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Illustration: Jim Boraas

Erin Dorsey: Once a Year
Illustration: Jim Boraas

 
 
 

Getting your yearly STD screening is an exercise in mental warfare and a test of your ability to remain calm under pressure. For me, it's a disconcerting experience, not because I have to divulge my sexual activities to a stranger, but because somehow those strangers always leave me feeling just a bit fucked—psychologically, that is.

It starts with the phone call to make the appointment. I have a day job. The doctor's hours are the same as mine, so I find myself crouched in the corner of my desk whispering, "Yes, an STD screening. . ."  She can't hear me.  "S. . T. . D. . ." I say a little louder, hypersensitive to the prying ears of my coworkers. I can feel my face, burning hot, and while I realize part of being a sexually responsible adult includes these routine checkups, I don't even want my coworkers to know I'm alive, much less sexual.

Then they ask if I want a male or female doctor. To me, it doesn't matter, but I always say female, because if the doctor is male the clinics require that a female nurse be present in the room, and that's just embarrassing for everyone. I always feel like I'm silently accusing him of wanting to molest me, just by being present. 

Once I get to the clinic, they hand me the 20-page form to fill out, both sides please. In the last 12 months, have you had sex with someone of the opposite sex, same sex, or both? Hmmm. Yes. As I try to recall my year, I can't help but replay some of the scenes in my mind. I sign the form, text the young man I met at that-one-bar that-one-night, and silently thank Group Health for being so sex positive.   

Once I finally get into the exam room, they give me a little cup to pee in, and send me into the glory hole bathroom. This is where they have a little stainless steel door that you're supposed to put your pee into. As soon as I close the door I hear it open on the other side of the yellow tile wall, and I'm tempted for a moment to wrench it back open to catch them in the act. "We all pee," I'm thinking, though I recognize the prudish tendencies of our country. We can be sexual, we can be fully functioning human beings, but we can not talk about it. 

When I get back in the room, I undress from the waist down, wondering why it's always freezing in a place where people routinely get naked. Is it normal to see the veins in your legs? And I'm trying to get that little gown on as fast as I can, in case someone walks in. I put the stiff paper cloth over my lap and try to wrap it around my ass, because it never fails that someone does walk in, and the passers-by can see inside. I sit, trying to see my breath in the cold, and wait.   

This is how I sit for the next 20 minutes.

This is where they fuck with you. 

There is a mirror placed directly to my right, and as I look at myself in this ridiculous pink gown, under this horribly bright and unflattering light, all I can think is how much hotter I am than this. It's debasing really: they strip you of your dignity, leave you naked on a table, waiting to see how big of a whore you are, then they force you to look yourself in the eye. I avoid my reflection and turn to the left.

There, they've placed a poster that says, "One in three people has HPV." Thanks for the vote of confidence. I start analyzing the poster, since I have nothing else to look at but the whore to my right or the torture devices they're going to use to prove it.  

There are six people in the picture and they are the perfect collection – two blacks, two whites, two Hispanics. I can't help but wonder what the advertising team discussed when creating this poster. They had to be very careful. If there were too many black people, someone could say they are implying black people are irresponsible. If they included too many white people, they could be accused of only caring about white people's health.

I imagine the advertising guru saying to his team, "I want you to go out and find six people, two from every race, and place them in an ark. . . " No wait, wrong story. "I want you to go out and find six, unassuming, nonthreatening, completely average-looking people." Then I think of the casting call, and what it would feel like to be the model for the, "totally average, devoid of uniqueness, bland, every-day-Joe" slot, and I try to imagine them showing excitement at nailing that role.

By the time the doctor comes in, I'm anxious. I've just spent 20 minutes weighing my odds of having HPV, wondering what secret lab they've sent my pee to, and questioning everything in my life up until that point. I've gone from "sexually responsible adult" to "conspiracy theorist," but I'm not really paranoid. I'm onto them. I know they planned this, because the second I lay down on the table, my eyes are immediately directed to what? 

The picture on the ceiling. Every women's health clinic has one. It's usually a tranquil scene, like a flowing brook or a field of daisies, something to calm you after all the mind games – an alibi, really. Sometimes it's just one word, like "Serenity," or "Harmony," or it's one of those thoughtless one-liners you can buy at Fred Meyer, like, “Don't follow your dreams; chase them,” or “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.”

Anticipating this, ready to be calmed, I take a deep breath and lay my head back on the starchy, flat brick in the shape of a pillow. I open my eyes to see what my fortune will be: It's a picture of a blossoming flower, which bears a striking resemblance to the female anatomy, and the caption reads, "Live like you're dying."

The next thing I know, I'm sliding down, all the way to the edge, and soon she's doing that awkward poking thing that doesn't hurt but isn't comfortable, kind of like tapping on your soul with a ping hammer, and I'm thinking of all the women who this might be scary for, and then I'm thinking about closet-lesbianism, and whether or not some women feel the need to go to confession after the "two finger exam."

As soon as she's done, I'm still laying there, lube sticking to the paper sheet, when she asks me how I want to be notified of the results. Why do they ask that? We both know how it's done.  It's the coup de grace of STD screening, the pinnacle of the cruel and unusual punishment, and the exact wording is crucial. If they call you to "schedule an appointment to discuss the results," you're fucked. I smirk at her and say, "A phone call is fine." 

I leave the clinic, one more year down, and one more donation to god-knows-what experimental group with a successful business on the black market selling my urine, my cells, my soul, my dignity. The fact that my appointment just took longer than any of the sex that landed me there makes me briefly contemplate abstinence, but then that-one-guy from that-one-night texts back, so I smile and think to myself, "Live like you're dying."

 

 

 
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