J. David Bell
On Looking at My Daughter's Breasts
Actually there is only one: a pucker, a flap. I see it when she careens down the Slip ‘n’ Slide in a trail of spray and hysterical laughter. My ten-year-old is budding, but unevenly. She remains unconscious, or unselfconscious, of her emergent
form; she sheds shirts with her six-year-old brother, smirking merrily
in his delighted face, matching him skin for skin. True, she seldom
shares the tub with him anymore, seeks sanctuary in the shower’s liquid rush. Whether she hoards the private pleasure of hot droplets striking taut flesh I don’t know.
It resists the lure of earth: a bee-sting, a tenderness. It dances with her body’s dance, but its consistency is all fat and derma; it has none of the heft and swing of other, older ones I have known. In a T-shirt it appears little more than one ruffle in a maze of gullies and ridges, with the possible exception that it pinches the fabric to a point just where its center lies. Or is that my thought only? Watching my daughter swell like a strange sea makes me over vigilant. I may put things on her frame that aren’t really there.
It bulges her chest like a cartoon mole’s burrowed tunnels: a lode, a vein. Has she glimpsed its surfacing? Does she experience its gravity, and if so, has she decided to follow its course? Does she know which way it wants her to go?
It blends into her armpit, furrowed like baby fat: a nub, a blister. Yet for all its incipiency I foresee how this tissue will resect me, lop me from her life. Soon enough will come those things I am forbidden to share: cramps, pelvics, tampons, pills. Soon enough daddy will truncate to plain dad, then (worse) to dad. Soon enough I will turn from full participant to awkward onlooker. Already the boys she roughhouses have sniffed her alien scent, grown fascinated and taciturn. Maybe soon she will seek my counsel on their bizarre edginess. How can I advise her, when I am one of them?
It awaits its twin: a frond, a fold. I think of all the things it portends for her, the gawks and groping, undergarments and mammograms. How many times have my own eyes slid across random cleavage, nesting in that mysterious cleft whose flesh is fine as filigree? When I was a boy, owning no memory of any outside their holsters, I imagined them perfectly round and hard, like bowling balls; I was stunned to discover their silkiness and pliability, porousness and quiver. Recalling my own virgin expeditions into that foreign territory, I shudder to imagine the coming spelunkers who will plumb my daughter’s depths. I hope they will be more mindful than I.
It snakes beneath her skin: a pulse, a trace. I can only wait for its full import to be unveiled. Her own mother sprouted late, later than twin sister, later than friends. This apparently was a source of shame, something I as a boy, the evidence of my own blossoming assiduously hidden, was spared. In a vain attempt to thwart the inevitable, we switched last year to organic milk, its faintly spicy bouquet unlaced by the hormones some blame for the epidemic of precocious puberty. More sympathetic magic than science, I suspect. As if we could starve the stromal cells once they’ve awoken, as if chemistry could nip codes already set in play. As if we could stall time, then turn it back on its course.
It wrinkles sunshine and shadow: an oscillation, a wave. I brood over her response to this latest of her body’s mutinies. In second grade she foreswore all things girlish, all dresses, patent leather, colors purple. She slicked her hair, buried herself in plus-sized T-shirts, plied her speed
and strength to dominate the boys who dared to contest the kickball
diamond. Her mother and I looked on, mystified. To this day we have
no idea what precipitated the change, whether it was slighting comments she’d overheard from boys newly enamored of their machismo, the trivial pretensions of the Sassy Girls Club that formed the same year, her older cousin’s abrupt disinterest in her as playmate. Or something much deeper, an inchoate suspicion, a forewarning of glass ceilings. My wife wondered recently if our girl might be gay. If she is, if the future I’ve mapped out for her must be renegotiated, I hope I’m able to help. Far better than I was able to help with her girlhood, I hope and doubt I’ll be able to help with her impending womanhood.
It harbors its final shape: a convexity, an orb. Still she presses against me, sneaks hugs, nuzzles my hair before bedtime. Her manner toward me has not changed. But of late I’ve noticed that mine has toward her, growing sharper, less patient. On more occasions than one I’ve brought her close to tears when her afterschool ciphering failed to match my arbitrary expectation. I ask more of her, I grow curt at her continued need. I feel as if I’m always rushing away, on the verge of capping a conversation or a contact. Is it because she’s aging, or because I am? Do I match her restiveness or prompt it? Can it be I have not forgiven her for her future?
It will not wane, will only flow: a premonition, an advent. What I will have, in the lack of her childish form, are its traces. I will have the time she is three, the time I spin and she spins with me. “More rocky baby!” she screams, breathless with giggles. The blissful ease of snatching her in my arms makes me forget she will claim a later day, one in which her body will no longer be mine to hold. Had I thought of it then, I would have clung to her all the closer.
My beloved daughter’s breast: an aurora, a nova. An opening to her heart, a closing to mine.