Lucas McMillan

NEGATIVE MARGINS
 
 
She contemplates calling a cab to the hospital. She doesn’t like what that says about her, but they’d told her not to drive and to arrange a ride to and from the surgery. That divide, before her surgery and after, is how Shannon figures she’ll see her life now.
 
“Any spouse, boyfriend,” the hospital’s receptionist says. She is only asking the next question on her checklist, doing her job.
 
“Nope,” Shannon says, twisting and untwisting the phone’s cord around her fingers until the tips are white. “Well, sort of.”
 
 
People talked about finding a lump like the act existed in a vacuum, tethered to nothing else but the subsequent surgery and treatment. Nobody mentioned the cold spaces in between those two events.
 
Shannon found her lump in the shower before work one day, a shower like any other. Of course, she ignored it.
 
She went out to the bars harder than ever; she’d already been going out too hard. She ignored the lump. She spent entire weeks away from her apartment.
 
She forgot to feed her cat and finally just let it go. It was dead on the side of the road a week later and she cried until she gagged.
 
The nursing home called, wondering where she was. Her father was asking for her. She didn’t return the calls, didn’t go in.
 
There was a married man for a few months. Sweaty motel rooms with yellowing wallpaper, late night phone calls, email chains by the hundreds. But it was mostly waiting. There was no glamour to an affair, or at least not hers; the majority of it was waiting. Waiting for him to show up, to call, to give the all-clear that his wife was at her mother’s for the weekend. Shannon’s strongest memory from that time was not the sex, blunt and efficient, but the HBO comedy specials she watched underneath the thin motel comforter while waiting for him. She finally gave the man a copy of her apartment key, hoping to lend their relationship a dimension of dignity, but she snatched it back and ended it when the man wanted to leave his family for her. Of course, she ignored the lump.
Then she met Nick.
 
 
Shannon was at the bar with her friend Andrea, an English teacher at the high school. Shannon had not told Andrea about the lump, had not told anyone.
 
They walked in from the sticky August heat and were buffeted by the bar’s air conditioner. Shannon scanned the dark recesses of the place and saw three men at the other end huddled over the new video poker machine. It was early and the music wasn’t switched on yet; a football game played over the bar’s speaker system instead. Pumpkin-orange sunlight shone in through the bar’s slatted windows.
 
Andrea nudged Shannon and glanced at the men. There was a tall man standing behind his two friends and looking over their shoulder while they played the game.
 
Andrea looked at Shannon expectantly, like she’d told a joke and was waiting for Shannon to laugh. Andrea had not been with a man since she’d given birth to Sullivan three years earlier. Andrea still recognized the traits that made men attractive, but didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. “Eh?” she said. “He’s not bad.”
 
“He looks like a cop,” Shannon said. She crossed her arms, bracing against the bar’s frigid air conditioning. “Cops are married.”
 
They slipped into a rounded corner booth. A buzzcutted waitress limped up to the table.
“What can I get you ladies?” she said, pulling out a notepad from her apron and tugging the pen from behind her ear.
 
“Hey, we got it,” one of the men said from the video poker machine. He leaned at a sharp angle off the stool and used his tall friend as a brace. “I got whatever they order.”
 
“Thank you,” Andrea said, too quietly for the men to hear. She touched her hair and looked down at the table.
 
“We’ll take two gin and tonics,” Shannon said. “Right, Andrea? That good?”
 
 “Oh, oh yes, yeah,” Andrea said. She waved at the three men down the bar.  
 
“Put your hand down,” Shannon said under her breath, smiling. “Be cool.”
 
 
The sun finally set, the music switched on. A few other patrons trickled in, the kids just out of high school drinking sugary drinks in the dart room and the farm hands drinking the two-for-one domestic tap beers at the bar. Shannon was embarrassed that she’d drank so much upon learning that Nick, the tall one, who was indeed a cop, didn’t drink at all. He was DD’ing for his two buddies. 
 
The drunkest of the three men, Todd, the one that ordered the drinks, was all over Andrea, pinning her against the wall in the booth, one hand planted above her on the wall and the other one on her leg. Her face was flushed and bright, the shoulder strap of her tank top down around her forearm. The third man, a new cop, walked around the bar with his thumbs in his belt loops, hoping for trouble.
 
“And then I got out of the academy and I was like, screw it, right?” Nick said. “I figured I might as well move back to my hometown, you know?”
 
“Sure,” Shannon said, tuning back into the conversation, her voice a pitiful squeak in her ear. “Like, I totally get that.” She slid her leg in between his legs, felt the heat vibrating between his thighs. He rested his hand on her knee.
 
Later, after he’d dropped off his friends, the new cop sullenly at home and Todd at Andrea’s place, Andrea tip-toeing in the front door and making Todd wait outside while she paid the babysitter and ensured Sullivan was in bed, Nick drove Shannon to her apartment. She was sober by then (she’d been drinking Sprite for three hours; it looked like gin and tonic and she wanted to give Nick the courage and permission he needed, if he needed it).
 
“So, do you wanna come in?” Shannon said. She scooted down the truck’s bucket seat to get closer to him. He flicked off the radio, the country station coming in choppy from the Cities.
 
“Nah, I really shouldn’t,” he said. “Not tonight, anyway.”
 
“I’m really not that drunk,” Shannon said. “That was Sprite I was drinking, if that’s your issue.”
 
 “I’ve gotta get up early tomorrow is all. Nothing personal.”
 
 “I just want to talk, actually,” Shannon said. “Would you want to talk right now? I mean, I hope that doesn’t freak you out or anything.”
 
The sprinkler system of Shannon’s apartment complex thrummed to life, a jet of water slapping Nick’s windshield. They both jumped and laughed. The ratchety click-click-click sound of the sprinkler heads’ revolutions filled the night air.
 
“Sure,” he said loudly, to be heard over the sprinklers. “I’m gonna need to write a note to your landlord anyway. We’re in a drought.”
 
They did talk that night until the sun rose, but not before Nick stuck a Post-It note with sharp block letters on the door of the manager’s office, warning him to shut off the sprinklers.
 
 
They slept over at each other’s apartments every other night for weeks, making dinners together, exotic things like green curry and pad Thai that Nick enjoyed from his time attending the U in the Twin Cities. Thai food was what he liked, so he ate it four or five nights a week. He was a simple man in that way, Shannon thought, monolithic in his thoughts and opinions, deeply and stubbornly committed to being exactly the way he was.  
 
She saw him scribbling in a pocket notebook at his kitchen table over breakfast one day and asked him what he was writing.
 
“It’s my challenge list,” he said.
 
“Like a to-do list?” she asked.
 
“No,” he said. “Bigger.”
 
She opened it and read it after he’d left for work. It was a ledger of personal times and records. There was “Time it Takes to Get to Work,” “Shopping Cart Efficiency @ Grocery Store,” “Patrol Car Prep Time.” The records were often measured against other times listed in a right-hand column titled “To Beat.” Nick had been silently competing against himself, maybe others, for years. He was fringe-fanatical in his single-mindedness.
 
But he could surprise her too, in the quiet ways. When they showed gay marriage protests at the Minnesota state house on the news, Nick merely shook his head and said, “Aw, hell, who cares. Let ‘em do what they do.” He was like a tourniquet tied too tight, pinching and abrasive but, in the grand scheme, good for her.
 
Of course, he did not drink, and Shannon respected that, though it became an issue. Shannon went out two or three nights a week with Andrea and Todd, who were an item now, and while Nick came out after his shift sometimes (he worked the speed traps until midnight), he was much more sober than Shannon when he arrived at the bar, and this made her feel guilty.
 
Nick soon stopped going out with them entirely. Instead, he would get to his apartment after midnight, find his door unlocked and her passed out on the couch, crashed there after too many shots too soon with Andrea and Todd. He shook her awake gently, with humor at first, then more forcefully as weeks passed. She didn’t feel her breast in a month, and on the best nights, she convinced herself that the discovery of the lump had been a dream.
 
It was on one of these nights, Shannon groggy and drunk on Nick’s couch and him just off work and still in his uniform, that she told him about it. He was furious at her for not having told him sooner, not having done anything at all to remedy the problem. She was too drunk to remember the specifics of the conversation, only the textures. He was angry and comforting; her face was wet with tears, her knees cold and bruised from the bathroom tile.
 
She woke up the next morning to the smell of eggs scrambling. She sat up. Her pants and shirt were neatly folded and resting at the foot of the bed.
 
“Nick?” she called. She heard the snap of grease in a frying pan in the kitchen and the coffee machine gurgling.
 
He walked into the bedroom. He wore bike shorts, his shins caked with mud, a sweat stain splashed down the front of his shirt, a triangle of toast jutting out of his mouth. He pointed at her things on the bed.
 
“Get dressed,” he said, spitting his words around the toast. “We’re eating, I’m driving you to the hospital, period, end of story, let’s go.”
 
He dropped her off at Sacred Mercy and drove off to work a 12-hour shift on the interstate. She could have walked out, told him later they’d found nothing. Instead she sat down, made herself watch the women’s talk show on the caged TV in the upper corner of the waiting area and breathed the tart lemon smell of the floor polish. The talk show was muted and subtitled, but the nurse behind the desk laughed anyway.  
 
 
Shannon received the news with her ass stuck to the paper film covering the doctor’s vinyl bench.
It was breast cancer, caught early, like a robber lit by a police floodlight in mid-break-in. Surgery was scheduled for eight weeks later. The doctor explained to her that when they removed the cancerous cells they would examine the tumor and the tissue that surrounded it by rolling it in a special ink. Since they’d caught it early, they hoped to find a negative margin, no trace of the cancerous cells at all in the surrounding tissue. A negative margin was virtually a clean slate, the doctor explained. No more surgery would be required.
 
“Family history? Do you have a family history of breast cancer?”
 
Shannon remembered her mother with the kind of foggy half-fiction that clogged her recollections of childhood, a creole of her own scattershot memories and her father’s addled and incessantly repeated stories. These flashes were like negative photo prints held up to a light. Her mother in the organic vegetable garden. Her mother dripping red paint from the picket sign onto her father’s new kitchen floor. Her mother not believing in mammograms because of the radiation. Her mother grabbing her own white, chubby child-hand and guiding it to where the lump was on her breast, asking if Shannon felt it too.
 
“Yes.”
 
 
She didn’t feel like she had a say in her actions that night.
 
Shannon went out with Andrea and Todd and told them the news. They reacted like she knew they would, proposing a grim and consoling celebration. Pitchers of beer around the booth. Rounds of gin and tonics, everything on Todd. Then she was talking to Tim, a guy she went to high school with; he was Timmy then but since he took over his dad’s lighting company he wanted to be Tim. He was telling her about his divorce so she told him about her diagnosis. Soon they were laughing, huddled over the video poker machine. She felt her phone buzzing in her purse. Todd tugged at her sleeve, throwing a thumb over his shoulder—Andrea and him were leaving, was she sure she didn’t want to come? Nick got off his shift soon, he’d want to see her. 
One more drink, Shannon said. Andrea and Todd left.
 
Then she was frantically kissing Tim in the recess behind the video poker machine, yanking at his belt, clawing for his zipper.
 
 
Shannon blinked away the sobering fluorescent winter-white light of morning. A man threw his swollen pink leg over her torso, crushing the air out of her.
 
“Oh, God,” she wheezed, smacking his thigh. “Off, off, get off.” He groaned and rolled over, spooling the bed sheet off her and around him. She looked around the small room. Threadbare carpet the color of dried mustard blanketed the floor and an electric space heater groaned in the corner, its red-hot grille winking at her from behind a pile of clothes. She heard dogs barking outside and a woman chattering in Spanish, either to herself or on the phone. She looked over at the man’s pale back, spotted with acne. She did not remember this one’s name and did not want to.
 
She sat up, the blood pounding in her head. She ran her tongue over her teeth, covered in a slick sheen of plaque. When was the last time she had brushed her teeth? She coughed and the man stirred. He rolled over and she saw that it was Timmy, a guy she’d gone to high school with. Then she remembered jagged shards of the night before. She slid out of bed and got dressed, tip-toeing out of the room. Timmy let out a harsh snore.
 
She eased herself out of the trailer’s front door in the narrow hallway outside the bedroom.
Shannon looked around the trailer park. It was a frigid, gray day, snow and sleet frozen into slushy puddles on the ground. Even though she was in heels, she thought the distance home wasn’t too far to walk. She checked her phone; Nick called eighteen times the night before. She walked down the trailer park’s gravel road, picking her steps carefully around the puddles, drawing her coat tight.
 
She was two blocks from her apartment, on Main Street in front of Johnson’s Pharmacy, when she heard the single whoop of the siren behind her. The police car pulled up to the curb and the passenger-side window rolled down. Nick was smiling, relieved.
 
He was about to speak when he saw the way she was dressed, her heels wobbling in the slush. His smile tottered and fell.
 
“Nick,” she said. “I’m sorry I missed your calls, I was out super late.”
 
He leaned over the front seat and popped the passenger door.
 
“It’s okay,” he said. He grimaced and shook his head violently, involuntarily. “Lemme give you a ride.”
 
 
They drove to her apartment. She brought him upstairs and told him about the diagnosis. They didn’t talk about how she was dressed, where she had been.
 
“I’ll give you some time, some space, if that’s what you want,” he said, sitting on her couch, elbows on knees, forehead in hands. She stood at the window chewing her nails, watching cars lose their grip in the slush and hydroplane down her street. The radiator banged in the living room corner and sputtered to life. “But I’ll help you, Shannon. I’ll be there through this.”
 
This unflagging canine loyalty cracked a pane of glass in her and she began to cry. She wanted to say she didn’t deserve him, but she knew that this sort of melodrama would only cause him to leave, and she wouldn’t have meant it anyway. She really felt that her guilt would be gone in a week or two, and in its place would be a petulant resentment, an anger at Nick for fixating on her slip-up (there she was, already downplaying it, calling it a “slip-up”), lording it over her, using it against her. It was just one time, she would say. One time.
 
But then he stood up and hugged her from behind at the window. She leaned her head back into his chest.
 
A car raced through a yellow light at the top of the block and careened over the hill. It shimmied, wavering in its path, whirling into a full-tilt spin out. It smashed into the side of Nick’s squad car parked in front of the apartment building and drifted a few more feet before thumping into a snow drift piled up at the street’s dead end.
 
“Aw, hell,” he said. He squeezed her body with his. “He couldn’t help it.”
 
 
She calls him for a ride to the hospital now. They’ve spoken every day since that morning eight weeks earlier, him popping by with food, even flowers once. They’re not dating, not really; her mistake guaranteed that, at least for a while. She knows he takes shit from his guys for seeing her so much, them calling him pussy-whipped, a sucker. They don’t know what she’s been through. Still, she doesn’t lean on him too hard for favors.
 
If they don’t find anything, if she goes clear, she knows that things will change. At Nick’s prompting, she got a gym membership in the next town over and researched her recovery options. She went to an AA meeting in the United Methodist basement, though she did this alone. She has spent every Saturday night at the home with her father instead of going out. He’s worse than before, often calling Shannon by her mother’s name, but Shannon doesn’t correct him.
 
A week ago, she snuck Nick’s challenge book with her into his bathroom. She flipped to the end and saw what she knew she would: her projected treatment schedule, sketched in his tiny block script. In the “To Beat” column, there was no time, no record, only a black check mark. She felt a brilliant flare of anger, wanted to storm out and confront him, but instead she left it open to the page and placed it on the bathroom counter so he would know she’d seen it. There were worse things to be to someone you cared about, she supposed, than a problem to fix.
 
He knocks at the door a short time later and stamps his feet impatiently on the apartment walkway outside, but she is already bundled up in her coat and scarf, ready for him. She opens the door and steps out into the cold.