First Silicone Church
TIINA'S BREASTS WERE PERFECT PERKY C CUPS that do not require a bra to look at the wall, except that they have no eyes. There are two small scars in her pits, and another pink line on her chest indicating where her chemo port rests. When she shows me her breasts, I am disoriented. Across the nipple line of each one is a pink stripe of scar tissue and nothing else. The cancer got everything that was real. After the radiation that is scheduled next month following the last round of chemo, she will get new areolas of cosmetic tattoo ink and a permanently erect nipple constructed from her own vaginal tissue so her body will not reject it. Her breasts look like two perfectly round happy faces that have gone to sleep. No eyes, just a smile. A photographer should record her body this way for its artistic merit, for the fashion statement it makes: I am woman with or without this focal point.
We are almost exactly the same age, but when I stand braless, my breasts are like two fried eggs that went bungee jumping and now face the ground. When Tiina comes into my room, her son’s room where I am staying during my visit, I cover my breasts with my gown and politely wait for her to finish chattering and leave before I get dressed. I am not particularly modest. I have showered and saunaed in any number of locker rooms, gone beaching and swimming and trying on clothes. I’ve been pap smeared and obstetrical-ized and gynecologically challenged. I’ve been young and drunk and danced on table tops. I’ve been older and pissed off and flashed on camera. But I do not want to suffer this comparison between us, two 44-year-old bodies, one with 17-year-old boobs. Even if I have nipples and she does not.
I met Tiina on eBay. Her mother is Estonian which accounts for the spelling of her name though she was born and raised in Florida. Three years ago she bought a pair of fuzzy white slippers with embroidered blue monkeys from me. I was late mailing them out because it was finals week and I was grading an endless stream of freshmen comp papers. I sent an email apology over the delay and she replied that she was doing the same thing in Florida that I was doing in Arkansas. Freshmen comp papers are pretty much the same the world over. She gave me good feedback and our electronic friendship blossomed.
We are both single parents who like to read. She has an eight-year-old son while I have two daughters in high school. It was my firstborn daughter’s house shoes that Tiina purchased in size eleven. I wear tens, do not wear house shoes and finally learned that I should never buy anything for either daughter that I like because they won’t like it precisely for the reason I do. Sometimes I buy them an item I like and tell them it’s ugly just to see if they will keep it. I especially do this when I find clearance racks. Tiina keeps telling me how wonderful it must be to wear a size ten shoe because elevens are much harder to find especially on sale and I say I know; I am buying both. And my younger daughter wears nines.
For the first time in my life, I willingly leave my daughters overnight to go meet Tiina.
It is my first time on an airplane, my first time to see the ocean. Tiina drives her black Volkswagen Jetta with a stick shift as if she is a healthy woman. I feel disadvantaged because I don’t know how she looks well, so I don’t know if she is being brave for my visit or if she is really up to seeing me. I would never have gotten on the plane if she hadn’t sent the ticket pre-paid. I feel bad about that and have argued with her electronically and over the phone, but what’s done is done, and she knows I’m too practical not to use the ticket now that she purchased it. She has tenure and equity in a condo. I have a section-eight apartment and a dissertation looming.
I’ve never seen real palm trees before. Target looks funny with a row of them down both sides of the parking lot. We eat Reuben sandwiches at a place called Wolfie’s Rascal House and her appetite is good. I feel like I left two daughters to come take care of this one, and I can’t make myself not hover on her edges making sure she is also taking her vitamins and tucked in at night. I feel like the mother until we drive the next morning to Boca Raton to window shop and she buys me the wildest purple stacked heel clogs I’ve ever seen at DSW. I didn’t ask her what DSW stood for. I waited till we arrived and discovered we were shopping in Discount Shoe Warehouse. I can’t imagine wearing these purple shoes in Arkansas and I think she mainly bought them because they were size ten and she liked them. I feel like the country mouse, the slack-jawed idiot girl with drool spooling on her lips as my eyes try to take in everything. Still, from time to time I look at her shirt, her top, her shoulders, knowing that there, inside her specially made supportive bra, there are no nipples. We pass other women, and I wonder if any of them have had this problem, if I pass women all the time who are nippleless and I don’t realize it. I even anticipate that when I type the word nippleless, it will have the red squiggly lines underneath it because it is not a real word, the same way Tiina does not have real boobs, but everyone will still know what it means.
When I am back home in Arkansas and the chemo is over and the port comes out, when the real silicone is implanted and the doctor says her skin is doing well and she can go up a cup size if she wishes, and she does, when she finally is going in for tattoos so her smiley faces will have that one Cyclops eye again, when her hair has finally grown out into what our mothers called a pixie haircut in first grade, then she says men will stop looking at her bald head and look at her boobs again. She says they recognize too much perfection and the hairdo is the giveaway. No one is asking her out anymore, and she feels undesirable, not biologically, but socially.
During the chemo, she had no hair anywhere. For the first time in her life, there was no need to wax or shave any body hair, and she said the experience was almost worth it, I scolded her, still mothering, saying do not ever jinx yourself by considering the advantages of cancer treatment as a consolation prize for getting it in the first place. She had weird cravings for strange foods, living three days on Asian pear banana bread from an organic bakery, eating nothing but Russian deli the next week. I wonder what happens to someone who craves Russian deli but has never lived by a Russian deli, someone like me; what would I do if I needed something and I didn’t know what it was? While I was in Florida, I hung my clothes in her son’s closet. She whooshed his clothes towards the back to make room for my hangers, and two shirts fell. They still had tags.
“Tiina,” I tell her. “Let me. I don’t want you flailing your arms.”
“Leave it in the floor,” she says. “It’s just that junk from Target. My boy is not going to wear clothes from Target.”
“How come?” I ask, letting the question pop out before I have time to consider if I want an answer.
“I only have one son, and he is not going to have to wear crap from Target.”
I hid my face by bending down, then rearranging clothes. I don’t ask her if we can go in the Target with palm trees, and I think it wouldn’t be that much fun anyway if I couldn’t go through the 75% off rack. Then I think what a missed opportunity that is; what if everyone in Florida is like Tiina and how much must be left on that rack for people like me? It must be a bonanza, but I am window shopping for things I will never be able to afford in Boca Raton and my daughters are in Arkansas where the Target has only a row of baby oaks about five feet tall fronting the property.
We pass a restaurant where an ex-beau named Sam used to take Tiina for cocktails. The menu is posted out front - the cheapest thing on it is $90.00. Tiina tells me what she and Sam used to order, says she wishes we could get someone to take us out like that but I’m not here long enough to find a rich boyfriend and she doesn’t have the boobs for it right now. Then she looks at me, and her eyes stray to my breasts, perky thanks to under-wire support, and I know she’s thinking my breasts are not worth $90.00 cocktails.
Later we go in a grocery store for diet coke. She drinks only water and I would like soda at her house. We pass Green Giant frozen bags of corn behind the glass doors, and there is the pink ribbon motif printed on the cold plastic. She yanks a bag out and shoves it at me, her voice shrilling, “Does that ribbon make you want to buy this more?”
“Yes,” I say, sure that must be the right answer.
“Well, it’s crap,” she says, and I can’t tell if she feels like screaming or crying, but she’s on the verge of something. “It’s crap. It’s cashing in. It’s PR trying to make the ho-ho-ho people look like they care about women, women who traditionally cook the corn for the men. And if men got breast cancer at the same frequency women do, there would be a much higher percentage rate than corn sales to finance the research to cure it.”
Later, in her den, drinking diet coke and eating the other half of a Rueben sandwich while she eats something from the Russian deli, she says she got carried away, and I tell her I understand. She orders a movie on pay-per-view, but after twenty minutes, she declares it is moving too slow, and she wants something more adventurous. She scrolls through the offerings and nominates the latest Harrison Ford film. I liked the first film we were watching, but this is her couch, her ticket, her recuperation and I like Harrison Ford too. I just can’t fathom a cable bill where I paid full price for a movie when I watched one-fifth of it.
Once, Tiina forwarded me an email survey about getting to know your friends, where she had answered a bunch of random questions and wanted me to send my answers back. One of the questions was: Have you ever paid for a meal in coins? And she had typed: Never! I sent the survey back, answering the question honestly with a simple yes. Tiina never commented on it, but I have paid for a lot of meals in coins. One of the best things Wal-Mart has ever done for poor people is install self-checkouts. You can pay your entire total in coins just like a coke machine and no cashier is standing over you impatiently.
I thought about these things watching Harrison Ford on her plasma screen. It is yet another comparison between us I must suffer. How if a Sam ever found me and wanted me despite my liabilities, I don’t know if I would want him, if I could be happy sipping anything that cost that much money in a world where people spend all their time and nickels sorting through clearance racks. There is a poem from the T’ang Dynasty by Po-Chui called “The Flower Market” about an old man in the midst of peony season, how he shakes his head over the expense of one bunch of red blossoms, worth enough to pay the taxes for a dozen poor farmers, but the people buying the flowers never even notice him. He is invisible except to the poet.
The next morning before she takes me back to the airport, she shows me the monkey slippers. One monkey is still blue, but the other is gray. The maid swept it up into a pile of white laundry by mistake and bleached it. I ask Tiina why she is buying stuff on eBay if she can afford a maid. She looks at me in surprise.
“You can find unique stuff on there,” she says. “I don’t like to have what everybody else has.”
“Why don’t you bleach the blue monkey so they at least match?” I ask her.
“I like the symbolism,” she says. “It’s true they aren’t the same color, but they still get along on my feet.”
It is hard to part at the airport, but she is worn out and her son comes home from the weekend with dad in a few hours. I offer to take a cab to the airport, but she insists on driving me. I hate to leave her. I wish I lived closer so we could be more than email friends, more than cross-country English teachers. At the same time, I am so relieved when I suggest she lets me out at the front so she doesn’t have to park and she agrees.
This trip was the most beautiful gift anyone has ever given me aside from my daughters. I am so grateful for every moment, for feeling sand between my toes and smelling the breeze off the water at night, for the men everywhere, Cuban and Jewish and hot and so good to look at even if they want perfect breasts and not mine, for the plane through the clouds and the feeling of being somebody getting from one gate to another all alone in a terminal in North Carolina. I am grateful someone thought spending time with me was worth the price of a plane ticket, that Tiina thought meeting me would cheer her up in the midst of all this medical intervention in her life. But I miss my daughters and I want to go home. I want to not feel like the poor country mouse. And even though I feel guilty for this, I thank God that even if no man ever wants my nipples again, I still have them, and I want them.