Pleasure That Cannot Be Felt as Such
by Carolynn Mireault
Freud might say the surgeon, one who has chosen surgery over other specialties in the field, is manifesting their personal aggressions, meaning that beyond their profession—let’s say they’d taken another path—they would really like to be cutting people open anyway. From this, one could also conclude that gynecologists—let’s say they’d taken another path—would really like to be looking at cunts all day.
My gynecologist, Rena, and I were very familiar. She’d pulled two unreachable condoms off my cervix, (separate occasions), as well as a days-old tampon a man had thrust into me at age nineteen. I could never reach things that deep inside myself; my fingers were stubby and, as Rena had informed me, my vagina was at a relatively sharp angle. She told me that, in the future, someday when I was ready, this would make it more difficult for me to give birth naturally.
I loved Rena as much as a patient could love their gynecologist. We had tea together in her office. I cried when she asked how I was doing, and she showed me pictures of her terriers. She was too old to be my friend in a traditional sense. I was twenty-two, and so was everything about me. But still, I liked her short, brown curls and all her joy.
Still, she was no different. Let’s say Rena took a different path. Let’s say she opened a coffee shop, for example—a successful one—and bounced around it with her short, brown curls and all her joy. Maybe she would have a blonde husband and young dogs, more life, the world would be kinder, and her employees would love her. All day long, she’d be happy in the way most people don’t get to be happy. But then she’d walk to her little, blue car after another day of beautiful life, and an intensity would overwhelm her, blink in her eyes, and she’d bend over, lift her dress, and stick her face between her thighs just to finally see one, because she’d gone the whole day thinking about cunts.
She asked me about my plans for Easter while she measured my uterus. This process entailed putting a stick all the way up me and I felt pain in the middle of my body, in a spot that was never supposed to be touched, like a stabbing.
“I’m going to my mother’s,” I said.
“Oh, you tensed up,” said Rena. “Keep relaxing your muscles. That sounds like fun.”
“Does it?” I asked. “She’s opening a bakery.”
“Keep relaxing your muscles, Macy,” she said. “Over soon.”
Rena worked slowly, which I didn’t usually mind. I liked spending the time. This time, though, I wanted the stabbing to be over. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to be Rena. I liked terriers, and short, brown curls, and joy. It was the vaginas I couldn’t get past. I found my own quite interesting, but the rest all looked like urchins, with pink hangings and infectious yeast like pasta water boiling over.
I watched a lot of porn and hated all kinds of vaginas. Some, like mine, were fat like peaches, others brown and flat like a doll, with birth canals eclipsed by labia. Some donned suspiciously large clitorises, and I thought, what an embarrassment, but I still watched videos of these women pulling on themselves like they were jerking off a tiny dick. Perhaps this hating of the cunt was just obsession all the same, and all that separated me from Rena was a speculum and a gloved hand.
I didn’t want to be a doctor, had never wanted to be a doctor, and so, becoming a doctor was never anything I had to worry about. It took all sorts of efforts to become a doctor, and I had successfully avoided making every one of them. I considered myself an artist, which was just as violent as being a doctor, except the violence was in my heart. That’s what my aunt wrote to me in my graduation card, which also included fifty dollars. Privately, I found myself to be very talented, but things continued not to work out for me.
I worked in a Queens mall gag gift shop that sold body jewelry, Halloween masks year-round, and sex toys as “novelty items,” which is a way to sell dildos legally to minors. This disgusted everyone I told, but I thought it was virtuous and good. Minors needed dildos probably more than anybody else. I would have done a much better job at taking my own virginity.
I preferred Rena to my mother, who was her same age, but instead of short, brown curls and joy, had a specific rage and a string of flagrant affairs. Growing up, her abuses had left me beautiful and thin, but always fluxing between a terrible narcissism and an empty, hateful self-esteem that shocked me around corners after hours of security, looking longingly at my ass in the mirror.
Rena had children older than me who were ugly and sweet and had useful educations and maternal, pudgy spouses. I knew because I asked if any of her sons were single. I wanted her to be my mother in any way that she could.
“Are we too close for me to be your doctor?” she asked me once.
“Yes!” I laughed, and she laughed, too, and then we carried on.
The truth was if Rena wasn’t my doctor, I wouldn’t have been going to the doctor at all. It wasn’t a matter of privacy or embarrassment. My vagina wasn’t private. I was promiscuous; Rena swabbed me and drew my blood every month to screen me for a myriad of venereal diseases. Miraculously, I tested negative every month, except for one bout of Chlamydia and a lifelong case of Human Papillomavirus.
“At least it’s not AIDS,” I’d said, both times, and Rena gawked back.
“Don’t test me,” she’d said, as if so surprised by my inappropriateness that she herself, Rena, would give me AIDS if I brought it up again.
The actual insertion of the IUD was the fastest part of the whole procedure. Every object felt blunt, and I’d never had a speculum inside me for quite that long. It must have been fifteen minutes. I was stretched open as wide as I could go; I could feel the pressure of the speculum on my asshole, like a kid kicking my seat on an airplane. I wondered what I looked like, all spread open like that, but knew I didn’t want to see.
“What do you think of selling dildos to minors?” I asked.
“Of me doing it?” asked Rena. “I wouldn’t do it.”
“At my store, they sell dildos, but they’re labeled as ‘novelty items,’ so kids under eighteen can buy them,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “as long as they’re not hurting themselves.”
“Jesus, right? Thank you,” I said. “No one sees it that way.”
I’d gone out with someone new the week prior. We had drinks at a hotel bar in Times Square. These were the kinds of dates I’d dreamt up when I was growing up in New Hampshire, and they proved their mediocrity without fail each time. His name was Tyler, and he was just okay, and that was fine.
“I’m an amazing guesser,” said Tyler. “Give me something to guess.”
“Something to guess about me?”
“No, something else,” he said. I thought for too long. “Last week, I guessed how many gallons are in an Olympic size pool.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Guess our waitress’s name.”
“You’re gonna make me talk to people?” he asked.
“Uh, okay, I’ll give you a different one.”
“No, no, I’ll do it. I’ll do it when she comes back.”
Tyler side-eyed the waitress so plainly that, while trying to will her not to come to the table, he accidentally prompted her to check on us. She walked over, pretty, with a red, jumping ponytail and a navy-blue collared shirt. I tried to picture what her crotch might be like, and in which ways I would hate it. But her skin was so bright and clear, teeth so white, that I thought maybe, between her legs, there would be a piece of fruit, letting out juice, attracting mosquitos and other creatures that bit and sucked.
“How are we doing over here?” she asked. Tyler looked at me, paralyzed.
“Actually,” I said, realizing my role of enforcement, “a little weird, but my friend thinks he can guess your name.”
“Oh, do we know each other?” she asked, apologetically.
“No,” he said, “it’s, like, a game. Guessing game.”
“Oh!” she said, perking up. A New York waitress always makes this sound on smelling a bigger tip. “Yes, okay, shoot.”
“Emily,” he said. She shook her head. “Vicki. Serena.”
She interrupted him, “It’s both a boy’s and a girl’s name.”
“Okay,” he said, pausing. “Sam. Quinn. Alex.”
“Jordan,” she said. We all smiled as if it had been fun but were all stunned in the eyes at the lameness. “Did you guys need something else?”
“Double Hendricks,” I said.
I learned facts about Tyler and didn’t enjoy any of them. His mother had lupus. His birthday was on Halloween. He’d grown up outside Chicago and once met Mike Ditka. We went back to his apartment and had sex on the couch since both of his roommates were away. Having sex on the couch was very fun and exciting for Tyler. He said it was his first time without a condom.
“How many gallons are in an Olympic size pool?” I asked.
“I’d have to look it back up,” he said.
“I thought you said you guessed it.”
“I was within a hundred or fifty thousand of the right answer, yeah,” he said.
I looked away, then said, “Surgeons are manifesting their personal aggressions.”
“It’s a Freudian theory.”
“It’s just wrong,” he said. “Surgeons save lives.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “Let’s take OBs for example—”
“I’ve gotta get up really early tomorrow.”
I kept having sex, so I could keep getting tested, so I could keep seeing Rena. Sometimes I exaggerated when she asked how many new partners there’d been, but I didn’t like lying to Rena; I lied enough to my own mother. So, I had more sex with more men, many of them much like Tyler.
The thing about my mother was that we couldn’t share shoes. One of us was a size nine, and it wasn’t her. I was wretched in ballet flats for my entire youth. She called me “flippers” for the better part of 2009. My mother wore tiny, blue velvet shoes in the house, which she left by the front door when she went out. I once tried to fit into them, couldn’t, and spent the rest of the day feeling off.
“Alright,” said Rena. “Sit up slowly. Some people get faint.”
I didn’t know why I expected to feel like I was wearing a tampon, but it didn’t. I felt nothing at all.
“I think I’m fine,” I said.
“I left the strings long,” said Rena. “I can always cut them shorter. You should be able to feel them with your fingers, but if you can’t, I can check them to make sure the device is still in place.”
“I’ll just have you do it,” I said. “How often would you say?”
“I’m supposed to say around once a month, but that’s probably overkill.”
“Once a month is good,” I said. “Do you have time for a quick tea?”
“Uh,” said Rena, looking at the wall clock. “Yes, sure, I have about ten minutes. Go ahead and wait in my office. I’ll be there in a sec.”
Rena’s office was small with a desk and a blue, cushioned chair facing it. Her terriers watched me from a picture frame. Her grown sons looked happy at Christmas in another. I walked over to Rena’s desk. There were some binders, a computer, a phone charger, and right next to her ergonomic desk chair, right there on the beige carpet, was a pair of gray knit slippers. I looked back at the door, then put them on. They fit me, and I was relieved, then felt a sharp, sudden pain deep in my middle, in the place I shouldn’t be able to feel. I bent over her desk, resting my hands on it, and yelled, “Ahh!” Rena opened the door and rushed over to me, put her hand on my back and walked me to the blue, cushioned chair.
“Sit down, Macy,” she said, “sit down, sweetheart.”
“I think I’m giving birth,” I said.
Rena got Advil out of her desk drawer and poured me a cup of water, handing them to me together. I did what she suggested.
“All good, all normal,” she said. “Are those my slippers?”
My face flushed red, and my chest started to itch with hives. The embarrassment took over the pain, and I wanted the pain back.
“I’m a size nine,” I said dumbly.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m a ten. They look very nice on you.”
I could tell by her eyes that she didn’t think they looked very nice on me. She thought I was crazy, and the rejection burned inside me all too familiarly.
“How are you getting home?” she asked.
“When can I come back?”
“Next month,” she said. “We’ll do your screening and I’ll check your strings. Don’t hesitate to call if something doesn’t feel right.”
“You mean, if there’s an emergency?”
“You should go to the emergency room if there’s an emergency,” she said.
At work, I stood behind the counter and mouthed the words to one of the fifteen songs the manager played on rotation. Two young teenaged girls, maybe around fifteen, scouted the revolving case of belly jewelry and side-eyed me. One of them, in low-rise jeans and a cropped tan jacket, walked past me with too much confidence and bee-lined for the novelty dildo aisle. The other, too casually, stayed behind, turning the belly ring case round and round.
The one in the low-rise jeans came back; she held her jacket closed with one arm crossed over the other. Without saying anything to each other, they headed for the exit.
“Excuse me, hi!” called my manager from behind me, full of sarcastic rage. “Can I get my toy back?”
The girls spun around, petrified. The low-rise jeans girl opened her jacket to reveal a bubblegum pink rubber dildo with balls. It fluttered in her grip; she held it by the shaft like a microphone. The other girl glanced at it then sharply looked away.
“Can’t you just ask if they can pay for it?” I asked. “They probably don’t know it’s legal.”
“’Fraid I can’t do that,” said my manager. “Come on back, ladies, and we’ll wait for security.”
They looked at each other, and I wanted them to run, but full of shame, they followed my manager through the novelty dildo aisle to the back of the store. They were another two girls who would be devastated at the hands of clueless boys. I went to Auntie Anne’s on my break and ate a pepperoni pretzel, called Rena’s office, but couldn’t get through.
I drove out to New Hampshire the day before Easter for my mother’s bakery opening. She called me days earlier and guilted me. This wasn’t her first business venture, and I dreaded the failure. Her failures were never her own; they were everyone else’s, especially mine.
I’d grown up in Derry, a historic, Republican town. It had just rained. I drove too slowly down the highway through glittering puddles. The smell and texture of the fog came in through the vents. These parts of New Hampshire weren’t beautiful, but were riddled with addiction and ignorance, and had been ruined by mediocre pizza chains and ugly, rectangular houses. I went by the Ocean State Job Lot, the Smokers Haven, the China Garden, the Walmart. Instead of going directly to my mother’s, I drove to the restored sawmill, which was right on the water. The cliffs had been dynamited. The forests were thick and healthy. Under a pergola awning, the rag wheel loomed wide over pulleys. Dark windows the size of cereal boxes were crosshatched with bars.
When I got to my mother’s house, her car was gone. She lived on a side street off East Broadway. The rained-on mulch smelled like licorice and the carpenter ants reconciled their losses. Her blue, velvet shoes were perched by the front door. She’d gone out. I texted her that I’d arrived and got no response. I stared at the velvet shoes momentarily, considering. I went to the kitchen, hungry, but too afraid to eat anything. She didn’t like food going missing. I sat down in one of the eight dining chairs and tapped my fingernails on the table. The house was as still and clean as it had always been. Beyond the French doors, stiff, miraculous chairs with pleated arms posed under framed newspaper clippings that featured her abandoned businesses on their respective opening days. Time passed as slowly and painfully as it always had. After two and a half hours went by, I hated my mother more.
She had turned my bedroom into an “office,” in which she worked on nothing. My older sister’s room, on the other hand, she’d kept perfectly intact, just as my sister had left it. I’d seen my mother vacuum around the socks my sister had left out on the floor, dust off the television that no longer worked, and had even added a small vanity stocked with high-end cosmetics. My sister had become a cosmetologist when she left home and hadn’t spoken to our mother in years. I slept in her room when I visited.
I walked back to my mother’s velvet shoes as if to confront them. I don’t know why I thought they’d fit when they hadn’t before. Still, I jammed as much foot as I could into one. I heard my mother’s car pull in and kicked the slipper off, not caring where it landed, and ran back to my seat at the dining room table.
“Macy, why’d you park there?” my mother called as she walked through the door. I closed my eyes, unable to answer. “Macy?”
“Sorry,” I called back.
She walked into the dining room holding up one of her velvet shoes.
“Why were these all willy-nilly?”
“I don’t know,” I said. She turned and walked back to the mudroom.
“They don’t have minds of their own,” she sang in falsetto. I wanted to die.
My mother poured us two conservative glasses of merlot. I took my cues from her as to when to pick it up and take a quiet sip. We sat at the dining room table two chairs apart. Behind her, a bronze standing vase took the broad shape of a breast and held a bundle of white-painted branches.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said.
“Don’t finish that,” she said, referring to the wine. “The bakery opening is at seven o’clock.” It was already almost midnight.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“I’ve never felt more passionately about a business,” said my mother. “Baking—so much goes into it.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s an art form. Did you know that it’s an art form? And a science. Most things can only be one of the two.”
“Is it vegan?” I asked.
“Why? Are you vegan now?”
“I thought you were vegan,” I said.
“Some girls shoplifted at my store the other day,” I said.
“Parents these days.”
“They tried to steal a sex toy.”
“Don’t use that word,” she said.
“Where are your bags?” she asked.
“I’m just here for tonight,” I said. “I have an appointment the day after tomorrow.”
My mother looked away, taking both lips into her mouth, touched her ear, and said, “Just one night, then.”
“I’ve been having this thought,” I said, “about surgeons.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“If they weren’t surgeons, they’d be murderers.”
“Well,” said my mother, “that’s obvious.”
“Don’t be crude,” she said. “I’m very tired. There’s a new dish soap in the pantry.” She left her glass next to me as she rose and trailed off in her blue, velvet slippers, then turned in the doorway and said, “Remember not to move anything in that room.”
I stayed at the table for a few minutes, turning my wine glass in a circle. I finished the rest of mine, then the rest of hers. I washed the glasses under low water pressure as not to wake her, then shook them upside-down over a dishtowel.
I barely got any sleep, and around four in the morning, I lay awake waiting for my alarm. The room still smelled like my sister; maybe it was her hairspray, which I’d caught my mother spraying on pillowcases in the laundry room. Early, around six, I stood up and paced back and forth in the room. I looked at all the things I couldn’t touch, and then I started touching them. First, I turned the television a quarter of an inch. It was exhilarating, so turned it another quarter. I kicked a purple sock toward the closet. I moved the pleather jacket from the doorknob to the back of the vanity chair.
My mother insisted on taking separate cars to the bakery opening. It was in a shopping plaza between a tanning salon and a Subway. It was only a few doors down from the failed gluten-free pizza kitchen she’d opened three years prior. The bakery was square and white with a yellow banner above the front door that said: GRAND OPENING! I walked inside where she stood talking to a woman near the cash register.
“So, you figure,” my mother said, “people will go next-door for lunch then pop over here for dessert.”
“Hi,” I said. My mother put her hand on my shoulder but didn’t look at me.
“It’s a great location,” she said to the woman. “Rite Aid and Walgreens are right there, so they’ll bring a lot of traffic.”
The woman was Greta, the baker. Her brow was soft and eyes kind and set far apart. She was short, swarthy, pear-shaped and dressed in a white uniform.
“Let me feed you,” she said to me after shaking my hand.
“Macy’s a vegan,” said my mother.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“I thought you said you were last night,” she said, palms at her sides. “Well, you should really think about it.”
Greta smiled and nodded at me, helping me along. I didn’t have a sweet tooth, but I ate her pound cake and peanut butter fudge and made guttural, obliged noises with my mouth full. It was the closest I could get to her. I wanted her to express milk into my suckling cheek. She handed me a raspberry coconut truffle wrapped in crimped fuchsia paper and said, “This one’s like you.” My mother appeared jealous, pursing her lips at my reactions. She took me away from Greta and to the Subway next-door for coffee.
“If you have to leave today, you don’t have to go all the way back to the house,” she said.
“You want me to go now?” I asked.
“If you want,” she said, half-smiling, nodding, like it was my idea.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s Easter.”
“Our family doesn’t really celebrate Easter.”
I was tired—exhausted—as I drove over the highway, which had dried since the day before. I remembered dunking hardboiled eggs into pastel vinegar, my sister staining the frieze carpet, and my mother screaming at her. I smelled like her hairspray from sleeping on her pillowcases. I ate a gas station sandwich and lightly bled onto the seats of the car.
“Back so soon,” said Rena, entering, while I sat on the exam table with the disposable, white sheet over my bare lower half.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” I said.
“I’ll look,” she said. “Let’s see here.”
My eyes darted around the ceiling while the speculum opened. I wondered if these constant insertions changed my vagina, made it wider overtime.
“Everything is in place,” she said.
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m glad you came in. It’s always good to be sure.”
“Can we have tea?”
“I can’t today, but next time.”
I got on the subway, and it jarred me around, my head bobbing left and right on my neck. Rena had climbed inside my brain and torn the wires out, plastered pictures of her face everywhere, and sat in her gray size-ten slippers, waiting for me with love. I imagined my mother returning home from the bakery, entering my sister’s room and screaming. Across from me on the jolting train, a woman gazed into a stroller, like nothing was ruined.