Lament in the Shadows

          You’ve finally turned eighteen. What a monumental age to be; something of importance to brag about to your younger siblings when they complain about how many more privileges you get. Your friends pick you up and compliment how you’ve done your hair, pulled it up into a high ponytail with a fringe neatly framed against your forehead and the horse tail bouncing in a single pristine curl. Your best friend’s boyfriend drives a baby blue Ford F-1 and he honks the horn at seven minutes after six, and your father waves you out of the door from behind his newspaper while your mother sweats into the dinner roast. You should be grateful you get to go out that night.

          You listen to Elivs Presley while sitting in the backseat and begin to bob your head once your friend’s boyfriend comments about obnoxious girls who talk too loud. Your friend wants to hold her boyfriend’s hand while he drives, but he says that physical touch gives him goosebumps and a boner. You decide to go to the local diner because it has the best milkshakes in town but not the one that the street-rats with slicked back hair and tattered jeans attend. You think about ordering vanilla but decide water is the better option after catching the letterman-wearing, crew-cut guy eyeing you from the bar. Your friend’s boyfriend abandons you both to go and smoke a cigarette, lean against the frame of his truck, and speak with his eyes at the fresh-from-the-box-doll girls who enter the diner. You accept Crew Cut’s invitation to the feature presentation of Casablanca at the drive-in and let his tongue crawl around your throat. You should be grateful he likes you so much.

          Your father likes when Crew Cut comes to the door to pick you up for a date, and he likes to joke about how you’ll make a perfect wife. You catch Crew Cut at the drive-in with his tongue in a mouth that isn’t yours: only part of you feels sick. Your mother preens for you to accept the forever-apology in the little velvet box and your father scoffs through a puff of cigar smoke and implies your hips are already becoming too wide. You have to think about the Soviets and their mischievous tactics and their lust for a red world, don’t you know. You should be grateful you’re getting married at the perfect moment.

          You smile through horse teeth while a priest commends your ability to stay true to your faith, and finally grants you permission to perform the most ‘sacred’ bond between man and woman. You pretend like Crew Cut didn’t already insist that the back of his truck was better than a set of clean sheets. You pull your tear ducts from underneath your eyes after squeezing out the third child without anesthesia because it’s not natural to give babies drugs. You don’t have terrible stretch marks because you exercised religiously and graced your figure with an apple a day. You find yourself sweating into the same meatloaf recipe that your mother made while your kids run screaming through the house. You go to bed without Crew Cut, who’s out at the diner leaning against the door of his station wagon and speaking with his eyes to the girls entering. You should be grateful he’s not taking it out on you.

          You’ll never have to worry about money for the rest of your life, not many people receive that opportunity. You have a husband and children, what more could you ask for. You only have to keep the house spotless, steaming meals on the table, and a happy husband, that’s not too hard. 

          You’re a woman. Be grateful. 


          I knew I’d eventually have to go to the female doctor because it’s an important part of keeping my body healthy and from throwing a coup, but evidently the future is always imminent. I assumed that “eventually” meant that I would still have six months after turning twenty-one to go ask my older friends about the sensation of poking one’s cervix and dive into obscure blog posts of gynecologist conspiracy theories. Four months before I was even ready to start preparing, I found my hands shaking and sweat stains ruining the protective sanitation sheet of a gynecologist office. The woman who entered the back rooms before me was pregnant and the woman who exited shortly after was learning about prescribed contraceptives. I was definitely ten years younger than either of them.

          The doctor, her name was the same as a Disney princess, put up pictures from my ultrasound on the screen for us to look at, but it was no more useful than the printed sheet of data inscribed in my brain. I remember the sensation of fire lighting in my cheeks at having to admit to the emergency room technician that I was a desperate, twenty-year-old virgin. The doctor was pleasant and calm when speaking with me. She didn’t bother to sugar-coat that it might be ovarian cancer. She ignored the shine in my eyes and the crinkle of the paper sheet as I shifted. 

          “So this is quite a big mass on your left ovary. Right here, see it?” I might be a little daft, but not blind. “Your ovaries themselves are … interesting. You seem to have a rather thick lining and your ovaries are rather large.”

          “Is that a bad thing?” I didn’t even want her answer. 

          She did look me in the eyes, but I almost wished she found the image more entertaining. “No, not really. If there was a history of other problems, I’d be more concerned. Let’s talk about this cyst first.”

          If you’re ever curious about ovarian cysts and the way they may or may not lead to ovarian cancer, I personally recommend either pulling an Alice and spiraling down the Google rabbit hole, or going to your local gynecologist and listening to them dance around the size and nature of your cyst. Apparently, they can’t tell right away whether or not the cyst is cancerous unless they invasively remove it. She provided the precautionary idea of transitioning on to a form of birth control as a means of regulating. She showed me a colorful graphic with over ten different types of birth control and circled her highest recommendation. The sheet trembled in my fingers and made an audible wobbling sound.

          The other option is to wait for three to four months, and then if said cyst has persisted, they’ll remove it and determine it is malignant. The percentage of women who develop ovarian cancer at age 20 or younger is only 1.4%, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I wonder if they would let you keep the mass afterward.


          Dropping my entertaining fantasy books to pick up an LSAT practice textbook, swapping my often colorful vernacular for stilted and carefully chosen passive-aggressive phrases, was never an idea that crossed my mind. I struggled to pay attention in AP U.S Government in high-school. Between the guy who sat next to me, who one time came to class like a kite in the sky and fell asleep with his head straight up, and the fact that the processes of government are so anal only someone equally as annoyingly anal could understand them, there was nothing in politics, government, or law that interested me. I was told by someone recently that I should pursue being a lawyer after I answered a handful of practice LSAT questions correctly without context or prework, but I ignored his praise. It wouldn’t exactly be professional for a prosecutor to burst into tears after the defendant raised their voice.

          If I hadn’t surrounded myself with a variety of people with different paths in life then I likely wouldn’t have learned about Ruth except for when she died. And if that were the case, then I probably would have read the newspaper or Twitter headline “First female Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dead at 87”, felt sad for the loss, and then moved on. 

          I was trying to ‘find myself’ during my first semester of college when Ruth died. We were hardly allowed to interact with other people and the entire experience was hiking fifty miles at an elevation with a tiny pebble beneath your foot. My neighbors in the dorm were a welcome solace and we would hog the couches in the common space, separated at an awkward distance and concealed behind sheets of blue, paper masks. One of the neighbors and I were closer than the others, and frequently took the long journey to each other’s door. Bonding efforts were sending a continuous stream of TikTok videos and pictures that made our giggles travel through our shared wall.

          A hard rap of knuckles against wood echoed in my cell (there was no need to text and ask where someone was; they were either in their room or quickly on the way back to their room). We greeted each other with our eyes.

          “Ruth Bader Ginsberg just died!”

          She held her phone out and I leaned forward, eliminating the gap down to roughly two feet. (Whoops!)

          “Who’s that?”

          Apparently, Ruth was a real life inspiration to my neighbor. Who needs Google when you have companions who are obsessed with just the right amount of obscure things that you don’t know. 

          “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This is such a loss for everybody, especially women!”

          “It’s really cool that she was the first female Supreme Court Justice. I can’t believe she was just the first.”

          “She literally made history. I need to go buy a sticker.”

          My neighbor retreated to her fortress and the front gate slammed into its seven-foot frame. I could hear her reiterating the sentiments of disappointment and distanced sorrow to her roommate. While she was inside, I wrote “R.I.P RBG” on the little whiteboard stuck to the wood. Right next to it was “R.I.P Barry”, the name of their pet fish.

          When I joined a sorority the spring semester my sophomore year, we had a new president and a new female Supreme Court Justice to fill Ruth’s place. This would be the fifth woman to ever join the Supreme Court. Perhaps it sounds like the demands of a child whose face has puffed from all the cookies stuffed in the wet cavern of their mouth and yet through spittle and flying chunks of crisp baked goods asks for another, but Ruth should still be alive. She should be sitting in the Supreme Court with her wire glasses and eagle eyes, staring at the men and women who would dare infringe upon our rights. I want to get in the back of my neighbor’s truck, stomp on the bed, and scream until my lungs pop and my throat bleeds. Everyone should look at me and scold my parents for raising a brat, but I’ll just burst my eardrums. Ruth should be at the forefront of every news magazine who forgot her name two months after her death and she should be plastering messages written in lipstick on the windows of the ones who turned their backs on her legacy. I want them to put me on a pyre with blood dripping down my legs and light the fire of their audacious claims: I want my last words to be, “Screw you”.


          In my camera roll, there are tons of pictures of me. Most of them are taken at the angles that best frame my face and consist of a specific pose that has historically worked well for me. There are ones deep within the collection where I fold my lips strangely and stick my teeth out oddly like a beaver. There are others of me caught at extremely unphotogenic moments that my friends have insisted I keep for their humorous value. And then there’s the one from January that sticks out in the sea of me. 

          The time stamp says 7:32 in the morning. I had just gotten off the phone with my father and decided to snap the photo instead of calling back. 

          My eyes stare empty into the small lens of my phone. An unfocused sheen glosses over my irises. There’s a sudden sickly yellow-green color in my skin. The almost neon green of my sleep-shirt clashes. My cheeks are puffed with the air holding back vomit. I remember tasting dinner from the night before instead of toothpaste. Lilac colors my lips. My endearing friends sweat and grease hold my hair back and away from my forehead. 

          Words are not enough to describe the anguish my body was inflicting upon me. I wish that I could temporarily share my consciousness with any who ask and watch them cower the same way that I did. Because it won’t be enough for me to describe how it felt. 

          Someone had shoved a hot poker through my pelvis with the grace of an eighth grader dissecting a pig on the black Biology tables. The poker dug around in the soft tissue of my lower belly the same way that student stabbed into the squishy pig fat. The tip of the tool pressed threateningly against my uterus the same way the student teasingly squeezed the snout of the animal. 

          I felt torn between wanting to use the toilet bowl as a vessel for my bile or as a resting place for my wilting head. I didn’t even have the energy to rip off a piece of paper and wipe the snot contorting my features. A puddle of tears wet the underside of my arms and dripped into the basin. 

          When my mother came bursting into the bathroom with my dad on the phone, I refused to let her into my four by six cage of shame. She persisted until I cracked the door and tried not to pass out at the fluorescent lights and the wavering of her figure. The combination fixture in the ceiling has been busted for years and the inner fan whirs like the wind-up of an engine. I remember her shutting the gate and mentioning something about urgent care. My dad kept asking if I needed something from him, but I kept saying that I just wanted to go to bed. 

          We skipped the middle man and my dad took me directly to the emergency room. I had managed to get sweatpants on before the car ride but the knee-length hospital gown kept laughing at my unshaven legs. I wonder if Ruth was the kind of woman who supported the no shaving movement and protested the ridiculous prices of razors. The first nurse to come in was a pretty, five-foot-nine young woman who smiled nicely and asked if I wanted the bed to lean back a little more. I thought I could reconcile that their blue-purple scrubs made them invincible to all the grotesque injuries and bodily functions possible; and as a by-product, I too was invincible because I wasn’t actively crapping my pants or holding a severed finger. 

          And then in walked the probably twenty-three year old male nurse. I sat up straighter and pulled my arms across my stomach. I desperately longed for my hairbrush and a cup of dentist-grade mouthwash. He asked his coworker something, turned to me, and handed me a tiny pee-cup. 

          I had to wait until my bladder felt full from the IV jutting out of my left arm before I could use the bathroom. The female nurse removed the needle and pointed in the direction of the nearest restroom with a pleasant smile before squishing off in her scrub-covered shoes. The tiny cup was warm in my hand and I gripped it tighter against my body when passing the nurse’s desk with laboring steps. My ass was sticking out from the flap in the back of my gown but I couldn’t stop thinking about how I looked like Sasquatch.

          I pretended to shiver and rubbed my hands together when the female nurse came in with a bag of morphine so that she would also provide me with a blanket. Two grueling hours of hiding later and the emergency doctor entered the room with a thick stack of papers. He told me that the ultrasound revealed a cyst on my left ovary that had started leaking. He explained that no, it hadn’t ruptured and that it would have been much worse if it had. The morphine rubbed a gentle hand against my veins. One sheet in his stack contained the list of recommended physicians to follow-up with, and as he exited the room he mentioned taking Ibuprofen as needed.


          Perhaps I didn’t pay attention in class, just crammed the textbook down my throat, vomited out the information on the test, and then wiped my mouth of it all, but I didn’t know about Ruth. I’m going to call her Ruth because she is a girl’s girl and I believe that she and I would be good friends if she were still alive. Ruth was born in New York City, which for some reason makes sense, and went on to live a life worthy of modern-day legend-making. In her most notable pictures, Ruth commands the camera’s attention merely by gazing into the lens and telling the photographer that her mere presence demands respect. 

          I can sit here and regurgitate the Britannica information about Ruth for you. I can tell you about how she went to Cornell University to study law and then laid the groundwork for Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. I can tell you that she maneuvered from position to position within the field of law, from a mere research associate to the associate director, from Professor to judge and then to Justice of the Supreme Court. I can tell you she was the first person (not woman, person) to hold positions in both the Columbia and Harvard University law reviews. I can tell you that of the six cases argued during her time in the Supreme Court, Ruth won five. I can tell you that she was the first female Jewish Supreme Court Justice. I can tell you that there are almost seven thousand results for stickers when searching ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ on Redbubble. 

          But I think I should inform you of what I can’t tell. 

          I can’t tell you what kind of personal turmoil and perpetual imposter syndrome it would take for a woman in the 1970s to infiltrate a predominantly male field (at the time; as of right now there are about 38% female lawyers compared to only 3% when Ginsberg first started her regime). I can’t tell you whether or not Ruth was spared the cheek-inflaming and stomach wrenching of walking into a lecture hall and finding dozens of predatory eyes on a seemingly easy target. I can’t tell you whether she went back to an apartment or dorm room or teeny-tiny house to curl up in a ball with a vinyl recording blaring Can’t Help Falling in Love to smother sobbing. I can’t tell you whether the breaking news headlines after her appointment to the Supreme Court were plastered to her windows with threats in bold red letters. I can’t tell you whether she considered abandoning her position as future history maker to care for the two children she had shortly after marrying in her young adulthood. I can’t tell you whether she was able to start breathing easier after convincing nine of her coworkers that discrimination against women existed in 1971.

          It seems so easy to wrap her up as another statistic, to sit here and write out her accomplishments and say that she was an influential and badass woman. It’s become more normalized to support women in their accomplishments and to see a woman rising into places of influence for those young children sitting a couple feet too close to the television to view a role model in action. But I forget that Ruth was not rising to a historical debut in the same time period that I have seen Kamala Harris, Malala, Michelle Obama to name a few. And so pertinence applies to the fact that more about Ruth than just her statistics and her titles should be included in the review of her life. (Initially I wrote “so normal” in the second sentence, but I don’t think those are precisely the right words. Yes, it’s becoming more normal, but it’s not so normal because whether we like it or not, it’s still a struggle and a process within our mental consciousness to recognize that women deserve the same time of day as men.) 

          At first, I wanted to imagine Ruth as untouchable, as someone who didn’t suffer the from the nagging of that devilish version of ourselves, the one that hides in the corner of our minds and whispers into the darkness everything you privately believe to be true even if all reality points in contradiction. To have someone so powerful, so influential in history be free of the curses of insecurity and itching at the wrists to distract from the echoing would mean that it is possible that a semblance of light exists despite the darkness. But then I reconciled.

          I do want to believe that Ruth walked on the streets of New York at night and checked over her shoulder every five steps just to be sure the shadows didn’t move, and kept a set of keys interlocked in her fingers. I do want to believe that Ruth kept a journal by her bed and wrote in it under the dim light of a lamp while her husband slept two feet away. She did scribble down the little moments where someone commented inappropriately on her outfit during the day and ran her pen through the page with the expression of rage. I do want to believe that Ruth thought about what might happen when she had sex with her husband for the first time and whether she really wanted to buy a blue-line test. She thought about going down the stairs of her home in the middle of the night and pounding back ounces of alcohol or squishing down the layer of protective fat on her abdomen. 

          And despite all of these horrible things, all of these instances, I want Ruth to have experienced them because it gives me the satisfaction of knowing that in spite of it all, she persevered.


          June 24, 2022.

          Dear Diary,

          Roe v Wade has been overturned. We’ve lost. I’ve lost. 

          How can they do this to us? How can they do this to their mothers, to their grandmothers, to their aunts, to their sisters, to their friends, to their nieces, to their daughters? How can our lives and our safety and our health mean less than anyone else’s? 

          How can that woman do that to us? How can she get up in that room, in that place full of men, as a supposed representative of the collective voices of the people and still let this happen? How can she do this to us?

          I hate them. I hate them all and I don’t care. How dare they? How dare they? 

          I don’t even own the one thing that is always going to be mine. Someone else has signed the papers and evicted me.

          I’m afraid. I’m scared to go out in public. I can’t wear my shorts the way I want and I should always wear a bra. I can’t walk alone without worrying about two shadows. I hope there isn’t too much cleavage in my outfits. I hope nobody takes a second look my way. I won’t be able to go on a date, my first date. I won’t be able to stop wondering about his intentions. 

          How can they do this?


          I stepped off a nine hour flight only two weeks after sweating through the doctor’s office sanitary sheet. For the next semester, I was going to be four thousand miles away from my gynecologist and tracking any remotely odd, painful sensations in my pelvis. I should have learned more of the local language to be able to communicate that I don’t want my organs donated if the situation arose. During my third month, I broke the social barrier of speaking on public transportation by bursting into tears and confessing the story to a new friend. She held my hand as I admitted that I was living in the current semester as though it was going to be my last.

          In between weekend vacations and mid-week field trips, I visited cafes and filled my search history with research and inquiries and statistics. Through foggy train windows, I looked out at a world that I was getting to finally taste but might never be able to savor. Four months of wondering and researching and trying not to imagine flying back into the United States where my life no longer belongs to me, but to quite possibly everyone else. 

          To my parents who would have to pay my hospital bills. To my gynecologist who would pretend not to see my glossy eyes. To a radiologist who would determine the regiment of treatment whether it be invasive surgery and removal, or a steady stream of chemotherapy. 

          To the leaders of the Illinois State government. To the public. To my neighbor who drives a GMC Truck and doesn’t wave to us. To the Supreme Court. To my classmate who brings along a copy of Jane Eyre every day. To the guy I’m talking to who has no idea I even have a problem. 

          To Ruth.

          By the luck of someone other than me, that cyst was benign. At times, I feel the eighth grader poking around my pelvis near the curvature of my hip bone on either side. My mother encouraged me to start keeping a tab on my notes app with odd or abnormal occurrences near the nether region. The last entry was May 2, eight days before I returned to that office with crinkled paper and the Disney princess.

          I wonder what exactly qualifies as considerable versus normal but seen through the eyes of a paranoid young woman. I wonder if my gynecologist has a list of notes in her phone or if she thinks about my thick ovary lining like I do. 


          You’ve turned eighteen. You get to go to college now. You pack up the last figments of your life and deny that the second you leave home you’ll adopt a completely new personality because you’re finally able to find yourself. You part from your hometown friends with the empty promise of continuous updates, late-night gossip sessions, and reunions during breaks. Your decisions will be permanent and your mistakes will follow you around the school with straps clinging to your shoulders. You should be grateful for your parents telling you about how to drink safely and what it means to be a bird in a world full of bees. 

          You find out that campus is where the breeding grounds are rich with desperate, recently single boys who will give you the time of day if you bat your eyes at them. You don’t have to worry about your mother commenting that your bra straps shouldn’t poke out so prominently beneath your top. You experiment with the idea of adopting a signature pixie cut or getting piercings in raunchy places. You run to your neighbor’s door or call your roommates in the middle of class to decide whether eyeliner is too much for the outfit. You seek out the guys whose gazes roam or the ones who drift through the crowd of sweaty bodies because they can’t choose. You should be grateful for the one who grabbed you by the neck and stuck his tongue down your throat and got your first kiss out of the way before you could refuse. 

          Your friends carry pepper spray on their keychains or black Swiss army knives in their pockets. You pretend not to hear the yowling of stray cats on the streets as you walk to work or return back to your home from class. You have acquaintances with hefty rocks on their fingers. You bare a tight grin when they talk about their patchy scruff faced partners and how the dishes will pile up in the sink until mold sprouts during girls’ weekend. You lock your lips and hush your hips to silence the screams of objection because happiness can still feed mold. You should be grateful it’s not you. 

          You watch corny television shows from ten years ago with housemates on crusty couches and twinkle lights glimmering from the ceiling. You envy the obviously falsified and too-perfect relationship between mother and daughter. You want to press speed dial and talk about the time you wandered into an elevator and let the walking red flag put his hand down your pants while his phone pinged with another girl’s number. You remember the empty gaze in your friends’ predatory eyes as you held back tears from the fresh feeling of a shadow’s wandering hands. You should be grateful it was in a crowded bar and not the hidden alley.

          You text a guy from a dating app and continuously question whether his claims of future plans and promises for moments together will ever physically manifest or if they’re just methods of getting another belt notch. You grin at your phone when his name shows up until you think about actually having to fly from your nest. Your male friends walk you home after late night talks and games of darts because even they don’t trust the light of the moon to illuminate your path. You buy a cute bra with pink wiring and little embroidered flowers, and then regret it because your debit card said “you’re asking for it”. You write a memoir essay as your ‘talking stage’ texts you and imagine getting blocked if you ever shared it with him. You type out the phrase “I’m afraid” fifty times and then delete it each time. You should be grateful you’re in the 21st century and not the 20th.

          You’re a woman. Be grateful.


by: Maura McCoy

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