Home > My Oxford Year(36)

My Oxford Year(36)
Author: Julia Whelan

William’s face instantly reddens. Those dead eyes spark to life. “Who do you think you are?” he seethes. “I have already lost one son. I do not intend to lose another.”

As if a glamour had magically dropped away, I suddenly see how ravaged he looks. His eyes moisten with angry, frustrated tears, which I know must embarrass him. It softens me a bit. Just a bit. “You don’t get it. If Jamie wants to do chemo, I’ll sit with him. If he wants to do stem cells, I’ll wait for him. If he wants to swim with dolphins, I’ll get my towel. This isn’t about me. It’s Jamie’s choice, not mine. You have to let—”

“I have to let those choices be guided by an artful little girl who hasn’t the faintest bloody idea what she’s talking about? No, sweetie, I don’t believe I must.”

And I no longer care about appearances. I’m done dancing. I start to pull away, but he tightens his hold on my waist. “Wait—”

“No, sweetie, I don’t believe I must,” I hiss, pulling away from him and leaving the dance floor. William immediately follows. He won’t be left standing alone. The illusion only works if we both leave at the same time.

I’m almost to the safety of the ladies’ room when I feel William right behind me. His voice, though quiet, cuts sharply through the din, right at my ear. “Are you listening to me?”

I bang into the restroom and say, over my shoulder, “No. And neither is Jamie.”

Chapter 22

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom

Death goes dogging everywhere:

She’s the tenant of the room,

He’s the ruffian on the stair.

William Ernest Henley, “IX–To W.R.,” 1877

We’re about thirty miles outside of Oxford when Jamie says to me, for the hundredth time, “You have your passport?”

I take a moment, as if I’m thinking about it. Then I sit forward suddenly, straining against the seat belt, frantically patting the pockets of my jeans and jacket. “Oh no!”

Jamie tries to stay calm. His eyes snap to me. I raise a wry eyebrow. He exhales wearily and faces forward again. “Not the first time I’ve asked?”

“Not even close.”

“Sorry,” he mutters.

We call this “chemo brain,” his uncharacteristic forgetfulness. Sometimes it’s as simple as not remembering he’s already asked a question; sometimes it’s hours of not being able to locate his keys only to open the refrigerator and find them sitting next to the cream that’s still in a grocery bag.

I reach over and playfully tousle his hair. When I pull my hand back, I notice a few strands on my fingers. Jamie’s final round of treatment was three days ago and I know he feels more ill than he’s letting on. Still, there’s an air of victory in the car, and we couldn’t be doing anything better for him, for us, than driving through the countryside to Dover to catch a ferry to France.

We’re still going away for the holidays.

While locked inside a bathroom stall at Blenheim, I thought long and hard about telling Jamie everything that had transpired between William and me. I decided absolutely not. Not only do I refuse to throw more logs on whatever fire smolders between William and Jamie, but I also refuse to play any part in manipulating Jamie’s choices. It would have been playing directly into William’s hand, and that’s not how this is going to work. Not on my watch.

So I downed a glass of champagne and danced with Jamie until he said he was “rather tired” and we left. Jamie located Antonia—who was luckily a good distance from William—and gave her a kiss good-bye. She then turned that warm, smiling, welcoming face to me and insisted that I take her card, call her, and she’d take me to tea. I put her number in my phone, but haven’t called her yet. Because one thing William said stuck with me: that I am, to a certain extent, a transient. I don’t know the history between William and Jamie, I don’t know why things have deteriorated as they have, and I won’t be here to deal with the fallout. I’ll be pulling up stakes eventually.

So if Jamie’s fine not being with his parents for the holidays, then so am I. In fact, I’m excited. So excited.

We’re starting in Normandy for two days, then heading to Paris for four. Then we’ll head south, into Jamie’s beloved wine country, and end up along the Riviera for New Year’s. Every time I say this (out loud or to myself, doesn’t matter), I giggle. Legitimately giggle. After New Year’s, we’ll decide where we go for the next two weeks. No plans, just wandering. Perhaps Switzerland, or down into Italy, where it’ll be warmer. I’m game for anything.

I look out my window at the passing scenery. Beautiful. Rolling green hills dotted with oak trees and fluffy sheep. There’s a fine winter mist caressing everything. The sky is broken up into pockets of light gray and stormy blue, like a quilt. “I love this,” I murmur. “This country is a novel come to life. It’s timeless. It’s rugged and slightly wild, but elegant, too. Hmm, sounds like someone I know,” I tease. Jamie doesn’t respond. “Hey, you wanna stay in your lane, buddy?” We’re starting to inch over the solid white line of the motorway’s shoulder. A slight curve in the road puts us solidly over it. “Jamie, seriously.” I glance over and find that his face has gone ghost white, his eyes hooded, a sheen of sweat covering his brow. “Jamie?”

His head drops to his chest.

“Jamie!” I shout, lunging for the wheel. He startles awake, but just as quickly drops out again. “Jamie, brake! Brake!” He jerks his head up and pounds his foot onto the floor, missing the brake. Instinctively, I grab the wheel with one hand while lifting his foot onto the brake pedal with the other, the car kicking up gravel on the shoulder. I press down on his leg as hard as I can and we start slowing, but not quickly enough. I yank up the emergency brake. We skid to a stop in a cloud of dust.

Jamie flops forward like a rag doll.

I unbuckle my seat belt and grab him, taking his head in my hands and forcing him to look at me. “Jamie!” He mumbles something that sounds like “sorry.” I keep a hand on his chest to brace him upright and dig into my back pocket for my phone. “Jamie. Jamie! Stay awake! Please!” He attempts to speak, but his head falls to his chest again.

I gently lean him against the driver’s-side window. “It’s okay, it’ll be okay!” Hands shaking, I start to dial 911, but stop myself. Shit! Is 911 the emergency number in this country? How do I not know this?! How can I have a boyfriend with cancer and not know how to call for help?! Idiot!

I start slapping the side of Jamie’s face, staccato little strikes, trying to wake him. “Jamie, Jamie!” His eyes open. Barely, but open. “How do I call an ambulance?” He mumbles something. “An ambulance, Jamie! How do I call?!” I slap him again. Harder this time.

“Nine-nine-nine . . . and stop. Slapping.” And out he goes again, this time with the faintest of smiles.

“Funny,” I croak. “Jerk.” But it gives me a momentary reprieve from my panic as I dial. When I have the phone to my ear, I grab one of his hands and bring it to my mouth, kissing it. “Everything’s gonna be okay, just try to breathe. All right?” My heart has left my chest. It’s flopping around on the floorboards. “Don’t worry. Help is coming. Stay with me, Ja—Yes, hello!”

Just as I connect to the dispatcher, Jamie faintly squeezes my hand. I look up into his eyes, searching. “Don’t call my parents,” he breathes with his last bit of strength.

Then he passes out for good.

Chapter 23

Say not the struggle nought availeth,

The labor and the wounds are vain,

The enemy faints not, nor faileth,

And as things have been, things remain.

Arthur Hugh Clough, “Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth,” 1862

You can do this. It’s just a car.

A car that probably costs more than my entire education, but, still, a car.

A car with everything reversed. Like a goddamn fun house.

I check the mirrors yet again, automatically and absently reaching to the right for the shifter. Instead, my hand hits the door.

Jesus. Focus.

When the paramedics had asked me if I wanted to follow, I had nodded. Why did I nod? Because I’d needed to feel useful. They said the hospital was only three miles away. I can do anything for three miles.

But now the ambulance’s lights are flashing and the siren comes on and it’s go time. I depress the clutch and, with my left hand, shift into drive. I follow the ambulance back onto the motorway and we slowly pick up speed. The transmission grinds and I cringe.

As if driving a stick for the first time since I learned to drive on my aunt’s old Volkswagen Beetle wasn’t bad enough, driving on the opposite side of the road, sitting on the opposite side of the car, takes every single ounce of attention. The problem is, I don’t have an ounce left. Every part of my mind is consumed with Jamie. What signs did I miss? Is this normal? Is he all right? Is this just a glimpse of things to come?

We have to switch lanes and my eyes instinctively glance up and to the right, seeing nothing but the patchy clouds. Forcibly, I look left, to the rearview mirror.

I’m not cut out for this. I’ve never been around illness before. I’m useless. And for whatever reason, I’m the only one Jamie wants near him.

And I’m leaving.

Someone will have to take care of Jamie when I’m gone. Whether he wants to admit it or not, as he gets progressively worse, he’s going to need more help. It’s a fact. Decisions are going to have to be made.

Jamie’s going to need his family.

Oh God. A roundabout. White-knuckled, I follow the ambulance through it.

This is how crisis works, I think. In one instant, priorities can change.

Beliefs can reverse.

Somehow, some way, his relationship with his parents has to be fixed. I can’t leave him, come June 11, like this, like some animal slinking off into the woods to die alone.

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