Introduction by Aimee Bender
In a letter to his admirer Maxim Gorky, Chekhov gently schooled the wordier writer by telling him about a kind of reader metabolism: “If I write, ‘A man sat down on the grass,’” he wrote, “it is understandable because it is clear and doesn’t require a second reading…the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.”
I’m reminded of these teachings while reading Jean Chen Ho’s wonderful story, “Kenji’s Notebook”; one of the great charms of her writing is that it has the naturalness of breathing, of talking to a close friend, of non-effort, which of course we know takes enormous effort (and restraint) to achieve. She’s able to slip in images such as “a wilting jack-o-lantern left out long after Halloween” to describe a character’s face, but I find I can process the image at the same rate at which I read, so that it goes into me whole without conscious recognition (until now). The POV shifts make sense, the sentences flow, and so therefore the complexity can naturally accrue around what’s happening: these characters and their layered and complicated relationships; pain and longing between friends and lovers; the presence of illness as real and as metaphor; race, sex, the ups and downs of writing class; affairs, forgiveness and its chasms—the story is able to contain all of this, but its touch is so light that the parts gather without the reader necessarily even realizing until later. And while of course not all writing needs to provide this kind of ease and invitation in how it unspools, it’s a keen and particular pleasure when it does.
Ultimately, the result is that Ho—in writing about friendships with such clarity and complexity—makes the reader feel let in and included, like a friend, too.
– Aimee Bender
Author of The Butterfly Lampshade
A Notebook is No Place To Keep a Secret
“Kenji’s Notebook” by Jean Chen Ho
Tuesday evening, Fiona rode the 6 train downtown after seeing Kenji home from the hospital. She’d tucked him into bed and made sure the packet of OxyContin lay within his reach on the nightstand, next to his notebook. He looks terrible, Fiona had thought. Like a wilting jack-o’-lantern left out long after Halloween, a face falling into itself. She didn’t want to admit that she felt afraid. Kenji was thirty-two, six years older than she was. He had cancer of the mouth and throat. On alternating Tuesdays, she and Jasper, her boyfriend—her ex-boyfriend, that is—took turns sitting with Kenji while the chemo drained into his arm. He was on his second round of six-weeks, and skeletal from it. Kenji was Jasper’s best friend, but Fiona had grown to love him, too. Four months ago, Kenji got the prognosis: surgery to clear out as much of the cancer as they could manage, then radiation and chemotherapy. A month and a half later, Fiona learned that Jasper had been sleeping with a woman in his writing program at Hunter. She’d read about it in Kenji’s notebook, snooping around one night while he slept.
It was July now, and Fiona was biding her time. She’d survived her first year at NYU Law, on top of everything else. It had been the most punishing eight months of her life. She and Jasper had come to an agreement about living together through the end of their lease. Neither one was in a financial position to move out before then. Fiona claimed the queen bed; Jasper took up residence on the futon. He owned full access to the TV, but she had the window-unit AC in the bedroom. They exchanged information about Kenji’s recovery and not much else.
The humidity hung nearly solid on her walk from the Canal Street station to her building on Mulberry and Hester. In the lobby, Fiona checked the mailbox marked Lin & Chang. It was empty—Jasper must’ve picked up their mail already. She climbed the five flights up to the apartment, considering how she would tell him that Kenji needed another surgery. He’d lost too much weight. His doctors wanted to put a tube in his stomach so that Kenji could feed himself protein shakes through a plastic funnel. She heard the TV blaring from the hallway. Fiona imagined Jasper parked on the futon, staring vacantly at the extra-wide flat-screen, that outsized monstrosity he’d insisted on buying last fall. He needed it for “research”—plus the Netflix subscription, DVDs in the mail every week—narrative structure, beats and silences. Four o’clock in the morning on Black Friday
he’d camped out in front of Kmart on Astor Place to get the deal that included a free DVD player. She put her key in the deadbolt and waited a moment, gathering herself before she turned the knob.
A soccer match played on the TV, the field a million light pixels of blinding, verdant green. Jasper turned toward her, his face in profile backlit by the brilliant pitch. He asked how it went with Kenji tonight.
“Can you not get crumbs everywhere?” She cast a weary glance toward the bag of Utz chips in his lap. “I saw two roaches last week.”
“Big ones?” He scanned the floor around his feet, as if searching out evidence of the roaches she accused him of attracting. “I haven’t seen any since the exterminator—”
“I have to tell you something, but don’t freak out.” She was still standing by the door with her flats on. “They said he needs to have another surgery.”
“The hell?” he said. “They found another—”
“No, no,” she said quickly. “You know it’s hard for him to swallow anything now.” Nudging her shoes off, Fiona leafed through the pile of mail on the small table next to the door. The Con Ed bill, a couple preapproved credit card offers, a reminder for a teeth-cleaning, and—what’s this? A save-the-date postcard for her friend Amir’s wedding in October, upstate in Woodstock.
Fiona explained what the doctor had said about the procedure Kenji needed.
“A feeding tube?” said Jasper. “Jesus.”
“Are you free Friday? He’s scheduled for ten in the morning,” she said. “Or else I could ask to take off work—do a half day.” Fiona was clerking for an appellate judge this summer, a coveted internship she’d won over other 1Ls in her cohort. The work was demanding and joyless—not that she’d expected anything different—but she was glad for the solid hours of citation research, memo drafting, and proofreading, which kept her from feeling like an object unraveling in six different directions.
“I can do it,” said Jasper. “I’ll go.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Yeah.” He turned back to the TV.
Clutching the save-the-date in her hand, she brushed past the futon and into the bedroom. She shut the door and flipped on the AC, then sat down to study the postcard. Amir, her law school buddy, in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, lavender silk tie. He grinned sheepishly, as if aware of and slightly embarrassed about his disarming handsomeness. His arm was curled around his fiancée’s waist: Khadijah, a glamorous Black woman who stood half a head taller than him. She was a pediatric resident at a children’s hospital. They were perfect together. Fiona crushed the postcard in her hands.
“Oh shit!” Jasper shouted from the living room, startling her. “Fuck yeah!” She realized he was yelling at the TV. Fiona shook her head. She knew Jasper was scattering potato chip crumbs everywhere. Well, he could sleep with the roaches crawling all over him. She didn’t care.
All she wanted now was to make it through the end of the lease in peace. Less than two months. Fiona didn’t know where she would go, but she would find some place. She’d have to put out feelers soon to see if anyone she knew needed a roommate, to ask for leads on upcoming vacancies. By September, Kenji would be done with the chemo. She’d be back in school, her second year. Maybe she could move into Kenji’s apartment, just for a while. He had a place in Harlem, a spartan bachelor’s studio he’s kept since his time at Teachers College. They could help each other, thought Fiona. Both of them, in remission. The fact that Jasper would hate it made the idea more delicious.
In March, Kenji had told them the news after finally getting what he thought were swollen lymph nodes checked out. The three of them were standing outside a crappy midtown sports bar where they’d just witnessed Cal massacred in the first round of March Madness. There was a Japanese American boy on the starting five, a lanky shooting guard whose last name also happened to be Mura, and Kenji had told everyone at the bar that he was the player’s cousin, spinning a story about youth league booster clubs, aunties who pounded and sold exquisite mochi back home in Gardena. Fiona and Jasper had gone along with it, because every time Mura put up points, someone sent them a round. In the end, however, Mura’s offense wasn’t enough to save the team from elimination. As they were saying goodbye, Kenji headed uptown and Fiona and Jasper downtown, he’d slipped in the news in a quiet, by-the-way voice.
Fiona wasn’t sure she’d heard him right. “What? What did you say?”
“Throat and mouth cancer,” Kenji said.
“What?” she said again. “But you don’t even smoke.”
Kenji shrugged. They were all quiet for a few moments.
Jasper had been the one to break the silence. “What happens now?”
Kenji told them his surgery was already scheduled for the following Thursday.
“Where? What hospital?” Fiona shoved him. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
“I’m sorry,” Kenji said after a moment. “I didn’t know how— what to say—”
“Bro.” Jasper hesitated. “You scared?”
The night traffic coursed down Seventh Avenue, flashes of light in the dark. Fiona was glad for the buzz she felt from all the shots.
“Kenji, do you want to—I don’t know—come over to our place?” she said. “Get another drink somewhere?”
Kenji shook his head. “I still have to finish grading some papers tonight.” He glanced up the street and folded his wool beanie down over his ears, raised his arm to hail a cab. One pulled over for him. “Mura out.” He bumped forearms with Jasper and then submitted to a tight hug from Fiona.
She didn’t want to let him go. His long black hair, which he wore down that night, spilled over her shoulders. She breathed in his shampoo, but underneath it, behind his earlobes, she thought she smelled something murkier, darker. Even after he dropped his arms, she held on to him, and she only let go after he made a show of prying himself loose from her grip.
The subway ride back home was quiet. Fiona looped her arm into Jasper’s on the walk from the station and felt him squeezing back with his elbow. They made love that night with a tenderness they hadn’t shown one another for months, in bed or otherwise. She felt guilty for only having noticed its absence now. “I’m sorry,” she murmured in the dark, after they’d finished. “I’ve been so busy, trying to keep up with all my school reading—I haven’t been around for you.”
Jasper’s back was turned to her. Fiona pressed her breasts and stomach against him, nuzzled his neck with her nose, her lips. “How are you, baby? What’s going on with your writing?” He didn’t answer her—she figured he was asleep.
“I love you,” she said softly. “Jasper Chang. I love you.”
The soccer match over, Jasper pulled the futon out flat for the night. Lying down, he listened to the sounds coming from behind the bedroom door. The moan of the blow-dryer told him Fiona was perched on the edge of the bed—she never went to sleep with her hair wet, an old superstition she’d made him follow, too—probably wearing one of his ratty T-shirts that she’d long ago claimed for pajamas. Then, the asthmatic rubbery sound of the window being thrust open. Fiona ducking out for a smoke on the fire escape.
Jasper clicked off the local news in the middle of a report from the Bronx—a brick factory spewing orange flames from its windows—and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. He lay there, cramped, bitter about the unfairness of it all. So he’d made a mistake. Was she so perfect? He’d never confronted her about it, but he suspected Fiona and her Pakistani friend from law school—what was his name?—liked each other more than the normal amount. Late-night study sessions and whatnot. Had he ever said anything? No way. Wasn’t his style to be so petty, register every little concern. Point being that he, Jasper, could overlook certain things. How could Fiona be so ready to toss out the whole relationship, these past six years? She didn’t mean it. She couldn’t mean it. It was a mistake. A big misunderstanding. They were getting back together, he knew it. She knew it. Kenji knew it, too.
Helen Park. He’d been resentful that their classmates assumed the two struck up an alliance because they were the only two Asian American fiction writers in their year. In fact, Jasper had intentionally ignored Helen’s friendly glances during the orientation events. He’d also made a point to steer clear of Phuong Ly, a poet in the year above, to combat the stereotype that all Asians stuck together. Jasper wasn’t going to be pigeonholed.
He thought Helen was a lesbian at first. She wore her short black hair gelled into spikes, a rotating uniform of loose chambray shirts topped by colorful fringed scarves, and always, some clown lipstick was painted on her mouth, bright tangerine, sparkly purple, and, occasionally, goth- metal black. He made it through the fall without engaging her much, but a month into the spring semester, she’d plopped down next to him at the bar where everyone congregated after workshop and called him out: “You’re avoiding me, right?” Though her lips were parted in a smile, she delivered the line as if lobbing an insult, her eyes glittering. He’d noticed then that Helen had a tooth on the side of her grin shaped like a fang.
“I have a girlfriend,” he blurted out.
Helen snorted. “Relax,” she said. “Girlfriend. Cool. Well, what is she?”
“What do you mean, what is she?” he said. “She’s a law student.”
Helen shook her head. Her hair didn’t move. “No, I mean, like—is she Asian?”
“She’s Taiwanese,” Jasper said. Helen raised an eyebrow. “So what?”
“Why don’t you ever invite her out with us? Everyone else brings their boos and randos.”
“I don’t know, she’s busy.” He didn’t want to tell her that Fiona would find their conversations—about books, writing, their professors—insufferable.
Jasper had long suspected that Fiona wasn’t totally on board with his writing ambitions. The program was designed to accommodate working professionals, but Jasper had insisted on quitting his day job—communications department at a charitable foundation—to fully immerse himself in the MFA. He had some savings and took out a student loan for tuition and living expenses. He’d wanted to chance a higher amount, max out both the subsidized and unsubsidized federal limits, but Fiona had advised against it. What about all your law school debt? he’d said. That’s different, she replied. After I finish I’ll actually— She didn’t finish the sentence, just let the words hang there. He’d been stung by her frankness, though he knew she was only being pragmatic.
“Why’d you ask if she’s Asian?” Jasper said.
“You seem like—I don’t know.” Helen shrugged. “Your stories in workshop—”
She shrugged again.
Helen was only a year out of college, the same age Jasper was when he moved to New York with Fiona. That night at the bar, she told him to stop writing stories about white people. He’d scoffed and then they’d argued—“Just because I don’t indicate what race the characters are doesn’t automatically mean they’re white!” “Um, yeah, dude, it reads like that, sorry to break it to you.” “Not true. That’s your own racist reading bias. Not my problem!”—until Jasper realized their raised voices had attracted everyone else’s attention. The others from their workshop stood around the bar clutching PBR cans, staring at them.
Jasper stood suddenly, knocking over his barstool. He tossed down a few bills and stormed out. Helen followed him. They shouted at each other out on the sidewalk. Frustrated, he grabbed her hard by both arms—he thought maybe he would shake her. An alarmed expression crossed Helen’s widened dark eyes. Jasper remembered himself. Then, she was leading him to another bar, where they took shots and kept arguing, but there was laughter in it now, and something else; something more dangerous, Jasper recalled. Later still, when he followed her up the stairs to her apartment on Delancey—Helen was going to lend him her copy of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee—Jasper thought: Nothing’s happened yet, and nothing might happen, anyway. Pull yourself together, Chang.
When he got home that night, Jasper took a scalding shower before falling into bed with Fiona. Six years together: Fiona wasn’t the first girl he’d slept with, but she was pretty close to it. Jasper promised himself it was only going to be that one time, with Helen. The sex wasn’t anything spectacular, and her room smelled vaguely like cat piss. The next Monday after workshop, however, they fucked again; then another time, another day of the week, until Jasper couldn’t remember why it mattered, as though he’d somehow believed that cheating on Fiona, if done on a Monday, gave him moral immunity. For whatever reason, to whatever ends, he wanted Helen, and he had decided to let himself have her.
By the time Kenji told him and Fiona about the cancer diagnosis, Jasper had been hooking up with Helen for three months. That week, Jasper couldn’t help but feel pulled back from some precipice he hadn’t known he was standing on. Kenji was his best friend, and Fiona was his girl, still. One day, he was certain, she’d be his wife. He had to stop seeing Helen. There was no romance between them, only the intoxicating fumes of mutual derision, which each accepted for erotic intrigue. That, and their mutual loneliness. Helen made no complaints when he ended things. He returned the copy of Cha’s poetry to her, unread.
The faint line of light under the bedroom door snapped black, and Jasper heard Fiona settle in, the comforter rustling. An image of Fiona’s bare legs, her inner thighs brushing softly against each other, passed through his mind. He missed her, and the missing was tinged with anger and shame. The beginning of a dream cast its net over him: Fiona straddling him on the futon, the gray outline of her body in the darkness of the living room. Her fingertips on his nipples, teasing. They hadn’t touched one another since somewhere near the end of April, when Fiona had found out about Helen, after everything was already over. Kenji’s fault, punk ass with that notebook. But Jasper couldn’t even be mad—dude was fighting cancer, right?
Jasper startled awake at four in the morning, the world still dark. The apartment was suffused with the smell of melted butter and hot sugar, as it was every morning, rising from the Italian bakery that occupied the ground floor. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, tried to float back to sleep, but felt suddenly chilled by the sensation of being watched.
“Fiona?” Jasper rubbed his eyes again. “You okay?” He sat up on the futon. A figure stood by the bedroom door.
“What if,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “What if Kenji doesn’t—”
“He’s doing so good,” Jasper said. “You can’t think like that.” He patted the space next to him. She stepped toward him on silent feet and sank down. After a moment, he put an arm around her.
“Are you crying?”
She shook her head and turned her face toward him, as if to prove she wasn’t, even though it was dark and he could barely see. He shifted, enough to close the small distance between their mouths. Fiona met him there.
They kissed a few times before he pulled the T-shirt over her head. Jasper cupped his right hand over her breast, found her nipple between his fingers, and pinched it, hard. She gave a small gasp. With his mouth on hers, Jasper moved his hand to her neck. Under his thumb he felt her pulse jumping. Her hands were tugging at his shorts. He pushed her down on the futon mattress. All of a sudden Jasper remembered how it was, the frenzied pleasure of sex with someone you loved and who you knew loved you back. He wanted to call her a bitch for how she’d been treating him. He fought the urge to say, I love you—
Jasper stayed silent and kept thrusting, the palm of his hand pressed against Fiona’s neck. He was only doing what she liked—to be brutalized, just a little. Made to acquiesce, pinned down, her vagina slapped and bruised. And afterward, he knew she liked to be held. He tightened his grip around her throat. She whimpered and moaned, writhing underneath him. They moved together in the dark, as one. They generated heat. The air seemed to buzz in Jasper’s ears, the sound of honeybees. He held his breath. He waited for her to come. In another minute, she arrived.
Friday morning, Jasper was dressed and downstairs before nine. Kenji’s surgery, scheduled for ten at Mount Sinai uptown. Outside, the vendors on Mulberry Street were setting up for the day. He strolled past a fruit stand piled high with lychees, clusters of longan, bright pink dragon fruit the size of his fist.
Earbuds in, an old DJ Shadow playlist keyed up, he passed one stall after another on Canal Street selling junk souvenirs: miniature jade figurines, knotted red rope ornaments, novelty lighters and keychains, and those conical bamboo hats. Maybe they were all storefronts for illegitimate businesses. Knockoff designer handbags, miniature turtles, bootleg DVDs. Or something more sinister? Poor girls imported from China, some trained to work at massage parlors, jerking out perfunctory happy endings, others assigned to long hours crouched at the gnarled feet of hardened Manhattan women, scrubbing calluses and sawing off toenails.
He swiped through the turnstile at Lafayette, recalling the time he and Kenji had staggered into one of those shady massage parlors south of Canal with a neon-lit OPEN sign. Three in the morning, they were both faded as hell, elbowing each other forward and knocking over shit in the small front room. An older woman who reminded Jasper too much of his mother ushered them into a dim hallway behind a red beaded curtain. In the end he had backed out. He smoked several cigarettes on the sidewalk while he waited. Kenji swayed out half an hour later, the red from all the tequila shots drained from his cheeks. He laughed, and threw an arm around Jasper’s neck. “Worth it,” he muttered. “God damn. You’re a pussy, you know that?” Then he ran for the gutter and vomited into it, bent over with one hand pressed on the sidewalk.
Jasper came above ground a half hour later at Ninety- Sixth and Lex. Two blocks west, and two blocks north. The surgery building was brand-new and clean-looking. Upstairs, a set of blue chairs lined the waiting room, and a yellowing philodendron relaxed in one corner. Only two of the seats were filled. An Asian man in his seventies, his face sallow and dotted with large brown spots, sat beside someone who must be his son, because the younger man had the exact same face, without the liver marks. Neither one looked up when Jasper shuffled past them up to the glass window at the back of the room. A young white nurse sat typing into a computer. Jasper asked if Kenji had arrived and checked in already.
He told her, and she thumbed through a stack of papers next to the keyboard. “Philip Mura for the gastroendoscopy?” She looked at him for confirmation over a set of seafoam-green reading glasses.
“The what?” He’d forgotten that Kenji used his English name for official records. “It’s for his stomach.”
The nurse told him the procedure would be done in about an hour and a half.
Jasper sat down at one of the blue chairs. He glanced over at the father and son. If they gave him an opening, Jasper would gladly explain the story. Was it wrong? The thrill he got from telling people his best friend had cancer, and then waited for the glimmer of sympathy in their eyes as he nonchalantly elaborated that he was Kenji’s primary caretaker—well, one of them, anyway.
Jasper planned to write about the whole thing: how the surgeon split open Kenji’s neck to scrape off the tumors, cut out a third of his tongue, and then stitched in a circle of flesh from the inside of his left forearm. Next, the radiation treatments that burned purple scars into Kenji’s chin and throat. That was when he’d stopped talking—hurt to use his tongue, hurt to swallow down spit—and started using the notebook to communicate.
The chemo bags were supposed to be the last thing, poisoning any chances of future growth. But now, while Jasper sat waiting, Kenji was on a table back there. A hole, two inches below the sternum. A plastic tube for funneling liquid food. Weird, Jasper thought. Weird, gross, and sad. A winning trifecta for a short story. Maybe he’d weave in a backstory about the Japanese American internment during World War II. A wound in the chest . . . he groped for a metaphor.
That would show Helen he wrote fiction with Asian American characters. He’d prove her wrong.
He considered calling Fiona. Jasper hadn’t seen much of her after what happened early Wednesday morning. She’d made herself scarce the last couple nights.
The handsome young man in the hospital waiting room peered out the window with his intense brown eyes . . . An intentionally bad line. Jasper smiled, and then looked toward the clock on the wall.
Jasper didn’t expect the wheelchair escort. Kenji had on a Team Japan jersey—the World Cup semifinals were broadcasting later tonight. The shirt hung on him like how it might look draped on a coatrack. Jasper probably had a good forty pounds on him, since the chemo. Even Kenji’s head had shrunk, the most disconcerting part of the weight loss.
“You good?” Jasper asked. Kenji raised a thumb in the air.
Downstairs, Jasper hailed a cab crawling north on Madison. Kenji sat waiting in the wheelchair, squinting against the sun. The cab pulled to the curb, and Jasper took a hold of his friend’s elbow to guide him into the back seat, then shut the door for him. He walked around to the other side and got in.
“Where to, chief?” the driver asked. Jasper gave him the block.
Months before, when he’d confided in Kenji about slipping up with Helen, he hadn’t considered the possibility that Kenji would be angry with him. They were supposed to be boys. Homies for life. They’d been floormates in Unit 3 when Jasper was a freshman, Kenji a third-year transfer at twenty- four—he bought everyone’s beers. Jasper never thought for a second that Kenji would take Fiona’s side of things—he’d been the one to convince Jasper the massage parlor didn’t count as cheating. It was like watching porn, or going to a strip club, Kenji had said about the place on Doyers. Strictly professional. Jasper needed a friend to talk to about the Helen situation. Kenji had scolded him, like he was some immature kid.
And then, Kenji had done the worst: he leaked the secret to Fiona. He swore it happened by accident—Fiona had opened up the notebook and read it without his permission. There was a confrontation, then retreat, which led into Jasper and Fiona’s present stalemate.
Kenji said he was staying neutral; he loved them both. Still, Jasper couldn’t shake the feeling that Kenji had been irretrievably lost to him. He didn’t know when it happened: Kenji belonged to Fiona now.
In the back seat of the cab, Jasper glanced over at Kenji dozing. He wondered if Kenji liked the chemo days with Fiona better than the ones with him. Did they laugh? Did she tell stories to entertain him while his body swallowed up all that medicine? A maddening thought: What if after all this, Kenji and Fiona got together? One time at the gym, Jasper caught a glimpse of Kenji’s dick in the locker room—uncircumcised, and fucking huge.
The cab lurched to a stop in front of Kenji’s building. Upstairs, he helped get Kenji settled into the bed. Jasper checked the fridge: nothing but a Brita pitcher and bottles of vanilla-flavored Ensure. An old stick of butter in the door. He glanced back at Kenji’s sleeping figure before he slipped out quietly.
Jasper called Fiona from the sidewalk outside Kenji’s building. “I want to talk,” he said. He asked what time she’d be home tonight.
“About what?” she said. “Is Kenji okay?”
“About me and you.” Jasper paused. “The other night—” Fiona sighed. She said she’d be home at six.
Fiona met Jasper at the apartment after work, as she promised. She asked how it went with Kenji’s gastroendoscopy this morning.
“Fine,” he said.
“I’ll go up there tomorrow,” she said. “I’m going to ask him if I can stay with him—”
“Fiona.” Jasper’s voice was shredded. “I want to work things out. You know that.”
“The lease ends after August,” she said. “I can probably be out before then.”
“What do I have to do? What do you want me to say?”
“You’re not listening to me.”
They sat on opposite ends of the futon. Fiona faced the giant TV screen, refusing to give Jasper her eyes.
“There’s nothing to work out,” she said. “We already talked about this.”
“Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. Couples therapy. Anything.”
“Two months ago, we decided this was what needed to happen—”
“What about the other night?” he said. “You barely say two words to me for how long, then all of a sudden—”
“What happened to you?” Fiona examined her hands. Her voice was quiet. “You used to be different.”
“I said I’m sorry about— I made a mistake. I told you, it didn’t mean anything.”
“I don’t care about her,” Fiona said. “I don’t care what it did or didn’t mean to you. It doesn’t matter to me.” She stood and paced the room, because she couldn’t sit next to him any longer.
“I’m so confused.” Jasper’s eyes were wet. “I don’t know what you want from me. I don’t understand—I’m still me. I messed up. But I’m still the same—”
“I want this to end. I want to move out and be done with it,” she said. “I don’t know what the other morning was.” She hesitated. “It wasn’t . . . anything.”
“You’re lying,” he said.
She watched him cry, the whites of his eyes turning red. Fiona felt a bitter satisfaction at his suffering, and a tinge of pain for him. She felt embarrassed that she was enjoying this. She didn’t want to enjoy it. She didn’t want to be cruel. But the feeling was there, all the same.
“Don’t do this,” he said now. “Please, baby. Don’t give up on me—what we have—”
Fiona didn’t answer. She stood there with her arms crossed, as still as anything.
“The other morning,” he pleaded. “I know you felt something.”
Fiona shook her head.
“Look at me.” Jasper waited. “Please.” Fiona turned her head toward him and met his gaze. Over the back of the futon, he reached out for her hand.
“I used to think, there had to be nothing left, for me to leave.” Fiona stayed where she was, arms crossed. “And I thought there was nothing left between us. Only Kenji. Taking care of him. Making sure he’s going to be okay.”
“There’s a lot left—there’s us. Me and you.” Jasper let his arm hang down over the back of the futon.
“Not enough,” she said.
“Don’t say that,” he said. “That’s not true.”
She sat back down on the futon, next to him. They were silent for a while. She curled her legs up and hugged her shins. “Can you do me a favor?” She paused. “Can you help me shave my head?”
“Kenji’s been so down lately, I think it’ll cheer him up.” She paused. “Help him get through the rest of chemo.” Jasper didn’t reply. He sat leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
Fiona glanced over at him. The way Jasper looked at her then, like she was a wonder, something magic, Fiona knew that she would always love him. She’d forgotten that feeling, the pleasure of being seen by someone you loved and who loved you back. For a moment, before she stepped into the future on her own, and the past—their past—closed for good, she reached for him as if through a door, and she held on to his hand. How soft the skin of his palm against hers, how warm and familiar his fingers. How dear he was to her, after all. Jas per had been her first love. He would always be that.
The next morning, Fiona headed uptown to check on Kenji. When she got above ground at 125th, she reached for her cigarettes. Her knuckles brushed against a crumpled ball of paper and it fell out of her purse, landing on the sidewalk at her feet. The save-the-date for Amir and Khadijah’s wedding—she didn’t know why she’d been carrying it around. Fiona bent down to pick it up. She unfolded the postcard, smoothing her thumbs over the wrinkles creased in the paper. When Amir had announced his engagement in an email to their clinic last quarter, she’d replied with her congratulations, and he’d sent back: “You’re next!”
In the last six years, she and Jasper had talked about marriage, and kids, in a vague way. Last year, they’d agreed to wait until after they both finished their degrees before getting engaged. Fiona had once been able to imagine the wedding with confidence. Jane, her best friend, standing up there by her side. Kenji next to Jasper, of course. Now she wasn’t sure about anything anymore. What would happen to her this September, when she turned twenty-seven, without him in her life? A long time ago, she’d pressed Jane for her honest opinion after she’d met him at Fiona’s graduation at Berkeley. “Honestly? You won’t get mad?” Fiona braced herself. “Just kidding—he seems great, Fi. Is he really writing a novel? What does that even mean?” Fiona’s friendship with Jane in the last four years had lapsed into something dormant—last they talked, months ago now, Jane had been dating a woman named Carly, though Fiona couldn’t get a read on how serious things were between them.
She strolled in the direction of Kenji’s building, the sun on the back of her neck, her newly shorn crown. She felt self-conscious and kept touching her head. Were people staring at her? Did they think she was some kind of escaped Buddhist nun? When she passed Kenji’s brownstone, her feet kept moving. She was still smoking the cigarette.
Fiona thought about the notebook. When she’d leafed through the pages that night while he slept, Fiona knew it was a violation of Kenji’s privacy. Still, she felt it was her duty as a friend to monitor his state of mind from week to week. The notebook was part communication tool, and part journal. Kenji had lines copied from Neruda love poems, quotes from Kant and Hume on existential meaning, a series of zen koans and his earnest attempts at answering them. A few entries of recorded dreams. A list of medications. Then she’d come upon a page, just a few lines: Enough about me, what’s up with you? Did you stop seeing that girl? How’d she take it? You okay?
She’d touched Kenji’s shoulder to wake him. Showed him the page. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have—but what is this? Is it Jasper?” Kenji had brought his hands up to his face. He took the notebook from her and then he’d thrown it across the room. It had hit the wall with a dull thud.