Published September 2010
Not long ago, I was driving down PCH as the sun was rising, a glimpse of God I don’t often see, but I recommend it. I turned right, toward the clinic, parked, went up the stairs, and into the waiting room. Even this early I was late.
Seven of my compadres were already there, sitting against four walls, facing one other. None of us was in a hurry to be called in, but all of us wanted this over now. We had gathered to spend the day having a doctor slice moles off our bodies. We had skin cancer, and we were about find out how bad it was, and if it could be cut out today. This wasn’t a room where
good news was guaranteed.
How’d we get here? Here’s a hint: All of us are tan.
Today’s drill: Be called to the cutting room, where the doc slices a microscopically thin layer off the offending mole, go back and wait while a medical tech dyes the slice and the doc examines it through a microscope. What kind of cancer is it? Get it all? Half an hour later you are called back in, usually for another slice, because going deeper is necessary. Repeat, until they get it all out. If that proves impossible—well, we’re not thinking about that now.
We are quiet, pick up magazines, and start to skim, avoiding eye contact. We are subdued, staying within ourselves—we have plenty to think about. Then this odd thing happens. We start to talk. We all have cancer. And everyone has a story.
A big guy in his 80s, and proud of it, starts us off. He’s in great shape, fine head of white hair, rugged-handsome, all full of himself. The wife—a lovely with matching hair—comes and goes to do errands while he gets worked on. The guy is a former cop.
He also has a big bandage on the left side of his head. A sweet teenage girl in a red dress asks a question: “What happened to your ear?”
“They took it off, kid.”
His story: He loved being a cop, but when he retired with a nice pension and the kids long gone, he and the wife wanted some adventure. So they flew to Germany, bought a VW convertible, and spent nine years on the road, driving with the top down through Europe and Africa, winding up in Cape Town, at the bottom of the continent. Along the way he picked up some skin cancer on his left ear, a bad kind, so off came the ear years ago in Sicily.
He is smiling at the girl who asked the question, and reaching for the bandage. “Want to see a man with no ear?”
“Hell no,” his wife shouts.
Happy couple. May they live to tell many more stories. They look hilarious and fun, especially the wife. At 80, she’s hot.
Hotter still, and in a league of her own, is a stunning mom sitting across from No Ear Guy. She’s a dish.
She loved the ’80s, is somewhere in her 50s, loves Rod Stewart. “A typical case of arrested development, music-wise,” she says. She’s funny, shapely, good with words, big blue eyes with dark brown, almost black hair. She’s hard to miss.
Rod Stewart Mom may be in some trouble. Her skin cancer could be serious. It was found first on her neck, and apparently has been traveling south, toward her chest. Not good. As the day plays out, she’s taking many trips to the cutting room. Each time she comes back she looks more nervous. The cancer, she reports, is worse than the doctor thought. She’s game, but getting worried.
All the more reason to talk.
How did the rest of us end up in this room? Most of us are locals, and we leisurely recall our misspent youths in the sunshine of Orange County—picnics on the beach at Big Corona, inexpert but enthusiastic volleyball in Laguna, surfing, lots of hanging out.
A lanky guy in his 50s, sporting the cleanest, oldest Hawaiian shirt ever, starts talking about Huntington Beach when he was young, the longboards, and the sun, always the sun. Maybe a little sunburn resulted, but that’s what guys did—you got tan, you got girls, a simple enough equation. No tan, no girls.
“What we did for you girls,” he says, laughing.
Rod Stewart Mom isn’t buying it.
“Oh, get out. Girls had it worse.” She looks to her fellow females for support. They roll their eyes in agreement. R.S. Mom says: “God. Remember what we did? We didn’t just walk out on the beach, lie down, and get tan.”
“No, that wasn’t enough.” This is coming from a pale woman with streaks of gray in her hair. Her hand’s being cut on today. Shy, she hasn’t said a word so far. Now she unloads. “It wasn’t enough that we crammed into the smallest bathing suits our mothers would allow. Oh no. We had to baste ourselves with baby oil, so the sun could really, really focus on burning our bodies.”
VW Convertible Mama chimes in: “Worse! Baby oil with iodine in it.”
R.S. Mom: “And one summer, olive oil!”
Raucous laughter among the women. We guys, as usual, were clueless. Iodine? Olive oil? What?
The doctor sticks his head out. He looks perplexed. Laughter in this waiting room? “Well. Good to see we’re all having a good time.” Not sure how to react, he departs quickly.
It’s a long day. During a lull in the conversation we all stare up at the big television on the far wall. The plasma screen plays videos of calming, life-affirming nature shows, with peaceful background music and cute animals. Nice idea.
The most articulate among us is a retired diplomat, conservative politically, good-looking in a retired diplomat sort of way. Talk turns to health care here versus other countries we have visited, and at the end of the discussion, our diplomat wraps it up: “Look at this. All of us from Orange County, some of us Democrats, some of us seriously conservative Republicans, and you know what unites us? We all want universal health care.”
VW Convertible Mama responds: “It’s a side effect of cancer, wanting universal health care.”
Our sweet teen in the red dress turns out not to be here for skin cancer, but is waiting to see a nurse about some complexion issues. Speaking of her complexion—she has grown more and more pale as we elders have told our stories, and flees into the nurse’s room when she is called, and exits directly to the door when she returns. Everything about her says: Let. Me. Out. Of. Here.
Can’t blame her. Know the feeling.
I’m OK, as it turns out. It took all day, but happy news for me—it’s not a bad kind of skin cancer, and they dug it all out. They think. We’ll see.
I’m out by 6:30, sun’s starting down, Rod Stewart Mom is still being worked on. Her convertible is next to my car in the patients’ parking lot—we’re the last two customers.
I give her car a pat on the backside, for luck, for her, for me, for our room.
Ben Peters is an Orange Coast contributing writer.
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Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell