The Grooming of Alice

Page 12 of 15


“Now,” said the nurse. Smiling mysteriously, she went over to the door and pulled down the shade. “Are you ready?”

We looked at her uneasily. She went to the front of the room and unfastened the long poster of the naked boys, and this time we began to squirm and shriek, because there, underneath, was a long poster of naked girls, front and back. Not just naked, either. Some were bending over, some were sitting with their legs apart, some were standing.

Elizabeth, her face red with embarrassment, half rose from her seat as though to leave the room, but the nurse, laughing, stopped her.

“Right now,” she said, “I think all of us are squirming a bit. In a way, we’d all like to leave this room, because these are parts of female bodies you just don’t see without making a special effort. From the time they are babies, boys can examine themselves and look at each other and see immediately what they’ve got. But did you know, girls, that some women get married, have babies, and become grandmothers, even, and they never know what they really look like down there?”

I don’t think it was anything I’d thought about consciously, but I knew it was true. How could I see what I looked like without almost standing on my head?

“Relax,” the nurse told us. “We’re not going to undress and I’m not going to examine you. But before you leave today, I want you to at least know the names of your most intimate body parts, and where they’re located.”

She flipped back a large sheet of paper on the huge easel at the front of the room, and there was a big drawing of a woman’s privates more detailed than anything we’d ever seen in health and hygiene class.

“The pubis,” the nurse said, pointing to the bulge of fat covered with hair between a woman’s legs and, pointing to the two sides of the vaginal opening, said, “The vulva. These outer sides, or lips, are called the labia majora, and the inner lips are called the labia minora.” Her pointer touched a little pea-sized lump at the top end of the opening. “This is the clitoris—the little button where your most intense sexual feelings are located. The urinary opening, or urethra, is right under that, not easy at all to see, and the opening under that is the vagina. See this little fold of skin over part of the vagina? That’s the hymen. And back here is the anus; the space between the vagina and the anus is called the perineum. You would be surprised at the number of women who don’t know where the urine comes out. Or where exactly the vagina is located. Or the number of women who think sexual excitement has something to do with urinating, because everything is so close together down there.”

We didn’t move. I wondered if some of us were even breathing. We didn’t look to the left or the right.

The nurse faced us. “Okay, this is serious, now. You’ve seen the pictures of boys. If you didn’t know before, you know now that all boys are different. They come in all sizes and shapes, with all sorts of variations in their sexual equipment. And every one of those boys is perfectly normal. You girls are the same way. We come in all sizes and shapes, with loads of variations.”

We stared at the long poster stretched across the front of the room, with all different kinds of intimate parts exposed. The nurse lifted her pointer again. “Now,” she said, “if you leave here today with no other memory of anything I’ve told you, I want you to remember this: We are all normal.” She began moving the pointer down the row of pictures. “Some girls have breasts the size of grapefruit: normal. Some have breasts the size of lemons: normal. Some have breasts the size of pecans …” We laughed. “Normal,” she said. “Perfectly normal.

“Some girls are as flat as two fried eggs: normal. Some girls have belly buttons that sink in: normal. Some have ‘outies’: normal. Some have fine body hair on their thighs or abdomens or between their breasts: normal. Some have big nipples: normal. Some have small nipples: normal. Some have labia minora all tucked up inside where you can hardly see them: normal. Some have labia minora that protrude from between their outer lips: normal. Some have a clitoris so small, you can hardly see it: normal. Some have a clitoris an inch long: normal. Some have a hymen almost covering the vagina: normal. Some girls, even virgins, have practically no hymen at all: normal. Some have buttocks that rise high and stick out: normal. Some have flat buttocks: normal. How ever you are built, girls, your body is normal.”

She walked along beneath the poster, touching each girl’s picture in turn. “Normal, normal, normal, normal, normal …”

It was the most welcome news I had heard in a long time. All the little oddities about my body I’d wondered about had been pronounced normal.

“Now,” said the nurse, smiling around the group. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? I’m going to give you each an assignment, and I’ll never know if you did it or not. It’s entirely up to you. But sometime, when you’re alone in your room or the bathroom, when you know you won’t be disturbed, I want you to take a hand mirror and examine yourselves.”

All of us gasped and giggled and covered our faces at the same time. We were all Elizabeths.

“It’s not wrong, it’s not silly, it’s not sinful to want to know more about yourself,” said the nurse. “It’s sensible and healthy. I want you to be able to tell a doctor where there’s a problem. I want you to be able to say, ‘There’s an irritation around my clitoris,’ or ‘a discharge from my vagina,’ or ‘a sore on my labia,’ or ‘a burning around my urethra.’ When boys have a problem, they know right where it is. Why can’t we? We’re a long way, girls, from the women of Victorian times who wouldn’t even take off their clothes when they went to a doctor. They’d just point to a place on a doll’s body where they were having symptoms and the doctor was supposed to tell them what was wrong without ever examining them. Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore, but we still have a long way to go.”

When we got off the bus coming back from the Y, we walked slowly along the sidewalk, the nurse’s words ringing in our ears: normal, normal, normal, normal, normal …

“Wow!” said Pamela finally. “I always wondered what I looked like down there. I tried to look at myself once with a mirror in the bathtub, but it seemed so obscene …”

I expected Elizabeth to say, “Pamela!” but she didn’t. She didn’t say anything at all.

“I never knew where my urethra was,” I confessed. “I had no idea where the pee comes out. Just somewhere down there.”

“But in back of the clitoris. Now that was news to me,” said Pamela.

Elizabeth didn’t even slow down, just kept walking.

“Boys know from the time they’re one year old where the pee comes out,” Pamela went on. “Everything on a boy is so accessible! I had a cousin once who told me he used to write his name in the snow with his pee.”

Elizabeth stopped. “What?”

“He just took his hand and guided his penis, and spelled the word Bob,” Pamela told her.

I laughed out loud.

“Now if you wanted to pee your name in the snow, Elizabeth,” said Pamela, “you’d have to squat down and …”

“Shut up!” said Elizabeth, laughing.

“Well, we learned a lot today,” Pamela continued. “At least on your wedding night, Elizabeth, you’ll be able to tell your husband exactly where you want him to touch you. Forward of the urethra, please, and then you can do the perineum …”

“Stop it!” Elizabeth said again, but she was laughing even harder.

“I’m an inny,” I offered.

“Outie,” said Pamela.

“Inny, too,” said Elizabeth.

We put our arms around each other as we walked three abreast.

“Well, I’ve got pecans,” said Elizabeth after a minute.

“Lemons,” I said.

“I’ve got cantaloupes,” Pamela bragged.

“Oh, Pamela, you do not!” we told her.

“Normal,” she said.

“Normal,” said Elizabeth.

“Normal,” I repeated, and we moved on down the sidewalk in step, pondering the mysteries of womanhood.<br



I WAS DETERMINED TO DO THE NURSE’S assignment as soon as I got home, before I lost my nerve, but I couldn’t find a hand mirror, not any that was big enough, and I didn’t feel like asking Elizabeth for one. I felt really good, though. Isn’t it weird how what a person says about you can affect how you feel about yourself? I’m the very same person I was before I went to the seminar where the nurse pronounced us normal, but I felt ten times better. Which helped me understand how awful Elizabeth had felt when Justin called her chubby.

Dad and Lester got home about the same time and were debating what to make for dinner, when I came downstairs.

“Do we have a hand mirror?” I asked from the kitchen doorway.

“Never use one,” said Lester, examining the date on a carton of sour cream.

“Naturally, you’re a male. What you see is what you’ve got,” I said resentfully.

“Huh?” said Lester.

“I don’t know whether we have one or not,” said Dad. “There might be one in my bottom dresser drawer. It belonged to your mother. I think that’s where I put it.”

“If you want to see the back of your head, Al, don’t bother. It’s a rat’s nest,” said Lester.

“I don’t,” I said. “For your information, Lester, there are at least five wonderful parts of the female body that can be viewed by the owner only with a hand mirror.” And as they stared after me, I went regally back down the hallway and up the stairs to Dad’s room.

Just as Dad had said, there was an oval mirror with a blue handle beneath his pajamas in the bottom drawer. I carefully lifted it out and studied the white flowers painted on the back. I smiled to myself, wondering if Mom had ever used the mirror for self-inspection.

I went back in my bedroom and locked the door. I couldn’t help laughing, though, because it still seemed a little embarrassing, even though I was the only one there. I peeled off my jeans and underpants, then lay back on the bed with the mirror propped between my knees, and a couple of pillows under my head.

It took a little adjusting and probing to see anything, but sure enough, there was my labia majora and, peeking out from between the lips, the labia minora. I pulled the lips apart and found the little pea-sized clitoris, so sensitive I could hardly touch it. I found my vagina all right, and maybe the hymen, and of course I recognized my anus, though I’m sure I never saw it before. What a weird feeling to think you were being introduced to parts of yourself you’d had for fourteen years and never yet laid eyes on. The urethra was the most difficult of all to find, but I think I even got that straight. The big surprise, though, was a light brown irregular shaped birthmark on my skin just to the left of my vulva.

Well, I said to my privates, Nice to meet you. I laughed again and thought how the nurse would have smiled, too, if she were here. I’ll bet Pamela had already studied herself, inside and out. Elizabeth? I don’t think so, but sometimes she’ll surprise you.

I dressed, put the mirror back in Dad’s drawer, and went downstairs. Dad and Lester had decided to make pesto sauce, and Les was heating the water to boil pasta. Neither of them looked at me when I came in and sat on the edge of the table, and I could swear I saw them blush.

“I just discovered the most amazing thing,” I said.

“You’re a hermaphrodite?” said Lester.


“Half male, half female?”

“There are such people?” I asked, astonished.

“Sometimes nature makes a mistake, Al, but surgery can do wonderful things now,” Dad told me. “So what did you discover about yourself?”

“I just discovered a birthmark I didn’t know I had.”

He was blushing a little. I had actually made my father blush. “Uh-huh,” he said, and went on stirring.

“It’s right beside my vulva on the left,” I announced.

“Will you stop?” said Lester.

But Dad said, “Sort of a butterfly shape?”

Now I was blushing. “How did you know?”

“Honey, I am your father,” he said. “I used to change your diapers, remember? No, of course you don’t.” Then he smiled. “Marie pointed it out to me when I held you in the hospital. She had already looked you over, every inch of you, and she said that if they ever sent us home with the wrong baby, we’d know because of that birthmark.”

“Darn!” said Lester. “No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get rid of her.”

I fixed my attention on Lester. “I suppose even you changed my diaper?”

“Are you nuts?” he said. “I was only seven. I couldn’t stand the smell of a diaper, much less the sight of one.”

The phone rang just then, and Les answered, and then, “Hi, beautiful,” he said. There was a pause. “Sure, I’m game. What’s up?” There was an even longer pause. Finally he said, “I’ll see what I can manage,” and a minute later he hung up.

For the first time I’d heard some irritation in Lester’s voice when he talked to Eva.

“Change of plans,” he said to us. “I thought Eva and I were going to watch a video at her place, but she wants to go to Georgetown instead. ‘Bring lots of money,’ she says.”

“What for?” I asked.

“Shopping. What else?”

I thought it over. “Well, if she wants to shop in Georgetown, why doesn’t she bring the money?”

“Good point,” Lester said, but didn’t answer.

On Monday there was a big car show at Wheaton Plaza, and a whole bunch of kids from school were there, so we shoved some tables together at Wendy’s and all ordered burgers and fries. I saw friends I hadn’t seen since June. Gwen was there with her boyfriend, “Legs.” He is the tallest, skinniest boy I’ve ever met, but there’s nothing anorexic about him. He eats till you tell him to stop. Lori and Leslie were there, and also Sam and his girlfriend, the one he took to the eighth-grade formal after I’d turned him down.

Sam still liked me some, I knew, and I guess I sort of enjoyed knowing there was a potential boyfriend waiting in the wings, should anything happen between Patrick and me. But he liked his new girlfriend, too, Jennifer, who had this wild mane of curly hair. They always had their arms around each other, but once in a while I’d catch him looking at me the way he used to in biology. We ate and joked and caught up on each other’s news, and I thought, now this is the way summer is supposed to be.

And then on Tuesday, something happened so unexpected that I could hardly believe it. I came downstairs to go jogging with Elizabeth and Pamela, and when I met them outside, both were crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Elizabeth turned to me. “Pamela’s moving,” she said.


Pamela swallowed, but her voice was harsh and determined. “I’m going to live with Mom,” she said. “Dad and I had the most awful argument last night. I called Mom, and she said she guessed I could live with them, and she’s sending me a plane ticket for next week.”

“Pamela!” It’s all I could say.

We didn’t run that morning. We sat out on my porch, and Pamela cried and talked, then cried and talked some more. Her dad insisted on knowing everything she did, she told us. Everyplace she went. Every person she saw.

“He says I’ll end up like my mother,” she wept. “He called me a tramp. He won’t let me have any fun at all, and it’ll only get worse when I’m in high school. I can’t stand it any longer.”

“But … where are you going to sleep? I thought your mom and her boyfriend were in a one-bedroom apartment in Colorado.”

“They are, but Mom says they’ll find a two-bedroom. It has to be better there, it just has to.” Then she said, “What do I care? I don’t have a boyfriend. Everything’s so unsettled.”

“You have us,” I said. That only made her cry again.

When I found out the reservation had been made, though, and she was determined to go, I figured the least we could do for Pamela was help he

r pack and be as supportive as we could. But I still couldn’t believe it. Elizabeth and Pamela and I had been together for a long time. Well, three years, anyway. We were best friends. Weren’t we all going to go to the high school prom together when we got to be seniors? Hadn’t we talked about going to the same college, maybe, and calling each other when we got engaged?

Elizabeth threw her arms around Pamela. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” she said.

Nothing is ever the way you thought it would be.

By late afternoon, when we gathered at Mark’s, everyone had heard the news. Gwen and Legs had come over, too, and we all sat staring at Pamela. Mark and Brian, who’d both had crushes on her in the past, looked chagrined, as though they’d been counting on dating her again. Karen and Jill were stunned that she would even consider moving away. Patrick simply said she was nuts.

“You hardly even know this guy your mom’s dating, Pamela. He could be a thousand times worse than your dad,” he said.

“You got that right,” said Legs, the only one of us who was eating pretzels while we digested the news. “Dad left us when I was six, and all I wanted was a father. Then I got this stepdad, and all I wanted was for him to leave. Best day of my life was the day he walked out.”

Karen and Brian, who are both from single-parent homes, agreed, but I saw Gwen elbow Legs to keep him from saying more. “It’ll be okay, Pamela,” she said. “Think positive.”

Pamela, though, appeared to be fighting back tears, sitting there in her red bathing suit, running one hand over her knuckles distractedly. “Well, Mom said maybe I can work in their ski shop when they start one. I think she really wants me to live with them. She said so, anyway.”

What I thought was that Pamela’s mom was probably feeling guilty as anything for deserting the family, and felt this was the least she could do.





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