What Was Lacking?
A.M. Stickel, BP Editor
Dazed a little at
the faint red spot, she leaned against the edge of the old claw-foot bathtub.
She wanted to scream out the window. But there were no windows in the high
house’s back porch bathroom on Vermont Street in San Francisco. Although the
familiar smell of Dial soap was comforting, the gassy cramps that clutched her
eleven-year-old gut were not constipation,
according to the booklet, YOU’RE A YOUNG LADY NOW. (She had been forced to read
it after her girlfriend down the street a block had shamed her by correcting
her idea of where babies come from, “…no, not up and out of the throat, but out
the other end.”)
screaming, she walked calmly into her nonna’s cozy kitchen, with its view of fairy
lights on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and told her mom, who calmly
supplied a sanitary napkin.
said, “You’re lucky. We used rags when I was a girl.” Then Mom and Nonna
returned to gossiping in Italian…
Her expected week
with Nonna (and free of her family) cancelled, she returned to the sweltering
East Bay suburbs with Mom. She would miss, not only Nonna’s wonderful cooking,
but bus rides to North Beach for Mass in Italian and visits with Nonna’s
friends from Friuli, who always gave her sweets.
Over the next eight
days, the tiny trickle grew to a stinking flow, complete with clots, and then subsided.
Once the curse ceased,
she asked, “Can’t the doctor make it stop, or at least give me pain pills?”
She winced at
Mom’s reply. “Aspirin only makes it worse. Just do knee-chest exercises...and
get used to it because it’s normal.”
napkins and rubber pants for a third of every month for the next fifty years or
so didn’t feel normal to her. And exercises promised yet more bleeding.
“Why go through
this if I’ll never marry or have kids. I want this bleeding thing out of me.”
“God cursed us
with blood and pain for our original sin. Besides, we need to make up for what
was lacking in the sufferings of Christ,” said Mom. “You may change your mind
“I’ll never marry. Why should I bleed for
stupid boys who don’t have to suffer?”
“They grow up and
to war, like your dad did, where they risk death for us.”
Her parents told
her they wanted her to be tough. This included sharing lawn-mowing duty with a
slightly younger brother, who, in turn, had to share dish-washing duties. He
played submarine with the dishes and enjoyed using the push mower to make
designs in the grass.
Dad preferred his
recliner and pulp science fiction to yardwork. He called Mom his “queen,” but
liked to be waited on by Mom and his kids because he was “the breadwinner.”
“Daddy, if you’re
the king and Mom is the queen, doesn’t that mean we kids are princes and
princesses?” his daughter had asked at ten.
with his sarcastic tobacco-stained grin, “it means you’re servants.”
One weekend, on her
reddest cramp day, Dad yelled and threatened when she balked at mowing. Mom was
lying down with her own cramps and clots, the baby was bawling in her
bassinette, and the two younger brothers were playing catch with the next-door
The girl pictured
the pads overflowing and leaking through the rubber pants, blood trickling down
her legs, staining her blue peddle-pushers, and maybe even leaving a trail as she
mowed. But Dad’s leather belt would make a bigger, more embarrassing and
Not allowed to
wear gloves for kitchen or yard chores, by the time she finished lawn-duty that
day, her thumbs were soupy, seeping wounds where tight anger had melded them to
the mower’s handles. Band-Aids over stinging Merthiolate was the remedy
On duty in the
Aleutians when the girl was born, Dad had been an electrician’s mate by day, a
projectionist every evening, and, she was sure, possessed at night by his true nature—an
alligator-shark hunting the
icy, inky sea.
Dad had taught
swimming in the navy. Watching him move underwater, propelled only by his feet,
to her he appeared soulless and saurian. His red-freckled, pale body never
burned, tanned, or scarred; blue veins showed through marble-white legs. He was
always cold, as if he had just emerged from a journey into unfathomable depths.
Dad teased the
girl for being afraid of putting her face in the water (unable to hold her
breath with lungs already damaged by second-hand smoke), “I learned as a boy
when they tied a rope around me and threw me in.”
“Why should I learn, anyway? Mom can only
dog-paddle, and neither Nonnie nor Nonna can swim.”
watery relief, she burned, blistered, peeled, and bloomed with moles. There
were many frightening visits to the dermatologist, who hacked at her problems,
but never quite solved them.
Dad, who, despite
poor dental hygiene, had never lost a tooth, warned her, “Soda will rot your
The girl gave up
soda. But it was too late. She was doomed to hours spent choked by cotton rolls,
numbed, drilled, and filled at the town’s dental office. The windows in the
cubicles were translucent glass tiles that distorted passing vehicles into
bizarre shapes swimming through the seas of distant planets. The thick glass
that muffled the street noises amplified the drill’s buzz into a giant stinging
insect that fed on enamel and pulp and gagged gasps. The small space
intensified the odor of tooth rot and hot blood, mingling it with the vapor of
mercury-silver amalgam and antiseptic soap.
One day, the girl
looked in the mirror, pulling back her short, Toni-permed, dirty-blond hair.
Along with the first hint of acne on her greasy skin, she was startled by how
much she looked like Dad. Except he (and Mom) had 20/20 vision, and his
daughter now wore black-plastic-framed glasses so she could see the blackboard
told her mom, “makes me look like a boy. And my glasses are ugly.”
“I’m tired of
histrionics,” said Mom with an exasperated sigh.
“Why pimples too?”
meanness coming out… Serves you right... Just wait until you have kids of your
own... I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
The girl went
outside, but not to play. Whenever she tried, an obnoxious pretty boy would run
out of his house on the corner and make squishing motions with his hands,
pointing to her chest, yelling, “EEGIES!” Instead, she would sit on the front
porch and do cross-stitch, like the heroines in her favorite old-time books.
A bunkmate in her
tent at summer camp asked her why she wasn’t yet wearing a bra. Two of her tent
mates, worldly-wise public schoolers from Oakland, whispered about boys “going
into the bushes” with girls. Except for conductors, porters, or bus drivers,
these were her first black people; there were none in her parochial school or
even in her town that she knew of. She felt like but did not use Mom’s, “I
don’t want to hear it anymore.” (She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone
to “Shut up!”) To her the Oakland
girls were equal in status to the exotic aliens from another planet she read
about in Dad’s science fiction paperbacks, awesome beings she dare not
antagonize. So she acted extra casual and ignored everyone’s comments.
Dad went from
working in steel mills to designing them. He took long trips, especially to
Germany. Instead of the collector dolls she would have loved, the girl received
things like a functional black leather purse. Considering the recent German history,
she thought of Anne Frank, played by Millie Perkins, who was given lines about
how “sweet” periods were. (There was nothing “sweet” about concentration camps,
like the one where Anne died, either.)
The girl dreamed
of rockets, like the ones in Dad’s books, and learned to use a slide rule and
play cribbage from the alligator-shark, who had told her he expected her to
become “a waitress” or, worse yet, “a writer.”
Retired from 40
years in science, having escaped the predicted trajectory of parental hopes and
threats, the older/wiser woman returned to her origins. She had not gone to the
moon or Mars as she expected, just further into the forbidden spheres of
She took the bus
to the beach, walked to the shore, and let the Monterey Bay lick her toes. She
had not yet in all these years learned to swim, and liked to listen to the
watery challenge she was still too tough to give in to.
“Oh shut up! I’ll
be back in twenty years, and you can have me then,” she screamed.
And, red as blood
in the sunset, the ocean paused.
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