Chest down on a padded table, head cocked sideways, right breast hanging through a peekaboo hole, one arm hooked around my matted hair, other arm twisted pinky side out at my side, the nurse positions me from below as the clear plastic compression paddles squish my flesh into place.
“Are you comfortable?” she asks and swabs my breast with betadine.
I’m not comfortable. I’m contorted. I’m strapped to a surgical bed by my boob. I’m expected to be still while a long thick needle excavates questionable cells. I’m scared. But none of that is her fault so I nod, the stiff sheet scratching my cheek, a bit of drool trickling into my ear.
“First, I’m going to numb you,” she says, cocks the needle into the antiseptic air, dribbling a little fluid out the tip, and pierces my skin.
“Numb is good,” I tell both of us.
She scootches up a chair near my head and says, “Aren’t you a writer?”
I nod as Pete, another one of my husband’s radiology partners, approaches the table. “Are you ready?”
He isn’t a close friend like Henry who read the mammogram that landed me here, but when I first moved to Madison, I was in a book group with his second wife and we read a “literary erotic” novel called Eat Me and drank too much wine and shared too much, something involving sushi and fishnets and marzipan…was that the book or his wife?
“Ready,” I say, the worn pale blue patient gown barely veiling my rigid body, and I remember that the last time I saw him was at the annual Holiday party, and I was dancing to “Love Shack” in a black dress and stilettos.
“What’s your book about?” the nurse asks, patting my arm as if I’m three and I’m grateful and worried I’ve engendered such tenderness.
“A woman who finds a lump in her breast,” I say above the whir of the machine, feel pressure but no pain, try to not to think about the needle, try to picture my children romping on a beach, a peaceful image I’ve used in yoga class to pull me out of my ruminating head. I see the tide rolling in and in and in and think Shiva, the Hindu God of regeneration, the mantra that means one thing must die for another thing to be born…
“Does this make my boobs look too big?” my middle daughter Maddy said, three shirts and two bras into her evening fashion show the night before. I was lying on her bed, thinking about how distorted the ceiling looked through her satin canopy, all translucent cracks and amorphous shards.
“Try the green shirt with the other bra,” I said. Maddy and I often had these boob conversations because she was built like me, small but busty and she knew that I knew how hard it was to find the right clothes: too fitted and you looked like a sex pot, too baggy and you looked matronly. We had hard figures to dress, hard figures to rationalize.
“I can hear you,” my older less busty daughter Anna shouted from her room.
“Your breasts look great in everything,” I said to Maddy, the word “breasts” clinging to the back of my throat. The only time I’d felt entirely comfortable with my breasts was when I was nursing. Otherwise, I’d always had a love/hate relationship with them. The first time Jake Jabowitz felt me up in eighth grade, I thought I loved him, until I found out he told all the other boys I had great tits. But on my daughters, I saw them differently. Perfect sculptures, round and soft and firm and healthy. My stomach flipped.
“That is such a bitch thing for you to say,” Anna said to me as she stormed into the room.
I gasped. Willing myself not to say anything I would regret. My husband and I had decided we’d tell the girls about the procedure later that night, together, and downplay it, and not tell our nine-year-old son Alex at all. No need to burden them.
“Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass these things are?” Maddy said. “Mom knows.”
My face grew too hot as I told myself, Be mature and restrained. “That wasn’t meant as a slight to you,” I sat up and said as slowly as possible. “You look great in everything, too. You both do. You’re young and beautiful, you have your whole lives in front of you for chrissakes what the hell are you complaining about? And don’t swear at me,” I screamed, tears blurring everything.
“What? What’s wrong with you?” Anna said.
“Nothing. Nothing. Noth…” My throat catching in the middle of the third nothing. “I’m having a b..b…b,” I said, the consonant stuck on my lips.
“A baby?” Anna said.
“A biopsy.” The word coming out too loud, too aggressively, making it sound more ominous than I wanted it to.
“Another one?” Maddy said.
“What does biopsy mean?” My son poked his head in from the hallway.
Shit, why did he have to hear that? “It means…” I hadn’t meant to have this conversation. How had it happened? And what did it mean? “It means…” He’d go to a friend’s house after school tomorrow and I’d watch Oprah to recover and we’d order in pizza for dinner and if all went well, that would be it, everything back to normal, and if not, my defective breasts might be the most memorable legacy I would leave my children.
“Does it mean no puppy?” he said, so gently, he must have known I needed help articulating and I wondered, what kind of mother would allow this, any of this to happen?
Another whir of the machine reminds me of the table, of me on the table, of life cycles spinning in opposite directions simultaneously. My childrens’ coming-of-age, my aging. I glance at the needle penetrating my yellowed boob and hope biopsy doesn’t mean I’ll be a burden before they have blossomed.
“Clamp,” the nurse warns as Pete shoots a metal staple into my breast.
I shudder, at the noise, the clutch of internal force, the fact that I know it’s marked so the surgeon can find the spot if it’s cancerous. “That’s two,” I say. “I hope I don’t set off any metal detectors.”
“You’re a good sport,” Pete says and unleashes me from the paddles.
No, I’m not. Not a good sport, not mature enough to handle this. I want out before the stakes get any higher. I want to turn back the clock. I want to reread Eat Me. I want to dance to “Love Shack” in a too tight dress. I want to call Jake Jabowitz and ask him if he still thinks I have great tits.
“So, what happens to the woman in the novel?” the nurse interrupts my thoughts, dressing my chest in loose layers of sterile gauze.
“She’s she’s, she’s….” I want to say fine, but I’d left her fate ambiguous, thinking that was the more interesting choice. And now I wonder why I hadn’t worked that out because I want to know what happens to the woman, as I tie the frayed blue gown around me, slide off the biopsy table, the paper slippers landing on the cold linoleum with a jarring thud.