There’s something very enticing about our latest theme: Can I ask you a personal question? Sure, fine, of course, the whole concept allows for you to withhold or release a personal part of yourself. But not all personal questions are created equally, or hold the same value. There’s a split second after our theme is asked where you wonder, fear, hope the following question is the very one you’re thinking about. You know the one. Your stomach drops a little, but the temptation to finally cross that Rubicon and answer the personal question grows. And then, most likely, you are asked something else entirely, something awkward but innocuous. That’s fine. Your question may not have been something you want to talk about now anyway. But we here at Tart want to hear the unasked questions. We find this theme, at its core, can be liberating and cathartic. You are in control of the entire conversation; and your personal question is not made public, but rather, shared.
We are fortunate enough to share two different pieces this week. The first is a set of photos from artist Stephanie Kotsikonas. Here, on a hazy summer afternoon, the air is thick with humidity and small, interstitial breaths of a covert joint. Perhaps, somewhere in the open air is where that question was asked, and you were ready to answer. Do you remember?
The second question asked is by Maeve Barry, and in her vivid, compelling, and relatable working, she has taken hold of the entire conversation. So our readers are aware: This work does contain themes of sexual trauma and rape. Out of respect to the artist, and to our readers, we will limit what we say about the piece here, but do invite you to listen if you feel comfortable doing so.
As you can see, our theme of can i ask you a personal question? can take on as many meanings as you see fit for yourself; and all of us here at Tart are honored and grateful to be able to share your interpretations. We are accepting submissions of all forms, shapes and sizes (under 5mgs and 1,500 words though, please) until July 31. For the rest of the month, we’d especially love to see more short stories and prose.
This Is What I Did When I Was Alone
By Stephanie Kotsikonas
Invasive Speculations and Speculums: One Woman’s Trip to the Gynecologist
By Maeve Barry
This may be personal, the gynecologist said as her finger touched the back of my cervix, but have you experienced severe sexual trauma?
Her speculum is deep inside me, and a clammy sheen of sweat covers my nose and upper lip. I pull my knees together until my skin gets pinched. I close my eyes and pretend that I’m not there.
Twenty minutes prior, I sat in my mother’s Subaru outside of a new gynecologist’s office. The air smelled like cigarettes and rotten fish, but all I could see was pavement.
The smell of fish was not unique to the gynecologist's office, but instead a staple of the entire port town I’ve lived in for the past four months. I returned here for the first time in 11 years because of the pandemic. And here, I decided to name my IUD as the source of all that was wrong with me.
Quarantine has forced me to sit with and think about my body. I’m continuously aware of flesh: its roles, its bends, what it suppresses, where it's elastic, and which portions hold firm. Before quarantine, I was skilled at living outside my body, which is a privilege. All in all, I haven't spent much time inside hospitals and doctors’ offices, forced to consider my ability and mortality on a regular basis.
But now I can't stay distracted. My body has had to act as a home, and I'm aware of the leaks in its surfaces. I'm aware of the swirling inside it, of the heartbeat in my ankle, and of each crick in my neck.
When you’ve avoided the task for nearly 22 years, sitting in your body can become too much. It can feel like sitting in outer space beside black holes. And so, like those who turn to religion to exist alongside darkness, I sought a scapegoat: something to blame for each pop in my back, for the fact that I had triple the bug bites my brother did. The scapegoat appeared in the form of 32 millimeters of plastic, secreting hormones and lodged firmly into my uterus.
So I made an appointment to have my IUD removed. Scheduling it let me feel productive without considering underlying issues or root causes, without “doing the work,” as the therapist I visited twice would've suggested. And since I was back in my boat-centric, fish-scented hometown, I needed to find a new gynecologist, anyway.
My trips to the gynecologist have never gone “well.” The first time I went for a Pap smear, I projectile vomited on the doctor. The two of us then mutually agreed that I was young, was probably fine, and probably did not have cervical cancer. We cut the exam short, and I have not attempted a Pap smear since.
Two years ago, my doctor decided it was time for me to get an IUD. I assume there is a note in my file, which I picture as a manilla folder with last name comma first name written in messy purple pen on its tab; a file that I could swipe from the cabinet and destroy at a moment's notice.
My file likely notes “patient history vomiting on provider — consider facial covering” or “patient inclined to sweat profusely at the mere mention of own vagina, proceed with caution.” I also assume that there is a briefer note scribbled in a smaller font, likely in red ink as opposed to purple: “patient = raped.”
I only disclosed this information to my doctor in the first place because I wanted pills to make me feel better after it happened. I wanted a single solution that allowed me to hover above my body, to feel OK without poking at experiences that had created scars. My doctor first prescribed medication in high school, pills which made me feel less as opposed to better. Most importantly, they did not come with a requirement to talk about what, exactly, “had happened.”
For the insertion of my IUD, my gynecologist prescribed a heavy dose of Valium. I was given a pill and instructed to take half of it pre-insertion. There was also a second pill in case I misplaced the first. I took both and arrived at the appointment floating above and beyond myself, laughing.
A hot butch nurse told me to undress. I stripped my clothes off slowly and methodically, dangling each article of clothing above my head before allowing it to fall into a heap on the cool tile floor. There was no dressing gown in my immediate line of sight, so I figured it was logical to crawl underneath the sanitary wax paper on the exam table.
I slid beneath the waxy paper, trying to cover my entire body in a sheet thin as tissue. The entire thing could not have been more than eight inches wide. My breasts poked out on either side. I squirmed on the sticky table, a gooey worm. My limbs were goo; my mind was goo; I felt naked and inhuman. My bare skin pressed into the faux leather. I kept laughing, mindlessly. The hot butch nurse returned and screamed.
After that, I remember cramping, lying on a futon for days, clutching at my stomach and eating Advil like it was candy. Then I had a new note added to my file: I wasn't supposed to take any more drugs that came with the potential for abuse.
And so, for the removal of my IUD, I smoked weed in a smelly, grey parking lot, in my mom’s Subaru, outside a new gynecologist’s office, in the midst of a global pandemic. I was still inside my body as I pulled the metal door open and was hit with cold, stale air and tubs of off-brand sanitizer. I’d been complaining about my appointment for upwards of a week, my friends reminding me that IUDs hurt way less coming out than they do going in. I couldn’t remember my IUD going in; I thought of nothing but the table and the speculum and stranger’s prying fingers for a week. All I remembered seeing were latex-covered hands as my eyes drooped shut, then clamps holding down my feet the moment they opened again.
I climbed onto a table at the new gynecologist’s and talked to a woman with dark hair that kept falling into her eyes. I talked about how I couldn’t wait to go back to Brooklyn. She lived there when she was 20. I reclined onto the thin sheet of protective paper, my gown tied neatly.
The gynecologist continued talking about Brooklyn. I laughed a little as she spread lube around a silver device that looked like an eyelash curler, only larger. She shoved it in and continued to talk and now I know that there is something in me that I did not invite.
I clam up, I tighten as hard as I can, but I don’t and cannot speak or make a single sound because I am not breathing. I can’t lift my hands, cannot move my fingers. I can’t kick without it being worse. I clench and plummet hard and fast into myself. I am 14 and 19 and 21 and there are no longer drugs that can stop it.
This may be personal, the gynecologist asked as her fingers touched the back of my cervix, but have you experienced severe sexual trauma?
Her speculum is deep inside me. A clammy sheen of sweat covers my nose and upper lip and I pull my knees together until my skin pinches. I cannot form words and I cannot exit my body. I close my eyes and pretend that I’m not there.
But I am still there.
Tears that I hadn't realized were running reach my mouth and leave it salty. I nod my head, yes.
I climb into my mother’s Subaru 15 minutes later, sober. I cry, and there is no IUD for me to blame. Nine years of sadness are with me, in the crick in my neck and the swirl in my stomach; in the bug bites covering my leg that are slowly closing into scabs. I return home without a prescription, without my protection. I return home with only a question, asked at an inappropriate moment nine years too late. I go home knowing I am the one who should be asking it, who needs to ask it, who will continue sitting in and among the answers.
About the Artist
Stephanie Kotsikonas is a former journalist and editor who is currently working toward a dental hygiene degree. She can usually be found reading in the sun or staring at the stars in Brooklyn, New York.
Maeve Barry (she/her) is a writer and artist who moved from Los Angeles to Brooklyn last year. She teaches creative writing and painting to kids during the day and hangs out with her dogs most afternoons. You can find her on Instagram @maeveharkinscowboyatgmail.com_ .
If this extreme 2000 cinema moment doesn’t spark creativity for you… I mean what in the world will?