Driving to Ithaca
Chicken eggs, the word MICHIGAN, your own face in the mirror: things began to take on a falseness if you thought about them long enough. On Tuesday, Maggie went to the doctor. The act required driving three hours back to the university clinic in order to see a doctor in-network, but the effort seemed necessary—the lump, and the thought of the lump, and the thought of the thinking of the lump, had taken on a bright, gummy urgency.
Do you smoke? Do you have five drinks a week, or more like twenty? Does your grandmother on your father’s side have a heart condition, or is that your mother’s mother? Did you have your tonsils removed as a child—are you sure? The basic facts steadied themselves, and then tripped and fell. For the first two forms Maggie made confident NOs below the question, ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT STDs? By the third, her pen hovered.
Fidelity was a twisted thing when you were always calling things off, when you had grown to love and be so unsure of somebody else. You could mock up a sheet of their desirable qualities—face, body, SAT scores, grasp of current events, grasp of historical events—and she would score higher on most. But standing uneasily in line at the DMV, or waiting outside a concert hall, and he was the one who could softball a dry, observational one-liner out into the crowd so that it fizzed with relieved laughter. It wasn’t a dazzling talent, it wasn’t really even wit, but it was a quality that could get you much further in life than one exceptional, perfectly constructed joke, one spent years in the making—a joke that was prismic and complicated, that had depth. Those were her jokes.
They’d met at the community college in a demeaning COMM 101 class. They agreed that it was demeaning, afterward, smoking cloves in the parking lot—an astral, weedy lot that ran up against miles of dark woods. She was delighted by him. He was not weird. He wore nice plaid shirts and liked dark beers and probably wanted to marry her.
“I can speak Elvish,” she blurted out apologetically as they stood there beneath the parking lot lights, swaying. He turned to her and a slow, patient cowboy smile spread across his face.
“Sick,” he said. He flicked the smoky brown bit of his cigarette into the nearby parking space. After a few minutes, he walked over to retrieve and throw it away.
Once, years later, she had asked him what the worst thing he’d ever seen was. It was a leading question, asked on Christmas or near Christmas. They had broken up and gotten together again—once, twice, three times, four: a domestic routine like making and unmaking the bed.
They were lying on his bed when she asked him the question. It was a nice bed, too, an actual adult bed—she was always meaning to tell him how impressed she was by the whole getup—a box spring and two stiff, square gold decorative pillows that he gently piled on a chair in the corner, each night before he climbed into bed. He was not a messy man. He owned a rice cooker and even used it, too, arriving home each night, just in time to switch it off with a pioneer pleasure. He owned three towels: two for him, one for a guest. She was the guest. But she wouldn’t have minded sharing a towel, even one damp and gamy from use.
“I bet you’ve seen things,” she said, running her striped, socked foot along his. “On the job, I mean. What’s the worst thing? The worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
She knew it was a bad question because he sat up and made a joke, holding the pillow close to his chest. “Maybe all the zombies that I’ve seen go running into the woods screaming ahhhhhh, yowwww.” He laid back down.
There was a time when her questions did not land this way. There was a time when her romantic questions, the ones designed to bring them closer, didn’t come out sounding instructional.
“Haha, yes, the zombies, always the classic woodland zombies.” She stroked his back. “But seriously, what? Or maybe not the worst thing, but, like, ‘a hard thing?”’
“Ugh.” Flatly. “It’s just—not everyone wants to get home from work and then say shit about it.”
They lay there for a while. She began again.
“I heard a story on a podcast, I don’t remember which, about a woman who is driving and sees a body on a billboard. It had gotten flung from an accident, which I guess was at night, so nobody had discovered it yet? Or something. Anyway, the body didn’t have a head.”
He rolled over, unhooking his foot from her legs. “Maggie.”
“That came out wrong. I just thought, I mean, you never talk about what happens, and I know it’s traumatic, I know it is, but it’s become this big, huge part of your life and you never talk about it. And sometimes I think that, maybe—I think that maybe you might want to.”
“If I was the guy that gets home and wants to talk about his job, I’d be the guy who gets home and wants to talk about his job.”
They’d just gone to see True Memoirs of an International Assassin, which had gotten a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They liked bad action movies, though. Surely that much had been agreed on, early in the relationship.
To make up for the bad question, she inched closer and murmured sexy jokes about body doubles into his ear. After a few jokes, he walked out of the bedroom and then came back wearing oven mitts. He clamped them around her breasts, red paws, like he was taking something from the oven. The pressure hurt a bit, but because it seemed to be an absolving gesture, she said nothing.
In the waiting room, her pen came down. YES.
“Hmmm,” the doctor says, the very first thing when he walks into the exam room. He looks young. He looks like he has just finished pledging a frat, as if he has just returned from doing humorless, humiliating things. He smooths his hair back. “One form here says you aren’t concerned about STDs, but on this piece of paper, here, it says that you are.”
“I guess I wasn’t sure.”
“When I read the question again, it seemed to ask if I was concerned about their... existence. Like, concerned that they exist in the world. And I am. Gun violence, STDs, the opioid crisis. They are all, you know... as it were... great public health risks.”
“Would you like to get tested for this particular public health risk today?”
“No.” She shrinks back into the paper gown, which does not receive her. It is cold. Doesn’t anybody think about how cold it is? “No, that’s not necessary.”
He blinks. Once, twice. “All right. No sex shots. And it looks like the last time you had a Pap smear was eighteen months ago, so you’re good on that front, too.”
“Oh,” she says. “Aren’t women supposed to get them every year?”
“That was the mid-aughts.” The doctor looks suddenly annoyed. “Things have changed.” He rattles the stirrups. “Lean back. Let’s take a look at that spot you’re talking about.”
He moves his hands around for a bit. Her breasts are an indeterminate size, like a flyover state, neighborly, smudged with the faint pink of birthday-cake frosting, an A or B, maybe even a C. She owns bras in all three sizes and each one fits. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—the bras are the sisters and her breasts are the pants.
Sometimes, lying awake in bed, she wonders—is it a toothache, a hip spasm, a brick dropped on a foot? Pain had never felt particularly local to anything. “Yeah,” she says. “Right there.”
“There’s a little tissue that might be bothering you. Your last period was three weeks ago, yes?”
“Yes, but this is a new pain. It’s not PMS.”
“Women,” the doctor says, settling back in a practiced way, “often get very tender right before they have their period. Sometimes a familiar pain can feel like a new pain.”
“This isn’t a familiar pain.”
“Pain can feel like other pain.”
“Listen,” she says, a bristle followed by a pause. “This feels very different.”
He stares at her for a moment and then shrugs and swivels around on the stool. He writes something down on a sheet of small pink paper. He tears it off. “Then you should get an ultrasound. This is the name of the imaging company across town. I’ll have the nurse call ahead. It might be nothing.” He says this like a threat.
Once, between the second and third attempt at a relationship, Maggie went hiking in Switzerland. It was her first time out of the country, a breakup vacation more heavily inspired by Before Sunrise than she liked to admit. And sure enough, that first night at the hostel, she’d ended up sharing a bottle of wine with a German man. Karl. He was 6’6” and had been a physics PhD student for nine years and lived out of a small green car. His name tickled her. “Karl!” She’d doubled over, laughing.
“You bitch!” His words came out halted and curling, like red candy. “Darling! That’s my name!” But he had meant it in a nice way. They stayed up all night talking about the afterlife.
This is it, Maggie had thought, rapt and shining, balancing on the edge of the sofa, this is the rest of my life. The fact that they only sat across the room from each other, passing the flat white wine back and forth with rough urgency, only seemed to make the encounter more potent. Of course they were going to have sex: wild, passionate, hostel sex. Grimy—what you might, in these unprecedented new situations, call lovemaking—amidst sweat and backpack smells and functional hiking clips.
And sure enough, around four in the morning, he’d reached for her hand and asked if he could steal a kiss. It was very romantic of him to ask—that had never happened—and she was in Europe! Earlier she’d even hung a pair of her wool socks on the line outside to dry, a gesture that had seemed the final touch. Oh, god, I mean, really. But then, right when tall Karl wanted to kiss her, she’d begun to cry. “I’m sorry. My ex- boyfriend—I feel, you know—”
Karl was understanding about the sudden shift. He stayed up for another two hours, listening. “Oh, the ambulance man definitely loves you,” he’d said, soothing. “I’m sure of it.” He switched from wine to tea and made her a cup.
Karl was probably the nicest person she had ever met.
She was desired. There had been others. Dislocated instances, ones that did not have very much to do with her. Men who sometimes came up to her in bars, or at least, looked over: “Whatcha drinking?” Old high school friends, ones she must have once flirted with, messaged her deep in the night on Facebook (“Hey... you were in my dream”). Darting glances exchanged in traffic jams. Fumbling banter at the hardware store, friendliness souring into aggression. Whistles fueled by a quickening of steps. Colleagues (married colleagues) who got drunk (too drunk) and complimentary (too complimentary) when they went bowling. But Karl was a stand-in for all of them, an ideal man, both spiritual and easily tickled. A fork in the road, a tale of two cities, Karl.
She leaves the doctor’s office and drives across town—across town, across the boulevard, down in a boulevard. It shares the same parking lot as a paper mill and a warehouse church with a loose, flapping banner that reads “Heavenly Vision Pentecostal Holiness Baptist Church.”
“Big sale on denominational nouns, huh?” she says to the receptionist, who has a tight perm and who, full of face creams and mercy, lets out a nice laugh. Perhaps greeting the possibly dying makes you a nicer person. More generous.
“Take a seat,” the receptionist says. “It won’t be long.”
Maggie picks up an issue of People and flips through it. An actor and an actress who are dating are “on the rocks”; on the page beside them, a pop star has been spotted, literally sitting on the rocks with a young Romanian shipping heir. It is suggested that they might be in love. Maggie puts the magazine down and takes out her phone and googles “things paramedics see,” and “things paramedics might see,” and “common car crash injuries.” There are some pretty good articles, including one titled “27 Secrets Paramedics Will Never Tell You.” But the article seems, rather passive aggressively, to corroborate the idea that she doesn’t have the right to ask Andrew about his job. Secret #17: Sometimes, we need to talk. But other times, we just don’t want you to ask about our day—sorry! She begins to construct a text, telling him where she is, telling him she hopes he’s having a good day, does he want to grab dinner, and yes, she’ll be fine. Instead, she slides the phone back in her bag.
In the seagull-papered room they bring her back to, finally, there is a black screen with three neon lines, aggressive, like slam poetry: RIGHT BREAST, PAIN, 32 YRS OLD.
“So,” the doctor says, folding back Maggie’s gown. “What are you studying? Right arm up, please.”
“Comparative literature.” This, spoken from a horizontal position, also has a kind of lean falseness to it.
“What? Sorry, think I missed that.”
“Comparative literature—oh, like my research is on issues of belongingness and the historical moment.”
“Wow, belonging and the historical moment,” the doctor repeats. She is calm and presses her gloves against Maggie’s breast with authority. On the windowsill there are three pictures of her with a baby, though Maggie has the sense that the baby doesn’t belong to the doctor. “Well, that sounds important. What are you going to do with that?”
“Are you really going to ask me about job prospects while you’re touching my breast?” Maggie says, another joke, though it comes out like a little arrow. She doesn’t know what she is going to do with it, is one truth. There are no jobs.
“Well, you know, I studied sculpture.”
“I guess I didn’t.”
“And here I am today. Though I suppose I’ve always known my way around the human body.” She smiles. “That came out sounding kind of Robert Durst-y, didn’t it? I didn’t mean it like that. Believe me—I’m much better at conducting ultrasounds than I ever was at casting a foot. Feet were the worst. They always came out looking like baked potatoes.”
On the screen, gray waves, an astral, pickle-jar murkiness. Maggie has only ever seen ultrasounds, the worrying balloon geography of them, in movies and on television. The thing is no clearer in person, and although the screen is scaling her breast and not her womb, and though she does not want a baby, not a baby at all, she feels a misplaced pang at not seeing some sort of larval form lurk across the screen. Perhaps this is predictable, though. Too many TV shows where the blond woman clutches the green sides of an exam table, hissing, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong with my baby, what aren’t you telling me?”
The doctor places the gown back and walks to the other side of the exam table. “Everything looks normal so far—you’re quite young. It’s very rare to find anything in women your age. In a minute, I’m going to go talk to the doctor, which I do every ultrasound, so I don’t want you to be freaked out. Okay?”
“You’re not the doctor?” Maggie feels betrayed. “This whole time I thought you were the doctor.”
“Oh, no. No. Just a humble ultrasound technician.” The woman grips her clipboard and smiles brightly. “Okay, hon, here comes my line: I’m going to talk to the doctor.”
Normally, Maggie is not even able to fall asleep on couches. But after a moment she feels a softness and a darkening, and then a shadowy man is chasing her down a foggy shoreline lined with Hollisters so that Maggie understands that the beach is actually a very long mall. Seeing a massage chair in the middle, she dives behind it—a move that even in the dream she understands is probably not going to work well—and crouches there, half-exposed, as the man roams closer to her calling, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie,” and the more he says it, the more Maggie begins to understand that the name does not belong to her, that it is instead the name of a made-up country that some foolish person blurted out at a party, long ago, trying to impress someone.
She wakes up.
“Sorry it took me a while,” the doctor—ultrasound technician— says. “Okay, so. We’re going to send everything off to the lab and will be in touch when we get them back.”
She sits up, blinking. “So they’re normal? Or not normal?”
“Well, you know, it may very well be benign tissue. But we’ll call you when the lab results come back.”
“But even if it is normal—I mean, I don’t understand, this thing’s here, and like you say, I’m young. But I can feel it.”
“Do you drink caffeine?”
“Lots of things can affect the feeling in breasts. Heavy caffeine intake—even that can build tissue up. It can be...” The technician trails off. “Anything.”
Maggie makes a gesture of putting her coat on. “Okay.”
“You should be nice to yourself tonight,” the technician says, growing serious. “Epsom salts. A bath.”
“Merry Christmas,” the receptionist says when Maggie walks out. “Take a peppermint patty for the road. Take two.”
Outside, the snow is coming down in rough sheets. She reaches again for her phone, but her hand drops. She sits in the car for a while this way, the car idling frostily, her name scrawled in the fogged-up windows, which she eventually takes her sweater to and rubs out in a quick motion.
There had been a moment with Andrew during a long drive, the week before, when the car had been quiet for a while—a nice, casual quiet, though one that was meant, perhaps, to be soon broken. He was driving. Maggie had her head tilted trustingly against the window. Sometimes she tried to get him to talk about why they lived where they lived. How it was bleak, godforsaken, overtaken by snow nine months out of the year. She wanted him to talk about family or love of the land, to confess some longing for elsewhere that was overpowered by an irrepressible magnet holding him to the here, to these wobbling years with her, to those billboards and miles of dirty snow and harsh mall lights. But he never took the bait, would turn, instead, to her and ask: where else do you want to go, is this about job offers? When she forgot to press him, she felt that she could be happy.
In the car, hours of clementine peels curled in the cupholder, twinning lazily with the hardened crusts of fruit from drives past. They passed a sign that read “Lundstrom Drive.”
“Lundstrom,” she had murmured in recognition. It was Andrew’s surname.
But Andrew had said nothing, his eyes locked on the road. She’d said it again, louder: “Lundstrom Drive. Just like you.” Still, he said nothing, offered no small smile. He did this sometimes, or something like this.
She’d leaned her head back against the window, the feeling of gravity like a new vulnerability. Trees passed by, exits. And then once more, feeling the tug, she’d said it again, quietly, “Lundstrom.”
She’d felt it, then, a sudden repulsion toward her, a heat of unspoken rules and values. Perhaps he did not find the orange peels to be tender poems. Perhaps he found that her toeprints on the dashboard were not, as she had felt, tiny paintings about the durability of love. Perhaps he thought that they were messing the glass up. Long ago, she had stopped being afraid that he would ask her to marry him, though she still nursed a hope that he found her messes charming. She withdrew her feet from the dashboard and pointedly crossed one leg over the other. The thought came to her that maybe life was just this, long stretches of nice times, easy hours cooking dinner and thumb-wrestling in bed, followed by little jokes that fell flat, exposing your humiliating insufficiency as a person. It was a reductive thought, surely, but she fell into a sour mood for the rest of that day. What’s worse, being misunderstood or not being loved at all? A timeless trivia question. A harder answer. Her mother would have said the latter. She was so happy to have them nearby. Blessed.
And Andrew would have said, after that drive, that they hadn’t fought, and mostly, he would be right. In the beginning, so nice—a hand on the hip, garlic dropped into hot butter, two shadowy bodies perched in a graveyard, shivering, swimming in oversized sweatshirts. Happy and guilty.
The fields shudder past her: unending, dark, holy. Billboards thrown into sudden patches of blue stage light: CHEAP SWIMMING POOLS and RED LOBSTER—NEXT EXIT! It is a bad drive. Every car seems to have been let loose from their usual machine leashes, drifting in and out of highway lanes. Maggie drives slowly, sitting up straight, merging from the highway onto the final stretch of country road toward home, inching behind an eighteen-wheeler, which prowls cautiously down the road, a nice companion, until it veers off into a residential neighborhood. Her wheel twitches.
And then a thud, sudden and blinding; it is hard to imagine a verb equal to the action. A lurch, a crack, a boom—it is an impact, and it is large, but the sound is eerily dull. An animal. One minute her hand is on the radio dial, the next, the grayish buck is skidding heavily across her hood. The car swerves into a low ditch, and her forehead goes flying toward the wheel, then back to the headrest.
Her first thought is that vulnerable right breast. She reaches a hand up to touch it and then sees that her hand has left a print, a red paw on her blouse. She looks at the hand. It is bleeding, but the blood seems only to originate from a small, messy cut. Not so bad, maybe. She’s all right! Of course she is. Her heart beats fast from the adrenaline, and there is something of a strange thrill, an exhilaration. The beautiful dead buck is still tangled at the front of her hood.
She is thirty minutes from home and Michael is on call at work. Her phone died hours ago, but it is possible that if she finds someone to call 911, he might be the paramedic to respond. He does not know she has made this drive. He does not know about the pain. The possibility of a life without her will flash before him. He will be sorry.
What can one reasonably desire?
A) To not always be afraid.
B) A love as self-evident as strobe lights.