by Paul Eberly
There’s a break, a hiccup in the conversation, of the kind that always happens when people find out I’ve had a bad cancer. And how bad, these people have no idea. Cancer, when Julie pronounces the word, sounds like a condition you’d want to acquire. Rendered in français the disease sounds sumptuous. “Cansayyyre,” my new wife says. My cancer was a variety that almost never appears in men under sixty, and it’s famously, even boisterously, lethal. I’ve kept clear of survival charts, which scare me legless, but this much I’ve learned by simple osmosis: my chance of survival, at diagnosis, was about one in twenty. Now, eighteen months after treatment and still trimming my nose hairs, my prospects have improved to one out of two. Flip a coin, same odds.
These events take place around a table in a French kitchen, in a depressed mining town near Luxembourg, where Julie’s brought me to visit her aunt and uncle while we honeymoon in Europe. I’m being debuted, of course, and cancer has become part of my credentials. As always in such moments, my emotions are queasily ambiguous. I experience, no denying it, the rush of celebrity. But the sudden gravity reminds me of my “enhanced” mortality, and that mortality is an aspect of my existence I try to forget.
Françoise, Julie’s Tatie, fetches a baguette from the counter, while Henri, Julie’s Tonton, peels the rind from a wedge of cheese. He wields his knife with the dexterity of a surgical oncologist. That leaves Carole, Julie’s cousin, and Loran, Carole’s child.
I know maybe fifty words in French, cansayyyre included, but English and French are partly connate, so when I listen from the side of my ear, I catch the gist of the conversation. My wife, I’ve learned, is a subject of this family’s mythology. These rural folk—rail workers, miners—live hardscrabble lives; some disaster always threatens. When Julie visited at age eight from America, a virus decimated the chickens. At age eleven, one of Henri’s pigs escaped and stepped on a land mine, a relic of the Second World War. Age seventeen: Carole’s drug-dealer boyfriend swiped the TV. There are other unfortunate coincidences. Henri speaks slowly, and repeats phrases for my benefit. He and Françoise laugh. He wants me to understand what kind of jinx I’ve married. Even as he teases Julie, it’s obvious he adores her. The hilarity seems mAGNIfied, as if intended to obscure my questionable prognosis. Which it doesn’t.
Like me, Julie is thirty-two, and unlike me, she’s half French and half Japanese. Her mother married a Japanese scientist she met in Paris, and the couple, seeking neutral territory, emigrated to the U.S. By whatever logic chooses our affinities, Julie emphasizes the French half of her ancestry to the exclusion of the Oriental. She’s a Francophile with a snake-handler’s fervor. She’d never admit it, but in her truest soul I’m certain she’d rather her relatives were sleek Parisians, urbane denizens of the Eighteenth Arrondissement. We’re often unworthy. But this provincial family’s her only tie to the country of her choice, and Julie’s nothing if not loyal.
Loran filches a thumb's width of torte from the dessert plate. He upends the salt shaker onto the table’s surface. The salt mounds in a blister. We all ignore him. The boy is so unmanageable his antics grind you. Carole, in particular, ignores him because she’s too busy eye-fucking me to pay attention. Each time I look her way, our eyes find each other’s. Cancer, bizarrely, has made me handsome. Most of my life, I’ve been a fat guy and women like Julie or Carole never spared me a second look. But between chemotherapy and radiation (not to mention deletion of my esophagus and part of my stomach), I’ve become alluringly svelte, it is true. My cheekbones, I’m told, are especially devastating. Who’d have imagined?
Julie, with her own devastating cheekbones and subtle epicanthic lids, is more gorgeous than her cousin—herself a Eurotrash knock-out with mashed-looking lips like you see on the cover of Cosmopolitan. These two, both toweringly vain, are lifelong rivals. No doubt Carole hopes to needle Julie by this display, but her gaze holds an ardency I half-believe is genuine. I half-believe if Carole and I drove to the Tabac for Françoise’s cigarettes, I could undress her in Henri’s matchbox Peugeot. At least I imagine. I worship Julie, literally worship her, and have zero intention of testing this possibility, but the attention of a second beautiful woman does my self-regard no hurt.
Le chien yelps and snaps at Loran, who has intentionally stamped on the creature’s tail. The boy wails, an ululation out of proportion to the injury, which doesn’t breach the skin. Carole barely reacts, maintains her ocular seduction, and Françoise lifts the child and comforts him. It occurs to me that most comfort in Loran’s life likely derives from this source. Henri speaks sharply to the dog, but I beam the animal a mental “attaboy.” Shame on me, I know.
Henri loops his thick arm around my wife’s shoulders. “Alors,” he says, “tu es revenue. La Reine du Catastrophe.” Julie says, “He calls me the Queen of Catastrophe.” It’s all a joke, but she’s heard this routine a thousand times, and I can tell it makes her defensive. She wants to belong. Plus, it’s obvious Carole’s antics are pissing her off comprehensively. I keep expecting Carole’s toes to find mine under the table. Worse, I’m starting to return her gaze, I can’t help it.
Though no one says it, I realize I’ve reinforced my wife’s reputation as the bad-luck queen—her new husband, who’ll likely as not occupy a crematory urn in another year. Not for the first time, I wonder why she let herself fall in love with a guy like me. Suddenly, I’m peeved at this banter, however gently it’s intended.
Construction material clutters the kitchen wall. There’s a sawhorse and hand tools, lumber and a table saw. Carole, several months back, left her latest drug-dealer boyfriend to move back with Françoise and Henri. Henri, apparently, is the kind of guy who’ll forever adore his fresh, baby daughter, however many criminals attract her affections, and he’s created an apartment for her and Loran in the attic. They reach their living area using a ladder, and this month Henri’s building a spiral staircase that rises from the pantry. This charms me. It reminds me of corkscrews I turned the week before, climbing the turrets at Mont Saint Michel.
For Henri, the staircase is no special stretch—he’s one of those guys who knows how to use any tool, can build any item you can imagine. These French people don’t know it, but I’m one of those guys too. I push back my chair and select a sheet of lumber, then start the table saw and cut a perfect, wedge-shaped tread. The saw’s activated by a foot pedal but has an On/Off switch with a sturdy throw. Henri takes the tread and nails it in place, four stairs from the pantry floor. He countersinks the nails and hides the dimples with putty. We labor. I’m a demon. A few years ago, there was an American presidential hopeful who survived a serious cancer. He staged innumerable photo-opportunities in swimming pools around the nation, where he’d turn laps, churning end to end, demonstrating his strength and vigor. His cancer came back, and he’s dead now. At the time, I found this display pathetic. I still do, even as I do the same thing—hammering, sawing and planing until my shirt’s moist with sweat. I am viability’s poster child! I have longevity, I’m in for the long haul, I’m a husband for the ages! In awe, Julie’s family will regard her powerful new partner.
Henri, I notice, powers down the saw each time he leaves it, a precaution to protect the kamikaze Loran. Loran pinballs around the kitchen, still unattended. Julie helps Françoise with the dishes. Henri works. I work. Carole mounts the ladder, deliberately, and settles on the attic floor, dangling her legs into the stairwell. Carole’s legs are longer than the Seine, longer than the distance from Paris to the Moon. With difficulty, I cut another tread. I leave the power switch set to “On,” not on purpose.
It’s three by the time the family returns from the clinic. In a village this far from state-of-the-art treatment, Loran’s index finger cannot be reattached. Pain killers, though, have knocked the boy flat, and he sleeps on the living room sofa. We drink wine. The family doesn’t hold my lapse against me. Instead, the critical lens has swung to focus on Carole and her laissez-faire mothering. Even Henri’s enraged. Carole sulks and now seems to find me repulsive.
I hold my lapse against me. Julie won’t speak to me because I’ve admitted to her the cause of my distraction. “Ahh, alors tu as ammené le catastrophe avec toi,” Henri says, suddenly and not humorously. “He says I’ve brought catastrophe with me,” Julie says, relenting enough to interpret, “Once again.”
I’ve taken his gentle derision and turned it sinister. Between my wife and people she loves, I’ve driven a wedge. The only enhancement I can bring to the Queen of Catastrophe’s reputation, I realize, requires I keep clear of that crematory urn, and that depends on the occult workings of my bodily cells. Then I despair, knowing I control that behavior as little as I do the attraction between a whirring blade and a boy’s unruly finger, or the attraction between elegant, French calves and a man’s unruly eye.