Speak Now

by Katharine Bost

I sit in the waiting room of an urgent care clinic with an oversized sweatshirt that I hope hides me from the people around me. They are mothers with young children. They see my smudged heavy eyeliner and ratty combat boots and they think I’m trouble. Or maybe they think I’m sick with a highly contagious disease, and that is why they’ve shielded their young children away from me. Why they’ve moved several plastic seats down so they don’t sit next to me.

            They’re lucky. Or their little children are. One little boy has strep—easily handled with antibiotics. Another girl has pink eye—a few drops, and she’ll be fine.

            I cross my legs. Jiggle my foot. The laces on my boots tap against the tongue.

            “Ms. Bost?” The woman at the front desk pronounces it wrong. Everyone pronounces my last name wrong. They say it with a long o, like post. It’s with a short o, like lost.

            I push up out of the uncomfortable chair and meander toward her. My arms are crossed, hiding my chest. I tug my sleeves down so my bruises stay hidden.

            “You didn’t fill out why you’re here today,” the woman says. “I can’t let you see a doctor unless you give a reason.”

            It’s a fair expectation.

            My voice is low when I say, “I need an STD check.”

            The woman drums her long, hot pink, acrylic nails on the desk. “Honey, I didn’t hear that.”

            The mothers are suddenly behind me in a line. I can’t tell if they’re waiting to talk to the woman or if they want to hear why I’m in. The little boy with strep throat plays with one of those bead rollercoaster toys that you only find in doctor’s offices.

            One of the mothers is standing too close to me. Her perfume smells like the kind my mom used when I was growing up. Cashmere Mist by Donna Karan. It came in a clear container the shape of a lazy S. Its aroma cloaks me, and I would rather drown in the telltale doctor’s office smell of antiseptics because now I think it could be my mom behind me, listening. She would hear why I was in the office.

I glance at the little girl with pink eye, who has joined the boy playing with the toys, and pray that she does not rub her eye before she touches the toy.

“I need an STD check,” I say again, this time a little louder. There is a false confidence in my voice that I think upsets the mothers. I must come off as something other than I am. I think that I have always come across as something other than I am because there is no band on my left finger. There are bands on their fingers. Beautiful bands with intricate diamonds.

The woman at the front desk rolls her eyes. “Thank you, Ms. Bost. You can have a seat and the doctor will be with you shortly. Next.”

As I slink back to my seat, the mother who smells like my mom asks the woman at the front desk her question, but I tune their conversation out. It is none of my business.

The children playing with toys stare at me, as if debating whether to invite me to play with them and share their contagions. Maybe they’re wondering why my mom isn’t with me. I wonder at what age it becomes unusual for a mother to accompany her child to the doctor’s office.

I wait another ten minutes before I am called back by a nurse who looks to be in her early twenties. My age. She is much prettier than I am. I wonder if she has ever felt the way that I feel, but I see the ring on her left finger and decide not to ask.

At first there is casual chatter on her end while she takes my vitals. As she is strapping the blood pressure cuff around my arm, she asks me why I am in for a visit.

The cuff tightens around my bicep. I count my breaths because when I was a runner in college, I thought that I could slow my heart rate by steadying my breathing. I thought it would give me a higher V02 max and lower my resting heart rate. I thought that doctors and nurses taking my blood pressure wouldn’t be able to detect my anxiety.

“I need a full STD panel,” I tell her.

The atmosphere in the room changes. Whatever chattiness she had when we first entered the room dissipates. She gives me a long look while she strips the cuff from my arm and stuffs it back in its holding place.

“You know, you should really use protection,” she says, like she is my friend and she is looking out for me. “Condoms aren’t that expensive.”

It’s good advice, but I hate how she says it. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but she twirls the ring on her finger. I want to tell her that I used to have a ring, too, but it wouldn’t matter because it’s gone now and so is he and if I hadn’t gone through what I did the other night, I might have been twirling my ring in front of some other desperate woman instead.

Instead, I thank her. I alter my voice to one of gratitude, like I am an ignorant slut who never knew that condoms were cheap and could save me from sexually transmitted diseases. This must be what they think of me. The nurse, the woman at the front desk, the mothers in the waiting room.

I could possibly sway their opinions if I am vocal about what happened, but I choose to let them think this of me. It is better for me to endure their judgmental gazes because I am to blame.

Yes, my drink was spiked, but I could’ve said “No” louder. I could’ve tried harder to fight him off, even though my arms and legs were heavy and my mind dizzy with the dwindling thoughts of who I was supposed to be.

It is my fault. That is why I cannot tell these women that I didn’t want to have sex with him. That is why I have taped cardboard over my mirrors so I cannot see my reflection. That is why my makeup is uneven, and my hair tousled.

The doctor comes in next. She is a woman about my mom’s age, but she looks nothing like my mom. Her hair is long and dark and pulled back into a neat ponytail, and she does not wear glasses. Her scrubs are navy. She taps her clipboard with a black fountainpen.

“So, you need a full STD panel.” She rolls her lips and sucks them into her mouth. “We’ll take both a urine and blood sample, but I need to ask a few questions before.”

I hate questions, but I gesture my consent.

“When is the last time you had unprotected sex?”

“Friday night.”

It is Sunday now. I have waited too long to request a rape kit, but I wouldn’t have anyway. I am an ignorant slut.

“Who was your partner?”

            I open my mouth to respond, but all I can think about is when I was in high school and had to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson for a summer reading project. When I read it, I remember being so annoyed with the protagonist. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t tell people what happened to her. It didn’t make sense why she wouldn’t alert authorities or tell her friends. Why would she keep quiet about what happened? She was a victim. Someone had taken advantage of her. Who could hate her after they knew?

            At fourteen years old, I didn’t understand the way people can look through you when they look at you. I didn’t understand that people can have their minds made up before you tell them anything. I didn’t understand that telling the truth about something difficult is never as easy as you think it will be.

            A little under ten years later, I understood.

            “I had unprotected sex with my ex-fiancé,” I say, because it’s easier to lie than tell them what happened. It’s easier to think about myself with him than with a guy whose name I don’t know.

            “Has your ex had multiple partners since you’ve been apart?”

            “Yes,” I say. I do not tell her that he had multiple partners while we were together, too.

            “Well, that was stupid,” she says, but she laughs afterward like it is a joke and I am not a patient concerned about having a sexually transmitted disease.

            I do not know how to respond, so I don’t. The person I used to be might have joked to ease the tension, but I am not that person anymore.

            She hands me a cup for the urine sample. “Bathroom is outside, to the left. When you get back, we’ll draw your blood.”

            The short walk to the bathroom feels more like a walk of shame than I think it should. I lock myself in the bathroom and peel my sweatshirt off so I can hang it over the mirror. There are bruises and scratches on my forearms that the sweatshirt hid.

            Alone in the bathroom, I wonder if I should tell the nurse and doctor the truth. I wonder if it will matter to them. And then I wonder why it matters to me because it does not change what happened. The opinions of people I don’t know do not affect me.

            Except they do. They are the opinions of people I do know, and they are the opinions I have of myself.

            I am an ignorant slut.

            And that was stupid.

Katharine Bost holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University, and her work has appeared in Memoir Magazine, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Nasiona, Wingless Dreamer, and Mikrokosmos.

Photo by Margaret Polinder on Unsplash