SAVAGE LOVE AT BETH ISRAEL
By Lynn Mayson Shapiro
“I’m just going to pull this sheet to straighten your body a little, Mrs. Shapiro,” she
Every few days this twentysomething takes an xray of my leg, and sends it to Dr. Chada, who checks that the invisible beams still target the correct area. Her deep brown eyes are wide with concentration as she tugs once on the sheet underneath me, shifting my head and upper back to the left. A strand of her hair falls over her cheeks and I watch her tuck it behind one ear, the way my daughter Ava does sometimes.
“I’m sorry you had to wait again today, Mrs. Shapiro. We had another emergency,” she says, reaching up to adjust the x-ray machine’s lens. I haven’t bothered to mention to any of the staff that I’d rather be called “Lynn” than “Mrs. Shapiro.” “Mrs. Shapiro” is my mother, but envisioning my flushed and bigbreasted mother bombing through this place instead of me gives me a momentary thrill.
I look up to see someone has attached a small, three or four inch photograph of leaves and pink flowers overhead. It’s edges are ripped, probably torn from a magazine. Like the blue CD player in the corner, it’s an attempt to make the room cheerful. I’m glad it’s there, like a letter in a bottle. The young girl is hesitating. She’s looking down at my swollen left leg. My robe has flopped open, exposing it.
“Remember, lie still now, Mrs. Shapiro,” she says, leaving to go to her booth. “Remember, don’t move.”
All is quiet now, except for the jazzy flute. But I’ve planned something for today. I brought my pink iPod, and I’m clutching it in my left hand.
“Is it Ok if I listen to my iPod?” I shout into the darkness.
“Sure Mrs. Shapiro,” she shouts back to me, “as long as you don’t dance to the music.” In the dark, I map myself: head, neck, chest, pelvis, both legs open in a “V.” Ok, all
still, and my iPod is set to play “Savage Love,” a sex advice callin show, moderated by
columnist, Dan Savage.
The girl has disappeared inside her glass booth. The room is darkening. I move only the
tip of my finger to press the start button. My headphones sit tightly over my ears. “There ain't’ nothin’ you can’t ask, on the Savage Podcast!” The show’s theme song begins, and the vast cool room around me reverberates with the sounds of the young girl adjusting a microphone.
As soon as we woke up this morning, I told my husband Erik I was going to listen to this Dan’s podcast down here today. I like Erik’s imagining me listening to a sexadvice show,
seeing me as slightly subversive, and spunky, like I’m still in the game. When we first were dating, he glanced at an older woman, and whispered, “She’s showing she’s still got it. I like that.” I never forgot his saying that.
“We’re going to take the first x-ray of your leg now,” she says over the loudspeaker.
“We’ll probably have to take a few, Mrs. Shapiro. Don’t forget, don’t move!”
All body parts tranquil, I settle in to listen to my show. The callin part has begun. I
open my ears. The caller sounds like a young woman, probably in her twenties.
“Hi Dan, I’ve recently reunited with an old fuck friend,” she says, loudly. “I really like giving him head, but he won't go down on me. And to me, it's really a big deal because I think oral’s a lot more intimate than vaginal.”
The rectangular white machine, the size of a small refrigerator, grinds, shifting to my left. Two thin red lines crisscross over the left side of my chest then begin to lower themselves down my body, toward the bare skin where my robe opens over my legs. I try to turn my attention back to the podcast.
“My question to you,” the caller continues, “is that he says he thinks oral is kind of
weird. Do you think it's worth a try to try to change him?”
The x-ray machine dives further to the left, and the red lines descend over my left thigh, to the target area, toward the lesion. I didn’t know before last week, that bone is an active organ, that it’s working constantly, breaking down and building up. I didn’t know that when you have cancer in the bone either the building up cells, the osteoblasts, go out of control, or the
breakdown cells, the osteoclasts, take over, eating into you, whittling your bone down. My kind was the whittlingdown kind. Maybe that’s why I didn’t recognize it for so long, didn’t until
a few days before the bone was so weak it collapsed and split it two. I try again to turn my thoughts to the podcast. The girl is finished, and Dan is speaking.
“I tried to call you,” he says, “but I couldn't get you and I had to listen to music while I
waited for your phone to fucking find you and the music was rap and there's only so much
music I can listen to, to help someone out with a head problem.”
Another click. The machine is taking its second picture. And Dan is talking insistently.
Still I try to focus on what he’s saying, because that was my plan, and I’m not ready to give it
“Your boyfriend has to learn to eat and to like pussy,” Dan goes on. “Oral comes
standard. Any model that arrives without oral should be turned immediately to the lot.”
I have to admit – there’s a wedge now between Dan and me. I didn’t expect to find it
so hard to concentrate. I expected. feel the continuity of my life from before, when I looked
forward to finding a moment of quiet to listen to Dan’s callers. I craved losing myself in this
show, with its stories of fetishes and desires of others; they distracted me from the incessant
pain in my thigh that had been buzzing my nerves like hornets. Even though Dan shouts out
profanities, in the end, he was patient with his callers. No matter how disturbing the fetish, or
bizarre the quandary, he was helpful. Once, a man who loved to have people shit on him called
in. Dan took his time, explained to the caller how to protect himself from picking up diseases
from shit. Nothing could push Dan away. Today I only catch bits.
His voice is escalating so loudly into my ear; I have no choice but to listen now. He
won’t let me breathe the way I want to. I have to think to his rhythm this time.
“When he encounters his next fuckbuddy or girlfriend he's going to go to her with all
this attitude of privilege and expectation He's going to expect blow jobs and nothing in return.
You are going to teach him. You are going to be the next Florence Cunnifucklinglingus
Nightingale in his life. ”
I think this is his last word, but it’s not. He seems changed too, but that’s ridiculous it’s
just a division I have to make. He’s just as passionate, but not really talking to this girl. “In love
with himself,” Erik would say,
“Better now than eight or nine frustrated girlfriends and dumpings later. You have
leverage here. The lever is his dick in your mouth and you should use it.”
The next caller is ringing but this time, I hear the phone pick up, but the voices blur
behind the clicks above me, and among the few echoes of the room. I’m removing the
headphones from my head. I lay them on my chest. I’ve moved. I wait to hear the girl behind
the booth announce that we have to start over. Nothing. Maybe I was able to move my arms without moving my legs. The white xray machine trembles, The headphone and wires go up and down over my breastbone as I breathe. I wonder if I’m losing interest in other people and
their problems I wonder if I have lost interest in sex. This frightens me Erik
is waiting at home for me.
“Shall we have a meeting?” he sometimes suggests. That’s our code for sex. Then,
when we meet, his toes feel cold and lonely, his legs long and hairy. “A man has needs,” he
once said, under his breath.
“Just stay still a little longer, Mrs. Shapiro,” the young girl’s voice booms over her loud
The night before last, it was Erik’s first night home from his tour, I’d just put Ava to bed, and had just gotten into bed myself, when Erik placed his nightly juice glass of whiskey down, vanished into our closet and returned nude. He stood there, far enough from the edge of the bed so I could see him from head to toe. Erik’s body is beautifully proportioned, his skin creamy. He’s a natural athlete, graceful and muscular at the same time. Erik’s bare feet stir me. Each toe spreads, separates from the next, like people sunning on the beach. All at once, he ripped the bed sheets open with a single stroke, climbed in, scooped up the TV remote control, holding it the way he likes, parallel to the floor, like an airplane, like the x-ray machine over me now. He switched channels for a while, sipping at his whiskey and resting the juice glass on the bed cover, his hand rotating it back and forth. We didn’t talk at first. Then I started telling him about this hallucination I had during surgery. As the hallucination came to me, I could feel a series of jolts, amidst a sudden clatter of hard edges. The sounds and the jerks grew in intensity, my whole body wracked with reorganization. I was changing, and succumbing to change, until I was no longer me as I had understood myself, not a composite of experiences and traits, an exdancer and choreographer, a mother, the wife of a successful cellist. Instead, I was rearranged, cut into rectangular yellow bricks. I could even feel myself dripping with paint, with rough dusty grout between my new sections. As yellow bricks, I could see things. I saw Erik, who’d been allowed into the recovery room, In the steely blue light, he stood amid the shuffle of many people, all wearing light blue shower caps. There was laughing, and a palpable feeling of relief surrounding him. As a pile of yellow bricks, I saw Erik’s discomfort. His nose looked oversized, pointing far forward like a bird beak, his head looked much too small for his height, and his shoulder bag weighed him down so heavily he could hardly support it. He didn’t yet know that I was not a woman, and it pained me to imagine how he would feel carrying the yellow bricks home in a taxicab instead of his wife, and then, introducing the bricks to Ava.
While I was talking and thinking about the hallucination, Erik stared at me, his oval face
still sideways on his pillow.
“I thought I was some kind of deity, I guess,” I said to Erik, trying to make light of it.
“You know, the first yellowbrick person, the first woman transformed into bricks!” I was sure
Erik was going to say, “OK, honey, you’ve told me about the yellow bricks, write a poem
about it.” But he didn’t. He kept his eyes locked to mine, as his hand rotated the juice glass of
whiskey a little one way then back. I suddenly worried the memory would drive him away.
“I wish I hadn’t talked about those yellow bricks,” I said.
“You must have needed to make sense of the pain,” he answered, and leaned closer. I
watched his lips tighten into a small pucker. I know Erik’s kisses. The pucker means he’s not
thinking of sex I was relieved that he wasn’t. My eyes have opened to the ceiling, and to the space around me. I’m not wearing underpants. I’m not supposed to wear them for either x-rays
or radiation. My breath feels steadier and more controlled than when I first lay down. I allow my shoulder blades to widen, and my calves to spread and melt down into my ankles. When I was dancing, I used imagery to make my body work better, to coax more tone here or there. I’ve spent countless hours imagining all kinds of things Polaroid cameras focusing in the center of my gut, ribs working in synch, opening and closing like an umbrella. I’ve pictured my pelvis moving away from my head like a toboggan down an icy hill. What a way to spend a life, I think.
The clicks of the x-ray have quieted, and so has the sexadviceshow chatter. Its theme song rises up from the calm with a series of tingtings, followed by a choir of young adult voices.
Someone is entering the cool dark room. I can tell by the heavy steps, it’s Dr. Chada,
my zaftig radiation oncologist. I didn’t expect her today. Dr. Chada lingers close. I feel her forefinger on my skin. She brushes my swollen thigh once, her touch is lighter than I expected. It tickles.
“Be still sweetie,” Dr. Chada whispers, and then she is gone.