One morning, my boyfriend and I were lying on the couch when I asked him, aimlessly, if he liked my breasts. “Yeah,” he said with a flirtatious look, setting his newspaper aside. “I like them.” “Why?” I continued, skeptical. “Because they fit my palm perfectly. Because they respond graciously each time I touch them. Look,” he said, gently running his finger over my nipples, which instantly hardened. “I asked, why you liked mine, not breasts in general,” I hissed, letting go of his embrace.
I wasn’t about to let him get away with a truism, because even now, at 30, I occasionally still doubt their power of attraction. My relationship with breasts was a rather difficult one. I always had something to accuse them of: they started growing too early, they didn’t grow fast enough, they grew too much, they hurt too much, they had suddenly disappeared and would not grow back.
I don’t know if I ever really gave them the chance to prove they were there for me, that they can electrify, open doors, twist minds, and be addictive. It’s true that sometimes I took advantage of their charm, but somehow, either vaguely or directly, on purpose or unconsciously, I think I always rejected them.
My breasts made their appearance sometime at the beginning of 6th grade. I was 11, the youngest in my class. It was already October, but summer and autumn were still negotiating. I went to school during the afternoon and we were getting ready for drawing class. In front of me sat Andrei: Prince Charming, Casanova, God. There was no girl in that class who wasn’t secretly, but passionately, in love with him. We were all hoping that one day – the holiest of days – we would find a note on our desk, in our pencil box, or in our math or Romanian language notebook. A note from him, more valuable than the most precious engagement ring.
Suddenly, he turned towards me, and while stretching out his hand to grab something, he asked: ”Can I borrow a paintbrush?” The sun was spraying a golden aura onto his light brown hair. From underneath the fine eyebrows, his olive-green eyes, stained with muddy beads, were piercing. He had a mischievous tip-tilted nose, and a perfect smile, surrounded by two charming dimples.
Of course he could have the paintbrush. But I didn’t want him to notice my stare and sluggish smile; I was ecstatic. “Not that one,” I barked at him, slapping his hand. “That’s the one I use. Pick another.”
Bewildered by the emotion of having touched him, even if it was to reject him, I knocked over the water jar where I cleaned my brushes. The colorful water spread onto my white and green floral T-shirt. My barely germinated breasts – small, but not invisible, two bumps with no personality – inevitably reacted and contracted.
Andrei burst into laughter and shouted, pointing at the transparent stain on my T-shirt: “Ha, ha! Your tits are showing!”
I felt the sky come crashing down, the blood rushing to my cheeks. I bit my lips furiously to stop the tears. “I don’t have tits, you idiot!”
But that’s when I understood I did.
Ever since the beginning of the summer vacation, I had noticed two bumps growing from my child-like chest. I ignored them, thinking I had gained weight. I hadn’t found out about periods, and I thought women had large breasts because they had kids. I imagined that once they give birth, the breasts swell up with milk and never deflate.
So I brushed aside the slightly changed manner in which my tops fit me. I thought I was the only one who could tell the difference, and only while I was analyzing myself in the shower. “I’ll act as if they don’t exist,” I said to myself, hoping this would make them go away or slow their growth.
Andrei had, however, seen them. So had Ruxandra, because, shortly after, she asked me if I had gotten my period. I blinked in confusion, trying to understand what she meant. In my mind, “period” only made sense in sentences such as “a period of economic growth,” “the Jurassic period,” or “you’re not going outside, period!”.
“You know, that thing women get…,” she continued. I didn’t know. I rushed to my mother as soon as I got home: “What’s a period?”. She calmly provided me with the dictionary definition. “No!” I shouted. “Ruxandra told me it’s something women get.” Mother frowned and her eyes transfixed me. She changed her approach and told me on an icy tone that I’m too young for such things, that I should stop fooling around – I’ll find out about periods when the time comes.
I found out three months later, when I got it. I knew what it meant from Ruxandra, who had gotten it one month before. But not even then, after all that, did we know what it really was. We only knew that it was normal to bleed once a month, and that this was proof of our new gained status. That settled it with the breasts, too: they had grown because of my period and because I was growing up.
This revelation dissipated my shame, replacing it with a combination of excitement and curiosity. I measured my breasts regularly by looking at them, trying to figure out how much they had grown and if they were equal in size; or if, God forbid, one of them was left behind. I would take a peek at my mother every time I caught her naked, and then rush back to my mirror. I had a long way to go. Mine were two firmly outlined tangerines, while mother’s were… two coconuts, each nesting in its own bra cup.
One day, I asked her if I’d ever grow breasts like hers. She smiled with a glimpse of pride in her eyes. She told me breasts are like flowers. They blossom and keep on growing. So slowly that you don’t feel it. Until one day, when they get to full bloom. “And when’s that day going to come?” I insisted. “When you’ll become a mother.” “That’s when they’ll be like yours?” I continued, and she took my hand gently, smiling again, and told me that the way no two fingers are the same, no two women are alike. She encouraged me, saying that mine are already beautiful: “Look at them, they’re like two apples,” she said. I was surprised when I realized that this was supposed to make me happy, but I braced myself with confidence that one day I’d be able to fill her bras.
But when? It’s true, they did grow some more. At 13, I traded tank tops for sports bras, because running during gym class had become excruciatingly painful. But a bra was out of the question. “What do you need a bra for?!” asked my mom, intrigued. The only one she bought for me around that time was part of the swim suit. “Bras are for women!” she used to say, “not for kids.” I’d sometimes secretly wear my only bra. It brought my breasts together, accentuating their soft curves, and tamed that annoying and provocative bounce. To bring me back to my senses, mother told me that if I wore a bra, my breasts would stop growing and end up hanging loose. That was enough for me. I began avoiding bras like the plague.
It wasn’t until high school that I bought my first bra. Guys were ruthless and stared shamelessly at my cleavage, which, at 15, could hardly be held back by a sports bra. During recess, the older bullies would build the so-called “tunnel of terror.” They stood on both sides of the corridor and waited for us to return to class so they could push and grab us. They let no one escape and made jokes about “rubbery T-shirts.” They took advantage of every casual breeze to pierce us with comments about our rebel nipples.
Be it wind, anger, emotion, commotion, fear, our nipples would triumphantly emerge, and every time this inevitable incident took place, it was like our clothes had just melted. I, for one, wished I had known the magic formula that brought them to life so I could discover the antidote: a nipples taming potion.
I wasn’t the only one. Cristina, with whom I shared a desk, had the same problem. I remember how she used to blush and run her hand through her hair nervously every time Cătălin, the punk with a bachelor’s degree in life, teased her during class. “Hey Cristina, wassup? Did you put on your dirty shirt again?” he whispered and smirked, pointing to the nipples that poked through her shirt.
We started wearing all-black, even if outside the temperature exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. We decided, within the locker room board, that wearing a bra would make our breasts less visible. That our nipples, and the consciousness and stubbornness they possessed, could be silenced by a rigid bra. That’s how we ended up at the women lingerie section, where I chose the thickest I could find. It had a lot of cushion and the cups were reinforced with wires. It was deadly uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. I had found an antidote.
Whereas two years before I was anxiously waiting for them, now I wanted them gone. Thanks to our parents’ words of wisdom, some of us still believed breasts grow as a result of being touched by guys, which meant girls with large breasts were easy – they must have let a whole squad touch them. When my mother discovered my bra in my lingerie drawer, she asked suspiciously: “What’s with this piece of garbage?”. Then, visibly concerned, she started questioning me: when and why did I buy it, did I wear it daily, did I own another one… as if she had found a pregnancy test in my backpack.
That’s something, a pregnancy test! As if anyone was thinking about sex at that age. We were confined to the puritanism of our mothers. At 15, we still had guilty fantasies about “tongue kissing” and sought the answer to existential questions: how is it done, do you have to have sex with the first one you kiss, and consequently, does that mean you have to marry him. Because of course, sex without marriage didn’t really exist in the mating dictionary of post-communist teens.
I entered sophomore year and, during a trip to the mountains, I kissed Sorin. It was the beginning of November. Our Latin teacher gave in to our pleas and took us camping. I don’t remember where; I only know that we slept in a terrible log house where we refused to take off our coats and hats because of the cold and our fear of lice and scabies. Eventually, we warmed up drinking vodka, and dancing (but only after growing tired of playing card games with fun dares).
Sorin, who was a bit tipsy, asked me to dance, while next to us Cătălin, the naughty punk, and Georgiana acted out a dare, kissing and showing off, in ways we only saw in movies. We were dancing and marveling at the two of them, when Sorin bent over and kissed me, applying pressure and tongue, just as I had read in books and magazines. I froze and stopped breathing.
Time stood still while we were exercising clumsily, trying not to bump our teeth. That was when I felt his hands descend toward my breasts. I didn’t know what to do. Anything would have been OK, but I couldn’t move. I just stood there, trying not to choke with saliva while his hands ransacked me with greed. He rubbed them together like two pieces of flint trying to spark up a fire. Thank God I was wrapped in my sweaters and I couldn’t feel much. Much pain, that is.
We finally untangled and returned to our respective group. I spent the night staring at the ceiling, thinking about what had happened. Whether or not I was a whore. Whether or not I loved him. Whether or not he loved me. When we got home, he was avoiding me.
“I was drunk,” he finally said. “Let’s forget the whole thing.”
It hurt. The one who kissed me for the first time had abandoned me. I was a whore, no doubt. And my breasts were to blame! I scolded myself endlessly and retired my breasts, until one day, at the end of high school, when Sorin brought them back to life yet again.
Somehow, it wasn’t the same. Something had happened in the meantime.
I was 16 when my mother had surgery. She had lost a breast, but acted like she had got rid of a rotten tooth. As if she was born that way, with one breast, and us, all the other women who had two, were freaks of nature. She would joke while putting on her prosthetic bra as if it were her favorite T-shirt. She never complained. She never even sighed.
She didn’t give me the chance to react or fall apart. If there ever was a force that would make cancer reconsider, that was my mother. She boarded the bus sprightly, heading to the hospital for radiotherapy. She would come back exhausted, but would tell me that she went grocery shopping and was drowsy because of the heat.
When she started chemotherapy, she took my hand and told me to not be afraid, because her hair would fall out. At least now she’d have a reason to wear those tailor-made chic turbans, one for each outfit she carefully kept in the closet for special occasions.
I remember my father crying. He would come up to me and tell me in a trembling voice that we must be there for her. “You have no idea what she’s going through. She’s the only one who knows.” I looked at him, helpless. My mother was a rock. What could I, a girl as soft as butter, do to shake her? I was trying not to think about the possibility that I might have cancer in the future. My mother was invincible. What about me? My mind would come to a halt, incapable of processing such a scenario. It still does.
Finally, my breasts disappeared when I was 17, after a reckless diet. The skinny woman was back in fashion, and I had curves, so I was obese. I lost 15 kilos, and the last three to melt away were my breasts. I had become a walking skeleton with the body of a 14-year-old boy.
I thought I would feel relieved, as my mother seemed to feel with only one breast. It was not the case. I started missing them and did all I could think of to bring them back. I consistently and secretly tried antidotes: raspberry tea, ground dill seeds, blackberry extract. All in vain. I sometimes imagined everything was just a bad dream I’d eventually wake up from.
I gradually started to adjust to my new size. I stopped filling my old bras with pads and bought some that fit me – two cups smaller. At least I was thin. Maybe the T-shirts no longer showed appealing curves, but the jeans fit my ass fabulously.
During senior year, Sorin and I started dating. We hooked up at a party just before graduation. This time, he didn’t reject me the next day and we stayed together for about three years. He had learned that breasts are not made of rubber and that it’s better to touch them gently. And although I would avoid letting him get too acquainted with them, I knew there would come a time when he’d want to see them.
I was tormented by the thought that he’d compare them with what they once were, influenced also by the alcohol-twisted memories of our first clumsy encounter. But I couldn’t postpone it. I just hoped it would happen in those two weeks before my period, when they swelled a little. Eventually, he saw them. To my big surprise and relief, he was not at all disappointed. Only fascinated, curious and… greedy. Maybe too inexperienced to tell the difference. Simply glad to see some breasts, touch them and kiss them.
That’s how I started college: confident in my breasts’ somewhat restored power of seduction, but with a certain inability to enjoy the sensations they produced. My mother’s scar continued to haunt me and crept into my mind at the most inappropriate times.
My mother had survived past the five-year period when the disease is most likely to return. Cancer was only a bad dream. The curls she had promised me were there, framing her serene face, and she took her special outfits out of the closet. She wore them more often, even if it meant damaging them.
But I would still oscillate between curiosity and fear. During college, the locker room conversations started gravitating toward sex. We would swap notes about birth control pills and their side effects – some made you gain weight and some made your breasts bigger. My colleagues often proved to me that the professor’s generosity was proportional to the generosity of the girl’s cleavage.
Gradually, I began to regain the weight I had lost. One kilo at a time. Then two at a time. Then sometimes three. At last, my breasts returned. They were different than when I was 16 – less perky, less round, but they were there.
This time I didn’t feel the need to hide them. I sometimes imitated colleagues with fewer inhibitions, who would occasionally wear see-through outfits. I no longer found it embarrassing that the nipples were showing, excited by the wind passing through the delicate bra, now free of padding or other reinforcements. I felt awkward when those who noticed them couldn’t take their eyes off them. Awkward, because they were no longer teenagers. At night, however, my mother’s scar continued to haunt me.
All these years, until the summer when we said goodbye, I watched her embrace life. For 14 years she never got tired. Never despaired. Never lost faith or patience. I, however, never touched her scar. Although I often saw her putting on her clothes, I never ran my finger over the pink-skinned cavity once filled with femininity.
During our last moments together, she said: “When you’ll dress me for the last time, please don’t put on my bra. I’ve had enough.” I didn’t put it on. But I touched her then – for the first and only time I caressed her wrinkled skin and I knew that it was a war that could be won. But I still cannot imagine myself living with two cuts on my chest. I pray to God I never have to, because I know I’m not as strong as she was.
Crina Moșneagu lives in Brussels and works in higher education project management by day. By night she wonders if she will ever have the guts to become a writer.
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