I’m lying on my back, scrawny feet up in the stirrups. In my head, I go like, don’t look, don’t look, don’t you look at her, but of course, I do. I raise my head, and there next to the gynecologist is Mom, peering into my most private me. Mom cranes her neck over the doctor’s head to bear witness, to be there when the doctor announces her verdict.
So, okay, last night I broke my 6 pm curfew. My mom thinks that the world is hunky-dory until 5:59 pm, at which point evil crawls out of his lair (evil is a man) and makes men crazy and women weak. It wasn’t entirely my fault that I didn’t make it home on time. I blame it on Diego, my boyfriend. Well, he is not my boyfriend; he couldn’t be because Diego is a blond, super hot, surfer-looking, fifteen-year-old papito who plays the guitar and has what he calls “a few miles under his hood.” He is the type of boy who could have any girl in the neighborhood and its surroundings, so naturally, when he asked me, a thirteen-year-old brown, flat-chested, homely-looking girl, to go for a spin, I nearly died. I know I’m not a looker, and when a girl wants a boy who is way out of her league, she has to give him something he wants. It’s common knowledge in school. Hello? Anyways, last night, we rode our bikes behind the stadium, where the grass is tall and the streetlights dim. I put into practice everything I had read in Cosmopolitan: I licked my lips a lot. I mean, I licked them so far that my upper lip started to hurt, okay? I had what Cosmopolitan called a willing mouth, wore a blouse with buttons that responded to the slightest touch, and a training bra that offered zero resistance to his curious hands. Except he was not interested in what I had to offer. Instead, we parked our bikes and he took the guitar out of its case, sang Hotel California in botched English, then rolled a joint. I wanted to try it, but Mom is like a hound dog; she can smell alcohol, cigarettes, boys, lies, dreams, the tangible and the intangible. I thought Yes, Please, but said No, Thank you, fully knowing I had blown my chance with him now that he knew I was nothing but a little girl afraid of upsetting her mommy. Someone shoot me. I lay on the grass, buttoned up my plaid shirt, which I had worn just for the occasion, and stared at the darkening sky. Then Diego started to mumble some nonsense about, like, politics, maybe? I don’t know, and between his tedious ramblings, my disappointment, and the smell of his joint, I fell asleep. Sayonara. When I woke up, Diego was strapping his guitar case across his chest while humming more Hotel California. I can tell you this; there was no cool wind in my hair or soft smell of colitas rising up through the air. Just the conviction that my mom could very well carry out her legendary threat of turning my piehole upside down for disobeying her.
The gynecologist doesn’t address me. In her office, only she and Mom exist. I am a piece of meat on a slab. She rubs her hands together, and I wonder if it is out of anticipation for what she is about to discover, a Let’sseewhatwe’vegothere type of keenness, or to warm up her hands before slipping them into a pair of latex gloves. She clears her throat. I’m tearing up from the crushing weight of the humiliation. I look at Mom with pleading eyes, but she is more interested in that spot between my legs. In my head, I go, tell her to leave, ask her to leave, beg her to leave, Mami por favor. I think, close your legs, do not, under any circumstances, let her look at you down there. But Mom is the customer in this establishment, and the customer is always right. Mom places her hand on the doctor’s shoulder, the doctor pats Mom’s fingers. Do they know each other? Mom is borderline illiterate; she doesn’t have educated friends. Wait, maybe they are not friends at all, and what I’m witnessing here is a mother-to-mother moment of mutual understanding. I have mistaken this primal, tribal, stupid, ignorant, ill-founded exchange of signals for friendship. The doctor turns her face sideways and whispers something in Mom’s direction. It must be important because Mom lowers her right ear to hear the doctor’s words. Mom nods. Whatever the doctor says, Mom agrees with her. I’m here; I want to say. I’m here. Why are you doing this to me? Even better, what exactly are you doing to me? The doctor doesn’t ask me how I am or bother to explain what she is about to do. I am one of the dummies she practiced resuscitation on in medical school. She raises her gloved right hand and flexes her fingers. She wants to unfold me; she wants my body to tell her gloved fingers something critical, something that will change my mom’s life, I think, I don’t know, maybe even mine.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, let me tell you about last night. On my way home from the stadium, I knew my mom was going to kill me. And here’s the funny thing. Mom has never hit me. Not once. But maybe because I was the last of six children and the closest sister is six years older than me, I grew up pretty much like an only child surrounded by older siblings and an overbearing mom. I experience Mom’s wrath as a harbinger of the world’s end. No, she doesn’t hit me, never has; instead, she punishes me with her silence, which is the meanest emotional punishment ever for all intents and purposes. I know that when the queen doesn’t address her citizens and servants, they might as well throw themselves off a cliff. Sometimes I think Mom is afraid of me growing up. If I do, there will be no more motherly responsibilities left for her, and without her role as a mother, she is, honestly, nothing. That’s why she clings to me; oh, man, when I think of Mom’s grip on me, the only word that comes to mind is barnacle. I can’t cut my hair, shave my legs, or choose my own goddam clothes. Mom owns me, defines me. I am because she is. She is my alpha and my omega. If I anger her, I cease to exist for days, weeks, months. I can’t bear her silent wrath. And because I feel that my life depends on her recognition of mine, I made up a big fat lie. I wanted magically to transform her anger into empathy, her fury into something in the vicinity of tenderness.
I was kidnapped by a group of men who dragged me from the street and threw me into their car. What? Where did they take me? Er, I dunno. I passed out—they must have drugged me or something—and that’s why I lost track of time and broke my curfew. There. I said it. My sisters rolled their eyes, bored with the ridiculousness of my newest lie. Pff. Mom simply stared at me. I mean, she didn’t just look at me; she flew through me, turned me inside out, held my heart in her hands, and watched it beat. If she doubted me, was worried, appalled, or disgusted, she didn’t show it. If my trick had worked and she felt empathy, she didn’t show it either. While she appeared calm, which was a very good thing, I knew I was a single gesture away from being hauled into her silent hell. Mom just locked her eyes on mine, the way she looks at the cutting board when she is chopping onions, utterly enthralled by the seesaw motion of her fingers, like she doesn’t want to miss a thing, then she smoothed her apron over her skirt, stood up, slowly, methodically, and sent me to bed. I had escaped Mom’s pre-apocalyptic fury.
I couldn’t believe my own cunning.
This morning, after my siblings had gone to work and school, Mom instructed me to shower and get dressed. We had a doctor’s appointment, she announced. She was steely. Not angry, angry, but, you know, her voice had a bit of vinegar and a bit of salt, like she was making salad dressing every time she spoke to me. When she is like this, I lose my bearings and become so unsure of myself that I forget simple things like walking in a straight line or how to brush my teeth. I grow clumsy, spill things, and trip on my own shoes. I am unsteady and lopsided in her soundless shadow and move around her as if I’m walking on broken glass, ready to cut myself and bleed to death at any moment. Naturally, I didn’t have the guts to ask her which doctor’s appointment she was talking about. I wasn’t ill; I certainly didn’t need a doctor; therefore, it had to be for her. Her lower back always hurts, especially when we disobey her. My sister says that Mom somatizes all her problems, whatever that means.
My body refuses to open its door for the doctor. My oval closes in, and its vertexes clench to one another, resisting the two prodding fingers. It hurts, but I don’t make a peep because my mom doesn’t like crybabies. I know I have a job: to melt into the table silently, to be the good girl I wasn’t last evening, and to do as I’m told. No one knows I’m here. Right now, I don’t exist outside these four walls. I am not a sister, not a friend, not a cousin, not a student, not a neighbor. I am nobody’s girlfriend. I’m not the bookworm that uses big words and argues with everyone—except Mom, of course. I’m just a 13-year-old specimen under inspection. I don’t know that I can shout, that I can howl. I don’t know I have the right to close my legs, pull up my panties, and walk out of the office. I don’t know that I have rights. No one has ever talked to me about my body, not even my mom. The first time I bled, Mom asked me to pull down my panties in front of her and show her the stain. Satisfied with the sight, she gave me a sanitary napkin, showed me how to use it, and kissed me on my forehead. Congratulations, she said, you are a woman now. That it? I thought. Now what?
I fixate my eyes on the second hand of a wall clock to my right. I count every tick. Uno, dos, tres. The doctor’s fingers prod and prod, but they can’t make it past the pearly gates, which seems to annoy her. She sighs dramatically and turns her chair 180 degrees; Mom moves out of her way momentarily, phew, the doctor reaches into a cabinet and gets a tube of something she opens with her teeth. Doce, trece, catorce. Mom repositions herself. Fuck me. Veinte, veintiuno, veintidós. The doctor rubs her right fingers with a gelatinous substance, and she pushes them in. I’m split into two. I’m afraid the two halves will never be reunited. Cuarenta y cuatro, cuarenta y cinco, cuarenta y seis. A stream of tears pools in the nest of my ears. The doctor withdraws her fingers, and I’m numb. I try to imagine the scene from above. My dress all bunched up around my waist. My legs spread eagle on the exam table. Mom is right there in the first row, arms across her chest the way she does at the butcher’s when she asks him for a nice bone with meat on it, and she takes her donottrytocheatme stance, eyes fixated on a femur like a lioness stalking her prey. Suddenly, I’m painfully aware of the coarseness of my hair. Pubic hair, the moss on my legs that Mom doesn’t let me shave, my hairy armpits, the matted frizz of my two braids. No wonder Diego didn’t want to touch me. I’m hairy, ugly, and a baby whose body belongs to no one but Mom. Cincuenta y nueve. Fifty-nine seconds. A whole minute of silence. Is there anyone in the lobby getting the funeral bugle ready? Will someone play Taps as I walk out of here? The day is done, gone the sun.
Mom places her hand on my back and ushers me out of the office. She is pleased. The doctor found what she was looking for. The thing is in mint condition. I’m relieved those horrible men didn’t harm you, she says. There it is, more vinegar and more salt as she makes a theatrical emphasis on horrible men, revealing that she didn’t believe my kidnapping story but used it anyway to punish me and verify my virginity while at it. Mom rushes down the street. She can’t wait to get to the church around the doctor’s office. Down there, my panties rub my skin raw. I’m on fire. I’m sore from the intrusion. I want to squat in a pot of lukewarm water until the heat dissipates. Mom takes long strides, but my chafed bits hurt. I can’t keep up with her and start falling a few steps behind. That’s the way she walks, the way she moves and, I imagine, the way her mind works: at a racing pace. She never rests, has zero room for idleness, and makes sure we don’t either, occupying our weekends with house chores, limiting the time we spend in the shower and rousing everyone from their sleep early on a Sunday. Clap, clap. Arriba, niñas, arriba. This house won’t clean itself.
Mom lights a candle and kneels on the pew. We’re thanking God for keeping you safe from harm, Mom says. I also light one candle and kneel on the pew beside her, although I don’t feel particularly grateful. Mom whispers a heartfelt Holy Father while I stare at the feet of Jesus crucified in front of us. Jesus, the son of a virgin. I want to ask Mom if it would have been okay for Joseph to hold Mary down and submit her to a vaginal examination to attest that she was, in fact, a virgin when she announced she was pregnant. Something inside me burns, not just the part rubbing against the fabric of my underwear but in my belly. Fury, I think. I’m not just pissed off. This must be what feeling fury feels like. I look at Jesus and want to scream. If the cross fell in our direction, which of us two should be crushed under its weight? I make my choice and feel slightly pleased, slightly guilty, but mostly pleased at the thought of a motherless life.
Pray with me, Mom commands. I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed; in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, by my fault, by my fault, by my most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen. I’m about to get up, but Mom pulls me back down on my knees and starts the prayer again. Joy of joys. I do as I’m told but can’t ignore how Mom raises her voice a bit as she says, “…that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed; in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…” she pauses, looks at me sideways and continues, “…by my fault, by my fault, by my most grievous fault…” Mom beats her chest lightly with a clenched hand. I stop mumbling the prayer. Mea culpa, mea culpa, my ass. The double whammy of mea culpa Mom is forcing out of me is meant to make me feel guilty about some grave sin I committed against God, the Almighty, and Mom, his representative on earth. I don’t think so.
Later, at home, I open the tome of the encyclopedia corresponding to the letter H. I look up hymen. Hymenaios (Ὑμεναιος) or Hymen was the God of weddings, specifically the wedding hymn sung by the bride’s train as she was escorted to the groom. It is said that Hymenaios had to be present at every wedding, or the ceremony would be disastrous. I look at the Greek art depiction of this God, and I can’t believe the hilarity, the irony, the absurdity of it. There he is, a white, winged young boy with a tiny dick carrying a bridal torch somewhere on the bridal train. He looks like a pubescent cupid, unsure of his sexuality. According to the encyclopedia, his superpower is called amokinesis. Yep. Hymenaios had absolute control and divine authority over love, passion, and desire during wedding ceremonies. Hey, I appreciate good imagination and love a good story, but what in the world does this have to do with what happened to me today?
An unwed woman who loses her virginity is damaged goods. No one would ever want to marry her. Every man wants to be the first one. No man likes sloppy seconds. Who wants to be where someone else has been? I have heard Mom’s list before but never thought it would apply to me too. If being a married woman is to live like Mom, I don’t want to be married. Ever. I don’t want an absent husband who leaves me pregnant every time he comes to visit. I don’t want to be poor, and more than anything, I don’t want to be uneducated. I don’t want to spend my life in the kitchen, mopping floors and scrubbing clothes. I don’t want my youth to pass me by wishing for the love of a man who had no qualms about leaving a wife and six kids to fend for themselves. I don’t want Mom’s stationary life; I want to go far away, to lands she doesn’t even know exist. I want mountains other than the Andes, rivers other than the Magdalena, sunsets over distant places that don’t resemble Mariquita. I don’t want Mom’s short grey hair; I want mine black and wild, Medusa’s snakes coiled about my nape. I don’t want Mom’s rosewood nail polish; I want my fingernails pitch black and bleeding red. I don’t want her floral tea-length dresses, her wool cardigans, her lame sense of humor, her old woman’s shoes—has Mom always been old? I hereby reject her idea that a woman is not whole until she gets married and has children. I refuse to have a man. No, wait, I have a better idea; I’ll have many men, many. I’ll fling myself into their arms, their beds, their lips but surrender to none. I look at the stupid image of Hymenaios. Really, Mom, seriously? And I begin to cry hard. I mean, hard like it’s freaking pouring down in the Amazon. Biblical type of rain, apocalyptic rain. When Mom calls my name, I am a mess of tears, snot, and dribble. Supper is ready.
I don’t know if Mom told my sisters that she had taken her thirteen-year-old daughter to have a virginity test. No one said anything to me, and I told no one about it. I will always recall that minute of silence on the exam table as the day I lost my innocence. I lost my innocence to you, Mom, while still a virgin. I didn’t need to have a man inside me or my hymen ruptured to realize that everything I held dear to my heart, everything that had meaning and power, my dreams, my ambitions, and all the little miracles life held in store for me, would be taken away if my hymen was not intact. I lost my innocence the day Mom told me without words that the thing between my legs was the whole of me. I was nothing without it. Things like good grades, education, a head screwed on straight, compassion, ethos, and aspirations were all cute things to have but held no water in the face of a broken hymen.
The memory of that minute in the doctor’s office faded with age. I lost my virginity to my daughter’s father, divorced, and married again. I left family and country, traveled the world, lived and worked on different continents. I earned a Ph.D. in something, fell in love, then out of love, loved again, reached middle age, and never ever thought about it until I wrote my first book. In it, I wrote about the incident candidly, humorously, not as an indictment of Mom’s behavior, but as matter-of-factly as I could afford while mourning her death. Then, the sister closest to me in age contacted me. She had the book translated into Spanish and wanted to say how terribly sorry she had always felt about the kidnapping. It must have been so terrifying. You were so young, she said. I bit into my knuckles. Had the confession of my lie been lost in translation? Did she skip that page? Had she clung to the fantasy of the kidnapping so intensely for so many years that she could no longer see the truth even when spelled out on the page? I didn’t know what to say. We locked gazes, her eyes filled with compassion, mine with embarrassment, renewed humiliation, and confusion. After over thirty years, the memory of that minute in the doctor’s office hit me full force. I felt naked, spread eagle, scrutinized, again a thirteen-year-old unsure of herself. I had come out clean on the page, but my sister had missed the confession, the apology, the regret. She didn’t mention the virginity test, nor did she consider Mom’s transgression. The kidnapping, those horrible men in the car, such a farfetched lie, I couldn’t comprehend why she had believed it all these years. I said that was a long time ago and left it at that.
I grew up hearing the language of virginity, one that reinforces the myth that a woman’s body is the most valuable thing she can give to a man and that it’s a one-time thing: She lost her virginity- Perdió su virginidad; she gave it up to him-se lo dió a él; she was deflowered-él la desvirgó. Mom’s favorite phrase when an unwed woman lost her virginity had a profound connotation of damage: El la perjudicó—he damaged her. In times of need—which seemed to be every day of the month—Mom used to invoke her army of celestial superheroes: Jesus, Joseph, Mary, souls in purgatory, a cluster of saints—San Gregorio, an uncanonized Venezuelan doctor, being her favorite— and the eleven thousand virgins. Eleven thousand. I chuckle now as I write this because the eleven thousand virgins are a myth, or rather, a mistake made in translation in the late 9th century.
In medieval times, circa 383 AD, a pagan Hun leader invading Cologne shot with an arrow an eleven-year-old British princess named Ursula (Undecimillia in Latin) who refused to “give it up to him.” Since she was a virgin who allegedly chose death over losing her chastity or renouncing her faith, her death was registered as a martyred virgin. A few centuries later, a monk, most likely a scribe, misread or misinterpreted her Latin name as a number. Where it originally read Undecimillia M.V—martyred virgin, he re-wrote as undecimila M.V—eleven thousand martyred virgins.
In the Old Testament, it’s written that a new bride should be stoned to death outside of her father’s house if her husband claims she was not a virgin on their wedding night and if “no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found.” In the Roman Catholic Church, Virgins have been consecrated as brides of Christ. While this consecration has been bestowed for centuries only for nuns living in cloistered monasteries, the bestowal for women living in the world was reintroduced under Pope Paul VI in 1970. Estimates derived from the diocesan records oscillate around 5,000 consecrated virgins worldwide as of 2018. Five thousand.
The Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) have condemned virginity testing worldwide. The testing is seen as humiliating and encroaching on young women’s private lives. The World Health Organization defines virginity testing as an examining female genitalia used to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse. The same organization declares that virginity testing has no scientific merit or clinical indication as the presence of a hymen is not a reliable indication of intercourse, and no known exam can prove a history of vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, the practice violates the victim’s human rights and is associated with both immediate and long-term consequences detrimental to her physical, psychological, and social well-being. The harmful practice of virginity testing is a social, cultural and political issue. Its elimination will require a comprehensive societal response supported by the public health community and health professionals.
In the 90s in South Africa, the testing was viewed as an effort to handle the AIDS epidemic, albeit by exerting greater control over women and their sexuality. However, in June 2005, the South African Parliament banned virginity testing for girls under 16 in the Children’s Act 2005.
India’s Kanjarbhat Community has conducted and continues to perform virginity tests on brides for hundreds of years. Newlywed couples are expected to consummate their marriage on a white cloth; if the bride bleeds, she passes the virginity test. If she doesn’t, it is assumed that she has had premarital sex, and the marriage is annulled. The Kanjarbhat caste council (all men) oversees the test.
Premarital sex is considered a moral crime only for women. In Afghanistan, women are jailed for failing a virginity test. Hundreds of women are in jail after having failed their virginity tests.
NPR reported in 2018 that virginity testing was a global issue. Virginity tests have been documented in at least 20 countries worldwide, including Egypt, Indonesia, and South Africa. And according to the U.N., increased globalization in the past century has resulted in requests for and cases of virginity testing in countries that had no previous history of the practice, for example, Belgium, the Netherland,s and the U.K.
Government-run health clinics in the Philippines perform virginity tests, among other reasons, for financial reasons. Women willing to auction off their hymen at bars and strip clubs frequented by Americans who pay more for sex with virgins can acquire a V card or certificate of virginity at these clinics.
In the United States, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report, between 23 and 27 women are murdered in honor killings each year. In other words, more than two women are killed every month by family members who consider her sexual activity immoral or unacceptable. The numbers could very well be higher. Honor violence against women, a concept so tightly held within families, so private, so cultural, so tribal, so impossible to quantify.
I wonder what would have happened had my hymen been broken the day Mom took me to have the virginity test. There would have been tears and rage and guilt. She would have pelted me in the kitchen with questions about the perpetrators, the men who damaged me, los hombres que me perjudicaron. She would have nailed me vertical and trembling against the kitchen wall and I would have crumbled. I would have told her there was no kidnapping and no men had taken me anywhere. I was riding my bike and lost track of time because I was in love with Diego. And no one, absolutely no one, would have convinced her that sometimes hymens break, that sometimes girls are born hymenless, or with a perforated one. That I couldn’t account for the state of mine, hadn’t even given it any consideration until that day, and come to think of it, didn’t realize I had one. It shaves something off a girl to be that vulnerable, her body subject to non-consensual inspection. It shaves something off a girl to realize that her body is a vessel for somebody else’s ordinary fears—about getting old, being left by her daughters, ceasing to exist. It shaves something off a girl to understand that there are unsurmountable limits to what she can do but no limits at all to what can be done to her.
In honor cultures, women suspected of immoral behavior get killed by a relative, usually a male, as a way to save the family’s face. Women are expected to conform to their elders’ wishes, who are presumed to act for the greater good of the family. But Colombia is not nor has ever been an honor culture. Not officially anyway. What would Mom have done? Surgical hymen repair was not an option in the 70s, and she would not have forced me into marriage. I have an inkling, though. I think she would have gone silent, denied me eye contact, and sent me into exile right there inside our little apartment. Her silences only broken by dramatic sighs within earshot just to remind me of the unbearable pain I inflicted upon her by not being a virgin. And I would have cried my eyes out, gone on my knees and sworn in the name of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Saint Gregory, the alms of purgatory, and the eleven thousand virgins that no one had ever touched me. And she would have looked away and said nothing.
That night, thirty-two years ago, Mom and I sat in front of our black and white TV. We didn’t talk about the incident in the doctor’s office. She offered no apology, no explanation. She didn’t cook my favorite food, bake cookies, or make me a milkshake; she was not that type of mom. She was the unapologetic type. The kind that pushes forth even if wreaking pain and havoc on its path. She was a hardy woman, a manly woman, a no-nonsense kind of mother, a get-up-dust-yourself-off and move on, por el amor de Dios. Neither of us spoke and her silence told me she expected me to be a hardy woman like her. To stop crying and move on, for God’s sake. I wanted to tell her that right up to this morning I had felt as though I was moving towards something momentous, womanhood, but she had reversed the process, she had undone me, stunted my growth, and placed a hurdle on the road I didn’t know how to circumvent.
Mom, as fate would have it, the memory of that day, of that minute, evaporated with time. It didn’t haunt me. It didn’t revisit me in the form of night terrors. It didn’t create a chasm between me and the boys of my youth or, later, the men I loved. I dredged agency from the Marianas trench of the mighty fortitude I inherited from you, learned to own my body and shared it with whom and when I pleased. I welcomed my lovers’ bodies with eagerness, with lust, with hungry curiosity. I learned to take and to give in equal measures, and no one, no one, ever placed his fingers near my oval without my invitation. Mom, the memory of that minute of silence didn’t rob me of my ability to enjoy my sexuality. It didn’t make me promiscuous or frigid. I don’t choke thinking, talking, or writing about it. The thirty-two years that followed that minute have been filled with blessings and hiccups, but mostly blessings. I have no triggers, no signs of trauma. Ultimately, I did what you would have liked me to do: I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, shut my mouth, and moved on, por el amor de Dios.