They Say I'm Lucky I Haven't Had it Worse

 I’m a woman with big tits. And I kind of love them, bouncy, warm, and heavy. But I haven’t always loved this weight. Yeah, when the Canadian government said they would cover the cost of breast reduction surgery for women like me, I imagined my body in all the bras I’d never been able to wear before. Victoria’s Secret. La Senza. La Vie En Rose. Hot, hot pink. Or red. The obnoxious colours. The cuts women like me can’t wear. The bralette. The plunge. For a while, it was a nice fantasy, the cutting and cropping of my body.

I’m a woman who wears a size 16. Like all women, I have hips, I have an ass. I bleed. I like stretchy fabrics. God bless Lycra.

 

And I’m fucking hot. It’s something I know now, not something I’ve always known. 

 

I’m a woman who at thirty wore a bikini to the beach for the first time. Let’s not talk about the sunburn. Or the weird hairs I suddenly noticed in the penetrating gaze of the Florida sun. Let’s talk about the pink and black polka dot bikini top with its adjustable straps, and the drawstring keeping my bottoms on when the waves at Coco Beach hit me, salty, cold, and rough, over and over again. 

 

Hundreds of other people occupied the beach. Welcome to Florida in July. Hundreds of other people with eyes. I’d never noticed eyes in this way before. These people who could, if it thrilled them, examine every flaw of my body. New light brings new shadows. Even though I was exposed, on show, as open as I had ever been with my body outside of those comforting private places like bedrooms and kitchens, I felt safe. Let’s discount the time I spent tracking sharks on OCEARCH's Global Shark Tracker app and the time I spent applying SPF 60 sunscreen to my exposed bits. Because: sharks. Because: cancer.

 

Sharks and cancer. With the teeth and the cells growing, abnormally, out of control. All those horror stories. Someone’s aunt, someone’s mother.

 

These fears I understand. 

 

The ocean doesn’t belong to me, but to others, to the things that live in the dark down there. The fish we eat, and the fish we don’t: swimming in mercury, in man-made poisons.

 

In South Dakota, about as far from the ocean as you can get, we don’t worry about fish. Instead, it’s Monsanto. Glyphosate. Atrazine. Tetrahydrophthalimide. Pyraclostrobin. Spinosad A. These are but a handful of the things living in the cornfield across the street from my house. The one my dog runs through, the one the wind blows through, in my open windows. When I think about what particles are living in that field, in my air, I can almost feel my cells mutating. 

 

These fears are understandable. 

 

#

 

Sharks and cancer, sure—but the walk-in freezer?

 

I work the front of the house. He works the back of the house. There’s the line: where hot food sits under heat lamps, waiting. The line keeps us apart. The line keeps us safe.

 

It’s a cheap restaurant. A franchise. Italian. Unlimited salad or soup and breadsticks with an entrée. I make an average of 2$ on every bill. 

 

I’m overworked, underpaid. You know the story. 

 

A memory: I spill orange soda on a woman’s lap. An accident, of course. But she’s still pissed, even after I help clean up, even after I sorry myself raw, even after the manager comps part of their bill. At the end of the meal, her husband tips me with a twenty, and a smile. It’s funny where we take our petty little revenge. My boss, he seems to think this is what women do: screw around, screw up—and when they do, cost him money.

 

My boss is an asshole—but whose boss isn’t? 

 

The first time I call in sick in my life he orders me into work, even after I protest my migraine is so severe I can’t see straight. This is no metaphor for pain. Living and working in the suburbs, there’s no getting to work without driving, and there’s no driving with this migraine. I don’t show up for my shift that day; he doesn’t follow through on his threat to fire me. I wonder if it’s because he’s heard I’ve filled a complaint with the Ministry of Labour? I wonder if it’s because he’s only an asshole when he wants to be? 

 

Eight or so hours into a fourteen-hour shift. Open to close. It’s exhausting, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. But this time it’s different. 

 

In the front of the house, I’m safe. The lights are bright. My asshole boss is around, hovering like he does in his pressed black dress shirt, his made-for-work, crease-free slacks. As the shift progresses, we sing this dreadful happy birthday song, over and over again. I hate to think it says something about me that I’m never part of the group clapping and singing even when it is my table, my tip on the line. I hate to think that it says something about me, my skill in convincing others to sing for me.

 

There’s something in the walk-in freezer. I need it to do my job. Today, if you ask me, I can’t tell you what I was doing in the walk-in freezer, in the back of the house. I don’t belong there, across that line.

 

At another job, before this one, when I worked at a pizza place, the walk-in freezer was the site of most of our practical jokes. Not that it’s very funny to be locked in a walk-in freezer, two guys—cousins—pressing their weight against the door, locking me in, while the phone rings, over and over again. Someone wants a pizza, but they’re not getting it tonight. We’re goofing off, throwing tiny balls of dough at each other, or shaking someone’s fresh soda can when they turn their back. It only takes a second to pull one over on someone. In the pizza place, it’s practically a rule that if one of us steps into the walk-in, if the boss is out, we’re going to force someone to sit on a milk-crate in the cold until it’s not funny anymore. I’ve been cold, I’ve been angry, but I’ve never worried they wouldn’t let me out, or worse, I never worried they’d come in after me.

 

But at this cheap Italian place, I crossed that line and walk to the back of the house, where the walk-in freezer is located. He must have been watching me, or when I stepped foot into his space, he noticed. Like radar. Like a sixth sense. 

 

The timing is off, wrong. Cooks don’t leave the line during the dinner rush. 

 

Servers don’t cross the line. Their space, our space.

 

I needed something. Maybe the liquid caramel and chocolate in squirt bottles, the stuff we drizzle all over the plate so your seven dollar dessert doesn’t feel so small. I liked drawing flowers in caramel with chocolate centres on white plates. Or running a knife through alternating rows of the sticky sauce, blending the two.

 

Liquid caramel and chocolate, maybe that’s why I was in the walk-in.

 

The door clamps shut. I reach for the switch, happy when the yellow light kicks in. The space is cramped, frozen food everywhere. Boxes of chicken, breadsticks, cheesecake. 

 

I’m looking for something—what exactly? Does it really matter? I’ve crossed the line.

 

He walks in behind me, pulls the door shut, and stands, his wide body blocking my exit. In order to leave, I’m going to have to move through him.

 

It’s a skill I haven’t picked up. Moving through solid flesh. Moving through male space.

 

“You have a nice ass,” he says.

 

We’ve never exchanged words, except thanks, and generic food-related statements like can you rush that chicken cacciatore, my table’s in a rush? And yet I know he’s an ass man.

 

Then his follow up: he asks me what I do for fun. What I do when I’m not serving cheap Italian food to Woodbridge Kids.

 

I’m a full-time student working 30+ hours a week at a cheap Italian restaurant. I don’t do anything else. I study, I work, I sleep. But I don’t tell him that. I don’t want to mention the bedroom. Don’t want to convince him, with a single breath, let alone words that could suggest, if he takes a fucking leap, that I’m cool with what’s going down.

 

I don’t remember what I said, or what I wanted to say. 

 

My nipples are hard. From the cold. 

 

And I’m crossing my arms over my chest, knowing that this move only accentuates my lady parts, hoping that he leaves soon. Because I can’t until he does. Because his body is between mine and the door.

 

My nipples are hard. And I’m hoping he can’t see this because that’s not the message I want to send. Damn my body for betraying me, for reacting to the cold.

 

After a while, I’m not sure how long, he steps closer to me, reaches across my body, brushes me to grab himself a bag of flash frozen chicken. There is no room to step away. 

 

There is no room for me here. This is the back of the house. This is not the front of the house.

 

After a while, he leaves.

 

I work at the cheap Italian restaurant for a few more months. I never step foot in the back of the house again.

 

#

 

Sharks, cancer, stairwells.

 

Fact: Girls mature faster than boys.

 

Fact: In my sixth grade class photo, the top row is almost exclusively filled with girls. By the eighth grade, I’m downgraded to the first row along with most of my girlfriends. Something’s changed.

 

Fact: It happens twice. In the stairwell. 

 

Fact: There are several ways to exit Beverley Heights Middle School. The front door, rarely used lets you out on the neighbourhood. I don’t live in the neighbourhood. The north exit leads to the road with a funny name: Troutbrooke. The road leads to the bus stop at Jane Street, down the hill. I take the bus, use the north door. But for a few weeks, I decide to ride my bike to and from school. It’s a long trip, but my parents seem proud. My body could use more time on the bike. I know this, even at twelve.

 

Fact: The bike racks, well, they aren’t out the north door.

 

Fact: The first time I run down the stairwell that leads to the door that leads to the bike racks, I’m not worried when I spot him standing there. He’s leaning against the wall, relaxed. I’m not even worried when he smiles at me. People smile. I’m not worried until he uses his body to push mine against a cinderblock wall.

 

Fact: It happens twice. Both times I don’t say anything to anyone. For years. Both times, I feel guilty for using that stairwell, like my laziness is a crime.

 

Fact: He uses his body to hold mine against a cinderblock wall. 

 

Fact: He uses his hands to grab my breasts, my ass, and once, he presses his hand between my legs.

 

Fact: I’m fully clothed.

 

Fact: This is my fault. I’m lazy. If I’d only walked a few more metres, if only. 

 

Fact: There are other doors.

 

Fact: It happens twice. I let him do this to me twice.

 

Fact: I don’t tell anyone. But when I do, it’s after my best friend tells me it happened to her. More than once. In that stairwell. How she remembers his heavy body, his heavy hands.

 

Fact: Knowing it happened to her too doesn’t make me feel any less lazy for letting it happen a second time. Knowing she let it happen a second, and a third, and fourth time, over and over again, doesn’t make me feel any better.

 

Fact: The adult I’ve become likes being manhandled. Consensually. But it’s not fair that I sometimes worry there’s something about twice in a stairwell in my middle school that’s fucked me up, that’s changed me.

 

#

 

With sharks, we expect blood. With cancer, hair loss. With parking lots, it’s violence. This is not the parking lot story you’re expecting.

 

I’ve moved to the Midwest. I live alone, in a log cabin. It’s very Midwest. I teach Intro to Lit at a small midwestern university as I study for my PhD.

 

It’s boring here. My life is boring here. 

 

I’m stopped on the quad and asked out by a freshman my first week on campus. He says my body’s fit. And I know he doesn’t mean ready for a marathon. I tell him I’m too old, but thanks. He says, “Age is just a number, baby.” And that’s my cue to walk away.

 

My second week on campus, I’m followed aggressively by an international student, an overly nice guy who isn’t reading my I’m-not-interested signals. This reminds me to work on my not-interested signals, and maybe, work on my not-interested-at-all speech. After all, I really should say it: No. I’m not interested in having sex with you. He follows me, aggressively, for a year. I never find the words as I’m avoiding places where I know he’ll find me.

 

Life is boring, but my wardrobe isn’t. I get to play at being a professional. I get to dress up in my professorial drag: usually a pencil skirt, black, a top of some kind, and to keep it classy, and fashion forward, a pair of pantyhose disappearing into black slouchy boots.

 

I own a collection of pantyhose: mostly black, some patterned. Sometimes, when I’m feeling extra runway ready, I put on the fishnets. They aren’t the kind with huge holes, where I’m like, um, yeah, that doesn’t cover anything. The little holes are tight, a pattern more than an all-access pass. In my gut, I believe they’re classy.

 

After teaching, office hours, and then sitting through six hours of my own classes, it’s ten PM and I’m starving. Before driving home on two-lane country roads to the log cabin, where the likely contents of my fridge include cheese, and maybe a can of Coke, I stop at Subway.

 

The parking lot is littered with trash. A tan sedan is parked next to me. I’m climbing out of my red Mustang. I’m exhausted. I’m hungry. I’m ready for an all-American ritual: exchanging money for food under florescent lights. 

 

I’m not ready for the look the driver of the sedan throws my way. She meets my eyes, and once she knows I see her watching me, she makes her way down my body, over my breasts, over my stomach, over my pencil skirt, my thighs, my fishnets, and then, she slowly shakes her head from side to side, over and over again. This is her disapproval of my body.

 

A moment of disassociation hits me. Where time slows, where I’m taken outside of myself. This has never happened before.

 

Last week dressed head-to-toe in winter gear, a truck slows and there’s the whistle. My winter coat covers me from neck to knees, my boots from toes to mid-calf. Men’s eyes on my curves, sure. Catcalls, yes. Once in Belize, I’m followed eight blocks, and out onto a country road by a pack of men, who taunt me in one breath, who praise my assets in the next.

 

But a woman. Not like this. Not ever.

 

I can’t meet her eyes. But when I raise my own, I see two boys. Not hers, she’s too old. Maybe they’re her grandsons, too young to be without car seats, watching her, watching me.

 

At home, I strip down, peeling the fishnets from my body. I shove my collection to the back of a sock drawer, and when I need more room for socks, I throw the fishnets and the opaque black tights in the garbage. 

 

For a few years, I stop wearing skirts. Haven’t worn fishnets since.

 

#

 

Cancer rates are higher here. It’s the chemicals they put on the crops. But the saving grace, there are no sharks. Only corn, only classrooms.

 

Two moments in higher ed.

 

One. Student evaluations.

 

I’m not very good at writing papers and she was literally a bitch about everything.


Two. The protestors.

 

Women Are to Be Meek, Quiet and Modestly Dressed.

 

You Must Change For Christ To Accept You.

 

The protestors stand on the quad. They’re holding signs. Those signs are double sided. On the other side of one sign, a trite phrase, something about divorced women, something about whores.

 

Even though the protestors stand there all day, no one stops. No one stands their ground, a living monument against the message the protestors are forwarding. I don’t stop. I read the signs. I walk away.

 

That’s not true. I take a stand, writing a letter to the office of the university president, asking why anti-feminist religious messages are allowed on campus. I discover two things. One, you require a permit from the office of the president to hold a protest, or counter-protest; however, no list of approved protests is made available to students. Two, free speech, in this place, is the official excuse for allowing anti-feminist sentiments. For calling divorced women whores. They call it free speech, I call it hate speech. 

 

Months later, I write a novel. My protagonist meets these men on her university campus, and in response, she strips down to her underwear and bra. Conservative religious nuts meet boobs. Meet the female body. Meet curves. Meet sex. Meet my right to my body. Watch me, watch my body, watch how you cannot control it.

 

This character, she’s the woman I want to be. Never mind that she winds up dead. That her body cannot transgress these lines without consequence. She’s a feminist, and she’s mouthy, and she’s killed. 

 

But that’s fiction. That’s story.

 

That’s not my body in this place in the year two-thousand-and-sixteen where a student feels as if bitch is a word to wield against me. What makes me a bitch? Who makes me a bitch?

 

#

 

Sharks, fuck yeah. Cancer, yes. But add all these others, and learn to balance them, as well.

 

The bikini and the salty ocean and the weird hairs and the pale whiteness of my usually covered skin, it’s liberating. Strange but happy, too. I know I’ll do it again. Because I believe every woman has a bikini body. I’ve returned to wearing skirts, prefer them actually. But I’ve ditched the hose, most days, because if my community can’t learn to accept my legs, they’ll never accept the rest of my body. And if they can’t accept my body, as mine, in the shape and form in which I present it, then they will never accept my mind making similar moves. 

 

They will never accept my no, or my stop, or my safe word.

 

Yet, when I put the bikini away, and strap on my super-expensive because they-don’t-sells-bras-for-women-like-me-in-malls but smoking lace cage, the one that holds my tatas in check, I’m reminded that we live in a world where porn stars can’t be raped. 

 

From behind the veil of anonymity the Internet draws around us, we are willing to say this to the face of a woman who has had her body and her mind overruled, as if her body or mind don’t matter. We are willing to do this, to continue to enact this rape on her, over and over again. 

 

We live in a world where, in Canada, Indigenous women are four times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women—and nobody is listening to their cries. Statistically, their murderers are more likely to ditch their body somewhere in the open. When they are discarded, these women do not even merit a shallow grave.

 

We live in a world where Planned Parenthood—an organization that provides abortions, yes, but also cancer and STD screenings, contraception (to, you know, help avoid abortions) and sex education to American women—is under attack by government, and domestic terrorists, every damn day.

 

We live in a world where the walk-in freezer at work isn’t safe, where the stairwell in your two-story middle school isn’t safe, where the well-lit parking lot of the strip mall is not safe, where the university where you learn and teach is not safe. 

 

People tell me I’m lucky I haven’t had it worse, as if too close, too much, too often, too drunk, too tempting, too easy-to-excuse doesn’t count, doesn’t matter, doesn’t change who I am, who I am allowed to be. There are sharks. There is cancer. These fears I understand. These fears I can rationalize. These fears I am willing to face, big tits and all. 

 

But in this world, where too close, too much, too often, too drunk, too tempting, too easy-to-excuse doesn’t count, I am left afraid.

 

I exist. I fight. I face these things with resilience. But, at my core, in this body I have learned to love, to respect and hold as sacred, I am heavied.