Annals of Medicine — ‘Are you married?’

I must have struck an odd figure, a flat-bellied, white girl sitting alone amongst the pregnant Indian ladies and their husbands. Their bellies came in all shapes and sizes, some modest bumps, others round like melons. The woman sitting to my left had a belly swollen to the size of a beach ball. I thought about the little human she had growing inside of her, extending itself, taking up space in this world but insulated from the worst of its suffering.

I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my lifetime. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.

Like these women I was waiting for a sonograph. Unlike these women I was (to the best of my knowledge) without child. It was precisely this decision, to remain childless, that brought me here. A year and a half previously I had an IUD inserted. This T-shaped, hormone-laden piece of plastic shoved up my cervix was my ticket to pregnancy-free sex for five years, by which time I would be thirty. It was my golden ticket to sexual liberation. No more fumbling with daily alarms. No more pill-popping. No more anxious waiting for periods. In fact, no more periods at all.

But even this miraculous invention came with baggage and irregular bleeding brought me to the hospital.

Quizzing me about my medical history, the junior gynecologist asked me why I had gotten the IUD inserted. She was young, just a few years older than me I guessed. Contraception I answered, although I thought the answer was obvious. Nothing to do with periods, she probed, visibly dissatisfied with my answer. Nope, I replied, resolutely.

Was I married? Also, no.

She repeated her earlier question, What was the purpose of my IUD? Contraception, I answered again, knowing full well it was not the answer she wanted to hear.

Her lips pursed.

Are you sexually active?

Obvious questions would receive obvious answers.

I took my underwear off and lay down on the examination table, knees bent, legs spread, and for the first time that day a foreign object entered me, opening me up. The sensation of a foreign object entering me not for the purpose of my own pleasure is one that I decidedly do not enjoy. I tensed involuntarily, making things worse. The doctor told me to relax so I decided to go to my happy place. I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating in the sea surrounded by mountains. The world was blurry, refracted through the shimmering layers of water. I was the foetus, insulated, enveloped, suspended, protected by Mother Earth.

Then came my turn for the ultrasound. I hiked my dress up to above my waist and the assistant fitted a sheet over my bottom half. The gesture was disarmingly tender and I felt safe and taken care of, like a young child being tucked into bed by a parent. The radiographer squeezed lukewarm gel on my belly and rocked the probe back and forth over my stomach. This was a scene I watched on tv countless times. I imagined how exciting yet anxiety ridden this moment must be for expectant mothers. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, given the circumstances. The radiographer stared at my empty womb on the screen and I stared at her face, examining her facial movements for clues.

Another more senior radiographer arrived and together they peered at the screen, muttering between themselves. A swirl of uninvited thoughts and emotions filled my head. I knew it was probably nothing, but in the no man’s land of ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ my mind likes to tease out the worst possible scenarios. Just that week I had heard about a girl had continuous periods and then it turned out she had cancer. Then words I recognized were directed towards me: ‘ovarian cyst’. I latched onto them, pulling myself back onto safe, familiar territory.

A vaginal probe was the next step but first I had to pass urine. I went to the bathroom and sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and typed ‘ovarian cyst’ into google: “Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets in an ovary or on its surface.” An image showed a pink ovary with a bulbous, bloated mass pushing angrily from its top.

“Very common”, was printed underneath.

I returned to the sonography room and resumed the now accustomed position. Sensing my tension the radiographer told me to relax as she held the long, thin probe next to her head. “Easy for you to say”, I laughed in reply. For the second time that day a foreign object was inserted between my legs. Holding my breath and then breathing deeply, I thought about immersing myself in deep water bodies surrounded by tall mountains as it pushed its way further and further inside me. I was more relaxed and unclenching this time was easier. The probe was wriggled around inside me, left, right, up, down, the radiographer’s arm between my legs, her eyes staring unblinking at the screen ahead of her.

The senior radiographer’s turn was next. More wiggling, more prodding; more peering, more deep breathing. And like that it was over. With a practised flourish the probe was slid out and I was handed a stack of tissues to wipe myself off. Once clean, I put my underwear back on, a black thong from Penny’s that has seen better days. My report would be ready that afternoon the senior radiographer informed me and without so much of a goodbye she was gone.

The next day I returned to collect my results, which were handed to me in a big white envelope bearing my name. Inside it was a piece of card, with seven black and white pictures affixed by a sheet of sticky plastic. I turned it over in my hands examining the images carefully, not able to make much sense of what I was looking at. Looking at your ultrasound images for the first time is usually a pertinent moment in a woman’s life, one which I had expected to encounter under different circumstances. There was a family waiting beside me, which I guessed to be made up of grandmother, mother, sister and baby. I realised that anyone watching me would assume I was staring at my future baby, and not at a 3.7 cm clear cyst on my right overy as the accompanying report had indicated. I wondered what it must be like to stare at the image of your baby inside you, within you, yet still out of reach. I wondered what it must be like to lose a baby after seeing it alive like that.

The mother and her baby and I were left alone on the bench. It was time for me to leave so I stood up and started packing, returning the images to their abnormally large envelope. As I started off the woman said something to me in Hindi or Marathi, I wasn’t sure which. I didn’t understand and stared helplessly while she repeated the sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was communicating something profound or mundane. Was this a gesture of tenderness on her behalf, having sensed a loneliness in my stolen glances? I felt a discomfort which bordered on guilt, as though I had been caught out doing something I shouldn’t in a place I shouldn’t be, my incomprehension of her words proving my culpability. All I could do was return her gaze with an apologetic shrug, half-smiling, half-wincing, and walk away.

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