I am eating a Greek salad at Panera when my phone rings. I don’t usually pick up, but it’s been a week since my biopsy and I’m still sore and my right breast is bruised black and yellow, and I’ve been waiting days that have stretched on like 600 miles of bad road.
My breast looks like Gorbachev’s forehead.
My breast looks like an ink blot.
“Who’s Gorbachev?” my daughter, my Gen-Z-er, asks.
I say, “He tore down the Berlin Wall. Sort of.”
There are bits of The Berlin Wall on display in Ocean City, Maryland, in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” I have pictures of my daughter there, in front of the graffiti’d bits, written in English: “Don’t Go with the Flow” and “Move with the Groove.”
In whatever language, rainbows mean hope.
Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark used to be called a port-wine stain. Many people had these when I was growing up, though I never see them now. Doctors, genetics, evolution, who knows. In Gorbachev’s forehead, I see a map of a small country that looks like it’s melting. Crying, maybe.
“I believe in the cosmos,” Gorbachev said when asked about his religious beliefs. “All of us are linked to the cosmos.”
Rorschach, the father of ink blots, died at 37, precisely 18 years younger than I am now. It’s funny the things I think about lately. It’s funny the kind of math I do when I usually shudder away all things math.
Did you know Rorschach looked like Brad Pitt?
Do you remember Brad Pitt was once married to Gwyneth Paltrow?
Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot of ideas about hair and salads, self-care, and conscious uncoupling. Her company, Goop, sells a $3,490 solid gold vibrator called Olga and a candle scented like Gwyneth’s vagina. Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle, with hints of bergamot, costs $75, though it’s often sold out and on back order.
I’m sorry if the concept of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle is disturbing. Such is the cost of capitalism, which is draining more than dollars.
Years ago, when I lived in New York, I saw Brad Pitt on the street scooping poop from a snippy little dog I think was Gwyneth’s pup.
What the hell was wrong with you, Brad Pitt?
All ten of Rorschach’s images look like vaginas and ovaries and pelvises. A few of them look like bunnies fighting. Another one looks like the Grecian urn—truth and beauty, beauty and truth.
Brad Pitt played the Greek hero Achilles in the movie Troy.
On camera, Brad Pitt looks immortal, lit through with gold.
On the street in New York, Brad Pitt looked ordinary, another New Yorker scooping poop. A cute, kind, human—a little pimply, even—connected to us all through the cosmos.
My phone rings three times before I pick up.
Those Greek figures chasing each other around that vase, stalling for eternity.
I love the word “stalling.” It’s tiny, but clever, the way the vowels and consonants melt and stick like peanut butter in your mouth.
The word does what it says. Language is sturdy like that.
My phone’s ringtone is the sound of typewriter keys.
A while back, at The London Times, editors pumped the sound of typewriters into the newsroom, a subliminal thing. The sound of typewriters, even for people who grew up without them, gets writers excited. The words come faster. The pages fill up. Good for deadlines. Good for profits. Writers pumped up on adrenaline move stories forward.
“This is,” I finally say to the voice on the phone who asks to speak with me.
I spear an olive into my mouth.
My breast is a storm cloud.
My breast hurts so much.
Up until this phone call, I’ve been making jokes about my ink-blot boob. These jokes make people other than my husband Newman uncomfortable. Pretty much like Gwyneth’s candle. So it goes.
Newman’s dubbed my 3D-biopsied breast Frankenboob.
“Pitchforks! Fire bad!” he says and waves his arms.
I can’t stop cracking Rorschach jokes.
“Tell me what you see,” I say, and push my boob close to his face.
“My mother never breastfed me?” Newman says.
“I’ve heard that,” I say.
“At least they didn’t stab you in the ass,” Newman says, and grabs my ass hard enough to bruise that too.
My ass is not the same as it was when Newman and I got married at a discount wedding chapel in Vegas. I never appreciated my ass back then, or that I could get away with wearing a white bikini at the pool during our honeymoon at Circus, Circus. It’s been a few years since I’ve donned a bathing suit or asked for the lights on during sex, but my husband makes me feel beautiful.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union practiced a policy called glasnost, a lovely word, which means openness and transparency. Truth. Shine a light.
Truth: I am grateful for my life.
I expect this call from the nurse to tell me everything is fine, it’s just a scare, and I should expect another 20 years of love and ass-grabbing and jokes about fire and angry villagers.
“Can you speak up please?” I say.
The nurse’s voice sounds muffled, like someone is holding a pillow between us to smother our words.
“Can you speak up, please?” I say again.
I spear another olive and think how much I love olives and nurses. I’m thinking of a nurse who is not the nurse on the phone. I am thinking of a nurse with beautiful tattoos, the names of her children, some flowering vines. During my cancer screening this is the nurse who ran tests on me. Somehow we started talking about shaving our pussies.
The proper phrase here would be “bikini line,” but seriously. Glasnost. Truth.
“I knew this stripper once,” the nurse said. “She told me her trick: a little toner and antibiotic cream, and boom, no more bumps.”
I have never been to Cheerleaders in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, but I was at a strip club once in New Orleans. It was called “Big Daddy’s.” There were animatronic legs over the entrance. The legs wore thigh highs and red high heels. The bouncer who perched on a stool beneath the legs was a large woman with a buzz cut and black gauges the size of quarters in her ears. I loved and feared her from the start.
Inside, a beer was $12. Newman and I sat next to the stage where a stripper swizzled around a pool. The stripper had tattoos of flames all around her pussy. The stripper wore shoes I could never stand in, let alone dance in or swirl around a pole. She had a cesarean scar, like my cesarean scar, pink, jagged, Frankenstein stitchery peeping out from all the flames.
“That looks like it hurt,” my husband said, friendly, making small talk like he does.
He meant the tattoo, which stretched from the stripper’s pussy to her ass. It was impressive, really. Intricate. Art. All vibrant reds and oranges and yellows. I can’t imagine how long it took. I assume the procedure was clinical—the stripper lying on an exam table, legs in stirrups, the tattoo artist with a head lamp on, the kind gynecologists and dentists and cartoon coalminers wear.
The stripper, obviously a mother, probably sweet off stage or at least someone who might be a friend, said, “Why? You want to touch it?”
Her voice was a razor, mean, and touching at strip clubs, even I knew, is always off-limits. She said it like she’d love to call in the bouncer, who was built like a hammer, who knew karate or ju-jitsu probably, who knew how to make people not touch each other, ever, no matter why, no matter how lonely or curious or lost.
I drank my $12 beer. It was skunked. The mandatory second beer was skunked too.
The strip club visit was supposed to be fun and sexy.
When my sweet nurse said boom she did that karate chop thing professional wrestlers do—hands to crotch—suck it, delete.
“That’s life changing,” I said.
The nurse said, “I know!” and chopped again.
We laughed and chatted and pulled our pants down to compare C-section scars and razor burns. We whined about bathing suits and what the hell, why should we care at our age? Lucky to be alive, lucky to get to the beach now and then.
I want to tell the nurse on the phone about my new friend, the nurse with beautiful tattoos and no razor burn. I want to talk about my love of nurses in general because the nurse on the phone sounds so awkward, and I want her to be okay because I’m pretty sure I am okay, no need for this strangeness between us. I want to tell her my mother was a nurse, and that people called my mother Sarge because she wouldn’t take any nonsense. I want to tell her Sarge was kind too, and how when I was a child in the hospital, my mother—Sarge the nurse—slept on a cot next to my bed and worked double shifts so she could be with me.
Such is the love of a mother who is also a nurse.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse on the phone says, and I’m confused.
“Why do they have to talk like that?” my mother, Sarge the nurse, a proud Italian-American with claims to her family’s own mob ties would say whenever we’d watch “The Sopranos.”
My mother didn’t mind the violence. It was the language she found disturbing.
She wanted her mobsters polite. No swearing. All suits and spiffy hats and pinky rings.
“It wouldn’t be true to life if they said please and thank you,” I’d say, and my mother would say, “Life is hard enough. I don’t need to hear about it on tv.”
When I sense awkwardness, when I feel other people’s discomfort, I fill up the space between us with words. I talk. I keep talking.
You may have noticed this.
Some of my words may offend. I apologize.
Thank you for your patience and indulgence, all these typewriters clacking in my mind.
The nurse on the phone says sorry again, more pillowed things.
I stop talking and stop eating and look at my salad, all these extra olives.
Panera usually skimps on olives, so these olives are their own miracle.
A love or hate of olives is, scientists say, genetic. So is a love or hate of cilantro. Some people think cilantro tastes like lime. Other people think it tastes like soap.
I love olives. I love cilantro.
Nature over nurture, sometimes even on our tongues.
I love my mother, the mother who raised me. She loved olives, too. What my birth mother loves, I have no idea. Nature over nurture feels like a lie, a betrayal, at least.
After my daughter was born, I found my birth mother through Catholic Charities. I wanted a family medical history, “for my children,” I said. History of cancer? History of heart disease? History of mental illness?
My birth mother refused. Instead, she wished me dead.
As I write this, my birth mother is still alive, and my mother is not.
“Oh, poor baby,” Tony Soprano said. “What do you want, a Whitman’s Sampler?”
The air at Panera is a bright warm blanket of bread and coffee. The sun gleams through the spotless windows some underpaid workers with squeegees must have scrubbed until their shoulders ached. In a booth across from me, a mother feeds her tiny daughter something that looks like pudding. The girl, strapped into a highchair, doesn’t like being locked down, so she bobs and weaves and the sprig of blonde hair ponytailed on top of her head burbles like a fountain, something to wish on.
In Rome I threw coins into a fountain. I’ve thrown coins into fountains in Paris, in Belgium, into a sad koi pond in Monroeville Mall. The fish in the koi pond died, I think, partly from all the coins and empty Orange Julius cups and cigarette butts people threw in there. Poor sweet fish. All that filthy water. All those wishes. Monroeville Mall, home country of “Dawn of the Dead,” birthplace of zombies.
“Help me,” the little girl says, and her voice pops like bubble wrap.
Her mother says, “Shush now, you’re fine,” and spoons more pudding.
The nurse tries twice to pronounce my last name.
“Close enough, no worries,” I say.
I say, “It rhymes with tequila, but without the worm.”
Funny. Funny. Always that.
“Everything’s a joke to you,” my father used to say. “Jackass.”
The nurse on the phone doesn’t laugh.
“Help,” the little girl dodging the spoon says.
“Shush now, you’re fine,” her mother says.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse says. Again. Again.
In Spain, there’s a version of Panera called Pan Pan. Meat and cheese and bread. Everything a person needs to go on living. My first time in Spain, and my second time, and my third time, I lived at Pan Pan. I knew what to order. Carne. Queso. Pan. I knew the order of things.
The little girl in her highchair sounds far away, her cries muffled by pudding.
The nurse says again, “I’m sorry.”
The nurse says, “There’s a malignancy.”
I somehow ignore her, as if English is my second language, Spanish my first.
At Pan Pan, the bread was pillowy, a cloud. La nube. Bread and cheese. Staples. All a person needs in this life. La vida. Te amo.
The nurse says, “I am so sorry.”
I think when people talk about leaving their bodies, near-death experiences, this is how it might feel, the untethering of that.
La nube. El cielo. Lo siento. The cloud. The sky. I’m sorry.
“Shush now,” the little girl’s mother says. “You’re scaring people.”
I miss my mother.
I miss my mother.
The nurse does not say cancer.
She says, “There is a malignancy.”
When I was a flight attendant, my other life, we were trained to call storms “weather” and turbulence “rough air,” and a crash “a hard landing.” A bomb threat was “an incident” and a hijacking was “a trip.” A drink was “a beverage,” no matter how weak or strong.
Never drink coffee or hot tea on an airplane. The water used for coffee and tea comes from the same source as the water used in the toilets. Planes are limited. The ice is suspect too.
Maybe everything on a plane, in the air, on the ground, causes cancer.
Still. Every profession has a language meant to keep people calm. Every profession has its own language of kindness to protect people from panic and pain, to keep people believing we are anchored to this world.
In what world does the word “malignancy” sound better than cancer?
Ours, maybe. More syllables at least.
“Do you want to touch it?” the stripper in New Orleans asked my husband. She spread her pussy like a map, then she pulled back and stomped a heel off the ledge of the stage. She knocked my second $12 Heineken to the ground.
It was skunked, like I said, but expensive, and the options at Big Daddy’s were limited.
Gwyneth Paltrow was on my flight once. Gwyneth fake-gagged and threatened everyone and required oxygen because she thought her first-class vegetarian meal may have nestled against her seatmate’s prime rib.
Gwyneth, who friends call Gwynie, fanned her face like she was on fire. She stuck out her pretty pink tongue so I could check it for poison.
Gwyneth’s lovely baby-butt complexion splotched over as her anger flared. Her seatmate, his meat bleeding a bit, looked mortified.
Their meals never touched I swear.
Whatever, Gwyneth Paltrow, you beautiful, rich creep.
May you live forever even so.
On the phone, the nurse’s voice has the tentativeness of someone who’s uncomfortable speaking, though she, like me, fills the air between us with a lot of words.
She says, “I don’t think we’ve met before.”
She says, “Not that we’re meeting, actually.”
She says, “I’m sure we will meet at some point, but I didn’t want you to wait. Waiting’s the worst, right? And the doctor is on vacation. The Bahamas, actually. Or maybe it’s Aruba. I get confused.”
I’ve been to Aruba.
I’ve been to the Bahamas.
In Nassau, I ate conch fritters and rented a rusty Volkswagen, a stick shift, and tried to drive it on the wrong/right side of the road without stalling, but I gave up and got a bicycle instead. The bike wobbled a lot. The brakes worked only sometimes. Later, I rented a jet ski and took it out, even though I’m a terrible swimmer and terrified of sharks. But the jet ski was cheap and came with a life jacket.
“Being afraid of living is just the same as dying,” an Ohio band I likel—Two Cow Garage—says.
I wish everything in this world came with a life jacket.
The water was blue and clear and seemed safe, as if I could see straight to the bottom of the ocean, as if I could see danger coming and get out of the way.
The ocean looked shallow as a bathtub.
The ocean looked endless as the universe.
I didn’t think about death then, not even with my fear of sharks and drowning.
How long ago was that?
I try to do the math.
Over 20 years.
“We’re here for you,” the nurse on the phone says.
Limited. The beer choices at Big Daddy’s. Gwyneth Paltrow’s palate. The reach of a tiny band from Ohio, no matter how brilliant. The choices of words to cover moments like this.
The nurse says, “If you need us or have questions.”
The little girl in her highchair says, “No,” and starts to cry harder.
My tits hurt and I don’t know if it’s the nurse’s words that make it so or if it’s real.
I want to ask but I don’t know how.
What should I feel? What shouldn’t I feel?
How does anyone know if they’re dying when we all are, all the time, really, even so?
“Did it hurt?” my husband asked the stripper at Big Daddy’s.
All those flames. All those needles. I had my own questions, too, but I kept quiet.
Tattoos before the C-section or after? How many children? What were their names?
I had my first C-section after 21 hours of labor with my son. My daughter’s birth was scheduled, and she came out through the same scar, easy-peasy.
Imagine coming into the world through all those tattooed flames. There’s another song by one of my favorites, Ike Reilly. “Born on Fire.” It’s so heartbreaking and good. Give a listen if you can. It’s a story, like all of Ike’s songs are stories, but this one is about a father who can’t answer
his son’s questions about faith and love and where we go when we die.
I’d love to know the stripper’s story. I’d love to know everyone’s story. I’d love to save them here.
There’s so little we can do for one another. I write a lot about people I love who’ve died. It’s a way to keep the music of their lives playing. It feels less lonely, having them here on the page.
“Writers aren’t people exactly,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. “They’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”
Lori Jakiela is the author of several books, including Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books/Autumn House Press), which received the Saroyan Prize from Stanford University. Her next book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice, is forthcoming in October 2023 from Atticus Books. She lives in Trafford, Pennsylvania—the last stop in Pittsburgh’s Electric Valley—with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lori Jakiela’s essay. This interview was conducted via email by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso.
Olivia Grasso: “Stalling” includes references to Gorbachev, Rorschach, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others. Can you share your thought process for including public figures such as these? What do you want your reader to take from them?
Lori Jakiela: “Stalling” is all about the way someone’s—my—mind works when facing a dire health diagnosis. I wanted to trace the way my mind moved when I was waiting for my doctor’s office to call and let me know if I had cancer (I did; I’m fine for now).
I think it’s wonderful and weird and so beautifully human the way our brains work under stress—the things we think about, the things we ponder—Gywneth’s vagina-scented candle!—the connections we make, the ways we distract ourselves from mortality and so on.
I think all these public figures showed up in my thoughts because they are part of my DNA—people who have flickered in the cinema of my mind, weird connections that don’t completely connect, figures who are part of my life in some way that I can’t fully articulate.
In this essay, which is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So; Atticus Books 2023), I wanted to write about mortality and disease in a way that interested me most. The waiting time between tests and diagnosis. The things I thought about in that space. The things I thought about that were strange and seemingly disconnected but somehow connected.
I think it’s fascinating, the ridiculous things we think about when we think about our own mortality. I want to try to connect those moments for readers, who I hope might get it. Mortality isn’t tidy. I love that somehow. Mapping my memories, how strange and disconnected they seem and are, gives me a strange joy—like collaging, maybe. I think of this essay as a collage. I hope readers can find their images in there, all those layered shared experiences.
OG: This piece embraces a fragmentary style that shifts between past and present preoccupations. What was your process for organizing these fragments? Did you start with a central image or idea?
LJ: I pretty much worked from a stream-of-consciousness place. I was most interested in mapping the way my brain works. I hoped I could find some way that readers could follow along. There’s so much written about cancer, disease, etc. That seems like the biggest part of the story, but I find it somewhat boring. Sorry. I’m more interested in the moments before the diagnosis. In the moments when we’re most alive in the face of mortality. I’m interested in what people think about when faced with such awfulness, since we are all at some point faced with such awfulness, whatever its form. I’m interested in writing what I thought about in those moments when I had to consider whether I might die, that eventually I would die, like everyone forever amen. I was in love with the strange series of images and memories that surfaced for me in those moments. How seemingly random they were, but how if you write through it, you can—I could—find connections and meaning there. I think of Anne Sexton saying “not that it was beautiful, but that I found some order there.” Crafting order out of chaos. Finding some kind of map that makes almost-sense. That’s what I’m most interested in.
OG: What sort of subjects do you gravitate towards in your writing?
LJ: It’s probably not shocking that I write a lot about mortality. But I write a lot about family. As an adopted person, family means so much to me. It’s multi-layered. Super complicated. I also write funny. I’m very interested in the funny part of the tragedy of being human. Knock knock. Who’s there? Not sure, but I hope there’s a great punchline at the end of this life.
OG: How does your work as a journalist and poet influence your approach to nonfiction writing?
LJ: Truth is both fluid and not. I always feel like the world gives and gives and that there’s so little need to make things up. Paying attention is vital. If I’m feeling stuck as a writer, I go out into the world—a little walk about, a visit to a dead mall. The human stories are everywhere. It’s important to stay open to them. It’s important to pay attention, always.
OG: How would you describe your approach to incorporating humor into your work? Do you have a certain audience in mind?
LJ: Humor is my own way of getting by. I think everything we endure as humans can be translated as horror or humor. Mostly both. I think of E.B. White’s Charlotte the Spider who taught us we’re born, we live a while, we die. The human condition. What a tragedy. And how funny and strange is that?
OG: Can you share a bit about your forthcoming book, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice?
LJ: My book is pretty much an exploration of both living and a diagnosis that will determine whether I could go on living. It’s a strange book—very much focused on that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing about the moments between those initial doctors’ visits and a diagnosis.
The title comes from New York Street fairs, where people write your name on a grain of rice. The writing is so microscopic. It’s amazing, really. No one can read your name without a magnifying glass, though you know it’s there. Any contact with water and the rice grain and the name disappears. It’s a fragile, beautiful, intricate art—this writing of names on rice grains. It’s also a metaphor. How temporary and essential we all are. How small, but beautiful. How silly. What a miracle. That. Yes.