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Between Life and Being Alive

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“What do you mean, you’re going to be gone for nine months?!”

Penny always knew Leonard would put his career before his relationship, but she hadn’t thought he would ever agree to go on an extended trip to the United Kingdom without even talking to her. But that, it seemed, was exactly what he did.

“Penny, come on,” Leonard said. “Please don’t be mad.”

She pulled a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc out of the fridge and briefly debated just drinking straight from the bottle before electing to grab a wine glass. She didn’t even bother getting one out for Leonard. If he wanted wine, he could get it himself.

“Leonard, did you even stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you should have discussed this with me first?”

“Well…” He trailed off, and Penny exploded.

“Oh my God. We have been dating over a year now. I know it’s your career, but it affects my life too,” she huffed, and took a seat on the couch, unwilling to look at him.

He sat down next to her and leaned forward, trying to catch her eyes. “Okay,” he said. “You’re right. I should have talked to you first. I guess I was just so excited to be asked to do research with the most brilliant physicist in the world that I said yes on impulse.”

It took her a minute, but she finally set her wine down and turned toward him. “I know,” she sighed. “Like I said, I know it’s your career. And I want you to go. I mean, I don’t want you to go, but I want you to have this experience. When are you leaving?”

“In three days,” he said sheepishly.

“Leonard!” she gasped. “What the hell?”

“I know it’s short notice,” he sputtered, “but one of the scientists scheduled to go had to drop out, and I literally only got the call today. You’re the first person I’ve told.”

“You haven’t told the guys yet?”

“Okay, well, technically Wolowitz knew before you, but that’s just because I got the call when he was in my lab. I swore him to secrecy, though.” She eyed him suspiciously, but Leonard could tell that her resolve was breaking. It was the same look she gave him when he’d asked her out for the tenth time. He took one of her hands and cupped it between his own. “I wish I could bring you with me,” he added.

“I do too,” she said. “I mean, there are tons of hot British guys I could go fall in love with while you’re working.” She pursed her lips and made her I’m-totally-kidding face, because she knew he might actually take her seriously otherwise.

Instead, he laughed. “Very funny. Listen, I know it sounds like an eternity, but I’ll be back before you know it. And I’ll bring you a souvenir. Anything you want.”

She looked up at the ceiling, pretending to contemplate his idea. “Hmm,” she said thoughtfully. “How about you just pick up a British accent while you’re there?” She leaned in and gave him one of her Big Ol’ Five kisses, the kind that sent flames right down his spine and into his groin.

“But if I do that,” he said, when she pulled away, “how do you know other girls won’t try to steal me away?”

She was about to answer him when the arrival of a subtle Texas accent cut her off.

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

She raised an eyebrow as she got to her feet. “Sweetie, I hate to tell you this,” she said over her shoulder, “but it doesn’t matter what accent you have; the second any girl meets what’s on the other side of this door, you may as well sound like Elmer Fudd.”

The second she opened the door, Leonard’s roommate barreled into her living room and stared at Leonard, a mixture of annoyance and shock on his face. For all the jokes everyone made about his being a robot, Sheldon Cooper had no problem expressing disdain, anger, petulance, and any number of other emotions—usually when he was directing them at someone else.

“Hello to you too,” she muttered.

“How could you do this to me?” Sheldon asked, and the sound of his voice reflected the look on his face.

Leonard took off his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. “Funny, I ask myself that exact question every single day…” he muttered. “How did you even find out?”

Sheldon breezed by the sarcasm, although Penny wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t recognize it or because he didn’t care about it. “As it turns out, Wolowitz is a better friend to me than you are!” he shot back. “How could you agree to go to the United Kingdom with Professor Stephen Hawking for nine months without even talking to me? I know it’s your career, but it affects my life more than yours!”

Penny could see that this was going to take a minute, so she picked her wine back up and went to the bedroom. She sort of knew how this would play out: Sheldon would act like Leonard did this to hurt him, Leonard would roll his eyes and try to reason with the unreasonable, Sheldon would storm out, and Penny would end up having to play peacekeeper. Ever since she’d met Leonard, Sheldon, and their friends Raj Koothrappali and Howard Wolowitz, she’d become the unofficial Sheldon Wrangler. Somehow, she was the only person capable of calming him down. Even his girlfriend Amy wasn’t able to do it quite as well as Penny, although Penny wished she would learn; as much as she cared about Sheldon, being his keeper was exhausting sometimes.

After she listened to a few more minutes of the two men bickering in her living room, she decided to take a quick shower. She had gotten home from work just a few minutes before Leonard had come to share his news with her, so she still had the smell of cheesecake and grease in her hair. She poked her head out of the room. Leonard had gotten off the couch and was now pouring himself a glass of wine.

“Guys,” she called, “I’m just gonna take a shower real quick—”

“No, I don’t know why he didn’t invite you!”

“Perhaps he’s taken on a new charity project: throwing bones to subpar experimental physicists to pump up their curriculum vitae.

“Ugh, I’m going to kill Wolowitz…”

“Ooookay,” she muttered, closing her bedroom door behind her as she started removing articles of clothing, dropping them one by one on the floor in a trail to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she was standing under the spray of the shower, washing the day out of her long, blonde hair. She hadn’t shampooed in a couple days, so she took extra time, making sure to scrub down to her scalp. After the water ran clear of suds, she added some conditioner, and then set to work on the rest of her body. Even though she was only in her late twenties, her body felt like it belonged to a woman three times her age. For all the ribbing the guys gave her for her waitressing job, they had no idea how difficult it was physically—burns from plates hotter than they should have been, bruises from accidentally walking into tables that had been moved by patrons, cuts from slicing limes at the bar, and, of course, the general aches and pains from her back down into her legs from being on her feet. And, considering she didn’t even have the benefit of health insurance, it sometimes didn’t even seem worth it.

The scent of her lavender body wash started to relax her into a state where she didn’t feel so upset with Leonard about making this choice without her; where she wasn’t annoyed with Sheldon for bursting into her apartment to confront Leonard as if it affected him more than it did her; where she could pretend that this was all just a movie scene and when she got out of the shower, life would be back to normal. Leonard wouldn’t be leaving, she would go beat Sheldon at Halo like she did every Wednesday night, and—

“What the hell?”

She had, of course, been taught how to do self-examinations of her breasts, back before Nebraska schools stopped caring so much about sex education. She never really knew what she was looking for, though, and besides, enough men had felt her up over the years that she figured if there were anything to be concerned about, one of them would have mentioned it.

But when she took a second swipe of her hand over her left breast, she finally understood what she was supposed to have been looking for every month. There, underneath her armpit, was an oddly-shaped, firm bump, maybe the size of a silver dollar. It didn’t hurt, but it certainly didn’t feel like something that should have been there.

She didn’t know how long she stood there feeling the lump from every direction, but it must have been quite some time, because Leonard eventually poked his head in through the bathroom door.

“Penny?” he called. “You okay?”

She snapped back to attention. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” she replied. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sheldon’s gone. I finally managed to get him out of the apartment by promising him that I’d take his new paper with me to give to Hawking. Too bad I didn’t promise him I’d actually give it to Hawking.”

Penny gave him a perfunctory laugh, just to get him out of the bathroom. When she heard him close the door, she rinsed her hair and turned off the water. The mirror was too fogged for her to examine her breasts in it, but she wondered if it would even have been visible anyway; clearly she hadn’t noticed it before. Besides, there was no history of breast cancer in her family, and there were all sorts of explanations for a lump. Her mom had a scare a few years ago that turned out to just be a benign cyst. Or maybe her bras were too tight and caused damage somehow. Whatever the case, she couldn’t do anything about it for the moment anyway. She would just have to remember to call for an appointment at the women’s clinic in Los Angeles.

By the time she came out of the bedroom, pulling an oversized sweatshirt over her damp hair, Leonard was just setting the pizzas he’d ordered on the counter. “Hey,” she said. “Sorry about that.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I’d have escaped to the shower with you, but I feel like Sheldon probably would have followed me in there to keep yelling at me.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “In half an hour, he’ll be so mad when I whoop his ass at Halo that he’ll forget he’s even upset with you.”

Leonard walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I really am sorry that I didn’t talk to you first,” he said. “Are you still upset with me?”

Penny stiffened with the realization that she had to keep Leonard away from her breasts for the next three days. As annoyed as she had been at him for deciding to go on this trip, now she was glad he was leaving. If he knew what was going on, he’d make a huge deal out of it and drive her crazy until she saw the doctor.

“No,” she said, giving him a quick kiss before breaking away to grab the pizza. “I’ll even help you pack, Dr. Hofstadter.”