I won't tell anyone about the diagnosis.
Not my mother or sister. Certainly not Jake. Maybe not even Steve.
I'll just slide on the mask I've been sliding on for ages, even if inside, I'll be rot, rot, rotting away like an orange, mushy and spoiled deep down in the middle, tough, thick skin outside. To the world, there'll be no bruises, no soft spots.
No significant depressions.
I wash dishes in screaming hot water while I wait for the dryer to buzz. Rain drips down the window, fat drops that roll and push, somersaulting over each other to get to the finish line first.
My paisley hand towels are growing thin, not nearly as absorbent as they used to be. I bury my hands in them, stuffing them between my fingers until they're totally dry. I rub my fingers practically raw.
Everyone's coming. My table's already set.
Stir the sauce. Stir, stir. My Saturday supper recipe. Every week. Stir, stir.
I didn't even know Dr. Morris's office made these types of calls on Saturdays. I thought they were a Monday-Friday office. And to hear from the doctor herself?
Breaking a banana from the bunch that's browning on the counter, I sink onto the island stool. Like clockwork, I drag my notebook over, the little one where for years, I've recorded every bite that goes into my mouth. Fat, calories, protein, carbs. Every bite ticked off, tick, tick, tock. Add, add, subtract, watch the jeans size go up and down, up and down. One medium banana. My pen poises over the paper, but stops, hovering like a helicopter over the ocean, searching for survivors.
A sound I don't know comes out of me, like a strangled animal, barking laughter. I slip from my chair and press the ball of my foot firmly on the peddle of my stainless steel trash bin. The notebook slides in like a baby from a birth canal, the spiral ring gliding against the stainless with an echoing whoosh, pages rustling.
I eat my banana in peace.
While I'm at it, I call the salon.
"Can I set up an appointment?" I ask. "Cut, color, highlights. Manicure and pedicure. Facial, too. It's Aileen Thompson."
"Oh. Um, okay." Karen, the receptionist who's worked at Bonnie's for years, is flustered. I guess my penny saving has been noticed.
Shedding my frugal skin feels good. My rainy day has arrived.
When we hang up, I slip upstairs as quiet as a burglar. I draw a bubble bath, heavy with the scent of lilac, soaking until my fingers and toes are paled and more wrinkled than they'll ever actually be. It's only when it's turned lake-water cold that I finally pull myself out.
Wrapped in my favorite robe, plush folds of sunshine yellow terrycloth, given to me by Jake some Mother's Day ages ago, I slowly pull the brush through my hair, once, twice, a hundred times, maybe. I dry it slowly, using a round brush and a hairdryer set on low, then pull it into sections and flat iron it, slicking each down with paste. Next, I use tweezers to catch each stray eyebrow hair.
No thinking. Just plucking. Pluck, pluck, another one gone. Pluck, pluck. All neat and tidy.
Moisturizer. Foundation. Blush. Eyeliner, eye shadow, lashes curled. Mascara. More mascara. Blink, blink. Don't think. Blink.
Breathe. Really breathe. Really, really, now. Deep breathes. Air in lungs and then out again.
Alive. Don't think any differently. Alive today.
And everyone will be here soon. You live for these Saturday suppers.
Gray slacks and a bright sweater, red, red red! Blood red. Rose-red. Alive. Living.
As I skate down the stairs in wool socks, the dryer finally buzzes. I rush. I hate wrinkles. The laundry, whites, is like hugging everyone I've ever known: warm and velvety and filling my arms. Warm like Dr. Morris's voice. Warmth and her comforting attempt to cover up cold words. To shroud them.
Freezing, shivering words. Dead words.
A chore I've often loathed isn't bad now, the familiar clean clothes scent like burying my face in pure sunshine. I run my hands over the cotton undershirts while I fold, swells of softness that, under my fingertips are an instrument, swoosh, swoosh, smooth it out. Fold, stack, fold, stack.
Order. Everything in its place.
Steve's shirts barely fit in his drawers. He really needs to donate some, or add them to Jake's car-motorcycle-car-truck-washing-the vehicles-rag stack. The clock ticks idly as I move through the rooms, quiet as crumbs on a patio table, restlessly blowing in the wind.
Jake arrives first. It's nearly two when I hear his engine rumble, just a moment before it sends tremors through the house, rocking down to my soles. He's pulled into the garage and I smile because he's my son and what's better than seeing your son? Lump in my throat.
"Your father isn't going to like you taking his spot." I call over my shoulder when the door bangs open.
Jake's laugh fills the room, gruff and manly, nothing at all like the bubbly shrieks still echoing in my mind from playground days. He pulls me into a hug like I'm flower petals like I'm tissue paper, so gentle I'd swear he knows. I cup his face in my palm and kiss his cheek lightly.
Shrugging, his eyes light with mischief. "He should've been home first then."
Home. I love that Jake still thinks of it this way, though he's been gone a few years now.
I tsk and stir again, endless stirring the sauce doesn't need.
Something to do.
"How's school?" I ask, moving to the table to refold the napkins. Mindless questions. Mindless actions.
Jake rummages in the fridge. He pulls out a container, last night's casserole.
"School is school. Thesis is kicking my ass though." He pops the container in the microwave and turns back to the fridge.
"How's it coming?' No more folding. I just stand and stare. I memorize the lines of my son's back. His tee-shirt and jeans, the uneven cut of his hair against a deeply-tanned neck.
He drinks orange juice from the carton. I don't even wince. I don't even care. It's fine. It's beautiful.
"Going fine," Jake says, turning to me. "My advisor thinks it's great so far, but I've got tons more to do."
"I'm sure it's wonderful."
He rolls his eyes. I know the look, the what does mom know about my life and my passions, and what life is really about look. The microwave chimes as he grabs a fork.
"Have you talked to Tess?"
At the microwave, Jake freezes with his back to me again. "Last night, yeah."
He slides his food across the island and drops into a chair. When he looks up, the look of mom doesn't know has been cleared off to make room for something I know well. That, kiss it and make it better face. He shrugs and shovels rice and chicken. Creamy white sauce.
"She doesn't know what she wants." He licks sauce off his pinky. "But I told her I'm not waiting forever." Indignant tone. Forced.
I think of the ring I gave him, Grandma Elizabeth's ring. He'd offered it to Tessa once. I wondered how long it would take to offer it again. I swallow and think of it on her finger.
Will I know who ends up wearing it? My grandmother's ring?
Wedding. Mother-son dance. Babies. Holidays.
Will my son be happy? Will his life be good?
"Well, that's good. Take care of yourself first though. Above all else."
"Yeah." He doesn't smile. It cuts me, the ways his eyes narrow, the tears I know are lurking. It makes my own spring up like crocuses, the first sign of life after lifeless winter.
"Just be happy," I say. "Life, love, whatever. Happy and safe."
Safe. Like his motorcycle, or his toxic relationship with Tess. Or doctor's appointments and warning signs you shouldn't ignore.
Jake blinks, his fork suspended in the air as if lifted by a toy crane. "You all right? You look pale." Concern dances in his irises, flit across the surface of his frown.
"I'm fine." I tsk again and pick up another napkin.
"No really. You're sweating. I see it. And it's freezing in here."
A nervous laugh. "I'm fine, Jacob."
"You guys should plan a vacation."
Another nervous laugh.
"Hawaii or something. Somewhere Dad could golf, you could get some sun. Have some margaritas."
Golf and margaritas.
Thankfully, the doorbell chimes.
"I'll get it." I slip away.
Mom and Janie arguing on the front porch almost forces those swelling tears to slide straight down my cheeks. Janie, hands overflowing, starts pushing things at me – bags of homemade rolls, farmer's market zucchini, and eggplants.
"Look," she said, holding out a small bag that swings like a pendulum. "Half price at Zilbert's going out of business sale."
Deep inside the bag that swings from her hand, a handful of small gray canisters with sleek sides crowd against the plastic.
"Half price, huh? Good deal."
She grins. "A cheap miracle is even better than a regular one."
I take the bag from her, the little tubes of our favorite anti-aging cream rolling back and forth like thrill-seekers on the carnival pirate ship, back and forth, back and forth twenty-five feet off the ground, ready to tip. Danger! Look, no hands!
"Smells good in here," Mom says, pushing her glasses up on her nose. She nudges me to the side. "Is it burning? It smells burnt."
Sighing, I shake my head. "Burnt?"
Janie giggles the same little girl giggle she's always had, the one where her nose scrunches completely and her eyes all but disappear. It's an adorable laugh, nearly soundless, so cute it seems fake. But she's had it forever, my baby sister, two whole years younger than me. Two years that always meant something growing up, though, at 45 and 47, we're practically the same now.
"Come on," I say, lifting one of the tote bags from her arms. "Mom's probably got half the kitchen screwed up by now."
My mother, in fact, doesn't have anything screwed up. She's washing the few dishes lingering in the sink – Jake's now empty casserole container and a frying pan left greasy from the meatballs, a few butter knives. She's always looked for busywork. Jake sits at the island, frowning at a crossword.
"Where's Steve?" Mom sniffs the air like she's a hunting dog and my husband is prey.
"Golfing, grandma," Jake answers, sliding Janie and me a wide, joker grin.
"Golfing? Golfing! Well…" She shakes her head dramatically, pulling my threadbare paisley back and forth across the pan with such vigor, I fear the Teflon will stain the towel.
Jake smiles again, winking at me and Janie. "Come on, Grandma, it's his hobby. He works hard all week. He deserves some time to play."
Her sponge makes gashes across a cutting board. Beside me, Janie's doing the silent laugh again, her shoulders shaking with the effort of trying to keep quiet. Laughter bubbles in me too, swirling like the first signs of a storm.
In the sink, Mom clangs a knife against my ceramic spoon rest. "Works hard! Huh. Men are supposed to work hard. In my day, we all worked hard, and I'll tell you something, your father, well, your father — "
"Never, ever needed a day off," Me, Janie, and Jake all say in unison.
Mom whirls, a wooden spoon pointing at us, dark with water and dripping on my slate floor. Color rises on her cheeks and an indignant smile plays on her lips. "Why, you…" She waves the spoon like a weapon, but she gives a defeated laugh and turns the water off.
Jake, standing now, slides an arm around her shoulders. "Sorry, Grandma. Couldn't resist. It's just so easy to get you worked up."
"And hilarious," Janie adds. "Wine?" She's opening a bottle of white. I never drink.
"Sure." My voice is light like I'm filled with helium like I'm already lounging on a cloud up there.
"Nice." My sister's face is all mischief. "How about you, Mom? Getting drunk with your daughters tonight?"
Mom shakes her head. "Drunk, Jane Louise? Drunk? Girls aren't — "
"Mom!" Janie and I shout, laughing. Jake's beside my sister, pouring himself a glass.
"Ah, what the hell?" Mom says, bumping Jake's arm and nodding to the bottle in his hand. "Pour me some, Jacob. Just a little bit, now."
I watch Janie's eyes widen as I feel mine do the same. Mom drinking? I mouth. And now we're really laughing, Janie's face so scrunched up and the laughter pouring out of her like an overturned barrel. I'm overflowing too, overflowing so much with it that I don't even see what's floating out of me, bobbing on the laughter like I can wash it away. Lumps and tumors and malignant and stage four.
"Why not?" Mom says, raising her glass. "Only live once, right?"
Only live once.
"Hey ho!" Steve's voice booms from the living room and in an instant he's there, my husband, my best friend, my silver anniversary love. "What's all this?"
With a glance around the room, I see what he does, but Steve, connoisseur of any situation that he is, slides up to the counter and with little effort uncorks another bottle and pours himself a glass. Janie and I still lean on the counter, and the five of us form an almost circle. We form a clump.
"What did I miss?" Steve asks in the voice I've known through everything. Better or worse. Sickness and health. Till death do us part.
"What are we toasting?" Steve's cheeks are red from his golf game. He slips an arm around Jake, pulls him in for a rough, guy-hug.
"Well, mom drinking, for one." Janey's freckled cheeks are wet with laughing tears and her eyes meet mine. Shining, reaching.
I wipe at my cheeks and look at the faces around me.
"To right now," I say. "This moment now."