A Day in Which I Buy a Mastectomy Camisole & Fail to Sway an Alderman; plus Strangers on a Train

The nurse at Fancy Hospital had e-mailed me, asking if I wanted a mastectomy camisole. I looked it up on line and it seemed like a good thing. It's supposed to be smooth against your surgical wound, protecting it from the outside world, and it has a pouch where you can put the drain/s that are attached to your incision. I told the nurse I would like her to write an Rx for one. She left it for me at the front desk of the Breast Cancer area, which takes up a whole floor at Fancy. Friday I retrieved the Rx and also--lucky me--picked up a free (!) pink emery board from a basket at the counter. What is the purpose of a pink emery board? To remind you to have a mammogram when you're sawing down your nails? That's the most benevolent interpretation. I think this whole pink ribbon thing is supposed to make you Feel Feminine even though you've lost the outward manifestation/s of what men think of as feminine in this country. Thank you, Hugh Hefner. Though we can't blame Hef. He took his obsession from his repressive childhood and it just so happened to be the same one as the rest of mankind's.

I had imagined a mastectomy camisole as a pinky-peach frilly slinky thing with adjustable slip-like straps and lace on the top. It is not. I got it at a back corner of the hospital gift store. The breast-cancer products are in back, sort of like a bookie operation hiding behind a legit business. The camisole looks like a sleeveless t-shirt but has elastic underneath the breastal part. Inside is a velcro band where the drain pouch attaches. The straps aren't even adjustable. There is something so depressing about the camisole. It's called a post-surgery camisole ("Designed for comfort and function"). It looks medicinal, like the white shoes nurses and nuns used to wear. The pretty, blond square-jawed woman on the package has her head impossibly to the side toward one shoulder, though she's still facing forward. She looks defiant and come-hither. Her hair is parted on the left and pulled back and she has a flip of hair sitting on her right collarbone. I suppose this is supposed to hint of asymmetry. She is standing in a doorway with beige curtains and a white lamp behind her. She does not look like she just endured having a body part cut off under general anesthesia. The camisole comes in S, M, L, XL and XXL and you have to get it sized to your hips because you have to step into it. You can't put it over your head right away because you're not going to be able to move your arms up. There's also a falsie that comes with it that you can use to stuff the empty side. It has batting inside it so you can adjust the size.

What is it that's so depressing about this, besides the $56 I forked over for it (reimbursible by insurance)? Its genericness and ugliness. The lack of adjustable straps. Its one-size-fits-all, Iron-Curtain-like, Army issue-ness. It reminds me of undershirts, which I never wore. It reminds me of the stretchy material of the first "training bra" I bought in fifth grade. We knowingly called them "status symbols" and bought them because everyone else was buying them. I didn't need a bra at 11. I don't need a bra now, even though I'm a B cup and pass (or fail?) the pencil test. If your breasts can hold a pencil horiztonally under them, you need a bra. I forget whether keeping the pencil in place is passing or failing.

The camisole is not like any item of under- or over-clothing that you would buy voluntarily. I guess it reminds me of the dailiness of the cutting and scooping and sewing that Fancy and every other hospital does day in and day out, one breast after the other, bring on the next, hup hup. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. A mastectomy is a singular event in a woman's life and it's just ho-hum everyday for the surgeons and nurses. As we lie on the gurney with tubes and monitors attached to us, we are not, as the rose said to the Little Prince, unique au monde. We are dead to the world, all blood and vein and tissue. Hamburger, my friend F says. And tumor. Don't forget tumor.

I went to the alderman's office to buy a stack of parking permits. In my neighborhood, visitors need to stick a bright blue permit in their dashboards in order to park legally, on most streets. When this first started, it was $1 for 15 permits, and they were undated. You could use them indefinitely (though each one only once) and you could buy two packs at a time. Pretty soon it cost $3 for 15, and the permits were good for a year. Now it's $5 for 15, each good June 2006- June 2007, and you can buy them only in intervals. I said to the girl at the counter, I'm having surgery and expect a lot of people to come over, can I buy two packs? She said impassively, We only sell one at a time. I said, I know, that's why I told you. She said, You have to ask her--indicating a woman standing next to her, dealing with another constituent. She said it as if she were saying, You have to jump through a hoop of fire while juggling and turning three flips while whistling show tunes, recent Tony-winners only. I then laid my card on the table: I have cancer. She remained impassive. The other woman remained busy with someone else. My customer-service gal relented; she said I could come back next week. Implying that she would pretend she didn't recognize me and I would be allowed to buy another stack even though I was supposed to wait a week or two between purchases.

My friend M says he's tried to use the HIV-positive card before. It doesn't work that well, either.

(So it wasn't really an alderman. It was one of his minions.)

We went to the train station Friday to meet V, who was due on the Wolverine at 9:54 pm, but of course her train was late, and what's worse, both the monitor in the depot and "Julie," the warm-sounding voice program of Amtrak, never tell you in enough time just how late a train will be. V called us on her cell phone and said the train was stopped about an hour away. So we took the subway back home. It was only about 10:30 pm but the giddiness in the air made it seem like 2am on New Year's. There was a young guy across from us in a striped button-down shirt, jeans, white socks, and black ear muffs. He was eating what looking like sesame noodles in a to-go container, and taking up two seats. His two friends sat behind him. Then an onrush of girls came on. Whenever we see a group of girls (young women) we suspect a bachelorette party, because that's what they often are. One of the women had a silver hair band on but no veil on her head, or plastic penises attached to her coat, another give-away. A straight-haired blonde sat across from us, and her friend, who had dark bangs, plopped herself down next to the noodle-eater. The girl in bangs had herringbone-patterned gloves, a black jacket and pointy white flats with a pattern cut into the leather. Soon she was announcing that she'd had five cocktails. (One of the effects of having five cocktails is that you feel the need to announce the fact.) She was a rugby player. One of the guys asked if she'd played tennis, and her blonde friend replied, Tennis isn't a dyke's game. The boys were asking her where she played rugby. Northwestern? one asked, Northwestern? It turned out somewhere out of town. Soon the noodle guy had his arms on the girl's shoulders, from behind. He unbuttoned her jacket, and started massaging her shoulders. She smiled and sighed.

In the meantime, the Prophet had gotten into the subway car. Both L and I have seen him before. He has thick straight gray hair, is in his 40s or 50s and is nice looking, and recites with fire in his eyes and seeks to lock his eyes on yours. The moon was uniquely large and full--he was intoning, and the valley... the left of the river... side by side... he was saying, and one of the boys asked the girl: Where have you been? Seattle, she replied. A different language they do not understand, said the Prophet.... you're Noah... and one of the boys said of one of his friends, I haven't had sex with him yet. He took it from my hand and ate it, the Prophet was saying. One of the two guys behind the noodle guy said, We never got this in Iowa.

It was the second time I'd seen the Prophet. The first, he was sitting behind me and I figured because of his pauses he was on the phone. I assume he's psychotic and needs medicine. Is there poetry in what he's saying? logic and meaning? He doesn't shout like a street preacher, he just recites. He is trying to impart an important message. He is taking words that have lived in our culture for thousands of years, and giving them to us. Without the voice in his head, what would he have? I imagine that people have urged him to take pills. But why should he? he might ask. He'd be perfectly happy if only other people would listen to him.

V arrived in a cab soon after we got home. Later I thanked her for coming and she said she was performing a mitzvah, a good deed, by visiting the sick. A few days before she had sent me a huge hollow (breast-shaped) Hershey's Kiss with the note, This is not a kiss.