Feb 27, 2011

My Permanent Condition

My mother died in July before I entered seventh grade, and afterward everything changed. I did not fully realize what it meant to be motherless, however, until later that fall. I sat in the back of the morning bus with Kristin, an eighth grader. I wore a pink sleeveless shirt that I adored, but that was too big for me. As I reached down into my backpack, Kristin saw through my gaping armholes.

“Oh-my-gosh,” she said, covering her mouth. She moved in close to me and whispered, still covering her mouth. “Um, I think you need to start wearing a bra.”

My eyes widened. “I do?”

She nodded.

“But….” I was about to object, but instead I pinned my arms to my sides like a penguin for the rest of the day. Later that night, in the privacy of the bathroom, I stood on top of the toilet to look in the medicine cabinet mirror. I was positive that an incident with a soccer ball several weeks before was what had made my left nipple bruised and swollen. I remembered joking with another girl at the bus stop that if only the other one would swell up I’d have something. A few days before, however, without explanation, my right nipple also became tender. Looking in the mirror, I saw the small pink nipples I was used to, had become darker and grown to size of a penny.

I covered them with my arms and groaned, thinking about that morning on the bus. Though I was not as physically developed as other girls in seventh grade, I had always prided myself on being smart for my age. In fact, I had known about puberty for years. I knew that things went in holes and that I would someday get a period. But my mother was flat-chested even before her mastectomy, and I was flat for so long after other girls that I accepted it as my permanent condition.

Puberty had betrayed me after all, and I had flashed my ignorance all over the bus. There had been no woman or friend to spare me this embarrassment. I stood on the toilet and realized that I had no one to turn to.

Around the same time as my mother’s death, all of the other women in my life also disappeared. My best friend moved away, leaving me with half of a heart shaped necklace, and no other close friends at Anacapa Middle School. My grandmother moved with my grandfather back to their home in South Dakota shortly after the funeral—after my father firmly refused their offer to pay for a nanny.

Because we couldn't afford a nanny, my brother and I were sent to the Jensen family's house after school. My younger brother and sister went to another family’s house.

The Jensens had a daughter my age. I was nice to her out of obligation, but behind her back all of my siblings and I called her Grody Jody. Grody Jody was twice my size, wore thick pink-rimmed glasses and had asthma. But she also had two lumps on her chest that had been in a bra for several years. All I knew about bras was that they came in numbers and letters and that there was a complicated method for figuring out your size. I cursed myself for reading Nancy Drew mysteries all year, when I should have been reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?

I realized that there was no one else to turn to but Jody. She knew more about bras than I did, but I had superiority over her from being half her size and less of a nerd, so I knew that she would not tell anyone. That is how I ended up at K-mart with Grody Jody Jensen.

Jody’s mom dropped us off under the pretense of school shopping. Once we entered the store and started down the long expanse of linoleum, everything slowed down. I felt very small next to Jody, and I wanted to shrink even smaller so no one would see me with her. I wanted to forget about the whole errand and go back home. I wandered off the path into the racks of clothes, walking quickly, trying to lose her. I weaved through round racks of overalls, skirts, and purses.
I passed the shoe section with its sour smell of new plastic, then turned a corner and bumped into Jody again. She was breathing in short asthmatic breaths. Her nostrils were flared, and the inside of her eyebrows were drawn up like a baby about to bawl.

I felt bad for ditching her. “There you are!” I said. At this, her eyebrows returned back to normal, and her breathing sounded less like a bull’s. As we approached the bra section I stopped to examine something on every rack. Finally Jody grabbed my wrist and took me to a display of training bras and presented them to me.

“Here,” she said, with a flourish of her hand and then stood awkwardly waiting for me to do something.

I stiffened and looked quickly around. A woman in a K-Mart blue vest was upon us.

“Can I help you?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Jody at the same time. “She needs a training bra.” Jody fidgeted. I glared at Jody but was glad I was no longer left to her guidance.

The woman was a middle aged Mexican woman with fuzzy brown hair and a nice smile.

“Oh,” she said, drawing out the O. She looked around. “Where is your mom?” she asked.

I had been bracing myself for this question, but it still disarmed me. All of the muscles in my body tightened to hold back the tidal wave rising inside. Sweat formed on my forehead. Sudden tears began to leak out of my eyes. The salty drops burned my skin. I choked when I spoke, trying to keep the water from shooting out and filling up the K-mart and drowning me.

“She died,” I said wiping my tears, holding up my chin.

At that moment, standing barely taller than the clothing racks with Grody Jody Jensen and a stranger, I realized what my mother’s death meant. The flat-chested ease of childhood was gone. Everything, even dressing, was more complicated. Most of all, I realized that the future would have many more moments such as that one: uncomfortable, pained, maybe even glorious, and for each of them, I would be inexpressibly alone.