“Can you describe the sensation?”
“Pinpricks across the soles of my feet, the palms of my hands.”
Flora is wrapped in paper like a slice of deli meat, her thighs spread and sticking to the brown leather cushion of the table. The doctor click clacks pinpricks into the computer, Flora imagines, unless it’s something else, like hypochondria or paranoia. Paranoid schizophrenia. No, too early for diagnosing. She strains her neck across the table to peek. Dr. Vakalapudi smiles and click clacks. “Any changes in your diet?”
“No. I mean, I eat different things all the time.” Flora swings her legs over the table and looks down at her pale, dry calves. She feels like a child, antsy and exposed. Flora still doesn’t like being examined, questioned, evaluated. She’d rather do the evaluating. “It’s hard to say. I stopped putting milk in my coffee. I realized I couldn’t even taste it in there so why spend the money? And it always goes bad before I use it all. Also I think I’m slightly allergic. It makes my stomach feel funny.”
Dr. V smiles. Can’t taste milk, she click clacks. Thrifty. Click clack. Cheap. Click clack. Funny stomach.
“Any new stressors?”
“Not really. Just school, maybe. I’m writing my thesis.” Dr. V doesn’t ask but Flora feels the need to explain. Lately she’s felt this urgency about making people understand that what she is researching is the most important thing. “It’s about the impact of the Trump presidency on women in intimate relationships.” Flora’s classmates have validated this subject with enthusiastic That is soooo fascinatings, and Oh my God I need to read thats. She shifts her weight on the table, stabilizes her body with her hands behind her, and prepares for Dr. V’s response.
“Very interesting.” Dr. V nods. Flora waits for more but Dr. V is back at her computer, so Flora has to explain. “It’s so incredible how this whole thing has affected people. The women I’ve talked to, they just have had a complete loss of trust for their male partners. Some of them feel so squelched under the weight of the patriarchy that they’ve fallen blindly into routines they never would have before. They nod to their husbands out of fear. And I mean, it’s not about their husbands, it’s just...you know, everything.”
Dr. V is probably already a mother, definitely already a wife, according to the ring on her finger. Flora imagines that Mr. V is not as successful as his wife. Maybe he stays at home with the kids, which is perfectly fine but she imagines it wears on his masculinity, little by little, with every shit-stuffed diaper, every stupid spider song. It’s likely that Mr. V keeps his resentment hidden, but inside he feels threatened, worries that his wife does not need him, questions his value in the whole situation. Flora remembers reading about the zero-sum perspective in her course on American Love and Marriage. Any measurable gain by one group is perceived as directly coinciding with equivalent losses from another group. Many men, and even women, hold this belief that there is only so much resource available, so one person’s gain must be another person’s loss. It’s the widely held ZSP that prevents us from making drastic strides towards gender equality. In marriages like the one Flora imagines Dr. V has, the resource is power. She imagines, though, that sometimes, despite being threatened by his wife’s success, he is turned on by her competence. Perhaps he makes little digs at her—criticizes her parallel parking or adds extra salt to the chicken she cooks. Perhaps she gets defensive and they fight. But they have angry, competitive sex, and then they love each other again. Dr. V is pushing her palms against Flora’s, saying, “Push back as hard as you can. Don’t let me move your hands.”
Flora blushes and thinks how strange it is that you can be imagining your doctor having aggressive sex with her husband, while she’s touching your hands, and the doctor can have no idea. The doctor is just trying to figure out what’s wrong with you, doing her job. Or maybe the doctor is also imagining you having sex. So now Flora is imagining her doctor imagining her having sex and she’s wondering if her face is giving something away. “Good. You’re very strong,” Dr. V says. This shouldn’t make Flora feel accomplished, but she takes it as a compliment, nonetheless. Don’t waste an opportunity to feel good about yourself, her mother used to say.
Dr. V taps a tuning fork against the sole of Flora’s right foot, then taps it all the way up her leg.
“Can you feel this?” she asks. Flora nods. She wants Dr. V to understand her, confirm the importance of her work. Flora explains, “I mean, these are feminists, for God’s sake! Strong, independent women, stifled in their own marriages by this nasty orange Cheeto they don’t even know. I mean, you can relate, right? A woman in your field?”
Dr. V shines a flashlight in front of Flora’s eyes, “I suppose I haven’t given it too much thought. Try not to move your head, dear, just your eyes.”
“But you are a feminist, right? I mean you must…”
“I don’t tend to get too political.”
Flora feels stupid, suddenly. The noises of the room, the rustle of her gown, the tinkle of Dr. V’s instruments, explode into the silent, sterile air. Maybe Dr. V is simply a woman who likes to fix brains. And Flora is suddenly filled with even deeper admiration, like Dr. V’s refusal to engage in feminist discourse is a political statement in itself. She is not talking about these things or writing about them day in and day out, but she is living them. Flora looks at Dr. V’s silky black ponytail, the glasses on a chain around her neck. How had Flora not realized how much more necessary it is to do than to think? She should be picking apart neurons, not picking apart microaggressions. Flora never had a mind for hard sciences and she never found them compelling. But now she wishes that, when asked, she could tell people that she was a doctor. It seems easier to explain—the word in itself conjuring up images of white coats and stethoscopes and mountains of money. Flora’s field needs to be accompanied by a whole slew of descriptions, justifications. But this is exactly the problem. Women don’t feel valued unless they’re doing something “important.” The silence has lasted too long, Flora decides. She must find a way in, a way to connect. “How did you get into neurology?”
“Oh wow, what a question.” Dr. V is not much older than Flora—late thirties, maybe. But she speaks in slow, calculated strings, nothing like Flora’s urgent blurts. Flora’s ex-boyfriend, Phil, used to tell her that she spoke as if the other person might run away at any moment, and she had to get everything out before they did.
“Well, my father had a stroke when I was a child. I became obsessed. Searching in the library for images of oxygen-deprived blood cells. I wanted to know everything. It just, sort of stuck.”
So that was why. It had nothing to do with womanly ambition, just a sick parent. “Did he...is he okay?”
“He passed. Stand up, please, dear.”
Flora unsticks herself from the table, the gown crinkling, reminding her that this was not the place for personal conversation. Nobody wants to discuss death at their place of work. Although if their place of work is a hospital, maybe the rules don’t apply. But personal bereavement? Dr. V must be reminded of death daily. How does she do it? Does she think of her father every time a brain clot flashes in an MRI?
“Sorry to hear that.” Flora imagines this is the right thing to say. She will stop pushing now, she vows.
“Oh, it was a long time ago.” Dr. V presses gently on Flora’s shoulders, one after the other, and it almost feels like a massage, almost feels like forgiveness. “Okay, Flora,” she says, “Everything—your reflexes, your vision, seem fine to me. Nothing suggests you have the disease, but we’ll send you for some tests just in case. It’s not genetic, you know, but you are at a higher risk. My guess is it’s just a vitamin deficiency. I really wouldn’t worry.”
Telling Flora not to worry is like telling her not to sneeze when one is already fighting its way through her nostrils. And Flora finds now that she doesn’t want the doctor to leave her alone in the room. Alone with her bare feet on the cold floor, alone to dress herself and watch her fragile body in the mirror, alone to think about death. Maybe Dr. V and Flora could think about it together. They could talk about other things, too, happier things, like television or favorite bars. “Thank you,” Flora says instead. Dr. V’s smile is sympathetic, not the kind that suggests somebody is dying, but the more benign kind that suggests, “Oh sweetie, you have so much to learn.” Flora feels herself wither inside her gown as the doctor turns and closes the door behind her.
Since the election, all of Flora’s friends are becoming lesbians. She’s writing about it as part of her thesis. So far, her evidence for this chapter is merely anecdotal, a series of interviews unlikely to be approved by her advisor.
Q. How has the current political climate impacted you on a personal level?
A. Honestly, I can’t stand white men. Even the good ones. Even when they’re doing nothing wrong. I know it’s irrational. But the other day, I was in line at the bank and this white guy— not even a bad one, one of the bearded ones who probably reads lots of books and visits his grandma sometimes—he was eating a tangerine, but just like peeling it and biting into it, not separating the sections or anything. I got the sudden urge to slap the thing out of his hand and stomp it into the ground. I mean I didn’t, but God. Men.
Q. In what ways has your dating life been affected by the Trump election?
A. I only date women now. Seriously. I used to be curious—I mean curious about kissing them, that’s it. But now I think the world would be better if we were all gay. Make little gay babies. It’s a political statement but I feel it in my bones.
Flora, too, considered dating women. She tried it—changed her OKCupid setting to Interested in Men and Women. But when one messaged her, she freaked out. The girl reminded Flora of her sister, Gem. In her profile picture, she had straight-across bangs and the straw of a bubble tea in between her lips. Flora couldn’t do it.
The site has assured her that Jackson is a 96% match meaning he also does not like public displays of affection and believes women are not obligated to shave their legs and thinks people with lower IQs should be allowed to procreate. One of his profile pictures, Flora’s favorite, was taken at IHOP. It’s just his smiling face amongst a sea of cups and the caption says, “IHOP gave me lots of cups.” Flora, too, had once been given too many cups at IHOP, so she messaged him about it, which prompted a nostalgically witty exchange about clown face pancakes and speculations about the verity of the “international” in the acronym.
Flora thought that scheduling a date on the evening after a doctor’s appointment was a smart and balanced choice; something stressful in the morning and something fun in the evening. It seemed like adult-level planning. But she forgot that both types of activities induced in her similar brands of anxiety: nausea, naked vulnerability, and a compulsion to ramble so as not to be crushed by silence. It’s too much for one day and Flora considers cancelling with Jackson, but she doesn’t trust herself to reschedule, and is trying to take more romantic risks in general. Backing out would be a major regression in her personal growth.
Flora has suggested they meet at IHOP, an attempt at prolonging the inside joke they established in their messages. She takes the bus there. She did, in fact, shave for the occasion, if only to avoid the prickles poking through her black tights. Just her legs and armpits, that’s it. Anything more and it’s sex-prep, not self-care. On the bus, no one is looking at her so she allows herself to stare. There’s a little family across from her: a mom and a dad and a baby that they’ve stuffed into a puffy pink sleeping bag with a hood and bunny ears. The giant puffy bunny has a stroller but the dad holds it in his arms, anyway. It’s poking at his ears, grabbing at his glasses, sticking a finger in his eye. The mom and dad just smile at their precious creature, don’t push its hand away, let it poke and prod. That child will grow up thinking it can poke things, Flora wants to say. She smiles at the puff instead. Beside Flora, a man has a book stretched across his lab and is underlining fiercely. He jabs her gently with his elbow. Flora jabs him gently back. He scowls.
“Sorry,” she mutters.
People have all sorts of opinions on why women apologize and what to do about it. She has explored them extensively, scouring articles like, "Dear Women, Stop Apologizing," and "The Issue is not Female Over-Apology, but Perception of Offensiveness Across Genders," and "New App for Woman Keeps 'Sorry' Out of Vocabulary." Flora installed the app that kept the offending word out of her emails and texts, but then everyone was saying, "Stop Telling Women to Stop Apologizing," so Flora deleted the app and reclaimed apologies.
The puff and its parents get off the bus. On the bus, now, there is just the man with the jabby elbows and a woman about her age, scrolling at her phone. Flora looks at her phone, too, to check the time. She’ll be early to IHOP. But as she’s getting off the bus, Jackson texts, Here. Across from Hugh Hefner lookalike.
Hef is near the front of the restaurant.. He’s got white hair, a velour bathrobe, knee-high circulation socks, and running sneakers. A blonde woman—personal care assistant? Daughter? Bunny?—sits across from him. In the opposite booth, Jackson is slurping whipped cream from the top of a mug of hot chocolate. He wears a mustard yellow beanie and has a respectable amount of scruff. Just long enough to avoid scratching Flora’s face when they kiss. It was something she never told Phil that she hated, that two-day beard. Phil was always so proud of it, thought it made him look nonchalantly hardcore, that Flora couldn’t break it to him how much it irritated her skin. But Flora has gotten ahead of herself again. She will not be kissing Jackson tonight. For the first time since she left her house, she feels nervous. What if she looks different to Jackson than her pictures suggested? She has taken to wearing no makeup on first dates, so as not to set a precedent. She has neglected, however, to change her profile pictures to depict her new, natural look. What if Jackson was expecting the babe in red lipstick whose face is permanently angled towards its viewer in the most slimming fashion. Jackson is cuter than his pictures. She smiles and he stands up to hug her.
“Hey, no cups?” Flora asks.
“I asked, but there’s a shortage.” They settle back into their seats. “Did you drive?”
Flora talks about the bus, the puffy baby.
“You refer to babies as ‘its.’” Jackson scans the menu briefly, then smiles up at her.
“Well, it’s just, I didn’t know what...it was. They’re strange little things, aren’t they?”
Flora should not be talking about babies on a first date. She knows this, yet it has happened, all in the first ten minutes. She tries to save it. “Yeah. I used to work in a daycare center. You’d be surprised how social they are, even before they can talk. I swear they already had their own little cliques. They were already excluding the fat ones. It was sad to watch. “
Jackson laughs. “Wow. Vicious. Did you, like, intervene?”
“Well it was tough because I didn’t speak their language. Couldn’t reason with them, ya know? Like all you want to do is say ‘beauty is a social construct that we invented to feed the capitalist system.’ Race, too. Those babies were super racist. But I would just give the marginalized babies longer turns in the little baby swing. All I could do.”
Jackson is laughing now with his forehead in his hand. “Marginalized babies. Damn. What a fucking world. So daycare center, and now you’re in school for...what was it again?” Flora finds it funny how on dates, people are always trying to account for the trajectory of each other’s lives, as if there will be a quiz later. As if this will only work so long as we both know how we have spent every year of our adult lives thus far. And Flora is beginning to realize that Jackson already knows about her daycare job, and she knows nothing about him. And they haven’t even ordered their food yet.
“Gender Studies.” She is annoyed at herself after the visit with Dr. V. She doesn’t feel like elaborating. Besides, she’d rather not tell Jackson that soon his gender will become obsolete. It seems too soon for announcements of such finality. “Do you know what you’re getting?”
“It’s either the clown face pancakes or the hungry man special.”
“Wow. Who do you want to be today? Big decisions.”
“But more importantly,” Jackson asks, “who do you want to be today?” Flora isn’t sure if this is Jackson’s way of hitting on her. Is she supposed to answer with something sexual? She considers filling in the blank, with an erotic, whoever you want me to be, but reminds herself that they are only discussing breakfast foods. IHOP has upgraded their menu since Flora was a kid, adding red velvet cake batter to their pancakes, and offering healthy choices like Simple & Fit 2 Egg Breakfast. She doesn’t remember them having salads before.
“Let’s share. I’ll get the hungry man. You get the clown face. Best of both worlds.” Sharing is an intimate move for the first date, but Jackson is enthusiastic.
“I like your style,” she says.
“So Gender Studies, huh?”
“Yes, it’s a very underrated field,” she says, hoping it doesn’t read as defensive.
Jackson smiles. “I bet. What do you like about it?” He’s unrelenting in his appreciation.
“I’m not sure I like it. Just find it necessary.”
“And you? What do you like about financial aid?” She doesn’t mean for it to sound sarcastic. But Jackson’s not offended.
“Oh you know, FAFSA just, really just, gets me going.” He laughs.
Uh oh. Sense of humor. Flora will not let herself get swept up. Many women place sense of humor high on their list and then are discouraged to find that there’s nothing else. The guy is funny but can’t open up. He can make you laugh but won’t go to Passover at your grandmother’s house.
Flora has momentarily forgotten about her symptoms, but now she feels the tingling in her feet again. She tries to keep their soles planted on the sticky floor, fasten them to syrup-coated tile. She occupies her mind with the way Jackson’s mouth moves when he talks about birding. His voice is low and slow and he has been photographing owls—one owl in particular, in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. He’s gone there every morning for the past year. Flora does not hate all men, she decides.
“Have you named him?”
“The owl? Nah. He’s not mine to name. I’m just, like, a visitor.”
Flora is trying to look into Jackson’s eyes, but she can’t quite pinpoint them on his face. They are merging together and apart, little floating orbs that won’t stay still. She squints, hoping to focus. Jackson wipes his cheek with the back of his hand. “Do I have some pancake or something?”
“No,” Flora laughs. “You’re good. I think my contact has just gone wonky.” She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. When she stands up the restaurant looks wiggly, as if Flora has been drinking. She wonders, for a moment, if she has been drugged, if Jackson slipped roofies into her coffee when she wasn’t looking. No. She has been at the table the whole time. She reminds herself not to drink the rest of her coffee when she comes back, just in case. In the bathroom, things are wobbly. The edges of the toilet stalls cave inward. Flora rubs her eyes, splashes water in them and blinks. “There is nothing wrong with you,” she tells herself. Her therapist told her it was a good thing to repeat when she got too inside her head. But it’s getting harder and harder to see. It’s psychosomatic. It must be. Dr. V said her her brain is okay. Still, she fumbles for her phone and scrolls down the list of blurry names, looking for her sister, or Dr. V, maybe. But her vision keeps getting worse and it’s not just blurry now, but completely grey out of her right eye. She rests her hand on the sink and thinks there is nothing to do but stay put. Jackson will figure she’s snuck out the bathroom window, and he’ll leave, she hopes. She’ll be able to see again soon. There is nothing wrong with her. She slides her back down the wall and sits on the damp linoleum floor, pulls her knees into her chest and hugs them. There is nothing wrong with you there is nothing wrong with you there is nothing wrong with you there is nothing wrong with you there is nothing wrong with you.
Flora was eight when she learned that bodies don’t always listen to brains. Her mother was walking with a cane, then, but she could still go anywhere Flora could go. She insisted. She had no pain, just needed some extra support “in case,” she said. On the weekends, it was usually just the two of them. Her father worked most days and Gem was busy keeping up with her middle school social life, hanging out with friends or updating her MySpace page. So they were a team, and her mother insisted on doing the things that a wife does. That day, it was taking her father’s dress shirts to the dry cleaner’s. Even though her mother had a car, and could drive it, they walked into town. It was warm for April and they both wore t-shirts. Flora carried the canvas sack filled with her father’s shirts, slung it over her shoulder. It was heavy but Flora was strong. Flora hadn’t noticed, before, the way her mother’s right bicep bulged with each step, each time she pressed her cane into the ground. The right arm was not squishy, like the left, but firm, like a man’s, and Flora told her mother this as they walked.
Her mother laughed, “Jeez, thanks.”
“No, Mom,” Flora said, “it’s a good thing.”
At the time, Flora thought anyone could have missed the curb, tripped stepping up onto the sidewalk. It could have been Flora, even. But it was the way her mother sat there after, her body folded on the cement, and the way she used her hands to drag her floppy, useless right leg out from underneath her body, that made Flora want to run away, pretend this woman was a stranger. She knew it was wrong to wish this were someone else’s mother, to want a mother whose muscles worked the way they were supposed to, whose spinal tissue was not speckled with holes. Later, Flora would continue to see that those muscles moved as they pleased, in spastic, angry spurts, or not at all. Later, her mother would describe them as she described Flora; temperamental, independent, stubborn. Her body was a child she could not harness. That day, her legs splayed out before her like metal rods, as she scooted herself around with her arms, trying to push herself upward.
“Fuck,” her mother said, then clapped a hand to her mouth. She released a wilted little laugh. “I’m sorry honey. Don’t tell Dad.” Was it her swearing or falling that she wanted to keep secret? Either way, Flora wanted her mother upright. It didn’t look normal—this forty-year-old woman crumpled up like a discarded tissue. People were starting to stop, to stare. She didn’t want to explain the situation, didn’t want to tell them that something was wrong with her mother, didn’t want to let anyone into their world. She extended a hand to pull her mother off the ground but she wasn’t strong enough. Neither of them was. So when a large, tattooed man offered to help, she nodded, defeated. He lifted Flora’s mother up by the armpits, handed her the fallen cane. Flora’s mother giggled, flirted, the perfect damsel in distress, unaware that the elastic of her pants had slid down slightly, revealing her tan, cotton underwear. Flora ran to pull them up, tug at the hem of her t-shirt, smooth her hair down the side of her head, fix her.
She smiled at the man and shooed him away. “We’re okay now. Thanks.”
“I can’t believe I said the F-word,” Flora’s mother kept saying afterwards, as they continued toward the dry cleaners like nothing had happened. “Don’t tell your father.”
Flora doesn’t want to remember her mother now, in the bathroom of IHOP, on a date with a handsome financial aid advisor. Her vision is clearing up again, and she stares at her hands underneath the fluorescent light. She’s not sure how long she’s been sitting on the floor, but she knows it’s time to get up. She bends her knees and tenses up her thighs, pushes off from the floor with her hands. She still feels slightly lightheaded, but she ignores it. She washes her hands in the sink with cold water and rubs a bit on her forehead. The bathroom door opens and The Blonde from Hef’s booth walks in. She flashes Flora a hot pink smile and goes into a stall. After a minute, Flora hears the rustling of items in a purse and then, “Oh. Shit.” Flora tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and feels almost normal. “Umm, hey?” the blonde calls out.
“This is kind of embarrassing, but, you don’t happen to have a tampon do you?”
Flora wants so badly to have one, to help her, and she thinks there’s one in her purse but she’s left it at the table.
“Hey, umm not embarrassing at all. You’re just a living bleeding woman.”
The blonde laughs faintly, reluctantly.
“Stay here,” says Flora, “I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll just be...here.”
When she gets to the table, Jackson has already put in their order.
“You okay?’ he asks, red aproned servers buzzing about behind him.
“I’m fine.” Jackson’s face is in focus now, and his smile is genuine. She likes that he cares but isn’t too concerned. Flora picks up her purse. “Just give me one second,” she says. She walks down the hallway towards the bathroom, steadying herself with a fingertip along the wall. IHOP has displayed all 12 employees of the month from the past year, in gold plastic frames––photos of men and women with constipated smiles holding up sad-looking paper certificates. At least it’s nice to be recognized, Flora thinks as she reaches the bathroom. She passes a squished tampon under the door of The Blonde’s stall.
“It’s practically fossilized,” Flora says, “But it’s something.”
“Oh my God. You’re amazing. You’re the best. God. Thank you thank you thank you!”
Flora straightens her spine as she walks towards the bathroom door. She will just tell Jackson she got her period. No big deal. If it makes him uncomfortable, what kind of man is he, anyway? There’s no reason why menstruation should be a taboo first date topic. It’s just part of life. Anyway, it’ll be a test for him, to see how much he can handle.
Julia Rubin is a writer and educator from Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Mortar Magazine, HelloGiggles, Crunchable, and others.