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Humane Chopping

Tracey Levine

I was leaving Chris. When I called my mom to tell her I could hear the happy dance in her voice.  She’d help me find a new place, whatever I needed. She never just said yes. I was thirty-three and she didn’t even mention that at all, that I was getting older, and I thought that she would.

It had been almost five years with Chris.  We’d met in Syracuse when we were both pursuing MFAs.  We used to buy twenty-dollar blocks of cheese from the Wegman’s grocery store when we were both living off of meager stipends.  He’d buy me a book when I was mad at him and I would compensate by never mentioning that his shirts were too tight, his judgments too harsh.  We could always talk about the stuff that interested us intellectually for hours, for days in the beginning. He was funny and he made me genuinely laugh, and sometimes when I looked at him from across the room he just made me smile and I’d catch myself and try to put it away. He had a credit card his parents paid for that he eventually hid from me when we left grad school and moved to Philadelphia together.  I always supported myself. Not many people get to leave reality and I did for those few years and I can’t say that I am not grateful. But I wish someone would have warned me of the inebriation of that kind of schooling, how everything just seems too bright.

For me, my final moment in our relationship was at an art opening, a big thing for Chris, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It was a Friday night and Questlove was DJing. Chris had worked on the prints that were in the show for a well-known photographer.  He was lukewarm about his job and really had been about anything since leaving Syracuse three years before. I didn’t want to see this, didn’t want to believe that his selfishness was essential to him and his being in the world.  I imagined it was a mood for years.

On that night at the art museum, Chris’ usual art cohorts were there.  Some were weekend transplants in from other cities for the party. It was the same as all of the other less prestigious events, the same feeling of a tightness, everyone pretending even though some of the art was impressive.  Everything had changed for me by then. Our life together felt sludgy, unlivable, and when the one who I disliked the most taunted me in that snide, passive aggressive way that only aspiring artists who doubt themselves can do, insulting my shoes, and the fact that Chris was wandering without me, I didn’t bite.  This person was single again, his wife had left him, and he would take Chris out with him on the prowl he said. I danced, and I never danced, and with strangers in a writhing mass close to Questlove. Then I decided to find Chris.

He was in the gallery where his prints were hung talking to an older art person I didn’t know.  I went over, stood by them and waited. When it was done and I was not introduced, he wandered off and I followed him.   It became clear, right then that I’d been his ghost for at least two years. I asked, “How are you?”

He was working.  This was always his excuse.  In our house that we rented together in his underwear in the room that was supposed to be my office that he just took over, he was working when he was watching Netflix and trolling the internet.  It was all so clear how awful it was, but I didn’t want it to be that way. I’d always tried to forge the impossible. This was one of my greatest and most self-defeating flaws but it was a mechanism in me I could and still can’t turn off sometimes.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art that night instead of raising my voice, instead of starting an argument to induce the necessary purging, I reached out and took Chris’ hand.  He squeezed it and then threw it at me, not even looking, and I was never so clear, just a transparent girlfriend. I was hardly a thing at all for those moments but there were still the lines that made my shape.  Later that evening he apologized and I accepted it but rolled onto my side, thwarting his advances. Even though it took a month for me to do it, it was over, right then, that night and that was it.

The day I moved into 2345 Harold St. my first house that I would live in by myself, I maybe didn’t need a village to accomplish it but that is what moved me into that small, two-bedroom rowhome with the crooked cabinets and the shoddy heating system and the sexist landlord.  It also had great light. It would be my cocoon.

My mom brought some of her friends to help, some women I’d known most of my life and then some I’d only heard of.  They were armed with cleaning supplies, not that the place was filthy at all, but because that is what you do. My friends drove cars and the U-haul, hauled my things from the old place to the new. I lifted a few things but I mostly moved through my old rooms and then new rooms and out onto my new sidewalk to check on everyone and my things.  It was dizzying, the objects of my life floating past me and put somewhere. I would spend the next weeks figuring out where all of my things were, rearranging my cabinets, shelves and closets that were arranged by my mom’s friends, insisting that they knew just where everything should go, that I shouldn’t worry.

As my mom’s friends cleaned, they talked.  She is still young.  He was an asshole. She looks like her mother.  Thank god for no children. When it was all about over I sat on my couch, the inoffensive gray one from Ikea that Chris and I had decided on, the compromise, something that I inherited that now seemed a symbol of unrequited effort. I teared up and tried to stop it but I couldn’t.   One of my mom’s friends saw it and came over for a hug. She said firmly into my ear, “There’s plenty of time.”

 I’d never felt a clock.  I’d never decided to want children or marriage.  Her words, because she firmly believed in them, and because I knew that she wished me well although her specific version contradicted me entirely, fell gently and almost made me laugh.  I would be told things similar to this for years, that I wasn’t too old, that I would find the one. Right then, I was crying from fatigue, crying because my body and mind needed a break.  I needed to heal and I wanted everyone to leave but they continued to wipe down my walls and windows, and who was I to be ungrateful. I don’t think I ever would think to wipe down a wall. My mother came in a few moments later, her friends had told her that I was crying I guess, sat down with me on the couch, put an arm around me and said, “We’re tough women, Cunc.”

Cuncky was the name my sister gave me when she was first speaking and barely walking.  She’d shouted it all day, my mother holding up toys and then any object to discover its meaning, until I came walking through the door and it became clear.  My mom hardly ever called me Tracey, especially since Jessie passed thirteen years prior. In that moment, I felt proud of my mother and I did not say a word because I felt that any way that I tried to express that would sound condescending.  She held her tongue during this whole separation I was going through, didn’t scold or verbally worry-assault which is what I called it when she would assume I would do ridiculously careless things that were so out of character for me but part of her paranoia.  When I would tell her about anything new or about to change in my life she would panic, respond with a long list of worst-case scenarios, obvious questions and considerations that any reasonable person would think of. She would start with, “Now, wait a minute.”

If I was feeling feisty I’d say something in response to her asking if I locked my front door like, “Well, of course I didn’t, I put a sticky note on the outside of my front door that reads, Come in and Rape me.”  

Followed by, “Of course I locked my door, mom.”  

If I was trying to stop it quickly I’d tell her, “Well, it’s a good thing that you raised a reasonable and responsible daughter.”

I would live on Harold Street by myself with my cat, Elsa, for two years.  I would become a more stubborn person. I would be afraid of not knowing what my limits were for the first time. I would not write a book.  I would make mistakes with men. I would learn to play darts and realize that my neighbor across the street would watch me through my front window many nights for hours as he sat on his front stoop, as I shot at the dart board I hung in my living room.  I would get thick curtains. I would get drunk by myself and cry, a lot, but I considered it the new crying, the expulsion of toxins, not the explosion of feelings and frustrations that had been the quality of most of my wailings before.

On afternoon in my cocoon of a house, my cell phone lit up as I was lying on the couch.  I never kept the ringer on. It was my mom. She must have started to talk to me about something mundane, asking me how I was and was I safe.  I really don’t remember. She told me in the middle of the call. She had cancer. It was nearly dusk in June and on my narrow street the gold light came into my living room with the sugary sour of summer.  She would probably have to get a single or double mascetomy. She sounded deflated, not my firey mother, not the woman who raised me but this frail voice, just reiterating what the doctor had told her. She asked, “Cunc, are you listening?”

I felt something then that I hadn’t felt in a decade.  In my throat; in my chest. It stayed with me like a fist around everything inside for so many months after that phone call.  I responded with a choked voice, “Of course I am.”

She told me to calm down.  There she was. I shouldn’t be upset.  She was going to be fine. There was an appointment I could go to with her and my stepdad, Dick, a few days from then.  I would. I went out to the bar with my friends that night. I can never hide anything. My feelings are like a mist that saturates my whole body.  They knew. I drank a lot, knowing that alcohol can push death further back into my body, loosening its grip, but I would wake up with it in the morning.  There is nothing you can do with it. I kept telling myself that she was going to be fine.

A mastectomy involves many elegant-sounding words.  Mammary, lobule, lymph node, areaola. A breast isn’t an easy shape, isn’t a simple entity at all. I have always hated my own boobs.  I call them boobs. They are larger than my mom’s. In high school when I first came to realize I had these large boobs that wouldn’t fit into nineties dresses very cutely, I thought they made me look fat, I pushed them around like sacks of stuff wishing they were smaller.  My best friend Andrea scolded me. She wanted to get a boob job someday. She called my complaints champagne problems and now my mom’s smaller boobs that I never really scrutinized other than the simple comparison- she used to say things like I had such big ta-tas- were going to be removed. One at least.  And I thought of all of the documented history of mankind, how violent, and then how in this moment a humane chopping was life-saving, but it sickened me.

At the appointment, the three of us- me, my mom, and Dick- each sat on one of those medical stools that roll a little too easily and also spin.  They were arranged around an examining table that my mother was maybe supposed to be on, but we sat in a circle on our stools, holding hands, waiting for the doctor.   My mom’s fingers were limp but Dick squeezed my hand hard, looked across the room at a far wall like a part of him needed to be there. The doctor came in and we all shot to attention.  He introduced himself like he’d sell us a car or maybe insurance, his professionalism a mask, but there was something that still came through him that was softer. When he got down to business, he said, “The procedure is serious but routine.”

I turned to my mom and she didn’t move anything but her eyes to cast them down.  She was so young for sixty, her hair luminous and her lips the perfect shape, a little thinner than mine.  Dick spoke first, “So, it’s serious but how serious?”

My mom always accuses me of not listening and I truly don’t remember what the doctor said that day.  I held her hand. I looked at the profile of her face like I was a guard dog and if she broke down and cried at all I might have actually lunged at the doctor.  Then she was going to get examined and Dick left the room and I stayed. She put on a paper gown and sat down on the table, the back of it flapping open so that I could see the curve of her hip and it was soft, supple like a teenager’s.  I do listen, but sometimes to things that most don’t hear. I hear my aged mother and her fear and the parts that never age. She once told me that she still thinks of herself as eighteen. I was in my twenties when she said that to me and I keep that phrase and so many others with me, think about them, and sometimes I understand, sometimes I don’t.

There were almost two months until the surgery.  A week after the appointment I cut my hair from chin length with helmet bangs to pixie and blonde. A friend scolded me when I cut it saying that whenever I was hurting I did something drastic to my hair and that I needed to think about it, reconsider my choices.  It was just hair. Better that than any other mutilation, and I was mad at him, didn’t talk to him for months after that, but there was truth to it. I liked my new look or liked that I could change so drastically and adapt.

Instinctively I called Chris to tell him of my mother’s cancer.  He was living in a studio apartment only a few miles from the house I rented.  He told me to come over and we sat on the stoop in front of his place in the midday heat, chainsmoking.  I had waited two weeks, although I thought to call him as soon as I hung up the phone with my mom. I knew how he’d react.  I had no interest in rekindling anything but I’d shared everything with him for half a decade. I called it my chronic illness, this waking up and thinking he was there in the bed for most of a year, not wanting him there at all, but not being able to move on.  He was so sorry. Never a very emotive person, he patted my back and then we hugged, leaning over each other on the concrete and then it occurred to me as he pulled me closer, that he didn’t even invite me into his new place, and I pulled away. He said, “You know that she is going to be alright.  But I’m glad you called me.”

I didn’t know that, although I agreed with him.  We were two people who thought they needed to be on that stoop, but neither of us did.  He finally invited me into his apartment and I said that I’d take a look but needed to go right after that.  His apartment looked like our two places did that we had lived in together, sparse, some rugs he had gotten in the split we had bought together, our dining room table that was long and simple.  It was so familiar except for maybe a few gargantuan art books living on tables that if they had found their way to the surfaces in our shared space I would have moved. It was like looking at an art piece, an installation of my longest relationship, and it was stirring for me, most certainly boring for anyone else.  We hugged again and Chris looked at me and said that he missed me, and I said that I did too, a lie, but if he’d asked me that even the day before it wouldn’t have been. I left and didn’t see him for almost two years.

Right before my mother went in for surgery, Dick and I stood around her hospital bed and she was in good spirits, making jokes about her boob job and fatalistic stuff about,” if I don’t wake up...”  This is typical of the women in my family when faced with crisis. Then they came to take her and she would come back without one breast. I almost thought that she would be looking down at them but of course she wasn’t.  She looked up. She looked scared, but she smiled at me, and said, “Love you, Cunc.”

Many years later she would get drunk and tell me how hard it was.  How she’d floated in a pool a week before the surgery watching her cleavage, terrified.  How she felt less a woman after. On that day after the surgery her doctors came down the hallway towards me and Dick nearly dancing.  It went as perfectly as it could have. It was hyperbolic and maybe too much so. She would need chemo. They found that out a few weeks after the surgery.  

During the recovery period my mom was very immobile, slept a lot and I spent a lot of time with her in her bed.  I watched crime shows that I never would have normally. We’d bicker when she made tasteless jokes about how she finally had larger boobs.  I wanted all of that tension, the pinch of it, to be as quiet as it could be. As a thirty-something woman I dealt with trauma somewhat like a child in that I just didn’t want to go there in words.  I also expressly asked not to see it, not to see the reattached nipple, the scars, or any of it. But I knew it was hopeless. My mom knew that she needed to confront me and that is how she made me see.  She came out of her bathroom topless, forcing me to look, even though I screamed for her to put them away. She stood there waiting, a half smile peeking through. Her eyes shined. I eventually admitted, “It doesn’t look too bad.  They look good, mom.”

About the Author

Tracey Levine grew up in northeast Philadelphia and teaches creative writing and film courses at Arcadia University where she coordinates the creative writing concentration for undergraduates. She earned a BFA in screenwriting from University of the Arts, an MA in English from Arcadia University, and a MFA in fiction from Syracuse University. She has worked on many documentary projects for WHYY and her creative writing work has appeared in Verbal Seduction, Literary Mothers, The Literary Yard, The Halcyon Review, The Corner Club Press, Streetlight Mag, Crack the Spine, the podcast Streetlight Voices, the anthology Broken Skyline and she has a chapbook with The Head and The Hand Press. She is also the creator and co-host of the Philadelphia reading series The Hatchery and has been hard at work on a full-length memoir.

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