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http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ohenry/0900/budnitz.1.html

Flush

Judy Budnitz

from McSweeney's

 

I called my sister and said: What does a miscarriage look like?

 

What? she said. Oh. It looks like when you're having your period, I guess. You have cramps, and then there's blood.

 

What do people do with it? I asked.

 

With what?

 

The blood and stuff.

 

I don't know, she said impatiently. I don't know these things, I'm not a doctor. All I can tell you about anything is who you should sue.

 

Sorry, I said.

 

Why are you asking me this? she said.

 

I'm just having an argument with someone, that's all. Just thought you could help settle it.

 

Well, I hope you win, she said.

 

 

I went home because my sister told me to.

 

She called and said: It's your turn.

 

No, it can't be, I feel like I was just there, I said.

 

No, I went the last time. I've been keeping track, I have incontestable proof, she said. She was in law school.

 

But Mich, I said. Her name was Michelle but everyone called her Mich, as in Mitch, except our mother, who thought it sounded obscene.

 

Lisa, said Mich, don't whine.

 

I could hear her chewing on something, a ball-point pen probably. I pictured her with blue marks on her lips, another pen stuck in her hair.

 

It's close to Thanksgiving, I said, why don't we wait and both go home then?

 

You forget--they're going down to Florida to be with Nana.

 

I don't have time to go right now. I have a job, you know. I do have a life.

 

I don't have time to argue about it, I'm studying, Mich said. I knew she was sitting on the floor with her papers scattered around her, the stacks of casebooks sprouting yellow Post-its from all sides, like lichen, Mich in the middle with her legs spread, doing ballet stretches.

 

I heard a background cough.

 

You're not studying, I said. Neil's there.

 

Neil isn't doing anything, she said. He's sitting quietly in the corner waiting for me to finish. Aren't you, sweetheart?

 

Meek noises from Neil.

 

You call him sweetheart? I said.

 

Are you going home or not?

 

Do I have to?

 

I can't come over there and make you go, Mich said.

 

The thing was, we had both decided, some time ago, to take turns going home every now and then to check up on them. Our parents did not need checking up, but Mich thought we should get in the habit of doing it anyway. To get in practice for dhe future.

 

After a minute Mich said: They'll think we don't care.

 

Sometimes I think they'd rather we left them alone.

 

Fine. Fine. Do what you want.

 

Oh all right, I'll go.

 

 

I flew home on a Thursday night and though I'd told them not to meet me at the airport, there they were, both of them, when I stepped off the ramp. They were the only still figures in the terminal; around them people dashed with garment bags, stewardesses hustled in pairs wheeling tiny suitcases.

 

My mother wore a brown coat the color of her hair. She looked anxious. My father stood tall, swaying slightly. The lights bounced off the lenses of his glasses; he wore jeans that were probably twenty years old. I would have liked to be the one to see them first, to compose my face and walk up to them unsuspected like a stranger. But that never happened--they always spotted me before I saw them, and had their faces ready and their hands out.

 

Is that all you brought? Just the one bag?

 

Here, I'll take it.

 

Lisa honey, you don't look so good. How are you?

 

Yes, how are you? You look terrible.

 

Thanks, Dad.

 

How are you, they said over and over, as they wrestled the suitcase from my hand.

 

 

Back at the house, my mother stirred something on the stove and my father leaned in the doorway to the dining room and looked out the window at the backyard. He's always leaned in that door-frame to talk to my mother.

 

I made that soup for you, my mother said. The one where I have to peel the tomatoes and pick all the seeds out by hand.

 

Mother. I wish you wouldn't do that.

 

You mean you don't like it? I thought you liked it.

 

I like it, I like it. But I wish you wouldn't bother.

 

It's no bother. I wanted to.

 

She was up until two in the morning pulling skin off tomatoes, my father said, I could hear them screaming in agony.

 

How would you know, you were asleep, my mother said.

 

I get up at five thirty every morning to do work in the yard before I go in to the office, he said.

 

I looked out at the brown yard.

 

I've been pruning the rose bushes. They're going to be beautiful next summer.

 

Yes, they will.

 

Lisa, he said, I want you to do something for me tomorrow, since you're here.

 

Sure. Anything.

 

I want you to go with your mother to her doctor's appointment. Make sure she goes.

 

O.K.

 

She doesn't have to come, my mother said. That's silly, she'll just be bored.

 

She's supposed to get a mammogram every six months, my father said, but she's been putting it off and putting it off.

 

I've been busy, you know that's all it is.

 

She's afraid to go. She's been avoiding it for a year now.

 

Oh stop it, that's not it at all.

 

She always finds a way to get out of it. Your mother, the escape artist.

 

She crossed her arms over her chest. There was a history. Both her mother and an aunt had had to have things removed.

 

It's the same with all her doctors, my father said. Remember the contact lenses?

 

That was different. I didn't need new contacts.

 

She stopped going to her eye doctor for fifteen years. For fifteen years she was wearing the same contacts. When she finally went in, the doctor was amazed, he said he'd never seen anything like it, they don't even make contact lenses like that anymore. He thought she was wearing dessert dishes in her eyes.

 

You're exaggerating, my mother said.

 

Mich I mean Lise, my father said. He's always gotten our names confused; sometimes, to be safe, he just says all three.

 

She's afraid to go because of the last time, he said.

 

What happened last time? I said.

 

I had the mammogram pictures done, she said, and then a few days later they called and said the pictures were inconclusive and they needed to take a second set. So they did that and then they kept me waiting for the results, for weeks, without telling me anything, weeks where I couldn't sleep at night and I kept your father up too, trying to imagine what it looked like, the growth. Like the streaks in bleu cheese, I thought. I kept feeling these little pains, and kept checking my pulse all night. And then finally they called and said everything was fine after all, that there was just some kind of blur on the first pictures, like I must have moved right when they took it or something.

 

You were probably talking the whole time, my father said. Telling them how to do their job.

 

I was probably shivering. They keep that office at about forty degrees and leave you sitting around in the cold in a paper robe. The people there don't talk to you or smile; and when they do the pictures they mash your breast between these two cold glass plates like a pancake.

 

My father looked away. He had a kind of modesty about some things.

 

My mother said to me: All those nights I kept thinking about my mother having her surgery; I kept feeling for lumps, waking up your father and asking him to feel for lumps.

 

Leah, my father said.

 

He didn't mind that. I think he might have enjoyed it a little.

 

Please.

 

Didn't you?

 

Promise me you'll go, he said.

 

She's not coming, she said.

 

The next day we drove to the clinic an hour early. My mother had the seat drawn as close to the steering wheel as she could get it; she gripped the wheel with her hands close together at twelve o'clock. She looked over at me as often as she looked out at the road.

 

There were squirrels and possums sprawled in the road, their heads red smears.

 

It's something about the weather, my mother said, makes them come out at night.

 

Oh.

 

We're so early, my mother said, and we're right near Randy's salon. Why don't we stop in and see if he can give you a haircut and a blowout?

 

Not now.

 

He wouldn't mind, I don't think. I talk about you whenever I go see him to have my hair done. He'd like to meet you.

 

No.

 

If you just got it angled on the sides, here, and got a few bangs in the front--

 

Just like yours, you mean.

 

You know, I feel so bad for Randy, he looks terrible, circles under his eyes all the time, he says his boyfriend is back in the hospital. Now whenever I go to get my hair cut, I bake something to bring him, banana bread or something. But I think the shampoo girls usually eat it all before he can get it home.

 

That's nice of you.

 

I worry about him. He doesn't take care of himself.

 

Yes.

 

Why are you still getting pimples? You're twenty-seven years old, why

are you still getting pimples like a teenager?

 

Not everyone has perfect skin like you, I said. Green light. Go.

 

I do not have perfect skin, she said, bringing her hands to her face.

 

Both hands on the wheel please. Do you want me to drive?

 

No, I don't. You must be tired.

 

I touched my forehead. Small hard bumps like Braille.

 

She drove. I looked at the side of her face, the smooth taut skin. I wondered when she would start to get wrinkles. I already had wrinkles. On my neck, I could see them.

 

So, how is it going with this Piotr?

 

He's all right.

 

Still playing the--what was it? Guitar?

 

Bass guitar.

 

She turned on the radio and started flipping through stations. Maybe we'll hear one of his songs, she said brightly.

 

I said: I told you he was in a band. I didn't say they were good enough to be on the radio.

 

Oh. I see. So the band's just for fun. What else does he do?

 

Nothing. Yet.

 

So. What kind of name is Piotr? Am I saying it right?

 

Polish, I said.

 

I did not feel like telling her that only his grandmother lived in Poland; his parents were both born in Milwaukee, and he had grown up in Chicago and had never been to Poland; Piotr was a name he had given himself; he was not really a Piotr at all, he was a Peter with pretensions and long hair. I did not tell her this.

 

A black car cut into the lane in front of us. My mother braked suddenly and flung her right arm out across my chest.

 

Mother! Keep your hands on the wheel!

 

I'm sorry, she said, it's automatic. Ever since you kids were little...

 

I'm wearing a seatbelt.

 

I know honey, I can't help it. Did I hurt you?

 

No, of course not, I said.

 

When we reached the parking garage my mother rolled down her window but couldn't reach; she had to unfasten her seatbelt and open the car door in order to punch the button and get her parking ticket. I looked at her narrow back as she leaned out of the car, its delicate curve, the shoulder blades like folded wings under her sweater, a strand of dark hair caught in the clasp of her gold necklace. I had the urge to slide across the seat and curl around her. It only lasted for a second.

 

She turned around and settled back into her seat and the yellow-and-black-striped mechanical bar swung up in front of the car, and I tapped my feet impatiently while she slammed the door shut and rolled up the window. Now she was fiddling with her rearview mirror and straightening her skirt.

 

Come on, I said, watching the bar, which was still raised but vibrating a little.

 

Relax honey, that thing isn't going to come crashing down on us the minute we're under it. I promise you.

 

I know that, I said, and then closed my eyes until we were through the gate and weaving around the dark oil-stained aisles of the parking lot. I would have liked to tell her about some of the legal cases Mich had described to me: freak accidents, threshing machines gone awry, people caught in giant gears or conveyor belts and torn limb from limb, hands in bread slicers, flimsy walkways over vats of acid. Elevator cases, diving board cases, subway train cases, drowning-in-the-bathtub cases, electrocution-by-blender cases. And then there were the ones that were just called Act of God.

 

I didn't tell her.

 

Remember where we parked, she said.

 

O.K.

 

But she did not get out of the car right away. She sat, gripping the wheel.

 

I don't see why we have to do this, she said. Your father worries...

 

He'll be more worried if you don't go, I said, and anyway there's nothing to worry about because everything's going to be fine. Right? Right.

 

If there's something wrong I'd just rather not know, she said to her hands.

 

We got out; the car shook as we slammed the doors.

 

She was right about the clinic. It was cold, and it was ugly. She signed in with the receptionist and we sat in the waiting room. The room was gray and bare, the chairs were old vinyl that stuck to your thighs. The lights buzzed and seemed to flicker unless you were looking directly at them.

 

We sat side by side and stared straight ahead as if we were watching something, a movie.

 

There was one other woman waiting. She had enormous breasts. I could not help noticing.

 

I took my mother's hand. It was very cold, but then her hands were always cold, even in summer, cool and smooth with the blue veins arching elegantly over their backs. Her hand lay limply in mine. I had made the gesture thinking it was the right thing to do, but now that I had her hand I didn't know what to do with it. I patted it, turned it over.

 

My mother looked at me strangely. My hand began to sweat.

 

There was noise, activity, somewhere, we could hear voices and footsteps, the crash and skid of metal, the brisk tones of people telling each other what to do. But we could see nothing but the receptionist in her window and the one woman who looked asleep, sagging in her chair with her breasts cupped in her arms like babies.

 

I need to use the restroom, my mother said and pulled her hand away.

 

The receptionist directed us down the hall and around the corner. We went in, our footsteps echoing on the tiles. It was empty, and reeked of ammonia. The tiles glistened damply.

 

Here, do something with yourself, my mother said and handed me her comb. She walked down to the big handicapped stall on the end and latched the door.

 

I combed my hair and washed my hands and waited.

 

I looked at myself in the mirror. The lights were that harsh relentless kind that reveal every detail of your face, so that you can see all sorts of flaws and pores you didn't even know you had. They made you feel you could see your own thoughts floating darkly just under your skin, like bruises.

 

Mother, I said. I watched her feet tapping around.

 

Lisa, she said, there's a fish in the toilet.

 

Oh, please.

 

No, I mean it. It's swimming around.

 

You're making it up.

 

No I'm not. Come see for yourself.

 

Well, it's probably just some pet goldfish someone tried to flush.

 

It's too big to be a goldfish. More like a carp. It's bright orange. Almost red.

 

You're seeing things--maybe it's blood or something, I said; then I wished I hadn't. The clinic was attached to the county hospital; all sorts of things were liable to pop up in the toilets--hypodermic needles, appendixes, tonsils.

 

No, no, it's a fish, it's beautiful really. It's got these gauzy fins, like veils. I wonder how it got in here. It looks too large to have come through the pipes. It's swimming in circles. Poor thing.

 

Well then come out and use a different one, I said. I suddenly started to worry that she was going to miss her appointment. You're just stalling, I said.

 

Come in and see. We have to save it somehow.

 

I heard her pulling up her pantyhose, fixing her skirt. Then she unlatched the door to the stall and opened it. She was smiling. Look, she said.

 

I followed her into the stall.

 

Come see, she said. Together we leaned over the bowl.

 

I saw only the toilet's bland white hollow, and our two identical silhouettes reflected in the water.

 

Now where did he go? my mother said. Isn't that the strangest thing?

 

We looked at the empty water.

 

How do you think he got out? she said. Look, you can see, the water's still moving from where he was. Look, look--little fish droppings. I swear. Lisa honey, look.

 

My mother is going crazy, I thought. Let's go back to the waiting room, I said.

 

But I still have to use the bathroom, she said.

 

I stood by the sink and waited. You're going to miss your appointment, I said. I watched her feet. Silence.

 

I was making her nervous. I'll wait for you in the hall, I said.

 

So I left, leaned against the wall, and waited. And waited. She was taking a long time. I started to wonder if she had been hallucinating. I wondered if something really was wrong with her, if she was bleeding internally or having a weird allergic reaction. I didn't think she was making it all up; she couldn't lie, she was a terrible, obvious liar.

 

Mother, I called.

 

Mom, I said.

 

I went back into the bathroom.

 

She was gone.

 

The stall doors swung loose, creaking. I checked each cubicle, thinking she might be standing on the toilet seat, with her head ducked down the way we used to avoid detection in high school. In the handicapped stall the toilet water was quivering, as if it had just been flushed. I even checked in the cabinets under the sink and stuck my hand down in the garbage pail.

 

I stood there, thinking. She must have somehow left and darted past me without my noticing. Maybe I had closed my eyes for a minute. She could move fast when she wanted to.

 

Had she climbed out the window? It was a small one, closed, high up on the wall.

 

She had escaped.

 

I walked slowly down the halls, listening, scanning the floor tiles.

 

I thought of her narrow back, the gaping mouth of the toilet, pictured her slipping down, whirling around and vanishing in the pipes.

 

I tried to formulate a reasonable question: Have you seen my mother? A woman, about my height, brown hair, green eyes? Nervous-looking? Have you seen her?

 

Or were her eyes hazel?

 

I came back to the waiting room with the question on my lips, I was mouthing the words she's disappeared, but when I got there the receptionist was leaning through the window calling out in an irritated voice: Ms. Salant? Ms. Salant? They're ready for you, Ms. Salant.

 

The receptionist was opening the door to the examining rooms; the nurses and technicians were holding out paper gowns and paper forms and urine sample cups, Ms. Salant, Ms. Salant, we're waiting, they called; people were everywhere suddenly, gesturing impatiently and calling out my name.

 

So I went in.

 

 

Later I wandered up and down the rows of painted white lines in the lot. I had forgotten where she parked the car. When I finally came upon it I saw her there, leaning against the bumper. For a moment I thought she was smoking a cigarette. She didn't smoke.

 

When I drew closer I saw that she was nibbling on a pen.

 

We got in the car and drove home.

 

All of a sudden I thought of something I wanted to pick up for dinner, she said at one point.

 

Some fish? I said.

 

We drove the rest of the way without speaking.

 

So how did it go today, ladies? my father said that evening.

 

My mother didn't say anything.

 

Did you go with her? he asked me. Yeah, I said.

 

So, you'll hear results in a few days, right? he said with his hand on my mother's back.

 

She looked away.

 

Right, I said.

 

She looked at me strangely, but said nothing.

 

I told them not to but they both came to the airport Sunday night when I left.

 

Call me when you get the news, all right? I said.

 

All right, she said.

 

I wanted to ask her about the fish in the toilet, whether it had really been there. Whether she had followed the same route it had. But I couldn't work myself up to it. And the topic never came up by itself.

 

We said good-bye at the terminal. My hugs were awkward. I patted their backs as if I were burping babies.

 

I told them to go home but I knew they would wait in the airport until the plane took off safely. They always did. I think my mother liked to be there in case the plane crashed during take-off so she could dash onto the runway through the flames and explosions to drag her children from the rubble.

 

Or maybe they just liked airports. That airport smell.

 

I had a window seat; I pushed my suitcase under the seat in front of me. A man in a business suit with a fat red face sat down next to me.

 

I wondered if my mother even knew what I had done for her. I had helped her escape. Although at the time I hadn't thought of it that way, I hadn't really thought at all; I had gone in when I heard my name, automatic school-girl obedience, gone in to the bright lights and paper gowns and people who kneaded your breasts like clay. I began to feel beautiful and noble. I felt like I had gone to the guillotine in her place, like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

 

I called Piotr when I got home. I'm back, I said.

 

Let me come over, he said, I'll make you breakfast.

 

It's seven thirty at night.

 

I just got up, he said.

 

My apartment felt too small and smelled musty. I'd been gone three days but it seemed longer. Piotr came and brought eggs and milk and his own spatula--he knew my kitchen was ill-equipped for anything but sandwiches.

 

He seemed to have grown since I last saw him, and gotten more hairy; I looked at the hair on the backs of his hands, the chest hair tufting out of the collar of his T-shirt.

 

He took up too much space. As he talked his nose and hands popped out at me huge and distorted, as if I were seeing him through a fish-eye lens. He came close to kiss me and I watched his eyes loom larger and larger and blur out of focus and merge into one big eye over the bridge of his nose.

 

I was embarrassed. My mouth tasted terrible from the plane.

 

What kind of pancakes do you want? he asked.

 

The pancake kind, I said.

 

He broke two eggs with one hand and the yolks slid out between his fingers.

 

I can do them shaped like snowmen, he said, or rabbits or flowers.

 

He was mixing stuff up in a bowl; flour slopped over the edges and sprinkled on the counter and the floor. I'll have to clean that up, I thought.

 

Round ones please, I said.

 

There was butter bubbling and crackling in the frying pan. Was that pan mine? No, he must have brought it with him--it was a big heavy skillet, the kind you could kill someone with.

 

He poured in the batter, it was thick and pale yellow; and the hissing butter shut up for a while. I looked in the pan. There were two large lumpy mounds there, side by side, bubbling inside as if they were alive, turning brown on the edges.

 

He turned them over and I saw the crispy undersides with patterns on them like the moon; and then he pressed them down with the spatula, pressed them flat and the butter sputtered and hissed.

 

There was a burning smell.

 

I'm not feeling very hungry right now, I said.

 

But I brought maple syrup, he said. It's from Vermont, I think.

 

The pan was starting to smoke. Pushing him aside, I took it off the flame and put it in the sink. It was heavy; the two round shapes were now charred and crusted to the bottom.

 

Well, we don't have to eat them, he said. He held out the bottle of syrup. Aunt Jemima smiled at me. She looked different, though. They must have updated her image; new hairstyle, outfit. But that same smile.

 

There's lots of stuff we can do with syrup, he said, it's a very romantic condiment.

 

He stepped closer and reached out and turned the knob on the halogen lamp. His face looked even more distorted in the dimness.

 

What? I said. Where did you get such a stupid idea?

 

Read it somewhere.

 

I'm sorry, I'm just not feeling very social tonight, I said. Peter, I said.

 

Oh come on.

 

I missed my parents very much suddenly. You're so insensitive, I said. Get out.

 

Hey, I am sensitive. I'm Mr. Sensitive. I give change to bums. Pachelbel's Canon makes me cry like a baby.

 

Like a what? I said.

 

Why are you screaming at me? he said.

 

Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, I said. I thought I was being smart and cutting. But he took it literally; he went out and closed the door behind him with great care.

 

My sister called later that night.

 

 

So how were they? she asked.

 

Fine, I said. Same as always.

 

Your voice sounds funny; what happened? she said.

 

Nothing.

 

Something's wrong. Why don't you ever tell me when something's wrong?

 

There's nothing, Mich.

 

You never tell me what's going on; when you think I'll worry about something you keep it to yourself.

 

I tell you everything.

 

Well then, tell me what was wrong with you earlier this fall.

 

Nothing... I don't know... there's nothing to tell.

 

That was the truth. All that happened was I got tired of people for a while. I didn't like to go out, didn't shower, and didn't pick up the phone except to call my office with elaborate excuses. The smell of my body became comforting, a ripe presence, nasty but familiar. I lay in bed telling myself that it was just a phase, it would pass. Eventually the bulb on my halogen lamp burned out and after two days of darkness I ventured out to buy a new one. The sunlight out on the street did something to my brain, or maybe it was the kind bald man who sold me the bulb. I went back to work.

 

So how are you? How's Neil?

 

Oh we broke up, she said. We had a big fight, and he couldn't see that I was right and he was wrong. It was high drama, in a restaurant with people watching, us screaming and stuff, and this fat waitress pushing between us using her tray as a shield and telling us to leave. So we finished it outside on the street, I made my points, one two three, and did my closing arguments. If we were in court I would have won.

 

I'm sorry, I said. Why didn't you tell me right away?

 

Oh, I didn't want you feeling bad for me. I'm glad, really. Smallminded jerk. Did I ever tell you he had all this hair on his back? Gray hair, like a silverback gorilla.

 

Yes, well. I don't know that I'll be seeing Piotr any more either.

 

That's too bad.

 

No, it's not.

 

That night as I lay in bed I thought of my mother and I felt my body for lumps the way she said she felt hers, and I put two fingers to the side of my throat. And I began to think of her and think of an undetected cancer, spreading through her body unnoticed. It began to dawn on me that I had done a very stupid thing.

 

I thought of her Iying in bed beside my father at that moment, oblivious to the black thing that might be growing and thickening inside her, maybe in tough strands, maybe in little grainy bits, like oatmeal. She would avoid thinking about it for another six months or a year or two years; she'd deny it until her skin turned gray and she had tentacles growing out of her mouth and her breasts slid from her body and plopped on the floor like lumps of wet clay. Only when all that happened would she give in and say, Hmmm, maybe something is wrong, maybe I should see a doctor after all.

 

I lay awake for most of the night.

 

At one point I got up to use the bathroom, and as I sat on the toilet in the dark I suddenly became convinced that there was something horrible floating in the water below me. I was sure of it. A live rat. Or a length of my own intestines Iying coiled bloody in the bowl. I sat there afraid to turn on the light and look, yet couldn't leave the bathroom without looking.

 

I sat there for half an hour, wracked with indecision. I think I fell asleep for a bit.

 

And when I finally forced myself to turn on the light, turn around and look--I was so convinced there would be something floating there that I was horribly shocked, my stomach lurched to see only the empty toilet.

 

I went back to work on Tuesday.

 

Did I miss anything? I asked one of the men.

 

You were gone? he said.

 

I didn't know his name; all the men who worked there looked alike. They were all too loud, and had too much spit in their mouths.

 

I had a cubicle all my own, but I dreamed of an office with a door I could close.

 

A few days later my father called. Your mother heard the results from the clinic, he said, the mammogram was fine.

 

That's great, I said.

 

She doesn't seem happy about it, he said, she's acting very strange.

 

Oh, I said.

 

What's going on, Lisa? he said. There's something fishy going on here.

 

Nothing, I said. Ask your wife, I said. Can I talk to her?

 

She just dashed out for an appointment, told me to call you. She said you'd be relieved.

 

Yes.

 

I'm going to call your sister now, she was waiting to hear. Or do you want to call her?

 

I'll do it, I said.

 

It seemed strange to me then that I would need to call Mich; a phone call implied distance, but our family seemed so close and entwined and entangled that we could hardly tell each other apart. Why should you need a phone to talk to someone who seems like she's living inside your skin?

 

We both went home for Christmas.

 

Later Mich visited them.

 

Then I visited.

 

Then it was Mich's turn again.

 

When I called home during Mich's visit my father said: Your mother was due for another mammogram, so I sent Lisa with her to make sure she goes.

 

You mean you sent Mich, I said. I'm Lisa.

 

Yes, right, you know who I mean.

 

A few days later my father called, his voice sounding strained. Your mother talked to the mammography clinic today, he said, but she won't tell me anything. She's been in her room, crying. She's been talking on the phone to your sister for an hour. I guess the doctors found something, but I'll let you know when we know for sure.

 

O.K.

 

I hung up and called Mich.

 

Hello, she said. She sounded like she was choking on one of her pens. Mich, I said, it's yours, isn't it?

 

She sighed and said: It's ridiculous, but I thought I was doing her a favor, I thought I was sparing her some worry.

 

You went in for her, didn't you?

 

You know, Mich said, she's more worried about this than if she was the one with a lump in her breast. She feels like it's her lump, like it was meant for her, like she gave it to me somehow.

 

That's ridiculous, I said. I felt like I was talking to myself.

 

Although, you know, if it were possible, I would, Mich said. I mean, if there was somehow a way to magically take a lump out of her breast and put it in mine, I'd do it in a second.

 

I wish I could do that for you, I said.

 

Yeah, we could all share it.

 

One dessert and three forks, I said.

 

And later as I sat alone on the floor in the apartment I started to lose track of where I stopped and other people began, and I remembered standing in a white room with my breast clamped in the jaws of a humming machine, and I felt for the lump that I thought was mine, and sometimes I thought it was my mother's, and I imagined the mammogram pictures like lunar landscapes. Then I could not remember who had the lump anymore, it seemed we all did, it was my mother's my sister's and mine, and then the phone rang again and I picked it up and heard my father call out as he sometimes did: Leah-Lise-Mich.

 

Copyright 2000 by Judy Budnitz.

Printed in the O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories 2000