Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Unlike marriages, long friendships have no exchange of vows. There aren’t explicit promises made, but the passing years entrench roles as much as they do loyalty and affection. In Katie Moulton’s “Pre-Existing Conditions,” Rhonda and Wendy’s friendship, and their roles within it, have endured for 20 years. They met as 20-somethings working in a mall. Wendy was newly married, and a manager of a dress shop. Rhonda liked her confident competency, and Wendy liked Rhonda’s quick wit and devil-may-care attitude. Their friendship fell into a familiar pattern: Wendy was the responsible one, the one who acted as an organizer and a caregiver, and Rhonda was the outgoing one who swooped in for fun visits and got Wendy out of her comfort zone.
After years of living far apart—Rhonda on the road, establishing her business, Wendy at home, starting a family—the story finds them once again residing in the same town, looking to establish a more intertwined, quiet version of their friendship, one which they can rely on daily. The idea is that Rhonda will take care of Wendy—her husband has recently died, and her daughter is headed off to college—and become the stable one in the friendship, for a change. But when an unexpected cancer diagnosis confronts Rhonda with impossible medical bills, Wendy steps in with an unorthodox solution, and the dynamics revert.
One of the most difficult things to convey in fiction is why two people like each other. The ways in which they find each other funny or exciting or compelling. Here, Katie Moulton has written two absolutely unique women: they have personalities, opinions, proclivities, senses of humor. Rhonda has excellent taste and knows that while simple pleasures can’t always heal, they can sometimes help. “I poured Wendy’s wine in the best glasses and tried to make her laugh,” she says, of the visits after Wendy’s husband died. Wendy, for her part, will bring her work ethic and practicality to bear on whatever shitty hand life deals: Rhonda describes her as “a little dream maker, so ready to MacGyver your fantasy into a reality.” It’s clear what they see in one another, but even more skillfully, Moulton is able to render the ways in which their conflict derives from the very ingredients of their attraction.
This is the rich territory in which “Pre-Existing Conditions” operates. Where does a friendship go after fundamental incompatibilities have been revealed? What if those incompatibilities are what gave the friendship its energy in the first place? The bittersweet truth of friendship is that often the qualities that you respond to in someone—their pre-existing conditions, if you will—are the same qualities that threaten to break the friendship apart.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Our Decades-Long Friendship Has Become a Liability
Pre-Existing Conditions by Katie Moulton
I got the house off Natural Bridge Road for a great price, especially for spring when everybody wants to move. The previous owner had died in the recliner in the back room I planned to make my home office and company headquarters. I didn’t mind the traces of solitary old lady between the floorboards. I loved the tall old windows and original casings, the northwestern light—the potential, the bones, as they say.
But I used the fact of Miss Lunelle’s passing to my advantage in negotiations with her grandniece, who always sported a dismal aqua windbreaker. I handled her, asked well-timed questions and poured enough honey to drown a hive. I called on the ghost of my own mother in central Illinois to warm up the folksiness of my cadence. When we discovered a gaping hole in the plaster behind the upstairs toilet, I just said, well lookee here. I emphasized, with sympathetic eyebrows, how the house just needed some love. Then I leveraged the need for a new HVAC against the closing costs. If I felt the grandniece gaining ground, I tilted my head and stage-whispered, So is this where she…? By Easter, I was moved in. It looked like the houses on either side in this 1940s development—a brick cube with sloping eaves and a screened-in porch—holding out in its neat respectability while the streets all around went to hell. And it was mine.
A single middle-aged lady moves into the house where a single old lady had died. In any case, I needed a new city along the Midwestern interstates. I’d been passing through St. Louis for almost two decades for work and for my best friend Wendy, and now I lived fifteen minutes from her. We could team up, be single middle-aged ladies together. We would hit the bars, we’d brunch, we’d join a rock-and-roll crafts circle or whatever. We’d shoot the pilot for our own HGTV home makeover series. To my eye, she hadn’t been getting along so well on her own, ever since Bridget went to college and Scott abandoned them. “He didn’t leave, Rhonda,” Wendy complained more than once. “He died.” To which I said, same difference.
Then before I even fully unpacked, I got sick. And suddenly Wendy was mission-leader for Operation: Keep Rhonda Above Ground. The irony was pretty much too much. Who wants to be the butt of a punchline?
Radical double mastectomy. The words were technobabble to me. The phrase that really frosted my tits was the next one: TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND. Dollars or dirty martinis, that’s too many of anything.
For the last decade-plus, I’d run my business as an independent sales rep for luxury décor and gifts, things like vases, crystal, china, which I presented as “jewels for the home.” While there are plenty of people out there who still have money to burn on beautiful objects, the recession wasn’t exactly friendly, and lately the level of discerning taste had dipped along with the economy.
All to say, money was tight, and I had scrimped on health insurance.
Wendy went with me to those preliminary doctor’s appointments. She took a personal day—which she never did—from her job in human resources at Houseware Warehouse to attend the meeting with the hospital’s in-house Health Care Decision Counselor and Insurance Liaison. Same person. Wendy and I sat side by side in faux-wood, polyester-backed chairs and listened as a woman in head-to-toe khaki explained my “options.”
“With the insurance level you currently maintain,” she said, “the development of this health issue could be considered related to other health conditions…”
“Excuse me, what other health conditions?” I asked.
“Well, your age has to be considered a risk factor.”
“My age is a pre-existing condition? Guess I forgot to die at forty.”
“And you don’t have children, which slightly increases—”
I turned my glare toward Wendy, who clasped my hand in a comforting talon. She cleared her throat like a teacher’s pet and said, “But surely, ma’am—”
“In any case,” the Liaison continued, “the procedures that Dr. Purohit recommends are not fully covered at your level, as you are not a Full Choice-Plus member. Meaning that if you choose to undergo the procedure, you may incur significant costs. After reviewing your documents, it is also possible that filing this claim with your provider might result in rescission—”
“—rescission, wherein your policy would be cancelled. That is, unless your partner’s employer-funded insurance provider contains an option to add a dependent, which I believe in your tax bracket may be a possibility. Now I am aware that many employers do not yet recognize full benefits for same-sex partners, but I believe—”
A week before this meeting, my doctor had called with concern over my most recent mammogram. Four days later, I was diagnosed with cancer. Today, I was being reminded that not only could I die—single and poor—but I also appeared to have a love life unrecognized by the state. Wendy and I had been mistaken for Bridget’s “two moms” at her college orientation, but in the hospital, we laughed a lot more. We cut off the Liaison and slapped our knees. “Wouldn’t that sort things out?” I howled. My jaw hurt.
We saw ourselves out of the beige office and across the off-beige lobby. As we passed the threshold of the automatic sliding door, Wendy said, “How the (fuck) are you going to pay for this?” Wendy only used the f word around me, and never at full volume.
I put a hand under each of my breasts, jostled them up and down. “Maybe I can sell them on the black market,” I said.
I pulled up my narrow, shared driveway, halfway under the painted-wood carport. We climbed the back steps into the kitchen. It was still musty and wallpapered and not so long ago I had plans to gut the whole damn thing. I heaved my purse onto the counter and gave a loud sigh.
“I’ll get the vod-ka!” Wendy sing-songed. She was once captain of her freshman cheerleading squad.
“Hook up the IV,” I said. “I’m taking off my shoes.”
Packing cases and cardboard boxes were scattered all over the living room. I sank into a chair near the front windows, and it formed around me. I’d hung new curtains as soon as I arrived, billowing linen in a color called timeless eggshell, and now I left them closed.
Wendy came in and handed me a brimming glass. She settled onto the rug with her white wine. “Cheers,” she said. I was already taking a drink.
“Now we need to get you fully in,” she said, peeling back packing tape with a fingernail. “Really, I just wanna go through your goodies.” The boxes were full of vendor samples: tea services, hand-painted platters, a terrine crowned with a porcelain fish. “You know what I found the other day? The silver rattle you gave us for Bridget. God, when I held it, I just cried and cried,” she said, laughing.
I met Wendy twenty years ago, just before she became pregnant. That was back in Springfield, closer to our respective hometowns. We both grew up in rural Illinois, from town families in former farming communities; the regional difference was that my town picked up Cubs radio broadcasts, and hers rooted for the Cardinals. In Springfield, we both worked at the mall, me in the jeweler’s, Wendy the manager of the prom-dress chain store. According to mall gossip, she had fired a friend-of-a-friend for being “unprofessional.” I formed my opinion: corporate goody two shoes. Timid, hiding behind other people’s rules, and probably tacky.
One lunch break I strode into the dress store to scope her out, but there was just a gloomy salesgirl steaming crinoline behind the register. Then I heard an outbreak of giggles, which I followed back to the fitting rooms. In the mirrored hallway, there was this Missy Manager: Wendy, about my age, bright voice, chestnut perm, big-shouldered skirt-suit in the right shade of burgundy. She was fussing around a teenager, gathering a sash in her hands. “Hi!” she called when she saw me in the doorway. “You’re just in time for the bow-tying demonstration! Now everyone, step back, I’m a professional.” She flitted around the girl’s outstretched arms, wrapping and measuring the strands between her taut fingers. Gather, thread, wipe imaginary sweat from her brow, wink, then one precise pull. A final fluff. “Voi-la!”
I remember the girl’s mother and sister clapping. Wendy gave a little bow. “It’s perfect,” the girl sighed, smoothing the symmetrical ribbon-end, a docile wing. “But how will I do it as good as you before prom?”
“Just as long as you can undo it after prom, sweetie.” I said it under my breath, but somehow Wendy heard me. She cracked up and said, “Oh, you are bad!” then turned her most wholesome gaze on the customers. “We’ll practice as many times as you need.” She smiled up at the girl on the pedestal. Her eyes flicked to the mother and back. “Soooo, what are we doing for gloves and shoes?”
Now there’s a saleswoman, I thought. I could respect that. What’s more, she seemed to mean it.
In my living room a hundred miles and many years away, I cracked my toes against the rug. Wendy unwrapped a bone-china serving tray—hexagonal, in a royal blue-and-white design, floral, vague chinoiserie.
“Can you believe I saw Spode at T.J. Maxx the other day,” I said.
“Nope.” I sipped. I explained that luxury-goods companies, even legacy brands, will sometimes sell versions of their well-known designs at discount stores. “The old high-end manufacturers knock themselves off before somebody else does.” Another sip. A clean, pure bite.
Wendy turned the dish over in her hands. The process for making it had hardly changed in more than two hundred years. The English porcelain refined to the extreme, the underglaze blue transfer printing. “You just don’t see things like this, this quality,” she said. “It’s priceless.”
“It definitely has a price,” I said. “That’s what’s so great about it.”
Wendy’s pale eyes brightened. “We could have a hell of a yard sale,” she said. “Raise some funds?” The glossy dish reflected light onto her face. “Or, you know I don’t do the internet, but what about…eBay?”
I sucked a vodka-soaked ice cube. Apparently, Wendy thought that all these treasures belonged to me. Some did, sure, some I had paid for, some I’d received as gifts. But most of the items were samples. Sent to dazzle clients at point of sale. If a pattern was retired, or a client needed a bejeweled rooster stat—back in the box they went. They were only mine for now.
That’s not how Wendy thought about life or possessions. It’d been years, but she still only used one side of her closet; the other side was stocked with every collared shirt or jersey that Scott ever owned. They were already married when we met, and I tried to keep him on the outside of our fun. I badgered him for being a filthy smoker, ahead of my time always. But as with Wendy, he won me over big time. A shy engineer, he looked like a sandy-haired, willowy Burt Reynolds and had a wicked sense of humor. Sometimes we’d sit out on their apartment’s patio, me with my stiff drink and he with his cigarettes. If Wendy wasn’t scolding us in mock-prudery, we’d tell raunchy jokes until we ran out. I wanted to convince her that the man who wore those clothes was long gone, and she deserved a whole closet for herself, but there was no telling her.
“I’m not sure this neighborhood is the best market for this product,” I said.
“Well, I think better when my hands are moving,” Wendy said. “Let’s fix something!”
“Take your Houseware Warehouse propaganda somewhere else, lady.”
Wendy started humming the big-box store’s jingle, Renew, Redo, Re-you! and I held my icy glass against my forehead. But she cajoled and cheerleaded until I was on board: While we figured out how I could afford to stay alive, we would renovate my upstairs bathroom.
I spent the next morning trying to make sense of my “options,” paging through the brochures and insurance policy fine print and medical records. After a few hours, I felt like I was stranded and starving on one of those floating islands of human garbage, so I took a break. In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and combed through my roots, made an appointment to get them touched up. I remembered a few years ago, the day before Scott’s wake, I had to do it myself in a rush and my typical ashy blonde bob came out of the wash an almost sherbet pink. “Usually she’s the blonde,” Wendy had said, introducing me to other mourners.
I’d almost forgotten about the greenlighted renovation project until Wendy showed up in the evening. I hid the mess of my office and answered the front door. She looked like a pack-mule, bundled with her toolbox and plastic buckets and freshly bought supplies. She walked in mid-conversation, “So I asked Ange and my guys in building materials about the best approach to patch the drywall, if the drywall is maybe plaster, and if the patch is more of a gaping hole…”
“How’s Ange doing?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” she smiled. “He’s Ange.”
Ange was Wendy’s boss at Houseware Warehouse. I’d met him once at a company-volunteer day Wendy had recruited teenage Bridget and me to carry water-logged trash out of a house after another flood. Ange was around my age, burly, pale for a guy with Italian heritage, nearly bald. He had an easy, creasy-eyed smile and strong white teeth. A wink. He and Wendy were pals since she started working there. She didn’t talk about him all the time, but when she did, she took on the twinkly blushing tone of a girl with a crush.
“Will you go for him already or what?” I said as we climbed to the second floor.
“I am not going to ‘go for’ him!”
“Why? Because he’s your ‘friend’?” I was ribbing her, but pressing. “You love him.”
“We just have a special bond,” she said. Good girl a little pleased with herself. “Besides, even if, I mean, it would never, but it would be against the rules since he got that district promotion.”
“My mistake,” I said. “Forgot I was talking to a nun.”
Wendy could hear the edge in my voice. “Rhon-da,” she said plaintively. “I’m not—you know—”
“Teasing,” I said.
We squeezed through the guest bedroom and into the upstairs bathroom. “Now about this hole,” Wendy said.
The space was tight, nearly every inch of wall lined with the toilet, the vanity cabinet and mirror, a narrow linen closet, and the low-rimmed tub. Its thick porcelain looked like a stick of butter half-melted into the floor. The tile, everywhere, was pink. Not salmon and not Pepto-Bismol; more like a long-forgotten stick of Big Red dug out of the bottom of a purse. Above the toilet in the corner, there was a wall, painted a dingy mint. In that wall was a hole. We could see the pipes, the studs, and the blackness between. The hole had a ragged edge. Wendy reached her hand out and touched the opening. The wall crumbled a little more.
“Oh my,” she said. “Maybe, for now…a curtain?”
I laughed and left the room. I came back with a large metal picture frame and a piece of thick silk, embroidered by somebody, somewhere, with dark geese flying in loose formation, backlit by a waxing moon. Impressionistic, eastern, not cheesy. “Something like this?” I framed the image, then folded and tucked the silk.
Wendy gasped in delight. “Of course, you wouldn’t just use a dish towel.”
“If I have to look at it, it better be on purpose.”
We tacked tight around a spare scrap of foam, secured it to the frame with the baby nails Wendy had brought. She moved it against the wall until I told her to stop. She measured the spot with her finger, hammered in a nail, balanced the frame. She stepped back to admire it.
“Pay no attention to the hole behind the curtain,” I said. “A start.”
“Are our wheels turning yet?” she asked. She got comfortable on the toilet.
I settled onto the twin bed in the adjacent bedroom so we could talk through the doorway. “I’m thinking about calling Keith,” I said. Wendy made a face. “He’s actually good with practical advice. And money.”
Keith was the man I’d been involved with the longest and most seriously, on and off through years and complications, still back in Chicago, I thought. I’d had other short-term boyfriends and people I met up with on the road between clients, but Keith was the closest I ever got to what Wendy recognized as a real relationship. Still, she’d only met him once and never liked what I relayed to her. The older she got, the less intrigued she seemed by my dalliances.
“Don’t call Keith,” she said. “Unless he’s a totally different person.”
“He could be. He’s old, you know. He had that heart stuff.””
“Listen, I had an idea. You need to get a job.”
“Pretty busy at the moment, Wend.”
“No, you need to get a job at Houseware Warehouse.” She laid it out, growing giddy with the steps. I would get hired—full-time but low-level—work long enough for the insurance to kick in, then take a medical leave of absence for my surgery. The company would assume I’d be back when I’d recovered.
“And maybe you will!” she said.
“You let people do this?”
“Well…I hire people who go on extended leaves. I’ve got people with cancer, everything, and maybe they know about it before I hire them, maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Once they’re in, it’s all covered. You could get hired as a cashier. The pay isn’t what you’re used to, but it’s temporary. The insurance is kinda unbeatable.”
After many years, Scott had dropped the cigarettes. I took some credit for all the shit I’d given him over the habit. Wendy had given him an engraved money clip to mark the occasion. But how long had they both let warning signs slide? How often did he sneak out for a cheeky drag? He still got sick. He went fast, got smaller and smaller, like he’d spent himself in tiny pieces, without even noticing. I was still living up north then, in between dogs and ready to put some distance between me and Keith. I knew nothing about being a widowed mother, but I could be there for Wendy, show her how to care for herself after only caring for others her whole life. I stopped in whenever possible. I taught Bridget six ways to tie a pashmina, how to arrange a modern centerpiece, how to properly shake a cocktail. We toured colleges all together and Wendy and I both encouraged her to choose the one where she could see herself, even if it was half a country away. I poured Wendy’s wine in the best glasses and tried to make her laugh.
Wendy had moved to the carpet, sat cross-legged. Houseware Warehouse was a big regional chain, but still family-owned, and prided itself on being employee friendly, she said. I rolled my eyes. “The point is, benefits start in six weeks. You’d never get that at Lowe’s.” I told her we’d have to see if I had that kind of time to burn. “First week or so is training and shadowing anyway, so you won’t be in too deep before the procedure,” she said. “You’ll have to put on a show of good faith, of course, for the sake of—you know.”
“I have to keep reminding myself that people do this all the time,” she said.
Was she going to hire me? No, she couldn’t do that. There were policies against hiring family and close friends, but she was sure I could get hired on the spot by her district manager, Ange.
“Always takes care of me,” she said. “We just won’t mention anything like a diagnosis until you’re in the door.”
She was trying not to sound nervous. Wendy the goody-goody. Play-by-the-rules, even-if-it-hurts-me gal. Human Resources! In the good name of all that is tedious. But she took it all seriously. I understood what risk this held for her.
“And if it doesn’t work,” she laughed a little, “it might be considered, they might call it something like, well, insurance fraud.”
Maybe this was the answer. And maybe this risk would even be good for Wendy. She was magical like this—a little dream maker, so ready to MacGyver your fantasy into a reality: the perfect prom dress, a bathroom for a queen. As the light got low in the house, we sat with our drinks, looking into the bathroom, the hole now covered with a beautiful picture that wasn’t even meant to be a picture, brainstorming all the improvements we’d make. For a moment, I pictured the two of us, a more wholesome Thelma and Louise, on a highway that keeps rolling.
At the interview, I shook Ange’s hand firmly. A bionic woman kind of shake, but make it sexy. Every interaction as a sales rep is like an interview, less a transaction, and more like a special bond. I’ve got to convince clients they want me around. This time, I had to pretend to want to ring up caulk for $7.50 an hour.
Ange’s office was a large concrete closet behind the lumber department. Before he recalled my face, he introduced himself as Angelo. He was taller than I remembered, younger looking. He leaned back in his chair as I spieled off my experience—a version of it, anyway: many years in various sales positions (mall jewelry), and recently as a small-business owner. “Nothing at this scale, of course,” I said.
Ange nodded, glanced over my resume. “Obviously you’re qualified. How does Houseware Warehouse fit into your future plans?”
I told him I loved the problem-solving and self-starting of running my own business, but I wanted to make the shift to regular hours and stable benefits. “And, I’ll be totally honest, I would like to stay local, less time on the road. That’s part of why I moved here, to help Wendy out.” I leaned forward a little in my seat. “It’s been hard for her.”
Ange uncrossed his legs. “You’re a good friend.”
“Well, that’s just what we do,” I said.
Ange’s smile warmed. “Since you applied at a general associate level…well, I’ll leave it to you. Which position do you prefer?”
“That’s a bit of a personal question, isn’t it?” We both laughed, very chummy. Ange rocked forward in his chair, and almost imperceptibly, gave my breasts a glance. Beneath my royal-blue sweater, I’d worn one of those flattering undershirt bodies that squeezes in your sides and puts the goods on a platter. I could be imagining it, but I was pretty sure. Well, lookee here. I knew about Wendy’s crush and her closed door, but did that door need to stay closed for me too?
In fifteen minutes, Ange offered me a job at a store near my neighborhood, starting right away. He stood from his desk and said, “I’d bet Wendy should be about done for the day. Should we call her? Slow Teddy’s for a celebratory beer?”
“Make it a vodka tonic and absolutely,” I said.
I shouldered my purse. Watched him dial. I could hear the beep-beep of a forklift, voices echoing off mile-high shelves of sheet metal.
A couple days before, Wendy and I had lunch at a no-frills café on Natural Bridge. The building was a house like mine, complete with screened-in porch, just full of metal tables. Afterward, in the parking lot, she stood beside me as I called Bridget.
“Well hello, Auntie Rhon!” She had sounded surprised but happy. A little out of breath, taking long strides somewhere. She had chattered a few minutes about her astronomy class, how they met at a planetarium on the edge of the wooded campus. How somehow that had led to going deep into her Zodiac birth chart with a roommate.
“Listen, kiddo, I’ve got some news—” And launched in, stayed steady. “We didn’t want to worry you until we knew more.”
“But what does that mean?” The girl’s voice rose and broke over the word “mean.” I could hear a breeze around her phone. Pictured her standing outside a gothic building, chin tucked into a lightweight scarf, spring later there. “Stage three out of four? Jesus, sorry—shit, I’m outside my seminar—”
“She’s crying,” I’d mouthed to Wendy and handed her the phone.
“Bridge?” she’d said. “Honey, it’s okay. Rhonda is going to be fine. They caught it. They’re going to do everything possible for her. Yes, I do know. She’s just fine.”
But what Wendy had said wasn’t true. Maybe it would be true, but not yet. If that lie was for anybody, it wasn’t for me.
In the cold office, I adjusted my sweater. I could imagine Wendy feeling delighted at Ange’s invitation—and then jumpy at the idea of all of us having a drink together. She didn’t want to draw attention to my hiring. Maybe she’d even feel a little jealous, maybe she’d do something. “Come on,” I practiced saying, “it would’ve been suspicious if we didn’t go.”
I found a new doctor on the other side of the city. I called Wendy after the next appointment, the new mammogram, the new diagnosis. This doctor recommended the mastectomy stat. We scheduled the surgery six weeks and five days from my start date.
I spent four full days sliding around on a plastic chair in a drop-ceilinged break room at the back of my local Houseware Warehouse. I clicked through multiple-choice quizzes on an ancient PC while my riffraff colleagues came into guzzle Big Gulps without spilling on their aprons. Then I spent three shifts “shadowing” employees, from the hard-ass broads who held down Returns to the 26-year-old department head with sparkly nails who had me powerwalking on that polished concrete floor. They didn’t teach me to use the saw to cut lumber for customers, but I liked cracking wise with contractors about their beam lengths. I even exchanged contact info with a couple interior designers. But in slow moments, nobody down my echoing end of the building, I found myself reaching for my breasts under my apron. What was roiling inside, expanding, multiplying, about to explode? I watched the clock, watched the calendar. Watched the phases of the moon and wondered if I’d ever felt its supposed tides and cycles before. Or if I would again. I’d take my break and hightail it to Garden, where there was air, at least.
My sister with the pinched mouth came up from Florida. Greeting Wendy, she instructed her that there would be “No tears, absolutely none.” Wendy planned to stay awake worrying in the waiting room for as long as it took.
“It’s my body and she’ll cry if she wants to,” I said.
We gave my sister a tour of the house, and just couldn’t resist. I told her to say hello to the house’s previous owner, Miss Lunelle, and Wendy pointed out the items that periodically slipped off shelves.
“There’s no ghost,” my sister said. “And if there were, for Pete’s sake, don’t talk to it.”
We showed her the bathroom. We went on about our reno ideas: vintage French tiles, vessel sink, beveled mirror, double the shower head, double the window, paint the cabinets black. “Or near-black,” Wendy said. “Off-black?”
“I might knock out the whole wall and turn the guest room into a goddamn spa,” I said.
“Knock out your whole 401K—oh, wait…” My sister’s eyes roamed around the room. “Is there a draft coming from behind the toilet?”
“I think she and I are going to become really close,” Wendy whispered to me.
We told her we had a “work thing” and went to Slow Teddy’s. It was a Wednesday, when Ange and other manager-types sometimes gathered there. Ange lit up when we arrived, ordered us a round, and we all stood crowded at high-top tables near the dance floor. A cover band was playing, and a middle-aged couple was two-stepping immaculately, no matter if the song was country or Def Leppard. A manager from a different store asked Wendy to dance, and to my shock she went, shaking her head in protest. Then, to my greater shock, she was a totally competent dancer! She clutched her partner’s hand and let him swoop her around, her little suede boots intuiting what direction his feet might lurch—deft in their own way. She was grinning to the ends of her cheeks.
Ange nudged me and pointed his beer bottle. “Check out ol’ twinkle toes!”
“To a new era,” I said and clinked my glass to his.
Then, I’ll admit, I got after it. One vodka tonic, two. A manager man bought shots, and I took one to be sociable. Ange was laughing at all my jokes, asking how I was settling in. Another man proclaimed I must be on the fast track to management, here at happy hour already. I was up and I was down. Then someone lit up a cigarette; you could still do that some places then. I started in with my usual line, and the good-natured man laughed, “But I’m quitting, I quit!”
Then I told them something a European colleague told me once, on some vendor’s trip in Cologne or Copenhagen. “They said, ‘Do you want to know why there’s so much lung cancer in America, but we Europeans smoke all our lives and don’t get sick?’” I noticed Wendy was back at the table, but now I had to finish. “It’s because Americans always get pressured to quit, and then the body doesn’t know what to do. The key is to never quit!”
“To never quitting!” Ange toasted, and we all drank. I couldn’t catch Wendy’s eye.
“Let’s take a poll,” I said loudly. “Boob jobs—yay or nay?”
Laughs and rumbles. “Her body, her choice,” one of the men said, “but I would be as supportive as possible.”
I told them I was considering a boob job, which drew every eye to my chest, perched lightly as it was on the cocktail table. Innocent, but a nice warm glow. I said I was accepting cash offers for preferred nipple tattoos. “Let’s get creative, fellas!”
Ange laughed, leaned in. “Come on, you’re not serious—”
“Sure I am!”
“You would never. I’ll bet you five hundred—”
“You’re gonna be sorry you doubted me, boss, when I have to—”
“She wants to,” Wendy said, sliding closer. “I mean, she’s thinking about it. I tell her no.”
“There, the voice of reason!” Ange put his arm around her shoulders. “Keep that shit out of your body. And if you ever need to, just pull ’em up.”
Later, she pulled me into the hallway by the restroom. Wood paneling and near-fluorescent lights.
“Boob job? That was so reckless,” she whispered, a hand around my forearm.
“It’s just fun,” I said.
“I put my neck out,” she said. “You made me lie for you.”
Here we were, finally, at the edge of some action. We were supposed to be in this together, but here she was, trying to keep her perfect nose clean. I said slowly, “But you already lied.”
“Not to his face,” she hissed. “Not because you forced me to. What were you saying back there?”
“You’re just worried that he won’t think you’re perfect.”
She straightened herself. “His opinion is important to me.”
“Well, he’s never gonna screw perfect,” I said. “Never gonna screw a martyr. And you wouldn’t let him anyway.”
Then Wendy walked out of the hallway, said a smiling goodbye to the men, and left the bar without me.
We didn’t speak for a week. I sent her a text, then didn’t try again. It had never happened like that before—on purpose. Any other time, we would have been distracting ourselves with tile options and full glasses. We would have been strategizing about timing and wording for the call. She would’ve reminded me to sound “gracious.” Instead I picked a day on my own and called Ange after hours, when I was sure to get voicemail, to announce that I needed to take a leave of absence. Feeling lousy, went to the doctor. Totally blindsided. Unendingly grateful for your support.
On mastectomy day, Wendy showed up to the hospital, right on time. In the prep room, my sister reminded her to keep my heart rate steady. “No silliness,” she said. “It doesn’t help anybody but yourself.”
My sister stepped out for a Coke, and Wendy looked like she wanted to follow her. The room had a window that looked inward, into the hospital. I touched its stiff curtains.
“I know I’m not supposed to ask, but how do you feel?”
“Hungry.” I hadn’t been allowed to eat in twelve hours. “And numb.”
She was fiddling with a remote, couldn’t tell whether it was for the TV or the bed.
My irritation got shot with tenderness: I knew how much she hated hospitals. What the word cancer did to her. Then the other voice: And what about what it’s doing to me.
“So, did everything go through okay with your LOA?” she asked.
“I think so. I got a voicemail from Ange. I haven’t listened to it yet.”
“Me too. I mean, me neither,” she said, her voice brittle. Tears, but I couldn’t tell which kind. “Don’t worry about anything except this thing right now. You’re going to be fine.”
My sister came back. Then the nurse arrived and pushed them out. Tight, vibrating hugs. I changed into a paper-napkin poncho and sat on the bed. A bra strap dangled from between the folds of sweater and jeans stacked on a chair. My eyes outlined every tiny hook and millimeter of silk. One moment, I felt next to nothing. I was just waiting for an appointment. The scratchy smock felt more real than my body, just a swimming pool for my psyche.
The next moment, my heart was constricting. My breath retreated like a cloud of cockroaches. Jaw locked.
I’d lied to Wendy. Maybe she’d lied to me too. The voicemail from Ange was long. He had hit all the marks of concern: shocked by the news, we’re here for you, everything they can do for breast cancer these days. Then his voice stiffened as he got to the point: “Rhonda, you haven’t been an employee here long, so there are a few benefits protocols we need to run through whenever possible. The company will request records of when you received your prognosis, for example.” A pause on the line. “And we should talk soon about whether you plan to return after your recovery, should your health allow. We’d hate to lose you”—okay, that was too much— “especially since Wendy vouched so strongly for your character. And that’s why we could bring you on so quickly—on the strength of her word.” Another pause. A little frustrated? The voicemail box is an unsatisfying object for calls to the carpet.
I listened to the message, then placed my phone face down on my desk in the home office, boiling. I dared Ange, the corporate boy scout he revealed himself to be: Just try to fire me for this. I didn’t ask for this, goddamn. I didn’t even smoke. My habits were manageable, balanced even. My behavior was individual but decent. And here I was, getting mutilated, possibly dying, for some fluke of timing. And this asshole tried to shame me in the name of his mid-year bonus. In the name of company commandments and stock-option scraps and some sort of sacrifice-reward system that people like he and yes, Wendy, especially Wendy, clung to. I could call him back now, as I get on a gurney, and proclaim, it was Wendy’s idea, dumbass!
But, of course, Ange probably already knew that. And that job—could Wendy handle another constant shattered? Where else could Wendy believe she was needed like that? I could never tell her any different.
I knew Wendy would wait through the surgery and come back to the house with me. She would take the late shift and stay up scraping at the bathroom wallpaper with a putty knife, even if I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted a new bathroom anymore, that maybe I could live with a hole in the plaster. She’d be mad at me but would work hard to turn the feeling inside out.
It wasn’t Scott’s fault that he died either. He probably did quit for good. But you can do the right thing—eventually, or from the start—and you can still die. You can also do the wrong thing and survive. But you can’t survive and stay the same. I knew that then. I sat in the hospital room, and my heart fluttered and steadied. That’s what this was for. That’s what Wendy didn’t get. That she couldn’t go all the way with me, keeping watch. We both had to change to keep breathing. That was the last thing I thought as I went under, and even then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain it to her when I woke up.