When I was eleven, the Easter Bunny brought me my first bra. The label said it was a “training” bra; training for what, I had no idea. It was nestled among speckled malted-milk eggs and pink Peeps, which turned out to be my last vestiges of make-believe.
I was mortified at the tiny mounds budding on my chest and wished I could suck them in like a stomach. My mother and I never mentioned them, any more than we talked about my first period later that year. Up until that spring, I never thought about what I had that my best friend Kevin didn’t, but now there was no denying it: I was definitely a girl.
The first time I bled, I whispered to my mother with trembling lips, “I’m dying.” When I pointed “down there,” she handed off a super-size tampon like hush money under the table. After she shooed me into the bathroom, I tried to figure out what to do with the cardboard cylinder. It must have something to do with plugging the hole where the blood flowed, but when I tried to push it in, I cried out.
As I labored for twenty minutes, I pictured my mother in her green-felt rocker, ensconced behind her after-work newspaper with her gin and tonic and thirtieth cigarette. Knowing that help would not be forthcoming, I wrapped up the torture device in eighteen layers of toilet paper and sneaked it into my backpack so I could throw it away at school. I stuffed even more paper into my underpants and thanked the lord that I never got picked for Jocelyn Spafford’s dodgeball team. I avoided all other vigorous activity and stayed off my bicycle, praying that God would spare my life.
I kept my arms crossed in the torturous communal showers in junior high, but Donna Henley had no such modesty. The other girls whooped and clapped as she belted out “Dancing Queen” and jiggled her perky new breasts like Jell-O. I dropped my gaze and turned away, only to encounter the perfect V of Elaine Kramer’s furry pubis.
I skittered toward the lockers and dressed quickly in the farthest corner. I was relieved to disappear into the crowded hallway until Stevie Moster’s hand shot out and twisted my left breast. He and his sidekicks howled as I kept walking, cheeks burning, pretending I hadn’t noticed.
Brad Edwards was the first boy to touch my breasts with permission. My friends babbled about the ecstasy of it all, but Brad just kneaded me like Play-Doh. This was what I had to look forward to? But Greg Johnson was smooth. When he stroked my breasts like his cherished cats, I had an entirely different reaction. He lit a match “down there” and I pushed him away before I caught fire.
I didn’t like the way my father looked at me as my breasts bloomed like morning glories. Until I turned thirteen, we’d been pals. He took me fishing for steelhead trout and hunting for elk, even though I refused to shoot one. Now he left me behind and began avoiding my hugs.
At fourteen, I surpassed my mother’s cup size and begged her to buy me a minimizer bra. Averting her eyes, she quipped through thin lips, “Don’t worry, your father loves Jane Russell.”
The first time Dan and I made love, I realized the tampon had asked so little of me next to this ripping, this violence. Next time would be easier, Dan promised, comforting me like an injured child. When I missed my period, he wasn’t so tender. The flow began a week later, and I didn’t try to plug it. I wanted to feel the blood-red relief draining out of me until I was as empty as the day my father left us. Apparently he couldn’t resist the neighbor and her big tits.
The first time I nursed Hannah, my breasts and I had a day of reckoning. I was captivated by the life flowing from my nipples into my daughter’s tiny, perfect mouth. For months, it was our purest form of communication, and I mourned the distance between my mother and my own once-tiny self. I vowed to be everything she was not, to raise a girl who would love every part of herself. Hannah fixed her dreamy eyes on mine as if to say, “I’m counting on you.”
My mother was a good grandma. The love of a twelve-year-old had replaced the cigarettes and booze. She took Hannah to get her ears pierced and even asked if she could take her shopping for her first bra. The Easter Bunny wouldn’t be my daughter’s escort through this rite of passage, and I dared to say so. My mother’s gray-green eyes filled with tears as she reached out to brush my cheek with her warm, unfamiliar hand. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. I put my arms around her and she rocked me, soothing me like a babe in a cradle.
We got the news a year apart, my mother and I. A single mastectomy for her, a double for me. Dan was sweet about it, but he’d never wished a part of himself gone and then felt sorry when it actually went. I wondered what they did with the discarded “tissue.” Plunked it into a surgical pan and dumped it on top of the rest of the hazardous waste? Now I wished I could save my own discards. I would swaddle them and lay them gently in the back of the freezer, ask to be buried with them, my poor rejected parts. Beneath the fertile soil next to my mother, we would safely spill our shame and talk about our concave chests, life-giving blood, and how we really felt about Jane Russell.
Originally published in Fictive Dream, September 8, 2019
IMAGE: Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio “The Night” 1553-1555. Oil on panel, Galleria Colonna, Rome, Italy.
Traci Mullins, a non-fiction book editor by day, is enjoying resurrecting the young girl who loved stories. She has been published more than 60 times in four flash fiction anthologies, Flash Fiction Magazine, Panoply, Fictive Dream, Bending Genres, Flash Boulevard, Flash Fiction Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Potato Soup Journal, Spelk, Bright Flash Literary Review, (mac)ro(mic), Blink-Ink, Ellipsis Zine, and many others. She was a two-time finalist in the London Independent Story Prize competition.
Love the story.
I always appreciate when women tell it like it is, or was. I am 59. Thus from a generation where I, too, was subjected to the lack-of-info problem. For instance, when I started menstruating, I thought I’d be bleeding every single day for the rest of my life.
Our society really sucks when it comes to embracing what it means to be human females. I got lucky, though, when, in young adulthood, I encountered a wonderful sector of society comprised of women who make a strong, loud, and fierce point of embracing and celebrating all aspects of being female. Changed my life.