I enjoy being a girl. No, really. I do. I’m quite sure no one has a more evolved, Zen-like appreciation than I of the gentle waxing and waning of hormonal tide that heralds the monthly Festival of Menses.
Better yet, with each phase of life come new rites in observance of womanhood. For several years now, I have been celebrating with an annual mammogram — a ritual that is starting to feel like Christmas. Not as in, “Oh, boy! Santa’s comin!” but rather, “Don’t tell me it’s time to drag out those tired decorations again.”
The appointment also has its “Groundhog Day” aspects. I always go to the same imaging center. I always park in the same place. I always go in the wrong door. And, always, the same song is playing: “I Just Wanna Stop” by Gino Vannelli.
In the waiting room. In the changing room. In the exam room.
I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I just know that whenever I hear that song, no matter where I am, it’s all I can do not to fling a breast onto the nearest chilled metal surface.
The mammogram has become a facet of regular, annual maintenance, much like rotating my tires or meeting with my accountant, although I usually keep my shirt on for those appointments. The first mammogram, however, was a different story…
Gino serenades me in the dusty rose dressing room as I change into my dusty rose exam gown and stuff my belongings into the dusty rose locker.
Just after the first chorus, the ebullient technician, fresh from a stint in an Eastern-European roller-derby league, knocks on my swinging saloon doors which are (say it with me) dusty rose, and puts me at ease with the words, “Bring purse.”
I follow her down the hall into the exam room, which has been thoughtfully climate-controlled for any sled dogs who might be wandering through the building. The technician points for me to put my purse on the floor in the corner, then directs me to the machine. She moves me closer and closer to it. So close that if I get any more intimate with this equipment I will morph into Robocop.
“Remove one arm,” the technician says, standing beside me.
“Well, that sounds painful,” I joke and am rewarded with an unblinking, soul-searing stare. Obviously, she is prepared to wait me out, so I slip my arm out of the gown, exposing half my chest, while the technician soaks her hands in a bucket of ice water. (I may have imagined that last bit.)
“Place breast here,” she says and proceeds to palm my breast onto the machine’s metal plate like a fry-cook dealing patties onto a griddle for lunch rush. I wonder fleetingly if the other technicians also have “love” and “hate” tattooed across their knuckles.
“Closer,” she says, and executes an intriguing tugging motion. “Please closer,” she says again and pulls my breast away from my body, smearing it across the frosty tray. I turn my face sideways and press my chest into the machine as hard as I can, hoping to avoid her putting her foot on my shoulder for more pulling leverage.
“Arm up,” she says. “Don’t move.”
I hear her push a pedal on the floor and a clear plastic plate begins its descent, gathering part of my neck with it and lowering my earlobes by an inch. I watch from the corner of my eye as my breast is caught between the plates, which have stopped moving.
Whew, I think. What’s all the hubbub about a mammogram? This is a piece of cake! Is it time to do the other one yet?
The technician moves away from me and steps behind what I will call the “blast shield.” I strain to see her watching me through the partition as she sips a Big Gulp.
“No breathing,” she mouths at me through the glass. Granted, I can’t see all of her, but I extrapolate that she takes a couple of practice bounces on a mini-tramp and lands on another control pedal with both feet.
Next thing I know, the plates have compressed with a whir, my breast is one millimeter thick, flowing out in all directions like a tablecloth on a cruise-ship buffet.
“I just wanna stop,” Gino croons as the pulling motion yanks my chin down onto my collar bone with a slap. You said a mouthful, G.
Questions appear in my mind as the apparatus against my cheek fires X-rays down through the plastic plate and into my breast, which now bears a striking resemblance to the underside of a stingray. What if the power goes out? What if there’s a fire in the building? I’m going to look pretty silly dragging this machine down Santa Monica Boulevard by my chest.
I glance over to see the technician still watching me through the glass. Expressionless. Eating a churro.
Finally, the machine whirs again and the plates separate, releasing me. My knees unlock, my mouth snaps shut and, like a rusty tape measure, my breast haltingly retracts to its approximate former size and shape.
The technician wipes her mouth on a paper napkin and emerges from behind the blast shield, smoothing her hair back into its bun.
“Switch,” she says and I wonder how much more of her small talk I can stand.
“So, on the way out, do I get to pick a prize from the treasure trunk?”
“Yes.” She deposits my other breast on the metal square.
I look at her, surprised by her reply. “Really?”
“No,” she says. “Not really.”
She stomps on the pedal and I drown out Gino with a crescendo of my own.