by DL Shirey
Dominic hid the lump from his husband for weeks, avoiding hugs. Only when Dom wore the bulky robe would he allow himself to enter Carl’s embrace. Even then, Dom was wary when the man who knew him best laid hands on the small of his back. And as for Dom’s other pleasures, he had already started to justify changes in behavior.
Gardening, for instance. It wasn’t as if Dom had forgotten how much he enjoyed the sun on his skin. Lately, though, he had started to feel like a cliché: a queer in his fifties baring his gym-trim body to the Santa Barbara sun, wearing a hat but not a shirt? Pathetic, really.
It’s funny how avoidance can become a new way of thinking. Even Dom’s posture was different; consciously taking inventory on where his body was in the world around him, all to keep from leaning on that one spot, to avoid the dull pinch. The lump was uncomfortable, to be sure, but not painful. What hurt were the thoughts that came at the push of a button.
It was like the lump was wired directly to Dom’s brain, developing a snapshot, which had nothing to do with doctor’s visits, blood tests or biopsies. It was a portrait of Carl with a certain look in his eyes; the same one when he saw an unleashed pet dash across a busy street, or on the TV news when soldiers prepared for war. Carl foresaw an aftermath, an imagined chain of events that shrouded his eyes with bleak predestination. Even if he never saw the results, or if the ending was picture-perfect, Carl’s first thought was tragedy.
Carl’s sad, hollow, far-away eyes—that was the image Dom kept out of his head. And the best way to avoid it was to keep that button from being pushed.
So now, when Dominic read a book, he sat in a comfortless wooden chair, bent forward at the waist. His wrists rested on his knees, the open paperback palmed in both hands. He had to pull his elbows into his stomach until the words focused in the sweet-spot of his bifocals. The hunched position felt ungainly, but being awkward or uncomfortable was preferable to the alternative. Had Dom been able to step out from his body, he would have seen himself: slumped like a seated fetus, displaying the bald spot that crowned his short, sandy hair. Vanity, it seemed, was no longer a concern.
He was hip-deep in a story by Hammett. Dominic had stopped reading newspapers because the only stories he saw, these days, were about healthy living or big pharma. Same on television. Usually, re-reading a favorite novel was a pleasant distraction, especially when tailing one of Hammett’s private dicks as he decoded secrets and lies. But today, too many of the short, sharp sentences seemed to hold words like bump and welt and rise. Perhaps, Dom thought, there was something better to do than read. There was always work in the garden.
It wasn’t the same with his shirt on. The digging, weeding and warm autumn sun made Dominic sweat, but when he bent over to hand-water the new sprouts of lettuce, he could feel the pull of the damp polo across his back. In his mind he saw the irregular protrusion and couldn’t stand the thought of his husband noticing.
Dom and Carl had known each other for years, solid friends, even before Carl hooked up with Peter. Dom first felt joy for his friend, then mournful as Carl’s four-year partnership turn into singular roles of dying and care-taking. Carl’s affection for Peter turned to accommodation, and though their love never faltered, everything changed. Especially Carl’s eyes. Peter’s dying was a tragedy, its end foretold by the slow drain of emotion from Carl’s face. Through it all, Carl knew the worst was yet to come, and in the end, all his predictions came true.
Dom was always there to hold Carl’s hand. During the funeral and months of grieving, Dom never let go. And when Carl finally looked his way, Dom vowed, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, to cause nothing but happiness and contentment in Carl’s eyes.
Dominic tossed his gardening gloves on top of the compost bin. He pulled the phone from his pocket, dialed a friend to meet for coffee. As soon as the man asked ‘How are you?’ the photo formed in his head. Dom found himself talking in one-word sentences, making up excuses why he couldn’t meet today. He didn’t want the small talk over a warm mug to lead to something personal. Couldn’t have his friend ask questions about Dom’s reticence.
He went walking instead. No destination, just heading toward downtown, a stroll for the pure enjoyment of it. Ordinarily, the flower beds and trim lawns drew his attention, but even the added color of changing leaves couldn’t divert Dominic from unwanted reminders: a street sign that pointed the way to a hospital, a plastic bag from a nearby drug store stuck in a rose bush.
What else could he do? Was there any place he could go for distraction? Driving his car required him to lean against upholstery. Riding a bike meant arching his back in the afternoon breeze. Each scenario had some kind of irritating chink, every alternative had a hole in it the size of a quarter.
In his heart, Dominic knew what was wrong. But not having the lump diagnosed was somehow better than getting it identified and treated. Because the real pain would start in the days and weeks before each appointment, anticipating every follow-up, scheduling the next treatment. Waiting meant hearing Carl sigh each time they hugged, his hands shifting ever so slightly, delicately. It meant the tiniest arch to Carl’s brow when he spotted a questionable bump of skin or fresh patch of discoloration. Waiting for the averted glance from tragic, blue eyes.
Dom blinked hard and clamped his jaws together, grinding his teeth to force away his thoughts. And it was then he noticed an off-putting twinge in his molar; the faint echo of an ache he sometimes felt when he ate.
Nothing to worry about. Instead, Dominic would chew on the left side for a while.
About the author
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon, where it’s probably raining. Luckily, water is beer’s primary ingredient. His stories and non-fiction appear in 60 publications, including Confingo, Page & Spine, Zetetic and Wild Musette. You can find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.