*includes times she’s been disbelieved
**omission is also lying
One time a new work colleague asked if Roxanne would stand in as a player on her indoor netball team. Roxanne had started to feel the symptoms of thrush gathering in her labia like storm clouds earlier in the day, and it had taken all of her focus to not squirm at her desk. She pressed her legs together and told herself she must have some Canesten in the drawer at home leftover from the last time she’d had it, about three months ago. She could see the reassuring pink and blue label, feel the cool soothing cream. By 3pm, the time Anna asked Roxanne to fill in at netball, the situation had not abated and in fact seemed to be getting worse, though Roxanne didn’t know if that was just in her head, because she was sitting still trying so hard not to think about it. She thought about asking for a break so that she could walk to the pharmacy, but it was her first job out of university and she had only been working at the firm a couple of months, and she couldn’t think of what to say if her boss had asked what was so urgent. Canesten was also expensive off-prescription and she was down to her last $50. She was good at netball and she liked Anna, and she really wanted to play, so she thought pastel tube-shaped thoughts as she filed her last case for the day and shut down her computer at exactly 5pm. ‘See you tonight!’ Anna said, as Roxanne hurried for the door. She smiled, or, more accurately, she grimaced. ‘Totally, see you there.’ At home she flitted between cupboard and drawer. Every time she opened another receptacle and caught sight of a tiny crimped corner she felt waves of pure hope, followed by crushing defeat when it was an unrelated ointment. She found a few of the plastic tubes used for insertion, and a fungal cream that upon googling was meant to treat Athlete’s Foot and must have been left behind by a previous boyfriend, but the concentration of fungi-killing agent wasn’t high enough for her purposes. If there was anything she knew, it was her own fungi. They couldn’t be taken down that easily. Undoubtedly, the welcoming surrounds of Roxanne’s vagina was a nicer place to inhabit than her ex-boyfriend’s putrid foot. With a start she realised it was now past 6pm and she couldn’t even go to the late pharmacy, and the game was meant to start at 6.30pm. Roxanne changed into her sports gear, jogging on the spot as she filled her water bottle. By the time she got into the car her tract was a raging battleground. She parked outside the sports centre and winced. I can do this, she thought. It won’t be that bad when I’m playing. She got out, closed the door, and doubled over. She got back in and closed the door and drove away. At home, she pumped her vagina full of foot cream and lay awake all night. At work the next day, she tried to explain. ‘Anna, I’m so sorry. I had…’ she realised she couldn’t say it. ‘I was sick.’ Anna tossed her head;, wouldn’t look at her. ‘Save it, Roxanne. If you didn’t want to play, you should have just said.’
When she was 15, Roxanne found herself on a mattress at the back of a darkened lounge with a boy named Jerome Groober. Jerome wasn’t widely considered to be attractive. He had a big nose and a semi-permanent sneer, and his crown was in a weird place so that his thin, sandy-coloured hair always stuck straight up at the back, and he played classical guitar so his nails were long and sharply pointed. But he had what she and her friends would come to term the thing – that elusive element that would later become known as big dick energy – and he always had weed, and Roxanne found him funny. She liked the way he’d stand close to her and make a joke or tease her and then nudge her to make sure she knew to laugh. He always smelled like eucalyptus. That year at high school they had a group of mates who used to take turns hosting intimate parties at each other’s parents’ houses. They weren’t really old enough to drink, but the adults all kind of knew each other, so her dad would buy her a four pack of Midori mixers and growl at her to be careful as he dropped her off. They numbered around a dozen, and they’d build a bonfire if they were on someone’s farm and sit around it, or lie around watching movies or scare each other with ghost stories, and by the end of the night several couples would have partnered off and be kissing in the shadows, or with their arse pressed up against the wall behind the chicken coop. Roxanne had used this social arrangement to kiss three boys so far. It was harmless fun, until the night in question. That night, Roxanne learned that it is possible to be in a room with 12 people and be utterly invisible. She learned what it is to be frozen and in pain, while being locked in a complex web of social relationships that rendered it unacceptable – offensive even, on her part, and silly – for her to cry out, even when her closest friend was metres away. When the scene came back to her suddenly as she was walking down Ponsonby Rd in a new crushed velvet Gloria dress on the way to a job interview more than a decade later she wondered what was so wrong with her that she hadn’t even managed to ask him politely to stop. It was a big word but she could have whispered it, stop. Even asked nicely; added a please. Please stop. Still later she read a study about how the seemingly simple act of saying no is incredibly difficult for women, who are conditioned to always say yes, to share, to be nice, to give, to serve, to not make a fuss. But teenage Roxanne didn’t want to be difficult so she lay there clenching her jaw as rough and careless Groober jabbed his taloned claw into her vagina over and over again.
The Big O. It was the pinnacle of sexual experience and it was widely understood that when you had one, you would know. Roxanne was pretty sure she’d had one. I mean, it stood to reason that she would have, right? Now she was 19. She’d had sex: quick sex, slow sex, hot sex, cold sex. Sand all over your bum at the beach sex. The boyfriend who isn’t yours sex. How-are-you-still-pumping-away-like-a-jackhammer have you even noticed I’m still here sex? But if she was being truthful, she ended every encounter feeling like she had swallowed a giant sigh. Her body was full of unexpended air, like a helium balloon tied to the ground by a lead weight. She didn’t want it to be this way, but she wasn’t the kind to sit around feeling sorry for herself, either. She read all of the sealed sections of all the Cosmopolitan magazines. She did her pelvic floor exercises. She had Brazilian waxes, to heighten the sensation. They all said it was a good idea to experiment, to find out what you liked. Roxanne, who had shared a room throughout adolescence with two younger sisters, pushed her washing basket up against the bedroom door in her shared flat and lit a strawberry-and-vanilla scented candle. But alone by herself in the flickering light, she felt strange and self-conscious. Every time it started to feel good, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to sustain the feeling, wondered when it would end, started thinking about the exam for her history paper tomorrow. She psyched herself out. Another possibility was that her previous experiences caused a kind of defensive trauma response to kick in, even when she touched herself. But Roxanne didn’t yet know to think about it in this way, to consider that her inability to associate her vagina with pleasure was not her fault. Instead, she thought: there’s something wrong with me, and people will be able to tell, and from now on the best thing is to pretend. The thing with faking orgasms is that once you start, it becomes second nature, even something of a game. Roxanne learned quickly. Flick your hair, widen your eyes, push your tits together so they look bigger and he can cum on them. It turned her on sometimes, being so overt, watching them enjoy her perfectly calibrated act, marking her own performance from outside. 10/10, Roxanne! We loved the way you groaned when he thrust into you from behind, and biting your lip and gripping the pillow was genius! There was a power in having them so in thrall to her. The best part was the chase. Watching them watching her across the bar, spinning away, eyes dilated, reeling them in. But still afterwards, always, the disappointment.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor at a friend’s house, the room fragrant with hairspray and perfume and lit with lamps and warm laughter. They drank vodka cruisers and shared cigarettes on the balcony, the city spread out in front of them. They might go out, they might not. They danced. As it approached midnight, Jocelyn held court on the bed. She leaned back, a joint in one hand, and took a long, luxurious toke. The girls arranged themselves around her, a waterfall of cushions and pillows. ‘The trick is,’ she said, passing the joint to her left, ‘you have to focus.’
‘What do you mean?’ Roxanne asked.
‘Say they’re doing something you really like, and it’s starting to feel good, right? So you need to concentrate on that feeling. Imagine it radiating out from your fanny, like—you should close your eyes for this part,’ she instructed.
‘So you just imagine that the pleasure is like, a powerful ray of sunshine, or electricity or something,’ she said. ‘And then you let it flow through your body, and you feel it running like, down your thighs and legs, and flowing through your arms, and send it all the way down to your fingertips and wiggle them and feel it there.’
Music played softly.
‘And then you’ll feel it flowing all through your body like a current, and then you just concentrate on the origin of the feeling, where it’s the strongest, and you can like, focus on that and feel it through your whole body, and make it spread everywhere,’ Jocelyn said. ‘And then when it gets to its most powerful it will like, explode, and it’s like your whole body is shaking with it.’
‘It’s like a superpower,’ Hanna said.
‘Can you do it every time?’ Roxanne asked.
‘Yeah, pretty much,’ Jocelyn said. ‘But I’ve been working on this technique for a while. Oh, and the other thing is,’ she reached out for the joint, which had come around again, ‘If I don’t like what they’re doing, I just tell them.’
‘What, like, just say it?’ Roxanne could not imagine this.
‘Yeah. Like, I just figure that guys are mostly really dumb, and they just get their ideas from porn or whatever, which is fucking stupid,’ Jocelyn said. ‘Like, I am not here for the tittie fucks, you know?’
There were murmurs of assent. ‘Totally,’ Roxanne said.
‘I also just feel like, if I don’t tell them what I like, who will? It’s like, solidarity,’ she said. ‘We need to teach them for the next girl. No one should just be lying there having shitty sex. How come they get all the fun? It’s not fair.’
‘For the sisterhood,’ Sia said.
Jocelyn stood on the bed, raising her goblet. She was lit as if from within and her long, blonde hair flowed out behind her like She-Ra, Princess of Power. Golden rivulets of wine poured down her glittery, muscled arms. Roxanne was quite stoned.
‘For the sisterhood!’ they yelled.
When Roxanne did finally have an orgasm, a few months later and quite by accident with a soft, thoughtful boy who touched her gently yet urgently and whose pelvis rubbed against her clit in a way that was pleasantly surprising and not at all boring, she thought of Jocelyn.
The doctor was typing, one laborious letter at a time, leaning forward to squint at the screen. Roxanne looked at the certificates on the walls. He was trained in obstetrics. That seemed like a good sign.
‘Sooo,’ he said, drawing out the vowels in a way that made Roxanne dig deeper into the sides of the chair with her fingernails – she’d just got a manicure, this was a risky manoeuvre, but tiny shoots of pain were a good distraction from the bigger, deeper, incessant type – ‘the tests have come back, and there’s no sign of bacteria.’
Roxanne looked at him. ‘Okay, so why do I feel like this? I definitely have a UTI.’
The doctor looked at her, down his glasses.
‘Yes, run through your symptoms again?’
Roxanne sighed. She obliged. Needing to pee all the time, then not being able to pee at all, then the sting of razor blades when she did. The feeling of constant painful fullness in her bladder which interrupted her daily activities and meant she couldn’t sleep.
The doctor leaned back. ‘Hmmm, yes. There’s nothing we can really do. The guidelines say I shouldn’t give you an antibiotic unless there’s a result on your test. And as I said, yours came back with nothing.’
Roxanne gritted her teeth. ‘Yes, I know that. But I’m telling you I have a bladder infection. I’m not making this up.’
The doctor leaned forward. He dropped his voice, placatingly. ‘Yes, I know Roxanne. And I feel for you. But that’s not what the test says.’
‘Okay. So what should I do?’
‘Drink lots of water, and cranberry juice. If it doesn’t get any better in a few days, come back.’
‘A few days?’ Roxanne looked at him in horror. She couldn’t imagine lasting a few hours, let alone a few days. ‘Then will you prescribe me an antibiotic?’
‘We’ll have to see,’ he said, standing up.
‘But can I just have one now?’
‘It’s against the guidelines,’ he said. ‘I’m not comfortable doing that, Roxanne.’
Leaving the clinic, Roxanne raged. He wasn’t comfortable? Prescribing an antibiotic? It wasn’t like she was banging on his desk demanding a line of coke. She went to the after hours doctor instead, who was a woman, and who without blinking or asking any further questions prescribed Roxanne the strongest antibiotic possible, Ibuprofen and a urinary alkaliniser for the pain, suggested she look into natural remedies like D-Mannose and avoid sexual positions that might aggravate her symptoms, ordered blood tests to check her iron levels, and said she should talk to her GP about whether she could be perimenopausal. Menopause wasn’t well understood, and its signs could easily be missed.
The doctor, who had been working since 5am and was now rubbing her eyes and readjusting her hijab, rested one of her hands lightly on the other. Her body was still and calm, and her eyes met Roxanne’s, and she gave a sympathetic kind of a shrug and a smile. In that moment, Roxanne felt like a whole person. ‘Here you go,’ she said, and, as Roxanne pocketed her scripts: ‘You take care of yourself, okay?’