Currently a short story and future chapter of a book
A dead tree, the tenements across the street, the 14th Street bus, no one on the sidewalk, snow masking sheets of ice, the same way waves disguise undertow. The subway is three blocks from Abigail’s house, and is a hazardous walk during the icy weeks, her feet sometimes sliding from under her. Abigail always manages a few awkward maneuvers to keep from going down. The same scenario plays out inside her head. Being indoors for weeks on end during this brutal cold spell has her on edge. Abigail relies on motion to minimize her ruminating. It always starts with something insignificant, something that would fly in and out of her head if she was running or cycling, but the stillness transforms her involuntary thoughts into a solid mass of anxiety that keeps her awake.
Abigail’s exhausted all excuses to get out of the house. Her fridge is well stocked, enough food for a couple of weeks. Being sedentary, Abigail doesn’t want to eat much anyway, to preserve her sylphlike proportion. The storage closet is packed with Charmin, Bounty, Colgate and Garnier Fructis, so much so she thinks she should bequeath them to someone just in case. She doesn’t need new clothes. She likes wearing what she has. Anything she buys is an identical replacement, but unstained, crisp. She’s seen all the movies on her list, going to afternoon shows where there is a smattering of people, sitting alone, carefully spaced with a few seats and rows between them. She always looks around discreetly, hoping someone may strike up a conversation. This has never happened. Instead she makes up stories about their lives. On Monday when she went to see “The Big Short” she was fixated on the man in the row in front and a few seats across. He was reading The New Yorker before the movie started. They already had a lot in common; smart movies, The New Yorker. Like her, he probably lived alone and kept up with politics, the state of the world, the latest exhibitions at MoMA, the book reviews in the New York Times. He was definitely a writer, maybe a movie reviewer. She’d like his work, agree with his opinions. And he’d appreciate her self-designated adjectives for herself: prescient and prudent. The two “p-r’s.” Abigail’s smug about having these virtues.
Her calendar beeps a reminder. She has an appointment for her annual mammogram that warrants a trip uptown. Having a legitimate reason to get out of the house lifts her spirits.
The subway is particularly crowded during the cold spell. Riders tolerating being in close proximity with everyone else. Together they travel uptown, downtown, or are stalled between stations, touching imperfect strangers, inhaling each other’s breath, mirrors of themselves. She likes watching them, how the features on their faces randomly come together to form their countenance, scrutinizing the shapes of their bodies mostly through no fault of their own except if they are fat, examines what they wear, the way they move and speak, what they say, how they feel. Do they like themselves? Are they loved? Do they have someone to fuck?
The train is littered with remnants from the morning rush hour. A section of the New York Post is on a seat next to an empty coffee cup, the floor sticky with a spill, a crushed brown paper bag, a single glove. She is standing to avoid removing her backpack. It is too difficult of a task in her overfilled oversized coat. Her arms would get caught in the straps and she’d have to wrestle it off. There are two men seated under her gaze. The white guy does all of the talking while the black guy listens. The two men don’t make eye contact. They stare at their laps. They are both in their 40's. They share a similar style of trousers too short and wide at the bottom, shoes so worn you can imagine the odor when they take them off, coats that hang off their narrow shoulders so the sleeves are too long. The white guy has small even teeth, the top ones protruding slightly like a ventriloquist’s puppet. His rectangular frameless glasses are perched awkwardly on his nose. Some miracle of science prevents them falling off. His hair is thinning. He is telling his companion about a recent friendship.
“So this guy and I become friends. I like him. I didn’t know him for that long and then he tells me he is dying. Got a few months left. Maybe.”
He lets out a short laugh revealing his full set of tiny teeth.
“It hardly ever happens that someone wants to be my friend. And he’s dying.”
The black guy nods, then grunts.
Abigail watches them as they sit in silence, envying their undeniable bond.
She wants to listen to more conversations but her stop is coming up. She starts working her way toward the door. The train is still crowded. She’s annoyed having to push past all these people, especially the ones who don’t notice her, forcing her to spit out a string of “excuse me-s”. It is only when she is off the train that she realizes she is on the wrong end of the platform, far away from the subway exit. She prides herself on always being in the car closest her exit and berates herself for this oversight. She finds the extra walk along the platform irritating, despite being early for her appointment.
She’s barely had a sick day in her life. She attributes that to her sensible regimen of diet and exercise. Abigail does not understand why people have so many issues around food. Stop eating when you are full for god’s sake. She’s 73, so her excellent habits may no longer be effective. Will her uncanny good health doom her to an end of suffering or will she pass unknowingly in her sleep as per her plan? What if she has breast cancer? As far as she knows no one in her family has had it, but lots of people without a family history of cancer get it. If she got it, it would be because of environmental factors. It irks her that something out of her control may kill her. Breast cancer. She’s not particularly attached to her breasts, they don’t do anything nowadays but hang there like empty socks, but she would like to keep them. She’d look weird without them. Definitely no implants or stuffing bras with foam inserts. She decides she won’t let them carve the cancer out of her and then have them pump her full of poison. Better to leave the world with her breasts and her hair. She wants to be composted.
The waiting room is crowded. Abigail’s anxiety increases. She goes through the magazine stack during her interminable wait. People, Cosmopolitan, Time, Better Homes and Gardens, Vanity Fair, Seventeen. Outdated, creased, with unidentifiable stains. She looks around the room. All women. At this moment they are all like her. Will they be leaving the same way they came in?
They call her name.
“Take everything off from waist up, put on a gown, then wait in the waiting room over there.”
Another waiting room. She hates waiting. When she is waiting all she can think about is waiting. They have already made her wait in one waiting room and she took it in her stride but again! She considers leaving. Abigail recognizes she is obsessing but for good reason. Feeling justified, she musters every ounce of self-discipline and shifts her focus to the flimsy gown she is forced to wear for this test she now wishes she wasn’t going to have.
Everyone waiting in the waiting room is wearing the same humiliating gown. It’s cold in the gown. She examines each of the women’s nipples. It’s strange having nipples. Dogs, cats, all animals have nipples. For a moment she feels part of the animal kingdom. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. Her physicality no different from a dog’s. But with fewer nipples. She’s grateful that she only has two breasts, and not two rows of breasts, to be mammogram-ed. She goes back to looking at everyone waiting in the waiting room. All the women appear middle aged except one. The young woman in the far corner. Tall, lean, preened but no makeup, and a gown. Way too young to be there. Should she sit next to her and strike up a conversation? She could find out why she’s there. And console her if it’s bad. Then they’d have coffee afterwards.
She is tired of thinking and picks up another magazine. She flips through it. And then another and another without really wanting to look closely at any of them. Abigail is not a woman’s magazine type of woman but there is something compelling about them despite her discomfort with the subject matter, which is vastly different than when she was a young woman. She is uncomfortable with the number of articles about vaginas. It wasn’t a word that was even uttered when she was young. She acknowledges that having this more out in the open is good, but it is still a private matter and should be kept that way. After all, she’s never even seen hers or had the desire to look down there. She figures there is a reason it is out of her range of vision. And she doesn’t need to know ten things the magazine thinks she should know about her vagina. She begins to skim them but quickly sees things like “discharge”, “odor” and “ 4 different kinds of orgasm” and continues turning the pages. A world of airbrushed pretty women and then a double page spread on “how to fondle his balls” convinces her to go back to her obsessing. This time it’s about Herbie her college sweetheart. They were the perfect couple, so well suited. They’d sit together in their 19th-Century American Poetry seminar, the smartest kids in the class. She looked forward to spending nights in his dorm room where she would help him get his assignments done. She loved the way he would look at her with his intelligent green eyes and quiet smile. It gave her a feeling she had only ever fantasized about. But Herbie was real. She sat next to him on his bed. At times her shoulder would brush against his and it would send a tingle down her spine. She felt it send a tingle down his as well but he was too shy to make a move. She loved staying up all night with him, brainstorming ideas, and typing his papers so he wouldn’t miss a deadline. About half way through the semester he invited her to a party at his dorm. Abigail didn’t like parties; too much noise, too much drinking, a waste of time. But she wasn’t going to miss this one. Herbie was going to declare his love. She put on her best dress and even some makeup. Herbie was pleased to see her. They talked for a while. Dickinson. Emerson. Thoreau. He introduced her to some people and then excused himself. She didn’t know what to say to these strangers. Her gaze followed Herbie as he made his way around the room. She glanced away for a second and when she looked back she could no longer see him. He must have gone to get more beer. She shuffled uncomfortably in a corner, moving from wall to chair, hoping that no one would notice her. After about a half hour she saw him walk back in, looking somewhat disheveled, arm around Gracie, that pretty freshman girl. Abigail tasted a small amount of involuntary vomit in her mouth.
Thinking back to that part of her life caused Abigail to feel that same vulnerability. She shifted her focus back to the magazines and the bevy of airbrushed young pretty women flashing their best smiles. Do they worry about having breast cancer? Do they worry about anything? Or are they as perfect as they appear in these glossy rags? Why does she find anxiety in about everything? This is just a routine checkup and she’ll probably be fine. But maybe she won’t. How much longer will it be until she is called?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Lisa the technician is unconvincingly cheerful. She gently jams Abigail’s breast into the machine. The two flat metal pieces make her think of a room where the walls are closing in. What would happen to someone’s body if that happened? Lisa explains the flatter the breast, the better the image. But if a breast is crushed then couldn’t it be damaged? If her legs or torso or head were crushed they would be. Who the fuck invented this device? Why is she doing this? Never again.
The first film is taken.
The machine is shifted so the torture plates are vertical. Her breast now has the opportunity to be crushed without the help of gravity. And on and on, getting shots of Breast One at every conceivable angle. And then it’s Breast Two’s turn. What a weird job. Taking x-rays of women’s breasts all day. Does the day go quickly or does Lisa look at the clock and count the minutes until she can leave? Why did Lisa decide to do this for a living? Would she prefer to do something else? Did Lisa live alone? Abigail wants to ask her these questions. What would it be like to be Lisa?
Abigail gets dressed and goes back to the waiting room. More waiting. This is the hardest waiting of all the waiting she has done at this cursed facility. She sits down and fidgets. She will find out if she can leave as she came, or if her life will be irrevocably changed. The room is empty barring the young woman who has her cell phone at her ear. Abigail stares at the young woman and sees she is agitated. From zero to a hundred the young woman starts screaming into the phone and sobs. She needs her sister to come immediately. Abigail can only make out bits of what the young woman is saying but it’s clear her life has been irrevocably changed. Eventually the young woman hangs up. Her sister is on her way. Both women are acutely aware of each other’s presence, one watching, the other being watched. It’s an uncomfortable silence while both women waited.
Who would Abigail call if her results were positive? Maybe Bill Jarvis, her next door neighbor. Bill had spent two days in hospital for the treatment of an early cancer and he asked her to pick him up from the hospital. Up until then she had only watered his plants and got his mail when he was out of town. She didn’t welcome this task as it forced her to deviate from her usual routine. She graciously did not point this out to Bill. Bill’s apartment was neat, orderly, and cluttered. This made her uneasy. He didn’t have one of anything. Everything was in multiples. It was filled with plants, ones she considered ugly. The apartment didn’t get much light which limited the plants to those large, leafy things, a dark and depressing maze. Between the abundance of furniture and the plants there was no floor space. She didn’t understand why he had so much furniture as he lived alone. She had never seen anyone else enter or leave his apartment. The multiples didn’t end in the living room. Bill’s small kitchen could have fed an army. Where there weren’t cabinets, Bill had shelves from floor to ceiling, each packed with a multiple, a mini-Costco. One shelf had 17 bottles of Dove Dishwashing Liquid (she counted); another had about a dozen of those huge boxes of Goldfish crackers; another full of bottles of Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil, all neatly lined up in rows. Then there were the shelves with pots and pans, and duplicate pots and pans.
It was weird Bill asked her to pick him up after his surgery. They didn’t really know each other. Bill had invited her over a number of times for a drink and she had always declined. The small amount of conversation she and Bill had had over the years was in the hallways or elevator. Bill was always complaining about something. Abigail had no patience for this kind of talk. It was a waste of her time. But she was okay with picking him up. And she didn’t mind doing things for him while he was recovering, like trips to the pharmacy to buy Milk of Magnesia and Depends maximum absorbency size extra large. But she did mind spending time with him. She had better things to do than make small talk. But who else could she ask to help her out if her results were positive.
Abigail is called back in. All the anxiety contained in her head spreads to her body. She feels like she is no longer in it. She sits down. The doctor is taking way too much time looking over her results. This probably means the worst. How does a doctor tell a patient that she has cancer? It’s a worse job than being a toll collector on a highway. Stuck in a tiny booth surrounded by the stench of car exhaust and gasoline. She’d read that female toll collectors have to deal with men propositioning them, throwing out sexual slurs and exposing themselves as they hand over the cash with sticky hands. But a doctor telling a patient she was going to die would be worse. How was the doctor going to tell her? “Abigail, your tiny old breasts have cancer.” Or perhaps the doctor would lead into it slowly. “Has anyone in your family had breast cancer?” And after a few probing questions break the news and soften it by telling her it’s not necessarily terminal, then throw out a lot of statistics that Abigail wouldn’t hear through her panic. A panic worse than seeing Herbie with Gracie.
Waiting for the doctor to speak is the most excruciating wait of all, despite it being the shortest. Abigail’s attention turns from toll collectors and Herbie to the doctor, anxious to hear the results of this breast crushing test. The doctor looks from the computer to Abigail.
“Has anyone in your family had breast cancer?”
This is not a good lead question. No one in Abigail’s family, as far as she knew, had had breast cancer. Abigail’s heart is racing.
The doctor goes on to explain to Abigail that she has unusually dense breast tissue so it is hard to read the mammograms. Abigail heard this every time she had a mammogram, and sometimes has had to go back for a second round of soul-crushing tests. But this time is different.
The doctor thought everything looked okay, but would have sent her for more tests if she had a family history of breast cancer. She tells Abigail it is important to come back the following year. Abigail is free to leave, and free of cancer. For now.
As she walks past the waiting room she sees the young woman embracing another woman, probably her sister, still sobbing why does this happen to me?
Abigail’s prescience reaches a new level. The problem with her life is nothing ever happens.