Nerve Classics: Double-Edged

Home to a fatal disease and a great rack, my chest is a complicated place. 

by Kayla Rachlin Small

Perhaps it's the bourbon, but lately, we've been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? "Double-Edged" originally ran in 2008.

There is no question: I have a good chest. Not so big that it demands bras from specialty retailers, but big enough so that button-down shirts always pull. My breasts are firm enough to let me saunter down the block in layered tank tops, no bra.

People look, and I let them. I used to have a tomato-red swimsuit that came undone every time I leapt into the water. I dove and dove, put my breasts back in place and redid the halter's clasp, aware that even underwater, I was being ogled by the adolescent lifeguard.

My chest has commanded attention my whole life. At age one I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that wreaks havoc on the respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and exocrine systems. No organ goes untouched, but the lung damage is what ultimately proves fatal.


Long before I understood why my brother could go shirtless at the beach and I couldn't, I knew my chest was problematic. It made itself heard through relentless coughing, my lower lungs contracting in fits. It made itself seen in the Kleenexes I filled with mucus as I coughed and spit, coughed, spit, coughed. Cover your mouth, the adults scolded. Nothing contagious, but still, something that makes people nervous.

My father learned to perform physical therapy when I was first diagnosed, and the routine remained his responsibility. The treatments were intended to loosen the mucus in my lungs — caked in there like dried Elmer's, it made breathing hard and infections persistent. "I'd sit in that chair and you'd fall asleep in my lap," he'd tell me later, wistful for my toddler-aged compliance. After I outgrew my dad's lap, PT sessions were relocated to my parents' bed. For twenty minutes before school, my dad would thump my chest while I watched Small Wonder or Underdog, television being the sole incentive for cooperation on my part.

When I was ten, we switched to a less complex method of airway clearance: exercise. My dad handed me a jump rope each morning; at night, unconvinced by my fake snoring, he pulled me out of bed to jump. Still in my pajamas, I whipped the rope around while he sat on our pink couch and counted aloud.

We stopped doing traditional chest percussion because I got busy and belligerent, not because I had developed the breasts to render it awkward. "You're going to develop a couple years late," my pediatrician informed me. Just another symptom of the illness.

So I waited. My mother bought me a bra when I was eleven, after I had constructed my own by cutting ten inches off the bottom of a teddy-bear-patterned undershirt. I weighed seventy pounds and had nothing to support other than the delusion that my body was normal for my age. I filled Ziploc bags with pudding, a trick my best friend learned from the film Now and Then. She was growing rapidly. I'd borrow her bra and tuck the pudding bags inside, then tour the mirrors of the house. I took shoulder pads from my mother's sewing table and tried those. Tried tissues. Looked at the gel cups advertised in fashion magazines and thought, if it comes to that...

But I knew from Seventeen that healthy girls need not panic over permanent flatness unless they were over sixteen. And by sixteen, I was growing. When the radiology tech asked, "Are you wearing anything metal?" I pulled my bra out through my sleeve. Enough time in medical institutions can make anyone lose their modesty. You lose the property rights to your body. But I owned my breasts. I wanted to show them off. At the children's hospital I attended, the gowns were sized for pre-pubescents. My flesh swelled under the fabric; cartoon clowns splashed across my nipples. I told the nurse she didn't need to hunt down a larger size.


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