"I’m sewing up the head," my brother, John, is sitting at my kitchen table and regaling me with tales from the crypt, "and Ilde is across from me doing the embalming – she’s a really good embalmer – and behind … Read More

By / December 2, 2008

"I’m sewing up the head," my brother, John, is sitting at my kitchen table and regaling me with tales from the crypt, "and Ilde is across from me doing the embalming – she’s a really good embalmer – and behind me I hear Veronica – she works in the office – saying she thinks she found a lump in her breast.  Then, Sheree says to me, ‘John, turn around.’  I start to turn around and Ilde points that big, long embalming tube at me and says, ‘Don’t you dare.’  I guess Veronica had pulled her breast out of her shirt…"

Ilde is not John’s girlfriend.  However, John’s intensely possessive girlfriend has often insisted that Ilde has the hots for him.  I’d always assumed that this was her unreasonable jealousy talking, but now, I’m not sure. 

"So what did you do?" I’m envisioning my brother in this East Flatbush funeral home surrounded by these tough, streetwise women who are as unself-conscious with their own bodies as they are with the corpses on the table, and could eat him for a snack.

"I kept sewing up the head…"

A few hours later, I’m nestled in a chair in Lili and Michael’s comfortable living room on West 81st Street.  During the course of the evening about 200 people come and go to watch the balloons for the Macy’s Day Parade being blown up.  Between them, Michael and Lili have four daughters and a son, and friends of their kids drift in and out, mingling amongst the adults.  I’m struck, as I often am, by how much more sophisticated the teenage girls in their casually sexy short skirts and their self-aware and self-confident "Hello, nice to see you" kiss on the cheeks savvy are than their more awkward male counterparts. 

In a triangle, I sit with two other women, Daniella and Lisa, whom I’ve met at Yom Kippur break fasts as well as at the same Jewish day school that our children attend.  I don’t know them well, but well enough to fairly quickly dispense with the trivialities and get down to girl talk.   We admire Daniella’s black ballet flats with the adorable little bow and commiserate on how hard it is to find the perfect, comfortable, cute pair of shoes.  This naturally segues into a discussion of hair stylists.  I’m always on the look-out for a new one.  I haven’t been faithful to a stylist for more than a year.  While doggedly loyal in other areas of my life, I will unabashedly chase after a new pair of scissors.  Fickle, thy name is woman.

Right about then, Daniella reaches into her white T-shirt to answer a call.  Stating the obvious, I ask, "That was in your bra?"

She nods.

"What else do you have in there?"  Lisa leans closer to look down Daniella’s shirt. 

"There’s a lot of room," she shrugs self-deprecatingly and pulls out a folded $20 bill and, "Wait, wait!" a lipstick.  She reapplies her lipstick without a mirror.

Lisa thinks we should manufacture bras with little pockets to tuck away our necessities. "Spanx," she adds, triumphantly.  For just a half second, I think she’s saying "spanks," which is far more intimate information than I imagine she wants to share with us, but then she explains, "The woman who designed Spanx – she’s a millionaire.  She was on Oprah.  Nobody thought she could do it, but they are genius.  They’re amazing."

These various undergarments made of spandex are like being wrapped in a tight ace bandage.  They smother any errant flesh into submission.  Though not nearly as sexy and subversive as the "Koo-koo-ka-choo-Mrs. Robinson" girdles of the past, for many of us, Spanx has liberated us from the dreaded visible panty line and the unseemly bulges that we battle on a daily basis.  "Honestly," Lisa continues, "just like the Spanx lady – she had this vision.  Pockets in the bras – it takes a woman to know what a woman needs."

"They make underwear with a discreet pocket for a condom," I contribute (lamely) to the conversation.

"You know, when I had my mastectomy," Lisa leaps into a non-sequitur. We sip our wine and follow along, "and then had the reconstruction, I couldn’t stand it that there was no nipple.  I researched it and I found out they make stick-on nipples."

"You got one?" Daniella asks.

Lisa nods.

"It matches your other nipple?" Daniella presses.

"I went online and matched it up."

"How’d you do that?" Still Daniella.

"I – you know," she makes a motion that she’s pulling out her breast and comparing it to some photo online.

Matthew ambles over and stumbles unsuspectingly into our merry party of estrogen.  With a man present, I pull myself out of the thicket of nipples and brassieres.  I joke to Matthew that he’s brave to sit down with this throng of women.  He says he had lunch with eight women last week and while they managed to have individual conversations with one another while at the same time following the larger group’s discussion, he quickly became lost and left with a terrible headache.  Even now, he bears a rather befuddled look, similar to that of the teenage boys nearby who are tagging along after the high-heeled girls, or my brother when surrounded by his female posse.  This easy intimacy that so many of us women share with one another is not an earmark of male relationships.  Women become, literally, physically in sync with one another, simply by living together.  Our menstrual cycles, of their own inexplicable wills, quickly coincide, and we flow together unconsciously, inadvertently.  

I mention a mutual friend, Liz, to Matthew, whose son once played hockey with her son.  What’s she doing now, Matthew asks.  "She started a company.  The Lice Treatment Center.  She’s trained something like 40 women and they have contracts with schools and camps to do lice checks and treatment, and they go to people’s homes whose kids have a lice infestation.  These women are trained nit pickers, literally.  Her company is all over the East coast in less than a year."  I forget to mention that, in between starting the company and parenting her children, Liz was the national squash champion last year, beating an Alaskan woman twice her size who, we joked, ate whale blubber for breakfast. 

"Really?  She has – how many kids?"

"Five," I reply, as proudly as if they are my own.

"Wow.  That’s great.  Good for her." 

Women.  They flash their tits, they embalm bodies, they investigate nits, they are mysterious, menstrual moon goddesses.   Matthew’s a big, tough guy, but stick-on nipples and "Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered" Spanx are not matters for those without wombs.  Like my brother, better he should just keep sewing up the head.

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