I will be posting a story a day for a good while. These short-stories and shorts will likely be apart of the next collection in the Worked Stiff Series, Worked Stiff: Short-Stories to Tell Your Boss. This one, “Survivor”, should hit home if you or anyone you know has had cancer. Your feedback is always appreciated. Happy Reading!
I am a survivor. No, I don’t have bumper stickers and I don’t go on the walks. I absolutely hate the color pink. I’m just not that kind of survivor. Marjorie tried to get me to go on some kind of fundraising march to nowhere one weekend, only a short time after my hair started to grow back from the radiation treatments. Sure, I registered for the walk, I paid the fee, and I even received a packet in the mail with a t-shirt. But that crisp Saturday morning when Marjorie first texted that she was on her way to pick me up, I tried for my good friend, but I just could not make myself go. Of course, that meant that she couldn’t go either, at least she felt that way because she never had breast cancer. She tried to convince me over the phone, caressing my wits, telling me that I deserved the recognition, that there might be more people like me. More people like me, I loathed the thought.
The truth was I didn’t want to meet anyone else like me. I wanted to forget any of it ever happened. I didn’t want to go back to work until I could at least manage avoidance of my husband Bill, and most days I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I was in the bathroom one morning, Billy in the shower with the heat pouring out, covering the glass with his wretched steam. I feverishly tied the bathroom door shut with my bathrobe belt and managed to undress in front of the full-length on the backside of the door. I did not feel empowered by my survival as I looked at what was left of my body that morning, or any morning and Marjorie didn’t understand.
The problem with people around you when you’re sick is that they pretend to comprehend your level of suffering. The truth is that I never wanted anyone to care. All I ever wanted was someone to talk to me like I was normal. It made me wish that I never told anybody after I left the doctor’s office that first day. That first day when they told me that I had a sixty percent chance of survival and that they would have to do more tests. I thought later that maybe they didn’t tell me the sixty percent part but that’s what I heard. They told me that I had a malignant tumor the size of a key in my left breast and it was a very, very good thing that they found it then, at that exact moment, rather than later. I was apparently lucky. I do not consider myself lucky and the truth, the truth that I could never tell Marjorie, was that I would rather have not known.
From the first day in the office, after my general practitioner felt a lump, I felt like I was a victim of one of those snipers in the movies on the big screen. A confirmed kill, that’s what I was. From that day, throughout the chemo, before and after the simple mastectomy, through to some of the recovery, I truly wanted to be a survivor. I did make friends with some of the ladies there who were also getting the drip. I joined support groups before my hair started growing back, but little by little, I secretly wanted nothing to do with any of it.
Marjorie wouldn’t hear any of this sad talk, but I figured that she knew anyway. God bless her heart, she tried to do so much for me and she really cared about being there in a spiritual sense, support for my backbone. But the truth was that I had no backbone, not anymore. Yes, I appreciated her rides when I was too weak to drive myself. I appreciated her talking to the nurses and doctors when I began to not care. She thought that was because I was too fragile when that simply wasn’t the case, not physically anyway. I just grew so tired of talking about me. How do I feel? How was I getting along? How is my digestion? Did I wake up in the middle of the night? How was my sex life?
Oh that, well, sex ended long before my first horrifying appointment. My sleaze ball lawyer for a husband and his 22-year-old paralegal made sure of that before they gave one of my love cups the old snip snip.
Sure, Bill was real nice when we were just coming up or should I say William S. Montgomery Esq. as he was known to his even more sleazy clients. Did I marry an injury attorney? No, of course not. I married the man that I met first, how stupid. Worse than that, I lost my virginity to him. Both my parents are dead and gone now so I am free to call them what they were, stupid zealot Catholics.
Growing up, I was what most people thought the opposite of the Catholic school girl, I actually was good. I truly believed that I was to go to hell if I did not behave. And I also believed in that ridiculous princess story about saving myself for the right man. What all that religious fervor didn’t prepare me for was just what the right man looked like, acted like, how he was to speak. I thought when I was a freshman in college that he looked, acted and spoke like Billy. Oh Billy, with that swaying brown hair that he combed only to meet me, with that worthy smile that you could just pin down and capture, put in a box and just look at it. He sure was charming alright, but William S. Montgomery was not doing any charming to me now.
Bill was the first one that I told in a fire of foolishness. I rushed right on home, calling him all the way. He didn’t answer and I still have no idea why I expected him to. Sitting there, giving the urgent message to call me through my car’s Bluetooth, listening to his tacky, official voicemail greeting. That was when I knew that I was alone. He could say he was in a meeting, with a client, or in court. Sure, he could say that, and did all the time. While that may have been true, I knew that at least half the time he ever gave me that line, he was porking Sandy, that little blonde heartache of a paralegal that sat out front, the gatekeeper for Billy’s office. She probably stopped wearing underwear to work after the first week, if ever at all.
I imagined him trying out his paralegals during the interview process. I could see Billy fondling them for youth, caressing their breasts, their breasts without tumors, their perky B-cups. No, perhaps he remained totally professional, an air of innocence until one late night of working and trial victory all fell into place. That’s what Billy was, a right-place, right-time man with the plausible deniability to boot.
I found out for the first time when I pinged his phone, called it too and she answered, got him to take the call and then he lumbered along telling me some kind of excuse with a totally different location. One must love modern technology and a shared phone plan.
Bill had been sleeping with Sandy, if not a few others, at least six months before that first diagnosis. He was cold to me long before and my expectations weren’t any different after I told him I had breast cancer. No, I would’ve probably hated him even more if he promised to stop screwing Sandy and actually fell through with it. I didn’t even let him try. He told me in his lawyer tone that everything was going to be all right and that he was truly sorry and just when he started to say that he was going to stop seeing Sandy, empty promises of this and that, I held out my hand and told him to shush.
Bill thought I was looking for sympathy, just like the rest. How foolish. What I was ultimately trying to say, or rather, inform him was that I would be out for a while. Out of work, out of the house, out of life and that he would have to adjust accordingly. He replied by saying whatever you need and even tried to hug me, how sweet and what a sap.
All those people were saps. The only ones I really felt comfortable around were the nurses, especially the older hardened ones. They had seen it all before and I wasn’t going to render any sympathy from them and I was appreciative. All I ever got from those nurses were tough love and medicine and that was all I ever needed.
I truly just wanted to give up. Just like other times in my life, finishing college, getting married, having a kid, I was just going through the motions of what was acceptable within modern society. Acceptable was getting senile. Acceptable was feeling like I wanted to die. Acceptable was losing my hair and better yet, losing one of my tits.
What I really wanted to do, after that first appointment, before ever telling anybody else about my problem, was go home, clean out all of our bank accounts and safety deposit boxes, set the house on fire and just disappear. I would take my seldom used passport and find some spot on the map where there was both sand and legal weed for someone in my condition. This was my right. It was my life, it was my tumor.
Why couldn’t I just take my tumor, left breast intact and sail off into the sunset? What the hell was wrong with that? How come the doctors and nurses didn’t give that as an option? Why wasn’t there a financial advisor after the appointment, hell along with the divorce attorney too? We could sit down and discuss my real options. Where was that box to check? Where was the form for my bucket list? Was I too young? Was forty-five too young to just step out, exit stage left?
At least I had Marjorie. I really appreciated her help but didn’t show it. She did more talking about me to other people I think than talking to me, something I hated but never told her. I knew that she meant well. Marjorie and I talked about the affair and she was quick to give me advice on the state of my marriage. She had already been through a divorce and I was there for her, so she felt like she owed me or something. I was always interested in being there for other people in times of fright or injustice or a gun barrel or cheating. But if any of these things ever happened to me I wanted to be like a good loyal dog, trot into the forest and die alone.
Marjorie had quite the run with her ex-husband too and I figured in the man department, neither one of us were meant for excellence. Her doctor husband had been cheating on her with an older woman, the thought of that, an older woman, can you imagine? His mistress was ten years older than Marjorie and a goddamn patient too. After the divorce and after Marjorie got nearly everything on account of one of my husband’s friends taking up her cause, her doctor man headed down a real slippery slope. Marjorie’s ex ended up getting sued for malpractice shortly after their divorce and was later found by one of their kids snorting coke off a stripper’s tits in the bathroom of a nightclub. Oh, the tangled webs we weave.
Speaking of tits, after the state-of-the-art treatment, I only had one. I remember a day or two after, when I was still laid up in bed, the first time I came out and sat on the couch and had some chicken soup, Bill tried to broach the subject of getting implants. I assumed he was on some kind of hiatus from Sandy or whatever else he was growing in his slick office. Out of a sense of posterity, he showed some type of concern for my body. He hadn’t shown that level of concern for my body in five years. Sure, we had sex during that time but not one of us was ever there. It’s difficult to say that it was all his fault, or that he lost interest in sex with me because of me, but he must have been sleeping around for a long time. Money and power will corrupt any man.
The truth was that I lost interest in the subtle dance of our youth. Sure, I put on makeup, the same as everybody else. I wore nice dresses for an office party or anniversary. I played the part of the lawyer’s wife. I worked out at least two or three times a week, I ate pretty healthy considering what most Americans call food these days. I was still pretty skinny too, no gray hair showed that a box wouldn’t fix. I was what most people would consider a milf, that’s the term, right? Mother I’d like to… The truth was that Bill didn’t lose interest in me, at least not right away, I lost interest in me. It is so cliché but I felt like there was something missing. I devoted my life to my husband, his career, our son Daniel who is now in his first year of law school, a horrifying spitting image of his father.
I devoted my life and what did I get? A tumor, I got a tumor. I guess some might say that I got a big house in a nice neighborhood with no crime to speak of, a bank account that I never had to worry about, a Jaguar like I always wanted, and a walk in closet all to myself. For the people in this world that think that is justified compensation for giving my life to a sleazy, no good injury lawyer who put on the charms to my little virgin Catholic ass have got another thing coming. Billy scooped me up with a wide shovel like a cleft of snow thrown out of the walkway and I just let him.
To justify my existence by all those material things would basically label me as a whore, a prostitute begging for affection. Was I a prostitute? If I was, I was expensive. Sure, sure, I was a mother and that was important. I love Daniel but let’s go and cover what I accomplished. I was an instrument and I bread another identical copy of him. Not only was Daniel following in his father’s footsteps, he spoke like his father, he smelled like his father, he drank scotch like his father and he used the same phrasing that his father did on poor innocent women. Was this all the women were good for? A vassal for the preponderance of sleaziness? I beg to differ.
I bet nobody ever talked about this in the support groups or the walks. I bet all they ever wanted to talk about was how hard it had been, how afraid they were, how difficult it was to fit into a real bra now, and how hard it was to go back. I experienced just a taste of all of this, which was why I never made it to more of those meetings. I was never afraid, just heartbroken. I do miss my left breast but I didn’t want to go back, I was pissed.
For a while, when my hair started to grow again, all I really ended up doing was sitting by the pool. It was kind of nice. I had my Kindle, I had my morning smoothies that Greta our new aging housekeeper would make. I listened to music and took a dip whenever I wanted. There were no mirrors out by the pool either. Splishing and splashing was kind of fun, it felt like summer vacation and I was a little girl again. Actually, what I really felt like was a teenager. I smoked some weed that I hid from Bill, I stayed up all hours of the night watching movies and eating ice cream. I swam and read all day and I had no inclination of ever going back to work. It was great. I could have lasted a long time just like that.
Bill would come out in the evenings, smoking a cigar and always with his scotch. Sometimes, he would take notice of my toned body as the sun began to set. How do you wear a bikini with one breast? I didn’t care to ask. One could wear a special garment, but my C-cup right baby was just enough. I felt fine within myself, that didn’t mean I wanted to go stare at myself in the mirror and look at my empty left chest. But I felt dignified, tanned, even skinny from the chemo, and I knew I still had a nice ass and I knew that Bill was somehow curious about me. He must have known at least a little but I would never sleep with him ever again.
When I first came back from the hospital, an expensive hospital bed was set up in the lower den which overlooked the backyard, the game room where Daniel used to play pool, watch movies, and entertain friends. I stayed put right there, even after I fully recovered, even after I could tie my hair in a small ponytail. I had better access to the pool from that room anyway.
I would have lunch with Marjorie and we would gossip, do our usual thing at Café Santa Monica, the absolute best place to get a tuna melt in a hefty pita that I’ve ever had. Even when I went to the chemo, I never lost my appetite for tuna. It was the only thing I could eat for a while. It was at Café Santa Monica where I saw him, or rather, he saw me first.
Marjorie said that a waiter assigned to another set of tables kept looking over at me. I told her she was crazy. I moved my hair behind my ear, adjusted my top and blushed anyway. I refused to wear a prosthetic which called for a few strangers looking here and there, especially when I wore a tank top like I did that day and figured it was just that, a double-take for the viewer’s satisfaction, a guess that the eyes saw what was actually missing.
His name was Edwardo, he was Dominican, young and handsome. His shaved bald head and thin mustache gave him an out of place look as a waiter despite his youth. That first night and several others, I got a hotel room, only the finest would do. Edwardo became a part of the luxury, an amenity that I did not care about, other than that he pleased me. He pleased me and I made him and I liked the cold yet titillating feeling of using a man. He kissed my scar as he did my other breast and I loved him for that and only that. I cared nothing for his hopes, his dreams, or his future. I lived in the moment. I got massages by the pool, ordered Daiquiris and giggled with Marjorie and texted Edwardo when I wanted, when I felt like I could use him and steal his moments, make them my own.
I moved out and into the hotel shortly after I met Edwardo, but not because of him, I did it for me. I divorced Bill and put the squeeze on him so hard, that hidden money rained down like every day was Mardi Gras. It was all for me. Bill gave me everything I demanded, his guilt ruining his bottom line and I liked the feeling of putting the screws to him, getting what was rightfully mine and then some.
I live in the Bahamas now, the sand and the ocean and the seafood with occasional joint all calm my soul, my own being. Marjorie visits, sometimes for a month at a time and we drink and laugh late into the night. I call Daniel on occasion, he even visited me once but he brought a girl, some floozy paralegal he thought he could impress by bringing to the Caribbean. I kindly asked him to leave and never return. I see tourist come, tourist go, I have become a part of the scenery. I talk to some of them now and then, I take on lovers when I want and I swim, oh god do I swim. Every day, I move my arms and legs, pushing and pulling the ancient water to my will. I love the water with the fish and the crabs. The surf is there for my enjoyment.
I swim naked most of the time, letting the waves push me down the shoreline the way they do, away from my starting point, my permanently rented cottage in Abaco. When I emerge from the surf, tourists and fishermen gaze in astonishment. I show my wears, one pretty scar and one breast. I walk with purpose and not a care back to my towel left quietly on the sand. The towel always looks different when I come back. Saltwater returns to the ocean, dripping off my tanned, powerful legs. I just smile at them all and wave.