As women, we experience the legacy of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy whenever we have a gynecological exam. I am wearing only a paper shirt, open in the front. I am given another paper sheet to lay across my lap. The paper shirt catches underneath my bare bottom as I shift on the table, and it rips. Now it hangs, revealing one of my breasts. I “bunch” up the paper, folding it into itself so it stays up. I am sitting on another sheet of paper that the nurse presumably had rolled along the length of the table, “freshening” it for each new patient. I think about fluids. Does the nurse merely unroll this paper across the table, erasing the fluids of the woman before me? Does she disinfect the table before unrolling the sheet? Is this sheet really clean, or does it just blot the fluid of the teenager/ grandmother/pregnant woman/cancer patient before me? I notice disturbing “blots” of dried fluid on the footrest at the end of the bed near the floor. This place is not really clean.
My doctor enters, and we talk while the paper shirt unfolds, revealing my breast. He pretends not to notice. I like him. He's been there for me. Unlike other ob/gyns, he never questioned my desire to conceive a child. He didn't even mention genetic testing before he agreed to help me conceive, unlike the doctors I had had in Wisconsin ; one wouldn't even begin to discuss fertility treatments with me until I agreed to a SECOND round of genetic tests. That doctor couldn't accept that I was willing to risk having a child with a disability. My current doctor is Catholic; his respect for life extends to people with disabilities. Anyway, he's been good to me. I have a history with this man. Even when my fertility attempts failed, he never questioned that I had a right to pursue pregnancy.
I like him, but why is this exam always so humiliating? Before the pelvic exam begins, he pushes off, gliding across the floor on his rolling chair to the other side of the room where he pushes a button, like a doorbell. This maneuver doesn't interrupt our conversation. A minute later, a female nurse appears. She stands by the head of the bed, there by law to ensure that nothing untoward happens during the exam. She never says anything. She does not introduce herself; he doesn't introduce her. If I hadn't have asked once, I wouldn't even have known why she was there. She's a silent witness who moves from room to room like a ghost.
My misshapen feet, ankles fused, don't yield to the stirrups. They rest on the edges where the feet of the teenager/grandmother/pregnant woman/cancer patient before me have been. Do their more malleable feet fit comfortably there? Does anyone's? The doctor always puts my lap sheet up over my knees while I'm in the stirrups so I can't see what he's doing. I hate that. Once, I pulled the sheet down, telling him that I wanted to see what he was doing. He said that it made him uncomfortable. Today, I just accepted the barrier. Do I want to make this man uncomfortable? The cold, metal, slippery speculum slipped inside me. The familiar pinch stings as he collects his sample. The nurse can't really see what the doctor is doing, with the sheet blocking her view as well as mine. When the exam is over, blood-tinged lubricating jelly slips out of me onto the paper sheet when I sit up. I bleed and cramp the whole day.
I know that this sheet is not waterproof. When the doctor and nurse leave, I look under the sheet, and sure enough my fluid has penetrated the sheet, leaving a sticky spot on the table.
Anarcha, Lucy, Betsy: your bodies meld with mine when the speculum is inserted: My humiliation only a watered down trace, trickling around the hard speculum, through the paper sheet, through the archive, through history. This place is not really clean.
---- Carrie Sandahl