“That’s not an ear,” the doctor said, “it’s a vagina.”
The doctor’s words put an immediate halt to my interruptions. I had sensed as I was talking that something wasn’t right, but that didn’t shut me up. It took misidentifying an orifice to do that.
It’s amazing how clearly you remember certain things from your childhood. Certain moments. Exact moments, even decades later. The memory is like a vision in a bubble. You don’t necessarily remember the whole day, or anything before or after the moment, but that moment is right there. Burned in. Instant recall. Perhaps with a fuzzy border, as if viewing it through a fish-eye lens. This was one of those days.
I had recently taken to cleaning my ears with Q-Tips. Almost obsessively. They felt so good, even though nothing much was happening in terms of actual cleaning. They weren’t going to get any cleaner, after all, and following up with swabbing multiple times daily was only serving my hedonistic tendencies.
I was doing it so much that Ma was concerned I would damage my ears. “Be careful,” she would warn. “You can rupture your eardrums. You don’t want to go deaf, do you?” Well, of course not! I was confident in my deep-probing, ear-swabbing capabilities. I was almost eight years old, after all. The warnings of a doting mother were for kids. I’d been around the sun plenty of times, and didn’t need guidance.
I tried to alleviate her concerns, to tell her I was doing it right. “It even says right on the package that they’re only for use on the outside of your ear,” she’d point out. It didn’t matter. I knew what I was doing. I tried to explain that I was only going in about “this far,” indicating with my thumb and forefinger how safe I was being. “You know that curve in there? I don’t go past that.”
* * *
Another of those memorable days around the same period, also pertaining to hygiene, was soap-related: Ma would ask me after my shower if I had used soap. “Yeah…,” I would lie. She asked because she’d noticed the soap was still dry after I’d been in there. “Come here, let me smell you, then.” She smelled my left hand. She smelled my right knee. She smelled my belly. (“Hehehe! That tickles!”) I was caught. Back to the shower.
The next day, I used soap. When I came out, she smelled my left hand. She smelled my right knee. She smelled my belly. “Good job, Sweetie!”
The next day, I used soap. On my left hand. On my right knee. On my belly. I was careful not to get it on the rest of me. I was smart, and had figured out her game. I came out and presented my left hand. “Good job!” I presented my right knee. “Wait a second, here. You didn’t wash everything, did you? Let me smell your other knee.” Dammit! Back to the shower.
* * *
Ma had a doctor appointment, and for whatever reason, I went along. I usually did, it seems, if I wasn’t in school.
A doctor’s a doctor, as far as I was concerned. I knew she was there to see him for something personal, but doctors were all the same in my (almost!) eight-year-old mind. This office was a bit different than my own doctor’s office, though. This one was like an office office. It had rich, dark wood paneling. And a giant desk against one wall, also made of dark wood, with a black leather blotter built right in. The floors were carpeted, the walls had book shelves. And there was a dark brown vinyl-covered examination table, which is where I sat while Ma sat in the chair next to the desk. I played with the funny metal foot holders that stuck out one end of the padded exam table.
Like I said, a doctor’s a doctor. I didn’t know a general practitioner from a gynecologist. I just knew this doctor had a cool office, and a table with funny metal foot holders.
My own doctor’s cold, bright office had a real skeleton. And plastic models of the human body – one showing muscles and one showing nerves. The only model in this doctor’s office was clear plastic, and flared out at one end. I observed that it was kinda like a funnel, like my ears.
She kept talking to the doctor.
“Ma!… Ma!… MOM!!!”
“WHAT?! What is it, Sweetie?”
“See that ear up there?” I said, pointing at the model.
“Um… Yeah?…” (Why did her expression just change, her brow furrow?)
“That’s the curve I was talking about!”
“I don’t stick the Q-Tips in past that curve!”
“Zann, do you know what that is?” the doctor interjected. Well, duh. It’s an ear. Where else are you gonna put Q-Tips? This doctor’s pretty dumb, for a doctor.
He looked at Ma and she gave a nod as if to say, “It’s okay, go ahead.”
“That’s not an ear, it’s a vagina.”
An important distinction. Ears and vaginas are both openings in the body, sure, but that’s about where the similarities end. I still remind myself of that fact every time I grab a Q-Tip.