Three days before my fourteenth birthday, one day after Christmas, I felt shifty. My belly, both full and hungry, had me eating through the bowl of mixed nuts on the coffee table, crushing shells with the cheap, metal nutcracker whose weak joint made its jaws scissor along the walnut shells. The peanuts were stale. The licorice in the neighbouring bowl was the black kind with the salt taste of blood. The whole thing made me angry. They couldn't even get the nuts right.
The family was out visiting relatives. We were related to what seemed like half of that hamlet of 150 people, and I was tired of being told how much I had grown, that I was becoming such a young lady. Each exclamation over my accidental body made me invisible. The weight in my abdomen was confusing. I wondered if I had cancer. I searched my grandparents' satellite channels for porn.
I found a channel that wasn't scrambled, or from which I could at least make out the content without too much effort, and I watched a woman with frothy hair roll in a vat of grapes. The woman's glossed lips pouted below heavily mascaraed eyes while she fondled herself. I felt hot and hated myself for it. Another channel showed a man receiving fellatio from another woman with frothy hair and laden makeup. It might have been the same woman, though. I couldn't be sure. The man said Do me, bitch and Yeah, yeah, oh, yeah and Act like you want it. This was better. She was asking for it.
I heard the porch doorknob rattle across the house and jumped to fiddle with the remote control. The damn thing was such a confusion of tiny buttons that I didn't care which of the hundreds of channels popped up, as long as this unholy indiscretion left the room. Thankfully, a children's network settled onto the television screen, and I pulled myself into a pretend stretch when my grandfather walked into the room. I handed him the remote control and yawned.
My belly was still hot, and it embarrassed me to think that I might be feeling horny in the same room as my grandfather. The heat wasn't hunger, though; it was more than anger. I went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. I thought about the woman in the vat of grapes and touched myself. I thought about the other woman and the man who berated her, but nothing happened. I was still uncomfortable. The weight in my belly wasn't about sex.
Then, I noticed. There was a brown spot on my underwear. It was barely there, a slight, tan smear. I opened a drawer beneath the sink and fingered my grandmother's curlers through the bread bag she used to hold them. That's how I was able to think when I felt panicked. I would lose myself inside the sensation of objects, and the thoughts could float free. The worn plastic, perforated by curler bristles, sloughed like old skin. I was a bag of bones.
I looked at my underwear again. The spot was still there, and my stomach turned hard and cold. The brown spot stayed where it was. I fingered the curlers and thought about how my fourteenth birthday was in three days and how my grandfather turned down the radio when Madonna's "Like a Virgin" came on and how all of the numbers to my locker combination added up to five if you combined all the digits together, and yet that damned spot was still there every time I looked down. I touched it. It was sticky. I lifted my feet out of my underwear and held the panties to my nose. The spot smelled musky and sweet.
My stomach revolted with a suddenness that made me throw myself sideways over the edge of the tub where I splashed green stomach bile over pink flower decals. This was really happening. I was a girl, and my first period was arriving. Someone was going to tell me that I was a young woman. I would become a woman. I would be a woman. This was the heat locked inside for three days that no amount of touching could rub out. The body I did not want was suddenly inescapable, a trap laid by birth, and there was no place left to go.
In grade five, I feigned illness so that I could sit alone in the nurse's office. I knew that all kinds of pamphlets about becoming a woman were in there, and I wanted to steal as many different ones as I could. I knew that they might hold the clue to the answer I was looking for: maybe, just maybe, my period never had to happen. I would not have to make the terrible transformation my vagina foretold.
When the school secretary closed the door after setting me up with a glass of water and one of those miniature pillows with a paper pillowcase on it, I hopped off the bed and went through drawers. In the second drawer I looked in, I found five different bundles of pamphlets about female puberty and peeled two copies out of each. I felt dirty, as though I were hiding porn in my bookbag rather than glossy booklets filled with outdated colloquialisms and corny cartoons of ovaries and uteri.
I couldn't bring myself to look at the pamphlets for days after I took them home and hid them in between books on my bookshelf, and when I finally did, I wished that I hadn't. My heart sat heavy with what I read. Most of the information about periods and female anatomy was not new to me. My mother had brought home books from the library that pretty much filled in the scientific blanks amid talk of chickens and adult heterosexual romance.
What wracked my body with inconsolate tremors was all the text about how I should deal with what was inevitably going to happen to me. There was a picture of a fresh-faced girl, her hair in a ponytail tied up with ribbon and lips red with lipstick, next to a suggestion that feeling "blue" before your period should be combated by playing up one's femininity. It told me that I should smile more to attract boys when I felt sad, but also that my newly swollen breasts and hairy vagina were too special to be touched by them. I was to make myself available to male attention while having little of it.
I was horrified. I looked at the outdated picture of that girl over and over. That twist of flesh between my legs was already faulty. My body had remained small and boyish for thirteen years, and I had largely been able to ignore even its grosser faults, but now it was heading into physical territory that I found absolutely repellent. I wanted to rip myself to pieces, shred my skin, peel myself away from myself. Writhing in the sheets or binding myself with belts or abstinence from food could not get rid of it, and the meat of me, the heavy costume I could not believe in, remained. Here I was, three years later in my grandparents house, realizing the forced march.
I wiped the puke from my chin, rinsed out the tub, and went back into the living room. My grandfather was sitting in front of some home fix-it show.
"Where's my mom?" I asked him. "When'll she be back?"
He didn't answer. He was asleep, which was a relief. I felt like I had only one sentence inside of me, and I didn't want to blurt out I just got my period to my grandfather. I only had that one sentence, and I didn't want to say it to anyone. I hated it. It embarrassed and devastated me. It said You are lost.
My family came stomping into the porch, knocking snow from their boots against the floral linoleum. I ran up the stairs to lurk in one of the guest bedrooms and burned my sentence into my palm by tracing its letters with my fingernail. When I could hear that my mother was out of her coat and scarf, I stuck my head into the stairwell and whispered to get her attention. This had to be torn through fast before I gave it too much thought. If I didn't tell someone soon, I was going to end up waddling around for the rest of Christmas break with a mess of rolled up toilet paper in my underwear. I motioned for her to come closer.
"I just got my period." I whispered my death knell and pulled at the hair behind my ear.
Within minutes, my mother had rushed the both of us into our coats and boots and was hustling me along to my uncle's grocery store the next street over. When I was little, it had been owned by my grandparents, and I remembered poking my fingers into boxes of nails and picking at the dusty elastics that held the plaid men's slippers together. The store had smelled of wooden shelving, cardboard boxes, and sweet fresh produce back then. The old shelving had since been replaced. Now the store smelled like floor cleaner and antiseptic spray.
"What kind do you want?" my mother asked. We were facing a purple, pink, and blue wall of feminine hygiene products that smelled like babies and lilacs. There was too much there. There were boxes and plastic bags full of sanitary napkins that came thin, thick, long, short, scented, unscented, and with and without belts. Tampons were definitely out of the question when I recalled a moment of curiosity a few months before that had involved some painful experimentation with a plus-size tampon I had stolen from under my mother's sink.
"I don't know," I whispered. "There's too much here. Just get me what you get."
"Okay," she said, "but you might not want to use what I use."
"Because you might not want to use tampons your first time..."
"No. No tampons," I interrupted.
"And the pads I use are for my heavier flow. Yours will probably be lighter."
The conversation was killing me. It was like she wanted to hang out with the feminine hygiene products all day. I felt as though she should have just worn a shirt that said She just got her period with an arrow pointing at me like those I'm with stupid t-shirts, because this was not turning out to be as covert an operation as I had hoped.
Panic shifted me from foot to foot. If I leaned to the right, I could peek around the edge of the shelving and watch my uncle talking to an older woman from town that I didn't recognize. I felt sick again. I knew what we were doing there, and my mother knew what we were doing there, but now my uncle might know, too. The greatest tragedy of my young life was being played out like an after school television special in which all the members of young woman's life play a role in the pitfalls of her transformation. I wanted none of them to have even a bit part.
The alarming publicness of my body was not new to me. In recent months, other females had taken it upon themselves to coach me on the specifics of femininity. Boys like it if you wear skirts, they said. If you wore a little makeup, you might get noticed, they said. It made me feel like they saw me as the hopeless case, the runt of the litter, the one who didn't know any better. Blue eyeshadow, leg razors, and all the other multifarious methods of feminization couldn't fix what wasn't broken.
I did know better. Each time someone asked me if I had a boyfriend yet or teased me about my training bra, their kindly ignorance teased out the truth in my pudding: I definitely wasn't this girl they saw, but I wasn't really the boy I had once believed in, either. I was neither/nor. All penises and vaginas aside, I felt like a gender eunuch marooned in a forest between two separate societies, neither of which I knew how to inhabit.
This sudden physical definition, this period that was never supposed to happen, was happening, and it was becoming common public knowledge in my uncle's store. The betrayal gripped my thighs.
"I think I need some aspirin," I said.
Later, with a fat sanitary napkin wedged into my underwear, the kind my mother would use, I fell across her old bed upstairs and mentally listed my physical experiments with self-correction: I had scotch-taped my vagina shut, used a paper towel cylinder as a makeshift penis for urinating, infantilized myself with diapers, bound myself with belts, feigned leg amputation, and burned myself with smouldering incense, among other things. These practices were more than curious flirtations with perversion for me. They delivered me from the worst of my disaffection when the only release from my body's crushing existence seemed to be death. Each form of physical modification and control led, in the end, to the same body, but they at least allowed for a sense of control, and now that body was exacting a revenge so thorough I doubted my ability to survive it. In one manner or another, it was going to erase me.
My mother knocked on the bedroom door and asked to come in. She sat on the edge of the bed and told me the story of her first period. I didn't want to know about it. She thought that we had this in common now, but we didn't. The body that contained me was not mine in the way that hers was hers, and I felt a numbness creep in, a coldness beneath my skin.
While she talked, I thought about Peter Pan. In it, a grown-up Wendy tells a story about the time that Peter came looking for his shadow, as though it were a skin that could be sloughed off whole and forgotten, and how she had stitched it back on for him. If I were Peter, I thought, I would have left that skin behind, because I would have. Wendy could have saved it for years like a curio in a trunk.
I leaned back against the headboard with my eyes closed, rested into the chill beneath my skin, and imagined it sliding away, leaving me clean and bright and forgotten.