Winner of the 2020 Disquiet International Literary Program Prize in Nonfiction
Ninth Letter is proud to feature “On Choosing,” by Serena Simpson. In this haunting, award-winning essay, as Simpson examines personal decisions both private and public, she homes in on the small print of her experience, insisting on her individual interior self and not allowing it to be subsumed into a larger, perhaps discordant narrative. This is a very brave essay, one where declaration, accusation and confession wind around each other. It is truth-telling that goes deep.
By the time I went to Planned Parenthood for confirmation of what the stick test told me, I had already started asking co-workers if they needed any days covered. I don’t think I even made $7 an hour then. My regular shift load barely yielded a take-home that afforded the reduced-price well-woman visit. I knew it wouldn’t possibly cover the I cost of the dread I knew was coming. I told friends at work that I was a little behind in my rent. I mentioned my worry over early talks of eviction, without specifying that I was the one planning to leverage the option to ouster, at this they sympathetically yielded their time, giving me the work I needed to earn my choice. At the walk-in appointment, the exam was quick but thorough: piss in this cup (pat, don’t wipe), confirm your name for the label, hold still for the needle, feet in the stirrups, hips to the edge of the table, knees apart to accept the speculum (deep breath), wait here, please. Then a counselor gave me the verification I expected, a price sheet I feared, and counsel against making hasty decisions.
I had folded my work clothes neatly in the chair. I dressed again without distressing them. I couldn’t have owned Gap chinos and jeans and tees if not for the two free outfits and 50 percent off final sale they gave us to eliminate excuses for not being dressed in brand on the sales floor. A sales manager had said something like, “your clothes tell a story about you.” I remember my initial disdain at the sight of the abortion clinic a few weeks later. It was less clean-cut, all-American-cool than my place of employment. Moisture from the peachy springtime humidity licked the walls of the yellow stucco building on Spring St. It looked pissed on. I can’t remember what I wore there. I wonder if I looked the type for the 7 a.m. Saturday morning check-in story. Behind the hotline posters, the interior walls in the waiting room were dressed in shitty gray and Easter-pastel-pink mid-90s style geometric print wallpaper—already looking outdated by 1999. “Need someone to talk to?” one poster offered. There was an image of an immaculate cradle in another plastic-frame, slightly askew on its nail, threatening to slip.
I hadn’t considered the condom break when I tossed out that fool’s phone number unused. I was even angry to see him on the beach the next day. He’d spotted me from what seemed a block away. He was all cock strut, chest muscles, and cheesy grin, loud bragging to his friend about how wet I’d been the night before. He was trying to lock it down for a few days, he said. I rolled my eyes reflexively but paired my decline with a forced smile. He’d been looking for me all day, he claimed. I apologized, half-heartedly, and declined again, without the smile, removing his hand from the inside of my thigh. I didn’t want anything to do with the claims he thought were his to make. I hadn’t given him a second thought after I’d left his room and slept soundly in my own bed, in my own hotel, way down the beach from his. No, I didn’t want a round two. Yes, it was good.
And then it was just short of either six or seven weeks later, depending on exactly when was the first day of my last regular period. Since only I could have known that, but wasn’t sure, the intake nurse decided we better just mark down the latter, you know, to be safe. It didn’t matter that I did know the exact date I’d had sex. That wasn’t the way they counted. It still isn’t the way they count the number of days pregnant on the abortion clinic calendar, or any standard women’s health calendar. In all evaluative matters, the body’s ovulation calendar is deemed more accurate than the world’s temporal one. And yes, that did mean that they would be charging me the “after week six” rate. And yes, it was all due upfront. And no, there was not a sliding scale for cost at the abortion clinic like at the health clinic. At just under $400, my abortion cost more than double my share of rent at the time. The extra work I had procured was just barely enough.
What if you don’t want to know that this is what my abortion story looks like? Do you still champion my telling? Are you one of those who’s right now rallying women to tell, to make our voices heard? What if I tell things about a body that you don’t want told? What if choice is not the same as having options and consent is not about decision-making? Should I still be hashtagging You know me? What if my telling is of a body rife with pain that has also ached in pleasure? What if in my telling I refuse the same wounded righteousness that you swaddle so snugly around your indignation? Will you still consume and regurgitate my telling? Can you hold the fullness of my story in your mouth and still say, “me too”?
There was a lean-muscled boy with long fingers who lived a few floors above my grandmother when I was five. He liked my long, fluffy hair and the way I laughed when he tickled me. He called me his girlfriend and I felt special. Maybe no one thought it strange that a boy of fourteen or so was fond of tickling a skinny five-year-old me. He had a sister a year older than me. Maybe everyone thought he was used to being sweet with little girls. Maybe no one was paying attention.
This was back when cable television was still new. We rarely even caught sight of the clunky little beige box, with its rubbed-off number dials and mangled rabbit ears, sequestered in my grandmother’s bedroom, but the multi-buttoned black and silver behemoth in the middle of the boy’s living room was pristine and accessible and had channels that even TV Guide didn’t know about yet. Sometimes he would let us all come up and watch. Sometimes he would come just for me and take me by the hand to play. Maybe no one thought it was strange when his mother and sister weren’t home for my play dates, maybe no one noticed, maybe no one cared. My brothers couldn’t come along to watch cable on those days when the boy took me by the hand, and we didn’t ask why. Maybe we were intimidated by the boy’s age and license to do as he pleased. Maybe he was nice to us, and we didn’t want to lose that. Maybe we were grateful for his promises of “next time.” Maybe it was enough to believe that someone who had something to offer that we wanted was coming back for us, again and again.
Is this the kind of thing you imagine helps or hurts your cause? Do you really want stories about the choices women make to be known?
I can’t remember his face, but I may never forget the set and weight of his body and the new muskiness of his scent. And I did watch cable—though I can’t remember what, while he lay on top of me, pressing hard between my legs. It didn’t hurt, only later, I liked it, at first, only a little. Over the years, I have said and believed all of those statements in various arrangements. They all remain true in any and every order.
He never took my clothes off. He never touched me down there with his hands. Sometimes he stroked my hair, sometimes my face. He only spread my legs a little, to make it better for both of us. He was as gentle as he could be. If I cried, it was never loudly. Unless he needed to hurry, he would cover me with a towel or a blanket when he was done. He would give me a pillow, some kindness. I always made it back home before his mother did. Sometimes he carried me. He returned me unruffled though broken. No one ever spoke any words to me about it. And if they had asked, I couldn’t have told his kindness apart from my trembling. I would sleep after he was done—a refuge, a deep release of relief, like the simple sound slumber after someone beats you to exhaustion.
So it must have been then, at around five years old, when I started masturbating—and no, I don’t mean that five-year-old me had rocks to get off, and no, I don’t mean an innocent, accidental exploration, say, the way that babies might just as easily place their hands in their diaper as their toes in their mouth: feeling the sensation of what it is to feel one’s own body while learning what feeling is, what a body is. No, this self-pleasure was not self-discovery—it was imitated repetition. My childhood masturbation was always about grinding my body against an object—usually a towel, a blanket, a pillow, something innocuous and accessible that could be contorted and fixed in place—and made firm enough to mount.
I’d felt the boy’s pressure between my legs and his deliberate movements that sent surges of delight tingling in currents across my body. I tried to remake what he had. Even on my own, I kept pressing beyond the delight. Sometimes, if I had the time and the privacy, I would keep going until I was sore, almost raw. I didn’t question the pain. It seemed a right and necessary part of the sensation sequence I had learned. Sometimes getting to the pain was the only way I could soothe myself to sleep. I thought some time later that my body recognized the sequence of sensation as a linear progression of steps, from A to D, or 1 to 4, but no, that suggested a hierarchy in the feelings—that was pathologizing. That was inaccurate. Now, I think my body recognized a loop. Maybe the body develops comfort in patterns, each piece of the pattern holding equal weight.
Pressure, pleasure, pain, sleep.
When you say that now is the time for women to tell, to be heard, are you asking that “we” lay open our bodies, experiences, worlds, in full invitation? To whom do you ask that we offer the pieces of ourselves that we are trying to learn to reclaim. And to what end? Am I not mine? Is the utterance I make for myself not enough? Why should I consent to give myself to you, to claim as your own? Do you want me to say, “you know me” and “me too” and to believe women, for you, even as you shield against that very knowing—under a shroud of false unity that subsumes us, obscures us, quiets us, and tries to erase us in the merger of our tellings into a singular narrative? Not you, of course—just, us. Us, the other, those who don’t quite fit neatly into the preferred narrative. Because—you get that the generic “we” is too weak to hold me and you, right? I get that you want every woman to keep telling the same common lie about our power. Right. It’s just that… I can’t. And unlike Janey and Phoebe, your tongue is not in my mouth, friend. I don’t trust you to tell my tale, even if you think you can. And I can’t swallow your prevailing perfect persecution and echo it back to you. It leaves no room for air. I’ll choke.
The nights I spent in my aunt and uncle’s bed the year I lived there are patchy at best, but I remember enough to make me grateful for the gaps. I was six nearing seven. My uncle liked for me to crawl, slowly enough not to rumple the sheets, into his bed and read to him at night. Somewhere, pressed flat and smooth in the unconfessed space beneath my tongue, I keep a hazy memory of him—his hands and arms warm and bolstering mine as we cradle the Little Golden Books balanced gently in my palms, me snuggled into his lap, his breath hot behind me before he lays me down.
The nights when no one touched me, I shuddered as quietly as I could, alone on their couch. I waited for the holy ghost to come save me or at least to rock me to sleep. Those memories are easier to handle. I knew then that the promise in Psalms 46 was real. There was a very present help. But I thought I could only seek it on the nights when I wasn’t touched and was certain that I didn’t want to be, nights when the line between my terror and gratitude was much less muddled, nights when I was not compliant in my time of trouble. I could choose a want on those certain and untouched nights—a want to be saved— and I could wear it like a clean and reverent second skin. Have you peeled your skin off and pasted it on again in the practice of prayer?
My cousin who lived with my aunt and uncle too was about twelve or thirteen the year I lived there. She had lived there as long as I could remember, maybe as long as she could remember too. Sometimes she was called to crawl into bed with our uncle too. Sometimes with me. Sometimes without. Sometimes with my aunt too. My cousin must have been long past Little Golden Books by then. I don’t know what she carried with her on the long careful crawl across that bed.
A few years ago, a different aunt threw a party for my grandmother’s 90-somethingth birthday. My grandmother was blind and senile by then. She had even stopped wearing her wigs. I don’t think she recognized or remembered most of us. I didn’t recognize or had never met a lot of the people in the room myself. My grandmother was the last survivor of a Mississippi sharecropper’s eighteen children. Some of her siblings’ children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren had come to the party, if only to acknowledge what was left of the clan of country-born snuff dippers that we all spur from. I was standing and laughing in a little huddle with my brothers when I noticed a woman staring at me. She looked vaguely like my mother, but not more than many of the other women in the room. She walked close to us, her eyes fixed on me. “Hey,” my brother greeted her. “Who’s this?” she asked, as she placed a hand on his elbow to steady herself. My brother laughed, “That’s Serena.” Reading the lack of recognition on my face too, he told me her name. She was that cousin who had been made to crawl across the same bed as me. “Y’all don’t even know each other now? Wow.” My brother shook his head.
My cousin embraced me in a way that no one has ever held me in my life. I felt her heart thudding into the right side of my chest like a second heart of my own. Her arms became my flesh. Her breathing trained mine, from a whimper to a long, long full sob, to the gasp she finally let out after she released me. She hugged me so long that my brothers walked away. She held me so closely that the other fifty or sixty people in the room disappeared and took their noise with them. There was only the sound of our tears and the feeling of our breath between us. We never spoke any words during that embrace. What was there to say after so long? It had probably been thirty years since I’d last seen her before I was sent away from my aunt and uncle’s house to live with my father and not much less time since my cousin had run away to live on the street. “She was out there turning tricks,” somebody said once. “She chose that,” they said.
Our embrace said all the things that we could not and that only we could. You made it. You’re here. I miss you. I know. I’m sorry. Me too. When the embrace was over, we gathered our children to show to each other. My son was a chunky-cheeked six-month-old. Her two boys, around seven and nine, both had her one-lipped smile and their own matching copper-brass colored coils of hair cropped close to the scalp. “This is your cousin. Say, Hi. Say, love you,” we told them. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t front like we’d stay in touch. We didn’t even look for each other in that community center common room to say goodbye when it was time to leave. No one asked about our tears or our embrace or what we remembered or what we had forgotten. We all just moved on.
I won’t tell you my cousin’s name here now because whatever blood, family, body history we share—she is not mine to write. The we’s that link us do not make us seamless. Do you see? I cannot fold her into me or you. She did not choose these pages. This telling is mine. We want so desperately to not be alone in our telling that we lay claims where we have no rights. And you want to know the truth? Telling won’t make it better. It’s not that simple. Telling is not absolution. And telling is neither free nor freeing—there is a cost, there is a bind, and there are limits—to what we tell. The limits of the page are limits, nonetheless. I don’t mind, not so long as I get to create them. I for damn sure prefer my own limits to your delusive liberties. I want no parts of an other-ruled, unlimited telling of my world, of my body. I’ll choose my own, always.
I was seven or eight before I had language for what I did with the nice, lean-muscled, long-fingered boy who lived in my grandmother’s building. We used to call it “juicing”, but that was an 80’s black Chicago thing, somebody else somewhere else might have called it “humping” or “hunching” or some other inane slang for clothes-on, private part-pressed-to-private part, body grinding. No matter what we called it—we didn’t actually talk about it. Talking about it was for nasty boys and fast-tailed, grown-acting, mannish girls. Nobody wanted to be mannish, not then, not even the boys. Even mentioning juicing outside of a game of Catch a Girl, Kiss a Girl could garner embarrassed giggles at least and knowing, shaming stares at worst. It was the kind of thing that could make you the kind of girl people’s mamas told them not to play with. Even writing now, I have an impulse to hush my voice, but this is something you should hear.
The point of the game, of course, was never to actually be kissed. Boys did not treat girls so gently as to kiss them. The point was to be touched, mostly not with hands, just with bodies grinding pressure between your legs. The big boys who could attain and sustain erections were usually not interested in playing this game with small girls like I was then, but the younger ones who learned by watching the big ones, either at home or in the game, were eager to try their own versions with us: pressing a pelvis, a hip, a knee. We let them play roughly between our legs even when we thought we could say no. We didn’t want to spoil the fun. Back then when our friends said that they played the game, we wanted to say, “me too.” We crouched and whispered in our hiding places, then afterward, we laughed out loud—mouths gaping, bodies doubled over—sounds and motions of equal indecency, we knew. But why wouldn’t we play the game? And who among us would tell? Much later in life, in private black girl circles, some friends told me that they had played this childish game too and that they had called it Hide and Go Get It. No matter the name or version, girls, of course, always did the hiding and the boys, of course, always did the getting. We hid, and when they came for us, counterfeit malice masking the glow of their grinning faces, we were willing.
Do you think: if they know her, if they know the body they condemn, control, shame, harm, hate—then, they’ll have to stop? Do you think, knowing is the same as claiming the self we want to recognize in others? Do you think, if they know her, if she is recognized and claimed—and loved, then they will not cast her out, not nullify her life and her worth because it is already interwoven with and reflected in their own? Do you imagine that you know me?
Around age nine, I had an almost cousin who I used to like to juice. My uncle treated him and his siblings like they were his own kids, though they weren’t. My almost cousin was five years older than me, the same age as my stepbrother, and he had a little sister about my age. We all spent lots of weekend nights together when our parents were not home. Sometimes, though, his sister wasn’t there. She had other friends and cousins and places to go. I did not. When she wasn’t there, and only when she wasn’t, because I didn’t want her to know this about me—I’d interrupt my almost cousin and stepbrother’s Michael Jackson or Fresh Prince impersonation sessions. I’d lead my almost cousin by the hand into the dark bedroom or follow him there freely. I’d invite him, or not refuse him, to lay down on top of me. It was an eager giving. I don’t remember if he asked before I offered. As I grew bolder, I would lay on top of him. We never took our clothes off. We never touched down there with our hands. There were never kisses. At some point, I became afraid, of him and of myself, but I didn’t stop saying yes. I let him press himself hard between my legs, past the pleasure, into the pain, until he was satisfied and I was sore. I liked it, I thought, but only in hiding. We never spoke any words about it, until one day I did.
I told—under pressure from my stepmother when she demanded my camaraderie. She needed to see her(self), hear her(self) in me, when she, at middle age, was remembering long-suppressed multiple childhood rapes by her brother. If my telling was real, whether horrific or mundane, then so was hers. Is it that way for you too? Shall I tell for me or for you? She was obsessed for what seemed years. She’d rattle off statistics she’d read at random. She needed the facts to verify her doubted and disputed memory. Why would she lie, about that? She saw the tendencies of latent rapists just below the surface of men all around her, the way other people see faces in clouds and water-stained ceilings. It was worst when she was intoxicated, which was eventually all the time. She’d rail manically against the evil of men and sob openly about my father’s cruel indifference. I was too much like him, she said. But whom else to commiserate with but me? She was doing her best to prepare me for womanhood. And isn’t womanhood a shared experience? Right. One night, she gripped me with both hands and dug each of her long, sharp, polished fingernails into the tender places high on the insides of my arms. She pulled me in close. Her breath misted my face in Newports and E&J soaked spittle. “So many, so often,” she said. “It happens to all of us. Has it happened to you, yet? Tell me. Tell me. Tell me who’s touched you.” The current compulsion to be collapsed into your narrative feels this way too. The story you invite women to tell is already written. Reiteration is welcome but be damned the detractor.
I told. But not the truth, not all of it. Not about the bedtime reading lessons with my uncle, not about me nuzzling into his lap with his breath hot and thick behind me. Not about the tickling and laughing and laying and cable watching with the lean-muscled, long-fingered boy that made me feel special, chosen. Not about hiding where I could be found and fondled in a game that I was both bold enough to play and too meek to mention. I told nothing about anyone who had touched me before my almost cousin, and nothing about me leading him by the hand. I told nothing about all the times I allowed the pleasure and the pain because the pleasure and pain were never either/or for me, but instead, they were always both/and. I told nothing about how often I had repeated the pattern for myself or how soundly I slept whenever it was done. It’s not as if she offered me a choice in the flattening and erasure that her comfort required of my telling, but still, I didn’t say no.
I told, and I was so ashamed. Not of the juicing or of the half-truths, but of the brutality of the beating I knew he would get. My telling, of my body, held repercussions for his. I’d have to see how his mother would beat a reminder of limitation into him, how her welts of refusal would riddle his skin. He would be punished enough to satisfy grown folks’ sense of right and wrong, but the situation wouldn’t be altered enough to inconvenience them. There was a lesson to be learned, but no one was going to change their habits or schedules on account of me. It wasn’t like we wouldn’t be left alone on more weekend nights. He just had to be made to remember to never ever touch me down there again. And we never spoke any words about it or anything else.
Before I told, everyone already knew that I did nasty things when I thought no one was watching. I had learned to be silent, hoping that would make my nastiness less visible. And when someone would catch me, they’d pretend to be appalled, otherwise, they would have been complicit. Sometimes, I miscalculated the timing or didn’t listen well enough to their footfall. Those were the nights when they would flip on the lights, pull back the covers, slap my face, yank my grinding mount from between my legs, cast my whole being in a gaze of disgust, paralyzing me in fright. “Jesus! What’s wrong with you?” they would manage from someplace furious and helpless. I found ways to become a stealthier masturbator, to fade away a little more, to make it easier for everybody. Sometimes I prayed about it. I cried, “Jesus!” too, asking to be made unbroken.
The year I turned twenty, my birthday coincided with a girlfriends’ spring break road trip from the Atlanta University Center to Daytona Beach. The four of us gleamed electric excitement from every window of my friend’s turquoise Chevy Cavalier the whole drive down. It was probably one of the last years of beach debauchery lite before the MTV broadcast years of next-level wilding began. Rum punch, brightly colored bikinis and booty poppin’ to Florida bass music were about the extent of our expectations of revelry. We sang off-key, made-up songs—an anthem for Valdosta, to celebrate our nearness to the fun time awaiting us. We giggled for hours, still deep in girlhood, still simple enough to ogle the trees as they changed from peach to palm. Sometime before we’d piled into the car, I had decided that the transition from my teens into what I imagined was official adulthood meant I was grown. Being grown meant I was finally old enough to be fast and womanish—even mannish, if I wanted to be. If only I could have imagined then how hard it would be to outgrow my own judgment. We had packed our best discounted and shoplifted swimsuits, and not much else, determined to be sexy and free, if only just for a while. I had lost my virginity only two years before and could still count on one hand how many times I’d had sex, with a finger to spare. And still, I had my mind set on a one-night stand. It was my secret birthday gift to myself. Self-initiated sex with a stranger whom I fully intended to never see again seemed at the time the most empowering thing I could do to celebrate my newly attained womanhood.
When I picked one, I made sure he was cocky. One of the loud, pretty ones used to never asking. One of those unsure whether the size of his chain, my ass, or his ego was more impressive. I got off on the easy, steady rise he got out of imagining I was half as into him as he was into himself. It could have been our single point in common had it been true. I made a point of being on top. He made a good grinding mount. No, I didn’t want to know his last name or his phone number. No, I didn’t give a shit about whatever he was going to be doing back in Jersey. No, I didn’t want to meet up again the next day or for the rest of the trip, but I nodded along while I squeezed back into my dress, half lying about my friends who would be worried and angry if I didn’t make an appearance soon. I was grown. I could have stayed, but I didn’t want to be held across his sweaty chest while he snored into my ear. I only wanted the pressure and the pleasure, to skip the pain, and to walk away unfazed when I was done.
I wanted to be in control. I wanted to choose.
The ultrasound jelly the doctor squirts on your stomach is not warm and sticky like cum. It’s icy and slick. It slips and glides. He tells you not to squirm. The nurse asks you again if you’re sure about the father while the doctor presses the wand into your belly, searching for the eighth-to-quarter-inch sized embryo. You only find out how small it is when you check one of those “What to Expect” books after the embryo is gone. The book tells you that its mass would have been somewhere in the range between pomegranate seed and green pea. It is burrowed someplace inside your abdomen that you still can’t quite picture in your mind. The doctor and the nurse don’t mention its size while searching, the gel slick, the wand insistent. Your friend who drove you to the clinic cannot come back to the room with you. Something about privacy laws. But, they tell her, she has to be there in the gray and Easter-pastel-pink waiting room afterward, or they won’t let you leave. You wonder vaguely how they might hold you. Would there be restraints involved? Could they do that? You are cold, but there is no one to tell. You try not to shiver.
There is eventually a blob the doctor taps on the monitor. “You have to look,” the nurse tells you. That’s one of the state’s universal requirements. Twenty years later, in more than 25% of the country, you still can’t choose an abortion until after you’ve watched the monitor. Your choices are always regulated by the state’s rights. You thought you knew what that meant, but really you had no idea. Once they’re sure you are watching the monitor, they turn up the noise they tell you is the other heartbeat inside of you. You listen to the rapid-fire rhythm, wondering at the size of the cells thudding from within the seed-pea. You heard somewhere once that the human heart is about the same size as the human fist. You think about the tight ball your fingers can curl into and how outsized the rest of your body in comparison. Is that teeny tiny morsel of amplified thump, thump, thump, thumping cells, too small to be seen, but loud enough to be heard—a heart? You’re not sure how long they make you listen while lying flat on the table. They both ask you again if you are sure what you want to do. First the doctor, then the nurse.
“Do you know you have other options?” The nurse’s eyes tell you that you should have known better than to get yourself into this situation. “Has anyone forced or otherwise coerced you to do this?” She checks her list again. “You attempted to contact the father, didn’t you? You tried to get his consent, didn’t you?” She and the doctor both need to hear you lie out loud. Nodding along isn’t good enough. That’s one of the state’s universal requirements too. You believed everyone all this time when they told you that abortion was a choice about your body that was yours to make, but they didn’t mention how little say you’d have. You take a breath. “You tried, didn’t you?” the nurse asks again. You have to speak up. “Would you like to see the brochure on adoption again?” They tell you that you can still change your mind, even now. You can leave. In fact, they are required to give you a few minutes to decide, alone. They will leave the room. On the way out, the nurse points, “right there,” to the key to the locker in the next room where you placed your clothes. If you get dressed and leave once they step out, no one will question you. “Try to be sure,” she urges. Either way, it will be a terrible thing to regret, so do try to be sure. Can you?
No, you will not be refunded if you leave now. There are no pro-rates for the day’s services. “Is cost a chief concern for you? Is it a deciding factor?” the nurse asks. There are state-funded programs for prenatal care. “Did you know?” she softens. Postpartum care is, of course, a private matter.
You focus on how small and plain and ugly the room is while they are gone. You do not look at the now blank screen of the monitor. The room is quiet. You do not want to hear the thoughts in your head. When they return to find that you have not chosen to put on your clothes and leave with the eighth-to-quarter-inch-sized-seed-pea-thumping-mass still hidden inside of you, the nurse asks you to sign another release form on the clipboard, something about liability. The doctor tells you to slide all the way down, to the very edge. You brace yourself. It’s time for the exam, no speculum, not yet, just fingers. He says you’ll feel a little pressure as he touches you down there. The sequence is all wrong. He uses his hands. He skips pleasure and goes from pressure straight to pain. The only horizontal body is your own. Try not to cry. Tears will sting your eyes.
There is a new woman in the room now. She has rapped lightly on the door, though no one asks your permission before she enters. You watch her eyes watching you while the doctor talks about suction and she breathes sharply through her nose. She holds your hand with both of hers when she tells you that you are going to start to feel sleepy. You realize that the second hand is there to count your pulse when you notice the gentle pressure on your wrist. You think you tell her that the delicate silver cross dangling from her neck is beautiful. She is smiling at you, but perhaps you are asleep by then, lulled by the pleasure you take in her gaze. Perhaps your body follows a pattern.
Pressure, pleasure, pain, sleep.
Serena Simpson is a writer from Chicago, IL. She earned a BA in English at Spelman College, an MA in Writing & Publishing at DePaul University, and is currently working on an MFA (nonfiction) at Northwestern University. Serena writes character-driven narratives infused with introspection and cultural criticism. Her work is often concerned with exploring memory, place, and the overlap, interstices, and interplay between them. She was awarded the Chicago Guild Literary Complex’s 2018 Leon Forrest Prose Award in nonfiction, named a 2019 Tin House Scholar, and selected as winner of the 2020 Disquiet Prize in Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Barrelhouse online.