by Jen Corrigan
In school, they made us watch those medical specials. You know the ones, the terrifying ones, the ones with the red, sweaty women, and the camera zooms in on them hard as they each struggle to push out a mewling, eyeless monster from their respective vaginas. The video we watched in seventh grade was the worst. The pregnant woman, introduced as Megan, whether or not that was her real name, sat in a pool of her own liquid shit, bucking in pain until the nurses managed to pin her down and wrench her legs up. She thrashed and screamed as it squeezed its head through the gaping wound between her legs. Megan cussed up a storm; a stream of bleeps issued from her wobbling mouth. The film ended with Megan and her husband in the stark white hospital room, oohing and ahhing over the baby, wrinkled and red like a tomato shriveling in too much sun.
The miracle of life, people like to call all that business, especially the women who work at my gynecologist’s office. And I suppose there is something interesting in it, the creation of another human after something as simple and uninspiring as banging someone in the backseat of a car or in your first boyfriend’s twin bed while his parents are asleep upstairs and he promises you that you’ll like it, just trust him, and you’re just staring into the dead eyes of the frog in the terrarium next to his bed, and all that’s going through your head is “Lie back, and think of England.”
I knew someone who did it in a bouncy castle after a kid’s birthday party once. No baby resulted from it, but that would sure make a great conception story.
During certain times of my cycle, I feel a warm, irrational love toward babies I see at work or in restaurants or in waiting rooms. I want to reach out and hold them, protect them from the world, teach them everything I’ve learned, make them watch reruns of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. I want to watch them grow, like a more complex Chia Pet. Or maybe like one of those sponge capsules. You just put the capsule in warm water and pretty soon, ta-da! a baby.
After a couple days, though, that wordless ache passes, and I’m grateful that my uterus is empty and my bank account isn’t.
There are always round, beach ball babies and rotund women, full to bursting like ripened fruit, in the waiting room at my gynecologist’s office. No matter who they are, the women look to me like Megan from the video, faces purple from pushing, eyes protruding froggy from their sockets.
Usually, though, the women in the waiting room seem cheerful about the thing that’s happening to their bodies, the cellular assembly of life inside them.The process is mirrored in all the paintings and grotesque sculptures that are scattered about the office, pieces of “art” picked up from the discount aisle at Hobby Lobby.
Before Dr. Smalls took over the old Victorian brick building, it was the office for a practice of psychiatrists and therapists. It’s the same building that I visited during my teenage years when my therapist attempted to cure me by having me yell at a stuffed frog that was supposed to represent my dead mother.
“It sounds silly, I know,” she said, “but humor me.” And then she laughed. She laughed a lot, even when we weren’t talking about anything funny.
I looked at the frog, a tie-dyed Beanie Baby knock-off with a tuft of orange hair sticking straight up on its head.
“Frogs don’t have hair,” I told her.
She stared at me from behind her cat’s eye glasses, expectantly. Her mouth was worked into a little smile.
“I am not fond of you,” I said to the frog. I saw my tiny inverted reflection wavering in its glassy black eyes.
“Dig deeper. Really let her have it!”
“You were not a good mother. I don’t miss you. I’m happy you are gone.”
“There you go! Don’t pull away from your anger.”
“I hate you, I guess.”
My therapist started clapping. She held her hands up, thumbs to her chest with her fingertips just below her chin. She smacked them together, rapid fire. TapTapTapTap!
“That’s it! Now translate your feelings into action and smack her off the table!”
With the back of my hand, I pushed the frog off the side of the table. It landed on its stomach with the sshk of beans rearranging themselves. The bulbous eyes glued to the top of its head looked up at me, so sad and so empty.
“There!” my therapist exclaimed. “Now, don’t you feel so much better?”
Now that the building is an OB/GYN office, the décor is supposed to be heartwarming and charming and calming, a veritable ovarian celebration. I walked up to the front desk and was confronted with a poorly done sculpture of a pregnant woman perched on the desk, her belly sliced open to show the baby inside. The baby was curled up, pale and eyeless as a maggot.
“What’s your name, dear?” the receptionist asked.
I gave her my name, and, in return, she gave me a maternal, close lipped smile, like an everything will be just fine have a good day happy holidays smile she probably kept in stock. She reached over and pulled a manila folder from the filing cabinet.
“Alright. I’ll just have you look at these forms and see if any of the information needs updating.”
My heart seemed to disappear inside my chest.
I pretended to scan the form, tapping the pen against my chin in a farce of thoughtfulness. Like Winnie the Pooh jabbing at his temple, urging himself to ThinkThinkThink. I stared at the lumpy mess of a sculpture on the reception desk instead. “Warm and soft” was etched right above the woman’s burgeoning uterus, which is how I would describe a Tollhouse cookie, not a fetus. The left side of the woman’s chest was split open to reveal her heart, rusty red and shrunken like a rotting apple.
I updated my medical history along with the name of the clinic where it was done and the date. I handed the folder back to the receptionist, told her nothing else had changed, contact information was still the same, insurance was still the same, the same as it ever was. The sculpture woman looked at me with her dead eyes, set deep into her misshapen, doughy face.
“Dr. Smalls will be with you shortly.”
I sat down in a chair wedged into the corner. A nurse jogged up and down the steep stairs, carrying bottles of urine and Pap smear kits in sealed plastic bags. On the wall facing me hung an outline of a baby in a crawling position, colored orange. Bold, black lines emanated from the baby-shape, the kind that cartoonists use to emphasize something or express motion. BABY! the picture said.
I made eye contact with a woman sitting across the waiting room, and we both did the thing where you smile pleasantly with closed lips and then look away, pretending something important has caught your attention. Her angular haircut was sharp and unforgiving to her round face, plumped up like a cherry from pregnancy.
I yawned and rubbed at my eyes, exhausted from staying up all night with Hava, a girl from Russia I met online. She never told me her last name. “You wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway,” she said in her throaty accent. She had brought vodka and peach tea the first night we spent together; the drink she mixed for me was sharp and biting.
We smoked weed out of a potato the night before my cooch exam, getting stupid in front of a DVD collection of old Warner Bros. cartoons, the lights off. The glow from the TV screen pulsed in waves over the dips and valleys of Hava’s face. She raised the potato to her mouth, sucked in her breath, and held it deep in her chest. I held my breath, too, until she let the smoke escape through half-puckered lips. Only then did I exhale.
“In Soviet Russia,” I said through giggles, “potato smokes weed out of you.”
“You better be careful, or I won’t share with you next time.” But she smiled at me when she said it. She leaned over and kissed me on the crest of my jaw.
We watched as Michigan J. Frog cakewalked across the screen.
Hello Ma Baby! Hello Ma Honey! Hello Ma Ragtime Gal!
“I used to wonder if I might be a sociopath,” she said to me between hits. “I don’t think I feel feelings like other people do. Or, at least, I don’t feel them as strongly as I should.”
“I don’t think sociopaths worry about being sociopaths,” I replied. I took the potato and the lighter from her shivering hand. “Besides, you do care about people. You worry all the time about your ex offing himself.”
“That’s different,” she said.
Hava turned her attention back to the screen. If she ever explained to me why it was different, I don’t remember it.
The nurse shuffled into the lobby and called my name in that polite, questioning tone nurses must be taught in school. She asked me how I was, and we made small talk on the way back to the examination room.
Getting chilly out there.
It sure is, but it’s not as bad as last year was.
That’s for sure! You get all your Christmas shopping done?
The nurse weighed me without comment and handed me a cup to pee in. Magically, I managed to fill the cup without peeing directly on my hand, which is what happened when I took the pregnancy test. Place stick directly into stream of urine. It was only after one botched attempt that I figured out to pee into a coffee mug and dip the stick in after. I’m a fast learner.
When I returned, the nurse stuck a PH strip into the plastic cup and then rested it across to the top of the cup. The candy-colors reluctantly appeared, cryptic.
“Your urine is pretty yellow. You should make an effort to drink more water throughout the day,” she said.
I nodded and agreed. Yeah, yeah.
“This morning, Dr. Smalls was out shoveling the lot,” the nurse quipped. She fastened the blood pressure cuff around my arm.
“Yeah, I said to her, ‘God, just hire someone for that!’ But she’s so high energy.”
“Yes, she is,” I agreed and asked if my blood pressure was good or bad.
“Your blood pressure is just fine.”
The nurse took me to Dr. Small’s personal office for our annual chat. This is done to add a sense of personalization to the experience, to make me feel like I am important and that my health matters, to make me feel like my vagina is the only one that Dr. Smalls sticks her hand into.
“Dr. Smalls will be right with you.”
On her desk perched another sculpture, a faceless stone mother holding her faceless stone baby in her lap. My gaze wandered across the series of pictures on the wall. From left to right, they depicted a disillusioned fish levitating over the ocean, a flock of flying pigs, and a Border collie. I really wish she would just take down that Border collie picture, though. Whenever I go in for my exam, I always leave thinking of that picture, of that Border collie smiling wide just like the dog I had as a kid.
My mom bought Smuckers a week before she sliced her legs to hell with a razor and was put into the psychiatric hospital. Smuckers and I both ended up at Grandma’s at the same time. I loved that dog. I’d sit next to him on the floor at breakfast, reading nursery rhymes and picture books to him.
“Frog went a-courtin’ and he did ride, uh huh. And, look, Smuckers, here’s Frog and here’s his sword and pistol by his side.”
If Smuckers was good, I’d share my Pop-Tart with him. He took the pieces slowly and delicately from my fingers.
One day, Smuckers tore apart a nest of baby bunnies. Their screams rang shrill and tinny against my eardrums. I screamed, too, as I pried Smuckers’s mouth open with my tiny hands, scooping out halves and quarters of bunnies before he could choke them all down. When I went inside after that two-minute eternity, my hands and arms were streaked with blood. Grandma said I about gave her a goddamn heart attack.
She came outside with me to wrangle in Smuckers, who was running about the yard, tossing his head, his mouth and front of his chest stained with blood. One bunny had survived by hopping out of the nest and far back into the bush where Smuckers’s big, stupid head couldn’t quite reach.
“What should we do?” I asked Grandma, pointing in between the branches at the quivering gray bunny.
“Just leave it. I’m sure its mother will be back soon. She’ll take care of it.”
The next day, I went out to peek into the bush. The bunny was gone. I knew it had probably been snatched up and shorn apart by an owl or one of the feral cats that lived in the old barn down the way.
I didn’t love Smuckers as much after that.
A glass-doored hutch leaned up against a wall in Dr. Smalls’s office. The bottom shelves were home to Dr. Smalls’s collection of textbooks and reference materials including Comprehensive Gynecology and the curiously titled So, I’m a Mother. Now What? The top shelves displayed an array of teddy bears dressed in frilly outfits, a different one for each month.
“And how young are we this year?” Dr. Smalls asked, whirling into the room. Her white coat billowed out behind her like a cresting wave.
She clutched my manila folder in her hand. I read my name on the little label along the side.
Dr. Smalls is a pretty woman with gray hair and black eyebrows. She has a manic energy about her that tires me out. I take a nap after my appointments with her.
She asked me about what medications I was on, if I was getting enough calcium and iron, and if any new information about family medical histories had come to light. She asked me if I still only had a few drinks a month and if I abstained from drugs, and I provided the appropriate lies. You’re not supposed to lie to doctors, but everybody does it. If anyone tells you they’ve never lied to a doctor before, they’re lying about lying, which is the worst type of lying.
She brought up the abortion last. Dr. Smalls is not a sentimental woman. She asked me about how the procedure went, if I had noticed any pain or bleeding in the days or weeks afterward, if I had received a follow-up examination at the clinic.
After noting down this or that answer into my file, she set down her pen and clasped her hands together on her desk.
“Now that we have your physical health out of the way, how are you doing emotionally?”
“Are you talking with anyone about it, like a family member or a counselor? Terminating a pregnancy can be stressful for a lot of women.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary, really. I’m doing alright.”
She gave me a shrewd look, long and hard, before closing the manila folder. A little puff of air swept across her desk and rustled the bright pink hair of her troll doll desk ornament. It stared right through me, smiling its manic smile.
“Well, if you decide you need someone to talk to, we have a list of resources. Just call or stop in.”
Back in the examination room, Dr. Smalls handed me a thin linen sheet and left so I could have privacy as I got undressed. I removed my clothing and climbed up onto the table, placing my heels in the stirrups. I scooted down to the edge, my legs bent like a crouching frog, my vagina exposed to the cold, antiseptic air.
When I got my first period, my mother bought me a book so she wouldn’t have to talk to me about it. There was an entire chapter on gynecological exams full of soothing words and ideas for how to stay calm when you have a stranger’s fingers inside you. One girl talked about how her gynecologist had funny pictures tacked up on the ceiling to make his patients laugh. I looked up at the blank ceiling and pretended there was something there.
Why can’t bicycles stand up on their own? Because they’re two tired!
Dr. Smalls knocked before entering, but she entered before she got an answer. The exam took no more than ten minutes. If you’ve seen one vagina, you’ve seen them all, I suppose. I stared at the ceiling as Dr. Smalls inserted the speculum and scraped out a sample of my cervical cells, as Dr. Smalls coated her fingers in lubricant and rooted around inside me like she was digging in the couch cushions for loose change. She did a quick breast exam and then handed me a panty liner and the bill. Dr. Smalls yelled goodbye over her shoulder and shut the door.
When I was a teenager, my boyfriend would finger me when we made out in his pickup truck with just about as much ceremony and romance as a gynecological examination.
I put on my clothes.
In the reception area, I stared at another sculpture as I waited to schedule my appointment for next year. The bald woman held her bald baby away from her body, one of her fingers crooked around a forgotten pacifier.
“Oh, wait!” Dr. Smalls whooshed into the waiting room. “Almost forgot!”
She handed me a pamphlet and whirled away. A picture of a woman was on the front of the pamphlet under NEED HELP? RESOURCES FOR WOMEN in blaring red letters. The woman sat with her hand on her forehead and her eyes turned toward the floor. Her mouth was puckered into a frown.
I folded the pamphlet in half and buried it deep in my coat pocket.
Driving home, I fingered the pamphlet, feeling its thick and glossy card stock, and I knew I’d never call.
Jen Corrigan is the fiction editor for Inner Weather, and an editorial intern at the North American Review. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in The Linnet’s Wings, Litbreak, and Apocrypha and Abstractions. You can follow her on Twitter @JenCorrigan3.