Three weeks before your twenty-fifth birthday you visit a well-known New York hospital to see a specialist, a kindly old blue-eyed doctor who is so pleased to meet you, who inserts a long thin needle into your throat efficiently, apologetically, looking for evidence of a malfunction you feel confident he will not find.
The odds are against it: you are young, you are healthy. More importantly (in your view) you are an intuitive person; if something were wrong you would have suspected a problem, felt a nagging unease.
In twenty five years you have seen ample reason not to trust your body, with its eruptions of acne, of canker sores the size of raisins on your tongue, its sensitive skin that scars and bruises and flushes and burns altogether too easily, its untrainable lust for the wrong man, who is regularly updated but never fundamentally changed.
You have no reason to believe the God you were raised on exists, reason not to, even, because of your many unanswered prayers to Him. But these are selfish prayers, about men and work, foolish prayers for world peace, and God’s failure to answer may not actually count against Him. (A stronger argument against Him, against His benevolence, at least, may be found in both your grandmothers dying, both your grandfathers leaving, when your parents were children.)
And yet in your own inchoate way you believe in your self-call it instinct, a daimon that will warn you if anything truly awful, truly extraordinary, truly important were looming. Anything, for example, potentially fatal in a part of your body you were unaware even existed until three weeks ago, a small gland shaped like a butterfly—or so the doctor says.
II. Cinnamon Rolls
After the appointment you return with your friend Stefan to the office. You buy Stefan a cinnamon roll, the only decent food served in the company cafeteria apart from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You buy two black coffees, and then another cinnamon roll so that you do not have to share with Stefan, as you usually do, in the interest of staying slim. You had gotten up very early, riding the subway a long way up to the hospital, riding the subway a long way back to work, instead of walking as usual to the office, and you are hungry.
The cinnamon roll is not the best you have ever tasted, nor the worst. It is simply an average cinnamon roll, drizzled with the right amount of sugar glaze and free of annoying raisins, and you see no reason to savor it, especially.
You brought Stefan with you to the hospital because he is a good friend, kind and sympathetic, an ideal friend, really, sharing even your taste in men—with one crucial difference, as you both jokingly say. Choosing him spared you the humiliation of calling the boyfriend with whom your breakup is so fresh you forget to label him “ex,” or your former best friend, of involving your family.
Your parents worry enough about everything already, and, since the doctor is going to give you a clean bill of health, you see no reason to tell them.
Five or six days later—you’re not sure how many, exactly; you have not been especially careful to count them, since you are not worried—the specialist calls you at work. Courteous as ever, he provides the names of one or two surgeons, recommending that you contact them immediately.
You do not feel anything as you hang up the phone and tell your boss why you must go home, as you collect your handbag and jacket, take the elevator downstairs and walk out of the building into the windy autumn afternoon.
There are so many tasks ahead: appointments to make, medical literature to read, family members to call. You feel terribly worried about telling your parents that you have failed this test, this simple test that counts more than any other exam you have ever taken, all those finals you lost sleep over all those years in school to win your A’s. You are terribly worried about telling your sister, who lives so far away, and your brother, who will worry for you.
Your mind jumps from worry to worry, turns over the unfamiliar names of the surgeons, during your walk home.
It simply cannot be; you sense nothing.
When at last you unlock your apartment door you cannot comprehend having arrived here along familiar streets, having passed the same bedraggled deli flowers and laundry-by-the-pound places, the same cheap Chinese takeouts, when the one thing you had always believed in, beyond God and your body, has just been proven false.
Even more than the diagnosis, it is this, the recognition that you are no different than anyone else, that leaves you stunned and reeling, picking up the phone and setting it down again, unable to remember even the number you memorized as a small child, the same seven digits your parents have never changed.
IV. Physical Fitness
Before leaving for your parents’ house, you fret over what to pack. The length of your stay in the house where you grew up will be determined in part by the diagnosis made during your surgery.
You feel relieved in a way to leave the dim windowless living room, the bedroom with small barred windows and bad memories of arguments with Mr. Fresh Ex. Also you know, in a secret unspoken way, that your return restores the family. Your sister has married, become a mother, moved three thousand miles away, your brother has married, will be a parent soon, too, unimpeachable evidence of passage into adulthood, sanctioned even by the Bible in that verse so popular in wedding ceremonies, “you must leave your father’s house.”
Not you, though, not you, the baby, the best hope; your body must stand in for all three. You are frightened, but not at all surprised, when your brother tells you later that your parents believe this illness means you will have to give up your apartment and move back with them indefinitely.
You decide to wallow, not in self-pity, but in information, as if you can master an illness by outsmarting it. You spend an hour sitting on the floor in the Health section of a humungous bookstore, poring over thyroid books. You buy one with a reassuring title, a reassuring author, who survived.
At home again you spread out the sheaf of medical textbook pages your brother-in-law the doctor, your friend who works for the medical publisher faxed you. You learn a word for the curable kind, papillary, that sounds like a French butterfly, and a word for a rarer, more aggressive strain, medullary, that sounds like a monster out of Greek mythology.
Your initial test was inconclusive, resembling both the butterfly and the monster. You will not know more until after the surgery.
VI. Meeting of the Minds
Two days before the surgery, your mother meets you at the train station in the town where you grew up, waiting in the car while you walk down from the platform. When, as expected, she immediately begins to detail how much your diagnosis upsets her, how stressed she is, you have a strategy. You open the folder you have brought with you and hand her a pamphlet, telling her politely (as it suggested) that this is your situation. She must respect this fact, discussing the subject or not as you choose, and supporting you.
Startled, she agrees to your request. This is the first time in your life you have ever been able to say this to her. The moment passes quickly.
The gears grind as she restarts the car, then pulls away from the curb while you fiddle with the radio, then decide to review your pre-surgery to-do list. Among the many things you need are pajamas for the hospital, since the ratty old mismatched boxers and T-shirts you wear at home when you are single are deemed inappropriate—a rare meeting of the minds on the subject of fashion-by both your mother and you.
You spend a long time in what passes for a lingerie section in the old-fashioned department store she chooses. This store seems to specialize in voluminous flannel nightgowns and floor-length, high-collared robes. Wandering among the racks you envision your lingerie drawer at home: bits of barely there black silk, of red silk, not meant to be worn for long.
You find nothing in the department store, nothing at all to your liking. But something must be acquired and you cannot think of a better place nearby.
When your mother chooses for you, an elaborate ensemble with a nightshirt, nightgown, pajama pants, slippers and matching robe, you acquiesce politely. You do not mind the fabric or pattern, soft, dove-gray cotton adorned with inoffensive pale yellow flowers. But even in a size small every piece of the set hangs loosely off your body. You feel like a child during the shopping trip: she drives you to and from the mall, selecting the set and paying for it, throwing in plain white cotton underwear and warm woolly socks, things she is sure you also need; and you feel like a child when you try on the pajamas again later that night in the bathroom you shared with her and your sister for so many years, a child waiting to grow into her clothes.
VII. Into the Mystic
When she learns of your illness, your former best friend loans you a Scottish wool throw blanket that you are expected to wash and return to her later, and gives you three CDs of Van Morrison music she has copied from her CD collection. The two of you used to listen to Van Morrison on aimless summer days, Saturdays full of longing and illicit alcohol, in high school and college. The two songs you both liked best were Brown Eyed Girl and Into the Mystic. She also listens to these songs with her roommates in Brooklyn, a close-knit group of her college friends who—for reasons you acknowledge but cannot alter—have replaced you.
After bringing these gifts, your former best friend does not visit again. Since you carried very little on the train, forgetting completely about music, you listen to the Van Morrison CDs she made for you. They are not as good as the other Van Morrison albums you already own. Actually some of the songs annoy you; on these albums his boozy extended solos seem a little too self-indulgent, a little too unrestrained. But you listen to the albums obsessively anyway, over and over, as if they were something you once loved.
VIII. Health Food
Your father goes to work as usual on the day of your surgery. Without ever discussing it with anyone, you have known since the beginning he would not be there. Your brother says that after hearing the news, your father told him it could not be true; you eat health food.
His absence and this comment seem to make your brother angry on your behalf—a response you recognize as valid in way, though the entire sequence hardly seems connected with you.
IX. Room for Waiting
Your former best friend can still be called upon to serve a constructive purpose. After all, she has known your mother more than twenty years, almost as long and as well as she has known you. Since your sister lives three thousand miles away, and you are holding your brother in reserve for follow-up tests, someone else must accompany you and your mother on the morning of the surgery.
The three of you arrive at the hospital early—too early, so early there is time for your former best friend to talk with your mother in a claustrophobic, pastel-colored waiting room, a room that seems to you like a transition between life and death, a place where color begins to leach from the world, while you sit silently.
X. Good at Heart
Now, in the waiting room, seated on a wooden, hard-backed chair connected to the one your mother sits on, the one occupied by your former best friend, you decide to try reading. Bringing this highbrow literary magazine seemed a sane and reasonable decision, the clearest possible sign to yourself that even though God has seen fit to send you here on your twenty-fifth birthday, you are not coming unhinged.
You have no interest in fiction at the moment, none, nor cartoons, but find yourself drawn in to an angry essay about people with coarse sensibilities and coarser minds who, the author charges, have misappropriated the legacy of Anne Frank.
This author speaks with a terrifying clarity, a pure undiluted rage. She knows Anne Frank better than everyone else, knows that had Anne carried the famous diary with her to Bergen-Belsen she would have, in anger and despair, stricken the line, “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” this errant line that readers in search of a happy ending instead of a tragedy cherish as emblematic, ignoring what should be an obvious truth.
Somewhere in the farthest corner of your mind, an almost silent voice disagrees with the author’s self-righteousness, with her essay’s central thesis; but your counterargument is only a feeling, flimsy and unformed, easily crushed by her highly articulate, erudite rage. Who are you, anyway, to disagree?
You leave the magazine on the chair—taking care first to remove the label with your name and address—before following the nurse who has called you to change into a hospital gown for the surgery.
XI. A Secret
Mr. Fresh Ex visits you in the hospital, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying a large bunch of brightly colored, helium-filled “Get Well” balloons.
This simple act redeems many complex mistakes, making you almost happy.
It’s too bad you look terrible, having spent two hours longer than expected in surgery, for reasons that have not yet been explained. And, of course, your parents and brother and sister-in-law surround you, your father having decided to put in an appearance now that you have survived the operation.
By design none of them met Mr. Fresh Ex during the six months you and he dated. When he walks in with the balloons your parents mistake him, at first, for a delivery boy.
This is the first time you have spoken to him since that last, fatal argument. The introductions are awkward, and he does not stay long.
After he is gone you tie the balloons to the edge of the metal bed frame and lie back to look at them. A kind of gladness fills you that he cared enough to find out the surgery date and location. It pleases you also that he is not what anyone in your family expected, and so, despite meeting them, he remains in a way special, a secret still.
Here is a photograph of you, dressed in your blue zip-front wool sweater, holding your sister’s baby. He is round-headed, round-eyed, all liveliness and plump curiosity, twisting in your thin arms to stare at the camera. Appearing tranquil, you are smiling, the peaceful smile of one who has accepted death, who will willingly surrender her place in this world to make way for healthy new babies. Your skin is pale, your body lean and frail-seeming, as if you were a descendant in a long line of distinguished young consumptive heroines like the ones from the novels of your girlhood: Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, Beth in Little Women.
It is the kind of photograph the people you leave behind would frame to remember you by, the little boy wandering past it occasionally on his way to steal quarters from the loose change box his father stores next to the photographs on his dresser, stopping to examine the image, even wondering, once in a while, about the woman who died many years ago while he was still just a baby. You would be smiling down, bathed in white light, willing him to come clean.
Like many photographs this image is misleading. Rather than acceptance, your unruffled expression signifies exhaustion. At the time this picture is taken, you are still unable to replace your natural thyroid hormones with a synthetic version, and have been spending eighteen hours a day in your gray flowered pajamas, asleep in your childhood bed. Your doctors have withheld the replacement hormone for weeks while they strive to figure out what it was exactly, this never-before-seen grotesquerie they cut from inside of you.
XIII. Surgical Pathology
The surgeon furnishes you with a copy of your lab report. It is printed from a primitive computer program, in short choppy chunks interspersed with computer commands that make it clear your case is one among thousands stored in a vast database. The report contains words you know, and, like any foreign language, words that sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. You smile at “gross description,” wondering if doctors joke about this phrase, or if they are inured to its childish humor. You glance through the report several times, unable, for some reason, to read it through completely. Your eye keeps catching unfamiliar terms, focusing on the computer commands.
Ultimately, the surgeon translates for you. Not in words, but a picture she draws with a ballpoint pen on the bottom of the last page. Her rough rendering seems straight out of a game you have played with your family, sketched charades. A circle the size of a quarter, ringed by a dozen smaller circles-guess what this picture means?
No need to guess; the surgeon interprets for you. Perhaps before the surgery one of the outer circles slipped away to ride into your bloodstream, spreading throughout your body. She and the specialist, the expert pathologist in Philadelphia who was so thankful to review such an interesting case agree: more tests are necessary.
After a trip to the hospital’s nuclear medicine department for round one, stage one of the new set of tests, you phone Stefan. “I’m radioactive,” you say brightly into his voicemail box. As if this was an amusing, new development, as if you have not always been toxic to some degree, as if close personal contact with you has never previously been dangerous or risky.
On your way out, you take a pamphlet designed to answer your questions in a soothing manner. It is written in dumbed-down language and illustrated with cartoons.
You are not sure which of these devices bothers you more: the light-hearted, overly simplistic explanations of why you shouldn’t pick up any babies or sleep next to anyone, or the cartoons.
You decide it is the cartoon woman. From her hairstyle alone you can tell that unlike you, at age twenty-five she already has a husband, a family of her own who will be directly, deeply affected by her inability to share a bed, a goodnight kiss or hug after swallowing two pills containing radioactive iodine. If, after she has avoided iodized salt and intimate physical contact with anyone, eaten all of her meals off disposable plates during a three-day period as the iodine spread throughout her body to bond with any errant thyroid tissue, and the scan reveals an incurable metastasis, her death will be a tragedy.
Taking out a ballpoint pen, you begin to deface her image, adding a Mohawk, jaunty raised eyebrows, fangs. Then the reality catches up to you: radioactive iodine is at this very instant spreading through your body, leaching out into the world through your urine, saliva and sweat, and when you meet Stefan for a salt-free dinner later you must remember not to touch him.
You wake in an unfamiliar room, feeling as if you are floating.
Pale sunlight slants across the painted tin ceiling, close enough to touch.
Shabby blue sheets and the sound of snoring.
The man has long dark hair which fans across his pillow. His back is turned toward
In a rush the night returns: his calloused finger tips between your shoulder blades in the bar, tracing your dragon tattoo. Ending up here, on your knees in the kitchen of this crummy walk-up studio. Falling off the ladder the first time you tried climbing it.
He actually believed it was your birthday, and bought all those drinks for you.
You feel glad the sunrise woke you. Better to leave before the inevitable awkward breakfast, the phone number he might try to give you. You always use one you can rattle off like it’s real: Stefan’s old number, that’s been disconnected since he moved.
Quietly, so guitar guy does not stir, you climb down the ladder and grab your clothes, dressing quickly. You find your earrings and your bracelet, all four silver rings, arranged on his battered coffee table.
Good thing you do not have your boots on yet when you step on the choker. This you pick up and slip into your coat pocket. The clasp is a little tight, the cascading strands of beaded silver a little too heavy on your neck. No need to wear it now.
The door unlatches easily, quietly. Even after you took off the choker, even when he was kissing you, stroking you, lying above you, he did not notice the scar. None of them do.
You let yourself out, not caring that the door slams—you are down the stairs and gone. Partly you feel like a successful thief, but mostly you do not feel anything as you step into the empty early morning.