Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “What Happened?” by Rebecca Liebendorfer. Rebecca is a writer from Newton, Massachusetts. She is currently working on a memoir about her life as a difficult psychiatric patient. You can find her on Twitter at @becslieb.
My memory is full of holes. For a while, this wasn’t obvious to me. It’s not that I’m forgetful; I think I generally have a pretty good memory. I also think my mind has either pushed out or cordoned off a whole bunch of stuff, and I don’t know what it is or why it’s so far out of reach. It’s difficult to notice the absence of something when you don’t know it was ever there to begin with.
I was chatting online with someone I had dated more than a decade earlier when she said something about having given me a haircut. It was a sort of joke about how she wondered if the reason I’d broken up with her was because I’d been unhappy with what she’d done to my hair. I stared at the words on my screen, unsure how to respond. I could only feign amusement because I had no recollection of her cutting my hair.
That does make sense though, I thought, I do have haircutting shears. I must have gotten them back then. We must have gotten them together. I still couldn’t remember any of it. I believed her though; she had no reason to lie.
The two of us met up to take a walk on a chilly January morning not long after this exchange. As we moved through the sunshine side by side, chatting and laughing, I felt relieved. Because we hadn’t seen each other since we dated, I’d worried that our reunion might be awkward or uncomfortable, but it was neither. While walking, she recalled what it was like when we’d been together eleven years before. Apparently, I’d had a lot of trouble reaching orgasm with her. I was surprised she remembered this and more surprised she’d said it out loud. Again, what she said made sense, but it wasn’t something I remembered. I wiggled my freezing fingers in my coat pockets as she continued to reflect on the time she had shared with some past version of me. She talked about things we had done together when she’d visited me in college, and I didn’t remember those either. I tried not to make a big deal of everything I could not recall. The holes in my memory were certainly not her fault. I’d already explained how the years since we’d dated hadn’t treated me particularly well, so she understood that my mind had been a complicated place to be. That it wasn’t exactly fertile ground for memories.
Memory is a complex thing. Not having access to a memory is different from not thinking about one. I stood in the shower this morning, looking down at the scars on my chest, covering them in soap suds, and then poking at them with my finger as the suds washed away. These scars have stretched across my chest for years, but I still study them with fascination. Sometimes, in my fascination, I allow myself to remember what it was like when I had breasts. Sometimes, I do not allow myself this mental journey. I am, I think, glad I can access the memories of how it felt for a hand to graze my nipples and what it was like when they got hard and how my fibrous breast tissue felt beneath my fingertips and how my breasts, covered in stretch marks, hung low and rested against my belly. It is painful to remember, but the pain is necessary. I don’t want to forget. Not yet.
I remember all of these things and, still, I try not to think about them. Occasionally, I look at my body in the mirror and think about how it used to be different. More often than not, I see my reflection and straightforwardly acknowledge that what I am looking at is my body. Because it is my body. This is what it looks like now. This is what it has become. I am not happy about it, but I do not fight it. It is not good or bad or right or wrong it just is. I yearn only quietly and increasingly infrequently for the perfectly saggy breasts with their large, pink areolae and nipples that were once my own. I know they’re gone and that they aren’t coming back, no matter how much I wish they would.
It is confusing to be repeatedly forced to grapple with the reality that you are a ghost, but only in the middle of your body, right where your heart is. At a certain point, I know I will have to stop talking about it. To stop trying to process something so absurd. To just let go and accept that when things die, they are gone forever. I pretend I am already there and often I believe I am, but then I am confronted with the reality of other bodies. I see the breasts of other people or I feel the fingers of a man move across my chest, reaching for something that isn’t there, and I want to cry out that I have been hurt. I don’t. I am quiet. I know how to act like my body is exactly how it was meant to be. Exactly how it has always been.
For thirteen months, I regularly had sex with Brendan. He wasn’t my boyfriend, just a man I was involved with. A man who was older than me by nearly eighteen years and who helped me out financially and who didn’t need to know the specifics of the life I had already lived. During our time together, he learned a great deal about me, but he did not learn about the scars that had stared right at him since the day we met. In the years before I met him, I’d made sure to warn people about the state of my chest before hopping into bed with them. It seemed like the safest option for everyone involved; they wouldn’t be stunned by the sudden revelation of my surgically flattened chest, and I wouldn’t have to deal with their reaction. While fully clothed, I would say, “I had a double mastectomy,” assure them I was OK, and hope there wouldn’t be many questions in response. I might as well have said hi, I am broken, please don’t be alarmed. I hated doing it. When our clothes came off, I often kept my bralette on, claiming it was for my own comfort, but I know I did it with theirs in mind too. It’s not that they ever requested shielding from the reality of my body, I just figured they didn’t know they might need it.
With Brendan, I took a different approach. The day we met, I stood in front of him and took off every piece of my clothing and acted as if my body was perfectly normal. If you want this to go well, you’ll keep your mouth shut, I thought as loudly as I could. Not only did I hope he wouldn’t comment on or try to start a conversation about my scarred body, I also hoped he wouldn’t notice it as deficient at first glance and then not at second or third glance either. I hoped the whiteness of my scars would blend well enough into the pale expanse of my chest and he would just see me as beautiful before he noticed I might be broken. Perhaps it was a bold move, but I assumed that if he’d found me attractive enough to fuck when I was clothed, then a bit of scarring and missing flesh couldn’t change that too much. It didn’t seem to.
For months, I waited for him to run his fingers gently along the thin white lines across my chest and ask, What happened? It seemed inevitable, until one day I realized the question wasn’t coming. He would have listened if I’d told him my story, but I didn’t want to get into it. I didn’t see the point. With Brendan, I got to pretend that the most upsetting parts of my life didn’t really exist. In a sense, I was free from the most harrowing things I’d ever endured. I could carefully excise the parts of my story that were dominated by distress, devastation, and disorientation and I could live in a body that just happened to look however it was that my body looked.
It is strange to try to keep a secret when that secret is etched into your body. I didn’t tell Brendan because I knew that he wouldn’t have known what to do with my secret. He would not have known how to react. He would not have known what to do with the tears that would have inevitably spilled out of me with my disclosure. I told him there were holes in my memory, but I did not tell him about my theories of how they got there. I told him there was trauma but not what it was. I told him how my mind was often an uncomfortable place to live and that I was in frequent psychotherapy. I did not want him to know my body wasn’t always the most comfortable place for me either. I imagined if I told him the details of what happened, he might touch me differently. I didn’t want that.
One night, in bed, he was touching or kissing or sucking on my chest when I felt a sharp pain. I said nothing and willed myself not to react because I knew I was not supposed to be in pain. I did not want to let on that however he had tried to bring me pleasure had hurt me because I did not want to let on that I am broken. When your body has been cut up, taken apart, and sewn back together, the nerves get confused. Parts of you are gone while other parts of you that were not originally connected now are. Sometimes that means something small and seemingly innocuous sends a sharp pain through you. It is not the skin that hurts, but something just below. The pain disappears as quickly as it comes.
I had forgotten about this phenomenon and was jarred by it when it happened in Brendan’s bed. I told my therapist about it in session and sat there in front of her, trying to figure out where exactly that thing could happen, repeatedly pinching myself lightly all over my chest, desperate to understand my own body. I found a spot on my right side where I could make it hurt. I remembered that Brendan had been on my left.
Over and over again I have said I am broken because it feels simple and literal and true: there are scars on my body where a surgeon sliced into my flesh and removed parts of me that were healthy and fine and good. Even so, I know that feeling broken and being broken are entirely different things. I don’t know what it would mean for a person to be broken. I can’t imagine saying it about anyone but myself.
We have bodies of all kinds and they carry us through the world to the extent that they are able. We go through illness and injury and aging and sometimes parts of us do not survive these things. Sometimes those parts of us are memories and sometimes they are limbs or breasts or senses or reproductive organs. Sometimes, we feel a profound sense of loss because parts of us have just changed. To say I am broken says nothing of my survival and my healing and my capabilities. I am still here even though for a long time I did not want to be. I am not less whole for having suffered. If anything, I have grown from it.
My mastectomy was not cancer-related and it was not related to the infection I had in my right breast at age fifteen and it was not something I was ever excited about and it was not due to a freak accident unless the freak accident we are talking about is the meeting of the sperm and the egg which eventually became the body that is the person that is me. Giving a meaningful explanation of what happened to me would require that I start from the beginning and lay out a roadmap of my entire life to show you how I became exactly who I am and who I was and who I am going to be. I could tell you how I left my body for a while and that it only really hurt when I found my way back into it, but I won’t go there. It is not something I want to talk about. It is something my body reminds me of every single day, and I would like a break.
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“It is confusing to be repeatedly forced to grapple with the reality that you are a ghost, but only in the middle of your body, right where your heart is.”
This is a haunting and gorgeous essay.
I am struck by how the writing itself seems to echo the narrator’s lived experience. She has holes in her memory, and the reader too, doesn’t get the whole story. But despite the missing parts, the writer has crafted this gorgeous piece of art. And wow--I feel so much because of it.
I’m looking forward to the memoir.
I love how much you keep hidden here, and even though I am so intrigued and want to know more about your story — the pieces you do share are all the more poignant. Beautiful piece, Rebecca ❤️