About this time, Brady stepped out into the hallway looking like a resurrected Patrick Swayze and said nonchalantly, “What was that whole thing about?”
I paused, looked at him, and carefully weighed my answer.
“Maxi pads. What else do you want to know?”
He stepped back into his room wordlessly and shut the door behind him. He hadn’t wanted to know that much. And, of course, I knew that.
I stood in the hallway between the bedrooms of my house and thought through the potential resolutions to our problem. There wasn’t an array of them. There was only one: go to CVS right then. But before I sent Todd (he’s a good man), I took the scenic route to a middle school clinic in Tallahassee, Florida in 1983. It was spring. I was in the 6th grade.
Periods were a bigger deal in 1983, mostly because the solutions hadn’t caught up to the severity of the problems. For my pain, I was handed an aspirin. I might as well have swallowed a bay leaf, for all the good it did me. And for the other obvious problems that went along with a girl’s administration, all the hygiene hunting in the world could only take you so far.
How a 12-year-old girl navigated these waters depended largely upon the information and supplies at her disposal. For all my mother did right for me in the world, and she did a lot right, she got this one wrong. I knew periods were a thing. I knew Eve was to blame for them. And my dad had told my brother on the way to church one Wednesday night that someday I would yell at him a lot when all he wanted to do was play Monopoly with me. That was the extent of my knowledge about women and their cycles. When it finally happened to me, in the food court of a mall in Lakeland, I had no idea what it was. I thought I was coming down with something. Like Mumps. Or rabies. It took a good 8 hours to diagnose puberty. When my mom finally clued in to what was happening with me, she explained it in brief and inadequate detail. It wasn’t enough. A girl doesn’t need the Cliff’s Notes version when she’s crawling out from under a rock.
Two and a half hours in to my new grown-up world, I went to my mother privately and whispered, “Mom, why is it still happening?” She looked at me with a mix of shock and amusement in her dark eyes and said, “Honey it’s going to go on for about 5-7 days, once a month, for the rest of your life.” What in the world? That would have been pertinent information from the get-go, I’m thinking. I handled it like a girl on her period. I closed myself into my uncle’s old bedroom with the red shag carpet and bawled. For the rest of the night. My uncle didn’t still live there, just in case you were thinking the story was about to get really strange.
And that’s how I started my period: completely ignorant, 100% unprepared, and while staying at my grandparents’ 1 bathroom house with every member of my family.
Preparation wasn’t our strong suit.
That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I eventually found myself unprepared at school, which is a world-ending scenario for a 6th grade girl whose hair already has its own twitter account for all the wrong reasons. I was sitting in Language Arts learning about Hyperbole when my eyes went from bored to saucers faster than I could mispronounce the word hyperbole. My eyes glazed over the words, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” written on the white board at the front of the room. I knew I had a problem. I did not know how to communicate to Mrs. E Jones that I had a problem or get out of the classroom without everyone else knowing I had a problem. I thought about trying to use my newfound knowledge of hyperbole to ask a covert and exaggerated question, but the chances of that blowing up in my face were 100%.
This was a conundrum.
I ended up mouthing the word ‘bathroom’ while swathed in full-on panic and she waved me out the door. Ah, good. That part was successful enough. I trotted down the long hallway between rows of orange lockers, feeling almost happy that I escaped humiliation, when it hit me. The bathroom wasn’t what I needed. That would be skipping a step.
I stopped at the end of the language arts hall to think through my options. I could go to the office to call home. Or I could handle it myself in the clinic. The clinic seemed the faster way to solve my problem so I turned left and walked the length of the admin hallway, passing the main office, on my way to the clinic door. I paused to breathe, closed my eyes for silent strength, and then swung open the door. The clinic was a narrow room that opened up into a spacious square of papered patient beds and mismatched wooden chairs. The first thing I noticed upon entering was that I was going to have to step around people to even get to Coach Rollins, who was sitting at a 1960s too-small desk writing a hall pass for one of the sick kids when she glanced up at me.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me that I was going to encounter actual non-pubescent sick people in a clinic for sick people? There were 4 in there. Two were lying down.
“What you need, baby?” She said, looking back down at her work. There was no place I wanted to be somebody’s baby any less than my school clinic. Mrs. Rollins was one of two P.E. coaches at our school. When she wasn’t running delinquent-style games of four square in the gym, she was practicing bad medicine in the clinic. I didn’t like her in either role. She terrified me. She had smooth skin the color of a medium roast coffee bean, hair that looked like there had been an incident with her rollers that morning, and teeth that curled over her bottom lip like a garden rake. She couldn’t close her mouth over those teeth. It gave her a deceptive look that she was perpetually smiling. Most of us knew she wasn’t.
“Um,” I replied, inching closer. Half of her current patient load were boys. Goodness. I leaned in as close as I reasonably could. “I need supplies.” She halted her pen mid signature and looked toward the concrete block wall behind her desk. What’s she looking at? What was she doing? Was she thinking? Had she heard me?
“Supplies for what?” She asked finally. For the love of Gordon Sumners, she was going to make me spell it out in front of a boy. I began to think about death.
I narrowed my eyes and thought about tensing up my arms and legs to try and pass out.
“Monthly supplies,” I said again, through pursed lips. Please understand what I am saying. Please.
“Oh,” she said in full voice. “You need a maxi pad.”
I dropped my chin to my chest and sighed what felt like all the air in my body. Yes, ma’am. I do appreciate your sensitivity. She pulled open a metal drawer, with the brash scraping of bad news, and pulled out a cloth monstrosity with a flapping tail on each end.
“Here you go,” she said, extending it toward me. I shrunk back in terror. What even was that thing? It was 2 feet long and in the shape of a life boat. I took it out of her hand and just held at arm’s length like it was a venomous snake. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Neither could anyone else in the room.
“Well, go on,” she said, shooing me toward the bathroom that was just inside the entrance door. I slowly shifted my gaze to Coach Rollins and then back to the flapping pieces at the end of this crib mattress. She sensed my unanswered questions. “It’s supposed to have safety pins but I don’t have any o’ those. You just do the best you can. Tuck it. Into your pants.” My eyes became little slits across my face and I blinked back the sting of shame that was trying to cry itself forward. No way was I going to cry. The heat in my cheeks could have fried bacon. I took one final look at the pad and offered it back to her.
“No, thanks,” I said resolutely. That thing was an inflatable kayak. The coach’s eyes went dark and her teeth formed more of a snarl than a smile. She was offended. As if she had designed this thing. Like it was her personal kayak I was refusing to row.
“Well, honey, you ain’t gonna drip dry.”
“Got it,” I said over my shoulder as I walked out like I owned the joint. “Thank you for the valuable information.”
When the door slammed behind me, I scrunched up my face and stood there in defeat. Shoot. I wasn’t going to drip dry. But I also wasn’t going to let that drawer of Kmart clearance from my mother’s childhood have any stake in my current crisis. So I turned back the way I came and entered the main office where a phone was sitting just out of reach from the chest-high counter. The school secretary glanced at me and raised her eyebrows, inviting me to speak.
“May I use the phone please?” I asked, setting my clinic attitude aside very briefly. She reached for the phone dubiously, looking me square in the eyes like the suspect I wasn’t.
“Is this an emergency?” she asked.
One hundred and seventeen different answers to that question flooded my mind. I almost drowned in them. I settled on just one.