Laura, the Woman Who Helped Me Survive Cancer When I was 28

YEARS LATER, Laura said, “Are you ever going to get me out of your system?” It was a rhetorical question, the kind one asks when too many events have passed to make an answer possible. In this case, however, the answer is that I will never get her out of my system. I will always love her in a way that makes my heart beat faster and my palms sweat. Some people—either by accident or fate—enter our lives and we are forever different. For me, Laura remains one of those people. We never could learn how to live together, but we will always love each other. It is, of course, impossible to describe such a relationship. Most who experience it have the good sense not to try.

On that day in late April, as we sat in that poorly lit bar with cheap red tablecloths, our love affair was at its most intense period and, as it would turn out, its most fragile.

LAURA TAUNTON SHELBY CONSTABLE. She is 5 feet 41/2 inches tall and weighs 112 pounds. She has green eyes and shoulder-length dark-blond hair. She is beautiful in a way that defies classification. Her long angular face with its high cheekbones and rigid jaw causes strangers on the street to stare at her. Her figure is lean; her long legs graceful, and she dresses and frequently acts with a flamboyant carelessness, as if saying, “I don’t care what men think of my looks.”

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Sex with her was the most exciting thing either of us had ever known.

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But she cares intensely. An old boyfriend once called her Iron Jaw, and she remains sensitive to comments about her appearance. Often she is ready to rebuff remarks that never come. When we first met she wore blue jeans and dark turtlenecks, like a uniform. It was what she called her “tough-guy period.” Recently she has begun to “soften her image,” wearing cotton and silk blouses which reveal her braless breasts. The best restaurants in town have not yet adjusted to blue jeans, and each supper presents a new challenge to headwaiters to decline to seat her, a challenge she always wins. When she is alone, she goes off to spend hours in exclusive Georgetown boutiques, trying on outfits she rarely buys and never wears—imagining she is throwing a society party at which she devastates her guests with her looks and her wit.

Aphrodite

YEARS LATER, trying to keep my reportorial objectivity, I interviewed her about what she thought in 1976.

“How did you feel about me?”

“I loved you.”

“Why did you love me?”

“Because you were attractive and exciting and a young man on the rise, and because you treated me well.”

“Wasn’t I conceited?”

“Yes, and you were arrogant too.”

“Wasn’t I self-centered?”

“You’ve always been self-centered.”

“Then why did you love me?”

“For the reasons I listed.”

“Did you think we were going to get married?”

“Yes.”

“Did you want to marry me?”

“Yes.”

“Were you frightened about what might happen to me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Listen, you idiot. I loved you. I cared what happened to you. I was worried that something might be wrong with you. I loved you and didn’t want you hurt. I loved you and didn’t want to lose you. I was scared and I was frightened and I was angry that something might happen to you. Does that answer your dumb questions?”

She was the most honest woman I’d ever met. I was used to manipulative women, who tried to control me and do so indirectly. I once married a woman like that. Laura was direct, often abrasively so. She was not interested in manipulating or controlling me, and she wouldn’t put up with my periodic attempts to manipulate her. Sex with her was the most exciting thing either of us had ever known. There was passion, energy, screaming, and tenderness.

We were funny together, sparring with each other verbally, getting drunk and laughing at jokes that only we understood. Even when we were sober, everything seemed funny in a cynical, offbeat way.

ABOUT A MONTH before that Friday afternoon, Laura got the final decree on a long and sticky divorce. She worked her way through five lawyers, trying to find one “mean and vicious enough” to deal with her husband. Now in the spring of 1976, after two years of waiting for the divorce, it looks as if we might finally live together and get married. There is, however, the lump under my right arm.

Early that morning I mentioned my lump for the first time and she had one of her frequent bursts of temper. “Don’t you know that there are people dying of cancer around here all the time? What are you going to do, wait until your arm falls off before you see a doctor?” I calmed her down, saying that I had an appointment that afternoon. She apologized, telling me that her mother and her former husband always delayed medical attention until they manipulated her into pushing them to the doctor.

As we drink, I tell her what happened at Aaron’s office. There is not much to say. We both know that further information awaits the outcome of the operation. We are both frightened, both intent on reassuring each other. It doesn’t matter what we say. What matters is that we are together. I need to look at her, to know that she is with me. Holding her hand makes me feel less afraid.

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Learning to Live Again: My Triumph over Cancer

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