I watched Amber, the beautiful medical assistant, deflate my left breast by pulling air from my tissue expander with a syringe. The skin slowly descended toward the muscle, passing through an excavated space and folding on itself erratically. A diffusion of pleats emerged, resembling a vacuumed beach ball. Disembodied, I stared at this foreign contour, observing static ripples, markers of conquered time. How many breasts was this? Eight. Matter-of-factly, Amber injected my portal with saline, and the folds rose, beige hills converging to create a dome. Vague pressure tugged on distant nerves as saltwater feigned the look of flesh. She handled the syringe like she would a coffee pot, the thousandth pour. She chatted about the weather, normalizing the butchering of mamma. “It’s beautiful outside, isn’t it?”
Adorned in heels, I’d gotten the call about my lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) on Valentine’s Day, my breasts cupped by a slinky dress. My boyfriend and I were to dine at a vineyard. Thirty-eight years old, I stood, heart pounding, mobile phone against my ear. It wasn’t metastatic, the doctor assured, but diseased, a marker of potentiality. Abstract seeds, malignant cells might manifest, rapacious germinations of a ticking clock. LCIS was a warning, a reminder of my genetic predisposition. I had options: one mammogram and one MRI, intermittently, at six-month intervals for perpetuity—or having my breasts stripped from my chest wall. I remembered my mom, aged 40, enduring stage three breast cancer—puking pink chemo aftermath into plastic bags. Cancer was not an option.
I had dense breasts, so mammography was an insurance company’s negotiated “You’re fucked.” My mom’s mammogram had missed her second bout, so, two months later, she felt the lump. I couldn’t wait 12 months for a clean MRI to reset seasons of worry, and I wouldn’t take Tamoxifen, the drug to prevent breast cancer. My doctor didn’t mention that Tamoxifen could lead to endometrial thickening, post-menopausally, and neither had my mom’s. Years later, she was stage three, endometrial. Irradiated, burnt-skinned and black-hipped, my mother’s bones died in places. I thought of her sacroiliacs. I didn’t want a radiation-wand in my vagina.
On my way to the vineyard, the drizzly road stretched ahead, its seams repeating audibly. My car moved along the skin of the globe like a tangent, two breasts marshalling space. I wondered what Marc would think. We’d been together 14 months. After my mom’s mastectomy, my dad called her a monster and found a mistress. While he slept away at night, she cried to my sister, sobbing and vomiting, waving me off to spare my innocence. Panicked, she enrolled in college. Attending classes between treatments, she wondered how she would financially survive a cancer-divorce. I drove the rest of the way to the vineyard in silence.
At dinner, Marc held my hand. Tears welled as I poked my undercooked chicken. “I will support whatever decision you make,” he said. I looked at my plate. Could I send it back? Parting brown gravy with my fork, I exposed the dead, pink flesh, the dim light casting shadows as I squinted, bending closer to see.
Marc could still flee. Why would he voluntarily stay with a breastless woman? Hesitant, I slid my plate to the table’s edge and hailed the waiter for a replacement. Embarrassed, I gazed at the empty table space, covering the bare cloth with my arms. Marc said he was there for the duration. I’d heard similar claims from men when my breasts were healthy.
The waiter returned with chicken that resembled the first: counterfeit, undercooked flesh covered by dressing, an aesthetic trick. “I’m sending it back,” I said. The chicken shouldn’t make me sick.
Later, we emerged from the restaurant into cool air. The moonlit rows of grapevines that stretched, fruitless, into the wintery distance, distributing the field into a pattern around which the dry air clung to a flat-bosomed landscape.
I vomited for nine hours after surgery, Marc watching helplessly. I liken the stasis of that spell to when my dad cut the wires to the timer on our stove. Each hour, it restarted, a self-triggered technical defect, and counted down to zero, so at night, my sisters, mom, and I took turns rising every hour to reset a shrieking alarm. Once he fully severed the wires, the timer screamed silently, prolonged, eternally flashing zeros like a hooked, voiceless fish. At some point during the vomiting, I asked Marc to verify my IV meds. His face fell as he read “Hydromorphone.” I had told the anesthesiologist not to give me morphine derivatives. Seething, Marc called the nurse, demanding different painkillers. That night, he curled into a ball on the hospital-room chair, sleeping between interruptions: janitors emptying wastebaskets, nurses reading stats every 30 minutes. “Is your blood pressure always this low?” “Yes,” I muttered repeatedly. I wasn’t thinking about Marc’s sleep disorder. When I awakened each morning, he was there, smiling.
Visitors came. I showed my breasts. It’s not as if they were real. It was like presenting a moribund piece of modern art. Unbound, I displayed incised mounds to my mother, sisters, friends. I even showed the woman beyond the divider. A post-hysterectomy patient, she had her breasts and I, my uterus. We were like separate parts of a used car. I tested Marc: “Will you mind when I lose my womb one day?”
At home, my breasts were swollen: donated acellular dermal matrices under nerve-dead skin. I wailed, part-cadaver, staring horrified in the mirror. Eventually, I would absorb this other person’s flesh, like a vanishing in-utero twin. Marc held me, careful not to squeeze my chest, his arms and face distributing the hug. Drain tubes emerged from my armpits amid unshaved hair, descending into plastic suction cups. I could feel the expanders at the corners, sewn to my skin. Unable to lift my arms, I sobbed in the shower as Marc washed my back.
In the mornings, after sleeping badly on a pillow-wedge, I chowed on pancakes and eggs. Marc had me move in before surgery, so each day, he brought me breakfast in bed. Touched by his empathy, it took time for me to understand my mother’s rebuff of assistance. One night, when she was undergoing chemo for cancer three, she admitted to eating croutons for dinner. Aghast, I made a home-cooked meal of turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes, insisting on nutrition. From her couch, sunlight projecting from between the blinds, she glared. “You didn’t make this for me. You did it to make yourself feel good.” My jaw dropped as I blinked away tears. “Don’t bring me food anymore,” she said coldly.
My implant was above the muscle, so I could see the infection. I wasn’t prepared for a purple breast, hospitalization, and intravenous antibiotics—or yeast infections followed by BV, recurrent cycles of floral disruption. Cephalosporins had given me anemia. I became an expert on pre-, anti-, and probiotics. I not only couldn’t feel my nipples, but I couldn’t have sex. I wondered at Marc’s patience.
My breasts transformed over time, changing shape over months until the swelling decreased, revealing borders of finger-width indents, slightly deflated beach balls. Unpadded by fat, I had a reason to bitch for being thin. During sex, I’d pull back my shoulders to make the skin taught, breasts bulging. I felt fraudulent. “Babe, you look amazing,” Marc would say. To prove him wrong, I’d curl my shoulders forward, the release of slack causing ripples to appear. I needed him to know who I was. “You look beautiful,” he’d whisper. “I’d love you if you had no breasts.” My eyes would mist as he’d draw me into an embrace. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent them back.
One day, a few weeks after my infection, we picnicked at Veteran’s Park. On the fecund earth by a placid pond, we laughed over Merlot, a breeze passing between our bodies: one male, the other, fake mammary. As the sun emerged from a cloud, Marc pulled a velvet ring box from his pocket, opening it to reveal a diamond. “Will you marry me, Chrissy?” Breaking into a massive grin, I kissed him. I looked with wonder at the man who’d washed me, and recalled my mom who’d stopped dating after her first mastectomy. Twenty five years later, she was still alone. She would walk me down the aisle.
I planned the wedding between infections, the skin of my left breast turning hot after the antibiotics waned. By then I’d had my breasts done twice. Stress caused me to miss periods or unleash monthly hemorrhage, so we cancelled frequently with friends. I hated when people asked how I was feeling. “She’s having a tough time,” Marc would say. It was like getting turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I didn’t want people knowing about my croutons.
Marc joked that he’d gotten to see and feel so many breasts: my original boobs, the expanders, the implants, the new expanders and implants. “I’m a lucky guy,” he’d chuckle, including when the left side was removed temporarily. Being a mammary cyclops meant separating shirts into those with spaghetti straps and those without; they had to cover my mastectomy straps. After removing the tops with cleavage, there weren’t many left. My bra, a weighted prosthetic, felt like an anchor. I bought a- one-piece mastectomy suit that Marc called sexy.
At our wedding ceremony, among a carefully selected list of compositions, a sequence of frenzied violin slowed, and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” issued softly as my mother and I linked arms. She, dressed in sparkling violet and I, garnished by a floor-length veil, entered the aisle as guests rose. With four rebuilt breasts and one uterus, we promenaded, triumphant. Heads turned to face us as we traversed a marshalled space, strewn with white ribbons and rose petals. Sheer lace dragged behind me as we approached an arch wrapped in hydrangea.
Marc and I wiped our tears, exchanging vows. After a chorus of sniffles, we marched the processional, aglow to shouts and whistles. Later, he sang a piece that he’d composed. Strumming a guitar, he intoned that after we fade into night, aged and gray, he would still love me—that until then, he would wash my back again in our days of senility.
As time passed, redness returned amid honeymoon bliss. I felt somber as I braced for the possible loss of my breasts. Having placed antibiotic beads around implant three, my surgeon theorized a different reason for my inflammation: reduced lymphatic flow or circulation. This time, I forewent antibiotics, waiting with dread for my skin to shine purple, but days later, the redness faded, leaving a round breast like a trundle wheel. Marking the end of a four-year ordeal, I began a regimen of fish oil and turmeric. Now and then, the redness returns, but I’m free.
Marc and I moved into a new home. Nearby, an endless country road extends beneath a yellow sun. Always round, this faithful orb shines like silicone, end meeting end, eternally thwarting ‘there’ and ‘next’ in self-othered moments of deference. The inevitability of my cancer has been postponed; no cells can grow here, and there is no time, just now. I part the curtains to our yard where I find the assurance of a fence inside which I groom the overgrowth of rose bushes, and in our family room, we’ve hung a painting of a vineyard. There, a dark figure emerges eternally from rows of perfectly spaced grapevines. Lining a rolling hill, the rows shape light from the sun, pulling fire into the vineyard’s slowly descending arc. Tomorrow, the sun will rise again.
Christine Webster-Hansen is an English professor and assistant dean in NJ where she resides with her husband and two cats. Her writing is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Neologism Poetry Journal, and Canary, and she recently published poetry in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal.
© 2021, Christine Webster-Hansen