My mother doesn’t believe in medicine. It doesn’t matter if it’s a prescription for antibiotics, some life-saving vaccination, or even the most basic level of psychotherapy.
“Why would you want someone digging into your private life?” she says, wrinkling her nose as my sister and I watch marathons of HBO’s In Treatment. In my head I replace the word life with parts. If you take your vitamins, you won’t need to go to those kinds of people.
“Magnesium, especially,” she reminds us in the morning, “to stay soft inside, and regular.”
I am. But I’m in pain.
“You know what, maybe you should go to a gynecologist,” my best friend Lili says. She tells me casually, like it’s something you do without thinking hard about it, like brushing your teeth. You know, maybe you should just brush your teeth. Maybe drink some water.
I hate drinking water. I may be dehydrated, and maybe that’s why it hurts.
“What are you doing?” she asks me.
“Nothing. Talking to you.”
Whenever I talk on the phone I start pacing figure eights around the kitchen, the dining table, my bedroom, and back to the living room. It doesn’t hurt now. Maybe I don’t exercise enough.
Lili sighs. “You’re a woman now. When you get your period, you need someone to make sure the hormones and shit are working right. It’s like growing a new organ. Has to get examined, like everything else.”
“Is it a man? I read a book where this girl went to a gynecologist and it was a man.”
“Books don’t tell you anything true, they just freak you out.”
She pauses. I hear chewing on the other line and try to visualize her: bed, green polka-dot comforter, pizza on a paper towel, and a laptop on her thighs. I’m always telling her to put a pillow underneath because you can kill your eggs that way, the free radicals burning into your ovaries. Lili doesn’t believe it.
She is new to this; she’s only had her period for three years. She got it when we were thirteen, in Maryland at her auntie Bintu’s house. She called me the next morning to tell me everything: the sheets in the middle of the night (stained), the pad her cousin had given her (Kotex brand), and her dad’s reaction (shock). My mom’s reaction was sorrow. I was in sixth grade and on my way to the dreaded weekly piano lesson when I felt the wetness in my new jeans and turned back towards the bathroom door. She cried. Then she tried not to cry and was happy for some days, left gifts on the table for me, bought me a cake. Sometimes she got angry and came up with all these reasons—I was lazy, I ate too much junk, I was failing math and spending too much time reading manga on the computer.
“Nobody gets it at this age,” she said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
So I was ashamed. And am ashamed, again, when I think about sitting on her bed in the dark, explaining the shooting pains, how she’ll shake her head at me as if I don’t know what really matters. In West Africa nobody has gynecologists or anything, and they live longer than we do here. Apart from the famine and disease and violence that kill people. If not for those things, Africans would live longer than all of us here, she says.
“It doesn’t matter whether the gynecologist a guy, honestly.” Lili doesn’t get it because she’s only half Senegalese, on her dad’s side, and he’s barely ever around. “They’re there to do a job and that’s it.”
Lili doesn’t have experience of her own, she just hears things. She got a pamphlet from the nurse’s office at school, did a check on her breasts, and found a bump. It’s shaped like a crescent moon and flat enough to pass as a birthmark. I think it’s a scab, like she got injured from a wire in her bra, but apparently it doesn’t work like that.
“You don’t know, you don’t even wear bras,” she says. “It could be something serious.”
She wants us both to go to the clinic, her with the spot on her boob, me with my restlessness. The conversation’s nearly done but we seem to have forgotten how to end the call. I do pirouettes in front of the refrigerator as we waste the next ten minutes trying to convince each other that everything’s fine, it’s not as bad as we think, we’re only sixteen and we eat vegetables at home and drink filtered water, not tap. I take vitamins.
“Have they been helping you?” Lili asks.
“With this?” I think hard even though I really don’t have to. “This, um, I don’t know.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Nena,” she says irritably. “Just look up the place. Make an appointment.”
The website looks like it was designed in the nineties. Dr. Something-or-Other, an OB/GYN who graduated from a university I’ve never heard of. Female, thank God. I turn up the volume on the TV and change the channel to Cartoon Network, a lineup I no longer recognize. She takes insurance, but I don’t know where my cards are, don’t even know which company owns them. I hook my phone into the charger and stare at the TV screen. The bright colors make me feel safe. Surely if I sit here and watch this rainbow cartoon I’ll get better. If I just give it time, rest a little bit, forget about exams. It’s about stress.
My mother preaches stress. When she sees the president on the cover of Time, gray-haired and wrinkled. When one of us gets sick.
“It’s because you’re stressed,” she says. “It’s because you didn’t take your vitamins.”
There is a photo of the gynecologist on the upper right corner of the webpage. She’s got this seductive smile and long dark hair that hugs the curves of her face. Come to my office. Come sit on my examining table.
I have never been to the doctor without my parents. Lili hasn’t either, but she made up the plan: She’ll say we’re going to the mall, pick me up from the house in her dad’s Jeep, and drive us to the women’s health center at LIJ. She’s told her mom about the bump, but her mom is a stubborn person and believes it’s just a deflated pimple.
I don’t even know what I would tell the gynecologist—I realize I can’t identify all the regions of my body, don’t know what I mean when I wave towards the lower half of my stomach. We don’t believe in anatomy, either. When I was in fourth grade, The Care and Keeping of You appeared on the floor by magic; my mother had slipped it under the bedroom door with some of the pages stapled together. My sister and I took the staples out and hollered over the drawings of uteruses, covered our eyes at the watercolor vagina with its matching blue tampon. We just knew private parts, two words, imageless.
“Other people aren’t supposed to see this,” my mother would teach us in the bath, among all the warm water and duck-shaped washcloths and suds from Johnson’s baby soap. “Other people aren’t supposed to touch.”
And here I am making plans to bare my parts to Dr. Whomever, to a sterile room at the women’s clinic, to the entire world. I close the browser and take my hands off the keyboard, my eyes on the window scanning the empty driveway. Before she comes home, I will be fine.
I change the channel again, back to the Food Network. Lili sends me another message: when do you wanna go?
It hasn’t hurt since I got off the phone. I text her: forget about it lol. tbh realized it was nothing.
Lol, she texts.
Lol, I answer.
She starts typing something else, but I’m too embarrassed, and I move my phone to the far side of the couch so I don’t have to look at it anymore.
My mother’s car pulls up in front of the house, flashing its white and yellow lights through the windowpanes. I don’t have to tell her. It hasn’t hurt since the beginning of the day, I think. Maybe even since last night.
There’s no reason to tell anyone, or go anywhere at all. I watch Guy Fieri stuff his mouth full of pork loin and wait to hear the sound of the key turning into the lock.