My new young wife likes salads with dried cranberries, cashews, dates, and blue cheese. She likes squash soup with a dollop of yogurt and refried brown rice with mango sausage. She likes to eat the same food every day. “Why shouldn’t we eat the things we like best?” she says. There’s something I want to ask her about getting tired of the same old thing, but I don’t want to put ideas in her head.
My new young wife has granddaughter skin and a mermaid’s upper body on sturdy haunches. People have hurt her. There are scars on her back like petrified weevils. My fingers have searched for the pockets where she hides the concern that it will happen again. My new young wife is unaccustomed to my sense of humor. She plays the caroms off the wall like a visiting team’s right fielder. Some of the bounces make her look foolish but she runs everything down. She has a strong arm and knows where to make the throw. She sends me links to websites selling pink tennis balls to use under walkers. She types all the familiar answers I have to my life story with her fingers placed one key off. Suddenly it all makes sense. My new young wife has hair that spreads out like a black swan. The first time I saw it splayed out on my pillow I thought ok, I can die now. But lately the thought has begun to creep in that I’d like to see it turn gray.
The restroom at the Women’s Breast Imaging Center is called a UNI. Here, men who have accompanied their wives, girlfriends, mothers, or God forbid, their daughters, are allowed to go. I am careful to place the seat down when I am done. I wipe it clean and pat it dry for good measure. This is the last place I want to leave bad karma. When I return to the waiting room my new young wife has already been called. I had wanted to squeeze her hand for luck. I’d sat alongside her for more than an hour while every few minutes a series of smiling technicians emerged from the double doors and called in Esperanza, Rosalie, Mrs. Murphy, Kristen. Like at the casino at Monte Carlo, each new player is admitted to the exclusive high stakes table. All their chips are in on this last turn of the card. The river card is what they call it at the Texas Hold’em table. Did they fill the inside straight, draw that fifth card in suit for a flush, complete the full house?
Such a terrible morbid accurate pun.
One woman is tall and elegant with silken hair. Another is doughy and walks with lumbering strides. There is a woman with a cane, a girl in torn jeans and hippie blouse, a young woman whose hair is starting to grow back. The nurse-croupiers are friendly. Why shouldn’t they be? They play for the house. They ask the women how they are. As if there were any other way to be than terrified. Some of them smile and say they are fine, hoping their affability will change the odds. You root for the woman whose hair has started to grow back. It is dark and stubbly, like charred woodland seen from a great height.
“Coming for a follow up?” one of the nurses asks.
“No,” she says, “for the other side.”
I have felt the mass in my new young wife’s breast. It is large and ominous. It has weight. It moves like an edamame bean inside its skin. I have resisted squeezing it. I do not want to give it cause for anger. She has been inside the exam room for twenty minutes. Several more women emerge who’d been called in after her. I have read both outcomes in their faces, the grim dark stares into the future, and the grateful glances toward heaven. As if the same God were not responsible for both sides of the coin flip.
I have envisioned how I would play either hand.
The doors open and out she comes. She has no poker face. Her small hands spray fistfuls of thousand dollar chips over her neck like glitter. I know too well the gambler’s adage that you can win a hand but you can’t beat the house. Today, though, we walk away from the tables a winner. I hug her and we hold on for dear life.
Hal Ackerman’s short fiction has appeared in The Idaho Review and New Millennium, among many other journals. He is the author of two “Soft-Boiled” murder mysteries, Stein, Stoned and Stein, Stung. Write Screenplays That Sell …The Ackerman Way is in its 15th printing and grew from his chairing the UCLA screenwriting program.