We begin to bleed in bedrooms, on subways, in soup kitchens and dentist office lines. We begin with secret exaltation, rereading sections of Our Bodies, Ourselves, checking out our budding breasts for exponential growth. We receive a day of long knowledge from our aunties or grandmothers, and each new moon we peek into our underwear, waiting for the sign that we are grown. We gather in school restrooms and ask for tampons and pads with new pride. Our mothers bake us cakes. Our fathers buy us earrings the size and shape of a hummingbird’s heart. We gather in glens with our other sisters, our sweethearts, our menstruating friends and picnic on red foods until the sun lines the summer grass all gold and we release our childhood to the emptiness of dreams.
Or we begin to bleed in secret, hiding the kotex slipped from the nurse room in the elementary school. Seven, eight, nine years old and unprepared, now we hear the whispered talk of urban environments and hormones in food. Somewhere in our collective closet there are the pale pink shorts with the dark brown stains, or the white dress we wore with careless pride until the boys in the lunchroom began pelting us with spaghetti sauce and yelling, “period!” Or holding their noses as we walk by. Or leaving notes in our locker filled with words we hate to even touch. Or it could be that no one knows we bleed because we approached our parents with concern and were met with bitter indifference. A violent shove into the bathroom—always we are in the bathroom bleeding and we will know bathrooms for the rest of our lives, even at thirty-seven with three children and our partner urging us to the port-a-potty rather than returning to the coffee shop again, the portable toilet where we will have to squat and remove and unwrap and reinsert a tampon posed like some ancient birthing goddess or exotic bird over a sea of shit below. In the bathroom of our early-bleeding childhood we will receive no instruction just awkward words of discomfort, from our mother who hates her body, from our father who really wishes in these moments that he was not a single parent. Alone in bathrooms we bleed witness, our isolation as women in the gathering dusk.
We bleed for years. In high school we bleed onto the satin interior of a borrowed sleeping bag the first time we have sex with the boyfriend, J, whose hair hangs down like raven wings, whose teeth shine gently feral in the dark. We are one tent away from our best friend and three boys we hardly know. It is still daylight, midsummer, but we can wait no longer to divest ourselves of this virginity. We feel brief pain, some pleasure, and pretend to come. After, he washes us in the campground shower, soaping so gently between our thighs that we might break open. Clean, warm, we join the others at the campfire and talk openly in a way we will wish for in every other relationship for the rest of our lives, the innocence of figuring, of learning by doing. Sex is like that for us, but maybe never again, maybe never exactly as free as that moment, that first blood.
We bleed with boyfriends after J, boyfriends who care about bleeding, who are aroused by it. We also bleed with boys who are repulsed, who (again with the smells!) urge us to cleanliness, to Depo Provera and Nuva Ring eliminating the messiness of our bodies. And give us chest pain, shortness of breath, thirty pounds of weight, acne, and some sort of temporary mental illness—depression, anxiety, seething self-hatred that doesn’t abate, that becomes lines on our arms and deep pits as we pick apart our imperfections. When those boyfriends are gone, the synthetic hormones leached from our system by a long dry spell, we vow to not have sex with anyone we don’t love, abandon birth control entirely and take up new hobbies like smoking pot and knitting. We begin to feel slightly like ourselves again.
We bleed in college. We bleed and we read Susan Griffin. We read bell hooks. We read Betty Friedan. We listen to riot girrls and buy zines. We bleed in collective, in a house of women. We bleed in unison, someone alpha and the rest of us cycling along. We hunger for the company of women, the candor and power. We recognize an anger in our blood, a searing pain. The word feminist isn’t shaped to fit us exactly yet, but without embracing it where else can we go? Our male Yale-educated professor, the one we admire and wish would recognize us for the intelligent capable academic stars we are, tells us that our blood keeps us from leadership. That the cycle of emotion and challenge of our blood is inexcusable in governing officials, in CEOs, in literary writers, in all positions of great power. That if we want to be equals we must subvert our biology. We must castrate the feminine.
We leave academia for a long time after that. We seek the world where we may bleed and have power. We do not believe, cannot really know yet, or maybe ever, that our blood is power. We fear ourselves, but long for something to embrace our wholeness.
Maybe the world scares us. Maybe our future scares us. Maybe we graduate and hold a series of low-paying, low-prestige jobs. Maybe our artistic aspirations fail us. Maybe we are rejected by small presses and graduate programs. Maybe we have forgotten how to have dreams. Maybe we have never met a woman whose life and career we deeply admire.
Maybe we fall in love. Maybe, we think, with determined will, love can be enough.
Maybe we get married.
Maybe we become mothers.
But not right away. With the intent of conception, for the first time ever in our lives our cycle has a purpose, a biological imperative. It makes sense! We bleed because we ovulate, though why that information was left out of the sixth grade tutorial movie complete with advertisements from Stayfree and Midol, we may never know. We discover middleschmertz, Christiane Northrup, cycle calculators and ovulation predictors. We tend our ovaries and wombs like gardens in miniature. We fall asleep at night with a hand over our uterine heart.
When at last the stickiness of ovulatory mucus meets the fluid ejaculate of a lover or husband or inseminatory tool, life miraculously forms.
We bleed into form, into being and bone.
Into birth, some of us bleed gallons. Blood of placenta, of hemorrhage, of Caesarean cut, of wonder and great pain. After birth we feel vulnerable. We feel invincible. We feel something approaching only awe. For every human ever living in this world was born, was carried in a mother’s womb, brought to be only through a mother’s blood.
And maybe as we hold our daughters and sons still sweet with the warmth of our own bodies, we remember the summer before our blood began. Maybe we all can remember running through grass near a creek with Joey and Angie and our little brothers, our shirts tied around our heads, long sticks protruding from cutoff shorts, the stars swirling in multiple dimensions above our tangled limbs.
Maybe we remember breaking from the pack of kids, climbing the antique apple tree, branches half-denuded by blight, offering us a clear view of the fields below. Our skin throbbing with bruises and scrapes earned in the daylong battle. The air of the night a soft pulse, out in the distance there is music and noise from the adult world at the house. But we are not yet of that world.
We feel expanded, a part instead of everything else—stars, night, tree, grass, water, earth. We breathe and catch the rhythm of our heart. We breathe and feel the bare open nature of our bodies. We are one with everything that matters, until the evening empties and our mother calls our name.
(This story was first published in Literary Mama in 2013.