Friends don't always agree on everything. Right now, my beloved Jools and I are not agreeing about something- the word ugly.
It's a word I feel the need to use. I look at the gash across my chest, at the pointless little flap of skin that used to be one side of my cleavage, at the randomly swollen and sunken landscape of my armpit, and the beauty-loving Libran inside me screams ugly.
Ugly is, to me, the right word- and I'm a wordsmith, and I damn well ought to know. Ugly is, by definition, something that is not pleasing to the eye; something that jars, something that inspires a desire to avert the eyes or turn away. Ugly is the stuff that rarely gets a place on a billboard, because it's too disturbing.
Ugly, to me, is factual- not perceptual.
Ugly is, to Jools, the wrong word- and amongst her many talents she's a process work counsellor, and she damn well ought to know. Ugly is completely pliable; it depends on where you're standing and what eyes you choose to look with.
Don't say it's factual, she says. There is no objective truth and no fact when using emotive adjectives- it's only a matter of how we are looking (and I use the word advisedly) at our experience.
Never the twain shall meet.
I know she speaks from a place of love, but right now I need the rawness and truth of my ugly to speak up for me. Because every time I look down, it doesn't matter how I look at my chest. It still looks ugly to me. I can't imagine anyone ever looking at it, now or in the future, and thinking it's sexy or attractive in any way.
I can see it with the eyes of Dr Goodguy, and know that everything is going to plan. I'm healing up beautifully. I will have a neat and tidy scar.
I can look at it with the eyes of a pragmatist, and know that it's a damn sight better than having a breast bulging with tumours and a very short future. The Freeloader has been evicted, and that can only be good.
But when I look with my own eyes, the eyes that love the swirls and curls and contours of nature, all I see is the aftermath of an open cut mine in my flesh. Rubens would never want to paint this nude.
Reframe it, I say to myself. Reframe it. That's what Aunt Annie says to people who are having trouble with their children, and using words like naughty and bad and disobedient about their own flesh and blood.
I try to reframe my own flesh and blood. I try to think of myself as an ancient angophora tree, once lusciously curved and fleshily beautiful- still standing in its old age, though ravaged and broken by storms.
It makes me feel a little better.
Vi is going home tomorrow. And so today, desperate to keep in front of the Freeloader and knowing that I'm buying tickets for the Chemo-nooga Choo Choo on Monday, I dragged her along to watch me try on some wigs and turbans at the specialist 'cancer-friendly' beauty shops in town.
It sounded like a bit of a laugh, until I actually did it. The weather gods didn't help (again). It was well over 30 degrees today, windless and humid, and I'd sweated my makeup off before we got anywhere near the shop. I sat gasping in the hairdresser's chair, my damp hair pinned back and flattened to accommodate the selection of wigs about to grace my brow. Looking at the pale, tired face in the mirror, I wondered how much worse I could look with green-tinged skin.
And so to the wigs. And at first, gentle reader, it was funny. Let me say without hesitation that I have a big head. Make of that what you will. But the point is that the lovely and totally understanding hairdressers seemed to be trying to force a selection of small furry animals over a watermelon, and the watermelon was winning.
Eventually we worked out that the only way those wigs were going on my head, over my thick and generous hair as well as the melon, was if I held on for grim death at the front while they wrestled the ferret (or whatever) into submission at the back.
I tried not to let it bite me.
Job done, I looked in the mirror in pleasant anticipation- only to find Sally Field looking back at me. You know that bit in Steel Magnolias, after the funeral, where she confesses that she has finally realised that her dead daughter was right- her hairstyle looks exactly like a brown football helmet?
Touche. Or perhaps I should say, touchdown.
In the next chair, Vi was entertaining herself by also trying on a wig or two as she searched for inspiration for her next spectacular home haircut. (Her brother's a hairdresser to the stars, you see; he used to do Raquel Welch's hair. True story.)
I took a snap of one of her less successful selections, which I will reproduce here despite the risk of precipitate decease at her hands. (So be it; you've got to die of something, and I intend to die laughing.)
Clearly her furry animal got caught under a lawnmower, though she couldn't see that from the front.
"I know exactly what Tony's going to say," I giggled, as she declared that this was what she wanted.
"What?" she asked.
"IT'S A FUCKING MULLET!"
Not quite Raquel's style. Or Tony's.
Several streaked and shaggy false starts later, I was persuaded that this wig was the one for me. Vi swore it made me look younger; the Lovelies assisting us agreed.
"So it should," I replied. "This is my natural colour, before I started to go grey."
I stared at myself for a while. Perhaps I should say, I stared at the mirror. Because it didn't look like me. Not at twenty five; not now.
"We can trim up the fringe," they offered, as I swept it impatiently out of my eyes.
"Can I brush it?" I asked, and they provided an odd little metal brush.
I brushed. I fiddled. I fluffed it with my fingers.
It still didn't look like me. It most certainly didn't feel like me.
"We can hold this one for you if you like, till you need it," said the Lovelies.
"Yeah, thanks," I said. Thinking, whatever, I hate them all. And took it off.
And burst into tears.
As you do.
The Lovelies were wonderful, particularly Keryn, who'd been through the Freeloader's mill herself and knew exactly where I was without me saying a thing. After a while (and many kind and understanding words), I put my face back together, confirmed that I'd like the wig put aside, thanked the Lovelies most sincerely and set off for Turban Central.
I might be feeling thoroughly miserable, but I was on a fucking mission and the mission was going to be completed. Understand?
Stubborn is my middle name.
We were greeted at the doorway of Turban Central by a minor cyclone. The Sultana of Turbana, a complete stranger, swept me into her arms like a long-lost child. She swept Vi into her arms too, and I feared for her over-enthusiastic life; believe me, nobody gets in Vi's face without an invitation.
I started to giggle again. Vi restrained herself from attacking the invader with any of the sharp implements readily available on the chemist's shelves, and we were propelled to the rear of the store for Showtime.
"Now, what you have to do when you wake up in the morning and you look at yourself in the mirror and feel like you look horrible is to go and wash your face, put on your moisturiser, pop on one of our lovely turbans and do your makeup," she enthused as we quickstepped down the aisle. "Then you'll look lovely again, and you'll cheer up and feel soooo much better."
I had no time to protest the accuracy of any of this before she sat me in front of yet another unkind mirror, tucked up my hair and placed a red tea cosy on my head.
"And you can add one of these lovely children's headbands with the flower, to dress it up," she gushed.
Pardon? My head looked like a hurriedly-wrapped Christmas present. (Ooh look, I got a watermelon.) And I felt ridiculous.
Not a promising start.
"Now, this is one of my faaaaaaavourites!" she continued, spiriting the Christmas cheer away and adorning me instead with a sailor's beret. I promptly got the giggles. Again.
"Time for a bit of a hornpipe?" suggested Vi, who'd sunk to the ground and was holding her own ankles to prevent herself from lunging for the Sultana's throat.
"What about that one?" I asked the Sultana, pointing to a rather more free-form and colourful model.
"Oooooooh, the Byron! Oh, that's one of my faaaaavourites too. Now, I'm just going to choke you for a moment."
(I didn't make that up.)
The 'Byron' turned out to be a large circle of stretchy fabric which was looped around my neck, twisted, grabbed, forcibly dragged back UUUUP over my head, twisted again, dragged OOOOVER the top again and then fiddled with... till it looked like this.
(If that's how they do it in Byron, I think I'll stick with the Karma Sutra, thanks.)
"How on earth is she supposed to do that when she's just had a mastectomy?" asked the red cattle dog on the floor, stooping to logic yet again. (Indeed, my arm is recovering remarkably quickly and well, but perhaps the choreography of the Byron was still somewhat beyond my present capacity.)
And so it went on, at various levels of ludicrous, until I was barely concealing my hilarity and Vi had to leave the shop lest she embarrass me by savaging a passing ankle.
I went from washerwoman to gypsy, from Joan Crawford to Jason recliner. I kid you not. And it seemed that every one was a faaaaavourite (and most seemed hideously expensive, though I haven't been watching turban share prices on the stock market).
There was one doozy of a number that I was laughing far too hard to photograph- a swathe of red velvety fabric, pleated fan-like into a buttony thing at the front. Perhaps, I mused, my upholsterer neighbour had come in while I was giggling helplessly and mistaken me for an armchair. (Hey, it was a perfect match with the curtains Jarvis had made me.)
I decided not to purchase that model, in case my dog absent-mindedly fell asleep on my scalp.
Eventually I wiped away the tears of laughter, dodged a parting embrace from the Sultana and purchased a few relatively cheap 'looks' that didn't make me look completely loopy.
(I will confess to adding the Joan Crawford out of sheer mischief.)
I made my escape, put Vi back on the leash and dripped my way back to the car. I drove home. Enough of this dependence crap, already.
I was sporting one of these ensembles, but with my fringe released from custody, when the Bear came in the drive. I could see it unsettled him, even without the I'm-having-chemo naked forehead.
Everything unsettles him these days.
And as I told him about my day, and as I saw in his face the same misery I'd seen in my own eyes in the wig shop, my cheery facade crumbled once more.
"I don't want people to be sorry for me," I sobbed. "They don't even know me. I'm not a cot case. And I hate it when people to talk down to me, like I'm over there with the victims. And I hate not looking like myself. When I feel bad it's not something I can fix with a layer of makeup and a silly hat. Why do they think that fixes it? I don't look like me any more."
"It's so brutal," he said, as he held me close.
I showed him the pictures of the wig I'd chosen, too.
"That looks good," he said. "It suits you."
"I hate it," I said. "I want my own hair. That wig doesn't even feel like hair. It feels like the fur on a cheap stuffed toy."
"It's synthetic," he said. Stooping to logic too. "Nothing feels like hair except real hair."
I knew I was being unreasonable. I didn't care. I had a jolly good wail then, a completely first-world-problem self-pitying wail, because I'm used to being pretty. I've always been pretty. I was a child model, FFS. My face was my fortune. Even at 56, I've still got a pretty face- or I have when it's the right colour, and surrounded by real hair.
I can see that there's no way I can fake it through this- not really. I might fool some people, if I tart myself up enough, but I can't fool myself.
Okay, my dearest Jools, point taken on this at least; I won't say I'm going to look ugly. But I'm going to look wrong.
So, job done. It was a tough day. Some part of me knew it would be, or I would have spent today chilling out with Vi and saved the fashion parade for next week, when I'm on my own. But at least I recognised that confronting the truth of what chemo would do to my ego was something I had to do while I was still feeling well, and while I still had support.
It's knocked my vanity for six- that's for sure. Another body blow, so soon after the first.
But damn it, I've had my cry about that now, Freeloader. Bring it on; do your worst. I've seen angophoras with speckles and scars and bare branches, and I've still thought they were beautiful. So I'm ready for you, you total bastard.