Door to Satori
By Lauran Strait
Of course, there was the whole life-and-death question staring forty-three year old Ann Mullins in the face. And, yes, the nausea from the chemotherapy was a bear. And, okay, part of her breast was missing. But somehow all of that was eclipsed by the moment in which she found herself, standing in the shower feeling her hair cascading down her shoulders.
And her waist.
And her legs.
And not because her hair was long. But, because it was falling out. In big clumps. In huge, stomach turning handfuls. Like writhing worms, the hair spread across the bottom of the tub, and water pooled around her ankles.
A tear rolled down Ann's cheek as more hair slipped from her scalp.
Mesmerized, Ann watched the scene, trying to detach herself from it—someone else's hair, someone else's life, someone else.
Ann pushed her hand against her quivering lips.
It was only hair for God's sake! It would grow back. In the meantime, she could wear a wig or a turban or ball cap. Why was this affecting her so? Surely the hair wasn't nearly as important as the cancer.
But Christ Almighty, on top of losing a breast, now she was going bald.
B A L D!
Ann had heard the spiel before from her doctor, from the nurses, even from other patients in her support group—people who'd been there and seen others come back with heads of full hair. She'd known it could happen to her. Even that it probably would. But before, all the discussion of baldness had involved other people. Today, it was her beautiful hair going down the drain.
The final strand of golden silkiness disappeared under the water. Just before it was sucked away, it prickled against her ankles like a treacherous snake. Ann bit her lip to keep from screaming.
When she walked out of the bathroom Ann avoided looking in the mirror. Instead, she touched the top of her head, exploring the new topography. The spots of hairless skin felt rubbery. Ann squeezed her eyes and sighed.
One breast and no hair—Christ, she'd turned into a freak over the last month. Why did God hate her?
As a teenager, Ann fretted over blemishes, doctoring them with nearly everything on the market. She brushed her teeth three times-a-day and flossed daily. She kept her underarms and legs liberated from hair, while she starved herself and exercised within inches of her life. But in the end all of it was for naught. Beauty and youth fleeting, somehow without even being aware that it was happening, she'd gone from sixteen to forty. Mind you, it made not one bit of difference that she still felt sixteen; she had the same desires and angst now that she had then.
With one breast and no hair, how could she compete in the real world of whole women? She was no longer the same. Now she was a freak.
Ann sat on the edge of her bed, naked but oblivious to the cold even as chill bumps formed on her skin. Giving in to the pain that she'd tried for far too long to restrain, Ann's jaw sagged. A shudder coursed through her, and a wretched sob finally broke free. Before she even realized what was happening, Ann was wailing.
That she was crying now for lost hair was as much a surprise as it was a cathartic experience. At the same time, though, she knew it involved so much more than the hair. True, the sight of the loose strands floating away had done a lot to unleash the floodgates. But what she really was crying about had little to do with her hair. Rather, it had everything to do with her life and with the realization of how all that was good could be snuffed out so quickly, so easily.
For a while longer Ann cried before escaping to the blissful, healing comfort of sleep.
She was at home, alone in bed in the small house she shared with Carl. A recent photo of him and her son seemed to peer at Ann from across the room, and from within its one-dimensional depth they grinned at her, flashing innocent smiles. Or were they secret, insightful smiles? No, that wasn't right. They weren't the ones with the secret—a vile secret that everyone who looked at her soon would know.
"Where am I?" she said through a sob, though she knew the answer even as she whispered the words.
Far, far from home. It was her scary, cold, inner voice—a voice that belonged to someone else, someone who belonged far, far away. And you know you're never going to get back.
"Shut up," she said.
You're one of them now.
"Never! Stop it." She gritted her teeth. "Please."
Time's almost here. Goodnight, dearie. Be a good girl, save everyone time and effort, and just get on with it.
Both hands lay at Ann's sides, palms up, and even the simple act of curling her fingers required surprising effort and concentration. She wanted to reach out, but didn't have the strength to raise her arms. Her eyelids, too, seemed welded shut. After seconds of effort, Ann finally forced them open once more.
Her heart lurched.
In the confines of the darkened nothingness where she now found herself, a closed door suddenly appeared in front of Ann. But this door was larger and brighter than any door she'd ever seen, as if lit by a monstrous sun beating mercilessly against it. Bright? Such a curious thing to say about a door, she knew, yet she couldn't seem to get that thought out of her mind. The door was so bright, in fact, that starring at it hurt her head.
She closed her eyes against the light, but it seemed to shine through her eyelids, starting tiny fires on the surface of her brain. Ann began to shake.
Something moved, making a scratching, skittering sound.
Ann's eyes flew open, her vision jumping from the door to the floor, searching among the clinging shadows.
Three heartbeats of silence.
The scratchy movement recurred, closer, louder. Ann's breaths rushed too fast to count.
She stared where the sound originated until her eyes ached. Still nothing moved.
Trapped, the room was like a cell with only one way out.
Skitter scratch so close now the air near her feet felt alive.
Waves of nausea flooded her; a burning, searing pain twisted like fire igniting her bowels.
She tried to get to her feet. Couldn't move.
A puff of air from under the door—cold as death's breath—brushed against her toes. Too close. Surely something more frightening than words almost was upon her.
It's coming for you. You know it is. Now be a good girl. It won't hurt. Not too much anyway.
And then the door opened, light suddenly filling the space of blackness forcing Ann to squint at what was about to devour her.
The clock radio automatically turned on the all-news talk station. For the next ten minutes, Ann rose slowly out of sleep while car crashes, murders, natural disasters, and terrorist bombings faded in and out of her consciousness.
After a time, eyes fluttering, she rolled over and faced the clock. Lines from the pillow etched on her face, Ann's mouth tasted vaguely of something dead and a pain in her head pounded cadence in time with her heartbeat.
On what had she hit her head?
Was it possible she'd actually rammed her head into a door? Exhausted, she could barely move and her thoughts were a confused jumble.
Ann's head thumping increased when she finally opened her eyes, coming fully awake.
She was awake. She was safe. As this last thought crossed her mind, Ann's hands flew to her head.
Still bald. The words echoed in her mind, and she sighed involuntarily. Of course the hair was gone. However, something slightly more than intuition, some small bit of satori, almost had made her think otherwise.
Foolish nonsense. Nothing more.
What did it mean?
Ann sat at her vanity looking in the mirror two days after the last of her hair fell out. "You, my bald dear, must have a guardian angel," she said to her mimicking image. "And that angel really doesn't give a damn whether you have hair or two breasts or three eyes. Because of the God-awful treatments, at least you aren't dead. Not yet anyway. And with any luck, you could live another sixty years. So what's say we put an end to this self-pity crap and get on with life? We've got book revisions to finish."
The gal in the mirror didn't respond even though she well knew about the impending deadline. Soon, the first of six books would be published. Before she'd gotten sick, Ann had been very proud of the fact that she'd set the standard at Harper Collins for the most books contracted with an unpublished author. But during the last month, that hadn't seemed important.
It's true that God giveth and He taketh away, and now it seemed as though He'd done both at the same time. Yet, while He'd taken a breast and hair, He'd also given something wonderful. "The book contract," Ann said, giving voice to the thought.
Her last words still ringing in her mind, Ann moved to her computer waiting for magic to pour from her fingers.
She whistled along with the radio, making no effort to carry a tune. She whistled through the news at the top of the hour. However, when the weather report came on, Ann silenced herself.
"Bright skies today and high temperatures in the 70s," the way-too-peppy radio voice said.
Ann's heart galloped, almost painfully, though her face remained _expressionless.
How many other beautiful days had she missed over the last month sitting holed up in her room hiding from the world? When she'd first started writing, she'd spent much of that time on a park-bench with her laptop. Back then, she never thought that breast cancer lay in wait; skin cancer seemed a more likely possibility. Funny how things turn out.
No doubt healthy people with breasts and hair now were out enjoying the day. Mind whirling, Ann hummed again, the sound nothing more than a pathetic attempt to cover her thoughts while deep in the pit of her stomach, slithering worms of excitement crawled alongside squiggling snakes of dread.
Tension filled Ann's vein's with invisible goo thicker than blood. Her heart thudded in her gut, in her throat, right between the eyes. The second hand of her watch swept a full circle, while the last of her self-pity dueled with her courage.
"Damn." Ann pushed away from the desk, but hesitated before walking to her closet. Why did this have to be so hard? It wasn't like she was contemplating entering a beauty contest, for God's sake.
"I'm just going out for a little walk," Ann said, cajoling the fearful part of her that still seemed to be in partial control.
Ann snatched a red-billed ball-cap from a shelf in the closet. The hat slipped low, almost sagging over her ears as she pushed it on. Oh well, at least her ears wouldn't get sunburned. As Erma Bombeck once said, when life tosses you lemons, make lemonade. Thank God she loved lemonade.
Back at the vanity again, Ann rummaged through her makeup drawer, then pulled out a tube of her brightest lipstick. Although she usually glossed her lips pink, for the past twenty-five years Carl kept tempting her with tube after tube of red goo, telling her that the color was made for her. "Carl's right. I do look good in red," Ann said to her mirrored image, after applying a shiny scarlet coating. "I'll have to wear this more often."
She changed into a baggy red shirt and red-accented walking shorts, then stepped in front of the mirror for one last look. Not bad. She might be partially breastless and bald, but how many 43-year-old women still wore size four shorts and had hair-free legs that looked this good?
Ann smoothed her hand down her hips.
"So what if I don't look exactly like everyone else? I can do this!" Ann's mirrored face was unreadable, though there was no mistaking the determination in her voice. Her declaration had the feel not of speculation but of prophecy.
"I'm just another girl going for a walk," Ann said, her hand barely touching the doorknob. Yes, her words sounded real, and if she tried hard enough, she almost believed them.
A small smile touched Ann's lips. She gripped the knob, closed her eyes and turned the handle.
Blinding sunlight streamed in, touching Ann's face, warming both her skin and her spirit. Heart still pounding twice its normal pace, Ann stepped into the light, then closed the door.
A freelance writer and professional editor, Lauran teaches Writing and Editing, facilitates three year-round writers' workshops, and is COLUMN EDITOR of Moondance Magazine. Recent online work is featured in Dog-Eared, Gator Springs Gazette, AtomicPetals, Retrozine, The Copperfield Review, A Woman of a Certain Age, Moondance Magazine, and Monkey Bicycle. Her print work has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot and Whistling Shade Literary Review. One of her essays was read on an NPR affiliate station, on the literary talk show, Word By Word. She has microfiction forthcoming in print in NFG Magazine; she is a finalist in NFG's Great 69er short-fiction contest. Contact Lauren.