People Who Report More Stress
Beating cancer should be the biggest challenge in his life, not trying to catch a cab in Manhattan. Short Story
March 27, 2020
Mar 27, 2020
23 Min read time
Beating cancer should be the biggest challenge in his life, not trying to catch a cab in Manhattan. Short Story
This short story was a semi-finalist in the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and is featured in our new special project:
Gus usually hails them—the cabs. He’s a magnet. A few times, he has stopped them with an errant wave of his hand. Once, a taxi sheered across four lanes of traffic and away from a pair of patient, middle-aged brown people because Gus extended his arm to point out the cupola of an old Ukrainian church in the East Village. I, on the other hand, repel them, like Danny Glover and Spike Lee do. This is why I prefer the apps and the subway. But I try not to be too precious about it because there are cabs that don’t stop for Danny and Spike that stop for me.
The evening is tepid and sunlit, typical of August in New York City, but the cold in my bones is late winter. I’m on my way to buy a new phone, too weak from weeks of radiation treatment to walk the remaining twelve blocks. Three empty taxis zoom past, their on-duty lights taunting me. I wait for a familiar, neurochemical heat in my chest and face that doesn’t come. Even the audience of restaurant-goers dawdling across the street does nothing to me. Some of my composure is an unintended side effect of being an enervate survivor; some of it is calculated. Cancer reoccurrences are likelier in people who report more stress. I force a smile that I hope will dupe my body into thinking I’m happy, or at least keep the cortisol at bay. I don’t give up. I step further into the street and throw both arms in the air—a dare.
A taxi stops.
“Straight ahead. I’ll tell you when.”
Evading the truth requires energy and leaves a pernicious mark. The fear of honesty, however, is momentary.
The driver is a chatty, mustachioed man from Kerala who keeps a neat carriage. He praises the weather and laments cyclists. He wonders aloud if I, too, am Indian, then Pakistani, then Palestinian, then Mexican. The conversation doesn’t rankle; instead, I’m intrigued. No one ever mentions Palestine casually. The driver’s passing remark takes on an air of protest. I explain that my mother is from El Salvador and my father from Colombia. From the latter, he references a famous drug dealer, a pop singer, and a soccer player, but he says nothing of the former, a small Central American nation littered with dormant volcanoes and dusted with the ashes of civil war. A few blocks later, he broaches the topic of children.
“I have two,” he says.
“Very lucky we are. They are home with your wife?”
“With my husband, actually.”
“Oh,” says the driver. The car hums as we wait for the red light to change.
Months ago, I might have changed the subject or pretended to take a call instead of outing myself. But evading the truth requires energy and leaves a pernicious mark. The fear of honesty, however, is momentary, like a steep rollercoaster drop. This freedom is becoming addictive and makes me wonder about all of my inhibitions, past and present. Has this sense of liberation always been so readily accessible? Have I given my fears too much weight? Surely society shares the blame. Wait, I’m doing it again. I’m overthinking instead of—
“Every day, different people in my taxi. That’s what I love about this country,” the driver says, like a paid advertisement, and double-parks outside my destination.
The storefront is blue glass, including the heavy door, which requires both hands and a wide stance to open. The air conditioning is gale force. The smells of new plastic and carpet freshener invade my senses. A man with a hoary beard, dark brown skin, and a lumbering gait arrives like an aged tree. He’s wearing standard khakis and large eyeglasses, the kind I’ve come to associate with serial killers. He reminds me of my father, but not in appearance—my father is short, stout, beige, and has perfect vision. Every man who should be resting instead of working reminds me of my father.
“Welcome to Cell Phone Warehouse, Sir. My name is Jerry. How can I help you today?” he says in one breath, as if his time is also precious, as if he weren’t many years my senior.
Jerry helps me leave the store with a phone and a hard-plastic case. I slip him a twenty—I’ve been tipping extravagantly since the diagnosis. After a brief silence, he nods at me. I immediately fear I’ve been condescending.
My walk home is unhurried but alert. Everyone around me is glowing effortlessly. Sunlight and evening are tangled in a vibrant pink-orange sky. I pull out the new phone and glide my fingertips across the screen. I refrain from calling Gus because he’ll hear I’m out of breath and worry. My mother doesn’t answer. It is nearly eight. She is probably putting Julio and Che to sleep, and a missed call from me will certainly trigger a panic loop. I begin to regret but take long, calming breaths. I feel repetitive and temporary, like a pop song or a yoga class. The intersection ahead is hazy. It’s the steam spewing up from beneath the city and the dizzying effect of everyone’s economic ambitions. An equitable redistribution of wealth in my lifetime is beginning to seem unlikely. I see a pharmacy on the corner; I’ll pick up the sunscreen there.
I set the ringer to vibrate and slip the phone back into my pocket, but before I reach the corner, it is again in my hands. The urge to talk to someone won’t loosen its grip. If my memory bank is a Rolodex, it contains only a few worn cards. One is my sister’s—somehow, she secured a phone number that is exactly her birthday: month, day, and year. But it’s Friday, and she’s probably napping before going out. My breathing is quiet and steady. I dial Gus. When the ringing begins, it dawns on me that he was the last person I called before this all began five months ago.
• • •
Despite the sun, a chill persisted. Pollen and construction dust were defying gravity: spring in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. In the background, late lunchers wrapped in scarves hid behind sunglasses, each with an aura of anonymity, like film extras who’d been directed to play their roles with a disengaged and morally ambiguous affect—years of this. I was on my way to pick up Julio from school. I had just crossed from one café-strewn street corner to another when Che, hanging marsupial-like from my chest, let out an important sneeze.
“Hold on a sec, hon,” I said to Gus, who’d stepped out of a meeting only moments before to answer my call. But in the process of wrangling the tiny, intransigent nose, the phone slipped out from between my ear and shoulder and onto the pavement. Gus continued talking because he had no idea he was lying on a slab of cracked bluestone that was being colonized by tree roots and untamed weeds, but I sensed instantly that my life had changed. “I broke it.”
The intersection ahead is hazy. It’s the steam spewing up from beneath the city and the dizzying effect of everyone’s economic ambitions.
“My phone. I just dropped it on the street. The screen is completely shattered.”
I held the wreckage a centimeter from my ear, then, a few inches from my face, then, back to my ear. I was quickly coming to terms with its essential nature. What if I got to the school and our son had a fever? What if his cornea was scratched? How would I contact his pediatrician? How would I get there?
“Can you stay on the line until I pick him up? Just to be safe,” I said to Gus. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to call you back if I hang up.”
“OK,” he said, like a man whose day couldn’t be ruined. He simply walked away from the room full of casually dressed male engineers without saying a word and made his way to a common area or kitchen or brightly colored conference room where he could continue listening to me wail about my broken phone, never once telling me to hold on or wait a minute.
I’ve gotten used to that. Nearly twenty years we’ve been together. Twenty years of “OK.”
Our son was fine. My right index finger, however, was full of tiny cuts from swiping at the screen.
Later I lay rigid on the living room floor, doing my best to smile and balance my children’s bodies while trying to let go of self-hatred, for being so clumsy and stupid. But as Julio perched himself on my knees and Che sat cross-legged on my chest, the isolation and despair became something like relief. My phone, after all, hadn’t been only a multipurpose tool—dictionary, map, personal assistant, bridge. It had also been a years-long addiction (screen on, screen off, screen on, off, on, email, refresh, email, refresh, New York Times, refresh, tennis scores, refresh, porn, email, screen off, screen on). And just like that, I was free of it.
“I’m not going to replace it.”
“What? Really?” Gus set down his can of pale ale and burped quietly. We had just put the kids to sleep, and we were in the kitchen, acclimating to the calm. “How am I going to call you in the middle of the day?”
“We can email.”
“What about all your family and friends?”
“We can get a landline.”
“But you’re always worried about an emergency with the kids.”
“And you’re always telling me not to.”
“Let’s see how you feel tomorrow.”
• • •
The moments of concentration were ephemeral. In a café a few blocks from home, I stirred a bowl of eight-dollar oatmeal festooned with dried berries and pecans, trying, without much success, to grade my students’ papers before class. It was my first day without a phone in nearly fifteen years, and I couldn’t submerge the fear that everyone in my life was in the midst of a crisis and desperate to reach me. I emailed Gus and reminded him to keep his phone handy in case the daycare or school needed us. Then I pressed the headphones into my ears and turned up Yaz, followed by Tears for Fears, and finally Anita Baker, but none of them comforted me like they usually do.
On the second day, I expected more of the same internal frenzy, but to my surprise, the withdrawal symptoms were more bluster than tropical cyclone. To fill the time, I stuffed Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into my backpack for the subway trips—more than a decade of not getting past the first chapter. On the walks to and from the train, instead of calling anyone or reading about Roger Federer, I did my best to notice tree beds and stoops and mail carriers and the minutiae of race relations. I also found myself ogling at every even mildly attractive man who crossed my path: skinny-legged jeans and fanciful haircuts; bright sneakers and baggy pants; standard business casual, jacket, no tie. A few called my bluff, but I balked when it was my turn to glance back.
On the third day, with a thin scarf wrapped around my nose and mouth as a guard against the pollen, I walked slowly, on the balls of my feet, and took mindful, yogic breaths. But after only a few blocks, my mind coiled itself around the possibility that everyone thought I was a terrorist because of my makeshift balaclava. I stuffed my hand into my pocket in search of the phantom phone, fingering the threadbare depths, before pinching tightly the skin of my thigh, an attempt at reconditioning. In the afternoon, I stopped at the bank by the university and deposited money into my father’s account—money he’s never requested but that assuages my class guilt. Afterward, I calculated my students’ final grades. My mother emailed to say hello. A short time later, she sent another email expressing concern about the lack of response to her first email.
“Try the Internet,” said the man at the fourth phone repair shop I visited—this one, tiny and decorated in old calendars and foreign currency. Five phone-free days had passed before I succumbed to the search for a replacement screen. “This,” I said, pointing to my phone, “is my Internet.” He nodded but didn’t glance up from his own screen.
By the seventh day, I was free. The urge to call someone or to browse the Internet had vanished; I was no longer reaching, digging, or pinching. Instead, I found myself massaging the bottom left side of my abdomen. The unfamiliar pressure felt like gas, so I stretched and lay on my back and tried diamond pose, but the relief was only ever short-lived. Gus mentioned the discomfort to my mother when she called looking for me a few evenings later—he shouldn’t have. She asked Gus to ask me if I’d noticed changes in my bowel movements—yes, more constipated than usual. The next day, she told Gus to tell me to stop drinking kombucha—I did. I also increased the fiber content in my diet and cut out alcohol and caffeine. The pressure didn’t care; it continued.
By the seventh day, I was free. The urge to call someone or to browse the Internet had vanished; I was no longer reaching, digging, or pinching.
My doctor was on vacation, so I made an appointment with the physician’s assistant, Kenny—a bubbly, bow-tied Texan who wore short-sleeve dress shirts that brandished his biceps. The redhead with curls who walked into the cramped, L-shaped examination room was neither Kenny nor familiar. She smiled often, and gave curt commands. Her name was Kelly. She had me lie on my back and pressed her hands onto my belly, gently at first. A thin necklace escaped her blouse and dangled over me. She asked if I was in a monogamous relationship, but never made eye contact. Kelly then handed me a cup and asked me to pee in it. “I see here you’ve lost six pounds since your last physical. Are you getting more exercise?”
In the weeks that followed, there was a fecal exam, a sonogram, a CT scan, and a colonoscopy that required a foul laxative far worse than the abdominal discomfort. I suspected the entire time that it was cancer, but I said nothing because when the time came for them to tell me I had cancer, I wanted them—all of them—to focus specifically on the cancer and my treatment and not on the awkwardness of having previously reassured me it was not cancer.
My mother cried quietly when the news came. She was nowhere near the doctor’s office, but I heard her sobbing into my father’s chest. She knew what I was being told. She’d known for weeks. “Discomfort in that part of the body, with no other symptoms, worries me,” she’d said to Gus. “It could be pancreatic cancer—como mi mamá,” she trailed off, before catching herself, “but don’t let him be nervous!”
I’d been nervous from the beginning. It wasn’t only the thought of something unwanted growing inside of me; I was also concerned with its severity. Years before, in East Harlem, in a Pentecostal church basement with green carpeting, I’d interviewed a group of women as part of a breast cancer study. It didn’t take long to determine that their primary reason for evading screening exams was fear (of death and doctors). “Principalmente los americanos y los hombres,” called out a petite grandmother with a thick braid of gray hair draped, like a long, elegant stole, over one shoulder. The other ladies nodded along. As the meeting progressed, I learned that they had each known other women (usually relatives, sometimes neighbors) with breast pain who’d died shortly after being diagnosed. It only gets worse when they open you up was the popular sentiment in the room. Stuck with the limited script in my hand, I focused on the importance of early detection, but the Latinas stared skeptically, nibbling complimentary Melba toast and sipping instant coffee, as if I were a double agent—an agent of some kind, surely.
“I have your results,” said the gastroenterologist. Gus and I were holding hands across the space between our seats—plump, maroon leather in Queen Anne, carved mahogany frames. The office resembled a small Ivy League library. It was a Tuesday. “The polyps are malignant. Colon cancer, stage II,” he said. The low-budget horror movie sequel of cancers.
My first thought was, Fuck, a lot of people are going to assume this has something to do with anal sex. Then, something else occurred to me. Years before, when the second Bush was reelected, I joked that if I were ever terminally ill, I would find a way to take out the conservative wing of the Supreme Court. Nothing excessively violent, but murder nonetheless. Now, here I was, terminally ill–adjacent, and I didn’t want to kill a soul. I wanted everyone to live, even Clarence Thomas.
“The good news is, it’s still early,” said the doctor, his way of tying a red bow around a live grenade.
I wanted to believe him, but my mind couldn’t suppress the memory of our first meeting a few weeks earlier, when he’d forgotten me in an examination room.
“I am very sorry. This has never happened before,” he’d said, as I pretended not to hear, hurriedly zipping up my pants and forcing my heels into my shoes. “Please don’t leave. This is important.”
Thirty-four minutes I’d lain, awkward and cold, over a thin sheet of paper, naked from the waist down, like a cartoon character with pubic hair, telling myself this was a completely acceptable length of time to wait for a doctor, that this wouldn’t even constitute a wait in Canada or England, that this had nothing to do with anything other than his patient load, that (at least) I could rule out homophobia because he was a gay physician highly recommended by another gay physician. But in the end, I could think only of the nodding Latinas in East Harlem, who’d relied on empirical evidence to arrive at the same conclusions as those in the research articles I’d been assigning to my students for years, about how white doctors treat non-white patients worse.
Here I was, terminally ill–adjacent, and I didn’t want to kill a soul. I wanted everyone to live, even Clarence Thomas.
In the weeks following that first meeting, the forgetful clinician with an artificial tan and a shaved head proved himself friendly and contrite—he waived my copays and gave me preferential appointment times. In fact, even on the day of the bad news, he seemed genuinely affected, alternating between comforting tones and performative eyebrows, as if the cancer were somehow his fault. If we’re being honest, I felt a tinge of gratitude that he was willing to shoulder a portion of the blame.
As the doctor spoke to us about treatment options, I sized up the desk between us, nutmeg-stained cherry wood, wondering if it had ever been the site of a post-diagnosis sexual encounter—it was quite a large desk. I wondered, too, if we might be in an Edmund White novel or an entry in Gary Fisher’s diary. Everything felt possible. And unless the cancer had recalibrated my pheromone detector, I’d sensed subtle, triangulated longing originating from the doctor—extended stares and exaggerated laughter amidst the textbooks and framed diplomas—mostly directed at Gus, who, ironically, has seldom been spontaneous about sex and has never been attracted to older men.
• • •
My mother started visiting on the weekends, and during the week she’d call Gus to say that she thought I was in shock and should buy a phone. Gus thought so too, but he never brought it up. He resorted, instead, to being attentive and caring, while I sat in bed with my laptop, telling myself I was on vacation, researching odds ratios and advances in treatment. For fear that Julio and Che were too young to retain clear or definitive memories of me, I made an effort to be more engaged—elaborate Lego constructions, emotive story reading, longer hugs, more eye contact.
“Your five-year survival rate is 83 percent. That’s good news,” said the oncologist, an Argentine man with a pronounced overbite and the British diction of an expensive education. “The first round of radiation begins next week,” he continued. “We want to be certain we got it all.”
Radiation. For fifteen years, I’d walked around with it in my pocket. A couple of Scandinavian studies from the early cell phone days suggested that consistent exposure to mobile phones might increase the risk of brain tumors. They said nothing about the colon, but was this a coincidence? Sometimes, I kept my phone in my coat pocket, which rested somewhere near the height of my intestines. Radiation was the cure, but could it also have been the cause?
I created an email account—curiousaboutcancer1848—and sent out inquiries.
“Dear Swedish Cancer Researcher, Is it possible that my phone caused the cancer? And beyond that, did my phone keep the cancer at bay? Was I symptomless all this time because I’d been self-medicating with a DIY course of radiation in my pocket?”
“Dear Crazy American, That seems impossible.”
I sent more emails. Most went unreturned. A researcher at the University of Pretoria found my hypothesis implausible but entertaining. She wished me luck.
After a week, I came to my senses. I was embarrassed but still wanted answers. I contacted a few people who researched stress. A famed epidemiologist at Harvard responded: “There is no evidence of a relationship between stress and the onset of cancer, unless stress leads to unhealthful habits, e.g., excessive drug or alcohol use or a poor diet. But chronic cortisol, consistent with the reported stress levels in blacks, Latinxs, American Indians, some Southeast Asians, and low-income folks, including whites, in the United States, has been found to make a cancer grow, spread, and return faster. It must be said, however, this area of research isn’t as robust as it could be, not least of all because of whom it affects.” A few days later, he emailed again: “Are you familiar with the extensive canon of social support research? An ounce goes a long way. Godspeed.”
I was familiar with the research. In brief, feeling cared for and caring for others activates safety-related neural regions and inhibits threat-related ones. It does the opposite of what stress does. This is why tighter-knit societies are healthier. It’s why tighter-knit communities within uneven societies survive for as long as they do.
Yoga, it turns out, cannot undo the deluge of cortisol that is unleashed while trying to catch a cab to yoga.
• • •
The air conditioning was set to low. Gus was in his underwear enjoying a beer on a couch that cost us a community college semester of tuition—the last expensive purchase before we had children. He was reading the newest N.K. Jemisin book. I was beside him, dressed for a colder climate, trying to make my way through Before Night Falls in Spanish—Arenas was up a tree, hiding from the police, famished and delusional. My mom had come by earlier to take the kids for the weekend. She’d been doing that since the treatment began. My sister, too, was babysitting often, but never on the weekends. “Your cancer is not going to keep me from meeting Mr. Right,” she’d said after the diagnosis. We both laughed, but it gave me perspective.
‘I don’t care if Russia hates us. I want to visit anyway. Too much has happened there for me not to.’
Gus continued doting. Every morning, he awoke earlier than usual, in the hopes of keeping the kids quiet while I slept in. He brought me breakfast in bed—blended soups and chamomile—on a sturdy tray he’d ordered from a home health attendant website. He massaged my shoulders unprompted, and he replaced all the batteries in our remote controls; faltering remote controls frustrate me easily. He also surprised me with fourth-round tickets to the U.S. Open—my favorite round. But, most importantly, Gus served as my intermediary to the world. There were weeks of fatigue and nausea, when I didn’t want to expend energy explaining my condition or listening to people’s heartfelt words. I wanted only to watch reruns and occasionally eat Doritos. Nothing more. He was okay with that.
“Honey, I want to go to Bolivia and Russia and Cuba. Soon.”
“I don’t care if Russia hates us. I want to visit anyway. Too much has happened there for me not to. And one day it won’t hate us, but I may not be around to see it.”
“You’ll be around.”
“But just to be safe . . .”
At this, Gus leaned forward, disrupting the thin layer of sweat between our thighs and the cushions, and set his beer down on the braided jute rug. His head dropped low, like a person in a pew, mourning. He was crying, and the more he sobbed, the heavier his head, until finally, it looked as if he were bracing for an impact. I’d never seen him this afraid.
It wasn’t only fear; it was loneliness, too. Everything, after all, had fallen on him—the kids, our home, the doctors, my sarcasm. He’d been left behind.
I rested my chin on his bare shoulder. “No need to get upset. We can skip Russia,” I said. He continued crying, but now laughter, too, found its way into the room. When both subsided, he stretched out and rested his head on my lap. With the tip of my finger, I drew small circles against the grain of his cowlick. He dozed off quickly, but I continued to stare at his profile. The lines around his eyes were no longer few or impermanent, and the faint freckles on the bridge of his nose had multiplied. For years, I’d been telling him to use sunscreen. White skin does not hold up well. Many times, I’d said that. But Gus has never prioritized those sorts of vanities. And he probably never would.
A fierce urge to protect him gripped me for the first time, different from the sadness and dread I’d been feeling whenever I imagined leaving the kids. Gus hated long silences, as well as eating and sleeping alone. He wasn’t the sort of person who made dinner plans with friends or who bought tickets for the theater. What would he do?
I remained there beneath his weight for a while longer, crafting a mental list of tasks: I needed to send my syllabi to the new administrative assistant in our department. She’d emailed me a few times already—two reminders and one note to wish me well. We also needed to make doctor’s appointments for the kids: Che was due a round of vaccines; and Julio was overdue a visit to the dentist. And at least a dozen friends, an aunt, and two colleagues were owed calls and emails. I looked around for Gus’s phone, hoping I could take care of some of these tasks or at least set a few reminders, but it was across the room, on the mantel, between two candles that we’d never lit.
“I need to go.”
“Huh?” Gus shot up ninety degrees. “What? Is everything OK?”
I kissed his cheek and lips, and tugged gently at his chest hair. “Yes.”
“Where are you going?”
“Down the street.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“But I already bought kombucha!” I heard through the door, as I hurried down the stairs.
In the distance, a few yellow cabs were approaching. There was no time to second-guess.
By the time I reached the end of our block, I was winded. A burning seized the area where the radiation had been aimed. I doubled over and placed my hands on my knees, like I might have after a long, strenuous run. Across the street, a carefree, cosmopolitan crowd spilled out from the restaurant onto the sidewalk—people in summer dresses, tank tops, and wrinkled linen shirts, waiting for their names to be called. All of them enjoying life in the precious hours of a precious season. They didn’t see me, but still, I straightened up, brushed off my creases, and stretched my lips into a smile.
I wasn’t going far, but walking constituted an unnecessary expenditure of energy. In the distance, a few yellow cabs were approaching. There was no time to second-guess. I stepped into the street and threw both arms up.
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March 27, 2020
23 Min read time