Sanitary napkins are to be rolled in tissue three times before they are placed in a garbage pail so that they become unidentifiable among the rest of the trash. This is partly for sanitary reasons, but the reason my mother stressed was that other people in our house shouldn’t have to see menstrual pads.
When I was eleven my cousin told me about the menstrual cycle because her mother had told her about it and, feeling betrayed that this seemingly impossible, repulsive thing was going to happen to me and no one had so much as mentioned it, I cried. She showed me diagrams of how a tampon was to be inserted in an American Girl book on women’s hygiene that her mother had bought for her. My mother came home with the same book from a public library a few months later but I told her that I already knew about the menstrual cycle so we didn’t open the book and we never talked about it. Ten days later I bled through white clothes.
At twelve I began describing myself as “more like a boy than a girl” because I did not want to be seen as dramatic, petty or ridiculous. Boys at school did not have any interest in me because I was not pretty, and I did not have any interest in them because my mother had told me that being interested in boys at my age was absurd and I wanted to be taken seriously. My mother became nonsensically accusatory when she found me holding hands with a girl, but she could have caught me kissing one instead, and it would have given her a much better case.
I was thirteen the first time I saw a porn film. The girl on the screen was white and blonde and her skin, tanned golden and unmarred by hair or razor burns, looked like that of a plastic doll. Her eyes were thickly lined with black makeup and her lips wet with a pink gloss. Her thighs did not touch and her stomach was a flat plane beneath her breasts. She had no pubic hair and her skin made me feel like my skin was wrong. When my mother caught me I was punished for a week. Girls aren’t supposed to look at pornography, she said. I knew that she meant that girls aren’t supposed to masturbate.
When I was fourteen I didn’t wear makeup. I had long, mousy hair, freckles, and pale, imperfect skin. My mother complained of my attitude each time I spoke something that was not pleasant or agreeable and yelled if I cried. In December she took me to see her family up north and cheerfully laughed when her friend’s son tugged at my arm and pulled me along throughout the evening. When he took me into the trees and threw me down in the snow there was no audience so no one laughed at that. Having never been kissed by a boy before and having already been told exactly what it was supposed to be like, I writhed and struggled to get away, knowing that this was not how it was supposed to happen. The thought of truly being overpowered by a man had never really occurred to me and, face up on the cold forest floor, I felt every notion of control slip from underneath me. “I’ve never kissed a redhead before,” he said to me. Words would not come. As someone shouted his name in searching for him, I pulled myself up and stumbled away. He looked startled and quickly collected himself, as though he knew then what he had done was wrong, composing himself like nothing had happened. I did not have red hair.
When I was fifteen I tried inserting a tampon for the first time. It’s easy, Becky Nicholson, a sweet, patient girl from school said. She noted the frustration twisting deep within me, coiling tighter with desperation, and she spoke gently. Use a mirror, put it into the opening. I could not make it work no matter how many diagrams I looked at and I could not understand why. What opening? It was months before my rigid body let any tampon enter, but not before a boy forced his fingers deep within it. I let him force his fingers into me and when he did I was in pain. The boy paid me more attention than I thought anyone would ever give to an ugly girl who spent her time thinking about not eating, but when he left he told me that I would never stop being a mess and that shattered me. With false promises of love, he sometimes called requesting to slip his hands beneath my waistband in the two years after that and, hungry for his attention, sometimes I let him.
The first time I tried to have sex was when I was sixteen years old. I was in a dimly lit bedroom a twenty-minute train ride from my own and the sheets beneath my fingers felt clean. I had stopped menstruating sometime earlier that year so there had been no need to try with tampons, and I was not prepared for the disappointment that, even then, my unrelenting body would not grant entry whether I wanted it to or not. I put my clothes on and rode the train home feeling dirty.
Later that year, in a parking lot of decent vacancy, a police car sat twenty feet away from a car in which I would have more than a kiss forced upon me. As I watched the police car pull away and turned to stare upward toward the sky I would think about how I deserved this. I would think about how I hadn’t followed the instructions laid out for me in black and white, and how I was a slut and I owed my body to this man. When he was done I refused his kiss and he asked me if I liked him. I turned my head away and closed my eyes and did not answer. Nails driven into the material of the car seat, I silently willed him to look away from my exposed skin, unshaved and unfit for his viewing. Shame washed over me and, outside of his field of vision, I began to shake my head slowly. Lights moved through the dark in the distance and I, unmoving, watched without processing them, indiscernible thoughts buzzing discordant within my mind. I had never felt so cold. Slowly, I leaned over to the car floor and began collecting my clothes off the floor. Because I like you, he said.
Later in the night, washing the event from my barren body with water hot as the rusty shower would allow, I sank to the floor and felt myself shake. The overwhelming nausea I would feel for the next week had not yet begun, nor did the crying spells that would accompany it. I was not yet sad or angry, desperate or volatile. In that moment, crumpled on the white floor as water ran down my aching pale flesh, I felt almost nothing at all. In the years following I would spend countless hours reliving the event, face twisted with emotion, desperately trying to force back tears, but on the floor of the shower, only hours after its occurrence, I felt almost nothing at all. Eyes closed, I sat wordlessly, consumed by a certain emptiness that felt like, perhaps, it had been there all along.
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