“You’re an adult now, okay? Are you comfortable making your own choices?”
My shirt is neatly folded on the stool, demurely hiding my panties and leggings. From the exam table where I sit, paper crinkling on the inhale, crushing on the exhale, the olive knit looks alive, a patch of moss growing a bed of green atop a metal blowdown. I wore it for our first date, when I met Alex at the airport and he presented a notebook wrapped in butcher paper emblazoned with the nickname he’d called me on the phone every day for months: “Pookie.”
“Your strain of HPV is in the tier second most likely to cause cervical cancer,” my doctor has just said to me. “Have you not received an HPV vaccine yet?”
No, I haven’t. I tell her I grew up in a deeply religious household where my mother assumed I would only ever have one sexual partner, my future husband. He too would be a virgin, and neither of us would ever have to worry about venereal disease.
Venereal disease. “I have a venereal disease.” Nope, that’s someone else’s sentence, not mine. That’s not my body she’s diagnosing. That’s someone else’s. Someone more sexually adventurous. Someone more promiscuous. Someone who has to bite her lip and stare at the crown molding to call up each partner’s face as she counts with her fingers.
Alex and I have been together for four years. He’s my second sexual partner, but I am not his second. Suddenly it feels like all my Southern church youth leaders were right: you bring everyone you’ve ever had sex with to bed with you. The familiar image of a bride and groom at the altar exchanging wedding vows blooms in my mind. But instead of bridesmaids, behind the bride is a line of men; behind the man, a line of women. When the bride and groom say “I do”, so do all the men and women they’ve ever slept with. The marriage is not between one man and one woman, but between all the past and the present.
Some woman in Jordan or Portugal or Chicago I will never meet had my Alex inside her body and returned to him a virus, and now I carry a part of her with me for the rest of my life.
“You’re an adult now, okay? Are you comfortable making your own choices?” she asks as if talking to a child while she gropes my bare breast. Yes, I smile up at her, trying to look like the good girl I desperately want to be. “Then I’m gonna need you to get that vaccination. We don’t want you contracting any other strains, okay?”
If Alex and I ever break up, if I ever take another sexual partner, I will pass her along to another, and another and another, until every sexually active person has a bit of her with them. Of course, she is not patient zero. She received it from someone else who received it from someone else, who received it from someone else, all the way back through history when the first human papilloma virus found a host cell.
I am in turn angry with my mother’s naivety and circumspect about the wisdom she gave me. Were the purity culture abstinence-mongers right all along? Am I paying for the sin of divorcing my virginal husband and then sleeping with a man who is not my husband? Is this my penance, to carry all his sexual history in me, a possibly inert, possibly active timebomb threatening to destroy me from within? Is that the cost breaking myself free? Is my freedom worth it?
Now my doctor is spouting off the daily supplements she wants me to take to keep the virus from multiplying and chewing away my cervix. The cervix I’ll need intact if I ever want to have a baby, be a mother. She’s telling me where and how to get the vaccine as a 30-something woman-child and how much it will cost. Three shots, $320… each?!
I can’t keep up. I hold up a finger and hop off the table to my moss green pile and retrieve the small black notebook under my leggings. It goes everywhere with me, a repository of thoughts, ideas, images, to-do lists, reminders and now medical advice. All the things my brain cannot handle on her own.
I haven’t been to a doctor in three years. My gig-economy career has kept me gaining, losing, overpaying, and eventually declining health insurance from at least 6 different employers. Huge corporate entities charging $927 a month for a pap smear once a year.
Now my doctor tells me the standard of care for an abnormal pap is to have one every six months to monitor the abnormality until it resolves or develops into something more serious requiring treatment. I tell her I understand as I stretch my green shirt back over my body, knowing full well I won’t do it. My current insurance will have lapsed by then; my religious PTSD about Planned Parenthood will not have.
I clutch the notebook to my chest like an insufficient shield as I return to the front desk. The co-pay is only $35 and paid for by a health savings account from two employers back, but I still feel the sting of “what if?” My brain doesn’t know the difference between accounts. It only fixates on the bottom line – do I have enough? It’s the same wincing sensation I feel every time I order take out or put gas in my car or pay a parking meter.
Shit. My parking meter is definitely expired by now. Seventy minutes of wait time for seven minutes of care. I rush out and take the stairs because the elevator is too slow.
I’m rushing down the sidewalk, wrestling my notebook into my bag, trying to wrap my head around how much a parking ticket in Santa Monica costs on a Thursday at 2pm and also how much my supplements will cost and whether there’s enough left on that HSA to cover the co-pay at the pharmacy, and I barely hear the car horn blare, brakes squeal.
My hip buckles over the hood and I spin down to the concrete.
My mother comes to the hospital. It’s dark by the time she arrives and the lights of the city bounce off the clouds in a sallow, tobacco-stained glow out the window. In the dregs of a narcotic-induced nap, I see my tote bag in a puddle over her lap. Her trembling hands are holding my notebook open as she reads. I watch her in silence until my stare speaks loud enough to get her attention.
“Oh. I’m sorry, honey. I was just…” she trails off and tucks the notebook away. “How are you feeling?” She takes my hand, eyes brimming with tears, and I cannot tell if she’s shaken more by the accident, the call from the hospital that I have suffered a head injury, or by the combination of capital letters and numbers she has just read. Which illusion has been shattered? Safety? Purity? Perfection?
How am I feeling? Above the pain, the bone deep exhaustion, the trauma fog, above the griefs of the day, there sits betrayal. Not by my body or the driver of the vehicle or by the lover who gave me HPV. By her. By my mother’s blind, innocent, naïve faith that her perfect little girl would grow up to be a perfect little woman, marry a perfect virgin man, and live happily ever after. Mothers live vicariously through their daughters.
She wishes she could have been there to protect me from the F-150 with the faulty brake line and the distracted driver. I wish she could have been there – present to reality, not lost in a dream – to protect me from a preventable sexually transmitted disease.
I don’t speak, but my face changes, and she bows her face low over my hand, covered in medical tape, and kisses it. I turn back to the window. I could be kind and remember she did the best she could with what she had at the time, but my concussed head sloshes with the huge truth, now raw and hot: she cannot protect me. She never could.
It only costs $20,000 to hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, if you’re going slow enough. Maybe that’s fair for a minor concussion, torn meniscus, bone bruise at the hip and elbow. No breaks. I nurse my wounds at home with Alex and disability leave from my job.
“Really making the most of that insurance aren’t you, kid?” my boss cracks when I call him.
It only takes two meetings with a lawyer and my mother’s iPhone photos from the hospital to get me paid.
“It could have been so much worse,” my mother consoles me.
“You got so lucky.”
Lucky is a strange thing to name a trauma. I didn’t need to get hit by a literal truck to distract me from a figurative one. Or $20,000 in exchange for some bruises. But maybe that’s what I get for going to the doctor, for asking questions. I was fine being poor and uninsured but feeling whole.
The next time Alex and I have sex I have just received the settlement. It takes that long for the bone bruise on my hip to heal enough to tolerate the weight of him. We fancy it celebration sex – the end of a weird and wild fluke that leaves me with a plush savings account, five digits for the very first time, and my body little worse for wear.
The pain is so bad I cry out like a wounded animal and we have to stop. I apologize from behind the hand I have bitten. He slides carefully down my body and kisses my hip with no pressure at all. “Shh, it’s okay, it’s okay. Recovery takes as long as it takes.” I’m shaking and can’t stop. He rolls me to my good side, the one not struck by metal, and presses his front along every inch of my back, gluing himself to my naked frame, holding me still like a swaddled baby.
I am grateful I don’t have to look him in the eye, can just feel his warmth, a wall of flesh behind me, the forearm muscles across my breasts absorbing the thunder of my heartbeat. If I had faced him, he would see the distrust in my eyes. I can’t yet tell if the pain is about my hip or something deeper, some giant collusion of muscle and nerve and bone to reject the one who infected me, a fear emboldened by one trauma to protect the body from another. I am content to let him hold me as I search the wall for answers.
One small solution writes itself in the paint: I can afford that HPV vaccine now.