Stephanie Knipper


The lump was small; so small, that at first, Livie didn’t notice it. Her husband, David, running his fingers in slow swirls across her breasts found it. They were in bed on a Saturday afternoon like decadent teenagers, even though bills were waiting, and a week’s worth of dishes sat in the sink.

“Sixteen years,” he said as he blew soft kisses against her neck. “I can’t believe it’s been this long.” His voice was like a feather, tickling her ear.

“Why? Didn’t you think we’d last?” she said with a smile. Her neck still tingled from his lips, and she closed her eyes to keep the feeling close.

“Well,” he said, sliding his hands from her breasts to her shoulders and back, “I knew I’d be here, but a young hottie like you? I wasn’t so sure.”

She looked up and found her reflection in his eyes. “Where else would I go?”

He leaned in to kiss her then froze, the heat draining from his eyes. “What’s this?” he said.

It took a moment for her to realize that he had stopped. Blood still hammered in her ears, and she shook her head to clear it. “What?” she said and looked down at his fingertips pressing into her soft flesh.

“This.” He took her hand and placed it on the left side of her breast where it joined her body.

She pressed hard, circled her fingers, and pressed again. “I don’t feel anything…” And she didn’t, until he placed his hand on top of hers, pushed, and it sprang up against the pads of her fingers like a tiny piece of gravel.

“Oh,” she said, craning her head and trying to flatten her breast. “I don’t know. I’ve never noticed it before.” From that angle she couldn’t see anything, but it was there, a small hard lump beneath her fingertips that made her breath catch in her throat.

She slid off the bed, leaving her clothes puddled on the floor, and walked into the bathroom where a mirror over the sink stretched the length of the room. She didn’t feel different. Was it possible her body had changed without her knowledge? She leaned over the sink and squinted into the mirror, but her reflection looked the same as it always did — soft around the middle, like every other forty-two-year-old woman she knew, a few wiry strands of grey in hair that used to be chestnut brown, and breasts that didn’t sag enough yet to be an embarrassment. Nothing to mark this moment as different from all the rest.

Turning sideways, she pulled her skin taut and searched the mirror for a sign that something was wrong. Surely she would be able to see a change?

David appeared in the reflection behind her, his pants slung low on his hips. Tiny worry lines crinkled his forehead but when he caught her looking at him, he smoothed them away. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said as he swept her hair over her shoulder and bent to kiss her neck. Her heart skipped a staccato beat against her ribcage, and she wasn’t sure if it was from passion or fear.

Cold air from the vent above the exam table fell on her shoulders, biting through the thin paper gown she wore. Goose flesh pimpled her skin, and she folded her arms over her chest, trying to keep warm. David sat in the visitor’s chair, staring at a magazine in his lap. Fifteen minutes had passed, and he had yet to turn a page. A silver mirror hung on the door directly across from her, but she averted her eyes. This was not a moment she needed to see to remember.

Through the thin walls, she heard the surgeon talking with a woman in the next room about her gallbladder. “No big deal,” he said. “Four small incisions and you’ll be home the same day.”

Livie didn’t know where her gallbladder was, but she was sure it was a big deal to the woman next door. She hugged herself harder.

“Cold?” David asked.

She nodded and rocked back and forth on the exam table. David grabbed his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders, but she shrugged it off. “I’ll just have to take it off when the doctor gets here.”

At a sharp knock on the door, they startled apart. The door opened and a man -- a boy really -- came in. He plopped down on the doctor’s stool and leafed through her file without looking up.

Livie stared while this stranger paged through notes from her gynecologist and radiologist, reading words that could change her life.

Finally, he snapped the file shut and looked up. “So. We’ve got a lump,” he said.

She wanted to say there was no “we” about it, but her throat squeezed shut, and all she could do was nod. Yes, we did have a lump.

He stood up and crossed to the exam table, displacing David by her side. Then he opened her gown and touched a spot on her left breast about an inch away from her arm. “What we’ll do is numb this area and draw out a sample with a needle. We’ll send it off for a biopsy, but I don’t expect to find anything. I’m ninety-nine percent sure. Still, we want to be safe. Two or three days and we’ll have the results.”

With that, he pulled open the door and left. As the door swung shut, Livie caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked so small sitting on the exam table in her paper gown that she had to turn away from her reflected self.

David cleared his throat and looked at his feet. “You okay?” he asked.

She wasn’t, but said “yes” anyway, watching the woman in the mirror nod and smile as if she was seeing the doctor to clear up a sinus infection.

After she dressed, she stopped shivering, but David wrapped his coat around her shoulders anyway. In the hallway they passed the doctor as they were leaving. He smiled and clasped her shoulder. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Once, as a girl, Livie had stood naked in front of the white framed mirror that hung over her French Provincial bureau, searching her body for the changes her mother promised were coming. She was twelve and the other girls in her class were already wearing bras. Her breasts had just started to form, two plump cushions of flesh, easily mistaken for leftover baby fat. Except that they weren’t. She ran her hands over her beginner breasts and smiled, picturing her future full of boys and kisses.

Later, her mother took her to McAlpin’s where a saleslady helped them pick out two new training bras. Both were flat triangles of stretchy white cotton that said she didn’t really need a bra, but made her feel grown up just the same.

Now her dresser was filled with bras. Stretchy cotton ones, daring lacy ones. Day bras, date bras. A world she had waited forever to enter that she was now being forced out of. A week had passed since the surgeon had called and told her that apparently, you can be ninety-nine percent sure, and still be wrong. She wondered if Victoria’s Secret made a mastectomy bra. One side a flat cotton triangle, the other a lacy C cup.

She jerked a drawer open and dumped the contents on the floor. Soon she was sitting in a mound of undergarments. Her eyes burned as she fingered the silks and satins. She pulled off her shirt and slipped off her bra.

Tomorrow they would take her left breast. It was the smart decision. Everyone said so. Lose the breast, save her life. A tiny piece of skin was a small price to pay. So why did her heart clench every time she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror?

She put her hand over her left breast and pressed it flat. What would she look like when it was gone? In her head was a picture of that twelve-year-old girl with barely new breasts, but she knew she wouldn’t look like that. She had seen the pictures. Where her breast was tonight, tomorrow would be a scar from mid-sternum to the edge of her chest. Not even a nipple would remain to testify of the woman she had been.

She stood up and stared at herself in the mirror, trying to imagine the person she would be in just a few hours. But mirrors only show what is, not what will be. She flattened her breast again and turned sideways. Her skin was warm, almost hot, and she wanted to pull her hand away, but couldn’t. In the mirror was the woman she was leaving behind. Livie stared hard, trying to commit the image to memory so that later, she would remember that she had once been whole.

She wanted to wake David and make love until the touch of his hands eased the fear from her mind. But he talked of silly things now -- the weather, the stock market. And when he looked at her, it was as if he was afraid that by touching her, he would break her.

So she stood alone with only her reflection for company. There was a brush on the dresser, and she picked it up, running it through her hair, watching her breasts sway as she raised her arm and knowing that everything she had believed was an illusion. She was not healthy. She was sick, and if she had only seen it sooner, maybe she could have stopped it.

Rage bubbled in her stomach, making her eyes sting. Without thinking, she whipped her hand back and threw the brush at the mirror. The glass splintered and fell at her feet. Broken, just like she was.

They got it all. That was the first thing the surgeon said when she woke up, and for a moment, she wasn’t sure if he meant the cancer or her breast. “Couldn’t have been simpler,” he said.

Sure, she thought, Lop off my breast. What could be easier? Then he slipped away, only to be seen in morning rounds when he’d wake her at five a.m. and ask how she was feeling. As if she had an answer for that.

Today, the bandages came off. And that was something she could not think about. If she did, all of this—the cancer, the hospital, the boy-surgeon, all of it—would be real.

Last night she and David sat together without speaking until the sun set, and the green glow of the monitors was the only light in the room. She hadn’t told him that the next day the bandages would come off, and she would find out who she had become. Since her diagnosis, he had become as much of a stranger to her as the woman in the mirror. She wasn’t sure which one of them had made it that way; she only knew that his fear was too heavy for her to carry.

As she waited for the doctor, she clicked on the television where Martha Stewart was framing a mirror using broken plates as mosaic tiles. “Just wrap the plate in a soft towel,” Martha said, “and tap it with a hammer.” When she pulled away the towel, the plate was shattered, and Livie wondered if even Martha Stewart could make something out of the ruined pieces.

Martha was positioning the broken pieces around the mirror frame and pressing them into tile grout when the surgeon and a nurse entered.

“Ready for the bandages to come off?” he asked. This time he looked at her, and when he spoke his voice was lower, less confident, as if being wrong had aged him a bit.

She was not ready, so she stared past them and watched as Martha wiped the extra grout away from the tiles.

The doctor took her silence for acquiescence and began pulling at the tape. She winced as he ripped it away from her skin. “Sorry,” he whispered. “It looks good. Everything’s clean. No sign of infection. Just a small line.”

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? That small line.

“Want to see?” the nurse asked.

No, she did not want to see. Mirrors, she knew now, lied. They made you believe you were healthy when you were anything but.

“Come on, honey. You need to look.” The nurse slipped a hand behind her back and eased her up. The scar pulled at her chest and she pressed her morphine button.

Livie wanted to slide back down into bed and tuck the thin blanket under her arms so that she never had to look again. But somehow, she found herself standing up, and letting the nurse lead her into the cramped bathroom where a 1950’s mirror hung over the sink.

The nurse loosed the ties on her gown and fear so sharp it made her lightheaded raced through Livie’s veins. She wanted to gather her gown in her hands and wrap it around her body, but her hands were tangled in the IV so she just stood there, bracing herself against the new woman who would appear in the mirror.

The gown slipped from her shoulders and fell to the floor. “There,” the nurse said. “It’s not so bad.”

But of course it was. She raised her chin and tried not to look down, but the red slash across her chest pulled her eyes like a magnet, filling her vision until she didn’t see the woman in the mirror, she only saw the place where her breast had been.

For weeks David had avoided being in the same room with Livie when she undressed. Now the bedroom door opened as she stood naked in front of the mirror, running her hand over the scar that marked where her breast had been.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, startled and backed out of the room.

“Don’t,” she said, her voice sharp. He stopped, one hand on the doorknob, not letting his gaze drop below her neck.

“You haven’t looked yet,” she said and fear crept into her voice even though she had wanted to sound strong, like a woman who knew it meant more to be alive than to be whole. “Is it that bad?”

He let his eyes slide across her face. “I didn’t think you wanted me to.”

Her throat was tight, and she swallowed, trying to force it open. He was right. She didn’t want him to see. She wanted to hide in her closet forever. Instead, she caught his eyes. “I think you’d better,” she said, pushing the words out.

Afraid to breathe, she stood still as he crossed the room and stopped in front of her. Deliberately, he lowered his eyes and raised his hand to the bright pink scar slashed across her chest. She winced as he drew his hand over it. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s okay. It just hurts a little,” she said, and she wasn’t sure if she meant her body or her heart.

He pulled his hand away and moved to stand behind her so that they were both facing the mirror. Then he bent his head to kiss her neck. “It’s nothing,” he said.

Stephanie Knipper lives in Northern Kentucky with her husband and four children. She is at work on her Master’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including: Byline, Literary Mama, Echo Ink Review, and New Plains Review. Her short story, “Modeling Life,” recently won the Echo Ink Review Writing and Editing award. When she finds the time, she blogs at: