Stationed in England as an American military member, I’d crossed the channel to La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light. Paris. In my twenties and adventurous, I had believed myself cultured. I had spent a full day at the Louvre, and found myself before the Mona Lisa, captivated. She’s known for her smile. She’s also known for speculations surrounding why she holds her seductive expression. Some believe that Caterina, Leonardo’s mother, “sat” for the painting, inferring Mona Lisa’s smile emerged from an unconscious memory, carving its way into the artist’s work (Freud’s idea). Others considered the composition a self-portrait, DaVinci as a woman.
Regardless, Mona Lisa continues to impact the world of art, her global-acclaimed image holding value and a thousand words. Maybe more.
There lives another Mona Lisa, a medical procedure using a wand-like device inserted into the body, employing a fractional CO2 laser to replenish the trophic conditions of vaginal walls and vulvar area. In other words, it’s a vagina-lift. Most women who undergo this treatment seek to restore moisture, improve incontinence, and experience pleasurable sex. Again. Hidden benefits include tighter vagina walls and improvement in pigmentation as many women experience a change in hue on the outer labia due to pregnancy hormones. Not that color should matter. The result is a prettier vagina, for those who care.
I underwent the Mona Lisa about two years ago. Many who had undergone the procedure gained a renewed bond with their partners, benefiting from non-painful sex (due to dryness). Or they no longer need run to the bathroom with every little leap and bound. These advantages appealed to me as I approached mid-life, mid-century. I found it difficult justifying the service. Did it even matter? I rationalized that a better-looking vagina might encourage me to feel beautiful and, in a secret sort of way, I could have my own Mona Lisa smile—mysterious to those around me.
Part of undergoing the procedure meant lasering skin. Burning it. Inside and out. The labia’s extra tissue shrunken much like plastic-wrap heat-sealing juicy fruit. In the past, when I’d undergone fully-awake surgeries, such as root-canals or Lasix, I’d pretend I’d overcome a sort of POW interrogation. You know, place my mind in a “happy place” and feel like a warrior. Impossible with my vagina. The pinching, burning, searing of my own lips forced me to hold my breath as my eyes teared. I kept telling myself, Avoid re-experiencing sexual trauma of my childhood. Like the brain-game, Don’t Think About Blue; you only see blue. Instead of smelling my own flesh, I smelled the stench of my step-father. I fought to emotionally stay in the room, remain in the clinical space of chrome and machines and soft-pastel painted walls. Then it ended. Less than a few minutes.
“No sex,” the doctor told me.
I nodded. Who would want to copulate after that?
“This includes masturbation, use of dildos. You know, don’t insert anything for at least a few days.”
I’m no prude. I’m also not the type to engage sexually unless bonded with my partner. On the other hand, restraining from rubbing out a quick orgasm would prove far more difficult. I prided myself with my ability to get off, all on my own, in under three minutes. No sex with me felt like deprivation. At the time, I was utterly single. Utterly alone. There would be no man experiencing the difference between my old vagina and my newly made-over labia. It shouldn’t matter, I reminded myself, this is about me.
The plan consists of at least six “treatments.” The medical industry considers burning away your flesh a “treatment,” and inserting a wand into your vagina, “noninvasive.” I think if there exists insertion, there-in lies an invasion. Just my take.
A few weeks lapse between each treatment, far different than a facelift, where you leave the doctor’s office swollen and bruised, spending the next few months ice-packed, healing. For the Mona Lisa, you keep returning. It’s a process. And yes, you swell and pack ice; after all, you’ve just roasted your vagina.
Following my third treatment, I decided I should look, see how things were moving along “down there.” I’ve not mirror-checked my private area before. I’ve also avoided standing naked in front of my reflection at all costs. I wish I would have done this in my athletic days, my eleven-percent-body-fat years. Back then, I thought myself out of shape, ugly, and any up-close gazing could have placed me back into a binge-and-purge cycle. I avoided body-looking. I also avoided body-comparing; me to anyone else. I used a magnifying mirror to pencil in my brows or add eyeliner. That was as near as I was willing to get to me.
The first thing I noticed while checking out my lower-lips was the even-pretty-and-pink soft tone. I assumed this an improvement, and, for some reason, I felt sad. I sensed a badge of honor stripped, like my earnership of delivering babies out of my body could no longer be proven. My belly had built babies. Their souls chose me, came through me and I feel guilty transforming my rips, my scars, my pigment, my evidence verifying me a warrior; a mommy.
I touched myself. Not sexually, but curiously. Plump, ripe, youthful lips. A contrast to my five-decade-self. A secret treasure. Then I began to sob. Unexpected response.
If my vagina could speak, I wondered what she would say. I wondered if she would weep alongside me, or perhaps, welcome me, like an old friend from far away. I wondered if her voice would be that of a small child, telling me, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring you pain by simply being here.” Or maybe a wise mother, “Listen, it isn’t our fault that these things happened. We will heal. You will heal because, now, I have.”
A power surged into me, something electrical, and I realized I was given a piece of me back, the piece taken from me over and over in my youth. The piece used to control me, overpower me, keep me in my place. The piece that should have belonged to me and only me all along, that should have been guarded, protected, like the world’s greatest diamond. The piece diminished to the point I never thought about it, didn’t look at it, never talked about it. The piece I felt ashamed of, the one I blamed myself for all that went wrong. The piece that guided my babies into this world and helped push them forth into their first breath.
I got me back.
Invincible and vulnerable all at once.
This part of me could easily be taken again or, worse, given away to the wrong person. I looked into that mirror and spoke to my vagina like my new best friend, “No. No one will ever take you from me again. I will protect you because now I can. Now I am stronger. Now I can say NO with conviction and put up a fight if I must. Now anyone close enough will know; you are sacred.”
I rarely talk about my nether-regions. Every so often, my Mona Lisa experience sneaks into conversation. Men seem interested to chat about my improved sex life because, what, I wasn’t good enough in the sack prior to a vagina “lift” or it needs to look good to feel good? I was and am determined to keep this private grin all about me, about healing, about the restoration of something that is not solely for the pleasure of man, but instead holds all that was rightfully mine and taken from me—by men.
Mona Lisa. Some consider her one of the first “virtual” pieces of art, she seems to respond, to interact with her viewers. Yet she maintains her guard, holds her secrets. Not the terrible silence forced upon a victim, but instead her inner-knowing; she is special. She protects this piece of her. A skill I’m finally gaining some ground. Five hundred years after her creation, Mona Lisa helped.
Rebecca Evans served eight years in the United States Air Force, and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She’s hosted and co-produced Our Voice and Idaho Living television shows, advocating personal stories, and now mentors teens in the juvenile system. Winner of the 2018 Cunningham short fiction story award, she was also a finalist for december Magazine’s 2018 Curt Johnson Prose Award and has made the short list as semi-finalist for American Short Fiction’s Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in Tiferet Journal, The Normal School, Fiction Southeast, Gravel Literary Magazine, Scribes Valley Publishing’s Take a Mind Trip (Anthology), Willow Down Books’ Our World, Your Place (Anthology), and is forthcoming in The Rumpus, War, Literature & the Arts, among others. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves on the editorial staff of the Sierra Nevada Review. She lives in Idaho with her three sons.