I used to take condoms in handfuls from the jar in the community college student center. There were Durex and Lifestyles and Trojans and brands I’d never heard of. I didn’t actually know when I would ever actually need them, but I felt that being 19 and living on my own for the first time, I should have a little box with condoms in them by my bed.
When I got into a real relationship — one where every sexual encounter wasn’t a thrilling, terrifying, brand-new thing that required the ceremonious opening of a condom wrapper — I decided it was time to put myself on birth control. For some reason, I always used the phrase “put on” when I talked about contraception, as though I were some kind of livestock that was being dosed with the antibiotics that keep you from getting sick in your cage. My friends used to jokingly refer to them as their “whore pills,” and even though we laughed, I think there was a part of us that always felt a little dirty for taking them.
At the time, I had insurance, though I assumed that it was the kind of thing (a flash of my friend pulling out her little pink whore pill crossed my mind) that my plan wouldn’t cover. I knew nothing about my health, really, and I only went to the doctor and dentist when my parents’ nagging turned into threats. I knew that I needed to see a gynecologist, and it seemed that that would be where the pills came from but, as with most things medical, I didn’t really know. When I asked a friend over lunch in the dining hall where I should go to get checked out, she told me she went to Planned Parenthood. It seemed like the right place to go.
I remember my hands shaking against the steering wheel when I drove past the little cluster of pro-life activists who stood, relentlessly, at the end of the parking lot. From my understanding, they weren’t allowed to move closer to the building itself (a victory that was in no way small for the employees who had to go in every single day), but they made the most of the space they had. I remembered wanting to yell that I was just there for birth control and a checkup, but I immediately thought that they probably wouldn’t have believed me. They looked at me, and at every other woman coming in, as though we were doing this to spite them.
I wondered how many women turned back around, even if they really needed to see a doctor.
The waiting room had three TVs, all playing different shows, one in Spanish. They were all turned on just low enough that you could hear them if you were right underneath the monitor, and there were a couple people huddled around each to pass the time. One of them played a children’s show, and there were at least 10 toddlers sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up at the screen in total silence. The presence of children surprised me, as I had always assumed that Planned Parenthood was a transitional place for teenagers like myself who needed to do embarrassing things that they didn’t want their parents to know about.
There were women my mother’s age, reading celebrity magazines and waiting for their names to be called. One of them offered me the People she had just finished, but I had paperwork to fill out.
The women behind the (bulletproof glass-enclosed) counter were tired, and you could feel it radiating off of them. Their choice to come work in a place like this was undoubtedly made with the knowledge that it would cost them in comfort. They would be screamed at in the parking lot. They would deal with sobbing 15-year-olds and their severe mothers. They would try to gesticulate their way through a prescription to women who know only three words of English. They would go home at the end of the day for a few hours of sleep before doing it all again tomorrow.
But they also made you feel alright. Their weary look of understanding was one that, despite not having the time to reassure you individually, let you know that things were going to be okay. That had seen everything before, and everyone had gotten out just fine. There was a feminine energy that I imagine must have existed even in the hunter-gatherer days, a cluster of women helping one another and doing it without the expectation of praise. I felt, in their care, like I could finally ask all of the questions I never had about the way my body worked. If they had time, I’m sure they would have answered them all.
There were some women around me who tapped their foot against their chair a hundred times a minute, waiting for their appointment with what looked like abject fear. I wondered what news they could be expecting, whether they were there for a pregnancy checkup or an abortion or a pap smear or a new prescription or a breast exam. I wondered if they were nervous because they could not afford to go anywhere else. I wondered if they were mostly just thinking that they wished someone would shut off those three televisions.
They called my name, and one hour later, I walked out with my prescription. I can’t remember exactly how much it all cost, but given that I could afford it at that time in my life, it couldn’t have been much.
I would go back a few times over the next two years, always looking forward to the same feeling of accessibility, comfort, and non-judgment. It was one of the only places that being a woman didn’t feel like something I had to explain or qualify, where I could be perfectly understood and helped in any way that I needed. One time, a year or so later, I saw a doctor give a very poor woman enough “samples” of a medication she needed to last her for what must have been a year. The woman was outside in the parking lot a few minutes later, crying and smoking a cigarette. It was probably the first time she’d seen a doctor who looked at her like she was worth the treatment she couldn’t afford.
When I eventually moved to a socialist country, I found that the reproductive health in private practices was just as affordable as at Planned Parenthood, if not more so. The whole world of accessibility seemed to no longer be a question — there were no hurdles to jump if you wanted to be healthy, it was just a fundamental part of life. It dawned on me, with both awe and envy, that what we regard in America as an anomaly — a place where women of all incomes and ages can go and get treatment quickly and at little cost — is not strange at all. I used to wonder why, despite its fluorescent lights and linoleum floors, I always felt so warm in the Planned Parenthood waiting room. But now I feel lucky enough to know that it’s because, in that room, every last patient gets to finally be taken care of.