Fifteen years old. I am in love with my boyfriend. We are both virgins, and despite the fears of pregnancy and disease the nurse at school instilled in us during her sex education lecture this year, we want to have sex.
I go to the doctor – A new doctor, one I haven’t been to before, one my parents don’t know. She wears a white coat and smells like my father’s Old Spice. I instantly feel like both running away and curling up in her lap. She asks me questions about my family’s history of health problems. I don’t know much, and I tell her so. She asks some more questions, smiles, takes my blood pressure, writes me a prescription for the pill.
At home in my bedroom, I hold the packet of pink pills. I read the package insert and it leaves me feeling blank. I start my twenty-one day cycle.
Three weeks later, I make love to my boyfriend. The first time hurts, but after that it gets better and better. At first, with the school nurse’s warnings screaming in our heads, we use condoms, but then we go without them, since I’m on the pill now and neither of us has any STD’s. Every time I open my legs to him I have the time of my life. The energy that runs through me with him inside me is indescribable. No thoughts of something growing inside me, something planning to come out screaming in nine months, and no layer of latex shielding me from my delicious climax. All thanks to my little pink pills.
Seventeen years old. Two weeks ago, my boyfriend of two years became my ex-boyfriend. Crying in bed for hours every day, I continue to take my pink pills, out of habit. I crave him being inside me. I reach down beneath the covers and touch myself, but the feeling reminds me of him and I cry. Craving connection with a new body to remember, I have my first one-night stand. He’s older. I meet him at a friend’s party and he takes me to his place. We slide into bed and he slides himself inside me. We use a condom, but it still feels good. I don’t cry. I breathe. I come. A smile stays on my face the next few days and, even though we used a condom, I thank god that I didn’t stop the pill. Without it, no matter how much latex blocks him from swimming into my body, I’ll never be able to stop thinking about that crying person growing inside me. Without the pill, whatever comes into me will come back out nine months later with a deafening scream and fuck everything up.
Twenty years old. I go to college, live on campus, realize that the term slut is really just a word thrown at any woman who enjoys sex and has it when she can. I have no time nor desire for a boyfriend, but all the desire in the world for the pleasure that comes from sneaking a quickie in the bathroom of a house party with a guy whose name I may not remember in the morning. Another Friday night, another guy. Every time, I feel free. Every Saturday morning, I pop my little pink pills and thank them.
Twenty-six years old, and in love again. My lover and I move in together and make love all the time. We both love it when I’m on top. On weekend mornings we lay in bed late after fucking and talk about the future. We drink our coffee and talk about the cliché we’ll someday crave like caffeine, the cliché where we own a house just outside the city. Ours will be purple, and it’ll have a porch swing and a pear tree in the yard. A beagle will happily chew on a bone outside every day, and curl up in bed with us when we go to sleep every night at eleven o’clock. It’s a cliché, and it’s sickeningly sweet, but we both feel the craving beginning to stir. It even includes children. We don’t talk about how many, and girls versus boys like the other couples, but we do talk about kids. Some day. Not now. Now we want each other more than anyone or anything else. Now I want to keep being able to stand up in the middle of dinner, go to him in his chair, unzip his pants and climb on top of him. Now I want to get the promotion I know is coming my way at work, make some progress in repaying my student loans. I want to go to some place like Sweden, see what it’s like to live in a socialist country for a year. Some place tropical would also be nice, for six months, some day. Feel what it’s like to go swimming in turquoise water every morning before eating up a breakfast of exotic fruits, like mango and papaya. Now I can fuck my lover all I want and still have all this to look forward to before the purple house and the beagle and the kids. I can have it all because of my little pink pills.
Thirty-six years old, and vomiting into my current boyfriend’s toilet so hard it hurts. From behind me, he hands me some tissues to wipe my face with. I’m too weak to stand up and wash my face, and I think I may throw up again. He asks if it was the yam tempura we ate at dinner. I tell him I’ve gone to that restaurant and had their yam tempura about twenty times and this has never happened. He suggests the flu, but somehow I know it isn’t. He puts his hands in his pockets, bites his lip, looks mad. Tells me he thought I said I was on the pill, I say I am.
I go to my doctor, the same one I’ve kept since I was fifteen, the one that smells like Old Spice and has a framed piece of paper on the wall that says she went to the best medical school in the country. She reminds me the pill isn’t always one hundred per cent effective and tells me to pee in a cup. Thank god, that cup of pee tells her I’m not pregnant, and she tells me. I smile and sigh, but even in that moment my stomach still feels like a million things are going on inside it, and I don’t know what. My doctor tells me it must be the flu, or maybe a food allergy. I hesitate, then tell her I don’t think so. She repeats that it’s probably the flu, or I’ve been eating something I shouldn’t be. I nod and admit she must be right. She offers to refill my prescription for the pill, and I accept. I go home and throw up.
A week later, I am crossing my living room to answer the phone and the pain starts, it seizes my leg so badly, I fall sideways onto the arm of one of the armchairs. Warmth stabs my right calf out of nowhere and I moan. I try to walk, but I can’t. I pull myself into the chair, roll up my pant leg, search on my leg for a visual indicator of the unbearably sharp pain. There is none, and I reach for the remote control, impatiently turn the TV on to distract myself. It doesn’t work, but I’m stuck there anyway.
Eventually I’m able to drag myself to bed, popping a few aspirins in the bathroom along the way.
By morning my leg is red and swollen.
Back at the doctor’s office, my doctor tells me it’s a blood clot, and that it could also explain the vomiting. I ask how this happened, remembering vaguely something I wanted to forget, something I read and didn’t understand on the package insert for those little pink pills that have kept me so free. She tells me to go off the pill, to use a different method of birth control. Not oral contraceptives. All these years I thought the only thing to worry about was that crying creature growing inside of me. It turns out, something else was, something that the doctor says has been lethal in some cases, but that “can be fixed” in this one. For the first time since I was fifteen, I won’t be taking those pills. I feel nauseous. My leg hurts like hell and I’m starting to sweat. My prescription today is for a blood thinner.
Thirty-seven, doing my stretching exercises in front of the TV when my mother calls. Her voice wavers, I know something’s wrong, I ask what and she tells me she has cervical cancer. I bite my lip, order myself not to cry until after I’ve hung up. I ask her if they know what caused it. I sense her biting her own lip on the other end of the phone. She says the doctors don’t know for sure, but that the fact that she’s been on the pill for the past twenty years may have had something to do with it. Something about estrogen. Something about recent studies. Inconclusive studies.
Months later, my mother’s cancer is getting worse. On the news, bald women in hospital gowns are interviewed about how betrayed they feel. There are tears and reports of different studies, all saying different things. It seems like one day, the pill causes breast cancer, the next day, it prevents breast cancer, and they still haven’t agreed on what it has to do with cervical cancer, but most of the research says the pill helps prevent it, rather than cause it.
One day, a woman’s face is splashed across all the papers, a woman who died from a blood clot while on her pink little pills. I want to throw up that day. I’ve been back on the pill for a month. I tried other methods (no diaphragm would fit, it turns out I’m allergic to contraceptive jelly, Depo-Provera has a bad rep now for destroying women’s bones, the patch kept falling off, I still can’t trust just condoms, I’m juggling multiple partners these days, etc). My doctor suggested I “stop having promiscuous sex” as a solution. She talked to me about responsibility. I changed doctors. It wasn’t an easy choice. She had, after all, been my doctor for twenty-two years, but I’d also swallowed those little pink pills every morning for almost the same amount of time, and I’d stopped doing that. I told my new doctor about the blood clot, and he told me I would probably be fine this time, but that there’s always going to be a risk, and that it is my choice. Choice sounds like a funny word these days. I choose to go back on the pill.
This morning, after seeing that dead woman’s face on the news again, that picture of her fat happy, smiling face, a face now dead, I go to my bathroom cabinet, pull out my bottle of little pink pills as usual. I drop one into my hand, stare down at it like I did the first time I ever swallowed one. A pink speck in my palm, it sits and waits. I drop it back into the bottle, phone up a good friend, a friend who’s been giving me orgasms like I’ve never had before, and I cancel our date for tonight.
I demand information from my new doctor. I want to know everything about the pill and blood clots and cervical cancer and breast cancer and death. He tells me the research has been inconclusive, he tells me what he doesn’t know, he tells me there’s always a risk in effective birth control, he talks to me about personal choices, he talks to me about responsibility.
I go back to my old doctor. The scent of Old Spice makes me feel sick. She is angry, she says the other doctor never should have put me back on the pill.
At home that night, I flush my little pink pills down the toilet. I watch the pink specks disappear, feeling like my body is a question mark, a secret I’m not being let in on.
Thirty-eight years old. Thirty-eight and I feel three. My sex life is slowly being killed off by thoughts of babies and lumps and viruses and infections and cancers and clots growing inside me. No pill or penis can come inside me without a week of nausea, of wondering what’s going on in this body of mine I can never protect as long as I’m having sex. Maybe the school nurse was right when she said abstinence is the best choice. No bodies connecting, no exchange of fluids, no reliance on pink pills with the power to kill. Just individual bodies, keeping to themselves, responsible for themselves. This thought makes me want to cry, scream, vomit.
Sometimes I don’t know if my nausea comes from the news stories about the latest research findings, or if it’s from something growing in me, something bad. I’ve turned into one of those paranoid people I’ve pitied and made fun of when I was in my twenties, the students at college who were planning on going to med school, the ones who read about cancer, read about the signs and symptoms, and instantly diagnosed themselves and freaked out, running to their doctors, even though most of them were healthier than the rest of us combined, with their avocado sandwiches for lunch and their daily jogs around campus. Now I go running to three different doctors whenever I get a headache, to make sure it’s not cancer or something else that’s going to kill me.
Yes, my body is as much of a question mark to me as ever, an ugly lagoon of mystery. Memories of puberty rush back to me, the confusion, the disgust, the unanswered questions, that sad hatred of being female. Not knowing what’s lurking in there, what created whatever is lurking, what’s going to come out.
Forty-five years old and I miss my mother. The anniversary of her death is coming up. I place white lilies on her grave and think about how if a person had killed her rather than a cancer, her death would have made the front page when she died. I would be interviewed as the angry, grieving daughter who wants her mother’s murderer found and punished. Can’t do that with cancer. Not in the same way, anyway. My mother’s death may have made the papers had she died this year, when the studies do point to the pill for cervical cancer. Then again, the studies could say something different tomorrow.
Forty-six years old and no cancer yet.
Forty-seven years old and now the studies and the news and the doctors say something different again. It’s progestin in the pill we need to worry about now, not just estrogen. Six months later they say the pill is safe…
Forty-eight years old and I miss having a man inside me.
Forty-nine years old and I still feel three.
Fifty years old and my body is still a question mark.