Lust as Violent as a Hernia

Christine Sneed recommends “Let’s Play Doctor” by Cris Mazza


For the last three decades, PEN/Algren award winner Cris Mazza has been writing and publishing extraordinary stories that leave indelible and disquieting impressions on her readers. She has also produced some of the best titles to be found in the American literary landscape: Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? and Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls are two that come immediately to mind.

What Mazza pulls off in this simultaneously erotic and disturbing dream sequence is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on the page

Purchase the collection.

The fluidity and straightforwardness of Mazza’s prose style, along with the mild-mannered narrative voice she employs, often lulls readers into a submissive state before we’re tugged into deeper waters by the seductive undertow of her thematic preoccupations. Among her chosen topics are the psychosexual upheaval of adolescence and young adulthood, carnal appetites, and women as both subjects and objects in a society governed by heterosexual men and the aggressive male gaze. Reading her work in the wake of the scandals surrounding disgraced former Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein feels particularly poignant.

In “Let’s Play Doctor,” a story culled from Mazza’s new book, Charlatan: New and Selected Stories, edited by fellow fiction writer Gina Frangello (Frangello’s introduction and Rick Moody’s foreword are terrific), we meet Dee, a young woman married three years and wrestling with her desire for Dr. Shea, the surgeon who performs a hernia operation on her at the beginning of the story and later visits her in an anesthesia-induced hallucination.

What Mazza pulls off in this simultaneously erotic and disturbing dream sequence is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on the page: she commingles Dee’s physical desire for Dr. Shea with her fear of violation through both the controlled violence of surgery and adulterous sex. The final scene with Dr. Shea’s invasive but capable hands brought to mind some of the arresting imagery of David Cronenberg’s 1988 film Dead Ringers. But “Let’s Play Doctor” doesn’t feature death or dismemberment — Mazza is more concerned with plumbing the psychology of Dee’s awakening body and mind, her sense that the world is full of sexual opportunity, many of these opportunities doubtless risky, damaging to her marriage and her view of herself as a faithfully married woman. It’s an outstanding, unsettling, darkly comic story.

Christine Sneed
Author of The Virginity of Famous Men

Lust as Violent as a Hernia

“Let’s Play Doctor”

by Cris Mazza

The nurse shaves away her pubic hair.

“I wonder if Joey will like this.” Dee props herself up on her elbows and watches.

The nurse doesn’t use shaving cream or water, and yet it doesn’t hurt. “Looks like a baby,” Dee says, and laughs.

Then she has to stand on the floor and bend over across the examination table while the nurse shaves between her buttocks, holding the sides apart with two fingers. She must be a good nurse — not a single nick, scratch or drop of blood.

Let’s Play Doctor (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 284)

“I guess you’ll be lying on your side for a while,” the nurse says.

“Yes, a double-whammy!” Dee is seemingly unable to avoid saying anything without the breathless half-laugh. She’s just repeating what Dr. Shea said last week when he decided to remove the cyst near her tailbone after he repairs her hernia.

“You know, neither the hernia nor the cyst has ever bothered me, never any pain or anything. They seemed to bother Joey more than me. He was afraid he was going to hurt me or something.”

“You don’t look old enough to be married,” The razor makes a scratchy sound.

“Looks can be deceiving, you know,” Dee says. “We’ve been married three years.”

“Just about time for another honeymoon.”

The nurse stops shaving for a second as Dee giggles. “We never had a real honeymoon.”

“Never too late to start.”

“I’ll tell him,” Dee laughs again.

“Hold still, okay?” The nurse holds her buttocks farther apart, the razor moving intricately around Dee’s anus. “You realize you won’t be able to, or shouldn’t try to have intercourse for at least three weeks.”

“Oh, I know that. Joey knows too.”

She’d asked Dr. Shea last week in the final pre-surgery exam. He’d probed the hernia gently, then she rolled over and he touched the cyst, lying just under the surface, and he’d explained the procedure, then tapped her bottom and told her to get dressed.

“What about sex?” she’d said. Joey never told her to ask.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a few weeks, after the surgery. Tell Joey I’m sorry,” Dr. Shea is as thin as a young tree, and when he smiles he’s all smile.

“That’s okay,” Dee said. “He doesn’t care. I mean, it’s no big deal. He’s not worried about it. I mean, it’s not as though it’s going to change anything. Is it?”

“Won’t make a bit of difference,” Dr. Shea began lowering the examination table, with Dee still on it, lying on her side, wearing light blue underwear and a paper examination gown. She’d shaved her legs that morning, taken a shower and sprayed a little deodorant in her crotch. He kept his hand on her hip while he lowered the table. A nurse was in the room, holding Dee’s chart.

“It’s no big deal,” Dee repeated.

Another nurse comes in to put silly paper slippers on Dee’s feet and a blue paper poncho over her head. “We’re ready for you.” The three of them walk to the operating room and Dee climbs on the table.

“Dr. Shea’s still at the hospital, but the anesthesiologist is here,” says a third nurse, already masked. The three nurses turn their backs and begin to scrub. Dee can hear their voices under the running water. Whoever they’re talking about had to be reminded about something over and over and everyone’s beginning to wonder if she’ll ever get it right and how many chances is Dr. Shea going to give her before he — But maybe she’s providing him with other services. Him? Well, why’d he hire her then? Him? The three nurses laugh. Dee turns her head and smiles at the big man who comes in and introduces himself, but she can’t understand his name through his mask. He attaches some round things to her chest so everyone in the room can hear her heart beat. She keeps one eye on the door, but Dr. Shea doesn’t arrive before the other doctor has already attached an IV and shoots something into the tube so the drowsiness begins like an eclipse.

Then she can hear Dr. Shea’s high-pitched voice and the nurses mumbling. One of the nurses says, “What’s ten inches long and white? Have you heard this one already?”

“Nothing,” Dee says. She can’t see anything because the paper poncho is pulled up over her head.

“Is she awake?”

“Hi, Dee!” Dr. Shea says.

“So what’s the punch line?” a nurse asks.

“That’s it. What she said.”

“You knew that joke, Dee?” Dr. Shea says. “Okay release it,” he says, in a different voice.

“I remember another joke,” Dee says with a chuckle. “But it’s too nasty. You know what? I can’t feel you doing anything.”

“I’m almost done. Go ahead, tell your joke.”

“You sure? Okay. How do you make a hillbilly girl pregnant?”

“I don’t know. How?”

“Come on her shoes and let the flies do the rest.”

One nurse groans. Dr. Shea says, “What? I didn’t catch it.”

“Don’t make me repeat it, it’s awful, isn’t it? Come on her shoes and let the flies do the rest. You can change the hillbilly to anything — Italian, Mexican, whatever — but I use hillbilly cause I’m from Kentucky, so no one can say I’m making fun of anyone else ….” She closes her eyes. She can’t feel him touching her. Not like last week. He has very soft hands and long fingers, well-manicured and without heavy calluses. Of course he does, he’s a surgeon.

“Did Joey tell you those jokes?” Dr. Shea asks.

“Joey? No, I never tell him nasty jokes. I get `em from a book … in the library, that is, I go to the library every night while Joey’s at work.”

“I gotta get me that book,” a nurse says.

“Very hard to find. Not all libraries ….”

The bookstore is a block past the library, in between a cult movie theater and a health food store. A bakery and coffee shop inside the bookstore — where apparently people are allowed to sit at tables and read new magazines — seem to make the store warmer than most. It’s a fairly small bookstore, but has a whole wall of magazines, organized by sexual preference. Dee always walks past them, slowly, back and forth, but hasn’t yet ever taken one and sat at a table with a tempting croissant. Of course the joke book is on the humor shelf and she reads a few jokes every time — but not at one of the tables — and when the smell of the baked goods gets too overpowering, she leaves. The air outside seems to be shockingly cool — sometimes she gasps.

She wakes puking as they wheel her back to an empty examination room. A nurse walks beside her holding a little dish to catch the vomit. She can’t hear Dr. Shea and can’t move to look for him. The gurney is narrow and she’s on her side. They tell her not to roll one way or the other. She continues puking. Joey arrives to take her home, but she’s still puking and can’t leave, so he sits beside her all afternoon, holding her hand and reading Sports Illustrated while she pukes. There’s probably poetry in that somewhere.

Eventually she’s home. She heard Dr. Shea giving Joey some instructions. He said she could have a bath on Saturday. Joey drove carefully, but she puked once on the way home anyway. She sat on the edge of the bed, doubled over, then fell sideways, curled in a ball on her side, noticed the bouquet of carnations Joey had put on the night stand, then closed her eyes and the nausea began to fade. Dr. Shea had told Joey that if she didn’t calm down tonight, call his service and they would get in touch with him. She reaches blindly to the night stand to make sure the plastic vomit bowl is close at hand. Joey comes in to say he has to go to work. He sits on the side of the bed and strokes her head.

“Touch my places,” she says, “The scars.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Okay, it doesn’t matter.” She moves one hand, slowly, from where it was tucked between her thighs and pushes it under her pillow, beneath her head. “You won’t have to call the doctor tonight.”

He pulls the sheet over her shoulders. It’s an early summer evening. When he’s gone, she opens her eyes once more. The carnations are white and pink, but look gray in the twilight. She was a virgin when she met him.

It might be later, but not too much later. She seems to be watching herself as she gets out of bed, not appearing to need any help, apparently not weak or sore. She brushes her long hair, seeing herself — she might be in the bathroom looking in the mirror, but she can see the back of her head, the brush swishing through her hair which hangs to her butt. Her hair was blond when she was younger, even when she got her drivers license. It’s been light brown for several years but looks blond again now. She breaks off one of the carnations and puts it behind her ear. The flower is some bright, exotic color, but she can’t really tell what color it is. Her reflection seems to be coming from a wall of glass, like a picture window. She leans close, shading her eyes to help herself see through. Apparently she already left the house, locked up, walked briskly down the sidewalk, as she does every evening after Joey goes to work. If she passed the library, she didn’t recognize it, and the bookstore has changed too — she can’t see any books through the window. In fact, she can’t see through the window. It’s black, huge and opaque, and all she can see is herself trying to look through.

“Aren’t we going to go inside?”

The voice doesn’t startle her. It’s Dr. Shea. He’s with her. Either they came together or he met her here. He looks too young to be a doctor, especially in his green scrub suit which makes his neck look longer and his smile even more toothy. “Show me where you learned your jokes.”

Suddenly she’s hot, burning up, and presses both hands to her face. “It’s okay,” he says, “From now on I’ll teach you all your jokes.” He takes her hand.

The bookstore is extremely hot and humid. It’s like a heavy coat hanging on her shoulders. The heat seems thick around her and she paddles with her free hand, passing thousands of racks of books, looking for the wall where the magazines are. “I know they’re here somewhere,” she says. Even though it’s so oppressively hot, she’s not sweating. But when they find the magazines, they walk back and forth because she doesn’t recognize any of them. “This isn’t right, where are they?” It doesn’t even seem like she’s searching for the magazines. She’s looking at his hand holding hers as though she’s still standing behind herself. He strokes her knuckles with his thumb.

“Don’t you want to look at one of them?” he asks.

“Yes, of course.”

“You don’t need to be afraid. We’ll say it’s doctor’s orders.”

She has a magazine in her hands and Dr. Shea moves behind her, very close, his cheek against hers. The smells from the bakery at the back of the bookstore become potent. She sees a whole pan of buttery cinnamon rolls coming out of the oven. She doesn’t let go of the magazine; she can feel the slick heavy pages in her hands. Dr. Shea kisses her neck. “Let’s check your wounds,” he murmurs. She’s looking at the magazine but doesn’t see anything. Dr. Shea lifts her shirt and runs his finger along the line where he had cut her open. She had bandages on when she got home from the hospital, but they’re gone now. She can see the place, a red line where the two flaps of her skin are sewn together with invisible thread, his finger moving back and forth across it. She shudders. “Did I make you do that?” he says. She must be mute. Or there’s nothing more to say. She can see him smiling, like maybe she’s watching from a different angle now, but she’s still holding the magazine and he’s digging his finger between the stitches then pushing it inside. She doubles over, pressing her butt into him, and he seems to bend over around her. The magazine could be a mirror or maybe she’s looking out of the pages, watching herself and Dr. Shea, but sometimes she can’t tell which one is her. She’s never moved her hips like that. His hand moves into her gently, cupping each organ in his fingertips. He’s a surgeon so he’d know if something was wrong with her.

“Now the other place,” he says, turning her around. He holds her buttocks and rubs the wound on her tailbone with his thumb. There’s blood on the front of his scrub suit. Bread is baking. The hot odor of it makes her dizzy for a minute. Then he turns her sideways and maybe holds her with his knees, his chin over her head, but his legs and arms and neck are just warm places pressing against her, and the room is so hot anyway it seems hard to tell if it’s really him — except for his hands. Each of his hands is on one of her wounds, reaching inside, feeling the slippery pieces of her. She’s wiggling and arching her back, but he doesn’t tell her to be still. Every once in a while she can feel the magazine in her hand. She smells the bread baking and looks at the blood on his shirt. She asks if it’s hers without having to say anything. “You started your period during the surgery,” he says. His hands are pushing harder, farther, his fingers spread, softly touching everything they find, although her heart is too far away, and his hands aren’t reaching that direction. She must have her eyes closed because she can’t see anything anymore, not until his hands meet each other in the middle. He must be clasping his hands together, making a gentle fist that seems to throb, matching the sound of an uncontrolled heartbeat coming from somewhere else, which everyone in the bookstore must be able to hear. She can see her own mouth open and her entire body arch, her head thrown back and she is alone, writhing and moving freely through the pea-soup heat, holding a heavy magazine. Her arm is tired. It’s dark and somehow she got back to her bed before Joey came home. She can hear his key in the front door and she can see her hand lying on the mattress beside her, the weight of the magazine tingling in her palm, a pounding soreness in her guts, underneath the bandages. He comes in to ask if there’s anything she needs. The room is freezing and she begins to sob but doesn’t answer him.

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