I am eating Greek salad at Panera when my phone rings. I don’t usually pick up, but it’s been a week since my biopsy and I’m still sore and my right boob is bruised black and yellow and I’ve been waiting days that have stretched on like 600 miles of bad road.
My boob looks like Gorbachev’s forehead.
My boob looks like an ink blot.
Rorschach, the father of ink blots, died at 37, precisely 17 years younger than I am now. It’s funny the things I think about lately. It’s funny the kind of math I do when I usually shudder away all-things math.
Did you know Rorschach looked like Brad Pitt? They both had amazing hair. Do you remember Brad Pitt was once married to Gwyneth Paltrow?
Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot of ideas about hair and salads, self-care and conscious uncoupling. Her company, Goop, sells a $3,490 solid gold vibrator called Olga and a candle scented like Gwyneth’s vagina.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle, with hints of bergamot, costs $75, though it’s often sold out and on back order.
Years ago, when I lived in New York, I saw Brad Pitt on the street scooping poop from a snippy little dog I think was Gwyneth’s.
What the hell was wrong with you back then, Brad Pitt?
All ten of Rorschach’s images look like vaginas and ovaries and pelvises. A few of them look like bunnies fighting. Another one looks like the Grecian urn – truth and beauty, beauty and truth.
Brad Pitt played the Greek hero Achilles in the movie “Troy.”
On camera, Brad Pitt looks immortal, lit through with gold.
My phone rings three times before I pick up.
Those Greek figures chasing each other around that vase, stalling for eternity.
My phone’s ringtone is the sound of typewriter keys.
A while back, at The London Times, editors pumped the sound of typewriters into the newsroom – a subliminal thing. The sound of typewriters, even for people who grew up without them, gets writers excited. The words come faster. The pages fill up.
Good for deadlines. Good for profits.
“This is,” I say to the voice on the phone who asks to speak with me.
I spear an olive into my mouth.
My boob is a storm cloud.
My boob hurts so much.
Up until this phone call, I’ve been making jokes about my ink-blot boob. These jokes make people other than my husband Newman uncomfortable.
Newman’s dubbed my 3D-biopsied breast Frankenboob.
“Pitchforks! Fire bad!” he says and waves his arms.
“Tell me what you see,” I say, and push my boob close to his face.
“My mother never breastfed me?” Newman says.
“I’ve heard that,” I say.
“At least they didn’t stab you in the ass,” Newman says, and grabs my ass hard enough to bruise that too.
After almost 20 years, my husband still grabs my ass on the daily.
I like to have my ass grabbed. I love the physicalness of it, the intimacy. My ass is not the same as it was when we got married at a discount wedding chapel in Vegas. I never appreciated my ass back then, or that I could get away with wearing a white bikini at the pool during our honeymoon at Circus, Circus. It’s been a few years since I’ve donned a bathing suit or left the lights on during sex, but my husband makes me feel beautiful, year after year, no matter what.
I am grateful for my life.
I expect this call from the nurse to tell me everything is fine, it’s just a scare, and I should expect another 20 years of love and ass-grabbing and jokes about fire and angry villagers. I expect the nurse will tell me to go on making healthy lunch choices, congratulations, good day and goodbye.
“Can you speak up please?” I say.
The nurse’s voice sounds muffled, like someone holds a pillow to smother us both. “Can you speak up, please?” I say again.
I spear another olive and think how much I love olives and nurses. I’m thinking of a nurse who is not the nurse on the phone. I am thinking of a nurse with beautiful tattoos, the names of her children, some flowering vines.
During my cancer screening this nurse ran tests on me and somehow we started talking about shaving our pussies.
“I knew this stripper once,” the nurse said. “She told me her trick: a little toner and antibiotic cream, and boom, no more bumps.”
When the nurse said boom she did that karate chop thing that professional wrestlers do – hands to crotch – suck it, delete.
“That’s life changing,” I said.
The nurse said, “I know!” and chopped again.
We laughed and chatted and pulled our pants down to compare C-section scars and razor burns. We whined about bathing suits and what the hell, why should we care at our age? Lucky to be alive, lucky to get to the beach now and then.
Delete. Suck it.
I want to tell the nurse on the phone about my new friend, the nurse with beautiful tattoos and no razor burn, and I want to talk about my love of nurses in general because the nurse on the phone sounds so awkward, and I want her to be okay because I’m pretty sure I am okay, no need for this strangeness between us. I want to tell her my mother was a nurse, and that people called my mother Sarge because she wouldn’t take any nonsense. But Sarge was kind too, and when I was a child and sick a lot, my mother – Sarge the nurse – would sleep next to my hospital bed in a cot. She would work double shifts so she could check on me. Such is the love of a mother who is also a nurse.
When I sense awkwardness, when I feel other people’s discomfort, I fill up the space between us with words. I talk. I keep talking. You may have noticed this. Thank you for your patience, all these typewriters clacking in my mind.
The nurse on the phone says more pillowed things.
I stop talking and stop eating and look at my salad, all these extra olives. Panera usually skimps on olives, so these olives are their own kind of a miracle.
A love or hate of olives is, scientists say, genetic. So is a love or hate of cilantro. Some people think cilantro tastes like lime. Other people think it tastes like soap. I love olives. I love cilantro.
Nature over nurture, even on our tongues.
The air here is a bright warm blanket of bread and coffee. The sun gleams through the spotless windows some underpaid workers with squeegees must have scrubbed until their shoulders ached.
In a booth across from me, a mother feeds her tiny daughter something that looks like pudding. The girl, strapped into a highchair, doesn’t like being locked down, so she bobs and weaves and the sprig of blonde hair ponytailed on top of her head burbles like a fountain, something to wish on.
“Help me,” the little girl says, and her voice pops like bubble wrap and her mother says, “Shush now, you’re fine” and spoons more pudding.
The nurse tries twice to pronounce my last name.
“Close enough, no worries,” I say.
I say, “It rhymes with tequila, but without the worm.”
The nurse on the phone doesn’t laugh.
“Help,” the little girl dodging the spoon says.
“Shush now, you’re fine,” her mother says.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse says.
In Europe, there’s a version of Panera called Pan Pan. Meat and cheese and bread. Everything a person needs to go on living.
My first time in Spain, and my second time, and my third time, I lived at Pan Pan. I knew what to order. Carne. Queso. Pan. I knew the order of things.
The little girl in her highchair sounds far away, her cries muffled by pudding. The nurse says again, “I’m sorry.”
The nurse says, “There’s a malignancy.”
At Pan Pan, the bread was pillowy, a cloud. La nube.
Bread and cheese. Staples. All a person needs in this life.
The nurse says, “I am so sorry.”
I think when people talk about leaving their bodies, near-death experiences, this is how it might feel, the untethering of that. La nube. Lo siento.
The cloud. I’m sorry. One phone call like this.
“Shush now,” the little girl’s mother says. “You’re scaring people.”
I miss my mother.
I miss my mother.
The biopsy that the nurse is calling about, the one that turned my boob into a chew toy, wasn’t a normal biopsy. This particular biopsy was called a procedure.
Whenever doctors say procedure, they often mean something awful. It’s one of those words that sounds innocuous: procedure. The way it slides along the tongue, a palate cleanser. It’s a standard procedure.
A routine procedure.
Good luck with your procedure!
When I was a flight attendant, my other life, we were trained to call storms “weather” and turbulence “rough air,” and a crash “a hard landing.” A bomb threat was called “an incident” and a hijacking was “a trip.” A drink was “a beverage,” no matter how weak or strong.
Never drink coffee or hot tea on an airplane. The water used for coffee and tea comes from the same source as the water used in the toilets. Planes are limited. The ice is suspect too. Maybe everything on a plane, in the air, on the ground, everywhere, causes cancer. Still. Every profession has a language meant to keep people calm.
Every profession has its own language of kindness to protect people from panic and pain, to keep people believing we are anchored to this world. Even when we are not.
Gwyneth Paltrow was on my flight once. She fake-gagged and threatened everyone and required oxygen because she thought her first-class vegetarian meal may have nestled against her seatmate’s prime rib.
Gwyneth fanned her face like she was on fire.
She stuck out her pretty pink tongue so I could check it for poison.
Gwyneth’s lovely baby-butt complexion splotched over as her anger flared. Her seatmate, his meat bleeding a bit, looked mortified.
Their meals never touched, I swear.
Whatever, Gwyneth Paltrow, you beautiful, rich creep.
May you live forever even so.
The nurse’s voice has the tentativeness of someone who’s uncomfortable speaking, though she, like me, fills the air between us with a lot of words.
She says, “I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m sorry to meet you this way.” She says, “Not that we’re meeting, actually.”
She says, “I’m sure we will meet at some point, but I didn’t want you to wait and the doctor is on vacation. The Bahamas, actually. Or maybe it’s Aruba. I get confused.” I’ve been to Aruba.
I’ve been to the Bahamas.
In Nassau, I ate conch fritters and rented a rusty Volkswagen, a stick shift, and tried to drive it on the wrong/right side of the road without stalling, but I gave up and got a bicycle instead. The bike wobbled a lot. The brakes worked only sometimes.
Later, I rented a jet ski and took it out, even though I’m a terrible swimmer and terrified of sharks. But the jet ski was cheap and came with a life jacket.
I wish everything in this world came with a life jacket.
The water was blue and clear and seemed safe, as if I could see straight to the bottom of the ocean, as if I could see danger coming and get out of the way.
The ocean looked shallow as a bathtub.
The ocean looked endless as the universe.
I didn’t think about death then, not even with my fear of sharks and drowning. How long ago was that?
I try to do the math.
Over 20 years.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse on the phone says.
The nurse says, “We’re here if you need us.”
The little girl in her highchair says, “No,” and starts to cry harder.
Before my mother died of breast cancer, she and I went through boxes of old photos: my mother as a young girl on a horse at Kennywood Park, my mother in her wedding dress pelting my father with cake, my mother in a green bikini at South Beach.
“I can’t believe that was my body,” my mother said about the bikini.
I am adopted. I am my mother’s daughter, the child of the mother who raised me. Nurture over nature for the win.
“Make sure you put that one up,” my mother said about the picture. “It will make everyone crazy.”
My mother liked to think of her death as a way to stick it to people who annoyed her in this life. Her requests: to be buried in a bright red suit, her lips tinted in her favorite shade of pink lipstick, the colors of a Valentine, sticky candy hearts.
“And none of that mortuary makeup,” my mother said. “I don’t want to look dead for Christ’s sake.”
My mother’s request: the remembrance board should include pictures her sisters and the priests would think inappropriate.
The bikini picture, for example.
When my mother was young, her older sisters would make her hide in the attic when their boyfriends visited. They were terrified their boyfriends would fall in love with my mother, she was that beautiful and curvy and fun and sweet.
I look nothing like my mother. I wish I did. But we’re the same in spirit nonetheless, the same in our desire to be beautiful and seen, or rebellious and dangerous enough for people to want to hide us away.
“That will show them,” my mother said about the photos she picked for her own funeral, and I loved that. My mother, funny and a little spiteful to the end.
My mother and I went through the photos at the request of the funeral director, who prided himself on his remembrance boards, which were huge and bedazzled, the deceased’s name in glitter and fairy lights. The bulletin boards, the funeral director said, were a highlight of the remembrance ceremony, which is what he called the visiting hours before a burial.
“People like to remember the good times. A celebration of life even in death,” the funeral director said, raising his eyes to the ceiling, beseeching. This is something I’m sure he rehearsed and said many times into a hairbrush microphone, into his bathroom mirror, in bed after a hand job.
My mother’s remembrance ceremony featured tins of Danish cookies and carafes of bad coffee and lukewarm tea. The remembrance ceremony was held in the lobby of our town’s funeral home. The funeral home used to be an auto repair shop and still smelled like new tires and gasoline, burnt metal and an oil change.
I was in a car accident once. It wasn’t a bad accident, though it could have been. The paramedics and a cop and a tow truck driver all called me lucky, and I was. But here’s the thing – as my car was spinning out, as I was headed toward a concrete beam, as I waited for the impact that somehow never came, the radio kept playing. Cher. “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
As my car spun out I kept thinking the radio should have the decency to shut itself off. After my car stopped and I realized I was somehow fine, Cher kept on singing. When confronting one’s own mortality there shouldn’t be a soundtrack. Or, if there is a soundtrack, it shouldn’t be Cher, who was married to Sonny Bono, who used to wear a furry vest and love beads before he became a Congressman.
Sonny Bono died when he crashed into a tree while skiing at Lake Tahoe. I imagine the soundtrack of his death was not “I Got You Babe.”
It was ice and snow and wind.
When Cher dies, the soundtrack will be Cher.
The nurse on the phone says, “I want you to know we’re here for you. The doctor will be back next week.”
It takes her so long to get to the biopsy results that when she gets there, her voice, tired maybe, sounds robotic. It’s clear she’s reading from a computer chart.
She says, “You’re lucky. If you have to have one, this is the one to have.” Her voice sounds like a child trying to wink.
I sort the nurse’s words the way I’d sort avocados at the grocery, looking for the good ones, the ones with just enough give to hold a fingerprint.
There aren’t any good ones. Lucky, maybe.
I wonder how many of these calls she’s made today.
I wonder how many of these calls she makes in a week, a month.
I wonder where all the people she calls are when they pick up their phones, everything ordinary then not.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of several books, most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Autumn House), which received the Saroyan Prize for International Writing from Stanford University. Her author website is http://lorijakiela.net.