The Question: You know that moment you wish you had the just the right response to really make your point, a zinger, but it only came to you after the conversation? It’s maddening. But, can you relate a time when those words really did come to you in the heat of the moment, or the time you really wish they had, but they did not?
In the office of the plastic surgeon, there are two kinds of client: those who wear leopard print and are having their breasts augmented or lifted, and those who wear a turban where their hair used to be and are being patched up after a mastectomy. I fall into the latter camp.
Whenever I come for an appointment, the nurse shows me immediately to an exam room. I don’t think it’s out of kindness; I think she doesn’t like the message my presence brings to the glitzy waiting room with its glass-and-chrome coffee table, overstuffed sofa and glossy women’s magazines.
The doctor himself is somewhat slick, though I can see that he tries to be patient with me and my fear. He flirts with the nurse who comes in and out; she is dressed in a black, above-the-knee cocktail dress and four-inch-heels although it is ten a.m. on a Tuesday. Her hair and nails are done.
The big question I need to settle is: silicone implant or saline implant. To replace what the surgeon took, what the cancer stole. I can hardly think. I have had four surgeries since June and the chemo has made me weak and weepy. I’ve lost fifty pounds and I’m terrified for my future. But I try to focus on this thing: silicone or saline.
I ask about the studies that were in the news, the ones about silicone turning out to be toxic. The doctor dismisses my concerns, saying those claims have been debunked. He keeps telling me that silicone is more “natural.” More “natural.”
On my third visit I realize what he means by “more natural.” He is talking about how this reconstructed breast will feel in my husband’s hands. More natural for my husband. We are not discussing what would feel more natural to me.
I choose saline. Saline–a compound found in nature, a bag of salty water, like tears or the ocean–feels more “natural” to me and it’s my body (I could have said but didn’t). Over time, my body accepts this strange sack under the skin: a different breast, new, finally my own because it has to be.
Six months later, in what some would call a “natural” progression, the doctor leaves his wife and teenaged children to be with his nurse. People in the town talk about it, but I do not. Predictable news is not newsworthy, if you ask me.
–hover for a story
I was 17 and mad about cycling.
No matter the weather, I would climb on my magic French blue Gitane Criterion, head to Berwyn, then Brookfield and jump on the Salt Creek Trail – a winding bike route which threaded itself though the south west suburbs of Chicago until it spit me out in Western Springs. 1987.
Sometimes I turned around and cycled back home. Sometimes I made a pit stop at something like a White Hen Pantry across from the railroad tracks, pay phone outside, propped my bike against the wall and bought a bag of red licorice, or something like it. Quick energy. Then I would ride on to Argonne National Laboratory to see the white deer. I understand they are all but gone. But my memory is clear.
One morning early, a white stag with a full rack of antlers stepped out from the trees. It was winter, and I was very cold on my bike. I had to stop in the vestibule of the Hinsdale hospital, on the long trip back to Oak Park, so the heat lamp cast warmth on my frozen fingers and toes. But at that moment when the stag walked with complete nonchalance out of the treeline, I was in awe.
On another spring weekend, I made my stop for some Twizzlers and sat outside the shop on the cement stoop you find outside all those convenience stores, right near the pay phone, and visible to the residential street on the side road. My bike sprawled beside me, the early afternoon light, the whisper of cars on the street. And the pay phone rang.
Two guys walking out of the store laughed and said to me, “Hey, answer the phone,” in a joking way. I sat there and ignored the phone until I couldn’t. I picked it up.
“Hello, you’ve called a pay phone. This is a pay phone,” I said to the caller.
“I know,” a man said.
“And I am really glad you picked up.”
That was a conversation stopper.
The next few minutes were a litany of this man telling me how he was a lonely guy. He went into detail about this lonely life. He was wheelchair bound, had a carer ( I didn’t know the word carer back then, but that is essentially what he meant). People brought in groceries, cleaned the house, but he rarely got out, and he got lonely.
So then he got the ball rolling.
“You know, it is hard being all by myself,” he said. But he did not know who he was talking to. I was a trusting 17-year-old.
“Don’t you have a neighbor?” I asked him. “Someone who can stop in to see you every day?”
The conversation struggled along, he, insisting he was lonely, me, trying to find some resolution for this man I pictured incompletely, with fuzzy limits to his life.
“Well…” I finally said with some resolution in my voice.
“You need to go,” he said.
“I need to go.”
“Before you go, can you think of just one nice thing you could say to cheer up a guy like me?
And my 17-year-old self, trusting, but wary said, “It’s a beautiful day, and it is pretty great to be alive.”
He paused, regrouped and said, “That is really nice, but maybe you could say something a little nicer?” Of course.
But I had a question, and I said so.
“Yes?” he said, with a hint of hopeful expectation.
“If you’re stuck in the house, and never get to go out, how did you get the number of the pay phone?” And I waited.
Then he got a little nasty, and I hung up, got on my bike and got the hell out of there.
I ogle the red and orange painting. Head tilted, I feign understanding of the splotches and hope others will believe I’ve come for the art. Divorced, I’m pressing on the throttle to meet someone. A cocktail event at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, this place has to be better than a bar.
A guy approaches, but he stands too close, talks too much, and smells of fermented Kimchi. Our idle conversation feels similar to the loneliness of a bar. I make for the door.
I don’t get far before a new guy stops me. “There’s a party on the Gold Coast.” His finger-styled waves and health club physique catch me in his net. He divulges stories of business success and escapades with pretty girls. He asks about me, but cuts me off. “You show up here with your little bottom in artsy blue jeans and a cute fitted blouse. We talk about an after party, my business, and THEN you decide to spring your kids on me?”
I open my mouth, but the words don’t arrive until he’s gone. “I guess I won’t be calling you to babysit.”
At home, I’m happy to crawl into bed… alone.
I can think of two occasions when I came up with the perfect response to people that required a put down.
The first was when a woman I had a tense relationship with mentioned she had too much sun and was quite sunburned. My response was, “Don’t worry about it. Everybody likes a little crackling with their pork!” I’m not sure she understood my comment, but she stayed her distance for a while.
The second zinger was directed at a fellow I was arguing with who shouted at me, “You’re an arsehole.” My response was immediate, “And you’re an hermaphrodite.”
He looked at me totally perplexed before I continued, “You’re both a prick and a cunt!” He walked away flummoxed and shaking his head.
To this day I don’t how I was able to come out with comments in an instant that had such scalpel precision.
Le Mot Injuste
Growing up with older stronger siblings made me take a defensive stance for much of my young life.
I couldn’t rely on muscle to fight my battles, so I used my wits to survive.
First I just ratted them out with sob stories to mom. I didn’t have to make them up either. What a rowdy bunch!
Outside the family, I was extremely shy, but developed a cutting wit to deal with school yard pests. I used to practice put-downs in my head.
Hero in my head, dreaming dreams of my great novels, my Nobel Prize, my hilariously funny guest appearances on Johnny Carson, my wounded cowboy–I lived in my imagination until called on to make an appearance in Real Life for chores and meals.
Hard to believe but all that make-believe set me up with a killer wit so sharp you might never knew what hit you until you heard the whisper of the axe.
Conquering shyness in my twenties lessened my need to be defensive, but there were marital spats in my thirties.
How the words danced off my tongue dripping acid undeniable truth. I gave better than I got and perhaps it was that inequality that doomed the marriage but gave me back my life.
I’ve learned to work on my own flaws and no longer need to have the last word. That’s what Karma is for.
It had been a long hot day, 10 plus hours of clearing overgrown weeds, rubble and discovering nests of rats hidden amongst it all.
We were done and mighty thirsty and hungry. So Cheryl and I went to buy pizzas for dinner. There was a 30 minute wait so we decided to have a drink at the pub while we waited.
A group of locals were at the bar laughing and chatting amongst themselves. We nodded and said g’day. One of the group, obviously an Elvis fan, was nudging his mates and whispering something. After a few minutes he came over and introduced himself as Tex.
I’m not sure if it was my work clothes, short hair or just his imagination that led him to ask ‘Are you a lesbian? ‘ I replied ‘No, but you could make me one’ . His mates broke up laughing, and Cheryl choked so hard her drink came out her nose.