I found a seat in the center row of chairs close to the cobalt blue door that led to the medical suite beyond. After two days of chugging cranberry juice, sitting in lukewarm bath water, and eating ibuprofen like Skittles, I had managed to snag an appointment at one of the area’s Planned Parenthoods. The receptionist had referred to it as a “problem visit” on the phone. What a nifty euphemism for “something is horribly wrong between my legs.” Both vague and specific—like so many things—related to the female body. Sore breasts? You might have cancer, your bra too tight. Vaginal itching? Could be an STI, BV, hormones, your detergent. Nauseous? Could be pregnant. Stub your toe? Could be pregnant.
It was a small but bright office with low ceilings, a nice contrast to the cold, cathedral-esque atrium of my gynecologist’s. The large storefront windows left over from whatever business had inhabited the space were frosted for privacy and softened the incoming sunlight. On the walls were posters of happy couples of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and orientations. You are not alone in your physical love. You are safe. We will help. What nice thoughts. For added comfort, the office staff had placed cheeky, ceramic lamps on the end tables spread throughout the waiting room. One was a panda lounging in a bikini on the sand, the other was a flamingo reaching for a frisbee in purple swim trunks, and the third was a smaller version of the leg lamp from A Christmas Story. A bit on the nose, but appropriate all things considered.
I settled in my chair carefully to avoid placing undue pressure on my bladder and began flipping through a dog-eared copy of Cosmopolitan when a squeaky voice said, “You shouldn’t let him brand you like that.”
Across the carpeted aisle was a young woman, no older than twenty-two. I hadn’t noticed her when I walked in. I was too focused on the blue door, my heavenly gate. Confused, I looked for additional patients.
“I’m talking to you,” she said, brushing her dark, flat-ironed hair away from her face. Her voice swung up at the end like she was asking a question. I’m talking to you?
“Oh. I’m sorry—”
“You shouldn’t let him brand you like that,” she repeated.
She was cute. The way her Penn State sweatshirt draped across her chest gave the impression that there was extra space underneath, that she was athletic and lean. Her shoulders were pinned back confidently against her chair like she thought she was something else. I hated her almost immediately.
“Like...what?” I narrowed my eyes, trying to read her mind.
She pointed two chipped turquoise nails—index and middle—at her neck. I reached up and cupped my own. Sonfoabitch. I had been so caught up with getting to my appointment that I forgot about my hickey. John’s going to die when I tell him about this.
If I woke up when I was supposed to, I would have had time to cover up my love-bite, even though it never really worked. Sometimes the yellow undertone of the “nude” clay seemed to balance out the purpled skin; more often than not, if my hair was up or the lighting sharp, there it was, a semi-permanent shadow under my left earlobe. To say the last two nights had been rough was an understatement. The pain percolating between my thighs had inspired my anxiety, resulting in an avalanche of cataclysmic sexual health-related “what-ifs.” I had to knock myself out with melatonin just to sleep. Unfortunately, I overdid it and woke up late. She doesn’t know that, though. Who does she think she is?
“He wasn’t branding me,” I said, irritated. The rush of getting to the office had distracted me from the swollen feeling in my lower stomach. Now that I was sitting still, the bodily knowledge was growing again like the walls of my bladder. I pictured the tissue springing a leak and waste hemorrhaging into the space between my organs. Gross. The couple in the poster above the young woman were holding hands. You are safe. We will help. Gross. Could be worse. Remember when you got your IUD? I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths. In, two, three, four. Hold. Out, two, three, four.
“Yes. He was,” she continued. “Now everyone knows that you belong to him.”
I sighed. “How do you know he’s a ‘him'?” I stared hard into her honey eyes. It was unlike me to challenge someone so openly, but my patience was wearing thin. The infection must have spread to my brain.
She smirked, eager to play. “You just said ‘he.’”
“What about before? You said ‘him’ before I said anything.”
“Whatever.” She smiled out of the right side of her mouth. Her eyebrow arched. “The same rules apply.”
A surge of pressure caused me to break eye contact with a wince. For a moment, I feared the worst and casually rested my hands—one over the other—on my lap so I could covertly check for a wet spot. Crisis averted. I prayed for someone to call me back, but the blue door remained closed. Seething, I sunk further into my chair.
“It undermines feminism.”
I dug my fingernails into my palms. Queen bee little shit.
“First of all, I don’t ‘belong’ to anyone. Second, did it occur to you that I may be a masochist?”
“Don’t kink shame,” I said, crossing my legs. “Not everyone gets there railed from behind by a dude in a SnapBack in a frat house bathroom.”
She blushed and quickly looked down at her weathered Old Navy flip-flops. I knew that look. There was a nugget of truth in what I said, and she’d rooted it out like a truffle pig. Underneath that darling face of hers was a swirl of emotions she was hiding pretty well. In other circumstances, I may have been impressed.
We returned to ignoring each other. From behind the “Who Wore it Best” section of my magazine, I watched her pull out her phone and type in a frenzy. A hot-pink sticker of the name Jennifer ran across the back of the case on a diagonal. The case itself used to be light pink, but the corners were dull and dingy, probably from pulling it in and out of her favorite pair of jeans. A small peace sign and heart charm dangled from a rubber loop on the side next to a small blue tassel that was frayed and turning green in areas. Jennifer believed in peace, love, pink things. I wondered if she was texting about me—the asshole sitting across from her. But across from her where? I doubted Jennifer told many about her appointment. I never did. Too many questions.
Pressure surged and retreated again like water sloshing in and out of a wave pool. I tapped my foot on the floor hoping the staff behind the plastic intake window would notice my distress and call me back. The receptionist looked up, locked eyes with me for a moment, and returned to her computer screen without a blink.
“Speaking of frat houses, aren’t you a little old to be at Planned Parenthood?” My sparring partner had collected herself.
“Not that it’s your business, but sometimes it’s easier to get an appointment here.”
“Sounds like you have a lot of experience,” she said.
“I’m like, ten years older than you. So yeah, you could say that. All part of the human experience.”
“If you say so.”
I caught some movement behind the plastic counter and propped myself on my elbows to get a better view of the office. The space behind the intake desk was empty. Jesus Christ, take me now. I scowled and lowered myself back into an adequate position.
“Anxious to get in there?”
I leaned forward in my chair towards her, my torso halfway into the aisle, jaw clenched.
“Have I done something to you? You’ve been coming at me since I sat down.”
“I’m not coming at you.” Her lower lip dipped, forming a petite U-shape, and the skin between her eyebrows furrowed slightly up, elongating her face. “You would know if I were.”
“Please, as if you could do something to me that I haven’t done to myself.”
“Just trying to give you helpful advice.”
I clicked my tongue. “This all feels a little slut-shamey—”
“That’s not...I’m trying to empower you. You don’t have to give so much of yourself—”
“Oh, you’re trying to save me. How precious.”
She scoffed, her high cheekbones aflame. “I’m just saying...self-respect—”
I held out my hand in full flexion. “Just a reminder, we both ended up in the same place today.”
She opened her mouth, but whatever she was going to say died in the back of her throat.
The blue door opened.
“Daphne?” The nurse said, holding the door. The sight of the hallway beyond was delicious. Xanadu! I would have kissed the ground if I were capable of bending. Scared the hallowed doorway would close, I quickly collected my things—feeling Jennifer’s eyes on me—and walked through.
In the examination room, I studied the laminated contraception diagram on the wall next to me as I waited for Sandra, the physician on staff, to return. It contained illustrated images of each type and a small blurb describing the benefits and caveats. To say it was a friendly poster was a stretch, but there was something nice about it in relation to the posters hanging in the waiting room. It was direct, factual, non-judgmental—unlike some people.
Sandra knocked and entered with papers.
“Good news, I didn’t see any yeast or gnarly bacteria. I did, however, see some white and red blood cells in your urine. I’m going to send the samples to the lab for verification, but it looks like you have a UTI.” Thank God. “In the meantime, I’m going to send a prescription to your pharmacy. You should start feeling better in a day or two.”
“Thank you.” I sighed and pointed down my body. “She’s always been...temperamental. The joys of being a woman, am I right?”
“Tell me about it,” Sandra said, rolling her eyes like we were best friends. “That’s how I know God isn’t a woman.”
I chuckled. “Definitely not.”
“It’s why we need to look out for each other. Life’s hard enough.” She handed me my discharge papers with a kind smile.
When I walked through the blue door and back into the world, the waiting room was empty. I looked at the seat where Jennifer had been sitting. On the floor, just behind one of the chair legs, was the blue tassel that she had been playing with. Soothed by my diagnosis, I could see more clearly. Between furious texts, she slid her index finger down the bright screen, over and over, refreshing messages. Underneath her sweatshirt, her body was compressed and tense, shrinking itself. She wasn’t playing with the tassel, but swirling it rhythmically, feeling the worn string slide over the base of her thumb.
I walked over and picked it up. It was bigger than I had thought. The end of the strings were dense with dust and sediment, but still relatively soft. Who was it? Boyfriend? Friend? Stranger? It didn’t matter. Whoever it was wasn’t there. My first hadn’t been there, either. The boy, man, man-child, I had been in love with was in love with the idea of so many others. Even though I was positive I was negative, the act of getting tested was devastating. I looked at the model of the leg lamp. Fra-gil-e.
I squeezed the tassel in my palm. The moisture from my skin mixed with the fibers giving it a tacky quality. Suddenly, my bladder flared. I had to get that medication. It was only a matter of time before I was completely in my body again.
“Name?” The receptionist asked. Nice of you to show up.
“I’m on my way out, actually, but I found this on the floor. I think the young woman who just went back dropped it.” I placed the tassel in the concave metal tray that straddled the bottom of the plexiglass.
“Oh,” she said, pulling it out with the tips of her fingers. She held it in front of her face for a moment. “I’ll make sure she gets it.”
“I think it’s important...to her, anyway.”
“Sure.” She placed it beyond my line of sight. “Anything else?”
Another flash of pain struck. I exhaled slowly and took a few steps back as I shook my head.
“Have a nice day.”
I waved in place of a thank you, feeling the sticky remnants against my fingers when I closed my hand.
Jillian S. Benedict is a writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is a consistent Shut Up & Write! virtual attendee and enjoys yoga, reading, and listening to music while people watching from her stoop. She can be found on Instagram @writerwithoutacause.