Hoodwinked- When the mirror shatters
Some months are polka dots; other months, it is spotlessly clean. Regardless, I wear a sanitary pad, just in case...one more time.
Men love beautiful women. Men love fully rounded breasts, smooth, soft, and squishy, similar to a stress ball, and a voluptuous rear. I have them all. Or at least I used to.
Lately, I have a lot running on my mind: The President’s inauguration, Los Angeles weather, my teenage daughter’s SAT exams, my husband, a podiatrist, and new fixation with The Gita classes at Laguna Isckon temple. Most importantly, my soaked blouses and my spotless months have induced a feeling I can with some surety call-RAGE-sweat commingled with a sense of rage that I have recently acquired at 48. As an OB-GYN, my hands are always full. Twenty years of experience both in England and the United States does not go in vain. What I enjoy the most is the administration of Botox, cosmetic fillers, and laser procedures for photorejuvenation, acne treatment, scar removal, and varicose vein treatment and makes everyone look beautiful, just what they crave, just what makes them feel alive again, just what they deeply desire. It makes me feel good to see them feel good, mostly women, walking out of the clinic knowing they still have it in them, their privilege restored.
This patient who met last year in December visited again this morning, and despite all my efforts, I couldn’t take my eyes off her fully rounded, soft, and warm rose-beige breasts. I examine them under the paper gown; the tanned nipples contrast with the white as I massage them gently to rule out any lumps. She is due for a mammogram, though, at 35, I hardly suspect her shooting pains have anything to do with an underlying condition. Minutes later, routine questions follow - Last period? Allergies? Mood swings? “We are trying to get pregnant” is what she responds. Strangely, my heart does a quick somersault at the mention of the word pregnant. Years back, I was pregnant too.
Motherhood is a declaration to the world that you can create the magic called life. The excitement and the anticipation swaddled with the attention the bump gets are unmatchable. Every stranger is oh so ready to put you first; every face smiles at you with unusual kindness. Who does not revel in it? Our culture has clear definitions of what it prizes and what it is ready to sideline. We all have our moments of glory, and then with time, it starts to fade, fade to a blur, and then it is so indistinct, it might as well not exist. The world won't even notice it. That feeling pricks. I am slowly getting sidelined; my body and the people around me are making space for the new and tears erupt easily. It wasn’t always like this. Now even the smallest, the most benign situations drive me to sobs.
I gain my balance, order a blood test and ask her to come back once we have the reports. Possibly, she is pregnant. At 35, you are fertile and so full of youth still. She is a journalist and a travel blogger. Her husband is a food blogger, and both have quite an interesting life. Together they saunter the streets of Jamaica and Cuba exploring salted pigtails and tree muttons. I once wanted to travel far and wide, but my work took the better of me. I still want to travel, not just a vacation but the adventurous kind, the kind where you set out to explore not just places but their soul, their history, and in the process find yours or lose a piece that has been rotting for long.
The door closes, and I feel my cheeks burn like a furnace. There is a knock on the door, and I spray Victoria’s Love Spell under my arms. The spell part makes me wonder.
The girl looks reluctant, a bit shy; her mother though is loquacious. Her cheery greeting cools the temperature of the room though I can feel a bead of sweat trickle from the back of my head, travel through the neck, and roam in a vertical line of the spine until the band of my trouser absorbs it. I ask her to change while her mother narrates the story- “She started her periods. She has terrible mood swings, frequent headaches, insomnia, and I think there's something wrong with her breasts. They are too large for her age. She is just 14. I thought it would be good to see you. Remember, you delivered her." I try hard to recall. I have delivered close to 800 babies in the last 20 years of my practice. Though her mom’s face is familiar, most importantly her hyperventilating over benign situations- big breasts, small feet, skin break out, and even ‘We Indians’.
Routine questions and examination follow. “It is so skanky,” she says about her periods, “I always land up spotting and staining, and my mom has a problem with my …” She trails off in silence under the glare of her mother supplicating no further divulgence. Her breasts are like any other 14 -year-old, the right one slightly bigger than the left, conical, and the girl hesitates when I examine it.
“Sore breasts are normal during the menstrual cycle.” I empathize.
“But I never had one,” her mother interjects.
I compose her saying each body is different. After some more cross-examination, questioning, and a bit of counseling, I order a blood test to check her Vit D level and iron deficiency.
Her breasts stay in my mind reminding me of my youth. Lately, it has been my most intense preoccupation. Last week, I embarrassed myself, caught gawking at one of my staff, a woman in her late twenties with a straighter build and full lips painted the color of toasted almonds. Such fastidiousness makes me uncomfortable, but lately, I have discovered things about myself that baffle me. Am I being hoodwinked? At 48, the unsettling comparisons, the microscopic indulgence in Do-I-Still-Look-Good, the trepidation over losing that something, something I haven’t figured out what is not only agonizing but excruciatingly exhausting. I proceed, nonetheless. The black turtleneck and fitted houndstooth pants looked fabulous on her, and each of her blossoms stood distinct, tall, and proud, unlike mine which had become one mass of flesh. “The pendant is beautiful,” I lied and hurried to my room.
During lunchtime, I slide into my private restroom. Removing the lab coat, I unbutton my silk shirt, a pale pink. Pulling the straps down, I examine my breasts. They stare back questioningly. The microfiber material in a cerulean blue bra with underwires and wider cushioned front straps has been quite a support ever since they started dropping. In a seated position, they could touch the abdomen. After two kids, one who had flown and one fledgling ready to fly, my breasts bear the testimony of my effort to keep everyone satisfied. They have shrunk and look withered. My septuagenarian mother’s breasts float before my eyes, with no resemblance to anything round, rather flat, like the ears of an English Lop. I button myself back reassuring them that they still get a tickle from him once in a while. The mauling that a man does when he is hard as a sugarcane stock, has ceased. Just then a beep. “I have decided...have been in California my entire life Maa. I need to see the world just like Akka. Btw, I would be home by evening. After school, the jing bang is meeting at BSQ. See you.” I hold myself back from walking out and lean against the granite countertop to ponder over the message. I feel the rage spread. How difficult it is for a child to opt for UCLA, a college close to home rather than a university 3000 miles from home on the east coast? How difficult is the choice between staying close to Maa’ and ‘exploring life’? Or am I asking the wrong questions? Was it always supposed to be what Khalil Gibran once said- They come through you but not from you? How is that possible? My body created this life, I felt her kicks when she was inside, and given a chance, I would have her back, safe in my womb. So, I mean, how?
I rush back to work. A 52-year-old with a chiseled face and hazel eyes is deliberating on hormonal replacement therapy. Her luscious auburn hair with a chestnut mole right above the cusp of the upper and lower lip makes her look much younger. She is a familiar face considering she has been having her Botox in my clinic and was now facing intense irritability, vaginal dryness, and low sex drive, affecting her husband and her conjugal life. “A hormonal replacement therapy might bring back the magic,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes as if being sexually relevant is the prime objective of a woman’s existence, and the pliability of the vagina the key result area of a married couple’s life. I feel something surge within. Let’s again call it rage. Yes, it is rage. What makes a man continue to seek magic long after the curtains are drawn? Intercourse can be torture; I experience it every other night, yet I want to continue being desirable. Does he care about my racing heart, the foreboding that strangles my breath? My endocrinologist and my cardiologist have exhausted their tests and tools. The blood drawn during blood tests could as well have saved someone’s life. Conveniently, we all surmised the inevitable.
Hours later, the traffic back home is easygoing, and I expect to reach home on time to tick off my leftover to-dos for the day: dinner, laundry, wash, clean, sex, read, and sleep. Ahead, a Tesla SUV veers left off Hollywood Boulevard and charges uphill toward the canyons and the homes beyond the scope of star-spotting tourist buses. I cuss heavily. Rage is justified right now. Do women in Beverley Hill feel the ignonimity of aging? I let my mind drift back home. He would be in the online Vedanta classes by now, I remind myself. What does Vedanta teach a man? His needs have reached the zenith, and mine have plummeted to the nadir. Now what?
The episode of heat strikes again and I feel my blouse soak. Lately, heat has accompanied me in most of places: examination room, restroom, CVS, Namaste Plaza, Panda Express, and even in the shower. I can differentiate between the warm water and the lava erupting from the pores of my skin. Just how complicated can life become when the only two things you feel are heat and rage. The former has an outlet, and the latter simmers within searing the present.
With a reasonably blessed family life, reasonable life challenges, reasonable degrees, and certificates framed on the mantelpiece, a reasonably rewarding career, and a reasonable charm, maybe not the kind one would find in GQ, but good enough to trigger second glances sometimes even in sweatpants, rage has been the most unreasonable emotion I have known. Now it’s the only emotion I know: exhausting rage. Ingrate, right? Huh! Most importantly, I don’t even know why. Maybe I do. Maybe I am too frightened to accept. Maybe I am struggling to let go. I am plagued by the thought of what I can do differently, guilty for the times I am succumbing to my life circumstances with such disgrace. Amidst blooming hibiscus and jasmine, I park the car in the garage.
“Maa, why are you stuck up on everything?” She comments, her eyes on the phone kept in the netted basket away from the dining table.
“Hormones,” he adds with a whiff of nonchalance, his fingers pulling the meat away from the bone with a tug of a fork.
“Yeah! I guess. Menopause can be tough. Elina’s mom has been behaving savagely for a few months.”
“Few months? Haha! Women and their hormones are forever. Unpredictable is the word, my dear.”
The banter between the father-daughter duo leaves me numb and startled. Are they talking about me? As in, her mom, his wife, or just a cocktail of hormones after all? Each word feels like a lawnmower running over my heart. They are talking about a woman who ensured every sleeping and waking moment of her life, including her dreams, was devoted to nourishing and providing for them in every possible way- body, mind, and soul together. Silently seething, I rush to the restroom. Minutes later, in the background, I can hear Trevor Noah humorizing the day’s political happenings and trending news.
I peel slowly and stand, looking at the reflection in the rectangular mirror mounted on the beige wall. Stepping back, my full body becomes visible. Youth is definitely not the vocabulary here. The C-section scars, my badge of honor stare back in empathy. There is so much of our life that rests on looks, it hits you hard when looks start to fade, and you rummage through the debris trying to find something to hold on to and still feel worthwhile. We all want to be seen, admired, appreciated and needed. The society - you and me- hoodwinks us into what's worthy. Menarche, Marriage, and Motherhood are rites of passage in a woman’s life providing necessary proof of worthiness. Who knew the fourth M could cause such inadequacy and disorientation? However, there is a difference between proving your worth and realizing your worth. I slipped on the latter. The expiry of my periods is intricately linked to the lapse of my identity. How? Why? The mendacity of society hits back the moment our exterior starts to crumble. Each day can bring you new indignation because all your life you believed something that was never the truth.
I am learning this is in the most intimate way imaginable, that your own self can suddenly turn on you, the definition of you that you think is formidable can be wiped out in a flow. Which raises a question- How can women continue to live fulfilling lives when the facade has shattered and exposed our not-so-beautiful, not-so-youthful, not-so-appealing, not-so-promising, less fertile, and less of everything this society values in a woman? When the thunderbolt of orgasm has silenced, can you still find excitement in life? When the allure of beauty and youth dims, when the lady garden withers and the airbags flatten, how does one keep the glow on? After making space for the new, where does the old go? Life has presented an unreasonable permutation of suffering for which I wasn't prepared. Or is it another rite of passage, this time through a dark dungeon with splintered windows and chalky paint, enveloped in undefinable darkness and ivy gnarling with the black widow spider webs? Beyond this, maybe, the sun doesn’t shine on you; it rises from within.
Author's two cents-
I did not write this story; rather, it erupted within and spread like lava on paper. I was on a mission to smudge the mascara and the lipstick, blotch the matte poreless foundation, break the turquoise glass bead necklace, and shatter the mirror the society holds for the woman.
"Let the mirror shatter, for there is not a single one the society holds which reflects who I am"- Namrata, Naina, Nayantara...
To read the story on Momspresso, click on Hoodwinked.
Hoodwinked has had the privilege of being featured on the Women's Web and accorded the Hall of Fame honor in the International Symposium for Women and Literature, Kolkata Spring Festival. Happy Reading!