Breasts Know Best (Part 2)
I’m 22, 23, 24. He tells me he doesn’t care about sexy underwear, and for a while I find it refreshing that I don’t have to try so hard anymore, since I’m no longer promiscuous. I settle into simple cotton underpants with funny slogans and comic book logos. My top half takes on neutral bra tones, with the occasional pattern here and there to break up the monotony. He doesn’t really notice, anyway.
At 25, underneath my ivory strapless wedding dress, I wear a white corset with soft cups that lifts up my breasts, sucks me in and gives me the illusion of a waist. He may not find regular bras sexy, but I’m hoping he’ll find this corset so after finally finishing with all the wedding insanity.
We return to my parents’ house after the reception to change and head to our hotel, passing the dog as we run through the halls. I slip off my dress and turn around, hoping he’ll notice how sexy I am in my bridal lingerie. I stand there, waiting, as he walks right past me looking for his jeans to slip on over his boxers. The dog stares at me mournfully from the door, and in her eyes somehow she recognizes my pain.
The years pass. 26, 27, 28. He calls my breasts “fun bags,” “toys for boys,” and “titties” with a high-pitched screech that pierces my eardrums and makes me feel the opposite of sexy. Other times after he looks at them he will press his hands against his face awkwardly, his mouth going slack like a stupid dead fish and his wide, hollow eyes revealing no love, emotion or affection. He’ll shake the deposits of fat like they’re rattles, ready to make a noise that never comes. The only time he is ever gentle with them is if we have sex, and it takes so long to convince him to do it that after a while I give up trying.
He never tells me I’m beautiful or smart. Instead, he tells me regularly I can never live without him. Tells me how I live in a fantasy world, that I’m crazy. It gets worse when we find out that I might never be able to be pregnant due to my medical condition. He says I lied to him. The sex becomes even less frequent.
I can’t get angry or else he explodes, so instead my mind begins to believe it all. I develop stomach problems. Gain weight. My wardrobe now consists of a variety of low-cut tops and dresses that show off my breasts. This is the only way in the world that I’m able to feel truly sexy, because he never has made me feel this way.
For a week, I go away with a guy friend to journey with him cross country as he heads to law school in Ithaca, New York. After the trip, I joke around that he’s one of my closest friends because he’s one of the few people in the world to have seen me without a bra. But without the wires blocking my heart, he tears down the walls I’ve put up and begins to stir my soul awake. The events that followed that trip made me open my eyes to see how dead my mind, soul and body had become living with someone like my husband.
My 29th birthday arrives with joy and music, and the later months come with mournful songs of freedom playing in the background as I leave my home and now ex-husband behind forever. However, in shedding off the past I learn how to be myself again. I start eating better. My dresses become more classy. My weight drops significantly, although my breasts somehow still retain their large size.
I start sleeping around again, letting boys run their hands along my breasts, as if trying to rub off the years where my ex made me feel more like a play toy in a kid’s room and less like a sexual human being. Yet with every boy that touches my breasts and body after my divorce, my Ithaca falls further and further away as I realize I’m falling harder and harder for him. That is, until I turn 30 and he disappears from my life, leaving me incapable of telling another guy that I love him in the romantic sense for years.
* * *
I slip back on the black bra I was wearing when I walked into the shop. The owner sees me and she offers her critique.
“I mean, it’s convertible and is a standard color,” she says. “But don’t you feel it cutting into your breast tissue right here?” she says, pushing at the sides.
“No,” I said.
The owner frowns, then slips me into a romantic navy blue bra that is as dark as the night sky and might as well be twinkling with stars. She is trying to get me to move everything forward, but my body isn’t cooperating.
I then switch back out to the black bra and she looks at it again, nodding as she walks around my body.
“You need to retrain your body, teach it where things need to go,” she said, pushing at the sides where the wire hits the side of my breast. “All that junk in the back and on the sides collects.” She points to my underarm fat and the fat on my back that has made me self-conscious over the years, where all my insecurities have deposited themselves. My arms slightly crossed, and this gesture seemed to soften her. She needed to stop being bra nazi for one second.
“Once we retrain your body, we can put you into all sorts of sexy bras,” she said in a loving tone. “But first, we need to get you the standards and staples that will make it up.” She lifts up the beautiful ivory bra I wore earlier, almost as if to indicate that this was the first step on the journey.
I go behind the curtain and slip it back on and the white tank top over it. I head out with the other girl, and the owner encourages the both of us to jump up and down, shimmy, move our bodies this way and that to get a feel of the bras she has us in. We begin to giggle, as if we are new friends, laughing as the owner is ordering us around like puppets. Yet inside, I am feeling more connected to myself in every bit of the movement.
* * *
I’m 31, lying on my bed looking up at the vaulted ceilings of my room in my single girl Los Angeles apartment. My phone rings and it’s my mother on the other line. I ask her how she is.
“Not good,” she said. “I… I have breast cancer.”
My heart might as well have quit beating, the world coming to a complete stop. It was a slap in the face, particularly for the woman who has begged me almost every day for the past five years to get a mammogram due to the large size of my breasts. I shrugged it off, but now breast cancer lived in my childhood home, near the heart of the woman who breastfed me.
When cancer knocks on your door, you have no choice to answer. It is always an unwelcome guest, lounging in your chairs, eating your emotions up and staring you down. You can’t ask it to leave. It never leaves; it becomes somewhat of a permanent houseguest from that point on.
The news was so stressful it triggered a cold, which was then followed by a dose of heaping guilt. Looking down at my body, I had the reminders of my mom’s struggle pasted squarely on my chest, and began feeling ashamed that I was carrying around a reminder for her.
Her double mastectomy was two weeks after the diagnosis. I wore pink Converse, and the last thing she said to me before going under anesthesia was how dirty they were, trying to forget where we were sitting. I lounge around in the beige waiting room, feeling every inch of my breasts and their attachment on my body as my mother was having hers removed.
I couldn’t help to think of the video my father had from a week after I was born, with my mother breastfeeding me in the backyard of our North Hollywood home as my sister ran along the grass. My dad was holding the camera as he told her her in the softest, sweetest tones how much he loved her. It wasn’t because her breasts were exposed. It was because he found beauty in its most natural, human state: a mother and her child bonding. His baby girl.
Three weeks later, I boarded a plane to Israel, fulfilling a 15-year dream while my mother recovered from surgery at home. I headed to holy place after holy place, prayers on my tongue and flames from my fingers, lighting candles in the hopes that it will help somehow. Friends and strangers both embrace me as I tell them my story. About her. About me.
Despite an ill mother at home, there is an unusual source of strength building inside of me. My body lets go of past grievances from mountaintops and sacred spaces where I seek and find so much. My mouth laughs, eyes cry and heart sings. My ears are listening to the songs of my people as my feet dance, moving forward to destination after destination.
A week after I arrive, I meet a boy in old Jaffa. He is tall and skinny, with a spiral earring in his left ear and tattoos across his arms. His soft Israeli voice offers me a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from his bar and asks me out within minutes of meeting me. Despite the tattoos and earring, something in me is drawn to accept his invitation, so I do.
He and I eventually head to the Mediterranean beach with beers in hand and my favorite chocolate bar with pop rocks. After an hour of conversation, awkward American me is trying to get him to kiss me, and eventually he does. It’s soft and tastes sweet and savory all at once. He moves his fingers through my hair, holding my face at a distance and looking into my eyes before kissing me again. I feel his body moving against mine, holding me close, my chest pressed against his.
His hands move around my waist as he kisses the tops of my breasts where they meet my black tank top. He doesn’t move his hands underneath it, but nuzzles his face against the soft skin, feeling my heart beat against his ears as I sigh in contentment. My past melts away. Any pain from my mother’s mastectomy scars and all the cuts on my soul fade slightly as his lips find mine again.
Later in the night, he strips off my clothes in a nearby hotel room and touches every part of my body lovingly, breasts and all. He tells me how beautiful I am, how incredible all the parts of me are together — my words, my soul, my body, my mind. Even though I have just met this person, his actions don’t give me a reason not to believe him.
The night ends and he begs me to see him again before I leave the country. And as I head up to my room, a part of me strangely realizes that it’s not because he told me that I’m beautiful that I chose to believe him. It’s because in this moment in my life, despite every struggle and difficulty thrown in my path, I knew I was.
* * *
I exit the dressing room, realizing that half an hour ago I placed an order at the Thai restaurant down the street for some noodles. I decide to talk to the owner privately before I left.
“It’s weird shopping for bras,” I tell her.
“Why is that?” she asks me.
“Well, it’s different now. I’m divorced, and my mother just had a double mastectomy a year ago.”
She nods, her honey blonde hair shaking with her. “My mother died last April,” she said. “Breast cancer. I remember playing catch growing up with my grandmother’s prosthesis. It runs in my family. I’m terrified to get tested. Terrified for me, terrified for my girls.”
As if trying to ward off the bad memories that come with breasts, the owner continues to march through the store and show me her wares: the black baby doll lingerie, sexy red push-up bras, and a lace-topped teal-colored nightgown with bra support that was surprisingly machine washable.
“I don’t think I’m in the market for something sexy like that,” I said, looking at the teal nightgown. “I’m single, I don’t have a guy yet, still working on it.”
“What does it matter if you have a guy or not?” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Be sexy for yourself. That’s all that matters.”
In this conversation, between the fear of cancer and the sexiness of breasts, I couldn’t help but to think of the idea behind DNA, everything from the BRCA gene to the XX chromosome. They link us together in this strangely shaped chain. No matter what genes we have, we as women are somehow all linked to each other, even through our breasts. I was connected to the girl in the dressing room next to me, the clerk behind the counter with the kohl rimmed eyes, the owner and bra nazi, and even to my mother and her mastectomy scars, which are now covered in temporary butterfly tattoos.
We share these common parts as women, and they are all different. Men try to sexualize breasts, claim them as their own through their gaze, when in truth they can only appreciate and respect from a distance. They only belong to the ones attached to them, the owners who call them their own and understand what it is like to carry the weight, for better or for worse.
I hug the owner as I leave with my ivory bra in tow, heading down the street from Aphrodite’s as the retro queens and kings passed me by, my feet pounding mightily on the sidewalk, music blaring in my ears and a smile widening across my face. Mighty Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was living now inside the bosom of a strange woman, her thundering heart beating down Main Street in Ventura.