White Walls, Cancer, and a Love Affair

by Rebecca Pickens


Curled in bed, spooning a pillow, Mira felt her tumor’s nascent tentacles lengthening. Beside her, Nick slept. A minute before ten, his eyes had closed without difficulty. Unacquainted with the cancer burgeoning inside of his wife, Nick dreamed quiet stories he wouldn’t remember in the morning.

Mira’s tumor had no name. It was simply an undiagnosed feeling—an indeterminate sensation just a bit north of her left breast, triggered, it seemed, by Nick’s restfulness. Mira felt no desire to seek its confirmation from white-coated professionals, nor did she long to discuss cancer’s sad significance with friends. Inside of her, diseased cells were given free rein to flourish, unencumbered by medical interventions or sweeping acts of kindness.

The growth was merely an ominous sensation for now—a sort of malevolent force permeating fragile marrow, blood, and bone. At the first hint of day, its presence dissipated. Under workplace bright lights in a busy gallery uptown, Mira forgot about cancer cells dividing, multiplying, and conquering her dark spaces.

To compensate for her neglect, Mira nurtured her invader at night, stuffing fear and worry into its insatiable orifice.

Anticipating Nick’s reaction when she revealed her illness soothed Mira. In the earliest morning hours, Mira visualized her husband’s unflappable smile dissolving as he learned her prognosis was terminal.

Mulling over this scenario, as she did most nights, Mira believed Nick would ask for a divorce. And when he did, she thought, her face would remain smooth, like the alabaster sculpture exhibit she’d arranged for the gallery last October. She would not protest her husband’s decision. Rather, emboldened with the truth, her suspicions finally confirmed, Mira could begin plans for a new life.

Alternative cancer treatments in South America were all the rage now. Prone to guilt, Nick would likely pay for Mira’s airfare to a posh treatment facility of her choosing. His credit card and hollow well-wishes would make fine parting gifts. In South America, or wherever she wound up, hot sun and sand would eviscerate all memories of Nick’s groundless confidence.

Mira met Nick three years earlier two months shy of her 38th birthday at a get-together hosted by a mutual acquaintance. Both had attended the event alone with intentions of leaving early. Holding a wine glass in her left hand, and a crumpled cocktail napkin in the other, Mira worked the room so fabulously that night that Nick had overlooked the desolation cloaking her figure. The event depleted Mira, and she’d needed to slip out early. Small talk with strangers always flooded her with murky, untenable panic. She likened conversation of this sort to wandering through tundra— a frigid landscape void of vegetation, orientating landmarks, or familiar comforts of any kind; one wholly lacking vital sustenance.

Safely back inside her apartment, Mira massaged her own feet and consoled herself with a promise not to leave her apartment again. But before Mira walked out of the party, Nick had asked if he could call her sometime. She’d flashed him a fabulous grin and answered, “You bet!” In retrospect, Mira thought it fitting, funny even, that on the night marking the start of their shared history, Nick had already constructed a contorted, repurposed version of her.

Fast forward a year. There is little reason to linger long over Nick and Mira’s courtship. It was neither beautiful nor ugly. Rage, passion, admiration, jealousy, lust, fidelity—in the context of their relationship, these words had no place. Their relationship was utterly unremarkable.

Once over drinks and an overpriced cheese plate, Mira confided in a co-worker she barely knew. “Nick and I didn’t notice where we were headed that year before we married. We weren’t hopeful, fearful, or at peace.” The boredom on her acquaintance’s face emboldened Mira, and she’d kept talking. “We were like two people gathering ingredients for a recipe we knew by heart. It all tasted so familiar. My palate wasn’t offended, but my taste buds didn’t dance either.” Her colleague had laughed wryly at this and ordered them both vodkas.

It was then, after too much alcohol and talk, that Mira felt the first inkling of an encroachment. In bed beside Nick, she’d begun to contemplate the chaos steeping inside of her. With detached scientific interest, she noted both the provocative fear and unmentionable comfort this new consciousness, her cancer, evoked.

Not long after Mira’s tumor made sleep unmanageable, Nick took a new job—a tenure-track position at a college further from their apartment but with wealthier students and better landscaping. It was a good job. Mira bought Nick a new dress shirt to celebrate, but returned it when she saw how much it resembled his others.

Nick’s professional success afforded Mira the opportunity to quit her job at the gallery—the activity that best sedated daylight hours and pushed cancer to the sidelines. When she told Nick she needed the time to make art, he agreed. Working tirelessly, Mira turned their back room, a barely used space for guests, into a studio. Over the span of two days, Mira removed from its belly a futon and an old junk dresser. She painted the coral walls a stark Parisian-feeling white and left them bare.

For several weeks, Mira produced nothing inside of her studio. Industriousness didn’t seem like the point. Instead, she’d resumed several old habits. Cigarettes and nail-biting were among the most egregious. In old overalls Nick hated, she sat on a paint-splattered gray stool left from her grad school apartment. Without enough support for her long spine, Mira slouched on her seat; another bad habit making a comeback inside of her studio.

Although she assumed Nick noticed the cigarette smoke and overalls she wore, he showed no response. Mira was intrigued by her husband’s vapid lack of curiosity. He wonders about nothing, she thought.

Magda entered their lives quietly, just after Christmas. Mira remembered that the first significant snow of the year fell the day Nick mentioned her. Knocking on the blue door to Mira’s studio, he’d entered the room before she could respond. “I have an interesting colleague at work. She’s new as well. I think you’d like her.” As he spoke, Nick ran his finger over a water ring, an irritating blemish at the edge of her wobbly drafting table.

“Oh, yes?” Mira wondered if there was a point to this discussion or, at the very least, possibility of a defined finish line.

“Yes. She seems like someone you could get to know and enjoy. Her field is Eastern European politics, which I recognize doesn’t interest you in the least, but she also knows a lot about art. Since she’s new to the area, I thought you’d enjoy taking her around. Maybe you could pop into a gallery or two together sometime. It could be nice for both of you.”

Nick’s cheeks were flushed—an unremarkable seeming detail Mira barely noticed at the time. If pressed, she might have supposed it was a reaction to the frigid winter temperature.

Many months later, Mira reconsidered that moment. It was a Thursday evening, and Nick wasn’t home. He’d gone to a lecture at the college with Magda. “We’ll probably grab a bite to eat afterward,” he’d informed her.

Mira anticipated the time alone expectantly. In advance of the evening, she’d prepared a large canvas. For inspiration, she’d unearthed old photos from a trip to Prague (with a not-forgotten lover) and arranged her brushes and paints until their thoughtful symmetry pleased her. A bottle of cabernet was open on the counter, and her phone was turned off.It had been months since she’d created anything more than a sequence of charcoal sketches—indecisive smudged strokes that, once on paper, had saddened her and been quickly thrown away. But in the hours before Nick’s outing with Magda, Mira felt a calming sense of urgency to enter her studio and produce something of tangible consequence. A surge of electric confidence emanated from the promise of a night alone, an absence of food to prepare, and nobody’s day to ask about.

Not sure when Nick would return home, Mira entered her studio in the early evening, and without forethought, began to paint. Bold blues and magentas, visceral colors she usually avoided, commanded their own arrangement across the canvas. Mira’s hands trembled from the force of the act. Her heartbeat raced, and a sheepish half-smile slinked across her face.

When she’d finished, Mira poured a glass of cabernet and studied her work—an intended European landscape catapulted into something unforeseeable and abstract. She assumed she’d rest and linger in the glow of the evening’s success. Perhaps she would unwind with a novel and a small dish of ice cream.
And then she thought of it. Nick’s flushed cheeks. Hot reds flashed inside of her head then bathed Mira’s studio in siren-colored light. Nick, she understood now, was fucking Magda.

Her husband returned home late that night. He spoke rapidly as thoughts tumbled from his mouth with embarrassing carelessness and ease. Nick spoke of the lecturer, her captivating ideas, and of the many books she had written. Mira softened as she listened to his account of the evening. Ideas turned her husband on. In his excitement, she thought she could forgive and possibly love him deeply after all.

“And how’s Magda?” Mira wondered aloud, mindful of what she’d really asked. Nick shrugged. “Oh, I think she enjoyed herself. She didn’t say much about it. I’m not sure the information was all that new to her. We found a neat little bistro afterwards. Near the park. You’d have liked it. What have you been doing?”

Mira shrugged and looked at the floor. She grinned despite herself. She wanted badly to be coy, aloof, and private, but could not contain her satisfaction. Using a cigarette to point, she guided Nick’s eyes toward the canvas in the corner. “Look.”

Nick took a moment to study her work. His eyes didn’t focus there as long as she’d like, but they lingered more than usual. She considered this a success.

“Oh my God, Mira. Look at what you’ve done.” More careless words tumbled from Nick’s mouth. Pushing aside a compulsive desire for cleanliness, Mira let her husband construct his messy sentences. Feeling his words drip, splatter, and fall around her, Mira resisted the temptation to dissect their intention. She chose, in that moment, to let his words cradle her.

In bed that night, they’d been close. Impassioned and undone with their own unique desires, they’d merged briefly to become a united front. Only when Nick was asleep did Mira touch her breast to remind herself of the dark awfulness residing there. Her cancer, sometimes an intriguing distraction, became a momentary source of harrowing sorrow.

Like other things that gnawed her insides, Mira kept her knowledge of Nick and Magda’s affair tucked close to her breast. She avoided thoughts of their injurious betrayal. And to her amazement, life went on the way it does, a series of days punctuated with cups of dark roast, brush strokes, and grocery shopping. Some days were so full, so pregnant with possibility, that Mira felt moved to reveal everything to Nick. Other days were loathsome, intolerably gray, and her secrets were her lifelines.

In spring, when green replaced the snow, Mira’s studio filled with work. Paintings, resembling nothing she’d done before, spanned the width of one wall. Despite cancer and infidelity, she painted on through the new season, until Nick proposed an idea that punctured Mira’s calm.

“Hon, I’ve been telling you forever, I think you and Magda would hit it off. I really do. I’ve told her so much about you. It would do you good to get out of here once in a while. You are getting pale.”

Magda. The name made Mira dizzy like bubbly champagne. Mira envisioned Magda’s toned slender arms and chiseled features. Fluent in Slovak languages, Magda was also well versed in the splendor of esoteric, inaccessible movements of art. Mira tried once to imagine Magda and Nick being intimate, but stopped, relieved to have finally discovered her own limits.

Her husband’s observations and assumptions made Mira feel reckless. Her eyes flashed. “You are right, Nick. Let’s have her over for dinner then.”

Like a masterful opponent, Mira waited for Nick to make another move. His measured response was immediate and bold. “Ok, great. How about Thursday then?”

Mira concealed her horror. It was a Tuesday night. This was moving quickly. “Fine. Is she vegetarian?”

Nick was unruffled. “No. Make whatever you like, hon. This will be fun.”

Wednesday morning, Nick rose early. He chose a conservative tie and was adjusting it when Mira called out from their bed. “What time is she coming?”

“What are you talking about?” Nick’s confusion appeared sincere.

“Magda. What time is Magda expected for dinner tomorrow? I have to shop and plan things, Nick.”

He looked amused. “Keep it casual, Mira. This isn’t meant to be any work for you. I want you to enjoy yourself.”

Mira almost laughed out loud. She hated cooking, and Nick knew this. Mira was also adamantly opposed to processed foods, half-rate restaurants, and mediocre cooking of any kind. For hours each afternoon, she toiled in the kitchen preparing meals out of chic urban magazines, entirely loathing the task from its interminable beginning to its predictable end. Her meals, she knew, tasted loveless sometimes.

“You decide,” Nick said, interrupting her bitterness. “I can be home as early as six. There should be time enough for drinks beforehand. Maybe seven?”

Mira spent Wednesday planning Magda’s meal and fetching its ingredients. Preparation for the evening consumed her day, and she did not make it into her studio even for a bit.

Biking to the market, Mira reflected on the inordinate amount of time Magda spent with her husband. And despite this, Nick knew little about his colleague’s personal life. Occasionally, Mira would fish for small details. Either Nick truly didn’t know these fine points she wondered about, or he wasn’t tempted by her bait. Despite Mira’s best efforts, she always came up with nothing.

On Thursday morning, Mira woke before Nick to prepare the marinade. She dressed quickly, tied back her hair with a faded scarf from before, and went downstairs to chop ginger. Nick entered the kitchen not long afterward and leaned in close to kiss her. “You work too hard,” he said. Mira scoffed at this. She hadn’t made it into the studio in two days. Chopping ginger was not her work. It was labor and toil.

At 11:30 that same morning, Mira’s cell phone rang. Its perky ring tone annoyed her, but like so many other wrong things, she couldn’t be bothered to fix it.

“Hello?” On the other end of the line a breathy voice she didn’t recognize responded.

“Mira? This is Magda.”

The detached voice of her husband’s lover, while lacking in congeniality, was not overtly cold.

Mira replied exuding warmth like hot beach sand on naked toes. “Maaaagda. So good to finally connect. Are we still on for tonight?”

Magda paused and then confirmed she’d be there at seven.

The green leaves in the salad bowl looked wilted, and Mira panicked. Extending an arm toward the back of the fridge, she found something leafy, greener, and fresher. She wondered where it had come from. Lately, this sort of thing happened frequently. Tomatoes appeared that she didn’t remember purchasing. Unfamiliar condiments and olive tapenades found their way onto the refrigerator’s bottom shelves. Though her increased absent-mindedness was vaguely troubling, in that moment, Magda felt gratitude for the oversight that saved her dinner.

She peeled carrots next, a task she didn’t entirely mind. Her thoughts meandered. What does Nick get out of this weird game, and why does Magda acquiesce? Mira didn’t ponder how she’d found her own way into the improbable scenario. Instead, she scrubbed down the kitchen’s counters for the third time that day and wondered what she should wear.

The black dress she settled on was sophisticated and sedate, but with hints that suggested another side to the story. Her long hair and what to do with it befuddled Mira momentarily. In the end, she decided wearing it down best projected a picture of ease and utter apathy.

Nick reached home at six, just as he promised he would. He carried two bottles of unexceptional, but acceptable wines; one red and one white. Along with this, he’d picked up a spread of cheeses, fruits, and bread. Nick considered appetizers his duty whenever they entertained.

Placing the bags on the countertop, he’d approached Mira’s cooking and raised lids off of pots simmering on the stovetop. “Everything smells so good, Mira. It’s lovely. Thank you for going through all of this trouble.”

Mira said nothing but instead went about arranging the Gruyere, Asiago, and cheddar cheese slices on a seldom used maple wood cutting board. “Is your friend usually on time?” she asked Nick.

“Hon, relax. Everything looks perfect.”

Mira said nothing. Instead, she reflected on Nick’s irritating need to address unexpressed feelings.

As it turned out, Magda arrived right on time. Before she answered the door, Mira commented, “Your friend is very punctual.” She spoke as if this indicated something significant.

Mira flung the door open with recklessness. “Welcome.” Her voice was too loud, and she sounded mildly inebriated. Stepping back to let Magda enter, Mira stumbled, but no one noticed.

“Mira, it is very nice to meet you. Can I give you my coat?”

Magda spoke with a low, confident voice. She was a heavyset woman, the shape of an upholstered pillow. She wore a sensible tweed suit, and as she handed over her coat, Mira noticed her guest’s unpolished nails stuck on mannish square fingertips. Magda wore a watch and no jewelry on her fingers, ears, or wrists.

“Let me hang your coat in the other room, Magda. Nick, please get us all something to drink.” Mira excused herself and slipped away.

In her unlit studio, Mira crumpled onto the wood floor and soundlessly came undone. There was not another woman. It was time to abandon the charade. Magda was a good conversationalist and a keen observer. And that was all. Listening to their voices, Mira heard that Magda’s interests were far more aligned with her own than anything Nick cared much about. Having Magda into their home was nothing more than the act of a doting husband who wanted his wife to have friends. Well shit, was all she could think.

Nick knocked softly at the door and then he turned away. She heard him make excuses for her behavior. As she listened to her husband flounder, Mira extended one hand toward her breast and tried to feel for something. Any sign of a lump, a knot, a hot burning sensation, would provide distance from that moment. Mira’s fingers found nothing. Her breast, just as Nick often noted, was perfect. It was youthful and vital. It could, if she wanted it to, sustain another life.

Regaining composure, Mira gathered a cup full of brushes, the charcoal pencils, and her last two cigarettes. She placed them carefully inside of a cloth bag as if gifting them to someone beloved. She smiled just a bit at the sadness of the act and discarded the bag’s contents into a tissue-filled trash can. When she was ready, she pushed open the blue door, exited her studio, and proceeded to fill the evening with laughter.

 


Rebecca Pickens is a freelance writer and writing coach in upstate New York.