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The Pap Smear

9 Nov

A couple weeks ago, at my first meeting with a new improvisation class, we were invited to kick things off by each sharing one of our most embarrassing moments. The idea behind this exchange being that it’s easier to work and play in an uninhibited way once everyone has become vulnerable. As I sat and listened to some pretty great and sometimes-terrible stories, I racked my brain trying to decide which gem from my own life to share.

The time during high school when I peed my pants in a canoe?

When I was wearing a body mic for my role as Ado Annie in Oklahoma and the technicians broadcast the sound check through the theater and to the entire cast while I was on the toilet?

The time I tried to explain my request for diarrhea medication to my wonderfully earnest non-English-speaking German host family?

The time I accidentally referred to Barnes as the author of The Poetics?

Every meeting I’ve ever had with any kind of financial professional?

But then suddenly I had a moment of total clarity. “No. Today’s the day. I must tell of The Pap Smear.”

I’m not a squeamish woman. Nor am I easy to embarrass. But this experience left me feeling so deeply afraid of what else the universe might have in store for me moving forward, that in class a few weeks ago was the first time I ever told the whole tale.

I bet you’re really ready for this story now, huh?

It was a crisp fall morning and I had just started a new teaching job. I didn’t have insurance at this job, but I DID have discounted access to the school’s health services center, so I decided to book my annual lady parts spelunk. As I flipped through a copy of Highlights, I noticed the strange way that the examination rooms opened in toward the waiting area. “You usually go down a hall or something”, I thought to myself. My name was called and I followed the nurse to a room right across from where I had been sitting. She went behind a partition while I performed that most dignified ritual of taking off my shoes, pants, and underwear, jauntily hopping up on the padded, paper-covered examination table, and casually yet entirely wrapping myself in a paper sheet. I informed her that I’d assumed the position, and she returned from behind the partition. She wheeled the examination table on its casters so that the light could point toward my hot pocket (and incidentally with said hot pocket pointed right at the door) and she got down to business.

So you can imagine my surprise that quickly transitioned into horror, when, with speculum fully cranked, there was a knock on the door.

Everything that happened next was very fast and frantic. The nurse said something to the effect of “DO NOT COME IN HERE!” while my heart bulged so as to start oozing out of my eye sockets, and I opened my mouth in preparation for a soundless scream. But of course, the door opened. And like any woman would, I tried to close my legs. On a speculum.

Ladies, if you need to take a break with your right hand securely over your crotch, I understand.

But there’s more. Along with my new job came a very small office! And along with that office came a very surly gentleman officemate. And along with that very surly gentleman officemate who had apparently just sat down in the same seat where I had been waiting moments before, came a grade school-aged daughter. Fantastic. “Hello sir who has made it pretty clear that I’m too young and under qualified for this job! Hi small girl! This is the inside of my vagina! Neat, right? Okay! Talk to you later!” Except that all of that came out in more of a “primal scream” format.

We made eye contact. And the door slammed shut just as I caught a glimpse of him smacking his hand over his daughter’s eyes.

The rest of the experience is a blur. I vaguely remember the nurse profusely apologizing. I remember hustling quickly out of the office, and running into a different co-worker outside who exclaimed, “You look radiant!” to which I replied “Thank you! I’ve just come from a very disturbing vaginal exam!”

My officemate and I never spoke of it, and for this considerable kindness on his part I remain deeply grateful. I’ve considered the possibility that he didn’t even recognize me. I remain curious as to what he told his daughter that day. I wonder if she, too, thinks back on this experience during times of difficulty and humiliation in her life and is comforted by the fact that at least she’s not staring between her naked knees into the eyes of a male colleague, clutching the paper sheet, and trying instinctively to close up shop against a metal crank. It really does put things into perspective.

Health Services mailed me something a few weeks after The Pap Smear to let me know that the results were normal.

I beg to differ.