Seventeen years ago
The stirrups beneath my heels are cold. I focus on the metal and not on the man’s hand moving beneath my gown. All part of the process, the nannies would say. The doctors don’t like touching you there, but it’s a necessity. Grin and bear it.
There’s pressure and a pinch in my privates, but I don’t gasp. I bite my lip and clench the rough white paper at my sides.
The cold, metal device slides out, and I breathe deep. It means he’s done. It’s over. Until next month.
“I just don’t know, Jan,” Dr. Houghtson says. It’s his worried voice. I’ve heard it a lot lately. It sends my bare skin into gooseflesh.
“What is it?” I say, pushing up on my elbows to peer over the tent my knees make of my examination gown. “Did you…see something?”
He shakes his head. Not answering me, he walks over to the small industrial sink in the corner of the exam room and begins scrubbing his hands. The unanswered question hangs like a storm cloud between us.
He doesn’t tell me I can take my heels out of the stirrups. Doesn’t pat my shoulder and tell me the exam is over. Instead, I lie there, my exposed lower half on display like an exhibit. I squirm on the exam table, something that would make the nannies frown. The doctors want well-behaved girls. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t do anything until you are told. They know what to do. But the nervous sweat that began as I walked to this appointment keeps building. It slides between my breasts, darkening the pink exam gown to a deep maroon at the center of my chest. The breast exam—I had one last month—is even more awkward because I’m so close to his face, I can see the hairs twitch inside his nose as he palms the soft tissue on my chest.
The rush of water at the sink continues. Dr. Houghtson scrubs and scrubs. He always washes his hands like this after he touches me. I wonder if he’s so tidy with all his patients or just me. If I’m the dirty one.
I swallow hard and look at the poster on the wall across from me. “See something? Say something,” it says in bold letters. A girl with a knowing look stares at me from the poster. Below it, in font too small for me to read, the commandment continues. I don’t need to read it to know what it says. “Rat on your fellow hall mates and earn rewards.” Well, it’s nobler sounding than that, but that’s the underlying message. Spy on each other. Keep each other in line.
It’s another way they control us. Nanny Bell told me.
The water shuts off and Dr. Houghtson turns around, wiping his hands on a towel. My heart pounds again. Is the exam not over? He’s still frowning and staring off into space. Finally, he remembers me.
“You can sit up. I’m finished.” He gives an absentminded smile, one that does nothing to settle my snapping nerves.
I lower my legs and sit up on the exam table. Rivers of sweat run down my chest, pits, and back. Hopefully, there’ll be hot water for a shower when I get back.
“Can I get dressed?” my voice peeps out. Maybe my submissiveness will shake him out of his daze. Maybe he’ll tell me what’s wrong with me.
Dr. Houghtson looks up at my face and then away, like whatever he has to tell me is too painful. I form sign language letters with my fingers into my lap. Help me, I sign. Over and over. My fingers tremble on the E, but thankfully, Dr. Houghtson doesn’t notice what I’m doing. He’s too busy staring out the tiny window with a blank look on his face. I keep signing into my lap. H-E-L--
“I believe you have endometriosis,” Dr. Houghtson blurts.
I blink at him. “What?”
He drops his eyes to the cracked stool seat in the center of the room. The yellow foam stuffing is beginning to peek out of the red leather cover.
“It means the tissue that’s supposed to stay on the inside of your uterus may be growing outside your uterus.” When he sees the confusion on my face, he tries again. “It means you probably can’t get pregnant.”
His words feel like a nail through my heart. The sharp, piercing pain slices through my breastbone and into the soft matter. My hands slap over my chest as I gasp.
He puts a hand on my shoulder. His dark brown eyes are soft, and he opens and closes his thin lips several times before speaking. I stare like an idiot, waiting. Maybe he didn’t mean what he said.
“There still might be a chance.” His hand strokes my shoulder and onto my back like a nanny might do to soothe a fussy babe. All my shocked brain can think is, I hope he doesn’t feel the sweat puddles there.
“A chance?” I repeat.
He nods, still stroking. Running his fingers through the hair that brushes my shoulders, he says, “Maybe we can try direct implantation. It’s risky and expensive, but the guys in the lab owe me a favor.”
I nod, not really understanding. My brain is flooded with the implications of what he’s saying. If I can’t get pregnant, I’ll be put out. The sweat begins again.
He locks eyes with me. “But we’re running out of time. When is your seventeenth birthday?”
At first, I can’t think. Then, “May eighteenth.”
“Two months? Jesus!” he says. Then he stops himself and mutters an apology prayer. Once again, his fingers begin tracing through my hair as he mumbles the words to his god, his fingers tugging on strands like Nanny Jo tugs on old rosary beads.
My arms begin to shake. I know the nannies would frown upon it, but I can’t help the tremble in my hands. I’m so cold. When I lift my gaze to Dr. Houghtson, I feel tears in my eyes. “Can you…fix me?” My fingers try to form the letters M-E in my lap, but my hands shake too much.
His face softens. Both hands clutch my shoulders, and he holds me so close I can smell the flowery soaps he uses before and after touching me. Black stubble has sprouted on his cheeks and chin since he shaved this morning. His beard, like his hair, would be full and thick if he let it grow.
“Jan,” he says, locking me with a look. “I will do everything in my power to fix you.” He grips my shoulders tighter. “Do you believe me?”
He’s so serious, staring into my eyes with his big, brown ones. Puppy-dog eyes, Nanny Doris would have said. But he’s a doctor and I’m just a Breeder girl. Why should he care? When I don’t answer, he asks again. “Do you believe me?”
I nod, a tear slipping down my nose. But the fear has embedded in my heart and sprouted roots. Two months and then my life is over.
More coming August 6th! Stay tuned.
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