Love & Sex

Love & Death

The recurrent silence

There’s a metal bench at the edge of the Santa Fe River Trail.

Deena said, “Can we sit down? Just for a minute?”

In the first months after her cancer diagnosis, my wife seemed just as vibrant as ever, but these days she tired easily.

I said, “We can sit down for as long as we want.” It broke my heart how we all feel like we have to be dying just to be allowed to sit down for more than a minute. The snowmelt had brought a little trickle to the otherwise dry riverbed. A snake slithered across the cement path and I gasped.

Deena said, “It’s not a rattler.”

She was right. This one was just a bullsnake. But I knew the rattlesnake of death was coming. If not this year, then some year soon. A crow cawed from a cottonwood.

I’d left my phone at home intentionally, so it couldn’t track my steps, but Deena said, “I’m up to 2.7 miles today.”

It’s not nothing, 2.7 miles.

Sometimes when we walked along the river trail with our arms linked, I closed my eyes and pictured myself walking the same path alone—like I was rehearsing for the future.

In The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde wrote of her partner, “always, there was Frances, glowing with a steady warm light close by to the island within which I had to struggle alone.” And I guess that’s all I could hope to be—what any of us could hope to be for each other—a steady warm light close by to the island. I worried I was less than a steady warm light.

Over the years of treatments and tumor progressions, I often found myself rehearsing for my wife’s death. Friends sent magic mushrooms from Oregon and Albuquerque because they’d read that psilocybin pushed back against death anxiety, but Deena recoiled at the smell of them.

I shrugged. “Mind if I do?”

She opened her palms: “Enjoy.”

The shrooms tasted just as much like a sweaty butthole as I remembered they had the last time I’d eaten them in tenth grade. At least this time, after about an hour, when I snuggled into bed, our Mona Lisa reproduction sparkled from the wall. I’d bought Deena the art because her first oral chemo cocktail was called MonaLeesa-7, and in my magical thinking I hoped that if we started a devotion to the mysterious Italian beauty, she might save us. But Deena had been on half a dozen lines of treatment by now and I was starting to understand that despite the pink parades and “You’re a survivor!” fundraising campaigns that try to make a party out of earlier stages of the disease, metastatic breast cancer is universally terminal.

“Are you feeling better about death?” Deena smirked.

And that made us both laugh for a very long time. Then we were quiet. I stared at the Mona Lisa reproduction, trying psychically to communicate with her. But the Mona Lisa stayed silent, the way she does. That’s when I noticed her expression change ever slightly.

In her classic takedown of the pink ribbon campaign, “Welcome to Cancerland,” (Harper’s Magazine, November 2001), journalist Barbara Ehrenreich describes the endless pink décor of the breast cancer clinic and wrote, “I have picked up this warning vibe in the changing room, which, in my increasingly anxious state, translates into: femininity is death.”

Deena rolled a joint for herself, stood up to open our bedroom window, took a few hits. I watched her silhouette against the sunset, tried to picture the sunset without her form in front of it.

“What do you think it’s like?”

“What do I think what’s like?” Deena put the joint out in a ceramic ashtray.


Deena stayed silent, like the reproduction. Was it inappropriate to name the thing we were trying to evade? If femininity was death, did death itself have the scent of a woman? A color? Was death pink? Was death a white light or endless darkness? Was there any such thing as a clean or honorable or dignified death? What might happen if we took our eyes off the rattlesnake of it?

On the river trail, we nodded at acquaintances as they passed. Maybe Deena was an island, but I was starting to feel kind of island-like, too. I read about the Hermits of Big Sur, near where I was born, and dreamed of running away from this desert town and living alone in some damp Pacific cave.

I felt alienated from other people. Not that they ghosted me. Mostly they didn’t ghost at all, they were always “checking in” and I’d probably have been hurt if they vanished, so it was kind of a no-win for them, but mostly I didn’t want to report back to their check-ins. I didn’t want to listen

and I didn’t want to talk. I could hear sounds coming out of their mouths. I didn’t even think, Stop talking. I thought, Please stop making sounds come out of your mouth.

I didn’t want any advice. I didn’t want to know how one could meditate out of cancer. I didn’t want tinctures Deena wouldn’t take. I didn’t want any more “warrior” stickers that would further ruin my previously-loving relationship with the color pink. I didn’t want to hear

about the miracle that usually turned out to be a reversal of a misdiagnosis. I didn’t want to explain it and I didn’t want to not explain it, so I stayed silent like the reproduction.

Deena and I sat down on the metal bench. We sat down for as long as we wanted.

Ariel Gore is the author of a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction including We Were Witches and The Wayward Writer. She edited the anthology Santa Fe Noir. Her next book, Rehearsals for Dying, is upcoming in March 2025 from the Feminist Press.

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