A Lesson in Anatomy
At age 47, I refuse to let anyone make me feel dried up and contrite
Splayed out on the exam table with both feet in the stirrups, the “new patient” tissue paper stuck to my backside and a sheet covering my naked lower half, I watched Dr. Mary Grady putter around the sterile, white room. She opened cabinets and jars, pulling out gloves, swabs, slides — and that metal, medieval looking crank thing with the screws and levers — the one that doctors shove inside a woman’s vagina in order to peer all the way in and try to fix her, or figure her out. In the name of health, our neatly tucked away insides are breached and pried open with a lubed-up, clamp gun that is ruthlessly, and without exception, ice cold.
Tools finally in hand, Dr. Grady turned around and made eye contact for the first time.
“Aha!” she said. “Got ‘em!”
A speculum. That’s what they call it.
What, exactly, does a speculum speculate?
(“Now, lie still. Let’s just take a little peek into your private life, shall we?”)
Any decent gynecologist armed with a blinding, overhead light and one of those little stainless steel bastards can tell you a lot about your vagina. But if you want to be schooled about your sex life, about your own capacity for pleasure and abandon, about being a sinner and maybe even a slut, you should visit a Catholic gynecologist who went to Yale. She’ll have some interesting things to say.
I was 47, and in Dr. Grady’s office for a routine checkup after a weeklong tryst with Liam, an actor I’d found after a long, and self-imposed, sexual hiatus. He was perfect — 30 years old, uncomplicated, and in between B roles — and he had plenty of time to spend with me in my hotel suite in West Hollywood. During the last half of a sun-drenched August, when reality still seemed so far away, Liam and I spent a dazzling week together getting sunburned, reading scripts by the pool, drinking icy vodka out of frozen grapefruit halves, and our California evenings morphed into a mutually delirious haze of chemistry — the kind that bonds hard and fast — and then evaporates just as quickly. I was glowing.
So while Dr. Grady and her slicked-up speculum plunged in and turned my tiny, one-level pelvic floor into a high-rise condo of vaginal wall, I hummed the lyrics to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” to take my mind off the discomfort. I always thought Laura was underrated as a singer and…
“Ouch!” I squirmed.
“Ok, what’s up?” she said.
“Well, you were just here four months ago. What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing’s going on,” I said, shifting a little, to accommodate my startled interior to her now fully expanded torture device. “I just had a new partner and I wanted to be sure everything was ok.” Leaning my head around the side of the table and peering down at her peering into me, I saw her eyebrows shoot up.
“Really?” she said. “You mean a new sex partner? But aren’t you single?”
She yanked the speculum out and replaced it with her gloved fingers.
I shifted again, wondering if the speculums in her office had their own sterilization process.
“I am single, but…”
“Were you safe?”
“Of course.” I answered. “He’s a lot younger than I am, so yes… we were. I mean, I’m always careful.”
“Good girl,” she said, pressing her fingers upward, on what felt like every inch of my colon. “But I’m still going to test you for all the STIs, STDs. And don’t get too attached to him,” she added. “Young men will have sex with anyone who stands still long enough. He isn’t likely to stick around.”
“I don’t need him to stick around,” I asserted. “Ouch! I already have two kids; I don’t need a third, and like I said, we were very safe.”
With her gloved fingers still half inside me, she stood up and gave me the look one gives a six-year-old when telling them not to run into oncoming traffic for the second time.
“Did you perform oral sex on him?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I did. Actually… I know I didn’t. Why?”
“Really?” she responded. “These days, young men expect that. They can’t wait to get in your mouth, which leads to all kinds of throat problems and…”
I took a deep breath as she sat back down on her stool.
“Oh, we had oral sex,” I interrupted. “Lots of it.”
“You just said you…”
“Well, he went down on me,” I exhaled. “For hours. But by all means, test me if you think you need to.”
She was up near my cervix now. I didn’t move.
“Well, I don’t feel anything off, exactly,” she mused. “It’s just the whole younger man thing, isn’t it?” she continued, in her condescending, caregiver voice. “Women our age can’t keep up with them in the sex department. Things are winding down — down there. You’re going to need hormones, lubrication… you know.”
No, I didn’t know. The sex department? I wasn’t her age and I didn’t know why she was being such a killjoy — I wasn’t having any of the issues she was describing — not yet, anyway. Her certainty of my impending sexual doom was weird and sad. I wanted to tell her that if she’d been a fly on the wall in my hotel room with Liam, she might have seen the matter differently. She had always taken good care of me, but I was stunned and annoyed at her reproach.
“I don’t have any problems in that department,” I insisted. “Believe me, I spent a week with him. He was relentless and I was fine.”
“Well, you’ll need estrogen soon, whether you like it or not,” she repeated. “At 47, you’re sliding into menopause. You won’t get naturally lubricated like you used to and you may have trouble with orgasms. You might start to feel intimidated with younger men.” She finally withdrew her fingers.
I fought the urge to let this escalate, but she was no doubt peddling this shit to other women my age and maybe they were buying it. With both feet still in the stirrups, I sat up and faced her. I noticed that her doctor’s coat was in need of a wash. There was a fresh, brown food stain that ran all the way from her limp, white collar to the spot under the right breast pocket. She had big, heavy tits and she’d had an early lunch — a roast beef sandwich with gravy was my guess.
Writers carry their own speculums. I shoved mine inside of her psyche, without lube, and cranked it open. A peek inside told me she had closed up the sex shop long ago and was trying to drag me along with her into the world of middle-aged sterility, but I wasn’t going. I read somewhere that beauty — sex appeal — is the great equalizer. So maybe she had gone to Yale and had a posh, medical practice, but I had both of those other things that she would never have. My rebellious nature would find its footing against her grim prescription.
“Doctor Grady,” I said. “I don’t think I need estrogen. I’m not menopausal, I always have orgasms and I like sex.” (I wasn’t backing down now, because she’d made the mistake of asking me if I knew the definition of word empirical.) “I’m lucky enough to find it, too, mostly with younger men. We’re very compatible.”
In her quest to make me feel dried up and duly contrite, she’d poked a hornet’s nest. Her mouth set itself into a pale, hard line. She wheeled herself over to the medical trash can, peeled off her gloves and threw them in. Sitting there in her sagging panty hose and black orthopedic shoes, her authority suddenly fell away and what I saw before me was a woman who probably hadn’t gone in search of a good, hard fuck in over a decade. She’d spent most of her adult life looking at vaginas and she still clearly underestimated them — and the women to whom they were attached.
I took my feet out of the stirrups. She wheeled herself over to the counter, turned her back to me and started scribbling. She finished her notes and closed my file. “You can get dressed now,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll contact you if you have an STD.”
I ignored her. I swung my legs over the side of the table and hopped up to put on my underwear, giving her full view of my naked, perky, well-toned ass before she left the room. But when she left and closed the door, I sat back down on the table, trembling just a little. In all fairness, that Catholic doctor from Yale wasn’t completely wrong. Her diagnosis had simply missed the mark by a notch or two; I would have never confessed it to her, though.
I have my bad days. Some days, weeks and months, I can’t write at all. No lover is present — and I feel completely alone. I hover between experience and memory like a ghost; the words will not come or they come too fast, and I have to relive a happy time that is long gone, by writing it out. I pine and I remember, missing someone’s hands or their laughter in the kitchen when they made the coffee. Daily duties overwhelm me. I yell at slow drivers or at people in line at the bank who don’t have their card ready when the teller calls “Next!” My pantry and refrigerator sit empty. I do not have an office to go to — an office filled with jars and swabs and speculums. I have to wait.
Those days are the worst. I drink and smoke and pace and cannot sleep. This is the price I pay. But now that I am 47, I have made an uneasy peace with it. It was my choice after all, to live this way, and every life, whether that of a doctor in a sterile gynecological office or the life of a writer and a non-conformist who takes lovers and tells stories about them, extracts its own special price. But always, even when I feel that I will die from loneliness, something eventually gives way. I feel the dark spirit leave my body and I laugh at myself for being so dramatic. I shake myself back to life, thank the heavens for what they have given me, and I run bravely toward the sunshine, or the moonshine, in search of my next story.
I finished dressing, walked down the hall and stood in front of the checkout desk waiting to pay — again — for my visit. Dr. Grady approached me from behind and pulled me aside for a little talk, directly in view of her mahogany library lined with leather bound medical volumes and degrees — Lux et Veritas — on parchment in frames from Yale. The University of Pennsylvania’s motto, Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, translates into “laws without morals are useless,” but Dr. Grady had never bothered to ask me where I’d gone to university.
“You have a 15-year-old daughter,” she stated.
“Yes, I do. Why?”
“I have to tell you this. I’m a Catholic and I won’t prescribe birth control pills for her.”
I gave her no reaction; I merely stated the truth.
“My daughter doesn’t need birth control pills,” I said. “She’s 15. She sees her pediatrician, Dr. Aron, across town, and my daughter is still a virgin.”
She nodded without smiling and turned back down the hall. I stared after her as she walked away in her sagging support hose and dingy doctor’s robe, with the food stain on the breast pocket. She comes into this office every day and tells women who are only 47 that they are too old to have sex. I suppose it all evens out in the end.