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From the Next Room

The first night of my visit, before I knew what I had come there to do, I lay in bed in the dark upstairs, hearing from downstairs the mutter of the radio, the announcer’s voice rising and falling with the events of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, the words indistinguishable. From the Next Room, by Lowry PeiI remembered all the times I had lain in bed and half-heard the faint sounds of my aunt Augusta downstairs, listening to the ball game, washing the dishes, watering the house plants, sitting on the porch swing and making it creak faintly under my window—I took that for granted, as natural as cicadas. I had long ago ceased to wonder what she thought about all that time; it was a wonderful relief to be close to Augusta again and so, somehow, closer to myself than I could be anywhere else. Everything in the room—my room, as we both called it—everything except for me was the same as it always had been. It was one of my anchors in life to think of it always the same, waiting for me, whoever I might be, to return.

Downstairs the phone rang, startling me; who would call at such an hour? Maybe there was a man in Augusta’s life she hadn’t told me about. I heard her answer it, and strained to make out the words she said, but couldn’t. She talked for a few minutes; the house was suddenly quieter—she had turned the radio off. Then her voice stopped, I heard her hang up the phone, and for a minute or two everything was still. Even the cicadas seemed to hold their breath. I was on the verge of falling asleep when I heard the screen door in the kitchen open and close, banging against the doorframe and then, as ever, bouncing off and coming to rest with a second clack. Was she going to meet someone? I waited, thinking I might hear the car start up, but beginning to drift again, and then from outside there was a crash, the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. It snatched me awake. There had been a kind of thump with it—something had hit something else, hard, a sound that absolutely did not belong in the New Franklin night. Had something happened to her? I swung my feet out of bed and stood up, listening for anything else out of the ordinary, but there was nothing. As I opened the door of my room I heard the screen door again and Augusta’s footsteps in the kitchen, seeming to be in a hurry.

“Augusta?” I called. There was no reply.

The screen door banged again. I grabbed up the pair of shorts I had been wearing and pulled them on; I was already wearing a T-shirt. As I crossed the dark upstairs living room toward the back stairs, I heard the same thump and crash again, even louder this time. My heart began to race and as if to catch up to it I ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, out onto the back porch—I had a flash of grabbing a hoe or a spade from the garden tools on the porch and helping Augusta fend off some kind of attack, but in the back yard there was nothing, no one. At first I didn’t even see Augusta, not until I heard her, and at first I didn’t know it was Augusta I was hearing because I had never heard her cry. But that was what she was doing, crouched in the yard near the edge of the garden.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I put my hand on her shoulder; I could feel her trying to get control of herself. She hit the ground with her fist.

“God damn it!” she said, and with my New Franklin reflexes I immediately thought, Not so loud, the neighbors will hear.

“What is it? Are you hurt? What was that noise?”

She took a breath that shuddered slightly. “That was me throwing a glass against the garage.” She didn’t look up.

“It was?” That was a relief in a way, but . . .

“They do smash well, don’t they? Actually, I threw two. The first one was so satisfying I had to do another.” Slowly Augusta stood up; she looked anything but satisfied. She wouldn’t quite meet my eyes as we stood facing each other in the dimness of the back yard.

“What is this all about?” I said, hearing myself using my the teacher-voice I had acquired since the last time I had been to Augusta’s.

She heaved a sigh and looked away. “I didn’t want to tell you. I told myself I wouldn’t.”

“What?”

There was a long silence between us while we looked at each other. The insect sounds skipped a beat and then instantly resumed; at the stop sign a couple of blocks away a big truck could be heard going through its gears.

“I found a lump in my breast. A real one. It wasn’t a cyst. Are you sure you want to hear about this?”

I felt as though I was being shoved onstage without knowing my lines. “Just tell me,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, though the truth was I didn’t want to know.

“I went to the hospital day before yesterday, in St. Louis, and they took it out. I’m supposed to go back next week and find out what it is, but damn it, I know what the doctor thinks already. The bastard thinks I’ve got cancer.”

I felt as though I hadn’t quite heard, as though she had said something more I didn’t catch. “How could he think that if he hasn’t even seen the tests yet?”

“He’s a doctor, it’s what he does,” she said impatiently, as if she had to teach me the alphabet. “Oh, I don’t know, Christ, maybe he wasn’t thinking anything.” She began to head back toward the house, and I followed her. “I should have gone to the doctor sooner, I suppose, but you know how I am about doctors.” She wouldn’t look at me. “I kept thinking it wasn’t real, or it had always been there, or maybe it would go away by itself, maybe I could will it to disappear.”

“Right,” I said, but I could imagine acting exactly the same.

“Maybe it was a mistake to be on the pill all this time, I don’t know. It’s just been part of life—I don’t even think about it. You know how it is.”

I did; I had been on the pill for only a few months, but already I took it for granted. A quiver of fear shot through me, a sensation of trying to catch up to something out of control.

“I could see it in his face as soon as he felt the lump. He was sure of what it was, I know he was, but he tried to cover it up with that impersonal doctor act where they sound like you’re talking about what’s wrong with your car—I could have hit him. The surgery you don’t even want to know about. Just hope it doesn’t happen to you. It makes you feel as though it isn’t even your own body anymore, it belongs to them all of a sudden.”

Hearing her made something in my gut tighten the way it would at the sight of a deep cut, made me want to protect my own body—but the attack, if it came, would come from within. She was right, I didn’t want to know. We had gotten to the porch, but somehow neither of us turned to go inside, as if this couldn’t be talked about under the kitchen light. I thought of a story she had just told me that evening, about telling her last boyfriend, Charlie, that he had better things to do than have an affair with a middle-aged schoolteacher—she hadn’t known about this when she ended it with him. And now mustn’t she be thinking, Maybe never again? I couldn’t imagine what that would feel like.

“When do you find out?”

“Next Tuesday.” Four days to go. I could tell how long they were going to be already. Augusta was looking slightly to one side of me, as if there were something over my shoulder that she was watching all the time, that she had to keep an eye on, and I wondered if she had spent days watching that invisible something every second she wasn’t distracted. Neither of us spoke for a while; there didn’t seem to be any words worth saying.

But I had to break the silence. “How are you?” I said.

“It’s a fucking nightmare,” she said, surprising me but only for an instant.

You’re it, I told myself. You’re family, you’re the one who’s here. “What can I do?” I said, and immediately felt inane.

“Don’t do anything, for Christ’s sake. If you’re going to start acting polite because of this, you might as well just go home. I mean it. Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me, you understand?” Her eyes flashed at me angrily.

I raised both hands in surrender. “Okay, okay.”

“That’s exactly why I didn’t want to tell you. I was hoping I could hide it, but I guess it wasn’t possible.”

“Wait a minute—you weren’t planning to go this whole visit without telling me, were you?” Even Augusta couldn’t go that far.

“I was.”

“Just go along the same as ever and let me leave without knowing?” She didn’t nod or say anything, but I knew the answer was yes. “So if I hadn’t happened to come visit I never would have found out, is that the idea?”

“You were the only person I ever thought of telling,” she said, as if that were all anyone could ask.

“Well, how long were you going to wait? How bad would it have to get before you’d say something?”

“All right. I get the message.” For a moment we were locked together in opposition, staring at each other; I was the first to look away, out over the dark back yard. I realized I was gripping the railing with both hands as if I had to be careful not to fall. “It’s probably just as well,” Augusta said.

Just as well? What the hell was she thinking? “Augusta, you can’t go through something like this all alone.”

“Who says?” she answered, and I knew she meant that she went through life that way. I felt excluded all of a sudden, relegated to some distance I hadn’t known was there, as if I had only imagined myself close to her all along. “You don’t see me here, the rest of the time, when no one’s around. I can’t be leaning on anybody, that’s the way it is.” I remembered when the summerhouse had collapsed, with her on top of it, while she was trying to repair its roof; I had taken Augusta to the doctor’s office to get her sprained ankle looked at, her with her arm around my shoulder and swearing a little between her teeth. But what was there to do now, even if she would let me?

I was still looking out at the yard; there was a kind of embarrassment between us that prevented me from turning to face her. We’d shared about every secret there was to share, but never this—it felt obscene. Augusta perched on the railing next to me, facing the porch. I sneaked a look at her; she had her arms folded across her chest and was studying the floor in front of her shoes. I turned so that I, too, had my back to the yard, and dared to let my shoulder touch hers. We stayed like that for a long moment; I tried to feel, through that point of contact, how she was inside. Maybe I would never know. What wouldn’t be talked about anymore, now, were my confusions, my stupidities and stubbornnesses—they wouldn’t bear mentioning in the face of this. She put her arm around me, and I reached up to touch the hand that rested on my shoulder; I wanted to cry but held it down with an effort that she must have heard or felt. “Don’t say anything,” she said. “There’s nothing anyway. Let’s just go to bed.”

Silently I trooped into the kitchen after her, and we turned off the lights. I couldn’t help following her around in a way that felt childish, as if when there was nothing to say the only thing left was to offer up my dumb bodily presence for what it might be worth. At the top of the stairs we embraced for a moment—was she thinner than usual?—and then she moved away, or moved me away, as if, perhaps, she couldn’t stand to be touched. Helplessly I went back into my own room and closed the door, trailed around the room aimlessly, looked out the windows at the empty street and the side yard, sat down in the old armchair and huddled up in it as if I had to wait something out before I could go back to bed. The thought that she might have cancer, that she might lose her breast or even die, felt crazy, impossible to believe. But now I knew what she was thinking about as she lurked around the downstairs. She had seemed tired, I realized, ever since I got off the plane—in the airport I had actually been walking faster than she had, which never happened, and I kicked myself for not paying more attention to her. No wonder she seemed tired: how long had it been since she’d had a good night’s sleep?

I tried to find comfort in the room and the sameness, but I couldn’t; Augusta’s news seemed to shrink everything else, make it seem petty and foreshortened. All I could think of was that my grandparents had lived in these rooms and died, that my parents were older than Augusta, that the twenty years separating me from her did not seem, tonight, half as long as they usually did.

The plumbing groaned somewhere deep in the house as it always did when someone ran water in the bathroom. The insect sounds outside seemed to come in waves. I heard the squeak of a faucet being turned off, Augusta’s toothbrush tapping against the rim of the sink; then nothing. A floorboard creaked. Just outside my room, there was a door that led to the roof of the front porch; I heard Augusta open it, as she often did at night, in case a breeze might come in through the screen. I listened for her footsteps moving away, into her room, but heard nothing; then a board creaked again just outside my room, and I knew she was standing at the screen door, looking out over the porch roof at the night, the dark houses dimly visible under the streetlamps, a scene that never changed. Only the door to my room separated us, and I felt that I should get up and open it, or say her name to let her know that I was there, awake, with her, but the helplessness stopped me. Yet the connection was there, between her and me, like an actual cord stretching between us through which my soul was being painfully pulled.