My essay, “The Red Coat,” appears in Rough Copy today. Here’s a teaser:
When I was eight, my family moved from Albuquerque to El Paso.
An adventure! my mother said. Why, if you want to go to Mexico, you just walk across a bridge, and there you are!
We learned how to count in Spanish, celebrated Christmas, packed the U-Haul, and moved south during the worst snow-storm the area had seen in decades. My parents rented a house with aqua blue and pink shag rugs in a Mexican-American neighborhood and, just after the New Year, I entered third grade at my new school.
As the classroom door clanged on my mother’s departing back, I glanced shyly at my classmates, an ache in my chest, the kind of ache you have when you haven’t slept long enough. I shrugged my red coat closer and tried to sort through the excited chatter, Spanish and English mixing into one glorious smattering of unintelligible sound as the classroom absorbed the presence of this white girl, the only one in the class.
Yesterday as I walked to my doctor’s appointment, some random dude leaned out of his car and screeched something at me that I couldn’t understand.
But I definitely understood his final epithet: “BITCH!!!”
His scream startled me so badly, I jumped and tensed, the pain from a day of hunching over my computer shooting through my shoulder blades and one sudden, hot tear smarting my right eye.
It’s a small thing, really, that some stranger would get their rocks off calling you a bitch as they fly by in their small white car, insulated from any real retaliation, probably horsing it up with their buddies, not really meaning it in a personal way. For that guy, I’m a bitch for reasons that have no real bearing on who I am. Maybe, to him, I’m a bitch because I’m a woman, or because I was walking down Portola Avenue at 4:15 in the afternoon, or because I was wearing jeans and a sweater, or because I have long brown hair that reminds him of his ex-girlfriend.
And while I know that, like gays with the word “queer,” some feminists have reclaimed the word “BITCH” as part of their self-description, I also know that when someone hurls it at you as an invective, it’s a violation. A small one, but a violation nonetheless. You can reclaim terms for personal use, but you can’t dictate how others use those terms.
It got me thinking about other times I’ve experienced small, but important, violations with complete strangers. One of those moments came to mind right away and it’s amazing how much it smarted to remember it several years later. Unlike the stranger calling me “bitch,” this one seemed more personal, even though I had never met the woman who violated me.
I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time, and I had recently come to the conclusion that I no longer wanted to use the Mirena IUD as my form of birth control. The conclusion had come pretty quickly after it was inserted, for a variety of reasons. 1) The way my uterus cramped and bled for two days after it was inserted convinced me that it’s not a good idea to have a foreign object camping out and having a party in your uterus. 2) I suddenly started having skin problems that hadn’t bothered me for years, skin problems that started occurring within two days of the insertion. 3) While I’m pro-keeping-abortion-legal due to some complicated reasons that don’t belong in this post, I am not pro-abortion, and the realization that the IUD is, essentially, an abortifacient was keeping me awake at nights. 4) My sister-in-law, who had never had a miscarriage in her life and had already had two healthy children, suffered 3 miscarriages after using the Mirena IUD for only a few months. Coincidence? Perhaps. Worth the risk to my personal health? Absolutely not.
Anyway, the point was, I wanted the IUD out. And I wanted it out now.
So I went to my friendly Student Health Center on the Stanford campus, Vaden Health Clinic, where I know many of the staff by name (and they recognize me by sight as well) because I spent so much time going there after that truck hit me while I was crossing a street in downtown El Paso. They were all very good to me and I love them very much.
My nurse practitioner at Vaden, Carolyn, is a wonderful, kindly, caring woman, in her fifties I think, who teaches yoga on the side. She reminds me of one of my sisters-in-law who is a medical doctor. She takes her time with her patients and always listened to what I had to say and, the next visit, would remember it. I felt well cared for her in her hands.
I dressed in that little flimsy cotton gown that opens in the back (or the front, if you put it on wrong, as I have on occasion) and she did my pap smear and we chatted about this and that, joking about how I was getting wrinkles and acne at the same time, which somehow seemed really wrong and unfair to me. She needed help to remove the Mirena IUD, so she left the room to fetch another nurse.
The other nurse came marching in to the room, Carolyn on her heels. “Now, exactly why do you want to remove the Mirena?” she asked, her voice busy and important.
“Well, I’ve been having some skin problems ever since it was inserted and I’m not convinced it’s entirely healthy for the body,” I said vaguely.
She peered at my face, one of her hands on her hip. “Your skin problems don’t look bad to me,” she announced.
“Well, they’re bad for me,” I said. “For what I’m used to.”
“Well,” she said, “a lot of women in their thirties start having skin problems.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You might regret having the Mirena taken out,” she said.
Carolyn interrupted. “Jessica and her husband are talking about starting a family,” she said.
“But you’re going to Africa next week,” the nurse said. Everything she said came out forceful, almost like an accusation.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what her point was. I was, in fact, leaving for South Africa a few days later.
“You don’t want to get pregnant when there’s a chance you could get malaria,” she said.
“There isn’t any malaria in South Africa,” I said, beginning to feel frustrated and defensive about wanting to remove the Mirena IUD, “at least, not the areas I’m going to. And my husband won’t even be with me while I’m gone.”
“Still, that’s a risk you don’t want to take,” she said, the little wagging finger in her voice. “It would be very very bad for your baby if you got malaria.” She stared at me, strongly concerned, and waited for me to agree with her.
“I’m not in danger of contracting malaria,” I repeated. “And, anyway, I’m not in danger of getting pregnant while I’m there either because my husband won’t be with me.”
Did she think I was a floozy and would be getting it on with a bunch of strangers while I was overseas?
“It’s not a good idea to remove it right now,” she said.
I don’t even remember what else she said, I just remember that I was holding my tears back as she talked me out of removing an IUD that I no longer wanted inside me just in case it was fucking up my reproductive system.
And Carolyn pressed forward and said to me, looking me directly in the eyes, “If you want the IUD taken out, we will take it out, right now.”
She was trying to repair the damage that the other nurse was creating. She was, subtly and kindly, reminding me that this was my body and my choice.
This was precisely why I always chose Carolyn as my primary health provider. And I was glad in that instant—and ever since then—that I had never before or since encountered that other nurse in my many trips to the health clinic.
Nevertheless, as I write this, my throat aches with unshed tears. Why? Because despite Carolyn’s reminder that this was my body, the pressure from the other nurse—a perfect stranger, but one who had some power over me—was so great that I backed down and decided against removing the Mirena that day.
Later, it made me angry. Later, I wished I’d made a scene and told that nurse to shove off. Later, I wish I’d asked her, “Why do you have such a personal investment in preventing me from getting pregnant right now? What fucking business is it of yours?”
Later. Later. Later.
But at the time, I let myself be violated.
A small violation? Sure, small, though it won’t seem so small in ten years when a group of women come together in a class-action suit against the makers of IUDs because of some health problem that’s occurred—like they’re doing with Yaz and Yasmine right now.
A small violation? Sure, small. I went to another doctor a few months later and, two seconds later, it was out. “Do you want to see it?” he asked, and I said, “Yes,” and the reason I said yes was borne out of that encounter with that nurse, with the sudden fearful stabbing thought that a doctor could say he’d removed something like an IUD from your uterus but, in fact, leave it in. That’s a paranoid thought, I know, but not so paranoid after my encounter with that nurse who really really really wanted me to leave mine in, wanted it so badly that she applied considerable pressure and used manipulation, even to go so far as to suggest that I’d be putting my as-yet-unconceived-child in danger if I didn’t leave the IUD in. And not so paranoid when you consider all the violations of human rights that have occurred in the medical profession since the profession was created.
I love doctors and nurses, I do, and this is not an invective against them, though it does point out the ways they have power over their patients in ways both large and small, and the very fact of that power makes violations so easy to occur. The jerk that yelled “bitch” at me as he passed didn’t have any power over me because there was no relationship but he managed to violate me anyway.
The only thing that connects these small violations is the fact that both of the people who initiated them were perfect strangers. I’ll never see either one of them again. And I suspect that the other thing that connects them is that I’m a woman. I’m not saying that perfect strangers don’t try to do these kinds of things to men, but I suspect they occur less frequently, and that most men respond differently (both at the time and after the fact) because they’ve been socialized differently. I could be wrong. I’m curious to hear from men about it.
Why do perfect strangers have such an investment in us that they would behave in these ways? And how should we deal with these kinds of small violations, when they happen so often?
I don’t really know how to end this blog post except to invite you to give your thoughts.
We went to see Eek-A-Mouse last night at a free concert in San Jose’s downtown park. This is our fourth time to see Eek-a-Mouse and it doesn’t get much better than free concert, outdoors, summer nights, fairly cheap beer, surrounded by a bunch of thugs, all chilled out because it is, after all, a reggae concert in northern California.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for four years now but usually we go to outdoor concerts in San Francisco. With our move to Livermore, San Jose is closer so it may become our port of call. Anyway, right away, as we walked to the park, I was surprised by three things: how everybody was dressed in black, how many dudes there had gold teeth (can I just say, ew), and completely beside the gold teeth, how many tough guys were hanging around. What I mean to say is, every other person looked like a gangsta.
Maybe to outsiders, the Bay Area is lumped together as one big cauldron of weird-ass rainbow-wearin’ gay lovin’ hippiefied liberals. But for the record, Read More