Sustainability | Stephanie Laterza

Some might credit Eugenie for the discovery of the lump in my breast. That Friday morning last November, we had just put our sons on the bus to their German immersion school in Brooklyn, after which point I walked with her halfway to the train on her way to work in Manhattan and my way back home to write. That was before my poetry chapbook was accepted for publication by a reputable press and I would someday find an adjunct English professor job to set me on the academic path I’d been craving. I would turn 39 the following month, in December, and though she never admitted it, Eugenie was in her mid-forties. She grew up in a “provincial” village outside of what was East Berlin, was married to a Jamaican-American travel agent who ran his business from home, and worked as a TV producer for some undisclosed network. She was tall, with long, wheat blond hair, and always marched with her hands crammed into the pockets of her fitted gray herringbone coat, though like my husband, Franz, she rarely wore a hat. That morning, her ears burned red and the white breath clouds spewed from her mouth as she rattled off the list of activities her two sons would be engaging in over the weekend: play dates, birthday parties, and soccer. I always found Eugenie catty for a German, especially an East German. Before I could respond with my weekend plans, Eugenie said she was going for her “yearly” that morning before work. It occurred to me that I hadn’t gone for a gyn visit in over a year. I’d been so distraught about my grant application to the Council for Sustainability in Arts in Seattle recently being rejected that I’d forgotten about my health. Pero no se preocupe, I could hear Mami saying. Don’t worry.

The following Thursday, I lay on my back in the midtown office of a gynecologist who’d gotten rave Yelp reviews but whose guffaws at my few questions and comments irked me. It was worse when she segued from asking about my son’s school to,“Hey, what’s this?” Like I had any idea about the walnut-sized mass in my right breast, the larger one that made finding the right-fitting bra impossible after I’d given birth and breastfed six years earlier. I also told her how “fleshy” my breasts had become. She chuckled, then said the next step was scheduling my first mammogram and an ultrasound. She wasn’t that concerned. Right. When I called Franz, he exhaled a heavy breath through his office phone receiver and listed some positive genetic factors, like Mami never having breast cancer, and Abuelita living past 100, I should consider. Still, behind his usually rational demeanor, I heard a tremble of fear. We would wait and see, he said. Hot tears rose in my throat. I would enjoy Thanksgiving and not tell Mami anything until I got my results.

Over the next two weeks, I alternated between crying in the bathroom and smiling at reassuring texts from my bestie, Marisol, whom I’d known for most of my adult life. Marisol was my idol. She had an executive-level job, owned her house in Jersey, and was a single mom and the whole world to her six-year-old daughter. In the midst of her success, Marisol still valued me as a friend. She came to my readings, bought my books, and never raised an eyebrow when I told her I wanted to pursue a writing career.

The morning of my tests, Eugenie tapped at a video game on her phone, saying “good morning” to her screen as the school bus pulled up. After we put our sons on the bus, I began walking away, but she caught up and called me “Speedy Gonzalez.” I didn’t know if she was referring to my short stature or being Latina. Either way, she’d delivered an ignorant kick to my gut. She rambled about her Jamaican nanny picking her kids up after school and another hectic upcoming weekend. When she asked, “How about you?” in her abrupt tone, I told her about reviewing the contract I’d gotten the other day for an anthology celebrating the work of Latina authors that would feature an excerpt from my YA novel-in-progress.

Eugenie widened her eyes then winced as though I’d coughed in her face.

“How does that work, exactly? she asked. “I mean, I have writer friends who rely on their spouses and I wonder, is being a writer sustainable? Is it even worth writing books anymore?”

Rely on my spouse? Rather than being the primary caretaker for our son? Rather than taking him to the library every day to ensure his English literacy stayed at grade level? Rather than hustling for freelance gigs while taking care of housework and taking my son to the doctor anytime he got sick? Somewhere between my fear of death and rage at the materiality of the living, I found my voice.

Why are you asking about my finances when I’ve never asked about yours? I asked Eugenie, fixated on her weathered, un-moisturized face. After all, I’d never thought to ask how “sustainable” her husband’s travel business was in the age of Travelocity.

“Oh, I wasn’t trying to find out how much money you make,” she tittered nervously. “I’m just curious how it all works. A friend of mine just landed an agent and a two-book deal. But how much would that really pay?”

If Eugenie couldn’t be happy for her friend who’d landed an agent, I couldn’t see how she could be happy for anyone.

“Between translations and movie rights, your friend with the agent’s career is about to blow up!” I said. “Writers aren’t a bunch of dead beats.”

She half-assed apologized then and repeated that she was “just curious.

I told her to check Writers Digest and Poets & Writers if she was that curious. Then I darted across the street, refusing to let her see me cry.

New age piano music tinkled through the waiting lounge at the Manhattan imaging center as I shivered in my faux-cashmere pink gown and waited for the stoic mammography technician to call me. I counted the beads on the bracelet Marisol had given me the year before for my birthday: eighteen onyx beads and one large gold one holding the circle together. We’d been friends for eighteen years. I texted a photo of my wrist to Marisol saying she was always with me. “You got this!” she texted back with a fist bump emoji.

After the mammography and ultrasound, I texted Franz first, then Marisol. The lump was a mass of dense breast tissue. Not a tumor. They each thanked God.

Later when I told Mami I’d had tests done but that the results came back normal, she clucked her tongue and said she also had dense breast tissue. Just always remember, mija, time is gold.

As I get dressed each morning, I remember the word for bra in Spanish: sostén. That which sustains. Holds. Carries. I don’t wait for Eugenie at the bus stop anymore, because I know what sustains me: my family and friends’ boundless love. My writing. My work.

And golden, unguaranteed time.


Stephanie Laterza is a Latina writer from Brooklyn, NY. Stephanie is the author of poetry chapbook, The Psyche Trials, (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and a 2018 SU-CASA award recipient from the Brooklyn Arts Council. An excerpt from Stephanie’s YA novel-in-progress, The Lunasole Class, appears in the anthology, Latina OutsidersRemaking Latina Identity (Routledge, 2019).  Stephanie’s work has appeared in L’Éphémère ReviewFirst Literary Review-EastOvunque SiamoLiterary MamaAkashic Books’ Terrible Twosdays seriesA Gathering of the TribesNewtown LiteraryThe Nottingham ReviewObra/Artifact, and elsewhere. She lives in Park Slope with her husband and son. Follow Stephanie: Instagram @stef3rd.

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