The radiation waiting room could be a dentist’s office. No one looks up as I walk in. A man is rattling a newspaper as he turns the pages. He folds it down and gives it a smack. I like hearing such common, ordinary sounds in this extraordinary place. I eavesdrop on two men talking about golf although I don’t know anything about the game. An old man sits with a severe dignity. A fat woman in tight pants is working the perennial jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table. (When gradually, with each visit, absent hands have slowly turned it into a finished pastoral scene, another boxed puzzle silently emerges in a thousand pieces.) A young blond woman is drinking the rank coffee from a Styrofoam cup. I am sitting next to her. She says hi. I say hi. How are you doing? I expect her to say fine (we all do) but she tells me about her nausea and fatigue with wet eyes. I nod. I don’t know what to say. Anyway, what is there to say? Still, the room is just a room. There is the bitter coffee, the water cooler and paper cups, a seascape on the wall, the jigsaw puzzle. A TV drones on, as annoying and ignored as those posted in airports. Some days there is candy. No life and death drama here. Except for the young blond woman everyone is waiting calmly, cheerfully, even. Is it because of (so far) outwitting the inevitable? F***ing the fickle finger of fate? It’s enough to make you cheerful. Who knows what other powers you possess? Healthy people don’t know anything. You belong to an exclusive club that no one wants to get into.
We are marked with distinction. We are secretly arrogant and narcissistic. We think we are interesting.
I Google cancer hospitals and doctors and learn that the best place to be operated on for breast cancer is the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
I call for an appointment. The woman who answers the phone sounds like a normal scheduler, but she is really a powerful, career-dedicated, unmovable gatekeeper who won’t let you in and doesn’t care if you live or die. I call again and again, but she is determined to keep everyone who has cancer out of the coveted MD Anderson Cancer Center. I beg, I plead, but she barricades the gate and tells me it will be at least six weeks. If then. Her voice is firm, pleasant, ruthless.
As I hold the telephone to my ear, I imagine cancer cells rampaging from my left breast throughout my body…