The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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After I graduated from college, I worked as a prep aide at a large hospital. The prep aide was the person who went around each night and shaved patients for their surgery in the morning. I had a list of women who were scheduled to have abdominal surgery, and I started on the top floor of the seven-story brick hospital and worked my way down to the bottom. Then I nipped over to the obstetrics department, off in a side wing. On a busy night I’d have as many as ten women whose pubic hair had to go. I was supposed to leave a clean, hairless surface from the tops of their thighs to their bellybuttons.
I had a stainless-steel cart on which I carried my prep kits: sterile plastic pans each containing a razor, a blue plastic shield with a cutout where the pudendum was, antibacterial soap, sterile water, and disposable gloves. I never used the blue plastic shield. It was just for modesty, and when it comes to having one’s pubic area shaved, modesty is a moot point.
I was somewhat ashamed of my job back then, because it was not glamorous and had nothing to do with my goal, which was to become a famous writer. When I think back on it, though, I see the relative uniqueness of the experience, and I value it more now as a blurred bit of memory to be dropped into conversation, where it causes a small sensation because of its peculiar, prurient nature. “I used to shave women’s crotches for a living,” I’ll say with a smile. Now that I am a registered nurse, this part of my past is like an Indian arrowhead: ready to be unearthed, brushed off, put on a shelf, and appreciated, at a safe remove from its original purpose.
And I have finally begun to grasp the lessons that year taught me: that life is both pleasure and pain, excretion and creation arising from the same place. I was privileged to explore the very portal of the world. This is the trick about life: sometimes you don’t learn while you’re doing a thing; you learn only when you remember it.
My uniform was a white A-line dress with a narrow cotton belt. White is not my best color. I had three uniforms I wore in rotation, dropping them off and picking them up in the hospital laundry. One fit better than the others, so I looked forward to the days when it was the clean one. I wore dangling earrings when I could get away with it, which was whenever the mean supervisor had her day off. Back then nurses were not supposed to wear jewelry of any kind, and almost all of them wore a cap with a single blue or black band. Even more amazing, patients smoked in their rooms. The bed tables had overflowing ashtrays on them. The nurses smoked, too, at the nurses’ station, while writing notes or phoning doctors.
My stainless-steel cart squeaked as I pushed it down the hall. I consulted my list of patients and checked room numbers as I strode along. When I arrived at the right room, I went inside, introduced myself, stated my purpose, and jerked the curtain round the bed for privacy. The thin dun-colored curtain gave the impression we were alone, but really it just piqued the interest of the other patients in the room. (They had only four-bed wards in the old hospital.) Even with the curtain pulled, you could see the nurses’ or doctors’ legs and hear everything that was said. There were also gaps in the curtains, much like the gaps in the backs of the johnnies the patients wore, which allowed for even greater humiliation. The patients were not spared the groans or sobs of their roommates, the details of their illnesses or accidents, their hesitant and shamed confessions or delirious ravings. At such close quarters the women were thrust into alliances of the best kind. They knew very little about their roommates’ sins or poor decisions and saw only their suffering. Fellow patients helped each other when they could, and commiserated when they couldn’t.
In winter the wind complained around the high brick hospital building, and through the windows I could see the stark, snow-covered countryside, with nothing but bare trees and wooden houses. Above the landscape trailed smoke from the smokestack of the heat plant at Dartmouth College, whose prestigious medical school served the hospital. The university’s motto is Vox clamantis en deserto, “A voice crying in the wilderness.” It was founded in 1769 to educate Indians — or half-breeds, to be exact, people who were neither here nor there, scraps on the cutting board of history. Some of the women I shaved had French names: Fortier, Lamoille, LaBlanc, LaRoi, Montaigne. In their dark skin, dark eyes, slim legs, and heavy torsos, I could see their Indian forebears. They were the survivors of the Indians my ancestors had fought and eventually subdued.
“I have to shave you for your operation,” I’d say.
“Yeah, I had a feeling this was coming.”
“It’s not so bad. I’m careful,” I’d add.
“You’d better be. I’m losing some parts tomorrow, and I don’t want to lose any tonight.”
“You won’t. Not the important one, anyway.”
Laughter. We both know what I mean by “the important one”: the part that makes you pant and cry out and lose yourself for a moment.
I pull the curtain and prepare my plastic basin. The wind moans.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“So you’re having an exploratory laparotomy?”
“It’s Greek to me.”
“Latin, actually,” I joke.
“Yeah, I’ve got pain. They don’t know what from. Adhesives maybe.”
“Adhesions,” I correct gently.
“Let’s hope it’s something simple.”
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“Just don’t cross your legs.”
We laugh again. I help her move into position: “Spread your knees. More. The way you do when the doctor examines you. Relax . . . here.”
I have found that touching the inside of their thighs where they need to loosen the muscle helps them to spread their legs. They have to spread them wide, because it’s hard to get all the hair with a safety razor. You can’t go in blind. You have to have everything laid out in front of you.
I cannot remember one face, perhaps because I did not concentrate on their faces. I studied, out of simple necessity, what lay between their legs. When you shave genitalia, it pays to be attentive to the peculiarities of each one. They were as different as faces, in their own way. Some labia minora were big and plump, peeking out between the lips of the labia majora; others were neatly contained, like the contents of a purse. Some clitorises were like a tiny penis, hooded and hard. Certain urethras were easy to see, and others were hidden under the top fold of the vagina. Some women had musky hair, a curly pelt extending down the thighs and up to the bellybutton in a line; others had sparse, fine, almost straight pubic hair.
As far as I was concerned, there was nothing beautiful about these organs. They were gashes that opened to reveal details better left hidden: wattles, bumps, flaccid orifices, strange discolorations, creamy discharge. Which is not to say they were disgusting to me. You cannot be a good nurse if bodies disgust you. You must have a certain level of acceptance. They just were, not pure and not simple.
I do not remember particular stories either. The women are a blur of gallbladders, ovarian cysts, and hysterectomies. What amazes me now is how easily they submitted to this bizarre, slightly dangerous ritual. It is not even done anymore, because studies subsequently showed that the rate of infection was no higher — and, in fact, probably lower — if the patient was unshaven. These women were all alone and frightened; visiting hours were over, and they faced the knife in the morning. Some of them, I figure, must have been sexually abused in their pasts, but they never resisted me. I tried to build a bridge of trust out of words.
“It’s OK,” I used to say. “We all have one.”
The hospital, the Mary Hitchcock, is still in business, though the old building was demolished with dynamite and a wrecking ball and a new one built on a different site. The new hospital is sometimes sarcastically called “the Taj Mahal.” It is grand, an architecturally tasteful sprawl of steel and glass stuck in the middle of a former bear habitat. Its catchment area is huge: almost all of Vermont and New Hampshire, and some of Maine.
When I arrived for work at the old hospital, I would look up at a photo of Mary Hitchcock herself that hung in the main entryway. How many nights did I see her benign face smiling down on me before I went to the basement and changed into my uniform? And later, when the hospital moved and I was a registered nurse working on the psychiatric unit — even then, her picture was there in the entrance, by the elevators, like an icon in an Eastern Orthodox church. They’d even moved to the new hospital the ornate fireplace above which the photograph had hung. In the sepia image Mary’s hair is pulled back in a bun, and she wears a complicated, high-collared dress beneath a plump, plain face. The story is that she was childless but had a large heart, and her husband had a large pocketbook. (Perhaps he owned the mills in which many of the patients worked.) Her maternal instincts were redirected onto the needy and poor, and from this arose a hospital that endures to this day, and that still takes charity cases.
I have a fondness for Mary that I didn’t have before, perhaps because I am now the age she was when the picture was taken. I’m sure she was tormented by her childlessness, and cried alone, as I sometimes cry because I have not published a book. Of course, a book is not a child.
Thank God, or whoever lives up there in the invisible atoms, that I did have a child. I brought forth a girl, Celia, from my own body, through that narrow door, which tore and bled and is scarred to this day.
I remember on the way to the hospital I sat in the passenger seat with the backrest inclined and looked up at the trees and the sky. I was having pains, but they were bright, shining, alive pains. When I learned I was having a girl, I felt like one of those Russian nesting dolls: one in a line of women stretching forward and back in time. In my daughter’s body was the seed of her daughter.
The other day Celia told me she’d had her first pelvic exam. She was nonchalant about it. I imagined her getting up on the table and spreading her pale, strong legs with good humor. I could tell I’d raised her right when it came to such things. What was between her legs was private, yes, but not precious; it was personal, but meant for function; luscious at times, and at others merely dirty.
When she was little, I saw her genitals whenever I changed and bathed her. They seemed as much mine as they were hers. As time went by, of course, they slowly became hers entirely. I can barely remember how it happened. I do recall one last moment of uninhibited joy between us: Celia was about ten years old. By then she bathed and dressed herself and did not go around naked, though she sometimes abstained from underwear. On this particular day we went swimming on the spur of the moment, as we were wont to do, living on the river. She was a good swimmer, but I had to go in first, because the murky depths frightened her and seemed safe only when I was there. So I was in the water when she came off the rope swing and her sundress blew up to reveal her panty-less bottom, her perfect little center hanging in the air above me before she hit the water. I squealed with delight at the beauty and innocence of it all: the sun on the rippling surface, the cold water, the momentary sense of lightness imparted by floating. “Jeez, Ceil,” I said as she came up, bubbling with mirth. “Let it all hang out.”
She is nineteen now and sings. She writes songs about human pain. She carries the hidden portal of life and someday, I hope, will have children. She is the wish I send forward into eternity, along with my few words.
Sybil Smith’s essay “The Narrow Door” [November 2005] illustrates an unfortunate deficit in this country’s sex education.
I had little appreciation for the diversity of women’s genitalia until relatively recently. As a monogamous male in his fifties, I’d hardly had the opportunity to make comparisons. (The skin magazines of my youth generally neglected this portion of the female anatomy.)
Since my wife has entered menopause, however, her libido has disappeared, and rather than initiate an affair, I have taken advantage of the proliferation of Internet porn. Though the pornography business seems filled with stupidity, misogyny, repressed aggression, coercion, and various other awful human traits, it does make available thousands of photos of women’s genitalia in all their natural diversity.
Sybil Smith stated that “there was nothing beautiful about these organs.” To men, though, even those with declining sex drives such as myself, vulvas are endlessly interesting. Like faces, some are attractive to me, others less so. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Preferences as to pubic hair, pigmentation, and so on are as varied as individuals.
I believe a great service would be rendered if we made thousands of photographs of vulvas (and, to be fair, an equal number of photographs of penises) available to adolescents. As Eve Ensler writes in her play The Vagina Monologues, the only way that abuse of women can be eliminated is by admitting that half of humanity has one, and the sooner we all recognize it, the better. Removal of the mystery and taboo can only aid in bringing greater equality between the sexes.