I lay on the table with my arm over my head, as if I were raising my hand in school There were hands, cold and rough against my skin, turning me, on my side. “Here we go,” a voice said. The hands felt callused.
There are so many things in life people are unprepared for. Like when I was thirteen, on the eighth grade track team, and learned it wasn’t my sport. I crashed over the hurdles, skinning one elbow, then the next, and with gravel in my knees, I told Coach hurdles, just possibly, weren’t for me.
That’s how it felt when I found the mass, thick and wrong feeling under my fingertips. It wasn’t for me. Not mine. It had to belong to someone else.
Return to junior high. This time health class, where we passed around a synthetic breast we all felt for the pea in what looked like a panty hosed potato.
“This is what you’re looking for,” the teacher intoned.
Princesses and the pea, we giggled when she turned her back. Hillary Johnson tossed the breast like a football to Cindy Willams, who hackey-sacked it with the side of her navy Nikes.
I wondered, when I found my own lump, not at all like a pea, not a harmless vegetable sleeping frozen in a bag in my freezer, but my own warm flesh, and I wondered how the girls from my soccer team were. That had turned out to be the right sport and I recalled the eighth grade wonder of how -- just how do you know? How do you know if it isn’t just the normal lumpy stuff of a breast? This was not something you’d ask out loud. And certainly wouldn’t write on a scrap of paper for the anonymous “sexual education” question box. You didn’t ask serious questions there. Only things that made us giggle louder, gasp in hushes at who was doing that, and blush and wonder, feigning it wasn’t you, but knowing it had to be someone.
Still, I’d wanted to know how you knew dangerous lumps from the usual breast tissue our teacher warned were indeed often pecked with mini faux-lumps and cells floating the way they seemed to, unexplainably.
Fifteen years later, on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I knew. I knew the minute my fingers caught my breasts to dip them into their B cups, before I dressed and my breath tripped on what I felt there.
“Lop it off,” I said, none too kindly, to the stony faced, unfortunate doctor who delivered the bad news.
“Remove the cancer, Isabelle,” she said.
“My chest a la chopping block,” I said.
She realized she would get no where easily with me.
I woke from surgery certain they’d taken something wrong. Did they take my thumb? A pinky toe? Something as plain as the nose on my face? I wanted to run my palms up and down my body; finger its terrains, make sure they hadn’t taken a limb. But the IVs never stopped dripping liquid sleepiness and off I went to that dreamless land again. Two days passed before I was sure my breast was the only thing I was without. I was perfectly fine – minus one piece of relatively useless flesh.
After I stopped dividing the world into one breast or two, after the doctor unwrapped and unsutured me, after I was all but a one sided flat bed truck, my doctor suggested I take a trip. “A vacation, for God’s sake, Isabelle, you are a cancer survivor, give yourself a break,” she said.
I told her, “God didn’t give us regenerating parts, running away won’t fix that.”
She shook her head at me, “Go away, change your attitude, see what a success this is, then, come back and live your life.”
I pictured her tooting my prosthetic as a send off.
I decided that’s when I needed Kate. I can’t pretend to understand my past relationship with her. I know that officially we were protégée and mentor, me the former, she the latter. She was my teacher. A Professor of English Literature, Kate got me through four years of college with her advising, both academic and otherwise, and I wrote her letters to cover the years that followed. She always found time for kind replies.
When I sent her the latest update, near diagnosis, she insisted I stay with her.
“It’s been so long, Isa,” she said, using her private pet name for me. “It’ll be fun. I’m on sabbatical, and we can bake bread, read out loud and pretend we are girls in a deliciously dilettantish way.”
“Oh please do come! We want you here,” she said.
Kate is married. She always has been. I mean, since I met her, and although Timothy, never Tim, teaches too, and I’d even, once, taken a Yeats seminar with him as a senior, we’d never gotten to know one another. Kate kept him carefully out of our way.
When I arrived in Cedar Rapids, of all the God awful Midwestern places, the tiny, single room airport made me claustrophobic and the red pattern woven through the grey carpet dizzied me. I looked up from my nausea to see Kate craning her neck, on tiptoe, the way she used to do to reach the top of the blackboard in class. Her hair, still pixie short, held a cowlick she never had been able to force down. It sprang with the same life she held in her five foot frame, and when she saw me, she began to grin, covering her mouth with her hand like a child. I used to dream of those lips eating watermelon.
Her plaid knee length skirt and dark turtleneck completed the image. I ignored Timothy as Kate folded me into a welcoming hug.
“Isa, Isa, Isa,” she sang, rocking me in a little dance, so the strap of my carry-on slipped and forced my fake breast down from its warm pocketed bra precariously. I still hadn’t grown used to it and as I tried to catch it and the bag simultaneously, Kate squealed an overzealous oops, shoving my breast back up into its right place.
I flushed red, Timothy did nothing except silently take my carry on, and Kate patted my replaced breast as if it were perfectly normal to do so. She then reached back and nervously smoothed her cowlick the way I’d seen her do a few hundred thousand times.
I hadn’t seen Kate since graduation, and the gesture put me at home – breast fiasco notwithstanding, it was magnificent to be under her gaze.
Kate and Timothy’s house was a lovely, two story strong old beast in a quiet line of matching monsters. Nestled in the kind of neighborhood I still sometimes drive through late at night, peering into curtainless windows from my car, watching families sit down to dinner, or in front of the TV, bathed in electric blue scrambling shadows. There was always a little tug, a pull, somewhere I couldn’t quite reach, as I watched.
After Kate and Timothy got me settled in the guest room, and I freshened up a bit in the closet sized bathroom, I walked into the kitchen. It felt strange to be in Kate’s house. It’s a comforting place. I’d been there for cocktail parties, student gatherings, poetry readings by the fireplace, or even as a cat sitter once or twice. But to know I’d sleep and eat there for a while, threw me. I let Rosco, the seventeen pound tortoiseshell tabby rub all over my legs. I couldn’t believe he was still kicking after all these years, and acted, as cats do, like I’d been there just the day before.
“Good kitty,” I told him, as he rammed his head on my ankle. I let my palm cup his chin so I could feel the depth of his purr. Kate found me on the staircase like that.
“Timothy swears I’m being silly when I personify Rosco, but I swear, Isa, he missed you,” she said.
I smiled at her. “Are you projecting?” I asked.
She tilted her head, another painfully familiar gesture that took me back. “Perhaps,” she said.
“Feeling is mutual,” I said. I felt the blush cover my cheeks. I thought I’d have outgrown my blushing around her.
I patted Rosco’s head. “He needs a diet, Dr. Kate.”
She laughed. “Come on, Timothy’s cooking,” she said.
Timothy wore silver wire framed glasses, pierced by eyes so blue they made the back of my throat ache. His long slender fingers appeared feminine, and he fiddled with the hair on his face as if he couldn’t quite believe it sprouted there. Watching him slice vegetables was like witnessing a symphony – hands meant to conduct also seemed meant to cook.
Kate plugged in an electric wok, reached for the peanut oil, and directed me to set the table with rice bowls and chopsticks. As I laid the places, I slid a single decorative chopstick through my thumb and forefinger. A lacquered red piece of art lettered in dark print scrolled down its squared sides. Kate taught me to use chopsticks my last week of college. We went to a Vietnamese restaurant where our knees constantly collided under the table, restlessly searched for a spots they wouldn’t press one another, or lace through like lattice work. Her hand covered mine, gently directing the fingers in directions they didn’t want to go, the boundaries of our relationship bleeding through. Women love one another with their hands.
When I first met Timothy, I saw something between Kate and him that shot heat through to the base of my spine. We were at the campus theatre in the round, watching a play, and Kate and Timothy sat directly in front of me. Until that moment, Timothy had been an enigma she rarely mentioned.
I don’t remember anything about that play, but I memorized, even so many years later, how he’d touched her, the tender manner between them, and I began to understand marriage beyond that of fairy tales and movie themes. Post curtain, they’d turned to say goodbye, and I’d known Kate would always be with him, like a wooden alphabet puzzle I’d had as a child, the letters easily slipping from one another and just as simply sliding back into place.
I didn’t have any idea how much I’d interrupted their lives with my visit. I didn’t want to give voice to my relationship with Kate, because I was terrified it would change if we spoke of it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live between them, the way my friendship always suspended there over the years, but home wasn’t a place I had found by then. Kate and Timothy were as close as I believed I’d ever get.
We ate dinner my first night in their home like old friends. Kate and I told stories, and Timothy, eventually, chimed in. The night wore on, and we drank more wine; Timothy began to tease Kate about a past crush on a girl, in her own college years, and she nagged back that he had nothing so interesting or sordid to tell. He had, only her.
I watched them over the rim of my stemmed glass, through the candle light, and knew they’d done whatever they needed to prepare to make space for me in their lives.
In the next weeks we fell to the business of living with one another as if it were the way things had always been. We shared meals; I took on chores, shared in decisions, and joined lazy Sunday mornings with the Gazette spread around us. We would learn what to order on pizzas without asking, when to knock on doors before opening, and who preferred what on TV when.
I grew used to the way the sun hit my skin through the frosted window of the guest bathroom. I could catch the blank slate of my chest in direct sunlight if I showered precisely at 9:16 am. I flattened my single breast, and played at being a boy. I touched the raised scar on my left side and tried to unbury its grief. I attempted to tease my body back to life, but it wanted nothing of that. It didn’t want to feel – beauty or ache – so I, who had been defined most of my life by with whom I slept, suddenly had to leave that part of myself, entirely, behind.
I missed the easy dampness between my legs, I missed the sighs I could pull from myself, the way a lover’s mouth could lift me to other places, how once a woman’s fingers could bring my body alive, but it seemed utterly gone.
The scar ran from midway down my inner arm, curved around my armpit like the corner of a coin, and stretched to a fault line across a plain. It stopped short right before the chest cavity. What was most difficult was not so much the missing flesh, but the feeling it was still there. That I could, in that very same shower, close my eyes and pretend. I could stand there and feel both my breasts, heavy on my chest, and then reach to soap the left and find it blank, a glaring mistake that took from me the definition of self, and brought me back to Kate. I’d heard of this with amputated legs, arms, fingers, and toes, but who has ever heard of a phantom breast?
To make matters worse, I could not stop picturing Kate and Timothy making love. At first it came discreetly, silently, not the way I would ever envision Kate’s desire, but as the nights went on and I heard nothing from them, I became obsessed. Kate’s body was so full, her breasts round and sure, nodding under silk shirts and cabled sweaters. Her tiny hips curved like crescent moons, her lips stained so deeply she must have tattooed color permanently there. Her body seemed required to keep rhythm with her gregariousness, but I strained to hear them together.
Perhaps Kate, or maybe even Timothy, believed that witnessing their desire would somehow harm me. Perhaps one of them noticed the way I moved, so I didn’t accidentally brush the space of my once left breast, so I didn’t have to not feel it. Maybe they saw I didn’t touch myself, or somehow knew my hands could no longer find pleasure. Perhaps they wondered why I never went out, not even for a night.
Or maybe they just began to notice the way I watched the two of them, always a pair, always together, moving in such unplanned sync. Maybe they noticed years ago, far before we’d ever dreamed of living as such a present three, the night of the college masquerade, she gazing at his face through cut out eyes, he laughing toward the sky, mask pulled on top of his head, resting his fingertips lightly on her exposed shoulder blades. I, on the verge of leaving them behind, together – my dress full that night, two real breasts holding it up and how I could taste their desire, even across the room. And they’d closed that space, caught my eye and come, unexpectedly, spun me between them, both, whispering, at one time: “You are beautiful Isabelle, can’t you see how beautiful you are tonight?”
It took a month. One month of not hearing them together, a month of endless pictures in my mind of their bodies melded, hers and his and theirs – pressing together while I sung in my nothingness. It took us to a deep Friday night in July, one month since I came to stay. It was humid and wet, Iowa green outside. A palatable green, one a person can smell, like earthy vegetables, broccoli and potatoes. As rain dripped from the willows shading the sun porch, the three of us sat listless on the long curving couch. Timothy hid behind the paper, Kate held a massive book open on her lap, and I slouched and flipped cards silently onto the coffee table, pretending to play solitaire. The cards landed with a soft flittering sound and Timothy rattled the paper a bit.
Suddenly Kate said, “Why don’t we ever talk about it, Isa?”
“About what?” I asked, turning another card.
She twisted up her mouth and sighed, looking at me the way she did when I was purposefully being frustrating.
“What would you like me to say?” I asked, putting down the deck of cards.
Kate looked at Timothy, who lowered the paper to watch.
Kate sighed again, this time it sounded weary.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“So am I,” she said softly. She scratched her nose and closed the book without
marking the page “You’ll lose your place,” I said. I picked up the cards and riffled them.
“Isa, come on, you’ve been here over a month and you never say anything about it,” she said. Timothy pressed the paper flat on his knees.
I ignored her and flipped some cards.
“Isa?” she asked.
“What do you want?” I burst out. Until that moment, for an entire month, we’d been living peacefully and politely, never pushing, never reacting, never speaking beneath the surface of anything. The way Kate and I always were, always had been, and the way I thought, we preferred.
I reached under my shirt and grabbed my prosthetic by its finely covered nipple and threw it at her. It landed between us on the couch. “Fuck,” I swore, glowering at it.
Timothy began to fold the paper into a square, but didn’t move otherwise -- only those hands, precisely making careful folds.
Kate reached out and gently picked up the cone shaped piece of silicon. She traced it with her fingertip and I tried not to watch. It was as if I could feel her on my missing breast, the real one, gone to wherever removed body parts go. I tried to ignore the itch of my bra against my scar. My hands shook. I tried to play more cards but they scattered from my fingertips to a pile under the table. I moved to pick them up.
“Leave them,” Timothy said quietly. I jerked my head up, almost hitting it on the table. He set the paper next to him.
Kate slid closer, the fake breast still in her hand. I held my hand out for it, but she dangled it just out of reach. “Damnit, Kate, come on,” I said. “Give it.” Instead she threw it over her shoulder. Rosco was attracted by the soft thud, and skidded after it on the hardwood floor. He batted at it, then realized it wouldn’t do much more and became bored. I tried to focus on the cat, but Kate knelt suddenly, directly in front of me, pushing the coffee table back. She locked her eyes to mine. I covered my empty chest with the flat of my hand.
“Trust me, Isa,” she whispered. She touched my trembling hand. “It’s me,” she said, squeezing my hand gently.
I didn’t know how to tell her that I’d dreamed of her touching me so many times. How I’d longed to feel her against me, and couldn’t stop dreaming of she and her husband making love when I had nothing left, but right then, in that moment, I could not bear her touching me, I could not bear her hands on my skin when it had become too late.
A sob escaped my chest, and I moved to pull away, but she caught both my hands. “Me, Isa,” she whispered again. “Look at me.”
I turned my head so I didn’t have to, and found Timothy at my side. My face ended up buried on his shoulder, and I could feel him resting his chin on my head. “It’s okay,” he repeated, over and over, and it began to resound in his chest like Rosco’s purr. Kate slipped her hands from mine to under my shirt, under my arms, grazing the scar, to gently pull my shirt over my head. My bra was flat on one side, full on the other, and Kate reached around to snap it off. My throat ached and I shut my eyes.
Kate ran her fingernail down over the scar. “Open your eyes,” she breathed. I locked my jaw and met her eyes, boring holes into mine. She traced the single line of Braille crossing my body, and leaned to press her lips to it, running her palms down my sides.
Timothy’s face still buried in my hair, moved behind my ear, his nose rested on my neck, his lips on my shoulder. I choked on the life moving up from my center, and as the tears came, I folded into the center of them, and let their hands reinvent me.
T. A. Rayl holds and M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Montana and completed her Ph.D. in creative writing the University of Houston. She has been a staff editor for Gulf Coast, and her work has been found small journals, such as the Coe Review, a collection entitled Turning up the Leaves, in audio format on the Houston Diverseworks phone line, and forthcoming in 06 in The Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly.