THIS IS ENOUGH
Lying on your side on the table, the gown covering most of your body, you stare at the picture on the wall, placed precisely there to catch the gaze, to offer something while the unpleasantness of the female body is dealt with. No one has ever prepared you for such an encounter and because of this, you’re trying not to laugh at yourself for being here. Perhaps mocking yourself is already part of the problem.
The physical therapist, Crystal, slides on plastic gloves, sits on the wheeled examination chair, and scoots herself to your backside. First, she places a hand on your hip—then she takes what must be her index finger and starts at the top of your ass crack, pressing firmly into the muscles there. Normally, you’d be nervous, more ill-at-ease about someone you just met touching your naked backside. But the pain is a hostile takeover that has held your ass, your urinary tract, your everything down there in some sort of hostage situation, and you’re more than willing to pay this ransom.
Still, it’s awkward. So, you say, “Did you want to grow up and push on people’s ass cracks?”
She laughs. “I had a patient who broke his coccyx, and he was in so much pain, I decided to learn this technique.” Her gloved finger presses high on your mid-cheek terminus, and a wave of relief sweeps out across the plains of your ass, your lower back, even your chest.
“You’re lucky. For him, I had to do internal rectal work.”
Your muscles tighten up again. She works her way lower, pushing on each set of muscles that form the pelvic girdle, the interlocking net you didn’t know you had until they all rioted. You try not to weep at the initial cramp, then at the relief. While she works, you sometimes close your eyes, but the inner landscape is still too fraught; inside, you’re still a child, the one pressed into the corner when Dad hits Mom, the one clenching so much in fear. You left that childhood home and the weather patterns of his cyclical violence over twenty years ago, and yet, the times you held your body tightly against his hitting her still clench inside. Your teen daughter is also why you’re here—learning to take care of the body is one of the things you want to model, but, it’s so hard.
“I’m going to go lower now.”
And there’s no way to explain both the shame and the comfort of having someone else push on your ass, right there, exactly on the anal edge. The ache so deep, so complete, your shoulders hunch even on the table.
Ass crack therapy, this is your life.
The pain started after peeing, making you want to creep on hands and knees. The stabbing crawled up the urethra and into your lower back. A thousand razor blades, rotating. Between teaching classes, you sat on the bathroom floor, willing the pain away. But it didn’t leave, it grew in intensity and you finally sought medical help.
After two visits to the doctor, you had no answers and so scenarios started to bloom, options presented themselves in the imagination:
- Bladder infection (could be a sign of diabetes)
- Kidney stones (Mom’s had many – remember that night you had to get her in the Laytonville Auto Parts parking lot, the way she looked through you when you tapped on the window?)
- Colon cancer (what finally took Dad down)
- Consumption (You don’t really think this but it does flit across the mental screen. You believe that so many women died of consumption because of corsets—strung so tightly, their organs compressed and withered.)
Finally, after three months of body-torquing torment, you were referred to an urologist—she decided that you probably have interstitial cystitis—basically the irritable bowel syndrome for the urinary tract. There’s no conclusive way to diagnose this except to put a patient out and distend the bladder with water (extremely painful—hence the anesthesia). Once inside, the doctor takes pictures to confirm whether a patient has hundreds of tiny tears in the bladder lining. You didn’t want to be knocked out, nor did you want this thing she says is a strong possibility, but your sister’s MS and the accompanying incontinence continued to erode her life and no one could tell you whether or not there’s a connection between IC and MS. You are told to avoid caffeine, chocolate, tomato sauce, alcohol, citrus. Online reading revealed the incidence of suicide is very high with patients, particularly women, who have IC. This wasn’t helpful.
The procedure itself brings symptom relief to one third of the women; the other sixty percent have no response; less than 10 out of 100 women have an adverse reaction. The possibility of relief was quite the carrot. But you’d forgotten, that, in most cases, you’re not in the majority.
Despite the possibility that you wouldn’t get relief, you decided to go for it. Your husband Dreux ached for you, this was clear. His brow furrowed, his lips tweaked to the side, his hand went to your arm. Despite the warmth he offered, you felt so alone in this whirlpool of agony.
After the procedure, in the days, then weeks that followed, your entire pelvic area spasmed, but most especially the ass. Certain moments, when the pain overwhelmed, made you remember that suicide was one form of relief. You couldn’t have a regular bowel movement. You didn’t go for days, and then, an urgency radiated from your rectum outward—it was possible it registered on the Richter scale, the scope so grand. Afterward, sorrow pulsed in all the muscles in your backside. You never knew an ass could be so sad.
Finally, you returned to the doctor to let her know the misery of your life, your ass. She prescribed “pelvic floor physical therapy.”
When you climb off this table, step back into your clothes, and curtly thank this woman. Instead of running into her arms and swallowing her in a hug.
“Next week, we’ll measure your vaginal strength.”
“Great,” you say. Out of the office, your hips are freer, your ass calmer. Later you will learn from Crystal that fifty percent of women in retirement homes are there because of incontinence. It’s all about the core and the strength of the pelvic floor but your culture doesn’t teach this, staying ashamed to talk about the kinds of pain or accidents women have.
You remember: “You on the rag?” flung at you at age twelve by your father, a scorching flame licking through the body, a defining moment. In your small hometown, there were unshaved women who came to talk to the eighth grade, taking the girls into the library to suggest another perspective on periods—a mother who brought her daughter balloons, had a party, took her to dinner. An expensive amount of fanfare just for a girl’s first showing of womanly blood.
Now, you remember the shelves of books around the group, how you wanted to choose one and crawl into it rather than listen to these women. Even if what they suggested was appealing, it was so vastly different than your world of skinning deer and branding cattle and gathering firewood and volcanic violence lurking. In your home, care of the female body was never mentioned, not when the demands of making ends meet didn’t allow for them. To know another way, at that time, only made you sad, made you feel the distances within. The more you found out what was possible, the more isolated you became.
Later that week after the first pelvic floor physical therapy, a colleague stops by your office to talk about an upcoming meeting. Suddenly, the conversation veers into personal health—he’s had a bladder infection and missed a few days of work. He’s such a together person: funny, brilliant, hip. His tattoos swirl up his left arm in a tough display of boundaries and color.
You say, “I’d had some heath issues also lately. It’s made me realize that I hold my body tightly, especially in the classroom.” Like parenting, teaching is such a rich opportunity to feel your inadequacies. You don’t say that all the time you’ve been teaching, you’ve thought you were cool, but no, in fact, you were literally a tight ass. You flounder in your thoughts as the colleague talks. You tune in when he says, “So I filmed myself in the classroom to see how I could improve my teaching.” His cheeks are slightly red—you didn’t think anything could rattle him. “And I was mortified to see that as I got warmed up on my topic, I pinched my nipples.” He crosses his arms, brings both index fingers and thumbs upward and illustrates. His hands work in what should be private action.
All you can do is laugh. The fact that you need help with your ass seems a little less pathetic, less hopelessly wrecked, more human.
The next week, Crystal rolls in a contraption on a cart after you’ve stripped and are sitting on the table in the glamorous medical gown. She has you lie down and then begins to hook up nodes to your ass and inner thighs. You half-way expect leeches or bleeding to be involved. It’s going to hurt to remove those nodes.
While you try to relax, she chatters about her evening. “It’s going to be the twenty-first time I see Jimmy Buffet tonight. I just love him.” She’s got all the wires hooked up, and she clicks on the machine, saying, “You’ll feel a little surge.”
You think about your sister, Jerrie, and the muscle test she had as part of the MS diagnosis—it’s not painful, but the anticipation of the surges wore her down. It felt like a form of torture, she said. No matter what, she’d never do it again. Now, Crystal inserts her finger, then her hand into your vagina and isolates muscles within the layers there. You think of the times you have visited your sister and been stuck in the back of her tiny car in the Lincoln Tunnel in traffic, how the air grew thinner, the car smaller. Crystal’s asking you to push her hand away and it’s as if your most private of places is made solely of runny mashed potatoes.
“Jimmy Buffet is such a great performer. Push harder right here.” You’ve got nothing to give her; a woeful failure. Dreux hates Jimmy Buffet, all that fake tropical-island stuff, the songs about drinking, all those Hawaiian-shirted arms raised in alcoholic resonance.
Crystal digs deeper into the muscles; the pangs shoot outward, a billion precise needles spin through the pelvic region. “I remember when my husband and I saw him in Florida. It was the perfect setting. Try to push now.” You try, sure the little readout that the nodes deliver will be a flat line of atrophied glory. It hurts to push, to try and isolate where those muscles even are.
Finally, Crystal removes her hand and looks at the results. “You have a lot of work to do.” She orders a regiment of Kegels, of stretches to open up your hip flexors. She advises you to be very careful not to tighten the ass when doing both of these things. Lying there in all your weak, vaginal indignity, you wonder why she is suggesting the impossible.
Back in the car, Dreux says, “How did it go?”
You don’t know where to begin, how to explain how bizarre and defeated you feel. A report you don’t get to see reveals sad information about the nether regions, and you have no language for this, or the ways you’re coming to understand how your mortal coil carries the stories of your childhood, how you are still reacting to a series of violent nights that happened more than thirty years earlier. The humiliations and lessons of the body hum in your cells, in your very female form. There’s a loneliness in this realization that you can feel from the top of your head to the bottom of your under-performing vagina. To the little girl you were, to the woman you are, you send soothing serenity.
All you say is, “Crystal has seen Jimmy Buffet twenty times and she’s going again tonight.”
“She can never put her hand in your vagina again.” Then, “No. No. It’s yours. You decide who gets in there.”
You say, “Certainly not Jimmy Buffet.”
The laughter you share rolls through your body, through your chest, your ass. It’s a reminder that though the past remains, you don’t have to carry it so deeply anymore.
For now, this is enough.
Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College. In May 2016, she graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Charlotte’s first novel, By Way of Water, was published by Blue Hen Books/Penguin Putnam, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Pembroke, Pithead Chapel, and the LA Review. Her other awards include a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship for Fiction, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, a MacDowell Colony and a Ragdale Residency.