issue 176 - October 1987
Illustration: Jim Needle
Date with a diaphragm
Take one woman, somewhat nervous, somewhat inexperienced.
Add sundry contraceptive devices and technologies. Put them
together in a lonely hotel room to await the first night with
a new lover. Juliet Kellner remembers it well.
My first encounter with contraception happened in a rainy city in the industrial north, hundreds of miles from home, in an unfriendly hotel. There I was, sitting forlornly, chin on knees, on an oceanic bed dotted with small paper bags and smaller cardboard packets like so much flotsam - waiting for my lover.
The first paper bag, by my left knee, had held the four little packets now strewn beside it. Each packet contained still more card and paper - a foil-covered card studded with a necklace of pills and a tong accordion-pleated leaflet. The pill: the most reliable of all contraceptives.
It had been awkward for me to ask our family doctor to prescribe it: he knew my husband and Il had parted some time ago. So he'd be sure to realize I was planning to sleep with a lover. The embarrassment made me postpone going to the clinics for weeks - until the last possible moment, in fact: the day before I was due to board the train that bore me off to this hotel room in Manchester.
I wished later that I hadn't been so shy. Because when I read the leaflet on that crucial afternoon, it turned out that I couldn't start swallowing the pills on any old day: the course had to begin at a particular point in my menstrual cycle. It was obvious really, when I stopped to think. But one rarely thinks that clearly about things one has no experience of.
Oh, well, I thought. Never mind. I had organized two more fallback packages that would come in handy now. One contained a huge tube of sperrnicidal cream, like a monstrous tube of toothpaste. Gingerly I squeezed a bit on my fingertip. It was very shiny, very fluffy, very pretty - more like icing than toothpaste. But it smelled awful. Good grief! Would the smell put me off sex? Worse, would it put him off? With my confidence about as durable as a wet tissue, I thought I'd better do whatever needed to be done with it well before he arrived, and then wash it off my fingers and anywhere else visible and smellable.
It was time to open the next package. That contained a sort of hinged plastic oyster shell, which opened to reveal a tiny rubber trampoline: the diaphragm. Well, it was tiny for a trampoline, but it looked far too big to push inside a person. Hasty hunt for more instructions. The diaphragm, I read, had to be smeared with spermicide, squeezed tight between fingers and thumb to make it narrow enough, then inserted at an implausible angle.
Practice was obviously required. I was unaccustomed to exploring my own body so I was relieved I had plenty of time before my lover was expected. The thought of inserting the diaphragm was worrying me quite a bit I wanted peace and quiet to get it done unpressured. So I duly smeared and squeezed. But it just wouldn't stay folded. As soon as I loosened my grip the tiniest fraction - say to alter the angle of insertion from one that caused grievous bodily harm to one that was only very uncomfortable - the damned thing sprang into a new incarnation as a frisbee and shot across the room. Then it had to be washed (to remove the carpet fluff from the cream). Then the carpet had to be scrubbed (to remove the cream from the carpet). Then the frisbee had to be dried carefully(with a towel that didn't moult). And then the whole process had to begin again.
Of course the harder I tried to insert it, the tenser I became, and the less my body would accept the foreign intruder. Soon it was time to stop, hum a tune, take a few calming breaths, and generally try to kid myself that nothing unusual was happening here.
During one of these rest periods, I decided to read the instructions some more. Once I got the hang of it, I had been telling myself smugly, there would be nothing to stop us having a marvellous time for a glorious night and a day. But there was. If you want to make love more than once, said the notes - and with years of celibacy to make up for, I certainly did - it would be a good idea to insert another dollop of cream. For this it continued, I would need an inserter like a little spatula. Alternatively, I could insert a thing called a pessary, which appeared to be a very small torpedo of solidified spermicide that dissolved intemally.
I looked urgently in the bag for more apparatus. No spatula. No torpedo. Nothing. Oh, no - did this mean going through the uncouth rigmarole of extrication, re-smearing and reinsertion in the presence of the newly-beloved? Further gloom was cast by the next piece of information. The spermicide didn't stay hostile to sperm for more than a few hours. If I did manage to get the rubber disc in now, but then he arrived an hour or two late, and then we went out for a romantic candle-lit dinner, and then we chatted for a while. . . the spermicide would have decided to cease hostilities at just about the time I needed it to be at its most fierce.
It was time for a radical rethink. It was nearly five o'clock - close on closing time. I could go out and buy spatulas and torpedos, but I'd have to be quick. I discarded my unfamiliar new slinky satin pyjamas for my familiar old sweater and jeans and headed for the nearest shops.
It was cascading rain and freezing cold. December in Manchester is no place to start a love affair. And where, oh where, were all the chemists? I got to the chemist five minutes before closing time and the place was jam-packed with the elderly and respectable.
There is nothing wrong about buying contraceptives, I kept telling myself. It is failing to buy them that is wrong: bringing unwanted babies into the world, defoliating the planet, using up its mineral resources. But it was no good. How on earth was I supposed to ask for 'a sort of little spatula thing. for, er. for, er.' without everyone looking at me? I hovered in an agony of embarrassment, until - saved in the nick of time! In front of me were rows and rows of condoms: plain, ribbed (ribbed?), thick, thin, multicoloured...I'll have some of those,' I said boldly, pointing wildly in their general direction and proffering a large banknote. I hoped to heaven the pharmacist wouldn't ask me difficult questions like 'how many?' or 'what size?'. How could I admit I didn't know? I prayed that condoms were like stretch stockings and all came in one size.
Mercifully, she said nothing, but silently handed me yet another package and my change. I stuffed it all into my pocket and raced back through the rain to the hotel, my hair in soggy fronds and my feet squelching. This is not how I'd imagined it, I thought ruefully. I was going to be seductive, with satin pyjamas and satin-smooth hair - and a discreetly protected reproductive system.
I ran up the stairs to my room. With any luck I'd have time to dry my hair and dive back into the satin whatsits before he arrived. I threw the final package on the bed, wrenched off my boots and was standing in damp socks, pummelling my hair with a towel, when the door flew open.
It was him. They'd finished work early, he explained. He'd tried to ring me with the good news but I had been out Then he saw the array of paper bags and packages on the bed. 'What's all this?' he said, picking them up one at a time. 'Are we going to need all these? Looks like a wild night.'
And after I'd explained, and we'd laughed a good deal, and taken off each other's wet clothes, it was.
Juliet Kellner is a freelance journalist.