I learned about sex in the library. But not by making out in the stacks. My mother, who could only spell out S-E-X in a whisper, knew Judy Blume was bad and forbid me from reading her books. I snuck them chapter by chapter at a friend’s house. In a pre-social media world, Krantz, V.C. Andrews and Jean Auel were not on her censor list. I stretched the truth with tales of florists, dinosaurs and pirate adventures. The summer program librarian smirked when I added Flowers in the Attic to my reading list.
The library’s air conditioned treasure aisles were free entertainment, free books and free cold air. My mother would be shocked by my reading. And yet, there was one hot June day when the library shocked her. Our progressive-for-the-70s library frequently displayed local artwork. Some could be checked for four weeks at a time. Usually, the art was simple, innocent tablescapes or landscapes. On that June day, I stood with book contraband facing a multimedia painting labelled “Tubal Ligation.” Large hoses snaked out from the canvas. Jammed into each hose were parts of Barbie dolls and baby dolls all staring out in various doll eye stages.
I got a good look before my mother ushered my younger sister and I out of the library, her hands over our eyes. There had been no “talk” in our house. My mother gossiped about one of my classmates with a mother who lead something called Planned Parenthood. When I asked what that was, she just repeated her “don’t get pregnant” mantra. At 10, I didn’t even know how to get pregnant. I knew not to ask about the artwork. I also knew it was maybe more adult than my secretive book choices. I immersed myself in my naughty book of the week and we didn’t speak of the artwork.
Twenty years later, I experienced two very difficult pregnancies. My doctor told me having a third child would be dangerous. Two words came up: tubal ligation. That library artwork filled my mind and I involuntarily shuddered. I knew what tubes were and what a ligation was. I didn’t want to trap baby dolls in my own internal hoses. It wasn’t even that simple. If I wanted to go through with trapping all future babies forever, I also needed to sign off on the decision. And my husband had to sign off. Even though I would be a high risk, “geriatric” pregnancy. As I lay strapped down to the c-section table in crucifixion pose, I remember asking my doctor to “tie me up” like I was a damsel-in-distress on the train tracks.
I still think about that artwork four decades later. What was the artist’s thought process? Had she had a tubal ligation and regretted it? And, in true karmic fashion, I now have my own teenage daughter. She knows what tubes are. And Planned Parenthood. And pregnant. And abortion. I don’t put my hands over her eyes or her books.
Amy Barnes has words at a variety of sites including McSweeney’s, Parabola, We Were So Small, Detritus Online, Taco Bell Quarterly, Gnashing Teeth, Maria at Sampaguitas and many others. She is a reader for Narratively and CRAFT and a contributing editor for Barren Magazine. She has one husband, two dogs and two kids that inspire and hinder her writing.
Photo by Joey Thompson.