Are you a virgin?”
Emily was flummoxed. Sure, she was in her doctor’s office, and Dr. Rebecca Rosenberg had asked invasive questions right off the bat in the past, but this was still a bit too much. Semantically, at least. Because Emily Flowers, twenty-four, a Libra, and five feet, five inches tall with blonde hair, was a lot of things, but a virgin was not one of them. She had sex last night, even.
With a woman, though.
And somehow, she didn’t think that was what Dr. Rosenberg meant. Emily fought the urge to bring up that “one time with a guy” in high school that many of her lesbian friends seemed to have. She didn’t want to say the words. She was a lesbian. That was that. Why couldn’t she just pretend to have that gold star? Especially here, in a cold room and wearing a paper gown, when her defenses were down?
None of this, right from the beginning, was fair.
“I ask,” the doctor went on, noting Emily’s contorted mouth, “because I want to schedule you for a trans-vaginal ultrasound.”
Emily had had at least seven ultrasounds in her life. A record, considering she’d never once been pregnant or even had a pregnancy scare. A gallbladder attack when she was nineteen led to a series of ultrasound scans until they discovered her vomiting attacks were not food poisoning but a scarred and withering gallbladder that soon needed to be removed. Then when her period stopped altogether there were even more scans. Scans filled her early twenties. All without conclusions. Nobody could offer a reason why she menstruated like clockwork for six months and then shed no blood for the next two years. Emily may have been only twenty-four, but the frequency of her period matched that of the average fifteen-year-old girl. Did that make her age somewhere in between? If so, it was especially inappropriate for Dr. Rosenberg to ask about her sex life.
“And,” Dr. Rosenberg went on, “not everyone wants to get this type of ultrasound because it can be quite invasive. Trans-vaginal is, well, exactly how it sounds. So I ask if you’re a virgin.”
Emily pressed her lips together in muted silence. Dr. Rosenberg checked her chart, to see if this tidbit of sexuality had come up during their preliminary interview. Dr. Rosenberg was a gynecologist; though she dealt with the minutia of hormones and vaginas and even clitorises (Emily had seen far too many pamphlets in the waiting room about forced female circumcision that made her retch and cross her legs at once), she didn’t deal with nuance. Not really. No one in the field of women’s health seemed to deal with nuance, especially when attempting to diagnose Emily’s condition; one day she had polycystic ovarian syndrome, only to have that theory disproved through a different battery of tests. She was anorexic to some doctors, since amenorrhea—the absence of menstruation—was one of its symptoms and she was sort of boney. Meanwhile, she was merely infertile to others. Then her low hormones—the only thing consistent between this ring of medical professionals—was somehow explained through tumours, another theory that was disproved through a different type of scan. She’d been pronounced to have so many conditions in the last two years that she’d lost faith in nuance and clarity. She wondered what exactly doctors swore to do when they took the Hippocratic Oath.
So Emily kept her sexuality from doctors because she didn’t want the two things to be related. Her lack of menses had nothing to do with her love of women. Her off-kilter hormones had nothing to do with her eyeing the obviously bottled but still no less sexy redheaded secretary. Absolutely nothing at all. She stayed silent, fearing the worse judgements if she linked the two, and fearing yet another year of not knowing exactly what was wrong.
“I’m. Um.” Emily shifted in her seat. “I’m not a virgin. No. I can handle that.”
Dr. Rosenberg spoke about the procedure details in clipped, candid sentences; about what Emily could and could not do before hand; and when the results would most likely come in. Emily nodded along like she normally did, but the hope that had once flickered at the start of her visits with Dr. Rosenberg was now no more than a little flame, easily snuffed out. If Dr. Rosenberg was pawning her off on someone else, it meant she had no idea what was wrong, either.
◊ ◊ ◊
Doctors upon doctors upon doctors spread out before Emily like a tarot-card spread. Men with grey hair yet oddly cherubic faces; men in austere white coats with discordant bright sneakers; women in high heels and severe ponytails, all leading to an ever-present Hanging Man card as she waited for results. At this point, Emily was pretty sure The Fool with his small dog and ZERO above his head could tell her more about her ghost uterus than any medical person ever could. She may as well consult an oracle.
When Dr. Rosenberg handed Emily the referral form, she didn’t recognize the building.
“Where is this? I don’t know these two streets.”
“In Toronto.” Dr. Rosenberg said it as if it was obvious. “We’ve run out of our capabilities here, though the results will be sent back to us. And I’ll give them to you here.”
Emily tucked the piece of paper into her jeans pocket. This was not something she could do today. She’d have to take time off work, schedule something with her roommate about feeding her cat, and then deal with the reality of meandering though Toronto, and of coming home again on a Greyhound bus. And all without answers, most likely. Always without answers.
“Is there a problem?” Dr. Rosenberg asked.
“No.” Emily smiled. She faked confidence like she faked her sexuality. “I’m fine.”
Toronto should have been a queer mecca for Emily, but it was her hometown. And when you come out as gay, and your parents don’t deal with it well, the next step in your sad story is to leave your hometown. You need to get on a bus and just go to the closest dyke bar, then run away with a U-Haul girlfriend and start over in Ottawa or some other freezing climate; you need to leave behind everything in order to move forward. Emily had completed that trajectory.
Yet, in some odd way only now manifesting, it was like her uterus was left in Toronto.
She shook her head. What a stupid idea. But three days later, as she boarded the Greyhound bus that would take her from Kingston to the heart of the city—bypassing, of course, the subdivision she used to live in—she thought about her uterus’s misplacement more and more. Maybe Freud wasn’t a complete sexist dick and uteruses really did wander away from female patients. Maybe hysteria was a kind of homesickness for the body before puberty completely gendered it. Emily struggled to remember the Intro to Sexuality classes she took so she could take down Freud even more, but could only remember the Ancient History classes because she idolized the TA with a pixie cut. Wasn’t Freud merely working with the Classics anyway? Yes, puberty now seemed like a never-ending journey, where Emily was Odysseus getting lost along the way, never quite making it to Ithaca. Each and every time she thought she was cured, she was merely among the Lotus-eaters and all doctors were Circe’s pigs.
Emily sighed. Her uterus had always been treated like some ancient text to bicker over, another puzzle for eggheads to solve in a standard reveal after a commercial break as if she was on House. Why not join the ranks of the shitty doctors speculating on her body’s lack of regular biological responses? At least then, she could feel as if she was included and not merely watched like a broken clock.
A clock, she thought. That was it. Fuck the Greeks and the psychoanalysts. Fuck hysteria. Her uterus was a biological clock without hands; she was a strange time machine that refused to work, to move forward, and was instead caught in the grips of nostalgia and the beginnings of osteopenia. Because that was the real issue, she knew. When Teresa, her first serious girlfriend had asked why Emily was so obsessed with her periods if she never wanted to have kids, she could only default to her bones.
“Without hormones, I basically go into menopause. My bones deteriorate. And I worry I’ll shatter.”
Teresa thought she was overreacting. How could anyone who still got carded at clubs have old lady bones? But when Emily smashed a wrist at Roller Derby, Teresa had mumbled apologies in the emergency room. The ER doctor was shocked Emily was still walking around, her bones were so porous. He gave her a prescription for the pill, which Emily took, and for a while, it seemed to kick her body back into order. Tick-tick-period-tick-tick.
Then Teresa left. Emily lost health insurance, and the pill. Then bam. Her clock was set back again. Her bones started to become Swiss cheese while her uterus grew ever more silent. She was being launched into her old age far before her time, and in order to maintain her body in her youth—actually enjoy her youth—she needed to fix her broken time bomb. She needed to replace the dead batteries of her ovaries so her fallopian tubes could tell the right time. Right now they were like the errant hands of a clock after a power outage.
She needed to go back to Toronto.
Memories of Scarborough and Little Eglington came back to her in a rush. The spicy smell of Jamaican patties mixed with the heat and cacophony of Caribana, the Caribbean music festival that takes place every summer. That memory contrasted with the blacks, greens, and yellows of the Jamaican flags, tattered by wind and sleet, hanging out of apartment windows in the winter. On a street corner, her first kiss with a girl. It was so cold their bodies produced steam. The candy-sweetness of her lip-gloss tangled with the frozen hair of another girl on another street corner in another winter wonderland of snow and grit under converse sneakers. The harrowing, near-apocalyptic visions of the street trash piled up and up and up as the garbage strike went on so long, just like the bad bands in bars that kept playing long after last call. Toronto was a miasma of senses for the first hour on the bus, dancing in front of her vision as if she was a synesthete.
This is normal, she told herself. Time machines disorient. Time machines have to tilt the user. She was used to being tilted. Being queer was like that; she thought of the books she’d read as a child in her cottage as her brothers went off and found girlfriends she thought were oh, so attractive. She thought of Little Alice falling down a rabbit hole and not wanting to be queer, yet here she was. Jo from Little Women and her denial of femininity, falling in love with a boy with a girl’s name. Even Anne of Green Gables had started to seem queer the longer Emily read her stories alone in her room at night. Emily had latched onto all these little girls who never seemed to want to grow up, wanting their fantasy lives so much, to the point where she prayed away her period in the same breath that she thanked God for being alive. She wanted to burn Judy Blume as an offering. Scorn Wendy for not following Peter Pan and becoming a Lost Boy herself. Little did Emily know how useful hormones were. How necessary and needed they were, not just for desire, but stability.
She thought of H.G. Wells’ book The Time Machine, which only led her to think about her brother’s love of sci-fi books under his covers at the cottage. In the latest update from his Facebook feed, something she tried not to use but couldn’t help but feel the need for, she saw that he was teaching Kurt Vonnegut in his first-year class. He finished his PhD only a year ago and now he had a definite term lecturer position.
Good for him. Good for Jerry, her other brother, who was working as a contractor in another part of the country. Her parents never got on the tech-bandwagon, though, so there were no profiles she could shadow. And she was grateful for that. Having a window into their world would only provoke sadness. And time machines weren’t supposed to be used for that, right? Sadness and despair were the incidental, lingering side effects of time travel. Not the purpose.
As the Greyhound bus got closer to the city, the billboards started to present a new and seemingly never-ending array of television shows and movies. And Emily started to believe that her time travel theory wasn’t just in her head. Shows that she’d once watched as a kid were now being rebooted. Full House. Blade Runner. Mad Max. Even Rosanne was making a comeback. A hard comeback, after ending the last season in a strange dream sequence take-back, but apparently anyone could time travel now. There were return tours for bands she’d loved as a kid and actors she’d forgotten about now writing tell-all books. Time was a slippery drug, and seeing the evidence of its passing—yet its utter refusal to pass—made Emily feel like she was swimming.
She also had to pee. Was that allowed for this one? Some of the ultrasounds prohibited urination since the bladder was right behind the uterus. It seemed too cruel to not let her pee, so she got up and used the restroom at the back of the bus. For a moment, cramped inside the hotbox stench, the memories stopped. Away from the city and the prompts of memory, she was safe. Nothing was here. Nothing could touch her.
Maybe I’m running out of gas, she thought with a chuckle. Maybe my time machine is breaking down completely. She closed her eyes and tried to preserve the feeling.
By the time she disembarked from the bus, her legs were steady. Her mind was clear. Her anxiety had been quelled by listening to old songs on her iPod. If she could control the songs she focused on—the Cyndi Lauper’s ode to masturbation “She Bop”—then she could control the memories. She focused on the feel of her first girlfriend’s fingers inside of her; the taste of cherry cordial from the threesome she’d participated in as a birthday gift; the summer she came back home (the one and only time she’d ever been back before today) and while there, fucked one of her high-school teachers who was going through a divorce. Toronto was good for some things, she knew. It hid what you wanted while indulging you at the same time. It created a secret map of your desires, like an underground subway without an ending point.
Emily walked from Bond Street to Yonge Street, passing tourists as she listened to Cyndi and Madonna and all the other music she adored. She thought of The Baby-Sitter’s Club and not Sweet Valley High, since those girls with perfect hair and teeth seemed too distant to be relatable. Just like her brothers’ Animorphs books, over the goofy kids in Goosebumps. She was only a block and a half away from the place when she realized she was still an hour early for her appointment.
Time seemed to reshape and bend itself once again. She thought her appointment would conjure itself the moment she arrived, as if it had always been waiting for her. The thought of another waiting room made her want to retch so she found an indie cafe and stepped inside. She ordered two coffees just in case she really did need to pee for the ultrasound.
A woman with dark hair and flat bangs sat by the window. Her profile was familiar; at first Emily wondered if it was a woman she bedded years ago, but it couldn’t be. She would remember the colour of her hair, shot through with natural highlights of red amongst the brown. Emily tended to go for blondes, like herself, or for women with completely fabricated hair colours, like green or pink or fire hydrant red. She wanted mirrors or something completely new.
Yet the familiarity persisted. The sun, accentuating her nose, etched her profile out. It was regal. Almost artistic. That was it, Emily thought to herself. The woman looked like a sculpted statue, something done by Michelangelo. She was soft and smooth, but also miss-sized in some areas, like Michelangelo tacking on breasts to make his statues women. Her hands were large, her nose too. She wore a skirt over tights that made her already narrow legs even narrower as she tucked them under a stool. She sipped from an oversized mug of coffee, which only added to the disarray—but a disarray that was beautiful, Emily told herself. A beauty that was familiar.
The woman raised the oversized mug to her lips and continued to look out the window, utterly captivated by something. When Emily walked over to her, she told herself it wasn’t to cruise the stranger but to see what was across the street. She sat next to the woman at the elevated bar and pretended to sip her coffee.
A board game cafe was across the street. Snakes and Lattes. That was it.
Maybe the woman wanted a partner? Emily turned, now accepting her desire to cruise even before an invasive procedure. She was about to smile when she caught the woman’s face head-on, and saw recognition in her eyes.
“Emily?” the woman said.
Emily turned away. She looked at her hands. How was this possible? She looked up again and saw the same face, but now different. She was staring at Geoff, who wasn’t Geoff anymore at all. Her first boyfriend; something she had buried and written off as queer confusion at her young age of fifteen. Geoff was sitting next to her, recognizing her. Then she reintroduced herself as Stacey.
“I know it’s you,” Stacey said as she extended her hand. “You haven’t changed at all.”
Emily wanted to argue. She had moved away. That was changing, wasn’t it? But instead she smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“What can I say? I guess a piece of me has always been here.”
“Can we hug? This feels like a hug. If not for nostalgia then to help me calm down from the surprise.”
Emily rose from the stool, along with Stacey, and exchanged a hug. Though her hands shook a bit, she blamed it on the coffee. She blamed it on the surprise—which was not a gender-reveal surprise, but one of sudden past coming up to the present moment.
Emily was not unfamiliar with transgender people. You couldn’t grow up in Toronto and be unfamiliar; even after she moved, the amount of time she spent at LGBT centres made sure she understood the lingo and all the protocols. As Stacey told her bits and pieces of her life, Emily knew not to ask about surgery. She knew not to use the deadname beyond the utterances in her own mind, and she knew, that in spite of everything that had happened when they were fifteen, to not speak about it.
She held back that memory, fearing that she’d sully their reunion by remembering the one part of her life that never seemed to fit, the one time she and Geoff—Stacey (Geoff?)—had been together in that way. In the precise way the doctor asked about. In that…
Emily pulled back. She tried to stay in the present.
But her uterus, so protean and destined on time travel, wanted to go there. She had fifteen minutes until her appointment. She was running out of time.
“Do you want to go next door?” Stacey asked, gesturing to the board-game cafe. “I was originally meeting a date but she bailed, so I’m free right now. And kind of dying to play something fun.”
“I wish…” Emily said, and was shocked to find out that she did indeed want to play. Something, anything. While memories of Guess Who and Carcassonne flooded her mind, the pronoun choice of Stacey’s date did not escape her. “I have an appointment, though.”
“A real appointment,” Emily insisted. “I’m not trying to leave. Though I do have a bus ticket to go back today.”
“I get it. Coming home is hard. It’s intense and overwhelming and I can’t blame you for wanting to ditch this place in the past.”
The unspoken sentiment of ditching Stacey in the past as well was there. Emily was sure of it.
“So why did you stay?” Emily asked. “Why stay in the city if it has bad memories, too?”
“Not necessarily bad memories. Memories are just there. Their sequence may seem jumbled and some of them may take on a different patina, especially knowing what I know now about myself. But none of it is bad necessarily.” Stacey eyed Emily from the corner of her vision, clearly testing the words affect. “And all my doctors are here. I kind of have to stay.”
“I hear that.”
Emily raised her empty coffee mug in a mock salute. Stacey followed. The silence stretched between them and filled with time. Memories like jewels. No, like stones. Not good or bad. Just there.
“I know you’re thinking about it,” Stacey said. “I am too.”
“Okay. That’s good. Because…I’m trying to figure something out.”
Their eyes met. Without words, the entire event fell before them like some wonderful shared hologram.
They’d been forced together in high-school science class as lab partners. People teased them as a couple. They started dating because of it, but also clearly as a cover. They wanted people to think they were boyfriend and girlfriend so the teasing stopped. Emily knew she wanted to be a lesbian, as if sexuality was some kind of aspirational goal, something she could have in the future when she could work up the nerve to finally kiss a girl. And now, with hindsight, Emily knew Stacey had also wanted to be one. Sure, their relationship had been done for public cover, but it had never explained why the two of them had also felt an attraction that went beyond labels or words. At first, when they realized they had the same birthday of September 30th, Emily said it was because they were both Libras. We’re both the scale, fickle and always in love, even if just with an idea. They’d gone to a field and looked at the stars together, letting their hands touch but not linger. Just an idea of love, Emily told herself, not real like. Horoscope love. Something to toy with, but never keep.
But they acted on that horoscope love one weekend, when Stacey’s parents weren’t home. They’d watched Weird Science and listened to the Talking Heads. Then they were naked. Under covers, eyeing the other’s body with a hint of desire but mostly curiosity. Then there was pain, overwhelming pain, and then it was over.
Both of them, no longer virgins.
After it was done, they had looked at the stars out of Stacey—then Geoff’s—window. “I don’t think I’m a Libra,” she—then he—had confessed. “Doesn’t feel like I was born at the right time.”
Emily shrugged off the comment. Rather than talk about it, they got dressed and wrote over the memory with a different constellation.
“Huh,” Emily said. “This has been an interesting day.”
“It has been,” Stacey said. “Sort of like many days at once.”
“Tell me: when did you come out? What is your new gender horoscope?”
Stacey smiled. “August 8th. A Leo.”
“Ah, we’re compatible. And I guess we’re both time travellers, too.”
Stacey tilted her head, but eventually nodded.
Emily jogged to meet her appointment. Though she was five minutes late, she was still stuck in the waiting room for another twenty minutes before she was called inside. The lights seemed too dark, even for an ultrasound. The doctor never came in. Instead nurses and technicians populated the building, and spoke in hushed, sympathetic words around her.
“I know this is intense, dear,” the nurse said, her tone like a mother. “Are you a virgin?”
Emily chuckled. “No, I am not.”
The nurse didn’t seem to believe her. Even as she slid in the probe, and met resistance, Emily didn’t feel pain. She thought of other times. She thought of other things. She time-travelled until it was all done.
“We will give you the results soon,” the nurse said. “Six weeks. Maybe eight at most.”
“Soon,” Emily repeated. She gathered her coat, her bag, and walked into the Toronto streets. The smells hit her nose first: fetid garbage and car exhaust; a salty scent of street meat being sold on the corner; the tangy aroma of piss mixed with alcohol outside of a bus station. She breathed deeply. It clung to her skin. It was her skin. She was home. She was here. Stacey was still at the cafe window. She held a red mug in both hands, as if she was a child trying to drink from something too large. She stared out the window. She met Emily’s gaze, and for a moment, a longing glance passed between them. Emily realized she’d paused in the street, like she wasn’t coming, like she was giving up and going back home.
Emily entered the café. The vinyl stool made a sound as she sat down. They both grinned like little kids until the muzak over the speakers drowned their muffled guffaws out.
“I’m glad you came in again,” Stacey said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“How could I turn back now?” Emily tried to smile, but a pain stretched across her torso. Her vagina throbbed. Her uterus ticked away. The pain was present, persistent, but ultimately good. “I’m glad you waited.”
Stacey nodded. She stared at her black coffee. Then at the mutli-coloured shelves of games, each name familiar yet somehow brand new.
“My bus leaves at eight,” Emily said. “Time enough for one game?”
“Depending on what you choose, maybe two.”
When Stacey got up, Emily waited until she came back with an old classic. Then, as predictably as ever, time passed as if it was nothing at all.
Evelyn Deshane is an editor, author, and researcher in transgender studies currently working at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) has appeared in Briarpatch magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch magazine, among other publications. Find more info at evedeshane.wordpress.com