Yours will be in the tonsils, cancer of the tonsils, caused by a virus someone gave you a long time ago, caused by a virus you gave someone or more than one someone, a Trojan horse of sorts:
Legs and lips, thighs and hips; smooth, curved, welcoming, and well coming in all shapes and sizes, dispositions, and native tongues; coming in various degrees of fury and need and needless fury; want, desire, admiration, affirmation, affection, and (occasionally) love.
The human papillomavirus:
Human as in Mary, as in Jane, as in Mary Jane; as in names forgotten, names remembered, names chanted, whispered, sighed; names with strange consonant clusters and decorative umlauts; confusing and lying names.
Names that tasted salty and sweet and salty sweet; names that betrayed, names that caressed; names you will never say again; names tripping off the tongue and swimming–not in your blood, this is no aids virus, but treading water in swallowed mouthfuls of mournful small deaths before burying their molecular structure in the soft tissue of your oral cavity.
This molecular structure, when seen under a microscope, resembles the laurel wreathes presented to Olympian athletes first to cross the finish line. Only you are no winner, no champion, just a falling, fallen star: tramp, vamp, slut, tart, floozie, bimbo, hussy, strumpet, whore.
The names you call yourself in those unforgiving hours of those first nights come from a voice bequeathed but never claimed.
You hear papilloma: like papilio, Latin for butterfly; or papillon, French for the same; or Papillon, the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen, which your father took the family to see at the local drive-in theater; a movie about a prison and a leper colony, a movie about friendship and freedom; and when the scene came where the bare breasts of the native women flash onto the screen, your mother leaned into the backseat and told your sister and you to lie down and close your eyes.
There was a leper with skin covered in boils, whose hands were missing fingers, and when he offered Steve McQueen the cigar from his mouth, McQueen took it and puffed, unflinching.
How did you know that I have dry leprosy, that it isn’t contagious? asked the leper.
I didn’t, answered McQueen.
This, these boils, those hands with missing fingers, you were allowed to see.
Papillon, as in butterfly, as in the tattoo on McQueen’s chest, as in his nickname, as in the movie’s final scene:
Papillon made it to freedomand for the rest of his life he lived a free man.
Butterflies and leprosy and the names you call yourself in the middle of the night and Paloma Picasso, whose advertisements for sunglasses were everywhere in the nineteen eighties in the big department stores of Stockholm, Sweden, where you went to reinvent yourself (and where you, quite possibly, were infected).
Papilloma, Paloma, Paloma Picasso: a stunning older woman, and you liked older women; dark, sophisticated, elegant.
But you, had you been born the daughter of the century’s most celebrated artist, would you have used your name to peddle sunglasses to the wannabe wealthy and glamorous?
No matter, you are not that daughter.
Your father was a tool and die maker who took the family to the drive-in theater to see action movies and who also got cancer, though another kind of cancer, but not from a virus: lung cancer, and it killed him in the end.
as in butterflies, as in prison, as in the glamorous daughter of a famous artist, as in all the women you ever loved, even those who broke your heart, especially those whose hearts you broke.
as in jumping off a cliff into unforgiving waters and trusting in a raft made from jungle debris;
as in the butterfly effect and the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, a theory whose sole purpose is to stifle the chaos;
as in drive-in movie theaters and bare breasts and not looking away from bare breasts;
as in learning by the age of thirty to love your body, how it feels with another body but not always the same body;
as in learning by the age of fifty, in spite of those pre-dawn lapses into self-flagellation immediately following diagnosis, that it never did matter whose body, or how many or how few hours you knew its name before you exchanged phone numbers or bodily fluids;
as in Steve McQueen’s character, an innocent man wrongfully accused and sentenced to life in a penal colony, who jumps from a cliff with nothing but a crude flotation device and the desire for freedom;
as in unfolding, as in emerging, as in transforming,
as in the fluttering of wings:
tiny, tender, membranes,
finally freed from their impossible cocoon.
Michelle Valois lives in western Massachusetts with her partner and their three children. Her work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, Brevity, The Florida Review, Anderbo, Verse, among others. Her chapbook My Found Vocabulary is due out at the end of 2014. She teaches at a community college.