Snake Eyes by Nathan Dixon

Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, May 24th, 2016

"...Hashtag: cancerfriend. Hashtag: pre-cancerfriend..."

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Their pitiful eyes on my freckled skin grows old before the suntan fades. Was I not supposed to tell them? Say nothing at all? Yet it feels—they make me feel—that I’ve been rambling on forever. Now tell us about your trip, they say. We want to see pictures. You never posted them, why didn’t you post them. I begin—I try to begin—but they interrupt with their boyfriends and dogs, with the weddings they’ve been to and the ones coming up. Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter. Uncomfortable in their snake skins—here in the flesh, uncomfortable—here on my hand-me-down couch, come to visit from the beach that I once called home, come to help me unpack my life. After the beaming hugs out front in the drizzle, they smiled awkwardly upon entering the rented house, the furniture the same we’d played on in my parent’s living room as children. Down at the beach. Both in black leggings now, and pastel colored V-necks, their pushed cleavage peeking. Into the rented house that smells of Pine-Sol, both complaining of their pale skin, the tanning beds forsworn, jealous of my suntan, of my winter in South America. Neither wanting me to talk about what I need to talk about.

Colposcopies are common, they say. No big deal. Don’t freak out.

I’ve already had the colposcopy. Now they’re cutting away at my cervix.

Well. My sister had that procedure, too, and look at her. Two babies. She’s fine.

Steering the conversation toward children, inevitable, toward the upcoming wedding, her wedding, toward the story of Michael proposing. How many times has she told it? How many times to come? The rock on her finger, a polished star that foretells the future.

Listen, I want to say. But can’t. Listen. They’re hollowing me out. Scalpeling off bit by bit. I’ve got the breast cancer gene on top of the cervical lesions, that’s the bigger point. That’s what I want to talk about. That means I’ll lose my breasts and ovaries for sure. Gone. For sure, the doctors say. The potential for skin. Sun spots behind ears, constellations of freckles, precursors. The potential. Peel it off like a condom, let me lie and be bare. Twenty six and unprotected. Don’t you see? They sliced the lesions off like pepperonis. Teeny-tiny-pepperonis. I can’t say this to them. It’s separate from the genetic stuff—totally unrelated—it has nothing to do with it—though cancer’s still the word. I’m 26. Just like you, I want to say. Both of you. But I can’t, and instead I start to cry. Pitiful, in this empty house, where my mother’s furniture sits uncomfortably, where cardboard boxes line the walls, and the overhead bulbs are too bright. Where outside in the drizzle the traffic runs north toward Virginia.

As I bow my head their annoyance turns to pity. I’m the snake charmer fluting blue notes, my hands limp atop my bare brown legs that prove I’ve been gone for the winter. They sway back and forth, these friends of mine, their arms curling round me.

And although it feels good to be touched, I try to shake them off. Try to shake off their pity because they say they know when they can’t. Say they understand when they don’t even try. I pull away from the whispered sibilance because I’m a brat and I can’t stop and I’m selfish, and I’ve worn a skirt to show off how different I am. Can they not remember when my mother died? Back when we were juniors in high school? They walked into the sanctuary that summer, looking like sisters even then, sand still clinging to their sun-kissed ankles, walked in with their own mothers in mourning to listen to the young preacher testify. Must I make this connection for them as their fingertips flick down my backbone, as they turn to the corners of the room?

We listen to the traffic in the street outside as I try to stop, as they try to think of something to say. They wear their pouty-mouths, their clamshell cosmetic mirrors half-opened on the coffee table where we once scratched our names with pried-apart scissors. They run hands through their blond hair, then let their finger tips graze over their cellphones. Hypnotized. Take a pic and post it. Discreetly. Tag it: my makeup looks good, but might run today, Hashtag: cancerfriend. Hashtag: pre-cancerfriend.

I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch, I can’t stop. My face wet, my shoulders shaking them off, unable to accept whatever it is they’re offering, because—I know—I’ve placed myself upon a pedestal. Yet knowing doesn’t prevent it, and I’m bitter because I know, too, that the wedding talk will commence once I get my act together. Back to their airbrushed lives. A loving husband with money in the bank, a cute house and a yard where the children can play. Is this what we dreamt of? Giving birth to bright babies? Posting pictures to Facebook and Instagram? Easter Sunday portraits, charmed. All of it documented—sprawled onto the Internet—to show the world their perfect lives. Christmas card collages added onto day by day. A Digital tumor in the palm of their hands, the battery-powered real world where nobody cries.

What filter on their smart phones will they use when I’m in the hospital? I can’t help but think it. Feeling sorry for myself. How will they crop the photos to avoid the scars? Invisible now—for now—a secret that no one can see. A secret that I should have kept secret—their eyes wandering over the room, over my unpacked belongings. Can I blame them for not knowing how to act? Their pastel finger polish has been culled from children’s Easter eggs, and if asked, they’d say I’ve always asked too much.

Wrap it up, wrap it up, enough of this strange scene beneath the single standing lamp in this empty living room. Willing myself to stop, my mind fixated on the image of two bone-colored dice thrown and floating.

I guess you’ll have to wait and see, one of them finally says.

No use getting worked up, says the other. At least until you know something for sure.

Sure. She’s right. The world is blind men slinging dice in back alleys. Hopefully we’ll get the abnormalities, said the doctor, hopefully, so that the pre-cancer doesn’t turn to— Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

I know, I know, I say. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.

It’s fine, they say. It’s fine. Everything’s OK. You’re going to be just fine, you know.

Because how ridiculous would it be if I was actually sick? The prospect for them must be unimaginable. And for me? I watch raindrops bounce off the windowsill, watch the gray flash of northbound traffic. Put it out of mind. Move on to more serious things. Our lives, our futures. Our dogs and our husbands, our children-to-be. Pulling photo albums onto screens, the traffic thinning outside. The sun setting as they scroll through with manicured fingertips, smiling, both of them smiling. The fruits to come of a life long-lived—look, look—picked wholesome from family trees.

Genetic mutations passed up through the branches, down from the parents. And it never occurs to them that the fruit might be forbidden to me. Slither belly away, into your world of cut stones and white dresses, of school districts and re-investments and retirement options. As blameless as your airbrushed photos. We will have a sleepover tonight, nostalgic for our youth when we still believed we could do anything. Woe is me. I’m told to wait for the roll of the dice. Pitiful. Or take action more ridiculous than diagnoses. Slung cubes on cobblestones, a numbers game in percentages. I wait quietly, my hands in my lap.

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Cover image by Matthieu Bourel. To see more of his work, click here.

nate dixonNathan Dixon is an English Literature MA candidate at North Carolina Central University. His work has appeared in Tin House, the North Carolina Literary Review, Bop Dead City, and Trans Lit Mag. He is the assistant editor of the academic journal Renaissance Papers. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).