I sat up amid the swaddle of bedding in the berth and rolled up the sleeve of my cotton nightdress, waiting in a tangle of fear and anticipation, hating the idea of having a piece of metal stuck in my arm and yet bearing the pathetic hope that the medicine would make me feel instantly better. As the minutes ticked by and the ship continued to roll, always it seemed in the opposite direction to both my head and my stomach, the idea of the needle changed from frightening to benevolent and then to a mythical instrument of deliverance. My desire to feel its prick, to see it slide beneath the surface of my skin grew in proportion to the misery of my nausea.
To my twelve-year old eyes, the ship’s doctor was a god. Austere and handsome and uniformed in a crisp white shirt with gold on the epauletes, he had watery blue eyes and sandy blond hair that was going grey just in front of his ears. He entered the cabin, requisite stethoscope dangling from his neck, carrying the sort of bag borne by doctors in really old films. He was so perfectly doctorish and he was going to cure me.
“I hear there’s a very sick little girl in this cabin,” he said, closing the door behind him.
For a moment, I thought the seasickness had gone. “I’m not a little girl,” I said. “I’m almost thirteen.”
“Oh, pardon me,” he said, putting his bag down and unlatching it. He glanced back at me and smiled. “A very sick young lady.”
The nausea came back just in time to swish and break against the wave that was tilting the ship in the other direction. I just nodded, worried that if I opened my mouth, there’d be vomit instead of words.
The wrapped syringe he took out of his bag looked small and well meaning. So did the little bottle of clear liquid he placed on the lipped dressing table. It shifted slightly as the ship rolled again.
“I can confidently guarantee that you’re going to feel much better in less than ten minutes.” The doctor tore the wrapper off the syringe and uncapped it. Standing with his feet apart, he held it up to the light as he pushed the little needle into the soft pink rubber top of the bottle and drew out the clear liquid.
Ten minutes. I pushed up my sleeve. How long is ten minutes? I could die in ten minutes. Ten minutes seemed ten years too long.
A tiny spurt of liquid erupted from the tip of the needle and he placed it, with a plink, into a little metal tray. Back in his black bag, he rummaged around and pulled out a little foil square, which he ripped open. I could smell the sharp sting of alcohol, like a soothing promise, and yanked my sleeve up higher, over my shoulder.
The ship’s doctor tilted his head and gave me a consolatory smile. “No, I’m afraid this one doesn’t go in your arm. Please lie down on your side and face the wall.”
Maybe I wouldn’t have been struck dumb in horror had he been uglier, or a lot older, or wearing a white coat, or if I’d been in a doctor’s office, or if I’d had the foresight to wear undies under my nightgown.
“Go on, lie down,” he prompted.
Heart racing and my stomach knotting, I slid back down into the berth, rolled on my side, and stared at the mute, semi-gloss bulkhead.
“That’s a good girl.”
He pulled the covers down with what I imagine now was utter dispassion. But trapped in a slow, stately ritual of monstrous humiliation, I lay frozen, unbreathing as he drew up the hem of my nightgown with embroidered strawberries on it. I felt his hand on my thigh, warm as took the fabric with it, baring me in a terrible unhurriedness. Up over my hip. The coolness of the air against my butt was my only measure of exactly how horribly naked I was under that nightie.
In fairness to the doctor, he was probably doing all of this with as much efficient speed as possible in consideration of the 300 other upchucking passengers he had yet to see, but to me, stars were born, exploded, and became red dwarfs over the course of my modesty’s total annihilation.
“Now,” he said, swabbing the upper part of my left butt cheek with the chill alcohol swab, “You’re going to feel a little prick. Just a little one.”
It was the faceless voice, bored and cold and topped with the cherry of superficial optimism, which would, in later years, send my thigh muscles into clenched quivers. It was the admonition to lie-completely-still-please that would bring the blood to my chest and cheeks and turn my nipples into hard little beads of need. But, most of all, it was that moment when the needle dimpled my flesh, just before it breached skin, that would forever remain the faithful source of my most productive masturbatory fantasy.
In that creaking, rolling room, blinded by a vista of plain white wall, still as a corpse, I felt the needle push into my flesh and, even before I felt the chill liquid seep into my body, I gasped, pressed my balled fists between my legs, and shuddered through my first and most titanic orgasm. I twitched, gasped again, and felt the stinging slide of needle sinking into the meat of me. I shook and spasmed with a violence that obliterated the needle’s ache.
The doctor said nothing. I said nothing. He withdrew the needle, drew my nightgown down over my nakedness and pulled the up the bedclothes.
I was still staring at the white wall when I heard the cabin door close gently. The nausea was gone.
The next day, even though the sea had calmed, and the ship had stopped rolling, and even though I had plowed through an adult-sized breakfast, I told my grandmother how sick I felt again. And again, she called the ship’s doctor, but an elderly nurse came instead.