by Jane Doe
It was a squeaky clean feeling to go to a new school the same day the other kids in the class did. It was like we were all starting to march on the same foot.
My sixth grade teacher was the youngest, prettiest teacher I had ever had . Only that summer had she married. The other kids who knew her from the year before had trouble remembering to call her Mrs. Duncan. I wondered how having a new name made life different. I also stared at her trying to figure out if she and her husband "did things" in bed together. If they did, how could she stand up there before the thirty kids to talk about the Ganges river? Daily I checked the curvature of her stomach; afraid if it ever begin to distend I would be faced with the knowledge that she, the first t teacher I ever really liked "did it " with a man.
Because I wasn ' t the same Jane who had started a new school three years ago I didn't find a "Jane Friend" here as I did then. But before the first recess of the first day, Mothering Mary had taken command of me . She showed me how to buy my lunch ticket, where the library books were checked out and how to hang my gym clothes on the iron scroll work of my desk. I let myself be carried along on her commands and kindly helps until I began to like her very much. Within weeks we had decided that when we grew up we would go together to the mountains of Kentucky to be missionaries . We prayed together we played together and we stayed together.
We weren't the prettiest girls in our class. We were both taller than any of the boys, both had long flat, mouse brown hair. Mary' s was curled up every night in rags. Mine was braided down to my waist. Mary wore round glasses with flesh-colored plastic rims . I had the scar on my lip . Both our mothers sewed our dresses – home-designed with ruffles and bows, too many imitation buttons and much too long. Already we looked like missionaries. But we were smart . We were together at the top of our class in every subject. Our common jealousy over the prettier girls and theirs over our grades left us no one else but each other.
I nearly fell to my knees in reverence one day when Mary casually alluded to the fact that she already had the "curse" as she called it. I didn't even have one dark hair yet. It gave me faith to have a "Mary with the periods" for a friend. For me it was a topic of endless fascination over laden with awe. I would ask Mary how she felt and on the days she sighed, "Not well." I would carry her books for her.
Mary had already had her first period in the fifth grade. All that year she had fretted and felt strange about it, feeling it set her apart from the rest of the girls in the class. My worshipful attitude about her accomplishment changed her own attitude. She had something that I wanted with all my heart.
We took great delight in finding code words for Mary's condition so we could talk secretly about it in front of others. "Grandma fell off the roof last night" had to be given up when other kids began to wonder what kind of a grandmother Mary had anyway. "My shoestring broke" seemed innocent enough, but "I'm back in the saddle again" felt more appropriate to Mary. Mary was my talisman for a soon and safe entry into womanhood. We were so alike in body build, I felt I must soon be emulating her in every way.
As the months went by, a very short classmate coyly started getting excused from gym class. I thought it to mean she was a freak, starting before a girl as big as I. By spring, two other girls who were close friends, started the same month. Why not me? Still no black hairs. Not one. My worry came and went.
I often went home with Mary after school to stay overnight. The Mumfred's house was one of the oldest farm houses in our area still being lived in. Built in 1825, when Indiana was just a new state in the union the Indians disappearing but still able to muster enough resistance that an attempt was made to burn down the house when it was under construction. Mary showed me the burn-darkened oak beams in the attic while her mother regaled me with stories of Indians that robbed me of one whole night's sleep. It was hard enough just to get to sleep in this house.
In Mary's room hung, tilting out from the wall at a precarious angle of attack, the oval framed seriousness of her long dead ancestors. The one square picture was of a tree. Its dubious fruits were the names of all these dead bodies. Their souls had long gone to God. It seemed perverse to me to try to hold them earthbound by putting their names in fancy script on a young girl's bedroom. At night I wondered if the faded faces in the frames would have been happier to be with their remains in the earth, instead of having to hang there in plain view of a scared child.
The night of real surprises for me was the night that Mary's period started unexpectedly. We had gone to bed together in Mary's bed that looked much like the one at my grandma's house. The headboard was as high as the ceiling, and a roll of scroll work curved it forward so that when we laid with our heads on the pillow, and looked up, it seemed that that massive cut and chiseled wood wall was threatening to jump into bed with us like the ancestors on the walls. The torn lace curtains left the moonlight in in fits and starts, giving motion to the most motionless objects. When I described all my fears to Mary, even she saw her room in a new light, enabling us to scare each other silly. To stop our trembling we, even thought we felt rather silly and were glad there was no one to see us and we could see no one ourselves. We put our arms around each other to snuggle up body to body as we hadn't done in years. Finally, after much wiggling and adjusting whispers and snickering, we fell asleep. We had forgotten to pray.
In the morning Mary's nighty was still wrapped around part of my pajamas. We were a little embarrassed that we had stayed in our scared-to-go-to-sleep position all night and that the dawn and all the old folks in the frames, who already blinked at us with their dismay, had the daylight to witness our weakness. Guiltily we threw back the covers and sprang out of bed.
Left lying in the middle of the bed was a large spot of red where we had laid. My thought was that we were being punished for sleeping the way we had by having something terrible go wrong inside of us. Mary, menstruation-wise, said in a very small voice, "I think one of us broke her shoe string in bed."
"It must be you." I nodded toward Mary's blood smeared white nighty.
Like a ping pond ball returning across the bed, came her words, "Or yours!"
I looked down. There was blood on my pajamas,too. I was alive and well. That blood must be my period! Finally, Mary was my talisman. Sleeping so close all night with her was the magic I needed to get me going! Saved from manhood! Joy of joy. No more wishing, hoping, calculating and scheming. I had arrived! I was complete! I was normal, right, good and acceptable. How grown up I felt.
Alone in my elation, as Mary was in the washroom getting rid of her evidence, I stepped out of my messy pajamas. Funny, I thought, that the spot is only on the leg. The middle seems suspiciously normal. Using my finger, I made a spot test where I, following directions from the blue booklet, should have found a red period.
Nothing. How could that be? What a dirty trick! I wasn't what I wanted to be. Talk about hand-me-downs and sublimation. I hoped Mary had been so preoccupied with her own real period problems that she didn't have time to read the mistake in my mind.
Mary came back upstairs, closed like cowry shell. In her closet was a stack of neatly folded cloths of different colors and former purposes. One of these Mary began to pin inside her underpants. I didn't mean to stare so, but it was surrealistic that she should be using rags instead of Kotex, like the book said everyone else did.
When we were dressed and no longer so exposed I asked Mary, "Don't you use Kotex?"
"No, my mother is too old-fashioned. She still uses rags like she did when she was a girl."
It hit me like a time warp. Here was the history before the invention of Kotex. This product Jane and I were fighting was one of the devils of our modern age. Before that women used old and odd bits of cloth.
Second question. "Mary, don't you waste a lot of cloth that way?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you can only wear it so long. Then you must take new one and throw away the used one."
"Oh, we don't throw them away. We keep a bucket of cold water in the washroom to drop the old cloths in. Mother washes them and folds them up to put them back in my closet for the next time. When you go downstairs, you can put your pajamas in the bucket. Mother knows how to wash them so they don't stain."
In the washroom, I knew I shouldn't look over the edge of the bucket sitting there behind the clothes hamper, but I knew I would. Mary's nighty was lying there drowned like a baby giving off faint puffs of pink lives that swirled as I stepped on the loose floorboard. I held my jams over the bucket, thinking that if I committed this part of my nights to those waters I could never wear them again.
Instead, I dropped them in the wooden sink. With one hand I pumped water; with the other I smashed and bashed the blood out of my pajamas. I wrung then out as well as I could, put them in an unused waxed paper bread wrapper and carried them to school. At home that night, I hung them on a nail in the laundry chute hoping they would dry before they fell on down with the best of the dirty clothes. Mother wondered why some of the laundry was moldy that week. I never could have explained it to her.
Copyright © the Estate of Jane Doe 2010