“One Hundred Days” by Andrea Eberly
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her 2021 Perkoff Prize finalist story “One Hundred Days,” Andrea Eberly gives us an oncologist and new mother whose past rock-star crush comes crashing into her present professional life in the form of a dying patient.
One Hundred Days
Earlier in my career as an assistant professor of medicine, I would lose myself in charting, reading, writing. I’d imagined myself all mind, just a big brain hitching a ride in a body-machine that I kept running with protein bars, premade cafeteria sandwiches, cup noodles, all washed down with cup after cup of coffee. Now my mammal-body called me back every few hours as my breasts filled with milk, two biological hourglasses that got flipped over after twenty minutes of pumping.
Wichita wichita. The breast pump’s cicada-like chorus filled the clinic’s break room. Today was Thursday, my clinic day. Since I was working as the attending physician at the hospital this month, I spent the rest of the week I was at my research lab. I willed my oxytocin-fogged head to be up to the task of skimming over two years’ worth of chart notes during a single pumping session. I stuffed salmon salad into my mouth while flipping through the electronic chart on my laptop, reviewing chemo regimens, cell counts, CT-scan images. A couple of quinoa kernels fell onto the keyboard, and I brushed them off. I was now responsible for nourishing two bodies, so I’d given up the cup noodles. This next case was new to me; he was coming in for a pretransplant workup.
Wichita wichita wichita. Drip, drip, drip.
When the medical assistant walked in to tell me the patient had arrived, I turned around to his voice. He backed out of the room, hands held up in a Hey, don’t shoot sort of gesture. Strangely bodiless, my swollen nipples pulsed with the suction of the machine, sticking out from the cone-shaped flanges strapped onto me with an elasticized corset. Larry was filling in for Sonya. Sonya was used to the pumping.
I unscrewed the bottles and pulled off the bra, losing a few drops of milk on my pants, and wrapped up the gear before chucking it all into the fridge. I rinsed out my mouth with tap water to conceal stank coffee breath before walking into the exam room. I rubbed some alcohol gel onto my hands.
A man sat on the edge of the paper-covered exam table. Slim dark jeans and a nubby sweater covered a slim body. He appeared closer to my age than his calendar age of fifty-one. But that’s how it is with cancer—the puffiness from IV fluids and steroids can make you look unnaturally young, or the disease can eat away at you and turn you old overnight.
I introduced myself, Dr. Sydney Weaver, and he reached out to shake my hand. A tattoo covered his wrist and half the back of his hand. I’d seen the image before. A blue serpent circled his wrist, scaly body looping on itself with the head eating its own tail. I recognized the ouroboros from the album art of The Invisible City. The poster was still up at my parents’ house, in my old bedroom.
Cool tattoo, I thought, very cool. I was about to say so, when I really looked at the prednisone-puffed face and the postchemo hair fuzz. The cleft in his chin cinched it.
It was him. Mr. Polo.
One night in eleventh grade, my friends and I had gone cruising. It was the late ’80s, Phoenix. Tan desert dotted with stuccoed tract houses and green lawns. All the roads at right angles to each other.
Beth, Angela, and I piled into my Ford Escort—stick shift, plastic dash cracked from endless sun, fabric-wrapped visor disintegrating into a swirl of fine powder. We’d just taken the practice SAT and were giddy with having made the first concrete move toward getting into college, which was to say, getting the hell out of Phoenix. I pushed a Mr. Polo tape into the deck, twisted the volume nob, and felt the bass shake the air, even as the warping speakers were all rattle and static. We stopped at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and drank bottomless cherry cokes. Angela smoked some cigarettes she’d stolen from her mother. Menthols. After driving past Jim Delver’s place and launching a couple of eggs at his window, we drove over to the elementary school with the big speed bumps out front. The city had painted HUMP to warn drivers to slow down. We chalked in the word KIDS underneath. After midnight, we stationed the car in the parking lot of the Ross Dress for Less where Beth worked. It was next to the Taco Bell with the late-night drive thru. We stuffed ourselves with fifty-nine-cent tacos, witnessed petty drug deals, and ripped jokes about the creepy guy in fifth period who was always drawing pictures of wolves in trench coats. Beth and I bet on which one of us he’d ask out first. Definitely Angela. We laughed our throats raw, and then we laughed more. All the while, Mr. Polo blasted from the cassette deck and we swore to each other that even when we went to college, we’d never lose touch and would be friends forever.
Back then, I just thought Mr. Polo’s music was the best thing I’d ever heard. If anyone had asked me why I loved it, I would’ve said it was because of the way he wove together the beats and sounds, how he pushed and pulled the tempos. What a dumb and technical answer, but I cared a lot about sounding smart back then. Really, I just I loved how it made me feel, how he made me feel, like he had crawled into my skull and made sense of everything. I could listen and think, Yeah, it’s just like that. Just like that.
Not long after Marco’s first appointment, I dug around in some old boxes and found my Mr. Polo CDs. I hadn’t listened to his stuff in years. With my windows down, the volume up, and my baby Maddie in the back seat, I drove around. Maddie goo goo gah gah’d and bounced her feet to the electronic drums, the synthesizer click, and Mr. Polo’s machine-gun lyrics. The baby seemed to like Mr. Polo’s middle work best, before he returned to real drums and guitar shreds. In the delicious anticipation of the next beat, the next musical structure, feelings poured through me that were both familiar and strange.
Of course, in medical school I’d learned about dopamine and the pleasure and reward centers in the brain, so I figured music was like drugs, food, and sex—big fat dopamine hits in the deepest parts of the brain. I once shared this theory with Ben, my best buddy from med school, when we were studying neurotransmission, and he joked that I had a pretty mechanical view of the best parts of being alive.
Ben and I had ended up living together in San Francisco for our internal medicine residencies. We shared a one-bedroom—I paid more rent to get the bedroom and Ben slept on the couch-bed. We often went to the laundromat together, the nicer one a little farther away called the Lost Sock. When we washed clothes, Ben always came up one sock short. He had an old shoe box filled with the singletons taking up valuable real estate on our bookshelf at the apartment. I guess he was an optimist, believing that someday all the socks would be reunited. Me, I used to put all my socks in a mesh bag, so it was impossible to lose one. I believed in planning, not luck.
We’d watch our clothes spin around in the dryer while dreaming out loud about the next stages of our careers. Classic overachievers, both of us planned on doing fellowships following residency. I told Ben I wanted to go into hematology/oncology. Ben said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go into oncology, because so many of those patients were not fixable. That was the appeal of infectious disease, he said. Match the drug to the bug and cure the patient.
I told him that I didn’t want to stop just at regular oncology. I would push further. Hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. Every patient on a research protocol as investigators trialed new combinations of medications, new methods of harvesting cells. The fucking Wild West of medicine. In transplant, the goal wasn’t just a feeble extension of life. It was cure.
I wanted to be a goddam cowboy.
On the days Mr. Polo, whose given name was Marco Schellenbach, was on my schedule, a fluttery feeling filled my chest. I wore mascara and was careful not to leave the house with a white blob of dried spit-up on my blouse, even as I was less careful about fastening up all that blouse’s buttons. My husband would sometimes even tell me I looked nice as I dashed out of the house.
On one of those days, as I waited for Marco to arrive for his appointment, I massaged the kinks out of a grant application that was due the following day. My grad student, technician, and two postdocs didn’t deserve to end up unemployed because I couldn’t get my act together and secure funding. I yawned. My kid’s first teeth were coming in, so I was getting little to no sleep, even by new parent standards. The only thing that kept Maddie from screaming was constant attachment to my breast. All. Night. Long.
Marco came in and sat down in a chair—not the exam bench—next to the office computer and stared at his hands. I started with the results of his last bone marrow biopsy.
“Your leukemia is no longer detectable.”
“So that means I can get the transplant?”
His lips pulled into a smile that gripped my heart as we hashed out some of the other details—which conditioning regimen he’d get, the brother who was a match, the sister who could come out from Waco to shepherd him through recovery.
“Do you have any more questions?”
Marco picked up one of the two photos on my desk. Since I shared the exam room, I always had to remember to take my photos home at the end of the day.
“Your baby is cute. How old is she?”
“That’s Maddie. She’s six months old.”
“Who’s the guy in the other photo? Your brother?”
He was asking about the one with the blonde in a tux standing next to the redheaded bride. A lot of patients send their doctors cards with family photos, and we put them up in our offices. I knew it blurred the lines of patient confidentiality, but I couldn’t help myself and answered Marco’s question knowing the hope that the photo could inspire.
One of my first patients.
“Did he live?”
My fellowship had just started when Jason, the guy in the photo, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia—same diagnosis as Marco. I remember the spring in my step in those days; I’d been driven by my belief that the initial induction and consolidation treatments would work, and even if they didn’t, there was always another step, another treatment, so many different chemotherapy cocktails. I’d prescribed the clotrimazole troches for his thrush during salvage treatment. I’d optimized his antirejection meds. He survived, grew back his hair, got married, and sent me that wedding announcement—the photo on my desk. He’d been the first patient I ushered through the whole process. The first patient I cured.
Marco nodded and pursed his lips as he looked at the photo. His brow twitched. I wondered if he was imagining himself in a similar photo, hair grown back, muscles rounded out. A future without cancer. A posttreatment world.
What was I thinking, leaving the neck of my blouse undone?
During our appointments, I kept thinking that Marco would eventually mention music, like Hey, last weekend I was messing around on my Roland 808 drum machine . . .
But he never did. It became a bit like when you’ve been talking to someone at a party all night long and realize you don’t know their name. You can’t ask anymore. In this case, I wanted to tell Marco that I loved his work, but it seemed deceptive to not have said anything for so long. Maybe he valued what he’d believed was a certain anonymity in our interactions. I mean, I’d now seen him naked under a backless hospital gown, taken blood, knew his whole medical history. So intimate, and yet.
It became a secret I watered like a houseplant. But not any houseplant. Maybe an orchid, where the pleasure was married to the toil of keeping it alive.
While I waited for Marco to arrive—that patient before him had canceled—I caught up on emails. My grad student almost had enough data to write a paper, but her figures were awful, and I didn’t have the time to really get into it, so I closed the email and opened up Amazon to buy some new clothes for my daughter. No one told me it would be so sad to retire Maddie’s six-month footed pajamas, the ones with the hedgehogs.
Earlier that week, I’d replaced Maddie’s photo with a new one. My husband was holding her, and you could just see his hands. Maddie had two tiny bottom teeth. Marco noticed the new photo immediately when he sat down. He said she looked like me. That was when I asked him about his daughter and immediately felt my face grow three sizes too big, hot and red.
My leukemia patient had never told me about his daughter.
In high school and college, I’d read every article about Mr. Polo in Spin or Rolling Stone or whatever other music rag. My high school binder was covered in a collage of magazine cutouts, and the one taking up the most space was a black-and-white photo of Mr. Polo in sunglasses screaming into a mic. I still had a pair of the same aviators.
“I’m actually a huge fan,” I mumbled and swallowed and drummed my fingers against my leg, and the air in the room was jelly. What would he say?
“My daughter just finished art school,” he said. “Hard to believe she was ever that little.” He motioned toward the photo of Maddie.
“Yeah. It goes by fast,” I said. After a moment, I got my nerve up to meet his eye and asked, “What kind of art does she do?”
“She wants to open a tattoo shop.”
He paused and took a deep breath, almost like he was tired from the talking. He lifted his arm, the one with the ouroboros, and said, “She always liked my tattoos. She likes the idea of living art.”
We went over his lab results before he got onto the exam table. I placed my stethoscope over the jaguar tattoo on his back, and the tip of my finger brushed his ink. My heart skipped into my throat as I listened to his breaths go in and out.
Right after graduating college, my roommates and I took a road trip to a big open-air concert near Jackson Hole. Mr. Polo was the headliner. On the stage, Mr. Polo unbuttoned his starched white shirt. Under the stage lights, his muscles rippled, creating the illusion that the stylized jaguar tattooed on his back was alive.
Masses of sweaty bodies, moving to the beat. The violence, the raw physicality of the crowd, edged on sexy. With disassociation from caring and really letting loose, I was for the tiniest moment living life without my mind—I was just a body swimming in thereness, if there even is such a word—synched up with Mr. Polo and his music.
After the concert, we camped for a few nights off a dirt road that lay in the border region between Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park. One night in the tent, my roommate dug out a piece of paper from her bag and wrote the letters MASH on top. It had been ages since any of us had played that schoolgirl game. Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. A game to predict our futures. The game foretold that I would end up in an apartment with five kids, working as a movie star and married to Dr. Richards, our lech biochemistry professor, whom we always saw working out at the campus gym in such short shorts I swear you could see his nut sack. My roommate got a mansion and was married to Mr. Polo. Lucky her.
Our campsite was near a stream. From our tent we heard something splashing in the water, and then it would stop before starting up again. Was it bison charging through the water? A massive grizzly bear catching fish? We’d been hitting the hash pipe, and paranoia tickled the napes of our necks. That fall I would be heading off to medical school—my roommate, too. My other roommate had been accepted to a PhD program in chemical engineering. We snort-laughed as we imagined the headline. “Young talent cut short. Eaten by bears.”
I unzipped the tent, and my bare feet felt as though they were floating over the chalky dirt as I padded toward the stream. I parted the willow branches like a curtain just in time to see a cloud of white pelicans landing in an explosion of water. They floated with the current of the creek a stretch before flying upstream to land and float downstream again. Paranoia melted into awe as I stumbled back to the tent.
Safely zipped inside the tent, we listened to the sounds of pelicans taking off and landing in splashes of creek water, and we fell asleep to the rhythm of living things.
As usual after working at the lab, I had to get Maddie from day care. The day care teacher told me Maddie had started to point.
Earlier that day I’d reviewed Marco’s chart to see how he was doing. He was two weeks out from his transplant and still admitted to the hospital. His liver enzymes were through the roof, and he was suffering watery diarrhea—graft versus host disease or maybe side effects from the conditioning regimen. We’d know more when the pathology report came back.
My stomach filled with ash.
I strapped Maddie into her car seat. Mostly I was ignoring the stream of garbling sounds emerging from her mouth, when I jammed my finger into one of the buckles. The fingernail of my left middle finger bent back, and pain seared through my hand. It was all I could do to not yell “Fuck!” to not plow my fist into my thigh. I sucked on the finger to dull the ache and inhaled a couple of times. Maddie’s long toes wriggled, taunting me. Goddammit, her sock was off again. What was it with children’s feet and socks? I leaned over, the waistband of my jeans cutting into my belly fat, and picked up the pink-and-white knit thing. Maddie stuck her thumb in her mouth and gave me the stink eye as I pulled the sock over her foot for the eight hundredth time before cinching the straps of her car seat.
One Thursday in clinic, after Marco had been discharged from the hospital, he talked to me about his garden.
“Sydney, what is your favorite apple?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well, a few years back I planted a Gravenstein tree. This year it has two apples, so next year it should really start producing. Maybe enough for a pie. Gravensteins make the best pies. My grandma had a big tree in her yard, and she baked with nothing else.”
During another visit he told me about a novel he was trying to complete. He said this in between body-wracking coughs that he tried to cover with trembling hands.
“I’m about halfway through revising it.”
“I didn’t know you wrote.”
“My head is filled with all these people—my characters. It will be weird to say goodbye when I’m done with the book.”
I kept hoping he’d talk to me about the music, especially now that he knew I was a fan. I wanted to learn about his process for writing songs, choosing samples, what it was like to stand on the stage above a sea of dancing bodies.
Somewhere inside these conversations lurked his real question: Will I get be able to get my book done?
Am I going to die?
No, deeper still.
When will I die?
One hundred days after I had birthed my daughter, my mom watched her while Craig and I went to a café for a glass of wine to celebrate having kept our baby alive for this milestone. As we walked home, the clouds cracked open with a fountain of rain. We ran the last blocks back to the house, and something warm happened between my legs. I knew what it was, but still hoped I was wrong.
My body had fallen apart to bring new life into the world.
I wanted control of my bladder back.
I’ve always wanted control.
On day eighty-seven posttransplant, it was confirmed that Marco’s leukemia was back. He didn’t get to one hundred days.
Marco paced in the office. Not the violent lunging steps of a healthy man, not the vigorous movements of that man I’d seen so many years before at that festival in Wyoming, but the nervous shuffle of a sick man. A scared man. I explained that the prognosis for people whose leukemias relapsed within one hundred days of transplant was grim.
“What does that mean, Doctor?”
He usually called me Sydney.
I met his question with silence, and that was when he started to cry.
The lights in our living room were on a timer. They clicked off at ten thirty. So did the heat. I had already put Maddie to bed. and Craig was upstairs playing on his computer. The baby cried, and I didn’t think it could be that she was hungry; she had just eaten. I hollered at Craig to go in and get her back down.
Ghost-like light from my laptop filled the room as I flipped through the PubMed database, sifting the medical literature for any option that could go after Marco’s leukemia. There had to be something there if you looked hard enough.
My breasts filled with milk.
I saved links, skimmed abstracts, printed a couple of articles, made notes. Normally I would have fed Maddie around midnight, but I kept working until the sky lightened and birds chirped outside the window. My breasts felt like they had become bags filled with stones. Finally, Craig came downstairs and asked why I hadn’t ever come to bed. I couldn’t say much more than that I was trying to help a patient. I couldn’t tell Craig I was treating Mr. Polo. You know, HIPAA and all that.
Craig went back upstairs and returned a few minutes later with the baby.
“Syd, Maddie’s hungry.”
He said it like “hawngree.” It was our joke.
I held Maddie to my breast. The flood of milk made her cough, and pain shot through me as she clamped down on my nipple.
She now had four teeth. Two top and two bottom.
Maddie’s swallows made little “kah” sounds. A recent paper outlined how something called a FLT-3 inhibitor could attack the leukemia cells, but the drug was still in clinical trials. Could I procure it for Marco? Sometimes drug companies let you use experimental therapies for what they called “compassionate use.” I had to try. I’d contact the medical science liaison at Novo Nordisk. They’d give me the drug. They had to.
The baby dozed off at my breast. A flutter of guilt rushed through me for ignoring her. I remembered the advice my mother had given me—sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t fight nature. So I picked up her sleep-limp body and carried her into bed with me. I held her to my chest and breathed in the scent of her hair. My own restlessness seemed so abrupt and harsh next to her sleeping form. Her eyelashes were so long. I had no idea that a baby could have such long eyelashes. Underneath the paper-thin lids, her eyes twitched. What was she dreaming about? What would her dreams be? My body was tired, but my mind resisted sleep, and my thoughts wove in and out and kept coming back to the same place. Physicians were just body mechanics. Why could some bodies be fixed, while others failed? What if I couldn’t patch it up and get it back on the road? A package of bones and tissues and vessels and blood—was that all we were?
How many hours did I spend on the phone or drafting emails to the drug company? But inside Marco, his cancer had a schedule of its own.
There hadn’t been time to work through the regulatory hurdle for the experimental drug, so he’d elected to try another transplant. I told him it was a long shot, that it was off protocol and that there was no way his insurance would cover it. Marco didn’t care that his insurance wouldn’t pay. After all, he’d quipped, what else was a gold album for? I tried to be clear and upfront about the risks, about how we were going into unknown territory, that his body hadn’t recovered from the first transplant. But the truth was I never suggested he shouldn’t do it. Not really.
I wasn’t attending the month he got the second transplant, so it wasn’t as a physician that I visited Marco at the hospital. He had a scarf wrapped around his head. He’d been in the room long enough that his family had decorated. A huge line drawing of Marco holding a toddler girl—I had to assume his daughter—was taped to the bathroom door. I had to blink for a moment to control myself. The image so keenly evoked how it felt to hold your child. Marco said his daughter had drawn it and was planning to have it tattooed on her calf.
“Are you able to eat?” I asked.
“Yeah, when I don’t feel too sick.”
“I brought you some pie. The farmer’s market didn’t have Gravensteins, so I got some other kind the guy recommended.” I pulled a Pyrex out of my bag and put a small piece of pie on a paper plate I’d nabbed from the unit’s nourishment room.
“And don’t worry, Marco, it meets criteria for neutropenic precautions.”
Marco smiled and took a small bite.
“I didn’t expect you’d be so good at baking.”
I wasn’t his doctor today. I also wasn’t his friend; that would be presumptuous. There was some sort of blurry relationship between us. I finally asked if we could talk about the music.
Marco had been in the hospital for over a month when it was once again my month to attend on the inpatient unit. His head glistened, totally bald from the treatment. Yellow complexion and sunken eyes, knobby hands, jutting collarbones. His skin like a loose suit over his frame. Diarrhea came next, neutropenic fever, a rectal tube, blood-pressure support. He was altered and could no longer hold a conversation. And then came the breathing tube.
His body was still there, however tenuously, but where had he gone?
Marco’s daughter came every day to visit and sometimes asked questions during rounds. Sometimes they weren’t really questions.
“Is he going to wake up?”
“Why aren’t the treatments working?”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
I was home in bed with my baby and my husband the night Marco coded. I found out the next day that the team had worked on him for over an hour, getting his pulse back a couple times before they called it. I was glad I wasn’t there. I didn’t want my last memory of him to be of his body getting smashed by chest compressions while blood frothed around the breathing tube and his eyes became fixed and dilated. The eyes of the dead aren’t like in the movies. They don’t stay closed when you brush your hands over them. The lids spring back open.
That last conversation, the one we had over pie, I’d literally taken notes as Marco talked about his influences. And it wasn’t just other music, but visual artists and novels too. I did mean to look it all up. But as I sat in my office and held the wrinkled piece of notebook paper trying to figure out why I’d scrawled the half sentence, most people like rubbers, I realized I was already remembering it wrong. The notes were meaningless. Sure, I had asked him some questions, but mostly I’d just gushed about how much his music meant to me and how much fun it had been to dance at his shows. Suddenly, a thousand questions leaped into my brain, things I hadn’t asked him. Would never be able to ask him.
Had it been about me all along?
Marco had been gone for two weeks when I received a letter in my office mailbox. It was from Marco’s daughter. I held the small blue card for several minutes before I had the courage to open it.
Thanks for taking such good care of my father. He said you were a fan, and I know that shouldn’t make a difference, but it did.
Later that week, on a sunny Saturday morning, I decided to take Maddie to the park. I buckled my seatbelt, turned the ignition, and stuck in a Mr. Polo CD. Maddie yelled, and I craned around. Her staccato laugh filled the car, and she wiggled her legs and feet. One of her socks hung from her toes.
At the next red light, I turned back to Maddie. Her foot was now bare. I didn’t pick up the sock. Instead, I pulled off the other one and released her beautiful baby foot. She kicked and giggled as I tickled her feet. I was laughing so hard that I didn’t notice the light had turned green until the car behind me laid on its horn.
I was laughing so hard, I peed.
And now? When I listen to Mr. Polo, it is like drinking a memory, taking a hit of the way it felt to be seventeen, parked outside of Ross and laughing with my best friends, how it felt to lie in a tent listening to pelicans splash, how it felt to sit in the car tickling the feet of my beautiful daughter, always on the jagged edge of the rest of my life.
Andrea Eberly works as a clinical pharmacist in emergency medicine. Her stories have appeared in Witness, Southwest Review, Carve, Bellevue Literary Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel-length work.
“West Lake” by Sara Schaff
BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In “West Lake,” Sara Schaff’s protagonist meditates on uncertainty, female capability, and finding community as a stranger in a foreign land.
by Sara Schaff
When I was nine months pregnant with Lili, I took the train to Hangzhou to punish my husband. I put myself up in the Sofitel, with the intention of living under soft sheets before I became a single mother. When I stepped into my clean and shining room, I felt a little flash of shame about my privilege, which had allowed me this sudden retreat from my life as I knew it.
And yet I was not ashamed enough to avoid room service the next morning. The young woman who brought me my tray of Western breakfast regarded me with frank surprise and, eyes on my belly, asked me where my husband was. “Beijing,” I replied, unfazed. “Working.” Which was true enough, but still I searched her round face for signs she understood the subtext. She only nodded and left me to my eggs and toast.
I spent the next two hours in bed, eating tiny bites of food and going over the tormented expression my husband had worn three days earlier when he told me he was in love with a Belgian woman, someone he had met on his frequent business trips to London. I did not know what she looked like or anything about her. When I asked for details, he refused to tell me, saying it wouldn’t make me feel any better. This only enraged me more. The fact that I could not even picture her in his arms made the betrayal feel worse, I told him, because in this way he had deprived me of even the pleasurable misery of hating her face.
At some point as I lay in my king-sized bed, tray of food to the side since it wouldn’t fit over my stomach, Lili began kicking so hard I almost thought I was going into labor. I knew the only way to soothe her was to move, so I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the lake.
Xihu, which I had first walked around with my English husband before he was my husband. Willow trees and temples reflected in the lake’s glassy surface. The day was hot but bearable. Tourists and locals strolled with small dogs and children. People were friendly and greeted me with smiles and the occasional cheer. I was very large then, but of the opinion that I walked gracefully. Though emotionally I felt weak and depleted, I had never felt physically stronger, and I wore good shoes—running shoes, though I no longer ran—and didn’t care that they looked odd with the black cotton dress I’d packed for the trip.
In spite of all the calculations I kept making and remaking (how long before the pregnancy had the affair started, the extent of my stupidity, etc.) as I walked around the lake, I experienced real moments of joy. It was easy to see why Xihu had inspired generations of poets. Something about the water and the rhythm of my walk made me especially aware of the syllables surrounding me, the tones of my adopted language that I had once found so difficult but now thought very beautiful.
On that first afternoon in Hangzhou, a family from Shandong province approached me and asked to have their picture taken next to me, the lake as shimmering backdrop. Once I had written home self-indulgent letters about my loss of anonymity in China and my discomfort at being found remarkable. The “New Colonialism” was what my husband and I called it—the way white people in China were made to feel special for doing exactly nothing more than walking around.
And now here I was, doing exactly nothing aside from walking around while pregnant and white. Yet this family’s brief encircling of me almost made me cry from relief. They each in turn told me I was beautiful and fat, laughed at my Beijing accent, and corrected my pronunciation of their village when I said it.
Because of their kindness and the beauty of the lake, I had my first glimpse of a manageable future without my husband. I believed that I would be fine and that my daughter, destined to be born in Hangzhou, would also be fine. At the very least, her Mandarin would be better than mine, and someday she could make fun of me for that.
I realized it sounded a little unhinged, coming all this way to deliver my child, but I never doubted the decision. I’d been happy in Hangzhou before, with my husband, who had taken me here to convince me to marry him and move to China many years earlier. Now I wasn’t sure whether it was the place or he that had worked some magic on me. There was a strange kind of logic to delivering our child here without him.
Mostly, though, I didn’t want him to see his daughter’s face the moment she was born. I certainly didn’t want him to see me, at my most naked and animal, while probably fantasizing about his Belgian lover’s perfect body and perfect comportment, unblemished by either pregnancy or betrayal. Without informing anyone but Xu Yan, my closest friend in Beijing, I had already made arrangements at a hospital here, one that served the expat community in the region. Xu Yan had recommended the facility because of its accomplished staff of midwives from both China and Australia. She knew I’d always found the Australian accent amusing. At that point, I felt entitled to be amused.
For those days I waited for my daughter to be born, I spent all my afternoons walking around the lake. After each turn, I stopped in at a café called Starfish, with a green and white logo that would get any coffee shop back home into serious legal trouble. The coffee was terrible there; it tasted like sweat, but I liked the steaming pots of tea and the tables right next to the water. I always had a book tucked into my small purse, though I never read much of it. Instead, I stared out at the glassy surface and watched the little paddleboats gliding across it.
The evening Lili was born, I felt winded and had to sit a long while so I could catch my breath. By this time of day, the crowds were thinning. As I waited for my tea, I put my hand on my stomach and felt Lili rolling around. Through my skin, I rubbed what I thought was her sharp little ankle.
I wondered what my husband was doing, aside from going mad trying to figure out where I’d gone. How earnest and aphoristic he had sounded the last time we were here together—China is the land of opportunity now. I want to make a life there with you! It’s hard to spot the suspicious clichés when you desperately want to get back to the hotel and take off your clothes.
Now the sun was setting behind the distant hills. Something stirred in my peripheral vision. Potted juniper bushes lined this section of the promenade, and in one of them a rolled-up newspaper stuck out out of the soil. It was the newspaper that had stirred, and it did so again, this time a quick and insistent jerk.
That’s when I saw a man hunched between that pot and another, his legs dangling over the edge of the stone walkway. He was slight; his feet didn’t touch the water, which was high that summer. When he turned his face from the lake, blowing the smoke from his cigarette in a slow exhale, I saw that his skin was lined and dark. Dressed in a dusty suit jacket over black pants, the hems frayed, he sang quietly to himself and tapped his cigarette-free fingers against a bag of woven plastic. The seams of the bag were stretched to capacity. I wondered about the contents, where they’d been packed, how far they had traveled to arrive at this corner of Xihu. The man nodded his head to the rhythm of his quiet song, and as the sun disappeared, he became a silhouette against the lighter water.
The newspaper flopped again, and the man turned to it, mumbling. Dropping his cigarette into the lake, he stood up, then picked up his bag and the paper, which I understood now was a fish, recently caught. He saw me staring and nodded, then stuck the fish into the pocket of his baggy pants and walked away.
Though I resented my husband for his desertion, I was actually content to be alone. I had been an only child, and though sometimes a lonely one because of it, I had become accustomed to hours of silence, or hours filled only with the sounds I made: reading aloud to my dolls, inventing songs, snapping twigs in the forest to build myself a log cabin. It had been easy enough to become the wife of a rich man who was often traveling. I kept myself busy with painting our apartment, inventing new meals to make from the produce at the local covered market, and going to yoga class, where I met Xu Yan the year I moved to Beijing with my husband.
At first, Xu Yan and I joked about our status as tai-tais, wives to wealthy husbands, and we played the parts nicely, with our manicured nails and beautifully tailored clothing and trips to the salon to get our hair darkened or lightened or blown out.
But the truth was, Xu Yan was not a real tai-tai at all. Her husband was a professor at the prestigious Bei Da, and though doing well, he certainly wasn’t as rich as the Western and Chinese financiers in the capital. Besides, it was actually Xu Yan who was the success story in her family, when it came to providing a certain kind of lifestyle. After her son started school, she had worked quietly on her own business, making intricate, looped pearl necklaces and exporting them to North America and gaining such acclaim for her designs that I rarely saw her anymore. Her work had been profiled in what I thought of as our local paper, the China Daily, but also in international fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle.
We still met for coffee and sometimes our weekly yoga class, but Xu Yan was usually in New York or Paris or Toronto, wooing clients and attending fashion shows and getting new ideas for her latest collections.
Before I became pregnant, I confessed to Xu Yan my fear that my husband might be sleeping with someone. I did not say I thought it was probably one of the Chinese women who worked as his assistants. Such affairs were not uncommon in my husband’s office, or in our circle of friends. One of my husband’s colleagues actually called it an “occupational hazard”—leaving one’s Western wife for a younger Chinese woman. He did not seem to see the implicit racism or sexism in coining such a phrase, something my husband pointed out in a taxi ride home from that colleague’s apartment one summer night, our first summer in the city. Another aspect of New Colonialism, we decided. And I think we felt both comforted and superior for recognizing bad behavior in our fellow foreigners.
I thought I was aware of my own blind spots. My Mandarin was passable, but I was basically illiterate. And aside from Xu Yan, I had no real Chinese friends. No real foreign ones, either. Most expats annoyed me. I told Xu Yan it was because I couldn’t stand the flock mentality. In reality, the foreign women who annoyed me the most were the ones who reminded me of myself: privileged sidekicks to their CEO husbands, mildly bored with their free time, quick to complain about the air quality any chance they got.
After I told Xu Yan my fear about my husband’s affair, she had pressed a packet of herbs into my hand and told me to make a tea of them every night before bed.
“Then what?” I said. “I magically wake up, and my husband’s not cheating on me?”
“Don’t be a fool.” She didn’t smile. “You’ll just sleep better.”
“Then you’ll have the energy to go out and get a job.”
I did sleep better. I did get a job—as a guidance counselor at a small international school on the outskirts of the city. I liked it, except for having to sit in traffic to get there and back. A few months into the job, I got pregnant. When I told Xu Yan, she lit up. “Wonderful!” Still smiling, she added, “Don’t quit your job.”
In the movies, when your water breaks, it’s this dramatic, definitive moment—like Niagara Falls between your legs. But for me, it was just a gradual dampness, and though I thought it might be getting close to time now, I did not hurry.
Now that the sun had disappeared, Xihu looked dark and mysterious—except for the glimmers of purple and green from the light show just north of me. The show began every afternoon as the sun began its descent: electronically controlled fountains close to shore would expel in time to elevator versions of Moonlight Sonata and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
In Beijing, I had a good doctor, a man from Shanghai who had trained in the United States at SUNY–Buffalo. He had posters of the Bills in his office, and I teased him about their losing streak, but he didn’t mind because neither of us actually cared about American football. He had delivered Xu Yan’s son, who was now thirteen, and I think she half-recommended him because he looked like Cui Jian, the Chinese rock star Xu Yan had adored as a teenager.
He advised me that when my water broke, I need not panic and rush to the hospital. I would probably be more comfortable at home, walking around the hutongs of my neighborhood. And so, in my temporary home in Hangzhou, I took one more slow walk around the lake, clockwise, the way the pilgrims perambulate around the monasteries in Tibet. Though I am not religious, the light show and music and the dark around the lake satisfied in me a need for prayer.
I felt relieved that I was on my way to a flock of women to see my child born into the world. Initially, my husband’s betrayal had felt like a betrayal by all men. Yet it was my doctor’s words in my head as I walked to my hotel, packed up my belongings into my small suitcase, and carried it down to the lobby. When she’s ready, she’ll let you know. When she’s ready, you will be, too. My doctor’s words, but Xu Yan’s voice.
In a matter of hours, I would be holding my child in my hospital room. By then, it would not feel like revenge but an opportunity. My husband, probably huddled with his lover in our chilly aristocratic apartment, had never turned down an opportunity. The life that came after this was hard to imagine, but it didn’t matter if I could imagine it or not; the next moment would come, and the one after it. I would call my husband eventually, and he would be angry. Let him be angry, it was the least he could do.
“West Lake” is from Sara’s second book, The Invention of Love, forthcoming in June 2020 from Split Lip Press. Her first collection, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books), was a 2017 CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in Fiction. She’s an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. Read more of her work at saraschaff.com.