getting over her only serious relationship and remaking her life, Mona cloaked herself in some of the New Age philosophy that you see everywhere in Tucson. But it was an uneasy fit for Mona, with her law degree and BMW 6-series, her season tickets at the Tucson Symphony and penchant for expensive European cheeses, and as more time passed, her family teased her about it mercilessly. Not me. I listened to it all, the hurt and the healing, without flinching, because that was what she needed. I’m sorry to say I played to that, too. Mona can give as good as she gets, but she does not easily laugh at herself.
It’s not hard to understand what we saw in each other. Mona had been lied to every day by the one man she’d loved, and here I was being faithful to a woman a thousand miles away. I can’t say exactly when I knew she was falling for me, or why I persisted. I went about a slow, incremental seduction, all the while telling her I was already taken. Saying it gave me moral cover. What made it all the more devastating was that it was true—I really wasn’t trying to sleep with her; what I was doing was much more insidious.
See, I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t risk my relationship with Lana for Mona Moss. I was attracted to her, sure, I always had been, but I suppose that she had been diminished in my eyes as well. It wasn’t just the affair; it was how quickly Mona forgave him, or at least said she did—years before the rest of their friends.
My relationship with Lana had started as a fling—old acquaintances running into each other at a Wash-U bar, in the same city for only a couple weeks—and we maintained the pretense of a fling right up until the day she moved in with me. Even then she arrived with just two duffel bags and a backpack. It was the only way the relationship could have survived that time in both of our lives. Since we’ve been living together I’ve had a recurring nightmare several times a year: Lana and I are in separate cities, and somehow the time between phone calls stretches out until I’ve lost track of her. I call all her friends, I call her family, but I can’t track her down. I’m busy with other women in the dream, but the realization hits me with sickening force: what am I doing? Lana is the one I want to be with, and I can’t find her. God, what have I done? Lana is the one I want, and I’ve lost track of her. “I’m right here,” Lana would mumble from the other side of the bed. Then she’d reach out from her sleep and flop her arm unsentimentally onto my chest.
A month before Lana was scheduled to fly on a one-way ticket and move in with me, Mona started rationing the time we could spend together. We could still meet for coffee, she said, even a movie, but we couldn’t have long, unplanned days anymore, where the weekend paper might lead to a movie to tacos afterward, without having to account to anybody for our time.
Have I worried over the many years of our friendship that I was keeping Mona from something greater, from another chance at love and family? I have. But the one time I tried to talk to her seriously about it, Mona looked at me coldly. “I see we have a very healthy opinion of ourself.” That was the last time I would ever bring it up. Once again, I had moral cover. I think the truth is that I gave Mona a kind of cover, too. She has dated over the years, but she doesn’t mind teasing me that none of these men “pass the comparison test,” and none of the relationships ever got serious.
What Lana thought of Mona and me, I don’t fully understand. I guess the simple answer is that Lana trusted me. And too, Lana knew me well enough to know that as much as I might be turned on by Mona’s New Age hokum, I couldn’t abide it on too regular a basis. Lana has a strangely condescending attitude toward rich people, toward people who “have too much of a hand in their own problems,” as she puts it. Mona gives us access to a Tucson we might never have known otherwise, and she performs the same odd kindnesses for Lana and the girls that she does for me—delivering a favorite treat or finding a first edition of a treasured book—but it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that Lana has never entirely taken Mona seriously. Mostly, though, Lana knew that nothing would make me risk what we had with our girls. Things were never equal between Mona and me, and we all knew it, and it says something different about all three of us that we were content to let that status quo stand. It wasn’t what I wanted in a partner, but I seemed to need it in my life. Never more so than now.
Mona owned a classic, flat-faced adobe in the historic part of the barrio. She answered the door in sweatpants cut off below her knees and a gray tank top that showed off her breasts and her lithe yoga arms.
“We all knew by the eighth treatment that it wasn’t working. The doctors, even the technicians knew. The last two were just for us. We put her through that two more times, just so we could say we were sure.” Mona was encircling me in her arms now, just as I knew she would. I leaned into her with my own hands by my sides. All I wanted was to be taken in. “That we were doing all we could.”
I can’t say for sure who moved first. Our lips met and opened—hers were wonderfully full and moist, a whole new world, and our tongues entered each other’s mouths, doing things that married tongues almost never do.
After a minute, she took my hand, still at my side, and steered me toward her bedroom.
I stopped and stepped back. “You don’t have to do this.”
“You know how much I want to do this.”
“It’s not fair to you.”
Mona exhaled audibly through her nose and pulled me along behind her.
It lasted six days. We might have had sex twenty times during those six days, nearly as many times as I’ve had sex with Lana in the fifteen months since Emma was born. I won’t try to tell you it was all tender, Mona stroking my head. It wasn’t, though there were tender moments when she did cradle my head in her lap. And I won’t tell you that it was all about Emma. We made love, we fucked, we wrestled each other down and slapped each other in the face. We acted out a rape. We did things I’ve never even fantasized about doing. She was the most orgasmic woman I’d ever been with, though she kindly gave me credit for that.
Twice I went to her apartment in the middle of the night. I woke up beside my wife and dying one year old daughter and climbed out of bed. I stepped over my five year old, asleep on her three-quarter-length mattress on the floor beside us and tip-toed along the narrow space between her mattress and the wall. What do you want me to tell you? That, in spite of everything, some part of me felt grateful for what had happened? I got dressed in the dining room, where we’d moved my dresser since Maddie had been sleeping in our room. Our sleep patterns were so messed up, my insomnia and web-surfing so hopeless at this point, that I didn’t fear arousing suspicion at all. I had my cell phone, and if Lana had called I would have come home at once and told her I’d been reading at the diner on Broadway, and she would have believed me. I’m tempted to say that Lana wouldn’t have even cared, but of course, that’s not true. There would have been a horrible scene, recriminations, a level of betrayal and injury neither of us ever thought possible. There is no forgiving what I have done to her. But what I mean is, on another level, it would barely register.
After those six days, it was over. Mona had a law school reunion in California, and then she planned on spending a couple weeks with her mother in her beach house in San Diego. We didn’t talk about it being over, but I was in her bed when she planned her trip, and we both understood why. She was going to California, staying longer with her mother than she had in decades, to put off coming back here. Something about the ocean healed her, she said, in the way New Agey people talk about being healed. I could understand that. We both knew this would never happen again. But we also both knew that Mona forgave me. That is what Mona does. She forgives.
Like all of the Moss family, Mona lived more modestly than she needed to. Her house was a simple one-story adobe, but she had elegant things in her bedroom—high thread count sheets that were sleek and satiny, an airy down comforter like I’d never felt before, thick candles burning in wrought-iron stands: sensory things that said she took special care of herself. She had a tangle of cut creosote tied to her showerhead so that the water dripped on it, and the luminescent smell of the desert after rain permeated her arid little stucco house. I lounged naked on her sheets, rubbing myself on all that luxurious smoothness. Everything in our apartment had been given over entirely to practicality. Our nicest linens were splotched with the bubble-gum-smelling stains of children’s medicine. As I watched Mona roam the edges of her room on her cordless phone, I thought, in a faraway way, that it was me, causing the injury to her that she needed healing from.
Rhabdoid tumor of the kidney is extremely rare. It most often presents just as it did in our case, with fever and blood in the urine, though it is at the very bottom of the differential diagnoses for these symptoms. I could tell you a million other things about rhabdoid tumor of the kidney. You could discover most of them yourself if you spent a few hours online.
Lana does not remember these details. She sits with me while I look at the computer. She’ll mouth back to me whatever I say, but even an hour later she’s just as likely to get it entirely wrong, to mix up drug x and drug y, to confuse the ureters for the urethra. Partly she allows herself this luxury because she trusts that I’ve got it covered—the more stressed I am, the more compulsively I read on the Internet, and the medical terminology comes easily to me. But mostly she lets me handle this side of things because on some level she feels like she’s doing everything else.
Today, though, we won’t discuss it at all. Today, we are headed to the Tucson Mariachi Festival, barely three blocks from our apartment. Without a single Mexican on either side of our varied family trees, the Mariachi Festival has become a ritual for us. We haven’t spent three consecutive Thanksgivings or Christmases in the same city, but as we are packing our things, we figure out that this will be our seventh Mariachi Festival in a row.
The day actually seems to be coming together for us. Emma went down easily for her nap and slept an unheard-of two and a half hours without stirring. We’ve timed her dosage of children’s Tylenol to give us the best chance of a pain-free window. (All the cutting-edge medical technology we’ve gone through, and we are back where we started, with children’s Tylenol.) Mona’s flight left earlier this morning, and though I registered the time, it was impossible to feel like it had anything to do with me.
We own an old-fashioned picnic basket, an item from our wedding registry, and Lana enjoys nothing more than getting it ready for an outing. She involves Maddie in the process, asking her to count out utensils and juice boxes. Lana mixes margaritas for us in my Nalgene water bottle. We have long ago gotten over how gender-typed this behavior is, and I’m actually able to tease Lana mildly. “Did you remember the cloth napkins?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did.”
Lana picks a spot near the back corner of Military Plaza, and I spread out the enormous purple Guatemalan blanket that we reserve for such occasions. In many ways it is a perfect setting for us, in one of Tucson’s few grassy areas, so close to our home. We love the trumped up seriousness of Mariachi music, all the formal regalia, the melodramatic lyrics, the way it seems to be almost winking at you but never quite does. We love the Mexican kitsch, the mangoes on sticks, the bags of fresh fruit sprinkled with chili powder. The various aromas from the metal stalls along Fourteenth Street envelop us in waves—the savory onions and meat of carne asada one moment, the sickly-sweet smell of deep-fried churros the next. And since most of the people here are from the Mexican South Side of the city, we aren’t likely to run into anyone we know.
But even strangers are beginning to react to the sight of Emma. A sick toddler. They look more intently; the reflexive baby smile lingers just a little too long. Kids are the worst.
Emma responds to the music. Somebody has handed her a pen with the corporate sponsorship stenciled on the side in Spanish and a tiny maraca affixed to the end, and Emma is thrilled with the sound she can make. From very early on, she was the more physical of our girls. I liked to say that she would be my little athlete, partly just because I knew Lana would caution me about labeling her. Though it would be hard to call her stomping dancing, we recognize it as such. When the horns blare, she covers her ears. She has always been sensitive to sound. But it doesn’t deter her for long. She marches around us shaking her maraca, on and off our blanket, which tortures Maddie, who wants the frayed edges to lie flat.
I stand up and dance with the girls, while Lana leans back on her elbows with a plastic wineglass of margarita. “Ay, ay, ay,” I shout, and trill my tongue. It is easy to give in to such insistent, enthusiastic music, the teeming families, and I make little toreador passes with the girls. Lana tries to trill her tongue as well, and Maddie and I laugh. “Andale, andale,” I say.
Then suddenly, the blaring horns do bother Emma. She puts her hands over her ears and cries out. She doesn’t stop crying when the horn section subsides. Lana crosses her legs and pulls Emma into her lap. In a nearly unconscious movement, she reaches inside her thin oxford and unlatches the nursing bra and pulls out her breast. Soon she has Emma attached.
“Why don’t you go get the car?” Lana puts her own hands over Emma’s ears.
“We’ve barely been here half an hour.”
“That’s half an hour.”
“Maybe she’ll feel better in a minute,” I say.
“She’s not ever going to feel better.”
“You didn’t have to say that.”
“Just go get the car,” Lana says. “Please.”
“Why can’t we walk?” I realize Lana anticipated this moment, that it’s the reason she chose this back corner spot with easy access to Sixth Avenue. And just as I’m annoyed that she didn’t mention it, I know she’s annoyed that the possibility hadn’t occurred to me. But right now, I don’t want to be sent off. “It’s three blocks.”
“Because if I pull her off my breast she’s going to start screaming, and I don’t want to put her through that. I’ll nurse her in the back seat.”
“Maybe she’ll fall asleep.”
“She’s not going to fall asleep.” Lana makes a mean, incredulous face that takes in the entire setting, the blaring music.
“Daddy,” Maddie says, stomping her foot, “just go get the car.”
“What are you going to do? Nurse her until bedtime?”
“If I have to.” Lana’s eyes are wide with indictment. “That’s exactly what I’ll do if I have to.”
“Daddy,” Maddie says, “just go get the car.”
“You be quiet.” I turn on Maddie. I almost never yell, but I know how horrible my face gets when I do, red and splotchy, the cords of my neck straining. “You don’t get to tell me what to do. Do you hear me? You don’t tell me what to do.”
Maddie practically crumples onto the purple blanket.
“No.” Lana tries to rock herself to her feet, but she can’t with Emma in her lap, and it makes her cry all the more plaintive. “No.”
“Goddamn it.” I turn and pick my way between the families sprawled on the lawn. I pass the corner of the stage just as the band launches into the Mariachi standard “Las Mañanitas,” one of the few songs Lana and I recognize.
But instead of heading on toward our apartment, I circle around the stage and pick my way back through the crowd. When I can see the three of them, I stop and lean against one in a row of cypress trees. Lana has pulled Maddie alongside her on the blanket. They are angled away from me so they can see the stage to one side while also watching the street corner for our car. Emma’s feet stick out perpendicular to Lana, and they look so still from this distance that I panic momentarily. But that’s irrational. For the first time throughout all of this, I think the word “selfish” in regard to what I’m doing. But I can’t bring myself to move.
Lana is wearing a long skirt made of thin black cotton, graying from so many washings, and it fans out on the ground around her. From my obsessive Internet reading, I know that statistically our marriage has little chance of surviving. It will have nothing to do with Mona Moss. Lana has been consumed by this in a way that, for whatever reason, I don’t seem capable of. And poor Maddie, trying to keep it all together, endlessly neatening her sheets while it was all falling apart. Lana and I told ourselves to pay attention to this—her firstborn’s need to please—but the truth is we count on it.
When I see Lana straining to look for me, wondering what’s taken so long, I push myself off the cypress tree, and make my way back toward them.
“What?” Lana turns to look over her shoulder, forcing Emma off her nipple, and she cries out in protest until Lana has her back in place. “What are you doing? What have you done? Where’s the car?”
“I’m going now.” I reach down to tousle Maddie’s hair. Then I bend over and kiss her on the top of the head. She doesn’t know how to react.
“I’m going now. I’ll hurry,” I say and turn back into the crowd before anybody can say anything else.
Daniel Stolar is the author of the short-story collection The Middle of the Night. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in a number of publications, including the Virginia Quarterly Review, DoubleTake, Utne Reader, Bomb, and the North American Review. He is an assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago. 
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Jan 07 2022
PinelandJason Brown 1966 Dear Lemuel, For me, all the consequential decisions are in the past, except, as you will see, the decision to write this letter. You may rest assured
Jan 07 2022
ReclamationDevin Murphy My whole life I’ve had this feeling at my core that people wouldn’t remember me from one meeting to the next and was surprised, even touched, if they
Jan 06 2022
The Last Reported Sighting of the European Goldfinch
The Last Reported Sighting of the European Goldfinch in MichiganDavid M. Sheridan When my friend Essa said, some years ago, that she had become a “birder,” I couldn’t place the