March 23, 1995
New York City
At first I tried to push the thick, wooden door of the doctor’s office the way you push any door to exit a building, but it wouldn’t budge, so I turned and gave it a shove with my back and shoulder. It was then that I locked eyes with the receptionist as she stared at me, hand over mouth, through the sliding glass window. She knew. Outside, the cacophony of honking horns along Park Avenue, the smell of too many hyacinths forced into the ground, and the glaring sun all colluded against me as I struggled to stay upright.
“Still here?” the doctor said with an air of annoyance, as he rooted around the bottom drawer of his desk, took two pills out of a bottle, and dropped them into my hand. “This should help. There’s a water cooler in the hall.” He got up and left me sitting there in a cloud of stale cologne, staring at a wall full of his calligraphed achievements.
As I leaned against the wall swallowing cup after cup of chilled water, I thought about the best way to get home. I don’t have the money for a cab, but the subway is so far to walk. I just hope I have enough tokens for the—
“Ms. Shaw?” the receptionist interrupted.
“Yes?” I jumped.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, staring at the cup full of pens. The charge for today will be $750 dollars.”
“No… No, there must be something… You said over the phone it was $150 for the pap smear.”
“Right. But, the way today’s visit was coded by the doctor, it seems that has changed. I see here you don’t have insurance?” she asked, staring at the sign-in clipboard.
I shook my head, rolled my eyes. “We can put you on a payment plan, if you like.”
“Can you maybe just… bill me?” I didn’t have the strength to fight.
“Sure, that’s fine,” she said. “We do require at least a third today. Will that be check or charge?”
As I stood there searching for my checkbook, I could feel the blood soaking my underwear.
When I opened my eyes, the doctor was gone. All I could hear was the hiss of the radiator in the corner. Could this have been a dream? Tissue paper stuck to my back as I rolled over to my side and off the exam table. I peeled it from my skin and held the edge of the counter with both hands, as I felt all the color drain out of the pastel appointed room. What happened to the gown I was wearing? A torrent of cramps and nausea rushed over me as I stood there wearing nothing but my watch.
I took a deep breath and moved toward the chair where my clothing hung. Staring at the ground, I pulled my work suit over shaky limbs, editing it down to essentials only. Everything else – camisole, bra, panty hose, scarf – got shoved in my purse. One more deep breath fueled my journey into the hallway.
Another wave of pain and dizziness overtook me. I closed my eyes and grabbed for the wall on the opposite side of the hallway. Why is the wall moving? A young nurse wearing Betty Boop scrubs found me on the dusty rose tiled floor of the restroom, the contents of my purse scattered around me, betraying any sense of dignity I had hoped to portray.
“Are you okay?” She offered a hand to help me up, but I waved her off. “Please come back and lie down. I’ll get you some water,” she said.
“No, I’m okay. I’ll be okay.” Please don’t make me go back into that room.
As I washed my hands, I noticed my face in the bathroom mirror told a part of the story I didn’t remember—there were trails of mascara staining both of my cheeks. Had I been crying? I remember telling him I didn’t need the “extensive exam.” I remember I tried to reason with him to get him to stop. I remember praying. I remember staring at the door and hoping someone would come in – a nurse, a patient, Superman, anyone – but I don’t remember crying.
She walked me down the hall, steering me with one hand on my shoulder and one on my elbow until she lowered me into a chair in the doctor’s office. I winced. “I’ll get you something for the pain,” she said and rounded the corner out of the room.
“Scooooch down a bit more for me. Don’t be shy,” said the doctor, with a grin that revealed yellow teeth.
“Oh, okay,” I shimmied my way down the table and felt brave for making my first trip to the gynecologist – a new one, a male one – without anyone to accompany me.
I couldn’t see him over the sheet covering my knees, but I could hear the sound of his stool squeaking under his weight and the sound of the metal speculum as he lifted it toward my vagina.
“Um, do you mind if we get a nurse in here to hold my hand? I don’t mean to be a wimp, but I—”
“Oh, you’ll be fine. This won’t take long.” He rolled slightly to the right and gave me a thumbs up, which is when I noticed he wasn’t wearing any gloves.
photo credit: parents.com