The wig shop is on 13th Avenue, above Rubinstein Skullcap Company. A bright blue awning with white letters advertises yarmulke kippah benchers tallit. Underneath this, a short afterthought: rawa’s fine european wigs—upstairs.

 Jason has never been to Borough Park, but his wife has.

“The B63 cuts right through here,” she says, gesturing her bony hand to the street as Jason pays the cab driver and climbs out of the car behind her. “At least, it used to—” Annette adjusts the turban wrapped tight around her bald head.

It is early evening on a Friday, and the sidewalks are crowded, mostly with women—all of them pushing strollers—in knee-length dresses with heavy pantyhose and chunky loafers. They wear old-fashioned pillbox or cloche hats atop their thick hair, which, Jason reminds himself, is not actually their hair. Children flank these women: girls wearing ankle-length long-sleeved dresses, the boys in navy pants, white tassels appearing below their belt lines. Each boy’s head is fixed with the type of little cap Jason has worn once in his life, in seventh grade at the bar mitzvah of his classmate Eric Chudnow—the only celebration of its kind he’s ever attended.

Looking at the Hasids, Jason thinks they must be uncomfortable. It’s only May, but already more than eighty degrees and he is sweating through his cotton T-shirt. Annette is still going on about the bus.

“I wouldn’t know where it goes now. But I rode it to the 36th Street station every day. That was faster than taking the R the whole way to school.”

She looks around now, blinking her lashless eyes at the women and their children, at the bearded men in dark overcoats who pass by quickly, at the neat rows of two- and three-story brick buildings lining the street, and says that Borough Park is the same as it was fifteen years ago. There is nostalgia, and sadness, in her voice. Annette grew up a few miles south in Bay Ridge. She’s been living there again since she and Jason separated last year. Her one-bedroom apartment is a bit smaller, but renovated and better laid out than the place the two of them shared on 10th Street in the East Village, where Jason still lives. He’s given away all the baby stuff they never used—the tiny clothes and the crib and the stroller—but continues to surround himself with much of the material of their marriage: their old cat, Hamster, and the view over the fire escape of garbage bins in the alley, and sometimes the film school girls who live on the first floor, who smoke out their kitchen window. He keeps Annette’s books, the ones she has yet to notice missing from her shelves. And her odd curation of framed prints—art she bought at museums in Europe during their honeymoon—are still hanging: Chagall from D’Orsay in the bathroom, Goya from the Prado above the mantel. And he still thinks of these things as theirs—as belonging to him and to Annette collectively—despite the stuff he’s acquired since she left, including his new girlfriend, Holly.

“Come on,” Annette says, pulling the metal handle on the skullcap shop’s door. She is so thin that the bones of her bent elbow make three sharp points.

“I’ve got it,” Jason says, pushing the door back so that Annette isn’t holding its weight. He does this too quickly and she jolts, her balance lost for a moment. He grabs her arm, applies a steadying pressure.

“Jesus,” she says, annoyed, shaking off his grip. “I can open doors myself.”

“I know,” Jason says. But he doesn’t believe that, not really. Since Annette was diagnosed with leukemia, but especially since she’s started chemotherapy, he sees her as a hollow-boned bird. He wants to trap her, hold her somewhere soft where they can both sit still and wait for things to go back to normal. Of course, normal is Annette and Jason living separately and rarely speaking. If she hadn’t gotten sick and needed to stay on his health insurance, they’d be in the process of finalizing a divorce by now. He thinks sometimes, Would we be signing those papers today? Right now?

Jason follows Annette up a narrow staircase with drab office carpet. They enter a low-ceilinged rectangular room. Here, the floor is covered in that same rough gray, and along one wall there’s a sterile-looking glass case. A makeshift dressing room hides the opposite wall. A lot of round mirrors line the counter, but not many wigs are on display; a few chin-length bobs balance on glass mannequin heads in the far corner by a cash register. In the case, swathes of hair are laid out neatly on velvet-lined shelves. It would be a depressing, even creepy, place, but the room is filled with natural light from the wide street-facing windows, which are open. A pleasant breeze fills the space, helped by a noiseless floor fan. The fan could ventilate better if it were tilted diagonally, but instead it’s pointed at a ninety-degree angle, and cool air wafts across the floor, hitting Jason’s legs, which need the fan far less than his sweaty neck and torso.

There are two other customers in the shop: a young woman—a girl, really—and an older lady who must be her mother. The girl has long, lovely varnished red hair tied into a loose ponytail—it is absolutely real, growing from her head. Both wear the uniform of the neighborhood, though their version is slightly more contemporary: calf-length beige dresses, dark brown stockings, and ballet flats. The daughter has on a fitted blazer, also, and is speaking softly but with obvious vigor in a language Jason is sure he’s never heard before. They are examining a long wig that looks a lot like the girl’s hair. It’s fixed to a plastic stand, no head. An elegant-looking striped box, which the wig must’ve come from, sits beside it. Another woman stands behind the counter and watches the two converse. It isn’t clear whether she understands them any better than Jason does. She is squat and sturdy, with many-ringed hands, and wearing a black dress. This must be Rawa. She looks over to Annette, makes eye contact with Jason, and interrupts the women, saying in accented English, “You don’t mind if I help some other customer while you discuss?” She gestures to Annette standing just above the stairwell in jeans, loose blouse, and a turban. The women turn. When they see Annette, they do what Jason has noticed people all over New York doing: their heads go down, snapped away as if pulled by an invisible force,and they nod, quick and polite. Some of the women walking on Thirteenth Avenue wore turbans instead of wigs, but Annette’s pants, sneakers, and patchy eyebrows give her away.

“Of course, of course,” they mumble as Rawa moves to the other end of the counter, beckoning Annette and Jason over.

“Hello,” Annette says as they approach. “I’m Annette Caramanico.”

Hearing her use her maiden name, Jason winces. This is a recent change, and, he thinks, an untrue one. She is still Annette Benson. Her driver’s license, credit and debit and library cards—her health insurance card—all say so. They are Jason and Annette Benson, and if they weren’t, she would owe Mount Sinai Hospital and various medical labs and pharmacies upwards of $50,000. He hates that he thinks this way. He knows a better man wouldn’t hold Annette hostage to conditionals, even if only in the privacy of his own mind. But he isn’t as good as he wants to be. He still loves his wife; lately, he loves her with an intensity and desperation he thinks of as teenage, or disturbed. Disturbed because he is grateful to be back in her life, though, given the circumstances, he shouldn’t be. And, underneath the exhaustion of his sadness and worry, there’s the exhilaration of being needed again, of being necessary. He can call her and she will talk to him. This is the swirl of horrid thoughts Jason regularly sorts through since he found out Annette was sick. Sometimes he wants her back as much as he wants her to recover. In the middle of the night, when he lies awake in bed or sits, trying to read on their old saggy futon, the two futures seem equally important.

“I called earlier this week and spoke with Rawa,” Annette says.

“Yes, I remember,” Rawa says, a curt, professional smile crossing her face. And then she surprises Jason, because she doesn’t wade through the awkwardness of discussing Annette’s illness, or offer condoling statements in hushed tones. She doesn’t even turn to let Jason introduce himself, though she’s not ignoring his presence, either. “Did you bring a photo?” she asks, and leans down to slide the glass back on her side of the case, pulling out a few panels of display hair.

On the velvet backing, the hair is arranged as necklaces are in jewelry stores. The case is laid out by color—light to dark. The blonde hair is all at the other end of the case, where the mother and daughter are still talking in a hush over their new wig. After the blondes are the strawberry-blondes, then the deeper reds, the auburns, then the ash browns, and so on. Jason and Annette stand in front of the almost-black, and what Rawa has pulled out are several shades of dark brown. There is no gray in the case, which Jason finds strange. Surely some older women must want gray wigs.

“Yes,” Annette pulls a picture from her back pocket and lays it on the counter. Jason doesn’t have to strain to recognize it as one of his favorite photos, taken five years ago at the wedding of their friends Rob and Ashley: it shows only Annette, from the shoulders up, looking directly into the camera. She was a bridesmaid, and had worn contact lenses for the occasion. It is one of the last times he can remember her in public without her glasses; she’d complained mildly throughout the evening of how uncomfortable contacts were, and when they got home, slipped hers out and tossed them into the kitchen trash. Jason likes Annette in her tortoiseshell glasses—he wears glasses, too—but there’s something about her bare-eyed in this picture that he finds mesmerizing and singularly, stunningly beautiful. She has bright, dark eyes and long eyelashes. Annette was twenty-nine the year Rob and Ashley got married; she and Jason were newly married themselves, and she was tan from a week-long trip they’d taken to Cape Cod earlier that summer.

If he had to say, today, why he likes the picture so much, Jason might mention how healthy Annette looks. Her skin is firm, luminous, her heavy hair piled over one shoulder. But he’s always loved this picture. He used to keep it framed on his desk at work. And it wouldn’t have occurred to him, before, to consider his wife’s appearance of health in any given photo or memory. She was just beautiful. Her health was a given; it wasn’t something that mattered because it was a simple fact. But there’s the terrible irony to this line of thinking, because Annette must’ve had AML long before she went to a doctor to have it discovered. They aren’t sure exactly how many years the disease progressed inside her, new blood cells crowding her bones and spilling, eventually, into her bloodstream. She complained of headaches, she bruised easily, was tired a lot. She also had three miscarriages. And delivered one stillborn baby a month before the due date. That these things were symptoms of such a serious illness—vague or insignificant or overwhelmingly devastating, marriage-ending—seem obvious now, but, of course, it was an expert who finally connected them to one another, and to the disease that had, by that time, completely taken over Annette’s body.

Rawa picks up the picture, looking over it several times to compare with Annette now, scrawny and wearing a turban instead of thick curls.

“You want one this curly?” she asks. “That will be difficult. But you can always perm a straight one.”

Annette swallows.

“You don’t make curly ones?” Jason asks.

“I make them,” Rawa says. “But the hair isn’t as easy to find. How it works is: I have this hair for show,” she gestures to the case, “and the company I order from in France uses the same women whose hair this is. As much as they can, that’s what I get. But not always. Nobody can grow enough hair to supply all the fine wig shops in New York, let alone the world. They do a very good job matching, but no person’s hair is exactly the same as anyone else’s.” She’s raised her voice, Jason realizes, for the benefit of the Hasidic women talking about the red wig at the other end of the counter. They’ve actually stopped talking, and seem to be waiting patiently now for Rawa to return to them. “Because of this, curly hair is rare. Few suppliers buy it. Straight hair is more … it’s consistent. But like I said, you can perm a straight wig. It’s cheaper this way.” She turns to the waiting mother and daughter, pointing. “Here I come,” she says to them. To Jason and Annette, she says, “Excuse me. Just one moment,” and paces back to her other customers, who seem ready now. The mother has taken a credit card from her pocketbook.

Annette turns to Jason. “This is why they’re so expensive,” she whispers. Jason shrugs. He doesn’t want Annette to worry about the price, though of course, she’s right. The wigs are so expensive. Their cost is the reason he’s here now.

Their insurance, which covers up to $800 on a wig—one per subscriber per lifetime—comes from Jason’s work. He’s a software engineer for a corporate architecture firm. It’s very good coverage—Annette’s treatment has cost nearly nothing so far. But $800 is actually cut rate. Any wig under a thousand is made with synthetic or, at best, a mix of real and synthetic hair. Rawa’s wigs are 100 percent human hair, and among the best available in the city. Here, the cheapest, shortest pieces are priced at just under twenty-five hundred. When Jason learned this he offered—no, insisted—on paying. It’s actually not a lot of money, all things considered: because they aren’t divorced, Jason isn’t paying Annette any spousal support, though he’s offered to help her financially a number of times. He isn’t actually sure what she’s living on. It’s not as though her family could help; her mother is a retired secretary and her father, at sixty-three, still works as a custodian in a Bay Ridge public high school. Annette has a degree in childhood education, but up until a few months ago, she was a barista at a coffee shop in DUMBO . For a few years, she’d been a teacher at a Montessori preschool, but left that job a few months before she left Jason.

Late in January, Annette had sent Jason an email asking if he would meet her somewhere. She needed to talk to him. He’d assumed—as anyone probably would have—that she wanted to discuss their inevitable divorce. Jason wrote back, saying they should meet at Shopsin’s, because it was one of Annette’s favorite restaurants. He planned only to agree with whatever Annette wanted; besides his own selfish, useless desires, he didn’t have any arguments for why they should stay together, and, by this point, he’d begun seeing Holly, who works for a PR firm on the floor below Jason’s Midtown office; he was resigned when he’d asked her out, had been looking and found—quickly, a little more quickly than he’d really even wanted—the consolation of her company.

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.

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?”

“Okay.”

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.”

“Why?”

“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.

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