The sun isn’t high yet, and our sheets glow a little bit pink. I wake up slowly these days. Turn over once, check myself. Turn over twice. Check on Nick. Listen to the baby monitors that monitor our toddler children. I rub the cat’s head. She turns over. I scratch her belly. Even if it is not sunny, like it is today, even if it is grey and windy and icy and mean outside, I am content, because we are here.
I’m not sure exactly when I made this switch. From worry to wonder, from in pain to inspired, but the outcome has been nothing short of worth it.
The cat meows.
“Hey,” Nick says, his body still hot from sleep, turning to me, squinting into the room.
“How do you feel?”
“Good,” I say, and the cat abandons me for her preferred human parent.
“How do you feel?” I ask him.
“I feel good.”
It is an easy conversation, and when I think about it, it could sound ridiculous, like we are in our rickety eighties, asking each other how we feel every morning before we get out of bed. But it isn’t ridiculous. And actually it isn’t that easy. Because the distance we have traveled from the other possible answers—not that well, pretty awful, hold on I can’t talk right now because it hurts too much—has been far and deep and treacherous. And though we never outwardly decided on our morning ritual, it happens, almost every day, as a necessary entry into the day ahead.
How are you feeling? Good. You? Good too. OK.
Nick leans over, across the expanse of bed, and takes my hand, pulls me towards him. My dark-brown hair falls in his eyes. He brushes it back. I lean in to kiss him, like we have done a thousand million times. His lips brush mine. The tips of our eyelashes touch.
Ten years ago, I stood on the platform of the Number 6 train. I was twenty-six, and a cup of coffee I’d sipped now led to stomach cramps I can only classify as agonizing. I spun around, shocked at the pain that ripped through me. Struggling, I unbuttoned my light summer jeans, strangely tight around the middle. I turned. My hair caught between my shoulder bag and my armpit. Though I did everything in my power to get up the subway steps and into a nearby restaurant to relieve it, my cold, shaking body had to let go three steps from the top. The problem in a situation like that, I have since learned, is that walking makes it worse, and stopping gets you nowhere.
For the past decade, almost half of my life so far, I had been struggling with both Thyroid and Crohns disease. It all started as a small lump that I found when I was sixteen and had grown to include excruciating stomach pain, tumultuous moods, high anxiety and fatigue. I was in my twenties, but I felt like I was in my eighties. Frankly, I wasn’t much fun to be around. I was sad, sick, and tired, pretty much all the time. But I hid it, like a secret, as deep as it would let me, because I wanted to be free and fun and sexy like my friends. Until the secret came bubbling to the surface and I couldn’t hide it anymore.
Now covered in a putrid brown film that no one could mistake for anything else, I sprinted in shame to my gym. I rushed into the shower with all my clothes on, peeled them off, pumped bright-green body soap into the crotch of my jeans, and threw away my balled-up underwear in a naked dash from the scalding shower to my locker.
They had said this might happen. When the doctor first diagnosed my Crohns disease he had used the word “urgency” to describe one of the major symptoms.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well, for some patients, not all, but some, it means that they have to go to the bathroom very quickly.”
I listened silently, quieted by disbelief.
“What happens to them?” I asked.
“Well, sometimes they don’t make it.”
To underscore his words, he handed me a pack of adult diapers, saying, “Many of my patients like to carry one of these.”
I stuffed bulky, crinkled package into my oversized purse and left. At the end of the block I threw it into the trashcan. Urgency was not going to happen to me.
Apparently, I had been wrong.
I sat on the cold metal bench with towels draped over every part of me, my jeans and tee shirt and bra drying beside me. How could I possibly live a normal life like this? How could I one day take care of someone else—a child… my child?
I should tell Nick it’s over, I thought. Let him find a woman who is healthy and strong, always ready for life.
On the other hand, I felt elated at having escaped the stomach pain. It was blissful, this pause, a welcome inhalation of normalcy.
I learned later that year that autoimmune disease means your body is attacking itself. That isn’t a metaphor. The scary thing about the chronic pain of autoimmune disease is that you can’t escape it. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you.
A delicate young woman with a black gym tee shirt came over to me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I nodded, unable to speak. A rising ball of humiliation threatened to choke me, almost like the giant walnut within me.
“Do you want me to dry those for you?” she asked gently.
I sighed with gratitude, nodded my thanks, and sat in tiny white towels for the next forty-five minutes while a woman I didn’t know dried my shit-stained clothes. She handed them to me in a CVS bag someone had left behind. I had no choice but to put them back on. I proceeded to walk home, seventy-three blocks and two avenues and one bridge, just so I wouldn’t have to get on the subway again.
Standing on the corner, I looked at the expanse of concrete, broken up by the dips of the curbs and the rise of the sidewalks. It seemed impossible that I would traverse them all without collapsing again. I could just make out my area of Brooklyn in the distance, fuzzy from the smog and noise, hidden behind the two bridges I could choose from. I held my breath, hiked up my (now looser) jeans a little higher, and took a step.
I showered again that evening. When I stepped into the kitchen, Nick’s friend from college and her friends were in the kitchen, sharing a bottle of chardonnay they had brought over.
“Hey, Frannie,” Gina said, her toned arms opened wide. Her bronze summer skin glistened in the florescent light. Her jeans were skinny, her tank top tight.
“Hey Gina,” I said, and leaned in to hug her.
“Nick says you aren’t feeling great.”
“No, but I’m OK.”
Nick had been supportive when I came home, but he didn’t offer to cancel his plans. I didn’t blame him for that. If he canceled every time I didn’t feel well he would never go out, and never see anyone. Like me.
I scooched myself up on the stool at the end of the counter. I turned at an angle and crossed my legs, positioning my bigger-than-average chest in to hide my bigger-than-average thighs.
“This is Kyre, Liz, and Delia.” She introduced her friends, all dolled up for a night out. All tall, all thin, with impossibly long slender necks. Like swans.
“Hi, nice to meet you.”
“Hey. Hi. Hey,” they replied.
“So, Nicky (Gina always called him Nicky), we were thinking, let’s let Fran relax, and we can go out – you guys live so close to Smith Street, there are plenty of places.”
“Well, I don’t want to leave Frannie…” Nick said, but he looked over at me, his green eyes expectant. He was dressed up too, in that hipster sort of way, black tee shirt, jeans, colorful sneakers. His money clip poked out of his front jeans pocket. A mechanical pencil was tucked behind his ear.
I didn’t want to tell him it was fine. I wanted him to want to stay home, burrow with me into our tiny double bed, rub my back, tell me I was still sexy, even after the day I’d had.
“If you want to, you should go,” I said.
Of course I wanted him to decline, send Gina and her long-necked swans back out into the night. So I waited, also expectant.
“If you don’t mind, then OK, OK great,” he said.
I stayed sitting on the stool while they gathered their clinking keys and lipsticks and phones and dumped them into tiny purses.
“Feel better Fran,” Gina said, and they all nodded in agreement. Nick hopped off of his stool and bounded towards me, catching me with a kiss on the forehead.
“Thanks babe,” he said and followed the girls out onto the street. I watched them from the window of our bedroom, the five of them walking at a quick clip down Pacific Street, soon swallowed up by the other bar-bound hipsters, like a stream filled with leather-jacket-wearing salmon.
A few hours later, I heard Nick struggling with the lock. I opened the door for him. I hadn’t been sleeping but I squinted into the light.
“Hey babe,” he said, and leaned in, missing my mouth by a mile.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Fine,” he slurred.
“Did you have fun?”
I didn’t want to be annoyed; he was always skipping things to stay in with me, always having to miss the fun. But I was annoyed. I wanted to be coddled, didn’t want him to be drunk. I wanted him to be there for me.
“Yeah, we had a ball.”
“Gina is so great, I don’t know why I never dated her.” He walked into the kitchen and turned on the tap. He filled a big glass with water and gulped it down.
“What?” I hadn’t realized how drunk he was until he said that. I followed him into our small galley kitchen, trapping him.
“I mean—in college I mean. That’s a girl who needs no maintenance.”
“Please, Fran, it’s not your fault, but you have a lot of stuff, with your health, with everything. My girlfriend after you is going to be so easy.”
“Easy?” I didn’t say what I wanted to say. After me? We lived together! There would be a girlfriend after me?
“Well, look, Fran, I love you, I do, but you are not easy.”
My throat bumped up against my stomach. My world fell away. Neither of us knew the irony that he foreshadowed: that in just a few years, he would have an illness rivaling mine in severity, and wouldn’t be very easy to be with himself. But at that moment, it was only me who was difficult.
“Are you saying you don’t want to be with me?”
“No, no. NO.” He stumbled towards me. I knew this wasn’t a good time to have this conversation. I knew he wouldn’t remember much of it, if at all. Which is maybe why I pushed it.
“You can leave if you want, you know. I’d understand.”
He shook his head. He put one hand up on the wall by my head. A small piece of drool flew from the corner of his mouth and hit me in the face as he smiled.
“No way, you’re my girl.”
I wiped my eye. A part of me wanted him to leave, to have the full life I couldn’t give him—one with adventure, laughter, children. But that part of me butted up against the part that loved Nick with a breath-taking fierceness, that saw a life forever together, that needed him.
The next morning, Nick didn’t remember the conversation and I didn’t remind him. We went on with our weekend, and our life together, but there was a new wrinkle in it, one I couldn’t smooth out: that I might have a future successor. I wasn’t necessarily “it.”
Soon after, Nick took me to Jamaica so we could get away. I had been feeling terrible, and he was trying. It was such a beautiful thought, to take me away from the grime of the city so we could spend a few days on the beach. It was a grand gesture because we didn’t have the money, and my guilt spread like peanut butter as I agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting than spending hours on a plane, in line-ups at the airport, without the comfort of my own bed at night, in a strange, hot place.
The first night, I had a glass of wine and watched the resort show, thinking that if I were pulled up on stage to dance like some of the other vacationers, I would just have to lie down on it.
“You look great,” Nick said to me, smiling his crinkly smile and touching my arm. He was a liar, but a sweet one. I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were rimmed with a yellowish tint. My skin was flaky and beet red from the sun because the medicine I was taking made my skin sensitive in a new, exposed way. My neck was swollen and my fingernails, for some reason, looked blue.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, knowing that I was about to throw up.
I muttered an “I’llberightback,” jumped off the stool, and dashed back to our room, three outdoor stairways away. I slammed myself through the bamboo bathroom door and didn’t make it to the toilet. Orange vomit covered the walls of the bathroom, sliding down the tile in gooey bits. I lay down in the middle of the room on the bathmat. A few minutes later, Nick knocked on the door.
I couldn’t answer.
“Fran?” He pushed in the door and took a step back. I am sure what he saw repulsed him, and though I couldn’t possibly move, I imagined retreating even further into myself.
“Oh, honey,” he said sadly. He got a towel and washed the walls with the floral soap from the shower, scrubbing the floor, literally mopping up the mess.
“I’ll be right back,” he said and took the bundle of towels out into the hallway. When he came back in, he had bedding, a pillow, and a glass of water.
“Can you drink this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know if I can sit up.”
Nick slid down on the mat next to me. He smelled like the floral soap and saltwater and the beer he had abandoned. Lifting my head in his hand, he tipped a small sip of water into my chapped lips.
“There,” he said.
He put the glass of water down on the floor next to me. I rested my face on the tile in front of the bathmat, the coolness an astounding relief.
Nick tucked my head under the pillow and made a floor-bed under me.
“You don’t have to do this,” I croaked.
He ignored me and slid his body next to mine. “Try to sleep.”
I attempted to nod as his hand traced light circles on my back. Before I drifted off, I remember thinking, “That feels good,” though I’m not sure I said it out loud.
A long time ago, we were different from this.
We took road trips in rented convertibles, spent our last three dollars on an In-N-Out burger to share, slurped smoothies on boardwalks, and only wore flip-flops. We raced around underground, coming up for air at different Brooklyn bars, hands reaching for the cigarettes that were no longer allowed. We wrote things down. We lost people. We joined our bank accounts, approached corporate ladders, got kittens. We fumbled around in the night. We felt free.
Since then, there have been many times when it might have made sense for Nick to leave. That day in our Brooklyn apartment, a sick, sober me talking to a drunk, honest him. In the bathroom in Jamaica: me with blue fingernails, red raw skin. On the couch during a time when getting up was an impossible feat. Watching a long thin woman get out of a car without wincing. Looking at his passport longingly before putting it back in the top drawer of his desk. As the bank account drooped. Our fury mounted, our fear sizzled, our tongues lashed. Our fire dulled.
But he is still here. After fifteen years, we are both still here. My frenzied worry about him leaving is all but gone, deflated, like a balloon shriveled into a corner, red and soft and unassuming.
There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. It is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. As mothers, as women, as humans, we teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have—a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make—and the impending terror of the possible: a sick parent, child, or us; a money catastrophe; a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. The thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us.