The tall skinny nurse with the Roman nose and round, rose-colored cheeks, the girl with the blue frock with the head of Bart Simpson etched in thick yellow thread on the left pocket of the bright white pants, leads me down the narrow corridor. Her rubber-soled shoes squeak like a sow in labor with every step. There is something stuck to the bottom, brown and smudged and gummy-looking, near the heel on her right foot. I like the way the edge of her frock lifts up, and hangs in the air when she spins left around a corner, and floats into an open door on the right. It reminds me of wonder-woman’s cape waving in the wind as she flies through the air on her way to save someone’s world. She turns to see if I am still following her or had ducked and ran as soon as she was out of sight. I’d thought about it. I’d wanted to run, but didn’t. It was just another part of being a woman, another new experience to validate my existence. I had told myself that it was going to be okay. Everything would be fine, and if not, I’d survive. I always had. She directs me to sit in a chair beside her. My knees buckle. I hesitate long enough to catch my balance.
The skinny nurse smiles. She watches me ease into the chair as though I am an errant child who had been caught doing something naughty. Someone who had poured a bottle of Premarin down her throat every three weeks for the last ten years. The magic beans that made my breasts swell, libido roar, and my skin clear, smooth, and soft as silk.
“It’s nothing to worry about, really,” she says. “It’s routine. There’s an abnormality in your mammogram. We wanted to take another look at your left breast, just to be certain.”
Routine? I balk at her explanation. Her feeble attempt to calm me. Her words were not responsive. They did not answer the question I had asked if I would be alright. It didn’t reflect the concern demanded by the wide-eyed middle-aged woman staring at me in the mirror across from us. It must have been something she was told to say. Something she’d learned in nursing school last year, or where she learned to operate the big white machine on the other side of the room. The scary looking machine with tubes and wires, and metal arms that caught the nurturing dreams of young mothers or fond memories of older women—and crushed them.
I’d received a letter in the mail asking me to come back for another test. It said that my breast tissue was not dense and that more testing was needed. It provided a brief explanation that most women did not have dense breast tissue and required additional testing to be safe. It did not reassure me nor the words she poured out of her nasal cavities like canned soup. I’d had mammograms in the past and never received a letter to come back, and certainly not one telling me my tits were too thin.
The skinny nurse stretches on a pair of rubber gloves and directs me to stand up and open my hospital gown. The one I’d been clutching clasped shut at my throat with one hand since having to put it on, as though if it somehow opened up my defective boobs would fall out, exposed to the world, and everyone would laugh at me. My heart races as I pull open the front of the gown and stand close to the machine as she instructs. She grabs my left breast in both hands as though it is a small bird, gentle but firm, and pulls me forward closer to the machine. The base of the metallic shelf presses against my rib cage. It’s hard and cold. She pulls on my breast again, lifts up, and places it back down flat on the plate. She operates the machine and another plate comes down and crushes my tit, but not too hard, just hard enough to make me gasp and my bladder twitch. I need to pee.
I imagine my breast looks like a frizzled balloon, a left over token from my daughter’s fifth-birthday party. We’d used helium that year. The balloons had lasted more than a week. I noted how funny one had looked drooping out of the basket, its long pink nipple sticking out of the puckered and wrinkled skin. I want to cry. I hold back the tears. She maneuvers my breast in several positions, manipulating the machine, and crushing all of the modesty out of me. When she leaves I feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. I dot at them with a tissue that I’d been crushing in my hand the whole time I was being tested.
I sit in the chair that I had sat in earlier when I’d first been led into the room and wait for her return. My sandals are pretty. They match the baby-blue in my blouse that I had hung in a locker twenty minutes earlier. I got them on sale at Macy’s last Christmas. I bought them for myself. They were on sale. I had someone then, or thought I had. Someone to talk to, perhaps even comfort me, tell me that everything is going to be alright. If he’d felt like it. If I’d caught him in a good mood that day when the letter had come. Hank did not like his job. He’d been under a lot of stress. He worked late almost every night for the past year. He couldn’t help but be a little selfish.
Maybe he would have put down his cell phone the one he brought to bed with him every night so he wouldn’t miss an important call. He’d even bring it into the toilet with him when he was having a long and eventful movement. That used to gross me out. But now that I need someone, anyone to talk to about my fears, there is no one there. Since January, all that’s left of my former life is the faded photograph in my mother’s guest room, the one she put on the nightstand to make me feel more at home. It shows a happy couple holding each other. The people in the pohotograph look like Hank and I, only younger. Their eyes had stared back at me almost every night since I’d moved back into my mother’s house. We were sitting by our bedroom window overlooking the harbor in that big easy chair that Hank’s Aunt Claire had bought for us one Christmas. It had a purple wine stain in the shape of a heart on the arm where I sat and leaned on Hank’s shoulder. His arms are around my waist and his cheek is touching mine. Our smiles almost run into each other as though we shared the same happy thought. There was no one there when the letter came asking me to come back for more tests. My mother was in Texas visiting my sister, Kathy.
Bart Simpson swings into the room. His yellow face is bulging. The nurse has her hand deep into her pocket. She’s clutching something in her other hand. She places it on a screen that is attached to her computer and flips on a switch. The outline of my left tit appears in black and white. It looks like a snow drift in the moonlight in the shape of a distorted gum drop. She points to a small dark spot when another girl walks in to the room. It’s the nurse. She sits down next to me, leans back in her chair, smiles and says: “We need an ultrasound to be absolutely certain.”
Twenty minutes later, after my ultra-sound is taken, I am sitting back in that chair staring at Bart’s sardonic yellow grin, and wondering when someone is ever going to tell me what’s wrong. The nurse leans forward in her chair, and says: “Doctor Wright will explain the results.”
Dr. Wright moves further into the room and stands next to me. For a moment I thought she was going to take my hand but she picks up a chart on the desk instead, and explains that I need a biopsy and that she is very happy to do it. She is blonde and pretty and sports a shiny white smile. There must be some mistake. I must have gone into a theater instead of a hospital. I’m a participant. An actress awaiting her turn to speak my part of some high-school horror flick that is showed on college campuses every Friday afternoon. It’s the part where some sweet, young teen-aged prom queen with bright blue eyes and blond hair fades in appearing center screen. She is wearing a bright white lab coat that matches her cheerful smile and screams: “Oh, no,” just before someone dies.
Her voice is enthusiastic. She appears excited to perform a biopsy. My biopsy. She wants to cut into my left breast. She shows me where the troubled area is and points to a shadow on the screen. She must be an intern looking for experience, I think. I don’t want her to touch me.
“Are you sure,” I ask.
“Nothing is ever certain, but we have to take a small sample of the mass. There appears to be something there in that dark spot we need to rule out—” She never finishes the sentence. Dr. Wright looks up when another young woman walks into the room wearing a sterile white frock like hers. “Here, Doctor, take a look.” Dr. Wright says, and moves aside for the newcomer to sit in her chair. It feels prearranged. I am being set up. They want to operate. They want to dig into my flesh, practice on me—-hurt me. I pull on the loose cloth of my gown drawing it tighter around me clasping my hand in front of my breasts. She stares at the photograph, x-ray, scan or whatever the picture is called popped up on the computer screen. Are you sure that’s me, I’d wanted to ask. The image of the breast appeared rounder, more firm than the shriveled pink balloon I’d remembered seeing when the vice closed around my breast.
“Yes,” she said. “I concur. I recommend she schedule the biopsy at her earliest convenience.” Did I hear excitement in her voice? Was she talking about removing part of my breast tissue like she was talking to a florist before her wedding day? My stomach hurt. My throat tightened. When she looked at me I could only nod my approval.
“Great, have her talk with Kathy on the way out to schedule it for either Thursday or Tuesday next week.” Then she was gone.
“Thursday’s fine.” I spoke tentatively to the nurse. I hadn’t been certain if the doctor was addressing me in the third person, or the nurse who had been standing behind her. I mean I was right next to her for Christ-sake, leaning on every word. It was Tuesday. I can hold out, wait two days, I think but not another week. I had already been in a state of panic every minute of the day and sleepless every night since I’d received the letter.
The rest of the day, and Wednesday is a blur. If I had slept, I don’t remember. When I come back, I am mortified when I go to take off my blouse to tuck it into the locker with my purse. I had put it on inside out. I am thankful for my unruly long mane. I hadn’t dragged a brush through the curly underbrush in days. The tag could was hidden but the seams under my arms and along the front edge of my collar were clearly visible. The receptionist had smiled at me oddly when I’d walked up to the counter. I hear my name, and look up from the magazine that I’d put in front of my face so I would not have to look at the other women in the small waiting room, who sit with their legs crossed and arms tightly folded over their full bosoms, worried eyes unfocused, looking off into space or up as though someone was going to come down from the ceiling and save them.
“Follow me,” a nurse says from the doorway. I know she’s a nurse because she is wearing a blue frock with the same caricature of Bart Simpson stitched in bright yellow thread on the large front pocket. The same kind that the nurses had worn on my three visits. I was thankful that the Family Guy was not the designer’s favorite television show. The nurse’s smile seems genuine. She is older and there is a look of compassion I had not seen on anyone’s face since my ordeal began. I relax a little and follow her down the hallway and into an office filled with a giant machine and a high table, forty-eight inches off the floor, that looks more like a work bench you might see in a machine shop. It’s long and narrow and dips in the middle. There is a hole in the center of the table where it bends. It’s large enough to swallow a beach ball, and two small stools on coasters sit beneath it. A large white machine with a mechanical arm that extends beneath the table sits ominously in the corner. My imagination begins to project images of Ripley Scott’s Alien, razor sharp teeth, and bursting flesh.
The nurse explains the procedure then hands me a tissue from a box sitting on a small metal table. I apologize for being a baby. She smiles, and tells me that it’s okay to be scared. She says I have nothing to worry about. She points to the pink ribbon pinned over her right breast and tells me that she is a survivor. I am not reassured but I try to smile when I look up at her. She is the first person in days that I had dared to stare at longer than a passing glance. Her eyes sit in deep sockets. Dark circles bulge under the clear blue pools. They shimmer when she smiles and look as though someone tossed a stone into a pond and an artist captured the concentric waves on her face. The lines at the corners of her eyes spread upward when she smiles, and the dark circles are reminisce of the tears she once cried in the dark when no one else was looking. She looks about my age, forty something going on sixty.
She reminds me of my friend Liz, a forty nine year old mother of three, who died a year ago. She, too, was tall and lanky with those dark eyes and sad smile. She had opted not to be a survivor though. When Liz was diagnosed, her life was starting over like mine. The day she told me the news it had been less than a year since her husband, her high school sweet-heart, the only man she’d ever slept with, had strung garbage-bag ties together and wrapped them around his neck. He’d hung himself in the garage of their modest home in the cape. Like me, Liz did not want to start dating again with part of her breasts mission, coughing, hacking, vomiting, and having her hair fall out. He wasn’t there for her when her letter came. The thought of being without her breasts had never entered the equation. She wasn’t sure she could part with them, if a doctor recommended it. She didn’t think she knew how to entice a man with one or both of her breast sitting high up on her chest, knowing that one or both were not real but something synthetic and man-made. She’d spent her entire life with a man who drank himself to sleep every night. She’d wanted a life that she’d imagined other women had, where men went gaga when their partners top came off in private. In less than a year without chemo her breasts killed her. By the time she had changed her mind and opted for chemo-therapy she was at stage four, and I never got the chance to ask her whether she’d ever had a chance to peel her top off in front of an appreciative lover, or whether it was worth it.
The nurse helps me climb up onto the table and position me on my side so that my left breast falls through the opening. A short man walks into the room. He is wearing a white lab coat. I assume he is the doctor who will be doing my biopsy. A thought enters my mind and I stifle a laugh. I am thinking he would not even have to duck when he stood under the table to work on my breast. Then I remember how strange I must look with my tit exposed under the table like some futuristic cow waiting to be milked. I cringe at the thought of a man seeing me this way. A stranger I’d never met. I cannot shut out the feeling that I am vulnerable and betrayed by my own body. The last man to see me naked and caress my whole breast between his palms was Hank.
Someone grabs my breast firmly, and wipes a cold cloth across my nipple to the base of my chest and all around the area washing it before the procedure. It’s some kind of local anesthetic the nurse had said, to numb it before the needle is inserted. It’s similar to Lanacaine, something a dentist might use before drilling out a cavity. I feel a prick, contrary to what she had told me earlier then pressure and a burning sensation burning into the soft flesh of my left breast. The nurse’s hand reaches up and pats my arm gently. I realize that I am shaking. I try to calm myself and grip the edge of the table more firmly. There is a sudden electro-mechanical noise, the sound of the machine that I know will soon penetrate one of most private and sacred of parts. It whines in the confines of the small room screaming like an angry child. I sense more than feel a vibration as it enters me. It hurts, but much less than I had thought it would.
When he is done the doctor leaves and the nurse finishes cleaning and placing a bandage on the wound. She helps me to sit back up and get down from the table. She gives me a cup of water before she helps me put on my blouse. She tells me one more time that I am going to be fine. She hands me a prescription for pain pills and some ointment that the doctor had left behind. She makes certain I am looking at her yellow ribbon above her breast before she smiles and leaves to go get the next patient, to get the next woman who is waiting in the room down the hall in quiet anticipation for her turn on the table.
After a while I get up and leave. No one says a word to me. Not even good-by. Only the receptionist bothers to look up from her typing and smiles as I pass by her desk. I walk through the door and out into the hallway that leads to the main concourse of Johns Hopkins hospital. The halls are crowded. People navigate the passages in and out of various doors and toss about in a sea of confusion. I watch halcyon eyes alight on my stare momentarily then dart about like minnows trying to avoid their fates, they are searching for a way to avoid their uncertain destinies.
Traffic is heavy. It’s rush hour. DC is blocked up. Two hours later I am sitting in my bedroom holding onto myself, crying, and rocking back and forth like I did when I was seven, and my father had yanked out an errant tooth. It would be a week before the doctor would call me with the results. A week of endless anxiety, waiting and wondering if more tests, and more surgery were in store for me, and fearing the worst, a life without breasts, and feeling as sexless as the day I had been born. I stare at my breast in the mirror every morning. I’d never done that before. There is a tiny piece of titanium steel deposited near the sample site inside my left breast to identify the concerned area. There is a red scar that’s sore to touch. It puckers in the center whenever my breasts are compressed. it didn’t seem I had owned them that long. It didn’t seem fair.
On the seventh day, I answer my cell phone. I am somewhere in the white mountains of New Hampshire driving home from my graduation from an MFA program. It’s a male voice on the other end of the line. He introduces himself as doctor so and so and tells me that he has the results of my lab test. He sounds matter of fact, unemotional. He tells me that the mass taken from my breast tissue was tested pursuant to some national standard. It’s benign he says. He reminds me to continue having my annual screenings. It’s nothing to worry about, he assures me, and hangs up.
I worry, every year when I have a mammogram. I worry because I am a woman. I worry because I love myself, and I’m all I’ve got.