By Ani Tascian
The house was too quiet for someone who had two children. She was wearing a hat and invited me in with a quick, breathless “hello.” Laundry and dishes were piled everywhere. The sun didn’t reach the corners of the rooms on the first level of the house and Emily didn’t linger in those spots—she stopped in the light-filled kitchen.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” She was more energetic than I imagined she would be at this stage of her treatment. She said she was stoned for the first time in her life: “why not?” Just an hour before, she had been watching Terms of Endearment and crying.
I invited her to lunch, but she wanted to take a walk. We headed out on Cedar Street towards Rose and I could barely keep up with her. Her white tank top lay flat against her chest. (Three months after this, I’ll be exhausted, walking out of the Bar Method only to see her jogging in that same tank top, eyebrow-less, wool hat, up Rose Street.)
From our mutual friend Paula I knew this about her before I met her: the mastectomy, three years ago, she had the BRCA gene, a mass almost five millimeters long, in situ, unheard of.
Paula, who was my upstairs neighbor at the time, had just had her second child. At Bonita Park, while our first-borns slid endlessly up and down the small yellow plastic slide, she told me she was pumping extra milk for her friend’s second baby. “She wants her second to have the same amount as her first, six months of milk, at least,” Paula said as her newborn latched on her breast, gurgling noises coming from underneath her baggy shirt.
The same amount. I didn’t remember flinching—this was Berkeley, after all, where your neighbors and friends became extensions of your biological dysfunctional family if you lived there long enough. Why wouldn’t your new friend pump milk for you after a mastectomy? I smiled at Paula. Breast milk was liquid gold to a new mom and pumping was one of those things that doesn’t ever get easier. I thought about the first time I used one, the sound of the machine like Doctor Who’s TARDIS taking off into space.
Emily was not my kind of survivor: she joined online support groups. She taught sorority girls at Cal State how to give themselves proper breast exams. And that’s how she found the latest lump, a hard marble-sized ball where her cleavage would be. That’s weird, she had thought.
We walked up Cedar Street and she said her surgeon, Dr. Greif, was baffled. I caught myself holding my breath. As a cancer survivor, I was always looking for signs. Signs of recurrence. Signs that my life was going to hit another pothole the size of the Grand Canyon. Emily didn’t look like the Grand Canyon, but she was a reminder. I wonder if she thought about cancer when she looked at me.
“When I showed Dr. Greif this new lump, he seemed baffled. That’s why I went somewhere else. To UCSF this time.” She was still walking a brisk pace.
I paused for a moment and finally confessed that he was my surgeon too. She recognized the terror in my voice. “Oh, please. No,” she shook her head. “Don’t worry. This is some freak thing that happens to maybe one percent of people with breast cancer.” I nodded slowly. Wasn’t breast cancer a freak thing that happens to one in ten women? Wasn’t it the freak thing that happens to one percent of men? Was there anything normal about facing your mortality while raising a young child? But this walk was about Emily, not me—I wanted to be here for Emily. Forget my ancient-history cancer from four years ago.
“Oh look, a yard sale,” she pointed across the street. The day was unbelievably sunny and bright despite our cancer talk. The doors and garage of the old, but well-kept, white house beckoned us inside.
“I love a good garage sale,” Emily smiled widely.
She found a neon pink and green floral dress from the ‘60s and immediately tried it on. She pulled it on over her wool cap and down her clothed body effortlessly, laughing. I would have been terrified that my cap was going to come off. I looked around to see if anyone could tell she was sick. If they did, they were pretending that they didn’t.
The dress fit perfectly. She wanted to wear it that night, to Lit Crawl in San Francisco where she was reading what she called an uplifting story about getting treatment. I couldn’t imagine writing an uplifting story about cancer.
“The other writers and I decided that we didn’t want to get too sad tonight, you know?”
I wanted to know this thing of trying to turn a sad thing into a happy ending. She carried the dress in her hand as we walked up the stairs and I found my own treasures: vintage red and pink Pyrex dishes. I flipped them over and discovered the name “Yuri” scribbled in black permanent marker on the milky glass. I cradled my pile with both arms.
In a bedroom, a mid-century dresser caught my eye. Big enough to replace two mismatched dressers in the master bedroom at home, it was just the thing I was looking for and only a hundred dollars. My wallet was in the trunk of my car, back at Emily’s house. This walk turned into something unexpected. The hired cashier offered to hold everything for me.
In a last ditch effort to find cash, I dug through my jeans pockets and found three crumpled dollars. I paid for the Pyrex and Emily’s dress, since she left her wallet at home, too. This was my small gift.
“Please, please hold that dresser for me,” I pleaded as Emily and I headed down the stairs and out through the garage. The cashier nodded with a smile.
As we walked out, Emily saw another dress and went back inside the garage to have a better look. She didn’t want to miss anything. I waited for her on the sidewalk, white in the afternoon sun. An elderly black woman walked up and stopped a few feet in front of me, like she’d always known me. “Excuse me. Do you know what happened to the lady who lived here? I used to see her sometimes.”
I wondered if all the shoppers were thinking it. The hired hands, the remnants of an elderly woman up for sale. Trying to forget as they picked up the neatly marked tags on Yuri’s fabric scraps and silverware. Some of these white-tagged items were the very things I found in my own grandmother’s house after she died; her baby blue Pyrex lived in my Crate and Barrel living room cabinet.
The cashier from inside overheard and said, “Oh, she’s gone to live with her daughter.
I smiled with relief at the elderly neighbor, Yuri’s not-so-close-friend.
“I guess it happens.” I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes, it does. Especially when you get old. People start disappearing.” I noticed her cane and slow gait as she shook her head and walked away.
Emily bounded out and we briefly watched the woman turn the corner and disappear. She hadn’t heard the conversation. We headed the opposite direction, towards Rose Street again.
“I am so excited to wear my dress tonight,” she said, smiling. And I smiled back, imagining her on stage, in the maxi dress that fit her like it was always hers, reading her story about fighting for a parking space, and winning, in front of the brick building that held the chemo center.
Ani Tascian just received her MFA from St. Mary’s College of California. Recently, her work has appeared in MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Buddhist Poetry Review and Citron Review. She is working on her first memoir, Objects May Appear Closer Than They Appear, while eating copious amounts of popcorn.