CW: Discussions of hysterectomies and post-surgery depression.
The Beating of Wings [Non-Fiction]
I had ordered the textbook for the Fall’s Introduction to Literature class before I knew about the cancer. I say this so you understand that we cannot blame my subconscious. It just happened. Excited about consciousness raising, I had ordered an anthology of 20th-century women’s literature; poems and plays and prose written by women about women. Not every piece was explicit about uteri, but they were insistently lurking. They couldn’t help it. There’s a week planned for Anne Sexton, of course. We’ll begin with “Woman with Girdle,” an unrelenting account of the ungirdling of a middle-aged woman’s body. My body with its sags and scars and crisped pubes. The poem is a young person’s nightmare, but the last hopeful lines become more convincing with age. I want to think the older body, released from confinement, is a stark, yet redeeming, sign of transcendence. This abjection, Sexton suggests, is grace. We’ll end the week with “In Celebration of My Uterus.” It’s a joke. I’ve never liked this one and right now, I can’t even. The beautiful hail of the opening lines “Everyone in me is a bird./I am beating all my wings.” betrayed by the insistence on “this thing the body needs” as if the uterus is the only thing that sings and is to be sung to. I know how metaphors work, but this celebration sticks in my crone’s craw. Am I now earth-bound, I ask Sexton, wings clipped?
I’d been diagnosed with uterine cancer a few months earlier, my gynecologist’s office having left a cryptic, not quite intelligible, message on my phone late Friday afternoon. This was immediately worrying, especially since my gynecologist, while excellent, is also a very loud and clear talker, possibly the loudest gynecologist ever. I have learned a lot about my fellow patients while waiting for her, as I’m sure they have about me. After a weekend of internet-fueled worry, the diagnosis was confirmed, and surgery was scheduled. “You weren’t planning on having children,” the oncologist asked, not too worried because I was already over 40 and single, and I hadn’t been, so I suppose it was lucky. And, I was lucky, because the cancer was at the earliest stage and because neither chemo nor radiation was required. A friend, married to a doctor, reassured me that if I was going to have cancer, this was a pretty good one.
I did have to go back to my therapist, from whom I was having a break, to talk more about my father and his cancer and my cancer. My father had survived two rounds of cancer (kidney, then lymphoma) and though he technically didn’t die during the last round, cancer had eaten away enough of his body that his organs slowly shut down over the next couple of decades. I was a teenager when he was first diagnosed, and 40 when he died and I only vaguely remember, prompted by photos, a time when he was healthy and robust and not skeletal. I got uterine cancer at the same age he got kidney cancer. It didn’t feel coincidental. Rather, ominous.
Making small talk during my first post-operative hospital corridor walk, the accompanying nurse asked me if I had kids. I, ass hanging out of the gown and too doped up to care about it, said I didn’t, and she told me I definitely should. The first morning home, I vomited my breakfast of strawberries, my bed a crimson crime scene testifying to my low tolerance of pain killers. In a week, my mother would 1) drive me to the first follow-up appointment on the wrong day and 2) scream at me encouragingly “just to the trash can, Annette, you can do it” when I took my first, humiliatingly slow, steps outside.
Tired, nauseous, angry, sad, I stared at my stomach scars an awful lot, touching them like they were talismans. The sutures were not neat and tidy and I assumed that the surgeon had looked the rest of me over, noted the marks left behind by neglect, and had determined that looks were clearly not a priority. This is the same story I tell myself about the scar on my left eyebrow. Split open by a foul tip while playing intramural softball, while taking my role as catcher way too seriously and without face protection, the ER doctor stitched the eyebrow up quickly and slightly unevenly with no mention of a plastic surgeon. My crooked eyebrows now match my crooked eyes and my crooked smile, so I guess it’s a theme. I’m also pretty convinced the anesthesiologist for my hysterectomy was overly generous with the drugs during the extraction (done by robots!) since it took about a year for feeling to come back in my upper right thigh. Even now, more than five years later, I still get phantom twinges where my uterus used to be and I wonder how exactly my internal organs migrated to fill up the space left behind.
I worried things wouldn’t work the way they did before, so when I felt up to it, I masturbated, basically to see if I could still come, and if coming felt the same. This experiment aside, I was the least interested in sex I had ever been. My body just didn’t feel like my own. People told me to be patient, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time.
Bye, bye cancer. Hello, menopause. I was your bitch. Which translated to the usual bitch times a thousand, a walking fuck you. Everything and everyone felt in-my-face. Each faculty meeting, I teetered on the edge of shouting, apropos of everything, “shut the fuck up, I have no uterus!” Sometimes I did say it, but only to friends who could handle it. Among the responses I felt obligated to hold back:
“What’s up, Prof. Van?”
–I have no fucking uterus, that’s what’s up, man.
“Did you manage to grade my paper?”
–Did you know I don’t have a fucking uterus?
“I don’t seem to have your early warning grade reports, Dr. Van.”
–Well fuck, I don’t seem to have a uterus.
And, so on. For a long time.
Those first teaching days, back from surgery, it was hard to leave my bed, to dress, let alone stand and deliver every day in front of so many eyes. My body felt alien. Blowing hot and cold, I was as meteorologically intemperate as the place I live. Just wait five minutes, they say. And, it’s true, the sweat produced by excessive heat morphed into icy dew, then melted sticky salt. Students’ eyes, in parallel rows, knew with feral instinct, that something was wrong. With me, with general education requirements, with capitalism, with whatever lead them to this place and time. Reading verses written by women celebrating women was a huge fuck you from the man it turned out. I guess I was the man in this equation. Above all, the course was accused of being unhelpful to their future employment. Feminist literature does not equal job, lady professor.
I was pissed too, way too identified with the material. Any evidence of indifference on their part, mostly in the form of under-the-desk phone fiddling, was a kind of challenge. Dare me, I promised, I will make you pay attention. You will surrender to the words of these women and like it. Ultimately, the convergence of our energies generated a strangely compelling classroom experience, at least for a few of us in the room.
Out of a class of 25 or so, 3 kept me showing up. The first had Asperger’s and regularly called out his peers on their lack of preparation. “You didn’t read! Why didn’t you read,” he would accuse his peers, uncannily ventriloquizing my own thoughts. Luckily, our student population is such that students were nonplussed when called out, most often cheerfully acknowledging “yeah, you right, man.” His lack of filter was a balm and I didn’t mind at all that in one of his infrequent temper tantrums he shook his feet so vigorously that his shoes flew off across the classroom. The sight of his paper-white socks was nothing to complain about in light of his other contributions. I think he knew how much I liked him as he took more classes with me before graduating.
The second student is a strikingly beautiful woman who took notes and asked intelligent questions to which none of her peers could respond. Greedy to know more, to read more, I hoped she would take all of my classes. I sensed her visceral responses to the material, an awakening feminism, and that she had never really read stuff like this before. Which put her in the same boat as all the others except she liked it, even found it revelatory. Because she is so young and beautiful, because she is so curious, because she is those things in this particular classroom populated by people who should be and aren’t, because I had to go to my happy place to make it through the hour, I mostly felt sorry for her. When I met her eyes, I sent silent apologies. I’m pretty sure she got it. She will come back for more, asking me to be on her thesis committee.
The third student is attractive in the way of most 20-year-olds. Fresh. An athlete, at ease in his skin, shirt close-fitting. Otherwise, he might well be plain. This didn’t matter. I only noticed his eyes, the way they followed me as I paced the room and used my hands to explain what words cannot. When I passed near him, as I must have, I imagined him closing his eyes and breathing me in, holding me on his tongue before swallowing deep. His looking was dangerous, not because he was predatory, but because I understood that he was kind and uncomplicated and, just months after my surgery, I wanted those things more than anything. I dream of him, not just once, us walking in a forest, us stopping and laying down next to each other.
It surprises me in this recurring dream that we never fuck. Even when I turned the dream into a daydream, which I did a lot for a while, we didn’t. Sometimes, if I wanted to prolong it, we’d kiss and maybe there’d be his hand on my breast or mine pressing against the front of his pants (he’d be hard, of course), but it stopped there. In my 30s, I would have gone to town on this scenario, teasing out all the details and creating a go-to highlight reel. The extra flourishes wouldn’t have included dialogue though. There’s hardly ever any dialogue in my sex scenes, too much can go wrong when someone starts talking. It’s a nice contrast to real life where my nipples are hardwired to a clever turn of phrase.
That he’s a student isn’t an issue either. I’ve long come to accept that I don’t have a lot of control of my unconscious when it comes to fantasy playfellows. They tend to the unlikely, conjured by a personal erotics of petty vengeance. Too alpha in the way you treated me today? Justice will be meted later when my imagination bends you over a desk. I can be relentless. For a whole semester of graduate school, I spent hours each week imagining aggressively topping ways of interrupting the lectures of a Professor I loathed.
He wanted me. Perhaps he lacked the self-awareness to know that his wanting shifted over time from curiosity to carnality, but I have been teaching young men long enough to know the signs. He didn’t really understand the course materials either, except that something about what we were reading, so many women speaking their secrets, piqued his interest, and that something about me stirred deep at his roots. I excited him. I was happy to accept his attentiveness as my due, having done so with others before him and thought nothing of it, but at the moment when my own body betrayed itself and I was so unsure of my desire, I was too attached, too interested. I wanted him to watch me, craved approval.
I wonder to myself, in one of my more honest moments, whether my hysterectomy was a convenient alibi. Liberation and revolution are just as convincing in their explanatory power. Did I secretly relish my more frequent fuck you righteous rampages, the increased wariness of my colleagues, everyone walking on eggshells as they should do always? Goodbye to guilt. Post-cancer, post-uterus, my body no longer bound by the drive to reproduce, my psyche so much less interested in social conventions, maybe it was as simple as I wanted him as he wanted me.
This was his second class with me; the first, however, lasted just a short 8 weeks, a throwaway single credit towards graduation. I learned his name mainly because he sits next to another student who shares it, misspelling it similarly. His same name neighbor seemed by far the more promising of the two—he participated intelligently and understood irony. I can say about my 20-year-old that he was genial and earnest. He didn’t shine. Except for one day, with the course in its throes, we had a moment. Our first.
I go around the room; each student gives a brief synopsis of their career plans. It’s the usual for where I work, disproportionately dominated by athletes and musicians: coach, music teacher, athletic trainer, lawyer, coach, small business owner, music teacher, farmer, coach. When it’s his turn, he smiles ruefully, shakes his head, “I don’t know.” He is neither scared nor concerned, rather fully in the present, happy to be here in college, taking things day by day. I am struck by the absence of angst, surprised. I have a vision. Right then and there. Not the daydream of the forest walk—that comes later. This is not an imagining. It doesn’t happen often, fewer times than I can count on one hand, but when it does, it’s uncanny. And it’s always about love. It’s about the future him, he’s with someone (I don’t see faces), he’s blissfully happy, she rules him, all the decisions in her hands, he worships her, everything is as it should be between them. I shouldn’t say anything to him, not in the classroom, not in private. We don’t know each other. I am his Professor. I wish I could say I reasoned my decision, that there was a decision, but there wasn’t. Just like the times before, I tell—what has been shown to me is not meant for myself, it isn’t secret.
I play it as a joke. “Don’t worry,” I laugh, “I have seen your future. You will meet someone, and she will know exactly what to do and you will be happy.” His smile broadens, and he becomes handsome. I understand then that he wants what I have seen more than anything, that he has been waiting for her. Everything about our exchange is inappropriate. I move to query the next student, “tell me what you want to do after college?”
Six months later, he sat again in my classroom and watched me. 6 months later, I was recovering from cancer and there was a deep-down part of me that worries no man will want me again, that I have lost something essential, more than just organs. Wings clipped. I’ve gone without sex for long periods of my life, but that hasn’t meant asceticism. I’m an earthy creature, at home to my desires, even more so as I’ve gotten older. My body has never been shy about expressing itself. At 14, my science lab partner whispered that I smelt like sex. Later, a palm reader stroked the base of my thumb and told me I am juicy, a fact earlier confirmed by the gynecologist who described my vagina as exuberant. To my lovers, I am lush. At first, my soft heavy roundness an erotic echo of the primeval, a time before time, and then my hard wetness an urgent recalling to the present, to skin and heat and salty musk. Each one loses himself in me, to me.
For weeks after the surgery, I walked like a woman 30 years older, scared, slow, and at each shuffle, I felt insides shift and rearrange to fill the vacuum. My self-absorption surged to alarming levels as had my self-disgust. My body disgusted me, its bulk no longer heady comfort. Fat congealed to brick. Cemented. How could I think of meeting another’s needs when I no longer understand my own? When he watched and smiled so, it was not, thus, just a matter of my liking or disliking. He was my life buoy. So embarrassing. I have never been much for dependence. I don’t easily rely on others, least of all on those half my age, who cannot in my experience be trusted.
The day I taught Kim Addonizio’s “The 31-Year-Old Lover” was excruciating. An older woman celebrates her hard, buttery-skinned younger man. The speaker is our travel guide as we journey from his chest to hips to pubes to ass. For once, the students looked attentive, but their identification, it turned out, was with the lover and not her. There’s a word for her kind these days, cougar. Predator pussy. She’s jealous, they argued, selfish. She’s a desperate attention whore, they argued, and should play with people her own age. They’re half right I suppose. Their youth makes them unable to understand this poem in its complexity, to feel its charged eroticism, to know the compassion of speaker towards lover. She is too kind to speak to him of the way his body will inevitably soften and spread and sicken. So, she stays in the moment, taking him in and in, pleasuring herself and him. She and I know about age and bodies. I didn’t belabor this point however, lest I should have laid bare my own vulnerabilities. Throughout the hour, I had not dared to look in his direction for fear of a betraying blush. His or mine.
I made it to the end of the semester. Over that winter break, I visited with a friend and late one evening I confessed my forest daydream and my crush but assured her it’s okay, don’t worry about it, he’s not in any of my classes anymore, and I’m sure I won’t see him, and it’s just a passing fancy anyway, not really sexual, blah blah blah. But and I didn’t look at her as I confess, I think he likes me too and I’m just so fucking grateful that he was there to get me through that class and I don’t really feel bad about it at all. It’s a blessing. And, maybe this was a good thing. Everything happens for a reason, yes?
I know what he gave me, but I can only speculate about what it is I brought to him. The message of his own dream of a future with a bossy woman fulfilled? The stoking of intellectual curiosity? Feminist poetry? Fodder for masturbatory fantasy? The fulfillment of a general education requirement? Do I really give a shit at all about his motivations? As times passes, it seems likelier than not that every part of our relationship has been as imagined as that daydream of the forest walk, that I don’t know anything about him at all except my own beautiful, beautiful bullshit.
A month into the next semester, the previous semester’s student evaluations were delivered to my office. I was curious to see if my scores reflected the difficulties of my loss and my recovery, whether students really did know that I wasn’t quite my old self and that I was transitioning to my new self. The numbers were as usual, no surprises. Then, in the middle of the pile, I saw it. Handwritten, in the comment box at the bottom of the page, he had signed his full name so I would know, and addended a smiley face in case of offense, “I love you, __________ J”
We don’t speak. There is no need. Instead, he leads, and I follow. We move unhurriedly deeper into the forest, air cool against my skin, lances of light multiplying the green hues around us. I smell earth and grass and the faintest lick of musky salt, animal trace. It’s us, the residue of our leisurely exertions, a promise of what is to come. My feet sink into moss with each step, toes splayed and strong, and without looking, I know he too is barefoot.
He stops and we lie down next to each other, sinking into the forest carpet. We don’t touch. Weightless, I am senses only, so much so that the air separating our hands feels liquid, eddying drowsily. Heartbeat slowing. My nipples begin to harden as the air thickens and the soft material of my shirt becomes a caress. His hand moves to cover the distance between our fingers, the slightest of touches, just enough to signal his physical presence. I am safe here, with him. Neither of us makes another move, content to linger next to each other in this silence, minds sluggish. This is peace.
Annette Van teaches English at a small college in the Midwest.