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I closed my eyes and remembered staring at my drink, leaning elbows on a raw wooden table. I hadn’t spoken to him in years, but he had appeared, unanticipated, thinner than I remembered, and with a beard in a North Carolina smokehouse. We had both traveled thousands of miles from different directions for the same wedding. The sight of him was like falling into ice water. I didn’t know where we stood after so much cold, silent time.

But as I sat next to him, looking down at my glass, a smile overtook me. I sensed he was smiling, too. We were feeling the comfort of each other, the warmth from a fire we both thought had long since burned out. There was no need to remember the details, to tell our sides, or to try to make verbal sense of it. Words would have muddled the pristine joy of mutual forgiveness. It was a discussion between nervous systems, as we sat, feeling the giddy wonder of each other’s presence again.

We had never been lovers, the hot-burning brevity that leaves shadows on the eyelids for fleeting moments. We were friends through the brutal winter of young adulthood. We had shouldered the sadness of each other’s rejections, listened to mundane stories over homemade sandwiches, invented games in a swimming pool during summer, and laughed and gasped in wild hilarity with each other. We had stopped tending to our friendship after we had been burned, believing that the fire did it on purpose. In an instant, on that rickety southern bench, the blame was choked out by an effervescent gratitude for this familiar warmth. We sipped our beers and loved each other quietly as the pink scars of years faded.

After a short while, we hugged a good, solid hug, and went our separate ways. But even untended, those old embers still glow hot enough to light.

I closed my eyes today as the first chills of autumn floated in on lengthening shadows and soaked into my skin. I thought of that hug — his big bearlike body wrapped around mine, holding me like I’m something precious — and I warmed up.

She has been the forgotten cat, the middle child, the outcast, the runt for most of her life. She was born in a dingy apartment closet in suburban Orlando, but she has lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, LA, San Francisco, and is retiring on an island at 21lbs.

She was the only one of her siblings not to have a breeched birth, but she came out the smallest, and her mother didn’t lick her clean. When she was a few days old, we arrived home to find she was missing from the nest. If we stood still, we heard a muffled peeping from somewhere in the apartment. We discovered her in the bathroom cabinet, under the sink, twitching and still blind from birth.

It seems strange to think of animals intentionally disowning their children, but it apparently happens all the time in nature. According to an article in National Geographic, when newborn animals are sick, or if there is a shortage of resources, many mothers will eat their young, which provides needed nutrition and prevents predators from following the smell of rotting carcass to the den. Nina could have had it worse.

After a week or two, things turned around a little bit. I had taken Nina from the nest to show off the adorableness of a kitten to a neighbor. She was tiny, with one tan half of a face and the other black. As soon as I was just outside our front door with a wide-eyed Nina clinging to my shirt, I heard the mother scratching and wailing at the inside of the door. I opened the door and set Nina down, and the mom immediately picked her up by the scruff and jogged back to the nest.

Nina grew to an overweight adult cat in Florida, and we noticed she seemed a little off, a little empty-eyed. She tended not to look at people’s faces like the other cats. She would just see a human hand and dive into it, snuggling it whether you wanted her to or not, often pushing with such force and bad timing that it would spill a drink or knock the glass into your teeth, launch your hand off a keyboard, or wake you up.

When we moved to New York, we stuffed Nina, her two littermates, and a skinny dog into a minivan with our stuff, and drove a thousand miles, arriving exhausted at our new 250 square foot apartment in the West Village. It was a lot to ask of four animals, but they managed to make it work, the cats quickly finding a spot on the window sill, overlooking the brick of the building next door and the pigeons that would coo amorously in the shaftway on other window sills.

But it wasn’t great for them. Nina started having seizures, thrashing and spitting. She had a seizure on the way to the vet. We saw no reliable correlation between the seizure and anything going on around. We’d see them happen once a week or so, and the vet didn’t seem to have much to say about it. They said there wasn’t really much to do as long as she wasn’t hurting herself, which she wasn’t. We just considered it part of her, and we’d clean up the puddles of urine and spittle she left behind and give her a bath during which she would dissociate, staring out of the window, her body stiff, still and soapy. The whole process continued as we moved to Brooklyn and it lessened in LA, where we had around 900 square feet and lots of sunshine.

When we moved back to New York to the Upper West Side, to a 400 square foot apartment with access to a walled-in backyard, the seizures almost completely stopped. I recall her having one seizure there, under the bed. The bedroom was exactly the size of the bed, and we couldn’t get to her to comfort her, not that our attempts at comforting were necessarily successful. She came out on her own eventually, seeming as normal as she ever was.

We lived in one more Upper West Side apartment before departing from New York. On 76th street, Nina found a mouse. She was the only one who seemed to take an interest in our intruder, sitting by it proudly as it wriggled. We put the injured critter in a box with some dog food and water, high up on a shelf where the cats couldn’t reach it. However, the mouse regained its strength at some point in the night and managed to venture out. It was not revivable this time after Nina had played with it.

In San Francisco, we rented a two story house, and the cats, now 12 years old, spent most of their time upstairs, especially after we got a half Border Collie puppy — the herding instinct was strong. I hardly saw them outside of the time I spent in my office. But in considering raising a puppy, I was trying hard to make him feel safe and loved. Thinking of what Nina’s experience of being kicked out of the nest as a little baby must have been like, I started to make a point of giving her love. I’d pick her up and hold her when she came purring and cackling around my desk.

Ronie, our male cat, had also been making a point to love her, but this is in the more aggressive way of mimicking a mounting. He leaps on her from behind and bites her neck as she cries. He doesn’t do this to our other cat, just Nina, still the runt in his mind, perhaps.

Just recently, we’ve moved to over an acre on an island near Seattle. It’s a warm summer with long, sunny days. Nina has been out the most of all the cats, interacting with us more than she has in many years. She’s been hopping up on the dining table, her fat pooling around her as she sits, hiding any indication of back legs. Her round eyes, the lids slightly melted torward her nose giving her a constantly tired appearance, seem to actually look at our faces a little bit, now, to see if we want to pet her before she plows into our hands. She’s been very calm with the puppy, trusting him to sniff her, and swatting him gently if his eyes widen to a concerning extent. Yet more unusual behavior, she’s been sampling my cooking, eating bits of tuna salad and licking the salt from corn chips. She seems finally to be comfortable, as though she knows she’s wanted here. She still eats plastic and throws it up and annoyingly scratches at our bedroom door at night, but she seems more herself than I’ve seen her, at age 14.

Step one:
Go to the cafe on Pacific and Van Ness. It’s around the corner, more on Pacific. Go there at least once a week for a few weeks, at 10 or 11am and order a large almond milk latte, but with only one shot. You’re trying to cut back on caffeine. Get the quiche, too, most days. Be friendly to everyone working there.

Step two:
After three weeks of this, the blonde barista will remember your order, but don’t get so cocky as to request “the usual.” Ask about where the glorious-looking desserts come from. You’ll learn that they are made elsewhere and are brought in. Tell her it’s the best almond latte you’ve found in the city. She will take it in stride. She’s heard it before, no doubt.

Step three:
The next week, she’ll remember your order but act like she should know your name, even though it’s never come up before. She tells you her name — Goldie. You tell her yours, and she’ll write it down on your order, left-handed. It doesn’t matter if she misspells it. Pay attention to her hand.

Step four:
Compliment the ring you haven’t noticed before on her ring finger. It isn’t obviously an engagement ring. Ask if she’s engaged.

Step five:
When she confirms, tell her, “Oh wow! That must be a pretty cool dude to pick out an unusual ring like that.”

Step six:
When you are corrected and told that she is a pretty cool lady, apologize and pay close attention to what happens inside you.

Step seven:
Notice, as you look at her again, you suddenly think about her differently. You are now much more interested in her. Ask her whether Goldie is a nickname. No, it’s her full name, after her Great Grandma. You suddenly wonder if you look attractive yourself, right now, and you touch your hair. You wonder what woman is the pick for this blonde lovely. Your mind imagines suggestions of their affection, hot and cool. You wonder what it would be like to kiss her, what it would be like to be allowed to touch her in a shadowy evening light.

Step eight:
As she hands you your latte, apologize for making assumptions as you hang your should-have-known-better-after-all-this-is-San-Francisco tail between your legs. Don’t worry, she isn’t really offended. She seems amused by the misinterpretation. Try not to ruminate about that strained, awkward giggle you chirped out.

Step nine:
Go to your table with your drink, and contemplate how quickly you seemed to wonder whether she thought you were hitting on her, with your short hair. Notice that you think about overtly flirting with her now, giving her a coy smile on the way out. Contemplate whether you have been restraining yourself for years, missing the truth.

Step ten:
Continue to think about her all day. Her long hair, her long skinny body with its beautiful terrible posture. Consider what it might have been like to come home to her at night, to ask her about her day. Reflect on the masculine aspects of yourself — that you hate high heels, that you basically have a men’s haircut at the moment, that you almost never wear skirts unless trying to get attention from a man. Think about an alternative life path that might exist, and how you might test it out. Contemplate whether you want to share your ponderings with your husband.

It’s named Golden Gate, after the strait over which the bridge stretches, though it’s about a mile away from the bridge. Its name honors the shimmering beauty at sunset, the way the champagne light twinkles on the mist, not the shimmering beauty scraped from the earth — gold wasn’t discovered until a few years after the strait was named. The park stretches from the beach, where the golden mist and fog emanates, about halfway to downtown, about 3 miles. It’s over 1000 acres, with paths and sidewalks winding throughout. I’ve roamed almost all of them.

The beach end is usually quiet, aside from the bursts of the waves and the whipping salty winds. Just a few blocks in, around 41st Ave, there’s a small lake, encircled by a clean white sidewalk where my husband hid a ring in my pocket before he was my husband. He waited for 45 minutes until I found it, and I remember feeling weirdly giddy and awkward with him that day, despite more than a decade of relationship. A gopher snapped the grasses next to our feet and observed us in our joy, while wrens, peeping congratulations, popped around in a cave of knobby, tangled branches half sunk in the water. As the sun dropped away, silhouettes of bats fluttered against the soft blue evening, no doubt dusting a magic on our marriage.

That was years ago, though we go back to check our spot every so often. Now, the perimeter of the lake is populated by a herd of at least fifteen not-so-wild raccoons who roam in the daytime — they are traditionally nocturnal animals. Around that same area, I once saw a white chicken and rooster there, sitting in a pine tree together. The rooster was crowing, sounding a dinner bell, as an old Asian lady tossed bagfulls of bread crusts to the ever-appearing raccoons. No one seemed to think any of this was odd.

If you follow the sidewalk just south of the lake, there is the field where we take the dogs to run. We search for a spot in the sun, a mud-free place to settle for a few minutes while we watch our galloping horse of a dog outrun our wiggly, herding puppy. Until they both galavant into the woods, down a vague path. Then we heave ourselves from our grassy seats and chase them through the shady underbrush trying not to get sand in our shoes, trying not to disturb the occasional homeless person, as we crush leaves and leap over fallen pines and eucalyptus.

After a while it gets cold, hidden from the sun, so we tumble out, dogs finally leashed by the fly fishing ponds, where you can once again stand flat on the sidewalk. The ponds are large, square cement pools, angled like beaches at the edges so old men can wade in, waterproofed to their chests as they lasso long lines over their heads. I have seen no fish through the dense, dark green water, but a sign says these strange pools are stocked. We never stay here for long; without plastic overalls, you are a pariah.

Such oddities genuinely exist in this municipal wonderland. There’s also a bison paddock which I only ever came across the time we rented Segways with our friend Steve. We zipped like annoying tourists along the sidewalks and in the bike lanes, hoping not to fly off as we teetered over cracked cement and rumbly asphalt. It was my husband’s birthday, and Steve had brought chalky, pastel-colored rice crispy treats made with weed in celebration. These were authentic San Francisco edibles, procured from some guy on Haight Street. New to us, we gave them a try. I remember feeling distant from my legs, exhausted afterward, and very little else. But, I do remember the bison with their mop-like fur and enormous cow noses, chewing steadily next to their barn as we marveled through the chainlink from our contraptions.

The science museum also lives in the park. We went with Eva and Schubert to see a lecture on mushrooms. Every Thursday, they have an event for adults that includes activities like drinking and making art from a mushroom cap. On these nights, cars line the dark park streets like teeth, and people trickle along the unlit paths in clumps, catching up on each others lives, flickering their iPhone lights ahead of them. Once inside, there’s plenty of space to fit us all. We feel a conditioned sense of sneakiness at being allowed to run loose here without supervision. But I only went the once. We had expensive screwdrivers made with cheap ingredients, listened to someone talk about mycelium networks in the dirt and their use in composting, and wandered through the aquarium, where grumpy fish tried to sleep, despite the disco-like atmosphere.

Not far from there is the rose garden, which consists of about 12 rows of thorny green bushes, not in bloom in spring, and an asphalt path where people bike and wander past the benches that face the imaginary flowers. I was reading on one of those benches just last week, and a squirrel came to see what food I had. She climbed on my backpack and found a six-month-old bag of nuts. She waited on top of my backpack, leaning forward as I unzipped the plastic bag and offered a handful. At first, she stared at me with her big black button eyes as she grabbed up what she could before running away to munch. But after a while, she just came over to my hand, pressing my fingers further open with her cool paws, keeping her claws clear of my skin as she gathered up armloads of nuts and took them to be buried under the trees. A guy cycled past on the path and yelled, “Don’t feed wild animals,” but I defied him.

I ran on the same path the day I miscarried. I couldn’t distinguish what pain was emotional from that which was physical. I just ran. Past the playground, past the AIDS memorial, and the Lily Pond. The green leaves reached out as I passed. I remember a sweet soft breeze, just the right temperature. There weren’t many people out that day. Those sidewalks were almost completely mine.

Like veins, the paths flow from one end to the other, branching off to innervate vital organs, bringing good and bad and whatever gets into the system. Some are wide and others barely noticeable, but their existence is evidence that someone has walked there before. They have been carrying life through this park for almost 150 years and will no doubt continue for 150 more.

They are a quintessentially female piece of anatomy, an indicator of gender even underneath clothing. They create aspects of identity and, like skin color, probably elicit immediate first impressions about the human to which they are attached. Males don’t seem to have a similar social identifier, except for perhaps the Adam’s apple, which doesn’t count since it’s not a sex organ. The sex organ they do have is generally invisible in public, unless you live in a nudist colony or in San Francisco. Boobs are special. 

Being raised by my dad, I had relatively low awareness about the boob-development part of adolescence, which arrived a little earlier for me than for my peers. I remember changing in the locker room in 6th grade and not understanding why Lindsay and Margot were staring and giggling. Later, the nun teaching PE in this Catholic school took me aside and told me I needed to start wearing a bra. I don’t remember feeling particularly ashamed about it, but I do remember feeling like a weirdo.

My aunt took me to get a training bra, about which I was initially quite excited for vague reasons around doing what grown up ladies did. I remember being incredibly picky about the color, and then utterly hating the experience of actually wearing it. After all, it was made of pieces of elastic that restrict your breathing and dig into your shoulders, just like they’re made today. 

At 32 years old, I consider how I would manage to put on a bra at night before running out of the house if it were on fire. The band has created a seemingly permanent home for itself in my lats. My back actually aches intensely if I don’t wear one. It’s not that the bra is comfortable, at least in the physical sense of the term, but it’s a requirement to be accepted in public with this size of bosom. I definitely notice when a woman isn’t wearing a bra, and it seems to indicate either that they are young, small-boobed and perky, or that they aren’t a functioning part of society. 

When I was in high school, all the girls (including me) pined for large boobs. At about the same age, I’m guessing that boys probably stare at their crotches, also wishing for an increase in size. It may be lessening recently, but the social influences at the time seemed to indicate that bigger boobs were better. I can’t even pinpoint examples of where I absorbed this. It was simply understood.

Boobs may be part of female power, like intoxicating perfumes, battable eyelashes, or high heels. In a French study, men were more comfortable approaching women with larger breasts. A 2009 field study found that waitresses with larger bra sizes received larger tips. Another study claims that male drivers stopped for a larger-busted confederate female hitchhiker more often than a lesser-busted one. Yet another experiment indicated that men prefer larger busts and smaller waists and tend to rate women with this ideal shape more positively, regardless of their personality.

While large breasts may be useful sometimes, these studies illustrate a bias. Why would we be treated so differently? What exactly does it mean about how we’re perceived? Perhaps that we’re more fertile, as at least one study suggests, but are there other implicit assumptions about our intellect or willingness to partake in sexual antics? Is there something about larger breasts that indicates we deserve less respect? One study looked at men’s preferred sizes, and those who liked larger breasts tended to be sexist, objectifying, and hostile toward women. Another showed a connection to resource security, showing that men who were hungry or made less money preferred larger breasts. Do larger-breasted women attract assholes and losers?

Looking at all of these studies, I sense an implication that we’d be particularly good caretakers. We’d be particularly patient, empathic, understanding, and willing to wipe noses and rear ends. These traits might apply transitively to our man as well as our children. In other words, we’d be more willing to take traditional wife roles and perhaps deal with more neediness from our male partner.

My boobs are “massive,” a descriptor once used by a medical professional as he biopsied a cyst — massive breasts tend to have more little doodads to keep an eye on. When not wearing a bra, they hang like salamis, beans from the Kigelia tree, or, if I’ve lost a little weight, tube socks with softballs in them. The body shape produced by their unaided position is similar to a clog, heel end down. US stores don’t usually carry bras large enough to accommodate such a size, and for years, I muddled along with Victoria’s Secret DD bras that hovered away from my rib cage, their underwires digging pits into the sides of each bosom. Those bras were more like hairless toupees, providing a light coverage, but really just making things worse. I still couldn’t run or jump or even raise my arms without some unsightly sloppage.

In my late twenties, a friend with European family mentioned the existence of bras with sizes past DD and yet small bands. This was probably the most practically helpful advice of my life, thus far. (Thank you, Randi.) There is now some indication of a slight hourglass structure under my clothes, and because they aren’t wobbling around so much, I tend to ignore the saddlebags most of the time. I’d even say they look pretty good.

It initially surprised me how drastic a change in my life this one suggestion had spurred. It is, after all, merely cosmetic. But its effects are not. I perceive a higher level of respect from the world, and whether this is my imagination, stemming from a change in my confidence, or truly a change in the world’s behavior toward me, I don’t care. Some long-held anxiety has relaxed.

While they are much more manageable and attractive to me encased in their strong new hammocks, I still have some complaints. Alas, if only I could comfortably lay face down, jog long distances without needing to re-cinch my bra straps, or fold forward without having to round my spine over them. I’m constantly reminded of their presence as my arms brush past them when I walk, type, cook, or do almost anything with my hands. They chafe my inner upper arms when I run long distances. When I see another woman, I immediately know if we share the same woes of ill-fitting button-up shirts, or experience an automatic twinge of envy at their apparent fitness. Even if you aren’t “fat,” having large bosoms makes most clothing hang a few inches away from your mid-section, creating some illusion of pregnancy or overweight-ness. In warmer weather, when smaller chested women are wearing tank tops and looking perfectly acceptable, I need to wear more clothing, else I expose cleavage too provocative for occasions other than the beach or bedroom.

I fantasize about what it would be like to have a smaller, cup-cake sized bust. I picture frolicking in fields wearing merely the bras that are built into Lululemon shirts. I’d often be in a crisp button-up, looking tidy and put together. I’d do multiple pull-ups in a row because I’m so much lighter weight and in such better shape because I can be so much more mobile. I picture not having to work so aggressively to have good posture. I also imagine not having to worry about whether a man is treating me differently because of them, or whether a woman dislikes me because of that dynamic. My guess is that I wouldn’t think quite so much about boobs — I’d be busy being unimpeded by them, and instead I’d fixate on my teeth or hair or weirdly long second toe, moving along the hierarchy of neuroses.

I still keep the possibility of a reduction in mind, but I’m hoping first to have kids and use these boobs as biologically-intended. Another saggy-teated friend told me that the extra length allowed for hands-free breastfeeding; She would lie next to the baby and simply flop the breast off to the side where the baby could reach — they kind of melt into the armpit area on their own, anyway. Perhaps during motherhood I’ll start to appreciate them for their usefulness, but I still fear their potential growth during and after pregnancy. Any bigger, and they’ll verge on comical.

Even though small seems better to me now, it seems many women want larger boobs, and those who have implant surgery have twice the risk of suicide than the normal population. While the reasons related in the research about this are bland terms like “anxiety” and “depression,” I’m pretty sure it relates to thinking of themselves as primarily valuable for your sex appeal. These days, this is is exactly what I do not want to be valued for.

As a teenager, I was one of those girls who assumed my value was primarily a factor of sex appeal, though this wasn’t something I overtly understood about my motivations. At 15, I secretly dated men in their twenties who seemed to be wildly attracted to me, though boys my own age still ran away screaming “cooties.” It definitely wasn’t a good thing to be doing, but I loved the attention. It was one of the few things I was good at, at the time, at least in my own mind. I have no doubt that my voluptuous physique contributed to the situation, creating the illusion that I was older than I was.

Now, married and in my thirties, I want people to pay attention to my ideas and creative contributions. I don’t know the last time I attempted to use feminine wiles. What would it be like without them? What exactly would I be giving up or gaining? I see the proud images of women who have had double mastectomies for their health, and I see a strange freedom. They have shed an identity, and are now developing a new one.

But “going flat” is very new social territory. The unknown is usually a source of some fear, and completely removing a signature of femininity I have had since I became a woman would create an identity I don’t yet know. Would I still feel like a woman? Would my hormonal output be different? Would I then be different?

My boobs have worn themselves into my current sense of self. Whatever the social responses are to them, I’m used to them. I know how to dress, to strengthen my upper back, and that immense relief awaits at the end of the day, when I finally unclasp my bra. My boobs are part of the context in which I live my life. And while I am not my boobs, they contribute to who I am, like the tree that bends around a pole to reach the sunlight.