Helen Rossiter has finally settled in Ottawa, Canada, after a life time wandering the globe. This makes her accent something of an anomaly and allows her to re-invent herself every time someone asks: “Now where do you come from?” This ability to make things up has led to the writing of numerous short stories. “The Quality of Life” is the eighth story she has had published in the past year.
The Quality of Life
by Helen Rossiter
Julia had a problem with the term ‘significant other’. It was on the invitation to join Steven’s employers in celebrating the Christmas season. Management invites you and your significant other, etcetera etcetera.
“Why not just say spouse?” Julia grumbled.
“Not every significant other is a spouse,” Steven said. “Do you want a drink?” He pulled glasses from the cupboard and a bottle of tonic water from the fridge.
Julia couldn’t think of anything she’d enjoy less than spending an evening with a group of overindulging computer savants. “I’m not going,” she said. She watched Steven pour gin and tonic, heavy on the tonic.
“It’ll be fun.” Fun wasn’t something that Steven did well so his argument wasn’t convincing. He told Julia that if she didn’t go, she’d be fueling the office gossip columns. “They think that because you’re my wife, you must be odd,” he said. So she agreed to go, if for no other reason than to prove them right.
And then of course, Steven destroyed any fun she might have had, left to her own devices. Just as his co-workers and their significant others began to lose their social inhibitions, he turned the conversation to death. It was his latest obsession, as the geological formation of Antarctica had been the year before, and the year before that, the unknown—except, apparently, to Steven—hazards of space travel.
“Did you know,” he said, waving his glass in the air and splashing a good portion of cabernet over his white shirt, “that over 50 billion of our cells die every day? We start dying the moment we’re born.” The spreading wine stain made it look as if he had been stabbed.
His comments were met with a long, dark silence, and then someone poured another round of drinks and someone else suggested moving on to a nightclub for some real debauchery. Julia persuaded Steven that they should leave before the party degenerated further.
“If you have to talk,” she said on their way home, “talk about the weather. Talk about taxes, talk about anything but death. Just stop showing your negativity to all and sundry.”
“They’re not all and sundry,” Steven said. “They’re my friends.”
“They’re not your friends, they’re your co-workers.”
“And death isn’t necessarily negative.”
Julia had nothing to say to that one.
But now Steven really is dying. It’s early June and they have been summoned to Dr. Wainwright’s office. “It just so happens he can fit you in this afternoon,” a cheery voice said over the phone. “We’ll see you at two. And have a wonderful day.” (Later, Steven would forgive the girl her cheerful disposition, said that she must have inherited it honestly through her genes.)
Julia and Steven watch Dr. Wainwright shuffle the papers on his desk. His disciple, a pale young woman in a white coat that hasn’t yet lost any of its freshness, sits to one side and cracks her knuckles. She studies her fingernails and smiles an awkward smile. Julia suspects that she is a medical student, but Dr. Wainwright offers no introduction.
“Your results have been checked by the whole team,” Dr. Wainwright says. “And I’m afraid that surgery is out of the question.” He sounds as if he is apologizing for being unable to fix a dripping tap, not for presenting a death sentence. “We can give you eight months to a year. A little longer with chemotherapy.” He takes off his glasses and wipes them on a tissue. He looks at the view outside the window and at the papers in his hands and at the filing cabinet against the wall. Everywhere but at Steven or Julia. The young woman is the one who looks at them, compassion washing her eyes with tears she hasn’t yet learned to hide. Julia wonders if this is the first time she’s sat in on the delivery of really bad news.
With no hesitation, as if he’s been aware of his diagnosis for a long time, Steven says that he doesn’t want chemo, that he’d rather have quality of life than quantity. Yes, Julia thinks, he’ll accept the permanently dripping tap, just as he’s always accepted it.
Dr. Wainwright pulls some forms from a binder and pushes them across his desk towards Steven. “Perhaps we’d better discuss your options, then.”
“I need a glass of water,” Julia says and leaves the office. She has forgotten how to breathe, how to draw air into her lungs without hurting. She walks past the receptionist who is chirruping over the phone. In a corner of the waiting room, a pale, elderly couple hold hands and whisper quietly, their faces inches apart. Julia notices the woman’s smile and the bright blue scarf on her head before she rushes through the maze of corridors and into the sunlight and early summer warmth. She opens her mouth and gags as bile rises in her throat. Oily tears slide down her cheeks. It’s anger that makes her cry, not shock or grief, not empathy for Steven’s plight, but cold, hard anger. How dare Steven do this to her? How dare Dr. Wainwright and his insipid student be so complicit? She has never anticipated a moment like this, and all the preparation and all the planning she has done is now wasted, pointless.
Because you can’t leave a dying man.
With effort she fills her lungs, and feels the blood circulate through numb fingers. She lets the sun do its best to warm her before she heads back to Dr. Wainwright’s office. They are waiting for her, standing together in front of Dr. Wainwright’s desk. Steven holds out his hand to Dr. Wainwright. “Now my wife’s returned, we’ll be off,” he says. “Thank you, Doctor Wainwright. And Doctor…?” He looks at Dr. Wainwright’s sidekick.
“Petronius,” she says.
“Yes. Dr. Petronius. Thank you.” He offers his hand and she takes it in both of hers and holds it. Through closed lips, she makes a strange, mewling sound as if she is afraid to speak.
Dr. Wainwright walks towards the door. “Ask my receptionist for the phone numbers for support groups. And make an appointment for next week.”
Julia leaves Steven to discuss support groups and appointment times and goes directly to the car. She opens her purse and pulls out an envelope. It is addressed to the Curator of the Cairo Museum, and inside is her application to join an archaeological dig on the Nile Delta. She pushes it back inside her purse. She breathes deeply and waits for Steven.
They don’t speak until she pulls onto the highway. Julia knows that the right thing to do would be to tell him they’ll get through this together, that he mustn’t be afraid. She wants to tell him about the smile on the face of the woman with the bright blue scarf. What she finally says is, “What do you mean by quality of life?”
“I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life with my head in a toilet bowl throwing up,” Steven says. He points to a small, red car ahead of them. “Watch that car, Julia, it’s swerving all over the road.”
Julia watches the red car. “There are drugs to stop the nausea,” she says.
“Let’s just play it by ear,” he says. “Take it one day at a time. You can always put me in a hospice when things get too hard for you. We need to stop at Supersave for some milk. And perhaps some of those biscuity things you like.”
Julia wants to tell him that he’ll be the one to find it hard, but she doesn’t know that this is true. She imagines Steven lying in bed, nobly accepting his fate. He will ring a little bell to summon her when he is thirsty or in pain. She will change his sheets, plump his pillow, dole out his meds and hold a glass of water to cracked lips. She will fall to pieces while he remains stoic and apologetic. While relatives and neighbors pat her on the arm and say, “Poor Steven. But so brave,” and mutter to each other, “Poor Julia, she isn’t taking this well.”
“This is all so unfair,” she says, meaning her loss rather than Steven’s. She swings into the Supersave parking lot. “Are you going to stay in the car, or do you want to come in?”
He follows her into the grocery store. They pick up milk and the biscuity things Julia likes, and bread and sliced ham and a ready packed salad. Steven disappears into the deli section while Julia stands in the express lane and counts the number of items the woman in front offloads from her grocery cart. There are eleven. Julia wonders why the cashier doesn’t say anything when the sign above the cash register states in bold, red letters, “8 ITEMS CASH ONLY”.
Steven appears beside her with a jar of pickled eggs and some paté.
“You don’t eat pickled eggs,” Julia says, counting the items in her basket now that Steven has added to them.
“I do now,” he says and tosses a Globe & Mail on top of the pickled eggs. “That’s eight,” he says, because Julia is still counting.
Julia phones Mariette who lives four houses down. She phones Mariette because she doesn’t want to call her mother or her sister who have never taken to Steven. She calls Mariette because there is no one else. Mariette is in her sixties and long widowed, and she likes Steven. She likes his odd little ways and his intensity, and the way he grabs on to something, like his obsession with death, and won’t let go. She finds him interesting, and has told Julia this on numerous occasions. “He’s not like other men,” she says.
Julia tacitly agrees. He has never been like other men for as long as she’s known him, which is close to fifteen years.
He was hard to miss around campus with his old-fashioned dress sense, the button down shirts and corduroy pants and the red leather satchel that had seen better days. He was in her Physical Anthropology class, a vocal, eager presence who annoyed the professor and amused his fellow students with his off-topic questions, but until the day he stood behind her in the cafeteria, he had never spoken to her.
“I like your shoes,” he said.
She looked down at her worn Doc Martens. “What’s wrong with my shoes?”
“I said I liked them, not that there’s something wrong with them. They’re no-nonsense. I like no-nonsense shoes. They’re worn by no-nonsense women.”
She threw the Doc Martens away and bought herself some flimsy, flighty footwear, but that didn’t deter Steven. He turned up at her side on a regular basis, popping up behind shelves at the library, or waiting as she stepped out of class. He had conversations with her that began somewhere in the middle, so she had to scramble to catch on, and then he’d walk off without saying goodbye, only to meet up with her later and continue talking as if he’d never left off.
“I think we should get married,” he said, five months after the disappearance of the Doc Martens. “Is there any reason why we shouldn’t?”
“I’m too young to get married,” Julia said, scrambling to find an argument, any argument.
“You’re twenty-four,” Steven said. “In medieval times, you’d be an old maid.”
“We don’t live in medieval times,” Julia said. “And I have no intention of settling down. I want to travel. I want to visit Egypt. I want to buy a cottage on the lake and live in seclusion. More importantly, Steven, I’m afraid I just don’t love you.”
“Seclusion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he said. “And people who marry for love generally fall out of love rather quickly. Dashed expectations. So think about it and I’ll get back to you.” And he pushed his leather satchel under his arm and disappeared.
Two days later, he caught up with her after class. “You’re a very indecisive woman,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing, it just means you’re cautious. Which is another reason why you should marry me. I accept life as it comes. Things happen over which we have no control, and we have to make the best of them. Like me running into you. Face it, Julia, you’re one of the smartest women around, but the sort of man you want to marry doesn’t want to marry you. I, on the other hand, find your intelligence very attractive.”
They were married one year later, because by the time Steven had finished pointing out all the reasons they should marry, Julia could no longer come up with any valid reasons why they shouldn’t. Not that she had fallen in love with him, but she had grown used to him and missed him when he wasn’t there in the way she still missed her old Doc Martens. They graduated from university and found work and after another year or two, bought a small but adequate house in suburbia. They settled into a life of quiet predictability, what Julia thought of—on those nights when she was too angry or frustrated to sleep—as their marital pothole.
Now their quiet predictability has been shattered and the pothole filled in. Over the phone, Julia tells Mariette about their visit to Dr. Wainwright and within minutes, Mariette is at her door, her face dripping with pity and grief.
“How is he? How’s Steven? Oh, this is just terrible, Julia.” She pulls Julia into her arms, hugging her tight, patting her on the back.
Julia escapes from Mariette’s embrace and leads her to the kitchen. “There’s coffee,” she says. “And Steven’s in the living room, reading the paper.”
“He’s reading the paper at a time like this?”
“You know Steven. He’s not someone given to great emotion.”
Mariette accepts the coffee and wraps her hands around the mug. “He should take the chemo.”
“He wants quality of life,” Julia says. “He bought pickled eggs.”
“Perhaps I can talk him into it. The chemo, I mean. And what do pickled eggs have to do with quality of life?”
Julia wants to ask Mariette how she thinks she can talk him into chemo when his mind is made up. “He seems to have accepted it really well,” she says. “But that’s Steven. Do you want anything to eat?”
“He’s only thirty-nine,” says Mariette. “Weren’t there any symptoms? Are the doctors sure?”
“Apparently there rarely are symptoms with this sort of cancer,” Julia says. “He thought it was indigestion. He had routine blood tests that picked up some abnormality. And yes, the doctors are sure.”
“Can I go and see him? Will he mind being interrupted?”
“He’s only reading the paper, not praying or meditating.”
Mariette leaves her coffee undrunk and disappears down the hallway. Julia is alone with thoughts that whirl like dust in her head.
She thinks about her application to the curator, now buried in her purse among old shopping lists and grocery store receipts and a bill from the utility company. She thinks about her newly opened bank account and the nine hundred dollars she’s saved towards her airfare to Egypt, and the sensible shoes she’s bought that are hidden in her closet. Only last night, she’d left a brochure on Egyptian travel on the coffee table, along with a book about the lost cities of Egypt. She’d imagined Steven looking through the brochure and saying, “You’ve always wanted to visit Egypt, Julia, so why don’t you go?” and she’d say, “Are you sure you don’t mind?” and he’d say, “I can get by without you.” And he’d give her one of his rare smiles and offer to help her pack. Only later would she tell him that she wouldn’t be coming back.
Leaving him had not been a sudden decision. It had been years in the making, in fact, years in which Julia hated herself for marrying a good man like Steven instead of marrying for love. Once she’d said to him, “Do you ever think that we’re addicted to boredom? We never do anything to make our lives interesting or even enjoyable. It’s killing me, Steven, it really is.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” he asked. “Organize an intervention?”
“I could change husbands,” she replied.
“You’d never do it,” Steven said with great conviction, and she knew he was right.
Julia can hear the hum of voices from the living room as she tidies the kitchen. She stacks the dishes in the dishwasher and wipes the counter and aims a jet of Grease Eater at an oily ring on the stovetop. By the time Mariette returns, the kitchen is spotless and the dishwasher is clunking away under the sink. Julia is at the table with her head in her hands.
Mariette touches her shoulder. “He’s very stubborn,” she says. “Maybe when this has sunk in, he’ll change his mind.”
I don’t want him to change his mind, Julia thinks. “I was going to leave him,” she says. Mariette looks at her for so long that Julia wonders if she’d spoken out loud, or just thought the words, as she so often has conversations with Steven that only take place in her head. “He doesn’t know,” she says. “I don’t think he even suspects.”
“But why, Julia? Is there someone else?”
Julia can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of there being someone else. “No.” She can’t expect Mariette to understand that being on her own, alone, is better than being alone with Steven. “There’s no one else.”
“But you’re the perfect couple. You never fight. You do everything together…”
“Illusions,” says Julia. Because that’s what their marriage is, theater for the benefit of others. “We never fight, Mariette, because we never talk. Not the way that normal couples talk, anyway.”
“I didn’t know. I thought…”
“We’ve had separate bedrooms for eight years.” She feels as if she’s confessing a monumental sin. “We just don’t love each other anymore. I don’t think we ever did.”
Mariette opens her mouth, then closes it without speaking. She twirls a wisp of hair around her finger and with her other hand, traces the outline of an old stain on the table.
“So how can I leave him now?” Julia says.
“What are you going to do?”
“Continue with the illusion, I suppose.”
Mariette, who has been so close to tears, bursts into sobs. “Oh, Julia, this is just awful. Poor you. Poor Steven.”
Later, Steven peers into the kitchen. He asks if Mariette has gone and when Julia says yes, she left a while ago, he sits down opposite her. “We can’t make this harder for other people,” he says. “They won’t know who to pity most, you or me, and I’d rather they pitied you.”
“How do you intend to make that happen?”
“We should separate. Before they know I’m dying. I’ll tell everyone I threw you out.”
There is a moment of panic then, a moment of anger. She wants to tell him that it’s not his decision to make. “Who would look after you? Who’d drive you to your appointments? Take you to buy groceries? And what happens when you’re too sick to live on your own?”
“There are people whose job it is to take care of the dying.” He smiles, as if he has suddenly worked it all out, and then in typically Steven fashion, changes direction. “I feel like steak, and one of those fancy little cocktails with an umbrella. Let’s go out for dinner tonight.”
So Julia squeezes her feet into a pair of not quite stilettos and Steven spends five minutes trying to decide if he should or should not wear a tie. He is unusually indecisive, and Julia puts up a hand to straighten his collar. “No tie,” she says. She can feel his breath on her forehead, a sharp whisper of mint and vinegar that lifts a strand of her hair and settles it back down again.
They drive into town and Julia parks the car outside Lucky Strikes Steak House. They haven’t spoken much on the way there, and Julia wonders if Steven is saving everything up until they’re sitting down. She isn’t sure that she’ll have anything to say and she hopes that the service is swift, that they can get the meal over and done with and get back home as quickly as possible. She wants to escape to her bedroom, the one she no longer shares with Steven, and close the door.
But she opens the conversation instead, even before the waiter has taken their order. “I don’t know how to handle this,” she says.
“Well,” says Steven, shaking his napkin over his knees and straightening it as if he’s arranging a shroud. “You can decide when to move out. Find yourself somewhere nice to live.”
“I don’t mean that, Steven. I mean… the other thing. Your diagnosis. What are you going to do? What do you want me to do?” Her voice is little more than a whisper as she tries to keep the hurt from leaping out.
The waiter interrupts them and takes their order. Steven orders a Hurricane. “Make sure you embellish it with an umbrella,” he says, and Julia asks for carbonated water. She asks the waiter what vegetables are served with the steak. She asks him for bread. She asks his name and how long he’s worked here. She asks him what night of the week is busiest. When he leaves, she excuses herself to Steven and heads towards the restroom.
“Have you been crying?” Steven asks when she returns.
“No,” she says, and curses the light above their table. “Did you have a good talk with Mariette this afternoon?”
“Mariette wants to take care of you when I’m gone,” Steven says. “But I told her that you’re quite capable of taking care of yourself. Which is why I think it’s a good idea for you to move out soon, while I’m still relatively healthy. Show her you don’t need anyone to look after you.”
“But what about you? You’re the one who’s going to need looking after.”
“When I reach that stage,” he says, “I’ll move into one of those palliative care places. By that time, you’ll be used to living on your own. You can come and visit me if you want. Bring me flowers. Or grapes. I prefer grapes. Those nice big seedless black ones. Not the little green ones. I don’t like the little green ones.”
Their order arrives. Steven asks for a glass of red wine for himself and more water for Julia. “Because she’s driving,” he tells the waiter. They talk about Julia’s work as an archivist at the Museum of History, a solitary job that she enjoys. Steven says he thinks it would be a good idea for Julia to get a dog, or at the very least, a kitten for company, and briefly, they discuss dog breeds and cat allergies. They talk about their food and the waiter’s level of service. For much of the meal, they sit in silence. Then Steven pays the bill. He leaves a generous tip and follows Julia to the car. They must, Julia thinks as she buckles her seat belt, look like any married couple on a night out.
Later, when she can’t sleep, and the house has settled for the night and its boards have stopped creaking, and the envelope to the curator is lying among the detritus at the bottom of her purse, Julia tip-toes across the hall to Steven’s room. When they first bought the house, they’d allocated it as the nursery, but the babies never came and so it became Steven’s room, with a world map on one wall and a photograph of Julia looking uncomfortably posed on another.
His bed is under the window, and the drapes as always are pulled back so that a pale sliver of light from the quarter moon catches the roundness of his chin and his solid cheek bones. She thinks at first that his eyes are open, but it’s just the lights of a passing car playing on the ceiling that make them appear to flutter. He is lying on his side, one arm outside the covers and he is breathing solidly.
Slowly, carefully, so that she won’t wake him, she lies down beside him and pulls the covers over them both. She puts an arm around him, and touches the place where she imagines the tumor has been growing unchecked for months. Her cheek is against his shoulder and she feels the warmth of his skin and the hardness of his bones against her face. She lies like that until fingers of sunlight creep through the window.
Copyright 2014 by Helen Rossiter