Meg Thompson teaches at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Journal, and McSweeney's (online). Her chapbook, Farmer, is forthcoming from Kattywompus Press.
and lives by breaking.
Kathy says, “I scrubbed every floor in my house after I heard.” Patti nods. “Me too.”
Joan’s 80th Birthday Party
Propped up on a mechanical bed, Grandma Joan drifts in and out of sleep. A slideshow celebrating her on an endless loop, we see her at the edge of life, then right back at the beginning of it. There she is on a boat, holding a glass of wine, hair in white waves. There she is with her youngest daughter, the one she just outlived. “I look fat in every single picture,” she muses. “Well, yeah, compared to now,” says Kathy.
Everyone aware when to rotate to different rooms, we lean our bodies around corners to see who is where and plan what to talk about. Like a herd of marauder ants, as a group we know everything. Individually, nothing. Peggy’s voice has a way of rising, like heat, above us and I hear her talking about Kathy. “My sister-in-law had secondary infertility when she was pregnant with Todd,” she says. I ask him later if he knew what that meant. “I know I almost killed her,” he says. “She always tells me that.” To be born in 1984, a risk, and he almost wasn’t ever born. Kathy said not to give her blood, even if she needed it. A new piece of information about the man I married, my mind closes over it like a fist around a key.
Card Aisle at CVS
There is a special category for breast cancer, but it is all sold out.
Someone lifts Joan from bed, slides her pants off, and sits her down on a metal chair attached to a removable bucket. One morning it is her son, Andy. I chop carrots for vegetable pizza, try not to notice her long arms, brown and thin as saplings, looped around his neck. “Call it vegetable flatbread,” says Peggy. “Lauren gave up pizza for Lent.” When Joan is back in bed, Andy pushes the chair aside and we cluster around her for a picture. In my bare feet where I am standing, the carpet is cool and a little damp.
A woman selling homemade soy lotion rubs a little on the back of my hand. “My mother-in-law used this on her radiation burns,” she says, not looking up.
Watching Another Slideshow
Todd’s family is wide, open. If they were a state they would be Kansas. Everyone airing out their feelings with nothing to hide behind, they do things like kiss, say I love you, create slideshows set to music, and pose for pictures with their hairless grandmother. They lean their faces into each other’s chests and sob. If you leave a gaggle of them to go to the bathroom, someone will pull you back for a quick hug and whisper I’ll miss you. At least that is how it feels compared to my family, where if someone died an outsider would never know. Sometimes insiders don’t even know. A tribe of neurotic, smart-ass loners, we can our emotions like they are peaches and green beans for the winter months, then wander off to grieve in isolation. So when Patti rests a laptop in front of me to watch a slideshow of their dead sister’s life as Andy and Peggy loom behind me, I resist the temptation to flee. Almost able to hear them saying, Here. Cry. Cry in front of us all, I think about my youngest sister, dead, too soon, and I do.
I spend $200 on sunscreen.
I look to Kathy as my fellow outsider. She married Andy 30 years ago, I married her son less than one year ago. She is a professional, and I watch her glide from hug to hug like an ice skater. Marriage solders families. Before, we were just two foreign pieces of metal. Now, this family, another tribe, sends me packages, cards, and money for my birthday more than my own, but at the same time I still think, they are and are not my family. When I think of my family, I think of my parents, aging farmers, alone in their massive house. My sole brother, my sisters. I don’t even think of Todd.
In a Dream
Right before I wake up I hear a voice without a face: I wish I had better news.
Annual Dermatologist Appointment
Standing naked under a robe, I hold still as the doctor peers at my face with a magnifying lens and calls out information for the nurse to write down. “She has a lot of sixes and eights,” she says, and moves down my body. Eventually the robe slips off. “We’re all girls here,” she chirps, then pulls the cheeks of my ass apart, singing “Excuse me!” in a falsetto. She is thorough, but declares everything a mole, even the archipelago of mosquito bites along my calf and an infected hair follicle. “Is there anything you’re worried about?” she asks. “Just this,” I say, and tap a black dot beneath my collarbone.
Todd likes to fold himself around me, a toy with bendable arms and legs, which he does sometimes before we go to sleep. One night while I’m reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, he mumbles, half-awake, lips barely off my neck, I don’t know what I’d do without you. The stitches from the biopsy, hard as fishing line, poke through my t-shirt like fresh, dark stubble.
When Todd showers, I stand at the sink and perform a weak-hearted beauty regiment just to talk to him. I stretch my arms, which ache from tricep kickbacks, and groan. “What’s wrong?” he asks inside the steam. “It sounds like you’re dying.”
Dave’s Quick Lube
I sit in a plastic chair that is nailed to the ground and wait for my car to complete the Missouri safety inspection. A dull, rainy day, clouds stretching across the May sky like thin sheets of lint from the dryer, two men in sleeveless flannel smoke cigarettes outside the garage. Yesterday I quit my job so we could move to South Korea and teach English. We cleaned out my office, I shook the hand of the chair of my department. When my phone rings from the depths of my purse, I’m thinking about where I can secure more cardboard boxes and newspaper for packing. The number across my cell phone screen is unfamiliar, but I answer anyway. “Hi, Megan. This is Rhonda from Advanced Dermatology. How are you today?”
HeartLand Health, Plaza 2
I feel asleep and awake at the same time, taking my clothes off and slipping into a worn gown. My phone rings and I already know that it’s the woman who wants to buy the floor lamp I advertised on craigslist. She is standing on my porch right now, and I should be handing it to her, but instead I’m waiting to get my chest X-rayed.
My Pilates instructor once told us while we were doing donkey kicks that every morning when she puts her feet on the ground she says thank you. I had thought, yes, okay, that’s it. Sometimes I can’t even focus, can’t begin to comprehend anything because I am so deep in a lush network of memories and thoughts like this, thankful and drifting: the first time I saw an elephant, when I found out fancy ketchup wasn’t what I thought it was, the way my husband looks when he is standing in a room, I keep all of it close to me. I’m so in love with how mundane a routine can be, how comfortable it makes us, that I spend most of my time moving from one spot to another, unaware how I ever reach a destination. Have I ever been to Connecticut? What I would give to be leaning against my door frame, nodding, chatting with a woman about floor lamps. I have always loved analyzing the stacked up dullness around us, little occurrences that are usually as unobserved as the graying mound of snow pushed to the edge of the mall’s parking lot while Spring fades out. Years ago I sat at a stoplight outside Bloomington, Indiana, watching a boy change the letters on the Taco Bell marquee with one of those long poles. I think about it constantly. I read that the world is comprised of two kinds of people: the sick and the healthy. Yes, I had thought. Is anything truer? Todd’s grandfather has Alzheimer’s. He sits in a swivel chair by the window all morning so he can watch the songbirds feed. Sometimes he hallucinates. When Kathy goes to see him, he stands up and stares at the wall. “Has everyone met my daughter Kathy?” he asks the empty room.
I keep dropping the call, losing her. I try to explain where I am, but she can’t hear me. Amazingly, she continues to call back. To steady my voice, I imagine a plank of wood.
“I’m at the hospital,” I tell her. “Something came up.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “And I’m still interested in that lamp.”
Crossing the Mississippi River
This one of the last times we make the drive, having decided to move back to Ohio earlier than planned, my appointment is two days from now at the Cleveland Clinic. It is June, the weather still uneven, tricking us. We are silent during the minute it takes to drive over the bridge until my phone rings. I hand it to Todd.
It is my mother. Todd tells her about my dermatologist, the one who doesn’t know what a mole is. “Get her out of there,” I hear her say.
“We are,” he says.
“Well,” she says, “the test results were probably wrong anyway.”
Parking Lot of the Dixie Time Gas Station
We eat Chipotle leftover from our last night in St. Joseph. Rhonda called me yesterday. I keep my skin covered, even my hands, resting on my lap, are tucked under a baseball cap when Todd starts driving again.
Todd’s Childhood Home
We don’t drive to my parent’s farm, a couple hours north from where Todd grew up, even though they are closer to Cleveland. I want to stay with Kathy, a woman who says things like, “God brings the sun up every morning. It’s in his hands now. I just made a pot of peppermint tea. Come home and relax.” And when I am there, in her kitchen, in her living room, I do.
In Another Dream
A gypsy cracks an egg on my skull, but instead of yolk, blood dribbles down my hair and back. You have life cancer, she whispers.
Sarah’s Living Room
We stand apart from each other as she answers my questions. I trust her because she is a doctor and my friend, an old college roommate I’ve known for eleven years, but her honesty is hard and stunning when I ask if it matters that I am young and healthy. “No, it doesn’t matter at all. Not even a little. I knew a guy our age and he got melanoma. He raced mountain bikes and was really athletic, but he died.”
My head fills with light and sand, and I lean into my husband’s chest.
“Patti’s was really bad,” Kathy says, after our food arrives. We heard today from the oncologist that mine isn’t going to be.
Early one morning I sit at my desk and open my computer. I click through email, the sun not even up, and rub the hard, cracker crumbs of sleep from my eyes as I go to my wall. “I need you to stay in the country indefinitely because I have a brain tumor,” Carrie’s public post reads. Rachel joked underneath that she should stop eating aspartame. Carrie responded by saying, “What’s aspartame? I have to get an MRI.”
Cleveland Clinic, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Wing
One of the nurses taking my information has blond hair curled tight as bed springs. She types and looks straight at me, not the screen, as she talks about her children, how they know to rub sunscreen on their ears because that is the hardest part of the body to reconstruct. When I tell her we are moving to Korea her mouth drops open. “My goodness,” she says. “Are you going to live in a hut?”
I pass my Mac to Todd so he can read this essay. After a few minutes, he looks up.
“You don’t even talk about it,” he says.
I stumble through a list of reasons. I talk about it indirectly. There’s no need to be dramatic. Less is more. I’m letting the words do the work.
It takes another month of sitting in the same place in our tiny studio apartment, my legs stretched out in front of me on our tiny coffee table, to see.
Of everyone, I tell Todd the most, and he still says I only tell him 10 percent of my thoughts.
Cleveland Clinic, Outpatient Surgery
Besides the fact that Todd isn’t allowed to lie next to me in the O.R., the worst part is that I can’t drink coffee the morning of the surgery. A nurse preps me in a blue and white room, asking small questions about my life as she swirls tubes and wires up my arm and behind the gurney.
“Where are you moving?” she continues.
“Korea,” I say, and start to cry.
“Oh, you’re going to miss America, aren’t you?”
I nod. Sure.
“You moving there for your husband’s job?”
I nod again. It’s easier than explaining how afraid I am right now.
The plastic surgeon comes in and draws a circle on my chest with a dark green marker.
Our summer drifts along like river water, the two of us in the car so much that roads become places. We are always going. To the Cleveland Clinic, to Missouri to finish packing, to see people before we leave for Korea, to a colorless maze of offices so we can work legally in Korea, CVS for flu shots, the post office, a bar. With Todd’s family in southern Ohio and mine in the north, passive-aggressive wars flare up concerning where we should spend our time. Guilt drives us up and down the interstates, and I listen to myself age.
Carrie’s Volkswagen Passat
“So have you had your MRI yet?” I venture, lightly, thinking of my voice as hollandaise sauce, the perfect emulsion of casual and concern. Growing up, Carrie was our mother, feeding us, teaching us, when our biological mother was outside doing farm work. Early on we developed a North Korean-like allegiance to her, seeing her as informed and cool in a way we would never be able to pull off. We envied her silk shirts and the wave her bangs formed, stiff to the touch, when she spritzed them with Suave Hair Spray. I used to creep into her room after she left for school and use her clear mascara, sitting on my heels in front of her full-length mirror. All day I’d brush a finger against my rock-hard eye lashes.
“Oh, yeah,” she says. “I might not even need one."
“If you ever tell me on facebook that you have a brain tumor, I’ll kill you,” I say to Amy.
“Now you know how it feels,” she says.
A geyser of fury starts somewhere deep down in the core of me. I wanted to protect you, wanted to wait until I knew more. I didn’t know mom told you. In truth, I didn’t say a word to my sisters because I couldn’t. My throat turned into a burlap bag with someone pulling the drawstring tight each time I picked up the phone. I’ll tell them when it’s over, I thought. With Carrie, it is easier. We have an agreement, that is, of course, unspoken: Keep it simple. Don’t overreact. I love you.
“What was the best day of 2011?” our friend Whit asks. It’s New Year’s Eve, and I turn inside myself, weighing the question. Todd peers at me in disbelief. “Are you crazy?” he asks. “You have to think about it?”
I know what day it is for him. Mid-summer, when we got the test results back about the extra-wide incision. I was fine. They had gotten all of it. I remember the nurse sneaking into the room when she wasn’t supposed to, the one who asked if we would live in a hut, and telling us the path report was clear, how we celebrated after by drinking a margarita at a sports bar, but in my mind it wasn’t over. I still had everything before me, and I realized my body was a system that could break.
“I was really happy when I found out Carrie didn’t have a brain tumor,” I say.
Sinnonhyeon Station, Entrance No. 3
“You have to talk to me,” Todd pleads. “You have to tell me things.” His arms move up and down, in and out, like a symphony conductor. He stomps one of his feet.
I blot my eyes, burning from the wind, with my winter gloves. Koreans stream around us. “I’m sorry.”
In Line at the Bank, Ordering A Gin and Tonic at the Bar, Sitting in a Crowded Venue When the Lights are Still on Waiting for the Band
I scan the bodies of everyone around me for moles, gauge whether to tap them on the shoulder, ask if they see a dermatologist on a regular basis. If Todd isn’t right next to me, I always think I hear him saying my name, telling me to relax.
ChungDahm Learning, Bangbae Branch
“Teacher, I want to be in an earthquake, or at a bank when it gets robbed,” my student, Scarlett, tells me in the middle of class.
“Why is that, Scar?”
“I want to feel nervous, and be really scared.”
Childhood in Korea centers around education. All they do is go to school, so I understand Scarlett’s desire. She is bored. She is also crazy, which is why I like her, but there is another reason I follow Scarlett’s train of thought: I once felt the same way.
Naked Before a Full-Length Mirror
Above my heart is a blunt, pink scar. It feels like a bread crust, and I can touch it, exactly, when I turn my head to the side.
“Our family has a communication problem,” Rachel says after we finish our curry. “I told Amy that and she said What kind of family do you want us to be?”
I nod, purse my lips together, say nothing, let her talk. Carrie once referred to me as the Mayor of Neutralville, and it wasn’t a compliment. As the middle child, I try to split myself, half over here, half over there. I say things like, Well, why do you think she said that? I don’t agree or disagree.
The Back of my Mind
I knew I had melanoma. I knew before I saw the dermatologist. I knew every time I went outside in a tank top to pull grape tomatoes from their vines. I was a perfect candidate: red hair, fair skin, raised on a farm baling hay in the midwestern sun. In the end, though, it’s possible none of that mattered. You can get skin cancer even if you never see the light of day, and I could have waited years to have the mole removed. The cells were dividing at a rate of less than one percent, and it was just .3 millimeters deep.
“So I don’t need to feel bad about having a swimming pool when you were kids?” my mother asks.
“No,” I say. “That doesn’t matter.”
The day I went to Dave’s Quick Lube, though, does. Running late, I forgot to put on my wedding ring and a thin, diamond bracelet from my mom I always wear when I have to do something I don’t want to do, like fly on a plane, go to a job interview, or anticipate news from a dermatological pathology report. In the weeks leading up to this day, I wore the bracelet constantly, sometimes sleeping and showering with it, feeling protected because it worked in the past. None of my flights crashed and I got the jobs.
But that morning, I fled our apartment barehanded.
“You’re fine,” my friend Kristin, a nurse, told me after Rhonda called. “They just go in and scoop it out.”
Still, the word woke me up at night, now that it was real. Melanoma. During the day, it sat on the back of my tongue, in every conversation. I have melanoma. I didn’t tell anyone if I didn’t have to, and I still don’t.