Earlier this month, I was in a city with my family on the 4th of July. We’d been out all day, walking and sweating among the throngs at a festival, so that when the sky finally darkened and the fireworks began over the plaza, I covertly removed my bra and tucked it into my daypack. AT LAST!
What hadn’t been accounted for in my menopausal audacity were the city lights—after the fireworks–and so I was forced to walk across the Plaza and back toward our hotel with my arms crossed over my chest, particularly since I was wearing a lightweight top, and hot flashes deterred any attempts to cover up with the red, white & blue button down that my 16-year-old lent me from his closet for the occasion.
The crowds dispersed as we approached a small intersection outside the plaza, and something beautiful caught my attention, and I paused, and crossed a side street, as my husband and son kept on walking, deep in conversation about a car they’d seen or about the Air Force flyby we’d all witnessed before the fireworks.
I took out my phone and lifted my arms above my head to get the shot, and as I did, a car drove by, and a young man with wavy black hair hung his head out the backseat window, like a dog, and hooted–which I found so disorienting–like a wave of the past crashing at the shore of the present–that it wasn’t until the car caught the light just ahead that I lifted my middle finger into the air and moved it in an arc across time and across the space that defined me, apart from him, even while he continued to spew appreciation for my breasts.
It’s taken me almost two weeks to share this experience, and I’m still not entirely clear about it. What is clear is something that I hadn’t understood when I was young and desirable–that decade when I was expected to be attractive to men, even while the attention made me cringe, even as it empowered me, and even as it disabled me from focusing elsewhere–on my capacities rather than my curves:
Men don’t hoot in appreciation of beauty,
they do it because they are entitled:
To the streets.
That someone thirty years my junior would still stake that claim infuriates me, even while my mind wants to be flattered: Yay, I still get an A. On appearance.
I do have beautiful breasts, particularly if the gravity of aging is counteracted. But they’re mine. They’ve fed and comforted two baby boys into preschool. They’ve been offered in love making to one man for 31 years. They’ll be with me, if I’m fortunate, when I die.
I was 16, and working in the Hospital Lab, when I watched the Pathologist cut a section of a large, yellow-encrusted tumor out of an elderly woman’s breast after I’d emptied it from a plastic jar onto the specimen table.
“Why would she have waited so long to see someone?” I asked.
“She must have been afraid,” the other assistant said.
Later, I would rinse the formaldehyde from the tumor-ladened breast before dropping it into the trash can.
It was that summer that men started “hitting on me,” younger still when they began commenting on my developing body. My father. My uncles. Their friends.
I wonder if any man knows what it is to be afraid of your body.
To want to hide.
To be ashamed.
Because of the way you look at it.
Because of the way you talk about it.
Because of the way you make what is ours, yours.