Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Vultures

BY KATHERINE WITT

In 1962, Timmie Jean Lindsey’s boyfriend convinced her to have roses tattooed on her chest. Later, regretting the decision, she ventured to a charity clinic in Houston to have the ink removed. The doctor there was a budding plastic surgeon named Frank Gerow. He removed the tattoos, but also asked Timmie Jean if he could use her body to try out his new procedure for sagging breasts: implanting silicone bags. Timmie Jean agreed, as long as Dr. Gerow also agreed to pin back her ears, the physical feature she felt most self-conscious about. By the end of the day, Timmie Jean flaunted perkier, fuller, silicone-filled, rose-free, size C tits. And flat ears.

 

My first tattoo is a cluster of dots inked by a man named Rex. I was eighteen-years-old and determined to be tattooed, so I Googled “stars” and studied the pages until I found a simple image that made me believe I wouldn’t be in pain from the tattoo gun for too long. I wanted the image in a place on my body that no one could see unless offered an invitation to look. I chose the left side of my middle back, an area only exposed when topless or in a bathing suit.

A few weeks before my appointment, a guy named Tyler who lived down the hall from me in the same dorm building showed me his newest tattoo, a red, white, and blue Texas flag behind the outline of the state. He was from Austin, tall, lanky, with large teeth. My two older brothers, who I mimicked all of my life, were also in college and started collecting tattoos. The idea grew on me and I made an appointment at Studio One during my Christmas break.

My middle brother, Stephen, drove me to the studio, an old row home converted into a parlor. Each artist had a designated room and Rex’s was upstairs. It was a corner room, well-lit with natural sunlight. He had most of the walls covered with framed pictures of completed tattoos, mostly geometric patterns and colorful cartoon characters including Popeye, the Incredible Hulk, and Jessica Rabbit. I lay belly-down on the plastic-covered table and Stephen sat in the chair, stoic, positioned next to my head.

The tattoo gun made a sound that reminded me of the game Operation. Rex spilled small circles of ink into my skin, making a sharp buzz with each dot. I startled each time the needle punctured my flesh and Stephen continuously implored me to keep still. After an hour, the collection of ink dots formed two five-pointed stars. I was sore and elated.

I kept the tattoo covered for the prescribed four hours and then gleefully removed the bandage to take a picture and send the image to Tyler. The picture was an up-close photo of black dots surrounded by fair skin and a smattering of freckles. No curve of my hip or indent of my spine or hint of my butt. He had no way of knowing where the tattoo was placed on my body. But sending that small area of naked flesh made me feel daring and exposed. Within seconds, the reaction I sought: that he couldn’t wait to see it in person.

 

My second tattoo at twenty-years-old is an unskilled rendering of the Irish Claddagh, an Irish symbol for love, loyalty, and friendship. The image is two hands holding a heart with a crown placed on top of the heart. I chose my right hip for the Claddagh tattoo at a different studio from the first and this time Tyler came with me. It was a last-minute appointment with a fledgling artist, but I didn’t care. Tyler is the first man who ever paid attention to my body and let me know it without reservation. I clung to his comments as if he was the world’s undisputed expert on the physical beauty of women’s bodies. Once I decided on the Claddagh, Tyler shared his thoughts on where the image needed to be on my body, scanning me from top to bottom and imagining. He told me it would be sexy to keep it in a place that had to be undressed. He audibly visualized pulling down my panties and being delighted to see this hidden picture.

Even though the Claddagh is not an image of renowned artistry, I was devoted to Tyler’s idea of a sexy secret used to excite. I enjoyed having a reason to show hidden parts of my body and to draw attention to places of my choosing. Shortly after that experience, Tyler left school, moved back to Austin, and we stopped talking. Tattooing became less about the image chosen and more about where I placed it on my body. I added tattoos to the places I wanted someone to look.

 
According to the 2015 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report published by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons:

1. Breast augmentation is the top cosmetic surgical procedure. Then comes liposuction, nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, and tummy tuck.
2. Of all cosmetic procedures, 92% are women.
3. Women who underwent breast augmentation increased 31% since 2000.
4. Most women who want implants are between the ages of 30 and 39.
5. 279,143 American women had their breasts enlarged last year.
6. The average cost for breast augmentation is $3,822.00.

 

Jeff, my husband, once called me his black vulture because of my dark hair. We were in his car, taking the dogs to a nearby park to swim, when he turned to look at me in the passenger seat of his Outback and likened me to a wrinkled, hairless creature that feasts on roadside carcasses. I laughed and thought of all the majestic birds he could’ve used: swans, macaws, conures, lories, lovebirds. He was trying to say something nice, but never felt comfortable giving compliments. I’m not even sure he knew that a black vulture was a real bird at the time. We looked up more information about black vultures when we returned to his apartment and not only are they monogamous, but they maintain strong relationships with family members for their entire lives and fiercely protect their nests from outsiders. My husband and I chose them as our love symbol.

I searched for tattoo artists in San Antonio for weeks and had to book the appointment with Annie three months in advance with a $200.00 deposit. Jeff and I asked Annie for semi-matching tattoos for our one year wedding anniversary.

My vulture is in flight and his is perched in front of a crescent moon. Annie positioned the stencil on the left side of my body and after pulling back the tracing paper, she asked me if the placement was okay. I told her I hoped to have children one day, and I asked her how my potentially swollen belly could affect the tattoo. She unbuttoned her jeans and pulled the band down until it was snug around her hips. There, she pointed at two dove-like birds, symmetrical across her pubic bone. After two pregnancies, the birds were faded but I could still tell what animals they were. She assured me that my tattoo would be fine, and I believed her. The only part that could be susceptible to stretch marks is the vulture feet, which are placed just above my iliac crest. Annie drew the feet on my skin with minimal detail, intending not to bring attention to an area of my body that could be marred by a growing fetus. Before pregnancy, I thought the only part of my body that would change was my stomach. The growing belly of the carrying woman is the part that everyone focuses on, the most obvious indicator that a baby is making its way into this world, week by week. Little did I know what lasting effects a seven pound human would also have on my breasts, hips, thighs, butt, feet, veins, and skin.

 

I took a pregnancy test in June of 2015 after coming back from a vacation with my husband to Dublin and Cambridge. A friend of ours, Victoria, lived in England, but flying in and out of Dublin was cheaper so we stayed there for a few nights before visiting her. Once in England, Victoria placed a mattress in the corner of the living room in her one-bedroom apartment and gave us two sleeping bags. Nothing about our sleeping arrangement was romantic, but Jeff and I were excited to be together and to be exploring a part of the world that was new to us. Even after a day of traipsing around a city, tired and filthy, we still couldn’t resist each other’s bodies. Zoe was conceived on that corner mattress.

Twelve weeks into the pregnancy, I let my boss know and he asked, Did you mean to get pregnant? A great question: Jeff and I made the decision to do away with all forms of birth control seven months before our European trip. I didn’t track my ovulation cycle at any point, but we participated in a healthy number of sexual encounters each week and understood the failure to use a contraceptive could result in a pregnancy. Typing “ovulation” into the App Store on my phone, a choice of thirty apps appeared on the screen. I didn’t download any of them because I thought the possible scenario of knowing I was ovulating and then not getting pregnant would be more upsetting. Instead, I convinced myself that it was just better to not know, have sex often, and hope my period didn’t start. But for seven months, I cried every time a drop of blood fell into the toilet bowl. With each passing cycle, I felt like less of a woman because I wasn’t getting pregnant immediately. Still, I refused to use any tool to predict my ovulation because I didn’t want to admit to myself or anyone else that I was “trying” to get pregnant. Saying that out loud elicits a head tilt with an exaggerated frown and comments like It will happen when it’s supposed to or Maybe God has a plan we just don’t know about yet. Some women find it helpful to give advice: Make sure he’s really warmed up before you go at it; that will help increase the sperm count. Do you know how to warm him up? Or The deepest penetration to really hit the cervix is when he comes at you from behind. Have you tried that? So I told my boss Yes, I did want to get pregnant. Even if being pregnant was more about trying to prove that I was a healthy, fertile woman and less about actually developing and raising a baby.

My pregnancy progressed uneventfully with no major complications. I endured nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness, constipation, heartburn, tiredness, swollen hands, and on and off numbness in my legs, but none of these symptoms were extreme hindrances. I accepted discomfort as part of the progress and I enjoyed taking selfies of my expanding shape and sending them to my mom and girlfriends. They always responded with excitement and compliments about me not looking that pregnant. Although I relished in the attention from strangers at the grocery store commenting on my cute bump, the smiles directed at my belly when I roamed the aisles of Target for a snack, and the sabbatical from any sort of strict exercise plan, I never thought about what it could be like to be pregnant and to be a mother until it actually happened. Who could? For once in my life, I felt womanly.

I’ve always been described as skinny. In middle school, when all of the other girls started their first periods and sprouted breasts and developed hips, I just waited. I waited through high school and I waited through college and nothing really changed, and eventually I did come around to accepting my “boyish” figure. I liked to think that at least I appeared fit and maybe even athletic.

Growing up, my mom initiated the necessary mother-daughter conversations with me in her silver Dodge Caravan. Maybe because once we were on the road there was no place for me, or her, to escape. She never seemed comfortable explaining to me how to use a tampon, if I felt it was time to go bra shopping, whether I was old enough to shave my legs. The conversations were short and mostly one-sided; she did the talking. When I was twelve years old, my mother and I took a trip to Springfield Mall so she could return a few bathroom towels. The blue terrycloth didn’t match the photographed blue bonnets in the upstairs bathroom quite right. My mom slowed to a red light at the intersection of Chester Pike and Stewart Avenue. Unprovoked, she turned to me in the front seat and said, You’re not conventionally beautiful, but there is something about you. Once pregnant, my body finally did begin to change and it was exhilarating. I was a real woman, capable of carrying and delivering a baby.

 

I imagine Timmie Jean taking a trip to New York City post-surgery. She meets up with her girlfriends on a Friday night and they’re going to the Peppermint Lounge on West 45th Street. She plans to wear her new white dress with a high neck collar, a circular cut-out at the middle of her chest to show off her new cleavage. She also throws in her perfect little crochet dress for Saturday, and now feels sexy enough to leave the flesh-colored body stocking that she typically wears underneath at home. Timmie Jean and her friends will dance all night to “Twist & Shout,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Let’s Twist Again.” She allows her own hands to graze her breasts, sliding down to the curves of her hips, feeling the excitement of her own sexuality. Men will be edging each other out all night to dance with her or to steal her away from the floor for a moment to buy her a drink and learn her name. Timmie Jean briefly forgets about her divorce and her six children back in Houston. She feels in charge of her own body, swaying to the upbeat music and tapping her heels. She notices men looking at her, first at her chest and then her smile and finally at her eyes. She doesn’t mind the order.

 

Zoe was born close to midnight three days post-due date after six hours of active labor and six minutes of pushing. The doctor praised my hard work and promised my vaginal tear was only slight. He called it a first-degree laceration. Twenty-four hours of confused euphoria passed before the nurse disconnected the needle from my right hand and for the first time in forty-one weeks, I showered alone.

I gazed down at my empty belly and cried. My skin looked like a week-old, deflated latex balloon. Wrinkled, cratered, pocked. Images rolled through my mind of visiting the Jersey Shore, spending the entire day in a black bikini, flip flops, and sunglasses; of stripping my clothes after crossing the threshold of my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s apartment after a seven hour commute to Shreveport to visit for the weekend; of running along the main road in Schertz, Texas, wearing a running bra and shorts to combat the heat and work on a tan. There in the shower, my stomach horrified me. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t just vanity, but nothing worked. My day-old daughter slept in her hospital bassinet on the other side of the bathroom door, and I cursed her for doing this to my body.

 

One Tuesday, while still on maternity leave, I was over a friend’s house with four other ladies for wine and cheese and gossip and to get away from the house for a few hours. I met a new woman there named Kacie. She had near-black hair piled into a high bun, pearl earrings, dark brown eyes, a whitened smile with cabernet lipstick, and wore a low-cut black sundress that drew attention to her plentiful chest. She has a two-year-old son named Cash and at the time, she and her husband were trying to conceive a second child.

We sat in a circle with our wine glasses full and fluttered from topic to topic and shared concerns and laughs. The subject of children came up and Kacie started telling stories about Cash and wanting another boy. She then transitioned to money and shared that she and her husband have separate savings accounts to save for something of their own choosing. He decided to save for Vegas trips and she decided to create a “Fix Me” account. Every month she transfers $100.00 into her account to help save for a breast lift and tummy tuck once she is done bearing children.

That night I came home to Jeff and asked how he felt about plastic surgery. He was doing dishes in the kitchen and I pulled myself up to sit on the counter next to the sink. Zoe was sleeping upstairs in her crib. Without looking at me, he smiled and said he was absolutely for it and promised to fund a boob job and tummy tuck if that’s what I wanted. He then lifted his head to turn to me and smiled again. I was thankful for his support, and I told him so, but I was taken aback at the quickness of his response. Even if it was not genuine, I wanted him to tell me that I didn’t need surgery. I wanted him to call me beautiful and to tell me he didn’t notice my bra size or the marks on my stomach or the drooping skin around my hips, but if the only way I would feel accepting towards my body again is with surgery, then he understands. But that’s not what happened. He dried his hands on the blue oven towel, gave me a kiss, and walked towards the stairs. I didn’t want to be done with that conversation, but I think the idea of restoring my body to look like it did pre-baby, or to look even better than it did pre-baby, excited Jeff. And if that’s what he wanted, then I started to want it too.

 

I scheduled a breast augmentation consultation five months after my second child was born. When I called to schedule the appointment, the woman who answered the phone had a chipper voice and used Excellent! too often. She asked me standard questions about my name and age and some medical history, but all I could think about was asking her what she had done. I assumed that anyone working at a cosmetic surgery practice must have something enhanced or altered. I wondered if she received an employee discount for breast implants. Would it be normal for your boss to regularly ask how your breasts are holding up?

On the morning of the appointment, I felt embarrassed. How could I possibly go through with something like plastic surgery? Dropping my kids off at the daycare, I was scared that someone would ask me about my plans for the day. Surely my face would turn the color of Zoe’s stuffed Elmo and I’d stumble on a simple lie about going for a run or cleaning out the garage. I left my kids in their classrooms without providing the teachers any updates on diaper changes and breakfast, acting like I was in a hurry to escape their fabricated accusations. Scheduling that appointment was a betrayal. I was being unfaithful to the idea of graceful aging and body image confidence. There is a very clear line that is deemed too far. Wrinkle creams and hair dye are acceptable interventions, but surgery makes you fake. But really the fakeness is the confidence that I don’t have, acting like I love my body when I don’t. The fakeness is the lies I tell to get out of pool parties or trips to the beach, the oversized cotton T-shirts, heavy with sweat, that I run in when it’s ninety degrees outside, the moment I wait for no one else to be in the gym locker room so I can peel off my clothes and wrap myself in a towel. I didn’t have the courage to tell others what I had planned for that day, but I also didn’t have the courage to admit that I don’t like myself.

The office was a forty-five minute drive from the daycare. Johnny Cash crooned through the speakers, his voice like a Colorado summer thunderstorm: soothing with a hint of danger. I tried not to think about surgery, body image, judgement from others, or even my kids. I enjoyed the time to myself to think and to free my mind of thinking. Just me and Johnny.

The waiting area was decorated with warm, earthy colors: the floor a sandstone tile and the reception desk directly in front of the door was painted a clay red and had a medium-brown speckled counter on top. To the right was an open area with chairs and couches all facing inward, like a living room. HGTV’s Fixer Upper played on the television. The reception area also offered a clean and modern genderless restroom tucked in a corner and a coffee bar with a large Keurig and options for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. The woman behind the counter wore black scrubs and a nametag that read “Ashley.” She was probably in her forties and had dark brown hair that looked a bit dry, likely from the daily use of a blow dryer. She smiled with her brown eyes, the skin around her temples scrunching into crow’s feet. I expected the people in this office, both nurses and patients, to look perfect, a gathering of Kim Kardashian, Courtney Cox, Chrissy Teigen, Victoria Beckham, and Christie Brinkley. But they looked nothing like that. They were just people, working their jobs to earn a paycheck or going to a doctor’s appointment to address an ailment. It was nothing more than that. The surgeon started the consultation by saying Remember: your breasts are sisters, not twins. He told me the size that would look the most natural for my body shape and assured me that I could resume an active lifestyle once recovered. He gave me a booklet of information with a price breakdown and asked me to call if I wanted to ask any more questions.

Every month I move $100.00 from our checking account to my personal savings. On my online banking dashboard, I named the account Vultures. I’m not sure what I’m saving for yet. The cosmetic surgeon was very kind and I felt excited as I stood in front of him, topless, while he took measurements. I may put the money towards another tattoo. My brother found an artist in Phoenix that he really likes who specializes in watercolors. Or I may need to have my tattoos touched up in another few years. The lines drawn when I was eighteen are not as sharp and the dye is beginning to bleed. Now that I am done with babies, I can ask Annie to add detail to the feet of my vulture.

 

Timmie Jean Lindsey is now 84 years old. She wears square, red-rimmed glasses and goes to the salon every two weeks to have her short hair permed and dyed an auburn hue. After the hair salon, she walks next door for a mani/pedi. She’s been painting her toenails the same color for five decades: Buzzworthy Red. I imagine she moves slowly and sometimes even with a cane. But she is independent and still lives by herself. Online sources say that Timmie Jean started experiencing complications from the surgery 55 years ago. Hardness of breasts, tingling nerves, and lower back pain. She acknowledged the pain, but never went back to Dr. Gerow, or any doctor, to have her implants removed or altered. Some believe it’s because the first surgery scared her so much or because she was paid off by the company who manufactured the silicone bags. But I don’t think any of that is true. I think her white cut-out dress still hangs in the corner of her bedroom closet. I think she can’t help but tap her fingers whenever she hears “Twist & Shout” on the radio or in a movie. And I think when she undresses to bathe, she looks at herself in the bathroom mirror and remembers. Her chest doesn’t look the way it used to and men aren’t as transfixed by a glimpse of her cleavage as before. But she remembers the feeling of the cloth tightened across her body, the eyes watching her, and her body moving to the notes. Timmie Jean grips the pink ceramic and as she lowers herself into the steaming pool of water, she bathes her mind in those memories and the pain subsides.



Katherine Witt is an Air Force officer and currently instructs English at the United States Air Force Academy. She has previously published in Santa Clara Review, The Laurel Review, and War, Literature & the Arts.