She lay topless on her back, alone in her apartment on her old bed, kneading her hand from her dark nipple to her olive colored armpit – an erotic, slow, motion unless you knew why she was doing it. To see if the lumps were still there. They were.
Tomorrow, Vivian Esperito had a doctor’s appointment. “Maybe they’re nothing,” her mother told her on the phone last week. “Maybe they’re just a bunch of cysts and they’ll go away on their own. Maybe it’s just because of stress. Try to relax. Do some breathing exercises.” Now, she took a deep breath in and blew out slowly. She ran her hand around her armpit again. Still there. Three masses the size of mature strawberries, but hard like unripened ones. She had kept hoping they would disappear, dissolve and slink back to whatever foul tissue had given birth to them in the first place. This can’t be part of my body, Vivian thought. No way. She was too young. Under thirty and childless. Pretty and still single. With a B.A. in business and a good career in marketing ahead of her. A reformed loser. Scared to death – or at least scared into thinking about death. Again.
Ten years ago, her life felt like a pile of bricks. Every day, one more fell with a crash into the wheelbarrow she imagined she pulled around – to work at the variety store, to home as little as possible, to her boyfriend Ader’s family’s house if he asked her, to his seventy-six Chevy Impala (he always asked her there), to Maria’s crowded parties where she drank hoping to forget her perpetual load, to bed where she never slept more than three hours.
Of course, nights were worst. The bricks felt piled on her chest, wheelbarrow and all, suffocating her. It reminded her of a story she had heard in history class where a man accused of witchcraft was sentenced to die under a pile of rocks unless he confessed. He never did. He died in terrible, valiant pain. If Vivian’s father weren’t so dumbly watchful and her mother not such a Bible thumper, she would have tried sleeping in someone else’s bed, maybe Ader’s or that guy’s from Maria’s last drink-fest. Maybe that would have helped. Or she wished she could be like Ader and stay high all the time. But weed was too expensive and she was afraid her father would smell it on her. Her mother wouldn’t know it was weed even if she could smell it on her daughter. She opted for alcohol, a commodity hard to come by since she was still underage. But she managed.
And then, that one night. She had stood in front of her parents’ medicine cabinet surveying the stock of expired antibiotics, aspirin, cough syrup. She inventoried amounts, potencies, efficiency. She was seventeen, just barely graduated high school, and Ader, stoned, had just blackened her right eye. Again. She was tired of wearing so much eyeliner, mascara, cover up. Tired of her father telling her not to wear so much makeup. Tired of her mother smiling and hurrying off to Bible study. She was afraid nothing in the cabinet was strong enough. Until she found the almost expired bottle of Percocet, a pain killer her father had used after having his wisdom teeth removed.
She had lain back on her childhood bed for the longest time, just staring at the opaque brown bottle of pain killers. It was more than half full. Take one every six hours as needed for pain. Do not mix with alcohol. Maybe if she mixed the pills with a glass of her father’s Zinfandel, that would do the trick. Maybe she could down the mix in one gulp – she really hated wine. But then what if she gagged and threw it all up? Then she wouldn’t have the pills and her father would find out. She convinced herself that it was stupid to end it all by drinking something she hated, something the very body she longed to escape might perversely reject. It was the only reason she could come up with for not downing the drugs. She thought if she waited long enough, she could score some more hard liquor from Maria and go out in style and taste. She didn’t want the last thing in her mouth to be wine.
She had since outgrown her distaste for life and wine. Within a month of the Percocet incident, she realized she could not kill herself and since she was apparently going to live, she would have to pull her life together. She dumped Ader and enrolled in a business program at the community college. She graduated and was placed as a receptionist at a small computer consulting firm. The firm grew and so did her responsibilities. She moved out on her own. Now, she always kept a bottle of cabernet sauvignon cold in the refrigerator for those evening toasts to her latest dates who always left before sunrise. A personal rule she had implemented since getting her own place. She liked to drink her coffee alone in the morning.
Vivian squeezed her eyes shut tight and breathed in. Relax, she thought. Just relax. And suddenly, she was eight years old again and her mother was taking her out to a donut shop downtown. Vivian thought of how she sat when she was that little – back straight, legs swinging, from the vinyl padded stool, running her fingers through sugar spilled on the brown Formica counter. She remembered how grown up she felt, and brave – brave enough to order a coffee, extra light with four lumps of sugar. They had to be lumps, not granulated. Yes, it did make a difference she told the amused waitress. Her mother asked her “Are you sure? I didn’t know you even liked coffee.” Vivian nodded solemnly. “Well you’re very mature for your age,” her mother said, and lifted the steamy cup to her smiling lips.
She shook the memory from her mind, sat up and slipped on a T-shirt. Tomorrow was the day. Then she would know what she was up against. She walked into the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee using the same delicious ratio she had devised as a child. Lots of cream and cubes of sugar. She stirred slowly at first, wondering if the doctor would want a biopsy. The cream swirls grew from her spoon to the rim of the cup. Coffee leapt over the edges as she began to stir ferociously.
She gulped a mouthful of weak coffee and collapsed, prostrating herself across her kitchen counter. Coffee leaked from her cup to the counter, from the counter to the floor. She sobbed and let the coffee cup crash to the white tiles. Pools of coffee soaked her hair, her face, her hands, while she repented for ever having wanted to die.
Katherine M. Gotthardt