The white nurse lifted and scooped her left breast onto the cold metal contraption. As instructed, Kareema took deep breaths as the film plate tightened and flattened it. Her breast felt detached from her body, like a slab of fat that could be easily excised and forgotten. And the truth was Kareema would probably not miss either of her breasts, untouched by another human being until this day of her mammogram when the nurse gathered each one without blinking. Kareema was forty-one years old.
“You’re doing great, hon,” the nurse said. “Deep breaths. Just a few more seconds.”
Kareema concentrated on a wall with an Anne Geddes photograph of a baby dressed as a yellow tulip, posing in a flowerpot. Kareema’s pink paper gown, open in the front and pulled off one shoulder for the imaging, rustled as she worked hard to sit still. Muffled voices came through the sponge-painted walls on either side of the small room. Kareema sat stiffly on a stool that faced the machine. It took up most of the space. She had imagined the experience would be far more painful, her breasts unnaturally compressed like a hand jammed in a door. But it was the tingling in her nipples that was most uncomfortable as the nurse positioned each breast with latexed fingers, touching the middle of Kareema’s back to straighten her up.
Hayat Abbas, a friend of her sister’s, had been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t breast cancer, but a rare malignancy that corroded the stomach lining. Still, it frightened Kareema. She Googled it and discovered that Hayat’s prognosis was bleak. Kareema next searched for a gynecologist not too far from her home and this time she hadn’t made the mistake of telling her mother.
When she was thirty-five, Kareema broached the subject of getting a pap smear.
“These for the sex disease,” her mother had declared in English. “What you want with women doctor if you still virgin? Kamaki binit.” She’d waved a carving knife at Kareema, the slimy entrails of yellow squash heaped in a bowl on the kitchen table where her mother was seated.
“I fucked someone—now can I get a pap smear?” she’d wanted to shout at her mother. But that would have been a painful lie.
Kareema closed her eyes and breathed deeply as the nurse coached her. She’d never had to see a doctor though she suffered from awful, interminable canker sores for which her dentist could only prescribe a salt-water rinse and a reduction in acidic foods.
“Or it could be stress,” the dentist said, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
She thought of her mother then gargled and spat into his suction cup.
Kareema was an otherwise healthy woman. She had a firm body, though her brown eyes were set a tad too close. To some it was disarming—an earnest and pleading gaze. It kept men from engaging her gaze, as though her entire face was inside out and they were being polite by looking away when they spoke to her. The only man who locked his eyes on hers was a Somali who delivered beer to the store. She wondered if he fantasized about her breasts.
“Terrific job, hon,” the nurse said as she raised the contraption. The skin of Kareema’s armpit slackened. “So you’ll receive the results by mail. If there’s a note about dense tissue, don’t be alarmed. That’s common, hon, but we might have you come in for a second exam.”
“When will the letter come?” Kareema didn’t want her mother to intercept it while she was at work at her family’s convenient store.
She imagined her mother thrusting the torn-open lab results in Kareema’s face. “Breast cancer doesn’t run in our family! Allah only knows what’s on your father’s side, but there’s no cancer!”
Kareema’s father had died of an aneurysm two years ago and her mother had spent most of the azza telling the mourners who came to pay their respects that she’d never heard of such a thing. “It doesn’t run on my side of the family, by Allah’s good grace. I had no idea Tarek was at risk.” Her mother said it like it was a betrayal of some kind, as though Kareema’s father had been duplicitous during their forty-five year marriage. Her mother was wholly unconvinced that such cases could not be predicted and most causes were unknown.
“Who ever heard of such a thing?” her mother had insisted.
Kareema had wanted to slap her in front of all their relatives and friends who’d filed into the funeral home that catered to muslimeen for the wake. Her father lay reposed in a closed casket. He’d died only twelve hours before, prostrating on his prayer rug. Her mother had found him slumped on the floor. Then it was morning, and her uncles washed her father’s body and shrouded him in white. And now the imam from the Bridgeview mosque was telling them to control their tears.
“For the blessed Qur’an tells us, ‘your worldly possessions and your children are but a test, and that it is with God with Whom lies your highest reward’.”
“Ameen,” the mourners replied, sniffling into balled up tissue. Her mother had sucked her teeth, nodding.
The nurse rolled backwards on her examining chair to consult a calendar on her desk. “Let’s see. If today’s Tuesday and we’re looking at fourteen days for lab results, that’ll put us on or after March twenty-first.”
“Okay,” Kareema said. “I’ll look for it in a few weeks.” She held the flaps of her paper gown closed between her breasts. “Thank you.”
“It’s my job, hon,” the nurse said. “You’re my fifth one today.” She winked at Kareema before rolling away to record something on a chart.
As she gathered her clothes, Kareema caught her reflection in the glass frame of the Anne Geddes photograph. She turned and watched her body morph into the flowerpot. The tulip baby appeared cradled inside her naked stomach.
Sahar Mustafah is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, an inheritance she explores in her fiction. Her short story collection is the 2016 Willow Books Grand Prize, forthcoming this year. She lives and teaches in Illinois and is a proud co-founder and editor of Bird’s Thumb, an online literary journal whose voices humble and inspire her. You can visit her at www.saharmustafah.com