Updated: Oct 17
My mother leaves our home as I enter the 6th grade.
It will be years before I begin to understand the disease that takes her from me.
For a time.
I couldn’t know the battle her body was fighting. I hardly understood the war within my own skin.
Eleven earthen years holding me together, my body buzzing, and a head full of questions about the little woman scratching her way out from inside me.
I will suss them out in the dark corners of middle school locker rooms where I’ll master changing my clothing without showing an inch of skin, and in trash cans, and in the bathrooms of mothers whose children I play with, and in my grandmother’s closet, and the backs of cars, and that dreaded aisle in the pharmacy.
My changing body will ache for a mother.
To show me.
To soothe me.
To teach me.
I need to know.
My single father will make a strident effort to brush and style my hair on school mornings. It’s as if he’s never held a brush. He’s trying. My scalp cries out for a woman’s touch. For that reflection hovering in the mirror with bobby pins in her teeth.
I spend evenings in her closet cradling forgotten silk robes and trying to get her smell on me.
I discover mascara in colors like green and purple, and too-dark lip liner in a store called “CD Listening Bar” where I spend afternoons with headphones on sitting at the shiny pink bar in a plastic chair. Spending my allowance on mushroom patches and Snoop Dog albums.
My 15 year-old cousin gives me massages nightly and my father tells me I can’t wear those PJ’s around the house when he sleeps over anymore.
My best friend’s mother. I cling to her in the swimming pool where her daughter’s arms are wrapped around her neck. You can hang on me too, PD, she says. Like a welcome rain. And I wrap my leggy limbs around her waist.
Take me. Claim me. Call me your own.
A wayward puppy longing to be taken home from the park by mistake.
I’m an open circuit. I spend hours in the bathtub with a hand held shower head that features a massage setting. Every touch sends shivers up my spine.
Keep it in. Push it down.
I’m more sexual than I want to be.
The kids at school make up stories about me. Graphically pornographic stories that make their way back to me on the school bus. Names of sex positions I can’t fathom and names of boys I’ve never met. Tears escape me at the horror of the lies about my body and its perceived function, spread like a virus through the school yard.
Sex drips from my pours without my consent. I want touch. I’m terrified of touch.
I hold my best friend’s hand under the covers as she drifts.
The first time a boy kisses me by the lockers between classes I cry the entire ride home from school.
I’m a freak show of fumbled fashion when I descend the stairs for school each morning. My father and brother exchange a look that not even words can describe here.
Part child, part woman, I wear crop tops and too short skirts, unaware of their signal, and find every possible arrangement I can put my hair into with ribbons and curlers, and braids, and my forehead burned from a curling iron I don’t know how to use.
I still want to sit in my father’s lap like a kid but he pokes at my stomach hanging over the waistline of my skirt and says, what’s this, and I think twice before I eat dessert from now on.
What are calories.
For the first time I encounter body shame as I dress for a day at the beach.
I bleed through my clothes and steal tampons from the homes of women whose children I babysit. Stuffing toilet paper in my underwear is a small price to pay for avoiding the shame of asking my father to buy me supplies. An entire year will pass before I will realize I can still pee with a tampon inside me. A friend will show me that the thing around it is an applicator and not just a container. I’ve never had a box of my own to read directions on. It won’t occur to me that that the flood will return month after month. Coming again and again, and each time I am left unawares, in a bathroom stall riddled with dirty words scratched on the walls and a heart full of shame.
It won’t occur to me to walk into a drugstore with my allowance in hand. It won’t occur to me to wash the sheets rather than discard them like items not to be left behind at a crime scene. It won’t occur to me that this is the most natural thing in the world. It won’t occur to me that there is significant beauty, bravery, possibility, and fortitude in the conjuring of the new powers I possess as a female. It won’t occur to me to ask for help.
Once, I will muster the courage to call my mother.
Once, she will make a delivery to my door in the night.
Hours like lifetimes
after my call.
A forbidden meeting.
A kind of bizarre rendezvous
Against court orders.
I will sneak out onto the driveway.
And she will pass me a plastic bag
Holding a handful of pads.
And I will not know if it is more
or less painful
I still have a mother.
I don’t know how to talk to my father. He doesn’t know how to talk to me. But he teaches me a new vocabulary word on the way to school each morning as my hair gets whipped by wind in his new convertible and that feels like enough.
Use it in a sentence 3 times today. And stop saying like so much.
My best friend and I make a game of this, whispering sentences to one another in the halls between classes that send us laughing for the remainder of the afternoon. Extra points if we find a way to make it a little dirty. I still can’t spell for shit but I learn a few extra words. I learn to love words.
Maybe one day
you will help me.
to make sense
of this body.
To heal it.