Turning forty was not the prolonged exercise in cheesy, sepulchral “Over the Hill” humor beloved of the Dianes from Accounting of my mother’s generation. In fact, on a scale of one to ten, it was a solid sublime. I’m not an actress or a professional athlete or a trophy wife so being old probably won’t grievously affect my non-existent fame, power or influence. My career is still stalled out at the same state of It’s a good thing I enjoy thrift shopping as it was the day before my last birthday. Some say that after forty a woman starts to be invisible to men, but I’ve always been pretty much invisible, at least in that way. So, you know, forty feels mostly the same as twenty-six, but with less smoking and more painful hangovers.
In fact, the only thing separating thirties from forties for me so far (outside of the digits) is medical profession’s sudden fascination with my boobs. Which is so weird. And I know it’s all in the name of preventing breast cancer and early detection saves lives and scores you some sweet baby pink swag from the radiologist. But my boobs haven’t gotten this much attention since bossy Susan with the Tammy Faye hair refused to let me join her popular girl’s club—The Unicorns, if I recall correctly– in the fifth grade because I didn’t have a training bra. That night I went home and cried to my mother, who was like, You don’t need a bra, you’re flatter than Nebraska, but took me to Belk regardless and bought me this shiny nylon Junior Playtex situation with polyester lace and a pink rose bud at the business end of my entirely theoretical decolletage. The bra was scratchy and uncomfortable and without anything to hold it in place, just sort of crept up my upper torso throughout the day until it started to pop out at the neck of my shirt, like a garter belt crossbred with a dickey. I wore it just long enough to convince Susan that I was woman enough to hang with the Unicorns (about three days) and then promptly banished it to the back of my underwear drawer with the ugly Christmas pajamas and embarrassing socks and all of the other things I would rather suffer brutal torture than wear. Bras would not figure back into my life until a combination of strict dress code and the much belated appearance of breasts forced the issue sophomore year of high school. By that time, I’d basically assumed boobs were a thing I wouldn’t have to deal with. I’d grieved a little, but accepted flat-chestedness just as I’d accepted 5’3 as the cards I’d been dealt. Thus, when I grew five inches and four cup sizes (36D, wtf?), it felt a little body horror, a little miraculous and a lot too late for me to impress Susan and her snidely televangelist perm
When I went for my annual check-up my lady doctor kicked it off with the old “You’re forty, so you know what that means?” And as much as I hoped the answer would be “People will stop asking you about when you’re going to get pregnant,” instead she sent me for my first mammogram. Last week, I ventured into silent cinderblock fortress beside an empty pizza hut, where a gaggle of eerily chipper women in lavender scrubs steered ailing elderly women past Sartre’s manual for surviving horror films. THIS IS NO EXIT. ABSOLUTELY DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR. DANGER DANGER. I was shuffled into a freezing upstairs changing room, where I entered a stall filled with front opening shirts that smelled like bleach and industrial sized cans of generic aerosol deodorant. Outside in the meat locker, there was much whispering about “Real Simple” subscriptions and Cancer. I didn’t get the details, but the gist confirmed for me that having a well-organized home, decorated in tasteful, gluten-free yoga pants was probably just as likely to kill you as whiskey or heroin or beignets, but in more beige way.
A tall tech fetched and interrogated me on the way back to the examination room. She asked if it was my first mammogram, yes, if I wanted to add on some fancy imaging service that my insurance wouldn’t cover, no, if I had any family history of breast cancer, no, unless you count the woman my dad was briefly engaged to but I never met. They went to Italy together For two months. Did I mention that I never met this woman? I could have been her stepdaughter and I wouldn’t know her from Adam. Or is it Eve if you’re talking about a woman? I’m assuming that’s where the expression comes from, but I don’t know. Do you? She didn’t, but wasted no time tying a floor mat around my waste and woman-handling my naked boob onto a cold glass windowpane where it was flattened into a fleshy hamburger bun by some kind of space laser.
“Now hold your breath for ten seconds,” she said, after adjusting my underarm fat for maximum awkward. I didn’t ask why and she didn’t say, but we proceeded as such with plenty of poking and prodding and smooshing for a solid seven or eight minutes until I was released back to the changing room and the other women still whispering about malignant West Elm merchandise. I left via a back stair that terminated in one of those unmarked doors that locks behind you and that was that.
Today, I received follow up mail. A brochure and a letter. The former announced I need keep track of how dense my boobs* are, via a series of perplexing illustrations. North Carolina law evidently requires I receive regular updates on my breast density. This sounds like a total waste of time. Though they’ve sagged with apparent wisdom for years, I don’t need a doctor to tell my boobs are basically imbeciles, a condition born perhaps out of some existential defiance at my failure to address the old what are we here for? And I’m like, to fill out the tops of 50s style sundresses and to help me delude myself into believing I’m a shapely hourglass when everyone can clearly see I’m somewhere between a pear and a squash. And they’re like Are you sure that’s it? And I’m all, Start with me about the kids thing again and I swear to God, l will stick you morons right back in a sportsbra.
The letter reported that my mammogram would be interpreted by professionals and specialists. I hope this works out for them. I find my breasts stubbornly immune to analysis. They mostly reject buttons and frequently foil wrap dresses. They’ve befuddled past lovers (Him: Are your breasts an erogenous zone? Me: Can’t you tell?) and failed pencil tests. But I guess they’re fine. And I’m fine. Really. Finer than fine.
36D ain’t nothing but a number. And for that matter, neither is 40.