BY SABRINA ROCCO
SARASOTA — Nikki Rodriguez stares in the mirror and smooths the wedding dress with her fingers.
"This line of pearls is stupid," she says, turning around and pointing to the small of her back.
Karen DeRitter, a volunteer at Brides Against Breast Cancer, suggests a silk sheath gown with a beige ribbon tied around the waist. "Let's get you into this one," she says.
"I don't want to frighten you with how I look," Nikki tells her. "I have a lot of scars."
She walks out of the fitting room and steps onto the platform in front of the mirror.
"I like it," she says, "… but it's not real special."
Somewhere around the fifth dress, Nikki tells her mother and sisters she needs a break. She plops into a black chair, barefoot and cross-legged. Her hands cradle her face. Her mother, Rita Rodriguez, fans her with a piece of paper. Nikki closes her eyes, trying to will the nausea away.
Maybe it's something she ate. Maybe it's the tamoxifen she takes — it keeps the cancer at bay but leaves her back knotted and her joints aching.
She sips iced tea, and that helps. But nothing is going to feel as good as finding the dress she thought she'd never get to wear.
Every doctor told Nikki it was stress. They treated her for rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Then the lump she found while watching a girl on TV perform a self-breast exam proved them wrong. On July 1, 2009, Nikki's gynecologist confirmed her fears and sent her to Moffitt Cancer Center for treatment. She was 29.
"It felt like the worst broken heart," she says softly at her home in Tampa. "I took care of myself. I ran 10 to 15 miles a week. I was a vegetarian for 10 years. What did I do to deserve this?"
Her live-in boyfriend left her a month after she lost her hair. Cancer didn't fit into his plans to travel on a sailboat, so he found another woman to go with him.
"Imagine that you are so incredibly in love and out of the blue you are totally sideswiped," Nikki says.
She rarely left home, except for her cancer treatment. Most days her heart hurt too much to put on clothes or makeup, to do her hair or paint her nails.
Nikki felt good enough to go to her friend's birthday party at New World Brewery in Tampa. Omar Mendez was there — the curly-haired kid from Queens she first saw in ninth grade on a school bus.
She ordered a beer at the bar. Mendez pulled her into his lap.
"I thought, 'There's no way he could like me. I'm bald,' " she recalls. But Mendez, 32, never saw a bald head. He just loved Nikki for her kind heart and enduring strength. They moved in together so Mendez could cook for her and help care for her two dogs, Mondy and Oscar. He asked her to marry him on Marco Island in September 2011.
Even with insurance, Nikki's medical bills chewed through money that should have been reserved for a wedding. She made it through chemotherapy, radiation and 10 surgeries, including one breast reconstruction that was botched and a second to correct it. The good news was that the cancer went into remission.
Planning for the wedding in April 2014, she adjusted her dreams to fit her limited budget. "When I was younger, I imagined all these flowers, but now we're just doing some lavender."
Scaling back on her gown was harder to do. She felt hopeless — until, in a wedding planning book, she read about Brides Against Breast Cancer, a nonprofit boutique in Sarasota that sells new and used wedding gowns at bargain prices. Seventy-one cents of every dollar goes toward breast cancer support programs.
"It would mean so much to me to find my dress there," she said. "I get to help other people in my situation and it's green!"
Finding the right dress would be like the completion of her treatment.
Back in the shop, still no luck. Nikki has tried on about 20 gowns in five hours. Mom and sisters are tuckered out and hungry; the consultants are low on options.
"I haven't put one on that makes me feel good," Nikki tells her family. "I'm so disappointed."
DeRitter urges them to grab a bite next door and come back later. Meanwhile, she and another consultant comb the racks, unwilling to give up.
Three new gowns hang outside the fitting room when Nikki returns. DeRitter shows her a lace strapless gown with delicate beading on the bodice.
"Okay, I'll try it," Nikki says, unconvinced.
In the fitting room, DeRitter laces up the gown's corset back: "Sometimes you just need to clear your mind," she says.
Nikki steps out and looks in the mirror. The dress hugs every curve on her petite frame. A big peachy smile stretches across her face.
Her sister starts to cry. Someone tucks a veil into her loose updo. Mom hands her a crown, a family heirloom.
Nikki looks down at the price tag: $299, easily $500 less than she would have paid elsewhere.
"Done!" Nikki says. "This is it! This is my dress!"
Her family takes pictures, a bell is rung. Seamstresses and other employees emerge from rooms to applaud.
She looks at herself in the mirror one more time before she has to take the dress off. You can see a bride, but you can't see scars.
Sabrina Rocco can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8862.