It’s been two weeks since Ben and I…broke up? Is that the right term here? Since we amicably split? Consciously uncoupled? Willingly diverged? Whatever the phrase is, I am not handling it well.
Business is sluggish. The snow has been relentless. The lack of daily human interaction, which I’d gotten used to since Ben came into my life, has only served to highlight how much I need social engagement. But it’s more than just that. Anytime the dogs do something cute, I want to send the pictures I take to him. When something comes on TV that reminds me of a conversation we had, I want to call him. When my loneliness and heartache and worry are at their worst, I want to drive to his house and beg him to let me in. The only thing that’s stopped me is his need for time apart.
The one bright spot in the past fourteen days was when Jacob came home. I cried at his party, at first out of relief to have him back, but then I had to excuse myself to him and Sophia’s upstairs bathroom so no one worried when I broke down sobbing. Jane was the one to find me, knocking softly on the door until I finally let her in, where she sat with me on the cold tile floor for another half an hour, our backs against the tub as we talked.
“He has CTE, doesn’t he?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate to answer, because I knew she would take the information to her grave. “The doctors think so. There’s this new test that lights up the tau proteins, and they found them in his brain.” I didn’t have to explain tau proteins or PET scans to her, because she’d done so much research on her own for the NYT article that the medical jargon surrounding brain injuries has become as familiar to her as it is me.
“I’m so sorry, Ella,” she said.
“Is that all you’re upset about?”
“No. We…we’re taking a break. He needs time to grieve and to start to recover. And I need time to think about whether or not I am strong enough to be with someone with a chronic brain disease.”
“Jesus,” Jane said, passing her glass of wine to me. “You need this more than I do.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking a big swig.
“You love him, don’t you?”
“Is it that obvious?” I asked with a brittle laugh.
“You wouldn’t be this upset if you didn’t.”
“But is that enough?” I downed the rest of the wine in one gulp and handed the glass back to her so I could press the heels of my palms against my eyes. “Am I strong enough to watch someone I love potentially suffer for years?”
“Yes,” Jane answered.
I’d whipped my hands away to stare at her in disbelief. “Just like that?”
She’d shrugged. “You’re one of the strongest people I know. You were there for Jack and Renee in a way the rest of us weren’t. Not even Dad. You stayed up there on that hill with him while he fell apart after her death, and you helped to pull him out of his grief.”
I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, remembering. “You make what I did sound so easy, Jane. You’re right. The rest of you weren’t there. It was fucking terrible. Renee was so sick, for months. And in the end, there was nothing we could do to keep her there with us. The cancer stole her away in increments. After she passed, there were days I literally thought Jack would die of grief. The only saving grace was that she went so quickly at the end. How much worse would it have been for that to have been dragged out for years?” I turned to look at her then. “That’s what I can’t stop thinking about. You seem so sure of my strength, but the thought of watching Ben remain physically healthy while it’s his brain that changes terrifies me in a way that I can’t seem to think past.”
“But you can’t be sure that’ll even happen. He might only have minor symptoms. Or they might discover a way to treat it. Wasn’t there something…hang on a sec.” She set the wineglass down on the floor and shifted sideways to pull her phone out of her dress pocket. Her fingers flew over the screen for a few minutes. “Here. Found it,” she said, shoving it toward me. “There’s a doctor at Georgetown that thinks he can, well, not cure, but at the very least slow CTE way down.”
My eyes flew over her phone screen as I read the article she’d pulled up. This doctor discovered that there’s a leukemia medication, already approved by the FDA, that can work in conjunction with others to reduce the toxic buildup of tau proteins in the brain. It wouldn’t “cure” the existing damage the tau had caused, as brain regeneration is so far outside of our medical capabilities, but it would stop the disease from causing any more deterioration. Ben might never have to worry about memory loss or violent mood swings or suicidal thoughts.
“I have to send this to him,” I said, texting myself the link. “He might not have seen it yet.”
“That’s what I was wondering,” Jane said.
I turned sideways to pull her into a hard hug. “Thank you so much for this.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, patting my back.
I let her go, scrubbed at my still tear-wet cheeks, and got to business.
Ben, I’d texted, I’m sorry for maybe overstepping here, I know you still need your space, but I’m not sure if you’ve seen this study or not. It’s brand new. There’s is a doctor at Georgetown that thinks he’s found a way to clear tau buildup from the brain.
His response came much later that night, after I’d gotten home from my brother’s party and given up all hope of hearing back from him.
You’re not overstepping. Please don’t apologize. I hadn’t seen the study. Thank you. We’re looking into it now.
Every time I’ve picked up my phone since then, I’ve wanted to text him back. It’s been a week, and I’m dying to know what he and his parents found. If their foundation could fund further clinical trials, since, for some mind-boggling reason, the doctor who made the discovery is having trouble raising money for further testing. You’d think with how much CTE has been dominating the headlines recently, organizations and institutions would be jumping at the chance to have their names tied to a study that actually promised so much hope. If you can’t count on people wanting to help people because it’s the right thing to do, you can almost always count on people wanting to help people because it makes themselves look good in the process.
It makes me wonder if the USFL is putting pressure on companies and entities to not fund the research. Or if those same enterprises don’t want to fund it because they’re worried about it attracting negative attention from such a juggernaut like the USFL. The more I learn about the league, the more I’ve come to think about them in the same way I do big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. The bullying, the lying, the coercion, funding “alternative fact” studies, the bribery, it’s all there.
I’ll never watch another football game again. Between my disgust at the league, and how hard it would be to witness every single tackle, I’m done with the sport.
Beside me, my phone dings. I’m on the couch. It’s Friday night. The TV is on, but I’m not really watching it. Just like I haven’t really been doing any of the activities I’ve been attempting. Whether it be painting or reading or shoveling, my mind has been elsewhere, preoccupied with thoughts of Ben and the Georgetown study.
What if he can take part in the next phase of trials? What if it halts his progression of CTE? And more importantly, what if it doesn’t?
I’ve been running circles in my mind, always coming back to worse-case scenario. I’m stuck in a loop that I can’t seem to get myself out of. It’s crippling me.
Thankful for this momentary distraction, I pick up my phone to see a text from Megan.
We’re moving in a few weeks. To an apartment that allows pets. Mom said business is slow and you haven’t been doing too good. Want to come down and help us move? We’ll pay you in beer and pizza.
Yes. Thank you so much. Are we going to go puppy shopping while I’m there?!?!?!?! I text back.
Maaaaaaaybe, Megan answers.
My phone chimes with a text from someone else, and I laugh aloud reading it, for the first time in weeks.
By maybe she means OHHELLFUCKYES, Stacey clarifies.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.