Radiation Treatment



I recently gutted the book I’ve been working on for five years and with that process comes the sometimes (not often) painful act of discarding scenes I’d grown quite attached to. It wasn’t how long I had worked on them or fought to keep them in the manuscript that made me reluctant to let go, it was something harder to quantify. The scenes that were hard to part with were the ones that held some mystery for me. The one that worked in ways I didn’t quite understand but knew were effective. The following is one such scene that I feel deserves some semblance of a life, now that it has been taken from its original home.



Radiation Treatment


“Today they will mark you up,” says the nurse as she has Sue lie down on the table and open her gown. Dr. Larkin comes back in the room with an assistant who holds a measuring tape against Sue’s bare skin. The assistant draws two large overlapping rectangles on Sue’s chest under Larkin’s careful direction. One rectangle is made with black marker, the other in red. She can feel the line go high up onto her neck and wonders how she will cover it up. A scarf perhaps, though she rarely wears them.

“Don’t let it wash off,” Larkin warns as she gets up off the table. “They need to stay for a month until the treatments are completed.” Marvelous, Sue thinks, a month of washing my hair in the sink.

On the way home, Sue spontaneously gets off the subway at Canal Street. She’s been wanting a little Rollei camera for some time—and there’s no rush to get home. On the subway she was reading a book written by a cancer survivor, her picture on the cover made her look healthy and vibrant, her brown hair lively and full against the bright blue backdrop. The writer advised living in the present, being grateful for each day and enjoying every minute. Sue agrees. Not always easy to do but it was enough to inspire her off the train.

Camera Barn is loud and full of men in black coats even though it’s hot inside. Finally, after several minutes standing at the glass counter trying to get someone’s attention, a man with a long grey beard nods at her. She asks to see the Rollei and he brings over two used cameras in good condition. Sue chooses the cheaper one, playing with the functions on it to be sure it’s working well. She likes the way the lens pushes back inside the body so that the whole thing fits neatly into a leather case no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

Outside she bounces down the crowded hot street as if it were a beautiful spring day. Her treatment is finally under way, her body feels healthy and she’s got a great little camera to try. As she descends back down into the subway headed for Brooklyn, she makes a promise to herself to continue with her photography, for as long as she can.

A week later she goes back to the hospital for her first treatment. When she arrives back home late in the afternoon, no one is there. Sue moves around the apartment, the doors echoing against the silence when she moves from one room to the next. She considers calling Seth at the office, perhaps catching him before he leaves to tell him how she panicked during the radiation but thinks better of it. Opportunities to be alone are rare and she wants to enjoy her time. She prepares a simple dinner of leftovers and with the earlier promise in mind, sets up the darkroom.

She opens a cabinet and takes out chemicals and trays, clearing space for them in the utility room that doubles as a laundry and storage area. She has to put away a pile of Kate’s clothes before she can pull out the enlarger. She opens her binder of negatives and looks over the contact sheets with the magnifier. There are pictures of Annie, taken at the beach, a portrait of Shep she’d made him pose for, and some fairly abstract images of stones and seaweed. Her eye is drawn to a crab she had photographed in the sand. The claws sharply focused and the body a blur.

When all the chemicals are poured into the trays and the sink is set up for rinsing and the drying rack is plugged in she turns out the lights. The black reminds her of the void she experienced under the radiation machine. What is she really afraid of? Death has never scared her before but on the table the fear was terrible. She turns on the enlarger to set up the easel where the paper will go, the square of white like the irradiated rectangles on her chest. She stares down at the light considering how it oxidizes silver into grays and blacks to make a satisfying image, marveling at the power of it to change things. She carefully places the negative into the metal holder, lifts the lever that opens the enlarger and slips the plate in. When she closes it the room darkens enough for an image, upside down and backwards, the whites black and the blacks white to appear.

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