I might’ve broken the official Guinness World Record for longest sulk in history. It started at 3:30 PM on Friday, as soon as I stepped off the school bus on the corner by my house in Short Hills, New Jersey. I dragged myself home and sank into the couch in what we called “the den.” The epic mope continued, unabated, until Sunday afternoon.
“Why don’t you call someone?” asked Judy, my mom.
She didn’t know that I had attempted to scrounge up plans.
“Hello, Mrs. Allen,” I said when I called. “It’s Valerie. Is Amy there?”
Muffled sound of the mouthpiece being palmed. Then Amy’s mom came back on the line. “I’m sorry, she’s at her cousin’s in Connecticut for the weekend.”
“Hello, Mrs. Bernstein,” I tried next. “Is Brenda there?”
“One second,” she said. The white noise of being put on hold filled my ear. Then, crackle, she came back on the line and said, “Sorry, Brenda went to the movies with her dad.”
I could almost see Brenda standing next to her mother, nodding approvingly while they conspired to lie to me. In all fairness, Amy and Brenda weren’t really my “friends” anyway (anymore). Once, we’d pricked our fingers with a sewing pin and declared ourselves blood sisters. But that was forever ago, back in sixth grade. We were in seventh grade now. Sixth grade graduates from the five elementary schools across Short Hills and Millburn Township converged at the bigger, tougher junior high. Old loyalties suddenly irrelevant, the friendship deck was reshuffled. Amy and Brenda—skinny, cute, shiny hair and clear skin—were among the queens of the new social strata.
I used to be cute. The summer between sixth and seventh grade, my clear skin sprouted spots. My shiny hair frizzed. If I’d ever been slender, I’d plumped. I saw the changes in the mirror, and hoped no one would notice. They did. Amy and Brenda, fearing contagion, took one look at me in September, and then froze me out. In the hallways, I said, “Hi.” Their eyes turned to glass. It was as if they’d never known me, like we hadn’t spent countless sleepovers at each other’s houses, mingled finger blood and flashed our incoming pubic hair.
While twisting in the precarious social state of “between cliques,” I hadn’t yet convinced a new crew of like-minded teen misanthropes to take me in. Calling Amy and Brenda that Sunday was an act of masochistic desperation. But, the only thing worse than being snubbed by girls who hated me was hanging around at home.
My epic sulk tableau—girl flung on a couch, arm draped over face to hide the sorrow—didn’t inspire Mom’s pathos. If she had her way, I’d be dropping and giving her twenty, or on the exercise bike, or chased up a tree by wild dogs, anything that burned calories.
“What are Brenda and Amy doing today?” she asked, looking down at me on the couch.
As far as Mom knew, my social standing was the same as last year, when I’d been popular. I didn’t dare tell her that my perilous fall from grace had been like stepping off the Empire State Building blindfolded. I’d have sooner appeared on the cover of Seventeen magazine than tell Mom how right she was, that being ten pounds overweight had make me lonely and miserable, just as she predicted. Mom had been sounding the alarm for a while already, putting me on diets, weighing me in weekly, yelling when I stole into the pantry to sneak junk food that my scrawny older sister and athletic younger brother could scarf at will.
Even in her worst visions, Mom couldn’t have dreamed just how bad things were for me at school. Not only had I been rendered invisible by my former friends, a cabal of boys chose me as their favorite target of abuse. They circled me in the halls, knocked my books to the floor, snarled “beast” in my face. They oinked and mooed at my back. The bus trip to and from school? A hell ride of ridicule where one or two boys could rally thirty kids to chant “pig” at me in unison. I swear, sometimes the bus driver joined in. No wonder Amy and Brenda dumped me. Associating with me would be a case of beast by association.
“I can’t take another minute of you sulking on the couch. Do something! Go run around the block,” said Mom, her impatience escalating by the minute. When Mom reached the apex of frustration and flew into a rage that would have her screaming and crying for hours, my dad, Howie, called her Judy Black. By Sunday afternoon, two full days into my mope, Mom had reached Judy Gray levels. And storm clouds were darkening.
“What’s this?” she asked, spotting the cellophane wrapper of a Twinkie I’d stashed under a couch pillow. Crinkling it in her hand, she said, “Is this what you’ve been doing all day? Sneaking food?”
For her information, I had been very busy, actually, attending to important matters. If only steamy fantasizing melted fat. In my mind, adorable Carlo had been slipping his hot pink tongue between my parted lips for hours. Carlo was a new kid, still an outsider. Despite the golden nimbus of his curls, the tan long legs and dimples, he was, like me, in need of friends. Maybe he hadn’t sorted out yet that I was a total pariah. Or, if he had, Carlo might see beyond the Godzilla label, and notice me, maybe like-like me, or even better, French kiss the bejeez out of me.
It was lust at first sight—and a geographically convenient one at that. I’d seen the moving truck in front of the white house at the end of my block in late August. Carlo appeared on his ten-speed on the street later, like Apollo on a sun chariot, riding to New Jersey to choose a mortal mate. Even though I’d barely spoken to him, I felt a rightful claim. Carlo lived so close. He’d practically been delivered to my doorstep. He was my reward, a taste of bliss to counterbalance the steady diet of humiliation I dealt with at school, and at home from Mom.
With a heroic grunt, I got off the couch. Mom asked, “Where are you going?”
“For a jog,” I announced. All the way to Carlo’s house. Maybe he’d be hanging around outside. Maybe he’d wave at me. I’d stop to say “hello,” and we could have an actual conversation. Maybe he’d invite me in for a Tab. Or whatever.
Mom said, “Don’t hurry back.”
I changed into my tube socks with three bar stripes, navy gym shorts with white piping along the sides, a T-shirt from the Club Med in Guadalupe where my family had gone on vacation, and a pair of Pumas. In the late 1970s, America had fallen passionately in love with running. Alas, the innovators at Nike had not yet invented a sports bras. I was already stacked; I could have used the support. Where Carlo was concerned, I thought my bust would be a boon. I imagined him ogling as I ran toward him on the street, my feathered wings and boobs bouncing in sync, braces gleaming in the afternoon sun, his eyes popping, jaw dropping with dumb desire.
I hit the road, and was winded and gasping within half a block. But still, I pushed on. Dad, a Jim Fixx devotee, told me that running-related pain could be overcome. “It’s mind over matter,” he said. “If you focus, you can train myself to ignore the pain, or pretend it isn’t there.”
Rounding the bend, I could see the post-and-rail fence that enclosed Carlo’s yard. I sensed him before I saw him. Just as I’d hoped, he was outside, sitting on the fence, his long legs dangling temptingly. But he wasn’t alone. Two girls were with him. Their three heads turned in my direction. Amy was on the fence to his right. Brenda sat on his left. Apparently, they were not in Connecticut or at the movies, but together, at the house of the beautiful boy who’d arrived via golden chariot to my doorstep. A lump in my bouncing breast, I realized with defeat that I hadn’t been the only girl in school to notice Carlo’s blond lanky dimpled adorableness.
Plus, they’d seen me. I couldn’t turn back, run home and hide. I had to keep moving forward. The adrenaline rush of seeing Carlo, and then the flood of cortisol—the fight or flight hormone—upon seeing Amy and Brenda fired my pace to double time. Since I couldn’t get away fast enough, I needed the speed, which, granted, was a relative crawl.
Feeling their eyes on me, I clenched my stomach muscles, and wished I could hold my boobs to keep them from flopping. Carlo cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled at me, “Keep running!” The peal of Amy and Brenda’s laughter rang in my ears—red hot with mortification—far longer than I could actually hear it.
Huffing and puffing, I made a loop on the next block, and ran straight home, up the stairs and into my room. Mom was there, sitting on my bed, a pile of Hostess wrappers—some of them weeks old—on my bed beside her. I’d been outside for all of ten minutes. She must have come up to my room the second I left, and begun her search. She’d found my detritus quickly. Not gifted (yet) at subterfuge, I’d merely crammed my wrappers into the back corner of my desk drawer.
She was crying, in Judy Black mode. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asked, crinkling the wrappers. Mom believed my weight was her problem, and that my stealing food was a crime I perpetrated against her. The truth? It totally was. I was a spiteful little sprite, every bite was a “fuck you” aimed at her. But I still didn’t want to get caught! That would mean a marathon session of accusations, ranting, raving, of Mom asking, “Do you want to be fat and miserable your whole life?”
Which was exactly what I got. All the while, I stood there in my shorts and tube socks, staring at the daisy-shaped rug on the floor. When she finally left, I barricaded my bedroom door with a wicker armchair loaded down with stuffed animals. The door had no lock, sadly. I was terrified she’d barge back in (“. . . and another thing!”) to serve me a second helping. I could hear Mom crying downstairs in the kitchen. Dad was comforting her, assuring her that she was a good mother. He would have said anything—and often did—to get her to stop crying. Managing Mom’s erratic emotions was a big job. Dad quickly ran out of comforting words, none left over for me.
I sat at my desk and found the red corduroy journal in the top drawer, right next to where the wrappers had been wedged. Instead of rummaged for trash, Mom could have opened the journal. If she had, she’d know exactly how much I appreciated her efforts to make me thinner/happier.
As an adolescent diarist, my anger was too raw and intense to own (in an Oprah sense), so I filtered the hate through an alter ego character named Sal. She was the author of gloomy free verse poetry, and first-person howls through musty, cobwebbed corridors of angst. Lately, Sal had branched out into third-person narrative, curdling stories of revenge against the boys who teased her and the girls who laughed along. Sal was bloodthirsty and savage. Nemeses were decapitated, defenestrated, eaten by zombies, vaporized by toilet bombs.
Just now, while sprinting home, I plotted Sal’s revenge against Carlo. A massive sinkhole opened directly beneath his post-and-rail fence, swallowing him, along with poor, unlucky Amy and Brenda (they picked the wrong day to lie about being in Connecticut and at the movies). In her togs, Sal jogged to the crumbling edge of the hole, peered down to see the three of them clinging to exposed tree roots, screaming and begging for help. Sal fed a rope down to them, yard after yard, still out of their reach, until (oops!), the end slipped through her hands. She watched the rope shimmy into the pit of endless darkness, cupped her hands around her mouth, and hollered, “Sorry about that . . . that . . . that . . . that . . .” The apology echoed and faded, just like Carlo, Amy and Brenda’s unanswered, futile cries for help.
Heh. The tale of vengeance put wings on my Pumas for the loop home. But when I took out my journal to write it down, I was inspired to draw a self-portrait instead. I studied my reflection in the mirror that hung on the wall in front of my desk, and put ballpoint Bic to paper.
I drew a reasonable likeness, with the center part hairstyle, oval face, braces and spots. One eye was, Picasso-esque, larger and lower than the other. My nose was just an open triangle. The lips tight and straight. I would not be winning any junior artist awards, for sure. But I had managed to capture a striking blankness, a void of emotional expression. The flat, intentionally two-dimensional quality represented my new ideal, a goal, the face I vowed to show the world from that day forward.
Mind over matter. I would train myself to ignore the pain and/or pretend it didn’t exist. That was, it seemed to me, the only way I could possibly lurch forward, take another single step. If, by force of will, I could somehow hide my hurt and anger from those who inflamed it, if I showed no weakness, I’d win. I’d best them all.
Mom, and her constant criticism.
Dad, for not defending me and giving all his attention to Mom.
My sister, for being thin and perfect.
My brother, for being my Mom’s obvious favorite.
The boys who tormented me.
The girls who rejected me.
None of them would ever know how deeply their words and actions cut. They’d never see me wince. I’d show nothing but blank ambiguity. My enemies would wonder, “Does she even care?” while I secretly wished them dead and dismembered. Years before Lady Gaga was born, I’d designed a poker face—cockeyed and two dimensional—that would be my shield, protecting and preserving my dignity, which was all I thought I had left.
I made that vow as an adolescent in an emotional crisis. Upholding it for decades wasn’t the brightest idea. But secreting my anger and hate became habitual, natural. I was good at it, too, and prided myself on being, for the most part, unflappable. That drawing was the foundation upon which I built my identity. I would be the girl, and then, the woman, who played it cool.
I captioned the portrait, “Me, 12.”
* * *
During a recent bout of insomnia, I caught Woody Allen’s Manhattan on late-night cable, and laughed at his classic line, “I can't express anger. That's my problem. I internalize everything. I just grow a tumor instead.”
My psychic friend Mary T. Browne would probably say that it was no coincidence I happened to turn on the TV that night, at that hour, to that channel, to catch that line. It was prescient, to say the least.
My dad, Howie, a retired nephrologist, got tough with me in mid-April of 2009, telling me that I’d put off a colonoscopy for long enough. He’d just had his every-five-year probe, yielding a precancerous polyp. Since his mother and my grandmother, Edith Frankel, suffered two bouts of colon cancer in her life—starting early, in her mid-forties—Dad had been urging me for years to get my ass to a gastroenterologist. In a Spring cleaning fit of appointment making, I scheduled the screening.
Let me just say, my colonoscopy was a joy from beginning to end (as it were). The day before, I couldn’t eat. In lieu of food, I had to down a gallon of “Nu-Litely,” a sodium-flavored liquid best choked down with one hand holding the nose. This salty beverage made me “go,” a polite euphemism. Ladies didn’t like to type the words “shit” and “storm.” The instructions were to chug eight ounces of Nu-Litely every ten minutes for three hours, which had me going, and going, all night long.
When I arrived at the hospital for the procedure, I was instructed to leave a urine sample which they would test for pregnancy. But I couldn’t. The Nu-Litely had completely dehydrated me. The anesthesiologist refused to treat me unless I squeezed out a few drops. See, if a pregnant woman received a dose of the knockout drug Propofol, the growing fetus was in danger of turning into Michael Jackson. God forbid. I swore I was not pregnant. My husband Steve had, in fact, had a vasectomy a few months before. The anesthesiologist didn’t care if he’d had his dick cut clean off. If I couldn’t pee in a cup, she said, the colonoscopy was off.
It was hard not to hate her. She was holding up the doctor’s schedule and compounding my anxiety. I spent an hour in the rest room in my paper gown, my finger under a stream of warm water, thinking of babbling brooks and trickling streams. The nurses hooked me up to an IV with a saline drip. Three pints later, no go. I was so self-conscious about not being able to pee (“never seen this before,” remarked a few of the nurses), my fear of the procedure and what might be found, that I’d put an emotional block on my bladder.
Luckily, the day before the procedure, I’d had some pre-testing. According to the nurse’s notes—which took an hour to locate—yesterday’s preggers test was negative. The anesthesiologist reluctantly agreed to proceed. Then she demanded to know if I’d done anything that could have resulted in a pregnancy the night before, when I’d been sequestered in the bathroom, weeping softly, for eight hours.
I’d already told her that Steve was shooting blanks. But I said, “My husband is very turned on by explosive diarrhea. Somehow, even in my weakened state, I managed to fend him off.”
To shut me up, she injected the Propofol, which was blissfully effective. I could see what Michael Jackson loved about it. I was out. I woke up later to see my Mom standing next to my bed in the recovery room, the nurses telling her the hilarious story of my not being able to piss in a cup. Of course, as soon as I heard that, I felt every drop of the three pints of liquid they’d pumped into my blood. I slurred that I needed the bathroom immediately (because I hadn’t seen enough of a toilet in the last thirty hours).
Mom had come to Brooklyn Heights—where I lived, and had the procedure—from Short Hills to escort me home from the hospital. Steve couldn’t be there himself, because he had to watch Lucy, our younger daughter, 10, at the annual May Day spring dance at school. I’d been going to May Day dances since our older daughter Maggie, 13, was in preschool. This was the first one I’d missed in ten years. The first time I’d missed any school recital, concert, game or dance.
Nice guy, the doctor. Mid-fifties, Jewish. He greeted Mom and I formally, like he hadn’t just snaked a camera up my rear. “I found and removed a three-centimeter polyp,” he said, “from your sigmoid rectum [!!]. It’s already been send down to the lab. Our pathologists will look at it, and have a report in a couple of weeks. I can give you color pictures of it, too, if you’d like.”
“Lovely addition to any family album,” I said, still a big groggy from the drugs.
Mom, always quick to assume the worst, asked him, “What was your initial reaction when you saw the polyp? Did you think it was a tumor?”
“I really can’t say,” he said. “It was flat, took some time to get it all. Just be glad it’s out. You told me that your paternal grandmother had early onset colon cancer, correct?” Mom and I nodded. “And your father recently had a precancerous polyp removed?” Mom and I nodded again. “We should test your polyp for Lynch Syndrome markers,” he said.
Lynch Syndrome. It was an easy phrase to remember. After googling, I quickly learned that Lynch Syndrome was a genetic mutation of proteins that killed abnormal cells in the colon, rectum, bladder, urethra, uterus, ovaries, pancreas, brain, and several other organs. If my family turned out to have the aptly named syndrome, my likelihood of getting one or more of these cancers was sky high.
I also learned—a little google could be a dangerous thing—that “flat” polyps were more likely be cancerous than not. I wouldn’t know for sure until the pathology report came in.
The very next day after my anal intrusion, I went to the gynecologist to have a hysteroscopy, or a camera inserted through my cervix, for a sightseeing tour of my uterus, another high-risk organ for Lynch Syndrome mutants. Two scopes in two days. I learned a lot, mainly, that all my secret places were sprouting growths.
The doctor inserted the scope, and I watched the postcards from my womb appear on the computer monitor next to the exam room table. “What is that?” I asked, pointing at what looked like a flesh-colored stalactite.
My doctor—nice guy, mid-fifties, Jewish—said, “Good eye. It’s a polyp. Oh, look at that. Wow! There’s a whole nest of them! Let’s get some pictures . . .”
I turned white. The nurse asked me if I was okay. I wondered if anyone had ever fainted with a camera in her vag before.
My gyn scheduled a procedure to have my uterus scraped clean of bumps, which took place less than a week after the colonoscopy, in the hospital operating room under anesthesia (more Propofol, yay!). Before that procedure, I had no problem peeing into a cup.
I could expect both pathology reports around the same time. It’d be another week of waiting and worrying.
* * *
Friends told me to be optimistic.
My attitude, though, was completely irrelevant to the outcome. My tissue samples were on a slide in some lab. Wishing and hoping would not magically alter their cellular structure. Either the polyps contained normal or abnormal cells. If I cried myself to sleep every night, or watched Zoolander 24/7, didn’t matter. I resolved to ignore the scary situation until the results were in. But the strategy backfired. In a famous psych study from the 1980s, a shrink asked a group of subjects to ring a buzzer every time they thought of a white bear. He asked a second group of people not to think about a white bear, and ring the buzzer if they did anyway. Which group rang the buzzer twice as often? The “don’t think bear” group.
I was a “don’t think polyp” subject group of one. Despite my resolve, my thoughts returned to the image I saw on the computer screen. The gynecologist’s voice, “Oh, wow, a whole nest of them,” echoed in my ears.
It bears mentioning that I had previous experience waiting for pathology reports and grim doctors delivering bad news. My first husband Glenn, Maggie and Lucy’s birth father, died of cancer nine years ago, when he was 34. Our season in hell began in June 2000 with a sharp pain in Glenn’s back that wouldn’t go away. He had an MRI that revealed metastases along his spine, multiple brain lesions and the primary tumor in his lung. After five months of ineffective treatment, he died in November 2000. I became a 35-year-old widow with two young kids. Lucy was still in diapers. Maggie, a kindergartener.
Glenn was a great man, and a good patient. He didn’t complain, even if he was kept waiting on a gurney for an hour in a hospital corridor before radiation treatment. He rarely got upset about his disease, save for a few nights that were too sad and private to write about, ever. Between diagnosis and death, I couldn’t recall an instance when Glenn got mad or raged at fate, God or bad luck. By nature, he wasn’t an angry person.
By nature, I was an angry person. I’d been angry for thirty years. With increasing frequency, my poker face was cracking. I screamed, “Douchebag!” out of the car window at drivers who cut me off. I hyperventilated on the phone with tech support, and had to hang up and run a mile to calm down. Judy Black style, I yelled at Maggie for leaving a major homework assignment to the last minute, and actually heard myself say, “Why do you do this to me?” My friend Nancy checked her BlackBerry, twice, while we were out to dinner. I said, “That’s rude, selfish, and annoying. How about this, next time we go out, I’ll bring a book and sit here reading while you talk about your problems.” It was a snide overreaction that left us both stunned. We didn’t talk for a month afterwards.
Having seen so many episodes of House, I knew that emotional symptoms were often important diagnostic clues. My hysteria of late might had something to do with my bumpy womb, or hyster in the Latin. My bilious state of mind could be related to the clogged intestine. But—the bumps had been removed. The hate, however, remained.
* * *
The pathology reports were mixed.
Uterine polyps: Benign.
Rectal polyp: Abnormal cells found. The official diagnosis was carcinoma in situ, or Stage 0 cancer. The malignant cells were lazily lounging around, biding their time before rampaging throughout my innards. If I’d waited a year to have the colonoscopy, my Stage O mass would have gone rogue.
The GI doctor’s face was more solemn than grim when he delivered the news in his office. “We also found microsatellite instability makers,” he said. “It’s likely your family does has Lynch Syndrome.” He described what I could look forward, should the genetic mutation be confirmed, pending additional tests. I’d undergo annual screenings of my bowel as well as semi-annual probes of my stomach and urinary tract. Maggie and Lucy, who had a 50-50 chance of inheriting the mutation from me, should start getting colonoscopies at 30. A non-smoker, Glenn’s lung cancer had been described as a “fluke.” That didn’t fill me with comfort, considering the girl’s chances on either side of their genetic draw.
“The risk of uterine cancer for women with Lynch Syndrome women is sixty percent. The ovarian cancer risk is four times that of the general population,” Dr. Guts warned gently. “Screening tests for those body parts are unreliable. And, since they’re particularly bad cancers to get, most experts recommend prophylactic hysterectomies for Lynch Syndrome women at forty.”
I was forty-four. My female bits were four years past their expiration date.
Not that I planned on using my uterus again, but I’d like to hang onto it just the same. As for the ovaries, which I was greedily milking for hormones, I was loath to part with them.
“Surgical menopause,” I said. “I’ll grow old overnight.”
“Hysterectomies are controversial,” he said. “Some women decided not to have the surgery.” To help me make an informed decision, Dr. Guts gave me the contact information for a famous geneticist at the renowned Major Cancer Center in Manhattan. “He’s done a lot of research on Lynch Syndrome and can guide you better than I can,” he said.
I felt handed off. “I’ll call him.”
“In the meantime,” he said, “Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. Exercise at least three times per week for thirty minutes.” It was advice that, in my lifetime of dieting, I had never heard before.
I must have looked upset. “How are you feeling about all this?” he asked.
“I feel . . . angry,” I said.
“Understandable,” he replied.
“I’m finding it hard not to hate everyone,” I said, opening up. “My friends annoy me. My kids drive me crazy. My husband snores, really loud. He disappears to the bar for hours and comes home late for dinner. I’m a writer, and when . . .”
“. . . A writer, really? Anything I’d know?” he asked, suddenly brightening, which I found irritating as hell.
“Do you read women’s magazines?” I asked. “Like to stay current on secret sex positions and miracle pore minimizers?”
“Um, no,” he said.
“As I was saying, when I’m expecting a check from a magazine, and it’s late, I want to punch in the mailbox. When I email my editor about it and she doesn’t reply, I want to throw my computer out the window.”
“I even hate my cats. They clawed my lilac to death. I raised it from a tiny shoot. I really loved that tree,” I said wistfully.
He nodded, made a note in his chart and said, “I’d also strongly urge you to find a way to reduce stress.”
Doctor’s orders: The hate in me just had to come out.