Commercials instruct us that our period should be blue. That we can be contained in scented pads. That wings will make us fly. These are lies.
It will be red like your skinned knee after having fallen from your bike, though instead of picking bits of embedded gravel from your panties, you’ll pick Rorschach-like clots of layered blood sloughed from your uterus.
It will be red like Hello Kitty’s delightfully placed bow. She decorates your wallet, your pencil case—Hello Kitty, who, without a mouth, is effectively silenced, though her simple, black oval eyes appear to consider, condemn, and smile, all at once. But does the jaunty tilt of that red bow compensate for an absent mouth?
It will be Certainly Red, the color of your favorite lipstick. Before your first period, you will study the mucousy discharge that accumulates in your panties and ask, Is this my period? If the color is not Certainly Red, no. And should a man begin the joke, Why do women have legs? (So they don’t leave a slug trail)—interrupt him with, To paint the town red, certainly. We are not cruel, so pat his shoulder when he begins to cry.
It will be red like the scarf Toulouse-Lautrec painted around the neck of French cabaret singer, Aristide Bruant. The primary red is wrapped about Bruant’s neck with the care of a noose, and hung with the dignity of a flag—whether a flag to lay claim, or a flag of surrender, we can’t be sure.
It will be red like the dots floating across your retina when you close your eyes and lift your chin to the sun. Here, in this red, you imagine yourself implanted in your mother’s uterine lining, listening to her heartbeat, and the damp whoosh of your shared blood moving.
It will be red like your neighbor’s convertible. And like that convertible, there will be a spreading open, an exposure of vulnerable flesh. Like fruit between the teeth splitting, that red convertible between your thighs will reveal its buttery leather, its tart and tender insides.
We must need share this bleeding. We call it the curse, women’s trouble, when Aunt Flo comes to visit. We are on the rag. We ride the cotton pony. We surf the crimson wave. Its red tide. Shark week. That time of the month.
We be bleeding into the folds of our labia, the creased gully between our mons and thighs. We rouge the edges of our panties, and layer our bed with red towels expecting to bleed in our dreams. But because we cannot be contained, we wake up having bled outside the lines.
We be bleeding on the day of the big dance, the big race, the big meet, the big date. We be bleeding in our swimsuit, our prom dress, our graduation robes. We be bleeding and run hands over our clothing to inspect our fingers for blood.
We be bleeding even as we gestate, though our period will pause, building inside us, and after we are unstoppered, we be bleeding all that accumulated in the pause, and the red will seem unending. Afterwards, when we reach down to find only pulverized flesh, it will be good to cry.
We be bleeding at church when we sing our Hallelujahs, when we speak our Amens. We be bleeding on Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and on Easter. And there’s no rest, because we still be bleeding on Monday. It’s a light-flow day, a thin-pad day, a too-light-to-wear-a-tampon-because-we-think-it’s-almost-over-day. But we be bleeding, so it’s a we’re-still-wearing-our-ratty-period-underwear-day.
In school, a boy called out penis to the back of an agitated substitute teacher. While the boys tittered, we girls, thought to call out vagina, but worried the boys were too tendre and did not want to make them cry. Some boys are so tendre they will wince at moist. They do not like the word moist because there is just too much vagina in it.
When a group of psychologists studied dislike of the word moist, participants did not show similar aversions to words like foist or rejoiced, nor did moist disturb them when accompanied by the word cake. One participant did explain that moist reminded people of sex and vaginas, and no one wanted to think about those things when browsing the baked goods aisle.
Conversely, that’s exactly what one ought to think when envisioning a vagina. Moist, delicious cake. Spongy, sweet, bouncy cake. For years, I searched for a word to name my vagina. I considered hoohah, but did not think my vagina stylish enough. Vag was too abrupt. I needed coaxing. Never cunt. Sometimes pussy, but only because he liked it. I only recently settled on cakelette, and for those inedible times, red velvet cakelette.
When we are girls, we sit criss-cross applesauce in the dark of our school’s multipurpose room. We raise two fingers, and though we don’t know it yet, the two fingers are a V, for vagina, and to everyone who has one—silence. With an overhead projector, we identify organs in the drawn outlines of bodies. The woman leading our menstruation lesson instructs: if ever we see red on a girl’s shorts, or dress, we should tell her right away, in a whisper, even if she is our worst enemy. This is my first lesson in shared shame, and simultaneously, my first lesson in feminism.
At church, I whimper at the surprising ache of my first period, and press my face into the loose flesh of my grandmother’s stomach. Hold on, Lola says. In Bulacan in the Philippines, the home province of Lola’s mother, men offer penance by flogging their bare torsos with palm fronds, often beating their backs red. Women who follow the procession are less likely to self-flagellate. The Holy Week tradition is both revered and spectacle, but even there, a woman’s bloodletting is too taboo for tender eyes. I wonder if Mary’s immaculate conception allowed her to bleed at all.
I wait several months between bleeding and attempt to count, but the first day of my last period to the first day of my next period is never twenty-eight days. It is sometimes twenty-four, or thirty-three, or forty-one. I mark the date on a calendar with a dot and enter the tracking code of these dots to determine when my period was packaged, shipped, on its way, and when to expect its delivery. I will check my doorstep for blood.
Some well-meaning, but ignorant person warns me that tampons ruin a girl’s virginity. This is before I understand that virginity is a construct, a label meant to define me as first one thing and then another. This is before I understand that virginity is not a hymen, and that an intact membrane is not proof of chastity, virginity, or morality. This is before I understand that the existence of neither an intact hymen, nor an intact morality, are conducive to an enjoyable first time.
In a room lit by fluorescent lighting, a woman hands me a pack of pills with four rows of seven. These are placebos, she says, running her finger across the last seven purple pills. They are nothing. You don’t need to take them, but you should, to stay in the habit of taking a pill every day, at the same time. For seven days, I swallow nothing, and somewhere along that nothing, my period begins.
In bleeding, as in music, syncopation involves rhythms which are unexpected and offbeat. If we are lucky, we will find sync with women we love. My college roommate knew something about losing blood. Once, she informed me that I had left a single drop on the bathroom floor and kindly asked that I clean it up. This same roommate gave me a birthday card, which was actually a sanitary pad still in its pink plastic wrapper, inside of which she had written on the absorbent cotton in red ink: You are the best. Period.
Blood can brief, sometimes three days. I was lucky to have twenty-one years with my grandmother. Still, I was ill-prepared for the pain that accompanied such a loss of blood. I locked myself in my bedroom and watched the same movie ceaselessly, leaving the apartment only to attend class. When my roommate asked if I was depressed, I answered no. By strange syncopation, we both lost our grandmothers during college. Where is the music in that?
I never knew my grandmother when she was young enough to menstruate, though once, when working as a teacher in Cavite, during a staff meeting, a bit of blood dribbled down her leg. Lola only smiled with her legs crossed, successfully defying a body wanting to make itself known.
There is something mean spirited in the ways we attempt to bind our bodies. Look closely at a woman’s bare feet, her crumpled toes, the ridges of brutalized bone, the Band-Aids covering her heels. Toe nail polish is simple misdirection.
But much can be said of restraint, repressing the rhythms and flows of our bodies, altering our chemicals by degrees, emptying ourselves into cups and pressed organic cottons. There is liberation in this. Still, imagine a red world defiant. Envision our signatures, our hallmarks, imprinted onto office chairs and car seats, sung into church hymns and spelled into story, and if we dared set aside our shame, our names stamped in red upon the snow.
Original paintings by Kaye McGarva.