Excerpted from Once I Was Cool, a collection of personal essays now available from Curbside Splendor Publishing.
My ovary is the size of a cherry tomato.
A cell the size of a grain of rice grew into a tumor the size of a tangerine and sucked up my ovary. Like Pac-Man.
That’s how my doctor explained it: "Like Pac-Man." Later, on the operating table under all sorts of anesthetic, I remember thinking, Pac-Man, hahaha, before passing out completely. When I came to, she told me the tumor could have killed me.
32 years old. 6-week-old baby. Dead by tangerine.
I am in awe of the power in little things. For example, a space nebula the size of a pin could crack a hole in our galaxy; my vote could change the direction of our entire country; the clitoris, when properly stimulated, can explode part of a woman’s brain; and a tumor the size of a tangerine made me believe.
I’m still trying to figure out what that means. Am I talking about God? If so, I’m painfully aware that this could be a scene from Eat Pray Love: white woman in her thirties has life-altering experience and runs off in search of The Divine. The thing is: I don’t know what the The Divine means. I left the church when I was a teenager because of politics, dated too many boys with dreadlocks to be comfortable with The Spirit, and, frankly… I’m busy. I have three jobs and a very active three-year-old. Nurturing a belief system is way too much of a time commitment. Problem is, you still need to call yourself something, so I’d just say Atheist and leave it at that.
When I was in high school, it was easy; a lifestyle choice, if you will. I was that especially ridiculous kind of geek who would cut class in order to go to the library. I’d read Nietzsche, Darwin, Dawkins, and all sorts of heady texts with titles like The God Delusion or The Case against Christianity. If you were stoned enough to get cornered by me at a party, I’d tell you all about the lead singer of Bad Religion getting a PhD in Zoology to “like, authenticate his lyrics”—seriously. You would have hated me. I hated me—but, at eighteen, don’t we all? For shits and giggles, think back to yourself at that age. Why were you like that? Why did you believe what you believed? Why did you do the crazy things you did?
When I was eighteen, I went to see a psychic. Not because I believed in that stuff—Atheist, remember? I didn’t believe in any stuff, but a girl who lived in my dorm asked me to go with her, and at the time I was so profoundly lonely that I’d have followed her to Siberia. This girl, I’ll call her Nancy, was a bit of a stereotype: Birkenstocks—check—gauzy skirts—check—homemade beads of Femo clay—check—in her dreadlocks—check check. Also, she owned a drum. With which she went “drumming.”
“I’m Nancy,” she said the day we met, both of us lugging suitcases down the hall, “but you can call me Persephone.”
“No, I can’t,” I told her, ‘cause if I did I’d asphyxiate on my own vomit. This was a phrase I used often at eighteen. I’d learned it from the movie Heathers. Have you seen Heathers? Winona Ryder plays this teenage girl who’s all dark and angsty and murderous. I wanted to be Winona Ryder from Heathers, which means being friends with a girl like Nancy was enough to fuck me gently with a chainsaw.
For six months I endured her tarot cards and rain sticks, her Celtic runes and power crystals, her Ying Yang balls, dream catchers, hemp handbags, vegan cookies, wheatgrass, and alters to Shiva. But the absolute worst?—she had a dirty boyfriend. Not dirty like, sex-dirty; dirty like the guy didn’t believe in showering—something about natural human oils and masculine essence. Bottom line: he stank. Plus, he and Nancy had these ridiculous conversations like: “I love you Persephone.” “I love you, Dawid”—he’d changed the v in David to a w ‘cause of some Hebrew Sun God, I think—and he’d say, “Not only do I love you, Persephone; you are love,” and she’d say, “Because of you.” Later, we’d discover there were lots of girls on campus whom not only did he love, they were love, and when Nancy learned that precious fact, she played Tori Amos on repeat and made an appointment with her psychic.
The place was called Spiritual Energy Readings. It was the last place I’d expect to connect with the greater power of the Universe. There were no candles. No bead curtains. No crystal balls or black cats or bloody chicken bones. Just a second floor storefront, not unlike the crack houses you see on Law and Order. A nasty carpet; a couple folding card tables; and a short, frizzy-haired woman named Contessa in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and too much jewelry. Nancy took one look at her and burst into tears.
Contessa lit a Kool. “Ah,” she said. “You have problem.”
Nancy’s puffy eyes widened. “I do have problem!”
Of course you have problem! I wanted to yell, but instead sat back and watched as Nancy crumbled into a lawn chair, dropped a twenty on the folding table, and spent the next half hour feeding this Orc of a woman all the information necessary to guess her whole life story.
“I miss him so much!”
“Ah, there is man.”
“There is man!”
“And this man … he has left?”
“He has left!”
“There is other woman?”
There is seven other woman, I thought.
This went on for a long time. Contessa chain-smoked. She excused herself twice to answer the phone. She dealt a tarot deck like a blackjack dealer, yet somehow, in the end, she made my friend feel better.
“I don’t know how to thank you!” Nancy gushed, reaching into her free-trade purse for more cash. That’s when Contessa lit another Kool and pointed at me.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“You come,” she said.
“Hell no,” I said.
Looking back on it now, I wonder if she did have some kind of psychic gift, because she leaned back in her chair and said the one thing in the greater Universe that could’ve made me stay: “I see. You are afraid.”
Had someone told Winona Ryder from Heathers that she was afraid, she’d have made them drink Draino. Afraid? Me? No way/no how! I sat down in the lawn chair, took a Kool out of that pack, and used her Zippo to light it. I was going to say, “Bring it on, Contessa,” but since I’d never smoked before I just concentrated on not coughing.
She looked at my palms and gave me the usual: Strong willed, travel far, give the world great things. It was textbook-predictable. Just when I thought she'd bust out the There is great curse on your family, come back with thousand dollar, and I lift it with innards of goat, she switched to tarot cards. That's when things got weird.
She spread five out in front of me—Cups, I think? Wands? Knight of Something I don’t remember?—and she stared at them for a really, really long time.
Then she said, “Oh.”
It’s the single syllables that’ll kill you: Your dentist says Oops. Your pregnancy test says plus. Your psychic says Oh.
“It could be nothing,” she said.
But I looked at her face and knew it was something.
I thought of Winona Ryder from Heathers. She wouldn’t just sit there. She’d grab a switchblade out of her Doc Marten and slam it through this woman’s hand. Then she’d say something very witty and obscene involving household appliances and get the hell out of there, down to the sidewalk and back into the world where free will reigned and fate didn’t reside in some fifty-cent novelty store crystal. Stand up, I told myself, stand up and get out of here. You don’t even believe in this stuff! You don’t believe in any stuff!—but the thing is?
Suddenly, I sorta did.
I imagined all the things that could be behind that Oh. Maybe I’d die tomorrow, maybe I’d kill someone tomorrow, maybe everyone would be killed tomorrow over something I said or did or thought.
“Tell me,” I said to Contessa, and it wasn’t me being tough.
It was me being scared.
I don’t remember exactly how she said it—something about my middle or my insides or my “lady parts”—but she did use the word broken. She said, “You are broken.”
And for over a decade, I believed her.
I never told that to anyone, of course. I was an Atheist! Plus, how stupid would I have sounded, letting some storefront psychic get under my skin? So instead, I’d ignore the panicky feeling I’d have whenever I got a yearly check-up, or held a friends’ new baby, or whispered with my husband about our Far Off In The Future Children. In fact, the first time I ever admitted my fears out loud was at a storytelling performance I gave at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I was eight months pregnant at the time—cranky, swollen, ready to kill for a pee that lasted longer than ten seconds—but safe from the possibility of Contessa’s prediction. The gallery where I performed was wallpapered with eyeballs—these giant Andy Warhol pop art-looking things that made the audience feel like a thousand instead of a hundred. I stood at the microphone and told them about that crackhouse storefront, about Contessa with her frizzy hair and Led Zeppelin T-shirt. Obviously she was a fraud because look at how pregnant I am! I’m so totally pregnant! Nothing broken here, thank you very much! The crowd laughed, and I pushed harder: It’s not just Contessa, I said, it’s all that mystical magical hooha horseshit, power of the Universe, my ass!—God? I don’t see any God! It was like those movies where the ship is out in the middle of the ocean, and there’s some insane storm—thunder, lightning, waves crushing the deck to splinters—and in the middle of it all, the ship’s captain hangs on the shredded sail, shaking his fist at the sky and telling God where to get off. That was me in the MCA: big ol’ stomach, wall-to-wall eyeballs, yelling my head off at someone I didn’t believe in.
A few weeks later, my son was born, and that—that—is when I should have believed. I built a human being from scratch. He was healthy, and awesome, and hungry. It wasn’t possible for me fully reflect on a possible spiritual awakening brought on by the miracle of giving birth! I was a 24-hour bottomless buffet! There wasn’t room for thinking. I fed my kid. I slept. On a good day, I made the bed. Went to the store, the pediatrician, and—six weeks after he was born—my own doctor for a routine post-partum check-up. We did the usual: stirrups, paper robe, How you feeling, Feeling okay. She took some X-rays—“Normal procedure,” she’d said, “Just checking things out,”. Then, she asked if we could talk in her office. I remember it was nondescript, sterile even; no art or personal photos, like she never spent time there. We sat on opposite sides of the desk. She had my X-Rays spread out before her. She stared at them for a really, really long time.
Then she said, “Oh.”
She told me that my ovary was the size of a cherry tomato. And a cell the size of a grain of rice had grown into a tumor the size of a tangerine.
When I look down the line of my life, there are all these moments—my parents splitting up, my first heartbreak, losing a job I loved—and I cried or panicked or locked myself in a room playing Smiths albums on repeat, whatever; I felt something. But when that doctor told me I had a tumor? Nothing. I felt nothing. Not in that doctor’s office. Not telling my husband later that night. Not walking into surgery the following week. Nothing—right up until I opened my eyes and my doctor said she’d got it. Everything was fine. One day, you’re already dead; the next day, you’re back at the office. I cried and thanked her and drank my juice. After all of that, she said, “You’re lucky you got pregnant. If it hadn’t been for the ultrasound, we might not have caught it in time.”
In that moment, I knew exactly what I felt.
It was so close. Like when I’m on my dad’s fishing boat in the Pacific, out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by blue, and can’t tell when the sky begins and the water ends. It is vast. It is still. It is—
Or: for years, I lived in Humboldt Park, west at North and Kimball, and a few blocks from my apartment was this church. It was really small, not more than a storefront, but the singing that came out of that place was like nothing I’d ever heard. Every Sunday I’d get coffee at Dunkin Donuts and sit on the curb outside that church. I never went in—there are a lot of things that happen inside of a church that I know are not for me—but sitting outside? I could have the parts that felt like—
Or: my son is three years old now. He is awesome. He thinks he’s Superman, which sounds very cute, except we live on the third floor and he keeps trying to fly. Last week he stood at our balcony door in his red and blue costume, nose pressed to the glass, and said, “Mommy, let me out. I’ll put my arms out far; I’ll go high up in the sky.” And of course, what I did then was check that lock, but what I realized is this: our children save us. They illuminate what’s been there all along. They make us better than we ever thought we could be. My son really is Superman. Without him, I’d have never had an ultrasound. Without him, the tangerine could have grown into a grapefruit. Without him, I might not be sitting here today, and for that, I will believe. Call it God, if you like. Call it The Divine. Call it Not Atheist.
I call it a start.
This essay first appeared in f Magazine.