This Body

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

The first time the trainer tells me to put my hands on my side and feel my abdominal muscles work, I can’t help but laugh. The only thing I feel are rolls of fat and loose skin. This is not really a surprise—I haven’t exercised in a good decade or more and expecting any muscle activity in my middle region seems silly. For weeks on end, I don’t even feel the effects of doing sit-ups or crunches. It’s like there are no muscles there to feel sore.

Recently I’ve been pushing my body—I am not even sure why. I’ve always hated exercise. I never felt the rush of adrenaline, I never enjoyed the sweat, the effort, the hassle. But something clicks this time around—is it turning forty? Is it fear that the achy knee every morning will lead to more serious issues? Is it wanting to run and swim and climb with my six-year-old? I suppose it is a bit of everything.

I feel my body go into that zone—not entirely under my control, pushing beyond what my mind would encourage under normal circumstances. My mind is more likely to whisper “go, sit on that couch, and have a piece of chocolate and a glass of wine.” But this body pushes on, struggling, jiggling, losing balance, and unglamorously dripping in sweat.

I still hate the sweat and the hassle. But the trainer on the videos is not entirely hateful and her mantras soon take on meanings beyond exercise: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” “Don’t wish for it, work for it.”

•••

The night before Sam is born, I feel like an animal. I spend the night curled up in an armchair, leaning forward to take the pressure off my aching back. I build a small fort, placing pillows around me and on the coffee table in front of me so I can rest my arms and head. I stay like this for hours, not asleep but not fully awake either, just conscious enough to record the start and end of each contraction.

My friends who are pregnant at the same time have elaborate birth plans that involve doulas and hot tubs and yoga balls and no drugs. My birth plan includes getting through the whole ordeal feeling as little of it as possible. I want every possible drug and intervention.

Sam is born fast—no time for an epidural or any other drug to take effect. It is the last day of the year—a snowstorm kicks up outside; the sky is eerily pink and it is a Blue Moon.

My body takes over and I feel terrified by the force and inevitability of muscles contracting, skin stretching, ribs being kicked and pushed from within. There is nothing I can do to stop this baby from violently forcing its way out of me. I can breathe and push—or not—the result will be the same. I am terrified of pushing, but I can’t help it. My body does it for me and all I can do is hold on and look at the snow and bare my teeth at the nurse who is yelling at me to push harder.

But weirdly, there is no pain. At least none that I can remember now. Or not pain like a pulled muscle or a headache or a sore throat. The pain is bigger than that, almost beyond feeling. And then so much relief when it’s finally, finally over. In a haze after my baby emerges, I ask the nurse to see the placenta—she reaches into the bucket on the floor between my legs and lifts up the entire sack that my baby lived in for nine months. I am almost more fascinated by it than by the baby lying so quietly in his warming cot—the baby who is no longer a part of my body.

This body grew the one thing to nurture the other.

•••

In my exercise videos the trainer always tells you what exact muscles to engage during certain exercises. The core muscles to protect your back; the biceps to help out your shoulders, the calves and knees to support you as you lift heavier weights.

It takes time to learn to locate all of these muscles. This is news to me. How do you know when your “pelvis is tucked” or whether you are “squeezing your glutes” or “engaging your back” or “exploding through your arms” or “shooting energy through your calves,” when these are not things that you do on a regular basis?

But I do feel the difference—suddenly, I feel pain where I am supposed to, or “feel the burn,” as the trainer puts it. Muscles tighten, sweat drips, breath quickens—even though you are supposed to slow down and control your breathing. When you are in pain, you know you are doing it right.

I wonder if it works like that for the heart. Can I choose to engage it or not? Can I learn to flex or tighten just certain parts of it at certain times to protect it from injury? When it hurts, does it mean I am using it correctly, that all of its muscles are fully functional, aligned, doing what they are supposed to be doing?

•••

I miss being unaware of my body. I can’t remember when that was—maybe in my twenties?—when my body just did what it was supposed to do and I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t think about my weight or about being healthy or eating healthy, or whether I should exercise or not. I didn’t think about whether my stomach was too big to wear that shirt or if those jeans will make my butt look big. My body was just there, doing its thing. It never protested, it didn’t put on ten pounds in one stressful year. It didn’t ache, it didn’t bloat, it didn’t feel heavy and stiff in the mornings. It just was.

I appreciate that blitheness now when I try to run up the stairs too fast or when I lift my arm and there is that extra bit of jiggle or when I run my fingers across the stretch-marks on my belly and that little extra pooch that’s there from having a baby—next to the other little pooches from too much Haagen-Dazs.

Why keep doing something that is painful? Why does the body want to stop so badly and why am I trying to convince it to not stop? Is it to build a stronger core, hoping that it will hold me up—longer, straighter, leaner? “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger,” says the peppy trainer and I want to believe that she is right.

•••

By the time I cross the bridge over the Main river in Frankfurt, I have a good rhythm. I see the old church tower in the distance, my destination, and I focus on it step after step. My skin prickles against the cold, damp day. My cheeks feel flushed and my hair whips around my face. I pick up a chestnut at the foot of the bridge, under a tall chestnut tree, and I roll its smooth skin between my fingers in my pocket as I walk.

Maybe it’s the jetlag, or maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the excitement of walking in a foreign city—suddenly I am aware of my body moving through these streets. I feel the cobblestone on my soles through my sneakers, my calves stretching, knees bending, thighs tightening. I feel the cold air rush into my lungs. I think of how odd it is that just twelve hours earlier I was in New York and now I am walking here, a half a world away, across this river.

Just twenty-four hours ago, I was snuggled in bed with my son—warm and sleepy. Just before that, I was in bed with my husband; just before that, at work, or exercising, or having coffee with a friend or walking down the aisles at the grocery store. And days and months before that, my body was walking on sandy beaches and shady hiking trails in Maine; along busy streets in London and Budapest and New York.

And years and years before that, my body was caressed by lovers, cut open by surgeons; it rested and moved; it developed breasts and curves; it grew tall with solid bones; it learned to walk, to crawl, to sit up. It emerged from my mother.

But on this day, this body is walking on gray, misty, medieval streets, carrying along all of its experiences. I feel it all rush past me and through me and I try to imagine where this body will be in a few hours, days, weeks, months, years.

•••

One morning Sam sits on the floor and plays while I huff and puff away during my thirty-minute workout in the living room. He watches me, then the screen. When I’m done and I flop on the couch with my water bottle, he curls up to my side. He is still in his PJs—it’s a Saturday. His long, thin body has filled out over the summer, but he still somehow finds the right position to tuck himself as close to me as possible. His hand is on my belly, one leg across mine.

“Mama,” he starts, “are you going to be as straight as those people on the TV?”

It takes me a moment to realize that he means “skinny.” “Well, no, probably I will never be as straight,” I answer. “But I will be straighter, hopefully, if I keep up the work.”

Sam seems pacified for the moment. “Okay, because I want my mama to be soft and round and warm.”

•••

Change is hard to detect—the definition of muscle against flab; the way inches melt off; the way things become tighter, lifted, lighter. It is discouraging, really, that so much work produces such little effect at first. “You have to take it one day at a time, one pound at a time,” the trainer announces cheerfully. And I do. I really don’t have a choice.

On Facebook I’m part of a workout challenge group and I look at sweaty pictures of other women and watch their transformation from before to after. I don’t take any photos of my body and I definitely don’t post them, but I’d like to think that the same is happening to me, even if it is imperceptible to my eyes.

And I wonder whether eventually the downfall of my body will happen like this as well—one freak, aging cell at a time, unnoticeable to the naked eye, but inevitable and out of my control, just like giving birth.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other online publications. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin. (And, hey, this very one is nominated for a Pushcart Prize!)

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The Soft Substance of a Living Thing

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Randy Osborne

In high school after lunch I goofed off in the library with my misfit friends Richard and Joel. Richard: grubby, overweight, and indifferent, with taped-together glasses that sat crooked on his head. Joel: milk-white skin, wispy hair, and translucent, vaguely bluish eyes, like an alien. Voice so deep it was almost inaudible. My boys.

On this day, I was getting over a bad cold. My entire face hurt. We sat at one of those round study tables. Joel, who would die of a rare disease a few years after graduation, said something unexpectedly funny and I laughed—really more like a snort, with unintended oomph.

My entire sinus cavity … disgorged.

There was a lot.

The result was not something that could be discreetly nostrilled up, like a worm that poked from its hole (maybe they saw, maybe they didn’t). It was a hot, greenish-yellow blob, like something from another world that covered my lips, and half my chin, and was advancing. The jackpot of snot.

As teenage boys we reveled in bodily functions, of course, but in the seconds after my blast each of us knew in his own way that I had gone too far, albeit helplessly and by surprise. Richard and Joel gaped. They cackled. I did the only thing I could think of.

With a cupped paw, I wiped away the seeping, viscous wad. Then I chased Richard and Joel around the library with it, my handful of disgrace. We howled with a kind of weird joy, they scrambling, me in pursuit as the masters of world literature gazed down at us from the shelves, disdainfully.

Fast-forward a decade or so. Joel was no longer among us, and I’d lost track of Richard, as one often does after high school. I was getting married. In those days, state law required emissions tests not only for cars but that, too. The doctor used one of those cotton-swab sticks, like a Q-tip but about nine inches long. It didn’t have to be that long.

“Wait,” I said. “Why is this even necessary? My fiancé is the only person I’ve ever had sex with.” This was true. Go ahead and feel sad for me here if you want. I felt a little sad for myself.

AIDS wasn’t around back then, but herpes was, and syphilis, and gonorrhea. Also human papillomavirus, or HPV. I read the other day that every sexually active person will come into contact with HPV at some point, if not one of the others. Think of it. An ordinary person’s loins are seething with contagion. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tonight.

The doctor muttered something about public health. “We just want to keep you honest,” he said, and I realized, possibly for the first time in my stupid existence, that I could lie but my body would tell the truth.

Next I was a new husband, with a job: photographer for the weekly newspaper in our northern Illinois town. One day my editor sent me to shoot the girl’s swim team at the high school, which had won some kind of award. I arrived at the appointed hour during practice, everybody out of the pool, lined up. Thanks to a powerful strobe flash on the camera, I was able to stand far enough back to fit all of these nubile beauties into the frame. I left the school feeling good. I’ve always felt good, leaving schools.

In the parking lot I heard distant sirens, then closer, and then a line of squad cars followed by an ambulance heading into the cemetery across the street.

Because I was a newsman, I followed them. To the body, which lay face-down on a grave in front of the headstone. I captured that image, and next the overall scene, then zoom: the lad’s half-open mouth, tousled hair, the cassette player near his elbow.

A guy came over yelling and waving his arms. Owner of the cemetery, private property, get out, no pictures, get out get out. Because I was a newsman, I photographed that guy, teeth bared and veins bulging on his forehead.

Later he phoned the office and apologized for his rage. Just came out in the moment, he said. I lost control. But he also threatened to sue if we used the pictures. A boy who lost his girlfriend, as people like to call it, in a traffic accident had shot himself on her resting place while their favorite song played.

We consulted our lawyer. Yes, any cemetery is private property. But the usual rules don’t apply when an event of public concern takes place on it. An event, he said, of public concern.

We didn’t use the pictures.

I peered over my editor’s shoulder at the prints of the swim team. It must have been the strobe flash, the water still on the girls fresh out of the pool, and the weave of their nylon suits. Two rows of beaming maidens faced us looking—except for the faintest shadows of what they wore—as naked as newborns, albeit more interesting. “Nice,” my editor said. “We can’t use these either.”

Fast-forward another ten years into my starter marriage, as people like to say afterward. Let’s extend the housing metaphor and say it was a fixer-upper. Let’s say it had a weak foundation, and was falling down around us. It did.

They say the body is the house for the soul, the body that secretes and excretes and blurts. The body that things come out of, not always planned, and can’t be put back in. The body that’s cut and bruised in wrecks of all kinds. The body that’s brokenhearted. That might be hidden, and—in a flash—exposed.

Wikipedia defines flesh as “the soft substance of the body of a living thing.” The body: private property we have no choice about showing other people, since the body is where we meet them, in our mutually arranged or accidental events of public concern. It’s the site of inevitable trespass, too, at least until the house is foreclosed on, emptied, and then gone altogether.

I still think about that swim team.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s writing has appeared in various online literary magazines. In 2014, his work was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces, which first appeared in Full Grown People, is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book of personal essays.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne.

Face Value

papers
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Randy Osborne

“I don’t expect you to remember me,” she says. The Atlanta bar is loud around us. She’s maybe late thirties, with dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, a certain kind of defiance about the lips. She tells me her name. “We were pen pals almost twenty years ago,” Jessica says.

I stare hard at her and ransack the mental files. Nothing. Later I will learn that Jessica heard my name from what turned out to be a mutual friend, who knew I’d be in the bar on this night for a special event. It’s over and the crowd is shuffling out.

Jessica goes on, apparently untroubled by my blank stare. “You worked at Creative Loafing.” Dimly I recall that job at the weekly alternative newspaper, but Jessica not at all. “I was a college student at Oglethorpe. I read one of your columns—something about family, I think—and sent you my poems. You wrote back.”

She lowers her eyes. “I still have those letters. I just wanted you to know how much they meant to me.” She was ready to quit writing in those days and I encouraged her, she says.

“Do you want to see them?”

•••

In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting old handwritten diaries and letters. The hobby arose as if out of nowhere, intense and mysterious. When asked to explain it, I tell people about my father.

Tom prowled yard sales for antiques he could mark up and resell. At his bank-teller job, he sorted bags of coins, plucking the rare finds and replacing them with his own pocket change, worth only face value. One of the first to own a metal detector in the 1960s, he haunted public parks on weekends, waving his wand like a dowsing rod. He unearthed tiny balls of tinfoil and flip-tops from soda cans, an occasional brooch pin or bauble.

One day, as a toddler, I stood at his side when he dumped onto the table his latest pile of flea-market junk. A hardcover book fell to the floor. When I opened it, the spine crackled. Spidery script in ancient ink lined the crumbly yellow pages. Wedged between them was a lock of hair, snipped and preserved more than a century before. I exhaled and the filaments trembled as if alive.

My spare bedroom is piled with crates full of folders and padded envelopes, the scribbled records of the pasts of strangers. Not that I plan to profit by passing them on. These I am keeping.

•••

The scans arrive by email from Jessica. My letters, dated between June and November 1996, are not handwritten as I hoped but generated by an old-style dot-matrix printer, probably in Creative Loafing’s office. Most striking about them is how little my “correspondent” voice has changed, given all that history. Brisk, jaunty, self-deprecating. Is there an essential me? An immutable set of qualities that add up to an entity, myself, never to be mistaken for another?

As part of my day job—I’m a biotechnology journalist, handling the daily news of DNA and disease—I was assigned a few months ago to write about a saliva-based genetic test that purports to find predisposition to disease. I spat in the test tube.

“You have really good genes,” the consultant tells me after checking the results. Except for one hitch: one copy of the APOE3 gene, which confers an average risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and one copy of the APOE4 gene, which means high risk. About 22 percent of the population bears this genotype, and it doubles my odds of Alzheimer’s.

When I am held down screaming in some filthy public hospital (so I envision it) as the nurse finds a vein, what of that essential me will exist?

In one of the letters to Jessica, I mentioned that although she has referred to prose as a blind corridor, she did not go so far as to call it a brick wall. “Even those who pretend we know what we’re doing are really groping along,” I wrote to her. I described my father’s recent accident, which rendered him a paraplegic, and my fumbling attempts to handle his affairs.

Maybe this is what prompted Jessica to send me an essay next. “I like the way you folded into the second version of the truck-stop story how your father is aging,” went my reply. At the end, I wrote, “Maybe I will get to meet you someday! That would be good. I have things to ask you about fiction vs. non-fiction, and the difficulties of each.” How non-fiction can become fiction so easily, as recollections fail.

November 1996. In another year, the newspaper job would end. In two years, my wife would leave me a letter—also dot-matrix, in a business-sized envelope—on the pillow of the guest room where I had been sleeping for a while. And then I was divorced.

•••

They tow my car from the parking deck of our apartment complex. Having misplaced the title to the decrepit Subaru, I avoided the hassle of getting new tags after I moved here from California. The truth is, I pretty much neglected the car altogether. Probably because of the flat tire, someone reported it as abandoned. I don’t bother visiting the impound garage to harangue some bored clerk in his cage. What’s a car anyway but the means of transport? Like the body hauls the soul around, until the soul alone is transported … somewhere. No doubt the Subaru will be auctioned or flattened for scrap, so I let my driver’s license expire, too. My watch quits working and I throw it away. All of this I recognize as the wordless language of relinquishment.

I’ve waited a long time to get old. After high school, I knew that I needed more life in order to have anything worth saying to a blank page. I wanted to claw the calendar pages off in bunches and accumulate a past. I wanted to let time etch lines in my face and scorch my soul. It happened, but I don’t know much more today than before, though I feel friendlier with the questions, more patient. Less patient, too, almost violently so, as the death clock ticks on. I’m pushing sixty. It’s not pushing back.

Still left to quit is my job. I phone a financial advisor to ask about retirement prospects. He wants a list of assets and I almost laugh. As he will, when he gets the “list.” It’s on the night after this conversation when shy Jessica sidles up to remind me about the letters.

“You did a good thing,” she says.

I guess Jessica’s age is about the same as mine when our letter exchange began. Such women look away from me in the street, sick of goons inspecting them. Then, too, it’s instinct, simple biology, and nothing personal. Their DNA makes them not return my gaze for the same reason my DNA makes me hope (absurdly, because what’s next?) they will. Our respective strands of chromosomes, our stranded chromosomes, want only to replicate with the optimal candidate. For mine, they are it. For theirs, I am not.

Yet another, larger part of me feels a wash of relief at not caring. The soul separates from the body, hardly a big deal. Can it be starting already? What’s astounding, so lucky, is that they came together in the first place, for however “long” or “short” a time.

“A few years ago, I ended a relationship that was murdering the joy out of me,” Jessica writes in a follow-up email to the letter scans. Quickly she apologizes for the “melodrama.” She’s “re-entering the world” and trying poetry again, she says. I tell her I’m glad. Her father has just turned eighty-three, she adds. “My parents had kids late, which makes them the age of my friends’ grandparents, which gives me an odd perspective sometimes.” She mentions his “creeping Alzheimer’s. At least he’s still around, which I know isn’t ever guaranteed, and everybody expected him to be gone by now.”

•••

One of my letters to Jessica closed with, “I want to help and am running out of time.” Another scrap of unintended melodrama, true in one way during the moment of composition—I was headed out the door, late for a flight—and more broadly true in another way now.

If I see her again, I’ll tell her, since it’s possible she will understand, about my stockpile of handwritten letters and diaries. About the form of treasure that they make up for me in the language of those who’ve relinquished everything, happily or not. About how the once-blank pages are filled with insistent claims, clamoring to be heard, silently bursting with what we’re expected to remember.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.

Year of the Body

nude
“In the Flesh,” courtesy the artist Amy O. Woodbury. amyowoodbury.com

By Susannah Quern Pratt

She’s not thin, but she is not really Reubenesque either. Curvy—a nice hourglass in the lower half, nothing to brag about on top. Perhaps an exaggerated version of my own physique. She stands at an inviting angle, lingering unassumingly in front of a blue-green background. Her naked body outlined in a bright red line, her bare skin a light yellow. She is not an exhibitionist in our midst, but a companion.

I cannot help but look at her. I drink her in. And yet she is unknowable. Her face is hidden from view. She offers only her body. The peaceful, smooth, flowing, sanguine lines of her body. It is the body whole. The body beautiful. The body at peace.

•••

In 2009 the doctors found a large tumor in my husband’s brain. It’s not a benign tumor; it’s not a malignant tumor. They don’t really say such things to patients in so many words anymore. Which I appreciated. They assign numbers and suggest that those numbers have meanings that may, or may not, correlate to your ultimate life expectancy. Grade 2 this, Possible Grade 3 that…it’s all very coded, but it allows room for hope and healing, if you read the numbers in the right way.

The tumor made itself known though a violent thing called a grand mal seizure. Again, my medical terminology is outdated here—I think they are called by another name now, but there is something vast and ominous about the old French qualifier that I really love…grand mal. Big wrong.

This grand mal signaled the start of the John’s body odyssey—followed by six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. The entire process was a breaking down of the body—sidelining it while the proton beams and chemicals waged war against the offending tumor. John, the beams, and the chemicals did well; they emerged as victor and, for the time being, have vanquished that which would have taken him down.

Now, three years later, he is trying to rebuild in the body what was there before—musculature, stamina, health. He monitors his calves, searching for the return of the bulk and definition that he is accustomed to. He watches his hair—one of the first things to return—to check how the resettlement process is going. His body is a big country and lots of patience is required during this period of reconstruction.

While the battle was being waged inside John, my own body revolted. And while I didn’t end up in the hospital, I did make the rounds of an embarrassing number of doctors: gynecologists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists. At the end of many tests and well meaning tips from doctors who could find nothing seriously wrong with me, I surrendered to the notion that I simply had to acknowledge the weight of the whole experience. Those in the know, and by this I mean yogis, had predicted this state of affairs. Friends versed in yogic breathing and the importance of stretching watched my hunched shoulders ascend toward my ears. They noticed my arms constantly crossed, my neck tight and stiff. My chest concave and brow furrowed despite the presence of easy laughter and carpe diem resolve. My body was at odds with my spirit and overall orientation. In the head, I was all healing, all the time. In the body, I was slowly crumbling.

This feeling, the body at odds with the spirit or the self, was new to me, and in fact may be the best way that I know of to describe what was heretofore the abstract notion of aging. In this year of the body, my husband’s and mine were not the only ones to show a chink in the armor. Friends developed thyroid disorders, fistulas, glaucoma, breast cancer, and herniated discs. It’s a list that I mistakenly thought I would be making in retirement, but I am talking about those of us hanging out just on either side of forty. No one tells you this. In the age of extended life expectancy, of Botox and aging baby boomers, no one tells you that after a mere forty years, the body will make some of its wear and tear known. No one tells you that living with a chronic condition could mean forty more years of living with a pain or limitation. And no one could ever prepare you for the fact that chronic takes on a relative appeal when compared to the alternative of terminal.

And each of these maladies is discordant with the way my friends and I perceive our lives. In our minds, we are all just getting started. We have small children and newly refinished kitchens. We’re forming opinions about local elementary schools and starting college savings plans. Life looks long from where we sit.

•••

The nude came to us by way of a clandestine meeting between the artist and my husband in the preschool parking lot. We first spotted her in a dark restaurant over a good bottle of wine with friends. John and I sat facing her all night, and as we were getting up after dinner, I told him that I loved the painting. Somewhat surprisingly (there’s no accounting for artistic taste), he completely agreed. There is a simple symmetry to her that is appealing, a certain openness. She’s easy to be with.

After tracking down the artist’s name from the restaurant owner, John had to sneak around to secure the painting without my knowledge. This included a hand-off from the female artist while I was away at work, a meeting that turned the heads of more than a few curious preschool moms but resulted in complete surprise for me. I opened the brown paper wrapping and beheld the painting with great joy—a feeling of reunion.

Finding the right spot for her took some time. She is nude, after all. We flirted with a spot for her in the dining room, considered having her welcome people to the kitchen. For several weeks she ended up propped against our bedroom wall, and I got used to having her there with us. Ultimately she ended up on the bedroom wall outside my closet door, a situation that forces me daily to reckon my own form with hers. So far this has not resulted in despair, but rather further affection.

•••

I have been fortunate in my life never to have been in an extended argument with my body. In college, when girls were alternatively eating whole wheat bagels with mustard (no fat!) and then vomiting to shed excess weight, I happily ballooned up the proverbial fifteen pounds. After college, lacking access to free beer, the fifteen pounds just sort of fell away, and so did an extra five that had been with me since high school. Each of my three pregnancies have been kind—far more miraculous than torturous. And again my normal shape has more or less returned, slightly saggier but basically the same.

Given our long history of peaceful, reliable coexistence, this most recent series of tumors and chest pain and cancers shook up my world order. People speak about disease or illness as being “betrayed by their bodies” but that seems too melodramatic to me, and somewhat inaccurate. It’s not that our bodies have become foreign in their failings, leaving us to question whether we ever really knew them to begin with. Rather, they seem to simply be signaling that things cannot continue as they have. In this way, our bodies are more like unwelcome harbingers of what is to come.

And perhaps this was the biggest question for me arising from The Year of the Body: Is the body the victim or the aggressor? Are these cancers and tumors of us, or alien attackers to be fought off with force? In some cases—like John’s—the tiny clustering of aggressive cells seemed other, like it had no place in him. And yet in other similar cases it’s the body itself that seems to be the enemy. Like the bodies of friends testing positive for the BRCA genes, the genetic predictor of an almost certain eventual occurrence of breast cancer. The women I know who have heard this unwelcome news from their doctors have immediately flown the white flag of surrender and made their way to the nearest surgeon for radical mastectomies and hysterectomies. The tumors don’t yet exist, but their bodies are fundamentally coded for disease. In this case, the preventative mutilations feel strangely appropriate. Like the body is being punished. Pruned back so it might continue to thrive.

•••

Since the painting hangs in an area highly trafficked by our three boys, my husband is waiting for the day when our oldest son, now eight, is first embarrassed by it—and then fascinated by the fully exposed female body. I think this day may be a long way off. Three little boys still come in to talk to me while I am showering, my own body in full view behind a glass shower door, asking what time their grandma is coming over or whether they can watch another show before homework. If they have questions about things corporeal, they are asked in a matter of fact tone. No stammering awkwardness, just straight up curiosity. “Mom, do you pee out of your butt?”

For years I have appreciated that the boys are still in a stage of body innocence—willingly changing out of their wet swimsuits and into dry clothes right in front of any neighbors or friends hanging out in our backyard. They have no shame about their bodies, no desire to judge shapes or figures different than theirs.

But what I have just described is the kind of innocence that is freedom from body image. Lately what I have been appreciating is their freedom from body dependence. Their bodies run, perform, produce on command, without thought or concern. They slam into each other on the bed during marathon wrestling matches without fear of broken bones or other injury. Having pizza for three consecutive meals doesn’t phase them because they have not yet begun to do the exhausting math that haunts the rest of us—the work of eliminating partially hydrogenated oils, or adding Vitamin D and antioxidants to concoct an elixir that will take off a pound or two here or add a year or two there. John and I have given up meat in the wake of his illness; they continue to relish bacon with their breakfasts. They sleep when they are tired, and they sleep deeply and soundly in direct correlation to the amount of activity in a given afternoon. I love watching them sleep—three little bodies at rest—deep breaths, slow shifts, quiet sighs.

•••

A few months ago, John was riding his bike to work for the first time since the end of chemo. He came down dressed in his gear—Lycra bike shorts and shirt, helmet in hand. Calves once again respectable. It is a full ten-mile ride along the lakefront and into some intense city traffic before he arrives at his office. My former strategy for dealing with any anxiety this might cause was to pretty much ignore what he was doing until I got a text signaling his safe arrival.

I am newly cautious, however. “Are you going to ride all the way in?” I asked. That was his plan—just to ride in. He was going to leave his bike at the office and take the train home. This sounded reasonable enough to me so I turned a deaf ear to the whispery voices saying things like “seizure” and “exhaustion.” He departed, a triumphant blur speeding out of the driveway, serenaded by the cheers of three little boys thrilled to see their father in the saddle again.

Later that day, I got a phone call. He was going to ride home. That would bring today’s total to twenty miles, I reminded him. I carried a load of laundry upstairs to our bedroom and began to fold. A chore that, especially in times of stress, feels like a piece of stage business to me. I folded and called out answers to the boys’ questions about dinner. But the whole scene was suspended and surreal; my mind was on a parallel track, watching John navigate the myriad bikers, dog-walkers, and cabs in his path. I was following his body, rooting for it, praying for it. His body that I adore. His body that I fear.

Warm laundry in hand, I looked over at the nude, and in that moment it became clear to me what I like about the painting—what pulls my eyes to it again and again. There, on the canvas, is successful surrender to the body, unabashed adoration of its beautiful, fallible imperfection. No face, no separate self—rather, a reconciling. In the painting, the body is all, and the body is enough.

•••

SUSANNAH QUERN PRATT lives with her healthy husband and three growing boys in Evanston, Illinois.

Five Pounds of Flesh

lingerie form
By The Lingerie Addict/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

The surgeon sat between my legs on a low stool, his left hand gently cradling the curve of my right breast as he drew dotted lines and circles on my skin. I was sitting on a hospital bed, my feet dangling off the side and I wasn’t sure where to look. His touch was measured and medical, but the intimacy of the moment took my breath away.

“This isn’t awkward at all,” I joked, trying to break the silence in the small examining room. The surgeon laughed with me, but never broke his concentration on the measurements—between collarbone and nipple, the space between breasts—mapping out where cuts and sutures and skin will go.

He quietly explained his strategy for the surgery to the resident sitting next to him, but he continued to focus on my breasts. I was in danger of breaking out in giggles and making his precise lines go wiggly, so I tried hard to concentrate on something else … anything. His wispy, graying hair. Sun-kissed, rugged cheeks. Blue eyes. Broad shoulders, sculpted arms, big, secure hands. Concentrating on him clearly didn’t make things easier. His breath smelled like chocolate.

This, I found the most reassuring.

•••

I am not sure when I realized that I have big breasts. And not just big breasts, but really big, bigger than big should be. I’ve always had this body and you get used to seeing yourself every day in a certain way. Sure, it changed with puberty, and the Freshman Fifteen, and the Married Ten, some weight loss here and there, and with pregnancy. But its essence—round belly, curvy hips, soft thighs, and big boobs—never really changed.

I got my first bra when I was twelve. At the time we lived in China because of my dad’s job, and I remember my mom gently suggesting that I should try on a bra. I was a bit surprised that she happened to pack one that fit me. I only started to wonder later whether it was actually one of her bras.

So that’s how it started and the sizes just kept going up and up. After we returned home from our Chinese adventure I got a couple of soft, cotton bras with pink hearts on it. Later my mom steered me to more supportive styles with wide straps and that awful beige-y hue that old ladies wear.

There are a lot of humiliating things about having unnaturally large breasts. The stares, especially when you are too young to handle such attention. The difficulty in finding clothes that fit, a bathing suit, or not being able to walk around without a bra, unless you want to look really, really ridiculous. But the thing that always got to me was shopping for bras: in almost every store—even in ones that seem to cater to larger women—you have to look in the very back and the very bottom of every display rack to find your size. I don’t know how many times I found myself shedding coat and purse and actually kneeling on the store floor to find what I was looking for. If, I could find what I was looking for.

•••

The first time I got naked with my first serious boyfriend, he was very nervous about taking his shirt off. I didn’t really understand until he finally pulled his t-shirt over his head. There were small scars around his nipples and he quietly admitted that as a teenager he’d had breast reduction surgery.

I thought about him as I was getting ready for my own surgery and about how he liked to compare my breasts to fruits: apples, oranges, peaches. “They’re more like melons,” I corrected him once, and I remember the shocked look on his face before we both burst into laughter.

There were men who were afraid of my breasts, hesitating about touching them, maybe intimidated by their heft. There were men who worshipped and treasured them, removing my bra last as if to save the best for last. There were men who didn’t really care or notice or comment.

But as I got older, I found that I cared and noticed more and more. I don’t think my breasts have ever held me back from doing things or made me more timid or shy. But, of course, it’s hard to say now because I can’t relive my younger years with small breasts for comparison. Could I have been more popular? More active and sporty? More outgoing, outspoken, confident? Would I have been more adventurous when it came to trying new things or going after things? I’d like to think that I was never defined by my breasts, but I am sure I was to some extent, at least in my mind. And who knows how others have thought of me? Was I ever “that girl with the rack”?

After I gave birth to my son I thought, finally, my boobs can do something good. But their size didn’t ensure that they would also produce enough milk, and it was actually harder to maneuver my nipples into the tiny, waiting mouth without smothering him. So not only was it impossible to find a pretty bra, or wear tank tops, or run, or just feel like I am not all boob, but now they couldn’t even feed my baby?

As the pain in my back and shoulders intensified each year, I finally made the decision: It was time for them to go.

•••

I found out my true bra size in a very posh lingerie shop in London a couple of years ago. Our kind B&B owner told me that I must go there because they are sure to carry my size. At the time, I thought that was a bit forward, and frankly I was just so sick of the humiliation of it all. But I was also curious. So I dragged my husband along and he walked around the neighborhood while I browsed. A woman who was about my age and was also fairly well endowed, pulled me into a dressing room. Even before I took my shirt off she said, “You are a 40H. I’ll be right back.” The number sounded impossibly foreign, especially because I realized that the bras I was squeezing myself into were two or three sizes too small.

She came back with a black lacy bra with no wires, and she quickly pulled off my old bra, which poked and bulged in all the wrong places. She put the black piece on me, adjusting me without any hesitation or permission and boom: there were the ladies, all tight and firm, lifted, separated, in place, and happy. The bra cost two hundred dollars. I bought it without hesitation. I wore and treasured that bra for years and years, washing it by hand, air-drying it, until it slowly, slowly fell apart.

•••

The pain was excruciating when I woke up from the surgery. My nipples were burning and my chest felt heavy and somehow hollow at the same time, as if my chest cavity were scooped clean.

As a new dose of pain medication took effect and the anesthesia wore off, I took a quick peek under my hospital gown. I couldn’t really see much—just bandages and an ugly surgical bra that was way too tight. The nurses and the surgeon were obviously very excited about the results. “They removed five pounds,” one nurse informed me. It was clear that it was a big deal.

The next day at my follow-up appointment to remove drains, the surgeon made a special point to stop by and help the nurse working on me. He thumbed my nipples to see if I had any sensation—yes, I did, thank you very much—and marveled at his own handiwork. It took me a while to work up the courage to look at them without the bra and without the bandages.

If they had removed five pounds of flesh from my stomach or from my thighs, I don’t think the experience would have been that emotional. But I couldn’t quite speak or put feelings into words when I saw my breasts—small, white, firm, and even with the bruising and the swelling and the specks of blood and blue ink left over from the surgery so, so very beautiful.

“We are so excited for you,” the nurse said. “This is going to make a huge difference in your life.” The surgeon put clean gauze around my incisions and held gauze pads to my breasts as the nurse eased a clean surgical bra over my shoulder and around my chest. He squeezed my hands as he left, clearly touched by what he had done for me; I wasn’t really sure what to do with his enthusiasm. I wanted to say something witty about how excited I was, or how certain I was that my life would change, or how I really, really understood the significance of what I have done.

But I really didn’t—not then and maybe not even now. And maybe there isn’t a greater meaning to any of those five pounds of fat and tissue. The body that was mine for all these years is no longer, but I carry its history and experiences inside. Now that there is no more pain, the swelling is gone and my skin has smoothed out again, everything else about me remains the same – the belly, the hips, the hair, the nose, the stubbornness, the introversion, the indecision, the writing, the chocolate, the four-year-old.

I am still me.

Still, when I look in the mirror every morning, I feel giddy.

•••

The lingerie shop that opened near my office is one of those places where I never would have thought about shopping just a few months ago. It is not a store that carries special sizes. There are three mannequins in the window wearing lacy, gauzy bras and panties, silky robes. Behind their headless bodies is a large room with neat racks on the walls—no digging around on the floor here.

A very young, tall, and skinny salesgirl shows me to a dressing room. I try not to be too obvious about checking her out when she mentions that she sleeps in a bra because she has large breasts. I can’t see what she is talking about.

She measures me and announces my new size. “You are between a 38 F and a 40 DD,” she says and quickly leaves the dressing room to pick out some bras for me. I am a bit bummed. Those numbers still sound incredibly big to me, but when I look at myself in the half-light of the dressing room what I see is teeny-tiny compared to my old self. I try hard not to concentrate on those numbers and letters. Just like weight, height, or age, they are just numbers after all.

The first bra I put on is light purple with black lining and lace. The straps are ruched and skinny, with just two hooks in the back and a small, rhinestone heart and a black silk bow in the front. “It fits like a glove,” the salesgirl says as she adjusts the straps, and I am too busy checking myself out to respond. I try on three more and I really can’t believe that all of this delicate and tiny silk and lace can be mine.

Whatever this surgery will come to mean in my life, whatever change it will bring—or not—almost doesn’t matter. This is a pleasure in life: to feel normal, to feel pretty, to have soft, luxurious fabric against my skin, to look at myself and not turn away. The salesgirl asks if I want my husband to come in and take a look. I tell her no. He will get his turn, but this moment is all mine.

I don’t check the price tags. I buy them all. The ladies and I waited a very long time for this.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.