Caroline and the towel

Somehow, between changing schools and avoiding the subject of it with my parents (for a myriad of reasons which I won’t get into now), I never had the opportunity to take a sex ed class.

This was in New York City in the 1980s. I went to public school through sixth grade, in a part of Brooklyn that you might one day see on an episode of “Girls”. Learning about sex was not on the curriculum for us. At least, it wouldn’t be until seventh or eighth grade. Apparently too late for some of the older girls who would go on to start high school a few blocks away with suspiciously round bellies.

I think the closest my classroom got to learning about sex was having our music teacher, a substitute who taught us almost the entire year, have us sing along to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. She’d go around the room, handing out long sheets of lyrics made up the Ditto machine in the main office. Standing at the front of the room, teetering on wooden Candies slides that, inexplicably, were missing their heels, she’d cue up the record player and lead us in song.

“I wish I could show you kids the movie. But, ya know, there’s that part. Where Johnny and Baby go to bed together.” Everybody else would snicker, as they’d already seen the movie that summer before school started. Everybody except for me. I don’t remember what I watched the summer of 1987, but I know it wasn’t Dirty Dancing.

My previous sexual education was acquired through the close reading of key texts by Judy Blume, eavesdropping on the conversations of popular girls in the bathroom and in the schoolyard, and getting a quick peek at the perverts on the subway that my mother would always point out before dragging me away from them. Only she pronounced the word “pree-berts” which only made me laugh.

I earned a place in a nice private school for the following year, though a program that found and coached inner city nerds such as myself. My nice private school, a place that is still very near and dear to my heart, invited its newly admitted students to come up for a day in the spring and get to know the group of girls they’d join for seventh grade in the fall. My host, a skinny freckly girl with curly hair named Cat, gamely took me to all of her classes. I spent the day in observation, not wanting to ask too many questions. Despite several assurances, in the forms of letters and telephone calls, that I was definitely in, I didn’t want to jinx it by, you know, being myself. So I sat back and listened to spirited classroom conversations, minding my business.

Until we got to science class. The current unit was devoted to the female reproductive system. I sat at a lab table with a laminated top while Cat fetched two sheets of paper from the teacher. Whose name, I am ashamed to say, I have totally forgotten even though she was my biology teacher in ninth grade. But anyway.

Cat slid one of the sheets in front of me, then reached into her bag to retrieve a box of colored pencils that she placed with a snap on the table. We sat, not talking, while we colored in a diagram showing the various parts of the female reproductive system. A few feet away was a medical model, a part woman with removable parts and organs who stared impassively at the 15 of us as we sat there coloring.

Her name was Caroline.

Ovary. Uterus. Cervix. Vagina. I said these words to myself, pronouncing them in the accent I used when called upon to read aloud in Latin class. CARE-VIX. WAH-GEE-NA.

Cat looked up. “That’s Latin, right?”

I nodded sagely and leaned in, squinting as I carefully shaded in the fallopian tubes with a sky blue.

“Metella est mater,” I replied with the only other Latin I could remember.

In time, I learned a little more about sex. Not through my own fumblings but rather through other methods. Having missed the private school sex ed curriculum by a year (and lost track of that diagram I colored in with Cat), I cobbled together my own:

  • eavesdropping on the conversations of popular girls in homeroom and on the 86th Street crosstown bus
  • checking out books like “Changing Bodies, Changing Bodies” from the school library
  • watching “The Robin Byrd Show” at the homes of classmates who had cable
  • taking a second to peek at the flashers on the subway before I’d start laughing and look for a cop to have them arrested

In ninth grade, my class sat down in the cafeteria with the school nurse and the school psychologist. They answered questions we had left anonymously for them in a wooden box that was attached to the front door of the psychologist’s office. A door that sat smack dab in the middle of the floor where the fifth and sixth grade homerooms were. I had many questions but I didn’t want anyone to know what they were, least of all a bunch of middle schoolers who always seemed to fall in the ice cream freezer in the cafeteria. So I just stewed and hoped for the best.

I realize now I shouldn’t have been so chicken. It was only a few months later, in the sticky last months of summer before the start of tenth grade, that I found myself in a doctor’s office. Not my pediatrician, but a gynecologist employed by the Administration for Children’s Services. The people who run the foster care system in New York City.

It was hot, and I know my mother waited for me somewhere (was she in the room?) while I underwent my first pelvic exam. I didn’t know why I was there, only that it maybe had to do something with my sister and a social worker. I knew it was going to happen, and I couldn’t stop it from happening, so I tried to convince myself it didn’t feel like I was being forced. I was fifteen, and I’d never been kissed.

There’s a big part of the story I’m leaving out here. I’m doing that on purpose. Some of you know the story. Most of you don’t. If you’ve guessed, bully for you.

So that exam was educational, but I wish I could have done without that particular lesson.

It would be a few years before I had another exam like that. I was 18, a few weeks after the first time I’d hooked up with somebody. I thought it was time to take myself to the student health center, where a nice student from the medical school would poke around and maybe tell me why my periods were so irregular. It was November, and I hadn’t menstruated since late August or September.

I got a nervous young man in a white coat who stared at his clipboard before and after he performed the exam. Whenever people are nervous around me, I sometimes get nervous with them, and when I get nervous I start making jokes. So I kept it light, and I thought I was doing well until he asked me if I might be pregnant.

I had to think about it for a minute. Where had [redacted]’s dick been?, I tried to remember. Was it close enough? Did we do…

I shook my head. “No. I’m definitely not pregnant.”

“Are you sure?” The student looked up.

“Uh, yeah.”

“How do you know?”

“Because, um, I haven’t had sex yet.” I gulped. “I’m a virgin.”

“Have you had sexual contact with anybody? Recently?”

“Yes, I said that before. But we didn’t… you know what we did. I just told you.”

He checked his clipboard. “Right, but…” Doctor Student shrugged. “Maybe you wiped yourself between your with a towel that had his semen on it?”

I sat up. “So let me get this straight. You think I might be pregnant because I may have wiped myself too closely with a semen-soaked towel?”

“Well, it doesn’t have to be soaked.”

The appointment didn’t last long after that. I got dressed, checked out, then made two notes:

  1. That I would never tell anybody what had just happened.
  2. Even though it was unlikely that I’d ever go to medical school, if I did, it would not be at the University of Chicago
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