Walking down softly carpeted steps I feel a stab so sharp and sudden it does not even register as pain—more like a bright light that forces all matter to part in its wake, making a tunnel that starts between my legs and never ends. When my foot hits the floor it disappears.
It happens again, days apart, weeks apart—just enough time passes that I struggle to remember if it really did happen before, what I was doing last time, if it’s the same sensation.
I don’t say anything to Thomas. When we first came to the manor we spent a lot of time walking around together; he was eager to show me the house and grounds, his aunt’s things, places he had played as a child. We had planned to be there for just a month, but Aunt Joan said we could stay there for longer. She had once lived in the house year round, but was only there now during the warmer months. It was summers that Thomas had spent there when he was a child, but the isolation of a country manor in winter seemed to us both—Thomas with his book to finish and me with my dissertation—like the perfect escape from the city.
Now it was usually just me walking around the house while Thomas worked silently in his aunt’s office. I had come here, in part, to understand his family and to try and shake the feeling that I would never belong in the circle of their comfortable affluence. Thomas’s father had died before he was born and Aunt Joan was his father’s sister. Thomas wasn’t close with his mother or sister, but he spoke about them as if he assumed complicity in their actions and they his. His mother was a small woman who walked with her head thrown slightly back, as if to maximize the limited space between the tip of her nose and the ground. When she breathed in her nostrils flared and you could hear, even feel, the intake of air. This audible inhale followed any statement of fact and seemed to express approval not only of the substance of her speech, but of the very air that filled a world remade though her proclamations. I was less scared of Thomas’s sister Lucy, but like Thomas, she effortlessly knew how to behave in such a way that she could be breathed in like a fine wine by her mother’s greedy nostrils. Her dark, wavy hair was velvet soft and her voice was built to whine but never yell. I, on the other hand, always felt discordant. I was deferential when I should have been capable of asserting myself and then inadvertently spoke or moved in such a way that something was assailed I hadn’t even known was there.
And so when I moved through Aunt Joan’s house, a woman I had never met who was the sister of a father Thomas had never met, I moved carefully. Perhaps here, away from his mother’s judgments and his sister’s acquiescence, I would find some key to Thomas’s past. The house was massive, with high ceilings and big windows through which light streamed only to be immediately absorbed—even when the heavy drapes were drawn—by dark wood, rich upholstery, and oriental rugs. Portraits of members of the family were everywhere—a tall man dressed in red leaning on a rifle surrounded by hunting dogs, a woman whose white hands and chest were like gems against her black shawl—but it was the photos tucked inside of bookshelves and scattered across mantles that I diligently searched for and once found, greeted with my most careful scrutiny and fantastic projections. There were photos of Thomas and Lucy as children and one of her as a toddler with their father—Lucy’s hair already like a cap of black satin. This was the photo of Thomas’s father I kept coming back to, trying to see from the way he held Lucy what sort of father he was and what his thoughts on the son his wife was soon to have might be, tracing the slant of the eyebrows that characterized Thomas’s brooding stare, wondering if Thomas’s hair would recede like his father’s had.
But the photo that made me feel my curiosity most as a sort of affliction was that of Thomas’s dead wife. I imagine there had been other pictures of Becky in the house once: photos of her and Thomas’s wedding certainly and perhaps more casual shots of the young couple. The remaining photo pictured the whole family gathered in one of the sitting rooms of the manor. Aunt Joan stood in front of a fireplace, Lucy and her mother sat on a couch with their hands clasped around their knees and their torsos twisted to face the camera behind them, and Thomas stood beside an armchair with his hand resting on the shoulder of his seated wife. Their bodies faced each other in a loose circle but their steady gazes all faced the camera, making it seem as if they were staring down an unexpected visitor.
Becky. Rebecca? She died before I met Thomas and he spoke of her only when occasion demanded it—a story about a vacation they had taken together or a friend they had shared. When he spoke of her death it was in relationship to his shock rather than his grief, as if her sudden removal from the scene of their life left him with a sense of contingency so great that even mourning had nothing left to attach to. And so I felt her absence surround me without ever finding its contours. Coming across the photo of her with Thomas was like bumping into a wall in the dark. What it revealed was the quiet stare of a beautiful woman. She was a redhead, but there was nothing brassy about the golden hair that fell straight down her back or her clear, pale skin and small, sharp features. Her hands rested in her lap and her face was as placid as the rest of the family’s. I imagine I would have smiled, claiming the unexpected visitor as my acquaintance, but Becky’s gaze was inscrutable. Was she comfortable perched on the edge of a red and beige striped armchair? Did she pick out her blue scarf to match her eyes or did someone give it her as a present? Was it unthinkable to her that she might soon die?
Such were my thoughts as I wandered through the sprawling house, following apparitions of my own creation, disinterested in my dissertation. And then one day there was a sudden pain and then again days later. Next my clitoris began to swell like a balloon.
I noticed it first after sex. Lately I felt nervous around Thomas in a way I hadn’t felt since we were first dating. I was worried that he was measuring my inability to work against his seemingly unstrained concentration, worried also that the house was bringing up memories for him in which I played no part, and so I over-performed my pleasure that night in bed. Something hurt but I pushed past it, discarding the information my body offered in my eagerness to connect. Later, in the bathroom, I reached down and felt my puffy clit with alarm. Squatting over a compact, I was relieved to see it wasn’t red or visibly chafed, but the swollenness made it appear oddly formless.
Soon it was swollen all the time. It was rarely painful but it created a pressure that was always with me. Walking became walking with my clit, talking was talking with my clit, waking it was the first thing I felt. It was so omnipresent in my thoughts that I was sure that everyone must see it and right now, Thomas was everyone.
At dinner I crossed my legs and the dull throbbing became a roar—I uncrossed them. We always ate dinner in the dining hall of the manor, which seemed absurd for two. A long rectangular table in a long rectangular room with us sitting on one corner like pigeons on a skyscraper. I re-crossed my legs from habit and again my clit pounded and I immediately uncrossed them. Thomas inclined his head slightly and the light caught his high forehead. I thought, for the first time, that his eyes were the same cool blue as Becky’s.
“Have you talked to anyone while we’ve been here?” he asked.
“I’m talking to you right now.”
“I’m serious! I know this place can feel remote, even when it’s not the dead of winter. And we’re staying here longer than we planned.”
“I’m glad we are. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until we left the city, how much I needed to rest. It’s just now that I feel like I can get to work in earnest; it would be a terrible time to leave. And you’ve been so productive.”
“I hope being here has been restful for you; I like hearing that. Sometimes I wonder though if this place doesn’t create rather than cure exhaustion. Even as a child when I would visit and Aunt Joan was here and the house was fully staffed… I was excited to be away from home and my mom, sometimes even I would come without Lucy, and the days were so full. But the nights always felt long and I would have trouble sleeping—I never had that problem anywhere else. This place is old and there is a kind of vitality in that, but it sometimes feels… as if the vitality is not one’s own. The trace of so many times, of so many bodies, can act upon the present as a drain as much as a stimulus.”
“You sound as if you find the place haunted.”
“I don’t. I was just trying to say that it’s easy to feel isolated here and not realize it. I want to make sure you’re keeping in touch with people.”
The next day I took all of the books I had brought with me from home into the library, determined to read and to go over my notes, and make what I had said about having just been resting true. I would end my wanderings and get to work.
It’s amazing how unaware I had previously been of the how the seam in my pants rested against my crotch. It was as if the seam was a waistband now and I had overeaten. Or I had just come to know what blinking was and felt the touch of my eyelids as a kind of slap each time. Denim was impossible, but even with softer fabrics the slightest shift of the body could bring the sharp line of fabric tightly gathered and sewn to percuss the chubby, inflated belly of my clitoris. I could read whole pages before I realized I had absorbed nothing but the hum of my clit. Every time I was in the bathroom now I would touch it. I had examined it so often in my compact that I was losing a sense of what it had looked like before and the discomfort was so steady it was hard to tell if it was getting worse.
I decided I had to tell Thomas. He expressed appropriate concern without seeming particularly disconcerted. I had feared he would be disturbed, even repulsed, and I was grateful that this didn’t appear to be the case but nevertheless, I wished he would share some of my anxiety. He gave me the number of the family doctor in Truro, who in turn referred me to a gynecologist in the next town over: Carnon Downs. Sensing that Thomas would prefer to work, I insisted on driving myself to the appointment.
Winter in Truro has a detached kind of beauty, as if it’s meant for a frame rather than a body. The estate that surrounds the manor was so secluded and, besides Thomas and myself, unpopulated that snow never lost its hard, white veneer. Carnon Downs, with its low-slung gray buildings and slow but steady pedestrian and street traffic, had churned its snow into brown slush and wide, dingy puddles. It was a shock to be in a place that felt totally ordinary and to see people dressed in drab coats with worn faces who, though they were hardly numerous, felt to me like a bawdy crowd.
The gynecologist was on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building. When I told the doorman where I was going his lips seemed to smile without moving—the door of the waiting room was heavy and slow to close on his gaze. Inside a young receptionist handed me a clipboard and directed me to a row of heavily brocaded chairs with round backs and spindly legs that ended in ornamental balls, like ballerinas with clubfeet. The rejection of doctor’s office decor in favor of something more like a lady’s boudoir was a total failure. It was not just the shabbiness of faux-opulence, but the sense, like any doctor’s office, that the whole room was covered in a thin, nearly invisible tarp to prohibit substantive contact between the body and its surroundings, and that this barrier acted as a signal to remain alert and uncomfortable.
Despite the ample lighting the room felt dim. I wondered why doctor’s offices never have windows. Surely it must be to create a sense of privacy, but rather than feeling like unwanted gazes were being kept out, I felt as if I was being kept in.
When the gynecologist finally saw me she was a short, round woman who looked like a lunch lady. She listened to me describe my inexplicable ailment with a gently cocked head and after a few questions delivered in a cheerful voice suggested, “we take a look and see what’s going on down there.” I slid my feet in the stir-ups and stared up at the drop ceiling. She parted my pink paper gown and I imagined her with a spatula in hand intent on stirring me like a vat of mac-n-cheese. I was surprised by how painful her hand was on my clit. How long has it been since Thomas and I had sex? My own touch must have become so delicate.
“Well it’s definitely inflamed. To have inflated clitoral tissue this long is very unusual. Hmmm, I see a hair under the clitoral hood; perhaps this got stuck here and is the irritant? Do you shave? No, I can see you don’t shave. Ok, I am going to remove the hair.”
I was mute as she pulled tweezers wrapped in plastic from a drawer. She disappeared between my legs again. I felt first a painful tug and then it was as if she was pulling a vein out of my body.
“Ok now, ok, that’s over. Looks like this hair was growing there, really most unusual. This is not normal, there are no hair glands in the clitoris.”
She brought the tweezers to meet my gaze and I saw a hair dangling from them I would never recognize as my own. It was pale and thin and reddish, as if a piece of my dark body hair had sat too long in bleach.
“So now we need to get this swelling down. The best thing you can do for that is take a nice, hot bath. At least three times a day for twenty to thirty minutes. We call that a sitz bath. You can put some Epsom salt in the water if you want, if there is a cyst or abscess it will help draw it out, but the most important thing is to take the baths to bring down the swelling. This is a really unusual condition and while it is so swollen we can’t really see what’s going on down there, so let’s take care of that first. You’ll come back and see me in a week and we’ll see what’s happening then.”
I left feeling like I had startled and even disturbed my artless gynecologist with an illegible body. Doctors, after all, are empiricists. The police of the body. They treat illness as a crime in which the symptoms are evidence that can be read positively. But what if the crime taking place in my body had left its trace only through absence. Who would be the detective of my body? Who would read all that my symptoms eclipsed?
Back at the manor I told Thomas about my trip, downplaying my confusion over the gynecologist seeming to offer me no more conclusive diagnosis than unusual, and then I took my first bath. It was in a claw-foot tub and the water was hot and I thought: maybe I’ll be ok. When I got out I didn’t feel any different and in the mirror the only change was that now the legs squatting over the compact were red.
I called Monica. Hearing her voice delivering the news of our little changing milieu made me feel even further away than I was. After giving her all the details of the manor I could think of, minus my own lethargy, I got to why I had really called.
“Can I ask you something personal? I mean, this is going to sounds super weird, but have you ever had a painful, swollen clit?”
“Like from rubbing?”
“Well, maybe that’s part of it. I mean, I noticed the swelling the first time after sex. But it’s not going away.”
“Do you think it’s an infection? Like a yeast infection or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I went to the gynecologist today but she acted like she had never seen anything like it. I mean there’s no—not to be gross—oozing or discharge or anything. Just this pressure… like there’s something in there.”
“You must be growing a phallus,” Monica joked.
“No!” I laughed.
“What does it feels like if not a phallus?”
I panicked imagining what was inside of me. It was as if the field of signification had dissolved and all that remained were expectant gazes that waited for my answer. Growing a phallus would make me more rather than less able to name things, but if not a phallus, what? My clitoris couldn’t be growing a vagina. I didn’t want my silence to add any more weight to my answer, so I began to speak without knowing precisely what I was going to say.
“It feels like my clitoris… is drowning.”
“I’ll knit a miniature life jacket for it then.”
I imagined the sea between my legs. Or maybe an aboveground swimming pool in a suburban backyard with a drowned toddler—careless owners left the pool cover off and when they came home they found the child floating facedown with the mosquitoes. You can drown in only a couple of inches of water if it covers your mouth and nose, you can drown in your own vomit.
I took another bath.
Aunt Joan’s office was the smallest room in the house. It was intended as a walk-in closet off the master bedroom and although it would have been enormous in that capacity, as a study it made for a room out of scale with its surroundings. I understood why Thomas chose it for his work, it was the only room in the manor that seemed designed to be used rather than shown, but I didn’t like how it removed him from the rest of the house. The only door to the office was through his aunt’s bedroom; a room that, with its four poster bed and ornate armoire and a half used container of hand cream on the bedside table and bobby pins strewn across the vanity, at once felt too theatrical and too intimate. I had largely taken to leaving Thomas alone when he was in the office, but after several days of bathing and little else it suddenly seemed ridiculous to me that now that we had removed ourselves from everyone but each other we had become so uninvolved in each other’s daily lives.
I dried myself off careful and rather than put back on the clothes heaped on the bathroom floor, I changed into a pair of slacks and a button down shirt and went to find Thomas in the office. Stepping into Aunt Joan’s bedroom, I was surprised to see the royal blue bedspread pulled back and the sheets rumpled; my first improbable thought was that Aunt Joan had come home. Seeing several books stacked on the floor made me realize the obvious, that it was Thomas who had been in the bed. The door to the office was open and as I approached it Thomas stiffened, then quickly dropped something into one of the small drawers in the back of the desk. He slid the drawer closed softly as he turned to face me.
“You startled me.”
“Did I? I guess I haven’t been back here in awhile.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“To the gynecologist? No? You’re dressed like you’re going somewhere.”
“I got dressed to come see you.” At this I crossed into the office and slipped between Thomas and his desk. He turned back to the desk to face me.
“All this for me?”
I nodded and sat down on the desk, sliding my hands behind me on the wood surface. Thomas stood up and for a moment we stared at each other in silence. Then he kissed me and I wrapped my legs around his. He picked me up just as the phone rang. I started, not even realizing there was a phone in the office. Thomas set me down.
“Shit, I have to take that. I think it’s the publisher,” he picked up the phone, “Hello? Hi, Steve.”
I walked back out into the bedroom. I thought about getting into the bed but despite the rumbled sheets it felt intrusive, so I sat on the floor and paged through one of the books. Thomas’s talk was brief but clearly involved plans to meet. He hung up and stood in the office doorway.
“Sounds like you’re the one going somewhere now.”
“Steve is in Cornwall visiting his wife’s family. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to slip away, but his wife is seeing an old friend tonight so we’re going to meet for dinner.”
“Short notice, I know, but this is great timing. I’m on track to finish the book ahead of schedule and can talk to him about starting promotion now. You’ll be ok here without me just this one night, right?” He closed the office door behind him.
Despite its elegant appearance, the claw-foot tub always feels a little grimy. I had scrubbed it several times with a scouring pad I found in one of the kitchen cupboards to no avail; lately I only wipe it down with an old towel I keep underneath the sink. Lying in the tub I think I should start hanging the towel out to dry; it could gather mildew always damp under the sink.
Thankfully I can’t feel the pulse of my clit in the hot water, but my back can never find a comfortable place to rest. Sitting up my shoulder blades lean painfully against the curved ledge and lying puts too much pressure on my neck. I used to think that Thomas was closer with Becky because he met her when he was young and vulnerable, but now I wonder. What if Becky, and his aunt, mother, sister—even Monica, who was the friend that had introduced Thomas and I, and had briefly dated him—what if the Thomas they knew before I came along wasn’t a softer, more open version of his present self but crueler, a harder man than the one I knew. I understood, implicitly, that Thomas trusted me and yet there were parts of him that I would never know, that he would never show me. What if this opacity was what allowed him to be kind to me and he maintained this distance in order to recast each of these woman in me as someone that couldn’t really judge him, that thought that he was good and in loving him made it so?
When I get out of the bath I don’t bother to dry off, but slip on the warm terrycloth robe with Aunt Joan’s initials on the breast. When I walk into her room this time the bed is made and in the moonlight the royal blue bedspread looks black. The door of the office silently opens but the roll-top is down on the desk. To my surprise it’s locked, there is a tiny keyhole visible at the bottom that I had never noticed before. I search the drawers on the front of the desk, but only find loose papers and office supplies. I return to the first drawer and finger a letter opener. It’s solid and slides right under the roll-top. I lean in for leverage and the old wood groans and then gives a satisfying pop. I roll it open and immediately reach for the drawer in the upper left-hand corner that Thomas had closed earlier today. Inside is a large metal key.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but this certainly isn’t it. The key is too large to open anything in the desk. I drop it into the pocket of my bathrobe and slowly walk back to the bathroom.
On the floor I stare at my clit in the compact, calming myself with the return to a habitual gesture. The key is in my hand; it’s heavy and the edge feels rough, almost as it’s cut from iron rather than cast. I sit back against the wall. A trickle of warm liquid runs down my labia and I reach for the compact in alarm. A jagged hole has opened in my clit but there is no blood, just this nearly invisible trickle. I bring the key up to the hole; it’s cold but doesn’t hurt. It easily turns and I pull it out to see a long, dark staircase. I only hesitate for a moment before beginning to descend. The light of the bathroom is no longer visible by the time I reach the end. The stairs were even and steep, but the floor is soft under my foot. It takes my eyes awhile to adjust to the dark, but when they do, it’s Becky’s red hair that I see first. She lying slumped against a sort of membrane that curves up and forms an arch overhead, like the back of the throat. Next I see Lucy’s black hair wet with mucus. And of course there’s Thomas’s mother and Aunt Joan, who looks older than in any of the photographs. Even Monica is here and others I don’t know. So this is where Thomas keeps them. I imagine dragging them one by one up the stairs into the bathroom and washing them off, even Becky’s rotting corpse. But I think better of it; why not put Thomas down here with them? I hear a faint noise from the house above— he must be coming home. I start up the steps.