Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction has appeared in the Scarlet Leaf Review, Easy Street, The Ampersand Review, Ghost Parachute, Bop Dead City, The Airgonaut, Reservoir, The Avenue and others. Website is www.mleephotoart.com.
WHEN THE SEASON CHANGES
“I have something to tell you.” Karen’s gray eyes were soft, inviting. She tends to shade her emotions to fit the selective bites of information chosen to put on the plate for others to consume. There are several courses in this meal for digestion, depending on the person, and the level of trust she places in them.
Already processing her story, the wheels turning in her mind. This was an efficient means of psychic production. Her information pretended, as a commodity to be spit out on a production line. Secrets are logoed, and stamped with warning labels, usually written as: “You do not know everything. Take from this what you will, but be wary, because more is to come.”
Glenn stared back. He never looked into her as much before. Learned to, but found himself often in a labyrinth. He accepted the journey into the mind of his wife, exploring freely. His acceptance was predicated on the notion he loved her. Some call this attraction a chemical reaction in order to entice and involve the other to procreate, and thus propagate the species. He called this romantic love.
Karen agreed, sensing what was on her husband’s mind. They had been so close for so long that Karen had comprehended that how she communicated with her husband was wrong. But, even so, it was hard and this was the way she was wired. She was a good person and this is why Glenn loved her, but she couldn’t let him in completely. Not for this. She loved him. Did not want to hurt him.
And Karen hoped he had learned to figure things out. That maybe he comprehends everything. That he has excavated and uncovered every secret about her. Yes, she thought, maybe this time I should start by telling him everything.
Still, it was so hard to tell him the truth in its entirety. She, again, ran through the intended narrative to present to him. Crossing out lines, paragraphs. Changing a word. Adding a positive reinforcement regarding the situation. More for herself, than for him.
“Is this about the test results?” he asked. His voice dropped down a notch, sounding worried. Karen did not want to concern him. Glenn gets triggered by bad news. He begins to wring his hands, speaks faster, and breathlessly. He is hard to understand on the phone. In person, he speaks too fast for her. It is hard for her to keep up.
Karen then edited the narrative again, crossing out an entire paragraph. This time she chose a Marks-A-Lot in red. She used it in seventh grade. She held it in her fist and while she cannot indelibly cover the words she chose not to say, she wanted to leave them there, in case she changed her mind as she prepared to answer him.
She never lies to him. Karen is often direct, but speaks sideways and curves her sentences elliptically. “Hurting him hurts me,” was her last reminding thought as she opened her mouth to speak.
“It went as expected,” Karen said. “I’m still in remission, but the MRI found another anomaly. So there is a biopsy scheduled for next Thursday.”
She grasped his hand, wanting to crush it and transfer the fear from her to him. He allowed her to do this, though pulling his lips in to brace against the pain from her crushing grasp.
This is why love is not a chemical reaction.
He blinked as he waited for Karen to relax her grip.
“All will be well, baby,” Glenn said. It was a cliché, but he really believed it.
Karen allowed this. She wanted to believe and so far so good in her mind. She decided to return to an earlier draft.
“Dr. Taraji assured me that the anomaly may be taken care of with surgery, and if not, he’s scheduling another round of chemo. He set up appointments after promising to discuss this with Dr. Albertine.”
“Are you ready for this,” asked Glenn. He knew the answer.
“No.” Karen squeezed his hand again. “I hate Houston.”
“The house we found off Westheimer is still for rent—just in case.”
“I don’t want to go back to Houston.”
“I know, baby.”
“I am afraid.”
“This is normal, my love,” Glenn said, and slipped his arm around his wife.
Karen put her head on his shoulder.
“You are not reassuring.”
“This is beyond my power,” he said.
“Beyond me, too,” said Karen.
She closed her eyes, debating within herself whether to reveal the first draft.
“These are the times we speak little, perfunctory statements because you are too tired and me too sick to talk like we used to,” Karen said. “Remember how we used to talk all the time? Sometimes it was about nothing, but we could explore the world together and discuss what we discovered. No matter what it was, like reading passages from the books we read, and commenting on the news, and finding something special and wholly our own to understand only to ourselves; like the time we watched the butterflies pose for us on the rock over there.” Karen pointed to the formation beside the oak tree near the bench where they sat.
“Remember that, my love? We took out our cell phones and they let us get so close while we took pictures. They even opened and shut their wings slowly so we could have a good look at them. They were smart butterflies,” she said.
She forced a smile on herself. It came so grindingly slow she felt her beige-pink lipstick cracking. She pulled up Glenn’s hand and pressed her lips on the back of his palm.
Glenn brushed her hair. “I recall they followed us to the car.”
“Yes, they did.” Karen smiled a little bigger. Still afraid, but warmer than before.
“Too bad they are gone. The winter is here,” said Glenn.
Karen contemplated the first draft of her narrative. Dr. Taraji was not at all confident about the anomaly and laid out his suspicions straight to her, and wondered aloud why her husband was not with her. He gently scolded her for that. She agreed. Glenn should have been there.
She didn’t want to hurt him, but delaying telling the full story is hurting him more. He knows her too well. We still have the house for rent off of Westheimer.
Yes, she had to return to Houston. The biopsy will confirm if the tumor is metastatic. Either way, there will be not one, but two rounds of chemo. Depends on that persnickety thing that had taken residence and is slowly growing inside her.
Fortunately, Glenn is allowed to take family leave for two months, and otherwise can work from Houston, when need be.
Karen still has the pictures from the Menil. All those Magrittes. She loved the ones with the apartment houses in the moonlight. She wanted to live there with Glenn, stare out the window together and make plans.
She wanted to cry. Her hair was growing over her ears. It had grown out so dark. There goes that again, Karen thought. She had just decided she could like being a little pixie girl. Sure, she missed being the voluptuous brunette. But after leaving her urine sample on the rack in the office bathroom, she stared into the mirror. She felt turned on by herself. Thriving instead of surviving.
Then she walked out into the waiting area. Read half a chapter of a Jane Gardam novel before Dr. Taraji called her in. His bedside manner was always dour, but this time Karen understood she was in the shit.
“Butterflies follow us,” she said. “That portends well.”
“Of course it does, baby.” Glenn pulled her a little tighter. “We will see them in April. That isn’t too far off.”
“It’s a hop, skip and a jump,” said Karen. She pulled up and kissed him, pushing open his lips, grasping him by his neck, wanting to swallow him whole, send him to where she is dying, and kill the threat himself. He can do this.
Glenn opened his eyes to see Karen in a land, elsewhere. She had the most beautiful contented smile, her dark hair crowned by a triad of clouds. He counted her freckles, and she looked so young, today.
Glenn already called about the Houston house. On Thursday, he would notify corporate and HR by email.
He had to accept this. Accept loss forever. It’s been that way for a year.
Glenn held her close as he stared, taking the moment in. This was too easy for him to be preparing to possibly let go, he thought. This scared him.
He concluded on an epitaph like Walk Away Renee, burning the image of Karen smiling into his memory for good, adding butterflies, the children they could never have and all the Magritte’s at the Menil.
When Glenn closed his eyes, Karen opened hers. She should tell him.
But she decided not to. Instead, she kissed him again.