I stood barefoot in the sterile operating room of the plastic surgeon's office suite, loosened the cloth tie of the pastel blue patient gown, and opened the wrap to reveal my breasts. The plastic surgeon remembered me–he had reconstructed my breasts after a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy three years earlier. He eyed the two matching faint circles on my chest that he had created for me as artificial areolas and confirmed: "Yup, they've faded a bit, haven't they?"
"I'm getting divorced this month and I'll be dating again," I said.
"Putting a little more bait on the hook, eh?" he replied.
It was the end of 2013, and the end of an era. I had been separated for six months and my 19-year marriage was officially coming to a close. I needed to mark this moment somehow, prepare myself to transition to being fully single again for the first time since I was 24. Prove to myself as a 47-year-old, early-stage breast cancer survivor that I had achieved closure.
In the space of one week in December, I would get my nipple tattoos refreshed, take my first pole dancing class, and finalize my divorce.
When I'd left his office three years earlier, the doctor mentioned the tattoos tended to fade over time. As I prepared to enter the dating pool, it was clear that he had predicted this accurately. The artificial areola on my right side in particular had faded to the point where it was hardly distinguishable from the color of the breast skin. The mastectomy scars the tattoos covered were faint, though more visible than before. The right side was also the side with the barely-erect artificial nipple, and it was especially bothersome to me as I contemplated dating and the possibility of showing men other than my soon-to-be-ex-husband my reconstructed breasts.
Tattoo refreshing, I hoped, would ease these concerns.
I lay down on my back on the surgical table, naked from the waist up, knees bent over a pillow provided by the nurse.
The doctor lifted the thin layer of skin and tissue on my reconstructed right breast and shook it a bit to loosen it from the saline implant. He pinched a layer of thin tissue between his thumb and pointer finger, then took a syringe filled with a numbing agent and stuck the needle into the tissue, careful to avoid puncturing the implant. I was grateful to feel a sting as I watched the needle enter. The pain confirmed I had regained some sensation.
The doctor selected reddish-brown ink that approximated my lip color. He whirred the motor of the tattoo gun before landing it on the center of my breast and joked, "Some guys rev their motorcycles…" It sounded like a dental drill.
He ran the tattoo gun back and forth across and around the circle of my simulated areola and over the bump of gathered tissue that made up my artificial nipple. The tattoo gun's needle penetrated my skin repeatedly, injecting insoluble ink about one millimeter down. I watched with satisfaction as the color of the circle on my skin deepened to a darker pink-brown.
After fifteen minutes or so, he had finished the other side. The nurse nodded in approval and I sat up. She squeezed opaque antibiotic ointment onto my refreshed areolas and laid sterile, non-stick bandages over the top with a strip of surgical tape. The nurse helped me put my bra on to cover the bandages and hold them in place. I'd reapply the ointment and replace the bandages daily for a week or so, then would be free and clear. In my mind, ready to date.
My scars were barely visible now. You'd have to look carefully to see them.
It had been 25 years since I'd been close to a pole. Back then, I'd sat in the audience of a strip club in Bellingham, Washington, as a wingman favor to a college girlfriend whose boyfriend wanted her to come along. I had watched women entwine their legs around floor-to-ceiling cylinders. I heard the "scree" that skin made when it rubbed along metal. I saw the tilted-down faces and up-turned eyes that held a man's gaze even while the women's arms and legs were in motion, stuffing bills into G-strings and strutting in clear, plastic spiked heels. These women had a sense of command and confidence. They knew the power of the female form, how to captivate, how to build desire and momentum, or so it seemed to me.
Now I wanted some of that.
My friend Chris registered me and three of our closest college girlfriends for a class at Pole for the Soul in Phinney Ridge. The large room was a midnight version of a ballet gym, with hardwood floors and mirrors lining one wall, plus red light bulbs, a half-dozen silver poles, and velvet curtains. The instructor was a gorgeous obese woman who said she had lost over forty pounds that year simply by teaching these courses.
Each of the five of us changed into exercise shorts and tank tops or T-shirts, leaving our feet bare for better grip. We wrote fake names on stick-on nametags–mine was "Bambi"–then went to our individual poles to warm up and put on our sexy faces. Holly did her signature bent-knees/arms lifted overhead/hands in the air/hip-wiggle move. Lori used her athleticism to great advantage. Chris followed instructions to a tee. Jen worked the attitude angle. I was cautious. I didn't heft my whole weight with my arms. I didn't want to risk putting too much strain on my reconstructed chest–didn't want to tear or break anything, either artificial or real. I shimmied my rear end up the pole with the best of them, but did half-spins while the others did full.
The five of us had known each other since we were 20–almost 30 years now. We'd supported each other through major life events: widowhood, baby loss, adoption, disease, divorce. These women had seen me at each stage of the mastectomy and reconstruction process. A month after the first surgery when I was completely flat-chested, I'd asked them during a girls' getaway weekend, "Do you guys want to see what a mastectomy looks like?" Holly had piped up first, saying, "I do." I stripped down and showed them my breast-less, nipple-free chest with the matching horizontal incisions, and the bra with slits in the side that held my silicone falsies. They had been my first test audience after my husband.
I remembered gauging their reactions to the surgical aftermath: they had seemed interested and concerned, encouraging, not horrified. They had reacted similarly to the news of my impending divorce. My marred chest, the end of my marriage: none of it was as bad as any of us had expected.
Now the instructor dimmed the lights, started a top-40 song on the CD player and told us to man our poles. She taught us some basic moves–how to grab the pole with one hand and walk seductively in a circle around it, dragging your toe behind you with each step. She taught us how to press our backs against the pole and rub up and down against it, raising an arm behind us to hold the pole for support. She taught us to face the pole and grasp the top of it with both hands then swing around it.
For the finale performance that encompassed all the moves we'd learned in the past hour, we grabbed accessories—boas and a cat ear headband—and chose an '80s rock song, Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me." We whooped and giggled, cheering each other on.
Just before we left, the instructor put on a private performance for us, fluidly lifting her heavy frame, climbing all the way up to where the pole was bolted into the ceiling, holding on with the pole between her legs, arms extended free and graceful in the air. It was a sight to behold. She was so sexy at 200 pounds that I felt that I could be sexy too, with my three-year-old reconstructed breasts, my 47-year-old thighs. And like her, I could feel sexy just for the sake of feeling sexy, without any end goal in mind. I could do it to please myself.
I doubted I would use any of these moves again outside of the classroom. But as I watched some of my closest friends spin around the poles and shimmy their backsides up and down the fingerprinted cylinders, I knew I had accomplished something. Like my friends, I had survived the challenges life had thrown my way, and more than that, survived with the sass still intact in our attitudes and the sparkle still intact in our eyes.
I went to the Everett courthouse on Tuesday that week in December to stand in front of a judge and answer her few questions: verified my name, confirmed that the divorce presented no financial hardship for myself or my child. I sat next to a woman, another client of my lawyer's, who was also finalizing her divorce that day.
We sat in the front row of the small courtroom and smiled at each other with watery eyes as a clerk date-stamped our divorce decrees with a thunk. We were both the petitioners of our divorces, ending marriages we had once savored that had turned unhealthy. We didn't have long-term plans, but we had immediate plans. We were moving on to new lives. I hugged her and wished her the best of luck before I said goodbye.
I walked outside to the parking lot, started the car, and scanned radio stations until I heard carols. Days earlier, I'd purchased, loaded and set up my own Christmas tree for the first time in years. As I pulled onto the freeway, I considered the possibility of stopping at QFC for mistletoe for my apartment doorway. I could picture that sprig of green and red dangling there above me.
Wendy Staley Colbert is working on a memoir through Pacific University's MFA program. Her personal essays have been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, Salon, Whole Life Times, ParentMap, The Feminist Wire and This Great Society. Her essays are also included in the 2014 anthologies SPENT: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping and Three Minus One.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.