In this grasping, materialistic day and age, I’ve been thinking about what it means to hold on to things, and what it means to lose them. I’ve been thinking about all these boxes of printed matter I have on the back porch—old manuscripts, the few journals I’ve kept. I want to put the whole load in the car, drive it to the country, find a secluded dirt road, drag it into the woods, douse it with lighter fuel, and burn it. The smoke, as I imagine it, would be dark grey. I’d stand there, watching all that mental wrangling rise up into the air, and feel liberated—I think. In this scenario, a red cardinal always hops out of the dark grass near my feet to take off and disappear top left. But what does it mean to make something disappear?
Recently my Pap smear had come back irregular. I’d had a biopsy and was now scheduled to have the face of my cervix seared off with an electrified wire loop, in what is medically referred to as a LEEP procedure. My husband drove me to the clinic after we’d dropped our son off at preschool, and read The New Yorker while I ate a toasted bagel and started to feel nervous.
The waiting room was hushed, and then I heard my name. There was the usual cavernous moment of solitude, sitting on the edge of the exam table, naked from the waist down, a stiff napkin of paper across my lap, as I waited for the doctor. She swung into the operating room in a friendly and reassuring manner, and I slid down and put my feet in the stirrups, the metal cushioned by two oven mitts. Was the symbolism of this, I wondered, ironic, tender, or depressing? The cool, silver tire jack of her speculum made my vagina gape, and my cervix, like a Cyclops (normally kept behind closed doors, hidden from view because, frankly, it can be unpredictable), felt its astonished, lone eyeball go dry in the bright light and the stale air.
The doctor’s assistant unpeeled and stuck to my thigh a large adhesive electrode—like one of those anti-shoplifting stickers you sometimes find between the pages of a book. This was to ground me, so that neither I nor the doctor would get an electrical shock. Then there was the localized freezing by injection. A deeply subcutaneous impression, like someone was working on my brain, that other brain, the one between my legs, pricking nerveless yet super-sensitive tissue; intrusive but hard to locate, a soft rubber Q-tip pushed high into the head through the nose. It reminded me of giving birth. The anaesthetic is mixed with a chemical to increase the speed of absorption. It might make your heart race, the doctor had said. Might, I thought, as I suddenly went breathless, disoriented. I was rushing naked through the shocking dampness of a forest before dawn, cold air and wet branches slapping my face and arms.
Then the sheering off with the electrified wire—the electricity turns the wire into a blade. I summoned my animal protectors. I went into trance mode. I started talking in a language I didn’t recognize. The assistant inquired of the doctor. The doctor said gently, She’s praying. I appreciated the respect she was bestowing on me when I was acting, possibly, a little weird. Flesh was separated from flesh. Me from myself. More indistinct, cauterizing pain. Then a plume of pale smoke, like the transitory appearance of a ghost. The doctor had forgotten to turn on the extractor vacuum, the white plastic tube resting against the inside of my thigh failing to do its discreet work. In my nostrils, the acrid rubber-tire smell of my own burning body. I hear a kind of chanting. Small finger cymbals clink and clink-clink. I am at the edge of the Ganges, smelling my own cremation.
Every month, women come into contact with blood, blood on cotton, blood mixed with shit, blood in the toilet. Even now as I write this, I am bleeding. My blood is bright red and warm. It slips sluglike out between my legs to prove how powerful and creative is the force of reproduction. In June 2012, State Representative Lisa Brown was banned indefinitely from speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives after using the word vaginain her objection to Michigan’s proposed anti-abortion law. The bill proposes to make illegal all abortions after twenty weeks regardless of the health of the mother or the fetus, or the reason for the pregnancy, be it rape or incest. A picture of Brown speaking at the podium reveals, behind her, a sea of old white men in suits, their heads severed from their bodies by the tight noose of their neckties.
Vaginas drive men crazy—some in a good way, some in a really bad way. The vagina is a lurid mystery, wild, reckless, immoral. A primitive thing to get lost in, like the bubbling cauldron at the centre of all cannibalistic ceremonies. Vaginas have a will of their own. As far as I know, in my life, I have driven only one man literally crazy with the unintentional power and timing of unbidden acts of my own vagina.
I was sixteen years old and one of a dozen or so passengers from Montreal, heading down in a converted school bus to a hippie festival in a remote location on the edge of a large, murky lake in Texas. It was 1988, and we wore secondhand clothes and jewellery made of coloured thread and semi-precious stones, silver, wood, and bone. Our hair was unwashed and our tanned skin buffed by the dust and the dirt; nature was gradually repossessing us. You can lie down anywhere and the earth is your blanket. The boundary around yourself slowly disintegrates. We arrived at sunrise, the air misty, a trace of coolness in the heat, a pink sky; the milky edge of the water the colour of tea.
It was there that I first laid eyes on Lance, a few evenings later, as I wandered from one campfire to another, stepping into the halo of yet another small, human grouping: the conversations, the music, the preposterous lines of dialogue. She’s doing power animal retrieval in Colorado now.I was young and enthralled by the newness, the adventure, the exhilarating freedom of it all. I was naked except for a long Indian cotton skirt. The air was full of insect noises and the ring of laughter in the darkness. The sky was flung with stars.
Lance stepped down from a bus not unlike our own, parked near a roaring campfire. There were lots of these kinds of buses. Some had two storeys, some with balconies, wrought-iron fences, flower boxes full of petunias. Lance looked liked Hermes, like he had a message for me. He should have had wings on the heels of his scuffed-up army boots. He was wearing a baggy pair of burgundy jogging pants twisted over at the waist, low enough to reveal the plate of his stomach muscles and the dents of his hips, like arrows pointing down to his pubis. His skin in the firelight was a reddish gold. His chest flat and hairless. I wanted to praise that school bus for having given birth to such a magnificent creature.
He stood very straight and crossed his arms, staring into the flames. His legs were spread apart and his feet looked rooted to the ground. He had black hair and an Egyptian-looking face. I could barely take my eyes off him but was too intimidated to speak. I was dancing and very high, so I just kept on dancing. Three women played the bongos and there is something ecstatic and primitive about throwing your half-naked body into the air, orange flames in the corners of your eyes. After a time, he walked away from the fire and disappeared into the darkness. I didn’t see him again, not in Texas.
It was a couple of months later and I was panhandling on the main drag in Santa Cruz. I saw him walking toward me and froze. He saw me looking at him and stopped to talk. He was drifting too, well-dressed in casual khakis but with no fixed address. Do you want, Lance asked, to go to the beach?
We sat on the warm sand and talked about how we’d got to where we were, and while I was still talking, he put his hand behind my neck and pulled my face forward and kissed me. He had a movie-star way of kissing, slowly at first, lots of breath and just a touch of tongue, waiting until my mouth was gaping before opening his jaw and grinding his mouth into mine. We took great bites of each other, the way some people take a chunk out of an apple. We rolled around on the sand and then he chased me through the surf and it was just like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. We walked back into Santa Cruz. Found a park and a picnic table.
I want to read your tarot cards, he said. Would you let me?
Maybe, I said. One day.
I hiked up my skirt and straddled his lap and we made out for hours. I only owned one pair of tights and I was having my period. I was using a wad of toilet paper because I had no money for tampons. When we got up at last, I noticed a faint smudge of blood on the zipper of his pants but was too shy to tell him.
It was September and Santa Cruz can get cold at night. I’d been staying at a motel with a bunch of other homeless young people. Two people would rent the room, then as many as fifteen would sneak in after hours. I took Lance there. We lay down on the floor, between the bed and the wall. We had some privacy that way, and he lay on his side and looked at me. There was the usual Goodnight, John-Boy, and then the lights went out. He reached up under my shirt and put his hand on my breast. I felt my pelvis loosen and rise up toward the ceiling. When he started to go down on me I said, I’m having my period.
Praise God, he whispered on the way back up.
Having grown up in a religious family, I thought it was the sexiest thing anyone had ever said to me. It conflated childhood yearnings with sex, and made the context of my upbringing seem not so strange. That God could be referred to in this motel room. Evoked with reverence in reference to my body. I was only sixteen, but Lance made me feel sophisticated. I don’t even know how old he was. Twenty-two, I’d say. We didn’t fuck that night, but in the morning, my mouth was swollen and my chin rubbed raw.
We spent the following day together. We hung out in the dangerous part of town, by the boardwalk and the empty fairground after dark. We held hands. I felt safe with him. He seemed brave. I couldn’t imagine him phased by anything.
That night we decided to sleep outdoors. There was a scrapyard a few blocks from the main drag that we snuck into after the gate was locked. We found a secluded spot between the derelict shells of discarded cars and flattened a few cardboard boxes onto the gravel. With one blanket between the two of us, we fell asleep under the stars in an almost fraternal embrace, like orphaned children on the run.
I woke up before he did. The sun was flashing off bits of broken glass and chrome. There was a lace of frost on everything, steam rising where the sun was burning it off. My bum felt sticky. I looked down and saw that my thighs were covered in blood. The cardboard under me was smeared with it. I was sitting in a puddle of my own blood. Had I been shot? Was I dead? And if not dead, then who, or what, had been sacrificed in order that I should still be alive? Blood is a protector, it saved the first-born of Jewish families at Passover; but it is also a taboo. I was trembling. I had to clean it up, but I was too mortified to wake Lance up.
I tried to pull some of the cardboard out from under him, and managed to free one of the flattened boxes and toss it behind a stack of old tires, but there was still a bright smear around him. Now he looked like the victim of a crime. I couldn’t bear the emotional effect this picture was having on me, so I took off. I hoped he wouldn’t panic too much when he woke up. I ran through the dawn-deserted streets of Santa Cruz to that motel room and knocked on the door. A friend let me in. I had blood on my hands. I shrugged apologetically and she said, Shit, girl, and let me have a shower and wash my clothes. It wasn’t until I’d had my period for more than two weeks that another friend told me to stay off the ginger root tea. It’s got abortive properties, she said. Didn’t you know that?
The next time I saw Lance—and the last time—was at a Grateful Dead show in Berkeley, about six weeks later. A friend told me, Your old boyfriend is here.
Who? I asked.
Lance, she said.
He was hanging out in the parking lot. I thought I saw him walking toward me but couldn’t be sure it was him. His clothes were dishevelled and his skin was filthy. It was Lance all right, but he wasn’t himself. His eyes were haunted, restless, and he had spittle at the corners of his mouth.
Lance, I said, it’s me. But he didn’t seem to know who I was, and it was awful and sad. He didn’t say anything. He just kept looking nervously around the parking lot and fiddling with the side seam of his pants. He was wearing the same pants he’d worn weeks earlier in Santa Cruz. Was that my smudge of blood still there on the fly of his khakis? Had I branded him somehow, in a reversal of the Passover? Marked him for craziness, told the angels: you can take this one.
Lance, I said again, and he swung around to shoot me a look. It was an accusation, or a plea for help, but I didn’t know how to help him. He gave a spastic shiver, like he was trying to toss something off his skin, and walked away. He was like a beautiful, strong animal, but he was broken now. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling, for years afterwards, that it was my blood that had pushed him over the edge. The shock of waking up in a bright smear of red, the girl you went to sleep with, missing.
Years later, I moved in with my parents again. My mom had a Christian counselling practice and was doing exorcisms on the third floor of their big house in Toronto. She’d come down at the end of her work day and briefly tell my dad and me about how it had gone. Thursdays were her marathon days—she had clients straight through from nine in the morning to six at night. This one Thursday she came down and said her day had begun with a forty-five-minute quarrel with a demon she couldn’t get rid of—but she couldn’t get into it with us because of the confidentiality agreement—and ended with her having to restrain another client from doing harm to herself, my mother, the walls, whatever.
This woman, my mother said, when she’s possessed, she’ll bang her head against any hard surface, the floor, the furniture. I held her between my knees for half an hour. I shouldn’t have worn this skirt today, she said. Look at it.
My dad said, What you really need is a big, strong male colleague to work with.
She answered, Want to come along?
Sure, my father said. I’ll hold up the cross.
At dinner she wanted comfort food, pasta with melted cheese. She had three glasses of red wine. She didn’t want to give up the casserole dish to my dad for washing up. I want to keep picking at it, she said. I could go on eating this all night. Okay, somebody take this away from me. It’s not like I need it. Oh, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it. I have no discipline on Thursdays.
It was nearly Christmastime, and after dinner I offered to make eggnog coffees and my parents adjourned to the living room to sit by the tree. When I brought them in, my dad was reading on the sofa by the window, my mom reclined on the opposite one. She was stretched out on her back with her legs bent over the arm, her feet dangling toward the floor. I sat down beside my dad, and my mom started to laugh, at her own helplessness, I guessed. But then her laughter grew loud, almost hysterical. Maybe she was feeling the Lord, or being moved by the Spirit. Every time she laughed, her feet flipped up so that her whole body went horizontal. I was getting nervous. I looked at my dad. Is she all right?
No, my dad answered in a calm voice and remained seated.
My mom, between sobs of laughter, keeps repeating the word poop. Oh, poop. She was laughing a little less, whimpering a little more. Poop. And then she grew quiet. I’m going to drown, she said softly and seriously.
It scared me. Was she possessed?
My tears are filling up my ears, she said. Soon I won’t be able to hear anymore.
I looked at my dad.
We’ll rescue you, sweetheart, he said.
Oh, it’s really Thursday, she said, isn’t it.
Everything went still. Cars passed with a hissing sound outside. I could hear the clock in the dining room. My dad and I sat patiently. My mom seemed so haggard. How could she absorb so much suffering, so much trauma in one day?
She is barricading evil, my dad said quietly. Just locking it out.
In the hopes of leaving the rest of us, I supposed, relatively unscathed. A barrier she could afford to put up, some crazy strength in her blood for that kind of work.
The next day, she told me about a vision a friend of hers had had about me years before, when I was in California and my parents didn’t know my whereabouts. I am surrounded by a circle of people in hooded robes, and I am inserting something phallic into my vagina.
Are you kidding me? I shouted. I was outraged and humiliated. Sometimes I feel like vaginas are the real locus of the battle between good and evil, and the state of vaginas—the respect they are shown, or the lack of it—a good litmus test for the balance of decency in the world. I felt as if, after all those years ago when I exited her vagina, my mother had just crawled into mine. It’s too crowded. All the people I carry in there. Maybe that’s why we bleed. To empty out the chamber. Imagine what women would have to carry otherwise?
The smell like burnt hair was beginning to disperse. I realized the doctor was collecting several bits of something and putting them in a specimen jar. I said, Can I see that?
The doctor said, Are you sure?
I hadn’t realized there would be bits to collect. I looked in the jar. Oh my God! I said. It’s a toe!
It’s not a toe, the doctor said.
They were pieces of my cervix. I had never seen a piece of myself like this, through the transparent plastic of a specimen jar. Was this the beginning of my own disappearance? My coming apart? I needed to hold on to something, to someone. I held my husband’s arm and walked less gingerly than I thought I’d have to out of the clinic and into the bright midday sun, the rustle of leaves in the gentle wind, a robin’s confident, loud song.
My husband opened the car door and waited until I was seated before closing it carefully. He got in behind the wheel and bowed his head; his body deflated a little. Lately, my husband’s face has had a loosening look, like it was drifting away from its usual compactness. I knew it had something to do with getting older, all the duties of parenthood and trying to make a living, and about the fragility of things, the beauty of our son, the sobriety of an intimidating medical procedure. He started the car and we merged with the traffic of the city, like slow-moving herds of yoked oxen.
I thought again of my urge to burn all my private written records. What was I hoping to achieve? Was I being defiant? Trying to avoid the pain of loss by pre-empting it with my own act of destruction? Was I trying to take control of my own inevitable erasure? Was I devaluing something? Or trying to avoid embarrassment? Or was I trying to loosen, on the cusp of middle age, the burden of memory, making room to reinvent myself again by destroying the evidence of who I wasn’t any longer. I preferred this idea to all the other ones.
Christine Pountney’s third novel, Sweet Jesus, is out with McClelland & Stewart this fall.