After a third little story about Miriam, Samantha fetched four votive candles from the kitchen. She arranged them on the table.
As her face brightened in the glow of the butane match and her gaze traveled wick to wick, Ryan said, “I love you,” and felt like a weasel, although like a weasel in rehab.
With the moon still tethered to the eastern horizon but straining higher, with the giant pepper tree occluding most of the eternally receding stars, the time to talk of death had come.
After dinner, with the table clear except for wine and candles, Ryan held Samantha’s left hand and said, “I’ve been happy every moment we’ve been together.”
“Sounds like the next word is going to be but, in which case these slippers aren’t adequate ass-kicking shoes.”
He would not mention his delusional adventure, his fear that he had been poisoned. If he died within a year, he wanted Sam to remember him as a better man than he actually had been.
Because Sam took life the same way that she took the sea when surfing-on her terms but with respect for its unpredictable nature, boldly and without fear-Ryan explained his situation succinctly and directly. He neither made a tragic opera of his news nor pretended that it was a light opera certain to end in flags and flourishes and sparkling arpeggios of harp strings.
Her hand tightened around his, as if she would hold him to this world. Tears pooled in her eyes, shimmered with her effort to retain them, and the shimmering caused the candle flames to quiver more in reflection than they did in the cut-glass cups that held them.
She understood that delivering this news was as hard for him as hearing it was devastating to her. Two things they admired in each other were self-sufficiency and a clear-eyed recognition that life was a struggle requiring optimism and confidence.
Grateful that she did not lose control and weep, pleased that she remained attentive instead of interrupting him with questions, Ryan was also moved by Samantha’s effort to repress her tears and to stay strong.
The intensity of her heart’s response could not be mistaken, for her pulse so strengthened that it grew visible in her slender throat, and quickened. The kimono did not conceal the tremors that shook her body, but instead, even in candlelight, the bells of the sleeves and every slack fold of the lustrous silk made visible her shivering as clearly as the air conveyed his voice.
When Ryan finished, Sam breathed deeply twice, shifted her gaze from his eyes to their entwined hands, and chose to confront the essence of the terror with her first question.
“What’s the likelihood you’ll get a new heart?”
“Four thousand Americans a year need a transplant. Only about two thousand donor hearts become available.”
“Fifty-fifty then,” she said.
“Not that good. The donor’s heart has to be compatible with my immune system. There has to be a match to minimize the chance my body will reject it.”
“What’s the likelihood of a match?”
“I have the most common blood type. That’s good. But there are other criteria. And even if they’re all met, the heart will go to someone higher on the waiting list if he’s a match as well.”
“Are you already on the list?”
“Provisionally. Next week I’ll undergo psychological testing. It all depends on that.”
“They try to detect social and behavioral factors that would interfere with recovery.”
“You mean…like alcoholism?”
“Alcoholism, smoking, attitudinal problems that would make me less likely than some other patient to comply with medications and make lifestyle changes.”
Looking up from their hands, avoiding his eyes, Sam stared at the four candles as if the future might be read in the configurations of their flames. “Intelligence must be something they’re looking for. A smart patient should be a better patient.”
“That’s in your favor. What else? What’s the bright side?”
“I’m young and otherwise in good health. If I had multiple organ problems, if I had diabetes, I wouldn’t be an ideal candidate.”
Drawing one candle close, Samantha first gave the flame a breath to grow on, then blew it out. “What else? I want more bright side.”
“I don’t need insurance-company approval. I can pay out of pocket.”
As a pale ribbon of smoke unraveled from the briefly sputtering black wick, Samantha drew a second candle close to her and breathed darkness upon it, as well.
Ryan said, “Sometimes there’s a distance problem. Once a donor is certified brain-dead and surgeons remove his heart, they can keep it cooled to forty degrees in saline solution-but only six hours.”
“So the surgical team-what?-looks for a recipient within a certain radius?”
“In my case, they don’t have to bring it to me. I can go to them by Learjet, while they keep the donor alive on machines.”
She dipped a thumb and forefinger in the last of her wine and pinched out the flame on the third candle.
“The five-year-survival rate for a transplant is slowly but surely creeping toward seventy percent,” he said.
Without wetting her fingers again, Sam extinguished the final flame with a pinch, and hissed as if she felt its heat, but also as if she wanted to feel it.
The kitchen door was closed, and the curtained window poured no light onto the deck.
“If I make five years, then my chances of making five more are good. And so much is happening in medicine. Each year. So much.”
Although the night was not absolutely black, it should have given cover to Samantha. Yet on her face, the quiet grief that she could no longer repress glistered faintly, as though her tears contained a phosphoric salt.
Pushing her chair back from the table, rising, still holding his hand, she said, “Come lie in bed with me.”
He got to his feet.
“Just lie with me,” she said, “and hold me.”
In bed, lying clothed atop the covers, Samantha rested her head on Ryan’s chest, cuddled into him, his right arm around her.
Exhaustion nearly immobilized him. He felt weighed down and wrung out.
They had endured a rite of passage in their relationship, the acknowledgment that even as young as they were, Death was a presence at their dance, their life together finite.
Like him, she probably had much she wanted to say but no energy to say it and, at the moment, possessed no words adequate to express her thoughts.
They dozed but did not sleep deeply, changed positions but held fast to each other.
When at last she spoke again, Samantha’s voice was small and lacked her usual spirit. “I’m afraid.”
“Me too. That’s okay. They’ll match me to a donor. I’ll get a heart.”
“I know you will,” she said.
“You will if anyone will. But you’ve got to be careful, Ryan.”
“I’ll do everything the doctors say.”
“You especially. You, being you, have to be careful.”
“I won’t try riding any sharks.”
“You’ve got to let it happen however it will.”
“I won’t just fade away,” he said. “That’s not me. You know that’s not me.”
“I’m afraid for you,” she said.
“I’ll handle it, Sam.”
“Don’t handle it. Just let it develop.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not afraid.”
“Sometimes it’s good to be afraid,” she said. “It keeps you clear and squared away.”
Much later, he said, “Marry me.” She did not reply, but he was sure that she was awake. “I know you’re there.”
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“So marry me.”
“It’ll look like I married you because you’re dying.”
“I’m not going to die.”
“Everyone’ll think I married you for your money.”
“I don’t care what they think. I never have. Why should I now?”
“I love you. I’ll stay with you through this if you just let it happen. Every step of the way through all of it, but you have to do what Dr. Gupta says.”
“He’s my doctor. Of course I’ll do what he says.”
“I know you. I know you so well. I so much want you to be right…to be all right at the end of this.”
“Then marry me.”
“I’ll marry you when it’s over, when everything is right.”
“After the transplant, you’ll marry me?”
“If you relax. Just relax and accept and let this thing happen like it should.”
“Then you’re my reward,” he said.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
He said, “You’re all I want, Sam.”
“It’s got to be right.”
“We are right. We’re perfect together.”
“We are, we really are, day to day,” she agreed.
“So there you go.”
“So if you’ll just let this happen the way it will, just relax and go with it the way it wants to happen, then I’ll know we’ll also be right not just day to day, but year after year.”
“Okay. I can chill out. Is that what you want?”
“You’ve got to be so careful, Dotcom.”
“Just watch me chill.”
“So very careful. I’ll be there all the way, but you have to listen to me.”
“I’m serious. You listen to me.”
“You listen to me.”
Clinging tightly to him, Samantha said, “Oh, God, I’m so afraid.”
Dozing, they eased apart. Parting, they woke. Waking, they clung again to each other. That was the rhythm of their night.
At dawn, she woke once more to a separation, but felt for him and found him with an urgency that suggested she expected him to be gone. Stirred from sleep by her search and her touch, he held her close, but closeness was no longer quite enough.
Their lovemaking was different from any Ryan had known, rich with desire for a perfect union, yet without lust, giving without taking, receiving without wanting. Tender, selfless, almost innocent, this was a sweet celebration of life, but more than a celebration, it was a commemoration of all they had been to each other to this point in time, to this fulcrum of their lives, and it was a solemnization of a commitment to be two in one henceforth, to be as one, always one, one forever.
Even after Ryan had received a virtual death sentence from his cardiologist, such a moment of beauty and joy was possible, which not only gave him hope but also stropped a sharper edge on his determination to live.
This consummation at dawn was his high tide, his lifetime-best surf, a perfect set of double overhead swells, and it was not in his nature to imagine that what came thereafter would be not more of the same and soon a new life with a new healthy heart, but instead error, disorder, terror, anguish, and loss.
Ryan sailed through the psychological testing and was added to the heart-recipient list of the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Following the diagnosis of cardiomyopathy and his revelation of his condition to Samantha, he was spared the dreams that had plagued him for a week. The city in the sea, the lake of black water, and the haunted palace had been deleted from his nightly itinerary.
No other dreams arose to trouble him. He slept well each night and woke rested or at least rested enough.
In lonely moments, he no longer heard the curious rapping that-at windows, at doors, in bathroom plumbing, and from a plasma TV-had insisted upon his attention.
His sense of being watched, of being the object of a sinister conspiracy, blew away with the dreams and with the phantom knocker. A fresh air came into his life, and cleared from his head the stale miasma of unreason as if he had merely been suffering from a pollen allergy.
He experienced no further episodes of deja vu. Indeed, he suspected that if he returned to Denver and located the small park with the aspens, that place-and the church adjacent to it-would not affect him as it had before.
As for knowing, before he saw it, what the crucifix would look like above the altar at St. Gemma’s…
Over the years, he had been inside a few Catholic churches, attending weddings and funerals. He didn’t remember any of those altars, but he assumed that perhaps a crucifix in one Roman church was much like that in another. Uniformity might even be required. He must have known what he would find in St. Gemma’s only because he had seen the identical crucifix-or one nearly like it-at one of those weddings or funerals.
He attributed the calm and clarity that purged his paranoia to the medications that Dr. Gupta prescribed, including a diuretic to control heart failure and an antiarrhythmic drug to correct abnormal heart rhythms. His blood was better oxygenated now than it had been, and toxins once dangerously retained were being flushed from his system more efficiently.
Irrationally, he had feared that a scheming poisoner, a modern-day Medici, might be among his household employees. Ironically, the only poisoner had been the very heart within his breast, which by its diminished function had clouded his mind and fostered his delusions, or so he concluded.
Through October and November, Ryan’s greatest problem proved to be impatience. As others awaiting transplants received their hearts or perished, he moved up the list, but not fast enough.
He remained acutely aware that Samar Gupta had given him at most one year to live. A sixth of that year had passed.
When he saw TV news stories about traffic accidents involving fatalities, he wondered if the deceased had signed organ-donor cards when getting their driver’s licenses. Sometimes the knowledge that most people did not donate would inspire an angry rant. This was not fair to those against whom he railed, because during all the years that he’d been in good health, he never signed such a card, either.
Now enlightened, through his attorney he arranged to donate what organs, if any, might be of use to others after his body succumbed to the ravages of cardiomyopathy or, alternately, if he received a transplant but died anyway.
By December, Dr. Gupta had to adjust Ryan’s drugs and add two more medications to his regimen in order to prevent the return of the frightening and debilitating symptoms.
The cardiologist used arcane medical terminology to avoid words like deterioration. But Ryan had no doubt that his condition was deteriorating.