Sometimes—it happens—you might lose a tampon in your vagina and not even know it until the evidence beseeches you. No one wants to talk about it. If you’re borderline transgender like I am, you’d much rather talk about the devotional pilgrims paying tribute to the Virgin by traveling to the Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe, which was built at the Virgin’s request when she appeared, in 1531, to an Aztec man named Juan Diego. It’s December 12, 2018, and I’m in an Uber on my way to the Mexico City airport, from which I will fly to Oaxaca. “Something is wrong,” I say out loud to my companion, as we stare out the window at the faithful walking along the roadside, part of a crowd of several million who are traveling on this day by foot, bicycle, or bus to honor the possibility of a miracle. Meanwhile, a pallid dampness has taken occupation on my face, and what was once a dull ache in my abdomen has morphed into a wooden spooning, a digging down into a lower left place the size of a quarter. My attention draws inward, to the micro-actions of my body. Some pilgrims, the Uber driver tells us, have been walking for a month. They do it, he says, out of love, and gratitude, and faith. I notice one man wearing plastic sandals so deteriorated that it appears as if the straps might rip off with each step. I notice a woman in gray sweatpants and Adidas sneakers with a giant framed portrait of the Virgin hanging from her neck and draped awkwardly down her back. She has decorated the frame with red, green, and silver garlands and cut-out stars. Underneath the Virgin’s gowned feet, she’s written “Protégenos,” or “Protect Us.”
Our interior lives are so invisible to others. How inaccessible the most profound feeling or experience can be to the person sitting right next to you. I cannot enter the shells of the pilgrims. Their skins alert with the dignity of devotion, they lean toward the cathedral in these last few miles. Meanwhile, the tampon is my little secret. I feel its fugitive presence. It’s there, it’s there. I know it is. Is one unprotected when one lacks faith?
I marvel at how ordinary the faithful appear in the midst of their mythic journeying. I can’t stop thinking about them, even after I retreat in a panic to the airport bathroom stall. You might be asking: “How can you have an object inside of your vagina and not know it?” The truth is, the vagina is at once a finely sensitive organ alert to invitation and invasion, pleasure and repulsion, and an insensate cavity stuffed with oblong cotton wads for hours or days.
On my phone, I seek the advice of an article titled “Menstrual Mishap,” which informs me that panic will make everything worse. It assures me that the tampon will not stray up into my intestines. It instructs me to locate my “pelvic floor” and “bear down” over the toilet. As I read these instructions I can’t not panic. I am panicking. I am sweating. I want to cry. Blood is pouring over my hand and up my wrist. I’m convinced everyone in the airport bathroom knows what I’m up to. I’ve always hated sticking my fingers into my vagina but I must do it now, under this fluorescent lighting and with the sounds of other women inches from my struggle. I must do it with calm concentration, as if I were alone in my own home with the shades drawn.
I must tell you the rest of the story. There emerges a pungency so profound it’s destabilizing. I become lightheaded. But I cannot lose focus. In order to keep steadfast, I leave my body. The I is floating in some other space and the body is breathing and heaving quietly like one of those women who has a secret baby and flushes it down the toilet. It is a kind of prayer: Release me. I understand something then, in the aftermath, once the object is removed and the me returns to the body. I understand how one might do an extraordinary, unfathomable thing, a thing that is both public and private, an extra-logical thing that allows you to feel as if the universe had created a cradle, however momentary, and there you are, caught in the gentle hold of it.