I had my first mammogram yesterday—no need for concern, just a weird non-thing that needed checked out.
It was okay, if it a little painful.
The little room with the machine is such a strange space. I just started to think about all the fear and uncertainly and vulnerability that had been felt in this tiny little bright pink room with a boob squisher in it. I almost lost my shit, just thinking about it, all the women that had been in there before me, and the energy of it vibrating all over the place. You strip from the waist up and hope the machine doesn’t tell you that it can smell death. And the machine doesn’t say anything but “beep beep beep…whhhrrrr”.
And the technician who runs it surely sees the images on the screen, and she probably knows what something Not Good looks like, but it’s not her job to tell you if it’s good or bad. She can telegraph to you that it’s probably nothing by her demeanour, but what does she do when she sees something really bad? And what if you already know, and she already knows, but you’re not allowed to say anything, either of you, because she’s not allowed to tell you, because she just runs the machine?
All the weird aloneness with your own body. A states of extra-nakedness, the technician and you pretending like whatever the machine is seeing inside you is invisible, or at least, TBA. Her and the machine have agreed: “we can see what’s inside you, and we’ll mail it to your doctor’s office and they’ll tell you in a week.”
It is really fucked up to have a machine sniff you out for death, and then to have its confidante not tell you the death-smelling machine’s secrets.
She’s not malicious or unkind. She’s actually very evidently kind and compassionate. She’s just the magician’s assistant, and she can’t reveal how the trick is performed.
And even if it’s not bad news, just a regular test that you have to get once a year once you are 40, it’s weird. Like, “You are 40, and not 39, which means every year from now on, you have to go in this room to contemplate your own mortality for a bit while you don’t have a shirt on and a cheerful woman picks up your boob and smushes it in a machine. Here’s a reminder that something is going to make you die. Oh, don’t worry, it’s probably not cancer—routine checkup!— but something is coming for you. You’re in this room, right? Here’s your bag full of pink stuff. You can put your top on now.”
What a trip. I had been thinking about “A Room of One’s Own” lately, that Virginia Wolf essay. It never resonated with me as a writer, but the idea of that a woman having her own space might be unusual struck a chord. That we just sort of accept that we don’t get to take up and occupy space is so unsettling.
It’s still so “surprising” for a woman to even own a house on her own. My own father, when I was in my early 20s, said he’d give me $40,000 down payment on a house when I got married. Because why would I need a home of my own unless I was putting my family there?
Every cue that we get says be smaller and smaller— cross your legs, speak gently, be thin, use Dove deodorant with underarm softener so every aspect of yourself yields to the world.
And of course, be accommodating. Be accommodations, actually. The most holy thing you can do as a woman is let someone live inside you. You are only truly a woman when you become a temporary room for someone else. And to not accept this idea that you are a “giver of life”, that this is your larger purpose, constitutes a neuroses. Existential crises are almost exclusively celebrated as a male experience.
It is understood that men are meant to seek out immortality by their intellectual or physical accomplishments, by their domination of the world. By contrast, women are supposed to accept that giving birth, “the miracle of life” is immortality enough. We make heroes of male conquerors, and women become, with rare exception, invisible when they become mothers. Who builds statues to soccer moms?
And while when men find themselves bereft or without dominance, they are encouraged to find refuge in the tunnelled world of existential contemplation. We lionize the most vocal of those refugees. By contrast, women’s quest for purpose greater than birth is quieted. Post-Partum Depression. Empty Nest Syndrome.
What kind of simpleton would pass the Kleenex for a crie de coeur like L’Entranger, and say,‘There there, it’ll be alright’ ? Or surmise that Holden Caulfield would snap out of it when he settled down with a family, if ever Catcher in the Rye 2: Edge of Reason were written? Who who wants to avoid an excoriating rebuke says to Bob Dylan, or Woody Allen, or Lou Reed:Don’t worry, think about you sweet little grandchildren?
And so I was pretty blown away that I found myself in this room that was, by accident, the only place I had ever been that the female experience of existentialism and mortality without the sin qua non of motherhood could exist unmolested and defended, with a lockable door on it and everything. A room of our own. And of course, weirder still, even in that room, you don’t talk about it with the woman touching your boob, but a beeping and whirring machine.
Let me tell you, it was food for thought. I didn’t really know what to do with all that information and felt like a fool, and I feel one even now, trying to express how angry/ sad/ confounded I was on discovering that weird little space. So like a particularly grim Cathy comic strip, I went and ate cake in the hospital cafeteria.