Metastatic

By Alexander Maksik

Anna had moved out of the halls and, for the first time in her life, was living alone.  It was a good flat in Foxhill Road with freshly painted walls and a small fireplace in the living room.  Her parents took the train over and the three of them ate pizza on the floor and shared a bottle of cheap champagne.  With his long legs stretched before him, her father raised his glass.  “In water,” he said, “one sees one’s own face; but in wine one beholds the heart of another.”

“Middling,” Anna said as she raised her own glass, “May we get what we want, may we get what we need, but may we never get what we deserve.”  

“Yes,” he laughed.  “Indeed, yes.”

“Mediocre,” her mother said.  “We are all of us in the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.”

Her father sighed and looked across at his wife with such affection that Anna was embarrassed and turned away.

When it got late, she brought out a pile of blankets and they all slept on the floor falling asleep in the dying firelight the way they’d often done at home in London when she was a girl.  

Three months later when her father called, his voice had been weaker than usual, an empty softness to it, as much the hush of moving air as the sound of words.

That evening she packed a bag and took the last train home.  They went to a good restaurant in Chelsea where her mother stared down at her already yellowed hands and her father cleared his throat and said, pancreatic cancer.  She looked at her mother who bowed her head and Anna felt a sudden rage as if she’d lost an argument and the moment for retort had passed.  She fixed her jaw and sat silent feeling a collapsing tightness in her chest.  For a flashing moment she imagined shattering the wine bottle over her father’s head, slapping her mother across the face.

“We’ll be all right,” he said reaching for Anna across the table.  “We’re the same family.  We’re the same, the three of us.  We’ll get through it.”

It took four months to get through.  Each time she returned home her mother was thinner, her skin more jaundiced.  They sat together beneath her mother’s bookshelves and spoke very little.  “There’s nothing to be done,” she said.  “It’s everywhere.  Metastatic.  It’s rotted me out.  You go back to university.  You keep on.  I know what it feels like, but this is my life ending.  Not yours.”

Now Anna was on the train to London.  She watched the station enter her window.  Her father had called several times the week before to say that she should come home, that it was getting worse, but Anna hadn’t come — instead she’d put his warnings away with the possibility of death and did her best to focus on her work.  And here was her father looking as gray and dreary as the sky.   He’d always been thin, but in his long raincoat, leaning on his umbrella, he looked as if he might snap in half.  The sight of him raising his hand as she glided past was like a boot in her gut.

Her father hefted Anna’s duffel over his shoulder and they walked along Spring Street toward home.   She took his arm as they turned along Sussex Gardens where her parents had lived in the same Victorian terrace since they were married thirty years ago.  She waited on the sidewalk looking up as her father stood on the step and unlocked the door.  The strap of the duffel cut into his shoulder.  His long body looked longer as he stood above her fiddling with the lock.  While she waited, she remembered the two of them returning from a picnic in Hyde Park.  She’d come back riding on his shoulders, eight feet high, her hands clutching his thick hair like reins.

“Neigh,” he’d said, “Neigh,” and kneeled lowering her to the sidewalk.

He went up to put the duffel in her bedroom.  For the rest of her life she would think of this moment, of the quietness, and then the sound of her father moving upstairs, the absolute physical absence of her mother from every place she should have been.  There was the hum of the house and then her father, favoring his good knee, making his way slowly down the stairs.

Her mother no longer lived there.

Part Two

That night they sat at the kitchen table and drank from a half-empty bottle of sour red wine. 

“Did she open it?” Anna asked.  

He nodded putting two bowls of canned cream of mushroom soup on the table.  Neither of them ate.  They sipped her mother’s corked wine until the bottle was empty.  Anna watched as what was left of the color in his face drained away.  He was seventy-two years old and looked it.  He’d had two minor heart attacks.  Now he looked worse than she’d ever seen him.  He was gaunt and pale, his thick black hair gone to ash.

“She didn’t fight,” Anna said to the soup congealing in the bowl, the anger rising again.  “She just gave herself up to it.”

 “Anna,” he said in that whisper of breath.  “We’d missed it.  Everyone had missed it.  That’s all.”

“Everyone certainly did,” she said sharply.

 Her father began to cry.

“I’m sorry,” she said and squeezed his arm.

The next morning they walked the hour to Paddington Cemetery.  There was no service, no dust to dust, no valley of death, only her father’s hand tightening around hers as much to steady himself as for love. 

“Agnes, was for me . . .” he began, addressing the small group assembled on the grass.

 Anna could feel his sweat against her palm. 

“She was for me,” he whispered.  He dropped his head and everyone waited until it was clear that nothing else would be said.  Slowly people began to drift away, touching his shoulder, kissing Anna’s head while the two of them stood inanimate staring into the hole in the ground.

They’d done the minimum.  The necessary.  The burial.  No funeral.  Nothing at home.  No cakes.  No cheese.  Put her in the ground. Turn away. Get to the street before the sound of the bulldozer.  On the walk home, still holding her father’s hand, Anna promised herself she’d return to Reading.  It’s what her mother would have done, would have her do.  Finish your degree no matter what happens.  Do nothing to jeopardize your independence.  Do not get trapped.  See all the places I have.   Anna had it in letters, on long walks in Hampstead Heath, on train rides, just the two of them, to Brighton for the weekend.  Always the same: “Adventure, Anna, adventure.”  The verb.  The command.  “No matter what.  Do not stay home.”   So this is what she’d do.  Stay a few weeks and then return to Reading, to classes, to the little fireplace in the living room.

In those weeks her father stopped getting out of bed.  He lay there staring up at the ceiling.  He did not have the strength to stand, to take a shower, to dress.  He told the doctor this, but never Anna.  To Anna he said, “Go back to university.  I’ll be fine here.  Go back to your life.”  But it was clear to her that he would not be fine. 

At first the doctor diagnosed it as grief.   In the entryway, lifting his blue mackintosh from the coat tree, he said, “Be there.  Sit with him.  Give him reason to get up.  He’ll improve.  Give it time.”

He’d been her father’s doctor since the second heart attack.  The two men had liked each other immediately, had gotten on well in the hospital and, it turned out, were neighbors.  At the time the doctor had just moved to a flat in Craven Road and was happy, he’d said, to call at home.

Her father did not improve.  He left his bed only to go to the bathroom and to check on Anna from the upstairs landing.  Holding onto the banister, he would call, “You all right down there, sweetheart?”  She’d close the book or fold the newspaper and say, “Yes, Dad.  Do you need anything?” Then he’d return to bed and Anna to her reading. 

Anna had stopped answering the telephone or opening her computer.  Sometimes at night she’d imagine her e-mails arriving in stacks like letters, ink on paper folded into envelopes stamped, stained and smeared.  Letters of the kind her mother had received from men who were not Anna’s father, letters written and received before she was born.  Soft-cornered envelopes, water hardened, weathered letters.  She was tired of condolence.  She did not want to know what was new.  She did not want to know what was outside.

When her father stopped talking, when half the time Anna had to put her fingers to his neck to make sure he was still alive, the doctor returned and prescribed Lustral for depression, which Anna fed him every morning with a cup of tea and the piece of buttered toast she insisted he eat. 

He’d stopped urging Anna to return to her life and she’d shut the possibility from her mind.  The Lustral seemed to make him worse, but the doctor told her to give it time.  “Months.  It could take months to see any difference,” he said in his softest voice.

Her father was weaker, was often dizzy and one morning fell on his way to the bathroom.  Anna had been downstairs when she heard the muffled sound of his body collapsing against the carpet.  “I’m sorry,” he said when she came running up the stairs.  She helped him up and they walked together down the hallway.  At the bathroom she let go of his hand and as he took the knob he fell again, this time against the door.  Move, she said to herself.  Go.  But both of them stood still — her father leaning forward, his hands pressed against the rim of the sink, Anna at the threshold.  They were both waiting – her father steeling himself, willing it to pass, willing the strength to come and Anna with him.  Then he turned to her.  He was crying again. 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. 

She took his elbow and with her other hand she raised the lid and unbuckled his belt.  She eased him down so that he was seated and then turned away and waited for him to push his pants and underwear to his knees.

“I’ll be just outside,” she said and closed the door behind her.  She thought of learning to undo a belt with one hand, of the boys in Reading no longer waiting for her to call.  When she heard the flush she waited and then knocked. 

“You all right, dad?”  He didn’t respond but she could hear him weeping, a dry stuttering of breath.  “Dad?” She put her mouth close to the door.

“Yes, I’m fine.  I’m fine.”

“Can I come in?”

She heard him struggling with his pants, the buckle of his belt cracking against the porcelain. 

“OK,” he said. 

She turned the knob.  The air was fetid and there was her father, leaning back against the raised lid.  His underwear pulled up just below the waist, his fly open, belt dangling against the side of the bowl. 

“Dad,” she said, her voice falling at the end of the word as if in disappointment or pity though she did not mean either.  She went to him, kneeled and put her arm around his shoulder.  They stayed like that, her knees on the damp bathmat, head pressed against his arm, eyes closed, waiting for something.  She wasn’t sure what.  Some intercession.  Some shift.  Luck.  A rise of spirit.  Anything. 

“OK,” she said.  “Lift up.”  He raised his pelvis and she stood and pulled his underwear up, then his pants.  She was buckling the belt when she stopped, looked away and asked, “Did you wipe?” 

“I’m OK,” he whispered.

She slipped the pin into the hole.

“I forgot to wash my hands.”

“Forget it,” she told him.

He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked slowly toward the bedroom. 

She sat on the edge of the bed.  “You can’t go on like this.  You mustn’t.  You need to eat.  We have to leave this house, do you understand me?” 

He was weeping again, trying hard to stifle the sound. She took his hands, tucked his arms beneath the blanket and kissed him on the forehead.

The doctor came the following morning.  “There’s the tachycardia but no worse than before.   He has to continue the Cordaron and the Lustral and he needs to eat.  He needs exercise too but more than anything, more than any medication, Anna, he needs you here. In the house. In London.”

She’d been spending her days sitting downstairs in the study, looking out the window and reading her mother’s books and now, as her father slept, she read The Old Patagonian Express.  Agnes Duncan – Buenos Aires, Argentina – 1979, her mother had written across the top of the title page and drawn a thin dark line beneath, ending with a downward hook.  Anna imagined her finishing the book and returning to the beginning, carefully writing her name.  She imagined her drawing the line fast, the nib coming off the page in a flourish, and pressing the cover between her palms the way she always did with books when they were over.  She imagined handsome Argentininan men saying, Agnés.  Agnés.  As in, yes, yes.  Her name, she’d said, was beautiful in every language save her own. 

“Agnés,” Anna whispered, “Agnés,” and returned to the book.  It was the chapter in which Theroux goes to meet blind Borges at his apartment in Maipú.  Her mother had underlined the section where he recites the opening of The Seafarer.  In her small neat print, she’d copied three stanzas from the same poem in the margin. 

Anna ran a nail over the words, along the faint grooves of her mother’s pen.  She imagined her at seventeen, so full of courage, so certain.  She thought of her meeting the tall, gentle Englishman who would one day be her husband, who would one day be the dying man upstairs.  In a bar in Maipú where she’d been drinking wine at a table facing the door in hopes of seeing Borges herself, of hearing his cane tapping across the wooden floor.  Anna closed her eyes.  She would go to Argentina anyway.  Not together, the way they’d planned. 

Part Three

As spring came and longer days, her father seemed to improve.  She’d rouse him from bed in the mornings and help him dress and take his arm as they walked together first along Sussex Gardens and then, as he grew stronger, through Hyde Park.  Then on a morning in May she opened the bedroom door to find him dead. 

Sometime in the night his heart had stopped beating and he was gone, his body lying on its stomach, arms spread, head turned to the side, mouth open.  Anna went to him and touched her fingers to his neck. The skin was cool and dry.  She listened for his breath.  She pressed the four fingers of her right hand beneath his nose and her thumb under his chin and feeling teeth through thin skin, closed his mouth. 

Then she sat in the chair next to the bed and dialed the doctor.  “You’re probably the last person to ring,” Anna said.  “But my father’s died.  I didn’t know whom else to tell.  Should I have rung the police?”

“Are you certain?”

 “As sure as I can be, I suppose.  Then I’m not a doctor.  Come check for yourself if you’d like.  If it’s not a fucking bother.”  She felt the same cutting anger, the same meanness she’d felt in the restaurant and then again when her father had called to say her mother was dead. 

“I’ll come,” the doctor said evenly in his same, soft voice and hung up the telephone. 

Anna felt as if she might faint and so pressed her palm against the back of her father’s hand.  She stayed there kneeling by the side of the bed like a young girl praying and felt the silence move into the room like blood spreading through water.  Everything was gone.  There had been days when in her darkest mind she’d thought she might feel relief.  But now she did not.  She felt cold and still, as if she herself were part of the quiet, part of the deepening gray behind her eyes.  She bowed her head and pressed it against the woolen blanket.

When the doctor arrived, he found Anna on the floor.  When she opened her eyes she saw him moving to the corpse.  She closed her eyes again.  A certain time passed.  She had no sense of how much. 

“Anna,” he said, “we’ll have to call for someone.”

She could feel him sweeping over her body.  When she opened her eyes he was no longer where he’d been.  Now he was standing by the door.

“I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you,” she said.  “On the telephone, you know.”

He said her name and crouched down and touched her cheek with his hand.  It was very warm and sent a shiver through her.  She began to cry and now he sat on the floor next to her in his beautiful clothes.  She turned on her side and pressed her face against his thigh.  The doctor stroked her hair with his warm hand. 

“I’m sorry,” she said to him.  “I’m sorry.” 

At the front door, before leaving, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her.  He felt solid, stronger than she might have imagined had she ever imagined him so close to her. He smelled clean and only faintly of cologne.  She stayed there resting her ear against his chest, listening to his heart beating its strong, reliable rhythm.  Then she felt his erection.  She opened her eyes but did not let go.  She waited for him to do as he wished but he pulled away from her and left closing the door behind him, as quietly as if he were leaving a nursery. 

In the days that followed she moved from room to room, standing before photographs, thumbing through books, snapping the stereo on and off.  Throughout was that absence of noise, the silence that had texture, had weight, had teeth.  The quiet was spreading through the house now like tar.  She could not sleep.  The radiators groaned and cracked, the refrigerator was buzzing, there was noise everywhere and still she imagined the silence coming for her.  She was alert, sharp-eyed.  She could feel dry whiskers beneath her fingers, edge of jawbone against her thumb.  It had been like closing the mouth of a hand puppet.

The house was hers.  Her father would never be home.  Her mother would never call from the other room.   She pressed her hands against the glass to feel the cold.  She thought of eating.  She thought of what she’d do the next day.  And the day after that.  She could do anything.  She could do anything at all.  She could leave for Argentina tomorrow.  She could sell the house.  She could go back to university.  She could have anything she wanted. 

She liked the way the glass felt against her palms.  She liked looking out at the empty street, watching the occasional car rush past.  The house continued to hum.  She filled the kettle and put it on the stove.  She dropped a mug and when it shattered on the floor she was afraid.  It was like this for a long time.  She could not remember that there was no one in the other room, that there was no one asleep, no one to awaken.

She brought a cup of tea upstairs and looked in on their bedroom.  Then she returned to bed where she began to think of the doctor.  Lying in bed, her cup of tea cooling on the bedside table, she imagined his sturdy body, his arms around her, the smell of cologne, of soap, of wool.  He was sure and gentle and then, as she sunk into herself, she wanted him hard with her.  Brutal even.  She worked her hand furiously, she hurt herself, imagined him crushing her, his teeth, her throat, he slapped her, and then came an orgasm of violent relief.

For days she didn’t leave the house.  One morning she woke and walked naked into her parents’ bedroom. She removed her mother’s grey cashmere robe from its brass hook in the closet. Anna drew the robe around her body and then for a long time stood in the still air of the bedroom, her arms slack at her sides, the sleeves hanging nearly to her fingertips. The wool smelled mostly of Shalimar, but there were other things as well, odors she couldn’t identify precisely, but which were present, and which had been her mother.

Later, she sat in the robe, in the kitchen drinking coffee and eating buttered toast. 

Afterwards she called the doctor. Of all the people in the world who knew her, he was the only one she could imagine calling. She did not know why.

He answered immediately. 

“It’s Anna,” she said.

“Anna,” he repeated her name with relief.

“Would you like to come around one day?”

“If you forgive me.  My behavior was inappropriate.”

“It was nothing.”

“Yes, I would then.  When?”

“I don’t know when,” she told him.

Afterwards, Anna took a bottle of Oxycodone tablets from her mother’s vast collection and went downstairs where she returned to the chair by the window.  She swallowed a tablet and waited and tumbled into the soft warmth, felt a swell of calm.  She went on like this for days.  She barely ate.  She drank glass after glass of water with the vague idea of cleansing herself.  She slept.  She swallowed the tablets.  She looked out the window and watched the cars sucking and surging past.  She imagined the doctor and his jackets and their buttons of bone and wood.

A tablet.  The reveries of the doctor.  A glass of water.  A piece of toast.  A tablet.  The doctor.  The cars outside.  The flowers across the street in the gardens.  The mail slot.  The ringing telephone.  The radiators.  Hardened sleep in the corners of her eyes. Knocking at the door. Oil from her nose.  Smell of earwax on her finger.  Hair on her legs.

In the middle of the warmth, within the thick folds of it, she would descend the stairs, her arms outstretched and her eyes closed.  She imagined the doctor ministering to her, his warm hands caressing her, his heavy body crushing her.  A tablet, water, morning, heaters, butter on toast.  But always her parents coming home with their rattling keys, groceries in brown bags, the rush of the outside air. 

The evening she found the bottle empty, she did not look for another.   She watched the streetlamps come on and went upstairs to bed.  In the morning she woke and took a long shower.  She could not remember her last.  She dressed and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee. 

She thought: twenty-two years old, the tenth of July, everything gone but money.  You have your body, your health, your youth, she heard her mother say.  But she did not believe this.  Her body would betray her.  There was only the money.  That was the great privilege and what it meant she could do.  Everything.  Anything she wanted.  Anything.  She could do anything.  There was then a slight swell of enthusiasm.  The thinnest rise in spirit.  Anything.  This is why people don’t marry.  This is why people live alone.  She sat still and looked over at the cup of coffee.  She wrapped her hand around it, brought it softly to her mouth.

The morning light crossed the floor, crossed her bare feet and lit up a forgotten bit of bread.

Part Four

It was the movement that made her dizzy.  All the people around, the swaying trees and flashing color.  She liked the air, the sharp edge of it, the way it swept over her, its citric and gasoline smell.  It was warmer out than she’d imagined and as she passed Lancaster Gate station, she pulled off her sweater.  The air on her bare skin. The drying sweat at the back of her neck.  Her own stale smell blowing away as she crossed Bayswater road and into Hyde Park.  She walked in a heightened daze, the pleasure of the soft day at battle with the pulling leaden dark.

She sat at the edge of the Serpentine and watched a woman trying to lure some ducks with a handful of breadcrumbs.  Anna thought of riding atop her father’s shoulders here, walking the perimeter of the lake.   She thought of him lowering them down until they sat stacked together, conjoined on a park bench.

“We are the two-headed beast,” he’d said handing half a sandwich up to her.  “We are the two-headed beast,” she repeated and roared at passersby who looked at them as if they were some kind of miraculous, happy creature.

“We were the two-headed beast,” she told her mother when they’d returned home.  “And now we’re the three,” her mother had cried, scooping her up and running into the garden where her father was lighting the barbeque. 

Again, Anna thought of the bottles still spread across her mother’s bedside table.  She could feel the cap turning in her hand, the round tablet like chalk on her tongue.  Enormous clouds had begun to roll fast across the sky and the sun came in and out in flashes of late afternoon light.  She walked all the way to the Thames and then along the Embankment.   The wind was coming up along the river.  People were everywhere.  It was Sunday, Anna realized, which explained the bikers, the strollers, the families.  How long had she been inside?  How long had the weather been like this?  When had her father died?  When was it that the doctor had come and found her on the floor?  She couldn’t remember any of it.  Not even the date of her mother’s death.  All of this chilled her.  She stopped and leaned against the wall and looked down at the water.

Perhaps they’re still alive.  Maybe they were at home.  Maybe her father was at his desk preparing an article, slapping his palm against a notepad, saying into the telephone, Well, isn’t that the point?  Isn’t that the fucking point? Her mother listening from the other room slicing open the mail, paying the bills. Ruthless as ever. For a long moment this was true, this scene, a moment as long as cloud shade, and then it was gone and she knew again they were dead. 

There was the sun on her skin, the leaves flashed light and dark, light and dark, the river dissolved green to gray and back again.  She walked for a long time in the rising wind.  The water whipped into whitecaps and still the air was soft. 

It’s a kind of war, she thought.  Body versus memory.

She was thinking again of the smooth white tablets when she saw the Tate Modern lit up across the river, the red brick burning in the sunlight.  Her mother had loved the museum, the Rothko room especially, but Anna had never been.   She crossed the river.  The footbridge was crowded with people, most of them moving as she was, toward the luminous museum.  After buying a ticket, she descended the ramp of the main entrance.  Then she stood still and looked up at the girded skylights.  Despite the din and bustle of impatient museumgoers, she fell suddenly calm.  It was something like the wind on the Embankment.  Something like that, the same kind of imperceptible thing. 

The ceilings must have been hundreds of feet high.  The galleries themselves no longer interested her.  They didn’t even occur to her.  When she’d first seen the museum from across the river, she’d had the vague idea of sitting before the Rothkos.  Briefly, she’d seen herself there alone on a padded leather bench but then she’d forgotten the idea and had been swept up with the flow of the Sunday pilgrims training into the mouth of the museum.  And now she had no interest at all in seeing paintings or any art.  She sat on the hard concrete floor with her arms around her knees.  The immensity of the room was intimate and terrifying at once.  It was a cathedral.  As the light shifted the hall seemed to expand.  In some far-off gallery there were bells ringing — a stuttering, broken toll on a roughly edited loop.

Once they’d been in a small airplane.   The propellers were outside the window doing their slow backturning fade.  Her father was in a single seat to the left.  Her mother was at her side.   Where were they going?   All she could see was the cabin.  She tried to see their clothes but there was only the droning plane and her father’s arm reaching across the aisle, her hand in his and her mother’s arm around her shoulders and all of them looking out the same window.  The plane had dropped and shuddered and she’d caught him looking frightened.  She’d never before seen his eyes like that and it shook her, even before she’d known what it was or what it meant. Now she knew what it meant.  

Afterwards, the plane shot into cloud and everything went white and quiet.  Anna thought of them now – the plane, the three of them, contained, suspended above the world.  Where had they been going?

Now, Anna looked up at a massive spider, frozen in steel.  It stood thirty feet in the air, and seemed to tremble as if preparing to creep forward, its giant threatening legs quivering, balancing on sharp points like a horrific dancer. 

Anna thought of calling the doctor.

She thought of her parents returning home.

Her mother pushed the door open with her narrow shoulder.

Her father followed.

The air outside was cold.

She imagined never calling the doctor again.

The Turbine Hall spread out for miles, the ceilings reached thousands and thousands of feet into the air and the bells in the far-off gallery continued to crackle and loop and ring.