I don’t know why I put on lipstick. He can’t see my smile through the mask I wear. But our brief flirtations at the liquor store are the first I’ve had in years. Senior citizen discount day, Mom and I are regulars. Here’s what happens: I open the car door and he puts in the scotch.
I can tell he is kind by the twinkle in his eye. The salt and pepper hair suggests he’s my age.
So I dress cute on Mondays and hold the door for him. Sometimes we stand for a second before Thank you! and You’re welcome! And although that’s all it is, it’s enough to make me flutter.
I don’t know if we’ll ever date, or if he’ll ever see me naked, but he sparks a question I’ve yet to answer…do I warn the guy I’m one boob down?
Have you ever seen a kick ball that has lost its air, when it folds in on itself and looks like a V? I could see the shock in my mother’s eye when the doctor pulled back the gown. My right breast, if you could call it that, looked more like a poncho that had lost its hanger and fallen to the floor.
“Don’t worry,” said the surgeon, “It’ll get better. You’ll see.”
Six months later, we sat in front of Steve Kornacki. Not the one who reports the election, but his doppelganger for sure: my plastic surgeon. He had a breast in one hand, my mastectomy in the other, and was moving them around. He lifted them up, pushed them out, and brought them back together.
Then, he dropped his hands and looked at me. “You can use silicone, or you can use fat.”
“I have plenty of fat,” my mom chimed in.
He grabbed my waist and squeezed his fingers. My flesh popped out around them. In a strictly professional voice, he said, “She can’t use yours; she’s got enough.” He must have heard that joke before.
I wrapped my arms across my belly and watched my feet sway back and forth. My socks were mismatched and my legs full of stubble. Boy was I a catch.
“It’s never going to be the same.” His words were kind, but firm. He told me that half of what he put in would dissolve back out, so we’d have to build it slowly.
“That’s why people choose silicone.” He paused to let me think.
My question was quiet and hopeful at best. “Will I feel it if it’s touched?”
My mother turned to look out the window. He kept his eyes on me.
“Because, I mean, it would be nice… if, you know, if ever…”
“Then I would go with fat.”
He took out a sharpie and drew circles on my stomach. “We’ll take it from here, and here.”
“Liposuction?” my mother asked. He looked up at her with a nod.
“Woo hoo,” I joked. “I’ll finally be thin!” But he didn’t laugh at me. I guess he’d heard that one, too.
The first reconstructive surgery puffed it up. Just a little bit. Instead of a deflated kickball, it was now like a swollen raisin. It had divots and dents and looked a right bit gnarly, but at least it was raised up in a square sort of way.
Now, I know that looks aren’t important, that it’s the soul of the person that counts. But the plan was to find him before I got mangled, before cancer took my breast away.
Three months after my first surgery, I sat again in the waiting room. Across the table, magazines were scattered. Elle, People, Vogue. Such a funny place for perfect people. As I went to grab one, I couldn’t help but think… why not the Velveteen Rabbit instead?
“Miss Emlen?” The swizzle stick nurse with tumbling blond hair gave me a gown, which was pink.
“Everything off from the waist up.” She sent me to a room.
I peeked into the paper gown and contemplated my chest. One large droopy boob. Did that nipple ever point up? I never was that fond of them. But they were better than nothing, and it was nice to have two.
My mastectomy. He caught me squeezing it as he walked in. I dropped my hands and frowned.
“Don’t worry, we can make it bigger. May I?” He came over and cupped his creation, then raised up the other. “You’re allowed to make them match.”
Suddenly, a vision flashed in my mind. Me in a sundress, braless.
“Can we make this one smaller?” He looked up at me, astonished. “Smaller? Most people don’t go that way.”
“But could I?”
He held them at a distance, thinking, moving, raising, lowering. “Sure, we can make it smaller, give it a lift.”
So, on my second surgery, I got a dream boob. It may just be one, but it’s front and center and downright perky. The other, well, it’s a work in progress. It’s wrinkly and square and covered in scars. And it’s still more flat than round.
I call them my wonky breasts, and I’m getting used to them. Wonky and weird, just like me. Marked with scars of survival.
“How are you today?” Cute guy steps out of the liquor store, catching me off guard.
“I’m good,” I say. “Um, how are you?”
“Good!” he smiles, handing me scotch.
So maybe I’m no longer shiny and new, and perhaps I’m half past shabby. But shabby is lived in, I’ve stories to tell, and patina… it is kinda pretty.
I notice his socks don’t match, and his pants have a stain. Awesome.
“Well, bye-bye!” He gives a bouncy wave and returns to the store.
We’ve never said that much before, and I feel my heart race as Mom drives us away.
“Such a handsome man,” she says. “Looks like a honey, too.”
I wrap my arms across my chest, squeeze my shoulders, and smile. I love my scarred up mangled body. If he’s the right guy, he will too.
Katharine M. Emlen is a writer, photographer, and world music radio host. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a tiny house surrounded by wildlife and wilderness. Her work has been featured on KBOO Radio Writer’s Read, and won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest writing competition, 2015. Inspired by the belief that stories are everywhere, you can find her outside, following her imagination.
Hi Katherine, just read this for the second time (after recommending it to Steve Z!), and it’s just as wonderful as the first time I read it a few months ago. I want to read more of your writing!
This was a joy to read and quite enlightening. You brought a voice to a subject in need of one. Thanks for sharing!
Hey Katharine! I can’t believe it took this long for me to read your lovely, heartfelt piece. You are an amazing author and I agree with all of the previous comments. So glad Bobbie got to see it too (Hi Bobbie!). You are an incredible creative – I love having your photography all over my house – makes me think of you often. Love you, miss you, hope to see you soon!!! Tessa
Katharine, this is beautifully written and so honest. As a woman who surrendered to silicone at eighteen, your question “Will i feel it when its touched” is one i have rarely heard of a woman prioritizing, you know, her own sensations as much as the look. His honest recommendation for fat transfer was a quick peek into the world of implant complications. Congrats on choosing you.
Hello Katharine Emlen, what a moving piece. I’m a young adult college student who struggles a lot with reading and I don’t think I’ve read anything so easily. You words came easily to me and I never had to double back and reread something a few times to understand. I also especially admire how you talk about your worth and body going through changes with kindness towards yourself. I think any young woman reading this who fears of breast cancer or has it, this could really shine a light on their situation. Just wanted to share that with you! Beautiful writing!
Thank you, Anastasia!
Love LOVE your style of writing… it’s not just letters forming words to be read on a page, you’re a skilled wordsmith who painted such a wonderful story that I feel that I not only know you, I lived the experience through you. I was transported into your world and I felt what you felt and I found myself smiling even as tears rolled down my cheeks. Thank you. Don’t stop writing! I can’t wait to read what you write next!
Thank you, Katherine!
This piece . . . ah, it’s got everything. It’s poignant and ferociously honest and laugh-out-loud funny and wise. Thank you for sharing this story; I’m giving it to everyone I know. That last line . . . powerful stuff, Katharine.
Thank you, Melissa! 🙂
Love it! Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Kaitlin!
What a beautifully written piece. I can’t wait to read your book! You are perfectly imperfect, as we all are. I am proud to call you my friend! 💜
Thank you Julie! I’ll let you know when I write that book! 🙂
Oh, Katharine …. what a lovely, loving piece of writing. You really nailed it – one single breasted woman to another. Keep writing! Keep being wonky and wearing two different socks. Kudos to you.
Hi Bobbie! We’re in the club! Hope you are doing well out there in Eugene! Thanks for reading!
Congratulations. The writing was witty and touching to the emotional sphere. Love ya.
Thank you, Kelly!
Very touching, if I’m allowed to say that… Great piece of writing, Katharine, well done!
Thank you, John!