Cancer Staging for Beginners :
I tried not to notice it. I pretended it wasn’t there. I wore long sleeve shirts, and I never looked down. If I didn’t think about it, I hoped, it would cease to exist.
But I couldn’t forget it. At night my arm would throb in bed like the stain in the Scottish play. Spots don’t come out.
Wednesday I decided to actually look at my arm for the first time a little over two weeks and, upon close inspection, any thought of a future as a non amputee ended. The thick black circle I had been trying to pretend wasn’t there just was, was actually completely there, in a very present kind of way. Inches below the center of my bicep, it was the size of a Krispy Kreme donut with same sort of strange shine to it. A slightly raised appearance almost suggested it was swelling inside. The edges were rounded, not erratic like the pictures melanomas I had found on that evening’s increasingly ragged image searches. But what else would it be?
I didn’t want to call my doctor. I didn’t even have a doctor. Just a clinic, where I saw a rotating cast of semi qualified residents who toiled for low wages, solved mundane problems and lost sleep. I didn’t want to make an appointment there and have to talk to somebody.
I didn’t want to see what someone’s face looks like when I’m being told I’m going to die.
Hopelessness has limits, so I finally called to make an appointment. The scheduler asked me why i needed to see the doctor and, in a moment of horrified honesty, I mumbled that I had a growth on my left arm. Like a black donut. Giant.
She interrupted me- “Which arm? Left or right?”
The line went to something classical. Cellos and violas and a feeling of disconnect.
“Look, the doctor has a recommendation for you. A specialist for things like this.”
The oncologist’s office was right on the edge of a bus line, on the edge of gentrification. The elevators in the lobby had cones in front of them and signs suggesting they were no longer working. The lights flickered, making it feel like a stop motion movie. I took the stairs to the 3rd floor.
The waiting room was crowded, with barely enough seats for everyone, and the temperature was insane. High 50s? I thought I saw someones breath.
I looked at my phone mindlessly while waiting to get called back. I thought I would have had issuance forms to fill out, so I hadn’t brought a book, but I wasn’t given anything. I just said who I was and they told me to sit down. I didn’t sign a thing.
My arm kept spasming. I was in long sleeves to cover it up, which was awful. The Fourth of July was only two days away.
Everyone else, I realized, was wearing long sleeves too. I told myself they had simply dressed appropriately. The place was arctic, after all. They all knew that. Except the girl behind me, at the desk, she said it was her first visit…
I looked over at her, trying not to be noticed. She was wearing a cardigan.
My name got called. I stood and followed the nurse to the examining room.
It was standard white, with the scale and the table and the biohazard trash. There was a mirror and a window behind me. My arm was pulsing, like a second heart.
The nurse barely spoke to me, just told me to sit on the table and the doctor would be in soon. She was starting to walk out and she hadn’t asked any questions. I asked if she wanted to see my arm.
She looked– repulsed. “No. The doctor wil look at that,” and she hurried out, into the room almost directly across the hall.
She didn’t close the door completely shut behind her. I could see her walk into the room across from mine in the reflection of my room’s mirror. In the other room was the girl in the cardigan. Except she had taken it off.
I couldn’t see everything in the room, but I could see scraps of image, the nurse walking back and forth, the girl’s shoulders. Her arm. And the growth on her left arm.
It was like mine. The same size, the same deep black almost purple color, that jelly like seeming consistency. I could feel it throbbing like mine.
I heard footsteps down the hall, watched as a lab coat slid into her room. I expected to hear that low HPPA murmur as soon as he stepped in but, no. Nothing. I heard her start to talk and then in the mirror I saw a knife.
It was bright and shiny and he moved so fast before she could even cry out. I saw the knife go up and down and up and down and a sprinkler turned on for a moment, a dizzy spray of bright scarlet that splashed out in clear, brilliant streams.
And the black thing on her arm opened. An eye was there. Red vein laced, pupils dilated, fluttering back and firth like a seizure patient.
The blood stopped and the blackness returned over the eye, like a lid closing for sleep. I heard the harsh sound of old pipes as a faucet was turned on.
I rushed to the door and pulled it closed. I couldn’t bear to look my arm. It felt like it was trying to run away underneath my sleeve. I grabbed the biohazrd trash can and pressed it against the door, then the examining table.
Someone outside pushed, confirming my hope the door opened inward instead of out. The doorknob rattled; noise mingled with panicked cursing.
It was the third floor, but looking out I could see a dumpster nearly directly under me. I tried the window. The door started slowly opening behind me. The window raised. And I was gone.
The dumpster was full of red bio bags, lumpy, and horrifying. The alley smelled like rot. I climbed out and ran without looking back. I remembered my myths.
I caught a bus 3 blocks away and rode it blankly for almost an hour. I got off in a neighborhood I didn’t know and almost immediately pulled up my sleeve. The growth twitched and flexed. Bright white glimmered and then a strange pink forked thing appeared, moving up and down. And I realized: I didn’t have an eye.
I had a mouth.
And it was hungry.