On Tuesday evenings, Ryan and I go downtown to a bar to play poker for points. I figure this is a good way for me to gain valuable poker experience and avoid the need to take out a second mortgage. I understand the rules of the game. I know what hand beats what. I can even figure out how many outs I might have, although I don't bother figuring out the odds. Math was never really my thing. (I always say that, and while it is true that language has always come more easily to me than the sciences, I was never terrible at math. A bit of trouble learning to tell time, and word problems continue to boggle my brain, but I always got As. Today, I can count out change and figure out how much to tip at a restaurant. This is pretty much all the math I currently need.)
Anyway, I can outlast some of the more erratic players just by playing conservatively, but what I suck at is reading people. I have no idea if you raised with a suited 6-7 or pocket aces. I can't tell if you've hit your flush. Ryan is a lawyer. He is good at reading people. Last week he won a tournament of 40+ people. I didn't even place (although I wasn't out first.)
I did, however, knock an entire pint-sized glass of iced tea into my lap. I took a sip, placed the glass in the black plastic cutout designed for that purpose, but missed the edge and ended up wearing it. It was distracting, because I yelped and stood up, and because I was wearing a white t-shirt that also got wet. Luckily, I was also wearing a sweater. I zipped that sucker up posthaste after one of the fellows hollered, "Wet t-shirt contest!". Being one of the few attractive girls in this particular league garners me some attention but so far it hasn't seemed to help my game. Ah well. The regulars get irritated at such mishaps because time is ticking and those blinds will go up at any minute. No money is at stake, but it is serious business nonetheless.
A few hands later, the frightfully irritating older gentleman to my left dropped the entire deck onto the floor. Regular eyeballs rolled. We picked them up, counted them, and came up one card short. We scoured the floor anew, and I discovered a card stuck to the bottom of my boot, suctioned there by spilled iced tea. It turned out to be an ace. Regular heads shook in disgust. Yes, this is my diabolical scheme: to soak my jeans in sticky liquid and afix aces to the bottom of my shoe in order to cheat. I am a villain.
A few hands after that, during my deal and after the first round of betting, the deck slipped from my fingers and spilled onto the table. Re-deal. Time wasted. More rolling eyeballs. It was not my night. Short-stacked, I went all-in with suited ace-queen and lost when my opponent hit his jack.
Having joined my fellow losers as spectators at Ryan's table, I shared my woes. "Tonight was not my night," I tell Ryan, and the heavy-set woman sitting to his right responds, "Hey, if the worst that happens to you is you spill your drink, you're doing alright." This blonde woman in her pink tracksuit shows me a cell phone photo of her daughter. "This is my daughter," she tells me proudly. The photo is of a grown woman, blonde, not particularly pretty. I don't know what to say so I say, "She looks like you." "You think so?", clearly pleased. When pink tracksuit shows the snapshot to Ryan, he concurs.
Later, sitting across from pink tracksuit, eating my plate of half-priced nachos while Ryan continues his comeback, she tells me that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. Both breasts. I can't imagine telling such a thing to a stranger. We hadn't even established the rapport that comes from playing against someone, as we had been seated at different tables. "I almost told the doctor just chop 'em both off," she tells me, but since the cancer had also spread to the surrounding tissue, this treatment would likely have been ineffective, so she was going the chemo/radiation route.
I became aware of the power of the boob in grade eleven, when mine suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, as my mother has never needed to wear a bra. Whether my own C cups were urged forth by the synthetic estrogen/progesterone pills or my paternal genes finally kicking in, I'll never know, but I have grown to count on them. It took a few years before I became entirely comfortable with them, though. Breasts, any breasts, wield an odd power. Endlessly fascinating, endlessly sought after. Male friends have explained how important the female breast is, how 95% of their day is spent hoping to catch a glimpse of even one naked boob. Tits for tits' sake.
Sometimes at night I will cup one breast in my hand in order to fall asleep. This soft pillow that is only mine, comforting in its familiarity, a built-in security blanket. My boobs are an integral part of my physical identity, like my size 8 feet and the dimple in my chin. I don't know what I would do without them.
I don't know if, faced with the horror of disease, I would confide in strangers. But maybe there is relief in the telling. Maybe admitting it out loud, to strangers, makes it real, and therefore beatable. Maybe she has already accepted her death as an inevitability and the fact of her cancer is just small talk, like the score in the hockey game or the way she should have played that last hand. There has been sickness in my family; my mother almost died from a ruptured brain aneurysm and my father is mentally, physically, and spiritually ill. But I don't know how to read this strange, possibly dying, pink tracksuit-wearing woman. I can't tell if she will fight or if she has given up. I don't know if she will live or die. She was right, though: if the worst that happens to me is that I spill my drink and lose a poker game, I'm doing alright.