Antegrief (in 3 parts)
“Cuddle Bug,” I call him — my 13 year-old chihuahua mix, who neeeeds to be physically attached to someone at all times. I squeeeeze his tiny body close to my chest and lean my face towards his, giving him better licking access. Sometimes the incessant licking drives me batty, but I tell myself I’ll regret it if I make him stop. I study his white face, his fuzzy paws, his bald little belly, memorizing them for future reference. I don’t want to forget.
When my dad died in front of me, I held his hand and memorized its features. My hands were a facsimile of his, just younger. The deep ridges in each nail; the blue veins just under the skin; the cracked cuticles. In a matter of moments after his last croaking breath, I felt the throbbing slow to a stop, then his warm blood sank down into his palms. The tops of his hands turned white, and his fever turned cold. He was tired. I knew he was tired.
Dad came out to California to visit a few months before he died. He was only 52, exactly twice my age then. I was surprised by how old he seemed. He was breathless, but too proud to use an oxygen tank. We paused in the grocery store parking lot so he could rest for a few seconds, then we slowly shuffled in to get our “dinner fixins” (as he would say). But he didn’t want to eat. When I made BLT’s — his favorite — he ate them. But all he really enjoyed were milkshakes; nine hundred calories of chocolate ice cream perked him right up for a bit.
Eight years earlier, we found out he had liver disease. The man loved his “brewskis” — or maybe a swig of gin — to get through the monotony of industrial sales, or the intolerability of small talk, or the PTSD. As a little kid, I visited him and his new family every summer. He was a huge tennis buff. Probably could’ve gone pro if he hadn’t been drafted into the Vietnam War. He played a lot. There were trophies, lots of trophies, from various tournaments. He was never one to sit around, and he constantly prodded me to walk with him. After dinner, we walked around the block. On weekend mornings, we walked down to the quick mart to pick up a newspaper. We spent a lot of time at different parks around town — playing frisbee, hide-n-seek, flying kites, spinning, whirling, chasing, laughing.
We went for walks in the woods, too. From my little world, it seemed like our state park was a never-ending magical wild fantasyland. I imagined myself among the first explorers in the New World. I drew maps of imaginary treasures, wadded them up, and rubbed the paper in some dirt to give the impression that it had been discovered in an old, dusty hiding place — perhaps it had been hiding between rotting boards in a decrepit old shed where my ancestors settled nearly four centuries ago. After he was gone, I dreamt about walking along that shady, leaf-packed trail. His shoes were there — placed carefully, side-by-side — next to a fallen pine log-bench. I searched frantically, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.
During his last visit out west, we took a short road trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Since walking — and especially hiking — was out of the question, we resorted to experiencing the arid beauty of canyon country from the road. There’s a photo I took on our Pink Jeep Tour (we got the “adventure” package). After bouncing and jostling and shaking us up for an hour, we arrived at an opening in the woods where we could look out over the landscape — red, orange, and pink-white rock in swirling patterns that looked like liquid stopped in its tracks. Dad and I stumbled (wobbled) out of the high-riding rig with a smidge of motion sickness. He sat down cross-legged on the rusty sandstone. A silver-blue agave grew out of the rock next to him. Its contour mimicked the shape of his round slouch, and they were the same size. You couldn’t help but compare the two — the image, perfectly symmetrical, made them look like twins in a way. I sat down too. We stayed there for a while on the cool rock, quiet. We stared way out...
I dropped my dad off at the airport a few days later. I walked to the gate with him (9/11 was still a few weeks away). I can still see him clearly in my mind — stepping onto the jet bridge. Before rounding the corner, he turned and looked at me with a wide grin, waving joyously. I waved back, smiling. But I was sad, more than sad. Somehow I knew I would never see him like this again.
It’s weird to think of body parts as separate objects smashed together in life-supporting configurations. I think, “Here I am. This body is me.” I don’t specifically think my finger is me, or my elbow, or my breast, or heart. These are not me; they are pieces, sewn together like a quilt. Scientists say the body is a machine, like a car or computer. A belt snaps or a circuit burns up; just take out the faulty one and replace it with a fresh new one. No biggie. But, while a torn quilt can still (somewhat) serve its purpose, it’s just not the same. Most people would bury it in a closet or donate it to the Salvation Army (as an intermediary step towards the landfill).
In a couple weeks, I’ll be on a surgeon’s gurney for the fourth time (once per decade, it seems). As a kid, they took my adenoids — they were infected. After that, masses of extra tissue grew in my uterus, so they had to get rid of that too. Last time they removed my thyroid (cancer). Instead of my little butterfly friend quietly buzzing about in the background of everyday life, now I have to ingest a daily cocktail of chemicals and minerals to stay alive. I guess I can survive without the other pieces of me. But I wonder, how much of me can they take before I’m no longer me?
Today, I’m trying to pre-remember my breasts: their density, texture, volume, and color. The sensation of soft cotton draped over my nipples. I struggle to salvage the cold burn of winter. At night, I roll onto my stomach and notice the way they compress under my body’s weight; the flesh of each one slides like an egg yolk under my ribs. I lay there and exhale as they spread wide, bulging outward under each arm. I try to imprint this feeling somewhere in my brain so I can return to it later.
I imagine I have detachable boob-aloons. It would be fun to fill them with helium and see if I could float. There’s another scene where — like velcro — I tear one off, toss it into the air, and hit it with a bat. Home run! I take a leisurely jog around the bases while the crowd cheers loud. Next, I’m standing on a pedestrian bridge above the freeway, staring at the blazing pavement splattered with boob-goo below.
I dreamt about having sex with my partner. In the dream my breasts were bigger, rounder, and I felt desirable. When he touched them my whole body tingled from the inside — like throwing back a shot of expensive whiskey. I laughed. He was safety, and I felt loved. Once my boobs are gone I think that feeling will be gone too. After a mastectomy, sensation is literally gone from the breast — even when they “preserve the nipple.” In order to remove the cancer they will carve everything out from under my skin, including the nerves. What will love feel like after that?
But I don’t feel sick, I tell myself. Even the doctors say I’m “healthy.” I do feel a little pebble-like bump floating around in there, but it doesn’t hurt at all. Are they sure something is wrong with me? Maybe doctors and car mechanics are of the same slimy ilk; do they tell patients they need new parts even when the old ones are working fine? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I wonder if my surgeon lives in a mansion high up in Fountain Hills. I bet it has an infinity pool out back, where on Saturdays at sunset she and her friends share fancy cocktails while gazing out over their rainbow kingdom — the Valley of the Sun.
I was referred to a plastic surgeon to discuss breast “reconstruction” after the mastectomy. Reconstruction is such a peculiar word; it can mean so many different things. Most commonly, it’s about rebuilding something that has been destroyed. Rebuilding my boobs, the plastic surgeon said, will take longer and require more surgeries than getting rid of the old ones. Perhaps assuming I never liked the ones I was born with, he exclaims, “You’ll be able to adjust the new ones until they’re exactly the size you want!” I just want the size I have, thanks.
On the other hand, reconstruction sometimes refers to re-enacting an event from the past. Maybe my new tits will be like actors playing the role of my old ones. I don’t even dress up for halloween, and now some stranger wants to permanently affix a costume to my chest. But, I never wanted to be in the limelight. I was never self-conscious about my breasts before, but with fake ones I can’t imagine otherwise. I imagine giving my new appendages stage names. Cosmopolitan magazine points out that men like to name their penises. And Points in Case claims that “not naming your penis is like not naming one of your kids.” Popular penis names include Zeus, Alamo, or Big Willie. None of my body parts has ever had a name. Tom and Jerry. Bert and Ernie. Sonny and Cher. Peanut Butter and Jelly. Someone must’ve thought of those before. My replacements need some character, if they’re going to play this part.
I could mix-and-match: a peppy-preppy name (Tiffany) could be darkly funny; maybe an intellectual name (Eleanor) would offer gravitas; a religious name (Mary) would be pious; deviance comes with a pornstar name (Stormy); then there are mythological names (Pandora), place names (Georgia), and stunt-double names (Randy). Or, I could pick names from a random word generator; one of the new boobs might be Fanion (part of a priest’s robes), and the other Gnathion (tip of the chin). What if I assign other kinds of sounds to each one instead? My new left breast will be the raven’s boastful carrying call; the right side will be a hummingbird’s tiny clicks echoing in the distance. Or, maybe one would be a siren approaching from behind; the other may be the sound of screeching tires on asphalt. I think if the new boobs had flavor, they might taste like Skittles.
My dad was always good at thinking up names for everything. Nelly Bell was an old car from the 1970s. My stepmother was Petunia. I was Wiggle. We had a goldfish once — now I can’t remember what we called it. One day, it jumped out of its bowl and dried up on the carpet. Dad flushed it down the commode. He said, “When I die, just flush me down the toilet like a goldfish,” and then he shrugged, still gazing into the empty basin. I imagine the surgeon chopping off my boobs. She tosses them in the toilet (splash!) and then she pulls the lever. Water rushes into the bowl, they swirl around in their humble pool, and finally the pipe swallows them whole, like big bloody oysters.
Matt says it’s “creepy” when I “stare” at him. But, when I die I want to take a little bit of him with me. Maybe it is a wee-bit creepy. I try to imagine our lives together twenty, thirty years from now. I see him clearly — still hiking in the Rockies, exploring red rock canyon country, and sleeping under the stars like we’ve always done. I’m rarely there in those daydreams — as a dust cloud, or maybe a fly on the dash of his Sportsmobile. I can picture my sweet Cuddle Bug burrowing deep into his sleeping bag; his metronomic licking pacifies both of them before they drift off.
Studies show that in general, men have a lower life expectancy than women (for a variety of reasons). But I’m convinced Matt will become one of those handsome widowers who entertains all the lonely old ladies at the senior center. Or, like Larry King or David Letterman, maybe he’ll meet a hot, younger babe and she’ll spit out a bunch of his kids. Everyone will think he’s their grandpa. I know he’ll be happy; his is a rose-colored world. They will all be happy. The sun will shine on them, and the cerulean sky will swaddle them. I’m relieved that he’s going to be happy, but I hate her anyway.
I spend hours updating a spreadsheet full of passwords. I remind him, again, that he’ll need them someday, so don’t forget where they are. I organize all our papers and double-check my life insurance policy. A few times a year, I oust everything I don’t need — worn-out shoes, old clothes, duplicates of things (why do we need two pizza-cutters?). I regift or donate all the random knick-knacks and doo-dads that appeared after the last purge. The house is sparsely furnished. It’ll be hard enough for him to sift through my art studio when I’m gone; he doesn’t need a house full of junk to deal with too.
Over the past twenty years, my studio migrated from a tiny apartment kitchenette to a corner of our living room; then it eventually gobbled up the dining room too. When we moved again, I commandeered a bedroom (sorry, guests!). By the time we relocated to Arizona, we finally had a little money to convert the garage into a 300 ft2 art studio with luxurious natural light and plenty of room to spread out. Finally, all my work-related stuff has its place; it’s no longer stacked to the ceiling in every closet, stuffed under every bed, or crammed into corners all over the house. No more tripping over random papers, tools, dried-up paint cans, frayed brushes, funnels, piles of bubble-wrap, a lifetime of notebooks, fifteen extra-large spools of twine, or twenty-seven rolls of multicolored tape.
Still, I feel the weight of all this suffocating stuff surrounding me. I wonder, how will Matt tackle this mess when I disappear? Maybe he’ll simply call 1(800)GOT-JUNK. Some dudes will show up, carelessly toss it into their cargo bed, and take the whole truckload straight to the dump. Easy.
But, what if when I’m gone he walks into my silent room — stands there with all my useless things — motionless — wondering what matters. He looks down at the big, soft rug under his feet; its pattern of equilateral triangles in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple smile back up at him. His eyes scan the white, floor-to-ceiling bookcases stuffed full of books no normal person would read for fun: critical theory, philosophy, media culture, history, pedagogy, ethics, and design.
There are instructional volumes on ways to fold paper into boxes of different shapes and sizes, how to write code for websites, and the intricacies of interpersonal conversation. Other books are devoted to visual literacy, the unique lives of crows, the history of love, strange cognitive changes caused by brain injuries, and arguments for seeing the world as a system of interrelated games. He reaches up, carefully plucks one from its place, then leafs through its pages. He quickly discovers that my annotations punctuate the margins of every book in the room. Will he be curious about all those obsessive marks I made, evidence of my living brain at work?
He might recline in my peachy-pink reading chair by the window, his legs outstretched, feet perched on the ottoman. Cuddle Bug is always there, and snoozes on his lap while Matt searches through the traces of my mind. Maybe that will bring me back to him, at least for a while. Perhaps he will sit down at my computer to see what’s there. Will he find what he’s looking for? Will he be able to decipher my incoherent filing systems? Everything I hoard lives there. Twenty-five years of digital detritus on those disks — writing, sketches, revisions, more revisions, videos, photos, duplicates of useless files that never should’ve been kept in the first place. Tens of thousands of photos — maybe only a few worth saving. Will he examine them all? Will he curate a story of me? Will he want to?
I hope he’ll glance up to notice my incandescent hummingbird friends hovering just outside. Maybe he will keep feeding them. And when they make their tiny nests in our blooming palo verde tree, he might notice me there. Like the birds, I’ll come and go with the seasons. But I will always be nearby.
©2023 Danielle Foushée