Squamous cells. The term, to me, conjured a twisted organism, with squiggly walls and an irregular nucleus. Potentially precancerous, my doctor said, but it's impossible to hear that term without focusing on the root word, "cancer." Especially when the news is paired with an order to get a biopsy.
When I had my biopsy (the first or second? I no longer remember), the technician wore red snakeskin boots. I remember little else about him, except that he was an R.N., I think, or perhaps a nurse practitioner. He had hair cropped so close I was certain he was compensating for male pattern baldness, and he had a warm, reassuring smile. But while those impressions remain, I couldn't pick his face out on the street today. I could however, spot those boots. A little pinch, he warned me. No need for anesthetic; the cervix feels no pain. I just kept looking at those red snakeskin boots. And even when, from my position, I could no longer see them, I saw them behind my eyelids, their regular pattern resembling a field of healthy cells.
No sex for a week, the medical people told me, but this was not a problem. My husband was away, staying with a friend in State College, fighting an internal battle against the voices that told him he had to leave me. While he was gone, I opened the storage room where he'd spent so many hours recently, praying to his pagan gods. I found a stale piece of our wedding cake on a plate by a candle and some burnt sage. We'd only just unboxed the cake, stale and freezer burned, to celebrate our first anniversary.
I think now that he was praying to someone -- perhaps the tree spirit who'd been appearing to him since our ill-fated trip to Salem -- in a desperate attempt to save our marriage. But when I hadn't allowed him to sacrifice a brand-new silver pentacle necklace by throwing it into Salem's bay, I had unknowingly begun the stopwatch that ticked down the final days and weeks of our union. It did not help, I'm sure, that upon our return, I had insisted that he speak to the county mental health officials to see about receiving counseling. He'd kept himself remarkably under control that day, not falling into the repetitive obsessive behaviors I have since self-diagnosed as psychosis mixed with religious OCD. Emerging from the consultation, he'd told me the county official thought he only suffered from mild anxiety. They never spoke to me.
When he finally returned from his soul-searching walkabout, he told me he wanted to separate and think about divorce. I no longer remember where he was planning to stay, only him bringing me a birthday gift: a book edited by my poetry professor which I've kept but never read. I remember him pressing it into my hands and stepping into a car driven by someone (who? I no longer recall) who whisked him away as we both cried. It was night. Or perhaps not. But I remember taillights and darkness.
So many things disappear in the course of 15 years. When did I have the clairvoyant dream, predicting that my father would diagnose and cure me? Was it before or after the second biopsy, necessitated by an ambiguous result from the first? How long after my husband drove away in a blur of red taillights did my father, an osteopath, attend a lecture at a medical conference where he learned that a topical antibiotic could cure the infections responsible for many abnormal Pap smear results? How long did I linger in our empty apartment, cluttered with disturbing reminders of our strange shared life? How long before I found the letter, stuffed into his red-and-gray frame backpack, where he wrote that he did not want to leave me but felt that the voices were forcing him? I know only that I found it while packing up his things so that he and a friend could finally retrieve them.
Oh, yes. I remember. It was shortly after Valentine's Day. I had cleared out the storage room and smudged it with sage to reclaim and purify it. My friends and I had thrown pillows on the thinly-carpeted floor and hung psychedelic posters on the walls. There, with the help of a blacklight and some '60s music, we had held a kicking "Lonely Hearts Club" party.
The remnants of our festivities remained as he arrived to collect his gear. Our friend, a single potter with a long blonde ponytail who'd always reminded me of a character from "Asterix," had sadness in his eyes as he helped carry the few possessions to the car. I kept the wedding gifts, but I gave my one-year husband all the things I'd ever bought for him, moving his desperate note into an outer pocket of his backpack, so he would know I'd read it.
Seeing a bouquet of red roses, he asked me who'd sent them. I'd bought them for myself. "None of your business," I told him. Because it wasn't. My flowers. My cells. My uncertainty. And yes, my healing.