The scar on my breast is a dark reddish brown, fading slowly at the edges. It is curved, like a parenthesis. There is a slight indentation, a flat spot under the blemish that shows when I stand in profile. The scar is hidden, even by my most revealing bathing suit. Most of the time I don’t even think about it, except when I’m undressed.
My usual routine when I can’t fall asleep consists of surfing the internet for cat memes and funny videos. The other night I sat up, bolstered on both sides by the collection of pillows my boyfriend and I have on our bed, and picked up my phone. The dark bedroom was lit by the tiny bluish glow from the screen, and I turned the volume down low so that Andrew wouldn’t hear and come in to remind me I had to get up early for work the next day.
I found a comedy sketch on YouTube that started with a woman entering a gym. Her dark hair piled on top of her head, she carries a gym bag over her arm as she walks up to the smiling young woman in a green polo shirt at the front desk. As she signs in an alarm sounds and the uniformed staffer stands up and congratulates the woman. The visitor has just turned forty, and the attendant leads her back to a special area that she is now entitled to enter. It is a changing room filled with naked women. They sprawl on benches and strut around the space without as much as a towel to hide behind. One of the women appears to be shaving her pubic hair. Another lifts her breasts and towels off underneath them. When the birthday girl protests that she’s not that comfortable with nudity, her clothes magically disappear and she’s left standing there, naked. She does, however, still have the gym bag over her arm. The other women gather around to welcome her to “not giving a shit at the gym.”
I have never been comfortable in locker rooms. I don’t like undressing in front of anyone unless they’re going to have sex with me or give me a medical exam. A changing room filled with other people has always necessitated contortions worthy of a gymnast or a Chinese acrobat. I can both remove and replace my bra without taking off my t-shirt. If I’m at the lake I can completely undress and put on a one piece bathing suit while wrapped in a beach towel. It’s not the scrutiny of strangers that bothers me, it’s being seen naked by someone I might encounter later at the grocery store.
Last year, I hesitated when one of my coworker friends invited me to come with her to a Korean spa. My friend is in her thirties, two decades younger than I am. She’s blonde, single, and a frequent shopper at Groupon, where she found a great deal on the spa visits.
“Isn’t there a lot of walking around naked at a Korean spa?” I asked her. It’s one thing to picture people without their clothes when you’re nervous about giving a presentation, but it’s another thing entirely to know exactly what they look like without their underwear. After my friend assured me that the mineral baths were the only area where nudity was required, I went with her, but I arrived later and undressed by myself in a different part of the locker room. I put on the baggy pink shirt and shorts assigned to me by the spa, and wore my bathing suit underneath.
When I told my son Robert about my visit, he encouraged me to go back and try out the mineral baths. “The nude part is no big deal, Mom” he said. Robert makes his living as a plumber, a job requiring both physical skill and tolerance for messy situations. My son is very comfortable with his body. One Christmas he arrived at a gathering of friends and family and announced “I have a new piercing!” I often wish I had his confidence, and that he had my tact.
I considered his suggestion, and I went back to the spa by myself. I decided I would take advantage of every area, including the mineral baths in the women’s locker area. I checked in with the twenty-something year old blonde girl at the counter, and paused before answering “No” when she asked if I would be consuming alcohol. She strapped the electronic device that looked like a watch on my wrist. It stored my credit card information, and I would use it to both open my assigned locker, and pay for any food or drink I might want purchase. It didn’t cover much of my body, but it did eliminate the need for pockets.
After I took off my shoes and socks, I stowed them away in the first locker area and then made my way barefoot down the white tiled hallway toward the changing room. I stopped to pick up the uniform I would wear after the bath. The friendly girl at the counter handed me a folded pair of pink shorts and a faded pink t-shirt and said “Have a good visit!” Because I was still fully dressed, except for my feet, I smiled back at her and said thanks.
After checking to make sure no one there was even remotely familiar, I undressed and stowed my belongings in my locker. Had I spotted my favorite barista from Starbucks the whole deal would have been off, but I bravely set off for the shower area. I discovered that walking naked through a crowded changing room required a degree of relaxed composure I didn’t possess. I couldn’t walk through the place with my eyes closed, but I didn’t want to be seen staring at someone’s nipples either. Direct eye contact is uncomfortable for me. Even if I am fully dressed I tend to look away nervously as if I’ve just stuffed a handful of collection plate money in my purse. I gave up staring at my feet after I almost walked into a column, and finally found that the area between the collarbone and the bottom of a person’s ear lobe is a nice, neutral area. I could avoid both running into obstacles and giving the impression that I wanted to have a conversation.
The glass walls around the mineral bath area were fogged with condensation and as I walked closer, I was greeted with warm, moist air that smelled like chlorine and salt. The first spa had just two women, an elderly Asian grandmother and a middle aged Asian woman who could have been her daughter. Their eyes were closed in blissful relaxation. I lowered myself into the hot whirlpool, and found that if scooted down on the seat around the edge of the bath, the churning water safely concealed most of my body. If I closed my eyes I could imagine myself alone, and not sharing a bath with naked strangers.
I haven’t been back to the spa since my lumpectomy. The mass in my breast was familiar to me. It was there, in the upper right quadrant of my right breast, a small, hard lump that had been felt, scanned, and needle biopsied in the three years since I first discovered it. But when I went in for my annual well woman checkup, my gynecologist, a young woman with freckles and shiny black hair in a ponytail, paused during the breast exam.
“Was this lump there last year?” She gently tapped her fingers over my breast as I lay on the examining table. I raised my head a little bit to look at her instead of focusing on the many pictures of babies plastered on the walls. Her usual smile was replaced by a slight scowl. We had discussed this same lump last year. I even had a follow up ultrasound, but I felt as though I had conspired to hide this growth from her, maybe tucked away under my shoulder or behind my ear, one of the few places on my body not exposed during the annual exam.
“Yes.” I replied, “But maybe it’s bigger?” At this my doctor nodded her head and sent me off to a mammogram.
“You need an ultrasound.” The female technician, dressed in scrubs patterned with small hearts, frowned at me after the mammogram. Her eyes squinted at the images pinned up on the lightbox. She pushed her glasses up and pointed to the black and white pictures on the lightbox. “You have dense breasts” she said, shaking her head and blowing out a little puff of air. This was not news to me, although her tune was new, I’d heard the same refrain throughout my adult, yearly mammogram life.
I took my dense, uncooperative breasts for an ultrasound, which led to a referral to a specialist, a breast surgeon. My familiar lump had grown from the size of a small pea to slightly larger than a marble in the space of a year. The radiologist, a young man with dark hair and serious, black framed glasses, told me the growth did not look like cancer, but I would need a biopsy to be sure. The diagnosis read “Intermediate suspicion of malignancy”, which I took to mean I should make the appointment with the surgeon soon.
The next month I had the first surgery and a biopsy of the tumor. The week after that I met with my surgeon, a slim woman with a slight southern accent and soft, sure hands. Her walls were decorated with reassuring accolades and degrees. I sat on the examining table at her office and listened while she looked over the incision on my breast and discussed the lab results. The paper on the table crinkled as I shifted position.
“You have a phyllodes tumor” she explained. She went on to say that it wasn’t malignant, but that sometimes these tumors can come back, and develop into malignancies. “They are nasty” she said. I imagined a face on my tumor, like the Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Nasty. I could choose to have her go back and remove the rest of the tumor, and the margins of tissue around it, or I could wait and monitor it with screenings. I imagined myself crossing off the days on the calendar until my insurance would cover the next ultrasound. I knew that I would feel the need to constantly check my breast, fingers measuring the skin over the lump, comparing and wondering if it had grown. If this urge overtook me in the grocery store check-out line it might be disturbing to the cashiers, so I chose the second surgery.
The scar, like the memory of the surgery that created it, fades more each day. Like the other bumps, stretch marks, and wrinkles, it is just a punctuation mark on my body, the grammar to my life story. If I were naked, the scar might require an explanation. I’m not embarrassed by it, but by the assumptions that might come from its presence. It is a purple heart from a battle that I did not have to fight.
I pull the covers up to my chin and slip down in my bed. The sheets smell pleasantly of floral fabric softener and they feel softly worn against my skin. I queue up the video again on my phone, and watch as the woman enters the gym. Once more the alarm sounds and the smiling attendant takes the lucky lady back to the changing room. The light from my phone screen lights up my face in the dark as I watch the naked women greet the newcomer. They all seem happy and relaxed, like friends I believe I would like to meet for coffee. I hear their laughter echo against the metal cabinets, as though from a distance. I think that maybe I am getting closer to where they are, in that kind and accepting place where everyone is welcome, as long as they are at least forty. As I turn off my phone for the night I take comfort in the thought that somewhere there is a room, a place for women, where no explanations or apologies are needed, and no one there gives a shit.
Originally published in The Same.