By Emily Helck
Co-Winner Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize in Non-Fiction
Published: April 22, 2010
If I tried to map your scars like stars, connect them like constellations, I wouldn’t be able to make a shape. I couldn’t make an animal or a cooking utensil. I couldn’t even fake it, the way most constellations are faked—only a slight outline of what they’re supposed to be. Your scars don’t offer even that much clarity.
If I started at your head, I’d first see the one that even you don’t know the source of. A half inch nick on your forehead, by your hairline. A mystery. Next is the lump of flesh on your ear, where a nearly blind barber caught you with the clippers one summer. Down farther there is the one on your chin, from when you fell as a little kid and had stitches, possibly (I don’t remember the story). And then down to your hands, full of permanent scratches from pet cats, past and present.
The new ones are bigger. The new scar on your neck looks like someone tried to murder you, tried to cut your throat, but was interrupted. It is a slit, right under your Adam’s apple, that moves when you swallow.
It was not a murder attempt, but a way to save you. The trach. When you came home from the hospital, you had a big hole in your neck, and the bandage would puff out when you breathed. I used to watch it while you slept, a little scared. In changing the bandage, I saw the hole, its black, unknown depth.
Now I am in the radiation waiting room, the hospital basement, and I can hear the subway rumbling next to my head. They have you now and are giving you not scars, but tattoos. A black dot on each cheek, your chin, and your chest. The dots line up with lasers, which will hold you in place while they shoot you full of radiation. Or something.
By the time you’re done, I wonder if you’ll look like one big scar, or maybe you’ll just feel that way, after killing poison in your blood with more poison.
The radiation waiting room has excellent magazines. They have World of Interiors, and I look through for ideas for our new apartment. It will have two bedrooms. The smaller one will be an office.
My dad snuck me into the post-op recovery room to see you. I’m ashamed to admit that he had to convince me, but you know I hate to break the rules. We were supposed to be escorted, one at a time, for fifteen minute visits. I stayed for two hours, and no one said a word. My dad slept in a chair a few feet away.
I’d sat in the surgical waiting room all day, trying to learn my GRE words, instead watching the others who were waiting. There was no eating or drinking in the room, and something about the lighting made it impossible to read the wrinkled copies of Radiology Today that they made available. As a group, we fidgeted, pretended to sleep, put on and took off layers of clothing. Every two hours, a gray haired woman would come in and call out the names of the patients who were finished, those who could be seen. At 1:20, 3:20, 5:20, she would march in, and all of our heads would turn up together. She would call two or three names from a sheet on a clipboard, and those people would quickly gather their things and hurry out. The rest of us would slump back, shift in our seats, figure out another way to pass the hours without speaking to each other.
When I finally got to see you, it wasn’t you at all. At home, you are the tall one, the one who never gets sick, the one who never cries. You squash roaches, install the air conditioner and pick me up from the train on dark nights. I had never seen you fall. It was not you in that bed, but a pale and desperate little creature, made silent by a scalpel. And the smell. It wasn’t bad, but it was wrong. You smelled like sweat and chemicals and nerves. If I were a mama bird, and you were my chick, I might have abandoned you. Your new smell might have meant danger.
I stood by your bed, and in between fitful bits of sleep you wrote questions to me on a pad of paper. I stayed until they brought you up to your room.
When I got home, I was exhausted. I laid down and cried and cried, face down on the sofa. The cats jumped onto my back to quiet me.
I woke up the next morning feeling hungover. I looked for you, and then I remembered. I pressed my face into your pillow and inhaled. Then I got up.
I am waiting. Even outside the room, I wait.
I see the passing of time in the changing color of my birth control pills. I mark the hours with TV shows.
It’s been stasis otherwise. Your hair re-growing, but not completely, so in the shower I shave your head for what we say will be the last time. One treatment ends, another begins. We are in between side effects at the moment.
So time goes forward, and doesn’t go forward. New jobs come, old ones begin to disappear, but no one talks about it. You say things like, “No one’s told me I’m in remission,” when I talk about the future.
I am waiting. Waiting to get laid off, or quit, waiting to hear back from graduate schools, waiting for my doctor to call me back. It has been two weeks.
So time goes forward, but I don’t follow. I am reliving your stay in the hospital and other sad moments. When time starts to leave me behind, I get worried. It’s like that line in Annie Hall about the dead shark.
So I take the dog out, feed him and the cats, trim their nails and mine. Is it true that hair and nails keep growing after you’re dead? I think that’s just a story.
I haven’t read a book in months; not since Christmas and your diagnosis. Instead I do other things.
After your surgery, the doctors recommend you bank your sperm. You complained about the price, but every few months you send the place a check, to hold on to your sample for just a little longer.
I mark the time with the changing color of my daily pill, and with the new presence of green stretching out on the other side of the window. Birth, and the prevention of birth. And then death, and it is unstoppable.
There are times when I sit in waiting rooms apart from you. And by apart from you, I mean for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Four days after my 25th birthday, I was in a non-you waiting room. The place had terrible magazines—the same world weary copies of Radiology Today as the hospital. One had a cover story about how ultrasounds are ineffective at finding ovarian tumors (at least that’s what I gleaned from the cover. I didn’t read it). That’s why I was there. Not an ovarian tumor, but a cyst. A stubborn one, I was told.
When getting a pelvic ultrasound, they make you take off everything from the waist down, and put on these ridiculous gowns. Pink, of course. The first time I went, nine months ago, the gown they gave me was for someone much shorter than I am. When I stood, my fingertips hung past the curled seam, and the fabric flopped open periodically. If it’s possible to look slutty in a hospital gown, I did.
What if this is a tumor inside me? What if we both have cancer? If that happened it would have to be caused by the unnatural garden that is our home, Jersey City. There’s the chromium 6, the lead pipes, and the probably poisonous mold growing in our bathroom. After almost three years, there’s got to be something toxic working its way through us.
Once I changed into the gown, I went to wait in a smaller room, women only. The women having mammograms get to wear a much better gown; they at least get to keep their pants on. Those of us with pelvic problems sit stiffly, knees clamped together, looking down. My legs were stubbly. My sneakers were old and dirty. At least I had matched my socks.
If this cyst does turn out to be a tumor, we will have to laugh about it. But after laughing, what then? Will you take care of me?
In the exam room, I get reminded even more of how humiliating it can be to be a woman. Sneakered feet go up in stirrups, and slide your body down, down, more, keep going. And then scooch down just a bit more. I’ll spare you, and myself, the rest of the scene.
This year is 2009. The year of Obama’s inauguration, the year I turned 25, the Year of the Ox. An important year, an exciting year, at least on paper. This is the year I’d always pictured I’d become a real adult. I’d wear suits to work, have money, and be taken seriously. Today, like every other day, I wore jeans to my part time job. This year is 2009, and I am alone in a waiting room.