My first period was a lot like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, except Tom Hanks wasn’t there.
Just like my mother, her mother and her mother before her, 13 brought with it the gift of “womanhood,” which arrived shortly after third period (ha!) began. Doubled over with cramps by the time attendance got around, I felt like my ovaries were on fire and that mother nature herself was prying apart the vertebrae in my lower back with a poorly shaped wooden spoon.
I turned to the only solution that brought any relief — an upright fetal position, sitting in my chair, legs up on my desk with calves resting on the table, knees pulled to my chest and dignity firmly flung out the window. To my teacher’s credit, she let me sit alone in the back after she dimmed the lights and played the Bill Nye video — I got to quietly wallow instead of throwing my already miniscule shred of social capital into the proverbial burning dumpster.
Classes passed and the pain came in waves, but for a born brown-noser like me, not even my physical distress warranted a visit to the office. The underfunded, public fine arts school I attended until graduation could apparently afford pyrotechnics for the drama department’s production of Willy Wonka but not a remotely comfortable space for me to writhe in pain out of sight of passing classmates. The “sick chairs” were conveniently located in plain view of the main doors and my seventh-through-tenth grade crush’s locker.
I was between a rock and a hard plastic seat, but I wasn’t a quitter.
Throughout the whole day, never once did the possibility of menstruation cross my mind. I put off peeing about as long as I could, fearing that whatever was going on down there would somehow be released along with my bladder. Subconsciously though, I think I thought that if I didn’t look, my body would somehow suction the blood back up into my uterus like a vacuum and call the whole thing off.
I was not so lucky.
On the third floor of my friend Rachel’s 80s split-level home after school and surrounded by kitsch hand towels with tiny bears making direct eye contact with me, I pulled down my pants to pee, expecting the worst and getting a hellfire of bodily fluids instead.
If you’ve ever seen a tampon commercial, forget what you know and check that toxic period narrative at the door. Blue liquid did not daintily drop onto a pristine liner, and I was certainly not in the mood to galavant on a beach in only my bikini and an elegant silk wrap like the women on TV.
Brown blood and uterine lining had made itself a comfortable basement suite in my underwear. An awful consistency and equally as pungent, I thought I had shit myself — or rather I had been shitting myself constantly the whole day. What had previously been an innocent organ was now the enemy, but I was not in any state to think logically that hey, shit does not come out there.
I immediately called my mom to come pick me up and we sailed away in her forest green grand caravan like it was the Mayflower and we were pilgrims who desperately needed a tampon. At this point, the toilet paper I had haphazardly used to staunch the bleeding was beginning to itch.On the ride home, I laid it all out for my mom, hoping she’d have a logical excuse that wasn’t a symptom of death or my period.
As soon I told her, my mom burst into laughter as violently as my uterus had apparently emptied itself in my underwear.
The brownness, she explained, was just old blood, and everything else I had experienced was typical of the first period or two. I stood there, gushing and dumbfounded, until she finally stopped laughing hard enough to give me a pad and tell me to go get cleaned up.
However, my mom had zero intention of letting this moment pass without proper pomp and circumstance. A hippie type, she had told me stories of attending a friend’s “period party” in Australia when she was thirteen, complete with a red velvet cake and red paper cups filled with blood-red punch. She gathered my younger sister and called my dad, to my dismay telling him to meet us at the cosmopolitan and elegant Montana’s location near our house for dinner.
Truly, nothing says “congrats on becoming a woman!” more than mediocre southwestern cuisine and eating yourself to cardiac arrest with unlimited ribs.
My dad, much to my chagrin, had dragged along my twenty-some year-old male cousin who was staying with us to my celebration of puberty and public humiliation. My mom, equally as surprised, mercifully came to my rescue when the occasion of our dinner came up — if one could call dinner at Montana’s worthy of a special occasion. She just said I had gotten some good grades back — to her credit and at risk of bragging, this was a pretty plausible excuse.
I think I ordered the chicken pasta, but at this point my memory is blurred by the embarrassment of sitting at a Montana’s in broad daylight where any number of friends or acquaintances could see me as I covertly hemorrhaged blood sitting atop the pleather seats. The breaks our server took to sing a cheesy rendition of “Happy Birthday” to another table seemed like an eternity — I just wanted to eat, bleed and leave.
Later on, I filled my dad in on what had happened and he nearly cried laughing at the period panties of a situation he had created, just barely pulling himself together in time to make an oh-so-natural comment about “waiting on more good news from school” as my cousin ascended the stairs to grab a glass of water.
Thankfully, the interruption came just as my dad started a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’re A Woman Now,” which is one hundred per cent about having sex for the first time and was zero per cent relevant to my gawky, sore and bleeding self.
Perhaps nothing in Alberta’s sexual education program had prepared me for my first period, but I couldn’t help but liken the experience to the oil and gas industry that fuels the Albertan economy — messy, smelly and an unpleasant experience for many women.