Your husband reaches across the table to scoop up an oyster from the platter. The slithery grey blob lies cradled in its silvery white shell. Its moist surface glistens and quivers under the intimate lighting of the elegant restaurant. He tilts his head back, and with a sucking sound, slurps up the raw body of the mollusk, gulping it down whole.
A wave of nausea rises within you. The men begin to talk.
When you lie on your belly you feel it there. Like the first time you were with child. Something shifts beneath you, moving against your inner organs, resisting your attempt to flatten it. You feel it, too, when you are making love, flopping from side to side like a fish pulled from the surging waters onto the rough planks of a wooden dock. It lies there gasping, its gills heaving, fins spread wide, thrashing about as it fights to regain its primordial element.
Holding babies comes naturally to you. Like the baby itself. Like it did to your mother, who brought seven to term and five into the world alive, moving in and out of gravidity, childbirth, and infant care as if it were all she had ever done and ever would do.
The sign on the changing table in the hospital ward reads: “We are not liable if you drop your baby.”
Drop your baby? How outlandish. Yet it gives you pause. It must happen sometimes. You think of the girls over whom motherhood crashes like a tidal wave. Whose cries for help and Yow, yow, yowwww echo through the delivery ward the night of your daughter’s birth.
If you drop your baby. Drop your baby.
You take fertility for granted. Your doctor is surprised when you conceive. Lucky to be pregnant, he says. Like your mother.
The pain begins after your second pregnancy. You recognize it, although you are experiencing it for the first time. No reason to think otherwise. You are like her in more than this.
She used to say how Edison misconceived the light bulb, how the combustion engine was fatally flawed. She envisioned the double helix structure of DNA in her senior year of college—-two years before Watson and Crick. When she applied to the PhD program at Cornell, they told her: you are eminently qualified, but we cannot have a woman in a skirt standing in front of a room full of male graduate students.
At Johns Hopkins, the only woman in the physics department, she was sent to fetch coffee while her colleagues talked shop. When she left her studies to marry your father, she thought it was only for a time. She believed she would be back.
When you were a child, she liked to quote Emily Dickinson, freely from memory: “I’m Nobody, Who are You? Are you Nobody, too? There’s Two of us, don’t tell. They’ll banish us, you know. How dreadful to be Somebody. How public, like a Frog. To tell your name the livelong day to an admiring Bog!”
You wanted to be like her.
You bleed profusely. Onto the bathroom floor, down the stairs to the kitchen. There seems to be no way to stop it. You crawl to the sink and drag yourself up to the counter, grasping the door of the medicine cabinet. Aspirin. All there is. A half hour later, you wake the children, give them breakfast, ready them for school.
You go to the doctor. Tumor markers off the chart. Later, as you walk down the shaded avenue, you think of the image in your pocket. Twenty centimeters by six, with its own blood supply, beating and pulsing like a living, breathing animal within you.
Your husband calls the head of gynecology at the local hospital whom he knows through connections at the ministry. He has friends—and enemies—in high places. And as always, he is convinced that this is the best route. But you know it can go either way. Fate and connections are fickle and cannot be relied on to produce the desired results.
When you arrive at the office of the chief physician, his secretary eyes you suspiciously. She is a sullen, peevish woman, short in stature, conscious of her rank. Elegantly coiffed and smartly dressed in a tailored suit, with black pumps and nude hose, she takes the supplicant’s name and rings the head of the clinic. Putting down the receiver, she signals reluctantly for you to enter.
You take a seat at the desk opposite the doctor, a tall, balding man in a white lab coat, dark suit, dress shirt, and straight dark tie. He speaks into the receiver, questioning unseen interlocutors, giving orders. Afterwards, he asks after your husband, and complains about his former wife, also a gynecologist, who is always nagging him about their teenage son. His new wife is younger and not a doctor. Their two young children keep him up at night, which is hard at his age.
You listen politely, wondering why he chooses to share these details of his private life, why he doesn’t ask you about your symptoms, condition, family history.
When you emerge, the secretary is glaring at you. Her eyes narrow. I know who you are, she snarls. You do not know what to make of it. You have never seen her before today. Who could you be to her? It must be something your husband did. She gives you an appointment for the surgery. Next Tuesday. Monday morning uptake. Blood must be drawn. The anesthesiologist will need to see you. Take your vitals.
You are relieved. The children will be in school.
You inherited many things from your mother. Clear thinking, strong arguments, no tolerance for incompetence. And this.
Your cycles were normal as a teenager. Your pregnancies uncomplicated – except that your daughter was born standing upright. It was lucky the umbilical cord didn’t end up wrapped around her neck, though no one explained this to you at the time.
You want a natural birth. They want to induce. You refuse to be put on an IV. After a little while, the obstetrician returns. He says he wants to check how far you are dilated. Obediently, you spread your legs. From somewhere he pulls out a long needle and inserts it into your vagina. You feel your waters break, gushing forth between your thighs onto the examining table. He puts two fingers into your cervix and pushes it open.
“What did you just do?” you demand astonished. “What would I have done?” he answers with wide eyes. You are fully dilated, he says, demonstrating with his bloodied fingers. The baby is on its way.
At thirty-five the bleeding starts. Your mother had it, too. A week before her surgery, you go with her to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction is her passion: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury.
Halfway through the movie, she has to exit the theatre, the bleeding is so intense.
A few years later you watch it together on television to the end.
“Open the pod bay doors please, HAL.”
Your husband drives you. He brings you to the hospital ward. You change into a nightgown and robe. He takes your street clothes and leaves you alone in the bare room with the hospital bed. Traffic noises rise from the busy street below, but here it is quiet. Only an occasional cart clatters down the hall. A nurse calls. Another answers.
The door opens. A nurse enters.
She leads you to an examining room. Another nurse enters. She ties a rubber cord around your upper arm and taps about until she finds a vein. The needle pierces your skin. The blood flows.
You can have breakfast now.
Lunch is a crust of bread and something watery and foul-smelling scraped off the bottom of a burned pot. You gaze out the window. The orderly looks at you when he comes to remove the tray. He shuts the door behind him. Dishes and trays clatter. Other doors open and close to the sound of voices and the clatter. Then the sound of footsteps and the cart trundles down the corridor.
The light slants, evening approaches.
Another nurse enters. She hands you a paper cup with a pill.
Take that, she says. No food or drink tonight.
She shuts the door behind her.
The next morning the nurse comes for you. She hands you a green surgical gown and directs you to an examining room down the hall. Another nurse shaves your pubic area and puts a blue shower cap over your head.
Thus stripped of identifying characteristics, you are led to a wheeled stretcher outside the room, where you are made to lie down. The nurse attaches a wristband to your arm. From there you are passed to a waiting orderly who pushes the cart down the hall and into the open elevator.
Identical industrial light fixtures pass in steady succession along the ceiling above your head. Alone in the elevator with the orderly, you are just another appointment on the schedule.
The orderly whistles a little tune and looks at his watch. You wonder how it makes a sound in the airless vacuum of the lift. The cause of his sunny mood is a mystery. His shift has just begun, and it is still two and a half hours until his coffee break. Except that he is not lying on a gurney, like an offering pledged to the gods on its way to the sacrificial altar.
The elevator doors slide back. A doctor in a white coat stands in the gap. It is not the surgeon. You recognize the name on his tag. Why do they have names that sound like the things they cut and burn? Bartulovich, bartholinitis; Fistonich, fistula. You wonder why he is here. He takes your hand as if to reassure you.
From the halls of memory, he rises before you, behind a desk in a dimly lit office. These are the glands which encircle the vagina. He executes a crude drawing in a few strokes of a pen. This one is inflamed. You do not need it. We just need your consent and we’re ready to go.
You wonder why you have extra if you do not need them. There seems to be no escape. Your parents are visiting for the first time since you and your husband resettled here. Your father gets debriefed every time he crosses the invisible line dividing Western from Central and Southeastern Europe—although it is already ten years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The anesthesiologist paces the room. It is his free day and he’s helping out in his friend’s practice. You tell him you are asthmatic. Now he is apprehensive. In the end, he puts you under. You awaken in the neighboring cubicle.
Now you are sliding along the upstairs corridor toward the operating theatre. Dr. Bartulovich glides along like an angel of death at your side. You feel strangely calm. At the door he smiles and leaves you. Orderlies lift you like a rag doll from the gurney onto the smooth metal surface beneath the strong white lights. Everyone is friendly and cheerful.
The nurse removes your hospital gown and inserts an IV into your arm. It is cold in the bright, fluorescent-lit room. The perforated metal surface is hard and cold beneath you. Could I have a blanket? you ask. Her eyes turn to you in surprise above her mask, but she gestures to an orderly who covers you with a white sheet. Then the anesthesiologist puts a mask over your nose and mouth, and you are asleep.
You awaken in the ICU with the anesthesiologist leaning over you. You gag and cough. Not like that. Like this, he demonstrates, clearing his throat: Eh-hem. Eh-hem. Oh, you think. You are willing to try. If it will stop you from feeling like your insides are spilling out.
It smells of antiseptic and blood. Intermittently, other gurneys arrive, mounds of flesh motionless beneath the white sheets, bags of liquid suspended above them on hooks, tubes dangling down.
Later, the surgeon drops by. He bends toward you, speaking in undertones. The right ovary couldn’t be saved, but a small piece of the left one remains. We tried laparoscopy, but it was too large, so we had to do a full abdominal. It took four hours instead of two.
You nod graciously, powerless. He leaves you. You are thirsty, but there is nothing to drink here.
The nurses weave in and out among the railed cots in the high-ceilinged room, oblivious to the soft moans rising from them. On one side, high up, there are windows, but you cannot see out. One of the nurses checks your IV and writes something on a chart. You feel the catheter between your legs and the gaping pain where your abdomen should be. You try to move, but there is no force in your limbs. The catheter tethers you to one side of the bed, the IV to the other.
In the afternoon, a few visitors drift in. A husband, a mother. Dressed in green surgical gowns, caps, and overshoes, they tiptoe hesitantly to the bedside of one of the women lying prostrate. They bear flowers, which aren’t permitted. They murmur consoling words. The woman croaks a weak response. After a brief sojourn, they depart, carrying the flowers with them.
“Do you have children?”
It is the young woman in the cot next to yours.
“I hope to have children.” Her voice is stronger now. “He has helped many to conceive. Ones with polycystic ovaries, blocked fallopian tubes, endometriosis.”
You wish for your husband. You wonder what he is doing. You wonder what happened to you. To the you you thought you knew. Whether you will ever feel at ease again in your body, light and free as a warm breeze blowing through your hair on a sunny spring morning in your youth.
Your cheeks are wet, but you cannot lift your hands to dry them.
The hours creep by. The falling light from the high windows tells you the day is moving toward its close. The night stretches before you. The endless night. Still, you cannot move. The nurse comes by to check the catheter.
“Can I have something for the pain?”
“You are on morphine,” the nurse says.
“Please, can I get some more?”
It is eerily quiet, except for the squishy squeegee sound of the night nurse’s shoes on the linoleum floor and the steady beeping of a heart monitor.
The third day they move you to a room of your own. In the afternoon, your husband arrives. He carries a few wilted carnations from the kiosk in front of the hospital and leaves after 10 minutes. The children have to be driven to their activities.
After a little while, the door reopens. This time it is him. He sits down on the bed and places his hand on your thigh, leaning his head on your shoulder, more like a child than a man. You feel a rush of pain and begin to hemorrhage. You sit motionless for fear the blood will soak through to the clean white sheets.
The door swings back once more. A colleague from work appears who once counted you among his conquests, accompanied by his new wife. He sees the young man seated on the bed and stops in the doorway. You greet him. You are friends. It was so long ago. You were at their wedding. Your husband was his best man. His wife shares a few pleasantries. They leave the flowers on the bed stand and wish you a speedy recovery.
Friday. The weekend looms before you. The head of gynecology makes his rounds.
He nods his head. “You can go. No need to stay till Monday. I’ll look the other way.”
Hospital rules require you to be in inpatient care until next week. Your husband has pulled some strings.
You ask at the nurse’s station to use the phone. In the afternoon, when all is quiet, you change into your street clothes and pack your sparse belongings into an overnight bag. The nurse hands you the discharge papers to sign.
The shift doctor has just come on for night duty. His eyes narrow. He scowls at you.
As if to justify yourself, you explain: “Professor Andreykovich said I could leave today.”
This appears to provoke him. Something moves behind his glasses. A glint. A gleam. Unfathomable. Unmistakable. Malevolent.
“Yes,” he says, with sudden resolve, “but I must examine you.”
You do not know what it means. Your surgeon did not mention an exam. But there may be rules.
The thought of languishing on the desolate ward for another three vacant days fills you with despair. Collecting your bag and your coat you head down the hall toward the examination room. The night nurse is nowhere to be seen. You lean your bag against the chair in the corner and stack your things upon it. You remove your underpants with the thick pad and clamber onto the examination table.
The doctor is already waiting. He gazes at the opposite wall and reaches his gloved hand up your vagina. His hand feels too large, his motions abrupt. It is just days since your surgery. You let out a cry.
He withdraws his hand. Turning away from you, he removes the bloodied glove. You can go now, he says, with an air of satisfaction.
Shaking with terror, you heave yourself up from the table. Standing, you pull on your underpants and pad, hoping the blood will not leak from the sides.
As if pursued by a wild beast you flee the room and hasten down the empty corridor, dragging your case behind you. The clock reads 5:30. Your husband will be waiting. For an instant, you turn to look back. The doctor is standing in the middle of the corridor, watching you, a strange look in his eyes. You turn and take flight, feeling his eyes still upon you.
After the oysters, the entrée, and the expensive wine, the waiter brings dessert. Glistening globes of vanilla ice cream, red strawberry sauce dripping down the moist white surface into the glass goblets. The waiter takes your dinner plate. Your food is untouched.
The conversation revolves around politics, sport, women. You have hardly spoken a word.
Professor Andreykovich directs his gaze across the table at your husband, his tone apologetic, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. The left ovary should have been viable.”
The two exchange a meaningful glance. It is you they are contemplating, but their eyes are turned away. For a moment, there is silence.
“No problem,” your husband rejoins jovially. “Water under the bridge.”
Dr. Andreykovich seems relieved. Their voices rise in exuberant camaraderie as they raise their glasses to a toast.
You look from one to the other, but neither of them looks at you.
Author's CommentRaw Oysters is a story about a woman in early middle age who undergoes surgery for a condition inherited from her mother, about the men in her life, and the men who determine the outcome. Her experiences reveal how much she takes after her mother, also with regard to how little autonomy she is accorded over her body.