The first time he saw her, she was standing outside of a hipster dive on H Street, in that not-yet-gentrified part of town where nothing lives except the nightlife--and even that seems to be hanging by a tenuous thread. Someone's shitty garage band was pounding the hell out of some unsuspecting ballad and a small crowd of scenester kids (and her) had spilled onto the sidewalk to take a few drags of night air, cigarettes. He had never really paid attention to smoking before, until he saw her do it. The smoke expanded to fill her mouth and she pulled it down into her lungs, where it curled into the airways like little white cats, turning in circles before finally choosing the correct orientation for a nap. Then she pushed the smoke out, shooing the comfortable cats back into the chill of the evening. It was startling to him that a single puff of her cigarette could make him purr like that, when many years ago, he had watched a tumor grow in his mother's lungs but couldn't figure out how to tell her until it was too late. This girl was extraordinary.
He crossed the street and sidled up to her, hoping that he didn't smell as drunk as he actually was. "You shouldn't smoke," he said. "It's bad for you."
"I know," she said. She took another pull, and he tried to keep his eyes on her eyes, away from her lungs. He didn't want her to get the wrong idea about him. As he waited for an excuse that wasn't coming, his vision slipped back and up into her brain, where he could enjoy her little electrical storm of thoughts and feelings. If he knew anything about how the brain actually worked, what the pulses meant if they were in certain lobes of the brain, he might have considered this a violation of their fragile, nascent trust. But he did not.
"I'm Sam," he said.
"I'm Sam too," she said.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," he said. She nodded. "What do you think of that band?"
"They're terrible," she said, not missing a beat. He nodded.
"I don't have to pay full cover if all I want is to buy you a drink, right?"
"No," she said. "We can go to the bar upstairs, and you only pay half." She stepped on the end of her half-smoked cigarette and left it as a prize for the scrappiest underage kid or most desperate bum. Inside, he received one hand stamp (instead of the two that Sam sported), and then watched the best parts of her backside work their magic as he followed her up the rickety staircase.
The DJ was just as loud as the downstairs band, but at least the dance music was more predictable. They both knew when to sip their gins and when to talk. He found out that Sam was short for Samantha, that she worked as a paralegal in a big firm downtown, and that her paralegal friends dragged her to see this band because they thought the drummer was sexy. She found out that Sam was short for Samuel, that he was a patent officer in Alexandria, and that he had been drinking alone at the trendy new burlesque bar down the street. From their banquette, they could watch the would-be dancers as they moved by increments, rhythmically trying to push their way through the chaos.
After a little while of drinking and talking, he noticed her noticing her friends by the stairs. "I'd like to see you again," he said.
"I get coffee for my favorite associate every morning at the Starbucks at 13th and Penn," she said. "Maybe it's on your way?"
"I live right near there," he said. "I go to Metro Center to grab the blue line down to work."
"Then maybe I'll see you. I'm in line at nine-fifteen," she said. "Thank you for the drink." She stood up, and he was suddenly at eye level with her internal plumbing. Without meaning to, he saw it: amorphous and an inch in diameter, lodged firmly in her right ovary. It looked like one of the ones that grew, malignant, not just a cyst like the ones he'd seen in other women. He stood, looked one more time into her eyes, and fell in love with her as she turned away to find her friends.
When he was seven years old, he was in a car accident with his father. The car was rear-ended at a stop light. He was wearing his seat belt, but it was before the time of airbags, and there was very little to keep his head from smashing itself on the dashboard. He had a year of physical therapy after that, mostly to monitor his progress after the first painful session when they reseated his cranium over his spinal column. The crrr-aack of his own head and neck being popped back into place haunted him to this day. They treated his concussion by letting him take a week off from school and making sure he got plenty of Gatorade and rest. The goose egg on his forehead went down with regular application of bags of frozen vegetables. His parents asked him how he felt, and truthfully, he felt perfectly fine. But he found that when he stopped focusing his eyes on something, he could see a little more than he used to be able to see. The insides of things. People's insides.
He had to be looking directly at something to see inside of it. Therefore, he could not see the defect in his brain that gave him this extraordinary vision, though he could see the inside of the mirror when he tried. But he could see the bones of his fingers and toes when he looked down at them, the muscles and blood vessels. He rolled his ankle in gym class when he was in high school, and he could see the strain on the tears in his ligaments when the athletic trainer tested him for sprain. Even though he couldn't exactly feel the damage, he could see it, so he screamed and refused to allow anyone to touch him until the nurse arrived. People thought he was peculiar.
When he was an adolescent, he always laughed when his friends said they wished they had x-ray vision so they could see into the girls' locker room. He laughed because he knew it wasn't like that. You couldn't just choose how many layers you wanted to see through for any given object--two for the girl with the thin sweater and nice rack, four for the heavily-wrapped birthday gift. He saw the girl's heart and lungs, and the inside of whatever the present was, which was usually not enough to identify it. He always saw all the way to the center, if he let his mind wander. He had to really focus to see the surfaces.
He saw her again on Monday, at 9:15 sharp, in line at the Starbucks with all the other suit-clad office workers and their ravenous appetites for caffeine. "Fancy meeting you here," he said.
"I didn't think you'd come," she said as she stepped up to the counter. He noticed with dismay that the line was moving particularly quickly this morning. "Two tall chai lattes, one regular, one skim."
"Why is she your favorite associate?" he asked.
"He is a trip," she said, emphasizing the pronoun. "And he always lets me have my pick of the work."
"Do you think he has other motives?"
"Why shouldn't he?" she asked, tossing her hair as she turned to look at him. The barista came back with her lattes, and he nodded toward them to alert her to their presence. She stepped out of the way to let him order.
"One tall chai latte," he said to the barista.
"But he doesn't," she said. "Have ulterior motives, I mean. I've asked, and he's not the sort to lie." He loved how honest she was, about everything. He glanced down to her abdomen. It may have been his imagination, but the tumor seemed ever so slightly larger than it had on Saturday.
"Which latte is yours?" he asked, taking his own from the counter.
"The regular," she answered.
"Good," he said, smiling.
"Will you be here tomorrow?" she asked.
"I might," he said. And he was.
After a week of "chance" meetings over chai lattes, unsweetened iced teas, and an iced mocha (as a Friday treat), he decided that it was time to ask her to go out with him on a real date.
"Only one drink today?" he asked.
"The associate is taking a long weekend," she said.
"Let's go skydiving," he said, using his straw to stir the ice into his cold chocolate coffee milk.
"That's a little crazy for a first date, don't you think?" she said, slowly stirring her own iced mocha the same way.
"Life is short," he said.
"Okay," she said. "Let's do it."
Unbeknownst to him, she went through a phase in college when she wanted nothing more than to hurtle toward the Earth with nothing but a parachute and God's grace standing between her and an untimely demise. She was certified to jump by herself, and she did, even though he had to jump out of the plane with a big Australian instructor strapped to his back. "How're you feelin', mate?" the instructor yelled in his ear as they stabilized after a tumbling freefall. He looked down and watched as her chute opened, an explosion of neon green against the vast, dull earth below.
"Alive!" he yelled back.
"Hold on!" the instructor shouted before deploying their parachute.
On the ground, they decided to follow the jump with lunch at a local vineyard.
"Thank you for suggesting that," she said, pouring herself another glass of cabernet franc. "It has been entirely too long since I jumped out of an airplane."
"I've always wanted to try," he said.
"You did well for your first jump," she said. She spread some soft cheese onto a piece of bread and handed it to him before making one for herself. He read volumes of love poetry in this small, simple gesture, and carefully watched as her pulse quickened, then slowed, then quickened again, a gentle flush appearing in her cheeks.
"Thank you," he said.
"This is my favorite sort of lunch as well," she said. "Spontaneous, beautiful setting, lots of wine and cheese." Their small wrought-iron table was out on the stone patio of a spacious new winery, providing them with a view of the rolling green hills of rural Virginia and row after row of new vines. Sam had always had trouble with women, but in this idyllic setting, sitting across a table from this beautiful, strange woman, he could easily pretend that he'd always been lucky in love. Something about the calmness of her breathing soothed him, and he could envision them doing this kind of thing again and again.
"I'm having a wonderful time," he said, feeling the creamy cheese melt on his tongue.
"A girl could get used to living like this," she said.
"I hope you do," he said.
"I'm going to kiss you now," she said, leaning around the table to gently press her lips against his cheek.
"A guy could get used to more of those," he said, smiling. He knew that his second impression of her--that he loved her--had not been wrong.
"I hope you do," she said. She took another sip of her wine and stared out over the expansive vista. He wondered what it was like not to ever see the water flowing up into the grapevines, to take the pulse of life for granted. He had momentarily forgotten about the tumor. He watched her brain again. The pulses there were quick and even.
After the sun had gone down and they had eaten all the cheese, he took her back to the city and let her out in front of her apartment. "Let's go to Paris," he said.
"Paris? Don't you think that's a little crazy for a second date?" she asked. She raised her eyebrows this time. When he had asked her to go skydiving, she had kept her cool because freefall was familiar territory for her. But Paris was something else entirely.
"I speak enough French," he said. "And the bubbly there is better, or so I'm told."
"Next Friday is a holiday," she said. "You come up with tickets and a place to stay, and I'll go for the long weekend. I'll take Monday off, too."
"Perfect," he said. She had gotten out of the car and come around to the driver's side before he knew what was happening. She leaned down and kissed him full on the mouth, pressing her tongue between his lips, between his teeth and onto his tongue. He snapped his eyes shut and kissed her back, reaching out, touching her hand, wrapping his fingers in hers. She slowly pulled away.
"Goodnight, my enigma," she said.
They met every day for morning coffee. On Thursday, he told her to pack for the continent and reminded her to bring her passport. He'd be by at seven in the morning so they could make their flight out of Dulles. He had tickets on Air France and confirmation of a room with a balcony in an apartment-sharing scheme.
She was astounded. "I can't believe you put this together. For me." Sam had never had the best luck with men, but with this Prince Charming whisking her away to Paris, she could easily pretend that she was a fairytale heroine, a woman who could enjoy everything about her life.
"But of course," he said, putting on a mockery of a French accent. They boarded the plane and alternated napping with canoodling under an airplane blanket. In the evening, they arrived at Orly and took the metro downtown to their apartment. A violinist in a black beret played an old French folk tune as he strolled through the train cars, extracting coins from clueless American tourists who either didn't know the difference between a Euro and a quarter or didn't care. After one such exchange, he looked over at her and mouthed, "Suckers." She giggled, the sound escaping her throat before she could identify it. The unfamiliar place and the strange circumstances had tapped into her well of unadulterated joy.
The apartment was characteristically French--everything in it was about 2/3 the size of things in American apartments and the walls and furniture were draped in toile. As per the description, the apartment "ne donna pas sur la rue," giving the balcony a fine view of the well-manicured stone courtyard in the center of the building. The first thing he did after putting down his suitcase was run out to the marché, where he picked up some fresh baguette; good, thick French butter; imported marmalade; and a bottle of red wine. The apartment was stocked with glassware and dishes, and she had set the small balcony table with them before he returned.
He set out the food and they ate. When they had eaten their fill, he asked her, "How did you know I was bringing back food?"
"I know you," she said.
"After only two weeks?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Good," he said. "Then it will not be a surprise when I ask you to become my wife tomorrow evening, in the sunset under the Arc de Triomphe." He pulled a small silvery ring out of his pocket and placed it on her finger. She looked down and saw that it was in fact white gold, channel set with tiny diamonds.
"It is a surprise," she said. "But I say yes."
"We can choose other rings tomorrow, and clothes, if you want something more French to wear to our wedding. I have already arranged for the ceremony. The Champs-Elysees shall be your bridal aisle."
"This is a formal side of you that I have not seen before," she said.
"And this is a happy side of you that I have not seen enough," he said.
"We should celebrate," she said.
"I know just the place," he said.
Together, the engaged couple strolled out of their beautiful French apartment, down the street to a cafe. Inside, there were old men standing at the bar, plunking sugar cubes into their tiny cups of strong coffee. "Bonjour bonjour bonjour," the old men said. They nodded to the men, smiling. "Quel bonheur!" the old men said under their breaths, remembering the happinesses of their own reckless youths.
"Une table, s'il vous plait," he said to the barman.
"But we just ate!" she said.
"No matter," he said. "It's Paris! We'll eat again." She smiled. The barman came out from behind the bar and showed them to a table outdoors. He took their order: a croque-monsieur, a croque-madame, and a bottle of absinthe with all the trimmings.
"Absinthe," she said. "That's legal in the states now, isn't it?"
"Yes," he said. "But you can't get the really good stuff. You have to come here for that."
"Hmm," she said. "I feel not like myself."
"You haven't even had any green fairy yet."
"It's the engagement, I think," she said, looking down at the ring that beamed up at her from her finger. "And the escape to Paris. It's all happening so quickly. I'm a little disoriented."
"Do you feel unpleasantly unlike yourself?"
"No," she said. "Not entirely."
He mixed her an absinthe with water and a muddled sugar cube, then mixed one for himself.
"Sante," he said, "Chin-chin." They clinked glasses and drank. The food arrived shortly after that, and they shared the gloriously fried sandwiches with gusto, letting the absinthe order them a plate of grilled vegetables, a salade Nicoise, an order of pommes frites with aioli, and a chocolate croissant. When they were quite full of rich food and intensely fucked-up on absinthe, he told her, "I can see through things." At first she thought he was hallucinating. Then she thought that she was hallucinating.
"What kinds of things?" she said, seeming to deliberate over each word.
"All kinds of things," he said. He spoke deliberately too, a side effect of the absinthe.
"Prove it," she said. So he ordered two coffees. The barman brought the coffees and a pitcher of cream, and replenished their bowl of sugar cubes.
"Put a certain number of sugar cubes in each cup," he said. "I will close my eyes and cover my ears. Then you should cover each cup with a saucer. And I will tell you how many cubes are in each."
She thought this a brilliant plan, and hastened to execute it. Even though he claimed that he couldn't hear, she made extra clinks and clanks with the sugar bowl and the cups. She hoped to fool him again by placing a piece of pomme frite in one of the cups. He would have no way of knowing that she tampered with the experiment that way, and would be unable to prove his claimed talent. When the saucers were over the cups, she kicked him under the table and told him to open his eyes.
"Well?" she asked. "How many?"
"The cup on the left has three cubes of sugar. The cup on the right has one cube of sugar and one bit of French fry. I'll drink that one, if you want." Of course he was exactly right.
"I don't believe you," she said, even though she did. "Can you see through other things?"
"The woman at the table behind you has an economy-sized package of dental floss in her handbag," he said. She turned around just in time to see her take the floss out of her bag and start flossing the teeth of her tiny toy poodle.
"What's in my handbag, then?" she asked.
"Both of our passports," he said.
"A lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, a handful of Euro coins, and a condom," he said.
"Okay," she said. "Now I believe you. What else can you see? Can you see people naked? Have you seen me naked?"
"No," he said. "I only see the insides."
"So you haven't seen me naked?"
"That's a shame."
"Do you see people's insides all the time?"
"No," he said. "If I focus properly, I can see the outsides of things, like a normal person."
"Like a superhero," she said. The idea of being a Lois Lane played right to her fantasies, her weakness. "I don't care if we are hallucinating. This is the best conversation I have had since becoming an adult."
"Absinthe is wonderful, isn't it?"
"Can you see things inside people? Like injuries? Artery plaque? Tumors?" she asked. The moment she said the word "tumor," he remembered hers. He looked at it. It was much larger than the last time. It was hard to pull his attention away from it. It looked like it might reach up and tear out her liver at any minute.
"You can, can't you?" she said.
He dropped his gaze into his coffee cup, fishing out the French fry with a spoon. "Yes," he said.
"You looked away from me when you said that," she said. "Do I...do I...?" He continued to stir the coffee, even though the sugar cube had long since melted. "I do, don't I?" He did not answer. "Where is it?"
"I'm not sure," he faltered, still staring into his coffee.
"It's my ovary, isn't it?" she said.
"I think so."
"My grandmother died of that. Young, too."
"How long do I have?"
"I'm not a doctor," he said. Her face started doing contortions as she mouthed things to herself. She moved her coffee cup, the empty plates, and the utensils around the table, trying to impose order on them to compensate for the chaos that roiled in the pit of her stomach.
"Is this what the rush was all about? The second date in Paris? The engagement?"
"No," he said. But even as the word came out of his mouth, he knew that he wasn't exactly sure, and the sound wavered with uncertainty.
"It is," she said. "You only love me because I'm going to die." She stood up, then sat down again, still searching for some kind of order, something that made sense. She'd uncharacteristically dropped everything and come to Paris with this virtual stranger, who was now telling her that he could see through things and that she might have cancer. This was exactly the sort of thing that her mother would have warned her about, if she'd been able to imagine something so ludicrous.
"Everyone is going to die," he said halfheartedly. The pain on her face made him unwilling to argue with her, and he wasn't sure his arguments were in any condition to convince anyone, especially not himself. Was he really in love with her, or did he love her mortality?
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.
"I didn't know how," he said. "You can't just go up to a person and say, 'Excuse me sir, but I see that you've got a rather large cancer on your left nut that you might want to get looked at, if you haven't already.'"
"I'm not some stranger," she said. "I was going to be your wife."
"I couldn't tell my mother, either," he said.
"If you can't save people with it, then what the hell is your extraordinary superpower worth?" The silence after her question was like a vacuum, sucking out all of his insecurities. He was elated to have finally shared his burden with someone, and even more thrilled that she was already making the load so much lighter. She was starting to feel the weight of his knowledge, pressing heavily on her brow like an absinthe hangover.
"I never thought about it that way," he said. Her face suddenly contorted into a scowl, and his heart dropped into his stomach. The cafe had emptied out, and the barman was eyeing them suspiciously as he dried the coffee cups for the evening. Sam suddenly found himself wishing that he could make the layers of his own body disappear the way he did for others. If even a part of him could have become invisible...
"What were you going to do after I died?" she asked, starting to visibly shake. "Marry someone else? How many other times have you handed out this ring?" Between tremors, she pulled the ring off of her finger and dropped it in her coffee. He had thought that this was going to be the most positive moment in his life, but it was all going horribly wrong.
"None, I swear!" he said. "I only loved you! From that very first moment on H Street when I saw you smoking that cigarette." He took his spoon and deftly fished the ring out of the little coffee cup. Then he dipped the ring in his glass of water and dried it on his napkin. "Please put it back on. Please marry me. All I wanted was for you to have a happy life, with me." He held the ring out to her in the palm of his hand.
"And after my last time on earth? My months? My year? After I'm gone, then what?"
"I don't know!" he said. "I don't know." The look on his face was a cross between sadness and remorse. It melted her a little, but she tried hard not to show it.
She reached out and took the ring from his hand. She slowly slipped it back onto her left ring finger, realizing only then that the ring was unmistakeably her size. He couldn't possibly have given the ring to anyone else.
"I will help you tell them," she said, holding up her beringed left hand as though she were taking an oath. "For as long as I can. Then you have to tell them yourself."
He held her right hand and sobbed, dropping his head onto the table next to his coffee. He looked up at her, his face streaked with tears. "I love you," he said.
"We'll help them," she said. She then used her free hand to fish a cigarette out of her bag. She pulled her other hand away so that she could light it.
"You shouldn't smoke," he said, still catching his breath.
"I know, it's bad for me." A mischievous smile crept across her face as she considered this. "But life is short."