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First mammogram.  The machine’s clear plates squeeze in on my right breast.  A sticker clings just above the nipple.  Extreme’s “More Than Words” plays in the radiologist’s office.  I laugh when I should be holding my breath.  We have to start over.  One, two, three, now don’t breathe, the technician says.  She’s not laughing, anyway.  And she didn’t laugh when I told her that the sticker she applied, at a glance, looked like a sound-effects splat in a comic book – kapow!  The sticker marks the place where my doctor, one week prior, found something under her rolling fingertips.

Right there?

Right there.

I only noticed it myself when I hugged my five-year-old Chloe.  A sore place.  Like pushing at a bruise.

While I hold my breath, my right breast spreads flat between plates, flat as the proverbial pancake my sister always said it was.

Hey Pancake.  You’re so flat-chested I can’t tell if you’re coming or going. At least your shoulder blades are a double-A cup.

Holding the hospital gown closed and my clothes bundled, I’m moved to another room for a breast sonogram, a room the size of a broom closet, with two examination tables.  No music.  As the technician rolls the machine’s transducer probe into the sore place, I glance at the screen with a reflexive expectancy as I had the day Chloe first materialized in a constellation of static on a black and white display.

*  *  *

1994.  My Universidad de Malaga roommate, Andrea, and I took a bus to Torremolinos and slipped down a stone-paved alleyway to the beach so she could sunbathe topless without getting caught by our classmates.  Try it, she said.  It’ll be liberating.  And just as I pinched the knot at the end of my bikini-top tie, thinking, maybe, and then, no way, I saw three kids we knew, waving from the breakers, waving and then walking out.  Here they come, I warned.  Andrea didn’t budge.  She kept her eyes closed, her jaw set, until they approached, said hello, and left.  You played that cool, I told her.  And Andrea was cool, her black hair in a topknot, looking like the woman of Matisse’s Green Stripe, her breasts parting just a little as she settled back again, the sun in the divot of her throat.  Defiant.

*  *  *

In the radiologist’s parking lot, I pause before turning the ignition of my car to slip the films out of the envelope and hold the image of my breasts up to the windshield, up to the light, partly obscuring the hospital across the way.  That’s where I’d given birth to Chloe as a hurricane raged against the hospital’s tinted windows.  The storm had inched up from the gulf, appearing on the weather radar, playing on the television in the maternity wing all day as rain bands unfurled from the eye.  The second-hand sweep of the radar’s finger.  The rain, all the rain.  The blip of my baby’s heartbeat on the monitor.  Her heartbeat underneath the slightly slower one of my own.  If I’d looked down from the third-floor window then, I would have seen this same parking lot under a shallow drift of water carrying a paper cup and a branch and a lawn chair to the gutter.  But I am here now, looking up through the black hole of a mass showing in the middle of the dense, white breast tissue.  The radiologist had failed to send these films to the surgeon, so now I have to carry them myself, set them on the floorboard of the backseat alongside my attaché full of student manuscripts, drive them to pick up Chloe from school and take her for a cupcake.  I tell her to mind her boots as she slides past the films leaning in their envelope.  What is it? she asks.  Pictures, I say.  Forty-five degrees outside.  She tells me she’s going to teach me how to keep my hands warm.  She rubs her palms together fast.

*  *  *

1988.  Red Chevelle.  Rattling over the ruts of the farm road.  The span of muddied headlights caught the ribbons of fog in the fields, in the swags of barbed wire.  There was an abandoned clapboard house out there somewhere, under the popped-umbrella branches of the evergreens.  It was just a matter of taking all the right turns on a hunch.  You couldn’t find it any other way but on accident.  And when you found it, you’d hold your breath, hold your ribs, close your eyes.  A whole family was murdered inside.  You could hear the silence they left behind.  Maybe even a whisper of their souls skating along the beadboard walls.  I slid across the bench of the front seat to Joe on the driver’s side and said, kiss me.  And he did.  And the Chevelle lurched off the road, raked over a tree stump, lost a bumper, came to a stop at a fence.  The engine idled, sputtered, cut out.  I slid back to the passenger side and looked out the window as if the scenery still slunk past, as if the clapboard house would suddenly present itself, as if I hadn’t almost done us in with a kiss.  Oops, I finally said, and Joe shook his head.  The dark out here was different than it was in town, arched above the streetlamps of the neighborhoods.  Out here, in the rustle of wind in the fields, the dark was tangible.  Open your mouth and in it went.  Make a bowl of your hands and it weighed against lifelines.  We leaned against the hood of the car, sitting aslant in the ditch, and wondered what we’d do now.

*  *  *

In the surgeon’s office, I think of the unpainted picnic table that remains wedged in the grass where I’d dragged it, careful not to splinter my hands, and left it under the windows weeks ago.  A playhouse sits on its pavers under the fringe of the crepe myrtle.  An herb garden, basil and sage, wilts against the fence line.  Plastic watering can the shape of a duck, jump rope with wooden handles — spindled and mint green, pumpkin the size of a fist, I think of the view from the kitchen and the flash of yellow pine that reminds me to grab the collection of remnant paints from the utility room and color the table in blues and grays and the odd green.  But I’m always reminded at the worst times – when the wood grain is wet from an early morning shower or I have papers to grade or I’m sitting on the examining table of a surgeon’s office.  So it waits.

Walk me through this.  The surgeon leans elbows to knees on his rolling stool.  White-haired, bearded, long thin face and hands, he has the kindly expression of someone who might frame bad news in ancient proverbs with his fingertips touching under his chin.  But for now he listens as I tell him how long ago I’d noticed the sore spot, how long ago my doctor felt the mass.  The rest he knows.  He’s looked over the films.  The sonogram shows what the mammogram didn’t catch, the roughly one-inch mass the surgeon finally stands to assess for himself.

Have you lost weight?  Do you have any joint pain?

Somewhere behind him, Joe sits in a black plastic chair, listening.  The day I told Joe about the black hole on the sonogram, he came home from work, walked past me to set two grocery bags down, moved to the bedroom to change his clothes.  Just like any other day.  I followed him down the hallway with my arms crossed.

I guess maybe I should paint that picnic table before I die.

Stop it, he said.  You’re not dying.

And finally, a kiss.

I tell the surgeon that my referring doctor had suggested we skip the biopsy and just have the mass removed so it wouldn’t be a concern either way, but he tells me that he’ll need a biopsy to know what kind of surgery, exactly, he’ll be doing.  Lumpectomy.  Partial or total mastectomy.  Reconstruction.  Because whatever we have to do, you’ll want to do it all at once.  If not having to do anything at all is an option, I don’t think he says.  I should ask.  I know I should ask.  He wonders if I have any questions, if Joe has any questions.  No.  And as the surgeon helps me sit up with both hands behind my shoulders and then steps aside, I see Joe with his expression sliding like someone moving in a photograph at the last second.

*  *  *

Sending many positive vibes, will even chant for you tonight, Andrea writes me.  I’m not sure if the chanting is something Cherokee or something Buddhist.  She is both.  She is also blind in one eye from a childhood encounter with a cousin and his BB gun, and twenty years ago on a beach in Spain sand blew into the other and scratched the cornea so her lid began to swell shut.  With my arm looped in hers, we somehow found an emergency room, somehow knew what to write on the papers they gave us to fill out, somehow conjured all the right Spanish words to explain that she couldn’t wear a patch over the injured eye because she was blind in the other.  Somehow, we managed.  We always managed.

Once, Andrea and I rode a city bus in Malaga for two circuits because we couldn’t figure out which stop was ours. In Toledo, Andrea and I wove through the labyrinthine streets, asking directions before we’d learned that the Spanish words for “left” and “straight” sound nearly the same.  As the sun dropped below the crenelated walls, a little boy, orange shirt, stick legs, showed us the way.  Somewhere on the edge of the festival in El Rocio, we turned circles amidst grazing cows in a pasture in search of the hotel shuttle.  At the Alcazaba, we stood in a niche housing a restored ancient mosaic that had been partly washed away, as a plaque explained in three languages, when the waters of the Mediterranean had risen.  I was studying what was left of the face of an ancient Roman woman assembled in the tiny tiles, studying intently until I could only see the little pieces of her instead of a face, her form flung apart into nothing, and something about the thought of bits of her, whoever she was – the edge of what was a face, the arch of what was a foot, an entire hand – scattered and shifting somewhere in the Mediterranean, made me anxious.  This was what I was thinking when my gaze lowered to the ground, then to the space around Andrea and I, then to the empty corridors on either side.  Shit, I said to Andrea and to the ancient Roman woman.  They left us again.  Then we wandered around until we happened to spot the familiar cluster of colored windbreakers and backpacks and camera flashes, situated against the gray sky of an expansive courtyard.  And then after they left us in Nerja as well, Andrea and I scaled the steps carved into a cliff face and waded out into the pristine waters.  I watched the blur of the horizon for a long time, trying to undo the tangle of sea and sky.  It’s with Andrea that I learned how to be lost.

I write her back: keep chanting.

*  * *

1990.  Life Drawing.  I sat at the slant of a drafting table with an oversized page of newsprint paper and a charcoal nub making my fingertips black.  Our nude model, sitting on a stool on a slightly elevated flat in the middle of class, wasn’t actually nude but wearing a spandex tank top and bicycle shorts.  Her feet were bare, though, and they curled over the high rung of the stool, forcing her knees to protrude in childlike angles.  Leaning over my page, I was laughing to myself, laughing at the way I had to draw her breasts like the nippleless bumps of a Barbie doll.  The professor stepped up behind me, her shadow looming over newsprint.

Your problem is, she said, you’re a mess.

Excuse me?

You’re a sloppy artist. You have no control.

She straightened and clacked her tongue in her cheeks.  Then she dared me to draw a straight line.  Standing behind me with her arms loosely crossed around a sketchbook, she waited as I leaned to the drafting table again.  The charcoal nub hissed against paper in my fingertips as I drew a straight line that quickly started to look like California’s western border.

*  * *

We have two fenced areas at our house, one with a small kidney-bean shaped pool near the detached garage out back and the other beyond a side door leading from the kitchen.  The house, built in 1950, has settled so much this door scrapes an arc across the wood floor and stops short so I have to slip around its latch to get out.  I’d tried to grow an herb garden out here, along the fence, basil and sage and rosemary.  The rosemary was the first to draw up into brown twists and crumble.  A mess.  That’s what the first radiologist said of the sonogram as he made his way into the dim room with the wood-grain file boxes and I waited on the other table with the ties of the hospital gown in my fingers, trying to decide, opened or closed.  Funny thing, the radiologist said, the mammogram was a work of art, but the sonogram is a mess.  After the surgeon calls a little past noon on a Monday to tell me the biopsy results are malignant, I step out into the cool air and sit on the unfinished picnic table.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

14 responses to “Straight Line”

  1. Kathleen Cross says:

    Wow….just wow…

  2. I’m accustomed to seeing courageous essays here and elsewhere, but this one hits closer, which is slightly strange because I’ve never met you in person. These friendships practiced in reverse- where we share the interior, heartbreaking stuff first and then get the superficial, actual details much later – these connections have meant a lot to me over the past few years. So I don’t know what kind of comment to make about the bravery and beauty here, other than to say that I’m glad I know you.

    Before this turns into a greeting card, let me also say: I could never draw a straight line in art class, especially not when watched trying to do so.

    Sloppy artists make the world go round.

    • Your comment, Nat, makes me extremely glad I decided to submit this here at TNB, because I’d thought about tucking it back for other places. But I feel more comfortable here with old virtual friends like yourself …. though I think we’ve established before that you aren’t real. And we might have established that I’m not real either.

      That scene with the art instructor actually changed the whole course of my life. I switched majors after that. While I’m mad at myself for taking her so seriously and letting it get to me to that extent, I ended up where I needed to be anyway. Which is also every single Andrea lesson.

      Thanks, Nat!

  3. D.R. Haney says:

    I read this piece last night, and I’ve been ruminating ever since as to what to emphasize in my comment about it.

    Should I point out the many wonderful phrases and images? The one of Joe “with his expression sliding like someone moving in a photograph at the last second” makes me a little jealous, frankly.

    Should I tell you how happy I am to see you back here with a piece that’s completely in your own voice? But then I think of the subject, and in that way only, I wish the piece didn’t exist.

    Should I mention that I never knew that you had studied in Malaga? I was there for a film festival once, and loved it.

    Should I take this opportunity to tell you how much I admire your grace and courage? I have been, ever since I heard the news and watched the way you handled it.

    Well, I suppose I’ve now said all of those things, but let me close, for now, with this: I agree with Joe when he told you that you’re not dying. Because I won’t let you die, and I’m backed by an army of others as willful as I am, if not much more so, and I believe you’re the chief.

    Now: let’s start planning next year’s Halloween collaboration. We have a tradition to maintain, if two years can amount to a tradition. Yes, I think it bloody well does.

    • I love this comment, Duke, because I finally finally eked out a whole sentence you were jealous of. I hope you know I’m smiling as I type that. I’d type an emoticon to make it obvious, but …. well. I’m glad I seem graceful and brave, anyway, though I think I am just by nature an anti-wallower (though I do wallow a little here maybe). I’m not sure it’s bravery as much as it’s this really stubborn personality of mine. At any rate, I’m happy to be the chief. And I’m happy to plan for Halloween post round two. And, mostly, I’m happy you’re here buoying my spirits. Thanks Duke!

  4. Brett Ortler says:

    Goddamn, this was good.

  5. This is beautiful and courageous on so many levels. At the same time, as Duke mentioned, I wish it were a fictitious account of some sort. God speed you white empress.

    (After reading this, I ventured to your blog and read some more of what you have chronicled since the diagnosis, and I particularly like the card your students gave you that read: If Fifty Shades of Grey can get published, then you can beat cancer.)

    • Many thanks to you, Jeffrey! You know, the students’ card, best response ever. I think people really don’t know how to react to this kind of news. But that was perfect. My students are the best.

      • Richard says:

        I happened by TNB today and saw this essay. Sorry I’m commenting so late, but what a beautiful and haunting piece of work. I, too, wish it were a fictional account, but I’m sure you’ll look back on it one day after recovery and marvel and smile and cry at what you wrote.

        I also happened to be listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the time I read it, which is why I commented here below Jeffrey. A beautiful song to go with a beautiful essay.

  6. JSBreukelaar says:

    Brilliant, perfect. Like a cave painting, or a prayer. So the hunt will be lucky.

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