This essay was first published in The Radical Notion and is reproduced here by permission of the author.
There’s a burn mark on my right breast. Up high, a little in toward my sternum. I did it to myself, although I suppose that makes it sound as if I did it on purpose. I didn’t. I woke up with it one morning.
I’d just moved out on my husband the month before. It was late March, but still wintry, and I was sleeping in a small room in the basement of the apartment I’d moved into, the bottom half of an old house. The main floor was spacious and the rooms full of light, so I’d chosen to sleep in the basement because it was cool and dark and private down there. The furnace thrummed softly at night, making the small room I’d made my bedroom feel like a ship’s cabin. It felt like a safe place to ride out the storm of my divorce.
But, as I say, it was still winter, so I used a heating pad to warm up the bed, and then laid it over my chest while I read myself to sleep. That night, apparently, I’d turned it up too high, or maybe I’d gone to bed naked, without my usual T-shirt to cushion my skin from the heating pad. I woke up the next morning with an elongated burn on the tender skin of my right breast, an angry, raised red blister full of fluid, maybe an inch and a half long.
It was a tough time, those first months after I’d finally left to move into the apartment. On weekends, without work to distract me, I wandered the rooms crying, stopping to prop myself up against a wall and sob, and at first the burn seemed to me like an outward manifestation of the pain I was feeling over having to leave after thirty-five years of marriage.
Oddly enough, the burn itself didn’t hurt, although I had to be careful of the blister. I kept it under a bandage for some weeks, and each time I had to maneuver a bra gingerly over it, or position myself carefully in the shower to keep the full force of the water from striking my breast, it felt to me exactly like the care I was taking to shield myself from feeling the full force of the preceding few years.
About six months after I burned myself, in November, my divorce was final, after a single court hearing that began with the irony of my answering the court officer who asked if I swore to tell the truth with the same words I’d spoken at my marriage ceremony all those years ago: I do.
My husband wasn’t there; I’d asked him not to be, and I was okay, composed, until the judge leaned forward to ask what were to her the last routine questions in a series of them. “Is the marriage irretrievably broken?” she asked. “No chance for reconciliation?” My voice was unexpectedly full of tears even though I replied as she expected, while I reflected privately that when your husband comes in one day and declares he’s decided he’s a woman in a man’s body and wants to transition, then yes, the marriage you thought you had is over, even if you don’t want it to be, even if you pretend for three years that it isn’t, even if your husband eventually decides to live a closeted life. But I knew she didn’t want to know these details, so I worked to suppress them, only half-hearing as my lawyer and the judge went on to discuss the date for recording the dissolution with the clerk. Then my lawyer steered me out of the courtroom, a divorced woman.
There’d been an unseasonably early snow the night before, and when I returned to my apartment I went out to wander around in it. The snow-coated trees, still resplendent in red and yellow leaves, looked as if they, too, had been caught out unawares. I reached out to shake branches free of their freight of snow, as if I could similarly dispel the strangeness of my morning in court: the courtroom itself, a hybrid of church sanctuary and theatre-in-the-round; the spot-lit judge at her elevated dais; that mirror-image book-end promise of “I do.” That night we had such a hard frost that the ginkgoes did as they do and dropped all their leaves at once, and when I looked out the next morning and saw them carpeting the snowy ground, and all the branches bare, I thought, yes, now it’s well and truly done.
It took a long time for the blister to subside and the burn to heal, and it left a scar, slightly raised and pink. One day, looking at it as I showered, I realized with a kind of shock that my now ex-husband would never see this mark on my breast. The man who had known my body intimately for decades would never know this new thing about it. Anyone who might see this scar would be someone not my ex, and given my age, I didn’t think a new lover a likely possibility.
I vacillated between sorrow that this unseen scar marked the final rupture between my now ex-husband and me, and anger that the scar would be mine and only mine—barring my doctor—to know. Women’s breasts are for better and worse a kind of common property, and mine had been no different. Boyfriends and then husband had caressed them, my child had hungrily claimed them for himself. I had not wanted that divorce, even though I initiated it. And now here I was, aging and alone, carrying a scar of my own making.
Above all, my husband desired breasts. Before I understood the full implications of my husband’s desire to be a woman, when I still believed I had relevance, when I so desperately sought to stay relevant, to stay coupled, I’d offered him the use of my body to imagine himself a woman. One night I’d sat him down on the edge of the bed, both of us naked, and positioned myself to stand in front of him, between his legs, my back to his chest, then reached for his hands and lifted them up to cup my breasts. “Imagine,” I said, “that these are yours.” Use me, I meant, to fulfill your need. But of course one’s hands on another’s breasts don’t feel at all like one’s hands on one’s own, and that is what he wanted. To caress breasts of his own.
The breast forms he bought felt weighty and alien, he said, and served only to remind him he was not the woman he wanted to be. He decided he was glad he was fat, because the fat gave him what he referred to, coyly, as “kinda, sorta” breasts. He bought new bras, satin and lace but made for men, modeled on the website by nubile gay men. They fit better and felt more natural, and he enjoyed cupping his “kinda, sorta” breasts, or seductively lowering a shoulder, sliding a strap down to expose himself to play with—or invite me to play with—a nipple, and he sent me selfies of himself in such poses with come-on subject lines that I learned not to open at work.
I remember particularly the morning after I shaved his legs for him, another of his long-nursed desires. Having gathered up the razor and towel, I turned around to see him standing with his eyes closed, his hands to his chest; with a jolt of recognition I remembered the caption on a photograph I’d seen on the website of a Thai clinic specializing in gender affirmation surgery: “Trans woman communing with her breasts.” In time I grew to feel as if my husband had taken a mistress, whom he brought into our bed, and his hands on himself were also his hands on her.
After I gave birth to our son I chose to breastfeed. Breastfeeding felt like a continuation of the intimacy of pregnancy; I knew him inside and out. I knew from his movements inside me his waking and sleeping times, which would remain constant after he was born, and laughed over his preferred position, from which he never deviated after adopting it at six months, head tucked down and pushing against my pubis, bottom to one side, his legs stretched out long sideways—“lucky ‘7’” I called it—and I would often fondle the places on the sides of my belly where could be felt the hard knots of his heels and the muscular curve of his buttocks.
In the first weeks of his life, our son, Connor, slept at night in a bassinet near our bed, and to feed him I lifted him into bed with us, dozing off as he suckled. When we moved him to his crib in another room, I’d sit with him in a rocking chair there, making up silly rhymes—Connor Bonnor, Conster Bonster, Conster Bonster Monster—and songs to sing to him as he fed. Bonster, Bonsteration, caused some consternation, all across the nation, Bonster, Bonsteration. He would grip my finger or rest his open hand lightly on my breast, and it seemed to me his sucking would echo the pace of my singing.
My husband liked to watch me breastfeed, and one day he asked to photograph our son at my breast. I was privately reluctant, because the prospect made me self-conscious, a feeling not conducive to let-down—I was always worried I couldn’t supply enough milk—a feeling heightened by my husband leaning in with the camera for a close-up. But I put my hesitation aside, and told myself that opening the bond between my baby and me to include his father was an opportunity for the three of us to bond as a family.
When I left home I took with me the baby book, the one containing those close-ups my husband had taken of our son at my breast, and before I set it on a shelf in a closet in my new apartment I sat down and paged through it, and it struck me in an entirely new way how in those photos my face is absent. They show only my breast and the baby’s face as he suckles. In one of the photos, my son’s mouth is latched on to my nipple, and he is looking up. In my mind’s eye, I enlarged the visual field to supply the context for the image, what wasn’t shown in the photo. The baby wasn’t just looking up; he was looking up at me, I was looking down at him, and our eyes were locked on each other’s.
In light of what my husband had told me about himself, I sat wondering. When he framed and focused that photo to show only my breast, when he’d looked at it over the years, had he been substituting himself for me? “Imagine,” I’d said, “that these are yours.” Use me, I’d meant, to fulfill your need. Maybe, as with the bras and panties he’d filched from me without my knowledge, he’d been doing just that for years.
Tucked into the front of the baby book, in a folder of its own, was another photo, this one of me seven months pregnant, taken by a friend and office mate from graduate school. Diane and her partner Marilyn lived together in a big old house, and in her small upstairs study Diane had taken a series of black-and-white portraits of me at six and seven months pregnant. In this one, a nude, I was seven months along, seated up on the back of a futon, photographed from below, my breasts and belly the focus of the shot. My breasts are lifted above the swell of my abdomen, the areolas of my nipples dark, the faint line of pregnancy above my navel leads the eye upwards. My face is at rest below a homburg my father had worn when he worked in New York City, my eyes and lips unsmiling, my expression darkly unapologetic.
This was my favorite of the portraits she’d taken, but I’d never felt I could display it in the baby book. I thought it might embarrass my son to see his mother naked, and so had kept it separate. But now it seemed the only photo I could trust, the only one I knew to be untainted by my husband’s closely guarded secret, and I took it from the baby book and propped it up open on the bookshelf.
About a year after I’d moved into my apartment, and burned myself, my feelings about my scar began to change. The scar now seemed more like a tattoo deliberately sought out to mark a difficult passage, a recovery from injury, or victory over some adversity, commemorative, and I even began to feel satisfaction, that he, my ex, would never see what had become of my breast, that his memory of my breasts had been rendered inaccurate. That my breasts, my woman’s breasts, were out of his reach and his knowing.
It’s been almost two years now since I moved into the apartment, although for the past five months I’ve been living a thousand miles away from that home, such as it became. I’m back in the Colorado mountains where I grew up, and where I’ve returned to care for my 93-year old mother, taking my turn after my younger sister, and now making arrangements with my older brother for a care-giver to step in when I return home in a few months, the many hours and daily acts of care slowly effacing that difficult past. My son, who did indeed over the years “cause some consternation,” is grown up. The burn mark on my breast still reddens and swells in the shower, but it’s smaller now, and looks like nothing so much as the touch of a milky fingertip. My ex-husband lives by himself, with himself, who is sometimes her, in the house I used to call ours.