We Regret to Report an Anomaly
Kandahar Airfield, January, 2013
You know, it had not been the best day of my life, that day back in the early spring of the year before when my mother had posted on my public Facebook wall that “your doctor’s office called and said your cholesterol is too high and they’ve written you a prescription for Lipitor.”
“Mom, you can write those kind of private things in a private message,” I reminded her in a text.
Gawd, cholesterol, I grumbled to myself, ripping open the box of mail my mother had forwarded to me there at my new Ed Center in Kandahar, Afghanistan. What could be worse?
This could. This letter from my doctor, the one I’d self-addressed to my Georgia address without giving it a second thought. It went a little something like this:
“We regret to inform patient ****** ***** (my name handwritten in the form letter blank) that her recent mammogram has come back abnormal. We regret to report an anomaly and we recommend that she follow up as soon as possible with her primary care provider and/or any recommended specialists.” I read it again, and again, and then again. Anomaly. Specialist.
And then I refolded the form letter, put it back in its envelope, and laid it flat on my desk, my own breezy handwriting looking back at me.
What was I going to do? It had taken me a week to get here to the work site. First to Germany and the Frankfurt Airport, with a long ride out to HQ in Heidelberg to fill out forms. Then all the way back to Frankfurt Airport and a six-hour flight to Dubai with an all-too-brief rest stop at a hotel, then back to Dubai Airport Terminal Three, the shabby, no-frills one with the flights to the scary places. Afghanistan. Islamabad. Beirut. All contractors and Taliban, it seemed like. Then hours more on the DFX shuttle first to Bagram, then to Leatherneck and Kandahar, or Kandahar to Leatherneck, depending on where you picked up the rotator. Then, inprocessing through the scabby old PAX terminal riddled with Soviet, American, Taliban, and coalition bullets and missile strikes.
There was no time for cancer in my schedule. If I left, there wouldn’t be a replacement for months, and then what would the students do? What would I do, for that matter? If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid; if I didn’t work, I didn’t keep my insurance. Who would take care of me, if I had to go home and get radiation and lose all my hair? If I had to go to the hospital and get things cut out of me?
Maybe it was even too late for that. Maybe it would end up being one of those cases where they’d do an exploratory surgery only to find out that I was already riddled with it and there wouldn’t be anything else for them to do but to sew me back up again and say “We’re so sorry” when I woke up from the anesthetic.
I had been so close. So very close. I’d already paid off my car, my credit cards, a big chunk of my student loans—all those debts I’d been so foolish as to run up back when I thought that everything would work out fine. All I’d needed had been a little bit more time.
How odd, I thought to myself. All these times I’ve gone to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. That time I carved out a big gouge in my left wrist and took all those pills. That time we got overrun at Salerno last summer and I sat in the bunker hoping it would be quick. All those nights I sweated through, so fearful of living to be old and sick and all alone.
Maybe I really did want to live, deep down inside. Now that I was up against it, I could think of things I still wanted to do. Places I wanted to see, before it was all over. Italy. China. I had always thought I’d get back to Japan, someday.
And then I decided that I’d had enough for one day.
I’m pretty sure an air raid alarm went off sometime in the night, but I didn’t go out to the bunker. Fuck it, I’m pretty sure I thought to myself, wrapping my fleecy blanket around me one more time. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time. Go on, Isis. I wish you fucking would.
But they didn’t, and I woke up the next morning not quite sure of where or who I was.
Oh, I said to myself, as memory set in.
In the cold, hard light of the Kandahar day, something like everyday, practical thinking had reasserted itself in my mind. I didn’t teach until the evening, so, like a reasonable person who thinks she might have cancer in the middle of a war zone, I pulled out my base map and walked over to the Role 3 hospital.
The automatic doors shooshed open as I walked up, and I stared at them stupidly, somehow not expecting to see such fine fittings at a field hospital. Most of the Air Force personnel working the reception area were busy, but one woman saw me lingering there and got up to talk to me.
“Hello, ma’am, what can I help you with today?”
“Um, well, I had a question about the facility? And, uh, what I’m entitled to as a civilian contractor here? And, uh…” Words had failed me at this point, so I pulled out the letter from my doctor and just shoved it at her to read.
She took a look at it and said, “Oh.” And then she said, “You know what? That happened to me once.” “Did it? What ended up happening with you?” My eyes were huge. “Well, it was the last time I was deployed out here. They put me on a plane to Germany the next day and I went and got a repeat mammogram and a biopsy. It wasn’t anything to worry about at the end of it all—it was benign—but it was pretty, well, you know, till I found out. I came back and finished out my tour, sure, but I needed to know. You need to know.”
It took a minute, but I finally got my question out. “Do you think they could see me here at the hospital? Could they do that?”
She looked at me the way people do when they have to give you very, very bad news.
“No ma’am, I’m afraid you’re not allowed access to the facility except for life and death…” she saw the look in my eye and kind of faltered to a stop. “Immediate…life and death.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, putting my letter back in my coat pocket. “I’m glad everything turned out okay with you. Goodbye.” And I meant it. I was glad that she’d come through all right. I was.
When I got back to the barracks after class, it was late. The night shifters were at work, and the day shifters were sleeping, so the narrow hallway in between the two ranks of smaller bays was empty, as was the female toilet at the end of the hall. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, and, when I was done, I slowly lifted my shirt and looked at my bare chest in the flecked, slightly warped mirror.
Which one is it? I wondered to myself. Which one has the anomaly? Maybe it’s both. Maybe I’m riddled with it. That expression again. Such an odd one, as if the body were some kind of jokester, some kind of prankster with a sense of humor like the sphinx in the Oedipus story. Answer my riddle. If you are right, the kingdom is yours. If not, I’ll kill you where you stand. This body was going to kill me. Perhaps sooner than I had anticipated.
Two months later, March, 2013, in the air over Kandahar
Kandahar slipped away beneath us as the rotator took off into the dusty sky. We had gotten lucky so far, I suppose—the early spring thunderstorms had calmed for the moment, after weeks of random attacks of hail that did damage to our vehicles and facilities to an extent the local Taliban would have envied. As you walked up and down Freedom Avenue, you could see trucks and Humvees and Polarises with busted-out windshields and pockmarked hoods. They said somebody had gotten hit on the head with a hailstone the size of a baseball and gotten amnesia, but it was hard to know when a story like that was just another rumor or something that had really, really happened. We had all slipped into a kind of functional denial about the likelihood of us getting struck with hail or with lightning—just enough denial to keep us moving through the day.
I’d gotten pretty good at denial these last couple of months, as I’d gotten more and more practice shoving things I didn’t want to think about somewhere deep, deep down, somewhere behind my spleen, as I visualized it.
Of course, denial didn’t always do the trick, and then I’d wonder if I had made the right choice, waiting till our spring vacation to fly out. How much could it grow in two months? Would I get to the hospital only to be told, Well, sorry ma’am, but this thing passed over into the inoperable stage two weeks ago?
The guy in the seat next to me was groaning through a toothache. “I think there’s a fucking abscess in there,” he moaned. “Oh my God I wish they would just take it all out and give me some fucking dentures I just don’t care anymore…”
And so on and so forth till we landed in Dubai, at the crappy, no-frills terminal set aside for American contractors going back and forth to the wars and for people generally headed to scary and somewhat suspect destinations.
The toothache guy and I, both of us kind of wrapped up in our own thoughts and pains, passed through Passport Control together, bought booze at the Duty Free one after another, and eventually ended up at the same hotel on the same floor, just a couple doors down from each other.
“Well, good luck,” I told him.
“You too,” he replied. “What’s your problem, again?”
“I could maybe have some cancer,” I answered.
His eyes went big. “Oh.” And then he shut his door.
Fucker, I thought. I hope you get a root canal. A bad one. And maybe an infection.
Early the next morning, I took a taxi to the Canadian hospital in the medical district of Dubai. As I walked up to the entrance, the glass doors shooshed open, and I got a blast of chlorine smell from the waterfall feature on one wall of the large atrium. There was a large directory next to the reception desk manned by a Filipina nurse in a pale pink uniform.
“Hello madam where can I direct you madam?” she asked.
“I’m, uh, looking for the OB/GYN office?” I answered. I guessed they lumped all the lady parts together, here.
“Oh, are you pregnant, madam?”
“No, thank you. I think I might be dying.”
Why had I said that? I wondered.
From the look on her face as she blinked, fluttering her false eyelashes, I could tell she wondered, too. Well, anyway.
“You take elevator to the fourth floor and then go to the left madam,” she concluded, pointing across the lobby with one of her long acrylic nails. “You will find the doctor there.”
The elevator smoothly made its way up its chrome and glass tube. Everything in Dubai was glass and chrome and flashing lights. It all made me dizzy. They kept the OB/GYN/Breast stuff right next door to Cosmetic Dermatology, with its big signs and shiny leaflets advertising fillers and chin implants and Botox. Venereal Disease was down the hall. Well, at least I wasn’t going there. After I gave my details to another Filipina nurse, I sat in a hard plastic chair with my back to the big picture window overlooking the medical district. The building next door had a large neon sign in the shape of a giant tooth. I guess that’s where the guy from the plane ended up, I thought.
Let’s just say I stuck out a bit, there in that waiting room, in the midst of the exquisite UAE lady citizens in their bejeweled black abayas, sequined and be-crystaled folds rippling to the floor. Some women wore just headscarves fastened with pearl-tipped pins over their thick knots of black hair; others wore the full traditional head covering, including a faceplate like a Carnival mask. All of them had thick, black lashes and eyes outlined in winged black kohl. I wondered how they survived in the heat of full summer.
I’d tried on a burqa once—I actually still had it put away somewhere back home—and wearing it felt like trying to move and walk underwater. Not all of your old breath could escape from the tight mesh in the front that covered your face. In just a few minutes, you felt yourself gasping for air.
My bra strap had fallen back down over my shoulder again. I hooked a thumb under it and hauled it back up into position again. The night before, I’d given the usual big sigh of relief when I’d unhooked my bra and tossed it over the back of the armchair next to the desk in the hotel room. Stretching out my aching back, I’d noticed that the underwires had irritated the undersides of my breasts. Again.
I guess it doesn’t matter too much where you’re from, I’d thought to myself. East or West. If you’re a woman, you’re always going around trussed up in something.
So, there we all were in the waiting room, come to deal with our woman things, which were no respecters of class, creed, or caste. Since I was foreign and unescorted, I got bumped to the bottom of the waiting room queue. Again. And again. It must have been three hours past my appointment time when I finally got in to see the consultant, Dr. Koulshan Mohammed Jameel.
“Please remove shirt and bra,” she said briskly after we’d shaken hands. I supposed that one day I’d get used to doctors who stayed in the room with you while you were changing and then got right down to business. They’d been like that back in England, too.
“No discharge, no changes in appearance of skin?” she inquired, doing her first examination. “Not like an orange peel? No?” She took some notes, muttering to herself as she did so. “Breasts large and pendulous…is there pain?” she asked me, addressing me directly, pen poised over the chart.
Well fuck yes there is now, I wanted to say, but I settled on a simple “No,” instead.
I’m afraid it came out kind of whimpery.
“Here is an order for a mammogram,” Dr. Koulshan said, tearing a paper off of a pad and handing it to me. “Down to radiology, second floor. You pay at the window. Then bring results to me.”
And so I slid back down the glass and chrome chute to Radiology, where yet another Filipina nurse told me to take off my shirt and bra and then positioned me by the X-ray machine, grabbing first one breast and then another and then unceremoniously squashing them in between the cold, hard plates.
“Do not breathe madam,” she told me while the radiation hummed.
And then I waited some more, and then some more, and then the Filipina nurse emerged with my file and that look upon her face, the same one I’d seen on the Air Force woman back at the Role 3 in Kandahar.
“There is anomaly madam,” she told me, handing me another paper. “You must go upstairs to see doctor again.”
Once more up the glass and chrome tube. “Yes, the anomaly is confirmed,” Dr. Koulshan told me, looking at me over the tops of her spectacles. “Now we must take another look with ultrasound. Go back down to the first floor. Pay at the window first.”
At this point, I was beginning to wish that someone would just take me out back and shoot me. Maybe I didn’t just have an anomaly. Maybe I was an anomaly.
It was as if I could see all of life as a long hallway like the one back at the hotel, except as I walked down it the doors just kept slamming shut. It must have been that way for her…now what was her name again? Elaine? Ellen? No. Eileen. I hadn’t thought of her in years. Not in years.
By now, it was just after four in the afternoon on a Friday, and the hospital staff had started getting that twitchy look that all employees get when it’s almost quitting time. And then tomorrow’s the Sabbath, I thought to myself. Shit. What if I run out of time? I had a plane to catch tomorrow.
The ultrasound tech had on platform heels and a scowl. She ran her long, pointed acrylic nails through her bleach blonde shag as she looked at my file, and then at the wall clock above the nurse’s station, and then back at my file, and then at me.
“I finish for this day,” she let me know. Her fuchsia lipstick had feathered a bit at the corner of her upper lip.
“Ma’am, I’m supposed to fly back out to Afghanistan in the morning, and I won’t be able to get out again for months. I may or may not have cancer. I’ve been here since eight this morning and I’m just about ready to jump out this window right here.”
Tap tap tap of her pointy nails on my file. Then a sigh.
“Okay I do it,” she said. “Down the hall to the right. Pay at the…”
“Yes, pay at the window first. Roger that.”
Ten minutes later, there I was, flat on my back on yet another examination table in yet another hospital smock, having first one breast and then the other daubed with cold, slimy jelly and then glided over by the ultrasound wand.
The tech still looked sour and cranky as she leaned close to me. She smelled of oud and tobacco.
You know, I thought to myself, these damn things have been nothing but trouble since I was nine—mean girls on the playground yelling that I only had tits ‘cause I was fat. That counselor at church camp staring at them as he put his hand on my leg and talked to me about Jesus. Nothing but goddamn trouble.
I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to look, but I watched that monitor just like the tech did—and with a hell of a lot more interest, care, and concern. Grey, grey, grey, there on the screen. Like static on an old TV.
Finally, the tech stopped her scanning. “These breasts are clean,” she stated accusingly, like I had told her lies on purpose to waste her time.
It took me a while to get up off that table, as it seemed like both my insides and my outsides had kind of liquefied. I swear I felt my kneecaps and my ankles turn into something like loosely set gelatin. The room and its fluorescent light and its drab, gray, windowless walls spun for a few vertiginous moments, and I could hear a high-pitched ringing in my ears, one shriller and sharper than the usual dull buzz that had been my companion since the big explosion back at Salerno, the one that had left me pretty much deaf for twenty-four hours.
“Time for you to go now. I have already stay much later than I planned.” There was the ultrasound tech again. She already had her white coat off and was fishing her car keys out of her purse.
Yeah, me too, I thought to myself, and not just in regards to the time I’d spent in this examination room.
Finally, after some more scolding by the pissed-off tech who really wanted to be on
her way out that door, I got myself up and redressed.
And so the sickle that had breathed its cold, metal breath down the nape of my neck withdrew, at least for a time. And now what would I do, with my life handed back to me, or at least a few more snatched moments? I felt like I wanted to tell someone, to share the news, but I couldn’t think of anyone. The time difference, and all, and here I was surrounded by strangers. So it goes—we have our great triumphs and tragedies, but the world keeps spinning and other people don’t notice. You’re never lonelier than you are at moments of great or ill fortune.
And I was back on the rotator the next day, headed back to the war, with the toothache guy, who seemed to be feeling much better after his root canal.
“I just hope I don’t get an infection,” he confided.
“That would be terrible,” I replied.
Flying over Afghanistan, you might as well have been flying over Mars. So beautiful, so alien. Long chains of mountains, hillocks, dunes like the knots of spines poking up through skins, all the way down to the flat, dusty floor of Parwan Province, where the wind kicks up so much silt into the skies you sometimes can’t see the ground even when you’re coming in for a landing. A true brown study.
I guess it’s really spring now, I thought to myself as we landed at Bagram Airfield. Even with the dust blurring the air, we could still see the odd tree or two with its multitudes of chattering birds. The leaves were budding out.
A twitch upon the thread.
And then, even as my body stayed buckled into its shabby old seat on the rotator, and my fingers flicked idly through some magazine or another I’d bought back at the Dubai Airport, my thoughts were gone, long gone, into the past, to another spring in another land, in another century, even.
It was late April, then, in Oxford, England, and it must have been 1995, and we were young and we joked about Brideshead Revisited all the time, then, because everybody else did. We’d eat strawberries and drink champagne and call each other darling and someone, somewhere, would always somehow manage to produce a teddy bear to display. Hell, I even had one myself.
Our first spring in England, and it felt like we should have been warned somehow. As to how that first giddy rush of spring and green and sap and golden dapple of sun could work on you. How the soft, pollened breezes could carry scent of field and hay and grass and earth and raw animal warmth into your very marrow.
I had turned off the crowded street and let Christchurch Meadow soak into me, the mud from its broad dirt path sticking to my shoes, the wind in my hair, the sun stippling my bare arms through the shade cast by the new green leaves on the trees. A duck and her ducklings waddled by, and one of the fluffy babies toddled right up to me and climbed up on the toe of my shoe, and we studied each other, our heads tilting back and forth, till the mother duck jumped in the stream heading down to the River Isis and her babies all followed her.
When I looked up again, I realized I wasn’t alone. There was another girl on the path, one with mud on her shoes, too, and a length of grass stem in her mass of blonde hair, or perhaps a fallen leaf, right there by her temple.
It was Eileen, another one of us, as we called ourselves then. Rhodes Scholars, Class of 1993. She was from Nebraska, and she did Economics. That was all I knew about her, then. I would learn some other things about her, many years in the future, but, at that moment, our eyes met and we were one, somehow—we were young, and we had been given all the marvelous things, and we both felt the intoxication, the alchemy, of that achingly sweet first real warm day of spring, all those many years ago, when nothing could ever go wrong. When we couldn’t conceive of such a thing.
But it was in us, all the same, those little drops of poison. For not all things that grow and blossom are sweet and green.
There was something at work in me, in my head, in my heart. Sometimes, I had a hard time catching my breath, it seemed like, when I was around new people. Or familiar people. Or just people.
And it must have been at work in her, too, even that day down by the river.
It must have been. Since the breast cancer that killed her in 2006 had riddled her body from head to foot, her obituary said. They had given her the all-clear in 2001 after her first rounds of chemotherapy, and she had gone back to living and teaching there in California at a distinguished university. She’d bought a house there, another article said, bought and paid for at such a remarkably young age.
But then it had come back, the cancer.
It’s everywhere, the doctors had told her.
Riddled with it.
She had done everything right.
Not like me.
And then she was dead at thirty-three.
Not like me.
I hadn’t thought of her in many years, after that spring day in it must have been 1995. Our roads had diverged, you could say.
But, as I’d sat in that waiting room at the Canadian hospital in Dubai, feeling the cold teeth of the sickle on the nape of my own neck, she had come back to me.
I’d read about her death back when it had happened. There was an obituary in our alumni magazine, sandwiched there in between the books and the babies and the honors. She was the first one from our class to go.
She had done everything right.
Not like me.
Put those thoughts away, put them to one side. Tamp them down with just enough denial.
Just enough to get through another day.
But there in the waiting room, all those thoughts and more had erupted like all the world’s ills from Pandora’s box.
She must have sat in a waiting room like this. She must have wondered how it was she found her way here. The article said she was happy all the way up to the end.
“Happy” and I had not always been fellow travelers. Our relationship had always been complicated. These days, when and if it ever slid into my DMs asking me Girl wyd, I would reply new phone who dis. “Happy” was the ultimate douchebag fuckboy with one foot out the door.
Eileen would never have thought things like that, I said glumly to myself.
And then, because all these thoughts had but one grim, foretold destination, I asked it. I asked the question.
Why am I still here?
I’m not sure I’ve found the answer to that riddle yet.
And then we landed at Kandahar, back in the pockmarked terminal bearing the scars of all its wars.
One of my first nights back teaching the Mythology class, someone asked about the Amazons, and were they real or not, and did they really cut off one of their breasts so that they could be better archers? Was it the left or the right? A bunch of the Airborne guys on this rotation bowhunted in deer season, and much talk of proper form and stalking techniques and hide tanning ensued.
“If you take out its brain and mash it up in water and soak the hide in there for a good four to six weeks, once you rinse all the brain juice off and clean it real good, you’ve got yourself some real fine buckskin.”
After class was dismissed, and after I had collected all the abandoned spit cups and put them in the garbage can, I went back to the barracks and padded down the hall to the female toilet in my sweats and slippers. Once I’d brushed my teeth, I lifted my sweatshirt one last time to look at my “clean breasts.” The left or the right? I tried to picture how my torso would look with one of them gone.
And then the thought came. You know, if the cancer held off, if the jagged sickle didn’t come breathing back down my neck anytime soon, well, maybe I’d be able to keep going after all. Maybe I could do things with myself. Maybe even have these dead weight breasts lifted. Or reduced. Or lifted and reduced. Maybe I’d just get them taken off completely. I’d heard of women doing that—a preventive measure. Just in case. I’d seen women who’d had elaborate, fantastical tattoos where their breasts used to be. The breasts that had done their best to kill them.
And, for a moment, I imagined my torso free, unencumbered, like it was when I was a little girl, or a little person, before they sprouted and things got complicated, when I would tear around the backyard on my ten-speed with no shirt on just like the boys, getting airborne over jumps and obstacles I’d built myself, the wind in my short, feathery hair, the cool of the breeze and the kiss of the sun on my flat, white, sexless chest.
Joanna Grant holds a Ph.D. in British and American literature, specializing in fictional as well as nonfiction travel narratives of the Middle East. She spent eight years in that region, notably two years in Afghanistan, teaching writing, mythology, and public speaking classes to American soldiers and gathering materials for her own memoir, which she is currently completing as part of an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University under the direction of Mark Sundeen. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely.