“How are you holding up?” The doctor asks, (something no one wants to hear a doctor ask).
I focus on the doctor’s clogs. Expensive. Her hair. Expensive. Her eyeglasses. Expensive, German.
When I was a flight attendant, I could always tell German passengers by their serious eyeglasses and the assiduous way they followed the safety demo.
My birth mother is Irish. My birth father was German. I love the Pogues. I have several pairs of serious eyeglasses. I have several serious perspectives, all of them evolving.
Conflict rages inside me.
The doctor shows me cross-sections of my breasts on her computer screen. The images look like something from the Weather Channel, a satellite tracking a monochrome storm.
“You see here,” the doctor says, pointing out a line of tiny white spots, innocent as grains of rice. “And also here.”
At New York City street fairs, there’s always a booth claiming: We will write your name on a grain of rice.
Why write someone’s name so tiny it can’t be seen without a magnifying glass?
Who perfects an art like that?
When the doctor shows me the cross-section of my breasts, the grains inside, the microscopic tears that beckon my death, I think: Oh they’re pretty.
Rice writing began in ancient Anatolia, in Turkey.
Wearing a rice grain with your name on it brings good fortune.
Wearing a rice grain with your name on it heightens fertility.
Flat long-grain is best for longevity.
The next time I come across a rice-writing booth, I will have a grain etched with my name and dangle it on a silver chain.
I will pass this on, an heirloom for my children.
The doctor’s unmanicured finger connects the grains on the screen, as if what she is showing me will take shape and make sense.
I spent so much time in doctors’ offices when I was a child. I was a connoisseur of Highlights Magazine, Goofus and Gallant, connect-the-dots puzzles.
What’s hidden in this picture? Look, an apple! Look, a puppy!
I’d be sad whenever I opened a Highlights Magazine and some other kid had already connected all the dots. Mystery ruined.
The dots on the doctor’s computer look like the freckles on my left thigh. The freckles line up like the Big Dipper.
I always thought this meant something special.
“When we brought you home from the orphanage, there wasn’t a spot on you,” the mother who raised and loved me said. “You were perfect then.”
“That,” my mother said of the constellation on my skin, “came later.”
She sounded disappointed.
My mother changed my birthname from Amelia to Lori.
Lori would be easier to fit on a grain of rice.
Lori is the name of a kind of parakeet.
Once, at a county fair, I went into a room filled with red lories, bright fluttering hearts.
“Nothing but trouble,” the room attendant said about the birds, then spit.
Red lories require toys to keep them occupied. They are temperamental, always looking for adventure.
In the netted room, one lory perched on my shoulder.
Another one shit on my head.
“When they line up like that,” the doctor says about my rice grains, “it’s concerning.”
When I was twelve, I changed my name from Lori to Willow, as in weeping.
I cried a lot back then.
My mother gave me a nickname—Cry Baby Duck. She bought me a book with that as a title. She read it aloud every night, hoping to break me.
“Give the waterworks a rest,” she said.
No one would call me Willow, not even my father, who loved me most of all.
At some point, I stopped crying. I tried to be sensible.
“Grace under pressure,” as my beloved Hemingway would say.
When her breast cancer came, my mother took my hand and put it on the lump doctors told her not to worry about.
“Can you feel it?” My mother asked.
I had to resist the urge to pull my hand away.
I touched it with two fingers.
I still feel it now, such is the tangible memory of death in my mother’s body.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said, and did not cry.
“You can see here,” the doctor says, “and here.”
The rice grains line up like soldiers, tiny plastic army men my children played with for years, battalions on windowsills, my pillow, battles raging everywhere.
“Are you crying?” my son and daughter who have never seen me cry will ask later.
They will check my eyes for tears.