Rose Ceremony
Stephanie Carpenter

"The doctor left this for you," says the nurse, when I'm upright, sponged to tackiness, Velcroing myself back into a pink fleece smock. "It's something he does for all of his patients." For all of us—but I'm already closing my fingers around his token: a pink rose in a plastic tube. The doctor might have bought this rose at 7-Eleven when he stopped for his morning Big Gulp. It's gone brown at the edges; it's tapped out the vial of water clamped to its stem. If pink flowers still stood for admiration, I'd doubt this man's sincerity. Yet I play along, I carry the thing with me while I dress and co-pay; I tuck it under my arm as I find bus fare. In this town of 100,000, there is never anyone I know on the bus. But—

"Were you on a date or something?" asks a young woman of my acquaintance, just as I find a seat. A recent graduate of the university where I teach, she's a writer, too, attentive to details. But it's four o'clock in the afternoon and our bus is pulling away from a strip mall: Starbucks flanked by a sex shop and a U-Haul franchise. Into which of these businesses did my date disappear, after putting me on the bus? (Or in what order did he visit them?)

"It's just something my doctor does." I roll my eyes. "For all of his patients." His patients, I see her conclude, are female. And if pink, then . . . I want to stop her from reaching that conclusion. But I can't stop logic: I'm carrying a symbol of breast cancer. The doctor just stuck a hollow needle into my chest—I felt him pushing hard against me, though I was too numbed to feel more. I watched with him on the ultrasound monitor as his needle navigated the turbulent blue of my breast tissue, probing its dark spots. After he'd finished, he left me this rose, and he left. I should have tracked him through the clinic to give it back; I should have thrown it away before getting on the bus. I do throw it away the moment I get home.

"Will you accept this rose?" asks the TV Bachelor, over and over again. "Of course," the women answer. The show's host refers to them, always, as "ladies." Lady-like, they simper once red roses are in their hands. Red for love, thornless. The doctor didn't ask me whether or not I wanted his dying flower, but that thing in a tube still came back negative. I don't have cancer, just lumpy breasts. The doctor tagged each lump with a flake of titanium. Now the next doctor to get under my skin will see that somebody else has already been there. He will frown handsomely as he evaluates my case: should we keep seeing each other? The Bachelor faces similar dilemmas, picking his ladies. He doesn't want someone untouched, but what to do with a divorcee, a widow, a mother? Such ladies never make it beyond the overnight dates, the "fantasy suite." They spend a night with the Bachelor—and once tagged, they're released.

One of the Bachelors was a doctor. I saw him again recently, on TV, while at the dentist. I was there to have my teeth whitened. (Now, watching the Bachelor's Rose Ceremony, I imagine those smiling ladies in my position, lips wrapped around ultra-violet lights, nerve-endings going wild). The Bachelor-doctor was still handsome, still single; removed now from the dirty work of needles and roses. He demonstrated to the daytime TV audience a new laser that rendered cellulite into waste. How many of us were held immobile during that segment? When the dental technician finally came to check on me, I pantomimed what else had happened while she was gone. A chickadee had crashed into the window near my outstretched feet, not understanding glass. I wanted to tell her, too, that the Bachelor-doctor is named Travis Stork. A stork brings a baby; a doctor gave me a pink rose. No lady, I reject both things. But before I could speak, the technician held a mirror before me. I saw how white my teeth had already become. My mouth could grow brighter; my body could excrete its own fat; my errant cells could be tracked like wild animals. In that mirror I saw a promise of self-mastery—if only I could keep still and let the doctors inside me.

A native of northern Michigan, Stephanie Carpenter holds degrees from Williams College, Syracuse University, and the University of Missouri. Her short stories have appeared in Quiddity, Big Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Crab Orchard Review, Avery, The Saint Ann's Review, and elsewhere. She teaches literature and creative writing at Michigan Tech University.