A Simple Procedure

by

01/13/2019

Neighborhood: East Village, Featured, Greenwich Village

I am 21 and in the heat of my first New York summer, when I decide to have a four-centimeter rod inserted into the meat of my inner bicep. About the size of a matchstick and made of a material I can’t pronounce, it will release progestin directly into my bloodstream, preventing eggs from leaving the womb and thickening the cervical mucus. There will be a constant hormone flow for three years, but I paid no attention to these medical technicalities during my research — what really attracted me was the promise embedded in Planned Parenthood’s description: “as good as sterilization.”

In the operating room of NYU’s women’s health department, my bare shoulders become flecked with goose bumps from the liberal air conditioning. My stomach is bloated, a side effect of 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen, and my uterine lining is on its second day of shedding. I almost feel like a masochist for how much I am looking forward to the voluntary puncturing of my own body. “Expect to be sore for a while,” the doctor had said in my consultation. I recline in the patient chair and wait, surrounded by mason jars filled with condoms, lube, and long sticks swathed with cotton ends. Cupboards, labeled in an all capital font, line the sidewall, announcing their inventory: shots, patches, sponges, rings and copper IUDs.

It will be the first of many times I visit the women’s health department that summer. My track record is an easy read. Mid-July: birth control implant. Early August: bacterial vaginosis caused by disruption in pH, as if my vagina could undergo a litmus test. Late August: urinary tract infection, discernible when I started peeing blood. Early September: STI screening, paranoia from the one time I relented to being really reckless. When the doctors ask how many partners I have, I lie and say one, trying to discern their faces and judgment.

It has been six months since “one” would have been a true answer, six months since I left my boyfriend of 2 ½ years. I can pinpoint the exact week we last had sex, because I break up with him almost immediately after, abruptly and with no warning. I blame it on my growing ambitions and incompatibility, telling him multiple times that the fault is mine. I believe it, too, for several months. Despite having a good, “friendly” breakup, any glimpse of his face thereafter causes a physical repulsion, a tightening in my chest and a creeping heat. I rant about him to a friend, who interrupts to note that I seem to have excessive, pent up rage. “How did you flip the switch so fast?”

It is a conscious decision when I become sexually active again, after the post-breakup, six-month dry spell. Having only been with one person from ages 18 through 21, I endearingly refer to this summer as my post-breakup promiscuous phase. Without the time constraints of school, I spend much of my free time putting myself out there on dating apps, in bars, and at the restaurant where I work. Swipe liberally, drink carefully, flirt with all the bussers who commute from the outer boroughs.

Texts are hastily sent to my roommate to vacate the area. Our dorm embraces the muggy ruggedness I’ve always imagined New York summer to be — thin plastic mattress with sheets barely hanging on, sticky linoleum floors, an a/c unit always running but never felt, and three large windows where I practice exhibitionism for the neighboring buildings. In the winter, the room’s open plan practically absorbs the weather outside, chilling everything within. Outings require at least ten minutes of recuperation, placing my socked feet directly on the heater until the cotton singes black, the fibers furling in on themselves. It is like this the last time my ex-boyfriend visits, in the dead of January.

His visit lasts six days. He sleeps on the floor every night, not because my mattress can’t fit the both of us, but because I have become less inclined to being touched. We have a ritual that began sometime after our first year of dating, although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when. Visits have blended together, the shape of his room familiar as my own.

It starts with him propositioning me, but what is important to note is that our ritual is only considered a ritual if I don’t want it. There are some half-hearted diversions on my part — too tired, too sleepy, too hungry, don’t feel like it — then poking, prodding, gentle teasing developing into whining and something like begging, on his part. “You don’t have to do anything,” “We never see each other,” “I’ll do all the work,” “Just lie there,” “Please.” The term, as I know it now, is coercion.

It is around fifteen degrees Fahrenheit outside, maybe seventy inside, the heater rumbling furiously when we conduct our ritual for the last and worst time, surrounded by artificial warmth. We yell at each other — when raised, my voice adopts the decibels of most people’s normal speaking levels. I am often asked to repeat myself, to talk louder, but I am sure he heard me. People always tell you to just say no, but no is weakened by time and familiarity and a false sense of security, and turns into maybes and fines and hurry ups. I never think our ritual is wrong because it starts gradually, and never violently. He doesn’t match the image that has been taught and ingrained into me, of the stranger in a dark alley, or the student athlete behind a dumpster, so I don’t identify him for what he is.

The majority of my summer trysts are never seen again except in online photos accompanied by poorly written captions, snippets of lives barely explored in our small talk. Eventually, I grow bored of the practice, and my room empties. But these visitors have piqued a more substantial interest, and for the first time my shelf becomes littered with books about feminism and the female body. “Sexographies” by Gabriela Weiner, “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit, “The Purity Myth” and “Sex Object” by Jessica Valenti. Somewhere in Valenti, I read that in eight out of ten cases of rape, the victim knows their assaulter. Oh, I think when I read about her college boyfriend, and compare him to my own. Who knew?

Some may call it an epiphany, but when I finally understand my physical repulsions and flimsy breakup excuses, I feel none of the lightness associated with enlightenment.

The doctor finally enters, lays my arm out like a sacrifice, covers it with blue tarp, and swipes iodine over the surgical area. The orange smear over my pale, goose-bumped flesh makes me feel like a sitting duck, ready to roast. I hear her whisper to the nurse, “I haven’t done this in a while,” and it does nothing to inspire confidence. As she sifts through the cupboards and organizes her tools, surely too many and too sharp to be the advertised “simple procedure,” I begin to have second thoughts. Too late to back out, I lay on my back, feeling the plastic seat and tissue paper crinkling under me, staring up into the fluorescent lights, wanting to be willing.

The numbing hurts more than the insertion. I tense and inhale as the needle deposits its palliative, and then the hard part is over. The actual implant is nothing but a gentle pressure, all of a sudden part of me. “Feel it,” the doctor says, cupping my new acquisition. “Rub up and down, but don’t press.” It sits just under the skin, invisible for now but obvious when you put a finger to it. From seven piercings to my new rod, there is so much I have forced my body to adhere to, to heal around. Call me bionic.

My bicep is covered in three layers, so thick and tight that the surrounding fat starts to bulge. First the white, gauzy tape laid down like a cross and an x; second the nude band-aid; third the elastic bandage rolled over and over and secured with Velcro; all to be peeled away when I am ready, the wound overripe and no longer fresh.

“You bruise easily, don’t you? I can tell already.”

A month after the procedure, there are still marks. I take a picture of my inner arm every day, tracking its progress from mauve to olive, with lowlight flecks of scarlet and midnight blue. For a time I can’t lift my arm above my head without feeling a tug, can’t pick up a book without feeling the surrounding muscles twitch and strain. I imagine platelets and leukocytes swarming the foreign object, until even those made to defend are forced to relent. The entry point scabs, flakes, then finally softens into a wrinkly, baby pink keloid. One of the implant’s side effects is scarring, but it doesn’t bother me as I once thought it would.

The summer over, I have quit actively seeking, gotten it out of my system, purged and scraped my insides clean. I haven’t had my period since the insertion. My bleeding has stopped permanently, rendering myself sterile and my womb useless, the way I like it.

***

Mai Tran is a student at New York University

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