He shrugged. "Some days I'm not sure what I believe. Besides, your friend Dr. Levin helped straighten my thinking."
"Yes," Ruth said quietly, "I saw you talking with him. For a long time."
Nim's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "Is there anything you want to tell me?"
His pent-up frustration poured out. "Such as why you've been going to Dr. Levin, what it is you are anxious about, and why you've kept it from me. And, oh yes, your doctor asked me to say he was sorry for being indiscreet, but that I ought to know-whatever the hell that means."
"Yes," Ruth said, "I suppose it's time you did." Her voice was flat, the earlier cheerfulness gone. "But will you wait until we are home? I'll tell you then."
They drove the rest of the way in silence.
* * *
"I think I'd like a Bourbon and soda," Ruth said. "Do you mind getting it for me?"
They were in the small, cozy living room of their house, the lights turned low. It was almost I am Leah and Benjy, who had gone to bed several hours ago, were asleep upstairs.
"Sure," Nim said. It was unusual for Ruth, who rarely drank anything stronger than wine, to ask for hard liquor. He crossed to a sideboard which did duty as a bar, mixed a Bourbon and soda, and poured a cognac for himself. Returning, he sat facing his wife while she gulped a third of her drink, then, with a grimace, put the glass down.
"All right," he said. "Now give!"
Ruth took a deep breath, then began. "You remember that mole I had removed-six years ago?"
"Yes, I do." Strangely, Nim had recalled it only recently-the night he had been alone in the house, with Ruth away, when he made the decision to visit Dewer. He had noticed the mole in the oil painting of Ruth which hung in their living room, the portrait where she was wearing a strapless evening gown. Nim glanced at it now. There was the mole, just as he remembered it before it was removed: small and dark, on the left shoulder. He asked, "What about it?"
"It was a melanoma."
"A melanoma is a mole which may have cancer cells. That's why Dr. Mittelman-you remember, he was the one who took care of me then -advised me to have it removed. I agreed. Another doctor-a surgeon -did the cutting. It wasn't a big deal, and afterward both of them said the mole came away cleanly; there was no sign of anything having spread."
"Yes, I do remember Mittelman saying that." Nim had been mildly concerned at the time, but the physician was reassuring, insisting the procedure was a long-shot precaution, nothing more. As Ruth had just pointed out, it all happened six years ago; Nim had forgotten the details until now.
"Both doctors were wrong," Ruth said; the level of her voice dropped until it was barely a whisper. “There were cancer-melanoma-cells. They had spread. Now . . . They've spread still more . . . through my body."
She barely managed to get the last words out. Then, as if a dam pent up too long had burst, her control dissolved totally. The breath went out of her in a wail, her body shook with violent sobbing.
For moments Nim sat helpless, numb, unable to comprehend, much less believe, what he had just heard. Then reality penetrated. With a whirlwind jumble of emotions-horror, guilt, anguish, pity, love-he went to Ruth and took her in his arms.
He tried to comfort her, holding her tightly, her face pressed hard against his own. "My darling, my dearest love, why have you never told me? In God's name-why?"
Her voice came weakly, muffled by tears. "We weren't close . . . not loving anymore, the way it used to be . . . I didn't want just pity.. . you had other interests . . . other women."
A wave of shame and self-disgust swept over him. Instinctively, releasing Ruth, he fell to his knees before her and, taking her hands, be pleaded, "It's late to ask forgiveness, but I do. I've been a goddam fool, blind, selfish . . ."
Ruth shook her head; characteristically, some of her control returned.
"You don't have to say all that!"
"I want to say it because it's true. I didn't see it before. I see it now."
"I already told you I don't want . . . only pity."
He urged, "Look at me!" When she lifted her head he said softly, "I love you."
"Are you sure you're not just saying it because . . . ?"
"I said I love you, and I mean it! I always have, I guess, except I got mixed up and stupid. It needed something like this to make me realize .. . He stopped, then pleaded again, "Is it too late?"
"No." Ruth gave the ghost of a smile. "I never did stop loving you, even though you've been a bastard."
"I admit it."
"Well," she said, "maybe we owe Dr. Levin something."
"Listen, dearest." He groped for words, wanting to offer reassurance. "We'll fight this thing together. We'll do everything that's medically possible. And there'll be no more talk of separation or divorce."
She said loudly, strongly, "I never wanted either. Oh, Nim darling, hold me! Kiss me!”
He did. Then, as if it had never been, the gulf between them disappeared.
He asked, "Are you too tired to tell me everything? Tonight? Now?"
Ruth shook her head. "I want to tell you."
For another hour she talked while Nim listened, occasionally interjecting questions.
About eight months ago, he learned, Ruth became aware of a small lump on the left side of her neck. Dr. Mittelman had retired from practice the year before. She went to Dr. Levin.
The doctor was suspicious of the lump and ordered a series of tests, including chest X-ray, liver scan, and bone scan. The extensive tests explained Ruth's daytime disappearances which Nim had noticed. Results showed that melanoma cells, after lying dormant for six years, had suddenly spread throughout Ruth's body.
“The day I heard," she said, "I didn't know what to do or think."
"Whatever else was wrong between us," Nim protested, "you should have told me."
"You seemed to have so much else on your mind. It was about the time that Walter was killed in that explosion at La Mission. Anyway, I decided to keep it to myself. Afterward, I took care of the insurance forms, all the rest."
"Your parents don't know?"
After the test results, Ruth explained, she had begun attending a local hospital once a week, as an outpatient, for chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments. That, too, explained more daytime absences.
She suffered occasional nausea and some weight loss because of the treatments, but managed to conceal both. Nim's repeated absences from home had made it easier.
Nim put his head in his hands, his shame deepening. He had assumed Ruth was meeting another man, while all of the time . . .
Later, Ruth went on, Dr. Levin informed her of a new treatment being used at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York. He believed she should go there to learn about it. Ruth went-for a two-week stay and another battery of tests.
That was the time of her prolonged absence from home which Nim had thought of with indifference, or as an inconvenience to himself.
He was bereft of words.
"What's done is done," Ruth told him. "You couldn't possibly have known."
Nim asked the question be had been dreading. "What do they say about the future-the prognosis?"
"First of all, there is no cure; second, it's too late for surgery."
Ruth's voice was steady; most of her normal poise was back. "But I could have a lot of years left, though we'll never know until they run out.
Also I don't know about the Sloan-Kettering Institute yet-whether I'll be better off taking their treatment or not. The doctors there are working on a method which uses microwaves to raise the temperature of a tumor, followed by radiation which may-or may not-destroy the tumor tissue." She smiled wanly. "As you might imagine, I've found out as much about it as I can."
"I'd like to talk to Dr. Levin myself-tomorrow," Nim said, then corrected himself. "That is, later today. Do you mind?"
"Mind?" Ruth sighed. "No, I don't mind. It's so wonderful to have someone to lean on. Oh, Nim, I've needed you so much!"
He held her again. Soon afterward, he turned out the lights and led the way upstairs.
For the first time in many months Nim and Ruth shared a bed and, in the early morning as dawn was breaking, they made love.