Ally Malinenko

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NY Methodist Hospital Radiation Oncology Waiting Room

I strive for compassion
when I sit in this waiting room
every morning.
But I usually fail at some point.Artwork by Gene McCormick
I’m on day 11
of 36
with the same faces
we, naked, under our matching gowns,
soldiers conscripted
in this pointless war.

Day 1 seemed so long ago
when the machine broke
and we waited hours
and the Hispanic woman
turned to me and said,

my dear, are you waiting for someone?
Are you here with someone?

and I said no, I’m here for treatment

and after that, the old folks
who had been talking up a storm
trading stories about
how they never felt sick
and how their tumors were found
and where they had their surgeries
and about their grandkids
and god’s will
and needs must

all got quiet
turning old watery eyes on me.
Me, the only one here
under 60.
Hell, under 40.

Hell, 37.

They don’t ask for my story.
They don’t want to hear it
Which is fine causeĀ 
I don’t want to tell it

Key in a Lock

I stopped wearing jewelry during treatment
because it’s just another thing I have to strip off.
I miss my key necklace
the one I wore all the time

and I think if I had it maybe it would help me remember
what the doctor said about
the possibility
of those cancer cells
left bobbing along
in my blood right now


how the drugs will find them
and fit to them
It’s like a key broken in a lock, he tells me
so they can’t find each other.

I think of them now,
these cells
this diseased part of me
inside my body
searching for its other

a partner to build
a family with

a tumor to become its own
thing like a fetus
becomes its own thing.

a swan song
like the old myths
of the sailors out at sea
and the mermaids
on the rocks

to them.

The First Night

I was proactive.
I needed a doctor.
That was all that mattered to me.

I had cancer now and I needed a doctor.
It was all simple and logical
and I looked up my insurance online
and researched doctors
and called back my gynecologist

who hours ago
told me with his sad
patient voice
that I had always felt good about

that it was cancer
that he was so sorry
and that I needed to find a breast surgeon.

On the train ride home
my husband and I
talked business.
We got pizza.

I did not feel distressed.
I had a problem.
My problem was cancer.
I needed a solution
My solution was a doctor.

When you have cancer you need a doctor.
That night, late
I swallowed down five scotches
and climbed into bed
determined to have a doctor
by the next day.

But I didn’t.
Instead I woke
with a thing on my chest,
a terror I had never known
like a bird that circled
all night
and waited till I was sleeping
to hook its claws
into the meat of me.

And I tried to sit up
shallow panicked breaths
gulping for air
like a dying thing
like a bloody shot
dying thing
begging the universe
Why me?
Why me?
Why me?
Fucking christ
Why me?

and the universe
with all the cold
of a million
burning stars
and a vast blanket
of nothingness,
the universe said
Why not?


Sometimes it’s Paul McCartney
sometimes Tom Petty
especially Wildflowers
because that was on the first mixtape you ever made me.

Neil Young can do it.Artwork by Gene McCormick
So can Bob.

But Bruce is the worst.

We joke about it,
what songs we have to turn off
the ones we can’t finish
not anymore.

But the other day love
when I was in the kitchen
doing dishes
after dinner
right at the start of the vacation
we both so desperately needed
and our wedding song came on

Bruce’s voice light
a promise to wait for one another
I thought I was going to make it
and I almost did

I even sang along, quietly
mouthing all the words

before it swallowed me
and I had to forward past the song
my hands still soapy
and you came up behind me
and hugged me

and told me it’s okay
and we didn’t talk about the tears
how there’s a chance that
growing old together
isn’t going to happen.


Ally Malinenko is the author of The Wanting Bone and How To Be An American (Six Gallery Press) as well as the novel This Is Sarah (BookFish Books). Better Luck Next Year, a poetry collection, is forthcoming from Low Ghost Press. She tweets at @allymalinenko mostly about Doctor Who and David Bowie