An Arbitrary Number: A Short Story By Julie Showalter


Julie’s short story, An Arbitrary Number, is now available and can be read or downloaded below.

Julie Showalter

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

Note: Originally posted June 20, 2006 at, a predecessor of

An Arbitrary Number: PDF Download

Download a PDF version of Julie’s An Arbitrary Number at  An Arbitrary Number-2017 PDF

An Arbitrary Number: Read Manuscript

An Arbitrary Number By Julie Showalter

There’s a moment, an exact moment, during the biopsy when you know it’s bad. The surgeon, the same one who said, “Let’s just watch this,” and “This isn’t anything,” stops joking with the nurse and says, “When did you first notice this?”

You say, “The day I called you the first time.” He says, “Oh,” and the room is quiet.

Two days later you see him in his office and he tells you what you already know. Then he says, “There are options.  Take your time. There’s no rush for a decision.”

You say, “What’s the safest option? What would you do?” Then, “Can you do it this week? Tomorrow?”  because you’re brave and decisive.  That’s the kind of person you are.

The first words you say to your husband are, “I’m sorry,” because that’s also the kind of person you are.

You call your best friend from junior high, the one who helped you pick out your first bra. The two of you get drunk together, her in Texas, you in Chicago, as you talk for two hours.

You call your boss.  He praises your openness.  You assure him this won’t affect your work.

You wait a day or two to call your parents. Your father is a shy man, and in addition to giving him bad news, you are going to have to talk about things that embarrass him. Your mother, when you do call, cries and says she wants to rock you.

In the bathtub, you sit up straight to keep the bandage from the biopsy dry. Underneath the bandage, you feel a burning, as if you are being nibbled away from inside. You look at your right breast, your healthy breast, and wonder what’s ticking away in there. You do a self-exam even though it’s just been examined by experts.

In the library you find a surgery text that says you have a twenty per cent chance of being alive in five years.  You tell yourself it means nothing, that statistics apply to other people.

After the operation, the hospital staff is jovial.  They admire your stamina, your cheerful outlook. The surgeon mentions that if it’s spread beyond the breast, though of course it hasn’t, you’ll need chemotherapy. A nurse trains you to walk your arm up the wall. “Do this several times a day,” she says. “Go as high as you can. Higher. Lift your arm over your head.” Everyone says you’re doing much better than the woman in the next room. She cries all day and won’t try the exercises. “How can she hope to get better? How does she expect us to help her?” They don’t like the woman in the next room.

The back half of your arm is numb. When you tell the surgeon, he says, “Of course it’s numb. What did you expect?”

You have your secretary bring work to the hospital every day and you call your boss to keep in touch. The bank is reorganizing the marketing department and there’s a chance at a promotion, a vice presidency.  You assure him daily that you’re on top of things.

During the operation, they have scooped out your arm pit, collecting lymph nodes for high priests in lab coats to read. It will take five days to sift through this tissue, count nodes, classify them, divine your fate.  During this time you are encouraged to be cheerful and work on your exercises.  You reach higher. When the report comes in, it’s not good.  Stage 3, you are told.  Four bad nodes or more is Stage 3, and you have five. You know about statistics, about arbitrary cut-off points. A student with a 90 doesn’t know much more than one with an 89, but one gets an A and one gets a B. It’s just numbers, someone’s arbitrary choice on where to break the groups.  You belong in the group with three nodes or two nodes, not the group with twenty-four nodes. You choose to consider yourself in Stage 2 where survival rates are higher.

The oncologist who will administer your chemotherapy encourages optimism “As long as it’s confined to the lymphatic system you can be cured,” he says. “Hell, you may already be cured. The surgeon may have already cut every single bad cell out of your body.” In other circumstances, in another life, you would find this tan energetic man attractive.  He gives you his best concerned doctor look. “Think cured,” he says, squeezing your hand. Then he picks up the phone by your bed without asking.  “We’ll start treatments in a week,” he says, punching in a number.  “Any questions?”  Before you can answer, his call is picked up and he is dictating your status to the hospital transcription service.

More pathology results. “There’s good news,” the oncologist says. “You’re estrogen positive. There’s extra treatment for that, new treatment.  It’s good, very good.”  But it’s bad too. The treatment will, in effect, sterilize you. You thought there would be time for children, maybe after this promotion.

You go back to work sooner than you should, planning to sneak in quietly, sit at your desk until noon and then go home; but your secretary has told people you are coming and there are balloons and a cake and a sign on your office door. It is your thirty-fifth birthday. People from all over your department come to sing to you and eat cake.  They look at their cake and move crumbs around with their plastic forks while they talk to you.

The woman you have to beat for the promotion drops by your office to tell you she’s had a big scare too. Her pap test had to be repeated, and for a week she didn’t know the outcome. You do not say that not knowing is not so bad. She tells you about an article she’s read.  “Letting sunlight directly into your eyes can prevent, you know, prevent disease.”

“It’s ok,” you tell her. “You can say cancer.” You stare her down. You’re tougher than she is. You can call a spade a spade.

The woman who will probably get your current job if you are promoted invites you to lunch and confides that she has fibroid tumors in her breasts, but those never go bad. You smile and say, “I’m sure you’re right.”  You smile and do not say, “Nobody’s safe.”

Your boss tells you to take it easy. He gives you an article about the curative properties of broccoli.

Six weeks after the operation, the surgeon sends you to a department store to buy a prosthesis. You go to the lingerie department and walk past displays of silk teddies and push-up bras.  In the dressing room, the clerk refuses to fit you unless you let her see your wound. “Women get these too soon and they get infections. Then they blame us,” she says. You show her your prescription, proof that your doctor thinks you’re ready, but she is adamant.  You think about walking out, but you’d just have to come back next week. So you show her what  you will never show to your mother or your sister, what you look at yourself only because you are brave, what you force yourself not to hide from your husband.  The surgical site, the bomb site, the place which now has no name. You show it to this woman who pokes it to see if you wince, who examines it under a bright light, this officious woman whose half-day’s training on mastectomy products has given her the right to look at you.

You fix your eyes on a mole on her forehead.  This will not make you cry.

She brings in boxes of pink rubber gel-filled breasts. Like Barbie’s, they are perfectly shaped and have no nipples. You wonder if black women get these astonishingly pink Barbie breasts, but the clerk is black so you don’t ask. You are a small woman, and she has to keep going back for smaller breasts, until she finally brings one that matches. It is marked “Size 00.”  A double zero, smaller than zero, less than nothing, the official measurement of your loss. Just a number, you tell yourself, just an arbitrary number.

The flat back of the prosthesis sticks to your chest when you sweat, and you develop a rash. When you exercise at home, the thing falls out and plops on the floor like a jellyfish. For the first time since you were eleven, you study other women’s breasts, how they move, how they bounce, how they hang. You become adept at guessing who’s wearing a bra and who isn’t. You notice nipples. You see women who are absolutely flat chested. They don’t look bad to you. Your right breast is ticking. You examine it every day. You could have it cut off too. Then you would be safer. And balanced.

Organizations call to ask if you’d like to be in their support group, and flyers for mastectomy fashion shows come in the mail. You decline. “Those groups are for people who have cancer,” you tell your friends.  “I had it.  There’s a difference.”

An article in the paper says that researchers have found attitude to be a good predictor of survival. You try to be more decisive, more positive, braver, nicer. Perhaps you will volunteer to visit women who’ve just had surgery to show them how it’s done.

You vow never to say “chemo” when you mean “chemotherapy.” You will also never say “the big C,” or “C-A.” You are not on a first name basis with this disease, you will not make friends with it, you will not give it nicknames.

You obsess about your arm. It’s your writing arm, your tennis arm, your throwing arm, and it will never be right. It wakes you with pinpricks. If you use it too much, it swells all the way down to your fingers.  “They didn’t tell me,” you say to your husband.  “Someone should have told me.”

“Would it have made a difference? Would you have refused the surgery?” He is rational and concerned, putting down his newspaper to show he takes this conversation seriously. “They were saving your life.  Your arm wasn’t the first thing on their mind.”

He doesn’t understand. No one understands. Your arm doesn’t work and they expect you to be grateful. You weren’t angry about the disease or losing your breast or the chemotherapy, but you’re angry about this.  “They should have told me,” you say.  “I should have been warned.”

At the oncologist’s office you avoid talking to people. You don’t sit close to women with mismatched lumps on their chests, with caved-in shoulders. You especially avoid women close to your age. When you do hear women talking about recurrence and metastasis, you listen only until you can find a way you are different from them.

One day the doctor brings his eight-year old son into the treatment room, a visitor learning what his father does all day. You feel honored that he’s chosen you to demonstrate. You must be  his favorite patient. By now your veins are scarred from chemotherapy. On the first stick, he misses. And the second.  “Sometimes veins roll and you just can’t get in,” he tells you, but you’ve known that for several months now. The third needle gets in, but the vein blows up like a tiny blue balloon. He starts to sweat.  You want to cry, but you don’t want to frighten the boy.  On the fifth stick he hits a vein and allows himself a celebratory “Yesss!”  He turns to his son, “See, Michael,” he says, “see how upset Daddy gets when he has to hurt somebody.”

You find out that you have cancer after all, have not had, will have cancer until it kills you, unless something else kills you first. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s just the end of the tunnel.

It’s in your bones, they say. You can feel it in your bones. Of his bones are coral made. . . . Heaven take my soul and England keep my bones. . . .  I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.

Now it’s Stage 4.  It’s no longer just a number.  There is no Stage 5.

You go on medical leave from work.  Three weeks later your rival is promoted.

For a while you are not brave, you do not have a good attitude.  Your husband needs to leave for five days on business. “Go,” you say, “I’ll be fine.” Then you call him in the middle of the night and cry until he flies home to hold you. Months later, when you’re feeling better, when you’ve gotten used to the idea, because you do get used to the idea – yes, even this you get used to – you try not to think of that night and the fear.

You try meditation. You try prayer. You try visualizing your heroic white cells gobbling up the bad guy cells. You go to bed every night with a gentle voice droning  through your headphones, “You are happy. You are loved. You are healthy.” Affirmations. You join a church. You join a support group.

You write a letter to your husband, “To be opened at my death.” That’s the word. Death. You can call a spade a spade. The letter tells him what to do with your jewelry, how much you love him, who to call if the air conditioner breaks, where the extra key is hidden.

In the support group, people say you are brave. And wise. You’ve never been called wise before and you wonder if it’s true. True or not, you feel wisdom added to the bricks of bravery, decisiveness, and niceness piled on your chest. If you can support all the bricks, you’ll win.

“I will be brave,” you chant during your meditation, “I will be happy. I will be wise.” The leader corrects you, “Say, ‘I am these things.’“

“I am brave.  I am happy.  I am wise.”

Linda (colo-rectal), the woman you admire most in the group, the one everyone agrees has the very best attitude, dies. At the funeral, people ask how you knew the deceased. You consider lying or evading the question, but decide to tell the truth. Such a faux pas! Such an indiscretion! You’ve embarrassed everyone!  A hospice worker gives you her card.

The group agrees that Linda would have died much sooner if it weren’t for her positive attitude. The group agrees that they were right not to acknowledge that she was dying. The group agrees that with the right attitude you can beat this thing.  The group chants affirmations.

Wanda (liver) begins to plan her own funeral.  “No open casket for me,” she says.  “I’m too vain.”

When she dies, her mother greets mourners, saying, “Look at her. Doesn’t she look sweet? She’s at rest now.  Isn’t she beautiful?”

You add to the letter:  “The following people will be allowed to see my dead body. . . .”

Peggy (breast) dies. She is the first person you’ve known to die of breast cancer. The next day you wake up with a headache so intense that you can’t move. The doctor whispers to your husband about possible brain lesions, possible stroke. You hear the him getting approval for an emergency CT scan.  “Our hospital?” he says. “No.  The closest.  We can’t waste twenty minutes.”

Through the pain, you think, “So this is it.” It isn’t the way they told you it would happen, but it’s the way it’s happening. You’ve never seen your husband so pale. You try to smile and squeeze his hand. The pain is so bad that nothing else matters. They think you’re brave, but you just hurt.

The next day the doctor tells you, “It was tension. Try to relax. A positive attitude is very important.”

You quit the support group.

You plant a garden.

You don’t miss your job as much as you thought you would.

Your tests begin to look better. No cure, of course, never a cure, don’t think cure, no cure possible, no cure for you. Don’t even say “remission.”  But stay positive. Your doctor says “partial remission” and you seize on that.  You feel good.  You’re off the morphine.  It could go on like this a while.

You begin to plan ahead.  For next week.  Next month.

In your gardening catalog, you read: “Asparagus takes a while, but it’s worth the wait. In two years you will be able to pick almost daily servings of fresh, delicious asparagus from your garden.” Two years is not too much to hope for.

You order a dozen plants.



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