When I was 42, my children and I moved to Northern California. Having started a whole new life on a new coast, I thought it seemed like the perfect moment to do something about my oversize breasts. Besides, silicone implants had fallen into disfavor. I wanted saline implants, which I considered safer, and I still had some money in my inheritance fund. And so -- having no internist of my own, and still knowing no one who'd availed herself of these services -- I went back to the Yellow Pages.
This time, I knew the moment I took off the bandages that something had gone wrong. My breasts seemed to have taken a dislike to each other. They were smaller, all right, but they also drifted off in opposing directions, creating a sort of walleyed effect. I could feel a hard edge, particularly under the left one, that was irritating my skin. When I expressed concern to my doctor, she applied a piece of duct tape to the spot, as if to hold the implant in place, but I was unconvinced we'd solved the problem.
My skepticism was confirmed a month or so later when I was working quietly at my computer and felt a slosh of warm liquid pouring down the front of my shirt -- enough saline solution, it occurred to me, for the care and cleaning of many hundreds of contact lenses. A quick check revealed that the implant had rubbed right through my skin and ruptured, deflating within seconds.
Emergency surgery was called for to remove what remained of the implant. This left me with a dilemma: Inserting a new implant was not an option, at least not until my breast healed. But if I chose, I could remove the other implant, in the interest of symmetry.
The decision was just too much for me, so I had the surgeon take out only the ruptured implant. This left me with one size 36 breast and one that was virtually flat. I figured it was my punishment for the vanity that had brought me to this place, and the waste of all that good money that should have been used for something sensible, like a car with air bags.
By this time, my sons had long since lost interest in my breasts, having no doubt found other, much more interesting ones. My daughter was in college, a progressive kind of place where she had chosen to live in the eco-friendly, vegetarian dormitory. Visiting her a few months after my partial chest-flattening surgery, I walked into the common area she shared with her five suitemates, to be greeted with an art piece they had worked on together. They'd made plaster molds of one another's naked torsos, painted them silver and hung them in one amazing row on the wall over the couch.
Of all those young breasts, there wasn't a conventionally perfect one in the bunch. They were a little goofy, in fact: not perfectly matched, and unusually shaped in a few cases. But I could recognize in the breasts of my daughter and her friends what had escaped me about my own. They were fine -- great, even -- just the way the young women themselves were.
A few months later, with heavy encouragement from Audrey, I had the final implant removed. Having returned from the land of bimbo status to nearly total flat-chestedness, I felt like Cinderella after the ball. I told myself I should embrace this body of mine. At 44, I said, I should be over this breast business already.
Only I wasn't. And I still wasn't as I approached my fiftieth birthday. I was not far from the age my mother had been when she attended my wedding back in the 1970s, wearing a low-cut Mexican lace dress with no bra (an image my friends would remember and exclaim over, years later). The man I'd married that day was now living with a young woman and their new baby. On the dresser of my youngest son's bedroom I saw -- although he had moved it off to the side, out of concern for me, perhaps -- a photograph of my ex with his girlfriend, her bare breast exposed, nursing my children's half brother. It amazed me to think that nearly two decades had passed since I'd nursed a baby of my own.
Back when she'd first enrolled in college, my daughter had taken a course called introduction to feminism, taught by a former Berkeley radical. "Oh, Mama," Audrey had said, "You have no idea what women have gone through."