Excerpt from “The Breast of Everything”

(excerpted from The Breast of Everything, “Chapter 2: Keeping Abreast” © Lori Berhon, All Rights Reserved)


She packed her little bag and quite a large book that someone in Workshop once mentioned as having saved his sanity during recent jury duty. She tried to have a good dinner the night before, because she’d been told not to eat at all after eight p.m. and the surgery wouldn’t take place until noon. She couldn’t eat a bite. She didn’t sleep much, either, and she couldn’t have a glass of wine or even a cup of herbal tea to help her.

Walking into reception, Susan wished Dr. Snyder had slightly lower standards of practice. Seeing “Memorial Sloane-Kettering” on the building hardly set her at ease. If she couldn’t possibly have cancer, why was she at the cancer hospital? Everyone was kind and seemed highly efficient, but if there had been any food in her stomach, it wouldn’t have stayed there long.

It helped to have the distraction of filling out all those forms, but soon they were done and it was still only seven-thirty. The annoyance of giving blood and urine, and all the other tests that seemed identical to the ones Dr. Snyder had done the week before, filled some time. Maybe that was the real reason hospitals required it. She sat in the hospital gown and paper shoes, unable to focus on the salutary book. The TV morning shows were full of chirpy people who made her want to scream. She picked up a phone, but realized she wouldn’t be able to control her voice and she didn’t want anyone to hear her that way. She wouldn’t have even allowed Lisa to pick her up later except that the hospital insisted someone come; they wouldn’t send anesthesia patients home alone. Susan looked at the IV drip taped into her hand and tried to imagine glucose molecules bursting, one at a time, through the end of the needle and then luging through her veins.

It was a mercy when the nurse finally came with the pill. ‘Pat Angelopoulos’ explained that she’d be there when it was all over, and that Susan should call her Pat because no one with a post-operative flannel tongue should have say Angelopoulos. She had a sympathetic face, so Susan tried to smile before swallowing.

The empty stomach must have jump-started the sedative. She sensed no time at all between that swallow and hearing Pat’s measured call: “Susan? Susan?”

Susan pried her eyelids open. Pat’s face swam above her. She closed her eyes again. “Susan,” the voice repeated. Susan groaned. “Do you remember who I am?” Pat asked encouragingly.

Susan knew, but her mouth wouldn’t work. “Angel…iss”

“You like to do things the hard way, don’t you?” Pat wiped her face with a damp cloth.

“Pat,” Susan exhaled. “Water.” The words “Helen Keller” bobbed across her rippling brain and she wanted to laugh. It came out a dry painful cough. Her throat felt as if someone had stuck a tube down it. Oh, yeah, they probably had.

“I can’t give you water until you can sit up,” Pat explained. “We have to make sure you can swallow, or you might choke. See if you can open your eyes first. Take it slow.”

Susan felt as if she were crawling to the last watering hole in the Sahara, one inch at a time. She had to open her eyes in stages; the light hurt and the world was spinning. To sit meant ratcheting up her spine, vertebra by vertebra, with Pat rearranging pillows behind her until her torso was perpendicular to her legs, and then to continue, individually, those last vertebrae that supported her head. She’d once heard that the average weight of a human head was eight pounds. Impossible. Her shoulder bag weighed more than that and was much easier to lift than this head.

She hoped that Pat would volunteer the information she most wanted to hear but ultimately, once she could speak, she was forced to ask.

“The doctor will be in to see you in a little while,” was all Pat would say in that imperturbable nurse manner. For some reason, that didn’t make Susan feel particularly good. “I’ll have someone send you some juice and crackers,” Pat said by way of compensation, and left her, for a while, alone.

Susan closed her eyes and tried to see inside her body. It didn’t work. She didn’t have to be a yogi to tell that there were bandages over her breast, but what was beneath them? It felt to her as if there were still a breast there. Whatever it was that she wasn’t being told, it didn’t seem to have been an emergency mastectomy. Of course, she’d heard of amputees who felt phantom limbs, often for years afterwards. She stared at the walls and tried hard not to be terrified.

“How’s the game going?” she asked the orderly who came in with the tray. She didn’t follow sports, but there was always a game of something somewhere or another, and she was desperate to engage him in conversation and keep him in the room.

He looked at her strangely. “Didn’t even start yet,” he said. “I guess you lose track of the time when you’ve been out.”

There was no clock on the bedside table and she hadn’t brought a watch with her, so she asked him. It was only 1:15. Her surgery had been scheduled for noon. An hour and fifteen minutes to be scrubbed, incised, have whatever done, closed back up, brought upstairs, come to, and even have a snack order delivered? She sipped the juice—she had to or she knew she’d pass out—but she couldn’t dream of swallowing a cracker. What could they have done in that operating room that would take less time than television surgery?

“It’s inoperable, isn’t it?” she demanded when Dr. Snyder came into the room, followed by Pat and a petite Chinese woman in a white coat. “You didn’t take it out. Oh my God!”

“Calm down, Susan,” Dr. Snyder tried the Mom voice. “It’s not a cancer.” Pat came over and tried to soothe her by rearranging the pillows.

“Not what we expected to find,” said the other woman, who turned to Dr. Snyder. Susan remembered her now. It was Dr. Zhu, the surgeon; Dr. Snyder didn’t cut. “Didn’t you notice…?”

“Last time I looked at it, it was hardly even a mass.”

“There’s a mass?” Susan gulped.

“Susan, do you have a friend waiting for you?”

Susan stared at Dr. Snyder, horrified. “I have someone coming to pick me up when I call to say I can leave. That is, if I can leave. Please, Dr. Snyder, just tell me the worst. What’s going on?”

Dr. Snyder turned to Dr. Zhu and shrugged helplessly.

“Well, Ms. Roth,” she began, “there is a rare biological phenomenon—”

“Oh no,” Susan shook her head and smiled meanly. “Bad news, doctor. You can’t intimidate a writer with words.”

“Susan, Dr. Zhu isn’t trying to intimidate you, she’s explaining—”

“Developing an explanation, to be more precise.” Dr. Zhu actually looked sheepish for a moment. She was used to knowing exactly what was what and what to say. She fingered her stethoscope. “Ms. Roth, as simply as I can put it, in rare instances, a monozygotic twinning results in one complete fetus plus a cell cluster that fails to differentiate or develop beyond a certain point. Occasionally, this tissue forms as a cyst within the thriving embryo.”

“It becomes part of the body of the child that’s born,” Dr. Snyder put in helpfully. “Inside.” Susan was too focused on Dr. Zhu to take her own doctor to task for being patronizing.

“The cells that might have been another embryo present as a form of tumor. During an exploratory procedure, what is discovered is a mass of tissue that is, in effect, an unborn twin.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Susan was intrigued for a moment. “Hair, fingernails…oh, God! That’s what you found in my breast?” She faced Dr. Snyder accusingly. “And you couldn’t even find a lump?”

Dr. Zhu shook her head. “No. I said I was attempting to develop an explanation. Your situation might be similar, but there are significant, um, differences.”

“Such as?” Susan found herself blinking back sudden tears. “This isn’t helping me at all, you know.” Dr. Zhu turned to Dr. Snyder, who opened her hands as if to set something free.

Dr. Zhu moved closer to the bed, unfastened the hospital gown and peeled it down. The air on her skin was a threat. Dr. Snyder peered over her shoulder as Dr. Zhu carefully removed the bandages; there weren’t all that many. At a gesture from the doctor, Pat passed Susan a hand mirror. Susan took it tremulously. “I feel like I just had plastic surgery,” she said with a nervous giggle.

Cautiously, afraid she’d drop it, Susan moved the mirror until she could see her breast. Beneath the iodine stains, she realized with boundless relief that it was whole and… “What the hell!?” she blurted out. The cut was so small it would have been invisible were it not for the tape holding it together. She’d done worse to her fingers by slicing carrots with a dull knife. “That’s it?!” The doctors and Pat watched her, silent and apprehensive. She rotated the mirror, looking for whatever the doctors had been talking about. “It looks fine,” she said, perplexed, “like always.” She touched her nipple with a fingertip.

Dr. Zhu gave an undoctorly jump. “Careful!” Pat handed her a wipe and she gingerly swabbed some iodine from off the nipple. “Do you see it?” she whispered to the hovering Dr. Snyder.

As Susan watched in the mirror, she thought for a moment that some of the cold-crinkles had taken on the shape of a pair of lips. She blinked. Hard.

Dr. Snyder peered closer. “I’m not sure,” she said, and prodded the area with a tongue depressor. The breast twitched out of the way. “Whoa!”

“What’s happening?” Susan was definitely panicking now.

“That’s what happened when I made the cut.” Dr. Zhu spoke in an almost reverent hush. “And then…”

The lips, because now Susan could clearly see a pair of lips in the ridges of her breast, moved.

“Well what would you do if someone took a knife to you?” the Breast asked.

Susan screamed.

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