Two weeks had passed since Ben and I…broke up? Was that the right term? Since we amicably split? Consciously uncoupled? Willingly diverged? Whatever the phrase was, I was not handling it well.
Business had slowed to a crawl. We’d been pummeled by one storm after another, deep winter digging its claws into us. It was so bad we made national news. A meme was circulating that contained a state plow on the highway. The snowbank next to it towered over the vehicle, an impenetrable wall of winter that looked like it could hold back an army of white walkers. Beneath it, some enterprising person had written, “Meanwhile, in Aroostook County, Maine…”
The storms left me cut off from my friends and family. The lack of daily human interaction, which I’d gotten used to since Ben had come into my life, only served to highlight how much I needed social engagement. And with nothing to distract me from my misery, I was having trouble just forcing myself out of bed.
Complicating matters was the fact that anytime the dogs did something cute, I wanted to send Ben pictures. When something came on TV that reminded me of a conversation we had, I wanted to call him. When my loneliness and heartache and worry were at their worst, I wanted to drive to his house and beg him to let me in. The only thing that stopped me was his own need for time apart.
The one bright spot was Jacob’s coming home party. I cried when he walked through the door, 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 came to find me, knocking softly on the door until I finally let her in. She sat with me on the cold tile floor, our backs against the tub as we talked.
“He has CTE, doesn’t he?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate to answer. 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 for her NYT article that the medical jargon surrounding brain injuries had become as familiar to her as it was to me.
“I’m so sorry, Ella,” she said.
“Is that all you’re upset about?”
I shook my head. “We’re taking a break. He needs time to grieve and to start the recovery process. And I need time to think about whether or not I’m strong enough to be with someone with a chronic brain disease.”
Jane passed me her glass of wine. “You need this more than I do.”
“Thank you.” I took a big swig of it.
“You love him, don’t you?”
“I think so,” I answered, voice small.
“You wouldn’t be this upset if you didn’t.”
“But is that enough? Am I strong enough to watch someone I love potentially suffer for years?”
“Yes,” Jane answered.
I stared at her.
She 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 against the tub and closed my eyes, remembering. “You make what I did sound so easy, Jane. You’re right. The rest of you weren’t there. You don’t know what it was like. 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. After she passed, there were days I 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 if it had dragged out for years?”
I turned to look at her. “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 parts of his brain die off terrifies me in a way that I can’t seem to think past.”
She frowned. “But you can’t be sure that’ll happen. He might only have minor symptoms.”
“He’s twenty-eight, Jane. And the doctors already found behavioral and psychological problems they think are directly caused by his current level of CTE.”
She paled. “Someone might discover a way to treat it. Wasn’t there something…hang on.” She shifted sideways and pulled her phone from her pocket. Her fingers tapped on 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 slow CTE way down.”
My eyes flew over the article. The doctor had discovered that a leukemia medication, already approved by the FDA, could 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 was still 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 further memory loss or uncontrollable violent mood swings.
“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 and pulled her into a hard hug. “Thank you so much for this.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, patting my back.
I let her go and dug my phone out of my handbag.
Ben, I texted, I’m sorry for maybe overstepping here. I know you still need your space, and I fully respect that, but I’m not sure if you’ve seen this study or not. It’s brand new. There’s 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 got home from my brother’s party and had 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.
Three days passed, and every time I picked up my phone, I wanted to text him back. I was dying to know what he and his parents had found out. If their foundation could fund further clinical trials, since, for some mind-boggling reason, the doctor who had made the discovery was having trouble raising money for testing. You’d think with how much CTE had dominated the headlines recently, organizations and institutions would jump at the chance to have their names tied to a study that actually promised hope. If you couldn’t count on people wanting to help people because it was the right thing to do, you could almost always count on people wanting to help people because it made themselves look good in the process.
It made me wonder if the USFL was putting pressure on companies and entities to not fund the research. Or if those same enterprises didn’t want to fund it because they were worried about attracting negative attention from such a juggernaut like the USFL. The more I learned about the league, the more I’d come to think about them in the same way I did big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. The bullying, the lying, the coercion, funding “alternative fact” studies, the bribery, it was all there.
I’d never watch another football game again. Between my disgust at the league and how hard it would be to witness every single tackle, wondering if that was the one that resulted in a player having TBI or CTE, I was done with the sport.
Friday night, my phone rang. I had the TV on, but I wasn’t really watching it. Just like I hadn’t really been doing any of the activities I’d attempted recently, whether it was painting or reading or shoveling. My mind had been elsewhere, preoccupied with thoughts of Ben and the Georgetown study.
What if he was able to take part in the next phase of trials? What if they successfully halted his progression of CTE? And more importantly, what if they didn’t? I’d been running circles in my mind, always coming back to worse-case scenario, stuck in a loop that I couldn’t pull myself out of.
Thankful for this momentary distraction, I picked 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? We’ll pay you in beer and pizza.
Yes. Thank you so much, I texted back. Are we going puppy shopping while I’m there?!?!?!?!
Maaaaaaaybe, Megan answered.
My phone chimed with a text from someone else, and I laughed aloud reading it, for the first time in weeks. It was from Stacey. By maybe she means OHHELLFUCKYES.
Copyright © 2019 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.