The Vagina is Perpendicular to the Spine and Other Misconceptions of Female Anatomy

"The Book for Every Woman" excerpted from "This Does Not Belong to You" by Aleksandar Hemon

drawing of female sex organs

The Vagina is Perpendicular to the Spine and Other Misconceptions of Female Anatomy

The Book for Every Woman

My mother bought books. She bought shelf-fillers, and the collected works of Erich Maria Remarque in ten volumes, which, for some reason, every middle-class family in Sarajevo owned and which no one ever read beyond the first volume, All Quiet on the Western Front; and thick Disney books that contained the retellings with pictures (a picture is a model of reality) of the usual tales—my favorite, The Sword in the Stone; and an encyclopedia of the world, which I’d flip through in disregard of the alphabetical order and collect the succinct information on, say, the Eiffel Tower (The tower is 324 meters tall, the tallest structure in Paris); and military histories of World War II, which I devoured, featuring battlefield maps where the black arrows represented the Germans, and the red arrows the Soviets, and they would rush at each other in an abstract landscape devoid of people and death (in a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them); and paperbacks of One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Joke, and Fear of Flying, which I wasn’t allowed to read but flipped through anyway and couldn’t grasp. She also had The Book for Every Woman, which contained—oh, I don’t know—tips and advice on good ways of being a woman. I read it all: recipes, crocheting patterns, household solutions (Have flies in your house? They are attracted to bright lights, etc.), and a section on sex and reproduction, where I discovered a lot of curious images and explanations. There was a side-view projection of a dangling penis and testicles, and, more importantly, a lily-shaped top view of the female reproductive apparatus: vagina, womb, ovaries. As far as I remember, the clitoris wasn’t part of that representation. I could not picture the whole structure fitting into an actual body, the angles confused me. For the longest time I thought that the vagina was perpendicular to the spine, a kind of a socket somewhere below the belly button where—I’d heard—a penis would be inserted, for which it would have to be—it stood to reason—perfectly horizontal. My early erections caused great distress, because my penis rose at an angle, and I could not imagine how it could be plugged in the socket the way nature and The Book for Every Woman intended it. I worried that I’d have to hang weight on my penis to make it grow horizontally, although there was no pressing need, as I was yet to reach a point where I would dare to declare to a girl that I liked her, beyond which horizon the next mountain I would have to climb was touching her hand. The wild and unexplored regions of genitalia were several steep mountain chains ahead of me. The Book for Every Woman only cursorily mentioned masturbation, the troubling joys of which I read about in a teenage music-and-sports magazine called Zdravo! (Hello!) where a letter from a young male reader, no doubt fabricated by the perverse editors, asked about the potential perils of self-abuse. The answer explained in detail how it worked—we picture facts to ourselves, so it was practically a manual—and suggested there was nothing particularly wrong with it, which was heartening to me, as the whole endeavor of genital pleasure had been sullied by Lućano’s kurac. But there was a small note of caution in the music-and-sports magazine: since semen is basically protein, ejaculation could lead to dizziness due to protein shortage or something, and those new to it—that is, those like me—had been known to pass out upon reaching, you know, the peak. I was eleven, maybe twelve, and I instantly applied myself to protein production; there was confusing pleasure, there was dizziness, but I did not pass out. What I ejaculated looked much like Lućano’s sluza, except it was semen. The Book for Every Woman featured a rendition of egg fertilization where semen, consisting of spermatozoids—spitting images of the puddle tadpoles—played a role. It was all terribly daunting—I had a body I didn’t know how to think about, let alone how to talk about—but I knew that what could be described could happen too. What was also described in The Book for Every Woman were sexually transmitted diseases. I read about gonorrhea (painful urination; yellow or green discharge), and about crabs (itching; nits in the pubic hair), and about syphilis (sores, rash). Syphilis scared me most, not least because I’d watched a Czechoslovakian movie in which the main character was a promiscuous-cum-rapacious officer of the Austro Hungarian Army who contracted syphilis, which eventually led to his nose falling off, and also dementia. I remember him tottering around noseless, going crazy, rotting inside and out. So when I discovered a sore on my penis, accompanied by rash on my limbs, I consulted The Book for Every Woman as per standard procedure, and became convinced I’d contracted syphilis. My trepidation wasn’t at all diminished by the fact that I couldn’t begin to imagine ways in which I could’ve been infected in a life absolutely devoid of sexual experiences. I hid in the bathroom, my tears soaking the paragraph on STD in The Book as I struggled to imagine a way to break the news to my parents: their firstborn son was destined to a syphilictic life of rot and dementia without ever having even held a girl’s hand. I looked for salvation, or at least a remedy in The Book, which suggested antibiotics, except that they worked only if taken immediately after the infection, and I had no idea how long I’d been infected. Moreover, antibiotics were certainly not going to alleviate the humiliation and stigma that came with being an STD survivor, the best-case scenario. When mixed with vinegar and water, honey can remove worms and parasites in your body, I discovered in the course of desperately browsing The Book, but there was no mention of how to cure syphilis. Eventually, as there are things that cannot be put into words, I had to make my rash manifest to my mother. She took me to a doctor. It turned out it wasn’t syphilis at all; the doctor told me I ought to wash myself more often, now that I was entering puberty. Thereafter I pursued sexual knowledge in the pages of Zdravo! (Hello!), while The Book provided mainly household advice. A flattened pillow? Put it in the sun for thirty minutes. The sun will plump it up.

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