By the time this story begins, last year, I had had a lot of serious dates and a lot of jobs and was working as a writer at People magazine. If, as research claims, tension contributes to disease, I was a good candidate: I had been working, for three years, on a book about a French espionage case, juggling six-month stays in Paris with a job in New York. Though the story, which inspired the play M. Butterfly, was wonderful, Paris, when I arrived, was hard: I had two friends in the city; I did not speak French; I sometimes went entire Sundays speaking only to waiters. Soon after I returned from my first stay in France, my father died an ugly death, hooked up to a life-support machine. I was a bad fit at People and always had been: I like 40 inches just to say hello; the style at People, which I had come to respect as one does a skill that does not come easily, was somewhere between sausage and haiku: Reduce War and Peace to a snappy two-pager, and then, if Photo can’t get a home take of Pierre and Natasha in the hot tub, they kill the story anyway. I was tired all the time: On weekends and evenings, I wrote my book; during the day I went to the magazine.
Also, I was in a difficult relationship. His name was Nick Di Stefano, he was a sportswriter I had known for years, and I had been seeing him, on and off, for eight months. He was Italian, which in my family is considered practically Jewish, except that (1) as children, Italians don’t talk back to their parents, and (2) as adults, the men Run Around. Naturally, being so trouble-some, we find them very appealing, and anyway, I had always liked Nick. He was smart; he knew all the lyrics to The Pajama Game; he dressed like a forties sharpie; he had the requisite newspaper Up-Yours Attitude toward authority. Also, there is something very nice about a relationship in which you have known each other a long time and are in the same business. We watched old movies from his collection, and he cooked and told me how much he loved his mother and took me dancing. Then he waltzed off to Miami for a weekend with an old girlfriend, and that was the end of Nick, Chapter One. She, it turned out, wanted to just be friends. Now when Nick is with me he is often petulant, seeing himself as the tragic hero of a doomed love affair, a role I have traditionally tried to reserve for myself.
“Why does it always have to be so serious with you?” he says. “Why can’t we just live in the moment?”
And also, “You don’t want me to work it out and decide what’s right for me. You just think if you give me enough time I’ll get her out of my system.”
“That’s what you want in a woman, to be that selfless, you should be dating Mother Teresa,” I say. “Why don’t you call her up in Calcutta and see if she’s available? From what you tell me, she’s the only single woman you haven’t nailed.”
Then we break up and I go to bed for the weekend and lose two days out of my book.
That’s where we’re at, broken up, the morning I discover the lump. It is the first week in March, Monday, a crazy day at People. I am feeling particularly tense because I’m taking another leave of absence and have one week in which to finish my stories. I am so frantic I have canceled my mammogram at the Guttman, figuring I’ll do it when my leave begins.
Then, as I’m showering, I feel it: a large, oval swelling on the upper inner part of my left breast. I have always wondered how women who discover lumps find them, but there is no missing this; it seems to be, as I move my hand around it, the size of an egg, slightly raised, sore to the touch. My breasts, since my mid-thirties, have been sore and swollen before my period, and as I’ve gotten older the soreness has increased—but I had my period two weeks ago. Another strange thing, this lump seems so big, and I don’t remember it being there yesterday. I decide I should get it checked out, but I am not very concerned. What I have heard about breast cancer is that except for a lump, it is asymptomatic; you don’t have pain. I figure it’s just another one of my fibrocystic lumps, which come and go. I’ll call the Guttman and make that appointment for next week.