Jessica Karbowiak

The Second Scraping

It’s the night before my emergency surgery when Central Texas has its first ice storm in over a decade. I laugh at my luck, watch the near-transparent flurries fall outside my bedroom window until well after midnight. My boyfriend and mother, who is visiting from New York, discuss the possibility "it may stick" in whispers in the living room for fear their voices may travel to where I’m sitting. I don’t leave the bedroom to join their conversation, let them worry for me because I need that right now, need to believe this weather is a fluke, that the flakes won’t stick because this is Texas now, not New York, and ice isn’t something you worry about or prepare for.

I watch the white whiteness build up outside, sit cross-legged in flannel pajamas covered with dog bones in the center of my bed. I wonder what will happen in the morning. I think I am maybe okay with putting off this invasive surgery despite my doctor’s insistence. She is bone-thin, a blonde Texan woman I don’t like much, a woman who does not meet my eyes during appointments. She puts little or no inflection into words like cancer, words that at this time in my life warrant feeling. I pray half-heartedly for the icy flakes to stop falling, for them not to "stick," and go to bed.

I do not get lucky. I wake at five in the morning, long before my boyfriend who snores loudly on his side of the bed, before even my mother who is usually up and lounging near the coffee pot in the kitchen by now. I know the worry and fear she feels for me, again it tires her, and I allow guilt to wash and pass over me for the third time in seven years. I let my two dogs into the backyard, a large expanse of now-frozen grass they slide across because they can’t catch their footing.

* * *

It’s been an awkward year for me. I am finishing my undergraduate degree at The University of Texas, preparing for graduate school in the fall. I have, after several hard years, begun to find peace, found it okay and safe really, to hope. I have just received a small writing accolade from my department, just deflected another marriage proposal from my boyfriend, telling him still after three years it’s too soon, let’s not rush this, it feels too soon.

I get home from classes one Friday-a good day when my small, suburban life feels enough, just enough-when I receive the news. I check my phone messages while fumbling with a granola bar wrapper, hear the nasal twang of Dr. Stump’s flighty nurse Penny who leaves me something like-It’s Penny from Dr. Stump’s office. You have tested positive for HPV and it’s caused cervical cancer. It’s pretty common. Call us to schedule your emergency surgery right away-on my machine. My fingers drop the granola bar as I play back the message two or three times, fumble with the telephone to call the office and figure this out. Though it is after 6 p.m. on a Friday, I let the ringer’s insistent tone trill for a while. It voices my nerves and calms me.

I am sick. At 24, I become a sick-thing again, find my legs up in metal stirrups at the doctor’s office more times than counted, eyes clenched tight against the cold and pressure. I am older now, hardened a little, so I do not blink days later when the confirmation call comes. I thank the nurse-though I do not want to, want instead to question the first insensitive message she left-and hang up the phone. I sit down on the kitchen floor and stay there a long time. I am still sitting there when my boyfriend comes home from work, drops his bag on the couch and calls for me several times before retreating to the front room and his computer. My dogs nestle against both of my thighs; cradle me in warmth as I stare with a blank face out the wide back window.

I don’t tell anyone for at least a week. I cannot bear to hear and see the sadness my life brings to my parents, my sister and brother, my friends. I live out the shock and the sad for as long as I can, ferociously and alone. I tell myself this is normal, I need thinking time, time to process this and do research, but really all I do is picture the sickly strong cells within me, festering and multiplying, taking hold of all or most of my cervix. I give them silly faces, the ones used in germ commercials to add an element of foolish, and in this way I can set up my hospital stay, contact the insurance company, call my mother, tell her to sit down, sit down for this one mom, I have some news. She flies down the day before my surgery, settles into the guest room with the freshly laundered sheets, calls my father every hour to "check in" so by that night when the snowfall comes, it feels surreal, the ice and close contact invading my quiet life.

* * *

In junior high, I played starting center fielder for the junior varsity softball team at the high school. I don’t think my father ever showed the proud more than when I caught his eye, when I loped my short and skinny body past the older girls to stake my spot for a game. It was a freedom I was given, all of it, the way my spikes dug down to catch and release tufts of grass beneath my feet; the raw, cold smell of the leather glove beneath my nose; the shine and glow of my father’s eyes as he took his worn leather glove from the garage and re-knotted it to fit my hand. Softball is a game of passed-downed-ness, the set rules and my father’s voice, the way I knew to shift my weight right or left depending on where a pitch was thrown, how the batter moved her body, the direction of cooling wind.

If my father left work early and sat in the stands, I showed off. I made easy catches with more flair, pushed my body into loose and easy angles, or added a roll or two in the grass for effect. After a particularly ridiculous play one game, my coach called time-out and waved me in with his right hand. I saw my father standing next to him, his eyes watching as I walked unhurried into the dugout. My father whisked me aside, hands on both shoulders.

What the hell are you doing out there?

What do you mean? I’m playing center field.

Not so much. You’re showing off.

No, I’m not.

My groan and eye-roll in response. The embarrassment building while my coach, the parents in the stands and my team stared. My father whispered close to my ear.

Don’t show off. It cheapens the game. Do your job. Like only you can.

I’m having fun. I haven’t gotten the ball hardly at all today.

Do your job. Substance, not show. And hustle. Lose the hustle and lose the best part of your game.

* * *

My mother wakes around 6 a.m., and I hear her gasp at the view outside her window at the front of the house. I have not looked there, only pondered the precipitation in the backyard, and I follow her fear to the front hall.

Bastian Lane is covered with a slick sheet of ice, a non-road now coated with rime. I stand at the double-wide front window and lean my head against the glass, push my nose and mouth into the cold. I breathe out and suction an O. It’s all I can think to do at this moment, watching as my mother punches numbers into her cell phone with shaking fingers. I listen to her voice, the anxiety, can almost see my father’s tired eyes and frown lines on the other end, hear him blame himself for not purchasing me snow tires.

I want to comfort them, but the idea of the worry my body causes prevents this. I don’t remember saying out loud to her how HPV can cause cancer, how maybe it’s best to have the cancer instead of genital warts appearing and reappearing to remind me of the bad moments. But I don’t feel lucky, imagine the worry and fear coursing through the phone wires, filling my home in Texas and my childhood home in New York, creating a shared stifle and sob I don’t want any part of, don’t want my family to know again and feel. I smear my index finger across the evaporating O on the glass, look across the street as Cynthia my neighbor covers what is left of her sagging Elephant Ears with a piece of wool sacking. She sees me standing framed in the front window in dog-bone pajamas and waves.

The hospital calls. They ask if I want to reschedule my surgery. I say "no, let’s do this thang," and the lady on the other end of the line doesn’t laugh. My mother, boyfriend and I pile into my black Hyundai Elantra, the one without snow tires, and coast down the road. I make some lame joke about how we are on thin ice and my boyfriend groans.

The non-road does not end at the stop sign, but continues onto the main county road and throughout the town. I maneuver my car down what passes as Main Street here, see the darkened storefronts and realize not a single person seems to be out in this weather but us.

It takes the better part of an hour to reach the hospital, which is only a few miles from my house. Frost coats the 20 or so trees lining Scenery Drive, and if I turn my head quickly, the lean trunks and modest branches become fuller and thicker, and this could be my side-street in New York in winter. We walk up the steep incline of the hospital drive lined with potted plants white with the weather. We make it about two-thirds of the way before the slick beneath our feet makes movement forward impossible. We clutch at each other’s coat sleeves and gloved hands, end up a tight circle of bodies a few feet from the front doors.

We attract an audience. The few people sitting in the front lobby stand up and stare, one little kid pointing at our predicament. I giggle. Giggles escape me in high and shrill tones, and infect my mother and my boyfriend. The sounds intermingle-my cackle with my boyfriend’s bass and my mother’s low and light laughter-and the openness of the drive echoes the sound so it reverberates against the hospital’s front doors, bounces back at us and pushes over the hill.

This is ridiculous. They really should send someone out to help us.

Mom, what the hell are they going to do? Form a chain of bodies and pull us in?

I’m serious. You have cancer, for chrissake. Can’t they do something?

I don’t think them sending out the cavalry is going to take care of business down there, though my medical knowledge is fairly limited.

Smart ass.

Two serious-looking security guards and several men in the lobby devise a plan, throw an over-large rectangular mat onto the drive to help us gain traction. We find footing and enter the building. It takes me a while to stop laughing because the little boy who pointed at us is still sitting nearby. He has no hair and a large healing incision shines on his scalp, and he erupts into ecstatic fits of giggles, and I tell him stop, please stop, I might pee, which makes him laugh harder. His mother gives me a look I ignore because we’re both here, him and me, cold and sick, and the laughter feels good, taking over like this, becoming tangible, an alive-thing we share. I wink and make a face at him, the scraping of sickly-cells-making-me-sick off in the distance.

* * *

It was later that same softball season when bitter cold hit New York. We played through winter weather often-thick cotton turtlenecks and sweatshirts bulking our frames, the plushy down of cut-off gloves beneath our mitts-and our breath puffed visible air. The wind slapped our faces and hands, the bite of it numbing my fingers and making my eyes water.

I stood in center field rubbing one leg against the other for circulation, and flexed my fingers inside my broad glove for feeling. When a ball came my way about the fourth or fifth inning, I didn’t try for anything fancy and caught it. The sting of the catch pierced the leather of my glove, passed through the cushion of my cotton under-glove and rested in my fingers. I cried. I cried without meaning to and the tears almost froze my cheeks. At the end of the inning, I ran into the dugout pumping both legs hard and slapped my father’s gloved hand with my own.

* * *

When I wake from the anesthesia, my mother and boyfriend are sleeping in uncomfortable looking chairs next to my bed. I am attached to an IV and wearing two thick, cotton gauze pads in my underwear. I feel sore and groggy, know things went okay because my mother is sleeping and not pacing. I congratulate myself by doing a silly prize-fighter move with my arms clasped together above my head before I realize there is a girl in another bed staring at me. I don’t care because my second scraping is over.

I need to pee. I angle myself toward the side of the hospital bed, move up and over the metal bar and flimsy cotton mattress though this is hard to manage on my own. The girl in the bed next to me keeps whispering instructions which always ends in an exasperated just ring for the nurse, just ring her already. I call her a defeatist and she rolls her eyes, turns her body away and covers herself with a thin blanket.

I position myself on the toilet bowl and peel off the layers of coarse white cloth. I see the clots of blood and the swirl of yellows, browns and reds. I sit staring for a while and shut my mind to the worry-turned-relief permeating the hospital room. I sit and weep into the top of my cotton gown, think how maybe the forced experience at college caused the HPV which caused the cancer, and maybe now I can’t have children. I want to wake my mother and boyfriend for consoling, have them wrap arms around me and tell me it doesn’t matter, it’s all okay but instead I sit and wait. I wait for the silly to come, to find me sitting on this cold and strange hospital toilet. I listen to the loud snores of my mother and boyfriend rise and fall behind the bathroom door.

It takes a while but it coasts down the hospital hallways, climbs three flights of stairs and slips beneath the crack of the bathroom door to find me here. This feel of foolish is a warming thing, and it is maybe childish to call for the ridiculous, but I don’t care, I don’t care because it helps me to mend myself. I get up and replace the stained gauze strips and my underwear. I hustle myself back to bed like only I can do, and settle myself there to heal.


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