I watched on the monitor and winced as the doctor probed deeper into the cavity past my cervix. I was surprised by the color, or rather, the lack of it. Before the procedure, I had thought everything would be a salmon pink—like the uterus in Look Who’s Talking Now—but on the monitor my flesh appeared grey against the black background of the depths where the light could not reach.
The environment was stark, like a cave or the surface of a sunless planet, but also safe and soft, with a texture that seemed plush like an overstuffed velvet couch. I was so entranced by my insides that I did not even think to be startled by the growths that extended out from the walls of my uterus like pale boneless fingers and swayed in the motion of the murky saline the doctor had filled me with. He told me they were polyps, almost certainly harmless, but they would need to come out before the IUD could be placed.
After the appointment, I walked to a bar down the street from my gynecologist and ordered a beer. It was an ideal sort of early October day, barely cool enough to merit a sweater and sunny. I was still enthralled to be living in Brooklyn. John and I had been in the city since the beginning of September, and I had thought many times that moving there had been as startling as falling in love. Suddenly the songs, the movies, the hype made sense, and I understood that I could not have understood any of it until I experienced it for myself.
It made me feel all over again the terrible vulnerability imposed by luck, which meant that just as there are people who will never fall in love, there are people who will never get to live in New York City.
Everywhere there were campaign signs for Hillary Clinton, and John and I had begun considering the possibility that we might have our first child, perhaps even a little girl, while our first female president served her first term.
Our apartment in Brooklyn Heights allowed John to have a short commute to his new job in Lower Manhattan, and I felt certain the city had a job waiting for me just off one of the subway lines that connected our neighborhood to the rest of the city. I felt more enthusiastic about the future than I ever had before.
But that day, after finding out about the polyps, I felt distinctly inclined to feel sorry for myself. The news that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had made comments in 2005 about grabbing a woman by her genitalia had broken just a few days earlier, and it seemed certain that he would lose the election. John and I were back in Atlanta for the first time since we had left to attend friend’s wedding when the news broke. After the ceremony, the younger members of the wedding party met up at a bar in Decatur, where we joked that the reception toasts might have been livened up by exhortations to the groom to “grab her by the pussy.” We were almost hysterically gleeful, egged on by the radicalism most Southern liberals develop by necessity.
I felt certain that Trump would finally lose the evangelicals, ever concerned with female chastity as they were, but the signs that he would not peppered my mostly liberal Facebook feed by the time we got back to New York. A woman named Karen I had worked with as a youth group leader at a progressive church in Athens, GA, posted a status update dismissing the comments as “just words.” I wondered if she still worked with middle school girls and if so, whether she had shared her sentiments with them. I wondered if she had thought about how those girls would or should react when a boy or a man degraded or violated their bodies with words, or worse. I felt angry because I knew I could be fairly certain that at least a few of them would be. I wondered what I would have done differently when mine was, if someone like Karen had told me that nothing justifies the violation of a woman’s body, with words or otherwise, and I felt angry because I would never know. I wondered about the ways in which Karen’s body had been degraded or violated, and I felt angry because I knew that if it had been, she had probably learned to suppress or dismiss her own anger. Nice Christian ladies aren’t really encouraged to express that particular emotion, and Karen was a nice Christian lady.
Still, I unfriended her. In the following days, I either unfriended or unfollowed the remaining religious conservatives I was peripherally connected to, playing a sort of meaningless but satisfying game of whack-a-mole with my Facebook friends. My initial mirth at witnessing what I thought was the end of Donald Trump’s political career slowly evaporated as I realized that the moral arithmetic that excused him was entirely consistent with the paradigm of sexuality that pervades southern evangelical culture. Boys will be boys, after all.
I don’t know if it is the imposition of memory or an accurate recollection to say that the feeling that I had not escaped that culture by moving away from the South informed the self-pity I felt after the discovery of the polyps. Perhaps it was more the realization that the South did not contain that culture within its boundaries, that it existed everywhere in varying degrees of concentration, and that I could never go anywhere without anyone that excused men for verbal and even physical invasions of the female body. Perhaps it was just that I had not anticipated that the ultrasound of my uterus would be anything more than a routine inspection. Regardless, I remember distinctly feeling trapped in my body. It seemed a burden somehow separate from my actual self, and its femaleness struck me as a special type of inconvenience.
I had surgery to remove the polyps later in October. I took a cab to Manhattan early in the morning, hungry because I had skipped breakfast and nervous about the anesthesia. After I filled out the requisite paperwork and charged my Visa for the copay, my clothes were placed in a large plastic bag, and I was given a large purple paper gown to wear while I waited for my turn in the operating room.
Almost five hours after I arrived, a nurse took me to the OR. I had not had surgery since childhood, and I did not remember that my cooperation was required for everything leading up to the moment when I lost consciousness. For some reason, I had imagined that I would not even see the OR, that I would enter it in a dreamstate and leave it still insensate, sans polyps.
I arranged myself awkwardly onto the operating table in front of my doctor, nurses, and anesthesiologist, aware of my nakedness under the gown. I was directed to slide all the way down to the edge of the table to provide access to my pelvis, and my limbs were placed in pulsating bags that would prevent blood clots from forming. My nervousness about going under had been replaced with an illogical feeling of humiliation, as if I had done something wrong to end up in a room full of relative strangers with my vagina exposed.
I was warned that I would experience more pain during my next menstrual cycle. When it came only a few days later, it was accompanied by diarrhea so severe that I had to crawl from the couch to the bathroom. The IUD was finally placed two weeks after the election. I had opted for the Paragard, more commonly known as the copper IUD. The device is shaped like a small capital T, made of white plastic with copper coil on its body and arms. It has the benefit of being non-hormonal, but can result in significantly heavier periods for the first few months after insertion. When they occurred, they were preceded by two weeks of intense cramps and accompanied by the same debilitating stomach symptoms that had followed the removal of the polyps for the first few cycles. The whole experience left me feeling vaguely humiliated and even more convinced that the female body was almost akin to a liability.
My little brother came to the city from Georgia to visit us the week before Christmas. I was finally working, though on a short-term contract with sporadic assignments and not enough hours. I was still bitter about the election, and my initial enthusiasm about living in the city had been somewhat dampened as the Clinton campaign posters started to come down. I showed Jonathan around the city, by then somewhat familiar to me, and made him endure my rants about the incoming administration. I was anxious about the holidays and already defensive about potential political conversations with family. But more than anything, I was tired, exhausted by months of being stuck with the discomforts of my body. My monthly cramps were marginally less intense, but the first day of my period was still turning my stomach to water.
On one of the last nights of his trip, John and I took Jonathan to a speakeasy style restaurant in the Lower East Side. When I made the reservations online, I had spotted something about free champagne in the women’s room, which I remembered after we had eaten and paid for dinner. I left John and Jonathan sitting at the empty table and made my way down a dark stairwell to the restrooms. The women’s restroom was dim and windowless, divided by sinks that partitioned a small elegant sitting area and small bar from the toilets. A tired looking waitress handed me a glass of sparkling rosé.
I sat down, aware of a lack of self-consciousness—the absence of the constant awareness of appraisal that is really self-appraisal, a phantasm of eyes comparing my body to other bodies to determine if mine is worthy of being looked at—learned over a lifetime diet of images in women’s magazines, movies, television, and ads. As I sipped my champagne, I watched other women coming in to use the toilets and wondered if they too deposited the burden of being seen at the door, and if they felt its weight again when they exited.
I wondered at the various ways their bodies had been invaded, violated, and humiliated by force, by words, or by medical procedures. I felt angry because I knew that it was likely that all of them had been. And I thought about the fact that, despite this likelihood, their very presence in this upscale restaurant, and mine, indicated a degree of privilege that many women will never know. Whatever our bodies had experienced or would experience, we could afford to take them to medical professionals and nice restaurants.
I imagined my IUD nestled at the top of my uterus like a crucifix protecting the emptiness below it. For all the discomfort it had caused me, it was nonetheless an artifact of my personal privilege, a promise of choices many societies around the world don’t even offer to the women in them. It struck me in that moment that I was, of course, incredibly lucky and had very little reason to feel sorry for myself, even on my worst day.
Yet I could not deny the feeling that I, and the women in that restroom, and every woman who has ever lived anywhere held the receipt for an unpaid bill, which I could not consider settled even if every women’s restroom on the planet started serving free champagne. But, I thought, as I emptied my glass and made my way back to my husband and brother, it would be a good start.