Leora had been home from the hospital for eleven days when she hosted Margie’s baby shower. She’d spent two nights in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center after her operation (the doctors called it post-op–making it sound like the follow-up to an exciting adventure that Leora could not even vaguely remember) because of “drainage complications,” a disturbingly inadequate explanation that neither she nor her husband could make sense of. Everything had gone reasonably well, according to her oncologist, but there was something about fluid and swelling and a threat of infection that made people speak in hushed voices in the hallway before coming in to address her.
“Nothing to worry about. Just focus on getting better,” Dr. Conrad told her, clipboard in hand, as though this was something she could dedicate herself to in any concrete way.
“Just tell me it’s sepsis and I’ll kill myself right here,” Leora had muttered to her husband, Alan. He shushed her dismissively, his lap piled high with pamphlets labeled Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and YOU! and Full Living with IDC. Leora was uninterested. She’d read the books: the memoirs and personal tales of triumph over breast cancer written by young, attractive women with permanent tans who ran half-marathons and hiked Kilimanjaro while their hair fell out in blonde, shiny clumps. She wouldn’t be one of those women, at least not in this lifetime, but that didn’t mean she had to be maudlin.
“You don’t have to make everything a joke,” Alan said, pushing back his hair from his forehead. He was beginning to sweat, as he always did when the doctors spoke to them. His short, reddish eyelashes were nearly invisible in the humming fluorescent light of her hospital room and Leora wondered for perhaps the hundredth time if they would have red-headed children.
“You’re right,” she said dryly. “I wouldn’t kill myself. I’d just wait patiently for the sepsis to do me in.”
Now back at home, she was starting to appreciate her scar, and considered it the second best thing that could possibly display itself across the left side of her rib cage. It consisted of a mostly horizontal line where they’d made the incision and eighteen small slashes where the nurses stitched her up after removing all 76.4 ounces of fat and tissue that it had taken her months of pre-teen prayer to accrue. (Truthfully, she’d expected something heavier. Something to explain the faint indents that always formed across her shoulders where her bra straps dug into her skin. “That’s it?” she’d said to Alan. “Seventy-something ounces?”) It looked like how she would have drawn a scar as a child, with the hatch-marks evenly spaced like the Holocaust time line she’d made in the seventh grade. Leora often stood naked in front of the mirror and looked at the canyon that dipped into her left chest muscle. She imagined drawing a picture of Frankenstein over the flat section of her chest, allowing the scar to cross his forehead like the one where his brains were removed in the old illustrations. She could do this for Halloween– color his face bright green with those oily crayons, a black bolt on either side– and leave it visible, exposing her chest in a way she hadn’t since she was ten years old and without even a suggestion of indecency.
Despite nearly two weeks of healing time, the area remained red and raw and Leora often placed her hand there to see if the skin was warm, something Dr. Conrad told her was a common sign of infection. Unfortunately, she was never quite sure how warm was warm, and so her hand rested over her scar– sometimes for the better part of an hour– until she missed her breast so much she could hardly breathe.
And then she got dressed.
She’d chosen a blue jumper for Margie’s shower, pulling it on carefully over the bandages taped to her chest and massaging the gelatinous sac that filled the left side of her bra until it warmed up and began to take shape. She had purchased a special mastectomy bra for $40.95 along with a fake breast (the color of a sickly peach, complete with a textured nipple a half-inch smaller than Leora’s other one and about three shades darker) for nearly $90.00 on a website called HelpMeHeal!.com. She couldn’t help but notice that this company where they referred to the breast-like insert as a prosthesis, as though it was a plastic leg or wooden arm that was allowing her walk or feed herself, was owned by a man named Charles who looked as though he’d never seen a real breast in his adult life. Still, his company sold every kind of bra she could imagine, front-closure and sporty and under-wire, describing the white lacy contraptions as “appropriate for all types of total mastectomy/breast cancer surgery procedures, with a stylish side-panel pocket to hold your breast form prosthesis in place!” All the women on the site looked so happy with themselves and their falsies that Leora could hardly envision their bare chests displayed on a steel operating table, their iodine-coated skin split open to reveal the fine ladder of their ribs.
It really did look close to natural, even on her, and she smiled into the mirror, allowing herself to pretend she was blindly happy. Two-breasted and free.
Leora set up her dining room table with small, baby-bottle-shaped candles and pastel colored mints in glass bowls. She attached curled pink ribbons to the chandelier hanging over her table and made a sign with misshapen letters that said Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! She stole this phrase from the title of a book she’d never read, and she hung the sign high over the mantle in her living room where she assumed Margie would open gifts while everyone sat around drinking wine and taking pictures. It’s sweetly homemade look was unintentional but pleased her. It made it seem like she was trying, which she supposed she was.
“I’m going to head out. You need anything else?” Alan had done what he always did when they gave parties: purchased drinks and brought the cooler up from the basement. Sodas and wine bottles bobbed in the ice-filled chest at his feet. He seemed anxious, standing in front of her with a case of Ginger Ale half empty in his freckled arms, as unsure about her decision to go through with hosting the event as she was. “Need me to move some furniture around? Do we have enough chairs?” He knew how she’d stressed over the shower because she’d been distant for the last week, making list after list, preoccupied with every small detail.
She noticed him glancing down at her breasts, as if expecting to see something new and unusual in their place.
“Do they look alright? Can you tell it’s fake?”
He put down the sodas. “They look great.” He seemed honest, but she could no longer really tell. He had been peppering her with compliments since the surgery, insisting that the dark circles under her eyes were hardly noticeable and her unwashed hair was silky and, wow, had she lost weight? Anything to keep from mentioning what had been so abruptly cleaved from her body. Of course, she had lost weight, at least technically speaking. She had lost 76.4 ounces of muscle and fat that she’d hardly noticed until it was gone.
“We have enough chairs,” she said.
“Alright, I’m off then. Call my cell phone if you need me. I can be back here in ten minutes if something goes wrong.”
“What would go wrong?” She had considered everything except the possibility that something could go wrong. Her scar could split open. No, it was too far healed. She could burst into tears, but that seemed unlikely. What if no one showed up? She would sit in the living room and slowly eat all the pastel mints until her stomach began to throb. In some small way, this appealed to her.
“Nothing,” Alan said. “Nothing will go wrong.” He kissed her head as though she was a child and let the door close heavily behind him.
Leora shared a room for the last two nights she spent in the hospital. The woman next to her was nearly sixty, moved down from the ICU after receiving a lung transplant a week earlier.
“Betcha didn’t know they could even do that,” the woman spat, her voice gravelly. She frequently tried to sit up without warning and began to cough, her lungs rattling, audible even from where Leora lay in her bed. Her dyed red hair was piled on top of her head in a way that defied gravity, swirling into itself and steadied with a single hair pin. Leora wondered what she would look like in street clothes.
“Lung transplants? No,” she cleared her throat. “I guess I knew. But that’s wonderful.” She meant that the woman had gotten a lung, of course, but once they left her mouth the words hung in air and a strange silence followed. Leora took a sip of lukewarm water from the Styrofoam cup at her bedside and looked toward the door.
“Wonderful? That my lung gave out?”
“No, no. I mean, that you were able to be matched with a donor.” Leora closed her eyes; she hoped Alan would be arriving soon. His presence seemed to be the only thing that quieted the woman.
“You lost a boob, right? I got a black man’s lung.”
Leora was silent, unsure how to respond. “Wow,” she said, straightening the blankets over her lap. “A lung’s a lung, I guess.” She pictured its slippery, fish-like appearance. The color of Salmon. Didn’t everyone’s lungs look the same? Leora wondered how the woman even knew who her donor had been. Wasn’t that information kept confidential? And the man must have died within the last couple days. He probably hadn’t even had a funeral yet. Leora felt a chill slip under her nightgown.
The woman coughed loudly and a nurse looked up before glancing at the clock and back down to her work. “Maybe there’s a list you could get on. You know, for a new one. Do they donate those? Or, well, not donate.” She paused to catch her breath, waited long enough that Leora wondered if she’d decided not to continue. “Suppose he died, my donor. You wouldn’t just give up your lung.”
Leora tried again to clear her throat and felt a pull in her chest. She imagined the stitches coming apart, the skin tearing where it had been sutured. “How do you know your donor was a man?” she asked quietly, almost hoping the woman wouldn’t hear her.
The woman appeared confused. “Well, it’s in my body. I can feel it.”
Leora nodded, tried to look understanding. There was nothing she could say. She remembered the woman’s question, about a breast donor. Dear God, was she serious? “In my situation,” she said, “I think they’ll just start with my skin and make a new one. An implant. Silicone. Or saline.” The truth was, Leora had carefully gone through the paperwork explaining exactly how her breast would be reconstructed. She had the option of taking fat from her abdomen, to make the new breast feel “warmer and more natural,” but another major wound seemed excessive. Reading aloud under the heading Nipple-Areola Reconstruction, Alan had listed her nipple replacement choices two weeks before her surgery. She’d pulled the bed sheet up over her chest and held tightly to her breasts while he read. They seemed to fit perfectly in her hands.
“Okay, here’s what we’re working with. A) surgically gathered skin tattooed to look natural.” Alan leaned forward. “Wow, that’s crazy. I guess it’s a few months later in the doctor’s office, they just pull out a tattoo gun and make it look real. Shit. The picture looks pretty real, too. I mean, this lady’s kind of old, but–” Alan held out the brochure and Leora looked away.
“Next one,” she said.
“Okay. So, b) a stick-on latex nipple that has to be glued on daily. It’s like a rubber sticker, I guess? But it says the glue can be messy. I don’t really know what that means. Weird. Look at this. What if you stick it to the wrong place? Can you get it off?” They’d laughed loudly, picturing the process of super-gluing a latex nipple onto a different part of her body each morning. It seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be caught in a social situation where she felt the need to pull off her nipple for effect.
“I could just hand it to you at a party,” Leora said. “And you’d stick it in your pocket. It’d be a riot.”
“Seriously though,” Alan straightened his face. “We’d probably lose it. I mean, literally. Just drop it somewhere. Down the drain. And they’re expensive to replace.” Leora nodded, as though this was her primary concern.
“Okay, no nipple sticker. What else?” The last option was a nipple created from Leora’s own body tissue, but it had a high risk of being reabsorbed into her breast, like a foreign object. The pamphlet said some women had it done over and over again, and each time they would wake up one morning to realize it had disappeared. This, too, seemed hysterical, and Leora found herself hiccupping through laughter that almost sounded real.
They finally decided on the tattoo.
“Then I can say I’ve been inked. It’s something to take off my list of things to do before I die.”
Alan said nothing, but refolded the brochure and placed it carefully on his nightstand.
Now, staring blankly at the awkward arrangement of chairs in her living room, Leora wondered where in the hospital’s tons of garbage her own nipple had gone. It had been perfectly round and so soft, almost plump. So completely alive. She imagined going to find it, sifting through shriveled hearts and diseased lungs, and then preserving it like a raisin in a glass of water on her mantle. A trophy.
Aleida, a co-worker of Margie’s, was the first to arrive to the shower and she immediately held her finger to her lips, stifling Leora’s greeting.
“I just got him to sleep. God. What a nightmare.” She gestured at the carrier holding her infant, a little boy named King. (“Is that a joke?” Leora had asked when she stopped by the hospital four months earlier, Aleida sitting up in bed with her son latched onto her breast like a small feral monkey, but the look on Aleida’s face told her it wasn’t. “He’s named after my father, David,” she’d said, by way of explanation.) Aleida let a diaper bag drop from her shoulder. “You know, the whole ride here: crying, crying. Then we pull onto your street and it’s like magic. Asleep.”
Leora smiled in a way that she hoped implied empathetic understanding, and made an obligatory peek into the car seat, gazing up at Aleida with eyes that told her her son was the most beautiful child she’d ever seen. As though her own womb ached in his presence. In truth, King had a kind of baldness that Leora had never seen on anyone under the age of forty. His cradle cap was beginning to loosen and so flecks of scalp lodged their way between the fine hairs that sprouted from his head. He wasn’t ugly, but a red, raised bump on his cheek made Leora want to turn away.
“Such a beauty,” she said, taking Aleida’s purse and bringing it in her bedroom. Purses and coats in the bedroom: That was something her mother had taught her, and she could still remember running to the bedroom get her grandmother’s cold fur coat on Christmas Eve, brushing her goosebumped arms up against the silk lining. Her grandmother had died almost twenty years earlier of breast cancer. She’d refused the mastectomy and moved to Paris instead, insisting she was “leaving these goddamn quacks and taking my girls with me.” At the time Leora had considered her brave, but now she wondered if her grandmother wasn’t mentally ill.
“I’ll just throw him in there too,” Aleida said, gesturing at King with her free hand. “Where it’s quiet.” Leora thought it seemed strange that Aleida would leave her baby in the empty bedroom but said nothing as they walked back out toward the hall.
Soon two other women from the neighborhood arrived together, and within half an hour the living room was full of loud laughter and the sound of tearing paper.
“Good call on the wine!” someone shouted to Leora as she rushed back in to check on the quiche.
“Hey,” Tessa said. “You better not be taking credit for that.” She sat on the edge of the counter, her stomach bulging offensively from beneath her purple cable knit sweater. Tessa, technically the shower’s co-host, was also pregnant, a state she conducted with far less grace than Margie. The fact that she couldn’t drink was not something she accepted easily, and she had convinced Leora to serve wine even though it was an early afternoon gathering. “Just because I can’t drink doesn’t mean I want to watch everyone else be all blah,” she said matter-of-factly. “Su boring es mi bored.”
Leora smirked, reaching for a potholder that hung to the side of the refrigerator. She had gone along with it, hardly willing to argue with Tessa’s decision that all baby showers were dull unless everyone was well-liquored. Already, she could perfectly picture the way her glass of red wine was wooing the Oxycodone she took for pain. It was the best she had felt in months.
“Oh, I meant to tell you. So we were talking about names last night. Me and Kevin. And my grandfather was named Claude. You know, Clo-duh.” Tessa mimicked her perception of a French accent, pinching her fingers in the air as if she’d just tasted something delicious. “So I suggested it. You know, for the baby.”
“Mmhmm?” Leora pierced a toothpick into the center of the quiche and nodded her head to assure Tessa she was listening.
“And Kevin goes, ‘Isn’t Claude kind of... faggy?’” Tessa paused for a moment to allow her friend time to absorb what she’d said. “I almost died. My own husband.”
“Wow,” Leora pulled open the oven, let the heat rush to her face as she slid the tray onto the second shelf. “I mean, yeah, no. I’d never think he’d say that.” She closed the oven door and placed the potholder on the counter, turning to face Tessa. The truth was, faggy was precisely the type of thing she’d expect Kevin to say, but there was no use in telling Tessa that since she’d already married him.
“Faggy! As though people actually say that. People who aren’t completely idiotic and ignorant. So I just dropped it and left the room. I still can’t believe it. Faggy. For fuck’s sake.” Tessa leaned back against the cabinets, pulling one of the forks up in front of her face to examine its spots the light. She’d made the salad which looked at her sadly from the kitchen table, pre-dressed and already beginning to wilt.
“I know.” Leora knew there was something else she should be doing. Quiche, salad, banana bread, lemon squares, fruit. There was something else. “He could have just said feminine,” she offered.
“Exactly. I don’t fucking care if he likes the name but Jesus. Who even says faggy? So now I’m like, great, I get to have this baby with a goddamn homophobic.”
Leora felt a twinge in her chest, a feeling she’d become accustomed to. The incision wound was healing and so it itched, the skin drying out as it wove itself back together in what was turning out to be a eerily quick process, making her fear the day she’d forget her breast had ever been there at all. She tried to casually rub at her chest with the inside of her wrist as she reached for water glasses.
“Anyway, whatever. I married a redneck. What else is new?”
“No, no. I’d be upset too. Do you think we have enough water glasses? Is twelve enough? Because I could bring more up from the basement. I mean, if you don’t think twelve is enough.”
“Twelve is fine. Everybody’s drinking wine anyway. Except me, stuck with this friggin baby.” Tessa dipped her finger into the salad dressing and licked it clean. “Fucking Kevin.”
Leora had originally decided to limit herself to one glass of wine but the thought of another three hours with nineteen frantically breeding women exhausted her. She opened one of the wine coolers and felt the cold slip down the back of her throat. Before the surgery, she’d worried she’d never have the chance to drink alcohol again. Now it tasted kind of strange, not entirely how she remembered, as though her taste buds had somehow altered in the time since she was anesthetized.
Leora walked past Tessa and peeked into the living room where Margie was opening gifts. The guests were all clustered around her drinking wine, talking about their husbands and jobs, dangling small, bright-colored objects in front of the babies who lay motionless on the floor. Meanwhile, Margie tore off animal-covered wrapping paper and gushed over diapers and miniature patent-leather shoes.
“We should go watch presents,” Leora said, slipping back into the kitchen.
“Are you kidding? The drunks have been opening presents for half an hour. Nobody needs to see twenty pairs of tiny pink pajamas. Picture it all regular size. It makes it far less entertaining.”
“You better look thrilled when it’s your turn. I got you the same thing I got Margie, but regular size, for when he grows up.”
Tessa rolled her eyes. “Mmm. I already told you. I don’t want a shower. Pretend I’m Jewish and it’s bad luck.”
“You are Jewish,” Leora said.
The sound of laughter broke out and Leora hurried into the living room, wondering what she’d missed. Margie was sitting in the leather chair holding up a patchwork quilt made of pictures of two little girls. The images had been silk-screened onto the pink and purple fabrics: two little girls in dresses in front of a fountain, two little girls hunched over a sand castle at the beach, two little girls naked in the bathtub. Margie’s sister Claire was smiling broadly, clearly pleased with herself.
“Oh it’s beautiful,” someone gushed.
“What a great idea!”
“I love it,” Margie said, looking to her sister. “I love it.”
“You do?” Claire clasped her hands in front of her chest as if in prayer. “I'm so glad.”
Leora wandered back into the kitchen, half-smiling to herself. It was a great idea, far more creative than anything Leora could have come up with. Even if she'd had a sister (she’d always wanted one, and saw her brother—born when she was nearly twelve—as some kind of cruel consolation prize), she couldn't imagine doing something so unique, something so thoughtful. Leora considered herself notorious for giving kind but forgettable gifts. Thank you so much for the gloves! a friend had written once in a Thank You note, creamy white paper with tiny flowers around the border. I love them! Leora had never mentioned to her friend, who continued to wear the brown chenille gloves each time they got together, that she had in fact given her a leather bound journal with a flowery pen she'd found in a stationery store.
Tessa remained where she had been, sitting up on the counter with her sweater folded up
over itself, her belly button lodged like a chickpea in its swollen center. She was staring down at her stomach and poking it with her index finger, as though expecting some kind of response. Leora looked at the blue branches of Tessa's veins, barely visible beneath her stretched skin. She imagined the baby inside, a little boy, finding his fingers and placing them in his fluid-filled mouth. She wondered how big he was, whether he had eyelashes and miniature fingernails.
“You look good,” Leora said. “Healthy.”
“Oh, spare me,” Tessa looked up. “I look like shit. Though maybe better than you did at the hospital. I'll give you that.”
Leora faintly remembered baskets of flowers crowding her windowsill and a fat Get Well! balloon eclipsing the blinding spring sun, but had no memory of receiving any visitors at Beth Israel. All that stuck in her mind were the woman with the black man's lung and the slipper-socks she was given by one of the nurses with skids on the bottom, white puffy paint spelling out MediSupply and an 800-number.
“You came?” she asked.
“To visit you? Of course I did.” Tessa pulled her sweater back down and crossed her ankles. “You were just getting over the lympho-whatever you had. You were out like a light. Alan and I sat and talked about that time we all went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show in college and you and I wore black fishnets. You remember that? We got really drunk and you told Alan you thought his Mom was fat.”
“I remember,” Leora said, smiling. “We were young.”
“We still are young,” Tessa said. “Should we put the food out?”
“Hey, you two!” Kelly, one of Margie's friends from college, entered Leora's kitchen looking amused, an empty wine glass in one hand and a pale pink candle in the other. “These are great. Where'd you find them?” Kelly spoke too loudly. Her reddish-brown hair seemed to curl in all directions from her face and her cheeks had taken on a splotchy pink glow. She looked strangely like she'd just woken up.
Leora wanted to admit that the candles had been passed around for all of her cousins’ showers– that one of them was missing a chunk of the nipple if you looked at it closely– but feared that would sound inconsiderate. “Party People,” she said, glancing at Tessa who knew right well that they'd been unearthed from the basement two nights before, dust trapped in their waxy surfaces. “They have this whole baby shower section with the greatest stuff.” Why was she elaborating on this lie? Hadn't Party People closed a couple years back?
“They're great,” Kelly said again. How much she'd been drinking was evident on her face, her eyes glassy and her smile unnaturally wide. Leora debated offering them to her to keep, but remembered that Kelly was struggling with infertility and would unlikely want bottle-shaped candles lurking around her house. “So how are you doing, Tess?” Kelly asked.
Tessa groaned. Her general discomfort was evident, unlike Margie who carried the extra 35 pounds like an unexpected tan or a new haircut.
“Oh you know. Pregnant. Better than Leora, though. Can't really complain.”
Leora widened her eyes at Tessa, which Tessa failed to notice.
“Oh right, I heard about your gallbladder. How are you feeling?”
“Your gallbladder?” Tessa paused and looked to Leora, her cheeks growing flush. Leora held her breath. She remembered their phone conversation right after she was diagnosed, where she'd instructed Tessa not tell anyone, not even her husband. “Fuck,” Tessa said, and then quickly covered her mouth.
Returning to her office after her biopsy results, Leora had taken a medical leave from work, mumbling something about her gallbladder as she grabbed her things. She'd even looked up what her gallbladder did on the Internet and decided to give herself Cholestasis, a disease that sounded just serious enough to keep her out of work for two weeks but not serious enough for people to come visit her. It was still written on a napkin that she kept by her computer in case anyone called from work. It had all made perfect sense. Now, she was suddenly embarrassed by her lie, unable to remember why she felt the need to keep it all hidden. As though she’d done something wrong by getting breast cancer in the first place.
“No, it's nothing.” She paused, saw the way Kelly's expression had turned to concern, her eyebrows high with expectation. “It wasn't actually that. I just had one of my breasts removed because I have breast cancer.”
Maybe it was the wine. Was she feeling it already? Kelly's eyes widened, and for a moment she stared silently, as if confused. Her eyes dropped to Leora's chest.
“Shit, I'm sorry,” Kelly said, and Leora began to laugh. At first it was under her breath and then she heard herself getting louder and louder. Her chest hurt and she clutched her false breast as she laughed.
“Wait. Really?” Kelly looked back and forth between Leora's breasts, as if hoping to spot the fake. She grinned, watching Leora try to catch her breath. “Which one's gone?”
“Kelly,” Tessa said, her hand still covering her mouth.
“No, no, it's okay. Guess,” Leora said. She shook her chest at the women, feeling for a moment as if both her breasts were there. As if she could lift her shirt and still see both of her nipples, petal-soft and the color of milky coffee.
“What, did you stuff one with tissues? Are you kidding?”
“Come here,” Leora wiped at her eyes. “I'll show you.”
“Seriously?” Tessa eased herself off the counter. “Can I see, too?”
The bathroom light was brighter than Leora remembered. It gave off a dull hum when turned on and when she caught her reflection in the mirror she looked faintly blue, pieces of her thin brown hair having fallen from her barrette. She hadn't thought to scrub out the sink where small white spots of toothpaste had splattered and dried. Kelly quietly closed the door behind her, laughing silently at her own drunkenness. She sat on the toilet to get her balance, leaning forward so she could see past Tessa's stomach.
Leora stood, her jumper lifted up over her chest, her thin legs cold against the shower door. She could have unzipped her jumper and pulled it down from the top but for some reason she was unbothered by her white, cotton underwear and the dark pillow of her pubic hair barely visible underneath. It's gone it's gone it's gone, she whispered to herself, softening the warm feeling of shock that still came each time she undressed and saw the half-smile of a scar looking back at her. She unclasped her bra and slowly pulled back the tape, exposing the dip in her chest muscles and the cool purple of the cut, the small pieces of thread that had yet to dissolve. She followed it with her finger, across her chest and up toward her armpit.
“It's almost like Frankenstein, the scar across his forehead,” she said. No one spoke. Kelly's smile had faded and her head tilted slightly to one side.
“It's– Wow.” Tessa reached toward Leora and then pulled her hand back. It hovered for a moment in the space between them before resting on top of her stomach, as if to cover its eyes. “I mean, it's just gone.”