By Ashley Mae Christensen
I couldn’t have been more than four years old when I asked my little brother to come into my parents closet and asked that he pull down his pants and show me what was underneath. I didn’t touch, didn’t even think much of it, just wanted to see what made us different. My dad, a quiet, kind, good-night-book-reader, must have heard us and pulled back the sliding mirrored door. He found his two kids squatting on polished Sunday shoes, our heads brushing the bottoms of hanging flannel shirts. I was startled, scolded and sent to my room to think about what I’d done.
In second grade, after moving to a newer and fancier school, where everyone already knew cursive and whose parents didn’t shop at Mervyns, I finally made a friend. She was from the Philippines. She was loud and wore bright blue pants. I don’t remember her name, but I remember so clearly the day she asked me to pull my baggy shirt tight across my chest and pronounced loudly on the playground, “yep, you’re going to have big boobs.” I had never thought about boobs before, but for the next four years I wore too big shirts and was sure to lean over, letting the fabric billow, when I sat at my desk to write, so that no one would know the way my body was slowly growing.
That same year we lived in the house with a corner garden, and a cherry tree, and a sandbox. My brother and I spent every Sunday afternoon attempting to build a tree house. Poorly nailed wooden steps lined the trunk of the tree below our bedroom window. I remember spinning for a long time around in circles in the front yard, like a human pinwheel, the day my mom got the phone call that our godparents had been killed by drunk drivers. The godparents who never imagined us growing up, but taught us to sew doll blankets and brought donuts on Saturday morning. The day my mom hung up the phone and told me, I remember the leaves whirling lime, yellow, green, and the bits of blue-sky kaleidescoped in between. I spun in circles because I didn’t know what else to do, I had never known about grief and loss. That same week I went into my parent’s tiny white bathroom and discovered the toilet was filled with shades of dark red and maroon floating in the water. I called my brother in and we were both very worried. We called out to our mom that something had happened, that she should come see. In an annoyed tone that surprised us both she called out, “I just forgot to flush the toilet, okay.” My mother who perhaps knew too much about grief and loss.
One afternoon all fifth grade girls were ushered from classroom desks and into the library. Our bony knees and squeamish calves propped up by growing, sweaty feet fidgeted on the wooden library chairs. My best friend hadn’t told her mother about the meeting, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited mine as a gloating and delighted volunteer mother held two ripe and reddened grapefruit in her carefully lotioned hands. She held them out for us, then up to her chest. I sat through the presentation and took my mom’s hand dutifully when she offered hers in my lap. My mother seemed proud of me. I was horrified. The boys began to appear at the windows of the library. They suddenly seemed so childish and sweaty.
In the following weeks, the girls who shopped at the Gap, gloated in their smooth legs and training bras, they talked with an air of pride that both disgusted and infatuated the boys. I overhead one girl talk about how her older sister and her friends practiced French kissing with saran wrap on their tongues. I, on the other hand still wore a baggy peach T-shirt with a big, black peace sign on the front, a valued hand-me-down from my California cousin. I took off the ratty, graying sports bra I had inherited from another cousin as soon as I walked in the door from school. I was now acutely aware of the brown hair grazing on my legs. I felt sure my parents loved each other, but I had never seen them kiss, and never thought twice about it.
I spent the entirety of the sixth grade praying fervently every night that my period would not come. I held it as a test to see if God really listened. A true inquiry as to whether the things they told us in church about God caring about the things that were important to us was actually true. I prayed to God that if he would just spare me from a growing chest, the hair, the blood, I bargained a whole number of things. I would dedicate my firstborn like Sariah, I promised to do well in school, to be kinder to my brother and sister. Near the end of sixth grade, it came. A small reddish spot on my underwear. My stomach sank and I pretended it would go away. We went to my cousin’s house that night and I wore the purple and blue tie-dye outfit I’d sewn in my sewing class, I considered it good luck. I lay on the floor, we were watching Gulliver’s Travels and I’d just learned about the word Lilliputian, meaning very small, even insignificant. I was so worried everyone was watching when I had to stand up and go home.
The next morning it did not go away. I was so mad at God, disillusioned at His lack of concern for me. I sat in the bathroom fighting back tears. I hated the stupid lady at the maturation program who told us with her idiot-beaming smile that being a woman was so wonderful, that all these changes were exciting. I pulled up my jeans and walked into my mom’s room. I sat on the edge of her cedar chest and cried until she got out of the shower. When she opened the door, a billow of steam escaped and she came and sat next to me in her towel. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I was crying too hard to tell her. She stroked my hair and I let her, as she guessed what the problem could be. A fight with a friend, a bad grade, the shirt I’d wanted to buy at the mall. Finally she guessed right and I nodded my head in defeat. I despised the words of comfort, about it being a beautiful thing, but I sat there with my swollen eyes and my arm around my mom’s wet waist.
Soon after, I started junior high. My jeans were too big, I had a walkman with a UB40 tape, and no older sisters to tell me how to do my hair. The first time I had my period that year my mom packed me a pastel bag full of supplies. I remember the feeling of that cushioned bag. I buried it at the bottom of my backpack and worried all through class that someone would hear the crinkle and recognize the contents, or that any moment some obnoxious boy would tear it open and pour the awkward pads onto my desk. I was a straight-A student, and never late to class, but that week I lingered after the second bell had rung and slunk into the most obscure bathroom, standing in the stall, so careful to unzip the bag an inch at a time so that my shame wouldn’t interrupt the echoing silence.
My mom taught me that to keep track of every month I could put a little heart around the day on a calendar, then I would know what it meant, but no one else would. I remember the nine months before my littlest sister was born, when those ballpoint penned hearts were absent from the kitchen calendar. It seemed exciting then. I purposely never kept track, couldn’t imagine why I would, was too worried that a friend, a friend that was a boy would come over and crack the code. In a strange way, later in life, after my mom had no need to draw any more hearts ever again, I felt a strange longing to see them, a desire to know that in ways, my mom and I were just alike, that still we understood each other, even if I refused to acknowledge the facts.