by Julia Phillips
There was a blister on her chest that never healed. Dark, it rested four centimeters below her clavicle, in the freckled plain of skin exposed by low collars. It had started as a spot, and then the spot swelled, popped, scabbed over and continued to grow. Under the skin was hard with blood.
Valentina told herself it would go away in its own time. After every shower, she covered it with a small adhesive bandage. The blister didn’t hurt but the look of the thing bothered her. During the first week or two she wore the bandage, a few people asked what happened, but once a month had passed, nobody noticed it anymore. That fabric strip became her affectation—like wearing a silly hat or whistling. Not even her husband was bothered as they moved past each other on their paths throughout the house.
The blister had probably come from working outside, she thought. Maybe she’d pinched her skin leaning over a shovel. When it was warm, she spent an hour in the garden each morning before work, and was always discovering some new scratch or bruise or scab in the afternoons. This was the wonderful, risky thing about living a bit outside the city: she got to have her own space, her own chunk of hardened earth, and all the aches and inconveniences that implied. Her drives were long, her visits from friends occasional. She wouldn’t have it any other way. It was only in November, when her plants were buried under snow, that she looked up from the sink in her office’s bathroom and noticed the humped bandage in the mirror. She counted on wet fingers. She’d been wearing it since April, the better part of a year.
At forty-six, she was not someone unused to the peculiarities of the body. Her wrists were weaker these days. Her leg hair was lighter, thinner. When she ate sweets, her stomach cramped—the girls at her office made a joke of passing chocolates over her lap during their afternoon breaks for tea, and she’d shut her eyes in exaggerated refusal every time. She and Roman had fallen off having sex a few years ago and she’d seen her breasts deflate as if in answer.
Still, for a long time, she had felt herself more or less capable. Trusted at work and tidy at home. The reflection of this brown and purple blister made her fear that all her competencies were about to disappear.
That Friday at lunch she went to the doctor. He leaned over her chest to study the mark: high as a knuckle, hard as a screw. It was small enough to fit under her bandage, but not as small as it once had been. “This is serious,” he said.
She raised her fingers to the thin skin under her collarbone. She’d come to his office for an easier answer than that. “How serious?” she asked.
“You’ll have to go to the hospital.” This was a doctor she hardly knew—she’d seen him three years before, for a tetanus shot after she stepped on a hand rake. He had only just received his degree then. She’d chosen this clinic because it was private and so offered a class of service, prompt, discreet, that she admired. On both that visit and this one, she hadn’t spent more than ten minutes in the waiting room. She hadn’t told anyone else that she was coming in today because she’d expected to make it back before the end of her lunch break.
“Why?” she said. “It’s just a blister—can’t you take care of it here?”
The doctor stepped away from her. Though he was the age of the son she and Roman might have had, he showed no warmth. He’d given no sign of remembering her when he first entered the room. His unlined face turned toward her file. “We’re not equipped,” he said. “You’ve got to have it out. We’ll call the hospital and you’ll head over there straight away.”
Stunned, she collected her things, followed him out to the front desk, and paid her bill. The girl took her cash and got on the phone. Valentina no longer had her bandage on. The blister, which for months had sat uncomplainingly over her sternum, felt hot. She touched the skin around it but didn’t touch it. It might have opened again but she was afraid to look down and check. Hanging up, the girl nodded at the doctor. “Fine,” he said. “Go on, they’re expecting you.”
The day was white. She got into her car. While her engine warmed, she called her job to say she would be out for the rest of the day. “Is everything all right?” asked her colleague.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It’s nothing.” Her voice was light enough to convince even herself.
In her ear, her colleague said that their boss had already left. “Hurrying to his happy home,” she said, and Valentina laughed, because everyone knew the man was having an affair. Their office had a stream of these secrets running through it. She always took pleasure in both wading in it and emerging at the end of every day. “Okay, then,” she said, and her colleague wished her a good weekend and hung up.
She had never had surgery. Scares like that belonged to other people. Over the years, her friends had lost gallbladders and appendices; her sister had cataracts removed in 2005; even Roman, dependable as he was, had had his tonsils scooped out. Pieces had been taken from all their aging bodies. Now, after long luck, her own death was catching up to her. That was crazy to think—but wasn’t it true? The doctor said it was serious. She shifted into gear and started to climb the hill that would bring her to the city hospital.
It was cancer. Was it cancer? If it were cancer, wouldn’t he have said? It was cancer. Sometimes they didn’t let patients know. If it was untreatable, the doctors kept that bad news private and just let people die in slow ignorance. Valentina’s grandmother had gone like that, coughing up pieces of her own lungs. Her mother had shut the door to that bedroom and said, “The flu.” They knew. The whole family knew and said nothing.
Cancer. That was a different time, though. A different world. Back then she wore red bandanas, and practiced handstands in their building’s courtyard, and came home to the hot mixed smells of bread and boiling water. These days, they tell you. And there’s treatment—and tests. And it wasn’t cancer, because if it were, he would’ve said. Her blister throbbed. Signaling right, she pulled into the hospital’s long driveway, under the arch that announced the facility, and into a half-full lot.
The hospital was poured from cement. She was trying to remember what her sister had said about it, but when she got to the waiting room’s door, she stopped, thoughts wiped by the stale smell of liquor. Old men sat with their hands pressed to their bellies. A mother kept her arm around her young daughter, whose leg was streaked with dirt and blood. Valentina finally moved past them to the desk of the admitting nurse. She said, “Dr. Popkov called on my behalf.” She thought of cancer.
The nurse squinted at her computer screen and then looked up. Her face was firmed by years of responsibility. Brows fading, mouth unsmiling but not unkind. An expression like that can relieve anyone’s worries. “Of course,” she said. “Come with me.” Valentina pulled her purse higher on her shoulder. Around them, the sick people groaned.
They took a corridor back, leaving the bleeding children, complaining men, and scuffed plastic chairs behind. The nurse led her up two flights of stairs. On the third floor, they emerged to a wide hall, tiled in green squares and lined by shut doors. The nurse opened one, took Valentina past a row of red medical waste bins, and motioned her into a small room. “Dr Popkov—” Valentina started to say.
“Someone will be in to see you soon,” said the nurse.
The door closed. Valentina put her hand in her purse and felt for her phone. But who could she call? What would she say? “I’m at the hospital and I don’t know why,” she’d say to Roman, and he would go silent, worry, or laugh. So she shut her bag again and looked around. Cupboards high on the walls. A row of outlets underneath them. There wasn’t a chair for her to use. Instead, she hoisted herself up on the exam table, her slacks sliding on its weathered vinyl.
She reminded herself to sit up straight. Over long minutes, though, her spine hunched, her belly folded. All these months she’d thought it was just a common blood blister. She couldn’t trust her own judgment anymore. “Serious,” the doctor had sad. Her hands were shaking. To stop them, she crossed her arms over her chest and listened. No sound from outside her door. The room was windowless. It made a clean case around her.
The next person that came in, she would ask to explain. If they didn’t know, she would say, “Call my doctor, please.” She opened her purse again to find the phone number. The bag held her receipt, written in pen by the front desk girl; her wallet, suede, rubbed shiny at its corners; a pack of mints; a tube of lipstick; folded pieces of paper from work. She’d forgotten that she’d brought those with her. She took them out and smoothed their creases out over her thighs. When she looked at them, their columns wavered before her eyes.
Valentina looked up to focus on the door handle. It didn’t turn.
She thought about the ground outside her front door. Half-frozen after today’s cold. Tonight she’d make pelmeni. Nothing too taxing. It would be dark by the time she got home; she might be tired, and boiling water would be the best she’d be able to manage. That, a stiff drink, and a long sleep. When she pictured it, she saw her chest bare, blister-less. Unscarred. Soft as it was when she was still a girl.
She concentrated on that. Her skin left without blemish. The documents dampened in her hands, and the vinyl cushion under her bent to her weight. She practiced telling herself that everything was going to be fine.
Finally there was the knock. The vision she had of her home was shuttered. “Yes,” Valentina called, even as a doctor opened the door.
“Good afternoon,” the woman said. She turned right away to the empty counter, the locked cupboards, and said, “Undress, please.”
Valentina pinched the papers harder. Their edges were soft from her sweat. Then she stood up. She put her things back in her purse and zipped it shut. Already half-naked without her bandage on, Valentina began taking off her clothes. She peeled off her boots and socks and put them in a corner with her purse, then folded her jacket and scarf and rested them on top. Then her sweater, her blouse. Her slacks. Her back was to the silent doctor. The sooner she finished this, the sooner the exam would be over, the sooner she could go. She unsnapped her bra. The warmth from the lined cotton leached back into her hands. Quickly, she took off her underwear, too, wrapped it with her bra into a neat little package, and set them on top of the pile.
She stepped back to sit up on the table. Her skin rubbed on it now.
As soon as she was settled, the doctor turned around. She was dressed in white with a blue cap covering her hair. “No one’s with you?” she asked. Valentina shook her head. “And you didn’t bring a gown? That’s all right,” the doctor said. “It’s not important.”
The doctor came close enough that they could smell each other: the woman’s skin like antiseptic wipes, the smell of lip balm disguised under that, and Valentina slippery with nervousness. Valentina had skipped lunch. She was empty as a box bobbing in the sea. The doctor bent to study the blister. She touched it with her clean, dry fingers. Then, carefully, she palpated Valentina’s neck, jaw, ears. She felt the span of Valentina’s chest and spent a long time pressing her right armpit.
“Dr. Popkov said it was serious,” Valentina said to break the silence.
“My doctor…from the clinic. He sent me here.”
The doctor straightened. Even hunched over, Valentina was a little taller. The doctor’s lips were pink and her cheeks were broad, giving her a sweet, apple-faced quality that belied the firmness in her fingertips. “He was right. We’re going to take it out,” she said. “Come with me.”
Valentina pushed herself off the table. She started moving toward her clothes.
The doctor said, “No. Leave your things here.”
But Valentina was exposed from her sagging neck to her frozen feet. Blister and breasts and ass and pubic hair. Not even her husband had seen her like this—bare under fluorescent lights. Salt-covered and scared. Filled with cancer—she could be filled with it. Naked in the city hospital, a place she’d never been.
She couldn’t remember now how many doors she’d gone through to get here. She thought of the men in the waiting room downstairs. Had they also been shown into private rooms? Were they waiting, round and jaundiced, just outside?
“Come on,” the doctor said, already finished with Valentina’s body. She was ready to move on.
Valentina wasn’t. “Shouldn’t I—”
The woman was opening the door.
“Can I bring my jacket?” Valentina asked. Her teeth were chattering. She was cold with dread.
The doctor said, “This is no time to be modest. You are going to the operating room.”
She followed the woman out into the passageway with the red bins. If they walked straight, they’d go back out into the wide hall, which had been empty before and now could hold—anything. Anyone. Instead they turned left. They left Valentina’s stack of stuff behind. She hadn’t taken note of her room number. Her ID, her keys, her clothing—all her things were in there. Though she’d covered her chest with her arms, air still poured across her hips and thighs. The doctor didn’t pay any attention.
She was going to the operating room. The operating room. She held herself together as much as she could. Was this how everyone else had gone to surgery—naked, frozen? Under her feet, the floor was gritty. The number of dirty bodies that must have gone this way before. Her mother had raised Valentina and her sister to always wear slippers when indoors…to keep their home clean, to keep them safe. She’d warned them that cold would travel up their feet to the rest of their bodies. That’s how girls get barren, she’d said. Valentina’s toes were bent with age. Maybe the cold didn’t matter anymore. She was already old—childless. She was already sick.
Two meters ahead, the double doors. The doctor silent at her side. The hall leading them to surgery was lined by red buckets. They contained…what? Blood? Gauze? Cut-out growths? They contained body parts, discarded nightmares. She cast her eyes down at the floor. An animal smell, like dirt, waste, death, was thick in her face and on her skin. She didn’t want this. She wasn’t prepared. Seized by fear, she looked again at the row of bins and saw entrails.
Her feet moved her. Somehow, she walked. The doctor and nurse and this woman here had all directed her this way, toward these double doors, so she continued, repeating to herself that this was what she must do. The hallway was ending. The doctor put her hands on the doors. “Hey,” she said, and Valentina looked up. A little kindness broke into the doctor’s round face. “Don’t worry. They’ll put you to sleep.”
The doctor pushed the doors open. Valentina found a team of strangers waiting in gloves, gowns, and masks. Her life was left somewhere behind.
“Go ahead,” the doctor said.
Valentina was so cold. The smell from the hall had sunk into her tongue, so she tasted soil, tasted blood.
She thought, in an hour this will be over; she thought, everything is going to be fine. It will. It has to be. No more blister. No more cancer, if it was cancer—it’ll be plucked out at the root. She told herself it will pass quickly. She thought, after this is done, I will never tell anyone about it. Not my husband, not my sister. I will leave free of disease. No one will ever discover what has happened here to me today.
Julia Phillips‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Rumpus and The Brooklyn Quarterly. She tweets @jkbphillips.
Image source: Creative Commons