I write a letter to Nikki, in my diary, each time the doctor takes a scalpel and carves out another mole.
He takes nipping strokes through my epidermis, dermis, and down to the fat, and drops the tissue—suspect for malignant melanoma—into a vile that’ll go to some lab in New Hampshire.
This week is the third surgery and sixth mole in eight months.
Do you hate me for writing these letters—confessions, really—when we haven’t seen each other in nine years? …
The truth is, we were acquaintances, passing friends, and I doubt if I have the right to be writing these letters.
Nikki and I went to rival high schools in New Hampshire.
We met on the cross country course one fall afternoon, as skinny seventh graders, half lost and walking (not running, mind you) up a steep hill during the first race of our careers.
We passed each other, back and forth, through the woods, vying not to finish last that day.
“Good job,” she said, each time we traded places.
We did this yo-yo act for the next six seasons, inching our way from the back of the pack, until finally, we started collecting medals.
Our respective teams battled for state championships.
And then, one winter, we tried out for an AAU basketball team and made the same traveling squad, becoming teammates.
We were both lifeguards, both sun-streaked blondes with long tresses.
We smiled a lot.
Charmed lives, they might say.
Except Nikki died.
A doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital removed my first dollop of bad cells from my arm when I was 27.
I gripped the mid console in the car on the way home, not because I was scared of skin cancer but because I was thinking of Nikki.
Some nights I dream we are still running the same race.
I wonder if you are helping me win, or if I am just following you up this hill.
The last time I saw her, we were 22, and only a mile from that hospital.
I was bending over my duffel bag at an indoor track meet at Dartmouth College, rummaging under my racing flats for an oatmeal PowerBar.
If I’d been half blind, only able to see her silhouette, the way her ponytail swung with the bounce of her petite figure, I still would have known it was her.
(The same way I know her figure in this picture.)
That lightness of foot.
The undertone of laughter that buoyed every word, even two simple words: “Jen White?”
That day on the Dartmouth track in Hanover, New Hampshire, I ran the 3K; she ran the 5K.
I remember, afterwards, calculating that I would have beaten her, if we’d been head to head.
We didn’t know about the battle she was heading towards, the one she fought only a few years later at the Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Hanover.
We hugged goodbye, giggling.
And then in 2002, during one of those blurry gaps that seem to blot a person’s mid 20s, my father called to say she was gone: skin cancer.
How is that you are the one not here?
The one with more smiles,
who wore her heart lighter,
that one person everyone loved …
Remember the day I broke my ankle? Breakaway drills during AAU
practice. You were trapping; Kristin was chasing. A collision with all
three of us going down in a tangle at the out-of-bounds line. How you
tried to make me laugh as I sat, white-faced, on the bleachers?
Did you still induce smiles near the end?
I run my index finger along my arm, over the moles on my shoulder, committing constellations and color schemes to memory.
Knowing my skin this way, and watching them remove it one oblong sliver at a time, has become a way of life.
I schedule doctor’s appointments and increasingly frequent slicing around vacations and forecasted snowstorms.
An apology, because I think of you now in terms of my own death, in terms of the scars that claw at my skin. Cancerous, pre-cancerous.
An apology because in childhood, even though we hugged and laughed, I still wanted to beat you to the finish line … because I can’t stop thinking this, too, is a race.
I apologize because I think maybe it was your turn to have the lead; that your laugh—the way it invaded the chest of everyone who breathed your presence—deserved to last longer than mine.
I apologize because your death is my hope that this can’t happen to us both.
That one of us must survive.
When the incisions dive deep and I can’t run for a week, I begin to obsess.
I take self-portraits of my moles, labeling them on my computer.
I do a Google photo search for melanoma, to make sure I’m not missing anything.
I read research about familial atypical mole syndrome.
I wonder what might happen if I get sick–real sick–and have to ask for help.
I choose a tattoo for my back.
I return to a vinyl table, this time in the back room of a tattoo shop, and, in defense of scar tissue, I let a stranger dimple my skin with a needle and blue ink.
I want the cloak of a pair of navy-blue team-issued cotton sweats warming me after an October race on your school’s hilly, rocky cross country course.
I want your maroon warm-ups, in contrast, crouched in our huddle on the gymnasium floor as we await the awards ceremony.
I want to shellac that feeling and those bodies, and paint our skin free of moles.
I want to give our mustached fathers something to hug in 20 years.
“This is good. We’re catching it when you’re so young,” the doctors have all said.
They don’t tell me that melanoma is the No. 1 cancer women die of between 25 and 29.
I don’t tell them about Nikki.
Neither do I reveal my two opposing theories on how this will turn out.
Two lives, a parallel plane.
I have slowed down my obsessions by reciting the former.
In my head, I have started using the scientific term, nevus (not “mole”).
I inspect the skin of my friends and family; I send my sister to the dermatologist.
We begin giving identities to my scars and stitches:
dancing walking stick
I collect sunscreen like some women collect nail polish.
They will slice (breathe)
and dice (breathe) —perhaps until there are no nevi left—(breathe)
but as long as they cut out the cells bent on revolt, (breathe)
I am okay.
I am not sick.
This is prevention.
This week, they took two more.
The doctor tried to apologize for the scars they’d leave, for the gaping tear drops of scar tissue that will ink pink.
I told him I don’t mind them so much.
They’re like tattoos.
(And they remind me of you.)
I laid my limbs on vinyl, exposed my ribs, and exhaled.
A bloodletting, of sorts.
There is, it turns out, something liberating in being a marked woman.