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Last night I finished reading Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For You. It’s set in a high school boarding school with scenes moving between 1995 and the present. There is a scene in high school era where the narrator and one of her friends are sitting on the stairs and one of the boys comes behind them to take a picture. He puts his arms around the two girls, grabbing one of their breasts in each hand, hard enough to leave a bruise. The narrator is on the right, her friend on the left. Later, in the adult time-line the friend is diagnosed with breast cancer. The narrator hears this through another friend and her first question is “which breast.” The friend relaying the news doesn’t know, but later the narrator's conviction that it is the left one is soon confirmed.
Reading this, I am filled with a moment of panic. My brain swings back to the fall 1992. I am a freshman standing in front of the teacher’s lounge between classes, talking to my history teacher. He wants me to try out for the quiz team. The bell rings and I move to step around him. I am going to be late for keyboarding class and the teacher is a stickler for the rules. He reaches his hand out to stop me from leaving, plants it firmly on my left side, palm flat against my left breast.
I don’t remember how I ended the conversation and got away. I don’t remember if Mrs. S. said anything about me being late. I didn’t have to go back for a late pass at least.
What I remember, what I will probably always remember with the entirety of my body, is being 14, wearing a bright pink shirt with bronze buttons at the throat, standing in an empty hallway with my history teacher’s hand on my left breast.
As Makkai’s narrator links her friend’s breast cancer back to that moment in their high school hallway I find myself irrationally wanting to immediately call my doctor and demand a prophylactic mastectomy. After I finish the book and am getting ready for bed, when my brain has disentangled itself somewhat from the urgency of the novel’s plot and the retelling of the narrator’s particular high school traumas, I feel silly for this reaction.
That bodies carry trauma that can manifest later is true, but there isn’t a link directly from unwelcome hands to cancer. That’s not why I feel silly, though. No, I feel silly for forgetting in my initial descent into memory the scar on the left side of my left breast. Where his hand once rested there is now a faint but still visible line where two years ago a surgeon cut out a papilloma for biopsy. I am strangely relieved when I remember, like I am safe now, like the consequences of that piece of my past have grown, been cut out, and deemed medically benign.