The girl wanted to do everything at the right time, so she found herself wearing a diamond and a dress that made her look like a beautiful frosted white cupcake, which is just how all the other girls her age looked in their dresses, all of them strapless ball gowns with enormous tulle skirts and special bras to hold in the breasts which held up the dresses, the cost of which was significantly more than the sticker price due to all that hidden architecture. The man standing beside the girl was not one of the right men, but he looked fine in his tuxedo, if a little fat, and after the traditional ceremony, they danced to “Crazy Love.”
Crazy was indeed the way to describe the situation, but the girl was too afraid to admit it, so she took her husband home and bought the groceries and paid the bills for the next four years until finally he admitted for both of them that the whole thing had always been insane. Besides, there were other girls out there. Younger girls, nicer girls, girls who didn’t have depression or miscarriages, a girl who was already pregnant, who was the one for him. The girl clung to the side view mirror of the Jeep when he left, but six weeks later, her legs were more stable, as though the earth had become sea for a moment and slowly grown solid again. She put the diamond in a box and then sold it for rent money.
Opinions arrived on the wind from all the same directions as the wind blows about what was the best way for the girl to proceed. Her father grabbed her hand when she said she was seeing someone new. She could fall in love with anyone now, her father said, which the girl supposed was true but when she said she was seeing someone, she meant she was having sex with someone, which is not a distinction the girl would have made in the presence of her father.
Take time for yourself said her father, her mother, and her friends, so often that the girl worried that all her loved ones were suffering from collective amnesia because if she knew one thing, it was that now was exactly the right time to enjoy the hell out of having sex; in fact, having as many orgasms as possible seemed like a pretty good gift to give herself at the moment, and if she knew two things, then the second thing was that she certainly wasn’t a girl anymore now that she had debt and a past and a secret sex life.
Welcome to womanhood, she told herself. The new man was everything that the other man hadn’t been, maybe not in terms of his family or how successful he was, but in terms of the way he made the woman feel, which was understood, as if he knew what it was like to live inside her brain. The woman made the man feel the same way and time flew. One night they sat on the couch looking at the winter bare maples accumulating snow and the man said that he would remember this one moment in time forever. Since they were sharing each other’s brains by then, the woman knew the moment would also belong to her.
They accumulated moments like this, as well as other moments, in which they berated each other and threw words like fists. They were autodidactic people who read the Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic and Wired, so they didn’t say fuck you unless they were quite drunk. Martyr, they said. Hypocrite. There were moments when they could have called it off, like when the man wanted out of the car because he couldn’t stand to be in it with the woman anymore. But when the lease expired, they decided that adventures were best had together, so why not move to another city?
By then, the opinions had fallen silent. The woman was clearly a woman, and the time for spending time with herself had clearly passed, as anyone watching could see. For a while, the woman and the new man lived in the same time as everyone else, taking steps forward and steps back, like everyone else, watching time move across their faces like everyone else.
Then on a Tuesday a fireman called to say that the man had had a seizure and was in the hospital. The woman broke the rules about being human in public and cried on the bus, sobbed into her orange scarf from India, a keepsake from an adventure that she’d been on with the wrong man and that she’d always wanted to repeat with the new man, who seemed so much like one of the right men.
In the emergency room, the woman watched as the man leaned over to retrieve something he had dropped next to the bedrail and then realized the man was having a second seizure. She stepped through the curtain and called for help, and it seemed her voice had stopped carrying sound, but she kept mouthing the word help like a fish gasping for water, and then the room was full of people who adjusted tubes and injected things into plastic lines connected to the man she loved. The woman knew she could not bear it if she were watching the man she loved die, and she experienced then how time was a tunnel and how bodies were train cars moving at the speed of light until now when she and the man were standing still all by themselves.
Not long before, they had stood on a dock in the city-bright darkness of Bangkok night. The river thrashed with fish no one would want to eat on account of the smell of hydraulic oil filling the air, and from the near distance came the sound of “Just the Two of Us” by some Thai band covering Bill Withers, whom the woman and the man both loved on account of his simplicity and soul. Despite the fumes, the woman felt the man was about to ask her to marry him. The man was for the moment just in his own brain. He was thinking something about the chemical interaction of natural water molecules with whatever hydraulic oil was made of, so he was unaware of the woman’s suspicion that he was about to ask her to marry him. He was unaware that time had stopped running in her mind and that she was being pulled with equal measure between longing and fear. Therefore, when she changed the subject, he didn’t even know the subject had been changed, or that she would regret changing the subject and not just asking him the question herself. The time hadn’t been right, she told herself. But the truth was she hadn’t had the guts.
It was easier to have guts, the woman realized eventually, when life threw curve balls into her solar plexus. When that happened, her brain hit the off switch and her guts took over, picking her up off the ground, signaling her thigh muscles to lift the bones that moved her forward.
Soon, the woman found that she was chock full of guts, and the man was too, which seemed to prove that he was indeed a right man. Together they walked into the hair salon and she held his hand as his beautiful long hair made a wavy halo on the linoleum, and she held his hand in the hospital as he emerged from wherever he had gone while the doctors opened up his head and took out a tiny piece of brain to find out the name of the thing that had taken up residence there. Cancer. For two weeks, the man lay in the recliner adjusting to the staples in his head and his new life, and to provide some sense of constancy and control and because she couldn’t think of anything else to do, the woman held his hand, the only hand she ever wanted to hold, which made him, of all the possible right men, the right man, and therefore this time the right time.
“Love’s not time’s fool,” thought the woman, wondering about the provenance and meaning of the words, and she decided the words meant that love must be a stronger force than time.
But time still told them when to get up in the morning, when to get in the car, and when to be at the hospital for radiation, when to take pills, when to eat to help avoid getting sick from the radiation and the pills. Time was still the boss of them, in other words, but the man and woman had together decided that they no longer had any respect for that particular institution of human life, no matter how serious the doctors’ faces were.
They adopted a dog and planned to have a child, which the woman had been ready for back when they’d been just the two of them and the hydraulic fish in Bangkok, even though she hadn’t admitted it then. Blueberry me? The man said one day, and the woman’s misunderstanding him became one of the moments they’d remember forever.
Time continued to mess with the woman and the man. Just when they’d gained some confidence that they were still the masters of their destinies, the woman’s mother got sick with cancer, too. The cancer in her mother’s body affected the digestive system, so for three months, the river of her mother’s insides was rerouted to flow outside of her body, which was a miracle of science but also a special preview of hell, the woman thought. Her mother told her how the river had bubbled once in an executive meeting, sounding exactly like a fart, and how once, her lap had unexpectedly been covered in blood while everyone else at church was rising for the communion line. The woman saw how her mother was also chock full of guts. She saw the miraculous but barbaric way that science had rerouted her mother’s inner river. She looked at the wasted landscape of her mother’s abdomen and thought that she herself had done some of this damage to her mother’s body, and she wished she could erase it, but that would mean erasing herself, which was something she no longer wished for.
Her mother never complained. She made comparisons between her own sickness and the man’s sickness in order to show that her own sickness was not such a big deal. The woman saw that her mother had reclaimed her body like some kind of modern Joan of Arc, and how she had neatly organized the types of cancer from least bearable to most. All this was very helpful for the woman not much later, when she was diagnosed with skin cancer and had to have her lymph nodes checked because the cancer was on its way in. She pulled out her mother’s taxonomy and saw that her own cancer was one of the most bearable and was able to believe it.
What was unbelievable for the woman was the way time seemed to have collapsed, as though the Fates had gotten their strings in a tangle and had given up trying to separate the things that were from those that are or those that were yet to be. Still, she got well and her mother got well and the man stayed alive, and so the storm calmed in the woman’s head because she remembered how horrific challenges are supposed to come in groups of three.
At this point in her life, the opinions had mostly been replaced by sympathetic looks, and whenever an opinion blew in on a rogue breeze, a circle of sympathetic looks closed around the opinion and stilled the air. The woman listened for stories and heard the ones that mattered.
Another woman in another time had had a son who had become incurably sick. The woman traveled to find the Buddha and ask that her son be saved from death. The Buddha agreed, on condition that the woman bring him a seed from a plant. The woman was more than happy about this, as the plant the Buddha had mentioned grew everywhere. The Buddha wasn’t finished. The seed must be from a plant that grew near a home in which no one had ever suffered.
After the cancer and the cancer and the cancer, others wondered if the woman asked why it was all happening. The woman told them the story about the mother and son and the plant. I feel I am waiting for you to crack, said a friend. The story means that everyone suffers, the woman explained, though eventually the woman did ask why, when without respect to the Fates or time or the rule of three, her body aged twenty years in a day and she learned that not even science could make her a mother, which she very much wanted to be. If she could not be a mother then the man could not be a father, and the cup of pain overflowed and they drank from it together, lying in bed for a whole day and crying until their eyes swelled shut and there was nothing to do but sleep.
Morning came again. The woman and the man got up and got dressed. They drank coffee. They set about doing their to do lists, him buying a suit for their wedding, her finding someone else to make the food because on their wedding day of all days, she wouldn’t be doing the cooking. They talked about the green color of the trees and whether it was the right time to move to Manhattan, and whether donor eggs made any sense, and how there seemed to be some unwritten rule that the places with the worst atmosphere had the best sushi. They talked about graduate school and salaries and getting the dog out for enough exercise. They finished each other’s sentences, sometimes to each other’s frustration but other times to each other’s delight because they knew that no one and nothing could separate them, not Fates or collapsed time or opinions on the wind.