My mother’s hair turned in two weeks from chestnut, as she called it, to shocking white.
“I am shocking white,” she said that morning when I came into the kitchen, awakened by the smell of toast.
She couldn’t keep her eyes off her reflection. She was looking at the side of her head in the chrome curve of the toaster, and I was afraid her wiry white hairs would make contact with the electrified silver and ignite. She couldn’t look in a mirror, my mother. Busy with my marmalade and cinnamon sugar, and cutting off my crusts, she kept eyeing her hair in the teakettle, the aluminum sink, the blade of her knife.
After the pale, dry toast — which tasted chalky to me, like white hair — we went out to sweep the driveway. Our yard was a wreck of wild jasmine, two broken cement birdbaths, a nicked-up cherub by the curb, and all my father’s “Christmas trees” — the holly, the palm, the rhododendron, the gardenia tree from when I was four years old. Also, the bottlebrush, with its crazed red puff balls like in Dr. Seuss; the miniature lemon tree (that one from the year before last; last year we hadn’t gotten a new tree because Dad was gone); and my mother’s precious weeping willow — all plunked down between the ancient oaks, and withering. The yard looked like K-Mart’s garden department. The old oaks mocked us.
My mom had the garage open and was hauling out rakes, brooms, green plastic trash cans, the hand-held edger. I sat in the driveway and tried to spit at the mailbox. I had no spit. She yelled at me to grab the push broom.
Everyone else on our street used a service: yard men in forest green jumpsuits; bug men in bright yellow jumpsuits. Plus, they had Charlie Chips delivered in large chip-colored tins by men in brown jumpsuits. We did not eat potato chips. We did our own yard. And our yard was a wreck.
On Saturdays we always dragged out the gardening tools and stumbled among the botanical disasters while my father (when he was living with us) argued with my mother about what they should accomplish today.
“Pruning, I’m telling you,” he’d say. “I know what I’m talking about.”
“I’ll be the one pruning, mister,” my mother would say.
“You don’t prune — you ruin. You desecrate. If anyone else around here ever learned anything, we could have a nice yard one of these days. I can’t do it all myself.”
My dad would crack an Old Milwaukee, and they would wander over to the orange tree and peel the inky black stuff off the leaves and argue about the nature of the disease. This would take the entire day.
But we kept the shiny black driveway swept nicely. As usual, I was assigned the push broom.
My mother bent to view that shocking white hair of hers in the side mirror of her truck. “Overnight!” She looked like a vanilla ice-cream cone, the slim kind with a perfectly round, big white head.
As I broomed up to her, I tried to think of what she had looked like the day before. That had been Friday. This was Saturday. It felt like Saturday — hot and worky, damp, noisy, busy, and like it would never end. Like a headache.
“That’s what can happen,” she said. “I’m telling you, that’s what can happen. Just overnight.” As if this tragedy with her hair proved her right, so right, just so exactly right.
She crawled under her pea green truck and swept the bright yellow whisk broom back and forth with neat little jabs, swishing the debris from between the tires. I pushed my festive little load toward the street.
I figured she meant that’s what could happen if you married my father, but I wasn’t sure. She met me at the curb and filled her little copper-and-rubber dustpan with the stuff from the driveway. She asked me to sweep along the edges one more time.
I put the broom between my legs — on that hard, rounded bone where my thighs meet and all that business and I pushed it to the top of the driveway.
“Georgia, that’s a dangerous way to walk. Please stop that. I don’t like your attitude out here.”
I pushed the broom the rest of the way with my stomach, inserting the rounded end of the handle into my navel. It felt good. My mother was down at the street straining to rip runners out of the curbs. Her teeth were clenched, her lips back. When you pulled like that, it just made the grass work harder to grow. I saw no point to yardwork of any kind.
There were acorns, leaves, frogs, roaches, and runners in the cracks in the macadam where the driveway met the edges of the lawn. I was supposed to dig all of this out, leaving two nice, neat, straight lines. It would have been easy using the weed-eater, but that was in my dad’s trunk, and we didn’t know where he was.
On my hands and knees, I started pulling out some of the Bahia runners. It was like pulling out someone’s hair. I did not want to do this. The edges of the driveway were where I had buried most of the junk I was supposed to have been sweeping. I wanted to scream.
I ran into the house, leaving her to discover my trail of horrors and to drag the rest of the garbage cans down to the curb herself. I was at that age where I could run away and not get spanked or punished. I was simply a large, gangly disappointment.
I slammed the door behind me, and she yelled right on cue.
Inside, it was Saturday lonely. The kitchen chairs were up on the table because we were going to mop. The wastebaskets were outside each room because I was supposed to be Miss Garbage Truck and collect them. I kicked each one over, spilling the papers and Q-Tips onto the carpeting. My stomach felt dented.
I ran into the bathroom, slamming that door, too.
I checked my hair. Brown, thick, straight.
Three walls of the bathroom were mirrored floor to ceiling: my dad’s idea. The mirrors were veined with gold. I’m not sure why. I guess it was supposed to look like marble, but it was more like worms on water.
The mirrors made it impossible to get away from myself, but I couldn’t really see what I looked like, either. I could only focus on segments of myself.
I was wearing a blue chenille shorts set. It was too small, and the seams along the sides of the shorts were splitting up my thighs. My legs felt like bananas. My bottom was suddenly full — overnight! — and the shorts curled around it like a baby’s elastic training pants. I leaned over and stared at the back of my legs and my bottom in the mirror. I leaned over further, trying to tell if you could see my underwear when I bent down to hold the dustpan for my mother.
How I could sweep the driveway in this condition, I didn’t know. Apparently, my mother was content to let me prance around looking like a baby in a woman’s tormented body. I felt like a special-order cake that hadn’t been picked up. I started to cry.
The high bathroom windows that faced out onto the driveway were cranked open wide, and I could hear my mother rolling the garbage cans to the curb. I turned on the cold water full blast so she wouldn’t hear me crying. I felt sick to my stomach and itched all over from the driveway sweeping.
I peeled off the blue chenille top. Every time I saw my chest I heard, Mosquito bites, mosquito bites. I pulled on them like I always did, to make them longer. They were just getting pointy, like little noses.
I would never wear this outfit again, ever. I tried to remember to keep crying. I experimented with a new cry: “Hunnnnnnh, hunnnnnnnh, hunnnnnnnhhh.” It wasn’t me.
I hurt all over, like I’d been in a fight. Leaf dust spilled from my hair onto the white carpet.
My mother yelled from right below the windows, “What on earth is the water running for, Georgia? Georgia? What’s going on in there?”
She was mad, not worried, so I pretended I couldn’t hear.
“Holy cats!” she said. “This is work time! Don’t think about taking a bath! We haven’t even started yet, honey. Are you going nuts?”
She walked away, and I heard her getting the lawn mower from the garage — the lawn mower that didn’t work. If I closed my eyes, I could feel the jasmine climbing over the fruit trees and the crab grass sprouting between each Bahia plug. Everything was growing all wrong.
“Holy cats!” she yelled again — to me, or the lawn mower, or the sky.
By now I was crying hysterically into the good white towel, and couldn’t stop. I had no idea why. I just cried. I had read about girls who did this after they had been with men — I think they were prostitutes. They sat in a room and turned off the lights and cried and cried. I peeled off my underwear so I would be more prostitute-like, more vulnerable and sexed and terrified.
The giant Sears Girl-Tex underwear was all hot and sticky and itchy from sweeping dirt. And there was blood in it. Blood. In the crotch.
I locked the bathroom door, which I was not supposed to do; my mother wanted to be able to open it in case I was drowning or something. There was a hot, dark circle of black blood, like my Aunt Ruthie’s homemade blackberry jelly. The blot seemed to be in the shape of a G, and I wished I lived in ancient times, so that I could see this as a message from the devil: my initial in blood. My stomach cramped, hard and long, like I had been socked there.
I reached over and turned the tub faucet on full blast. Slumped against the outside of the tub, with one foot up on the toilet, I put my hand between my legs. It was all wet and sweaty, and when I looked down at the white carpet I saw another letter of blood: a small o. “Go,” this blood said. “Go.”
The bathroom smelled like metal, like the tools when we left them in the back yard and my father brought them in and slammed them on the dining-room table and yelled, “What in Jesus’ name is this?” That kind of smell. A long-time-outside-in-the-wrong-place smell.
I wanted no message from my body. “God, please,” I prayed, trying to make myself more scared than I really was. Dying always came to mind on Saturdays, with all the mopping and emptying and sweeping ahead of me.
I vaguely remembered the how-to menstrual manuals they’d handed out last year in sixth grade. I remembered Sara Simko at camp last summer trying to tell me how she’d “flooded.” I remembered having no idea what she was talking about.
“Aunt Ruthie from Red Creek,” Alison Fenwick called it. I thought of my Aunt Ruthie, and I didn’t like her name being in this story. Supposedly, the Red Creek was why Alison would never dress out for phys ed. Supposedly, it was why she was in love with every single boy in our class.
I remembered the girls staying in the auditorium while all the boys were taken outside to run laps. I remembered the health woman, the overhead projector, the diagram that looked like a ram’s head. I remembered the word vulva. I remembered thinking I would never have to endure this thing the health woman called “the curse,” “the time,” “the cycle of life.” I remembered she talked about trees and blooms and the shedding of linings, and no one asked questions. I remembered working hard not to pay attention, not to let any part of my body touch the menstrual how-to manual. I remembered the boys all laughing when they were allowed back in, and how we stumbled around, pushing and butting in line for lunch.
I remembered Todd calling me “thimble thighs” starting that day. He was twelve when everyone else in our class was eleven. He seemed about thirty. “Did they tell you what a rubber is yet?” he asked me; this was his favorite question. In my head I couldn’t stop sing-songing the Coca-Cola jingle with these words: Mucus is a kind of gatekeeper for the uterus, a kind of gatekeeper.
I remembered it was a Friday, and we had spaghetti and red sauce. In the lunch line, I had the menstrual manual down the back of my shorts, but I had to hold it in place because I was so skinny. “Does your butt itch?” Andrew Hussman said to me. I got my tray and smiled at Mrs. Debbie, who took our money. She knew my butt didn’t itch. She knew. She knew we had just had “the talk.” She smiled at me like I was part of a secret society. I couldn’t eat.
And I remembered feeling that everyone knew the way life was going to go, except for me.
In the bathroom, the tub was filled almost to the top. I could tell that it was going to overflow when I got in.
I rubbed the blood into the carpet, and it made a large brown smear. I rubbed my hand between my legs and came up with just a little bit more, like cranberry jelly from the can. I knew cold water would stop the bleeding, so I got in the tub.
I checked my hair in the nub of the faucet, trying to imagine it white, but it seemed to be staying dark brown, and I seemed to be staying extremely ugly. I wanted to get married. I would soon be twelve, and in Kentucky and some foreign countries you could be legally married at that age. Then I wouldn’t have to have this blood at all. As I pushed the water around, it spilled onto the white carpet and soaked down to the padding. This was my mother’s worst nightmare.
I wanted to get water up inside me, so I pushed back and forth faster and harder. More and more water sloshed out of the tub. I watched the carpet darken and turn gray as the water spread over to my panties, toward the commode, to my blue chenille shorts. I added more water to the tub, turning the faucet on full blast with my feet.
“Georgia!” She was rapping on the windows with her broom. “Georgia, what is going on? I need you out here. Come out of there this instant!” She banged on the windows like a confused bird.
I slipped underneath the water, and that’s when I felt hairs down there, like wires. I had hairs there — three of them. I was a monkey, like my dad said. I hadn’t paid attention to that health woman because I was not going to turn into a woman; I was not going to grow hairs and things there. Hairs and things there!
I tried to breathe water through my nose, to fill all my body’s holes with water, water, water. My hand was between my legs and the hairs came to life in the water and I pulled on them. There were still three. On my softest, pinkest skin. I tried to yank them out but it hurt too much, and I could feel the blood get mad. Like spikes, the hairs had anchored themselves.
My mother was twisting the doorknob. I arched my back, trying to slam my crotch into the faucet to stunt all activity between my legs. I was scared she would come in and see the hairs, the blood on the carpet, the rips in the seams of my shorts.
“Why is this door locked, young lady? Georgia? No games,” she barked. “This is not playtime. Will you please act your age?”
Three long black hairs. Overnight.
This was what could happen.
I tried to yank them out again, but it just pulled the skin, which popped back. This started another wave of cramps, like my stomach was folding in on itself. I felt like I had to urinate, my whole lower body hot and weak and pulsing. I felt blood blob out into the water, and I sank down into this wrong, wrong world — really, truly crying this time. I shut the faucet off. I wanted her to hear me. I wanted her to figure it out and put me to bed and call the doctor and get this stuff sucked out right now. “We do not lock this door, young lady.”
She sounded mad now, like she was going to kill me. I knew she had the little yellow whisk broom with her; I could hear her tapping the door with it. I knew she could smell the black blood on her wet white carpet. I knew the water was seeping out into the hall, telling on me.
When I came up for air, I screamed. I just screamed and screamed and screamed.
Then my dad’s Oldsmobile pulled into the driveway. He was back.
The blood finally stopped when I got out of the tub, and I knew it would never come back.
The next day, it came back, and I could tell it was never going to stop this time. I refused to get out of bed. My mother gave me an ordeal with straps, snaps, silver clips, and little belt buckles, like a complex and punishing bra for my crotch. I couldn’t figure out from the diagram what went where. They didn’t show a complete girl’s body — just a head with no mouth or eyes, and a dotted line from the neck to the apparatus, and then her leg up in the air, with the toenails in great detail. Hand wash. Cold water. Made in Taiwan. This was the only actual writing. I didn’t want to study the picture. I knew it would only get worse.
“I’m not going out there if he is out there,” I said when my mother came to check my progress. I was supposed to be out of bed and putting on my work clothes. We were going to work in the side yard today. The plants there were all sharp and prickly. It was the worst part of the yard.
“Georgia, please. Things are difficult enough. Let’s please try harder.”
“He’s out there,” I said.
I wanted nothing more than for my dad to be back, but I wasn’t going to march around in this condition. What if he grabbed me? What if he started talking about it? He would smell it, I was sure.
“I’m not walking around with him out there,” I said.
My mother was adjusting things on my little white dresser. On top, by my music box, sat the plastic drugstore bags stuffed with all this different padding and equipment. She started neatly folding the tops of the bags, like she was lining up little white lunches.
“You need to dust,” she said.
“Please don’t touch any of that,” I said.
She looked right into my eyes. My mother had hard violet eyes, hot and wet and dark, like the dandelion roots I would be pulling up in the side yard. She made me feel like I was faking. Her white hair was scary, and she wouldn’t let me ask any questions.
The night before, she had given me Cycles of Life, a book for small children that explained how trees were male and female — and rabbits were, too! How rabbits cuddled, and then baby rabbits came along. The big white book was on my dresser, under a box of things called Kotex. I had read everything on the box and inside of it, but it hadn’t been any more helpful than the book. I knew about (but not actual definitions of) rubbers and sucking and blowing, from school, and cuddling and life and love, from home, but I was empty except for the terrible blood in me.
“You have to get out of bed. It’s ten in the morning,” my mother said. She was getting mad.
“Other people sleep past noon,” I said. I thought of Cindy, Cathy, Alison, the other girls at the bus stop. The late-morning sun coming through my yellow seersucker curtains was hot and pale and wet. My room overlooked the side yard, where my dad was pouring gas into the mower. His beer sat on the little engine like a smokestack.
“We don’t,” she said. She came over and sat on my bed, which caused another cramp. “Georgia, you have to be strong.”
“But I feel awful,” I said. “And I don’t want anyone to look at me. I want to watch Bugs Bunny.”
“I don’t want to argue about this,” she said.
“I’m not arguing. I’m just saying, ‘Bugs Bunny.’ That’s not arguing. It’s saying two words: Bugs Bunny.”
She yanked the covers off, I yelled, and my father banged on my window. She gathered up all of the bags and boxes and put them in my closet, on the top shelf, by my old tea set.
“Mother, please don’t.”
“Believe you me,” my mother said, “you have ten minutes, young lady. You’re neatened up in here. Now let’s get cracking.” She left, slamming my door.
I got up and pulled down the shades, then got right back in bed and pretended to sleep. I wondered if this blood had ever happened to her. I didn’t think until later about the fact that she hadn’t told me anything about it, that she hadn’t warned me. The less said, the better, was her approach, and when someone feels that way you shouldn’t try to make them start talking: it’ll just be worse.
At noon she came into my room and snapped up all the shades. Her wild white hair was somewhat contained in a red bandanna. For someone in a khaki jumpsuit, she sure was colorful. She leaned over me like she was smelling me up and down. “You have two choices,” she said.
“Leave me alone,” I said. “Just let me be.”
I had taken off the awful padding and strapping and stuffed it between the mattress and the box spring. Now I had a washcloth between my legs. I was going to walk to the hospital and have this blood sucked out of me. I couldn’t believe people lived this way, that they put up with this on a regular basis. Insane. There had to be a machine to suck it out. Maybe a doctor would marry me. Maybe I could go away with him, and always be sucked out in advance.
“Two choices.” She shook my shoulders so hard it hurt. “Ride your bike, or help your father.” Her hands were cold and bony. “You need to exercise if you are in so much pain — which I seriously doubt.”
“I’m not . . . I can’t . . . ” It hurt to talk. It made my stomach start biting.
She ripped the covers off me. “Why don’t you have a glass of water? And get moving.” She yanked me up.
I was too embarrassed to let my father see me, so I went out the back door and walked around the other side of the house and into the garage. I pushed my bike out and through our hedge into the neighbors’ yard, which I wasn’t supposed to do. They had flowers in neat rows and cardinals at a feeder and small duck statues leading down toward their lake frontage. It was like a park. They were inside their house, but I didn’t think they could see me. Having such a wicked mother made me fearless.
I rolled my bike down their gray, stone, circular driveway and started walking it up and down the street. I felt like a fatally ill princess. The people driving by could take one look and know what was happening to me.
I knew I was never going to have children, so it was a waste for me to be bleeding. There was a doctor living with his family in the Browns’ house now. I could go over there and talk to him in his study, just me and him. He would wash me and massage me and curl my hair. He would give me fantastic dresses — red silk, lavender satin — and tell his wife she had to move out.
Two more cars went down the street, and a kid rode his bicycle past me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said, but he couldn’t hear me. I thought he might circle back to see what was the matter, why I was walking my bike and not riding it. But he didn’t. He was horrified by me: it was so obvious.
By my twenty-second lap, I was starting to like my washcloth, the way it rubbed between my legs, but I needed a new one. I was going to have to bury this one under the orange tree behind the kitchen window, or compost it. But every time I turned into our driveway my mother came out into the front yard and waved me on. One time she shook the broom at me. I had to keep moving.
I couldn’t straddle the bike without the cramps doubling me over, so I kept on walking. I pretended I was just uncomfortable, and it was OK. Next time I was going to have some kind of operation to get my uterus removed. What a word. What a bloody, violent, unhappy word. Why did nature have this horrible system, all these women walking around bleeding? One out of every four women or girls was bleeding at that moment. I thought of all that blood in an enormous mound. All the menstrual fluid in the world. It was staggering, like a war, a hurricane, a car wreck.
I wasn’t going to put up with it. I was no fool. I threw the bicycle down at the curb and snuck back into the house. My mother and father were out in the garage, yelling. I didn’t care. I went inside, not being noisy and not being quiet, and put my pillow between my legs and cried for the rest of the afternoon. I would have to sleep on my blood.
That night, at dinner — pork chops and potatoes: my mom’s most complex and time-consuming meal — he said to her, “It’s a wig, right?”
She touched her hair. “Let me alone.” She pushed some of her hair behind her ears.
This was the first thing I had heard him say to her since he’d returned home.
“What the hell kind of wig is it?” He was laughing at her. He was tan and seemed taller and smelled like men’s cologne — like rawhide and shaving cream and frying sugar. “Take it off. Please!”
“Leave me alone,” she said. She meant it. Her new hairs were thick like dental floss; they sprang out of her head in the thousands. It looked so useful and cheerful, this new hair. Like a pompom. Like the poodle puppy I wanted. I shifted on my washcloth. I wanted to turn it over, but I couldn’t do much at the table except wiggle around.
“Please stop gyrating, Georgia,” my mother said.
“C’mon, snookums,” he said to her. You could tell he wasn’t really flirting with her. He acted like she was dirt he was giving the time of day.
“What happened to my glass of water?” she said, looking at him like he was the thief. One thing my father wouldn’t take was water. He slugged his gin and tonic and squirted the lime at me. The juice got in my eye, and I wanted to scream like I had yesterday. I wanted to kill my mother, and that lime just about made me attack her, only I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t see at all. I put my napkin in my glass and then on my eye, which burned like there was gasoline in it.
My mother got up from the table and went to her room without eating even one tiny bite of her chop. My father sat there for a while, and I waited for him to ask me about summer school. I had enrolled in extra classes — biology and computers and world history — to get ahead. Everyone else in summer school was there because it was their last chance at life, and they were all stoned.
For my father, I had two stories ready to roll. One was about the principal walking down the hall and being imitated by a bunch of held-back failure boys. It always made my dad laugh when dullards made fun of an authority figure. This really got him. I have no idea why. It was a mean, flat, pointless story. Then I had one about the students in my world-history class who didn’t know as much about Egypt as I did. I didn’t really know what the point of that story was, but I knew he liked to hear about stupidity unfurling itself around me, and me on an island of intelligence; me refusing to have friends, to blend in; me knowing everything he did, but not quite everything. I fit into him like a nesting doll. I knew how.
My mother didn’t fit like a nesting doll at all. She was more like a free-standing piece of furniture, something used for a purpose other than what was intended. Like a credenza made into a tool table. That was my mother.
“We’re doing Egypt,” I said, snaking a spoon over to his hand. A Nile-like gesture, I thought. Going north. Going to touch him, the mouth of the river.
He didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at me, at my Nile path. He raised his right arm, he looked at it, and he swept it across the dining-room table. The platter of pork chops sprigged with parsley, the bowls, the salads, his plate and mine, our water glasses, his drink, the silverware — it all crashed to the floor: food and bone and broken glass. I didn’t know how to get out of my chair. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke in my face without looking at me. I put my head down on the table.
“Now what’s the matter with you? Why are you acting like your mother?” He sounded wicked. “I’m a fool for leaving you here with her. Look at you. You’re a basket case.” He coughed and snorted and finished his drink, and my mother’s. Then he took off his shirt. Another dish fell off the edge of the table, where it had been teetering. I thought about never having to wash that glass-lined bowl again.
“What’s the fucking capital of Egypt?” he said.
I could feel the blood between my legs, feel the blood on its way down seize up. I lifted my head. Giza. Cleopatra. Asp. Marc Antony. I went through everything. Rosetta stone. Ovid. Turkey. Crimea. Tut.
“Ancient, or now? We’re only in B.C.,” I said. “I might not know.”
“You might not know.” He shook his head like he was disgusted.
I thought of sticking my hand in what was left of the mashed potatoes and flinging them, but I knew he’d whack me off my chair if I did. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to make him happy, but I couldn’t. I wanted to throw something, but I didn’t like throwing. I didn’t like it that I had been born.
My mother always got mad at me when I told her that. It made her cry. People don’t understand what makes other people wish they had never been born. I was just trying to relieve her of this mess, of my part in it. I was trying to relieve her of some pain.
“I wish I was never born!” I screamed. “I shouldn’t have been! I shouldn’t have been!”
From the back of the house, my mother started screaming, “I can’t take this!” and I imagined her eyes going from violet to black.
My dad just sat there at the head of the table, with all the beans and pieces of broken glass scattered around his elbows. His knuckles were dotted with drops of blood.
This was it. This was what made you wish you just hadn’t come into the world.
The window behind him was cracked, like a spider web. The oven buzzer was going off; my mother’s pie was ready. She was yelling and banging on something.
The burning cinnamon on the pie smelled like blood.