They say it started in my youth, back there in the 50s when Coppertone turned white people bronze, highlighting the line between natural white and tan. I loved that billboard photo of the yellow-haired girl in her yellow two-piece, her puppy tugging at the bottoms and revealing the girl’s tan line. I loved my own tan line, right up until I no longer had one because I worshipped in the nude.
Strangers and laypeople warned me, while doctors said I had great skin, attributing it to the Montaukett blood flowing through the centuries. I did, however, succumb to the popular practice of sunscreen a few decades ago, applying a daily dose of SPF 15 to face, shoulders, and chest when I was outside, face only if in. Why, then, is it face and shoulders that now show the wear, I asked the doctor yesterday.
Because of those early years, he told me. We didn’t even have sunscreen then, he said, just . . . “Coppertone?” I said. We both laughed, this before he started cutting.
They had explained the procedure carefully when I had the biopsy three weeks earlier, and explained it again during the injections of numbing fluid. They would cut out what they could see, take it to the lab at the back of the office and check for more basal cancer cells, and if the flesh was clean, they’d stitch me back up and I’d be good to go. Since they said it could take all afternoon if they had to keep cutting, I brought a manuscript to work on while I waited.
The first waiting was for the numbing to take hold. I’m working on a novella, and placed the seventy pages, my purple pen, and my glasses in my lap when the doctor and his assistant re-entered the room. They turned on a bright light, put double-stick tape about my face, and stuck sheets of blue cloth to the tape, leaving a hole not for my eyes but for the incision. The doctor began to cut away. I could hear my skin resisting and then yielding to the sharpness of his knife. I could feel the tugging and release. If you’ve ever gutted an animal, you know what I mean. If you’ve cut fabric, you also know. Perhaps the doctor guessed how aware I was. He asked me first what genre I wrote in, and then what I was writing.
I took a deep breath. I don’t usually talk a lot about a project when I’m working on it, because that can lessen my need to write the story. But I tried a few words, and immediately discovered that in this instance I’d rather hear myself talk than the scalpel. As the doc continued cutting my flesh away, I explained that what I’m really writing about, in both fiction and non, is the plight of America’s wild horses today. I talked about the government and advocacy groups, how we need to work together toward the same goal: not zeroing out the herds but supporting healthy herds. I talked about the fertility-control vaccine PZP, how it works if you use it, and told him about my friend TJ, how she spends long days in the field tracking mares she needs to dart, because in the long run those darts may keep those mares free.
Time to take that piece of me into the lab. The assistant turned off the bright light and pulled the blue paper from my face, placing a fat bandage over my eye. But I could see, so I picked up my manuscript. “Would you like to watch TV?” she said. “No. I’d rather go into the worlds I make up.” Because there my characters can work together, or fall in love. I can make BLM use PZP in all the herd areas it manages. People can get cancer and heal, and I can kill off only the bad guys. That’s fiction, and that’s where I wanted to go, there in that elevated chair in the doctor’s office.
When he came back to tell me that he’d got it all (yay!) and to stitch me up, he had a different assistant with him. I asked if I could see myself in a mirror. They looked at each other, and she got the mirror. Silly me—I’m not nearly as tough as my heroine Jessi. An inch long, half an inch wide, half an inch deep. Predictable red and white and tan around it, with a white center. How deep is one’s forehead, I wondered. What does bone-deep mean? The picture of the hole in my head stayed long after the mirror left.
Then the new assistant asked me what I was working on. “I’ve just told the doctor all about it,” I said. “He won’t want to hear it again.” Instead, he told it, explaining to the assistant about the numbers of mustangs on the range and in holding facilities, about how advocates are using PZP, how the vaccine makes the mare’s egg reject the stallion’s sperm so that she doesn’t become pregnant but still cycles, so the herd psychology remains intact. The unnatural aspects of PZP are that it is administered by humans, and humans decide its recipients. “My father’s a vet,” the assistant said. “He’ll probably know about PZP.” “Good,” I said. “Not enough people do.”
Which is why I’m writing about it. After another hole was cut in me and my flesh spliced back together, I was free to go. Because I had to stop in Dolores to pick up Tylenol for the pain that was already pulsating in my forehead, I went by the post office to get my mail. There was a hand-addressed envelope. My heart did a little hopeful dance—I’d submitted to a competition for desert writers, my entry the nonfiction project I’m working on. Yes, about desert mustangs and PZP and how we do have a problem and we can help fix it. The envelope contained an impersonal form rejection. I can’t tell you how sad I felt.
After a poor night of sleeping, throbbing pain in shoulder and forehead despite the Tylenol, I checked e-mail early this morning. There was a letter from my good writer-friend Rebecca Lawton, her story of getting a twin envelope in the mail, her fear upon opening it, her surprise that she’d won. Again I can’t tell you what I felt, it was such a mixture of joy and despair. Becca is a marvelous writer, a true advocate for the environment, her whole life devoted to water and rivers. She will make use of the award in the best way—writing the best possible prose about saving our water.
And what of me, my hopes, my horses, my holey head? Writing is the only thing that will cure this pain. And this: There I was on my back in a chair in a doctor’s office, my childhood and entire adulthood there in my face—the years of ocean and rivers and horses there in my face—part of which was being removed, and I could hear beyond the knife the doctor’s gentle voice telling the story of America’s mustangs. I may not have won, I may not have finished the writings yet, but the horses had an audience for one day.