Skinny White Girl 

Maureen Moynihan

© Copyright 2023 by Maureen Moynihan

Image by Kiều Trường from Pixabay
Image by Kiều Trường from Pixabay

When I open the envelope, a $5,400 insurance bill screams at my face, as if its flap were on fire. The temptation to strike a match to the scrawny paper is overwhelming, but since my cancer diagnosis, medical bills have burrowed in my mailbox, inspired to procreate. I anticipate one morning a pair of white doves will fly out of the box smoking cigarettes, their beaks smeared with a post-coital smirk of satisfaction. 

 What sparing cognitive juice I have during chemotherapy is spent unscrambling my health insurance.  Every week a new outrageous charge creeps into my home with the arrogance of Donald Trump exceeded by his penchant for denying the truth. This time, my insurance company claims an anesthesiologist was not in my network. 


 Sanjaya picks up my call. The poor love has it coming to him because it’s my 4th call to Blue Cross Blue Shield in 5 days.  I’m wild with fire, looking for a cat to kick. His English is impeccable but I’m impatient with his scripted approach to customer service and the length of time it takes him to roll out a sentence. By the time he finishes one sentence, I’m three thoughts ahead, budgeting birthday gifts and congratulating myself for saving money on haircuts.

Yes, Sanjaya, I know the $5,400 is because an anesthesiologist was not in my  network. However, I was sedated. As in unconscious.

 “Yes, Ma’am. I understand,” he parrots. 

Sanjaya’s validation triggers me on an unconscious level. What I hear him say is that he doesn’t know me.  Or that I’ve dutifully paid my policy in exchange for the promise of affordable medical care.  Instead, I must dissect fine print and jump through loopholes when walking to the bathroom is an accomplishment. Hijacked by rage, my frontal lobe shuts down and all rational thought and self-control is lost. 

Ma’am?  Do I sound Southern to you?  I’m a Yankee. Meaning I’m not about to sugar coat a complaint to make it easier for you to swallow. Which is why we won the war. Now please connect me to your supervisor or someone who can fix the problem or at least tell me where to file a complaint.”

I know better than to flash my entitlement card; it delivers a fake burst of power that leaves me feeling dirty.  But I’m thirsty for control, drowning in a flash flood of medical bills that I didn’t see coming while fighting a deadly disease I did nothing to get. 

My husband drums his fingers on the steering wheel on our way to chemotherapy as I tell this story, waiting for it to end. 

So, we get charged?” he asks.

No…but that’s not the point. We have an atrocious healthcare system;  it makes the patient advocate for her own medical care. At first, we were charged for my wig because Blue Cross Blue Shield believes a cranial prosthetic is for cosmetic reasons, not medical. And their allowance for a prosthetic bra is $40.00!  I can’t buy a vowel for less than $60.00 and it doesn’t even have a fake boob in it.”

So we weren’t charged, right?” Nick clarifies.

If there were an ejection button on the passenger seat, I’d be airborne. 

Instead, I rake in a breath. “No, we weren’t charged. But the patient shouldn’t have to micromanage the cost of their own health care. Not to mention how much time and energy it takes to learn medical jargon and insurance policies.” 

 “Good thing you’re not working,” Nick sneers.

 The dagger pokes me in the eye. “That’s not my choice,” I reminded him. “You’d be surprised by how many people lose their jobs or are placed on unpaid medical leave during cancer treatment. Let’s just be thankful I have a job waiting for me when it’s done.”

Or so they claim,” Nick rebuts. 

No longer feeling compelled to defend my employer, I let his snide comment go out the window. “I just can’t imagine how hourly workers do this,” I grumble.

Do what?” he asks. 

Cancer treatment: the surgeries, scans, consultations, blood work. Infusion alone takes an entire day and two days later, I can barely lift my head off the couch.”

We’re there all day?” Nick exclaims.

8 rounds into treatment, it’s Nick’s first trip to chemotherapy because he doesn’t like the smell of sick people. “My red and white blood cell counts need to be high enough to handle chemo,” I explain.

What if they're not?” Nick asks, 

Then we go home.”

So we could be driving down to Boston for no reason? What can you do to up it?”


We drive in silence. 

Fortunately, my numbers are solid numbers and I’m tagged with a white band like an injured dolphin returning to sea. One zap of the barcode will display more personal data than my 13-year-old diary.  It’s a matter of time before insurance companies code Sanjaya into a hologram to pops up with every scan, striking a gavel while declaring 1 of 3 responses:


Not in-network.”

No medicine for you!”

The infusion room is buzzing with life; IV pumps alarm when emptied, and the air vibrates from the perpetual hum of TVs sets that no one really watches. Nick paces the floor, trying to walk a sense of familiarity into the unknown. 

What are we waiting for?”  he asks. 

To be hooked up to an IV,” I tell him.

Many chemo patients have a CV port surgically implanted to draw blood and administer medication but I did not. Complications from mastectomy left my chest wall with the durability of  a paper plate so all my blood work and infusions were injections. Riddled with scar tissue, my veins were cement.

Heather was the first nurse to attempt an IV.  “Here’s a pinch,” she warns.  Twice. Three times. With each stab, I bit my lower lip to pull through the pain. 

I’m sorry,” she’d confess.  

No worries,” I reassure. After the third stick fails, Heather calls for reinforcement. 

 Maryanne marches into the room, nostrils flared with irritation. Once again, her schedule has been disrupted by incompetence and she tightens the blue tourniquet around my arm until my tonsils are prepared to launch between my teeth. When that fails, Maryanne wraps my arm in a hot towel and demands me to relax or else I’ll not be allowed to have chemotherapy today. 

No chemo for you!she’d proclaim before tossing my fanny out the door. So visualize blowing dandelions in the wind because it’s something a relaxed person would do., which gets me nowhere. Maryanne snorts at my inept arm, wanting to beat it with a broom, then calls for Tanisha. 

With my career as a pincushion on the brink of collapse, I pray. Knowing St. Anthony is in charge of missing things and unclear which saint is accepting patient calls, I dial Jesus direct. When Tanisha arrives, I’m vowing to eat my broccoli and teach the poor children how to read if I can just please have another session of chemotherapy.  

  “Can we get a child-size needle?” Tanisha tells Heather, not as a command but as an invitation. 

You’re going to be alright, Honey,” Tanisha says, cupping my petrified cheeks in her hands. Her eyes, black as midnight, see through mine and all I want to do is crawl into the folds of her softness and hide from the world.  But I’d first apologize for the racist society we inherited and let her know that I’m the type of person to resist human oppression and build justice. 

And who’s this lucky guy?” Tanisha nods towards Nick while massaging my arm. 

Nick, my husband.”  Absorbed in social media, Nick doesn’t hear his name.  “He’s very busy keeping up with the Kardashians,” I say, assuaging the awkwardness of my disengaged husband.

Comparison is the thief of joy,” notes Tanisha.

 Laughter explodes through my nose, a welcomed, unexpected guest.

OK. Here we go, Love….1,2,3.”  The needle penetrates my skin and the catheter fills with blood; success. It feels like we’ve won an Olympic gold medal. 

Tanisha leans in for a hug. “You’re doing great, Honey,” she tells me. “Keep up the’ve got this.”

Nick cranes his neck from the hollows of his phone. “Say!  Can ya hook up her other arm so we can get outta here?” With a snap of gum and index finger, he points to me, the patient, the wife, his tone a needle through my heart.

Tanisha turns to Nick and shoots him between the eyes. “That would kill her.”

I’d grown accustomed to Nick’s dirty words the same way a timid frog sits in a bath of tepid water, not noticing that water has been brought to a boil until the lid slams shut, ending any dream of evolving into a prince.  

He doesn't know what he’s saying, I’d tell myself, over and over, dulling the jagged edges of his words until they felt normal. Deep down inside, I believed Nick had good bones. Maybe his mother didn’t put a hat on his head in the winter or maybe he was the last Boy Scout to tie a square knot. Whatever it was, it sucked every ounce of empathy from his being. I thought I’d fill this emptiness by loving him enough or finding the right line to say. This time though, when he sprayed a swastika on my temple, there was a witness. 

Tanisha leans into me, tapping on the window of my subconscious. Her eyes catch mine, articulating her advice with an absolute tone; a ladder to a new world. 

Honey, you’re strong. You’ll get through this,” she squeezes my hand to grip my attention. “Then you must leave him.” 

My head is a sponge, absorbing a spilt glass of milk even if it doesn’t want to. I take her fortune cookie, stick it in my pocket for later, feeling ashamed.

For years, I used white privilege as a poor excuse for Nick’s behavior by reminding myself that I was handed a gold thread of good fortune by just being born white, and into a well connected family who valued education. Who was I to want more?

Tanisha calls me out on my crap. Privilege is not deservingness: one is self-righteous while the other is a symptom of being too frightened or insecure to speak up about your worth. My marriage was a sandcastle and the tide had rolled in. The thought of crumbling the family of my dreams, the one I built one grain at a time, was devastating. It would be less painful to stick my head in the sand and let my soul turn to mud than to admit the truth.

By the time the IV bags are drained and my veins flush with chemicals, it’s rush hour. 

THIS IS INSANE!” Nick fumes. “There’s no reason why you can’t get your drugs at the hospital 15 miles up the street. No. You have to drag us down to Boston and ruin the whole day.” 

His anger somersaults around the car with the random aim of loose luggage but it’s clear that we’re stuck in traffic because of me. Me & my cancer. As if I picked some cancer up at Nordstrom’s.  I decide Nick is hungry and convince him to stop for some sandwiches. There’s enough Doxorubicin in my system to float a sperm whale but I go into the store while Nick waits in the car, chewing tobacco to calm his nerves, though the irony could sedate a hippopotamus. 

I move through the motions of ordering and  Once the sandwiches are made, I head to the register and punch in my debit card password.

Cash back?” The screen asks. Tanisha's words swirl through my mind, “Then you must leave him.”

Any cash back?” cues the cashier.

Her voice sounds as if I’m underwater, kicking for my life. I feel my head nod and punch in $40.00 into the keypad, an amount small enough to go unnoticed but large enough to grow over time.  The cashier hands me 2 twenties that I stick in my pocket, snug against Tanisha’s advice.  

So began my egg nest. A gallon of milk is purchased for $43.74. New clothes are returned; their refund slides in my pocket. A refund check from our health saving account disappears. I didn’t know what I was saving for. Or where we’d go. Or how I’d take my children away from their father. But I knew we'd fly out of the pot, and into the unknown, before the lid slams shut. 

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