Read time: 19 mins

Mass Effect

by Joshua Wales
12 September 2021

‘Mass Effect’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

 

Eddie starts counting when he notices the familiar hoarseness and irregularity of Ivan’s breathing. The doctor said they should find a hospital if the seizures last for more than two minutes. He holds the steering wheel and extends his free hand flat against Ivan’s vibrating chest which feels like it’s being battered by turbulence. Eddie’s own brain pings into the ringing, vigilant sharpness that he is now used to. The solid yellow line glows more vividly through the slush, and he can almost hear the snow-covered highway signs speed by. Eddie doesn’t know if he should find an exit or pull onto the hard shoulder or do nothing at all. 

At 55 seconds, the seizure stops. Ivan wakes up, disoriented.  

‘I know that I know this, but where are we going?’  

‘We’re going to the cabin, babe.’  

‘Right.’  

‘You had a little seizure, babe.’  

‘Right.’ 

 

* 

The seizures began just over a month ago, and Ivan immediately began referring to them as episodes, clutching his chest and widening his eyes as if he had won a prize of immeasurable value. 

At first, they were merely brief periods of mental vacancy: Ivan ranting about his boss, the head librarian, the fucking TERF and then gone suddenly quiet as if second-guessing the point he was making. This was alarming; quiet reconsideration was out of character.  

Then, a few days later, Ivan collapsed at work. It was early evening and Eddie had missed the calls from the hospital because he had been running on the snow-covered track near their house. He had just finished his 1,500-metre repeats and was doubled over, gasping for cold breaths, when he saw the avalanche of notifications on his phone. He dialed the hospital with numb fingers. The nurse said that, yes, they were having trouble getting Ivan’s seizures under control; yes, he was unconscious; yes, he should come immediately. While she spoke, Eddie remembers staring up at the black sky too cloudless to reflect the pink glow of the city, then squinting at the empty field with its fluorescent-lit whiteness and then being obliterated by a loneliness that felt too heavy to dig himself out of.  

 

* 

After subjecting Ivan to days of investigations, the neurosurgeon finally told them that, yes, the seizures were being caused by brain cancer; no, it could not be cured; yes, that meant terminal. In response, Ivan told him that he regretted signing up for this excruciating, multi-sport Olympic event in which the finish line was just a firing squad.  

The doctor was young, around their age, early thirties, aggressively straight. Out of 10, Eddie gave him an eight. Ivan gave him a six, deducting points for his oversized watch which was an obvious overcompensation and basic as fuck.  

But what they both remember best was the surgeon’s visible discomfort while he delivered the news—the way he avoided eye contact, stumbled over his words, scratched his chest as if his scrub shirt were knitted from human hair. But Ivan also found the discomfort intoxicating—never before had he intimidated a straight man in a position of authority.  

‘He gave me complete control over his emotions,’ Ivan said, looking up at the ceiling as they huddled together in the hospital bed. Then to Eddie: ‘If I’d known how much power I could gain from personal tragedy, I would have secretly poisoned you years ago.’  

 

* 

 ‘I wonder if Hawkeye Pierce can speak French,’ Ivan says, looking out the passenger window at the blurred ribbon of conifers. He has mostly recovered from his seizure, but his voice sounds flat and distant, still clouded.  

For the past month, they have made a game of referring to the neurosurgeon by the names of fictional TV doctors, then wondering things about him: how he votes in municipal elections, his favourite season of Drag Race, his preferred sexual positions, the names of his pets, his parents’ occupations, his thoughts on dismantling systems of settler colonialism. They aren’t allowed to use the same TV doctor more than once. 

This game was initially fun, riffing back and forth, rediscovering their old banter, which always spiralled upward to absurdity. But by now, the game feels like a drug they keep doing even though it no longer gets them high.  

‘He probably dropped French after Grade 9,’ says Eddie.  

‘What a fucking loser.’ 

Ivan used Hawkeye Pierce last week, but Eddie lets it slide. They are both scraping the bottom of the barrel. Eddie’s own favourites—Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Niles Crane, Miranda Bailey, Dana Scully, Julius Hibbert, Turk—are all used up.  

* 

Ivan is thrilled that the orange and brown floral couch is as loud as it appeared in the photos that their friend sent. She offered them the cabin for the weekend, as though a change of scenery could somehow alter the plot. Ivan knocks on the wood panelling, satisfied by the hollow thump.  

Eddie goes out to the shed to get firewood, and when he comes back a few minutes later, Ivan is asleep on the couch. By the time the fire has caught, Eddie is counting. He watches the fluttering lids of Ivan’s eyes and imagines the irises rolling up into the head to berate the scattered tumours, like angry parents who arrive home to an unauthorized teenage party and order them to clean up the tangled, bloody mess.  

He gets to 72 seconds. Ivan starts to snore gently.  

How cruel, Eddie marvels, that the seizures grip Ivan most often in his sleepat his most vulnerable. Eddie curls up on the couch to monitor Ivan’s breathing. Would Ivan do the same for him? Before the diagnosis, he thought Ivan was on the verge of leaving him. They had been fighting about small things that were, obviously, about bigger things—Ivan forgetting dinner plans was proof he prioritized everything else over their relationship and Eddie declining cocaine and a circuit party with Ivan’s new friends implied that Ivan was vapid, frivolous, and forbidden to grow as a person. Eddie wanted a dog, but Ivan needed more time to launch his web series. Their respective good moods started to feel like ships in the night. Passing comments and insecurities found each other like knives and magnets. 

When Eddie suggested couples therapy, Ivan suggested Broadway: ‘If we start to feel pissy, one of us will just start singing “Rose’s Turn.” No one can stay mad during “Rose’s Turn.”’ But Eddie was sure that Ivan was the one pushing them towards the cliff edge. 

‘What are we even doing together?’ he would shout at the peak of their arguments which would force them both to pause and peer into the chasm of their looming separation. Perhaps finding more oblivion than freedom, Ivan would recoil back to Eddie and they would cry, apologize, hold each other. Eddie was left to wonder whether Ivan was trying to drive them towards a break-up or scare himself into staying or both.  

* 

When Eddie wakes up in the morning, the sun filters through the evergreens, and Ivan is in the kitchen, humming, absently scratching the right side of his head where the quarter-sized biopsy scar is always itchy. Ivan brings Eddie an instant coffee, which is cold because he forgot to boil the water. 

        ‘I wonder what Dr. Dana Scully puts in his coffee,’ Ivan says, sitting on the couch beside him. He begins kissing Eddie, then undressing him. They haven’t done this for weeks—Ivan can’t orgasm because the increase in intracranial pressure is too painful, and Eddie has begun to feel ashamed of his body’s brutal wholeness. But now Ivan persists, and eventually Eddie finishes, semi-hard with a sputtering, pleasureless burn.  

        Afterwards, Ivan lies on top of him and they sync their breathing in the way they always haveone of them inhaling as the other exhales, one abdomen expanding as the other contracts. Ivan taught this to Eddie the morning after they first slept together. ‘This way we’re just a pair of bodies occupying a constant dimension,’ he had said.  

 

* 

‘If you tell a hot waiter your boyfriend just died, he has to blow you in the bathroom. That’s just science.’ 

        Ivan says this late in the afternoon, as Eddie is lacing up his running shoes. He watches Eddie with a neutral focus, but Eddie can’t glean his intention. Eddie would understand if Ivan wanted to fight or cry or both, but it has started to seem like Ivan feels nothing at all. So Eddie just kisses him and tells him he will be back in 30 minutes.  

        Eddie has withdrawn from his spring season of races but still craves the brief mental order that running imposes. He is soothed by the regularity of his footfalls. He can sense the ice beneath the undisturbed snow but steps with confidence and doesn’t slip. On the unfamiliar backroads, he commits to a route without hesitation. He forgot his running gloves, so his fingers go numb. He pinches the fingertips, bites them until the blood returns to the nail beds.  

        When he gets back to the cabin, Ivan is pacing the room, rubbing his eye sockets with the heels of his palms. He may have been crying.  

        ‘I’m so tired,’ he says, ‘Watch me sleep? Can you just make sure I’m okay while I sleep for a bit?’ 

* 

That night, they go to bed early. Eddie spoons Ivan tightly from behind, while Ivan reminisces about the first time they met. It was at a mutual friend’s New Year’s Eve house party just over ten years ago, and they were both high on MDMA. In no time at all, they were dancing and making out in the dimly lit kitchen. Over the thundering bass, Ivan yelled that it felt like they were combusting, like they were suddenly the same flame. Later, Ivan made Eddie believe that it was bad luck to wear your own clothes for the New Year’s countdown, and so in the bathroom they clumsily, frantically exchanged t-shirts, jeans, underwear, socks.  

        ‘Fuck, that was funny,’ Ivan says without laughing.  

        These days, Ivan has become nostalgic, but only in the dark. 

 

* 

On their way back to the city, they pass a blue hospital sign, and Ivan tells Eddie about an idea he has for a short film: A queer couple. One of them has a known brain cancer. They go from hospital to hospital complaining of a headache or a seizure. At each hospital a brain scan is ordered, and an unsuspecting doctor breaks the bad news. Each time, the couple tries out different reactions—they wail hysterically, or laugh maniacally, or sing a duet from Rent, or start tearing each other’s clothes off, or freeze like mannequins, or do couples yoga, or dance the Macarena. The camera would focus on the faces of the doctors, their horror or laughter or incredulity. The decomposition of their earnest, professional faces.  

        Eddie laughs at this, and Ivan laughs at his laughter, and in this upward draft they laugh harder than they have in months; they laugh until they cry. 

 

* 

The hospital is small, still far from the city. Its walls are off-cream and chipped blue. They tell the triage nurse that Ivan has just had a seizure; yes, it was his first ever; no, he has no medical conditions. Ivan gives a description of his headaches so vivid that it makes Eddie wonder if this is still a game. As the nurse is leaving, Ivan tells her he likes the colour of her hair, the platinum red popularized in the late 90s.  

        Ivan rubs his forehead. ‘Do you think Dr. Hibbert dyes his hair?’  

        The doctor is an older woman—grey-haired, kind, efficient. She looks very worried as Ivan recounts his symptoms. She shines a light in his eyes, does a brief neurological examination. She doesn’t notice the healed biopsy scar, because she is focussed on the weakness in Ivan’s left leg. The doctor explains that she is worried about a few different things, and she’s going to order a CT scan. She doesn’t mention brain cancer, but she does make meaningful eye contact with both of them. Ivan is taken down to the CT scanner in a wheelchair. 

        Eddie lies on a hospital bed and closes his eyes.  

 

* 

A few nights after the initial diagnosis, they lay beside each other with the lights off, neither able to sleep.  

        ‘Think of all the other ways of dying that I’ll avoid,’ Ivan said. ‘I won’t drown or burn to death. I’ll never get chewed up by a boat propeller or get flesh-eating disease or be poisoned by a much younger lover. I won’t get butt cancer or drug-resistant gonorrhea. I won’t die of thirst when the climate apocalypse comes, like the rest of you chumps.’  

        Eddie didn’t know how to respond, so he just tried to gather Ivan to him. But Ivan said he was too hot, and they rolled to their own sides of the bed. And Eddie, who never allowed himself to contemplate his own death, cried briefly, silently, then fell asleep.  

 

* 

A moment after Ivan returns from the CT scan, he begins to seize. Eddie draws the curtains—he doesn’t want a nurse called, doesn’t need a rural hospital admission, just wants to drive home. He counts. Ivan is lying on the bed, and Eddie rolls him onto his side. He holds Ivan’s torso, like he is hugging the seizure into submission. At 96 seconds, it stops. 

        A few minutes later, Ivan is conscious but groggy. No one notices as Eddie steadies him out of the emergency department, through the sliding doors and into the parked car. Eddie leans over Ivan’s body for the seatbelt and buckles him in. Ivan is confused, wonders where they’re going. They drive away, still hours from home. 

 

* 

Later, as they’re driving, Eddie will answer the phone, and the doctor’s voice will fill the car, alarmed, telling them the results are serious. Eddie will explain that they already know this; yes, they are doing palliative radiation; yes, they are sorry; yes, they know cancer is not a joke, but they have been confused and struggling—just two sad millennials who don’t know what the fuck to do with all of this. Eddie will listen to the doctor’s voice, which will alternate clumsily between empathy and rebuke, then finally settle on a sad exasperation. Ivan will keep his eyes closed. When the doctor hangs up, they will not give her fun names. They will not wonder anything about her. 

        Ivan will turn his head to Eddie. 

        ‘I love you,’ he’ll say. ‘I really love you.’ 

        These days, Eddie will think, Ivan only says this in the after-haze of a seizure.  

        But yes. He will let him sleep. Yes. He will watch him sleep. 

 

About the Author

Joshua Wales

Joshua Wales is a Toronto-based palliative care physician and writer, with recent work in Contemporary Verse 2, Plenitudes, Grain, The New Quarterly, the Globe and Mail, the New England Journal of Medicine and on the CBC. He won the 2020 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award, and his work has been shortlisted for PRISM international’s Jacob Zilber […]

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