Forty degrees out, a quarter to nine a.m., and I’m standing at the door of a wig shop, in three layers of clothes and a newsboy cap, waiting to be buzzed in. That’s how it works. If Mary doesn’t like the looks of you, she’s not letting you in. It’s like a chemo speak-easy. She squints at me from behind the glass, wearing a kind of ruffled, knit ascot and a captain’s hat, maybe eighty-something years old. A little younger than my grandmother, anyway. I’ve shaved my head since the last time I was here, though that’s mostly disguised under the cap, and maybe Mary’s squinting because she’d wanted to be the one to shave it or maybe she’s squinting because she has no idea who I am. I smile wide, wave big, even though it’s four days after my first chemo treatment and I’d rather roll myself into a blanket cocoon in my living room and listen to tropical ocean surf on a loop. I haven’t had it that rough, actually. But today the aftermath of chemo has turned the cold into a hell-freeze kind of cold and my headache into Chernobyl. And any second now I might cry just because the weed in the sidewalk crack has two shoots instead of three. This is where I am when Mary unlatches the door and stumbles backward just a little with her face in a confused twist.
When I was around six, my mom’s good friend was a writer of cookbooks. Health-food cookbooks. Seventies-era health food. Fructose. Carob. Maple leaves and bark. There was a photo on the back cover of one of these books with the cook, Mary Ann, and her two children, a little younger than me, licking their fingers over a mixing bowl, all smiles. I envied these children, these rosy-cheeked cherubs who loved food that was good for you while I was folding my little hands on my green gingham bedspread in my room, praying for a box of chocolates so big I could sit inside of it when I was done. Continue reading
How was your Thanksgiving, everyone? Mine was splendid. My little sister Alicia prepared the entire Thanksgiving meal because she is made of magic and not the sea monkeys, beet juice, and cow patties I’d always thought she was made of when I was ten. At some point, pleasantly bloated, post-feast, we all sat down, and the words that should not be spoken fled en masse from my mouth. All of them. Continue reading
Day seven and I’m beginning to think the big guy upstairs wasn’t too happy with the joke I told three weeks ago about my church’s gluten-free communion bread and the Body of Christ being worth half a Weight Watchers point because now Joe and I are sitting in the oncologist’s office listening to descriptions of a port to be surgically inserted under my skin for a sixteen-week round of chemo that will cause my hair to fall out. Then the oncologist excuses herself to take a call. The door falls shut. Joe and I look at each other.
“What do you think? Eighties big-hair wig?” he asks. Continue reading
Sometime around four a.m. my eyes flutter open and I decide I need to organize. I need to make lists and email people back and grade manuscripts and maybe shower. And ingest some antioxidants. I spent the last year as a fairly successful vegetarian, if you don’t count not eating meat as a measure of success, and as I push up from the crumpled bed covers I resolve to try harder. Right here. Right now. I am the master of my fate. I drink this in one go:
I put on my prettiest dress to go have a PET scan done at the radiologist’s office. Partly because I have to teach a class afterwards, but mostly because last time I went to a radiologist’s office I was wearing a sweater over a pajama top and jeans. And nothing says “I’m a sad sack with cancer” like wearing pajama layers in public. So I’m wearing the dress.
I’m waiting to schedule an appointment with an oncologist, any oncologist, and it turns out that the backlog of new people trying to schedule appointments with oncologists is so great it takes days for the new-people-scheduler to call back. Meanwhile, I still have breast cancer. So something has to be done. Joe suggested I start making meth, and my friend Andrea suggested I make it pink, instead of Heisenberg blue, for breast cancer awareness. But after a little research, I decide a trip to Whole Foods is the answer.
My surgeon recommended antioxidants. My research confirms, so I make a list of everything that has antioxidants, which is basically everything that Whole Foods sells. So I start with an antioxidant smoothie and then raid the produce aisle and then buy a supplement called “Vitamin Code Raw Antioxidants” because the Whole Foods clerk says that has the most antioxidants of any supplement. She’s wearing Birkenstocks, so I trust her. Her face manages the kind of wide-eyed-but-squinty expression of someone who either knows why I’m asking for antioxidant supplements or is passing kidney stones. I want to tell her, “Hey thanks! Also, I have cancer.” Because my other new thing, besides antioxidant binging at Whole Foods, is telling everyone.
And I mean everyone. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it makes me feel less burdened or less alone. Or maybe because people respond with stories of other breast cancer survivors who are in the clear and doing great. Or maybe because I like hugs and gifts. For one thing, my friend Carlos has started a monster parade. Every day for twenty days Carlos has vowed to assemble a monster parade diorama in an effort to delight me. Here’s Day One Monster:
And on my first day back after the bomb-drop-diagnosis, my creative writing students are waiting outside of my first class to give me a bundle of roses and a card that reads: “If Fifty Shades of Grey can get published, then you can beat cancer.” Another pair of students surprise me later with a gift bag full of goodies. (Tip: If you see someone walking around with flowers and a gift bag, don’t ask if it’s her birthday.) In fact, everyone in the English Department has been wonderful. I sit in the meeting room during my office hours with a colleague who has had breast cancer and is willing to talk about her experiences so I know I’ll be okay. So, I’m learning it’s good to tell people.
I’m also learning that being at work is easy and coming back home at the end of the day is hard. It turns out children need things. Like dinner. But the oncologist still hasn’t called me back. While I want to bury myself in sofa cushions and curl around my laptop and watch videos of Jean-Claude Van Damme doing splits while suspended from two moving Volvo trucks and do absolutely nothing else, not even eat a single solitary antioxidant, to cope, the five-year-old is throwing a tantrum because when she asked me if I could see the imaginary thought bubble over her head filled with marshmallows I say, “no.” And I should back up and tell you the terrible thing that happened when I picked up the five-year-old from afterschool care and I became the Day One Monster.
It started when the five-year-old (I call her Firecracker) was putting the finishing touches on a lovely work of art, a line of penguins in the sunshine, and saw me coming for her. She was busy writing the word “friends” at the top. “I’m trying to write ‘friends,’” she told me, and when I opened my mouth to tell her how to spell it so we could go already her head jettisoned off her shoulders and her mouth opened wide enough to swallow me and she yelled, “I am trying to write FRIENDS,” so loud my hair blew back and every single child in the gym stopped making sounds. Do you know how hard it is to make twenty-plus five-year-olds stop making sounds all at once? Not even Santa vomiting rainbows can do that. I took her by the hand and very calmly told her through my teeth that we have to take the artwork with us to finish at home. Once we reached the door, she was off, racing away into the night like a lit bottle rocket. I just stood there, watching the little dot of her get smaller past the playground. “You get over here right now!” I called after her, not sure if she was close enough to hear my mouse voice. She saw me, though. She looked over her shoulder, and I was pointing to the ground beside me. “Right here, right now!” Nope. Didn’t work. Fuck this, I have cancer, I was thinking. And then I balled up the drawing and threw it in the trashcan at the edge of the playground.
That’s it. That’s the horrible thing. I broke the artist’s rule. Never destroy someone’s art. Never. But I did it. And the artist is only five, which surely fast-tracks me to a special ring of artist’s hell in which I’m doomed to listen to a loop of Bob Ross describing how to paint snow on a cliff face while I’m on fire. Even worse, it took me maybe two hours before I felt bad about it.
You’ll be happy to know the Firecracker and I have made peace on the porch step as we sit watching the fall leaves drift into the lamplight across the street. She admits it was bad to yell in someone’s face and run far, far away. I admit it was bad to trash her drawing. We decide to get a new set of markers and a big piece of paper and make a new one together.
New short story in the latest issue of the Tampa Review Online:
The day the tornado hit, Gladys and her partner Emma had lived in the screened-in back porch of the Sumner House on Mulberry Street for three weeks, their bed a camper mattress, their nightstand a moving box marked “museum catalogues” in red ink. Pressing further into the house—a 1905 two-story craftsman with a basement and eight bedrooms and two staircases—wore them to the bone, as Emma would say, so progress had been slow. Emma was eighty-two. Gladys, seventy-nine.
Read the rest here.
Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.
Read the rest here.