On the Bunny Ranch website, girls, bunnies, women, come in a variety of shapes, but are never fat. They offer a variety of breast sizes, from fake triple Ds, to natural Cs, to very small, like double A. They are either Asian or white, never Latina or Black, which I’d have called problematic the first day Josh and I browsed if I’d had the energy. I said something to that effect and Josh said, “It’d be a start,” and his voice sounded afraid like, where do I even begin?
We scrolled for hours before we found Willow, the last bunny left after I vetoed other options: girls in their early 20s riding horses in push-up bras, or dancing on poles, or dressed in Khaleesi cosplay. Girls who, beneath layers of makeup, were still beautiful; girls who, beneath layers of makeup, had a certain look to them, aggressive, almost angry.
In Willow’s pictures, she wears a blank expression. She’s facing the camera but her gaze jumps the lens. Her body is slim, white, with a flat butt, bad highlights. She’s cute, but not beautiful like me, even now. Even now, even if I don’t always listen, the world assures me I am beautiful. And I had a butt before I shit off so much weight. It always seemed to drive Josh crazy.
“You’re an ass man,” I said when we first met.
“I’m an everything man,” he said, and every time I caught him checking out another woman I wondered if that’s what she had: everything. Later, long beyond our first few years of negotiation, trust exercises, he would say, “I’m the man who loves you,” after a Wilco song. Josh got into Wilco around the same time I got cancer, like welcome to your 40s, motherfuckers.
There have been many indignities. My illness has changed the course of both our lives. We’ve both lost. But Josh will care less, I hope, once we’ve met Willow. Willow will be a caretaker. Josh deserves a caretaker, space for himself, his sexuality. Cancer is a drain, tending to a cancer-ridden body is a drain. He needs to bring himself fully to the task of mine and that is what Willow will help him do. She is a practical solution, which is how I first pitched her.
“Whoever we choose, they’ll take the pressure off us both,” I said, the day we perused the Bunny Ranch website, scrolling photos of legal sex workers.
“I’m not sure pressure is what I feel,” Josh said.
“You’ll feel less horny then.”
“I’m not feeling that horny these days.” He sounded hurt.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I said, which is what Cathy often says to me. “Death is nothing to be ashamed of,” she says. The embarrassing symptoms I experience on the way to death are nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing is.
This story appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Cathy is another caretaker. In a sense, she does for me what Willow will do for Josh. And like Willow, I found her on the internet. I googled “Assisted Suicide, Los Angeles,” and Cathy’s website—www.deathdoula.net—was the first result after a prevention hotline and Wikipedia. I clicked the link. A list of services loaded: treatment cessation advocacy, goodbye party planning, estate planning, MAID (medical aid in dying). And the one-on-one therapy sessions I’ve settled on for now. During ours, Cathy often reiterates that it’s OK to die. “It’s a change, not a failure,” she says and I try to believe her.
It’s never easy. This morning for example, the alarm going off and Josh’s heavy body on the hotel mattress beside me. He rolls over, puts a pillow on his head. I roll over too, watch him snore. My body floods with love for him, then loss. Frantic. I want to keep looking. I have to turn away.
Cathy calls this frantic feeling FOMO. She laughs, then renames it “preemptive grief.” She says I am particularly awake now, to what I once had, what I could lose. Will lose. Life itself is inextricable from death, she says. The fear of missing out is the fear of dying before I’ve lived long enough to be at peace with what I’ll miss. “Is there a way to see this as an opportunity?” she asks, as if death is just another birth, a new beginning, and not the ultimate end.
Blank nothingness without time,” my dying mother said, two decades ago, when I asked what she expected. She seemed certain, then she seemed tortured, her body laboring to end itself until I begged her to get on with it and go, it didn’t matter where. But when finally the breathing stopped, I wondered. Heaven, I hoped. Or reincarnation, the shell of a new life, any life, a dog even. But not blank nothingness. It still seems like the worst possible scenario.
In the hotel bathroom I fill the coffee maker, start it brewing. I lock the door. My pill bottles are arranged on the sink and one by one, I open them, remove my morning dose. A pill to kill the cancer; a pill to stop the diarrhea from the pill that kills the cancer; a pill to lower my blood pressure, spiked by the cancer; a pill to stop the nausea; a pill to ease depression; two pills to calm me down. I fill a paper cup with water, swallow, run the tap. I spritz my travel-size bottle of deodorizer over the toilet bowl before I sit. The pills or the sickness or both make my shit explosive, watery, an embarrassment that stinks of chemicals and tears at my asshole. I have the worst hemorrhoids. At some point I may need diapers. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, won’t we.
At least I’ll know what to expect,” I’ve been telling Josh lately, whenever I bring up MAID. “I don’t want to die death-rattling for days.”
“I’m not having this conversation,” he says and something about my oncologist, who is delusional, unwilling to admit defeat. Which is what I accuse Josh of also.
“Stop with the negativity,” he says.
“Stop policing my feelings,” I say.
“Stop trying to control me,” is what he would say early on when we fought, often about a woman, her strange, novel outline leaned too close at a bar, a house party, a checkout line, her laughter too eager.
“Jealousy is a very unattractive trait,” he would say, and he was right. But he’d never met my dad, a man with a body like a set of taillights, shrinking into the night, chasing some woman down.
“Not jealous,” I’d say, “just afraid that what I think is reality, is actually its opposite.”
“What does that even mean?” Josh asked and I couldn’t answer well enough. It meant I was afraid he would leave before I did. But Josh was going nowhere, I see that now. He lost his parents early, too. All our origins had been disappeared. By death, by disinterest, either way, they were gone. So even when our fights were about other women, they were really about just us, the circle of us, orphan lovers clutched to each other like mating seahorses, made monogamous by the churn of their world.
The hotel bathroom offers little privacy. I try to finish before Josh wakes. But here he is, yelling through the door, “Babe, you alright?”
“Yeah,” I whine, my tone a performance to stave off mortification, but also true, a reflection of my pain. There’s blood in the bowl, bright red, anal fissures, but no sign of something deeper. I flush, spray the deodorizer again. Vapor drifts from the air to the toilet seat, the floor, and the whole room smells sick and floral. But it’s the best option, I’m sure of it. The coffee machine gives a final heave, then gurgles. I carry a cup out with me when I emerge, hand it to Josh, stationed at the door, waiting.
“How’s your tummy, baby?” he says, taking the cup. He sips, makes a face. I long for the day we no longer have to talk about my body.
“Not great,” I say.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go.” His voice lifts up at the edges, like he’s looking for a reason to stay, sprawl on the scratchy hotel comforter, watch basketball and wait.
“No,” I say, firm. We have a plan, have filled out the form on the website and scheduled an initial meet and greet at a nearby café. We’ve come all this way. Willow is so close. She’s ready for us.
“We should get going,” I say. Josh walks into the bathroom and I cringe. The stink I made, the shame of it. He comes out, brushing his teeth, pretending not to notice. I sit on the edge of the bed.
Through a mouth thick with toothpaste he says, “You want to wipe down first?” Meaning, do I want a sailor’s bath with baby wipes.
“I just want to get going,” I say. He goes to spit, comes back, sits beside me on the bed and helps me peel off the T-shirt I slept in. I shift so he can’t see my face.
When we first got together he said, “If you ever want to turn me on, ask me to wash your back in the shower.” It was like pushing a button. Once or twice he asked what did it for me and I panicked. Beyond being wanted, I didn’t know what I wanted. So I offered some mash-up of what I thought he’d want to hear. Girl on girl, a threesome, endless, shitless anal. Boilerplate straight guy stuff. It satisfied him well enough. He seemed willing to believe that his wants were also mine. And now? About MAID? I’m not having this conversation, he says.
I twist back to face him and he belts a sports bra with front closures around my breasts. I look down while he does this, like he might take one in his mouth, an offering.
“Good?” he says.
“Good enough,” I say.
He kisses my nose.
“We should go soon,” I say. He doesn’t respond. “OK?”
“OK,” he says.
The café Willow chose for us is called the Human Bean. As we approach, Josh takes my hand and his palm is wet. Through the big glass windows, I see a girl, seated alone at a table by the door. We walk in and she stands. Her body seems younger than in the pictures, lanky and awkward. But also warmer, rounder, healthier. She’s wearing flared yoga pants and a maroon beret. It’s cocked to the side on her head, and she keeps reaching up to touch it, like she’s worried it might fall off without her knowing. Maybe the hat is a security blanket, something she always wears, even when she works. Maybe it’s her thing, like that Prince song. Was it on her profile? I don’t remember.
“You must be Annie and Josh,” she says and smiles big, thin lips peeled, imperfect teeth.
“That’s us,” Josh says. He releases my hand, shakes hers.
I shake next. My palm is damp with Josh’s sweat. I stare at the puff of Willow’s cheeks, flushed and fleshy.
“Did you want anything?” she asks and drops my hand, gestures at the counter. Josh and I say “no” in tandem and Willow starts to talk. But all the sound cuts out. I’ve been blindfolded, spun. I expected a dull stand-in, not a challenger. I expected to feel superior in her presence. Instead I feel pitted, post-orgasmic, so tired I can barely breathe. I pretend to listen, bat my eyelash extensions, pretend they’re natural, a sign of natural beauty, a reminder to all that I am the beautiful one, the chosen one; I am wifey and Willow is a whore. I used to think my accomplishments, my obvious privilege, would exempt me from such pettiness. I used to call myself a feminist.
“Clients from all walks of life,” Willow is saying. What was abstract is real now. Willow’s youth, Willow’s health, the pumpkin latte Willow sips. She tells us that in her free time she does yoga and collects crystals.
“Sometimes I even incorporate them into my dates,” she says. “But only if the interest is there of course.” I look over at Josh, expecting to see absurdity acknowledged on his face. But I see, instead, concern. Or concentration. Or something else, a desire I can’t trace.
You can’t tolerate that he has thoughts,” Cathy said once. “Of course he has feelings about medical aid in dying.”
“Well what about my feelings?” I said and she smiled. “Well what about them?” Another time she asked what sex was like for me, or what it had been like for me. I said, “I perform a lot.” Then I felt like I’d made it sound bad, or made myself sound frigid. The truth is that I loved sex with my husband and I did perform a lot. He did too. Sometimes he said things like “You’re a fucking whore,” as if we were porn stars. And sometimes I liked it and sometimes I wanted him to say my name and tell me he loved me instead. Sometimes he did just that, but not often. Maybe I should have asked for more. When he asked what turned me on, maybe I should have said “love.” But I didn’t want to sound needy and basic. “Let’s talk about you wanting things,” Cathy said, and I felt my body fill with dread.
Willow doesn’t linger. She gives Josh her number, says to text tomorrow when he’s en route to the ranch. I watch him enter her in his phone. Then we all stand, shake hands again.
“Nice to meet you,” Willow says to me and, “See you in the morning,” to Josh. He doesn’t say yes or no. Through the window I watch her climb into a blue Jetta. I rifle around in my purse for gum.
“She was fine, right?” I say.
“I guess,” Josh says. He’s quiet after that and I wonder if he’s mad at me, for pushing. Or for steering him in the direction of a girl he wouldn’t choose for himself. Or for any number of things. Neither of us wanted this. My illness has changed the plan for us both.
“I’m tired,” I say, and we return to the hotel.
The lobby is attached to a casino called the Goldrush, a hall of vacant slot machines and card tables. We peer in as we pass and Josh says, “Care to place a bet?”
“Maybe later,” I say, though I know he’s only joking.
Upstairs, our room has been serviced. A few of our items—pj pants and T-shirts—have been moved from the bureau to the bed.
“It’s fine,” I say. But Josh is already at it, doing what he did when we checked in yesterday: peeling the sheets, checking the mattress. Years ago, on an anniversary trip to Hawaii, we splurged on two nights at Turtle Bay then found a bedbug crawling up the headboard. Ever since, he’s been obsessed with not letting our stuff touch foreign upholstery. I watch him, diligently inspecting, and picture him at the Bunny Ranch, carefully folding his clothes, placing them on Willow’s dresser.
“All clear,” he finally says. I sit on the bed, lie back. Josh goes into the bathroom, closes the door. I contemplate the sound of the lock he turns. Why bother with the lock? Does he think I’m going to bust in there? I close my eyes.
Three hours later, I wake to his weight beside me on the mattress. He puts a hand in the space between us.
“I love my wife,” he says. He’s in gym clothes. He’s been to the shitty fitness center. His voice is hoarse and the way he says “my wife” sounds like he’s talking about someone else.
“You mean you love me?” I say.
“I love you,” he says, “so much.”
I tell him that I love him so much too, that this is for him, that I would do anything for him. We hold each other and I bury my face in his armpit. I wonder if I could fuck or if I’d even want to. “Did you bring the weed?” I ask instead. He pulls out of our embrace. “You want some weed, baby?” I nod, and he goes to his toiletry bag, comes back with a blunt. We spark it by the window, hold in until we cough, hit again, then get back on the bed and turn on the TV. It’s a show about a house-hunting couple, a man and a woman, and the man is obsessed with pocket doors. “But does it have pocket doors?” he keeps asking the realtor, completely serious. “Oh, pocket doors,” he says, giddy, when she finally shows him a house that has some. He goes door to door, admiring how they slide, and as the mentions pile up, Josh and I start to laugh. “Pocket doors,” we bellow every time the man says “pocket doors,” and soon tears are streaming down both our cheeks, we’re laughing so hard.
In the morning, a thread of light slices through the hotel curtains. There’s a hole in the bed where Josh was. In the bathroom, the toilet flushes. I fall into sleep again. When I wake, he’s dressed, standing by the window, checking the drive time on his phone.
“Think I’ll head out,” he says. He sounds nervous.
“You’re getting to the ranch so early,” I say.
“You know I don’t like to rush.” He kisses my mouth. “Love you,” he says and walks forward with resolve. The door closes behind him and I keep my eyes on it, the white In Case of Emergency sign, the deadbolt, like he might come back, call the whole thing off, call it all a joke. But the door stays closed. I am alone.
Without him, I follow my routine, my pills, my chemical shit, my clothes. I ask myself what I would like to do with the day, then call a Lyft to the Barnes & Noble around the corner. Inside it smells like books and Starbucks. The espresso machine grinds. My stomach floods with acid. I swallow, board the escalator to the second floor.
Mid-ride, the nausea returns, fast. It climbs my throat, covers my face, and I wonder if I’ll make it. I hold the railing, walk to the top, then beeline for the bathroom, pick the door that says Family. The ground is sticky, but I kneel anyway, vomit syrupy bile, my own body, into the bowl. It tastes like rotten bone stock, the pregnancy I’ll never choose or not choose, the baby I’ll never have. I picture Willow, mid-straddle, hovering her body over Josh’s body, and wonder if she has a baby and if she does, where it lives. No room for a baby at the Bunny Ranch.
The vomit is a relatively new development. Cathy has many times told me to report new developments. MAID, if I want MAID, requires paperwork, a long wait while the paperwork is processed, a long wait for the drugs to be doled out and delivered. Better to place the order now, Cathy often says, keep options open, get the drugs to keep on hand, keep life a room I know I can leave whenever I want. In the mirror my eyes are cupped by pockets of fluid. I look old. I rinse my mouth out, open a piece of gum, buy a book about a detective and a murdered girl. I take a car back to the hotel, watch purple landscape blur beyond my window.
Sometimes, early in our marriage, I’d go through Josh’s phone. This was a shit thing to do, but I wanted to see inside his private world. More than that, I wanted to get ahead of catastrophe, wanted to prepare myself. If he was DMing other girls, women, I wanted to know. If he was cheating, or thinking about it, if he was lying, leaving, I didn’t want to be surprised. “In what way is your husband different from your father?” Cathy asked when I confessed the snooping.
“Josh wants to spend time with me,” I said and used words like patient, kind, affectionate, to define him.
I never found much on his phone, anyway, just some searches about good tits and asses and goth girls. Still, afterward, I spent hours taking selfies to see how my various parts compared to the various photoshopped wonders. Then I got Botox, a new lipstick called Hot Blooded. As if it were that easy, to control a man’s desire, the thrust of life itself. Maybe it was.
I ’m back in bed, back in the middle of a House Hunters marathon, when the door beeps and Josh returns. It’s afternoon. He’s later than I thought he’d be.
“Hi,” I say and mute the TV. He smiles with his mouth closed, puts his phone and keys down on the dresser, sits beside me on the bed.
“So,” I say, “how’d it go?”
He says, “Fine,” and kisses my forehead, but doesn’t elaborate. I want to know more at the same time I know I actually do not want to know more.
I say, “Tell me what the ranch was like.”
“Weird,” he says, “they have a gift shop.”
I wonder if Josh brought me a souvenir but in case he didn’t, I don’t ask. I don’t want to make him feel guilty. Then I picture Willow’s room: posters and twinkle lights.
“I threw up,” I say.
Josh puts a hand on my back, asks if I want him to run out, and something about Pepto Bismol. His voice sounds tired and I hate him for it.
“It wouldn’t help.” I wait for him to offer other solutions.
“I’m going to grab a shower,” he says and goes into the bathroom. The lock he turns is a punishment. I shouldn’t have mentioned the vomit. I told myself I wouldn’t. But I couldn’t help it. I did want him to feel guilty. Guilty, I realize now, is how I’ve felt since the day I was diagnosed. Guilt is why I proposed Willow in the first place. Guilt is why I haven’t ordered MAID.
When my mother was young and newly diagnosed, I saw a therapist who, in response to the news and my frantic questioning (“What will I do without her?” I sobbed), answered, “You’ll come see me more often.” I was 22 and clueless. Therapy was a practical solution. Also, repulsive. As if a simulation of maternal love was a good enough option. I could have told the therapist how her suggestion made me feel. But I didn’t. Just paid for the session and never went back.
Maybe I’m flattering myself when I imagine this is what Josh would do should Willow offer to book extra “dates” for extra-stressful times, like funeral times. I know he loves me. Me. I. “I’m the man who loves you,” he still says that. Some nights, in bed, in his sleep, he presses his cock into my back and it doesn’t matter that he’s dreaming about the Bunny Ranch, or something, someone, I’ll never know. Nights like those, what matters is my husband’s wanting body, that it might break through some sick membrane to the woman I was before all this, the woman who used to catch her own reflection in the mirror and think she looked like hashtag material. Her memory is my perfect twin.
But, in truth, the second I had those thoughts, I always corrected them, always checked my ego. My whole life it’s felt dangerous to be a woman who liked her body, to be anything but frightened of my body, what it wants, what it needs. I saw my mother’s fail, die, and since then I’ve known it could happen to me, too. Safer to stay vigilant, aware of every flaw, every sign of life—little blemishes on my back, the pooch of my stomach, some unplucked hair. Safer to wait for the man to want me. A familiar option, a room I’ve been too scared to leave. “But like it or not, you’re outside it now,” I imagine Cathy cackling. I’m outside it now, jiggling the lock, pounding the door.
Josh’s shower steam creeps out from under the bathroom door, turns the whole room foggy. I get out of bed, go to the dresser, pick up his phone and enter the passcode, which is my birthday in reverse. I open his texts, see Willow’s name, top of the list. I press it. There’s an initial exchange from yesterday, “Hi Josh, this is Willow! Feel free to text me any preferences before tomorrow’s session!” And Josh’s response, “Thanks for your time today, Willow,” with a thumbs-up emoji. There’s her text from this morning, “Looking forward to seeing you today at 11 a.m., Josh,” and then there’s a lag. “Hi Josh,” she texts at 11:05, “just checking in on your arrival time.” Then, 10 minutes later, “Hey, are you making it today?” Then, silence.
Finally, at 11:30 a.m., Josh responds. “Hi Willow, sorry I’m not going to make it.”
At 11:37, he adds: “I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention this to Annie. Just in case she reaches out or something.”
Then, more silence, a disappointed space in which I picture Willow, backlit by twinkle lights and staring at her screen, wondering what about her made Josh change his mind, cancel. I see her contemplating my name, the primacy of it. Then she removes her makeup, her lingerie. She pulls up a pair of sweatpants, turns on her TV and scrolls. Channels, options. •