This one might be hard for some of you to read, it was for my parents. I’m trying this new thing where I don’t apologise or explain my work, but I thought it would be polite to warn you. It’s a bit explicit. It talks about vaginas. Specifically, mine.
Things you should know: I’m ok, I’m all clear, I do want to tell you this story, I want it to be real and honest and we should all be real and honest about this stuff, about all our stuff.
Thanks to Randall for editing this story, to my colleagues and housemates and parents who didn’t mind being in this story, and to everyone who was a friend to me during this story, or ever, really. Thanks to you for reading this story so that I can finally let it go and start writing new ones.
This one is a longer story. So settle in. See you on the other side.
A white-coated woman zooms in on a couple of tiny black spots then leaves the room without a word. I’m lying there topless with cold goop on my tits forever, probably just seconds but I’m thinking: fuck, she’s forgotten about me or she’s found cancer, I might have to chop off my breasts like my grandma did which wouldn’t be so bad I mean she turned out ok, I’ll just make sure I get some glamour photography or pose for a nice portrait or have some very sensual sex and make the most of them before I lost my favourite asset. Then the woman comes back with another radiologist. It isn’t breast cancer. Just a few benign lumps. I should get them checked every few years, just in case.
Years later, in the Pilbara, in the middle of teaching a Zumba class I feel warm liquid in my undies. There is a community hall full of sweaty overweight women watching me so I just keep dancing for the rest of the song then tell them to get a drink while I go to the toilet. My leggings are dark blue so no one can see that I’ve wet myself. I finish the rest of the class.
The next day is a Friday. I’m crying on the phone to my colleague, asking if I can stay home for a few hours. I’d waited 45 minutes at the Wickham doctor’s office to then be told that their samples van had already left for Karratha. There’s nowhere to store samples over the weekend, so I couldn’t do an STI test that day. I am dirty, lonely, scared and ashamed. I’m crying in my car knowing I’ll spend the whole weekend thinking I have an STI from that fling I had with that carpenter that all my colleagues know about. We all live together over here so I keep everything secret. They would probably be my friends if I let them.
Roebourne gym is a small tin building with one broken fan and one huge Maori man who will politely yell at you to flip truck tyres and do push-ups on the concrete floor. When I use the skipping rope here I feel that warm liquid again but I’m wearing the same leggings so just keep going. I go back to the Wickham doctor and she gives me antibiotics. They don’t work, so I return the next week and she gives me different antibiotics. They don’t work either. I stop going to the gym. I stop seeing the carpenter.
The country is quiet and calm.
Most days I wear baggy shorts and loose cotton T shirts because of old religious ladies and teenage boys and cultural sensitivity and sun smart and heat. I am a man over here in the desert, practical and hard. Sometimes when people talk I think: that’s bullshit. I cover my flesh and let my leg hair grow. At work I drive around listening to gangsta rap and Tina Turner with twelve year olds.
Spinifex glows gold in the dusk. Clouds explode with colour. The water is blue and clear and sand on the empty beaches is white. There are zebra finches and whales.
After five years in the desert, an old friend from my hometown comes to help me pack my life into a caravan and leave for the city. I drive for three weeks, from one chapter of my life into the next.
On the way down the west coast we stop to look at the stars. We kiss gently. I ask him if he ever thinks about being my boyfriend. He says he doesn’t. The universe expands and contracts but basically stays the same.
Kilometres pass somewhere between the west and south, between time zones, between getting somewhere and being nowhere, between grids, roadhouses, servos, lookouts and one street towns. Questionable meals are eaten, Phil Collins CDs, endless ice creams and postcards are purchased, road trains are overtaken and mate waves are reciprocated. Betwixt and between all this time and space the road continues to bend, suns set and the wind picks up again.
We kill an emu. We hit it with our car then wait while it thrashes around, wishing we had a shovel in the boot or a big rock until a council man comes with a crowbar.
Get to Melbourne and I’m punching my fist in the air at the Beyonce show when she sings ‘Survivor.’ Going to the air-conditioned gym where a retired marathon runner takes my height and weight and makes me a workout plan. Walking everywhere with my hair out and feel it bouncing on my bare shoulders as I’m strutting in time with the music on my iPod. I’m drinking tap water and having cold showers on warm days. Eating ripe peaches in Carlton Gardens in the dappled shade. Dancing often and going to the theatre, learning how to write, meditate and direct. Smiling at strangers. Crossing the road at Flinders Street Station with all these people, all in the one place, all going somewhere and I think: I am part of the human race.
I date a bunch of men in cocktail bars hidden in alleyways. I write an erotic bush poem about being in a swag with a man I met once at a rodeo then I read it out in public. I feel like a woman. An attractive woman.
At a literary event I meet a handsome man. We pash in the street then go to my house holding hands. It’s the first time I’ve ever taken someone home with me that I’d just met. The first time I’ve taken someone home in a long time.
He loves my body so handsomely that when our flesh touches my naked skin remembers how good it is to have warm hands on it. I’m standing on my bed with his lips on me and fingers inside of me when I feel a warm liquid rush out of me. But he doesn’t stop so neither do I. We sit giggling, glowing.
I say – my body has never done that before. He says – you’re some kind of amazing porn star who squirts when they orgasm. I take the wet sheets to the washing machine, thinking: maybe my body has done that before, maybe I just wet myself.
I go to the nearest doctor, around the corner in Carlton. She does some tests and gives me a script for some antibiotics. I never fill that prescription.
Book in to see a different Melbourne doctor who does some more tests then tells me – we should get this thing checked out, just in case you want to have kids one day. She draws diagrams and uses analogies saying- it’s fine to go to any old cheap hairdresser for most of your life but for your wedding day you don’t worry about the cost, you just want the best hairdresser. She books me in to the wedding hairdresser of radiology for an ultrasound.
I talk to an insurance lady on the phone as I’m walking up Nicholson Street and she asks me if I want ambulance cover, just in case. A tram goes past, I cross the road saying – I guess I do. I read out my credit card details, hang up and put my phone on silent before walking into the ultrasound place. On the way up in the elevator I think: I guess now I can get IVF one day.
I sit in that waiting room and see the lady next to me has brought another lady with her. Don’t know if it’s her friend or her sister, but I don’t have anyone with me. I just then realise this is a place where people bring other people with them in case they learn something bad.
I try making Melbourne Ultrasound Man laugh about how weird it all is, this business of someone you’ve never met putting goop on your naked skin and then seeing inside of yourself on a small screen. There’s a joke here somewhere, I know.
Melbourne Ultrasound Man smiles politely. My ovaries look alright to him but there are a few tiny black spots, benign lumps in my uterus. I should get them checked every few years, just in case I ever want to get pregnant.
My body is benign. Not the whole thing, just the bits that make me a woman, full of blotches biding their time, waiting to bloom. I think: My new doctor uses better analogies. Cancer flowers. For fucks sake.
On the way home I look for soymilk for my muesli. The hospital café guy reckons he’ll sell me some for a good price. I think: that was a really big thing that just happened back there and now here I am just buying soymilk for my muesli like normal.
I have to just sit with my feelings, I know that. I still get scared so I get busy, mostly working and packing up my life again. Then I get gentle with myself, crying in my room in Carlton. I know my ovaries are okay so maybe I can still have children one day, but still I lay down and my whole body gives in to the weeping. Thinking about the songs I want at my funeral and writing a letter to my body saying: Hey I thought we were a team. I don’t really know how you work I just assumed you always would. Until I got old.
When I was a kid I was so sure that the one job I wouldn’t fuck up would be being a mum. Somehow I just knew I would be excellent at it.
I tell my mum when she visits Melbourne. I take her out for dinner before a theatre show, saying – there’s a little bit of a health problem, a few sexually transmitted diseases and some weird symptoms that my Melbourne doctor and I haven’t figured out yet. She doesn’t need to come with me to any appointments. I am dirty and ashamed and scared but next morning I spread out all the diagrams the doctor has drawn for me. I try to talk that slightly less foreign language of clumsy medical jargon about symptoms and fibroids in amongst awkward admissions about sex. I think: people care when you let them. I’m not going to have any more secrets.
When mum leaves I go back to my Melbourne doctor. She draws more diagrams, uses some more analogies, prints out more bits of paper with results and books me in to the wedding hairdresser of gynaecology. I’ll have to wait one month.
I go to Tasmania for that month and work. Sometimes I sit up in bed at night, Googling medical terms like Douglas Obliteration and Spontaneous Abortion and all these potential side effects of things printed on the bits of paper and diagrams. Sometimes I call friends because I knew there are jokes in this somewhere. Sometimes I cry alone in my room. When my colleague asks me why, I say – there’s a medical appointment in Melbourne I’m worried about.
I didn’t want to say any more. Didn’t know how to begin.
I volunteer to go on a road trip to Hobart to pick up some equipment for a show. Between the north and the south I again float in a little bubble moving effortlessly through space and time. I see fog and frost for the first time in five years. Everything emerging from the fog looks dramatic and beautiful, the sheep and trees and green rolling hills. Kilometres pass. The road bends and the sun sets, oozing red through smoky paddocks as little back burning fires dot the hills like puddles of lava.
On my last day in Tasmania I have a meeting with my colleague. We talk about the next show we’ll be working on, in the desert. I nod at everything he says, thinking: I can’t do this if I have to fly back for some kind of operation, I can’t do it if I’m sick or dying or barren.
We go off for a walk down over a field and through a little forest to a beach.
The whole time we’re walking he makes space for me to talk about my medical appointment in Melbourne. I ask him about the bush and about family. Those are two things I like to talk about.
The whole time I’m feeling bits of sun on me, smelling the eucalyptus and tea tree and running my fingers through ferns. I pick up nice looking rocks, hearing the waves and the wind and I feel ok. Everything was going to be ok.
I have friends and family who I love, I’ve done work I love with colleagues who are really friends, who I also love.
I feel valued and respected and supported and cared for.
I don’t have any grudges or have reason to believe anyone hates me for anything.
I don’t have any really big regrets.
I am proud of what I’ve done and who I am.
Mostly I’ve told people that I loved them and I’ve tried to show them.
I have an underlying sense of foreboding that I may not get to do it all, but I fucking love my life.
When we finish our walk he says – hope it goes ok, whatever this medical thing is you’re going to in Melbourne. I say – yeah, even if it’s not OK, I’m OK with that. He says – yeah, we’ll put on a pretty good show for the funeral. We laugh and hug and I get in my car, drive to Devonport and get onto the boat back to Melbourne. On board I write in my diary:
Whatever happens, let it be known that I was grateful and lucky.
I’m lying on my back on one of those reclining hospital beds with my legs apart and my knees in the air, my feet in these metal stirrup things. The white-coated woman looks inside me with a big magnifying glass and bright light that she moves around like at the dentist. I turn my head, looking at all the framed certificates on the wall.
There’s a tube in my bottom, another tube up my front and one of them had a camera in it. Then they’re pulled out and the steel opener thing they use for pap smears goes in. It’s wound open wider than usual, a really long cotton wool bud goes in and pokes around. Then my cervix is finger painted black. The paint shows up a few tiny black spots, so a long pair of scissors goes in and takes out a bit of me.
There’s anaesthetic, but I feel the pulling, I feel the cutting. Tears come out of my eyes, just a few. The woman is being very professional, though her voice is kind when she says – it’s all a bit strange isn’t it?
She tells me to come see her next week to discuss the results. I tell her I’ve booked flights over to the Pilbara to work for a few months, she says: you might just have to fly back, just in case. This is something that might stop me working. For fuck’s sake.
I don’t know exactly how much I spent in total on medical bills. I gave up keeping track, I just wanted to know what was wrong. I didn’t care how much it cost in the end. I didn’t even want to wait twelve months until my health insurance wait period was over, if I was going to be barren or die I wanted to know right now. In the space of about 5 months I spent between four and six thousand dollars. At that first gynaecologist appointment I had to step outside to get phone reception so I could transfer between my accounts.
When I go back to the waiting room to pay, I see everyone else waiting has someone waiting with them. I touch the necklace my parents gave me for my sixteenth birthday. Wore it for good luck.
I call mum. I buy a crappy orange cake at the Fitzroy Gardens.
I walk around trying to feel something.
There’s dappled afternoon shade.
The grass is green and there are big oaks.
Put my jacket on the ground and sit on it, leaning my back on a tree.
I feel a big calm gratitude feeling.
I meet some friends in the gardens and tell them how gross and weird it was. How one minute I was sitting across the desk from a total stranger explaining the circumstances in which I wet myself, the next minute I was in the next room with my legs in the air and metal things up my clacker.
We go to a restaurant for dinner. I can’t think of much to say so just bask in the warm glow of close friends who all get along without really expecting me to say anything. They all know. We try to find that joke, but instead I go to the toilets for a quick and quiet cry. They hug me hard.
I see some other high school friends that I only catch once or twice a year. Some of them have had babies while I’ve been in the desert. I don’t tell any of them. Don’t know how to begin telling them this story.
The day before I fly to the Pilbara, the gynaecologist emails me the report of the tests. I need to come and see her, not urgently though, just when I get back to Melbourne in October. I’m not going to die between now and then. I call my colleague and say – everything is fine, I’m not going to die before the show. He says – good, we won’t have to dedicate the show to you in the program notes. We laugh.
In the Pilbara I’m on my own for a week.
I don’t sleep.
Two people die in the community. One is a suicide the other a stabbing. But those are not my stories to tell. I go around to the grieving houses and avoid eye contact as I hand over bags of food to the families and say – sorry for your loss.
Tell my colleague that I’ve been seeing death everywhere and he says – well, it’s true you’re not a young girl anymore, you are gonna die one day. It’s the best thing anyone has said.
I stay at work late because I’m scared of trying to sleep and not doing it right, because I’m scared I might die one day, it may not be today, but it’s gonna be someday so I’d better be a good person and I’d better do good work.
I don’t eat enough and when I do eat it it’s out of the microwave. I lie in bed with my eyes closed. Get up and write lists of how I am going to do good work. I try meditating with the CDs mum gave me. When the sun goes up I get up too and go for walks along the beach and cry a lot.
My housemate comes back one morning and I say – I am not okay. I drive to the Aboriginal Medical Service at 8.30am when they open. The doctor gives me Valium to try that night. My tongue swells up and I have to breathe through my nose, eating only soup for the next three days. I tell my housemate – I’m still not okay and that I can feel my heart pounding in my ears and my chest is fluttering.
I go back to the AMS, but to a different doctor. She does the mental health checklist. My anxiety and stress levels were no good. A nurse put little wires all over my body and she asked me about my mum and I cried. I was homesick and scared. I saw a woman I knew in the waiting room, an old woman whose son died in police custody. That is not my story either. I don’t say hello.
My colleague asks if I’m OK so I tell him – I’m probably just grumpy because I have my period. Later I send him an email saying – hey I’m not really ok, I’ll be ok but I’m struggling. Before rehearsals he pulls me aside and says – it’s ok, I have a wife and daughter, I understand. He hugs me and pats my back. I feel ashamed and lonely, thinking: I have insomnia and anxiety and I want to fly out of the desert right now. For fuck sake, period problems? What happened to no secrets?
I float in the ocean and let it take me where it wants me to go, which isn’t far at all but anyway I give in. Then I shit, shower, shave, do my hair and put on a dress to go over the road to watch a footy game I don’t follow on telly with my colleagues.
I tell my parents I’m taking anti-depressants. I tell my brother about my cervix getting biopsied. These are weird conversations.
I don’t even want to do a good job anymore, I just want to do it and then go home, wherever that is. I’m not giving much of a shit about anything. I can’t think of things to say or pretend I’m happy to see people in the morning.
I am not in my real life, over here in the desert. I used to think about what I wore almost every day and strut around the city in time with the music on my iPod.
I see some zebra finches and two out of season whales on morning walks.
When we’ve done the show my colleague drive me to the airport. He asks me what’s wrong and I say – I’m taking antidepressants because I’m still scared I might be barren or dying. I tell him everything, about the ultrasounds and the biopsy. I tell him for all that, he gave me a pat on the back. We laugh. I think: I’m going to tell people everything more often. I’m going to let people care.
Back in Melbourne now I sit with my doctor. She draws a diagram with little black dots and lines and the dots were cancer cells but at the moment there aren’t many actually and they are benign. I should get them tested every year though, just in case.
We’ll monitor the fibroids in the uterus and the cells in the cervix and the other STIs but we should rule out the bladder. We’re a team. She sends me to a regular radiologist and books me in to the wedding hairdresser of urologists. I have more medical terms to Google but this time I call a friend. She says – it’s ok, everyone’s vagina is a bit weird.
I download a bladder diary app and log everything that goes in and out.
I get gooped for my bladder and as I go to transfer money on my phone at the radiology reception desk, I drop everything out of my bag. A handsome man helps me pick up bobby pins and business cards. That’d be right, I meet a handsome man at the fucking radiologist. I am a non-sexual being right now. The drugs make me not give a shit about anything really, but I guess that’s the point.
Waiting with all these old women in the hospital urology department waiting room, I have to take off all my clothes and put on a backless gown and my massive vintage Swiss Army backpack won’t fit in the day patient lockers.
I look down at my feet and I think: fuck, I’m in a hospital with blue booties on, shit’s getting pretty real right here.
Three ladies put tubes inside me, a camera up my butt and a catheter up my clacker.
The urologist pumps me full of water and another lady makes me cough, jump and run and I say – maybe if I ran a Zumba class or orgasmed it would work. The ladies all laugh.
The urologist puts her fingers inside me and tells me to squeeze. Afterwards, when I’ve emptied, they can’t explain why I bleed mid-cycle, there’s nothing wrong with my bladder, but the unwanted urination is possibly due to an almost non-existent pelvic floor muscle
I think: nothing major is wrong. I’m not going to die. I think: Excellent.
I also think: all this. All this time and money and feelings and thoughts for you to tell me I’ve just gotta do some fucking pelvic floor exercises?
I go to a pelvic floor workshop with a room full of old ladies. We’re asked in what situations might someone urinate when they didn’t want to and one lady says – what about just getting up out of a seat?
I think: jeez, I’m doing okay. Everything is going to be fine.
I go to see my favourite monk talk about happiness. He used to give different advice to everyone individually. Now, to any problem anyone presents with, he just says – don’t worry, you’ll be dead soon.
Maybe that big calm gratitude feeling I had back during that walk in Tassie, and later in Fitzroy Gardens, was me thinking about my own death, being kind of okay with it. Maybe that’s a pretty fucking huge thing to think about and be kind of okay with. Maybe it’s the only thing I’ll ever really need to be ok with.
Not a young girl anymore. Gunna die one day.
And so it goes.
So get on with it.