It was a little chilly, and frogs were known to hop in from the outside pool area, and the traffic from the swimmers coming in to change out of their dripping suits endowed our whole basement with a strong chlorine smell that mixed with mold to repel any but the most earnest privacy seekers from taking up residence in the housekeeper’s old quarters.
I adored the silence and privacy the room afforded, far from my cavorting brothers and sisters two flights up. At night I would turn on the boiler room lights and extinguish my bedroom lamps. Laying down to sleep I could imagine the tiny thumb tack holes in the walls were shining stars and constellations where the light from the boiler room pierced my imaginary sky.
I built a drafting table out of wood scraps from the tool area. Hours and days passed as I copied pictures of Garfield and Ninja Turtles off cereal boxes. Sometimes I would hear the thunder of siblings footsteps galumphing down the stairs, shrieking ‘Ghost in the Graveyard’! to stir up participants. More children’s laughs and shouts drowned out by my concentration, and always guilt for not playing.
The physical remoteness of my room and my discovery of my artistic ambition coincided with my ceasing to play any and all games with my brother and sisters. I would secure my door and ignore their invitations to join in the reindeer games. Once on the occasion of a family reunion, some cousins managed to urge me out of my room for a match of basement ping-pong. My subsequent black eye only swelled my conviction to barricade myself away from any and all relatives, except my dad. He charmed his way in that Sunday morning to apply stage makeup to my blue and green eye where the flying paddle had struck it so I could attend church with the family in dignity. It was a tender moment, and I remember thinking it so odd that my father took up this task. He used several tools from mom’s makeup kit, creating a masterpiece.
My mother underestimated my body’s stasis when she made a pilgrimage to the top of the basement stairs one morning. “Anne!!! She shouted into the dim below. Do you need some pads?” Pause. “Note pads?” I yelled back, opening my door and tripping towards the bottom of the stairs. Before I had time to look up, a massive square plastic pillow sailed down the stairs and hit me in the top of the head. I rushed to collect myself. But the upstairs door slammed shut. I was left to interpret the unidentified package at my feet. Maxipads. I gathered from my mom’s hasty departure that she didn’t want to expand upon our encounter. I tossed the puffy package into the back of my closet.
But not soon after, the incident emboldened me to find out more about this strange unopened package haunting my closet. Sandi Martinez and I were crossing through the empty middle school gym on our way back from lunch. She was an edgy girl, the kind that trafficked touchy info. I also knew that she stole. She had once taken me into a Bodega and clothed me in her big blue track jacket. I didn’t question it until she started shoving cheap bracelets and candy into my pockets. Yes, Jenny Martinez would be just the girl to give me a quick birds and the bees. “Hey Jennifer, have you had your period?” We walked a few more paces in silence. ’Yes!” she chirped. She slowed, exhibiting a flair for drama. “Well what is it really?” I asked. She stopped and bit her lip, looking up at the gym rafters. “It’s…..” “It’s like…. you go to the bathroom and you lay an egg”. “Really?” I was totally grossed out. “Like a chicken?” She seemed uncomfortable. “It’s a really SMALL egg. I asked for more details but her story was too shocking to believe. I was disgusted and we pressed on to exit the gym.
I put the egg out of my mind until a year or so later when my best friend Marni and I were bicycling down the boardwalk of Atlantic City. It was a red bicycle built for two. I peddled along in back. But it was my reproductive system’s time to shine. From that moment, my vacation became more intriguing and complicated. I was far from home. There were a few days left on the trip. I fashioned diapers and cushions out of toilet paper and prayed the entire time that I could get through this without anyone finding out. And no one did.
In high school it was my friend Theresa’s time to ask me about periods. She was a husky unattractive Italian girl with big bones and the kind of hair you should see on a chemistry teacher.
“Anne, are you having your period” she asked loudly. She was sitting near her locker watching me pass to my next class. “No” I lied. But I was wearing white pants and was pretty sure I did not have a red marker in my pocket. “Um, you might want to go to the bathroom” she quietly intoned.
When the sex ed eventually came around, my mom signed forms to withdraw all her children from the class. I think the idea was for the parent to substitute with their own, um training? But Mom said we wouldn’t need to know those things. I guessed she meant because our church would do the teaching.
It was partly true, each year on Mother’s Day a couple of members of our congregation would stand at the pulpit and extol their perfect moms. Tears ran down their cheeks. My mom would sneak out of the chapel before Sunday school with a scowl. As the concluding song would play, priests would troll the aisles looking for anyone who looked of ovulating age and pass us roses. I have been in many many congregations and they all suffer great confusion on where to draw the line between mothers and children. Some ladies were very old but had no children. Some ladies were old but wanted no children. Some ladies didn’t even like children. Some ladies didn’t want children but had them, and some children also had children or at least were the age that they physically could produce a child. The latter usually defined the cutoff point. We young women would usually accept a rose or chocolate bar with a slight grimace and whisper to our neighbors about how inappropriate this seemed and quickly pass our rose to mom or hastily consume the chocolate on the spot. Hiding the evidence that we too had periods.
There are whole countries
being born and dying above us
mountains building and valleys crumbling
dissolving in floods and storms
clumps of air like roman bricks
seagulls for citizens
and shafts of white light
who explore the downy slopes
finally teetering off round edges to their demise
in murky depths below
dreams dashed on earth’s unbelieving.