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Early autumn 2002

Today had not been a very good day and there were hours yet still before tomorrow would banish it away, and some hours more after that before Alice was likely to fall asleep.

For the first time in what would one day be a year (though she dreaded the day it happened), it wasn’t her mind ruining her day, but her body. Or rather, the things put in her body to chase other things away. There was a scar she didn’t have to worry about hiding, as no soul had seen her undressed since Robert left her—no soul except one doctor after another, but she didn’t count those doctors. They saw her as an old woman when she stepped into their office.

No, no one had seen her undressed since Robert left her, and no one would ever see her undressed again.

It was her scar getting her attention now. Having only just become a scar, Alice was sensitive to its existence beneath her breast—her left breast, the traitor of the two, despite the fact that both had failed to serve her. They had always been too small, except for the year and a half she breastfed her son. Her son, who was eighteen now.

She hadn’t seen him yet this week. She counted every day by appointments and chemotherapy treatments, so she could never forget anything, even when she wanted to. Fabian was out of school and they were sharing the house he grew up in, but he was out all day, and into the night, and she kept herself confined quietly away from him when he brought people home. She called to him to say goodbye when he left. He was popular and flirty and mourning the deaths of two people in a relatively short span of time—Alice let him go where he pleased, whenever he pleased. She was powerless to stop him, anyway.

She was going to be leaving this place soon, and some of her things were packed. She hadn’t yet told Fabian, but since giving up the room she shared with the man she never called her husband, the townhouse had felt haunted. She was giving it to Fabian and would pay all of his bills.

She was his mother and she felt a distinct sense of duty to relieve him of burdens she could afford to shoulder herself.

Today had not been a good day, and Alice was tracing a finger over the delicate skin marred by surgeons to remove a tumor that had yet to spread anywhere else. Her son was out, had been out all night, or else came home silently and left again, and only now was she able to risk exposing her secret.

She carried her cancer in secret.

Her pills stayed in her room. Her appointment book stayed in her room. She attributed the loss of weight and hair and color to the death that would certainly have done the same whether she had been sick or not. Everyone believed her, because forty years with one person had just ended, and the terms were foul.

Alice stared next at her face, which was blurred behind a headache that had swallowed her thoughts. Her joints ached as though she was as old as the doctors treated her. She felt groggy, and ill, and the searing pain her head shot streaks of worse pain down her neck. There was no color in her face, not that she could see it, and she didn’t want to move from her spot at the mirror, lest she take a step and fall. Fabian could take her to hospital, yes, but he would find out too much once there.

She had avoided clinics her husband frequented.

The longer she stood, and it may well have been close to an hour, the weaker her hips felt, until finally she forced herself back to her bed—which wasn’t really her bed, but a guest bed. Her bed had been undisturbed since the previous March, the room locked, the key in her possession.

But the guest bed did what beds were expected to do, and Alice climbed under the covers carefully, each movement calculated for the least amount of interference. Once her head was settled, she shut her eyes.

It figured that this would happen. It figured that he would leave them just as Fabian was to leave school for university, just as she was diagnosed with cancer. The options, as soon as he disappeared, were few: Fabian was not to know anything was wrong with his mother, but she found it difficult to move on when her body was eating her alive from the inside. There were no good places to go for new thoughts. Robert wasn’t bringing her tea and medication, and drearily she often imagined him holding her, his arms secured around her waist, the weight so familiar that the dream felt like a hallucination. She wondered what it would be like to do this with something to live for.

She had waited too long to tell Fabian his father had left them, and it was a mistake that triggered an estrangement unknown to their relationship before. He was never there—and she wondered what it would be like if he did know. Would he still be there? Would he take care of her? Or would it frighten him into cutting her off completely?

If Robert had been there—if Robert had been there everything would have been fine. She would know she would be healthy again, and she wouldn’t be confined to lying about what was wrong and spending her days off work staring at walls and dealing with crippling pain. The only people who knew were too far away to help, though Violet had promised to visit as soon as she could spare the money for the trip.

It was the worst thing, doing anything alone. Her eldest brother was wrapped up in issues with his eldest grandson, and her second eldest brother was traveling everywhere to lecture on diamond cutting and design. In either case she knew she would have to tell her son if she was to tell her brothers, so they kept to their lives, and she was unhappily straddled with hers.

Alice slid down the bed until her head was off the pillow, easing pressure off her back and shoulders, which were doing their best to demand separation from her spine. She thought of Robert’s hands, and felt his fingers lift the pressure with magic or a massage. She knew he would give her remedies. She knew he would hold her hand when the pain escalated. She knew he would take all the time in the world to help her heal. She knew he would touch her breasts and not her scar, and never say a word about it unless she said something first.

Robert was to Alice what a security blanket becomes to a child. Removed from her person she could survive, but the adjustment and the fear was almost too much to make her interested in trying. For forty years (or what would have been forty years), he was the most constant presence she knew. He traveled the world with her, lived from place to place with her, comforted her in the wake of her parents’ deaths, joyfully welcomed the surprise addition when she announced she was pregnant. He was her best friend, her strongest family despite no blood or legal bond shared between them, and her lover. And at the age of sixty two, she was too old to try again.

He had left her.

She opened her eyes only to shut them again. Too much light, but the window was too far to reach. She wiped tears away and pushed her face into the sheet.

What if she had told him she was sick? She was diagnosed over a week before Robert’s mood changed, and the reality of it had not yet sunk in enough for her to have the courage—and then she was focused on him. But what if—there were a thousand what-ifs. Would he have stayed? What if he hadn’t? She didn’t know what happened to make him go, only that she had failed to be enough to keep him here. He had grown tired of her, tired of their not-yet-eighteen-year-old son. They weren’t enough. It was the biggest insult she had ever known, and the sting burned worse than any chemotherapy ever could.

It made her angry. It made her ill. But the one thing that could have been done to defy what he did, the one thing Alice was able to do—to move on, to find love elsewhere, to marry properly this time—she couldn’t. Her body wouldn’t let her. Her joints wouldn’t hold her weight. Her head wouldn’t think clearly.

So Robert would win. He would get his way in death just as he got his way in life. Fabian was Alice’s happiest accident, but he was also just that—an accident. The .1% a condom won’t cover. Robert gave her that. That and true love, but true love is one thing, not everything. She learned it over time, and was hit with it when he wouldn’t listen to her pleas.

You wouldn’t marry me, you wouldn’t give me children, and now you’re not staying for me! What did I do?!

But even so, as her back spasmed and her head throbbed viciously, she wanted him here, and had her mouth not been so dry, her voice so ill-used, she would have called to him. She would have begged him. She would have done anything to have those forty years back, and his presence in her bed, and his whispers in her ear. A promise that she would be okay, and that Fabian would be home tonight.


The Dirty Life Universe

January 2010

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