Walking the Dog
Walter didn’t know much about cancer—didn’t know much about the vocabulary of tumors or metastasis, or soft tissue sarcomas—but he had learned one thing about the disease: there was no answer to it. It couldn’t be reasoned with. It didn’t care about your budget or your sensibilities or your ethics. Saying “cancer” won the argument every time. For that reason—cancer, their friend Tina’s cancer—he drove over to the high-end butcher in Montclair and spent more than he could afford to buy her a nice New York strip. The shop was old-school—white tiles, sawdust on the floor, an analog scale with a needle, brown paper and string—but the butcher himself was young, bearded, and hipster-ish. Reaching into the case for the steak, he told Walter that the farmer who’d raised this cow probably knew it by name. Walter wondered if that made it harder to kill—knowing its name. For a moment, he thought about buying three steaks so that he and his wife, Sarah, could have some, too, but the price was absurd. He and Sarah would do without.
At home, he marinated the strip and cooked it up on the Weber. While he was at the grill, Sarah worked on the sides and dessert. Then she got out the bamboo. When they had started this business of helping to feed Tina through her treatments, Sarah laid out an unfathomable amount of money on two sets of artisanal bamboo containers in which to store and transport the meals they made. “She has cancer,” Sarah had said imploringly when Walter had protested the expense. “Who knows what deadly pathogens Tina’s microwave might release from our old Tupperware?” she said. “You can only imagine what encrusted and decaying enzymes and proteins could infect the food we make for her.” Easygoing and trusting, Sarah was susceptible to being tyrannized by the orthodoxies of others. She thought of friendship as a form of service. Meanwhile, Walter hated having to bow to someone else’s arbitrary whims, especially where money was involved. He could only imagine what toxins lay dormant in their Tupperware, because they hadn’t killed him yet.
Once the steak was ready, they packaged the three-course dinner into the bamboo containers and Sarah wrote out a menu in her best cursive:
Grass-fed New York strip steak seared in ginger-infused organic sesame oil.
Locally-grown organic bok choy sauteed with heirloom garlic and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
Berries of the season with organic crème freche.
Her serifs and curlicues, it seemed to Walter, strove for the kind of calligraphy you’d find on a menu card at an expensive country inn, but to his mind there was something funereal about the black ink on white paper. There was, in fact, something funereal, something last rite-ish about the whole activity. Survival rates for breast cancer were high (or so he kept hearing) and Tina was being seen by one of the best oncologists in the country (or so they’d been told). Why were they taking such sacramental care with these meals? Were they hoping to appease a God they didn’t believe in?
It was always Walter who delivered the food. The drive to Tina’s was 1.3 miles and it ran the gamut of the town. Walter and Sarah lived, quite literally, on the other side of the tracks from Tina. At the 0.6-mile mark, he went over a level crossing of the Morris & Essex line, and entered Tina’s much more salubrious neighborhood. In Tina’s part of town, the houses were larger, the cars were newer, and nobody mowed their own lawn or cleaned their own toilets. Walter parked their roughed-up Corolla in the driveway, behind Tina’s Land Rover, and climbed the stairs to the front porch. Across the street, on the backyard patio behind the trimmed hedgerows of the house on the corner, the neighbors were having a barbecue. He could smell the grilling meat and was suddenly glad Sarah had made him buy the steak (he’d wanted to go cheap and buy fish.). He was willing to bet that Tina had been smelling those grilling burgers, just hankering for some good grass-fed meat. Either that, or she was throwing up—it depended where in her chemo cycle she was.
Murphy, Tina’s shaggy barracuda of a wolf-hound, barked and trotted across the living room to the door, but quieted down once he looked through the window and realized it was Walter (dogs loved him). Then there was the long wait for Tina. He’d learned to be patient on these deliveries. Sometimes she had been sleeping. Other times, he’d interrupted a phone call. There was also, he’d gathered, a lot of bathroom time involved in chemotherapy, diarrhea being a side effect. Tina was unhurried—an indulgence of her privileged life. Years ago, Walter had once watched her let a late-night subway train depart a station without her because she refused to run for the open door. Her date that night did run and was on the train when the doors closed. The date was Walter and the train simultaneously sped him away from Tina and towards their break-up a week later. Tina, meanwhile, simply exited the station and caught a cab, beating him back to her place by a good fifteen minutes. Walter later figured that she probably never wanted to take the subway in the first place.
Now, standing at her front door, watching her come around the corner from the sunroom, he felt something in his chest that was two emotions at once: he was appalled all over again at the way the disease and its treatment had withered her beauty, but he was also enthralled by his memory of that beauty, a memory that her eyes and her mouth and her movements never failed to evoke. On summer nights, during that brief time, years ago, when he and Tina were lovers, he would stand at her door just like this, holding flowers or chocolates or wine instead of a home-cooked meal, eager to be let in so that he could take her clothes off.
“Hi!” rasped Tina, having made her way across the living room, given Murphy a scratch under the collar, and unlocked the door. After all this time, Walter was still not used to the hair loss. Tina had had short but frosting-thick golden-blonde hair. She’d elected not to wear a wig; from the beginning, she preferred an embroidered cloth cap that looked like it was native to some mountainous part of the Indian subcontinent. Without her hair and with that lid, she sometimes resembled a wizened old guy doing a mostly great job of impersonating Tina, but occasionally slipping up.
“Meals on Wheels,” he said, holding up the bag with the bamboo containers.
“You guys are the best!” Tina said. “I mean it. Thursday is my favorite day because you guys do such an amazing job.” She looked at him a moment, as if suddenly realizing something. “So, you want to come in?”
“Sure,” Walter said. He stepped into the house and Murphy was on him, nose to crotch, tail wagging like a conductor’s baton andante. “Hey buddy,” Walter said. “Hey buddy.” He dug his fingers into the back of Murphy’s skull and scratched, just the way he knew the dog liked it.
One of the reasons that Tina needed to have her meals cooked was that she and her husband, Bruce, were separated. Of course, Tina was wealthy enough to have her meals catered nightly by Dean & DeLuca if she wanted, but a mutual friend, Becky, had nipped that idea in the bud, saying that it was important for Tina’s “circle of support”—i.e., her friends—to minister to her. “Illness can be isolating,” Becky told Walter and Sarah and a half-dozen other local friends at the kickoff potluck dinner she’d hosted to arrange the rotation and also give them a list of preferred ingredients and cooking procedures that Tina’s dietitian had recommended—nothing fried, everything organic, fish had to be wild-caught and meat grass-fed. “It’s as much about providing social and emotional support as it is about feeding her.” (Sarah, a do-gooder at heart, had lapped this up, taking notes.) There was another committee of friends who drove Tina to and from her treatment sessions. Since he was home most days, “freelancing,” Walter had thought about offering his services as a chauffeur, but he had the sense those duties—seeing Tina at her worst—were for girls only.
Tina’s husband, Bruce, lived in the city, in a Noho studio he rented at a discount from his father, a property developer. Bruce was a composer and kept a strange schedule, untethered by regular employment or familial ties. He came out to New Jersey to visit Tina and their eight-year-old son, James, seemingly on a whim. What was oddest was that Walter had never seen Bruce at the house when he brought the food by, though, certainly, on occasion, Bruce must have been there. Was he hiding? Was he sleeping? Putting James to bed? Tina never said. Other times though, when Walter was driving around town running an errand, or heading over to the farmer’s market to buy the ingredients for one of the dinners they made for Tina, he’d see Bruce walking Murphy and he’d wonder how he could live with himself. How could he be so colossally selfish that his reaction to his wife’s cancer was to announce that he needed to move out so that her illness would not disrupt the musical he’d been working on for the last five years—a musical that was, according to Bruce, “at a critical juncture in its composition.” At least that was how Becky had reported the situation at the pot-luck back in the dead of winter.
Bruce and Tina had started going out not long after Tina and Walter broke up. Walter had never really liked Bruce, and during Tina’s cancer, he found reasons to hate him. He saw the way Murphy walked with Bruce and could tell the dog was just being a good sport about the whole thing because he needed to stretch his legs and relieve his bladder. Walter knew that Murphy was a high-energy dog. He liked a long walk. Years before, when Tina, Bruce, and James had gone on a vacation to the Bahamas during the Christmas break, Walter had walked Murphy every day, taking him up to the reservation and letting him run off the leash in the snow. For that, Murphy had never stopped loving Walter. Walter was sure Bruce just piddled around the block with him, leaving the dog unsatisfied and jumpy.
Tina’s house bore no evidence of the kind of disorder that often manifested itself in homes whose inhabitants were undergoing a medical ordeal. She had maids. She had a lawn service (but apparently not a dog-walker). Her living room could have been the interior of a luxury liner: the white linen drapes, the glossy wooden floor, the even glossier magazines, the artwork on the walls. Tina had worked for a time in a gallery in SoHo and bought some pieces “on the cheap.” Those pieces, Walter speculated, were now probably worth more than the house he and Sarah lived in.
Tina disappeared into the kitchen with the food. “You want a drink?” she called hoarsely.
“Sure,” said Walter. He wondered why she was being so hospitable. Normally they just exchanged pleasantries at the door, he handed over the food, and left. Had she just gotten some good news? Was it possible she was cured?
A moment later, she returned with an open bottle of wine and two glasses: one a tumbler, the other stemmed. The tumbler appeared to contain water.
“Bruce left this here. Says it’s good.” She pulled the cork out of the bottle and poured him a glass.
Walter took a sip. “Bruce is right,” he said. He thought how great that wine would be with the steak he’d just brought over, and for a moment the image of him and Tina eating dinner together, candlelight, wine—
“I have a favor to ask,” Tina said, rattling the ice in her glass.
“Shoot,” he said and then realized that it was too casual; she was serious. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Well,” she looked down. “Forgive me, but it’s going to sound kind of weird.”
“Whatever you need. You know we’re here for you.”
“Okay then. Will you sleep with me?”
“Will you have sex with me?” She looked directly at him now, asking this, and it was Walter who glanced down. He noticed for the first time what she was wearing: a pair of light cotton drawstring pants and a semi-transparent yellow blouse with a white tank top beneath.
There was a long pause while he tried to decide how to take the request. “Can you even have sex during chemo?” he finally asked, buying a little more time.
“My therapist thinks it might be good for me.”
“Adultery?” said Walter.
Tina stifled a laugh. “No. Just sex. He probably had Bruce in mind.” She took a sip of water. “I’m going into the last stages of my treatment and it’s important for me to maximize the benefits of the medication. So much of it is mental. So much of it is related to self-esteem. The head and heart heal the body, you know.”
Walter looked at her. He was half inclined to call her on that, but she looked right back, as if to challenge him. Tina had, in his experience, never been shy about asking for what she wanted and when she wanted something, she usually got it.
“I’ve been feeling so ugly since I lost my hair. Thin and ugly,” she said. “And Bruce won’t touch me. He says the word cancer gives him erectile dysfunction.”
They both laughed. Walter liked the thought.
“You could call Sarah and tell her I asked you to walk Murphy,” Tina said.
How simple duplicity could be—as simple as not walking a dog and then saying you did. Despite the torch he carried for Tina, Walter had been a faithful husband. But now he heard Sarah’s voice in his mind’s ear: “She has cancer.” You couldn’t reason with cancer. Cancer didn’t care about your ethics.
“Where’s James?” Walter asked.
“On a weeknight?”
“It’s summer,” she said and he understood that she’d planned the whole thing.
“Right. Can I have another drink?” he asked, setting down the wine glass. “Something stronger.” He knew, from social visits, that Bruce used to keep good Scotch in the liquor cabinet and he hoped some of it was still there.
“Help yourself,” said Tina. “I’ll be upstairs. Come up when you’re ready. Or just go home. Whatever you decide, I’ll be okay with it.” She walked away, not looking back, and went around the corner to the stairwell. Walter opened the cabinet and saw that there was about three fingers’ worth of Talisker in the bottle. He went into the kitchen and got a cube of ice from their ridiculous stainless-steel freezer.
Murphy click-clicked across the floor and drank from his bowl in series of lapping sloshes. He lay down, his snout on his extended front legs, and looked up at Walter with an inquisitive aspect, as if to say, What’s it going to be, dude? She’s waiting, you know. He could leave now. He could go out to the car and drive home, food delivered, and get into bed with his wife with nothing but idle fantasies to trouble his conscience. He could do that. But instead, he took a drink of the Talisker and called Sarah.
“Hi,” he said.
“Is everything okay?”
“I have to walk the dog,” Walter said, looking at the dog. “Bruce isn’t around and Tina-.”
“Of course!” Sarah said. “She must be exhausted. You’re so good to do that for her.”
“You know how Murphy is,” Walter said. “He needs a good walk.”
It had taken Walter a long time to get over the breakup with Tina—in some ways, perhaps, he’d never gotten over it. Partly this was because they had all known each other a long time and had once worked together—before Tina moved on to the gallery, before Sarah had gone to get her degree in social work, before Walter had started teaching himself HTML and XML. Back in the nineties, when they were all in their twenties, full of ambitions but no experience or direction, they’d ended up working in a newly-founded division of a renowned magazine publisher. Tina had trained Walter. She’d been there only six months, but the turnover was so high that she was the longest-tenured entry-level person on staff. (In those days, a thousand-dollar bonus was given to any employee who successfully brought a new hire to the company.) He still remembered the article with which she’d shown him how to keyword, a travel piece about Taormina. “Oh, I’ve been there,” said Tina. “Let’s see if they mention the Grand Hotel Timeo. Oh, look, they do! There you go. That’s one of your keywords,” she said. “Here, you cut and paste it into this field over here.”
Walter waited until his second week there to ask her out. He’d come to New York from a small town in New Hampshire, and he’d decided to embrace everything the city had to offer, including pretty, single co-workers. These were boom times and people were carefree about such things. Money was pouring out of the city’s computer screens and the money made everything solvent and fluid. Half the time, Walter didn’t even know who his supervisor was. He simply showed up to work and took a magazine off the stack in the inbox.
He and Tina dated in accelerated, intense fashion, like an oversubscribed IPO. Walter knew even as he was doing it that he was laying it on too thick, bringing flowers to her apartment, sending her love letters, taking her out to places he couldn’t quite afford. She broke up with him after three weeks. “That was fun,” she said, “but you’re getting way too serious.” A couple of weeks later, Sarah started and Tina also trained her. “You should ask her out,” Tina told him in the pantry, mixing Sweet ‘n’ Low into her coffee. “She’s from Vermont and she’s really nice. She’ll be good for you. Plus, look at that chest on her. In fact, I bet you’re going to marry her, Walter.”
“Shut up!” he said, but laughed despite himself.
Walter felt helpless. Something about Tina allowed her to get away with this—dumping him and then brokering his relationship with another co-worker. He resisted on principle, gave Sarah the cold shoulder, but nevertheless, Tina’s endorsement did give Sarah an allure she might not have otherwise had. To further complicate matters, before long, Tina was going out with Bruce. There was a different tone to their dating than when she had been with Walter. They were both New Yorkers, children of Manhattan who had come from moneyed families and seemed to speak the same language. Bruce walked the line between bohemian and hobo: he had perennial bed-head, wore shades all the time, ripped but expensive jeans and scuffed but expensive shoes. Bruce didn’t work at the magazine publisher—he had some kind of grant, plus the support of his father—but he showed up for drinks after work and also on the summer dinner cruise the company had arranged for the department. Walter had found himself up on deck after dinner as the boat passed the Domino Sugar sign, talking to Sarah. Damned if he didn’t like her. And with Tina and Bruce kissing at the other end of the deck, damned if he didn’t have a reason for liking her.
Walter had been in the master bedroom of Tina’s house only once before. Pre-cancer and pre-separation, she and Bruce had thrown a big Fourth of July barbecue. Tina was looking especially beautiful that afternoon and Walter, having just left a salaried, harried corporate tech position for the freelance life, was feeling, more than usual, the presence of what-ifs in his life, one of those being a longing for Tina. Sometimes he saw his marriage as nothing more than an extended battle with that longing, and on the afternoon of the barbecue, he succumbed, if only privately, to his desires. Rather than use the ground floor bathroom, he climbed the stairs and used the toilet on the second-floor landing. When he was done, he ambled nonchalantly along the hall and saw that the door to the master bedroom was ajar. There on the bed, were laid out three dresses that Tina must have considered wearing for the party. He slipped into the room and touched one of them, a giraffe-print wrap. Walter ran his hand along the fabric, imagining her body beneath it, imagining her in the bed on which the dress was laid. He crossed the room to her dresser where random items of jewelry were scattered: a pearl choker, a pair of silver earrings, and a gold bangle. For a moment, he thought about pocketing one of the earrings but he knew that, somehow or other, Sarah would find it and ask him about it—that it would turn this little betrayal into a much larger one. He went back downstairs and joined the party, drinking too much so that his wife had to drive them home.
The room had not changed much in the years since the Fourth of July festivities, only this time, Tina was in the bed when he entered. A single bedside light was illuminated, and she was reading a copy of InTouch magazine, the cover of which featured a story about a celebrity divorce.
“Oh, hey,” she said, as if she really hadn’t expected him. Self-consciously, she held up the magazine. “I wish I could read Sartre or Sontag or something a little more substantial, but my brain’s mush. Gossip is about all I’m good for.”
She’d taken off her hat and her bald head reflected the light from the lamp in a kind of half halo. She was wearing only the white tank top now and he could see that her breasts—which he’d always thought were shaped like single scoops of ice cream—were indeed missing. She saw him looking and said, “Yes, I’m keeping the tank on. The scars are about the least sexy thing you can imagine.” She smiled and something in her expression brought her back to him, the Tina he’d loved, the Tina of his longings. He sat on the big bed and kissed her. He was ready to taste the poison—the cancer, the chemo, the radiation, whatever it was—in her breath, but she’d brushed her teeth. She tasted of Crest and he tasted of Talisker and the two combined and left him feeling like he was drinking crème de menthe.
She turned off the light and the room was completely dark, save for the dial of the clock and the light under the bathroom door. He remembered that her apartment on Jane Street had had blackout curtains because she’d always been a light sleeper. “You don’t need the lamp on, right?” she asked. “I’m sure you remember where everything is, don’t you?”
He undressed himself and got into bed with her and found that the tank top was the only thing she was wearing. In the dark, he did his best to imagine that he was caressing the woman he’d dated a decade before, the nubile twenty-six-year-old Tina, but the facts before him kept intruding on the fantasy. For a start, she had no breasts. The skin on her thighs and arms was slack from the weight loss. On top of that, she was hairless as a pre-teen and dry. He reached between her legs, and it was like running his finger along the seam of a purse or a leather jacket.
They kissed again. “You’re going to have to help me out there,” she said and he diligently went down on her. The distance of the real event from the fantasies he’d entertained for years was immense and the irony of it was not lost on him, but it did not diminish the satisfaction he felt at placing his tongue there. Once again, he feared the taste, but she’d showered and there was only a lingering aroma of soap. Once moistened, her flesh tasted just ever so slightly of wet suede, musky and faintly rotten. It was work and he worked it and for a time it seemed like he might bring her to something, but after a while she stopped him. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s good, in fact, but it’s never going to happen. You could be there for weeks and we don’t have that long. I’m dulled.”
She brought out a condom from somewhere and handed it to him.
“Is that necessary?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “For lubrication.”
When they were done, they lay in the dark in the silence and he could hear Murphy downstairs, scratching himself, his tags jingling like a wind chime. It was a moment before he realized that Tina was crying.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I—?”
“No. It was fine. Thank you. I can’t thank you enough. The last few months my body has been my enemy, telling me what to do. I’m so glad I—we—finally told my body what it had to do.”
“I love you,” he said. “I never stopped loving—”
“No,” she said. “Don’t.”
“I’ve been wanting to say that to you for—”
“I know you have, Walter. That’s why I asked you. But don’t say it anymore.”
“It won’t do me any good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because. It’s too late, Walter.”
“But you and Bruce are…”
“No, I mean it’s too late for me. You can’t tell anyone. Not even Sarah.”
“What?” he said, still not understanding. “What is it that I can’t tell her?”
On the drive home, he couldn’t decide which secret was going to be the more onerous to keep—his betrayal of his wife, or the fact that Tina was going to die, that the chemotherapy and the radiation therapy and the organic, grass-fed meals and the circle of support from friends had not worked and that her doctors had told her she probably had three months at most. She’d informed no one else, not even Bruce, and the knowledge—its intimacy and magnitude made him feel at once privileged and cursed.
In the kitchen, there was a bowl of salad and a board with a hunk of cheddar and stack of crackers and some grapes. He took a beer from the fridge and ate his simple meal in silence. When he was done, he tossed the bottle into the recycling bin and loaded the bowl in the dishwasher, wrapped up the remains of the cheese and crackers. He felt a compulsion to put things in their places.
Sarah was upstairs in bed, reading one of her heavy-duty books about the roots of psychopathy or the genetics of addiction. “How’d it go?” she asked.
“Hard to tell,” he said. “She looked … tired.”
“And the food?”
“Oh, she said it was great. She ate it while I was out walking the dog.” He looked around their little bedroom which, after five years, still had almost nothing on the walls, as if they were still learning to inhabit their lives. The freelancing plus Sarah’s salary brought in just enough to keep them out of debt, but never enough to improve things. Sarah never complained about this. He looked at her, the light from the bedside lamp showing auburn highlights in her thick brown hair.
“Hey, I’m just going to wash up and I’ll join you,” he said, ducking into the bathroom. He closed the door and, for reasons he didn’t understand, he suddenly felt good. Better than good: elated. He washed himself carefully, removing all trace of Tina from his hands and his hair, digging under his fingernails and into his nostrils to get the scent of her out of him, brushing his teeth to expel her taste.
Scrubbed and changed, he emerged from the bathroom and got into bed next to Sarah. She was wearing an old satin nightshirt that, when she was standing, came down to the middle of her thighs. Seated as she was, with her back propped against a stack of pillows, he could see the edges of her panties and the flesh of her legs. He wet his finger and drew a circle on the skin of her leg and blew, watching the goose flesh rise.