Who needs another goddamned growth experience? Not me — but there I was, in the doctor’s chair, feet up, forehead exposed, being sliced like an onion.
“You might get a black eye from this,” the dermatologist mentioned, motioning toward my pesky little basal carcinoma.
She was doing mohs surgery, which I can reliably testify is less painful than childbirth, but lasts nearly as long. Cut a little. Get specimens. Test for good margins. Come back and cut some more, as required.
They kept coming back — twice, in fact, which the doctor attributed to “that hot Texas sun.” Then, they sewed and patched me up like my face was a football that had split its seams.
“Definitely expect a black eye,” the doctor said, shaking her head.
Oh, great. It’s not bad enough just getting old and wrinkled? Nope, now I was going to have a face like a pugilist’s. I reclined and reminded myself that I’d also been promised some Tylenol with codeine for my apres-surgery pain. Who said there aren’t silver linings in this world? I hadn’t had Tylenol 3 since, come to think of it, childbirth.
I staggered into the waiting room, where my husband noted I looked like hell, being bandaged as tightly as a war refugee and everything. Then we tried to hail a cab during rush hour.
“I don’t go west,” the first taxi driver said, locking his doors and driving off.
That’s what the second driver probably said, too, but he drove off so quickly we couldn’t quite hear him.
“Those fuckers,” my husband said. “They’re legally required to take us. Law-breakers. Creeps.”
“They may be discriminating against us because of my bandage,” I said. “Did I tell you I’m going to get a black eye from this?”
My husband started complaining about all the malevolent looks he’d be getting, escorting a battered woman in public. I told him I was already in pain and didn’t want to hear his petty objections. Where, oh where, was my Tylenol 3?
We got home, via the democratic bus system, and I sprawled on the couch. Pain started pounding, but after a couple of pills, I was feeling more chipper before I passed out and fell asleep.
The next morning, I peeled off the bandage, washed the wound (a good three-inch slice, I should add), spread ointment over it and popped a bandaid on. According to the wound directions, I wasn’t supposed to be shocked by all the discoloration around the cut.
“I don’t have any discoloration at all,” I proudly reported to my husband. I just loved that. Every time I encounter the medical profession, I’m always dying to prove I’m not a typical patient. I realize that’s a sad commentary, but it’s hard to get over A-student behavior when it’s defined you your whole life. (“How do you think,” I once asked my oncologist, “I’m doing on chemo — compared to most cancer patients?” Give me a grade! Tell me I’m swell, exceptional! Don’t tell me I’m shameless; I already know it.)
Similarly, no black eye would confer the same kind of medical status. You know, defying the odds. Showing the doctor she didn’t know everything. Proving my body’s toughness. “I’ve always been hardheaded,” I planned to modestly tell the doctor when she raved about my lack of a black eye. Hee, hee, hee.
Another codeine-free day passed and my right eye started to get red. It swelled gradually, and my eyelid felt like it was as heavy as your average dumbbell. “You know that black eye?” I told my husband. “Well, I think I’m getting it.”
The hours passed. Technically, I should point out, my eye was red, not black. But by the late afternoon, it looked like a hammered slit, like I was a plastic-surgery victim, like I was ready to try out for Cirque du Soleil.
My husband had gone back to his usual mantra that I looked “just fine” to him — the usual safety harbor for a man who doesn’t want to die a terrible death. He and I took a subway to get to the best ramen place in New York. When I took off my sunglasses, I noted, people stared at me longer than usual.
“People are staring at me,” I told my husband.
“You look just fine,” he insisted.
“Then why are people staring at me?”
He looked closer. “Well,” he said, after a long pause, “you do kind of look like you caught a sword in the eye. You know, like you had a fencing accident.”
The subway creaked to a halt and we got off. You know, it’s kind of a drag to realize — once again — you’re not exceptional, not medically special, that black eyes catch up with you, as predicted. But a fencing accident — now that was kind of a cool idea. Somebody had yelled “en garde!” and you just hadn’t gotten out of the way quickly enough. Anyway, it beat the hell out of the whole mohs story.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about the the curse of the red leopardskin glasses