Her Breasts by Gretchen Henkel

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whiskey on glass on wooden table

I remember the day she first unleashed her tits on our family. It was after we moved away from the beach.

My mother left my dad for her—and relocated me and my four younger siblings to California. For a few years, we had lived in a string of houses near the ocean. Then, right before my junior year in high school, we moved inland to a valley full of citrus groves and hot summer days.

That morning the Santa Anas blew in early, so we did our chores right after breakfast. By noon she had planted herself at the head of the dining room table in her underwear, her pendulous breasts resting on her fat belly. She sat there in front of the picture windows for hours with her set-up of cheap warm whiskey and cigarettes, playing solitaire. From my room I could hear her thwack the pack of Pall Malls against her palm, the shuffle and snap of the cards as they hit the table.

On my way to the kitchen, I tried to tiptoe past her, but she caught me.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said as I ambled by. “Look at me when I talk to you.”

I didn’t want to look at her, and I especially wasn’t prepared to see her lift first one breast and then the other to mop off the sweat with an old t-shirt. A fly buzzed past, and she snatched it. I focused on her hand, wondering if she was going to get up to let the fly out. When we were smaller, back at our beach houses, she insisted we bury the dead lizards and birds we found outside. Holding the fly in her fist, she centered her gaze on me and made a sucking sound through her teeth like she was ready to bite.

“Here, you take it outside.” I didn’t dare refuse. I put out my hands, cupping them over her fist as she slowly transferred the bug. It tickled my palms, which were now sweaty.

Her request gave me an excuse to retreat to my room. I carefully transferred the fly to one hand, opened my window with the other, and let it free. Out there, somewhere in the quiet streets, were some of my classmates, I thought, living their normal lives.

My brothers and sisters and I were locked in this holding pattern. We waited. We listened. We knew what was coming. And sure enough, when she blew, her roar filled the hallway, and it was time for us to file out to the living room for the “family conference.” She and my mother were always bringing home the latest therapy du jour from the state mental hospital where they both worked. One by one, she put each of us on the grill and forced us to list all the shitty, fucked-up things we’d done that day. Each of us sat there squirming, preparing our confessions.

That morning, when I was vacuuming under their bed, her dogs, her precious wirehair terriers, kept snapping at me. One of them tried to bite me.

“And whose fault was that?” she asked.

“Mine, I guess.”

“You guess? You guess? Well, you better think about how you treat those dogs, goddammit.”

I looked toward the end of the room, hoping for some back up, but as usual my mother was already drunk, fading in and out and sinking deeper into her chair. Eventually, her partner started to slur and lose her train of thought. Her diatribe finally petered out, and we were finally dispatched to our rooms. Later, we heard breaking glass, crashing furniture, our mother catching hell. And then: dead quiet when she passed out.

Three decades later I learned that my mother’s partner had died sitting slumped at that table, alone. It took me another year after that to visit my mother, who still lived in that house. For years, I saw her partner’s toplessness only as aggression. But now, as I picture her and all of us moving like slow-motion internees in that heat, I think she was also trying to free herself from traps. The bra that pressed grooves into her shoulders. The hope of a lasting romance with my mother. The dream of a ready-made family gone sour.


gretchen henkelGretchen Henkel is a health and medical journalist based in California. She reports on clinical and outcomes research and practice management issues, as well as patient-centered and culturally competent care for various specialties, including hospital medicine, rheumatology, oncology, otolaryngology and long-term care. As an editorial consultant for the SAMHSA-funded National Child Traumatic Stress Network, she develops content for toolkits on assessment and treatment of childhood abuse and trauma, and is the managing editor of the NCTSN quarterly newsletter, IMPACT. Her recent projects in creative nonfiction include essays and storytelling.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Wine Dharma

  2 comments for “Her Breasts by Gretchen Henkel

  1. How poignantly Gretchen Henkel captures the inner torment of child “internees” – held prisoner by their parents’ abusive behavior. Excellent piece.

  2. What an amazing piece of writing from Gretchen Henkel. So vivid. I loved reading this. The speaker is as trapped as that fly while only the breasts of the “stepmother” fly free.

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