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rachael goetzke


New Nonfiction


by Rachael Goetzke

      The first week of my senior year of high school, my mom and I were sent to the University of Virginia (UVA) Medical Center to consult with Dr. Bluth, the latest in a long line of doctors to investigate the anatomical anomaly known as my vagina. From incessant and invasive poking and prodding to aloof and uninformed misdiagnoses, my vagina has seen it all.
      Incompetent Doctor 1: Let's see here … yup, definitely no uterus.
      Incompetent Doctor 2: Why, I've never seen anything like this before.
      Me: Thanks, guys. I didn't need my self-esteem, anyway. I guess I could go without it for, uh, I don't know, fifteen years!
      Maybe it was when I saw Dr. Gale (my first gynecologist) that I heard my condition called an anomaly. For shits and giggles, one day I decided to look up some synonyms:

• Bibelot (a small and attractive piece of jewelry... this gives me some comfort.)
• Bygone (long gone… are the hopes of me ever finding love and having sex?)
• Conversation piece (“Hey, let me tell you about my freakish vagina….”)
• Curio (Antique. Something sex felt like in my late 20s.)
• Exoticism ("Come explore the exotic underworld of Rachael!" the giant billboard proclaims.
   No, really, come explore it.…)
• Freak (I hate this word. Kids called some of my friends this in high school because they
   dressed in black and listened to Nine Inch Nails. But I liked Nine Inch Nails, too….)
• Knickknack (Oh, yes, remember dear? It’s been on the shelf for so many years. Think you
   could polish that for me?)

      But wait, there are more: marvel, monstrosity, nonesuch, objet d'art, oddity, and wonder. Objet d’art paints a wry smile on my face, but wonder gives me pause. Wonder will always remind me of the singer, Natalie Merchant. There are so many memories tied into her song lyrics. Sailing down the VA Beach Highway, I would belt “Kind & Generous” with my ex-boyfriend, Jay, and his family, and I would hear “Wonder” and wonder what prompted her to write this one. It seems as if she wrote it just for my situation, my anomaly. But she reassures me that “with love, with patience and with faith” that I will make my way. I bought into those words because I’m a natural optimist; however, even the most positive person can be devoured by depression.
      And during this time in my life, depression became that nagging neighbor. I’d try to fight it off or ignore it, but every night when I came home, there it was, waiting for me on my stoop. I felt alone, lamenting with teenage woe, my lost love. Jay had broken up with me only a few months before my visit to UVA, and on top of that, I’d just spent the last few months trying to digest that I’d never bear children. I felt like a freak of nature, some exoticism on display.
      Thus, the trek to UVA. We were on our way to another doctor. Another chance for a "specialist" to tell me my marvel of a vagina was more like a monstrosity. Oh, goodie. But on the bright side, it meant another road trip with Mom. I can still see her now, for she was the Louise to my Thelma, her arm resting on the window jamb, Doral Light clutched between her fingers. The hot August sun beat down on us, but we rarely used air conditioning in the car. We had the 4/60: Four windows down at sixty miles an hour. The wind naturally cooled us, but it did little to assuage my depression. My bibelot weighed a lot on my mind, and it was bringing me down.
      Situated in Charlottesville, Virginia, the UVA Medical Complex is massive, with giant windowed corridors that mirror the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains that surround them. We planned on getting lunch before the appointment and it pleased me, and somewhat fascinated me, that they had a Subway Restaurant in the complex. It seemed, though, that they could have almost anything in this gargantuan building. I’m going to the complex to find out how complex my complex is, my inner monologue remarked.
      While we were waiting in line at Subway, an older man with wild, curly gray hair and glasses swooped by and touched Mom’s shoulder. “So what are we having for lunch, ladies?” We turned to see a man in a red bow tie with white polka dots. He smiled at us.
      “Not sure,” Mom’s face brightened. “What sounds good?”
      “The tuna is good,” he suggested.
      “Thanks!” Mom replied, “That’s my favorite.” We chitchatted for a minute and then placed our order. After Mr. Bow-Tie left, Mom looked at me and whispered, “He can have me for lunch!”
      "You’re unbelievable!” I exclaimed, but giggled anyway. A slightly sarcastic smile played at the corner of my lips. “He was rockin’ the bow-tie, really?"
      “I can get over that,” she began, “once I change my panties!” She fanned herself and rolled her eyes back into her head.
      “Mom!” I exclaimed, and then peered into her face. “You mean … really?”
      “Oh God yes, Rach. He was fine.” I giggled again. It was comforting to walk through this confusing hell of a situation with Mom’s sexual antics. Once we finished lunch, we were still a bit early for my appointment with Dr. Bluth, so we took a slow walk down the hall toward his office, admiring the view.
      “Ho-ly shit,” I sighed, “Look at how green everything is out there.”
      “Yeah, no kidding,” Mom replied, “I wonder how many zeroes you need in your salary to have an office with this view.”
      Of course the landscape was well-tailored and the Blue Ridge Mountains crashed over the horizon like the tides. I don’t think I truly appreciated the beauty of those rolling, cascading wonders until I left them. Mountains anywhere else on the East Coast pale in comparison. Legend has it that the people who first settled in the valleys actually thought the tops of the mountains were blue, and that’s how they got their name. The atmosphere does cast a bluish haze on their peaks. The researchers of these mountains dubbed them “The Playground of the Gods” and discovered that an atmospheric chemical compound, naturally released from pine trees, paints them in a bluish haze. I just hoped Dr. Bluth could lift the haze surrounding my own playground. I wanted to play, too, you know.
      We marveled thoughtfully, breathing in the beauty of these mountains for as long as possible. But then reality smacked us in the face as we rounded the corner to Dr. Bluth's office. The enormity of the building and its heavenly surroundings made me feel like this was some kind of movie—a drama, of course. The whole trip felt less real somehow. We stepped up to the door and knocked.
      The man with the bow-tie appeared, “Ah, ladies! How was lunch?”
      I glanced at Mom, suppressing a knowing smile. “You were right,” she responded, “The tuna was terrific.” Her face took on a slight pink hue. My smile became a stern line. Doctors and medical practices now put me on the defensive. Though he was nice, I still felt like the exotic bird in the zoo. My special objet d'art was about to be on display, and it would take more than an amiable smile and quirky bow-tie to put me at ease.
      “So,” he said, “Dr. Yang sent you here. Would you mind if I examined you?”
      “Okay,” I conceded. After all, at least he was polite about it. He directed us to an exam room with the table that, to me, seemed like it should be in a mad scientist’s lab. Something about the metal stirrups just jarred me. Disconcerting images of previous visits to gynecologists and "specialists" leapt into my head.
      Once the door was shut, Mom whispered, “He can examine me!” I glanced at her and gave a wry smile. While Mom ogled him, he quietly and courteously examined me. Then he said, “I’ll give you a few minutes to get dressed and then we’ll go over my findings, okay?” I nodded. “We’ll meet back in my study. Do you remember how to get there? It’s right down the hall, first door on the right.” Mom thanked him. He completely disarmed me with his geniality and professionalism. Once he’d left the room, Mom feigned fainting from his beauty. A smile crept back into my visage.
      When we made our way down the hallway we found him sitting at a large table in a conference room, just outside his study. He was poring over a folder containing my medical records. He noticed us and waved us in, “Come in, come in. Please, take a seat.” For a moment, I saw imaginary philosophers, men with gray hair and long beards, sitting around the table contemplating my curio. I almost smiled.
      “Rachael,” he began, “according to Dr. Gale’s records and the ultrasound and MRI tests, you have what is called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome. That is, absence of a uterus and vagina.”
      I must have frowned. The missing uterus I could take. But vagina?! I had a vagina. I mean, what else was that thing—that bygone—down there? We’re taught in preschool that, “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. That’s where the pee comes out.” Perhaps it was my own misunderstanding, but I, with a host of other girls, was led to believe that the vagina housed all those other parts: the (glorious) clitoris, the urethra (where the pee actually comes out), and all the fleshy stuff, the labia and the labia majora. What then, was the vagina?
      “Did you have a question?” Dr. Bluth asked. “You look a bit confused.”
      “Well … I’m pretty sure I have a vagina, sir. What else is that thing down there?” Mom smiled at my light-heartedness.
      “From my examination, your vagina, where you would perform sexual intercourse, is very shallow. You have normal external sexual development otherwise: pubic hair, breasts, clitoris—” I think I blushed when he said this. While I was acquainted with my clitoris, I viewed it as something sacred and holy. Even though it was the proper anatomical term for it, just hearing it aloud colored my cheeks a light crimson. “—And the labia majora and labia and urethra appear normal.”
      All these technical terms. All these doctor words. Just give it to me straight: How's my hoo-ha? A few years after all these nightmare visits to doctors and so-called specialists, Mom and I discussed all of this jargon one night over ice cream.
      “Yeah,” I said, “so they call it a vulval or vulvar vestibule.” My voice was a hushed whisper. “Which is funny, I think, because I always picture church when I hear the word vestibule.”
      “Come in!” Mom said with a chunk of peanut butter stuck in her cheek. “Be exalted.”
      Looking heavenward through the parlor’s rainbow umbrella, I uttered, “I’m sorry, God.” Then to Mom, I continued to explain the female anatomy. “What would you call the vagina?”
      “The chute. The hallway,” she began, taking a sip from the water bottle. “The place where you, know, he reads the bulletin.” She grinned at me. It was a beautiful blasphemy.
      “Well, um, he only has to be, so tall, you see, or else he won’t fit in the building. There’s been so much stress in society about men needing to be well-endowed, but really, according to Cosmopolitan, the average, um, height, is 5 foot, 3/4 inches, to scale.”
      Mom savored another peanut butter chunk, swallowed and said, “So most of the feeling is in the head, then.” I giggled and then bit a piece of my waffle cone, slowly shaking my head from side to side.
      “Yeah, I guess. I mean, a vestibule can only be so big, y’know.”
      A beat of silence passed as we ate our ice cream. Then Mom chimed in, “Yeah, but it’s a muscle, too.”
      “Look, I don’t have anything to compare it to. I’m of a different specimen.”
      You’d be surprised at how many women in the world are truly baffled by, or ignorant to, their sexual anatomy. When Mom told Grandma that I couldn’t have kids and that I had an imperforate hymen (at the time, a misdiagnosis), she responded with, “My God, Carolyn Sue, how does she pee?” My 50-some-year-old mother then had to give my 80-year-old grandmother a brief lesson in anatomy.
      Then there was the unfortunate case of Pierce McPhee, one of my former classmates. When we were in eighth grade, Pierce was fooling around with his older, cheerleader girlfriend, Nancy. Apparently, he tried to put his fingers in her urethra. Well, she was none too mature and went and told her entire squad. Seriously, who would want to broadcast this intimate detail to a bunch of gossipy girls? It was a matter of one afternoon before poor Pierce ended up with the unfortunate nickname, “Peehole McPhee.”
      And it wasn't just my high school classmates who were confounded by the good Lord's jigsaw puzzle we call the female reproductive system, but college classmates of mine, too. I told a fellow grad student of mine—a mother, mind you—that I don’t get my periods because I don’t have a uterus. This surprised her greatly. “But you have ovaries?”
      "Well, yes," I replied. "But you bleed because the uterine wall is shedding itself and the egg goes with it. Your uterus makes this possible.” She looked genuinely surprised.
      Dear Men of the World: Yes, the female body can be, even to us women, as mysterious as the pyramids of Egypt.
      But back to the conference room. Dr. Bluth was explaining two options. “If you were interested in having sexual intercourse, you would have to deepen your vagina.”
      I tried not to frown again, but didn’t losing my virginity to Jay, along with another sexual encounter that summer, seem to prove my vagina was deep enough? And what's this mean, "deep enough?" Hell, I don’t want a cavern down there. A small cave of wonders, but no cavern so deep the penis could stretch and yawn in—and hear its echo! I mean, there’d been mutual pleasure for both of us. It sure felt like he’d been “inside” me. Yet here, Dr. Bluth was telling me that intercourse wasn’t possible? My brain raced.
      Dr. Bluth went on. "Your vagina is short and blind, measuring about 3 centimeters in total depth."
      Years later, during the aforementioned conversation over ice cream, “short and blind” reared its ugly head. I held out an imaginary walking cane. “Wh-what’s going on?” I giggled.
      Never missing a beat, Mom jumped right in. “It seems there’s a visitor in the vestibule! It’s okay. We’ll leave the light on for ya!” she exclaimed, mocking the Motel 6 slogan.
      Still the center of great debate, my exoticism perplexed me. First these "specialists" say I don’t have a uterus. Now, one of them is telling me my vagina is shallow and blind! What does blind mean, anyway? It'd be a little creepy after all if it could see. Later on in the visit, Dr. Bluth referred to me as having a “shallow canal.” It somewhat comforted me to think of it that way. The first thing I think of when I hear this word is the Panama Canal. Visit the under-explored Shallow Canal! I thought. Canal offers some leeway, whereas “no vagina” is a complete hope-killer. In retrospect, I see that he meant the condition can vary for some women, meaning it's possible not to have a vagina; at the time, however, my tormented sense of self took this terminology to heart.
      Dr. Bluth paused, perused the records, and then looked up at Mom and me. “There are two options for your vagina,” he explained. Briefly, I pictured a cartoon vulva (with vagina, of course) on a game show choosing between Door Number One and Door Number Two. “One would be surgery which isn’t guaranteed. The other is the use of vaginal dilators.” Both Mom and I were listening intently, so he continued. “Surgery is an option. It would involve skin grafts, probably from your thighs, and we can’t guarantee that the nerve endings will be quite the same.” The cartoon vagina shrunk away from Door Number One. If there was one thing I’d discovered in my seventeen years on earth it was that there are definitely sufficient nerve endings down yonder. I certainly didn’t want to mess with that!
      “And you would have to see if this type of surgery is covered by insurance,” Dr. Bluth said, “because in some cases it’s considered cosmetic and some companies won’t cover it.” Great, I thought. I imagined a claims report: Nose jobs, face lifts, vaginal deepening, all stamped with “NOT COVERED” in red ink.
      He paused. “Of course, in the case of surgery, you would then have to have sex at least once a day or use the dilators to keep re-growth from occurring.” I pictured giant, red velour theatre curtains closing together, and assumed that’s what he meant the result of this re-growth would be like. I remember thinking that daily sex wouldn’t be a real big hardship, and I had an imaginary conversation with my future husband in my head. “Um, sweetheart, there’s one thing you should know before we get married. Yeah, we have to have sex at least once a day.” Is any guy really going to have a problem with that? Moreover, I couldn’t see how I would.
      “Your other option is using vaginal dilators. Let me go get them to show you.” He stood up, ruffling the papers in my file. Mom and I looked at one another. This could be weird, we both seemed to say with our eyes. He was back before we could say anything.
      "These are two vaginal dilators,” he explained, holding up two white, almost candlestick-looking objects. “There is a small and medium size, and you’ll need both. You’ll want to start small, of course. What you’ll do with the dilator is lubricate it and insert it as far as you comfortably can for ten minutes a day. You’ll want to insert it in an upward direction, toward your lower back, when lying down. After a while, and you’ll know when, you can then graduate to the medium one. This is called the ‘Franking’ procedure. Ideally, you might want to increase the space in your vagina by dimpling to about six inches if you want to simulate normal intercourse.”
      The air was heavy and I blushed a bit, but I felt a little jaded. Why did I have to do this? My sexual experiences so far were okay. Resentment crept in. Before I could think much more, Mom unexpectedly chimed in, “Is that, um, sufficient?”
      Dr. Bluth fought a smile as his face turned a slight pink. “Um, yes.” There was only an inhale’s worth of silence before the nervous tension in the room exploded into embarrassed laughter.
      Franking? Seriously? I suddenly feel like I’m ordering hot dogs at a baseball game. This procedure is named after a Dr. Frank, of course, but even so. If I ever got over the resentment, where would I find adequate time and privacy to "create" my own vagina? I imagined putting a door hanger on my bedroom to let the family know I was hard at work. The whole situation felt like a 4-H activity gone wrong. Oh, shit, Mom, can you drive me to Michael’s craft store? I need to make a privacy tent for the dimpling project.
      Despite my reservations, we took them home. A whopping $75 per dilator.
      “Those are some expensive dildos!” Mom quipped.
      “Well, I think you blew your chances with him,” I replied.
      “What do you mean?”
      “‘Is that sufficient?’” I quoted, and then grinned. “Talk about giving a man a penis complex. How big do you think it needs to be?”
      “Well I don’t know!” she retorted, “I just thought I’d ask! You know … in case you were curious.”
      So there I was, seventeen and sexless. I went to UVA looking for some definitive denotations, and all I got were confusing connotations. I was perplexed now more than ever about my empty bygone, my unadorned bibelot, my nonesuch un-marvel. Where I’d once been sexually liberated and comfortable with my objet d’art, I was now alone and freakish with my oddity. Caught in a teenaged wasteland, I sullenly cast my eyes toward Mom. She rested her arm on the window jamb, lit her Doral Light, cranked up the music, and we began our trek home, my curio still shrouded in the blue haze of the marveling Virginia landscape.

Author’s Note: If you or someone you know has wrestled with reproductive birth defects, please know that you’re not alone. Support is out there, no matter the situation. For more information on the birth defect discussed in this story, please visit: Genetics Home Reference

Rachael Goetzke earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and teaches writing at Misericordia University. She is the Managing Editor of Word Fountain, a literary magazine she started in-house at the Osterhout Free Library. Working as an Early Literacy Outreach Specialist serving young children in the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area, she also runs poetry and writing workshops throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. Her poetry, short fiction and non-fiction has been published in Word Fountain, Tiny Booklets, and Ripasso. She is currently working on her first memoir entitled The Girl with the Ambiguous Uterus. She blogs about everything music and writing at: Rachael Goetzke

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