Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
My sister Betty and I are in the HOV lane cruising east on the LIE toward her house in Suffolk County. She is in the front seat next to me in the The Silver Fox, my Subaru Forester, wrapped in a light blanket against the still cool April air. Bets is my older sister, ten years older than I am.
When we were growing up, she knew everything about me. In our grandmother’s Brooklyn three family house Bets and I lived downstairs with our parents and grandmother, and my mother’s two sisters and their families were in the smaller upstairs apartments. The family was close, if not always peaceful, and the house was always filled with drama, feuding sisters, loud card playing uncles and arguing cousins passing through. There were no secrets in those close quarters. Everyone knew everybody’s business and if someone upstairs farted, someone downstairs said, “Excuse me!”
When Bets started junior high we even had to share a room. Our parents divided their bigger bedroom in half for us and moved into the smaller one. Bets was more like another mother than a sister then. She caught me doing things my real mother, my grandmother and my aunts didn’t. When I was six, Bets caught me in the hall closet under the stairway comparing body parts with Susie Solomon, the girl from up the block. She sent Susie home and me to my half of our bedroom, but she never told our mother. When I was eleven Bets married John, her childhood sweetheart from across the street, and they moved into an apartment just three blocks away. Shortly after that my parents promptly tore down the partition, moved me out and moved themselves back into their old room.
Over the years the time gap between us narrowed as I started catching up with Bets. There were some who said I overtook her somewhere around fifty. I started jokingly to introduce myself as Bets’s older brother, and there were people didn’t get the joke.
“I think we left the city just in time,” my sister says.
I look through the gritty windshield at the cars that are already crawling in the building rush. By four o’clock they will be at a stand still and the expressway will be locked up tight. “Remember when ‘rush hour’ used to be a couple of actual hours and not the whole day? This HOV lane is the only way to fly, Bets. I think I just may invest in one of those Safety Man dummies and keep him in the car. That way I can live the rest of my life in the HOV lane even when I’m alone.”
About six months ago Betty let her hair go gray and cut it short out of necessity. It looks good on her. “I like your hair that way,” I tell her. “It’s natural and soft. And I love the waves. I hope you aren’t going to color it again.”
“I really haven’t decided.”
In the transition Bets has become a kinder, gentler version of our mother, an unnatural blonde until well into her 90s. She was a woman whose social calendar until she died at 96 consisted of regular beauty parlor appointments and doctor visits.
“Live long enough,” she said, verbalizing my thoughts, “and eventually we become our parents.”
In that respect in the past few years we both have become our mother, taking our turn doing the medical thing. The proof was that we were returning from our different doctors in different offices in different hospitals in Manhattan. Usually we didn’t overlap. She had her appointments and I had mine. But this time we did, so I was able to drop her off and pick her up for the return trip home.
Mine was the third follow up appointment, nine months out from a July surgery at the robotic hands of Dr. Ash, which left me prostateless on Long Island. It also left me with damp underwear, a definite improvement, I suppose, over the adult diapers and feminine sanitary pads I had worn for months, and a small price to pay not to die of cancer!
“These aren’t for me,” I assured the check out girl in Rite-Aid. But she was more interested in the cell phone conversation that was going on in her ear, and she just rang up the sale.
Another post-operative advantage was that without a prostate I no longer peed in stuttering fits and starts. “Now I pee like a race horse,” I announced proudly at my first follow up meeting with Dr. Ash. “Of course, sometimes I start before I am in the gate and continue until the race is over.”
Dr. Ash laughed politely at my comment. When I met him I discovered he was not a robot, and Ash was the shortened form of his unpronounceable first name. After my cancer diagnosis, while I was deciding on a course of action and researching doctors, before I had actually met him, I thought his last name, filled with a bunch of vowels, might be Italian. But one look at Dr. Ash removed all thoughts that our grandparents knew one another in Sicily. Dr. Ash was dark as a nut, a little man who looked like he would be more at home driving a cab in New York City than operating a Da Vinci robotic machine. He had the mandatory mustache that would put him on the “No Fly” list, or at least insure that he’d get to know Homeland Security intimately whenever he flew the friendly skies over the U.S.A. He also had little hands, an asset, I imagine, piloting the Da Vinci into the sides of a cancer-filled prostates.
At my second follow up appointment Dr. Ash asked, “And how is the other thing?” referring to the other minor side effect of prostate surgery, erections, or more specifically, the lack of them.
“Well,” I said, “the little soldier isn’t standing at attention yet, but he is leaning against the wall.” Of course I could have told him that the he had been hugging the wall for years.
“You are a funny man,” he said. “Are you using the pills?”
“Oh, the blue pills. Yes.”
“And do they help?”
“A little,” I said. “But only if I duct tape them onto two tongue depressors on each side of my penis.”
“Ah,” Dr. Ash nodded his head, “then next time instead of seeing me, we make your appointment with Adam, my assistant. That way you can explore other alternatives to duct tape and tongue depressors.”
“It’s amazing how far we have come, Bets.” She is quiet and I think she is napping with her eyes open. “So there I was,” I say, “with my pants and underwear around my ankles and young Adam holding my frightened little wee wee in one blue-gloved hand.”
She laughs. I wonder if she is thinking of that day she caught me and Susie in the closet as I described in detail the trauma of seeing the hypodermic needle drawing closer to Little Joe. “And just before impact he actually said, ‘You’re going to feel a little prick.’ The little prick! And then he told me he would go out for about ten minutes while I tried to stimulate myself. Right there in the office! ‘What,’ I called after him, ‘no mood lighting? No Barry White?’”
“And?” Bets asks.
“So, in about ten minutes I felt the earth move. Well, maybe not the earth, and it wasn’t like the big one that hit Japan, but there was a stirring in my lower regions. Not anything to hang my hat on, but a definite improvement. When Adam came back I had to show him and rate it on a zero to ten scale. I told him I gave it a five because I liked the words, but it was hard to dance to. Since he’s about eleven he never heard of ‘American Bandstand.’ He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. And thought Dick Clark was that old guy with a stroke who tries to count down the New Year every year.” I pause for the dramatic effect. “And how did you spend your day, Bets?”
But I knew. Not to be out done, my sister pre-trumped my puny prostate cancer by a little more than a year when she was diagnosed with cancer in her liver. Cholangioma. How bad could it be? It sounded musical, like a Caribbean dance with those shakey things or that instrument you scrape with a stick, or like an exotic drink made with tequila, Triple Sec and coconut cream. “I’ll take two cholangiomas, one frozen and one on the rocks.”
Actually it was a “little spot,” according to the surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian who removed it with about half of Bets’s liver more than a year ago. He then pronounced her “cancer free,” which she was, for about six months, until her liver grew back. It is an interesting fact that the liver is the only human internal organ that does grow back. And with it, her damned Spot, that very persistent cholangeoma, reappeared. Because of its location so close to the hepatic vein another surgery was out of the question, so Bets found an oncologist who put her through a year of intense chemo alternating with radiation. Five days a week for months the family took turns driving Bets into the city for daily radiation and weekly blasts of chemo. And even after a CAT scan showed Spot was dead, the doctor ordered a second round of chemo stronger than the first, to be sure he just wasn’t playing dead.
“Oh, the usual. Two bags of poison, one bag of flush with nausea and vomiting to follow.” She hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
“Who’d a thought, Bets? How far we’ve come since that day you caught me and Susie Solomon in the closet. Do you remember that?”
She laughs into her hand. “Yes, I do. You were so cute holding your little winky in one hand and a flashlight in the other shining it on Susie Solomon. Well, now you’re out of the closet and telling everybody who’ll listen about your winky.” She laughs again remembering. “The surprised look on your face. And that cute little winky.”
I can feel me face getting red from my sister’s good memory. “Sweet Susie Solomon. Hers was the first vagina I ever saw and that started me down the road to Perdition. I wonder what happened to her.”
Bets is lost in her own memories. “If you think you came a long way, imagine how far I’ve come since my junior high school days.”
As far as I knew Bets had only two men in her life. She married John who lived across the street when he came back from Korea. He was her childhood sweetheart.
That wasn’t so unusual where we grew up. The young people in the neighborhood didn’t travel very far for romance and they tended to date and marry one another. There were many couples on the Brooklyn block, many marriages, some that even lasted. Cousin Maryanne married Pat from across the street, cousin Joann married Tommy from 56th Street, John’s sister Chickie married Frank who lived in the same two family house, Nancy married Donald, John’s brother, and I married Jenny, my first wife, the girl next door. Then after John, Bets met Nels, the quiet Norwegian, at the Arthur Murray Studios the night she went there with people from her bereavement group. Nels, a widower, had just dropped in on a whim. He became the second great love of my sister’s life until his death from an unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both of Bets’s men were gone, but not the way my two wives were gone. Hers died; mine left me for dead after two costly divorces. And in my book that made her the winner.
“We sure have come a long way,” Bets says again. “I remember when I thought masturbation was the worst sin in the world.”
I snort and grab the steering wheel. “I didn’t think my old sister even knew that word. Do you really want to go there, Bets?”
“You’d be surprised what your ‘old sister knows. And besides, I just listened to you go on and on about your penis the whole ride. Now it’s your turn to listen.”
We both laugh.
There we were, bruised and battered, still alive in the HOV lane of the LIE, both of us much too old even to be thinking about erection injections or masturbating. But we were thinking about it, and we were talking about it too. The best thing about Bets and me is that we could talk about anything.
That is what I am thinking, what I say is, “Bets, remember that time that you cleaned out my toy closet and threw everything away?”
“I sure do. You were so mad at me.”
“Well, Bets,” I turn to look at her wrapped in her blanket, “I just want you to know that I finally forgive you for throwing out all my Brooklyn Dodger baseball cards.”
Brooklyn born and raised, Joseph E. Scalia taught English and Creative Writing to reluctant junior and senior high school kids on Long Island for 33 years. He started his “real life” as a writer in 1997. He began writing as a child in elementary school, what he calls “terrible rhyming poems” on bathroom walls. Over the years he made the move to paper and has written and published five books, including a young adult novel, FREAKs, Pearl, a novel inspired by his years of teaching Steinbeck, No Strings Attached, an eclectic collection of his short stories, Brooklyn Family Scenes, a collection of family inspired stories and poems, and Scalia vs. The Universe Or: My Life And Hard Times, a collection of humor.Presently he 1s looking for a publisher for his collected poems, Poetry In Alphabetical Order. In addition to writing he also paints watercolors.
© 2011 Joseph E. Scalia