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The day he and Annette went to Shopsin’s was very cold, with gray clouds shuttering the low sky. It was a Wednesday. Jason had taken the morning off work, and arrived at the Essex Street Market a bit before nine o’clock. He wandered the stalls. Employees were in various states of preparation. At Rainbo’s, a man in a long white butcher coat was using a snow shovel to move crushed ice from the freezer to the open fish case. A young woman with dreadlocks and a nose ring stooped over the counter of Saxelby Cheesemongers. She cut into a huge wheel of soft white cheese, which, from Jason’s distance, looked like cake. He watched her precise and clearly practiced work for a while, how gracefully she used the wire slicer, wrapped the wedges in fine, blue paper, and sealed each package with a round sticker all in one, smooth movement. She did not look up, and worked in silence, so that, when Jason heard Kenny Shopsin shouting from the kitchen of the adjacent restaurant, he was startled and jumped in his skin.
Shopsin’s was hardly a proper restaurant, though it hadbeen at one time. When the owner and cook, Kenny’s wife, was still alive and his children were around, they had a single space in the Village. Jason had never been to the original Shopsin’s—it closed long before he’d come to New York. Annette described it the way she described so many things: referencing her native New Yorker’s mental index of transit connections and shortcuts, all constantly being amended to account for the incredible changes New York is always undergoing. More so than the other cities where Jason has lived (Chicago and Montreal and Cincinnati, where he is from), New York is in permanent metamorphosis, never seeming to come to a point of solidity, of a certain and sure creature-ness. Jason understands the city as a wave of smoke caught in an infinite shape-shift—rerouting commuters, tearing down buildings to make room for its new and as-of-yet unfinished self.
At Shopsin’s that day, Jason wondered if he and Annette had ever walked down a street together without Annette interrupting their conversation to point to some new complex or tower and tell him what had been there before: some diner, or theater, or bookstore she’d patronized when she was younger and the city seemed older. For his part, Jason could never stop being a design engineer—he always said who was responsible for a new structure, and what year it went up and whether or not it won any architectural awards, and whether or not its roof and windows leaked, and how long before it will stop looking so sleek and start to look crummy, part of an ugly era.
But the Essex Street Market resisted the luxury high-rise culture that currently dominated Manhattan and was rapidly spreading to Brooklyn and beyond. The day he found out Annette was sick, Jason observed the current iteration of Shopsin’s, the only one he knew from experience, as a tiny chunk of the New York that was gone, a place Jason had seen in movies but only caught snatches of. The Essex Market Shopsin’s now had only a lunch counter, plus a few tables crowded into a corner, and the grittiness of an older New York was only the sound of old, fat Kenny Shopsin himself—shouting obscenities—from behind the kitchen’s swinging metal doors. Sometimes he emerged in his grease-stained apron to throw someone out, usually for attempting to be seated with a party larger than four, less often for ordering something he didn’t feel like making. Jason was the first customer of the day. He and Annette had only ever come to Shopsin’s right when it opened at 9 a.m., so they didn’t have to wait in a long line or risk being rushed out. When Jason approached the restaurant’s section of the market, Luke, the only waiter on staff, gave a terse nod and pulled a chair over to the table in the back where Jason and Annette always sat.
“Haven’t seen you,” he said to Jason while he went back to setting up the other tables and chairs. “Is your lady coming?”
“Yes,” Jason replied, and though he’d been feeling sad and nervous all morning, it was nice to be able to say that Annette was on her way. For months now, he’d had to go through the awkward explanation of his wife’s new absence to acquaintances—waiters and baristas and counter workers at his regular spots.
“Coffee?” Luke said without looking up from the napkin dispenser he was stuffing.
“Please,” Jason said. He always drank the coffee at Shopsin’s, even though it was terrible: cheap, bitter, and over-brewed in a machine that had probably never been cleaned.
Luke went back into the kitchen, and Annette arrived before the coffee. Jason stood to—what? Hug her? Help her with her jacket? He didn’t know and, of course, she waved him back into his seat. The change in her appearance was visible immediately. As she removed her down parka and slid into the long booth that lined the out-facing seats, Jason noticed the thinness of Annette’s arms and face, both of which usually held a firm, vigorous-looking chubbiness. Her skin was sallow, the space below her eyes dark as new bruises.
“Hi,” Jason said. “Luke’s bringing coffee.”
Annette smiled weakly. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m going to get a menu.” Jason nodded, trying to hide his surprise. There were over 500 items on Shopsin’s menu, but Annette had been ordering the same thing since high school: a dish called the slutty cakes, silver dollar pancakes cooked with chocolate and banana and layered thickly with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Jason rotated between the breakfast nachos—just like regular nachos, but with the addition of scrambled eggs—the mac n’ cheese pancakes, and the French toast sandwich with Nutella and strawberry jam.
Luke came with their coffee, and dropped two menus onto the table at Annette’s request. Jason waited until after they’d ordered to ask Annette how she was doing, and how she liked her new place, and her job in DUMBO .
“Jason, listen,” she said, and he prepared himself for her cold refusal to chat, the insistence she still needed the space and silence she’d demanded upon leaving the previous August.
And so it was like the sudden slap of a breath-taking wave, like being strangled from behind, when she instead told him, “I’m sick. I have cancer.”
There were a few minutes in which Jason just stared at Annette, his voice caught in his throat like phlegm. He waited for her to say more, to explain from whom she’d discovered this, and how, and where, and how long ago. Eventually, she did tell him those things, but in the restaurant, she said little else. Tears stood in her eyes, though she spoke steadily, telling him that she had an acute form of leukemia affecting the blood cells. She had been growing steadily ill for a long time.
“I was probably already sick when I was pregnant,” she said. “I wonder—” and here her voice wavered just a little, like a record skipping once, “I wonder if that’s why … if that’s what happened to the baby.”
There’s a fogginess to this memory now as it comes to Jason in the wig shop while he stands with his hands in his pockets. He isn’t sure what information came next, or precisely what he eventually said. The particular sequence of his coming to understand what was happening is mixed together now and baked, set, a thing in and of itself; the ingredients cannot be extracted. For the most part, at least. He does remember trying to touch his wife at the table—her hands, her arms—and the coldness of her skin, and the way she was kind to him, almost consoling, when, out on the street after neither of them had touched much of their meals, he tried to embrace her and she said, No, please, but then let him hold her for a moment anyway. He remembers, painfully, her refusal to move back in with him, her preposterous, heartbreaking insistence that this has changed nothing. And how he walked back to the apartment on 10th Street that day with his heart beating in too fast a panic to allow the despair he also felt to turn to tears. How he told Holly that Annette had cancer, and allowed her to comfort him, used her—continues to use her—all while he resents her a little, for being the very good thing he has instead of the life he knows he can’t get back.
Here, in the wig shop in a new season, after three months of chemotherapy, Annette leans over the case, examining the display hair. Rawa has finished with the redheaded women and, as they walk to the stairs, Annette turns and smiles at the girl.
“Are you getting married tomorrow?” she asks.
The girl grins, but then shakes her head no. “Sunday,” she responds.
“Oh, right,” Annette says. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” the girl says, and they turn to go.
When they are gone, Rawa gets back to business. She holds the old photo up to the right side of Annette’s face, and a strip of brown hair to the left.
“What do you think?” she asks, showing Annette the hair. It is thick as a horse’s, but smoother, silken and shiny.
“I don’t know,” Annette says. She looks at Jason. “That’s about right, isn’t it?”
The hair is the same color as Annette’s, but its straightness is still startling. And Jason knows it won’t smell like Annette, and that she won’t run her hands through it to pull out the tangles. But what is he supposed to say? “That’s right,” he tells her, and Rawa looks satisfied by the speediness with which they’ve come to this decision. She pulls a binder from a cabinet behind her and opens it in front of Annette.
“You can look through these for a style. It’s always best to choose long, and have it cut later,” she tells Annette. She goes to another, larger cabinet and lifts a few narrow boxes from the drawers, brings them to the counter. “You can try these, also, to feel how a wig is like. I have a permed one, here,” she says, taking a curly, chestnut-colored wig from one of the boxes. “Wrong color, but this way you can see a little.” She points to the curtained fitting room. “For privacy,” she says, and looks down, beginning to arrange the other boxes on the counter.
“No,” Annette says. “That’s okay.”
Rawa shrugs. “However you like,” she says. Though he’s stepped back again, Jason feels in the way.
Annette pulls the cotton band away from her beige turban and lets the headpiece slide into her arms. She puts the turban on the counter and takes up the wig, fitting it onto her head, which is completely bare since she shaved the ghostly wisps of soft hair that never fell out on their own. Rawa leans forward to help adjust, pulling with a rough precision at different angles until the wig is straight. Annette leans to look at herself in the mirror. Then she turns to Jason.
The wig actually looks nice. He came to the shop prepared for a slight freakishness, the way a bad wig sometimes superimposes a cartoon layer onto its wearer. But this one hangs more naturally around Annette’s face, doesn’t look like a heavy drape on a too-small window. Jason understands why Rawa’s handmade wigs are popular despite the expense. It doesn’t look totally real, especially with Annette’s missing eyelashes, the paucity of her brows, and the purple tint of sickness and fatigue at the corners of her eyes and mouth. But it doesn’t have an undoubtedly artificial appearance, either.
“It looks good,” he says. “What do you think?”
Annette turns back to the mirror, examines herself another moment.
“I think it makes me look afraid to die,” she says. Jason’s heart sinks. Annette’s resisted getting a wig up until now because, she says, it’s a denial of reality. But she called last week and said she’d done some research, and found a good place in the Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“What does this mean?” Rawa asks, not unkindly. “Many people have a wig instead of hair.” She tugs at the ends of her own dark wig, complemented on her head by a wide black satin headband.
Annette says, “But you aren’t dying.”
“Everyone is getting closer to their own time,” Rawa says. Her tone isn’t profound, or philosophical, though the statement strikes Jason as both. He wonders if it would seem so sagacious if Rawa weren’t a physically recognizable member of an ultra-Orthodox religious movement. Being spiritually apathetic himself—a lapsed Catholic—and anxious, full of questions, he has an idea that deeply religious people lack this timorous sense of the world. Rawa says to Annette, “You get a wig, some makeup, you look normal. It’s better, to not be stared at, no? To not be pitied?”
“She’s right, Ann,” Jason says. “You’ll probably feel a lot better.”
“This isn’t really about how I feel right now,” Annette says, and Jason can hear how her voice is straining to hide her growing impatience. He knows what’s coming: the obduracy of defeat, and an anger he dreads because there is no way to quell it and, this time, it’s justified. But there’s another part of Jason that is relieved to see Annette crack. He has been waiting for her to reveal the hostility she used to succumb to so quickly, over things that seem nugatory now. Annette used to cry about her recalcitrant, spoiled students and their pushy parents; she used to yell at bad weather and the local news. More serious things were commented on in long, poorly reasoned but polemically convincing tirades. Annette’s miscarriages, for example, were proof that a kind of real-time karma existed, and that she was not a good person; fate was punishing her. For these dramatic but understandable tantrums, Jason stood in the kitchen, in the doorway of the bathroom, at the foot of the bed, and listened to his wife turn bad luck into nonsense. Their stillborn daughter, whom Annette had named Santina—after her grandmother—was more evidence of Annette’s poor character, and also marked the beginning of Jason and Annette’s disillusion. Jason wanted to stop trying to have a baby, and Annette wanted to put their savings into fertility treatments and more and better doctors.