early summer, 1999. i am twelve years old, hunkered on the damp green grass by the spigot outside our garage door. i am wearing my favorite shorts, a slippery pair in greying lime, & favorite t-shirt, one ringed with thick stripes–blue, purple, pink–& thin ones, white, yellow, & green. my arms wrap my knees, my head rests atop my arms, & i am daydreaming, maybe humming, when i notice the red spot seeping along the stitching at my inner thighs. instinctively, my hand touches & i wonder, does it hurt?, the blood a signal for wincing, cringing, ginger touch, my stomach knotted. i go inside & change my clothes, park my body on the toilet & dab with tissue, wondering over & over, does it hurt? later, when i timidly show my mother my stained shorts, her voice is a minor chord of pity & disappointment. i retreat to my bedroom, to my junior girl scout handbook. night after night i return to the same pages written in the voice of a gentle knowing older sister. i apply the words to my skin like a salve: menstruation, menarche, hormones, puberty. i read the words again & again, waiting with each pass for that older sister’s pride & quiet excitement to swell in me as i process my breach into adulthood, womanhood. at the end of those nights, i fall asleep heavy with loss, uncertainty, shame.
after that first bleed, my periods came sporadically, two or three times a year. i saw my family doctor & had blood drawn to test my hormone levels & thyroid when i was both thirteen & seventeen, each visit prompted by my frustration & embarrassment at surprise periods during school. i remember toting along my calendars filled with records of my period history to the first appointment, clutching my mother’s hand when they inserted the needle & watching the blood spurt, my head turning into a helium balloon. both times i was told not to worry, that my test results looked good & my body would eventually fall into the rhythm it was meant to have.
that rhythm became two to four periods per year. at nineteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-three i sought answers again. each doctor drew blood & performed ultrasounds, all of which came back fine, & then used the opportunity to peddle birth control. i remember a nurse practitioner urging me that i couldn’t trust my partner at the time because of his number of previous partners, & that i spent the rest of the afternoon huddled in bed after he & i fought, & that he bought me an ugly bouquet of flowers to apologize but still refused to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. i remember, later, a doctor telling me i should consider myself lucky–that many women wish they could have so few periods & pump their bodies full of hormones to have my experience. i remember my body: burden, loathsome, & how i shoved it onto scales, stuffed it with cakes & cookies, starved it. body, pillowy & freckled, pale defunct junk.
my sophomore year of college, i studied poetry with a man who would go on to sexually harass, manipulate, & assault his students, eventually impregnating one & moving with her into her parents’ basement. before i knew him as a predator, he taught me to twist words like origami, smudged my pages with thumbprints of peanut butter & jelly & wrote, this is a bunch of noise, circling words like twinkle & jotting, don’t ever use this word in a poem again, sometimes stutter-stopping my breath when he scribbled at the bottom of my pages, i wish i wrote this. after the first class with him, high on his praises, i signed up for another.
one of the books on his syllabus in that second class was nin andrews’s the book of orgasms, & when he read the poems to our class, he chuckled each time he said orgasm, his laughter like a soft touch to the small of my back after one too many drinks at a bar, & i left those classes feeling small & cheapened by the woman’s words he used like a so-hip party trick told at a circle-jerk at the boys’ club. so when he asked us to model a poem after andrews’s “the orgasm: an interview,” i chose to interview my period & read my poem to the class aloud. it was an awful poem that didn’t receive from me the amount of thought it deserved, but as i read the last question & my period’s response — Q: What about high school girls in white dresses? A: What better time to train a young girl that even her own body can’t be trusted not to betray her? — i hoped my words sailed into that professor’s gut like a punch, that my classmates would avoid me around campus, their eyes lowered to the ground. the response was not overwhelming — i can’t remember it. i imagine an awkward pause, the professor clearing his throat, another student rising to read her work.
weeks later, when i was slow to answer to a question he’d asked, the professor snapped, or were you too busy having your period to do the reading? heat popped into my cheeks. i can’t remember what i said, if anything, but i hope that it was brave. i hope that my voice rose to protect me like a shield, that i didn’t cower or allow my eyes to drift to the floor. i hope that i didn’t allow him to make me feel shame.
age twenty-six. a pregnancy scare & recently-acquired health insurance prompt another visit with yet another different doctor. unsurprisingly, she orders blood work & an ultrasound, which–unsurprisingly–come back fine. at the follow-up appointment she chirps that you are cured of polycystic ovarian syndrome, a diagnose you were never given. you say, i don’t accept that. i won’t take hormones. i need you to do more. she frowns, smiles at the intern at her side, & recommends a consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist. when you meet him, he, too, recommends blood work & an ultrasound, stating that the previous doctors’ tests were not detailed enough & that your issue may stem from the sexual trauma of your childhood. he wants to see you at his office in pittsburgh, & he smiles a tired smile, asking, ok, kid?
you schedule the follow-up appointment so that D can accompany you. the doctor talks selectively about the results from the blood test, speaking directly to your boyfriend to say, this level is the equivalent of four women. she’s like four women! he mentions all the eggs spied during the ultrasound–they stop counting after twenty-eight, he says, & when he smiles his eyes close, like he is losing himself in the fog of a sweetest dream. you expect his next words to be absolutely fine, but they’re not. instead he says, you meet two of three criteria for a diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome & recommends–as each doctor has always recommended–hormones to induce periods.
it takes a long time to get home. before leaving the city & its tall, tall buildings with twinkling lights, you stop for dinner & coffee with your best friend & the girlfriend you’re meeting for the first time. the conversations stay light; your friend is giddy & tired from his first week at a new job working as a deckhand on a towboat, & his girlfriend is spunky & sweet. you laugh up until it is time to leave, & it isn’t until you are half an hour away from home that you begin to cry in the car. your head is abuzz–surgery to conceive, uterine cancer, high likelihood of miscarriage, your ovaries strung with pearls, your body once again an opponent in a game you can’t win. you cry, what about ukulele baby?, already grieving the loss of a child you’ve only dreamed. D puts his hand on your knee & squeezes.
when you get home, you expect him to begin his three-hour drive home immediately. but instead of gathering his things, D lies down in your bed & draws you over with the motion of his index finger. he cradles you, nesting your body in the crook of his arm. a tide pool leaks from your eyes, & you wipe your runny nose into his t-shirt at the shoulder. he tsks, he-ey-ey-ey now, & you laugh, & then you begin to cry again. for the first time in the two years you’ve been dating, he is more than a witness to your sadness; the partition between your feelings & his has dissolved, & he is a participant, his eyes glossy, the corners of his lips down-turned, a man made breakable by his love for you.
you go on like this for a long time–crying & laughing & then crying again–until you are spent, the welts of your eyes swollen-red & sandpapery, your sinuses stuffed. when you are quiet, he gives himself permission to collect his things. then he says, let me tuck you in, placing kisses on your forehead, your eyelids, your cheeks, your mouth. when he creeps down the stairs, you rise from bed & follow him out, the tears coming again. it is nearly midnight. buttery-yellow light melts against your bodies hugging in the center of the one-way street. he kisses your forehead, your nose. he says quietly, i worry about you, & you blink slowly, once, twice, thrice, the length of time it takes to let him go.