What to talk about when a beautiful Polish woman in strawberry scrubs stands between your splayed legs and probes your vaginal canal with an ultrasound transducer, investigating possible causes of extreme bleeding and pancake-sized blood clots? Apparently, babies.
“I am just like you,” she responds with an accented lilt, after I have summarized months of never-ending menstruation, blood sometimes gushing so swiftly and explosively out of me I have had to rush to the bathroom to turn on the shower, stripping off blood-soaked clothes and crouching down on rust-spattered toes in the tub to just let the flash flood come; dark, jelly-like clots slipping out of my vagina and bobbing along the red river like old oak trees, only to become ensnared and stuck fast in the drain. Help, Roto-Rooter? My drain is clogged with clots. I have a clotted drain — come quickly!
None of those descriptions are in my summary, of course. What I say is more like: I’ve been bleeding heavily forever, and maybe it’s menopause even though I’m only 41? And boy I sure am sick of it and would love for it to be over. So, I don’t really blame her faulty comparison when she says, “I am just like you. I have I.U.D. I spotted for 10 days, and think, oh maybe I would like menopause.”
Well, that’s not the same at all. And I just want the crazy periods to stop, not all of menstruation. I’m not ready to be menopausal. I’ve never really put much thought into menopause before. But now that it may be hovering on the horizon, no sir, don’t want it. Unless these crazy blood parties are the only kind of period I have left. Then, by all means, kind ladies and sirs, do bring on the blessed menopause.
The technician expertly rotates the transducer, softly pushing along the inner skin of my vaginal canal, frequently stopping to snap screenshots of my uterus, my pelvis, my ovaries. It’s amazing how utterly nonsexual it is. Her movements easily mimic the movement of a penis head testing the sexual waters. Or, hey, we could both be really into sex toys in our personal lives, but there is zero arousal here. We chat like we are old friends at coffee, the fact that she has a lubed wand in me merely a natural extension of our interaction. Not even noteworthy.
“I think maybe to have my eggs frozen. This is not the way I would want to do it, but I am not in relationship, and contraceptives are not well with me. Like the spotting. And the shots gave me heavy periods. The pills gave me acne.” She brushes dainty fingers against porcelain cheeks.
“It’s a good idea. Why not use what’s available?” I say. Her beauty is the young, careless kind; no makeup, long, dark, wild hair that always errs on the side of looking good. An easiness with her physical self that I’ve always wished I possessed.
Her eyes are cloudy, though, as if her head is filled with plots and scenarios and romances so potent they could take over reality at any moment. She even sighs dreamily while staring at the grainy image of my fallopian tubes. “I do not even know if I want babies,” she says. “I dated a man that said 'No thank you' to children, and I was glad to have it decided for me.”
“My husband and I got married at 30, and our present to each other was a vasectomy,” I say.
“You have no kids?” she says, surprised.
“No kids,” I agree.
“You just knew?”
“Well, he was surer than me. But, yeah.”
“See?” she says, accidentally knocking the tray of lubes and goops and swabs and speculums against my arm. “This is it. Here, in America, choices are okay. But where I come from, family is . . . family is the whole point of everything.”
“They’re not wrong.” I think of my ancestors, each surviving just long enough to pass their DNA to the next generation; how improbable that said DNA would make it all the way through time, strife and circumstance to create me. And then, BAM! Or rather, snip, snip. A whole line of history, lineage, and possibility, extinguished. Evolution, science, cheated by me. Or, more likely, my ancestors were the ones cheating science by continuing to find ways to propagate the damaged, dysfunctional, mentally ill aberrated DNA that is my familial tree. Maybe I exist merely to extinguish. I am science’s avenger.
We hear a child screaming in the waiting room. “I hear that,” she says, “and think no, I do not want that.” Like all young people who have not had a kid, she treats the idea of whether or not to have one as similar to choosing an accessory. What does this kid say about me? Do I really want the Parent identity? Will it look good with my lifestyle?
“My friend struggled for years with having a child,” I tell her. “She even went to a therapist. She didn’t fully claim her non-motherhood until she was 42. But I think she knew for years that she didn’t want a kid; she was just too scared to admit it to the world. The world still thinks it’s selfish to be childless. Plus, her mom was pushing her to have kids. Make-me-a-gramma, you know?”
“Yes! Oh, my mom, my mom. And I have a sister, she is older than I, also not married. My mother says, why oh why do my children do this to me? She wrings her hands. But maybe I do not want that. And my sister is very good with kids. Very patient.”
“Well, hey, maybe that takes the pressure off you. Maybe she can have the babies for both of you.”
“Yes, this is good thought!” We laugh.
I didn’t expect an ultrasound to take so long. It makes me nervous. Is everything okay in there? And she keeps pressing the transducer against my bladder, making me afraid I’m going to pee a little on her. I try to keep the pee in, while still not clamping my vagina muscles down on the transducer. “Is there any chance you can tell me anything about what you see in the images?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “No, sorry, we are not allowed to share any thoughts about the images with the patient. Instead, we give it to the radiologists, and they will tell your doctor what they see.” She presses even harder on my bladder. I scrunch my eyes. “I don’t know why it’s done this way. Maybe because the radiologists need to feel smart.” We laugh again.
“We are close,” she says, noting my face.
We fall into silence; her snapping away at my reproductive system, and me focusing on not peeing, not peeing, not peeing. I stare at the ceiling. The room is nearly dark, cocoon-like, minus the light radiating from the ultrasound monitor. There is only a flimsy curtain separating the staff in the main room from an unwelcome view of my poorly landscaped vaginal area. Anyone could stumble in. There should be a sign on the curtain that says: BEWARE, ALL YE WHO DARE ENTER! Or something. They may see something they won’t soon forget. I can’t promise you’ll come away from that sight unscathed, unassuming curtain opener.
“What if you had a baby?” She says it so quietly, I almost don’t hear her.
“Like, what if I was somehow pregnant, or somehow just had a baby?” I ask.
“Yes. What if you now had a baby?”
I flash back to the only other time I’ve had an ultrasound. We were young, 27, and pregnant. Neither of us had any strong urges to have children. We used condoms. We used the Pill when I could remember to pick it up. There was no planning for babies, or even marriage, at that point. We were in a deep, all-encompassing love, and we did not want to share. But then I was late. We took a pregnancy test, and just like that, a child — a being — winked into existence, and we loved her instantly, wholly, with no looking back, and no regret. Eight weeks in, I discovered blood on my underwear and we found ourselves at the Planned Parenthood early one morning, a young doctor rubbing the gel-coated sensor back and forth over my belly, saying, “I’m sorry. There’s just no heartbeat. I’m sorry.” There was no heart, and we were totally crushed. This being, this child we loved enough to believe in, was gone in a blink as if it had never been.
“If I had a baby, I would love it,” I say.
She looks relieved. “Okay. I just worried if you had regrets…”
“No regrets,” I say.
She hesitates. “I want you to know . . . that you have fibroids in your uterus. So, this is the thing that causes the blood. Not menopause.” She swings the monitor around so I can see it. On the screen is the iconic sonar image of a woman’s uterus, except where a baby would be, there are two thick shadows like burned-out tire tracks, heading upward and inward, looking for a place to converge.
“Those shadows are the fibroids. They are the non-cancerous kind. They stick to your uterus.”
Barnacles, I think.
“But you will have to talk to your doctor, and you can’t say I said anything, okay?”
I wonder why she told me. There is no hint in her face, her smile. Is it a jab at those pompous radiologists, or does she feel sorry for me? I can’t tell. But it’s awfully nice of her, whatever her reason.
“Thank you,” I say, smiling. “I won’t tell.”
She pulls the transducer out. “All finished.” She begins cleaning, organizing. “You can use the bathroom right there, put on your clothes. You’re done.”
“Thank you,” I say again. I put my clothes on in the bathroom, studying my face. There are faint lines around my eyes. The age spots on my forehead can no longer pass as freckles. My lips betray how much I worry. I wash my hands and pat them dry on my skirt. I leave the bathroom, and swipe open the curtain to the rest of the world. Out here it is bright, the sound of the TV in the waiting room is too loud, transmitting voices manically vacillating between hopeful and severe. I walk toward the exit door, passing the lovely young Polish technician one last time. We both start to smile but stop at the last moment. We make a quick, fleeting eye contact.
We are strangers.