BY: Andrea Hoag
You have your hands down the front of my wedding dress.
Each time we think my breasts are arranged so they’ll fit into the tight bodice, you try again with the zipper and one pops back out again.
We give our bodies over to the laughter, turning red and crying.
We invented laughter.
No one acquainted with either of our families has any illusions about the ceremony starting on time.
My mother is back to bang on the door, but our eyeliner will have to be repaired and once we get going like this, there’s no stopping us.
“Untie me,” I sob between laughs. “I can’t breathe!”
I purchased a corset hoping to make the beautiful satin wedding dress fit me properly.
Both of us know I am making a big mistake.
I’ve been back here without you a half-dozen times.
It’s been relaxing, enjoyable, but never the same.
As I sit on the beach beneath the enormous orange ombrellino I’ve rented for the week, I often wonder if you ever bring your children here the way I do.
My children are teenagers. (So are yours.)
Old enough to play in the waves without me worrying. Old enough to scribble notes on postcards to their father, my ex-husband, without my nagging.
My mother dozes on the lounge chair next to me, the pages of a mystery novel blowing in the breeze. I wonder how you’re coping without your mom.
This is the first time I have dared to wear a swimsuit.
I finally found one with enough fabric to cover the scars that extend beneath my armpits. The reconstruction is convincing. As long as I keep my arms down, no one would ever notice anything amiss.
Our parents tell the story so often we know it by heart.
Here is the scene:
Two blonde babies have just begun walking without help, toddling towards each other across a crowded cafe. One has just received her first pair of shoes that morning.
The babies know the families should be friends before the adults do.
Both sets of parents are serious young professionals drawn to this small Kansas town by jobs at the university. They are so earnest. They are heartbreakingly beautiful but don’t realize it.
The little girls are placed in wading pools, photographed with black-and-white film as they cavort, little nudists. Inseparable. Birthdays a month apart are celebrated with backyard parties and cardboard hats with rubber bands that dig into chins as Jamoca ice cream cake melts on paper plates.
Now, here is that scene again:
Two blonde babies toddle towards each other across a crowded cafe.
They recognize instantly they will be friends forever. (They won’t.)
The story is told, again and again, for thirty-five years.
Until it isn’t.
The little kids are banging on my bedroom door, but you’ve got your body wedged up against it so no one can get in.
No one has seen them yet, not even my husband. I knew from the start I’d show them to you, though.
I slip the loose cotton shirt over my head and turn back to face you, the meat on my chest healed enough now that it’s nearly pink again.
Where they were, now there is just a disfigured flap of skin. It looks like a drunken housewife tried sewing a Thanksgiving turkey’s flesh together after stuffing it, but gave up halfway through.
That was the best they could do after the MRSA.
I am lucky to be alive everyone keeps saying. Because being alive is the thing.
I cover myself, and you hug me, sobbing, even though all our children are still banging on the door.
You are the first person who comforts me.
Not my mother, not my father, not my husband. You.
We are twelve and the only thing that matters to us is growing breasts. We are desperate to have them.
You want me to ask my mother to take you bra shopping. I finally work up the courage, hoping I will get one, too.
“Her mother wouldn’t want to miss that,” my mom says, driving me home from our sleepover. “It’s a rite of passage. And she’s not going to get Cooper’s droop if she waits two more weeks until her mom gets back.”
Another day, we are set loose downtown to haunt the shops lining the street where we met a decade earlier. Your father has written your name, address, and telephone number on a slip of paper to place in your pocket in case you become lost.
I know how he feels. Since your parents’ divorce, since you were taken across the sea to live, I am always worrying about you becoming lost, too.
We go to Woolworth’s thinking we’ll look at the bras ourselves but chicken out.
Both sides of the staircase to the basement are lined with bookshelves we’ve wanted to inspect closer all summer. The paperbacks are decorated with busty blonde ladies being carried in the arms of Ken-doll men. You are braver than me, placing one of the books into your basket next to a liquid lip gloss. You’re leaving town soon: it’s now or never.
We hide in the bathroom at Pizza Hut, and you flip through the pages until you find the book’s center, decisively ripping it in half so we can read it at the same time. We vow to trade halves when we see each other again at Christmastime. You and I lean against the bathroom counter paging through our respective halves until you elbow me, pointing out a paragraph where the man has taken the woman’s breast into his mouth. I worry that I may throw up I’m laughing so hard, my body bent double so my face is perilously close to the filthy floor. Your face is red from giggling and your eyes are squinted nearly shut with tears. So many tears I wonder if your new contacts will float out of your eyes. I’m certain we invented laughter.
How many letters do we exchange in twenty-seven years? Thirty? Fifty?
Email doesn’t exist. We churn out novellas, folding our secrets into blue air mail envelopes scrawled with the words TOP SECRET.
So many secrets entrusted to mailboxes half a world apart: first kisses, drinking escapades, lost virginities. My high school life may be in tatters, but an envelope with your familiar scrawl makes everything better for a day.
You tell me everything. I tell you everything.
Until later, when I don’t. Much later.
And by then, I have gone on too long not telling you everything and it feels too late to begin again.
You tell me we will always be friends as you pass my sleeping infant back to me.
You are whispering to avoid waking her.
“Through it all…our marriages, our parents’ deaths, our divorces…”
You look at me carefully, thinking perhaps you have intuited something about my fresh marriage that I have not.
But I know. Of course I know.
I am hoping you have no idea how bad things are. You have flown halfway around the world to make certain I am not falling apart.
But I am. The baby won’t latch on. She won’t stop crying.
My husband disappears for three days while you’re visiting, so I don’t need to explain something’s wrong.
Three summers later, you know the end is near. But this second baby is here. We organize a joint family picnic, the hot breath of Kansas July on our necks as we struggle to keep bugs away from tender toddler calves. When my new baby cries, I am so dazed you have to remind me to pick him up.
“Hold him close to your body like this,” you say, pulling your own child to your breast.
I can’t feel my body anymore: that is one of the things I can’t tell you.
We give the babies to their grandmothers and escape to the playground with a bag of Oreos you had the foresight to hide beneath a bag of hamburger buns when all the food was being laid out. We are just two bodies again now, giggling on the playground like we did during our childhood summers.
We invented laughing, you know. We invented it.
You have never been able to find Oreos in Holland, so we eat the entire bag as the sun disappears, certain we may throw up if we don’t stop laughing. Everything is just like before, except that the ancient metal merry-go-round is gone. Parents a generation after ours petitioned the city to get rid of it, worried it was a danger to their children. We lie on a timber jungle gym staring up at the hot summer stars, our heads so close together they are touching. Is this safer?
I’ve drifted off and my arm has escaped the shade of my umbrella, burning in the Mediterranean sun.
The waves splash against the shore, the seagulls scream in the air, and a man over the loud-speaker breaks into the techno music echoing across the beach to intone the name of a missing toddler.
You’ve fallen asleep over your novel, but I want to wake you up and tell you’ve I’ve learned a new word: ondellare.
The waves. They ondellare.
The sunscreen you’ve slathered all over your back smells slightly foreign. Your sand-colored hair dances in the beach breeze but doesn’t wake you.
I lift your book carefully: it is filled with so many i’s and j’s and k’s and l’s.
I feel a familiar twinge of envy over this whole version of you in Dutch that is wholly unknown to me. Are you different in Dutch than you are in English?
I nudge your sandy arm.
“We should go topless.”
You raise your head the direction I’m pointing. The Italian girls throw their heads back in laughter displaying lovely white teeth as they cavort in the sand with their boyfriends, their taut little breasts firm and immoveable.
Our mothers went to Ravenna for the day in a rental car. They might cluck to themselves about the girls and their breasts if they were here, but only because they’re both stuck in mastectomy bathing suits.
We have an entire week left to kiss boys, sleep until noon, lie in the sand, meet our mothers for supper and then dance in discos until 3 a.m. Each day we start all over again.
The evening meal takes place in a communal dining room with elderly Italian pensioners sitting at the same table each evening. And each evening they pause at our table to rub their ancient hands across our blonde young faces and congratulate our mothers upon their daughters.
We slip out as soon as we can to join all the other people our age, watching the young families wheel strollers up and down the main street for their evening passegiata. We cannot imagine being the young mothers. Sexless. Off the market.
The wide sidewalks are crowded with outdoor tables filled with late-dining families and old men chain-smoking as they watch soccer on scratchy TV sets, appraising us with their eyes as we pass.
We lean on each other as we walk, arms intertwined like the Italian girls. Every group of boys we pass stares into our eyes with electric interest, a new sensation for us. When they tell us we are beautiful, we collapse onto each other’s shoulders laughing, bursting with joy.
There are no Americans here. The Italian boys think we are German, pressing flyers into our hands in the hopes we’ll visit their discotheque.
“Deutschland?” they call after us.
“Nein!” we squeal in unison, doubling over with laughter. I’ve been taking German in high school just because you are.
You stand up and dust the sand off your knees, grinning as you slip the straps off your shoulders, exposing your pert breasts to the salt air. You have always been braver than me, but I’m wriggling out of my bikini top, wishing my breasts were as buoyant as yours.
We press our hands across our chests like makeshift bras and dash through dozens of umbrellas with sleeping signoras, smoking men, card-playing grandfathers, kicking up hot sand as we run, throwing ourselves headlong into the undulating waves for cover.
Andrea Hoag is a longtime book critic whose reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, among others. She is currently completing work on a collection of essays. You can find her on Twitter at @AndreaHoag.