Ellie stood with her back to the shower, the hot water cascading down over her neck and shoulders. Her eyes were closed, her head tilted slightly back. She held her left breast cupped in her right hand, her fingers squeezing lightly, pushing, searching. Her palm worked upwards, across the nipple, her fingers pressing down in a circular motion as they passed across her flesh. She tried to imagine that it was Brad’s hand on her breast, but the illusion was spoiled by the knowledge that his hands would have been rougher than her own, his fingers more focused on the nipple than the meaty flesh surrounding it.
Ellie opened her eyes and looked down at herself. Her breasts were small but firm. She liked that about them. There had been a time, after she was first married, that she had considered having them enlarged. But she decided finally to leave them as they were. If their marriage was to work, she realized, her husband would need to accept her as she was. And he had, at least in the beginning.
Closing her eyes again, Ellie lifted her left hand to her right breast and cupped it gently. Repeating the procedure she had performed on the opposite side, she began the slow and systematic exploration of herself that her doctor had taught her. Fifteen seconds into the examination she stopped. Her fingers paused at something unexpected.
“Shit.” The word escaped from her lips without her knowing. Ellie dropped her hand to her side, turned and dunked her whole face under the stream of the shower. The water had begun to turn cold.
“Shit,” she said again, this time louder and with some awareness that she’d said it. Ellie turned the water off and forced herself to take several deep breaths.
It’s nothing, she said to herself, You imagined it. Check again.
Hesitantly, Ellie reached up to her breast once more, searching for the node she had felt before. It took a few seconds for her to find it, and when she did her fingers paused, unwilling to delve deeper. It’s nothing, she told herself again. You’re overreacting. But the lump she felt was definitely not nothing. Ellie’s aunt had once told her that when she had first found her lump it had reminded her of a pea. Ellie pushed her fingers deeper into her flesh, feeling, moving, analyzing. Was this what her aunt had felt? Several seconds passed before Ellie realized that she had stopped breathing. She forced herself to take a breath, and then another.
Ellie dropped her hand to her side and stood motionless for several moments in the shower, her mind numb. Without the hot water streaming over her, she soon began to feel chilled. She stepped quickly out of the shower, lifted a clean towel off of the rack and hugged it to her chest. She stood this way for several minutes, looking down at the floor. Then, despite her best efforts not to, she began to cry.
Brad sat in his chair, watching Sports Center as he did each morning. He held his coffee mug with both hands, his eyes focused on the TV. He took a sip of coffee, swallowed, set the cup down on the table beside him. Ellie stood behind him, hidden in the shadows of the hall. She cleared her throat, hoping her husband would notice her. He didn’t. She tried again.
“Honey, can we talk?”
Ellie stepped out into the light so that Brad could see her. Brad’s head turned in her direction, but his eyes never left the TV. On the screen, two ex football coaches discussed the various aspects of the upcoming Superbowl. The game was this coming Sunday, and it seemed to Ellie that this singular fact had become the sole focus of Brad’s attention.
“I guess so,” Brad said. “What d’ya need?”
What do I need? I need you to pay attention to me. I need you to notice that I’ve been crying. I need you to hold me.
“I found a lump on my breast this morning.” She said. Ellie took a deep breath, waiting for her husband to respond.
“A lump?” Brad glanced at her, then back at the TV again. “You mean like a zit?”
Ellie almost laughed. “No.” At first this was all she could manage. She wanted to scream at him: No, not like a zit, you idiot! Like cancer. Like the breast cancer that killed my aunt. I’m scared, and the only thing you’re concerned about is whether I might have acne on my tits?
Ellie took another deep breath, swallowed hard and tried again.
“No, not like a zit,” she said. “Like cancer.”
That got his attention. Brad turned and looked at her. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again.
“Are you sure?” He asked finally.
What do I look like– a doctor? “No, I’m not sure. There’s a lump there. That’s all I know. I need to go see my doctor.”
Brad was not very good at expressing his thoughts. It had not always been this way. When they were first dating Brad had loved to talk. They would sometimes sit together for hours, their conversations ranging from music to books to world affairs. Now they rarely spoke. If they did, it was only to discuss the weather, or the children or things they might need at the store. At times, Ellie felt that Brad was more like her roommate than her husband. She missed the closeness they used to have. She missed the sense that, when she was with him, she was no longer alone.
Brad looked at Ellie for a moment, then turned back to the TV. On the screen one of Brad’s favorite players was giving an interview.
“Do you want me to go with you?” He asked. He did not look at her, but continued to stare at the television.
“Yes.” Ellie surprised herself with this answer. “Yes, I think I need you there.”
“Okay.” Brad looked up at her. “What time?”
“I’ll call today. I’ll let you know.”
The waiting room was nearly empty. There were two TVs, one at either end of the room. On the one closest to them Humphrey Bogart stood in the fog with Ingrid Bergman. The sound was turned down low so that Ellie had to imagine the conversation between them. Ellie recognized the scene from Casablanca. It was one of her favorite movies. Brad had taken her to see this movie when they were first dating. It was playing in one of the recently remodeled movie palaces downtown. The theater was full. Ellie had cried at the ending and Brad had put his arm around her. That night they made love for the first time.
Ellie looked at her husband. Brad watched a basketball game on the other TV. He stared intently at the screen, his hands clenching at the arms of his chair as one of the teams missed what appeared to be an easy shot.
“Who’s winning?” Ellie asked.
“We are.” Brad answered. His eyes did not waver from the screen.
Are we? Ellie wondered.
Watching him, Ellie wondered what it was about sports that interested him so. Is it just an excuse to spend less time with me? But she knew that wasn’t it. Brad had been an athlete in college, and sports had always been a part of his life. Their first date had been to a basketball game. Two years later, when he proposed to her, he reserved the same seats, and then arranged to have the stadium camera focus on him as he knelt down in front of her. Ellie was so stunned to see her own image on the giant stadium screen above her, that she did not give him an answer at first. He teased her about that each year on their anniversary.
“Do you still love me?” Ellie asked. She hated herself for asking this. She had been asking this question of him a lot lately, and though he answered the same each time, she still wasn’t sure if she knew the answer.
“Of course,” Brad said. I’m still here aren’t I?”
Yes, I suppose you are. But was that enough?
Ellie was realistic enough to know that things could never be like they were when they’d been dating. She did not dwell on this fact. She knew that it was normal, that all such relationships cooled over time. Still, she would have liked her husband to be a little more affectionate than he was; a little more attentive to her needs.
Ellie reached out and touched her husband’s hand. Instinctively, he started to pull away from her, then changed his mind and let his wife clasp her hand over his. Brad was uncomfortable with public displays of affection. This fact had bothered her in the early years of their marriage. But like a lot of his other imperfections, Ellie had gradually learned to accept it.
They had been waiting for just a little over ten minutes when the nurse came into the room and told them that the doctor was ready to see them. Brad did not get up immediately. He hesitated, watching as the last few seconds ticked off on the game.
Really? Ellie thought. Is this really what’s most important to you now?
Only when the final score was certain, did Brad turn to her and ask, “Are you ready?”
“I was ready seven seconds ago.” Ellie said. Her voice was cold.
Brad frowned. He glanced up at the TV where the players in blue were celebrating their victory. It was clear to Ellie that Brad did not know how to respond to this.
“Never mind,” Ellie said. She stood quickly and gathered her things. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Ellie sat on the examination table, the paper beneath her making tiny crinkling noises each time she moved. She had changed into a hospital gown. As instructed, she had removed her blouse and bra. These she held in her hands, unsure what she was supposed to do with them. Brad sat in a wooden chair beside her, his fingers rapping a quiet rhythm on the counter next to him.
“Are you mad at me?” He asked.
Yes. Ellie thought.
She looked down at the clothes in her hands and wished that the nurse had given her a bag to put them in.
“No, I’m not mad,” she said.
Tired of holding onto her clothes, Ellie turned and set them down on the table behind her.
“I’m just scared,” she said.
Brad nodded. He hesitated for a moment, then reached out and touched his hand to hers. Hesitantly, tentatively, Brad moved his fingers back and forth across her wrist, offering Ellie the barest of caresses. Despite herself, Ellie smiled.
The door to the room opened then. At the sound of the latch Brad removed his hand from her arm and dropped it quickly to his lap. He looked slightly embarrassed as he turned to face the doctor.
Doctor Evers closed the door behind him. He nodded to Ellie, and then introduced himself to Brad. Doctor Evers was much taller than Brad, and older, his short cropped hair just beginning to gray at the temples. He reminded Ellie of a college professor she had once had a crush on.
“What seems to be the trouble?” The doctor asked.
Ellie glanced at her husband, then back at the doctor. Briefly, she wondered if they had made a mistake by coming here. She had a sudden urge to get up and run, but knew that this would only prolong the inevitable.
“It’s okay,” Brad told her. “You can do this.”
Ellie smiled at him, nodded, then turned and looked back at the doctor.
“I found a lump,” she said finally, her words little more than a whisper. “A lump on my breast.”
“I see.” The doctor jotted a few notes down on her chart. “Do you perform self-exams regularly?”
“Yes–at least I try to.” Ellie hesitated, then added, “My aunt died of breast cancer.”
Ellie and her aunt had been very close. In many ways the older woman had been her best friend. Ellie had been devastated when she died. It was only after she met Brad, several months later, that she began to slowly piece her life back together.
“Do you have any other relatives that have had breast cancer,” Doctor Evers asked, “Mother, sister?”
Ellie shook her head.
The doctor noted this fact down on her chart, then set his clipboard on the counter beside Brad.
“Do you mind if I take a look?” The doctor asked. He stood directly in front of her now. Ellie’s shoulders tensed. She nodded her assent. Beside her, Brad fidgeted in his chair, clearly uncomfortable. As the doctor untied her gown, Brad looked away.
Ellie closed her eyes as the older man reached out to touch her. She tried to think of something pleasant, but could think only of the fear in her aunt’s voice when she had first told Ellie of the cancer. Ellie inhaled sharply at the doctor’s touch. His hands were cold, the tips of his fingers smooth–not at all like Brad’s. Instinctively, Ellie leaned away from him. She reached out for the table behind her to steady her balance. As she did so her hands pushed aside the bra and blouse she had set there. She heard them fall to the floor.
“Is this the lump here?” Doctor Evers asked. His fingers paused on the node.
Ellie nodded. The doctor pressed the lump between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it from side to side.
“Aghh, that hurts.” Ellie opened her eyes wide. She glanced at her husband. Brad was very intentionally not looking at her. He reached down and scooped her clothes off the floor, then held them in his lap as Ellie had done earlier.
“I’m sorry, Ellie,” Doctor Evers said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” The doctor removed his hands from her breast, stood and turned to the sink to wash up. “You can cover yourself again if you like.”
Ellie took a deep breath and pulled the gown quickly over her breasts. Beside her, Brad had folded her blouse, and was now trying to fold her bra. Frustrated, he gave up finally and set the clothes back on the table behind her. He looked up at Ellie.
“Are you okay?” He asked her.
Ellie nodded. Brad watched her for a moment, then turned to the doctor.
“Is she going to be okay, Doc?”
Doctor Evers dried his hands with a paper towel, then tossed the damp rag into a wastebasket. Picking up his clipboard once more, he turned to face Ellie and Brad.
“It’s too early to know exactly what we’re dealing with,” He said. “Breast cancer is certainly one of the possibilities. But there are others as well.” Doctor Evers smiled at Ellie. “Try to keep that in mind. Of course the only way to know for sure is to do a biopsy.”
Ellie swallowed hard.
“A biopsy?” Ellie struggled to keep her voice from cracking. She was deathly afraid of needles or knives of any sort, and felt herself growing faint at the thought of needing an operation.
“What does that involve?” She asked.
“It’s a minor procedure,” the doctor said, “Done with local anesthetic. It’s really quite simple, and relatively painless. I assume you would like to get this over with as soon as possible?”
Ellie looked at Brad. Her husband nodded. Ellie felt nauseous. She did not want to be here anymore. She wanted to go home and crawl into bed and forget that any of this had ever happened.
The doctor stepped to a computer terminal in the corner and tapped at the keyboard for several seconds. On the screen, Ellie recognized the multi-colored grid of the hospital’s scheduling program. Doctor Evers clicked on an empty square, expanded it, studied the screen for a moment. He then turned back to Ellie and Brad.
“Surgery has an opening Sunday at 2.” He said. “Will that day work for you?”
“Sunday?” Ellie was surprised this mattered to her, but Sunday was the day of the Superbowl. She turned to Brad. “What time does the game start?” She asked.
“Three o’clock,” Brad answered. His voice was flat, emotionless. The same thought had obviously occurred to him.
“Oh, yes—The Big Game.” Doctor Evers commented. “I’d forgotten all about it. I’m afraid I’m not much of a football fan. Is Sunday a problem for you then?
“Yes.” Ellie said.
“No,” Brad interrupted.
Ellie turned to her husband in disbelief.
“Sunday will work just fine.” Brad said. “We don’t want to wait.”
The barest hint of a smile creased the corners of the doctor’s mouth. He looked from Brad to Ellie, then back again, as if expecting one of them to speak. When neither of them did, he shrugged and turned back to his computer screen.
“Alright then,” he said. “Sunday it is.”
Ellie was terrified the day of the surgery. Her hands were visibly shaking.
Brad looked at her and tried to smile. “I know you’re scared,” he said. “I’m scared too. But we’ll get through this. I know we will.”
Ellie blinked hard, holding back tears.
This waiting room was like the other one, but smaller. They were the only ones here. There was a TV in the corner, but no one had bothered to switch it on.
“Why don’t you ask if they’ll turn the game on for you?” Despite herself, Ellie felt guilty that Brad had to miss his game.
“It’s alright,” Brad said. “I’m recording it. We can watch it later.”
Why is he acting this way? Ellie wondered. Does he think I’m going to die?
“Do you think I’m going to die?” Ellie asked.
“Don’t say that.” The thought seemed to visibly upset him. “We don’t know anything yet. It might be—probably is—nothing.” Brad looked at her then, his eyes intense. “We’ll get through this,” he said again. “You have to believe that, okay?”
Reluctantly, Ellie nodded. “Okay,” she said.
They sat in the empty waiting room for nearly an hour past their appointed time. Ellie grew more nervous with each passing minute. Brad tried to calm her by talking about his job, the children, the book he had just finished reading. Ellie heard little of what he said, but was glad for the sound of his voice. It reminded her of the conversations they used to have when they were dating.
“Do you remember when we used stay up all night talking?” Ellie asked.
“Yes.” Brad’s voice sounded almost wistful.
Ellie looked up into his eyes. “Why don’t we talk like that anymore?”
Brad shrugged. “I don’t know.” He said.
Ellie leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder. She pressed her face against his chest, breathing in the scent of him. They had raked leaves together that morning, and then burned the pile in the backyard. Brad had changed his shirt afterward, but his chest still smelled of woodsmoke and sweat.
“I miss those talks.” Ellie said.
Brad lifted his arm and wrapped it around Ellie’s shoulders. He pulled her close then, his hand gently caressing the bare flesh of her upper arm. His hand was warm, the tips of his fingers rough on her skin.
“I miss them too.” He said.
Ellie lay one hand against her husband’s stomach. With his free hand Brad grasped hold of hers and squeezed gently.
“It’s going to be alright,” He said.
Despite her tears, Ellie smiled.
“It already is,” she said. It already is.
Stone Showers has recently had pieces accepted for publication in the Love Hurts Anthology, as well as Spark: A Creative Anthology.