I felt the breeze through my hair as I took my first ride down the asphalt hill. I had just turned ten, and this pinkish purple bike with its paisley banana seat was my birthday present. This gift was somewhat of a coup. My overanxious mother constantly looked out for danger lurking around every corner. I was the child who couldn’t have an Etch A Sketch because it might shatter leaving the ink inside to poison me. The Lite-Brite, with its little pegs, was still considered a choking hazard at the age of nine. So when I laid eyes on this bright and shiny bike, I reveled in my new found freedom.
At the end of a glorious afternoon riding with friends, I came home and found what looked like blood on my underwear. I didn’t remember falling or hurting myself, but maybe that banana seat actually was a hazard! I carefully removed the evidence, folded it in a way that hid the stain, and placed the panties gently in the hamper. I was sure to be sneaky enough lest my mother discover that her fears about the dangerous bike were true.
I was in my last month of 4th grade. We hadn’t gotten “the talk” yet in school, and my parents were certainly not going to engage me in a conversation about my quickly growing body. Therefore, menstruation was completely unknown to me.
The conversation with myself would go something like this (note: math done in my head to distract me from the pain): “I’ll have my period for about 40 more years. A year has 12 months, so that’s 480 months. My friend visits for seven days each month. Damn it! She’ll be here for 3,360 more days!”
That night, my mother summoned me into the bathroom, my 14-year-old sister in tow. I suppose she was there for moral support and the occasional need to find the elusive English word for my mother’s still mostly Italian tongue. They closed the door and showed me the evidence.
“Are these yours?” My mother asked me in Italian.
My heart dropped. I would never be able to ride my new bike again. How do I get out of this one?
“I didn’t fall; I don’t know what happened. It's not because I was riding my bike, I must have gotten dirt in my shorts….”
These statements spilled out in one breath. It was anything, but the bike. Not the bike!
“Do you know what this is?”
This had to be a trick question. And why was my sister smirking in a way that spotlighted her enjoyment?
“Something happens at your age. Well, usually a little bit older. Once a month, you bleed, and you have to wear this special pad…”
My head kept spinning. What is she talking about? What happens to me? Am I really bleeding? Am I dying? I’m dying. I just got a bike, and I’m dying. This is totally unfair!
“Your friend. Every month she visits.”
What friend visits every month?, I wondered. And then my mother and sister awkwardly struggled to explain the more common name for my friend. My mother started, “You tell her.”
“I don’t want to tell her, you tell her.”
“I don’t know how to say it in English.”
Unable to argue with that, and remembering her role, my sister finally said, “It comes at the end of a sentence.”
Their eyes lit up, and a smile of relief appeared on both of their faces as I spoke the taboo word out loud. What kind of name for a disease is that?, I wondered, still convinced I might not survive to see 11.
I was introduced to my friend behind closed doors.
What I didn’t know at the time was that she was supposed to stay there. It took me months of quietly asking questions of my older sisters — only a couple at a time — in an attempt to understand what was happening to my body.
“Does this happen to everyone? Why is bleeding considered my friend? And if she is a friend, why can’t I talk about her? Do I always have to wear this uncomfortably large pad with a belt?” (It was a long time ago, and adhesive pads were relatively new and more expensive, leaving my dad — who never had to wear one — to purchase the ridiculous pads that required a belt. I suffered through wearing these for at least a year until I could convince my father of the benefits of adhesive.)
“My friend” was ever faithful despite my hostility towards her presence. Every 28 days, like clockwork, she would arrive. She was kind enough to warn me of her visit through subtle cramping. If I ignored her, she would grab my uterus and squeeze and twist until the pain was so great I had no choice but to acknowledge her presence and serve as her host.
At school, I would inevitably end up in the nurse’s office, seeking relief from the burden of my visitor. In particularly bad months, I would be sent home retreating to my bedroom, doubled over in pain. Always good at math, I would lie in bed, clutching my abdomen, and add up the number of days left in my life that my friend would stalk me. The conversation with myself would go something like this (note: math done in my head to distract me from the pain): “I’ll have my period for about 40 more years. A year has 12 months, so that’s 480 months. My friend visits for seven days each month. Damn it! She’ll be here for 3,360 more days!”
As the years passed, I felt heavy under the weight of shame that engulfed our relationship.
The messages I received about our friendship contributed to our tumultuous time together causing great confusion. If she didn’t show up one month, panic ensued.
“Did you get yourself in trouble? Could you be pregnant?”
When she finally arrived, there was an immediate relief, followed by silence. The shame would resurface, making me question our relationship again. I never did learn to appreciate her company entirely but came to understand her as intimately connected to my womanhood. Our relationship was one of obligation.
While our friendship is not one I would have chosen, it is one that, in retrospect, I am grateful for.
A faithful companion, I learned to not only live with her but to appreciate her complexity. She taught me that I could endure what seemed like never ending pain. She reminded me that friendships outside of my comfort zone are vitally important and often take work and negotiation. And she showed me that I could achieve acceptance even in a relationship shrouded by shame.
Some 3,360 days later, my friend still visits. Like me, she has changed. She has grown weary of causing me pain, and her visits are shorter, less predictable.
I understand that as she leaves, she will do so as loudly and boldly as she came.
In her aging process, she may play pranks on me. She may turn up the heat so high that my body temperature soars making me want to strip off my clothes in public. As she readies to leave, she may deposit a bike tire around my waist as a reminder of our first meeting long ago. Given our history together, I would expect nothing less.
I am no longer that little girl who counts the days until she leaves me. I am now the grown woman who understands the ways in which our relationship kept me young. I feel some regret for rejecting her all those years so long ago. And I’m surprised to find that I carry some sadness knowing she will be leaving me soon.
I wonder if it is something I said?