“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nathan asks. He sounds hurt.
My foot traces figures of eight in the water. We are sitting on the jetty leading out to the lake. It’s still warm. There’s a pair of spotted ducks gliding along, occasionally disappearing under the surface. A spoonbill wades along carefully by the reeds, taking delicate anthropomorphic steps, jerking its neck forward and back, maybe to check for hazards.
Nathan darts glances at me, just like the spoonbill. I hadn’t responded when he put his arm around me before. The ducks disappear into a clump of waxy flat green leaves, a bit smaller than water-lily pads.
“Varsha,” he calls me back.
“Why weren’t you the one to find it, Nathan?” I’m still not looking at him.
“That’s unfair,” he says, but soft, like I’m a child. I feel a heat rising through my body. We used to come out to the lake several times a year. He’d tell his wife he was at a conference. I’d stop by the supermarket on the way, get comfort food like pasta and pesto, and ice cream. I’d put on the silk lingerie he bought me, and be waiting in bed when he arrived, always a little late. We’d make love, always frantic at first, like we had a train to catch, and then a shower together, and then sex again, slower, more careful. I would spend the entire weekend imagining him with his wife.
I stand and reach for his arm to pull him up. What would be the use of an argument? We had this one weekend together, and I would probably never see him again. Something sparks in his eyes — hope? Lust? He leans in to kiss me, and I let him. He traces the outline of my lips with his tongue. It’s a dirty trick, he knows it turns me on. But he hugs me just a little too tight — “Ah!” The scar still hurts.
“Sorry.” He moves around behind me, kissing the back of my neck. The ducks have come out again, the male’s green-black head just pulling ahead of the female as they glide across the water.
I want to go inside, draw all the curtains. It feels impossible to take my top off, show him the stark flat gash across my chest. He hasn’t seen my body in months. Didn’t even visit when I was in hospital. The team had organised flowers and a card, but his secretary had printed his name on it. I cried when I saw that, and immediately felt a fool. What had I expected? That he would leave his wife? Support his mistress through cancer?
“Let’s go inside,” I whisper, and he sighs, thinking he is forgiven. He leads me to the house, and we walk through the deck to the French doors. He leads me to the bedroom, pulling his t-shirt off. He has always had an amazing body, large and solid and strong. His skin is firm, hairy, there’s no doubting it. I reach out and touch his nipple. They weren’t able to save mine. Too risky they said. That seems laughable now, it’s spread to my liver.
He is expectant, almost like an audience when the lights dim. There’s nothing for it, I pull my top off, and resist the urge to cross my arms. It’s only a flash, but it’s there, something — repulsion? Disgust? Curiosity? He looks up at me and says, “You’re still beautiful, Varsha.” The exact same tone of voice he uses when telling Millie at work that her cupcakes are delicious. I consider for a moment putting my clothes back on and leaving. But just for a moment. I want to feel someone’s body, someone other than a surgeon touching me.
It isn’t the same. He tries, he spends time finding other ways, but it just isn’t the same. We finish, unsatisfied. Then he cries. I cradle him as he asks a million questions. Where did they find the metastasis? Did they biopsy it? Why not? Were they doing radiotherapy? Why? Why? Why?
I throw him off me and scream, “I’m the one who’s dying! Not you!”
He grabs me, saying, “Sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.
Later, he has a shower. I take my clothes off and slip in behind him. The steamy air is thick as honey. I can barely breathe. I will never see him again. He will grow old, with her, not me. I can’t bear it. I wipe my tears, and reach for my towel.
He dresses and says he has to go. “Of course,” I say, turning my back to him. “Safe travels.”
Sumitra Singam writes in Naarm/Melbourne on the lands of the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin nation. She travelled there through many other spaces, real, metaphorical and transitional; and likes to write about those experiences pretending that it is all fiction. She works in mental health when she inhabits the real world and realises there are bills to pay.