Home > My Oxford Year(30)

My Oxford Year(30)
Author: Julia Whelan

I push back from the table and ball up my napkin, wondering belatedly what, exactly, I’m doing. I dig in my purse for money as I find myself saying, “Connor, if I were going to have another no-strings, friends-with-benefits thing with anyone, it would definitely be with you. I mean, look at you. But I’m not.” Then I add, sounding weirdly surprised, “I’m going to leave.”

He looks mortified. “Ella, I didn’t mean—wait, stop, I’m so sorry—”

I throw a fifty-pound note on the table, my hand shaking slightly. “No, no, it’s not you. Trust me, it’s so not you. There’s something I need to . . . attend to.”

He relaxes slightly. We look at each other. “You mean someone?” he asks. Reluctantly, I nod. He grins. “What’ll we tell your mother?”

We both chuckle, happy to relieve the tension. I pause. “This was lovely. You’re lovely. I’m sorry, Connor.”

“Don’t be,” he says, a little too easily. His jaw tenses as he adds charitably, “He’s a lucky guy.”

I squeeze Connor’s shoulder on the way past and head out into the new night, thinking, Jamie is the furthest thing from lucky I’ve ever known.

Chapter 19

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face . . .

William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old,” 1891

Jamie doesn’t seem surprised to see me on his stoop. He opens the door (I knocked this time) and steps back, gesturing me in. He’s wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a ratty Christ Church College T-shirt. I’ve never seen him in clothes like this. In my experience, he’s either dressed like he’s just stepped out of a photo shoot or he’s naked. As I walk past him, I notice that his coloring is off. He somehow looks thinner than he did yesterday, hollowed out.

He silently leads me into the kitchen, crossing to the sink. I hover at the island. He pops the tab on the electric kettle, the British assumption of tea. Then he turns back around and we look at each other.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

He shrugs, crossing his arm over his stomach, rubbing his other forearm. “I believe Happy Thanksgiving is in order. Happy? Is that how you say it?”

“Yes. It is. Thank you.”

We’re stiff together. Formal. For the first time, I feel more English than American. I watch my hand run along the island’s marble top, studying the white and gray and black veins. “So, I’m sorry.”

“As am I.”

I look up at him. He’s looking at the floor. “For how I reacted,” I say.

He looks up at me. “I’m sorry for everything.” We assess each other, these people we thought we knew. His eyes tell me that the simple apology is enough for now, and I agree. The problem is, now I want to go to him, hug him, hold him. But I stay where I am. I don’t know who we are to each other anymore.

The kettle begins to hum, heating up.

“Will you tell me the story?” I ask.

Four years ago, Oliver was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at the age of twenty-one. Two years after that, he died. Although there can be a genetic component to the disease, Jamie says it’s rare, and he had been tested when Oliver needed possible stem-cell donors and his results were clean, so he didn’t think he needed to worry. Within a year of Oliver’s death, Jamie—then in Cambridge and helping a friend with her doctoral research in biology—got a blood test. This is how he found out. Jamie’s case is just as aggressive as Oliver’s was, but was caught earlier. He explains that he immediately began treatment, doing what Oliver had done: stem-cell replacement therapy. This entailed a few rounds of chemo, the harvesting of his own cells, and an implantation procedure that required him to stay in a hospital, completely isolated, for fear of his contracting an infection, for a month. It bought him a year of remission.

The day I arrived in Oxford happened to be the day Jamie found out the myeloma had come back. He went to the Varsity Club for a drink on the rooftop, met a blond distraction, took her for fish and chips at “the best restaurant in Oxford,” and found himself literally running into a jet-lagged Ella from Ohio.

The kettle bubbles, the hissing escalates. I have to lean over the island to hear Jamie’s low voice.

He explains his decision to pull away from me a week ago. He’s doing an eight-week round of “maintenance” chemo before deciding, in December, whether he’s going to try stem-cell replacement again. He was two rounds into this treatment and losing the ability to hide the effects. He was tired all the time and he wasn’t reliably keeping his food down and his hair was beginning to thin. He worried he might become impotent. He asked me for a month break, because that’s how long he had left in treatment.

Jamie knows everything about this disease and its cycles. He lived through it with Oliver and now he’s being forced to live through it himself. He’s a pro. He’s orchestrated his treatment the way he wants to have it: in-home, on his schedule. Of course, having money helps. He can pay a nurse to come at night so that as soon as the IV comes out, he can go right to sleep. He can have her come on a Sunday, for instance, so that he can get through his class the following day before feeling the effects.

Jamie, whom I always saw as spontaneous and haphazard, is actually a planner of the highest order. He puts my abilities to shame.

The kettle’s automatic shutoff pops, loud as a gunshot. Tightly wound, both of us jump. But instead of lifting the kettle off its base and making tea, Jamie just stands there, back against the refrigerator, looking at the floor. “I suppose you want to know why I didn’t tell you,” he says.

I don’t, actually. I already know why he didn’t tell me. I figured it out during my sleepless night, while walking around London with Connor, on the interminable bus ride back to Oxford tonight. “You thought we’d be over before you ever had to explain anything. Which would have worked out perfectly if not for . . . how it worked out.” It’s the closest I can come to revealing how I feel about him. That this has become more for me, surprisingly more, than what we shook on back in the Buttery.

Jamie shakes his head. “I wish I could say that were true. I’m afraid it’s more selfish than that.” He looks up at me. I hold my breath. “With you, I was able to pretend I wasn’t sick. The disease didn’t exist. It’s pathetic, really.” His crisp voice cracks like overdone toast. “I convinced myself I deserved you. Not just because of the last eighteen months, but because of the last four years. And because of the future, too, I suppose. You were my prize. My gift. My last chance to feel . . .” He pauses, and I begin filling in the blank. Lust? Excitement? Heat? He settles on, “This . . . again. One last time.” He quickly turns to the counter, where a box of Kleenex sits, plucks a few tissues out, and turns back to me. I didn’t notice he was crying. “Christ, Ella, I’m so sorry.” He holds the tissues out to me and that’s when I realize my face is wet. I’m the one who’s crying.

“But you’re not actually dying,” I say.

He quirks his head at me, as he always does. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you’re in treatment and you were in remission once, you’re not actually dying. You’re fighting.” It just doesn’t make sense to me. How someone so full of life can have it leaking away.

“There are stages,” he says, “but this particular disease is a life sentence. There’s no cure.” He rattles off platitudes to make me feel better. Glass half full, it’s not over till it’s over, don’t throw in the towel, et cetera. “The trick,” Jamie says, “is to bounce from treatment to treatment, like playing the net in a tennis match. Keep the ball in play, racket against racket. Just don’t let it get past you or it’s game over. Stay in the volley long enough and hope for a breakthrough. A winning shot. That’s the strategy.”

He sees the question in my eyes: If that’s the strategy, how is it that Oliver is dead?

“He was more advanced than I. Also, the years since Oliver was diagnosed have seen an exponential advancement in treatment.” He pauses, swallows. “If Oliver had been diagnosed when I was, if the order had been reversed, he might still be alive.” The color suddenly drains from his face. His eyes go glassy, and just as I’m about to hand him a tissue, I realize that what’s happening to Jamie isn’t emotional. “Will you excuse me?” He slips out of the kitchen, down the hall, and I hear the bathroom door close. Then the sound of retching.

My own stomach clenches. My face heats. We’ve done everything—everything—together, but this somehow feels too intimate. I try to breathe. Tears start escaping again. My hand comes to my eyes, then my mouth, then my chest, in an attempt, I think, to keep all of my feelings in, unsure which way they might escape.

I focus on what Jamie just said. If Oliver had been diagnosed last, he might still be alive. Which means the reverse is also true: if Jamie had been diagnosed first, he would be dead. I would have never met him. I would have come to Oxford, lived at Oxford, studied at Oxford, drunk at Oxford, had sex at Oxford, but not had Jamie’s Oxford. The idea that I could have missed him in this life by a matter of years, two small insignificant years, an infinitesimal moment in the history of the earth, a geological blink, paralyzes me.

A toilet flushes, a door opens, socked feet pad down the hallway, and Jamie returns, his previously pale face now blotchily flushed. “Sorry,” he says.

I rapidly shake my head. “Please. Do you want to sit?”

“Yes, quite. Thank you.” We move into the drawing room and he says, “I’m better in the mornings.” We settle on opposite ends of the couch. I curl my legs up under me. Jamie leans forward, props his elbows on his knees. I stare at his profile, small in this vast house. He looks so isolated, so alone. “What about your parents?” I ask.

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