Hugh sat across from his doctor and did math in his head. He sat on the chair reserved for guests (he hated sitting on the exam table) and did math in his head. She was looking at him, waiting for him to reply, but it hardly mattered.
Mom was diagnosed when he was twenty. Grandfather when he was sixteen. Grandmother the first time when he was fourteen, but the cancer came back when Grandfather’s got bad.
He’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. Somewhere between seventeen and twenty-three years, if his math was correct.
“The chances are good that it’s nothing,” Dr Sinclair repeated.
“Yes, I heard you. I apologize. Woolgathering.” Woolgathering. A phrase he’d picked up from Truman. Oh, god, Truman.
Hugh shut his eyes and took a slow, careful breath. Take three breaths, Hugh. I know it feels too big, but take three breaths. The wrongness of living without his mother felt suddenly acute, as if it had slipped his awareness but the blade was back, cutting him deeper this time than it had in years.
“I’m setting up the consultation with the dermatologist—including the biopsy—for tomorrow,” Sinclair said, turning to her computer. “And I don’t care how long you have to wait for them to see you, Hugh, or what you have to cancel. Get it done.”
“If the chances are so good that it’s nothing, why on earth would we rush it?” He’d heard people complain about the presence of computers in exam rooms, but he was always grateful. Even setting aside the convenience of electronic records and their availability, there was this: a moment of reprieve, during which he could pretend he was alone.
“Patient has a family history of cancer and depression,” Sinclair narrated, the emphasis slight, but present. “Get it done tomorrow. Your appointment is for four-thirty, but they’ll kick you if you don’t check in by five.”
“Ah. My appointment is for four-thirty, but I’ll be lucky to be seen by six?”
“Something like that. It’s outpatient, and I will strongly suggest that you ask your husband to accompany you.”
“Both of us have clients all day.”
“I will strongly suggest that you ask your husband to accompany you, Hugh.”
He liked Sinclair. She was no-nonsense and direct. “I’ll consider it.”
“Uh huh. It can take as many as eight business days for the lab to get back to us, but if you get in tomorrow, I’m willing to make an appointment for next Friday to discuss the results. We can always cancel or change the appointment, but the lab’s usually pretty quick.”
“You can’t just call me?”
“I’m not going to call you, no.” She eyed him, unflinchingly. “I expect to see your husband here with you at that appointment, Hugh.”
“He has clients—”
“We’ll make it for early or late, whatever works best for both of you, but this is my way of making it clear just how serious I am about the impact the biopsy will have on you.”
“I’m a therapist, Dr Sinclair.”
“Then tell me I’m wrong.”
He gave in, smiling at her, trying to reassure at least one of them. “I was just sitting here thinking about how inevitable this has always felt. Now that it’s here I mostly feel numb.”
“Inevitable that you find a strange mole on your arm? Or inevitable that you die of cancer? Because only one of those things is actually happening, Hugh.”
“Yes, I realize. You’re right, of course. I’ll tell Truman and let him play the voice of reason.”
“Good.” She turned back to her computer and removed a few papers from the printer. “All the information about tomorrow. What time do you want to come in next week?”
“How early can you go?”
They made the appointment and she told him, again, that any commitment to an early grave would be premature.
“If I actually have it, will you keep cracking jokes like that?”
Sinclair sighed. “You’d rather I played a funeral dirge whenever I saw you?”
“Thank you,” he said, standing to shake her hand. “Really.”
“Thank me by getting the biopsy done tomorrow. Everything else we’ll discuss next week.”
Hugh nodded and walked out, taking stairs all the way down to the lobby of the building and blinking rapidly when he got outside.
Sixteen years since Mom died. Not again.
* * *
He drove to Antony’s and ordered a double espresso.
“You look like fried death,” Antony boomed. “God, your face, Huey!”
Hugh watched his old friend’s expression change, lock down, go dark, as he rolled up his sleeve. The mole was brownish-pink, fading to a vaguely bruise-colored yellow at the edges. “I have a biopsy scheduled for tomorrow.”
Antony cursed and crossed himself at the same time. “When will they tell you?”
“Next week, my doctor thinks. It’s probably nothing.”
“It’s always nothing until it’s something, Topolino.”
“I’m sure I’m fine, really. Really, Antony, I’m not dead yet, stop looking at me like that.”
“Where the fuck is Truman?”
Hugh picked up his espresso. “At the office, where else would he be?”
“And? You didn’t mention this to him?”
“It just happened fifteen minutes ago. I’ll tell him when he gets home.”
“No. No, it’s not good, Hugh. You’re far too much like Sofia. She, too, would have suffered in silence. You’ll recall that Vince was not quite so burdened to do the same.”
“Maybe not to you. He never complained where I could hear, Antony.”
“No. I suppose he wouldn’t.” Antony stepped back, leaning against the chair rail on the wall behind the counter. “You’ll let me know, Huey?”
“Good. Now leave me in peace to contemplate death.” He turned away, muttering something in Italian that Hugh didn’t fully catch.
“I’ll see you next week,” he said.
Antony waved and didn’t turn back.
Nearly five now. Truman would be home in less than an hour. Hugh stood against the wall outside the cafe, looking up and down the street, watching people, cars, children, the occasional dog. Everything in motion, in color. He sipped his espresso, letting the flavor of it overwhelm his senses, giving over to what would have been a sleepless night in any event.
The world moved all around him and in this spot Hugh stood, unmoving, a short man on a street corner with one sleeve still rolled up. Late summer had grown humid, and most people wore casual, comfortable clothes, light against the heat. Hugh focused on the sensation of the breeze, stirring the hairs on his arm, barely rippling his shirt.
He passed the cup back through to Antony’s dish bin, but Antony himself was nowhere to be seen. Hugh drove home.
* * *
Telling Truman was almost impossible. He tried to get the words out three times without managing a single sentence. In the end he started with, “I saw Dr Sinclair today.”
“You mentioned that. Everything all right?” Clearly not, and Truman knew it, brow furrowed, lips thin.
“She scheduled me a biopsy for the mole on my arm. And said not to worry about it.” She hadn’t said that exactly, but close enough.
“When? I’ll come with you.”
“You don’t have to—”
“It’s tomorrow afternoon.”
Truman grimaced. “I’ve got clients straight through until six. Perhaps I can still reschedule—”
“Please don’t.” Hugh reached out to take his hand. “Please don’t. I can go to the biopsy on my own. And Sinclair wants me to bring you to the appointment she made for me to discuss the results, so if you’re rescheduling anyone, let it be for that.”
“I’d rather be with you at both, Hugh.”
Hugh contemplated the futility of Truman canceling on clients at the last moment only to sit beside him in a waiting room. “Please don’t rearrange your day tomorrow. It’s an outpatient procedure with a local anesthetic. I’ll probably be home before you will, Truman.”
Breathing elevated, heart rate elevated; god, would that this was arousal instead of fear.
“You should call Will.”
“Why would I add one more person to this—to this mess?” He sat back, trying to control his sudden irritation. This is not directed at Truman. Do not let it come out at Truman. Hugh took a breath. “We’ll tell him after the results. I’m sure it’s nothing, and if it’s something, I’d rather he had one more week without having to deal with it.”
“So you’re protecting him,” Truman said, tone cool.
“I’m—being pragmatic. What purpose, what possible advantage, would there be to telling him now?”
“He’s spending the weekend. How do you think he’ll react when he finds out we knew all weekend and didn’t tell him? And that’s if he somehow doesn’t notice that something’s going on, which is unlikely.”
“Nothing’s going on. Are you saying you’ll tell him if I don’t?”
Truman looked away, one hand kneading his shoulder. (Psychosomatic injury flare-up in record time, a distant part of Hugh’s brain observed.) “Of course not. But even if you could somehow trick Will into thinking everything is just fine, Hugh, there’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to. If you really won’t call him today, I suggest you start working out how to tell him on Friday.” He pushed away from the table. “I’ve lost my appetite. I think I’ll go upstairs and put on a movie.”
“I just need a few minutes. Feel free to join me. I’m not looking to be alone, I just need something to occupy my mind.”
“Yes, of course.”
Truman hesitated, hand on the bannister. He looked over. “I love you very much. I know we say it, and that even when we don’t it’s understood, but still—I love you very much, Hugh.”
“I love you, too,” Hugh said, chest tight.
With a nod, Truman went up the stairs, his familiar steps hitting the same notes, the same creaks as always, unless he was trying to be quiet.
Hugh tried to lose himself in the painting on the wall, the big oak tree, but it was hard to concentrate. When Grandfather got too sick for the stairs, they’d made over the dining room into a bedroom for him. Hugh, teenaged and private, had tried very hard not to resent the intrusion. Once everyone went up to bed, the downstairs was his world, and the safety of his room down the hall expanded to encompass the entire floor. Grandfather’s presence compressed him back to the small bedroom as if everything in him had to be minimized to make room for Grandfather’s cancer.
He breathed slowly, deliberately, inhales and exhales, trying to conjure anything but the deep yawning loss that threatened to take over his mind. It wasn’t real. It was just a mole. He felt this. He knew it to be true in his body, with certainty. This was not cancer. And even, god forbid, if it was, it wasn’t the kind of cancer that would kill him. Sure, take a few years off the end of his life, maybe. But if it was cancer, it was early, and there were treatments. He’d had good health care, adequate nutrition, his entire life. He was healthy and strong.
The mole wasn’t gonna kill him. If Mom was sitting here at the table with him, she’d say the same thing. Then she’d give him a look and send him upstairs to his husband.
“I miss you so fucking much right now,” Hugh murmured to the long-gone ghost of his mother. He left their uneaten dinner on the table and went upstairs. Truman had on The Negotiator, which was a household favorite, though usually he saved it for when Will was over. Hugh said nothing at all. He took off his clothes, climbed into bed, and pressed his face into Truman’s chest.
“I’m so sorry, my love.”
He nodded to acknowledge he’d heard and let the dialogue of the movie write itself across his eyelids.