Awake by Courtney Harler

Ines Vuckovic (c) 2016

Prepping for the surgery, I develop a twitch in my knee. Or the muscle above my knee. I can put my hand on that muscle and feel it jittering. I laugh aloud, as if my knee can hear me. I am darkly amused by the continuous antics of my body: if I bend my leg, the twitching ceases; if I straighten my leg, the twitching resumes. Suddenly, I am both too hot and too cold: I sweat and shiver, all at once.

I felt the same way on another operating table, over twenty-five years ago.

No anesthesia, just a local around the tumor embedded in my left breast. I was fourteen. My parents didn’t tolerate unnecessary drugs, thought I was old enough to confront the trauma, all so that I wouldn’t have a blank space on my time track. They were religious in that odd way.

The nurse strapped my body down—my legs, hips, head, arms; my left arm restrained at a right angle, exposing that side of my chest. The surgeon wore telescoping spectacles, and I could see my blood well up under his knife in the little mirrors perched on his nose. The first cut felt like a hot slice, a slip and a tug. The deeper cuts—a whittling away.

He dropped the tumor into a jar, held it up for me to see. White flesh streaked with pink, its surface as irregular as the sea craters of the moon. But wonderfully soft, somehow—squishy, like playdough dyed by food coloring. An imperfectly peeled Easter egg, hardboiled and stained. Even though it could have been cancer, I wanted that part of me back in my breast. In my body. I felt an irrational urge to eat it, to consume my pain.

Next came the cauterizing iron. Zip. Sizzle. Fizz. Burn. Each zap to the inner regions of my flayed-open breast was a hot jolt to my brainstem. My body jerked in reaction to each shock. I saw and smelt a heady, fleshy steam swirl up from my broken breast. Lilly juice, evaporated.

The surgeon told me, “Be still, for pity’s sake.”

“Can’t you just…warn me…before you do that?” I gasped.

He said, “You shouldn’t even be awake right now.”

I know, I thought. I fucking well know.

Yet I still convulsed as the surgeon sealed my severed blood vessels with merciless fire. I knew he was helping me, healing me, but I hated him. I hated my own mother and father, too—those two self-righteous assholes who’d landed me on this table, wide awake as my own witness. All for a fake religion, for a fabricated philosophy of physical, emotional, and “spiritual” health. I knew they were in the wrong then, but I was willing to play the martyr to please them, to please my church.

I’m not now. Not anymore.

Compared to the searing iron, the stitches felt like caresses, cushioned pulls through skin. My body stopped shaking; the surgeon said, “There now. All done.”

I wanted to shout, “I am NOT a child!” but I was more a child at that specific moment than ever before or after in my life. I was naked, exposed, alone, and perhaps, unloved.

How could they have hurt me in that way? Deliberately.

The nurse padded my tender, oozing wound with white cotton and strips of surgical tape. She released me from the cold metal table, led me from the operating theater to a private cubicle. I dressed myself, but I couldn’t tolerate a bra, so my right breast felt as vulnerable as my left. I layered my upper torso with a tank top, a t-shirt, and a light sweater. When I emerged into the waiting room, my mother gently wrapped her jacket around my shoulders. Maybe I shook again.

“How was it?” she asked. I knew my father was at work, slaving to pay for this surgery, but I wanted to see his face instead of hers, all the same; I felt more betrayed by her than him. She had vulnerable breasts, too, after all.

I didn’t answer my mother, just walked toward the car. I squeezed into the back seat of the Plymouth with my sisters. The car was stuffy, smelling of tobacco smoke. One or more of them had been sneaking a cigarette, probably bored to tears, willing to risk the November frost for some mischievous relief from the maddening mint-green walls of the hospital corridors.

No blank-making anesthesia allowed, ever, but cancer-causing nicotine was permitted, under certain circumstances. Everything, but nothing, in moderation, was their undying creed. My mother died of heart and lung complications from smoking, though my father quit in time. He’s healthy today, but he still doesn’t believe in anesthesia. Luckily for today’s surgeons, I do.


Courtney Harler is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. She also holds an MA in English Literature from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in Northwest Boulevard, Neon Dreams, The Vignette Review, and Blue Monday Review. Her work is forthcoming in From the Depths, Palaver, and Sierra Nevada Review. Raised in Kentucky, Courtney now lives, writes, and teaches in Las Vegas.

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