Kathleen Glassburn earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Currently, she resides in Seattle with her husband, three dogs, a tomcat, and a 45-year-old turtle. When not writing or reading, she likes to play the piano and horseback ride. Her work has been published in Cadillac Cicatrix, Cairn, Crucible, Epiphany Magazine, Lullwater Review, Marco Polo Quarterly, RiverSedge, SLAB, The Talon Mag, Wild Violet, The Writer's Workshop Review, and several other journals. Her story, "Picnics," was a finalist in Glimmer Train's Best Start contest. She is Managing Editor of The Writer's Workshop Review (thewritersworkshopreview.net).
Check her website at kathleenglassburn.com for more information.
Molly's brown eyes squinted open. Dimmed lights barely illuminated wavering shapes, like peering through a sheer, billowing curtain. Wrapped in a heated blanket, arms scrunched against her sides, she wiggled her fingers.
A woman said, "That's good. You're coming to."
Focusing to the right, Molly noticed an empty chair. She clumped her heavy-as-a-bowling-ball head in that direction. Another bed—empty. Sloshing back to the center, she took a ragged breath and strained to lift herself. A throbbing, burning sensation radiated from the left side of her chest.
The woman wore a baggy pink top with comical bears leering at her.
Where am I?
A stethoscope hung around the bear woman's neck.
A disinfectant smell . . . Seattle General.
"We'll have you to a room in a snap." The woman flopped down on the chair and took Molly's wrist. "Pulse fine. You're in Recovery. How do you feel?"
"Left side . . . it's hot." As if to dispute this statement, Molly shivered and goose bumps rose on her arms.
"Normal. We'll get you on more pain meds."
"Normal for what?"
"Honey, I'm sorry. Doctor did a mastectomy."
Mas . . . oh my God.
Molly yanked away from the nurse and rubbed a hand across her chest. Right side full as ever. Left side . . . no left side. "He didn't think . . ."
"I know, honey. Once in there he decided this was for the best."
"He told you it might happen."
"He said 'a remote possibility.' Probably a . . . lumpectomy."
"I'm sorry, honey. That wasn't enough."
"What's with the honey stuff? Is this Winnie the Pooh country? Where's my husband?" Beginning to tremble, Molly felt not a twinge of guilt for her rudeness.
"He'll see you shortly." The nurse lumbered out.
A male orderly in blue scrubs, sans comical faces, tucked the blankets around Molly. "You'll settle down soon."
Will they knock me out again?
He rolled her bed down a hallway to a private room, hooked her up to some machines, and quietly left. A window framed flowering trees.
Jeff appeared at the doorway.
"They're certain it's all gone." He walked to Molly's bedside and put a hand on her shoulder, and with a voice slow and strong, "You'll be good as new . . . after treatment."
"No!" She pulled away. "Did they tell you he cut off . . . "
"You're going to be fine. I love you. We'll have many more years together."
Molly looked out the window. "Akebono cherries," she whispered.
"The trees. They're Akebono cherries."
"Before long you can go home to your own Akebono cherries."
"A few days." He kissed the top of her head. "I want to stay longer, but that nurse, the one big as a grizzly, ordered more rest."
After he left, Molly threw off the blanket and placed a still-shaking hand over her left side, like pledging allegiance. Her heart felt closer than it had ever felt before, and the burning increased. She stared at the Akebonos, their pale pink blossoms rustling with a breeze, and felt the beginning of deep, desperate sobs.
She'd been a tiny kid—in every class picture the one placed front and center. Both of her small parents often told Molly, "Be careful of those big kids down the block."
Once, at twelve, she forgot to lock the bathroom door before hopping into a shower, and her oblivious father barged in. She shrieked as if an ax murderer had entered.
"For God's sake, Molly," he hollered. "You're scrawny as a chicken."
Her friends started wearing bras by sixth grade. Molly pinned cotton balls to the inside of her lace-edged undershirts. When she forgot to take them out before tossing one in the laundry, she overheard her mother laughing with a friend. "Molly wants to have a bra so bad that she's stuffing her undershirts!"
After that, she skipped the cotton balls and practiced cartwheels instead.
Freshman year, she made the varsity cheerleading squad. Her parents fretted about injuries, while the older girls teased about having a "spunky attitude." They'd toss her to the top of pyramids with little effort. She'd stand there, all four foot eight and eighty pounds, arms stretched out like a high diver ready to soar, with a red-and-blue uniform top lying flat against her chest. She never lost her balance, but did fall hard for Luke Palmer, power forward on the basketball team. When he asked her to Winter Ball, she felt ecstatic as an Olympian. That is until Anne Turner, squad captain, said, "He's shy. He'll feel comfortable with you."
College proved to be the same. Other girls in her sorority complained about gaining so much weight their first year, from macaroni and chips and frat party drinking. Molly stayed at five feet and ninety-five pounds until graduation.
Concentrating on her horticulture degree, she'd tell sisters, "He's okay. Very polite," when downplaying that the only guys who asked her out were socially stunted and barely five feet tall themselves. Sticking to her studies, Molly's passion became trees.
After receiving her diploma, she apprenticed to a landscaping company; and, all of a sudden, it happened. At twenty-three years old, Molly gained her Freshman Fifteen and grew four inches. Still small by most standards, amazingly, at least five of those pounds popped out to give her C-cup breasts. Her dad whistled when she strutted by. Her mother said, "I always knew you took after Grandma."
Molly began to attract attention from guys who were interested in more than taking care of a little sister substitute.
Her friends would moan, "It's so hard to find dates out here in the real world," while Molly smiled to herself.
After a hectic year of work and too many late nights with too many different guys, she met Jeff. Tall, with hair the color of burnished autumn leaves and skin ruddy from hours outdoors, he loved trees as much as she did—big trees, little trees, deciduous trees, evergreen trees, flowering trees, fruit-bearing trees. And, he adored her.
Molly decided, This is the one!
They started a small nursery—he was the outside man; she was the counter person and bookkeeper. Jeff told her, "You know so much about our business and are great with the customers."
Eventually, they had two boys, both of them robust nursers. Several of her friends experienced problems breast-feeding. Not Molly. And, much to her pleasure, the boys resembled tall Jeff. When they took vacations in Maui, the heavy-lidded glances of men at her in a bikini didn't escape notice by either Molly or Jeff.
He relished that people found his wife to be attractive, especially as they crept toward middle age and lots of her friends turned frumpy. He'd say, "You're just as gorgeous as the day we met."
About the time of her forty-fifth birthday, however, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.
After the surgery, Jeff continued to take her in his arms and tell her, "You really do it for me, Moll," but she wondered, Is this just reassurance?
In spite of his words, she again felt like that tiny girl who everyone hovered over.
And now, I'm deformed.
Because of an infection, the doctor said, "Reconstructive surgery has to be put off."
"It doesn't matter." Molly wanted her left breast to exactly match her right—nothing less.
Before they went out for a movie one evening, Jeff sized her up in a baggy tunic and said, "How come you never wear any of those pretty sweaters?"
With her special bra she could have, but said, "This is in style."
"Oh . . . right."
The hospital sponsored a mastectomy support group that, with Jeff's encouragement, she attended—once. A poor woman who looked about twenty-five squished a wadded tissue to her eyes and said, "My husband doesn't ever want to make love to me."
Molly pitied her, but would have preferred if Jeff stayed away. Where once she'd been playfully enthusiastic and uninhibited—doing a cheerleader striptease—she'd started to silently curve her body to his, snail-like, and place her upper arm in a certain crooked way, attempting to make the missing breast less apparent.
Apparently trying to help her relax, he'd say, "You're perfect—exactly like you are."
She wished he'd hurry up.
Several months after the surgery, he began talking about a trip to Germany for Oktoberfest. A bowling buddy and his wife wanted to go with them. Both guys were beer drinkers, and they called this "an excellent way to kick off the fall."
Jeff and Molly had joked around with Bob and Michele, a busty blonde, at Husky tailgate parties, but they weren't close. Ordinarily, Molly would have done research and worked out itineraries. Instead, she ignored their plans. Suspecting that Jeff had come up with this trip as some sort of therapy, she wished for an earthquake or a terrorist attack.
"We don't have to stay that long in Munich. We can travel all over the Black Forest. Go to Baden-Baden. Trier. Anywhere we want. It won't be all about beer." Jeff's enticing tone flopped.
Still, with no national disasters, before she knew it, Molly found herself on a Lufthansa flight from Seattle to Frankfurt with the other three laughing in anticipation while she forced a smile.
She did enjoy Munich's botanical garden, glockenspiel, and jolly street singers; but the jam-packed city, with exuberant people in pastel-and-white checkered shirts and dirndl dresses, proved to be overwhelming. Men looked like giant elves in lederhosen and leather boots. Women's bodices were so low that their enviable boobs oozed out like creamy soufflés. Michele bought a festive blouse and fit right in at the Hofbräuhaus. Molly stuck with tunics that hit at the collarbone, even when sweat dripped between her good breast and her bad breast in the crowded, steamy white tents on the festival grounds. Despite this, she tapped a foot to oom-pah-pah music, but refused to dance a polka when Jeff asked.
Bob didn't suggest this to Michele, and she confided to a surprised Molly, "I don't like to dance."
Something in common besides detesting beer.
The guys lifted their steins another time.
After three days of this, Molly lightened up as she gazed out from their train at the heavily treed landscape beside tracks heading toward Baden-Baden. That is until Michele, sitting next to her, mentioned the Roman-Irish Baths. "We can spend an afternoon at them. It's supposed to be the most relaxing thing you could ever want to do."
"What about the casino?" Molly hedged. She wondered how much Jeff had told them about her surgery. These baths were done completely in the nude, and no way would she participate.
"We can gamble tonight."
Back in their hotel room, Molly told Jeff, "I hated group showers after gym class in high school." She took hers wrapped in a beach towel. "I'm not going."
"Why not try it? When in Baden-Baden . . . "
"Some of the pools have men and women together." She cringed. Then, "Are you going?"
"Sure. It'll be interesting—different than anything at home."
"I think I'm going to be sick."
"We can walk around town tomorrow. Maybe by afternoon you'll want to brave it. I'll be with you."
Exhausted from carousing in Munich and visiting Baden-Baden's opulent casino, where everyone lost at the tables, they went to bed early. What little sleep Molly managed to get was full of smothering cleavage and cherry-red nipples.
Next morning, they trekked up and down hills, the three others jabbering about sights while Molly remained silent. Michele stumbled on the cobbled streets, and Molly, in high-heeled sandals, also had to catch her balance several times. After a few hours of this, she barely touched a lunch of bratwurst and sauerkraut.
Before heading off to the baths, Jeff said, "I'd sure like you to come along."
Michele agreed. "It'd be great to have you with me—for moral support."
"Absolutely not." Molly sped back to the hotel room, where she flipped through a novel, tried to decipher a German television program, and tossed back and forth on the bed, with her eyes wide open, hoping for a nap. Finally, she removed all her clothes and did something she hadn't done since the surgery—studied herself in the mirror. She'd lost weight. Her arms were firm and thin. Her legs were tan and strong. The small mound where her breast had been was smooth and pink and harmless-looking. She took in her whole image and ignored what was missing. Not that bad. She quickly dressed and took off toward the baths.
After paying forty-three euros for the full treatment, she put a blue bracelet with a locker security device on her wrist and went to the changing rooms. Once stripped down, she wrapped a large white sheet around herself. A group of stark-naked women were walking out the door.
All that skin! She tried not to ogle.
In the first area, a husky girl wearing white shirt and shorts took Molly's sheet and said in English, "Have a shower."
Under one of many spigots, Molly huddled, among at least nine other bare women. Ducking her head and hunching her shoulders and bending her knees, she tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, feeling like that scrawny chicken kid. A few moments later, she realized that no one was looking at her. This was like parochial school with its uniform equalizers. There was a woman with pendulous breasts hanging almost to her belly button; a woman with a sagging stomach scarred by a caesarean; a woman with legs heavily patterned by lumpy blue varicose veins. A couple of young, seemingly flawless, beauties were the exception.
Molly went through a sauna and a steam room much faster than the instruction board recommended, trying to catch up with Michele. Another shower came next. This time she stood with normal posture, before moving on to a ten-minute salt rubdown that couldn't be hurried. It started out flat on her back. This was the closest anyone but the doctor had seen Molly's altered body. Midway, the masseuse told her to flip over, and she heard the woman make hushed, commiserating sounds over her knotted shoulders. With a quick slap to Molly's butt, she signaled the rubdown's end, and Molly felt a wistful pang.
After a few more stops, she reached the first pool with men as well as women, and there floated Michele, arms resting on the sides, eyes closed, large breasts buoyant in the water. Molly glanced across the pool, where a few men lounged. Jeff grinned and waved. Bob, from tact or embarrassment, kept his eyes on the vaulted ceiling's whimsical murals. She nodded, slipped into the pool, and greeted Michele with a tap on the arm.
"I'm so glad you came," she said.
"This is quite a place."
"Pretty freeing, don't you think?" Then, when Molly didn't answer, "This has been a hard year, hasn't it?"
She does know. And, Michele could see for herself. "Horrible." Molly started to tear up.
Michele placed a hand on her tensed shoulder and gently pushed it down. "Take a deep breath. There's nothing to be ashamed of."
That motion, those words, did more to ease Molly's tightness than anything else had done, even the massage. Breathing slowly and deeply, her shoulders released their grip on her neck. Her arms relaxed against the side of the pool. Her legs rose out in front of Molly, as if iron weights had been unlocked from the ankles. Floating thus, she imagined an angelfish, its fins and tail feathering across the water.
"I'm going to the other pool." Michele paddled to the steps.
Molly watched as her new friend got out. Watched her long, straight back. Watched her firm, smooth thighs . . . and . . . something looked amiss. What was wrong with her right leg? Why did she have a latex cover on it? Michele had an artificial limb that started above her knee. Molly had only seen her in pants, and the occasional slight limp she'd attributed to sore feet from sightseeing.
Suddenly, losing all self-consciousness, Molly got out, stretched tall, with her shoulders back, and walked over to join Michele in the smaller pool. Feigning German nonchalance, the two women paid little attention to their husbands, except for arched glances, when they splashed in. Molly and Michele stayed quiet, absorbing the healing waters. After half an hour or so, as if of one mind, they emerged and exited to the right.
Their final shower, followed by plenty of lotion, preceded the best part yet. In a dimly lit room, with single beds lining its walls, they were cocooned in warmed blankets and left to rest. Molly touched the left side of her chest. A gentle bump. She touched the right side. Soft and full. She ran her hands down her lonely body. Slowly, she slipped into a refreshing, light sleep, filled with dreams of pressing up to Jeff.