I’m obsessed with breasts.
Not in the lesbian sense. I’m a card-carrying heterosexual woman with a serious crush on Johnny Depp. And I never really noticed them before. Breasts, I mean. They were just a fact of life. Like day and night. Sun and rain. God. And Krispy Kremes.
But now that I’m about to lose mine, I can’t stop staring at them everywhere I go. The mall. Work. Church. The gym. Even my parents’ house. (Sorry, Mom.)
Large ones, small ones, black ones, white ones, perky, even sagging—to me, they’re all a thing of beauty.
My name is Natalie. I’m twenty-seven years old. And I have breast cancer.
Oh yeah. And I’m single. There goes my dating life down the toilet.
I never dreamed I’d get breast cancer. That was for older women. Right? I mean, you can’t even get a routine mammogram until you’re forty. There’s gotta be a reason for that.
I discovered the lump by accident.
Wish I could say it was during my regular self-exams, which I learned how to do during a women’s health class in college. But my monthly self-exams were more irregular than regular. And I never could tell one lump from another anyway. They all felt the same to me. Squishy.
Like more than half the women on the planet—including my sixty-seven-year-old mother, I had fibrocystic breasts. Lumpy, in other words. But to my knowledge, there’s no history of breast cancer in our family, so I really wasn’t worried when I felt the lump while trying on a gel bra at Victoria’s Secret.
My best friend, Merritt, and I were goofing around one Saturday at the mall, wondering how we’d look if we were both a little bigger in the boob department.
Although I needed more help than she did.
We each tried on one of those padded gel and water bras like they use in Hollywood all the time. And Merritt, who’d grabbed a black double-D, was vamping for the dressing-room mirror, sucking in her cheeks, making her lips all pouty, and trying to look appropriately sexy as she admired her now-bountiful cleavage beneath her straining white poet’s blouse.
I shook my head. “Too Anna Nicole Smith.”
She swung her tomato-red (this week) mane and examined her double-basketball profile. “But they helped her marry a millionaire. Who knows? Maybe they’ll do the same for me.”
“Right. And then you’d have to sleep with a guy who’s as old as your grandfather. Correction, great-grandfather.”
We scrunched up horrified faces. “Eew!”
Faster than a Hollywood marriage, Merritt whipped that bad boy off from beneath her blouse and dropped it on the reject pile. Then she glanced at me and did a double take. “Hey, whaddya know? You’ve got boobs!”
“I know! Can you believe it?” I turned sideways and scrutinized my B-cup self. “The double-fried-egg girl finally has curves.”
“You’ve always had curves. They’re just small.” She stared at my basic black T-shirt as I pirouetted in front of the mirror. “But, honey, those double fried eggs are now a couple of blueberry muffins. You have to buy that miracle-worker bra.”
“Nope.” I took a last regretful look at my curvy front. “With me, what you see is what you get.”
“I know. I know. Little Ms. Candid and Up-front. But what would it hurt to be a little mysterious every now and then?” She twirled in her gauzy Indian broomstick skirt over leggings, lowered her head, and made her eyes all exotic and inscrutable. “Men like that in a woman.”
“Well, they’re not going to get it from me. I wouldn’t know how to even begin to be mysterious.” I turned my back and unhooked the lacy pink bra while Merritt busied herself collecting all the lingerie we’d tried on. As I lowered the straps off my shoulders, my hand grazed my left breast and I felt something.
A lump. Not squishy.
Time to cut down on my caffeine intake. I’d read somewhere that too much caffeine can increase fibrocystic lumps.
“Hey, heads up!” I tossed the bra over my shoulder to join the others on the reject pile.
Pushing open the door of her midtown Victorian apartment half an hour later, Merritt sang out, “Honey, I’m home!”
“Me, too, honey,” I echoed, even though I didn’t live there.
Jillian raised her shaped-and-waxed eyebrows over her cappuccino. “So what’d you buy?”
“A T-shirt.” I raised my lone shopping bag high. “It’s this great coral color. And only $9.99 at Target.”
She rolled her eyes. “Nat, one of these days you’ve got to branch out from your discount stores.” She glanced at my jeans. “And your jeans and T-shirt uniform.”
“You’re such a snob, Jilly.” I gave her an affectionate grin. “Besides, I do so branch out. At work I wear khakis or dress pants and the occasional skirt. And I have a tailored jacket for meetings.”
“Whoa. Really pushing the fashion envelope there.”
Merritt was trying to skulk behind me in an evasive maneuver. But Jillian spotted her.
“Not so fast, roomie. Show me what you got for your date tonight.”
My best friend exchanged a resigned look with me, shrugged her shoulders, and lifted her hands, empty palms up. “Nada.”
“You two! What am I going to do with you?” Jillian slid her slim, designer-clad self off the retro kitchen bar stool and advanced toward us. “How do you expect to get a guy if you don’t even make a little bit of an effort?”
“Uh, have you forgotten? I’ve already got a guy.” I popped an Altoid into my mouth, enjoying that heady peppermint rush. “And Jack doesn’t seem to have any complaints about my casual style.”
“That’s right,” Merritt said. “And you guys have been together—what? Two months now?”
I thought back to our first date and did some mental calculations. “One month and seventeen days. But who’s counting?”
“Whoa, I’m impressed, math girl. You’re usually not good with numbers.” Merritt turned a dazzling smile on Jillian. “And speaking of numbers, I’m not even thirty yet. You know what they say—forty is the new thirty, which goes to follow that thirty must be the new twenty, which means I’m really only eighteen. Besides . . .” She waved her hand airily. “If a guy’s hung up by how I dress, he’s not for me.”
“At least tell me you’ll change out of those paint-spattered leggings.” Jillian raised a French-manicured hand to her brow, her sparkling new solitaire winking in the light, and shook her head in dismay. “I can’t believe you went out in public like that.”
Jillian’s the fashionista in our trio of friends. A personal shopper at Nordstrom, she lives, breathes, and eats what’s in and what’s out, what works and what doesn’t in the world of fashion.
Merritt and I, not so much.
I’m more a Target and Old Navy girl myself. In fact, the first time Jillian said “Jimmy Choo,” I said “Gesundheit.” But I’m willing to spend a little more money on a fabulous accessory to pull a whole outfit together, like a brooch or a designer belt. I might be casual, and I might be thrifty (Jillian has another word for it), but I do have flair if I say so myself.
And Merritt? Well, Merritt’s an artist, so she has this funky, bohemian, retro, thrift-store vibe goin’ on. She gravitates toward long, flowy skirts over tights or leggings and boots (combat or cowboy), often paired with a men’s jacket over a billowing blouse or tank top. She’s a modern-day Annie Hall. (Or Mary Kate Olsen with a little more padding. But don’t ever tell her I said so.)
“I can’t help it that someone in this room”—Merritt wriggled her eyebrows at me—“woke me up at the crack of dawn. Since I got dressed in my sleep and without benefit of caffeine, I just threw on the closest thing.”
“Ten o’clock is not the crack of dawn, Batgirl. Maybe it’s time to leave your cave and enter the sunshine.” I beckoned to her. “Don’t be afraid. Come to the light. Come to the light.”
“I’ll light you.” Merritt grabbed an Art Deco lamp from the end table and brandished it at me.
“Watch out!” Jillian yelped.
Too late. The lamp cord caught on a can of Diet Pepsi and tipped it over onto the cream-colored carpet.
Jillian yanked some paper towels from the kitchen and raced to mop up the spill. “How many times have I asked you not to leave your half-full cans of soda lying around?”
“Sorry.” Merritt grabbed the can of spot remover she kept in the end-table cabinet, and the two of them tag-teamed to clean up the mess.
“Good work, guys.” I strode to the table. “But if I might make a humble suggestion? If you move the lamp to the back of the table like so”—I pushed the lamp to the back corner and angled it—“that won’t happen again.” I stood back and surveyed the table with a critical eye, then adjusted the coasters and angled the magazines as well. “There.”
Merritt smirked. “Well, thank you, Ms. Home Makeover.”
Jillian shook her head. “Actually, it looks a lot better. You have a great eye, Nat.”
“And you can cook,” Merritt added. “If Jack doesn’t marry you, maybe I will.”
I stuck out my tongue at her and looked at my watch. “Whoops, gotta go.” I winked at Merritt. “Have fun on your date tonight. Call me later.”
Merritt, Jillian, and I have been friends since the eighth grade. We bonded in girl-power solidarity when Doug Anderson, the captain of the junior varsity football team, slipped me a note in art class that said, “What color undershirt are you wearing today?” As my flat-chested, undeveloped self cringed and turned every shade of red, Doug and several of his jock pals sniggered. Merritt, who sat next to me and whose hair was then a two-toned blue, saw the note. She didn’t say anything. But a few minutes later, she accidentally tipped a container of thinned-out orange acrylic paint into my tormentor’s lap.
“Hey!” Doug jumped up as the class exploded in laughter.
“Oops. Sorry.” Merritt widened her eyes and looked all innocent. “Guess I wasn’t watching what I was doing.”
The bell rang then, and Jillian, the head of the JV cheerleading squad, who at thirteen already filled out her perky cheerleading uniform in ways I never could, shot Doug a withering glance and linked arms with me and Merritt. “C’mon, girls, let’s go to lunch. I’m starving.”
We were fast friends from that moment on. Which is kind of strange considering how we were all so different.
Jillian came straight out of Central Casting as the pretty and privileged yuppie blonde cheerleader—except she never had that mean-girl thing going on. She is now engaged to Bill, a successful real-estate wheeler-dealer she met when she helped him upgrade his wardrobe.
Merritt, who was abandoned at birth and raised in a series of foster homes, is kind of a cross between Pink and Gwen Stefani with a voluptuous dash of Kelly Osbourne thrown in. On her own since sixteen, she is a fabulous artist—her oils are as bold and colorful as she is—and I just knew she’d make it really big someday. But until then, she was working as a graphic artist for a PR firm here in downtown Sacramento.
And me? I’m somewhere in-between.
After getting my B.A. in business, I worked my way up to executive assistant to one of the partners of a major capital city accounting firm. I was the go-to girl for everything in that office. And I was a sure bet for the office-manager position that would open up pretty soon, when the current manager retired.
Okay, so the partner was my dad and the current office manager was my mom. So what? I still had to start at the bottom like everyone else.
After twenty years of marriage, my career-minded mom got pregnant at the age of forty. What she thought was early menopause was actually me. So to say my folks doted on me would be putting it mildly. But I couldn’t have asked for better parents. Dad’s a doll, and Mom—okay, Mom can be a tad, well, opinionated. In the same way that a Mack truck is opinionated. If I didn’t know that she’s gone to the same neighborhood church all her life, I’d swear she was Jewish. Oy.
Mom named me after her favorite movie star, Natalie Wood, because she’d loved her in West Side Story, plus I had dark eyes and dark hair like Natalie. When I was little, Dad always called me Snow White. Once we saw Pocahontas though, with her hair flowing behind her as she ran like the wind, he exchanged one Disney princess for another. And even after I grew up and it became clear I wasn’t going to look like any of those movie stars, real or fictional, my parents still managed to make me feel pretty.
After that embarrassing art-class incident, for instance, Mom took me to Macy’s and bought me five A-cup bras—three white, one nude, and one navy. (Black would have been a bit too racy for her thirteen-year-old daughter.) “Don’t you worry about being small, honey,” she whispered to me in the dressing room at Macy’s. “When you’re older it will be a blessing.”
Merritt said my parents and I were a little too close and I needed to break free and spread my wings a little. But I have so spread my wings. After we graduated from high school, we went to Paris, just the two of us, for three weeks and had a blast. Merritt was in artist heaven as we strolled through Montmartre and spent hours at the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. My best moment was seeing the Eiffel Tower up close and personal while munching on a croissant.
Then, halfway through our trip, the coolest thing happened. My parents, who’d never been to Europe in their lives, let alone Paris, surprised us with a visit.
I still don’t know why Merritt got so upset.
Personally, I was a little tired of youth hostels and protein bars by then, so it was paradise to stay in a nice hotel in a room adjoining my parents and enjoy pâté, coq au vin, and chocolate mousse when we dined.
Not to mention the Belgian chocolates on our pillows. Talk about bliss.
Merritt always told me it was time to leave the nest, but I had a pretty sweet deal going. I had my own place, a cute mother-in-law cottage that Dad built in the backyard for my nana when she came to stay with us in her final years. When I was twenty-three, Nana passed away and I moved into the three-room cottage—where I only paid three hundred dollars a month, I might add, a rental steal in California. I was thinking of moving in with Merritt and Jillian, but my folks showed me the financial wisdom of staying put.
My parents didn’t want me to pay rent, but I insisted. My independence was important to me. And I loved my cottage. You should see what I did with it. It’s amazing what you can do with some good basic pieces (my grandmother’s antiques), some fabric, and lots of imagination.
We lived on a quiet, tree-lined street in an older suburb of Sacramento, the state capital of California, where the most common variety of tree is the Modesto ash, with a few maples and birches thrown in. Unfortunately, the Modesto ash only has a fifty-year life span and our little suburb was forty-nine years old. So the trees were really starting to show their age, most of them filled with mistletoe.
Mistletoe is only romantic at Christmas. Trust me on this—it’s a parasite. So once or twice a year, a scruffy-looking guy in a rattletrap truck knocked on all the neighborhood doors and offered to get rid of the mistletoe for a mere forty bucks. For years my dad did it himself, but once he turned sixty-two, his back couldn’t take clambering up in the tree anymore. So now we paid the forty bucks. Except we’d let it go recently—tax season was always crazy at the firm—and the mistletoe was really getting thick.
I coasted to a stop at the end of our driveway, reveling in the beauty of the gorgeous spring day. I looked up at the ash that shaded my porch and made a mental note to get the tree guy’s phone number from Mom. Then, grabbing my purse and shopping bag, I locked my car and headed to the front door of my cottage.
Before I got there, I was assaulted with a powerful blast between my breasts.