10 YEARS EARLIER
As I’m driving to Noah’s mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I try to distract myself with music, but even Adam Levine’s voice isn’t enough to make me feel better.
Two weeks ago, my mother broke the news to me: her cancer was back for Round Four.
She’d known for several weeks, but she didn’t want to tell me because I was going through “so much right now.” I resented that she wouldn’t tell me something so important. But at the same time, the news nearly broke me. Between Noah’s accident and her cancer, I felt like my emotions were going through the ringer. I was one stubbed toe away from a complete meltdown.
I came home two days ago, just in time for my mother’s first chemo session. She was throwing up all night last night. At first, she could make it to the bathroom, but then I brought her a bowl to retch into while I tried to get rid of the smell of vomit from the bathroom. Dad sat with Mom in her room, putting cool compresses on her forehead.
I can’t take much more of this. The hardest thing in the world is watching someone you love be sick. And it feels like that’s become my entire existence.
Because of my mother, I’ve been neglecting Noah. I only saw him once right after his surgery, when they took his other leg off at the mid-thigh. I couldn’t stay too long because I had exams to get back for, but I spent some time with him when he was in a post-anesthetic haze. At one point, he grabbed my arm and said, “I made a mistake, Bailey. I can’t believe I let them take my leg.”
Noah’s sick. Mom’s sick. I had to keep my eyes pinned on Noah’s face the whole time I was with him to keep from passing out. I’m horrible at dealing with this. I wish I could be strong for them.
But I can’t. I can’t do it anymore. I’ve got bags under my eyes, and even though I showered before I left the house, I swear I still smell like the vomit I cleaned from the bathroom. I’d probably throw up myself, except I couldn’t keep down any food this morning.
As I drive across the Brooklyn Bridge, my eyes are drawn to the blue-gray water below. For a moment, I’m seized by the irrepressible urge to swing the steering wheel right so the car will fly right off the edge.
God, why am I thinking these things? This couldn’t be healthy.
They were able to discharge Noah only a week after the second surgery, something I knew he was thrilled about. Also, he told me his pain was significantly better—he was able to sleep through the night again. He’s been going to physical therapy, although he’s still far from the point where they’ll be able to fit him with any kind of prosthetics. The last time we talked on the phone, he said to me, “I did the right thing. I’m so glad to be out of that goddamn hospital. It was killing me, Bailey.”
I find parking a block away from their building. It’s an old building, but it does have an elevator, which is a good thing since Gwen Walsh lives on the fourth floor. I don’t know how Noah could make it right now, considering he can’t walk anymore.
I stand in front of their apartment door for a good minute, unable to make myself knock. I’m so tired. I can’t deal with Noah being ill and in pain anymore. I can’t have another fight with him about why he should be taking his pain meds. The thought of it makes me want to crumble into a little ball.
I tell myself that Noah’s okay. He’s out of the hospital. His pain is better. He’s okay.
Except he’s not really okay. He’ll never be okay again.
Before I can drive myself crazy a minute longer, I knock on the door. Gwen is the one who opens the door. She’s wearing a dress stained with brown splotches and her hair is falling out of its bun. The second she sees me, she cries out, “Bailey!” And she hugs me. The longest hug ever. It makes me hate myself even more.
When she pulls away and looks at me, the smile on her face falters. I avert my eyes, knowing if I see a flash of sympathy, I may very well burst into tears.
“You’ve lost some weight,” she says, unnecessarily.
“A little,” I lie as I move past her into the apartment. I’m afraid to even step on a scale anymore. It was hard enough to eat when it was just Noah who was sick, but now it’s impossible. Food tastes like cardboard. I had to buy a belt to hold up some formerly skintight jeans that have now gotten baggy.
“And how’s school going?”
Another loaded question. I can’t tell Gwen Walsh I’m failing three of my classes. It was humiliating enough to tell my parents. So instead, I force a smile. “Great.”
Before we have to make further small talk, I see him. Noah. Easily twenty pounds lighter than he was before the accident, still with purple circles under his eyes but lighter than last time. He’s got a T-shirt on, but it isn’t wrinkled and sweaty like the ones I always saw him wearing at the hospital. It’s fresh and clean, right out of the wash. And he’s sitting in a wheelchair—a hospital-grade chair with the leg rests removed as he obviously has no need. He’s wearing a pair of his old shorts, which would have reached his knees before, but now just lie flat at the ends. He’s still clearly not back to his old self, but better than I’ve ever seen him.
“Bailey,” he says.
I wave to him awkwardly. I should probably come in for a hug. Yes, that’s what I should do. So I walk over to him and we hug and it’s awkward.
“Um,” Noah says. “Do you want to… um, go in my room?”
I glance at Gwen, who is beaming at the two of us. Not a lot of privacy in here. “Sure,” I say.
I’ve been in Noah’s room a few times since we’ve been together. It’s a typical guy’s bedroom—creaky wooden desk, single bed pushed against the wall, a bookcase with books arranged haphazardly on the shelves. I finger a book called Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy.
“Are you going back to med school?” I ask.
Noah looks at me in surprise. “Yeah, of course I am. I just… well, not yet. But I’m going back.”
“But…” I look down at his legs.
“Christ, Bailey,” he says. “I’ll have prosthetics in a few months. And even if I didn’t, there are doctors out there who use wheelchairs.”
“Right. I’m sorry.” I try to smile. Noah seems so much better than he was, almost like the old version of himself again. Maybe it’s all going to be okay now. He’ll get his prosthetics, he’ll go back to school like he said—everything will be fine.
I wish I could believe that.
Noah cocks his head at me. “It’s okay. Look, I know all this is… a little weird. But… I’ve missed you so much.” He smiles shyly. “Do you realize this is the first time we’ve been completely alone together in four months?”
My eyes widen as I realize what he’s saying. The two of us haven’t had sex in four months. Hell, we haven’t even kissed beyond just pecks on the cheek. He hasn’t seemed even remotely interested in either, but the way he’s looking at me now, it looks like the surgery that took his leg may have given him back his libido.
Thank God. Maybe the old Noah really is back.
I smile nervously. “So, um, what do you want to do about it?”
He squeezes the edge of his wheelchair cushion, looking just as anxious as I feel. “I guess I should, um… transfer to the bed?”
I nod and step back to give him room. He scoots himself forward a little in his chair, so that his shorts ride up so they’re no longer covering his amputated limbs. I can see the scars on the ends of his legs—pale on the left, which was done months ago, and angry red on the right. He puts one fist on his bed and holds his wheelchair cushion with the other hand, rocking back and forth a couple of times. He heaves a breath, then tries to move himself from the chair to his bed.
Except before he can make the move, his chair slips backwards. He goes tumbling to the ground with a terrifying thump.
“Fuck!” Noah yells. “I forgot to lock the wheels!”
I bend down next to him, my hands shaking the way they were last night while I crouched next to my mother as she was relieved the contents of her stomach into the toilet. He’s clutching his right stump, which is oozing blood from the incision that had appeared to be closed moments earlier. Actually, it’s quite a lot of blood.
Quite a lot.
“Shit,” he mutters. “It opened up again. Fuck.”
I swallow hard, averting my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, but…” His voice trembles. “Do you think you could run to the bathroom and grab me some gauze from below the sink? There’s a bunch of it down there.”
“What about getting off the floor?” I say. I don’t want to have to lift him, but I can’t see how else he’ll get back in his chair.
“I just want to get this cleaned up, okay?”
“Bailey, can you get me the goddamn gauze please?”
And now I’m seeing spots in front of my eyes. I figure I should get him the gauze just so I can leave this room and not have to look at all the blood anymore. “Okay,” I whisper.
Noah leans back against the dresser, letting his eyes flutter shut. He’s still clutching his injured right stump with his hand. “Thanks, Bailey. I… I’m sorry this happened. It… it’s not how I wanted to spend this afternoon with you.”
“It’s not your fault.” I force a smile as I straighten up. “I’ll go get the gauze.”
“Thanks.” He reaches his fingers out to me, and I give his hand a quick squeeze. His palm is clammy and blood ends up smeared on my fingers.
I start to leave the room, but I’m unsteady and my foot catches on the chair that wheeled backwards. I knock it over, going down with it, my knee cracking hard against the floor. I feel a flash of white-hot pain in my kneecap that makes me gasp aloud.
“Bailey?” His eyes widen. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I manage, even as I feel the tears rising to my eyes.
I try to get to my feet, and my knee groans with pain. Noah’s wheelchair is toppled over next to him. He reaches over, trying to right it with his arms, his stumps trembling with the effort. It’s obviously not easy for him.
“Let me help you,” I say.
“No.” He holds up a hand to keep me away. “I’ve got it.”
“It’s easier for me to…”
My eyes meet Noah’s. I see the pain in his blue eyes and have to look away. It’s almost as bad as my throbbing knee.
“Just get the gauze,” he sighs. “Please, Bailey.”
I nod silently. I leave Noah’s room with the door cracked open and slip into the bathroom right next door. He said the gauze was right below the sink. I crouch down, the stench of old urine emanating from the bowl. My stomach turns. I can still smell my mother’s vomit.
I find the gauze packages lined up below the sink. My knee screams with pain as I rest it on the cold tile floor. I slide down onto my butt and roll up the leg of my jeans. Great—I’m bleeding. Not as much as Noah was, but not an insignificant amount. I take one of the pieces of gauze and rest it against my skinned knee, swallowing my tears.
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here for Noah while I’m taking care of my mother. I can’t. It’s killing me.
I can’t fucking do it anymore.
I straighten up, letting my pants leg fall back down to cover my wound. I leave Noah’s bathroom, but I don’t bring him his gauze. Instead, I go into the living room, where Gwen is reading on the couch. She looks up in surprise and smiles at me. “Everything okay, Bailey?”
I silently pull the ring off the fourth finger of my left hand and place it on the nearest bookcase. I leave the apartment without answering her or saying good bye.
I get back to my car in half the time it took me to get from my car to the apartment. I slip into the drivers’ seat, stick my key in the ignition, and take off like I just robbed a bank. I don’t know why. It’s not like Noah is going to be chasing me down.
I make it nearly to the Brooklyn Bridge before my cell starts ringing. I see Noah’s name on the screen and nearly let it go to voicemail. But I can’t do that to him. The man is my fiancé—at least, he was. I had planned to spend my life with him. I owe it to him to answer the phone. So I pull over, flip it open, and answer, “Hello?”
“Bailey?” He doesn’t sound angry, only confused. “Where did you go?”
“I, um…” I swallow a lump in my throat. “I’m in my car.”
“Your car?” His voice rises several notches. “So you just… left?”
I wince, only partially from the pain in my knee. “Sort of. Um, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. No thanks to you. “My mom helped me. She… she got me bandaged up, and… well, she helped me back into my chair. So…”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s good.”
There’s shuffling on the other line—Noah’s mother is saying something to him. He must have put down the phone for a second, because I can only distantly hear his voice say, “She did what?”
His mother must have found the ring.
When he returns to the line, the confusion is coupled with an anxious edge to his voice. “Bailey,” he says, “did you leave your engagement ring on the bookcase?”
“Yes,” I admit. “I did.”
There’s a long silence. “Can you tell me what the fuck is going on?” he finally says.
“I…” I take a deep breath, knowing what I’m about to say can’t be taken back, but plowing ahead anyway. “I don’t think I…”
I can hear him breathing on the other line. “What?”
Tell him, Bailey. Tell him the truth.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I whisper.
“Do what? What are you talking about?”
My voice is so tiny, it barely makes a sound: “Be with you.”
I hear Noah suck in a breath. “What?”
“I need a break,” I say. “From us. I’m sorry. I love you, Noah, but… I’m overwhelmed. I can’t deal with it anymore. I can’t.”
“Holy shit,” he breathes. “You’re dumping me? Now?”
“I’m not dumping you. I told you—I just need a break.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again, my voice breaking on the words. “This is all… it’s too much for me.”
“Too much for you?” he repeats. “I fucking lost my legs, Bailey. Both of them. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m…”
“I’m really sorry.” I sound like a broken record, but it’s all I can think to say. “I just can’t come over anymore. We could talk on the phone if you want. If you need someone to talk to or anything like that, I promise that I’ll—”
“Fuck you,” Noah says.
I’ve never heard him say those words before. Not to anyone, but especially not to me. Before this moment, I couldn’t have conceived of it.
I bite my lip. “Noah, I’m sorry.”
“You think I don’t know what this is about?” And now I hear that anger that I’d expected when he first called me. His voice is thick with it. “You liked me when I was whole, but now that I’m crippled, you’re not attracted to me anymore.”
“My mother is sick,” I whimper. I didn’t want to tell him about it, compounding his own problems, but I need him to understand. “She needs me right now—”
“Wow,” he says. “You’re using your mother as an excuse. That’s low, Bailey.”
“It’s not an excuse,” I try to tell him, but it’s clear he’s not listening to me. He doesn’t believe a word I have to say. All he knows is I’m abandoning him when he needs me. “Please, Noah. You have to understand…”
He laughs bitterly. “No, I understand. Believe me, I understand.”
“Listen…” My hands are shaking so badly, it’s hard to hold my phone. “I’ll call you…”
“Don’t.” His voice burns daggers into my chest, even through the phone. “I never want to speak to you again. Ever.”
But the line is dead.
Now you hate me.
That’s okay—I hated me. I was horrible to Noah. I know it. I knew it then and I know it now. It was one of the darkest periods of his life, and I made him feel awful about himself. I was selfish.
After that, every time something bad happened to me, I was glad for it. I welcomed it. It felt like penance for what I did to Noah. I couldn’t draw anymore. Every time I picked up a pencil, I felt a dark, horrible feeling in my stomach. I gave up art and started a career in social work, hoping to make up to the world the awful thing I had done.
Then a year later, my mother lost her final battle with breast cancer. She had fought valiantly but lost Round Four. My mother, the person I loved more than anyone else in the world, was dead. Finally, it felt like I had paid my dues to the universe.
Not long after that, I met Theo. I started drawing again. I let myself move on.
After Dogcat finally ends, Gwen and my father say that they’re going out to dinner. Someplace nice. Lily crinkles her nose up. “I wanna go to McDonald’s!” she cries.
“We went to the farm just yesterday,” I remind her.
“Not the farm.” Lily shakes her head at me like she can’t believe I’d think something so dumb. “The food place. I want a Happy Meal.”
“Lily,” I say patiently, “we can go to McDonald’s back in Queens. We’re going out to a nice restaurant tonight.”
“McDonald’s!” Lily insists, tears welling up in her eyes. “Happy Meal!”
I look at my father and Gwen. They both shrug.
“Is there a McDonald’s in this town?” I ask Noah.
“Are you kidding me?” He rolls his eyes. “Yes. There is. And it’s got a play area or something like that.”
“Play area!” Lily squeals, despite the fact that she’s dressed more appropriately for a ballroom.
McDonald’s used to be one of my favorite places to eat, but I may have outgrown it recently. Don’t get me wrong—the food tastes really good. But an hour later, I feel it sitting in my stomach like a big ball of lead. Especially those crispy, delicious French fries.
Unfortunately, going to McDonald’s and not ordering French fries is an exercise in futility. I settle on a small fries and pair it with an Artisan Chicken Sandwich, which at least is grilled chicken rather than fried. We go to the back of the restaurant, where there’s an outdoor play area, and Lily takes exactly one bite of her chicken nugget before running off to play.
Noah sits next to me at a table, eyeing my food appraisingly. “An Artisan chicken sandwich, huh?”
“What’s so wrong with that?” I say.
He shrugs and grins. “I don’t know. What makes it ‘Artisan,’ exactly?”
I look down at my sandwich. Even though it’s supposedly grilled chicken, it still looks incredibly greasy. “Because it’s, you know, prepared in a healthier, better way.”
Noah whips out his phone and fiddles with it. “So the definition of ‘Artisan’ for a food is ‘made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients.’ So how exactly does that describe a mass-produced sandwich that comes from McDonald’s?”
I shake my head. “Aren’t you hungry? Can’t you order some food that I can make fun of?”
“I had a bunch of popcorn,” he says. “Anyway, I’m going out later to eat.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Oh? Like, going into town again?”
He hesitates. “I’ve got a date.”
Noah has a date? For some reason, that information hits me like a punch in the stomach.
“Is it with that waitress?” I ask.
He smiles crookedly. “No, somebody else.”
Sheesh, he’s got a busy social life. I shouldn’t be surprised though. Everywhere we go, women are hitting on him. Unlike me. I haven’t been out on a date in about a year.
“So…” I take a sip of my Diet Coke. “Is it a first date?”
Noah looks like he’s contemplating telling me that it’s none of my damn business, but instead he says, “Second date.”
So it’s a new relationship. It’s a pre-relationship. Second date… I wonder if she knows his secret.
“She knows,” Noah says before I can dare ask.
“Huh?” I say innocently.
He rolls his eyes. “You were wondering if she knows I’m a double amputee. The answer is that she does. I don’t let it get to a second date without telling them—there’s no point.”
I stick a French fry in my mouth. These things are so bad for me, but damn, are they good. “And she’s okay with it?”
“We’re going out on a second date, aren’t we?” He snatches one of the fries off my plate and pops it in his mouth. “She’s a nurse, so… you know.”
“How did you meet her?” I don’t know why I’m asking him so many questions, especially when I don’t really want to know the answers. I don’t want to know about Noah’s love life.
“At the supermarket,” he says. “We were waiting in a long line and we just got to talking.”
Yes, I’m sure she thought to herself, Wow, that guy ahead of me in line is hot. Let me try to talk to him. And imagine her delight when she discovered he’s a doctor too.
“Well, you sure have a busy social life,” I comment.
He flips his palm back and forth. “So-so.” He takes another fry from my tray. “After we broke up, it took me a really long time to get up the nerve to ask a woman out again. I figured any girl would be disgusted when she found out.”
I lower my eyes. “I… I’m sorry.”
He shrugs. “Believe me, I hated you at the time. But I got over it, especially when I found out it wasn’t true. Okay, some of them run for the hills like you did. But some are fine with it. Varying degrees of fine.”
I look across the table at Noah, wishing I was that nurse out on a second date with him. That I had a fresh start so I could tell him how I find him incredibly sexy without him laughing in my face.
Noah isn’t looking at me though. He’s watching Lily, who is climbing some sort of play structure that hovers over a sea of multicolored balls. “So you went and married a musician, huh?”
I quickly avert my gaze from him, in case he notices I’m staring. “Yeah. But that’s long over. Obviously.”
“I knew you always liked that type.” He smiles crookedly. “Was he in a punk rock band or something?”
“He’s actually a really talented guitar player.” I don’t know why I feel a need to defend Theo. Especially after how awful he was to me.
“I’ll bet.” Noah takes another fry. “Did you actually think he was going to be a rock star?”
“No,” I admit. “Not really.”
“Did he think so?”
“He still thinks so,” I say with a touch of bitterness.
“Oh, that type,” Noah laughs. “If you didn’t think he was all that, how come you married the guy?”
I wave my hand at Lily. “You’re looking at the reason.”
He looks genuinely surprised. “You got knocked up? You’re kidding. You were always so anal about birth control. You had an alarm on your phone to remember to take your pill.”
I glare at him. “Look, condoms break sometimes. What do you want?”
“You were using a condom?” He raises an eyebrow. “How long were you with the guy when it happened?”
“A year,” I mumble.
“And you were still using condoms at that point?”
I sigh. “Look, he’s was in a band. You know how it is.”
Noah shakes his head. “I don’t, actually. I never cheated on you once the whole time we were together. I’ve never cheated on anyone before.”
“I made a bad decision.” I look at Lily writhing around in the ball pit. “At least one good thing came of it.”
Noah reaches out and takes another of my fries. I swat at his hand. “Would you quit stealing my fries?” I scold him. “I only got a small.”
“Yeah, but I’m hungry,” he complains.
“I thought you were full on popcorn.”
“Guess not.” He grins. “Maybe I’ll go get my own fries.”
“Don’t you want to be hungry for your date?”
He winks at me. “I don’t think she’s all that concerned with what I eat.”
He gets up and goes back into the McDonald’s to get more food. I wish he weren’t going on that date. But even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t change the situation between the two of us. It’s just as well.
To be continued...