‘How to Find Your Vagina- An Instruction Manual’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Find yourself lying on a narrow cot in a clinic oceans away from home, bare legs on stirrups, genitalia on display. Two nurses with East Asian accents aggressively rub shoulders trying to look for your vagina.
One of the nurses, frustrated by her own failing, looks up to asks, ‘You are sure you have had sex?’
Nod earnestly to assure her.
As they continue searching, notice that they look like miners with rubber gloves and torches attached to the bands on their heads – all they are missing are pickaxes. When the doctor eventually comes in, don’t be surprised that she is one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever laid eyes on. If you are overweight and have lost your vagina in your hairy under-legs, the white doctor chosen to examine you will look like a human Barbie. That is simply the luck you are born with.
Open your mouth to say ‘hello’ only to realize you are more worried than you are willing to admit and the words in your mouth feel too accented. The nurse who began beating the drum to find your missing vagina takes over. She tells the doctor that you came in for a regular checkup and when she offered you an STD test, you agreed. Shyly smile in agreement when the doctor glances at you for confirmation. But when the nurse says that neither she nor the second nurse were able to find your cervix for the pap smear sample, note how no one is meeting your gaze.
Allow yourself to feel overwhelmed. You could release yourself from the stirrups, thank everyone in the room, grab your sweatshirt from the thermometer-shaped hook behind the door and go to school. If you left now, you’d be just in time for Media Law. You could also go to the apartment you share with your Colombian classmate, borrow the mirror she uses to pop zits, place it between your legs and search for the truth. Or you could stay in this multicultural sitcom where two Asian-American nurses, a doctor who should’ve been a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and a pudgy brown girl, set off to find lost treasure. Choose your own adventure.
Decide that finding your own truth is scary; staying in the clinic is humiliating; the Media Law classroom is the safest place you can be right now. Pick one leg off the stirrups. Repeat with other leg, but just before you are almost free, Nurse Feng, the original beater of the drum, places a hand on your leg.
‘Where are you going? We’ll find your vagina. Not to worry.’
The thigh she pats wobbles in compliance. The doctor moves in, smelling like peaches — which reminds you of your Ma — and introduces herself.
‘I’m Dr. Angela Hayworth-Myers. Do you mind if I take your history? What’s your name?’
Momentarily consider making a quip about white people stealing brown history, then force yourself to answer politely because doctors are no less than gods, or so you’ve grown up believing. Say your name slowly, one syllable at a time. Enjoy the delusion that they will pronounce it well if you give them this chance: ‘Qu-rat-ul-ain’.
Be met with faces as blank as untouched broadsheets.
Say, ‘You can call me, Annie.’
Feel the relief pass around the room.
When asked basic medical history, answer with a smile. You have had no surgeries, use no medications, and hide no extraordinary family illnesses. Save the best for last. You know it will come.
‘And when was your last period, Annie?’
Make the most serious face you know. Pull your shoulders back and push your breasts forward so they see that you are otherwise developed, and rattle the answer you perfected at about the same age that you were memorizing the genealogy of the Mughal emperors for your GCSE Pakistan Studies exam.
‘I don’t get periods. When I was sixteen, ultrasounds revealed that I either don’t have a uterus or have one so small that it’s redundant — a plastid uterus. I recognize that I can’t give birth, but apart from that I’m perfectly healthy.’
Fold your hands over each other in your lap. You learnt from a TED Talk that this makes you look in control. Wait for them to gather their thoughts. Watch the doctor arrange her face into what she believes is a comforting smile. Be taken aback when she asks if you mind her going in with a speculum. This is unprecedented – you usually receive sympathy and a change of subject in response to your practiced reply. Nod, tentatively. When the cold metal pickaxe looks for gold inside you, hold still despite the discomfort. Eventually she will come out, and say, ‘Annie, you may have something called MRKH. It’s a genetic condition in which women are born without a functional uterus or vagina. I guess doctors in Pakistan told you about the former but not the latter?’
Have an out-of-body experience in which you feel as if you’re tumbling down an endless mountain, then force yourself to come back to the small, fluorescent room and decide that most doctors are like gods, but this one is fucking insane. If you were born without a vagina, someone, somewhere, would have noticed and told you. Convince yourself that your vagina is merely lost, perhaps in the folds of fat you carelessly grew with samosas and pakoras over the years. Recite Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un in your heart. It’s the prayer that helps find lost items.
Neatly fold and bag the note that the hyphenated doctor has scribbled for you. Glance at it only to scoff at the handwriting that looks like a line of bugs marching to war, partly obscuring the name of the specialist she wants you to see. Exit the clinic and make your way to the One train. As the train carries your body to university, and you drag your feet to class, deliberate over calling your mother. But upon remembering that she pronounces vagina as wa-jeena, drop the idea and keep repeating the prayer that helps find lost items. Think about what you want to eat for lunch. The day deserves something deep fried.
Give yourself at least a month of denial. The weather is too hot for confrontations in clinics. Study hard: practice editing careless copy; revise production techniques; learn how to ask uncomfortable interview questions. Make a lot of friends but tell no one about what you have misplaced. Report a wonderful story about a dog that went missing from Amsterdam and 8th only to be found six months later, east of the park. Reflect upon the fact that a dog is a large object to lose for six months. Go dancing to celebrate, but when your cute class fellow — the one whose curls you’ve been itching to wrap around your index finger — comes closer and gently holds you by the waist, courteously move away. You can’t risk all of J-school knowing you’re a clumsy girl who lost her vagina.
Use this missed opportunity to push yourself to make the doctor’s appointment you have been delaying. Make an appointment and miss it. Make another appointment and miss it yet again. Do not admit you are afraid; pretend like you don’t have time to keep them, that school keeps you busier than a journalist with an insider scoop about Hillary’s missing emails. Make it to your third appointment and discover what a copay is. Realise that full coverage isn’t full at all. Eventually cough up the money in the hopes of ending The Adventure of the Lost Vagina.
Inside the room, a surly, gray-haired doctor will prod you between your thighs for minutes that stretch over deserts. Put your legs back together and feel the cold metal under the thin sheet. In a fake American accent that makes you feel safe, ask him why first-world hospitals don’t have foam on their stretchers. When he ignores your question and says you have Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, giggle. Say you can’t even pronounce that, emphasize the ‘even’ like a Valley girl. Instead of indulging your nervousness, he says he wants to operate on you. Nod intelligently when he shows you scans from tests he performed on your body before getting his hands dirty inside you. He tells you that your vaginal opening is only an inch deep after which it’s caved in. He can excavate for another five inches using skin grafts from your thighs. Remain silent and look unsure, but do remember that if everything he is saying is true, you’d have to write a thank you letter to your Pakistani college cafeteria for helping you build the thunder thighs that would allow this surgical exchange.
When he pushes you to choose a date for the surgery, feel intimidated enough to lose your fake accent but continue maintaining that there’s no certainty that you need a new vagina. The search party has only just been launched. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. He is confused by your response. He assumes that you don’t understand his words. Very slowly, as if you aren’t a product of centuries of British colonialism, he will say, ‘Miss, you have no vagina. This doesn’t impact your health per se, but you can’t have a healthy sex life without an operation.’
Stand up and demand a second opinion. Scratch that. He is a white man, a doctor for god’s sake. Remain seated and gently request a second opinion. Be met with a long, cold, hard stare. Decide to never again fake an accent; it cracks under pressure.
Go to another doctor. And another. Keep going until your savings run out or a doctor finds your vagina, whichever comes first. Become a pro at explaining yourself to white doctors, ignoring that they all think you need reconstructive surgery, and at avoiding your mother’s phone calls. Count how many weeks you’ve avoided her calls and let the number shock you. To fill the Ma-shaped vacuum in your life, think back to when she consumed your entire being.
You are 16 and off to what will be the first in a long series of doctor visits. Ma thinks you are ‘late’. Not late like you haven’t had your period that month and might be pregnant, but late like you never got your first period despite carrying an emergency pad since your eleventh birthday. A year later, when you inspect it, notice the fraying around the light pink edges of your Stayfree. Find it too embarrassing to ask your mother for a new pad; instead, softly pray for your period to come. Will your body to grow breasts the summer before your 12th birthday and succeed. From needing nothing to carry them, they shoot up to requiring a B cup. Believe the blood can’t be far. Your knowledge about the reproductive system is weak. The imported science books your school loans out for the academic year has the pages on reproduction UHUed together. The headmaster says that imagery inspires imagination, and illustrations of vaginas and penises are too much for opposite genders that share classrooms. A friend got her period a year ago. She knows everything. Ask her:
‘So like, they worry that if a boy sees a vagina drawing and then me, he will start imagining my vagina?’
‘Yeah and then who’s to say he will be able to resist wanting to see it in real life! We could have another restroom rape!’ she snickers, reaching for the grapes your Ma laid out to snack on while you finish your science project together.
Laugh at the idea of a class fellow being raped. Rape is for beautiful women, not scrawny teenagers. When your mother asks if you are worried about the rumors regarding the rape in the women’s room, say;
‘That girl is a total attention seeker. She probably imagined the rape’.
At fourteen, rape is an extension of sex in your head. In a Bollywood movie your cousins showed you, an underworld don coerces a gay man to take a lot of ‘Vitamin Sex’ to rape the heroine. The tragic heroine orgasms so intensely that she dies. This is confusing because rape is bad but orgasms are good, so how bad can rape be? Your cousins say your question is stupid, so you stop thinking about it.
In the doctors’ clinics, at 16, you are a rat, a cockroach, a lizard, something subhuman. There are ultrasounds and injections and CT scans and something called a VCUG. They put orange dye in your veins and trace its journey through your body. They attach a hollow needle between your legs and murmur around you. One day they ask you to pee into a wad of cotton in front of the leering staff, as they simultaneously run X-rays. Understand nothing but question no one because doctors know best. Wait for when Ma will ask if you are okay. Keep waiting. On days when the tests run too long, she wordlessly makes something extra greasy for dinner. The sizzling pan fills the silence in your home.
When there is no room left for doubt, your uterus is pronounced redundant. Watch your mother’s morale crumble like a church without a foundation. The doctor adds that apart from childbirth, you can live a normal life. Then he whispers something to your mother. Or does he? You might have imagined it. There is no one to speak to at home so you confide in a friend. Swear her to secrecy. Be gullible enough to think that children your age can keep secrets. Next week, in Urdu class, a boy inquires the meaning of the word ‘banjar’.
‘Barren lands, desolate lands that do not have the ability to produce anything.’
The boy chants, ‘Banjar Annie, Banjar Annie.’
The class snickers.
The last doctor you visit in Pakistan is Ma’s cousin. You are alone. Ma had an errand to run. Notice that Doctor-Aunty has had her once-thick eyebrows shaped into skinny down-turned smiles. This gives her a constantly melancholic expression. Know you are in good hands because the plaque on her desk says she is an ‘award- winning gynecologist’. She tells you not to worry, a redundant uterus is no big deal. She says childbirth is not simple even for women with functional uteruses.
‘Take your own mother for example,’ she says stretching her brows into the saddest upside down smiles you have ever seen. ‘Before you came along, she had two abortions because the fetuses were deformed. But then look, she had you, and you’re almost perfect.’
She tells you that when the time is right you can marry a divorcee or widower with young children. In fact, she will personally look into older suitors for you. Imagine holding her down in her leathery chair and shaving off her eyebrows. Shake the image and smile politely.
At home, tell your mother you are done meeting doctors. She looks at you as she weighs the seriousness of your words, and then says, okay. You become friends again. Talk about everything except what you’ve recently learnt about both your bodies. Note how burying your barrenness has freed her. These days she no longer has a bag of secrets to guard.
Winter has rampaged New York City like King Kong and the goose-feathered jacket you had to buy for your first American winter means you can’t afford more doctor’s visits. It’s up to you now to find your vagina. Convince yourself that if you never had one, one person in particular, would have noticed. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. What is lost, will be found. Be humoured by the fact that the prayer to find lost items is the same that is recited in response to death.
One night the heating in your building breaks down and it’s too cold to sleep. Over the phone, the landlord says he can’t find the repairman. Let him know how frustrated you are at having third-world problems in the first world. Snuggle deeper into your fuzzy blanket. Fight the urge to call Ma. You can’t tell her you lost your vagina, she will blame you for being irresponsible. Remember how upset she got when you lost your lunchbox in school. Ignore the gnawing feeling that she may have kept a few secrets from you.
Do as many things as possible to keep yourself away from thoughts of your missing vagina. Go on a Tinder date with an Indian astrophysicist in the making. Choose a classy bar right next to your house. You think the location will be convenient for you but that night you learn that proximity implies you want to sleep with your date. Agree to a drink with a journalist from North Dakota. When you get to the bar, he tells you it’s his birthday. Judge him for arranging a Tinder date on his birthday. Then remember that you have misplaced your vagina. How can you judge anyone? Try dating women. Change your Tinder bio. Looking for Men and Women. Go on many dates with many women. Find them beautiful the way a field of sunflowers is beautiful. When a date ends well, kiss them. Go down on them, but don’t ever let them go down on you, fearing what they may not find. One day, in the middle of licking a clit, a woman calls you out for pretending to be queer. Decide you’ve dated enough women.
At a rooftop barbeque party, meet an aspiring filmmaker. His hair looks blonde in the afternoon sun but later you will realize it’s just a regular brown. He makes documentaries about war, or wants to – currently he’s designing sets for Nurse Jackie. One date turns into ten and it gets serious before you can shut it down.
Tell him sex is complicated for you, in ways you can’t yet explain. He is willing to wait for as long as you need. This may mean he’s not attracted to you. Push that thought into whatever void your vagina fell in.
His name is Adam, he’s Jewish, but who’s telling Ma, right? His mom freaks out as yours would, if she knew. He says she can’t imagine what she’s done to deserve her son dating a brown girl, a Muslim no less. She asks why he didn’t wait for her to die first. Tell him your mother is equally melodramatic but not as involved in your life. Register that this is a lie. Since you’ve stopped taking her calls, she has resorted to sending you photographs and voice notes. The pictures are always blurry and the voice notes end mid-sentence. Wish you were there to teach her how to hold the phone still while taking a selfie and to send a voice note only when she’s done recording. In her sweet, bird-like voice she tells you what fruits are in season — these days its falsa. She momentarily forgot that you were away and bought too many. They are rotting now because she couldn’t eat them fast enough. Doubt the veracity of this tale since middle class households follow the basic tenet of waste not, want not, but bury the urge to call her out on her attention-seeking tactic.
The next day, convince Adam to go on a falsa search with you. Show him pictures of the tiny purple fruit. Explain that it’s not at all like a dehydrated plum – those are sweet; falsay are sour. All the way to Jackson Heights play I spy with Adam. You both enjoy games that require finding objects. Acknowledge that this is a wonderful day, strolling from one grocery store to another to ask, ‘Unclejee, do you keep falsay? Kaun say store pay milay gain?’
Stop only to steal short kisses in dark alleys. You can’t openly make out in a desi neighborhood – what would the aunties say? Recognize that there is no hope of finding the sour fruit but continue searching into the sunset. At the end of the day, treat Adam to Kabab King and laugh about what would happen if the men in the restaurant realize he’s your Jewish boyfriend. Before parting at the train station, when Adam says he loved leading your search party today, smile. That night, dream about having sex with him, except that you are Rachel McAdams and he is Ryan Gosling. Wake up wet and worried that you are developing a gora-complex, why didn’t you dream of a more interracial couple?
As a teenager when you misplaced something, Ma always said to look in the last place you remember seeing the lost item. Think back to college days, to when you were sure about what was between your legs.
Close friends who know your uterus is redundant, say you are lucky that you can’t be forced into an arranged marriage because of your ‘situation’. The guys like that you never PMS. One friend who recently had a back-alley abortion says she’s jealous that you never have to worry about birth control.
Decide to take advantage of the situation and have sex. You’re dating a Psychology major on the verge of being kicked out for his terrible GPA. He’s not the love of your life, but he has nice abs. Turn up the heat. That weekend, instead of dry humping, offer him a hand job. Alcoves around the campus are dark but there is a constant fear of security guards walking in on you. This excites him and he comes faster than the guards. The weekend after that, let him fondle your clit. So far, so good. In the next phase, while sexting, say you want to give him a blowjob, can he borrow a friend’s car? Change your mind entirely when you receive his responses:
Don’t act like a prostitute.
Only whores give blowjobs.
Fuck me like a good girl.
You have read enough Buzzfeed listicles on slut-shaming to recognize it. The break up is ugly but, like your mother, you are great at burying things, so remain unfazed. When you see him across the hall, at a house party a week later, ignore him. But do panic when he closes in on you as you’re exiting the restroom on the abandoned second floor of the house. Curse yourself for not waiting in line with others to pee in the downstairs puke-filled toilet. As he turns the lock on the restroom door, with the two of you inside, brace yourself for a sarcastic apology for spreading the rumor that the two of you had sex. When he says, ‘But now that the rumor is out there, we have to have sex. Otherwise I will look like a liar.’
Know that you should yell, shout, scream but fail to find your voice. Think that this cannot actually be happening as he slides you on the bathroom floor and unbuttons your distressed jeans. Use your legs to shove him off you, but he is wedged on you like the lid of a too-old jar of pickles. Wish you kept long fingernails like other girls. Yours don’t seem to be hurting him in the slightest. The last image you have before the pain takes over is the Bollywood rape scene you watched in your childhood. Finally, find your voice and yell in agony. He covers your mouth with his hand and says, ‘You fucking virgins are always too tight. I can hardly get in.’
And yet, within moments, he’s come all over your thighs.
On Valentine’s Day when Adam comes over with a dozen heart-shaped cupcakes that, together, form a giant heart, find it cheesy but adorable. Give him a card in which a chicken and a cow are standing above a cow-spotted egg. He will say he’s ready to order dumplings and watch The Conjuring. Are you in the mood for horror? Nod, vaguely. Make a split-second decision to have sex with Adam. Know you have a vagina, it’s just a matter of finding it.
‘I am ready to have sex with you.’
His hands reach out to hold yours. He hopes you are not saying this because you feel pressured? Think about your next words very carefully. Decide that there’s no good way to tell a man you want to have sex with, that you can’t find your vagina. Blurt it out:
An expression you don’t want to read spreads across his face. Scan the room locating his keys, wallet, scarf, jacket, shoes. In case he wants to make a quick escape, you can help with gathering his things. Then realize he’s coming in for a kiss. He whispers he will be happy to help find it. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
Begin clumsily. It’s been years since you’ve wrapped your fingers around a penis. But Adam helps you remember. Giggle when he blows a raspberry on your stomach. Fondle him using your hands, and when he places you, naked, on top of him, feel powerful. You’re in charge, he says. Place him where you imagine your vagina once was and give him the signal to go. He shoves himself into you. Once, twice, three times. That is when he will realize that something is missing. Confused, he sticks a finger in the spot you placed him, discovering the cave-in. His hand scrambles between your legs, taking stock, counting holes, and realizing you are one short.
Memorize the horror washing over his face, you will need the image later to get over him. Pay attention to how his already pale face lightens to match the walls around you. Scrape courage from inside you to look into his eyes. Vacant.
‘I really thought you were making a cute joke about your vagina,’ he mutters as he leaves you to dress himself. In moments he is by the door, shoes scuffed, jacket in hand. Say nothing — what is there to say? Be grateful for his reticence. Curse yourself for being grateful too soon.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this. You like, have a tiny dip for a vagina, it’s weird. Good luck with everything.’
Over the next weeks, worry about becoming the subject of a Reddit AMA, a YouTube Vlog, a NowThis video. Obsessively check the internet for any sign of Adam using you for cheap viral fame. Discover that Eva Braun was said to have MRKH. Stumble across The Washington Post piece about Hitler’s small penis. Perhaps two wrongs make a right? Contemplate finding a man with a micro-penis. It will seem less terrifying than the reconstructive surgery the doctors are suggesting. Spend days deliberating becoming a nun, then realize you are Muslim and feel short-changed by Islam not giving women the option of marrying Muhammad. Keep avoiding Ma’s calls. When she sends you a selfie making the V sign, asking what it means, type ‘V for vagina, Ma’. Never send that text.
Decide to celebrate when you hear that your latest feature story titled, Search for Bedazzled Pigeon’s Owner Continues, published in a national newspaper, helped the owner and pigeon reunite. You have failed to find your vagina, but at least you keep helping pets find their way home. Register that this is worth celebrating. Gather friends and enjoy hopping bars until you find that your phone is missing. The last time you remember checking it was an hour ago, at the-bar-without-a-basement. Say goodbye to your friends and retrace your sorry, drunk steps to the-bar-without-a-basement. Make a beeline for the bartender and ask if he’s found any phones. He will glance behind the cash register to see an old-school digital camera, a fluorescent thong and your cell phone. Some things are so much easier to find. Excitedly reach for it, only to be cut off by him. When he says he will give you your phone on one condition, take stock of this man. Wonder what your friends will think of you contemplating blowing this bald-but-in-a-cute-sort-of-way, thirty-something bartender in exchange for your phone. Decide you’ll do it.
Feel slighted by your imagination when all he wants from you is to call your mom.
‘She’s called six times in the last hour,’ he says.
As you pocket your phone make a mental note that if you’re ever brave enough for therapy, you will start with having the psychologist analyze this story.
Find an Uber to get you home and as you scramble in, stinking of alcohol, note that your driver is a living, breathing cliché: he is brown, Muslim and decidedly angry at you for being drunk. Consider getting into a discussion with Abdul Jabbar of a 4.3 star Uber rating to prove that you’re not the devil’s spawn. Realize that you’d actually rather do anything else, even call your mother.
Seize the moment.
Ma’s voice is soothing like honey on a sore throat, like Vicks on bumpy mosquito bites, like Vaseline on parched lips. Make small talk. Let her tell you about the crate of unripe apples that she bought from an old man by the side of the road. Interrupt her;
‘Did you know I don’t have a vagina?’
Give her a moment. Notice Jabbar holding his breath as the car nears the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s now a part of this conversation. Lean in to receive the volley.
‘They told me you’d need a small operation when you get married.’
‘Did you ever investigate what that operation was, Ma?’
‘I think they said it was some kind of reconstructive surgery you’d need, to have sex. You were too young to understand then. I thought I’ll tell you later.’
‘And why didn’t you tell me later?’
‘I guess … I guess I just forgot about it.’
Observe the deep silence that’s unfurled around you. Eventually, let Jabbar break the spell of the endless quiet;
‘You want me to take it straight from Broadway, or go around the bridge?’
Hold the phone away from your ear and say, ‘Um, whatever.’ Then bring it back in and, as slowly as possible, ask your mother if she also didn’t tell you about her two abortions because she forgot about them?
‘Who told you? THEY WERE NOT ABORTIONS! They were called assisted miscarriages! How dare you? You are selfish, obsessing over what you don’t have. Abortions! Gah! To even dare accuse me of such a thing!’
She clicks the phone shut. Breathe deeply. You hadn’t done that in a while. Hear Jabbar sharply whisper, ‘Taubah, taubah.’
After a moment of sheer exhilaration, feel putrid. Like an entire acid trip contained in a few moments. Upon reaching your apartment, mumble thanks to Jabbar without meaning it. Recognize that he’s busy reciting Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. Angrily ask him if he’s praying for your dead siblings. When he tells you that he’s appealing to God to help you find the piece in you that you so desperately need, thank him. And this time, mean it.
It will only be much later, when you’re warm in bed, comforted by your fuzzy blanket, unambiguously decided about the surgery, that you realize he meant ‘peace’
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