Obviously, if you were reading Tiny Cat Pants last year, you know the backstory to this. It got rejected twice, which, in the grand scheme of things is nothing, but I realized it was too close to my heart for me to be able to continue to send it out. The rejections felt too much like someone was saying that what happened to me just wasn’t that interesting.
The City Under Your Skin
The drugs make you tired when you want to be alert and awake when you want to sleep. So you lie there in the dark of your room, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for time to pass. You run your finger absentmindedly along the bandage. You’re constantly touching the bandage, trying to make yourself used to it. It takes you some time to realize how much of your breast has lost feeling in it. You watch the shadows move across the wall. Your belly rises before you like a soft and giving mountain.
Maybe you should be careful with it—your big old body. If these long weeks have taught you anything it’s how surprisingly easy we are to fuck up. A few wayward cells here, a little dark spot on a mammogram there, and the next thing you know, you’re cut open and your mom is bathing you again and pretending she’s not crying while she brushes your hair.
But the night is long and you’re bored so you poke at your belly, watching it jiggle and then settle in place. You push into the bulk of that soft expanse. You flick your belly button. And that’s when you feel it. No, not another lump. Thank goodness. Not another lump.
But a divot. You press harder, right where you imagine your liver to be, and, yes, beneath your skin, just below a thin layer of fat, is some kind of structure. Or the absence of a structure. You feel it, this low hard spot running down the length of you in a line nearly as straight as the incision on your breast.
Your first thought is that this is just that— a trace of some old, forgotten surgery, maybe even something that happened when you were too young to remember, and here is the evidence of it, just now coming to the surface. A scar. But, then, you realize you have not come to the end of this divot. There’s a flat spot and then the ditch continues.
That’s the word that makes sense of what you’re feeling in there. You come back to the flat spot and press at it. Yes, you’re convinced you can feel the edges of a metal culvert. A tiny one, sure, but a culvert. Which means that the flat spot is a path or a road going over the ditch.
Now you’re certain that you’ve lost your mind, that the drugs are making you hallucinate. But what’s the harm? There are still four more hours until dawn and surely that road goes somewhere.
You follow the road up the great hill of your belly and, at the top, a city awaits you. The skyscrapers poke at your fingers, the streets and parking lots feel smooth, barely hidden under your flesh. You inch your finger along, trying to make out any familiar landmarks. Is this a place you know?
Your house is quiet. Your husband lies next to you. Your daughter snores slightly down the hall. Your mother is on the pull-out couch in the basement. All the real people are asleep. You get up and go to the den. In the morning, your husband finds you in the chair, a map pulled up on the computer in front of you.
He wakes your mother and the two of them come back into the room where you’re slumped over, drool running down your chin, dripping onto the keyboard. They try to wake you, but the drugs, the damn drugs. By now, they’re both crying, though they don’t tell you that until later. They manage, somehow, to get you down on the couch. You sleep until long after lunch.
“Visiting my grandmother?” Your mother looks over at the computer, which has gone to sleep. There’s nothing to gain by looking at it, except to be reminded that there was once something there worth looking at.
That blankness, you think, is like the scar on your boob.
It annoys you to be constantly thinking of your boob. You can’t think of anything else.
Over the next few days, you want only two things—to poop and to drive to the city your body has placed a map of in your belly, a city you now realize is one you’ve been to a million times, where your mother’s family is from. The drugs keep you from both and you’re not sure you could survive the trip to make the second thing happen if you somehow cannot make the first thing happen.
You must wait.
Later, you’re sitting in the doctor’s office as he tries to explain that they do not know what they pulled out of you.
“It’s a dysplasia,” the doctor says. “The tumor is not cancerous, but it did appear to be forming,” he pauses, searching for a way to put what he wants to say in language that sounds appropriate for a doctor, language that suggests he knows what he’s talking about, “small, calcified areas. Perhaps made of bone. We need to run further tests.”
“Will it come back? Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t know and I don’t think so.”
He’s sitting down on the stool in front of the exam table you’re sitting on. You can see right down onto the pieces of paper he keeps in your file. Even upside down and in his atrocious handwriting, you read, “Stones?”
This is the moment for you to tell him about the concrete in your belly, the asphalt under your flesh. A body that can make rocks can make windows and steel I-beams. Is it so hard to believe that a body that could make a daughter could make a city? He has seen the stones, how your body creates. Tell him. Just tell him.
But you don’t, because you don’t want to be cut open again. There’s a limit to how much fear a person can comprehend. You can’t face another round of tests, more poking and prodding, another surgery. You know you should be scared of the strangeness in your belly, but you already thought you were going to die once this summer, from one thing growing in you. You don’t have it in you to be properly afraid of something else. Not yet.
You have some vague sense that this is not rational behavior, that this numbness is putting you in danger. But it’s a quiet voice and you can barely hear it over the unrealness of what you’ve been through.
“So, you’re fine?” Your daughter sounds disappointed when you get home from the doctor. “All this for nothing?”
Your husband snaps at her. Your mother packs her things and returns home. You are still sore and tired, but now that there’s nothing to worry about, you can’t imagine anyone is worried about you.
You go to the city. You don’t tell your husband or your mother. Just like you don’t tell them what a hard time you’re having believing that everything is all right. They cut me open. You want to say to them. I thought I would die. You should share those thoughts with them. They want to understand, they want to support you. They’re not the bad guys.
There is no villain. That’s the rough part. You’ve been squeezed and pulled and disfigured, by people who were trying to help you. They ran a wire into the tumor—you were wide awake for it—and it felt so awful you almost don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t pain. It was pain’s worse brother, a feeling so wrong your body can’t even resolve it into pain. And later they followed that wire down to the tumor, to cut it out. So, even the wire, the worst thing, served a good purpose. You want to be angry and insulted and traumatized by what happened to you.
But angry at whom? Insulted by what? That, you think, is the biggest mind-fuck. All this sorrow and no place to put it. People die. They get cut open and it is cancer and then they die. Why are you being such an ungrateful fucker? Why can’t you be a gracious winner?
Oh, lord, how long have you be sitting at this stop sign? Long enough that your face is wet with tears you don’t remember crying. Too long. You pull into a gas station parking lot, close your eyes, and try to get your shit together.
You reach under your shirt and feel for the city under your skin. You follow with your fingers the same route you have just driven in your car. The parking lot you’re sitting in is hot under your thumb. You sneak a glance out the window. There’s nothing peculiar about the day or the sky above you.
With your hand flat against your stomach, you feel another warm spot just south of your belly button. You decide to go there in real life. You follow the roads you can feel in yourself with your finger. You follow those same roads in your car. You come to a small, gray house on a block of small, rundown houses. An elderly woman is sitting on the porch.
You get out of the car, though you’re not sure what you’re going to say to her. As you come up to the front steps, she smiles and points her crooked finger at you.
“I remember when we bought this house from you,” she says.
“I never lived here,” you say.
“Oh, well, you have the same eyes as the woman who lived here before me.”
“I think that was my great-grandmother,” you say. You think you should ask your mom for sure, but then, again, it hardly matters to you.
“It was a long time ago,” the woman says. She nods to herself, as if that explains something, and then she gets up and goes back in the house.
Now what? You turn from the house and feel around for another hot spot. There’s one, not too far from where you are now.
You like having something to do, even if you don’t quite know why you’re doing it. You follow the contours of your body and you end up in an industrial part of town. You keep driving and you come to a white bridge over some train tracks. On the other side of the bridge is a massive iron gate. Behind the gate is a cemetery.
You drive in.
The cemetery is enormous and ancient. The oldest stones jut up along the road and up the hill like crooked teeth. They crowd together as if there’s safety in numbers. Some graves sit in perfectly straight lines with identical headstones—these are Masons or Oddfellows. A sign tells you that this vast bare spot is where the city buried all the yellow fever victims.
Your mom calls.
“Honey?” she asks. You can hear the worry in her voice. Your absence has not gone unnoticed. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the Elmwood Cemetery.”
“You went to Memphis by yourself?”
When she says it out loud, it does sound like an incredibly stupid idea. That you thought you were okay to do it probably proves that you are not. You don’t know how to respond.
Your mother sighs.
“Your great-grandmother. She’s buried there.”
You check at the office and the woman behind the desk tells you exactly where your mother’s grandmother’s grave is. You find it as easy as can be. You stand under the yew, in the shade, next to her and you try to figure out what to say to her.
But all you can do is imagine what it must be like to be laying in that grave.
You look around and the part of the cemetery you’re in is empty. So, you climb down onto the ground and stretch yourself out next to your ancestor.
“I don’t know how to go on,” you tell her. Not her, of course. Just yourself. The slight breeze in the tree. The bird watching from the mausoleum across the way. The empty air. Your mother is wrong. This visit has nothing to do with her grandmother. There’s no voice from beyond, no secret meaning to what you’ve been through, no lesson the dead are trying to teach you. But you understand why your mother thinks there should be.
“I thought I would die. I thought I would lose my husband, leave my daughter without a mother. I felt like I was betraying my mom. And for what? Nothing. It was all for nothing.” Saying it out loud lets you sob, the kind of gut-wrenching ugly crying you haven’t done since you were a kid. You wail, because there’s no one to hear you and, even if there was, if you can’t break down in a cemetery, where on earth can you?
Let them think you’re mourning for this dead woman you never knew, whose name is familiar to you only because of an occasional mention by your mother. That’s fine.
It’s easier than trying to explain that you are crying because you lost something of yourself you don’t even know how to put into words. You’re crying for the wire and the scar. For the pain and for the spot the size of a softball that might never feel anything again. You’re crying because you thought you would die and now you’re not.
Once you’re done crying, you lie there quietly, your hands folded just below your breasts. The day is gorgeous. The sky is blue. It’s too early in the year to be terribly humid, but it’s warm. Pleasant. You look up in the sky, trying to see as deeply into it as you can. Willing yourself to see farther and farther. Like maybe, if you see far enough, you will see the curve of your own soft belly arching above you.
You absentmindedly run your hand along your stomach, following the path you took to the cemetery again, running your finger over the white bridge.
And then you feel something odd. There is no gate. You move your finger a little closer to your actual location and you feel no grave stones. It’s a vast, empty meadow.
There is no cemetery in the city under your skin.
When your finger is right on top of your location you look up again. You don’t see anything. Of course, why would you? But you close your eyes and reach up with one hand as you press down with the other.
And maybe, just maybe, you can believe you felt both fingers touch.
For the first time since you saw the mammogram technician’s face fall all those weeks ago, you feel that you, yourself, are a real thing in the world and not just a flimsy, malfunctioning barrier between life and death.