I found the lump in the shower.
It clung to the inside of my crotch like a flesh burrowing scarab from Brendan Frasier’s The Mummy. Frozen in the low pressure stream of Iowa’s nitrate rich groundwater, I gingerly pinched the robin’s egg sized knot between my fingers. Tributaries of searing pain forked through my groin.
Cancer then. I had turned thirty a couple days earlier so why not? One time I ate some magic mushrooms and glimpsed a blues singer in a vast red room, dancing slowly behind a churning curtain of hieroglyphic ice. The encounter imparted upon me a quiet moment of clarity: I was no longer afraid of death.
Psychotropics are, in my limited experience, good for those sorts of moments. As I limped around the yard after my discovery in the shower, I wondered what sorts of moments cancer drugs might be good for. I meditated on all the frozen pizzas I’d ever eaten, all the aspartame laced chewing gum my pre-adolescent self had ever swallowed. I thought about the inconvenience of dying and the awkwardness of a life without genitals. Maybe Pfizer could use the sanded off space to advertise for anti-depressants.
Baphomet knows I could use the money. I was, for the second time in three years, unemployed. My perfectly good health insurance lay abandoned in the Black Hills of South Dakota, along with the charred wreckage of a not so perfectly good eight year career in journalism. My boilerplate identity crisis was just one in a string of personal asterisks to the first long summer of our collective American nightmare.
A week after my grandfather passed away in late July, I quit my dead end newspaper job and scooched 700 miles east to be with my girlfriend in Iowa City, where we’d both graduated from college a few years earlier, and where she was now enrolled in the public health graduate program. The universe in all its terrifying glory was yawning in my face, daring me to do something interesting.
So I turned thirty and got cancer.
“Don’t be alarmed,” I said to Sarah one day in the kitchen, “but I think I have crotch cancer.”
“Marry me,” my partner of eleven years deadpanned, then on her way out the door, “Go to Planned Parenthood.”
Sarah is a sexual assault victims advocate, the kind of militant but affable feminist who punctuates her “good mornings” with dual middle fingers. She also used to work at Planned Parenthood, all of which is to say that I’m educated on the subject.
Still, I’m a cis-gender white guy of comfortable upbringing. As “woke” as I like to think I am, deep down I believed that Planned Parenthood wasn’t for me. It was for other people, mostly pregnant teenage girls and college kids who think gravity is a legit form of contraception. But Sarah told me to go, and I was fresh out of ideas.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about the hidden city of Gondolin, a secret oasis of light and hope in a world of doom and darkness, hell bent on its destruction. I didn’t know it yet, but that’s what Planned Parenthood is. Gondolin, but with Republicans instead of Orcs.
From the road there are no visible signs to mark Iowa City’s Planned Parenthood. A nondescript concrete building, its entrance is concealed from picketers and any would-be-fire-bombers behind a tall row of hedges.
In the lobby, gritting my teeth against the waves of pain emanating from between my legs, I steeled myself for the brand of economic agony unique to the US healthcare system.
It never came. Soul crushing debt wasn’t in the cards. My jobless ass would receive a 100 percent discount today, the grandmotherly woman behind the desk informed me. At Planned Parenthood, zero income means zero dollars charged.
The sheer madness of this premise didn’t sink in until later. In my mind, a 100 percent discount at Planned Parenthood wouldn’t get me far anyway. I expected only a cheap exam to identify the type and magnitude of cancer gnawing at my loins, then a curt referral to the far pricier university hospital shimmering on the hilltop, where I surely would be relieved of every penny to my name.
That’s not how it happened.
“It’s not cancer,” my doctor said in an apologetic tone. “It’s an infected abscess. And we have to drain it. Now.”
This is the part of the movie where we cut to the parking lot. Our stony faced hero hobbles to his car, his cancerless nethers feeling nonetheless looped through a fisherman’s hook and flailed all over the lake, to lure what weird quarry he cannot fathom as he twists the key in the ignition and sets his instruments couchward.
I returned to Planned Parenthood a few days later to be skewered a second time. It was a fun week. The exam, two procedures and a bottle of antibiotics; none of it cost me a dime. If I hadn’t come in when I did, the doctor told me, it would have required a costly surgery.
The lobby was packed during my second visit. Young, old, male, female, black, white, affluent looking and not so much. Some had children with them or a group of supportive friends. Others were alone. How many were here for a potentially life saving abortion procedure, to pick up affordable birth control pills, or receive treatment for a sexually transmitted disease?
And how many were just like me? Economically poor, scared and confused by their own bodies, never expecting they would end up here, yet feeling like they had nowhere else to go?
Empathy should not require such visitations.
I don’t know what caused it. I run a clean shop downstairs. But hey, apparently these things happen.
“Sometimes for no reason at all,” doc said with a glinting flourish of her scalpel hand. For her this was just another Tuesday morning.
There are people in this country who want to take this away, to see the hidden walls of Gondolin fall. As I signed out at the front desk, I thought about what a thirty year old unemployed writer could do about that.
Not much, I figured. Let’s be real. So I scraped my checking account for a meager $100 donation and staggered out the door.