This was going to be a solo show. That’s what I do. I write and perform solo plays. Dramatic tales with multiple characters, for adults. Comic plays and folktales, for children. I’ve performed for half a million people, in tiny theaters and high- tech performance spaces, in international theater festivals and school cafeterias, on four continents.
I rarely get stage fright. But the thought of performing this story in front of an audience was like willingly entering my recurrent dream— the one where I am standing under a blinding spotlight on a rickety proscenium stage. I face the audience, open my mouth to speak, and realize: 1) I can’t remember my lines; 2) There is a marching band entering the theater; 3) I’m naked. Shouting over the brass section, I stammer and blurt out improvisations, hoping my lines will come back to me before the audience showers me with rotten vegetables, but the band drowns me out. As they approach the stage, I see that the musicians are wild animals in military dress. I wake in a sweat.
On Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year, September 10, 1999, I was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital for an emergency CAT scan. “I’m here with your patient,” said the radiologist on the phone to my doctor. “She appears to be in shock.”
I sat down to write this story as a solo show, but I got stage fright and couldn’t write anything for years.
Seven years later, on Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year, 2006, I started to write. Unexpectedly. Urgently.
I won’t be performing this story. In a book I am just as naked, lit under as unforgiving a spotlight, but I’m willing to divulge these secrets for one reader at a time. I’ve been writing as fast as I can, without telling anybody. For fear that I’ll stop. For fear that the Evil Eye will catch up with me. Again.
It was our first vacation as a family, Julia, who would celebrate her ninth birthday in Tuscany, was an adventurous and uncomplaining traveler—open to trying anything new—especially gelato, but even the cathedrals and museums at which most kids balk. Michael, also on his first trip to Europe, had an obsessive drive to see everything, and set a manic sightseeing pace. We sped around Venice for three days, riding gondolas and water taxis, taking in Renaissance sculptures and the Biennale exhibit of contemporary art, viewing the city itself as a work of art slowly being submerged in water—like Michaels’ beloved and vulnerable hometown of New Orleans. At first I was energized by Michael’s and Julia’s high velocity tourist style. But each day I found it harder to keep up with them.
Driving into Tuscany, Michael at the wheel, he took a wrong turn and we ended up in downtown Florence, stuck in traffic outside the city hospital. My hand on my hard belly, I had a fleeting fantasy of checking into the hospital. I would point to my Berlitz phrasebook at the Italian for “What’s wrong with me, Doctor?” He would smile condescendingly, borrow my book, and point to the phrase “Welcome to menopause!” which he would announce loudly in two languages, to the amusement of his colleagues. The Florentine traffic jam ended, Michael found the narrow, unpaved road we were looking for, and we drove up the mountain to our rented Tuscan cottage. Signora Francesca Gimaldi, our eighty- five- year- old landlady, whose leathered face was crosshatched with wrinkles, greeted us in Italian. She took a grandmotherly shine to Julia and promptly flagged down the rickety local bus, returning three hours later with two brown paper bags filled with fresh figs— one for her and one for Julia.
Michael and Julia drove down the mountain to Florence over the next few days, to visit the Uffizi Gallery and to explore the city, but I was too tired to join them, so I stayed at our cottage. Signora Gimaldi and I rested on the gray slate patio together, two old ladies quietly gazing at the parched yellow grass, olive trees, and vineyards, the vines tethered to wooden stakes to support the ripening bunches of small, green grapes. I followed Dr. Kay’s orders, and drank lots of local red wine.
Rome was beautiful but too hot to breathe. While Michael and Julia explored ancient ruins, cathedrals, and gardens, I became the American expert on Italian park benches. A Roman policeman shook me awake from a nap at the Villa Borghese Gardens and ordered me to leave.
I was famished, but after a few bites I couldn’t eat. My cheeks were sunken, my stomach was bloated. On the last night of our trip, unable to sleep, I ran my hand over my abdomen. The swelling was bigger than at the beginning of our vacation. I put Michael’s hand on my belly.
“What do you think it is?” he whispered, half- awake.
“Either I’m pregnant or this is a tumor.”
“You’ll be okay,” he said uncertainly, his hand tracing the hard curve.
Back in New York City on Labor Day, I bought an over-the-counter pregnancy test kit.
“Negative.” I told Michael.
“How does that make you feel?” he asked.
“Relieved. Disappointed. Scared.”
“Me too.” He hugged me, picked up his suitcase, and left for the airport. He would be performing in Chicago all week, and would return late on Friday night.
What I Know.
- I have a large, hard lump in my lower abdomen.
- I’m not pregnant
- I am forty-four and in early menopause.
- I have been infertile since the age of thirty.
- I have a bladder disorder.
- I have sore breasts, a result of wearing underwire bras.
- I’ve felt sick since April
- I’m anemic
- I’m depressed.
- I have been on hormone replacement therapy for fourteen years, which increases my risk of cancer.
- I’m a DES daughter, which increases my risk of cancer.
- My mother had breast cancer.
- I’m sure the lump is cancer.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen. Copyright (c) 2009 by Alice Eve Cohen.