My friend is standing in front of her wardrobe. I am trying to make a film about her for a school project. So far, I have: still black-and-white film photographs I took of her at the beach in Alameda; a sixty-minute recording of our conversation on tape; a video on my phone of her doing a perfect cartwheel, parallel to the surf. Which is to say, not much. I had suggested filming her at her home, talking about her clothes. Before we became friends, I had stayed in her basement studio with the person I had been having a dying love affair with for the past three years, who was ostensibly house- and cat-sitting. Her clothes and to-do lists were everywhere. In my own pantry-sized bedroom across the Bay, my clothes and to-do lists were everywhere, too. This is now, too. Suddenly she says, When I was raped— and she begins describing what she was was wearing when she was raped. When I screen a rough cut of the five-minute film in class, and Elaine says When I was raped, it’s like the first minute of The Rite of Spring is playing and it’s Paris, 1913. My classmates don’t know how to respond and begin arguing with each other over whether Elaine talking about her rape is conducive to the story or not.
They test the IUD for the bacteria causing pelvic inflammatory disease. It’s possible that I have had it for the entire time I have had the IUD. An older woman regular at my job who we refer to as a “character” — so-and-so is such a character! — comes in the next morning to rent season one, disc two of The Handmaid’s Tale. She asks if I’m watching it and I tell her the truth: No. We end up, of course, talking about the hearings. From this, I find out our character is a founding member of the Women’s Building, an early volunteer with San Francisco Women Against Rape, and that she had gone to the emergency room for a fever and abdominal cramps some thirty-odd years ago, a prime candidate for a hysterectomy had the attending physician not had the foresight to suggest the removal of her IUD.
My sister asks me about the blood. I have been bleeding for weeks. Dark, thick blood, with large clots that quiver like light playing on jewels. It’s everywhere. When I get up from a seat, there’s blood. She’s angry about the mattress, her furniture, angry about my clothes. The only time I have seen clots that large, she says to me, is when I had a miscarriage. Are you having sex? That looks like sperm. Or something. I shake my head no vigorously. But maybe I am, I think in spooked wonder. At night, rising out of my bed, flying through the dark, into the beds of others, an ugly preteen succubus. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe me.
I know he’s lying, my mother texts me. I’ve learned a lot about myself. Victims have a tendency to be accommodating to their aggressors. She’s watching the hearings, enraptured. I beg her not to. But she does.
I know the examination room isn’t dark, but that is how I remember it. I am in total darkness, after my mother and the nurse argue for what seems like hours. You need to leave the examination room. She’s only thirteen, I’m not leaving. Meanwhile, I am quiet and naked from the waist down on an examination table, feeling the blood pool underneath me. The nurse leaves too, at the gynecologist’s request.
The IUD is t-shaped, and not copper-colored. It has coils around its body and arms. Perfect for bacteria to hide in. If this was four years ago, and if I still self-identified as an artist, I would have photographed it. Instead, I hand it back to the nurse practitioner. It’s pulled out of me in a sour wave, and I let out a high-pitched ooooooh when I feel it passing through my cervix. Amy meets me and we walk around. I’m wearing a pair of socks with pigeons on them that she gave me for my birthday.
You would be perfect. I am standing perfectly still as someone wraps me in “puke yellow” gauze. I think about the disembodied head in the plastic bag on the banks of the river I would swim in as a child. A tumble of black hair. The river is a tribute to another river that acts as the border between the country I was born in and the country I now live in. I decline. This is before I have an allergic reaction to the gold makeup but after my hair is chopped off for gaining a half an inch on my waist. Eventually, the cosmetic line inspired by murdered and disappeared women is canceled.
My father leaves, and it’s just my mother and me in the dark and cavernous apartment. She is teaching me how to spell our name. It appears to me as steam escaping from hot pasta as it sits in a strainer in a sink. A sigh you make after a good meal. The man after my father had pushed my mother through a plate-glass door, so her leg is in a full cast. We sit and play games and read. I take her crutches and throw them down the stairs, watching them slide down the steps, then bounce when they hit the landing. She cries when I do this; and I cry when she cries, unable to explain that I am angry she is hurt, and how I need her to be able to walk. She can’t protect me when she’s hurt.
I didn’t grow up feeling protected, Elaine says to me through the phone. Her voice is cracking. I know you didn’t either. I am crying, very softly, as I cradle the phone between my shoulder and clavicle. I am stabbing at the space between my fingers with a knife, my palm splayed out on the table.
A dream: I’m on my back, lying on a gynecologist’s chair. My nurse practitioner has my labia sandwiched between their index and middle fingers, pressing the lips together. Let’s just remove it. The whole thing, they decide. I am so excited. Yes, I cry. Yes! They remove my genitals, as if they were a convenient pyramidal Lego block. We’re both delighted. No one can hurt you now, they say cheerfully. You’ll never have to worry. You’re protected. I’m wearing a white poplin dress my mother bought me when I was thirteen. The space between my legs has a newfound gravitational pull. The forceps and speculum tremble in their tray when I stand up.
Despite the fact she is my friend, I avoid reading Amy’s book Tender Points for years. In bed with a bad back, I finally do. When I read about what happens to her at her doctor’s office as a child, I am suddenly unable to breathe. I imagine my chest moving like an indecisive wave: pulling back, inching forward, pulling back. Relief follows; then guilt for feeling relieved.
I live in pain for nearly four and a half years. Then I begin hemorrhaging and spotting and the pain gets worse. After a couple months of anxiety and crying at kitchen tables and on hikes and to lovers and friends, I go to the doctor. During the digital exam, I begin to weep, from both physical pain and from memory. The nurse practitioner takes their hand out of my birth canal and hands me a tissue. There is blood on the blue nitrile glove. I’m diagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease — female trouble, like Cookie Mueller. I’m not really sexually active, I say. They give me a shot in my ass, and put a beautiful silver glitter bandage over the injection site. Happy almost-birthday, my nurse practitioner tells me ruefully, leaving the examination room to let me dress. Since it’s so close to my birthday, I keep having to cross out 1990 and 2018 and sixteen and thirteen on paperwork.
After I pass out at school, my mother takes me to the doctor. I get diagnosed with anemia, and receive a referral for a gynecologist. Since we have Medi-Cal, we’re put on a waiting list.
I don’t remember what I was wearing any of the times that I was raped.
Amy gives me beef jerky, dried mango, and an almond butter and apricot sandwich. I had forgotten to eat. As I eat these things in her kitchen, I read an email she may or may not send. As we’re walking, she tells me how she cried the whole night, trying not to move so as not to wake her partner. I know that modality of crying well. I also know that since she didn’t sleep very well, she is very likely in a lot of physical pain. We walk down Church Street and we talk about our mothers and their relationships to our fathers. How could my mother even have known how to protect me, I ask her, when no one protected her?
I spend the day wearing my great-grandmother’s fur hat, which she gave to my mother, a rebozo, and Konrad’s Chicago Bulls sweatshirt. Konrad was wearing this same sweatshirt when I fell in love with him. He was wearing leggings and Danskos and I feel like he was but I know that he wasn’t wearing lipstick. All I did was fall in love with him.
Another dream: I am sick, I am dying. I go to the hospital, the same hospital my grandmother went for her weekly blood transfusions in South Los Angeles. I’m told my cancer is back, and I need to stay at the hospital. I can’t afford it. No problem! They install me in a little cubicle, in a hospital bed, with a tiny espresso machine. I make cappuccinos and flat whites and lattes for the staff and patients in order to pay for treatment. Sometimes a little clot of blood — I am covered in blood, bleeding like a saint in ecstasy — falls into the foam. No one complains.
My mother takes the book of poetry written by the woman who refuses to believe her daughter out of its place. She turns it spine in. I ask her, Why don’t you throw it away? She looks at me, then at the book. I never want to forgive her, my mom finally says. And I cannot forget what she has done.
Sister: I just don’t understand how any woman, no matter your political allegiance, could tolerate such victim shaming and such misogyny.
Me: Exactly. Exactly exactly exactly.
Me: But the other thing that strikes me is how deeply misogynistic our culture is — like there is a real and applauded hatred of women. I really feel like the judiciary committee believes her, but they don’t care; probably because they themselves have engaged in similar acts.
Sister: What scares me too is women’s hatred of other women. There are too many women, particularly white women, not even tacitly, but vocally approving.
The sister in the above exchange is different from the sister in the bleeding story. They are not related. One is my father’s daughter and the other is my mother’s daughter. One is white, and the other is not. They were raised together, and I was raised by one of them. The other I met when I was nine, and she was already an adult. We are just getting to know each other now. We speak formally to each other, unsure of how the other will react or engage with our other voices.
Artists need places to live! the blonde white girl who I guess is an artist is telling me. This is in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, outside a gallery in which the two of us will be performing in a dance concert. She’s attempting to justify living in Northeast Los Angeles, where I grew up, having rented her house sight unseen on Craigslist after moving out to California post-graduation. I am standing on a mound of dirt that Caltrans has abandoned, saying nothing. I’m wearing my costume: a bright red romper, deeply cut in the chest. A white ex of mine who broke my nose still lives in the neighborhood I grew up in, and that my mother and I were evicted from. We weren’t artists, so I guess they figured we were good without a place to live. This ex and I once got into an argument at a diner in South Pasadena about gentrification. This was after Occupy, but around the time that I began thinking about sobriety and how it was appearing to me that artist and woman are racialized words. Their assumed race is usually white.
I associate the pregnancy with the rape. I associate the abortion with the pregnancy. I associate the resulting radial pain in my inner thigh with the abortion. Since my cervix will be open already, I decide to have an intrauterine device implanted. Catholic born on Yom Kippur that I am, I deliberately choose the most painful option: the copper PARAGARD. I never want to forget, I decide. If I’m raped again, I think, I won’t have to go through this — this being an abortion. A scapular worn inside my uterus, it will protect me. I am wearing a purple woven dress from Guatemala, and a black-and-white houndstooth sweater. The abortion is free, covered through a state reproductive health program.