The day after a boy first touches my breasts, I stand in front of the mirror and evaluate. They’re pale—so pale they’re almost translucent. I can see the blue veins threading through the tissue and the tiny capillaries delicate as pink lace. It’s almost like I can see into them, into the round mystery of ducts and hormones and subcutaneous fat.
I imagine I can feel the blood flowing through the vessels—the little stretch of the elastic walls as it pumps through. I wonder what color my blood is in those blue veins. I mean, I know it’s blue, but what kind? I’d like to think it’s deep, dark, middle-of-the-Mediterranean blue—the color my grandmother must have seen as her boat left Europe for America. I’d like to have that color here, under my skin and close to my heart.
This is silly. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a breast is a breast is a breast. Today it looks the same as it did yesterday as it did the day before, no matter who touched it in the meantime.
I pick up my bra and as I’m adjusting the cups I feel something. Smallish, hard, foreign, new.
Suddenly I’m very cold and I don’t want to look in the mirror anymore.
Lump is a lump is a lump is not a lump
All lumps are not created equal
Mom is shucking a pomegranate in the kitchen. Its death is impossibly beautiful and thrilling. The countertop becomes one big, abstract expressionist juice splatter—a pomegranate Pollock.
If only MoMA could see our kitchen counter.
I love pomegranates. I don’t just eat them. I devour them. I am Persephone, except without the self-control—by now I’ve eaten so many seeds I owe Hades all twelve months. And my mother is Demeter, goddess of the harvest and fertility and shopping at Whole Foods.
I dip a finger in the wet splatter and trail it around the countertop. Slowly, stopping every time I hit a really juicy spot to plan my next move. I know where I want to end up—I see the lurid puddle by Mom. Smell it. But I need tact. She can’t know where I’m going with this.
“Mom, tell me about your mom.”
Her fingers stop shucking. I don’t look at her face, because her hands tell the story. Her thumb loosens around the pomegranate. Her wrist slackens. My words have sent her back to another kitchen counter, another mother, another daughter.
“She was the most generous, generous woman.”
That’s not what I was asking.
“Oh, little things—she’d always run out to get me things for school projects—I drove her crazy. She never bought anything for herself. So loving.”
It’s funny, because this sounds exactly like the woman holding the pomegranate.
My mother’s hair is up, but she missed some at the back and little soft tendrils slink their way down to the seam of her loose cotton T-shirt. Everything about her is soft and loose, especially the skin. My favorite is the part under her chin, where her jawline blends into her neck. To me that flesh is sacred. When she used to bend over as she tucked me in, after she pulled up the covers, that skin hovering over me meant goodnight kisses and bedtime stories. It meant little croons and backrubs and being there if I woke up in the darkness. It was the source of all her motherly powers. I wonder if that skin comes from her mother, if I’ll have it someday. If it’s nestled somewhere in that second X chromosome, passed down from mother to daughter to daughter.
I move my finger to the next juice-puddle, trailing ruby red.
“How did she find out?”
“About—you know. About the cancer.”
My mother is quiet for a long time, and I think that she hasn’t heard me. That she doesn’t have an answer, that there can be no answer. There are two long, deep grooves from the wings of her nose down to her mouth. She doesn’t move, but her shoulders have slumped a little. They form a triangle with her head, the angles acutely tragic.
The silence hangs between us, over the mangled pomegranate and its red, red seeds. Finally she speaks. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I had to fly back, stay with her.”
Your voice is so quiet. I can barely hear you.
“She chose to have a mastectomy, not a lumpectomy. She just said, ‘Take the whole thing.’ She wanted it all out. All out.”
Her hand with the fruit lowers, rests heavy on the counter. “Why are you asking me this?”
Because I’m scared. Because I don’t know how to tell you what I need to tell you.
“I don’t know. Just curious.”
“She was so vulnerable. She was so frightened. It’s excruciating, having a breast removed. It’s like being mutilated,” Mom gestures on herself, draws her hand across her chest, “You just have this big scar, nothing else.”
Like an Amazon. But this battle isn’t the Trojan War.
“You never get over the death of a parent. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be happy again. Ever.’” The lines of her mouth are all wavy and trembly, almost unable to shape the syllables.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry I asked. I’m sorry I made you look like that. Please stop talking about it.
“Every time I get within two blocks of Sloan-Kettering, I tear up. Every time. There’s this playground across the street, with swings. Children. That’s where I break down.” Her mouth loses all geometry, crumples into a desolate pink wibble.
About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child. This is like having an instruction manual in which all the copies have the same typographical error. [BreastCancer.org]
Being eighteen isn’t what I thought. Voting was exciting, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that voting blue in New York doesn’t mean much. Filling in the bubbles felt too much like taking a standardized test.
I still haven’t bought a lotto ticket, or cigarettes, or porn, or gotten a hotel room. But I’ve seen my mother cry, and that makes me older than if I had bought a hundred Marlboro Lights.
Sometimes I put my hand on the lump, knead it with my fingertips, try to gage its size and meaning. Sometimes I think, So this is what being a woman feels like, and all I want is to be little and watch Mom’s chin as she smooths my covers and kisses me goodnight.
I look around me, at our white kitchen with its white walls. We’re not a photograph family. At my friend Carolina’s house, there are all these photographs, all this family crowded onto tables and counters and walls. I can’t imagine having all that family. Our house is minimalist and modern and all those frames would probably ruin the aesthetic. Or maybe that’s just our excuse, because really, there are only the three of us left in our family and we all live there anyway so I guess we don’t need pictures.
But I did see a photo of my mother’s mother once. It was from her wedding and from when a photograph was still a big deal—not like now, when everyone has hundreds of photos on their iPhone and no one photo is really that important or meaningful—so everyone is posed and uncomfortable. She is erect next to her sepia groom in her sepia dress outside the sepia church.
Having seen only the one picture, I can only sort of imagine the mother of my mother in her hospital bed. She’s propped up against the pillows, eating potato chips. She loved potato chips. They’re sepia too—her sepianess has bled through her smudged outlines and into the rest of the room.
Instead of flowers, she’s surrounded by bouquets of mammograms. Hundreds of hundreds of mammograms blossoming—no, metastasizing—by her bedside. As I watch they multiply. They cover the whole floor, they fill my cone of vision. They litter the floor and the table and her bed until I can’t see her anymore, can’t see the walls or the lights or the window or the middle-of-the-Mediterranean sky.
I guess a mammogram is a type of photograph. Maybe we should hang those up on our walls.
I’m too young.
I wake up to the sound of drizzle. January has settled in the corners of my room, the hard-to-reach crannies in the bookshelf. It’s collected in the rumples of my sheets.
I can feel my toes all the way at the other end of the bed, curling and uncurling, and I’m engrossed in nothing. Quietly surfacing from sleep, all my muscles loose and melted off the bone into the mattress. A little tired round the edges.
I pad through the wan light into the kitchen, past the bowl of fertile, slumbering pomegranates.
Later, the ultrasound technician will squirt cold blue jelly onto my chest, smear it methodically until the image comes into focus. I didn’t even know you could take sonograms of breasts. I thought that was only when you’re pregnant and you want to hear the baby’s heartbeat.
Maybe we’ll hear mine. Lump, lump. Lump, lump.
I perch at the cold, hard kitchen counter and draw a knee up to my chest. Lump, lump.
This is silly. A lump is a lump is a lump until proven otherwise. And today we’ll see if it’s really that scary, if it’s really cancer. If that’s nestled somewhere in that second X chromosome, passed down from mother to daughter to daughter.
Isabella Giovannini, Age 18, Grade 12, The Dalton School, Silver Key