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Annette clenches her teeth and says, “I’m dying. The fact that everyone else is going to die, too, doesn’t change that, because I know how I’m going to die. And I’ll look like this—” she motions to her face and head—“for the rest of my life. A wig is for someone who’s just waiting for the chemo to work.” This pessimism is both fair and overly despondent. Statistically, someone in Annette’s situation is facing a forty percent survival rate. That is not good, Jason knows, but he has lived through plenty of dry days that were forecasted at sixty percent chance of rain. The majority of leukemias are treatable diseases—people die of them not because they are necessarily deadly, but because it is hard to detect at first, and invades stoically, takes over before a person feels sick enough to investigate. An inability to carry a baby to term, for example, is a symptom of a thousand other medical issues. Jason looks to see how uncomfortable Rawa is at this meltdown, how awkward or embarrassed she looks, but Rawa just looks subdued and slightly annoyed, as if Annette is telling her a tired joke she enjoyed the first few times she heard it.
“Maybe you’ll get hit by a bus outside later,” she says, clicking her rings against the glass. “Of course, you could have been hit by a bus last year, too, but I bet you still combed your hair and put on your makeup every morning, no?”
Annette sniffs back tears, then laughs. “Yes, of course,” she says.
“Let’s pick one out, Ann,” Jason says. “Please?”
Annette sifts through the binder for a while until she finds a long, layered wig, agreeing with Rawa that it’s smarter to go long and have it cut later. “The best is to wear the wig while it is styled, the same as at a beauty parlor,” Rawa says as she sits Annette in a chair and measures her head with a flexible tape measure. After she writes up the order, Jason pays the fifty percent deposit and takes some forms to fill out for the insurance so he can get reimbursed the $800 that will actually be covered.
Outside, the light is turning purple and there’s a quicker bustle all around, car horns blaring, school girls in navy skirts running to the bus. Annette says she’d prefer to take the subway home. Jason offers to walk her to the station. While trying to shimmy through a crowded corner, a man jostles him and mutters an apology as quickly as he scoots away.
“Jesus,” Jason says. “What’s the rush all of a sudden?”
“It’s Friday,” Annette says. “They have to get home before sundown, for Shabbos. That’s why Rawa was hurrying us out of there.”
“Oh,” Jason says. He hadn’t noticed Rawa hastening them, though he realizes now that she looked out the window and at her watch several times while Annette perused the style catalog. Then he remembers something he wanted to ask Annette in Rawa’s. “How did you know that red-haired girl was getting married?”
“It was obvious,” Annette says. This is a long-running theme in their relationship. Annette—who grew up in south Brooklyn, with all these different people pushed up against one another, is observant and much more curious, and therefore knowledgeable about things Jason sometimes considers esoteric or hidden. She notices more, and empathizes with just about everyone. It is the quality in her he admires—and misses—most. “She was buying a wig. Hasidic women cut their hair when they get married.”
“You know, I’m not really sure. If I had to guess, I’d bet it comes from some passage in the Old Testament, something about modesty, like Muslim women’s hijab.”
“We should look it up,” Jason says, reflexively, forgetting for a second that he and Annette are not headed to the same place. Catching his mistake, he feels a tug in his stomach, and cannot stop himself from asking her one last time. He tells himself that if she says no, after this, he won’t ask again. “Come home,” he says. When Annette doesn’t respond, he asks, “Don’t you hate being alone right now?”
Annette shrugs. They have reached the stairs leading to the elevated subway, and stand beneath the tracks. “Sometimes I really hate it,” she says. “But it’s like those weeks after Santina died—I’m just sad and sick and angry all the time. And the chemo makes me dizzy and nauseated. It’s like there’s no point in not being alone, because there’s nothing else to me anymore.”
“That’s not true,” Jason says, but he wonders what else Annette has now. Her disease has so beleaguered her body, takes up her time and energy; it obfuscates everything else.
“It is true.” Annette unzips her pocketbook and takes out her Metrocard. “And I just can’t go back from what I decided when you said you didn’t want to try to have another kid. Even though, I think about it now, and I think: thank god Santina was stillborn.” Jason’s mouth is dry; his heart is pounding in his ears.
“I just want you to come home,” he says. “I worry about you all alone, I don’t think it’s safe. I know your mom and sister come by a lot, but I could be there all the time. And honestly, your reasons are really stupid.” Annette laughs in what sounds like agreement, and Jason tries to smile. “But I can’t make you.”
“No,” she says. “You can’t. Look, I have to go. I really appreciate everything you are doing. Thank you so much for helping me with—”
“Stop thanking me like we aren’t married,” Jason says. Annette nods, and turns. “I’m going to look up that passage in the Old Testament,” he calls after her. “I’ll let you know what it says.”
“Okay,” Annette says, and waves before disappearing up the stairs.
Of course, Jason will forget about the passage when he gets home, and won’t remember when he writes Annette a check for the other half of the wig bill three weeks later, or in any of the instances when he sees her wearing it over the next year. In fact, he’ll forget until just after Annette dies. At the hospital, the nurse will bring him her things in sealed plastic, and, seeing the wig detached from her head, flaccid but sliding a little in the bag like a still but breathing animal—he’ll remember the question he had about the ultra-Orthodox on the street the day they bought it.
He’ll keep the wig, along with the pale clothing Annette wore when she checked into the hospice wing, and her house keys, wallet, cellphone, and lipstick. First, he’ll store the plastic sack with all these items—sealed, never to be opened—in the bathroom cabinet on 10th Street, and then in the back of the hall closet in his new apartment with Holly in Murray Hill. And years after that, when they move with their toddler and new baby to a house in Westchester, he’ll take Annette’s “personal effects”—as the nurse called them—to store in the bottom drawer of his home office desk. Holly will know these things are there, including the wig, but won’t ever bring them up. Sometimes Jason will open that drawer and, in thinking of Annette, his mind will wander to Rawa, and the redheaded bride-to-be. He’ll look for the part of the Bible that ordained their wig wearing. On the internet, he’ll learn that the passage comes not from the Old Testament but the Talmud, but he won’t be able to locate the information exactly, or any other information he feels he can reasonably connect to the ritual.
If Annette were there, she’d find it. She’d know where to look.