I'm lying on my back on a cushiony table in a private PT room as Marlene’s lubed-up finger inches its way into me.
I stare up at the linoleum ceiling. There are what look like coffee stains splattered on one of the squares above me. I imagine a latte spilling upwards in defiance of gravity as if beckoned by the heavens; The Rapture for all the good little caffeinated beverages who have taken Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
“You feel tense today. Try and relax,” Marlene says.
I silently will my vulvar vestibule to unpucker itself. I visualize the white-hot licks of pain melting me, softening the impact. I blink, hard. Open my eyes wide. Blink again. Faster and faster. This creates a strobe light effect that helpfully calls the reality of the scene into question: not-quite-me, not-quite-Marlene, not-quite-the-coffee-stains. I’m on an airplane, flying over my body. The burning is a tiny speck that I can only make out if I squint.
“Good,” she says. “You’re getting better at that.” Her finger plunges deeper. “Now we’ll go around the clock, ok?”
“Starting at twelve,” she announces like an estate sale auctioneer as she presses on the inner wall directly aligned with my tailbone. I suck in a breath as my Kegel muscles try to repel her. She keeps the pressure firm, waiting for them to give, until tension and memories begin to seep out of my body like bitter sap from a pine.
It was the June before my senior year at Hunter. I was working at the Starbucks in Astor Place, trying to cover summer expenses until my work-study gig at the library picked back up in the fall.
A guy in his early 20s walked in and my brain immediately clocked him: Hipster Gumby. His pants were the color of Astroturf.
When it was his turn in line, he ordered a tall blonde without a hint of irony. That was the first thing I liked about him. (I was used to middle-aged businessmen thinking they alone had discovered that the newest blend on our menu was a double entendre. I’d like a tall blonde. Smirking and winking at me like this was our shared joke.)
Alex was the name he gave me for his order. I scrawled it in loopy, fawning letters with a sharpie on his paper cup.
“Now write your name next to it,” he said.
“Now I’m going to three o’clock,” Marlene says. I feel the pressure ease, then start again below my spleen. “How’s it going with the dilators,” she wants to know.
The afternoon they arrived in the mail, I opened the box and found milky white cylinders made of medical-grade plastic, nestled in individual divots like miniature vampires asleep in shallow graves. They were cool and smooth to the touch. I placed them in an upright row on my dresser in order of size; a phalanx of Russian nesting dolls that were meant to go inside me instead of each other.
“I graduated from Mr. Medium,” I say. Marlene looks delighted and claps her free hand against her thigh in an approximation of applause for me. I’ve taken it upon myself to name each of the dilators. I started on Slimmest Jimmest. Once I could manipulate le petite Jimmest into, out of, and all around me, I leveled up to Little Finger. Next it was the no-nonsense Mr. Medium, who had the respectable girth of a celery stalk. I still have two more sizes to go before I must contend with Marky Mark. I’m not sure it’s a goal of mine to be able to accommodate him.
Marlene’s finger continues meeting me at three o’clock.
For our first date, Alex met me at the end of my shift and we walked through St. Mark’s to Alphabet City, weaving between overstimulated tourists and under-stimulated punks, the warm July air infused with the smells of falafel and strawberry hookah. Over Blue Moons at Mona’s he told me about his four years at NYU; his family of lawyers from West Hartford; his friends who were all away traveling that summer, leaving him alone with his test-taking anxiety and his Kaplan prep book. He’d be sitting for the LSAT in September before starting a job as a paralegal at a big corporate firm downtown.
He was, as they say, Going Places.
“You’re quiet. Are you shy?” he guessed, and I nodded, because I thought that might be a quality he liked.
He brought me back to his dorm room, which he had all to himself, having been the only roommate to extend his lease through the summer after graduating. He had pulled the two twin beds NYU had allotted for the space next to each other to create a makeshift full-sized mattress. I wondered if this was for spreading out his long body as he slept, or for sleeping with women. Probably both. Definitely both, I thought as he kissed me.
“What’s going on with the medication?” Marlene is asking me. I think partially she cares about how I’m doing, and partially she’s trying to distract me from her finger.
“The Gabapentin just makes me tired,” I say. “But at least the panic attacks stopped now that I’m off the Effexor.”
“Tired’s no good,” she says, frowning. “And you don’t even work at the Starbucks anymore! Those discounted cappuccinos would be helpful!” she says, kind enough to remember my job history. Kind Marlene. “Have you noticed a difference in your pain?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure, but then I tested it out on a librarian I met at the Pyramid Club on Wednesday night,” I say, scanning her face for a reaction.
Marlene’s a 55-year-old Christian who’s only ever had sex with her husband. She’s shared this fact with me as an act of mercy; exposing herself to offset my humiliation at what she has to do to me three times a week. Even knowing this, her wholesomeness brings out a spiky adolescent part of me that wants to appall her.
“He asked to hit me during it, which was interesting,” I continue. “That helped a bit. Kind of like digging your nail into your hand before you get a shot? Plus I was drunk.” I peer at Marlene’s face again, but she’s unphased.
“I’m glad it didn’t hurt as much,” is all I can get out of her.
She releases her finger from three o’clock; we’re at the halfway point. “I know this next one’s your least favorite, so just hang on for six o’clock and it’ll be done before you know it.”
Her finger on my lower wall feels like both hands of a clock working together to bear down on me. That would make it half-past six. I brace myself for the exorcism.
He'd get us bagels in the mornings. If I didn’t have to work we’d lounge around his dorm watching Girls or the Daily Show and smoking weed. Sometimes he’d ask me to grade his practice tests ("Let me down gently,” he’d plead, though I never had to. The news was always good.) Then we’d fall back into his beds, pushing our bodies together.
I barely noticed the pain at first. It began as something protozoan, colorless and shimmering, with a thousand wispy cilia that were not quite venomous enough to sting, brushing up against the inside of me like the mirthless shadow of a tickle. It was easy to flick it away in those early days, send it hurtling up into my viscera, keep it locked inside in tunnels of darkness as Alex moved in and out of me.
“Breathe,” instructs Marlene. “You haven’t taken a breath since I started.”
August. It was so hot downtown that when customers walked into Starbucks, I could almost see the heat whooshing up out of their bodies, like the time I accidentally put an ice cube in the milk steamer.
Alex bought us boba teas to-go and we held them to our clammy foreheads on benches in Tompkins Square Park as he took his final practice tests and I perused my assigned readings for the new semester. Out of the corner of my eye I caught him hoovering up the last of the tapioca bubbles with a look of such workman-like determination that I started to giggle. He grabbed me and spit one of the chewy black globs into my mouth.
By then the pain had grown into something that slithered up me, hissing, demanding recognition. I tried to appease it with excuses: I must have taken out a tampon too roughly. The crotch of these jeans has been cutting off my circulation. Dove foaming body wash is not intended for internal use. Alex penetrating me now felt like a strep test; a long swab probing and swirling the inflamed soft palate.
Sex became my own personal LSAT problem:
Alex’s partner contorts herself into the following constraints:
- Alex must continue to think of her as fun and low maintenance.
- If she is visibly not enjoying herself during sex, she cannot also be fun and low maintenance.
- A blowjob can replace intercourse, but only every fifth instance.
How long will Alex remain interested, knowing that 1, 2, and 3 must all be true?
The pain evolved further yet. It grew legs. A beak. Talons, feathers. It clawed away at me, shrieking, flapping wings that spanned the length of Alex’s dorm and left black feathers floating across my vision.
He didn’t like to kiss me when we made love, so my tongue was free to tap out signals in morse code on the roof of my mouth. This. Is. Pain. This. Is. Pain. Meted out in sync with his thrusts, with my faked groans of pleasure. Not suffering, but recital. Not enduring, but concentrating.
On the rare occasion that Alex could make out my expression through the haze of his own pleasure, he’d see something (a rictus? Tears?) that made him ask, “You ok?” I could tell he wanted me to say yes, so he could keep going. So he could still be a good guy if he kept going. Yes, I would murmur, yeah. Don’t stop.
I’d rush to the bathroom afterward, spreading myself open on the toilet, convinced I’d find the stinging tissue abraded to a bloody pulp. Instead, there was nothing.
“You were in there a long time,” Alex said after one such extended post-coital bathroom residency.
“Yeah…I was just feeling, um. A little irritated after.”
“It’s these fucking condoms,” he said, rolling his eyes at our alleged common enemy. “They’re horrible for me, too. Let’s try without one next time. You’re on the pill, right?”
I took the pill to prevent pregnancy, and we used condoms to prevent disease. Or so I thought. Did this mean he wasn’t sleeping with anyone else? I couldn’t ask. All summer I’d had the feeling that Alex had somnambulated into a relationship with me; if I spoke too loudly, if I posed an inconvenience, it might startle him awake.
We dispensed with the condoms. It made no difference.
“Almost done with six o’clock. You’re ok,” Marlene says, patting my arm, her observation more aspirational than accurate. I’m sweating. “You’re doing great. Just a few more minutes here.”
September arrived. Fall was technically approaching, but the god of summer wasn’t done mouth-breathing on Manhattan, so my manager at Starbucks kept the AC blasting. I pictured Alex visiting me at the Hunter library, where I’d be working after this week. Thank God. The NYU and Cooper Union cold brew junkies were streaming back into the city for fall semester, and my shifts were becoming increasingly frenetic.
“How should we celebrate when you’re done with the LSAT,” I called out to Alex from the kitchen.
I found him lying on his back in the bedroom, his right side disappearing into the mattress crevice.
“We need to talk…” he said. Something ponderous and acidic sank to the bottom of me. My mind conjured the image of Alex mock-dramatically folding his pool-noodley limbs into the fetal position: Let me down gently!
“This has been really fun,” he said, “but the summer’s over. I have to take this paralegal thing seriously. I just don’t see myself being able to keep up something like… even something casual.”
Casual. Really fun. Did this mean I had succeeded in shielding him from my suffering? I looked down at my body, its outside compact and sturdy. Maybe it was simply that he had always been Going Places, and now He Was Going. Maybe there was no room on his resume for an undergrad with a service industry job and a public education.
Or perhaps, whispered a voice from just below my rib cage, he had seen an ugly part of himself reflected through the looking glass of my pain. Maybe we had both reviled him.
I was nice about it, determined to be low maintenance right till the very end. We hugged before I left.
Getting myself home felt like sprinting through a jar of molasses. All the frantic, crackling energy directed at satisfying him, all the blazing efforts of my summer-long impersonation of a palatable girlfriend had been abruptly cut off from their power supply. Conductorless, the currents slammed back into my body. My organs sagged under their lifeless weight.
I slept for a long time.
When I awoke my mind reached out for Alex. His absence threw me off balance; an unexpected landing at the end of a staircase climbed in the dark. I searched my perimeters for him, grasping, but came away with heaping fistfuls of myself instead.
I turned on my ancient laptop. My home page was Google. I watched as words appeared in the search bar, as if typed by a poltergeist: Why does it hurt when I have sex?
Vulvodynia, suggested the internet. As simple as that.
I started by poring over message board posts by women who were afflicted. Some developed the condition after being sexually assaulted. Others had gone their whole lives never being able to use a tampon, let alone have a finger or a dick or a dildo inside them. A few had gotten it from a hormone-rich birth control pill; the very one, in fact, that I had been on for three years. The very one I had stayed on so that sensitive Alex could fuck me without a condom.
I grabbed the monthly pack of pills from my backpack, its tinfoil backing winking smarmily at me as it caught the light. I pitched it into the trash.
“Last one, sweetheart! Nine o’clock. Let’s talk about your homework while we finish up.”
“Vagina Homework would be a good name for a punk band. Or, like, Mick Jagger’s memoir.”
Marlene donates a tolerant laugh to my pitiful cause before getting us back on track: “So you’ve done Mr. Medium. Who’s up next?”
“The Banana Stand.”
She doesn’t get it. Or I’ve used up my Marlene laugh quotient for the day. “Don’t forget to use lube,” she says.
The first OB-Gyn said she saw nothing wrong and suggested this might be psychosomatic. She recommended I see therapist about my aversion to sex. A second clapped me on the back as he chuckled, “it might get better once you have a baby!” A third gyno who specialized in my condition said he would operate on me for $7,500. It was considered an elective procedure, and therefore not covered by insurance.
The fourth doctor examined me carefully. She looked concerned. She told me that my vulva appeared to have shriveled up like an old woman’s. It made me feel sad for the old women. Was anyone helping them?
The concerned doctor sent me to Marlene.
“All done,” Marlene says, taking her finger off nine o’clock and out of my body. It feels like we should hug. Instead she washes her hands in the sink with her back to me, deliberately not looking as I get dressed. We’re like polite strangers now. I fumble with my shirt buttons.
I feel the pain that’s left my body hovering over my head, ghostly and menacing, waiting to jump back down my throat. I wish I could leave it all here: the desiccated tissue, the protesting muscles, the summer.
While Marlene’s still facing away I do a few last strobe-light blinks. I hope she puts her hand on my arm when it’s time to say goodbye.