Such a lovely name, with that sensual V, and those three satiny syllables. Va-ness-a. None of that diminutive stuff for me. No Nessa or Ness or, dear God, worst of all: Nessie. What on earth were you thinking, letting them call you that? It reminds me of the Loch Ness monster. Imagine your size 14 body, mottled and walrus-like, plunging into the subaqueous depths of that Scottish lake. Living your invisible life.
But wait. You must hear me out, I insist. Let’s return to the day everything changed for you. It was late February. February 25, as a matter of fact. I remember the date. There were things to be done that morning, and you did them. You were a genius at getting things done, taking care of your little family of three.
I can see you rising from the bed at 7 a.m., full of sleep. Your satin nightie has slipped in the night. The breast cups face perilously eastward, full of nothing. While Callum slumbers on, you stumble to the bathroom, hitch up and take a pee, eyes closed, then plunge on with the morning. Next thing you are standing by the bed, shaking Callum awake. Your husband, blond and long limbed, boyish even at forty-three, clutches at the quilt, wanting to block you out, and morning, and the bedroom.
The night before, as he lay on the bed, Callum put aside his magazine to tell you he wanted to trace his family roots. You assumed he meant to Sweden or possibly, on his mother’s side, to Scotland. You were tidying up and turning off lights. When you glanced up, Callum had a blown-back look, as though he had stuck his head out of a car window.
“Nessie,” he said, “I think I have Aboriginal blood in me.”
Poor Vanessa. You stared at your blue-eyed husband. Even his underwear looked Scandinavian: soft flannel boxers in off-white. You raised an eyebrow, but your heart lurched. There you stood, solid as a tree trunk, with your hennaed hair and puckered arms, and you felt as though the floor had plummeted a dozen feet, like the deck of a boat. Callum is a partner in a law firm specializing in Aboriginal treaty cases. His new articling student, Connie, is Haida. Eagle Clan. She looks it, too, with her aristocratic nose and black eyebrows, hair falling with a slash to her chin line.
“What part do you think is Aboriginal? ” you said. “I hope it’s something simple, like your foot.”
And now you wake him. You poke at his languorous shoulder and tell him it’s morning.
Rain sheets the landing window as you come down the stairs to wake Aisla, your fifteen-year-old. The cedar tree outside looks wobbly and heavy. You can hear creaking as it throws its arms back and forth. But wait. A dream lingers in your head. You were high on a circus platform, wearing a sequined leotard, and you were slim, the way you were in your twenties, hip bones jutting beneath the sequins. The ringmaster was up there with you, and all at once he danced toward you across the wire. Standing on the staircase now, you remember the jolt of lust you felt as he took your face in his hands. But not to kiss you. He produced a rubberized loop, the kind Callum exercises with, and he slipped it around your neck—setting you up for your trick, which was to step off the platform and spin by your neck in the air.
Aisla’s bedroom used to shine with prettiness, with its pony wallpaper, and the jewellery box with the ballet dancer that spun to “Für Elise,” and the wooden dollhouse. While Aisla went to swim class on Saturday mornings, you used to tidy her room, and then make the beds in that little house and set the tiny table. Now the floor is covered in towels, discarded clothes, old cereal bowls. The pony wallpaper is still there, but a few months ago Aisla circled the ponies with Magic Marker, then put question marks coming from their heads.
Aisla lies in bed, her short platinum hair sticking every which way, her face pure as a piece of crystal, though beneath her eyes the skin is faintly blue—the only hint that she returned home at two in the morning, on a school night, then showered for ages before throwing herself into bed. Worry sings in you, sings and sings. Briefly you imagine picking her up, carrying her to safety across a burning landscape. Instead you lean down and shake her awake.
“Fuck off,” says the perfect mouth.
A pause. Then you pull the pillow out from under her head. Aisla sits up. She looks like an angry pixie.
“Fuck off, Mom. I’m sleeping.”
“Don’t you dare say fuck off to me.”
“Then don’t come in and shake me.”
“I was waking you.”
“Okay. Fuck off. I’m awake.”
You stare at Aisla. Aisla stares back. “You’re such a cow,” says Aisla, and this hurts so much you draw in your breath.
“You are cruel.”
“You are a fucking cow.”
Let us pause here—mid-carnage, as it were—to ask this question: why does Aisla hate you so much?
Answer: because she doesn’t. Answer: because she’s afraid. Answer: because hormones are raging through her body like stray dogs, chewing out the inside of her brain. Because you are something solid she can bounce off. Because you are strong enough to take it. Because she took ecstasy three nights before, and it is still doing a number on her small body’s serotonin levels. Because she feels an inchoate hatred at the mere idea of you leaning over to shake her into wakefulness. When did her mother, her Nessa, whose lullaby voice sang her to sleep (a voice she equates with the moon), when did you transmogrify into this flesh-covered creature? What does this say about aging, about life? Because if she could, Aisla would hate you back into wholeness, all of her adolescent self gearing up for the task, because her job as a teenager is to refuse everything that stands in the way of a truth she doesn’t even know she’s clutching at.
So there you go. She hates you because she’s refusing every concession you’ve made, which you now wear in the form of moles and wrinkled gathers and creases cascading from the cleavage of your breasts. She is also (now that we are on the subject) refusing the wafting, fat-lipped river of your twat, its Rio de Janeiro scents; the festival of grunts you make in the bathroom in the morning; your giddy anger after three glasses of red wine, a dark voice waking in your chest, saying you, too, refuse to be this being that everyone takes you for.
But now we are back in the bedroom. And you are moving toward Aisla-of-the-many-hates, powering like a battleship across the detritus on the floor, and you are holding Aisla down, you have pinned her shoulders to the mattress while she screams, Get off me, and you say, Not till you say you’re sorry; and though Aisla is half your weight, she is fast as a cat, and she wrestles from your grasp and grabs your hair. I can’t stand you, she is screaming. I can’t stand you.
Then Callum is there, unravelling Aisla’s fingers, and Aisla has broken from you and slammed the bedroom door so hard the wall mirror shakes and is about to fall. But it doesn’t.
“At least she’s up,” quoth thou.
What a morning. What an ordeal. With rope burns on your arms from Callum grabbing you, and your scalp tingling from Aisla’s hair pulling, you walk your golden Lab, Ginger, around the block. Rain sluices from your rain hat. The skin of your forearms prickles with suffering. All Callum said as you left the bedroom was “That was unfortunate.” And funny thing, this: in the half-light of the window above the dryer, his hawkish nose and expressive cheekbones did look Aboriginal.
You know he is thinking about Connie all the time now. Thinking about her taut and interesting butt, and about her grandmother, who showed her how to weave spruce root, the hands of the old woman beside the hands of the little girl. You have developed a clairvoyant sense, fine as a dog’s hearing, for Callum’s straying. Even now, watching him with such fear as he prepares to fall, this secret part of him appeals to you in an underground way, just as it seems to feed Callum—both of you fascinated by what this other Callum will do, the lengths he will go to. You know that when he leans close to Connie in court and breathes in the Herbal Essences of her hair, he may feel guilty, and ridiculous, but he also feels alive.
These thoughts gather in miserable clouds around your head. They drip down the seams of your hat. They run down your neck. But all the time I am so close. I am nearer, even, than the neighbour’s oakleaf hydrangea, with its grizzled flower heads and peeling stems. I am so close you could touch me.
Callum bikes to work and Aisla buses (late again), while you drive, parking in the staff lot, facing the hedge with its yellow-spotted, glossy leaves (such a depressing planting, chosen for indestructibility). The doors of Prince of Wales Elementary clank shut. Inside, you shake the rain from your curls like a Portuguese water dog, then head down the hallway. Ah, at last. You open the door of your classroom, close it behind you—no wait, you lock it—and then zigzag between the islands of grade one desks to collapse in a beanbag chair, which sits on the carpet in this, the sanctuary you have dubbed Story World.
Yes, this is where you have been headed all morning: the incubating, productive hum of the school generator; the flicker of fluorescent light (you wanted to replace it with a floor lamp, for atmosphere, but the principal said no, it was a fire hazard); the spot of old blood where Kamal, your favourite, practised a pratfall and hit his head on a chair leg. Story World has a definite texture, from the wool and poly blend of the carpet, to the worn velveteen of the beanbag chair, to the fleece blankets you hand out. Cover yourself in a piece of night sky, you say, and the children do, tucking themselves into the serious job of imagining, of leaving earth.
Story World reminds you of listening, way back when, to Aisla playing dolls, after you tidied the dollhouse, the soft babble of pretending, so calming, like having your hair brushed. At moments like that, you wanted to write, didn’t you? Sit on the floor, pen in hand, and describe things. There is still an unrequited ache in your bones. I can feel it.
Lie back now. Garlands of red wool festoon the light fixture, and from these strands of Ariadne’s thread hang the children’s drawings of the Minotaur and the Gorgon, and the heroes, too, Theseus and Perseus, some with blood dripping from their swords. You love to read myths and fairy tales, stories with dark centres. The children always perk up, lean forward. Why? Because something is at stake: death has entered the building. Though recently a parent complained. They love what you do, inspiring the children and all that, but little David couldn’t sleep in his own bed. You nod sagely, your whole body wagging with accommodation, but in your heart you will never surrender. Story World is your line in the sand, your Stalingrad, your Madrid—¡No pasarán!
Good for you, Vanessa. You’ll need it.
This is the fabric of your day. The children rush in like a child sea. They throw off boots or place them neatly, then take their places at their desks. You do roll call and collect some forms, then hand out two dozen red foam noses. Kamal takes two and sticks them on the tips of his ears, which starts a trend. Can I have another nose? Can I? Can I? Then the children gather on the carpet. Dearest Gott im Himmel, how ironic. Today you choose something monster-free, a mouse that joins the circus, and of course this thrusts you back to your dream. But this mouse doesn’t have her head in a noose. She is a multi-talented little achiever (juggler, trapeze artist), though seriously underappreciated by the other performers. When the circus tent catches fire, it is she who leads the elephants to safety.
The morning slides by. The morning grows fat and heavy. The morning disappears. You blink, and you are in the staff room, with the smell of Miss Sugimoto’s sandwich: tuna fish and brown bread and mayonnaise. You excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, close the metal door of the stall and fix the latch.
Vanessa, tell me this: Why do you do what you do next? Is it a gesture of theatrical grandiloquence, this placing of hand to breast? Or is it simply that you catch sight of yourself in the sheen of the bathroom door and notice that two foam noses are still attached to the cartilage of your ears? You pull them off, then reach to place them on the metal sanitary box. This is when you feel a pressure under your arm, a rubbing on your bra seam. Odd. Now you reach inside your cotton blouse and press your breast beneath the underarm.
Dear gott im himmel. Yes, Ness. This voice you hear, this combination of Humbert Humbert and Jack the Ripper, is coming from a five-centimetre invasive lobular carcinoma, ER positive—a lump, in other words, cagily situated on your left breast, at two o’clock from the nipple. C’est moi. And if you please, I consider myself much too dark, much too personal, to be described as a mere lump. I prefer boutonniere of death. Or spider grafted to your flesh. Or fleur du mal. Invisible worm. Private monster. Bête noire.
The point is this, whatever you call me: I am no lover you can stiff, Vanessa. Nor am I a loved one you can excuse, or observe with half-closed eyes over a brimming plate of dinner, senses bloated and lazy. No, my dear, let me make this clear. I will balance you on a razor. I will dance you across a rope so thin you will have vertigo. Don’t look down. I will dress you in burgundy and sequins, I will call you the Cancer Queen, and my genius—for yes, I have genius—is that, small and dark as I am (the size of a pea, they think at first, though they change that after the biopsy to the size of a walnut—stage three, Vanessa), yes, small and dark as I am, I suck everything into my orbit.
So here is my vow. There will be no dragon boat racing for you, and no wearing of voluminous pink T-shirts. No throwing your arms around fellow survivors (careful, don’t hurt that irradiated shoulder)—no. This is my pledge. You will come out changed, skinned and clean, hip bones jutting from your leotard, having used every resource you have to fight me. (Witness, for instance, your eloquent but somewhat bizarre ministrations to this page. Here you sit, writing like the very dickens, attempting to expunge me from your system. Will it work? Perhaps it will. Remember that unrequited ache in your bones? Yes, perhaps it really will, coupled with tamoxifen, two surgeries, radiation, chemo, green tea, and raw food.)
As for Callum, in the face of me (his mustachioed rival) he will snap to attention, his gallivanting falling away like an invisible garment. He will cover his face and weep when the doctor says the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, and will weep again, with relief, when the doctor later says he believes it has spread no farther. As for Connie, junior lawyer with a long and lovely nose, your high-wire act with mortality will simply blow her out of the picture, at least for now. And Aisla? One Saturday morning, after a particularly vomitous session in the bathroom, you will tell her you want a story, and she will run—actually run—to her room and bring back Babar the Elephant, and lie beside you in the bed, her fine bird hair beside yours on the pillow. Yes, she reads to you, just as you read to her in bed when she was little, book balanced on your stomach so she could see the pictures. It turns out that what she really wants more than anything is for you to stay on the earth, large and dark, blocking the sun.
But wait. I run away with myself. I charge when I should pause and take in the moment. There you are, staring at two foam noses on a sanitary disposal box, while the skin of your arms prickles and cools (the blood has fled your extremities to feed your beating heart). You see the knob on the door latch and, below that, a pattern of rust like a horse’s head. Then you pull your bra back into place. You stand and flush and open the cubicle. Your face in the mirror: Oh, my darling! Your eyes. As though you know what is coming, what reserves it will take to flutter down from the ceiling and settle, with a terrible sigh, into your own body.
Beautiful Vanessa—allow me to dance forward and whisper these words in your startled ear: Welcome home.
This appeared in the May 2013 issue.