by Nora O’Reilly
Katie McQuewn burst into her 212 Grace Street apartment. She flung the door closed with all her might, finding satisfaction in the crash as it echoed through the SoHo loft. The tears that she had dared to fall on the set that morning finally rebelled.
She ran to her sanctuary—her custom 500-square foot closet. The scent of perfume, leather, and new carpet calmed her.
On the walls hung mementos of her most treasured milestones—her first Vogue cover, her wedding at The Plaza Hotel , and her Victoria’s Secret exclusive contract. That was seven years ago, now she was old for an Angel—ancient actually.
She had built a career from nothing. Katie couldn’t get out of her Midwest hometown of 1,200 fast enough. She spent her high school graduation money on a one-way ticket to New York City.
There she made it. BIG. Bigger than big.
But nothing could protect her from the news. “It’s stage three. But you’re lucky, there’s no lymph node involvement.”
That day Dr. Soliman had been kind enough, detailing the mastectomy, and the reconstruction options available. But all Katie could hear was the c-word. It had killed her Nana.
Breast cancer wouldn’t happen to an Angel.
She started down at her chest. Traitors. I want them off. But there was her contract.
The next day she told the show’s director. He managed a half-frown before asserting, “You’re overwhelmed. It’s a rash decision.”
“It’s breast cancer. There’s nothing rash about this.”
He shrugged. “You have a contract. I would strongly encourage you to wait until after the show.”
She tried to call Jeeves. She didn’t want to make a decision without her husband. He had known her since she had waited tables at the French bistro across from Wall Street. He had borne witness to her transformation—slipping into his Professor Henry Higgins tweed suit with ease.
But Jeeves was in Hong Kong for business. He answered, but the sounds of cocktailed revelry and Mandarin overwhelmed her attempts at conversation. He was preoccupied. She was scared. So Katie took the easy way out, telling Jeeves she loved him and they would catch up soon.
Dr. Soliman’s nurse called. He had a cancelation. Would she want her double mastectomy, no reconstruction, tomorrow? She was healthy. He could preop her in the morning.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was in four weeks.
She tried to call Jeeves again. No answer. With the time difference and frenetic schedules, Katie had no chance to unload her weighty news.
So Katie made the decision. She couldn’t sit in her skin one minute longer.
“Katie, you look fantastic!” Dr. Soliman exclaimed. “Only one week out. No swelling, no bruising. Don’t worry about the scars. When you decide on reconstruction, we’ll take care of those. No rush. We’re here for you.”
The floppy prosthetic cutlets masqueraded as breasts in a pretty pink box. They’d be better between a Hawaiian bun. Toasted and buttered. She chuckled after she left the Care Wear Clinic.
To lift her sagging spirits, Katie splurged on a deep halter dress from Bergdorf’s. It plunged to her navel, showcasing her smooth stomach. After a treat of fried chicken at The Dutch, she practiced contouring her décolletage with shimmery bronzer in her mirrored haven.
She couldn’t look too hard. It was still raw. But if she narrowed her eyes making things hazy, she almost liked what she saw. Good thing, Jeeves would be home tomorrow.
Before putting on the dress, Katie stared at the knotty, horizontal lines that ran the expanse of the space where each breast had been. She couldn’t deny she enjoyed the lightness around her shoulders, the freedom of her arms.
She placed the 1996 Dom Ruinart Rosé on ice and dimmed the lights, hoping to distract her husband. But Jeeves noticed immediately. His smile gave way to confusion which escalated to anger. He roughly untied the strap around her neck and the dress slid off exposing her scars. He poked at her chest with accusing fingers, smearing the bronzer that she had painstakingly applied.
“What the hell did you do to yourself?”
“I tried to tell you. The show was coming up, I couldn’t wait. I needed time to recover. For the swelling to go down.”
“They’re gone,’ he whimpered. He pulled himself together. “Don’t worry. I’ll find the best surgeon to put you back together.”
“I’m not broken.” She shouted. “I just have, had, breast cancer.”
The days before the big show were hard. Harder than Katie imagined. The stress of the strategic scheduling and costume changes, keeping to herself. She had never played the diva card. She could get away with it this once.
Jeeves offered her no solace, stepping back as she reached for him. He wouldn’t touch her. He refused to look at her as she undressed.
The pace of the rehearsal schedule kept her going. Katie counted her blessings—her ensembles for the show concealed the prosthetics perfectly. No one will know. I have time to think. About the contract. Reconstruction. How my body betrayed me.
On the day of the show at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan things unraveled—a last minute inspiration. Her first ensemble—a crushed velvet bra—was swapped for a transparent tulle number. Katie stood speechless in the doorway to her dressing space.
The Brazilian giraffe, Izabella Alvez, waltzed by. There were whispers that she was Katie’s replacement. Younger, firmer, more exotic.
“It’s freezing in my room, heat’s out. I know it’s a huge imposition but would you mind if I hung out here?”
“It’ll be fun. Like roommates. I can help you with your wings.”
Katie couldn’t take her eyes off Izabella’s breasts. She hated them—their health and exuberance.
Izabella looked down and back at Katie, embarrassed. “They’re not real. Got ‘em done before I got hired.” She drew her hands up outlining Katie’s form. “But that. That’s all you, girl. You’re my idol,” she confessed.
Katie started to cry. “I’m not all me. Not anymore.” She pulled off the original bra and stood in front of Izabella exposed.
The younger woman gasped. “Oh no,’ she whispered. She reached for Katie, “My older sister, too.” She traced around her scars. “I’m so sorry.”
There was a rap on the door. “Two minutes.”
“Shit. I’m opening the show. I can’t go on.”
“Like hell you can’t.” Izabella smiled. “Beauty is a mindset. You determine if you are. Or you aren’t. Not your fuckin’ tits.”
Her words were like ice water tossed in Katie’s face. Shocking—their honesty not unpleasant.
“You’re Katie McQuewn. You can do anything you want. Face it. You’re a Vickie’s legend. Think of the good you can do with those scars.”
“What do you mean? I can’t make this work.”
The Brazilian shrugged her thin shoulders. “Suit yourself.” She hefted the wings up and helped Katie slide her arms into their fittings over the velvet bra.
A second knock rattled the door.
“You gotta go.” She ushered Katie out of the dressing room and toward the stage.
The din of the bass and the hubbub of the eager crowd enveloped Katie. Her heart tightened.
“You’re an angel. You were born to fly,’ Isabella whispered before a coquettish grin flashed across her face.
She’s right. I got nothing to lose. Husband. Career. Pride.
Katie smiled to herself. She felt her wingspan sway with the swing of her hips as she glided toward the entrance onto the runway.
I am an Angel. I am an Angel.
“Blow ‘em away baby girl.”
Katie looked back, expecting Izabella to have tossed in a final encouragement. But there was no one. She heard the voice again. Who is that?
With a flash she knew. Nana.
She felt her fear crumble. A phoenix of exhilaration rising.
Katie double checked that she could easily undo the hooks of her bra.
“What the hell are you doing? That’s not your outfit.” The show’s director hissed.
“It’s not your body.” Her voice had a new edge.
Her cueing note sung out. I am not my scars. She exhaled and stepped onto the runway.
The energy from the crowd’s applause carried her to the end of the runway. She struck a pose at its end. Then Katie undid the velvet bra and tossed it off the stage, letting out her brightest smile as cameras flashed. It was her first true smile in weeks.
For a moment the cameras stalled in their frenzy. The crowd went mute.
Katie forced her smile to remain at full mast. Her eyes welled. What have I done?
Then the cheers began. Many applauding hands became one. The crowd came to its feet. The camera shutters snapped with renewed life.
Katie didn’t fight her tears. She brought her hands to her mouth before blowing kisses back to the crowd.
For me. For every woman. For Nana.
I am not my scars.