I threw two pregnancy tests into my basket, along with a box of saltine crackers. Fearing being judged by the cashier, I added Lysol wipes, a lipstick and Vogue, as if they would magically hide the tests.
“Wow, you are too old to be buying a pregnancy test. Get your shit together,” said the check-out lady in my head.
At work I lay down in the back room on a disgusting old carpet. I felt like throwing up and my stomach looked four months pregnant. My co-worker agreed:
“Ya, you do look kinda pregnant.”
I googled “can you get pregnant with a vasectomy?” It turns out that yes you can, though rarely. It usually happens because couples have sex too soon, before the semen is sperm-free. OMG. That’s us. I’m 46 years old, my life is in shambles and I’ve only been with my partner for nine months.
Peeing on the sticks I quickly discovered that I was not pregnant – thank god – but still, I knew something was wrong. I had been having horrible panic attacks the last couple of months and something was telling me the panic was my body’s way of waving a giant red flag:
“Hellooooo! There is something fucked up with your health. Do not pass GO. Go directly to the doctor.”
Unfortunately at that time I had a horrible doctor. I knew it would be difficult to convince her that I needed an ultrasound; she always thought I was being neurotic.
An evening of googling, note-taking, and practicing my sales pitch, (including a couple of white lies that I felt were necessary to make my case), and I was ready to face her. I had found enough evidence to suggest that I might have ovarian cancer and therefore would need an ultrasound asap.
My sales pitch worked and my doctor ordered an immediate ultrasound. Yay! The ultrasound revealed a mass. Not so yay. Soon after a cat scan revealed a more detailed image, including “ascites,” – abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen causing swelling. That’s when my doctor gave me a few pamphlets and said:
“The Princess Margaret Cancer Hospital will be taking over your care. Good luck.”
I met with a top gynaecological surgeon and she was fairly confident that whatever I had was not cancerous. Yay! She performed laparoscopic surgery but it didn’t go as expected. Not so yay. She discovered a freak show-looking cancer.
“This isn’t in my wheelhouse,” the gyno-surgeon said.
Okay, maybe she didn’t say that, but she definitely thought that.
A well-known gastrointestinal oncologist then took over my care. I felt like I was an appetizer being passed around that no one wanted to eat.
By this point I was thinking:
“Can we go back to when I thought I was pregnant? I’d like that option please. Just give me the damn baby, I’ll be a great mother, I promise!”
My biopsy was not routine – shocker – and took a long time. A pathologist in Vancouver had to be consulted. The final diagnosis was: Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma.
What the hell is that?
Apparently it was a rare, incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
And thus began my cancer saga.
Cancer 101 Reminders: – Trust Your Gut. If I hadn’t had that ultrasound when I did I would be dead. – Be super pro-active. If it were someone you loved who was sick you would move mountains to help them. So move mountains for yourself.
***If you’re a woman: if you experience a swollen-looking abdomen, along with a sense of “fullness” for more than a few days, speak with your doctor. Women often assume these symptoms are “digestive issues,” when they are in fact symptoms of cancer, especially ovarian cancer.***
The first day Emily slept until 3:00, walked to Sunset and bought an ice cream cone from Icy Rush. Back home, with caramel still glossing her lips, she flopped on her bed, not waking until 10:00 pm. After microwaving a frozen burrito, Emily watched reruns of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” the episodes where they still looked human.
Day Two Emily woke at 1:00, threw on old Levis cut-offs, a white tank, Birkenstocks and a vintage kimono. She Ubered over to Figaro Bistrot, (she didn’t trust herself to drive yet, the exhaustion was only just now beginning to seep out from her body). Sitting on the sidewalk patio, Emily ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a Croque Monsieur with frites and then settled in to people watch from behind her scratched Ray Bans.
“That’s an insane kimono. LOVE.” said the woman sitting next to her.
“Thanks, I love it too. It was a gift from a Costume Designer I worked for,” answered Emily as she stabbed frites with her fork.
The woman was on her way out and they waved goodbye.
“Thank God,” thought Emily, “I don’t have the energy for an actual conversation.” Before leaving the bistrot she bought several desserts to go, then got into a yellow Uber sedan.
“Hideous,” thought Emily. She despised yellow cars. Only vintage Volkswagen Bugs like the one Goldie Hawn drove in Foul Play should be yellow.
Once home Emily answered a bunch of texts and emails then grabbed the desserts and headed over to her neighbor Jim’s house. She actually had five neighbors: the six of them each lived in tiny one-bedroom casitas, sharing a main courtyard filled with aloe vera and jade succulents. Jim was a writer who had recently – finally – sold his first screenplay. Emily had been on location when she heard the exciting news, so she hadn’t been able to properly congratulate him and celebrate.
“Jim, you there? I come bearing sweets and a rad vintage Metallica t-shirt that I scored for you.”
Jim opened the door,
“Holy shit balls, you’re back!”
He grabbed forks for them and they settled on lounge chairs in the courtyard, passing the box of desserts back and forth.
“Jesus, these are delicious, thx Em. And I love my t-shirt, I think it might actually be a collectors item. Where did u find it?”
“Toronto. I was there shooting the new Lily Collins movie. It’s a cool city, but I barely made it through filming. I was so exhausted that my whole system went out of whack: I felt really depressed, no energy and I started getting anxiety attacks when eating. It was actually really scary.”
“Oh God Em, I’m sorry. You’ve been going from project to project, working ludicrous hours – it’s not sustainable. I’ve been worried about you.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, I really do. My Doctor says I’m suffering from burn-out. She wants me to take a few months off, she’s writing me some kind of note. It’s ridiculous though, what am I going to do, give a doctor’s note to my wardrobe union? Plus, I’m due to start working on a new series in two weeks, it’s filming in LA thank God. But enough about my stupid health drama, I want to hear all about your screenplay selling, tell me everything!”
After her visit with Jim, Emily slept until 8:30. She had just enough time to grab a ride-share and bike over to the Vista Theatre where they were playing “The Maltese Falcon,” a classic which she’d never seen. Emily settled into a back row seat and ripped open her Red Vines, jamming a whole piece in her mouth.
It was an especially beautiful evening, so Emily decided to walk home even though she was tired. As she made her way east on Sunset towards Echo Park, she spied the cutest couple holding hands. They were dressed in a very i-D Magazine mash-up of 80’s preppy/70’s punk. She was tempted to speed up so she could eavesdrop on their conversation, but she was distracted by a well-dressed elderly couple drinking expresso at a rickety cafe table. She stopped for a moment to take a few sips from her water bottle, leaning against a mural-ed wall. On the street in front of her were two young blond women kissing. It felt as if their kisses were sending off little rays of love into the universe.
She was about to start walking again when she felt wobbly. Was it anxiety? Maybe she needed to call an Uber. She sat down beneath the Mi Familia mural and took a few deep breaths. But it didn’t feel like the anxiety she had recently experienced. What was it then? Why was she sitting on the dirty street like a homeless waif feeling wobbly?
Suddenly she felt like a character in a scene from a movie she might have worked on. As a wardrobe shopper Emily would have shopped her character’s whole look, from her floral underwear to the vintage kimono. It had always been Emily’s dream to work in the film industry. She loved storytelling and the role that clothing played in it. But when did Emily get to write her own story? When was there even time for her to live her own story?
Seeing the three couples – the hand-holders, the smartly-dressed seniors and the two blondes – had penetrated something within Emily. Something very fragile that she had been keeping buried within her, without even knowing she was, without even knowing what it was, had been punctured. She felt like she was bleeding out. Bleeding out invisibly on Sunset Boulevard – now there’s a screenplay idea for Jim.
She looked down on the grimy pavement, smeared with God knows what and realized she was not having an anxiety attack – she was having a loneliness attack. “But is that even a thing?” asked the rational side of Emily’s brain. “Can a person be so deeply lonely that their body manifests a physical reaction?” “Yes,” she said out loud, “Yes it can.”
Emily wondered if her Doctor would write her a second note:
Dear Wardrobe Union: Your highly esteemed member & wardrobe shopper Emily Jenkins, is suffering from a life threatening case of loneliness. As you probably know, but perhaps you don’t think about, as a wardrobe shopper Emily works primarily on her own. She spends her days in malls, boutiques and costume houses, with almost no opportunities to meet available straight men. I have written Emily a prescription which requires you to provide her with one hour a day of exposure to at least three men. These men must be emotionally mature, ready for a relationship and politically left-leaning. Thank You. Sincerely, Doctor Govindarajan.
Emily laughed at the idea of the letter, got up and continued walking home. She’d forgotten how long a walk it was, but she needed – as Taylor Swift said – to shake it off. So she walked and walked and walked. Tears started falling and she let them do their thing, not wiping them away. Soon she started sniffling and within a few minutes she was full on sobbing, the ugly variety, with snot and tears mixing together, forming a kind of sadness facial.
“Senorita, estas bien?” asked an older woman.
“Si, yo soy bien, gracias,” answered Emily in her best Spanish.
“God, I must look like a woman having a nervous breakdown,” she thought.
Emily broke out into a slow jog, not ideal in Birkenstocks, until she made it home. Inside she quickly locked the door, as if she could keep additional loneliness from entering if she locked it fast enough.
She considered taking a shower since she was sweaty, snotty and tear-stained, but then decided against it. “Fuck it,” she thought, “let’s see if this snotty, tear-stained sadness facial makes my skin all glow-y in the morning. You never know.” She took off her clothes, letting them drop on the floor, got under her favorite linen sheets and was asleep within a minute.
And in the morning Emily’s skin was glow-y. She was lonely, but radiant as hell.