Area of Concern

As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m hugging a mammogram machine. “Okay, we’ll take four pictures on the right, and two on the left,” says the bubbly tech with the blond bangs. “Oops! I mean, four on the left, two on the right. Sorry! Haven’t had my coffee yet.” It’s odd to hear a medical professional apologize to you as she maneuvers a beige device the size of a small car.

“Then, an ultrasound,” she informs me. “Standard procedure, whenever you have a spot.” I instinctively pat the lump where I’d placed the small metal sticker she’d given me to better highlight the area of concern on the x-ray.

*     *     *

I’ve had this spot checked twice before. First, seven or eight years ago, when a duct in my left breast started leaking a substance that looked terrifyingly like milk. Then again, about two years ago, when I was lactating for real, and that duct had hardened into a painful lump that wouldn’t go away. The previous tests indicated no cause for alarm. It’s gone down, but it’s always there, as much a part of me as the scar on my knee from falling off my bike in fourth grade. Or was it fifth—or sixth? The memory of picking gravel from my bloody skin is no less vivid because I can’t pinpoint the year.

This time, the spot on my breast feels different, and leaks again for no apparent reason. It’s worrisome enough to stop unpacking from our recent move for a diagnostic mammogram, on the advice of my new ob/gyn. Thankfully, I find a place that can fit me in before the annual rush in October, though I forget to schedule around the news cycle.

I call my new insurance company, but I can’t determine whether this facility is in network, or that I’m covered at all. After forty-five minutes on the phone, I’m so angry that I politely decline the request to complete a brief one-question survey about the experience.

*     *     *

I slip my right shoulder out of the robe first. The tech guides my breast into the machine that seems to have been designed for someone a foot taller and molds my skin like clay with her cold hands, for which she again apologizes. She follows the diagrams and numbers printed on the clear plastic plate that are comprehensible only to her. The machine whirrs, and the plate tightens, pressing and pressing and pressing my flesh, not just my breast, but parts of my shoulder, my ribs, my armpit, until it cannot possibly go any further, then one smidge more. “Take a deep breath in, and… hold it,” the tech says as she captures the image. Briefly, I’m free. She asks me to hug the machine another way, and another, for scans at different angles: 37 degrees, 90, two 180’s.

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Then, mercifully, it’s over. In the waiting room—design concept: spa on a budget—I chat with my mom, braless in public for the first time since my last mammogram. The rough threads of the starched robe scratch against my nipples. I sip a diet cranberry juice box, the least worst of the all-diet beverage options available. We gab like we’re getting manicures or something, like we’re anywhere but a waiting room. I pull out my phone and check every app except for Twitter, whose quick dopamine hits seem lately to have been spiked with something more toxic than usual.

*     *     *

The documents released before the hearings catapulted me back to my small, private high school. Nestled on a tree-lined campus in a rural area of a red state, it occupied its own quirky orbit, far removed from the elite schools of the country’s power centers. Instead of a football team, we had laid-back Episcopalian chapel services in which we sang “Drop-Kick Me, Jesus” and the “Cheers” theme song. Still, the demographics were similar. In the student parking lot, I’d navigate my old station wagon with its ripped seats and broken air conditioner around hand-me-down Beemers and brand-new Range Rovers. Every year, a handful of graduates moved up to the Ivy League. The doctors’ and lawyers’ children who were my classmates are now the next generation of doctors and lawyers.

Seeing that page scanned from private-school yearbooks reminded me we’d had those, too. Dot-dots, we’d called them. Each of the fifty-two seniors in my graduating class got a half-page to say whatever we wanted—to fill up space, I suppose. My dot-dots included a quotation from an obscure Beck interview and a handful of inside jokes with my girlfriends that mostly originated while tipsy on hard lemonade at sleepovers.

At least, I think that’s what’s there. I haven’t read mine, or anyone else’s, in seventeen years. I’m sure they’re in a box, somewhere, in our new house, where all of our belongings are together for the first time in months. But I don’t look for them. I’m afraid of what I’d find in certain entries, like the boy who gave me my first kiss at a party before disclosing he’d been dared to. Or the boys who teased me incessantly about my height, using my shoulders as armrests; the boys who knew the best places to park so we could steam up the windows for a while before my curfew; the boys with legendary alcohol tolerances who ended up in rehab; the boys who, when asked to give a persuasive speech on any topic, argued they should be allowed to, as eighteen-year-old seniors, take eighth-grade girls to prom.

*     *     *

Before I can help myself to a second diet cranberry juice, my results are ready. Despite my unusual symptoms, there is, thankfully, nothing wrong. The radiologist tells me, “Like many women, you have an abundance of breast tissue that is very responsive to change.”

They’re not fat cells, though I have plenty of those, too. But fat doesn’t care when you’re stressed, say, or when you’ve just moved with your family across the country, or when you spent too many weeks in a short-term rental with a painted toilet seat your son started calling the psychedelic potty, or when you reward yourself for unpacking all your dishes by compulsively reloading an app with the latest iterations of collective trauma. Everyone is talking about the woman who’s preparing to testify on a national stage against a man who seems with each new anecdote like someone who, if you’d gone to school together, would have made fun of you, or worse. This kind of tissue soaks up hormones—stress and otherwise—like a sponge.

The radiologist performs a cursory ultrasound. She apologizes for the cold jelly, then confirms that what I’ve experienced is normal. “All part of being a woman,” she says, as she snaps off her gloves. I feel like I’ve wasted her time.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: being one, or zero, degrees away from someone who’s experienced sexual trauma. These are the only two numbers available.

Part of being a woman: feeling the impossibility of writing about such topics without detailing your own traumas—as though without such validation, no one would believe you.

Part of being a woman: feeling like your rage has swelled out of proportion to what you’ve experienced personally.

Part of being a woman: feeling like you should probably apologize to someone for something, but you’re not sure what.

*     *     *

In the hospital atrium, my mom and I hug, then dodge plump drops as we sprint to our separate cars. On my local NPR station, the hearing’s still underway, but on a break. The commentators fill the downtime by replaying earlier highlights. When I hear the clip, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” I start to cry. The tears sting as I compare my pain to hers. What I endured was nothing. My morning experience was a momentary, private discomfort that ended in good news. Her morning is a waking nightmare. She’s received death threats. She can speak her truth in a such a way that no one will believe her, or they’ll believe her and yet not care. What good, if any, can come of her bravery?

Rain falls on my windshield in sheets.

Later, the man testifies as I drive to preschool pick-up. At a red light, I smack the steering wheel with my palm and scream as he plays coy about those old yearbook passages. He portrays himself as a good boy, an all-American jock who loves God, his country, and beer. As though a man whose colleagues insist he’s super nice cannot possibly have a dark side.

Continuing to listen, no matter how historic the proceedings, feels like picking at a scab. I turn the radio off and retreat into my Spotify playlist of high-school angst, one of this week’s only comforts.

Listening to Tori Amos’ “Precious Things” for the first time in years feels like trying on an old, well-loved sweater and discovering it still fits.

He said you’re really an ugly girl
But I like the way you play
And I died
But I thanked him

During college, I stopped listening to Tori. Her total lack of irony made her deeply uncool. She needed to get a grip, have a sense of humor about it all. Sometime senior year, a cute boy told me he was forming a metal band. “We’re calling ourselves Torn Anus,” he said. “You know, like Tori Amos, but…not.”

“That’s hilarious,” I remember telling him. He was a nice guy and, later, a good boyfriend. We occasionally like each other’s Instagram photos. But I no longer find his wordplay hilarious.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: having your story fact-checked against a man’s. Either way, you lose.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Part of being a woman: considering yourself to be one of the lucky ones and looking back with fury anyway.

*     *     *

As I drive home with my kid in the backseat, the remainder of Little Earthquakes now playing at an imperceptible volume, I think of the two young men who stood at a lectern, picked at the crotches of their uniform khakis, and bragged about wanting to ask tweens to prom. Even then, I knew it was awful and walked out of class in protest.

Other events take years to reveal their shadiness, like the fact that the person who bought us all those hard lemonades at our sleepovers was usually my friend’s older brother, who was in his early twenties. Only as an adult do I wonder why a grown man would want to purchase alcohol for a bunch of teenage girls, though, as far as I can remember, nothing bad ever happened. But looking back makes me question everything.

I’d forgotten that the aspiring eighth-grade paramours were both part of a crew of dudes who’d use our free period to bench press in the gym’s weight room during freshman, or maybe sophomore, year. Then they’d come outside, where us girls were chatting, or finishing our geometry homework on a picnic bench, and find us.

Part of being a woman: convincing yourself what happened was nothing at all.

Not all of us—just the more petite girls, or the ones who, in some subtle way, seemed to be asking for it. Anything that made it easier for the boys to stick their hands under our armpits and lift us up in the air, without warning. They particularly liked to place our small bodies in one of the cylindrical black plastic trash cans that dotted our campus. We’d yelp and kick in protest, with no teachers in sight to rescue us, but we didn’t fight that hard. It was male attention.

I enjoyed my share of it, especially from one broad-shouldered boy already north of six feet tall. He could have been a linebacker if our school had fielded a team. I’d have preferred that he ask me out instead of hoisting me into garbage, but still, there was that feeling of weightlessness, of helplessness, the sense of my body as an object that someone stronger could pick up and put down at any time. Without question, I accepted that being female meant tolerating lowkey degradation.

It’s okay, I remember rationalizing. They always make sure the trash can is empty first. Later, it would become the punchline to a story I’d tell about something funny that used to happen to me in high school. I don’t think it’s funny anymore.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: wondering whether these stories will suffice for you.

Part of being a woman: intuiting how wide I need to open the vein for you to care.

On a scale from one to five, where 1 = completely dissatisfied and 5 = completely satisfied, please rate your satisfaction with the information presented here. We’d like to know how to make this topic more appealing for you. If something more explicit would better suit your needs, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

*     *     *

Part of being a woman: cells at the ready to absorb what life slings your way.

Part of being a woman: carrying it around in your body, long after it’s over.

*     *     *

Predictably, Kavanaugh is confirmed. Life moves on, but it’s difficult to accept that I can’t walk around every day quietly seething, as I did in high school. My new therapist encourages me to work on putting those old books, metaphorically speaking, back on the shelf where they belong. “Or I could just keep them in moving boxes for months,” I offer. I thought that was a good solution.

These precious things
Let them bleed
Let them wash away

Like every other woman who grew up in America, I spent my formative years marinating in a culture that empowers and excuses the actions of a privileged class of young men. It’s okay to be angry if you experienced something like what Dr. Blasey Ford went through. It’s okay to be angry if you didn’t. We should all be angry about what recent events remind us about the worth of women in this country. We should channel our rage into action, and fight to transform our culture.

When it happens, I know where I’ll feel it. I’ve been told it’s very responsive to change.

 

Colleen Rothman is a writer based in New Orleans. Her essays have been featured in The Atlantic and Mutha Magazine, and her short fiction has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Okay Donkey, and Chicago Literati, among other journals. You can find her on Twitter @colleenrothman or colleenrothman.com

Photo Credit: Jacob Rothman