Narrative of a body

by MB


I begin to develop. I seek out information on the topic only after I am confident no one is watching or paying attention. Using the magical thinking of inverse correlation, I hide my curiosity out of the sight of others, as if keeping this research to myself will diminish the physical reality from which I cannot run. I consume information at the same rate at which I wish my body to disappear.

Immersed beneath the covers, I lose myself in facts and stories, comforted by the fictive reassurance that I am not alone. I read and dissect these alternate realities, wearing them down until their thin, sun-stained pages show signs of premature aging, yellowing and folding beneath themselves, surrendering to defeat by means of depletion. 

I examine options in my head, make exhaustive lists of people I can talk to, people that will empathize. People that will reassure me, somehow, that my isolation is temporary. That my body is not wrong or too much, that it doesn't need to be hidden beneath baggy polo shirts and tight, grey sports bras.

In retrospect, this list comprises women I admire, with whom I feel I can relate. Friends' mothers, teachers, camp counselors, coaches, age differences spanning decades and varying scores. 

I imagine myself in a series of chronological life stages, milestone moments in which I fantasize this foreign feeling of normalcy. I have a pathological longing to be anywhere but here; next summer at Camp Hess Kramer, Ms. Erlichman's Spanish class, Middle School Dances, Afterparty, Middle School Promotion, Human Development, Junior Lock in, more Afterparties, Candlelighting, Prom, Graduation. College. New York. 

My own space.

In each scenario, the awkwardness of early adolescence is far behind us. I am shorter. Shopping for a bra is a distant memory. I don't need to wonder who has gotten her period yet. We talk about it freely, exchanging tampons as a form of currency. Adults ask us about who we are dating, what we're studying, where we want to go to college. What we want to do next. We're past the initial discussion of our outwardly-changing bodies; no one comments on who is taller, who is shorter, who has big boobs, who is flat chested. 

Shopping for new uniforms, being fitted for next month's production of The Odyssey, A Musical, I find myself trapped once again in the discomfort of the present. My cheeks flush each time someone tells me how tall I've grown, how old I look. I don't participate in lunch conversations about the bras I wish my mother would buy me, the hushed gossip about changing in front of others backstage between scenes. 

I am profoundly aware that I am alone.

I am wholly comforted by my ability to disassociate from the present, understanding, somehow, that this feeling of prolonged stasis will pass with age. For reassurance, I begin to establish relationships with people older than I, preferring the company of people who are not myopically focused on the phases of human development. Though I do not know it yet, these friendships are the foundation of my identity - both others' perceptions of me and my own understanding of myself.

Sensing (if not obviously aware of) my discomfort in my skin and my desire to build a life outside of it, these people engage with me as though I am one of their peers. It takes time but I eventually grow into these assumptions, a little girl playing dress up in an adult's life. I am relieved to be taken seriously so I play along, trading late night phone calls and emails about life in the real world, my aspirations to write, the guy they slept with last night, the boyfriend they wish would propose, the fear that they're watching their lives pass before them, slightly out of reach. 

"Don't you think it's weird," my mom said to me one night. "Don't you think it's weird that you are having dinner with someone who is almost twice your age, spending time with your tennis coach and not the girls in your clinic?"

I didn't think it was weird at all. 

At a bar more than 10 years later, after hearing about Tara and my spontaneous trip to Turks and Caicos the weekend prior, a high school friend would say to me, "Do you think it's weird, ever, that you have so many friends that are, like, adults? Didn't it feel random to go on vacation with a coworker who is almost 15 years older than you? I mean, I guess you've always been older than your real age."

3,000 miles away, gathering dust and irrelevance in my parents' living room, is a photo album documenting my family's trip to Bali in the spring of 1998. Pictures of me in cutoff shorts, long limbs I hadn't yet grown into, and crooked teeth not hiding behind future years of braces, show an awkward but well adjusted kid, grinning goofily beneath the enormity of a traditional Balinese woven straw hat which was too big for my head and therefore slightly lopsided. I found this bound collection of memories, dated immediately by its inclusion of elongated panoramic photos of rice patties and monkey forests, on a recent trip home throughout which I felt, profoundly, backwards. There is something about being home that I assume is comparable only to reverse time travel, where you fly 6 hours to be 3 hours earlier but feel 15 years younger. Trapped. 

As I peeled apart the pages stuck together by age and must, I found it nearly impossible to look at the photos of myself. Hurrying quickly through the frames of landscape and the endless turquoise ocean, my eyes grazed a picture of me staring cleanly into the camera, same goofy smile, tan legs exaggerated by the stark whiteness of the new sneakers I had on my feet. Before I could flip the page, I made eye contact with the girl staring into the camera, struck immediately by the distinct lonliness her expression was conveying.

I slammed the book shut as if I a terrifying 3D pop-up cartoon had emerged from the book's pages. With trembling hands, I placed the book neatly back in the position I found it, resting it sideways beneath dated guidebooks of Italy and Rome. 

The 25 year old me began to cry for the 10-year-old me,  overwhelmed by fifteen years of feelings felt and repressed.

***

That was April 1998. I would get my period later that year on our annual end of summer joint-family trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, 9 days shy of my first day of fifth grade, and exactly 3 months shy of my 11th birthday.

I had been preparing, secretly, for the day to come. I filled pages of journals in anticipation, practicing word-for-word what I would say to my mom, imagining exactly what chair I'd be sitting on and what shirt I would be wearing when I did so. I would tell her, I decided, after I had already purchased everything I needed, saving myself the embarrassment of having to have the conversation of what, exactly, specifically, I wanted her to buy for me. The conversation would be short. I wouldn't have any questions to ask her (I knew, instinctively, that I would not be asked) and we'd both resume our days as if nothing had changed.

I wasn't, even when it happened, inherently afraid of menstruation, because I knew it meant I was one step closer to growing up, moving out, and being independent. One step closer to away from being here. 

My extensive rehersal was practice for a day that never came, a conversation that was never had. Squiggles and lines on paper which, when connected, detail the history of my body's betrayals. A map charted in ballpoint pen and letters, "i's dotted with distinctive, round bubbles. A written collection of memories of too much. 

We were nearing the end of a 20 mile bike ride, which, due to unfathomable humidity and exhaustion, had extended far beyond its optimal maximum time. Legs and stomach aching and on the verge of tears, it was about the last thing I was expecting when I dropped my bike at the sign for the fifteenth hole of the golf course and ran up to my bathroom to shower.

I didn't tell her. 

She found out one week later, back in Los Angeles, as she was putting my suitcase back into the guest room closet where it lived when it was not on vacation, stacked beneath ski parkas and goggles. 

I had purchased, hours after the bike ride, pads from the pro shop at the golf course. I had gone there alone, when my parents thought I was going to the pool, and taken care of everything myself. Not knowing how long it would last, I had purchased two boxes, and hidden the extra box carefully in the zippered-lining of my suitcase where I promptly forgot about it.

She confronted me with the evidence, standing in the doorway of my bedroom holding the unopened box. "Did you get your period?" Her voice had taken on an unfamiliar tone, wavering and unsteady, as though she was about to cry.

I nodded. said nothing.

"When?"

"Last week, one day. I took care of it."

"Oh."

Silence

"Well," she offered, "do you need anything else?"

I shook my head no, which she took as her cue to leave.

For the next six years, until I was able to drive, boxes of pads and tampons mysteriously appeared in the cabinet under the sink in my bathroom. The cycle with which they disappeared and were replenished went otherwise unacknowledged. 

I told no one else.