I. “There’s a Word for That,” said the Cat in the Hat

“Are they both girls?” asked the vegan private school yogi mom.

“He’s a boy, and she’s a girl,” my mother replied, gesturing between her drool-covered twins. She dressed us exactly the same, usually in homemade striped get-ups that resembled old-school prison uniforms.

“And they’re identical?”

My mother sighed. She had gotten this question before.

“Yeah, he has a penis and she has a vagina, but besides that they’re totally the same.”

As a fraternal twin, I was aware of being vagina’d ([vuh-jahy-nuhd] adjective; the state of having a vagina) from an early age. My Vaginal Awakening™ occurred one fateful bath time when my grandfather was cleaning my brother and me after a productive session in the sandbox. Apparently, I made a pass at my brother’s package (I am sure this was motivated by my charming and completely scientific hunger for knowledge). My grandfather quickly put an end to my research before summoning my mother to give me a little talk. Let me just say here that, if anyone tries to spin this into an incest or sexual abuse thing like what happened with Lena Dunham, I swear to God I will write a strongly worded op-ed about you for a campus publication, and we all know NOBODY likes reading those. Little kids do weird shit, OK?!

My mother wrapped 2-year-old me in my favorite Powerpuff Girl towel and pulled me to the other side of the bathroom. “You’re not in trouble, but it’s not appropriate for you to touch your brother there,” she explained.

I stared up at her blankly with big bug eyes (they’re literally so big that multiple bugs have gotten stuck in them). “Why?” I asked.

She proceeded to explain clumsily the concept of private “no-touch” areas that differ between boys and girls. She recruited to her aid the nauseating euphemisms “lulu” and “hoohoo” to refer to penis and vagina, a practice so cringeworthy I resent having to indulge it here. (Parents, for the love of positive body image, please teach your children the correct terminology for their genitals.)

“Why Sam gets lulu?” I asked, a crusader for gender equality from an early age.

“Because boys are born with lulus and girls are born with hoohoos,” she replied, in Dr. Seuss fashion.

“You have hoohoo?”

“Yes.”

“I have hoohoo?”

“Yes.”

I paused in narrow-eyed contemplation, determining whether to believe her. “Hmph,” I finally huffed, with the stolid resignation of a near-retired cop who is “getting too old for this shit.” And with this begrudging acquiescence, so began my relationship with my vagina.

II. No, It’s Not a Second Butt

My beginning years as a vagina bearer, a clam wearer, a vulva-possessing penis ensnarer, were smooth sailing. In a household with two sisters, things were thornier for my vagless brother. Vaginal privilege was undeniable. When Sam and I accompanied Mom to make Nordstrom returns and one of us needed to pee, to the ladies’ room we’d march. In that special room for dress wearers, my scandalized brother turned menstrual red while women reapplied makeup and adjusted their cleavage and shouted, “Does anyone have a t*mpon?”

During my early schooling, I felt insecure about my vagina for the same reason I felt insecure about most things: A boy said something stupid. One sunny afternoon at Little Village Nursery School, Bobby with the widow’s peak bragged to a group of male snot-blasters that he knew what “girl parts” looked like.

“It’s like a second smaller butt,” he proclaimed, and I swear his widow’s peak got a little pointier as he said it.

Is not!” I whined from the tin-roofed play structure above. Feces came out of butts, so to suggest that I had not one but two poop chutes was unacceptable, defamatory, slanderous! Of course, when asked to “prove it,” I refused to “drop trou,” so who knows for how long those boys thought women were doubled-assed.

Even more upsetting was in first grade, when Davey Mernick teased me for having to pee sitting down. Although well aware of this reality, hearing it spelled out, I couldn’t understand why God in Her infinite wisdom would curse women with such anatomical inefficiency. I practiced my stream in the shower, impressed with my arc and aim. However, my aquatic testing didn’t translate well to terra firma, and after the third round of de-urining the bathroom with half a roll of scrunched up toilet paper, I accepted that vaginas weren’t made for vertical peeing — but they weren’t made for pooping either, Bobby!

 

III. Stop and Smell the Roses

I was 7 when I learned vaginas have their own aroma. The afternoon was hot and sweaty. Sam and I were building a Star Wars Landspeeder with the AC on full blast (in the name of equality, my parents gifted us the same toys — I was stuck with many a Lego, but not once did Sam receive a Barbie). I was wearing only an oversized T-shirt. Whenever I straddled the air vent to reach the Lego pile, I noticed a distinct acidic smell (I’ve scoured the web to aid me in this description, but apparently vaginal scent is the most elusive in all the land. The similes are either fetishistic — “like heaven” — or derogatory — “like fish”). It took me a moment to realize the odor came from me, and not from all of me but from one small part. I gave my vag an iPhone-unlocking swipe and scratched my nose to covertly smell the sample. Sure enough, I had located the source. Was this new? Did it happen to all girls? Was it noticeable? Huh? As Sam continued building, seemingly unbothered, I decided not to worry. The smell wasn’t half bad.

IV. Vulva, Urethra and Anus, Oh My!

By middle school, Menstruation Nation had begun recruitment. Owing to my family history and pipsqueak frame, I was destined to be a late bloomer. This reality caused me no qualms. Periods meant monthly blood, cramps, acne, nausea, mood swings, weight gain. I couldn’t understand why anyone would romanticize this great injustice as a womanly milestone. That this blood-fest signaled one’s readiness to mother a diaper-monster was even more reason to riot in the streets. Still, at the sixth-grade pool party when Audrey Quinn recruited help inserting a tampon in a very loud and very naked spectacle that involved two girls forcefully shoving the cotton plug inside of her while I shrieked in horror from my perch on the sink counter, I felt a strange hope that one day, I would get to learn from my friends too.

Menstruating or not, eighth-grade Tessa thought she had anatomy all figured out — I was practically the Doogie Howser of vaginas. After all, I attended an L.A. private school where parents and teachers preached about the value of safe sex, birth control and pro-choice policy from the bumpers of their cars. You can bet your butt we had mandatory sex-education. And you can bet your second butt it involved an STI-themed musical featuring a dancing condom named Ron. Abstinence could take a hike (unless that was your thing, in which case, we’d totally support you, we’re tolerant!). So what if we dressed for school like harlots, strumpets, filles de joie? Nothing says “body positive” like your teacher seeing your camel toe and not being able to say diddly squat.

Despite my pretensions to genital literacy, I remained largely inexperienced, ignorant and incapable of saying “vulva” without giggling. My own naivete became clear one PE class when I was walking laps with the Midget Brigade, a self-named gang of tiny-statured rich girls who, when not discussing hair or SoulCycle, agonized over their lady plumbing. Ringleader Vivian Weisman proposed the topic for our stroll: “Did you know we have three holes?” she asked. We laughed, assuming she spoke in jest. Girls didn’t have three holes … right? “No seriously,” she insisted, before differentiating the vagina (for blood, penises and babies), the urethra (for pee), and the anus (for poop and farts). “The urethra’s really tiny, so you can’t see it,” she explained. I was inclined to believe her. She had vocabulary on her side, plus an in-home dance studio, which for some reason bolstered her credibility. Still, how could a portion of my body that I used every day remain uncartographed for this long? Vivian confirmed her assertion via a Yahoo Answers thread (a source that, as we knew from various chemistry problem sets, never lied). I was outraged. Why was I just finding this out? Why hadn’t that dancing condom warned us we were three-hole punched? Most important, what else didn’t I know?

V. It’s C(lit)!

Although wanking discourse was popular among boys, I never heard girls talk self-pleasure until high school. Not that my masturbation practice began with AP classes. I suspect I was a young experimenter, since I can recall various hip-grinding sessions near my collection of My Little Ponies (on theme for the riding motion I engaged). I employed good old-fashioned pillow humping, the PB&J of masturbation techniques — it’s not fancy but it gets the job done! I’d ball up a pillow beneath me and wiggle my hips in a display that was more epileptic than sensual. Scrunched blankets, couch arms and the corner of my sister’s butterfly chair also deserve special thanks. Stuffed animals were spared (call me a softy, but I felt mercy for the googly-eyed inanimate). Like a fizzy soda that bubbles without spilling, I never reached climax. But boy, oh boy, how I enjoyed the fizz.

My first masturbation roundtable occurred in the ninth grade. I had just survived a party with a lady squad I desperately hoped to join (the occasion also marked the first time I smoked weed, from an apple pipe no less!). The eight of us gathered post-party in Rachel Adler’s bedroom to discuss her recent fingering at the hands of some guy in a Hawaiian T-shirt, an experience she deemed inferior to self-service. Before long, everyone was comparing fap strategy, gushing about shower heads, electric toothbrushes and DIY dildos. I was overwhelmed. Not only did these girls masturbate but they were also so artful in their craft. Despite my long-time status as an oversharer (and the only girl who knew how to pronounce clitoris), I declined to identify myself as a nub-rubber. I thought my vulva and I had a good thing going. I knew other masturbation strategies existed, but like a stubborn 60-year-old who manages technology sans keyboard shortcuts, I never cared to learn alternative approaches. However, in front of these professional vagina charmers, my bunny humping seemed crude and undignified. So I pretended not to listen, feigning apathy (“Sorry guys, I’m like soooo high”) and resolved to update my strategy ASAP.

The next time I was home alone, I locked myself in the bathroom, bringing my phone with me for research — I literally Googled “how to masturbate.” Per internet recommendation, I began with self-examination, as one must comprehend thy groin to gladden thy groin. I sat open-legged in front of the mirror and used two fingers to poke around with the clinical curiosity and immature disgust of elementary schoolers dissecting frogs in science class. Was this how it’s supposed to look? All those flaps and skin? How would anything fit in there? And what were my labia doing (also, why does “labia” sound like the name of a middle-aged mom who heads a Knitting4Peace club)? I had already noticed when urinating that my labia minora peeked out some, but chose to ignore this reality as I do anything that’s potentially upsetting, like my final grades or how McDonald’s chicken nuggets are made. But my reflected image displayed the truth like never before. My labia weren’t just long but wildly uneven. Was this normal? The sinner’s mark for masturbating too often? Sure, vaginas are unique like snowflakes, but is my snowflake uniquely ugly? I scoured the internet for solace, but struggled to find images of vaginas that weren’t animated or porn. (Porn stars have distressingly perfect vaginas — flapless, hairless, symmetrical, the genital analogue to fashion models. Did they turn in vag headshots to get the job?) I wanted to know what the average vagina looked like and why it was kept a secret. By some miracle, I eventually stumbled upon orgasmictipsforgirls.tumblr.com, a body-positive blog with advice, images and X-rated entertainment for regular gals (this essay is actually a giant ruse to plug the site). Scrolling through photos, I came to the comforting realization that like eyebrows, labia aren’t twins. They’re sisters.

But I was getting distracted! There was plenty of time to hate my body — what I needed to do now was pleasure it. I assumed the proper position (back down, knees up) and began using my hands. I tried various strokes with an ignorance similar to novice French kissers who spell out the alphabet with their tongue. However, this proved too arduous for a girl who considered ascending her bedroom stairs sufficient exercise for the day. To give my arms a break, I downloaded the vibrator app HappyPlayTime, but was turned off by its cartoon vagina narrator (if my vagina had eyelashes and a bowtie, I’d never touch it again) and anxious about accidentally calling someone (you thought buttdials were bad). A quick plea to the new Steve Jobs: Instead of removing the iPhone’s audio jack, do us gals a favor and enhance its buzzing power, would ya? At least the shower nozzle wouldn’t let me down. But as I sat beneath the stream, distinctly unaroused, I started to fear my vagina was faulty, not sensitive enough for the refined tactics of my peers. Life as a pillow-humper was all I’d know and perhaps all I’d ever know.

Just as I was about to give up, the fizz rose and the bubbles spilled over and oh, oh, oh! Name a more iconic duo than clitoris and removable shower head.

VI. Zen and the Art of Pubic Hair Maintenance

I began dabbling in pubic hair care at age 16, after my preschool bestie invited me to a pool resort over MLK Day weekend. Previously, my lady garden had grown unchecked. I was lazy and without sexual partners to appease. However, pools required bathing suits, and I didn’t want to spend the entire trip adjusting my bush to stay within bikini borders. Plus, I figured whacking my pubic weeds might alter my romantic karma. (Can’t let a smooth pubis go to waste!) So the afternoon before our outing, I headed to the bathroom with my trusty iPhone assistant by my side.

I opted to shave instead of wax since I wasn’t crazy about paying $50+ for a stranger to rip hair out of my genitals. Some tips I’ve compiled over the years: You first need to soak to soften the follicles. Take this as a chance to exercise your creativity — I like to imagine I’m a hunk of meat steeping in a nice vinegar-lemon tenderizer and go from there. You may also need to trim. Develop a hairstylist persona (Pirro is my go-to) and spout cliches as you cut — your ends are more dead than Katy Perry’s career. When you’re ready to shave, there are many ridiculously named shapes to choose from. If like me, you are unable to manage winged eyeliner, let alone artful pube carving, feel free to invent your own styles, such as the haphazard zigzag, the crash landing strip or the inverted cross. No matter what you do, somebody on the internet will have a problem with it. (You’re a poor feminist for catering to male-centric porn standards, you’re undesirable for looking like a prepubescent girl, etc.) On the flip side, every style has its fans (my favorite Reddit comment reads: “I like my women like I like my Oval Office … no sign of Bush”). If (when) your plans cancel, you’ll be left with the emotional scars of wasted time in addition to painful razor bumps — mark my words, every time a woman shaves for nothing, a koala somewhere contracts chlamydia.

 

VII. Well, That Took a Turn

I first noticed crimson in my urine in the 11th grade. It was Christmas. I had long expected this gift, though from Mother Nature, not Santa Claus. The bleeding was minimal, so I did the only rational thing there was to do: stuff toilet paper in my undies and pretend nothing had changed. This strategy worked for a while when my periods were light, short and infrequent. However, I was doomed once the Ruby Wave arrived at high tide. I tried to contain my flow with sanitary napkins, though never changed them enough and always used them too late. (I’d ignore Aunt Flo’s arrival until I was leaking so much, I couldn’t sit without dyeing the furniture beneath me.) Copper aroma, sticky thighs and dried stains were usual suspects at my monthly crime scene. In my defense, while I was a despicable slob at all times of the month, heavy menstruators are doomed without tampons, and I had ruled against these synthetic plugs after reading on Vice that model Lauren Wasser fell asleep in one and lost her leg to toxic shock syndrome. You mean, vaginas bleed AND poison competitor body parts? I’ll take the scarlet trail over the cotton limb-destroyer, thank you very much.

A quick list of things I think whenever red-water rafting:

  1. Adorable! I’m sitting in a puddle of my own blood!
  2. Jesus turned water to wine, but I turn toilet water to Kool-Aid.
  3. Why aren’t I a boy? Better question: Why aren’t I dead?
  4. If I bleed, men should bleed too … by any means necessary.
  5. This is why I can’t have nice underwear.
  6. Why wasn’t I warned about period sneezes (aka Hawaiian Punch Floods)?

I did eventually surrender to the hegemony of penetrative absorbents after encountering the same swimming-while-menstruating dilemma as Audrey Quinn. I was also sick of the diaper-bulge associated with pads. A few weeks before graduation, I accompanied friends to hike to the lake and smoke. Before we left, I put in a tampon with the help of Internet parent, WikiHow. I’m sure my mom would have helped me, but I was shy when the feminist issues I advocated applied to myself. I first struggled to insert the applicator against what felt like a wall, though with persistence and a distinct popping sensation, I succeeded. I walked, swam and puffed as if my insides weren’t shedding. Finally, it was to time to evict my cellulose accomplice behind a tree. However, each yank on the green string elicited a painful burning and no tampon. When I bent over to examine, I saw white imprisoned behind a band of skin, flesh hugging the tampon bottom. I began to panic. There’s a tampon stuck inside of me! Who knows by what sorcery, but it’s happening! Where’s the nearest hospital? Who am I kidding, I can’t tell my friends, not in front of Carter with the scooped nose! I’ll have to wait until I get home. But what about toxic shock? I’m going to have my leg amputated because I’m crushing on an elf boy. I’m not like Lauren Wasser, I’m not pretty enough to lose a limb! I continued to spiral like this until the skin finally moved aside and freed the bloody cylinder from my vagina.

That evening, I frantically scoured Google to diagnose myself. What your sex-ed teacher doesn’t want you to know is besides the standard hymen, hymens can be cribriform (many small holes), imperforate (no hole), microperforate (one tiny hole) or septate (two holes bifurcated by extra tissue). I’m among a 0.7% of women with a septum (I always knew I wasn’t like other girls). Apparently, it wasn’t enough for my hymen to be virginally intact; it had to be deformed too. Why couldn’t this have happened to my sister? I was already the child cursed with snoring, stubby thumbs and a weird dental affliction that causes my teeth to recede into my face. Now a Gemini vagina? Surgery was advised to enable painless penetration, though I couldn’t bear discussing my quirky membrane with my parents. As I had already survived without tampons and had no reason to expect sex any time soon, I resorted to the Tessa Tactic (delaying action until the problem blows up in my face).

 

VIII. Out of Service

The trouble was, sex didn’t matter until it did. In high school, I was so devoted to academics that intimacy felt unimportant. I crushed and kissed here and there but always prioritized homework over humans. However, a college English major had no reason to optimize her GPA. I’d be jobless post-graduation whether I had a 4.0 or 2.0. It was hard to ignore sex in a place where everyone boned right in front of your face (sometimes literally, but not always). Condom boxes sat half-empty in the stairwells. Couples littered campus, holding hands during the day and groping tail at night. My gymnast suitemate had half the soccer team on rotation. I began to worry that my lack of experience was more pitiful than innocent.

To make matters worse, I didn’t come off as a delicate flower. I indulged a bad girl affect, the natural product of hormonal angst, separated parents and an early fixation with blink-182. I started dying my hair in sixth grade. I wore fishnets more regularly than underwear. Alcohol and I weren’t exactly strangers. My life’s work lay in determining how short shorts could be before they were considered underwear. Perhaps it was counterintuitive that I retained this innocence, a girl who once wrote about snorting coke off a rented copy of “Hamlet” for a creative writing prompt about joy. Never did my friends question my virginity, wonder what I meant by “hookup.” Never did I correct them. I felt doubly shameful — to be a novice was one thing, but a fraud? We know what Holden Caulfield thought about phonies. So my top priority became swiping my v-card, validating my parking ticket, Venmoing the cherry fairy.

IX. The Doctor Is in, But What About the Penis?

Unfortunately, sex required surgery, and surgery required talking to Mom. I confessed my dilemma over winter break of freshman year, and she took me to her gynecologist, a wide-eyed, chinless man who resembled the lizard chimney sweep from “Alice in Wonderland.” He seemed to consider my hypothesis seriously until I revealed my virgin status, which elicited a soft gaze and warm smile. He examined little ol’ me with his pointer finger instead of a speculum to minimize pain and preserve my hymen. After 30 seconds, he concluded my opening was small but normal and would stretch with time. I preferred this diagnosis to mine, so I left without asking questions and returned to college, ready to get jiggy.

I wasn’t big on traditional mating arenas. Instead of gyrating on a rower at a frat, I’d chat up an employee at the Apple Store (there’s nothing sexier than a guy who can troubleshoot your laptop). But before I was able to trap a Genius, Mother Nature came a knockin’. I took Lizard Bill’s go-ahead to reattempt the tampon, though it proved no easier the second time. Lordy Lordy, Rick and Morty, why must everything be difficult? I investigated using a skinny pen, which I was able to hook beneath a band of skin that seemed an awful lot like the septum I wasn’t supposed to have. Face burning, I called Mom and begged that she pay for an appointment with a different, hopefully nonreptilian gyno. She agreed so long as she could accompany me, which meant waiting until I was home for the summer.

I spent the rest of freshman year a pending lover. Call me cynical, but I had little faith in the patience or empathy of college boys. My desire for flesh became less and less about social pressure or a writer’s curiosity for content. A great power emanates from a heroine’s genitals. Without it, I couldn’t make love, satisfy lust or misguidedly seek validation. I couldn’t even ruin a friendship via a drunken one-night stand. I felt shallow for being so affected — Your Dad has cancer? I’m sorry, that’s terrible. I can’t have sex, so my life is pretty tough too. But to me, sexuality was exploration, femininity, connection, power, fun. Not virtuous or selfless, I’ll admit, but big.

I began avoiding anything that resembled a sexual advance as I knew there’d come a point when I couldn’t give what was wanted. While there were alternatives to PIV intercourse (a finger fit just fine), I resented the attitude that intimacy was only meaningful if penetrative. I didn’t want to explain: Well no, we didn’t technically bang, but I swear we would have, I just happen to be born with my own chastity belt, but seriously though, we like each other. More than that, I didn’t want someone touching my doctor-outsmarting, Airhead-mystery-flavored vagina. What if they could tell I was different, wrong? So I kept to myself. The few times I did get frisky, I’d serve without being serviced, only to return to my room to sleep alone and pity myself and curse my weirdly hymenated hoohoo.

X. To the Boy with the Bushy Eyebrows Who Fingered Me

the way your nails, those talons

hurt me, makes me wonder

if you are part bird

and only half boy.

 

you jab as though

my vagina

were a button to an elevator

you want to come faster.

 

no need to ask if i’ve

finished.

i don’t think i will,

on account of the torture (lol).

 

maybe fingers are better off

in noses.

 

oh god.

i should have made you

wash your hands.

 

*frowning face emoji*

 

XI. Like a (Half) Virgin, Touched for the Very First Time

“The problem will go away when you lose your virginity,” the second gynecologist told me. Although she denied my septate theory, she agreed I had extra tissue. My alternative was stretching the vaginal opening daily with estrogen cream, an ill-fitting solution for someone who couldn’t handle regular showering. While I wanted to end the matter once and for all, sex required another person. I felt no sentimental need to lose it to a special someone, though at this point I lacked a nonspecial anyone. Not to mention, virgins were stigmatized as breakable, clingy, inexperienced — the man I deputized as hymen-destroyer might desert. I decided to kick off summer by popping my own cherry in the ultimate act of self-sufficiency (a hairbrush, towel and steady motivation are all you need). I worked until provoking stinging and blood, which I interpreted as a properly gory end to my demonic hymen.

Liberated by hairbrush, I was eager for summer lovin’. Unfortunately, my first offer came from a 30-year-old YouTube comedian with a big ego and a bigger forehead.

“Want to grab a drink?” he texted.

“I don’t drink.” In public because I’m underage.

“Ice cream tonight?”

“I’m intolerant.” Of anything that resembles a father-daughter activity, Mr. 11 Years My Senior.

It was simplest to meet at his house. Spoiler alert: Hairbrushes are not foolproof hymen-breakers. He struggled to enter me — I felt plugged, corked like wine. He eventually made it inside, though neither broke nor sufficiently stretched the tissue that doctors refused to call a septum. Instead, his penis entered to one side of the band, causing tightness, pain, and an eventual tear at the bottom of my opening which healed into a rad little skin tag. After a few excruciating minutes, I made him stop. I tried to save face by attributing the pain to his enormous manhood and the blood to a surprise period. Satisfied, he reminded me, “There are other ways to have fun.” Goody. I waited for him to finish so I could flee to the bathroom and clean myself and cry. How was this still happening? Losing my virginity (can I say I lost it, when I was penetrated but not “popped”?) was clearly not the solution. What was left to do? Explain my unsavory sex attempt to Mom, convince her to trust me over a professional, visit another doctor who would dismiss me? No. I should stop trying, stop caring, stop. So I washed my face and gave up hope and returned to bed with a man I hardly knew in an apartment far from home.

 

XII. You Can’t Spell Hymen Without I’m Going to Die Alone

But then I fell in love. In stupid, nauseating love. The kind of goopy, mushy, apple-sauce love where we called each other little bug and kissed on library tables and stayed up trading raps instead of writing papers. The kind of love where I knew his favorite episode of “Samurai Jack” and kept fruit in my bag for when he got hungry and gifted him a glass rose I found at Goodwill because it reminded me of “Beauty and the Beast” (a movie we saw and loved together — although my middle name is Belle and I am 5-foot-4 to his 6-foot-3, he insists that he’s the dainty bibliophile of our duo). The kind of love that made me willing to look crazy and waste more money on another gyno for the small chance that someone might finally solve the great enigma that had become Tessa Palter-Poston’s vagina.

Despite my distrust for the notoriously slow University hospital and my immature dependency on Mom to make appointments for me, I hadn’t the luxury to return home. Fortunately, Yale Health had a cancellation so I was able come the day I called, Valentine’s Day of all holidays. I nearly bolted when I saw a medical student enter the room — just my luck to get a rookie. Fortunately, I stayed as the boy angel confirmed I had a septate hymen that could be removed along with my skin tag during a 20-minute in-office procedure using local anesthesia. The catch? There were no appointments for three months. My relief was soon replaced by distress. I begged through tears that he expedite the process. But there was nothing he could do — it wasn’t a matter of life or death, even if it felt that way to me. On my way out, he handed me a pink appointment slip with a crude sketch of my misshapen hymen, the closest thing I received to a valentine.

 

XIII. Let Her Finish

PRO: The doctors were wrong and I was right! I’m not crazy after all! In fact, I’m smarter than the professional elite! CON: I was right. I need surgery. PRO: I was finally diagnosed and by a handsome student, no less, who is destined for medical glory! CON: Two veteran doctors failed me. Health care is flawed. My wunderkind savior is probably drowning in student debt. PRO: My problem can be fixed through the power of science. CON: I have to wait three months (after waiting a year to be correctly diagnosed). PRO: The surgery is simple. Half an hour, max, in office. I’ll be on my feet immediately and shagging within four days. CON: The surgery is not simple. Mom’s Beverly Hills doctor recommends general anesthesia. Recovery is intensive. Sex could be painful forever after. I should wait until I’m home for the summer. CON: Doctors contradict each other. Health care is flawed. CON: If I have surgery at home, I’ll first need a pre-op appointment before I can schedule the operation. With busy schedules, it could be another half year until I am fixed. CON: Painful sex forever. CON: Painful sex forever. CON: Painful sex forever. AHHHH!

The more I analyzed the situation, the more I wanted to stab myself with a fork (which apparently, was how sex was going to feel for the rest of my life). But in the end, the only thing that mattered was being a college sophomore in love for the first time. Waiting three months was devastating. Waiting until summer was inconceivable. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need sex to secure a man’s affection. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s Trump America. It’s the apocalypse. I would have risked anything to keep this boy’s interest (foremothers, please forgive me). I was tired of feeling broken. Tired of living on pause. I wanted to open my world, and that first meant opening my vagina.

 

XIV. If a Vagina Opens and Nobody is There to Enter, Where’s the Forest?

I had surgery Friday, May 5, at 11:30 a.m. It’s funny how something that seems so life-altering can feel irrelevant by the time it comes. My romance moved at a pre-global-warming glacial pace. Guinness World Records kept tabs on our unprecedented inertia. The first two months of our courtship, every interaction ended with a handshake. By month three, I was actually grateful to be kissed on the forehead. Although I had expected the sex issue to come up fairly quickly, my man met physical unavailability with emotional unavailability. He skirted feeling, I skirted sexing, everybody was happy!

The first time I slept at his apartment was two weeks before the operation. I was on my period. (Score! Amazing excuse, no lying required.) It was looking like I would make it to surgery without having to confront the whole “if-you-tried-to-penetrate-me-you’d-split-me-like-a-pair-of-too-tight-trousers” dilemma. Yet the night before my appointment, I considered not going at all. Deep in finals hell, I felt numb from the Ivy League diet (no food + no sleep + Adderall). I felt more numb from my boy aborting our fling conveniently before summer vacation. Although I had cared about the surgery pre-amour, I had so long conflated the benefits with our relationship that his rejection killed my sense of urgency. Why was I rushing toward pain and botched genitals? I just wanted to finish my English essay for the class “Writing About Oneself” so I could Cry About Oneself. However, I knew if I missed my chance, I might be extending my gated-vagina sentence another half year. So, like a true Green Day teen-angster, I decided to go for it, since at least the physical pain would make my emotionally hollow self feel something.

In some ways, the surgery was not unlike a typical first time. I lay on my back, unsure of what to expect, bottomless with my shirt still on, staring at the ceiling. I was periodically asked, “Are you okay?” I hurt and bled. I didn’t come. Of course, it differed from a traditional experience considering I was “penetrated” by a knife at the hands of a female surgeon who looked like Rachel Dratch (a very funny lady, but not someone I want cutting my genitals), and who, mid-hymenectomy, recruited the help of another doctor to reduce a radiating, toe-clenching burning using tiny, sharp needles. Oh God. Mom was right. I should have waited. I should be knocked out under general right now, having a loopy anesthesia trip while some Beverly Hills doctor makes sure my vagina stays pretty, instead of staring at the mousy brown cranium of Rachel Dratch’s doppelganger.

When it was over, she offered to show me the excised tissue.

“I guess I’m confused why anyone would want to see that,” I responded.

She then asked if I wanted something for the pain. Duh.

“Tylenol or Advil?”

“Oh, that’s the strongest … no, no, I’m good, actually.”

With that, I gathered my things and walked outside, where the rain ominously marked my new freedom.

 

XV. A Done Deed

It happened one Friday. Sex. September of my junior year. A few months had passed since the surgery. I needed time to heal (vagina, heart). I was sewn up with white stiches that looked like dental floss. The doctor said they would dissolve within a few days. It took weeks. Figures.

I didn’t plan it. I had wanted to spend the day cramming for my reproductive biology exam but ended up procrastinating with my crush (some would call this hands-on learning). It was the same guy — the fruit-loving 6-foot-3 Beauty to my Beast. Who knew the trick to getting him to commit was asking him directly? We had one of those wandering visual dates, perfect for an indie rom-com. We shared smoothies, took a walk past the graveyard, tried on hats at a thrift store. He found a gold watch he liked. I felt sexy in my overalls. We went to his dorm room, and I was ready. Not afraid of pain or worried about being good. Calm. We did it in his twin bed with our socks still on. I kept bumping into the wall so he cushioned my head with a cupped hand. He was tender. When it was over, he kissed me on the forehead.

I went to the bathroom and admired myself in the mirror. I loved the way my cheeks looked flushed and my lips swollen. It was one of the few times I believed I was pretty. I felt, not triumphant exactly, that would be too dramatic, but relieved. There was no bleeding, no surprise second septum, no vagina dentata. Everything had gone smoothly. I knew my problems wouldn’t disappear just because I had successful sex. I’d find new things to stress about, like whether I was orgasming enough or dependent on sexual validation or accidentally pregnant or, worst of all evils, predictable! But I could worry later. For now, I felt lucky and comfortable.

Afterward, we listened to jazz and ate dinner at the dining hall and made each other laugh. He walked me to the train station (I had to make a show with my improv group in Rhode Island). I climbed the stairs, just me, my vagina the rest of my body, us, and boarded the eastbound train.