Self-Exam by Rachel Mann
The sound of iPhone church bells jolts me awake. Running my hands over my breasts and belly, I search for evidence of what I saw in my dream. Disappointment. The slender girl in a tight dress, lips brushing with a square-jawed stranger, was someone else. She is not me.
“Dave, wake up.” He is sleeping on his back, with his mouth open. I think about brushing my lips against his. I imagine waking him up with a gift, something he’s not had in a while. But I don’t. He rolls over, pulling a pillow over his head.
In the shower I rub my body with lavender suds. After, I examine myself in the full-length mirror behind the bathroom door. My skin is bright and pink, my lips full. Both sets. I haven’t shaved down there in a while, but who cares? I can only imagine what lies on the dark side of the bump. I feel the urge to support the weight of my enormous belly, as if it might come lose and roll away.
I do this more and more lately. At work, I find myself walking back to my classroom from the faculty kitchen, one hand holding a warm mug of herbal tea, the other wrapped beneath my bulging uterus. In the crowded halls, my students give me extra space, as if they might hurt me if they get too close, or catch what I have. To them, college kids with giant plastic mugs of coffee, cigarettes and colored condoms popping out of their shoulder bags, I am the physical incarnation of sex gone wrong. I can’t believe it’s even possible to have a uterus as large as mine is. I am a freak, like the lady with the foot-long fingernails in the world record book.
The fact that there’s a human being inside said uterus has not quite sunk in. Whenever someone offers me their seat on the subway, or when my mother insists I put my feet up and drink a glass of water, or when I’m reading gossip rags in the waiting room at my incessant medical appointments, it’s easy to believe that I am unwell; one who is not in optimum shape and needs looking-after. Despite the alien-like internal wriggling that keeps me up at night, I still imagine my bulge as more of an inconvenient benign growth than a child.
I wonder if it’s my fault, or his, this dry spell we’re in. The contrast is stark: all that purposeful, joyous sex we had a few months ago. I smile, remembering, with some shame, the porn. Glaring in the mirror at the distorted shape of me, I question whether my memory is also misshapen. He could never have wanted me that way.
I’ve done this before, stood in front of the mirror, staring at myself: during the breast self-exam, which for years, doctors scolded us into performing. It was my job to feel myself up, in a medical way. But I always found that do-or-die practice almost impossible. How should I know what’s natural or unnatural? My flesh is by nature lumpy.
My breasts look and feel grand, now. I’m like a porn star with these newly sprouted boobs, round and luscious as a teenager’s. I can see the way men look at them; they don’t even notice my belly right away, because the tits leave them breathless. Dave is confused, I think. Are they for him, or for some other purpose? Is he even allowed to enjoy them?
My enormous belly, though, cannot be avoided. Squeezing past me in our galley kitchen, Dave sometimes pats my bump, like the old ladies in the supermarket. Everyone wants to touch it, and no wonder. It trumps any medical mystery. A growth of that size, appearing in the torso of a human being in the span of months!
The mystery of it all has spawned a whole bookshelf of pregnancy guides at Barnes and Noble, full of chapters like: “When to Call the Doctor, Now!” and “Common Birth Abnormalities.” And of course, that modern necessity of burgeoning parenthood: the childbirth prep class. No need to teach us how to get it in there, but blimey we need help getting the thing out.
Our teacher showed a silent and repetitive film that Dave and I named “The U.N. Tour of Vaginas”. It showed women across the globe at the final moments of giving birth. In homes, hospitals, and huts, these nude women squatted or stood as one after another their babies popped out. Universally calm and serene, many of the women reached down and grasped the newborns themselves.
From the very first overstretched vagina and wriggling baby, my chin started quivering. By the tenth or twentieth birth, I was holding onto Dave’s sweaty hand, full-on crying, wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my sweater. It was a hormonal rush, a mixture of terror and joy and anticipation and dread. Dave looked more shocked than anything else, which put him in the company of the other dads-to-be in the room.
“What’s wrong, darling?” he whispered in my ear.
“We’re never going to have sex again,” I whimpered.
In my first trimester, we went to the wedding of college friends. Holding a glass of cranberry and soda instead of my more typical Jack and ginger, I felt outrageously rotund (little did I know what was coming), in the only non-maternity dress I had that fit. It was a floral wrap number, and it didn’t close properly. Try as I did, I could not suck that stomach in.
“So, Becca, what are you doing these days?” a former classmate named Robert asked, one hand on his girlfriend’s slender back.
I suppressed a giggle, remembering that my freshmen roommate and I had christened him Hot-Robert. He was still hot, with dark skin and eyes, a perfect jaw, and a chiseled body hidden beneath his close-cut suit.
“Well, I’m pregnant,” I said, my free hand moving unconsciously to my small but visible bump. It seemed like a necessary thing to say. You don’t want the people who knew you as a lithe teenager to think that you’ve been packing on the pounds.
Robert’s girlfriend, an athletic, petite blonde who looked like she probably ran marathons, said, “Well, now we know what you’ve been doing!”
As the two of them chuckled, I stood there in silence, the proper comeback escaping me.
In six weeks I will become a mother, the sweetest and most innocent position a woman can have in society, other than nun. But at the moment, I am walking around with a visibly—freakishly—enlarged sexual organ. Everyone else can have their sex lives in secret, but we pregnant women wear our fucking like a badge.
I dry off and return to bed, naked. “Dave,” I whisper. His breathing remains constant; he is still asleep. I slip beneath the covers to join him, completely. I will be the girl of his dreams. I can be anyone, as long as our eyes are shut.
© Rachel Mann, 2012
Rachel Mann is a writer in NYC. While living in London not too long ago, she completed the Certificate in Novel Writing course at City University and wrote her first novel, a coming-of-age-magical-romance, On Blackberry Hill. Her stories have appeared in the Fish Anthology and The New Writer. Currently she’s an editor at Bytethebook, a website set up to help writers and publishers in the digital age.
Self-Exam was read by Maggie Lacey on 1st August 2012