O, Susanna

Twelve and my breasts begin their slow swell, moon-bright in the seventh month of my slumber. This strange sheen, as within the begonia’s waxy heart, my neck spreading its blush when, in front of my crush, the boy from Glasgow County, B snaps my training bra and runs away, laughing. In Home-Ec two years later, while the class learns how to use measuring cups, D leans in and says, What does your shirt say? As if trying to read braille, he touches my breast. I’m stuck, still, a sack of flour shoved to the back of the cupboard. Small discs of turquoise dangle from my ears like fingerprints, the shape pressed into my chest like Ms. S told us—in a separate class from the boys—to check each month, to find lumps, for even the tiniest could be cancerous, grain-thick in the paddy of some temerarious fright, that dim scepter, womanhood. Mornings I brush the tops of strawberry plants with my palms to find the dark pebbles of fruit. I never talk to D again. After P.E. girls fold their bodies into clothes as a mantis folds its pious limbs. We exhale what perfume our mothers allow. We sign up for Driver’s Ed. And O for shame the day I find them, unmistakable knots in my left breast. Years later a doctor will say, Fibrous breast tissue. A famous poet will yank the pull-string collar of my shirt, say, What does your shirt say, craning a look at my modest cleavage and I can only respond, Will you sign my book? Mother cannot take off work for my appointment, so Father runs the truck to warm it, breath suspended like October fog over the soybean field. We descend Hanging Rock Hill. My father, who, says my mother, clucked with happiness at news of my period but with whom the brutalities of puberty are not spoken—save a drive from school the day I’d forgotten deodorant, his tender broaching my, as he called it, Unfortunate Tang, now asks, How dense do the lumps feel and Does any substance come out your nipple if you squeeze? O how suddenly the tears snake their way up, up from the fists under the thighs, from the chalky pit of gut, the mouth’s soft gasket: my caterwaul pelts every corner of the truck’s cab: O ignominy—a marble in each breast, each throat I cannot clear: my body a foreign, festering place: not simply shame but something far more dank, defenseless, how Susanna may have felt, an elder rounding the corner toward her, then the other: I never read the famous poet’s book. Years later, I will understand my father was truly afraid, was kindest to me when I was, too: every last bit of bluster, fallen away. Is that why I recall this all as I stand in an Xray’s ante-room twenty years later, giving my name so I might enter only to hear the radiologist sing it back to me, like people do, forgetting the song’s racist origins, then she adjusts against the machine each of my bare breasts, which readied for a baby and reneged so many times my chances of cancer have tumbled up and out like a gymnast across the mat—O see now, how my tears trouble my father so, he, too, begins to cry for me.

Photo by Rifat Ahmed Ritul on Unsplash