In the Inky Whorl of Night
Lying in darkness next to my snoring husband, I begin to feel my breasts—a practice I usually reserve for daylight. But I suffer from travel fatigue after driving twelve hundred miles to spend July 4 in Worcester, Massachusetts, near Boston. Tomorrow fireworks on the Esplanade along the Charles. Tonight my left fingers flare over my right breast, each pressing softly into the flesh then circling the areola until all tissue is cleared. Now the left breast. The right hand performs fearlessly until something resists pressure. Stops the index finger that moves quickly away and orbits again. Returning to the unyielding mass.
Only Cal and I are awake. His nails click, click, clicking against the hall’s oak floor. A Border Collie, he better understands the dark, delineating shades that I can’t see. It seems appropriate. I panic in pitch black. Need light to lead me. Right now I want to wake Ted so he can feel this hard place, this new obstacle to sleep. Cal comforts. Sits by the bed so I can rub his head, scratch his ears. If I pause, his tongue slides across the top of my hand. His human, Mike, is our best friend who recently moved into this apartment—the downstairs of a Victorian home with high ceilings and a long hall.
No air conditioning. Just the low hum of a ceiling fan—blades whirring against time. Usually, such steady sound lulls me. Not tonight.
I teach English at a small liberal arts college in Montgomery, Alabama, with three other colleagues in the Language Arts Department—two men and a woman. She’s forty-four, ten years younger than I, and dying of invasive breast cancer. (Toxic cells break from the milk duct and occupy surrounding tissue. The younger the host, the faster the invasion.) Chemo and a bone marrow transplant aren’t strong enough to kill for her. She pulls out fists of hair and drops them in the trash while talking about Chaucer. According to the American Cancer Society, one of eight women will develop breast cancer. Not two of two. What are those odds? My sleeping economist can tell me later. Tonight I don’t want to know.
Cal licks my arm and I soothe his fur when reaching for my breast. Is this what a lump feels like? Flinty. About the width of a rock good for skipping across water.
I close my eyes and open them on a shore of smoothed pebbles, searching for one the size of a half-dollar to bounce the way Dad taught me. Hold the slick stone between your right thumb and forefinger. Swing your arm back and horizontal to your thigh. The angle of toss is important. The trailing stone skims the lake, jumps up then leaps across the surface. Slowing down with each bounce. Can I remove this rock and send it skipping across the River Styx while I watch on the bank? Cerberus at my side. His hot breath on my hand. His rough tongue on my skin.
What Did You Expect?
The nurse tells me not to move for thirty minutes and slides me into the opening. I lie on a narrow padded bed in a narrow cylinder like a corpse in a coffin. What I really see is a pale red lipstick twisted back into its tube, waiting for the cap to seal it in. Confined spaces terrify me. Eager to break out, my breath may bolt. My heart may push hard against my chest. Yet I can’t run away. I must endure this PET scan to see if the abnormality in my lung is a metastatic growth of my breast cancer or another cancer joining in. My pre-mastectomy lung x-ray showed a spot. Learning I was an ex-smoker, the head surgeon said, “What did you expect?”
I close my eyes and imagine a cloudy shore. No one except my brother and me sitting on a faded blue towel. Water flows over our feet and back to the ocean. Our heels sculpt bowls in the sand.
We build castle walls that erode at night. Early in the morning we start at the top of the beach, safe from high tide. With my yellow bucket we scoop sand into piles and pack top and side, sprinkling water to make the fortress stronger. Then shape the corner towers with Dixie cups. “All done but the white flags,” he says. Toothpicks and notepaper fly from his pockets.
Buzzing and clicking startle me. I open my eyes to the gray belly of the machine.
Inside my body radioactive glucose is being tracked by outside medical forces searching for the malignant cells. Hungrier than normal, they consume the sugar faster, giving off a glow. Bright spots of green and red.
They cannot hide. Neither can I. The beach has washed away.
(c) 2019 Chella Courington
Chella Courington is a writer and teacher. With a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and an MFA in Poetry, she is the author of six poetry and three flash fiction chapbooks. Her poetry appears in numerous anthologies and journals including Spillway, Gargoyle, Pirene's Fountain, and The Los Angeles Review. Originally from the Appalachian South, Courington lives in California with another writer and two cats. For more information: <chellacourington.net>.