By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
My mother prized beauty marks. Every day she penciled one on her right cheek. Once, the butcher, getting flirtatious, pinched her cheek, then staggered back, jaws agape, when it smeared.
I had one low on my back, at my waist, that I took as a sign of me being a beauty, but a natural one.
When I was thirteen and got my first bikini, my mother said, “That’s no beauty mark. It’s a mole. A real eyesore. You’re getting older now. Things like this matter. We’ve got to get it taken off.”
I thought of the high school boy with the sun-streaked hair who whistled at me on Beach 35th Street when I walked by his blanket. He must have seen the mark on my back as I continued toward the ocean, but he whistled louder. That proved to me that what I had was a beauty mark.
“I’m not getting it taken off,” I insisted, but it was like my mother put a hex on it. Every time I got undressed, I looked over my shoulder and twisted my body to see in the mirror, which was now often. What I saw was a “mole,” like witches have on their noses.
The doctor looked at it through a lit magnifying glass. “It’s probably enlarging with your hormonal surge,” he said. “It could get caught on your belt or the waistband of your skirt. The constant irritation could make it malignant. It should be excised.”
Today that would have been an office procedure or a few hours in an outpatient facility, but back then, I was sent to the hospital overnight. I had my period and breasts (small, but there), so I didn’t belong in the children’s ward. Instead, I was installed in a room with three grown women, one of whom was in traction for a spinal injury. She was harnessed, tilted up, and stretched with a system of pulleys and weights. When my friends, thrilled to be grown up enough to be visitors at a hospital, came to buzz around me, they kept accidentally bumping into her weights. She hollered so loud that my friends were thrown out.
That night, late, a young doctor with close-cropped dark hair and dark eyes came into the room. I had never seen him before. He had on a white coat and carried a clipboard. He came only to my bedside, then pulled the curtain around us.
“Lift up your nightgown,” he said.
I felt as if ants were crawling on my skin, but when I was nine, I had refused a penicillin shot in my backside at Doctor Zucker’s office. My mother tried to hold me down, but I fought so hard that they had to call in the doctor’s receptionist, plus the dentist from across the hall. I said to myself, Just get it over with. Oh, did I wish I’d worn the pajamas my mother told me to instead of that yellow-flowered muumuu as if I was going to a luau! I clamped my teeth, turned on my side, pulled the blanket up, and lifted my muumuu, making sure I only exposed the mole.
Suddenly, he yanked the blanket down and began vigorously rubbing my behind.
This wasn’t like any doctor’s exam I ever had or even ever heard of. I felt gagged, bound. But somehow words forced their way out of my throat. “What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Shh,” he said. Moaning softly, he worked his hand between my thighs and began pushing his fingers into my vagina.
I heard the woman in the bed next to me rustle as if she were awake.
“Stop!” I shouted. “Stop it!” I shouted louder, hoping the woman would holler at him as she had at my friends when they visited. But she didn’t. She must be drugged out of her mind, I thought.
He kept it up. I screamed and now, the invisible ropes that bound me broke. I thrashed, kicking at him. Finally, he slipped out the curtain slit, leaving me marinated in shame, with vomit in my throat.
This was 1960. My parents had told me not to use the bedside phone or the hospital would charge them a fortune. I didn’t think anyone else would believe me. And if I did call my parents, I never knew what my father would do. When my sister told him that some guy had slapped her face for leaning against his parked car, my father, a former middleweight boxer, took off after him barefoot. He chased the man’s car for blocks while my mother shouted out the door, “Herman, come back. You’ll land in jail if you kill him.”
I lay there, open-eyed, trembling. Was that doctor coming back to do more to me? I once saw a tomcat sink his teeth into the nape of a feline and drag her, yowling, under a car. I got onto my knees on the sidewalk. I saw him mounting her, saw her shake her head wildly, side to side. I saw her paws scrabbling the road, but he kept her pinned, his teeth still clenched on her neck. I swung my book bag under the car, but he never let go. The hospital room was hot as fever, but my teeth chattered.
In the morning, when a nurse shaved my hairless back around the mole to prepare me for surgery, I asked, voice quavering, “Please, will you stay with me the whole time?”
“No,” she said, “but there will be an assisting nurse.”
Tears spilled down my face.
“You’ll be just fine, honey,” she said. “Only a small scar.”
I had to tell her what happened so she wouldn’t leave me by myself. “Some doctor came to examine me last night,” I began. “And he did weird things to me.”
She cocked her head and squinted. “Dr. Rose? White hair, glasses, blue eyes?”
“No,” I said. His face came to me as clearly as if I was examining him under a lit magnifying glass. I could see that he had missed shaving a small patch on the corner of his mouth. “His eyes are dark and one, the left, has a chip of gray. And…and he has a space between his top front teeth.”
She shook her head. “There was no one on staff who looked like that last night or any night I’ve been here. And I’ve had the night shift for weeks now. You probably fell asleep and had a nightmare.”
“But I was screaming,” I said.
“If you had actually screamed,” she said, softly, patting my arm, “don’t you think someone would have heard you? We were down the hall with an emergency, but there were nurses at the station, and you have three grown women in the room. Nobody would hear you in distress and not do anything for you.”
Her voice was like a wave I floated on. I had dreams of flying that were so real I could feel the wind against my body. My falling dreams stopped my heart. I could see my mother, her mouth hanging open, her hands flown to her cheeks, looking down at me from our second-story porch, where I lay smashed on the sidewalk like a run-over sparrow. “It must have been a bad dream,” I agreed, and she smiled.
When I was wheeled out of the recovery room, bleary but awake, I saw a man from the back, sweeping, in a blue-gray janitor’s uniform. Somehow, the air felt charged. He turned my way. The two of us locked eyes. It was him. My attacker. That chip of gray in his eye. The space between his front teeth. And then, I was surprised when I looked away first. I tried to say something to the aides, but it was as if I was burbling underwater.
Back in my room, all I could think was What if he comes back before I can get away? He hadn’t broken the stare. I had. He wasn’t even scared that I would tell somebody. There was no one I could tell. Joanie, my best friend, told her mother everything. Her mother would end up telling my mother. Or she’d tell her big sister, and her big sister would tell my big sister. And I couldn’t tell my big sister or she’d end up telling my mother. So I had to tell my mother myself. But what words would I use? My mother called a vagina a “hoohoo.” When I told her, six months prior, that I got my first period, she’d said, “Now you’re a woman,” and hauled off and smacked me in the face.
“Why did you do that?” I cried, holding my stinging cheek.
“Because now you can get preggie,” she said. “That’s to teach you never to let a boy go down there until you’re married. And no topping either.”
Topping was her word for letting a boy feel your breasts. By way of further information about getting my period, she handed me Growing Up and Liking It, a booklet put out by Modess (a brand of sanitary napkins). On the cover was a girl in a shirtwaist dress and ponytail, smiling while she talked on the phone. But I never had a chance to get on the phone because my mother spent the rest of the day making calls to tell the news to my aunts, my grandparents, and even the seamstress across the street who did my mother’s hems. “The curse,” my mother called my period, and it was. Now not only did I have to wear an elastic sanitary belt to hold up the pad (the garter belt had a little metal fastener that dug into my butt crack), I also had to endure male cousins smirking at me from having overheard the news.
What could I even have said that the fake doctor floor sweeper had done to me? He hadn’t topped me. Should I say he had bottomed me? I didn’t have the words for what had happened. The information certainly wasn’t in any of the things my mother had begun to tell me once she’d slapped me into womanhood.
“When I was in labor with you,” she said, “the doctor gave me a rectal exam so he could see how low you descended without breaking my water. I was so innocent back then that I thought it meant that you’d be delivered through my rectum.” Throwing her head back, my mother broke into laughter, never noticing that I wasn’t laughing. I felt the blood leave every other part of my body to surge up and flame my face.
Rectum. What a word! It was hard for me to even say it to myself. And weekly a big enema bag, like a hot water bottle, hung upside down on a hook on the inside of our bathroom door. Vinegar water dripped from its long, curved nozzle. If my mother knew that the janitor had touched me both in the hoohoo and the rectum, she might make me insert that nozzle into one or the other or maybe both.
I was woozy, but I got out of bed, took my clothes out of the small locker, and dressed as fast as I could. My stitches were so stiff that when my mother showed up, her beauty mark penciled on her rouged cheek, she had to help me put on my socks and shoes.
When she went off to sign me out, the woman in traction said, “You’re just lucky that I didn’t tell your mother that you had your boyfriend in last night.”
My tongue got as stiff as the stitches in my back. How could she have not said something when she heard me telling him to stop, shouting at him, especially knowing that he was a phony doctor? I would have asked her that, but I heard my mother clip-clop toward my room in her high heels. All I wanted to do was get out of here, go home.
A few days after I came home from the hospital, the bandage was removed. I looked over my shoulder, twisting, to see it in the mirror. The scar was still red and I could see the lines of the stitches, like teeth on a zipper. Worse, I felt as if I was still enclosed in that striped curtain with the doctor who wasn’t a doctor. There was no one I could tell. I grew desperate to yank open the curtain to let in light, air. I had to tell my mother.
One night when she sat in the kitchen wearing her rayon kimono, her beauty mark still penciled on her cheek, her upper lip white and creamy with Jolen lip bleach, I decided to take a chance.
“Mom, you remember when I went to the hospital to get that mole removed from my back?”
“Yes, and I don’t know why, but it reminds me of when I was in the hospital giving birth to you, and one of the women who had given birth the day before me went missing, her baby still in the nursery. The woman’s clothes were gone. All she left behind was a bloody sanitary napkin. The hospital was in an uproar. Alarms going off, everything. They asked Dr. Weinberg for a description of the woman. He said, ‘I only know what her crotch looks like.’ Can you imagine?”
Yes, I could. Crotch, rectum, bloody pads, bloody women, doctors with their hands inside women, floor sweepers with their hands inside girls. I could imagine it all so clearly that I’d wake in the night, sweating and shaking.
I never did tell anyone.
Instead, I bought a diary with a lock and a tiny key. Curtained by night, I wrote everything down on its blue-lined pages. I began with the first line of Growing Up and Liking It. “So much happens when a girl first reaches her teens,” and continued on, pressing hard with my pen, sometimes bearing down so much you could see my script backward on the next page and the next. The scar was small as the nurse said it would be, but it was deep, very deep.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam The Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her poem “Second Story Porch” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s published essays in The New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, and in many anthologies. She currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. rochellejewelshapiro.com