In honor of my birthday this week, I reveal a deep, dark secret.
It was the very late '60s, giving guys an excuse to wear jerseys with the number 69, which we all knew was dirty, although we had no idea why. I was 11, a pre-pubescent sixth-grader praying to lose the pre-. I felt like the only girl in my class who hadn't gotten her period. Now I know that my December birthday placed me at the end of the development line. But at the time, as I aspired to an AA cup, it felt pretty humiliating.
That spring, I suddenly had unfamiliar cramping pains in my abdomen. Doubled over and crying, I scared even my mother, whose advice for everything was either "gargle with salt water" or "lie on your side with your knees up." When these stalwarts failed to help me, we headed to the emergency room.
A comprehensive examination revealed exactly nothing. The pain subsided and I went home, told that most likely I would shortly be getting my first period. My excitement about "becoming a woman" was tempered by the not irrational fear that womanhood involved searing and mysterious pain.
That night, my father came into my room to say goodnight. He sat on my bed - a tradition that by then had faded - and said, "My little girl is becoming a woman." Those words must have been so hard for him to say, but at the time I didn't realize that. I only cared that they were hard for me to hear. I blanched, horrified. It felt so personal, so female. We, who never spoke of personal feelings or bodies, were not meant to have this conversation. I stammered something non-responsive and poor Dad left the room probably feeling sorry he had brought it up.
As much as I didn't want to get into it with my father, I couldn't wait to spread the news at school. Even though my pain had subsided and left nothing to show for itself, I assumed I would be breaking out the long-awaited Modess shortly. It was so imminent, why wait to make the announcement? During Gym class I told the entire locker room that I had gotten "it." (Yes, after extensive training in Health and Science classes about Fallopian tubes, menstruation and cycles, we chose the term "it" to describe this momentous change of life. As in, "I can't go swimming - I have 'it.'")
I was congratulated, even offered nickels in case I needed to use the sanitary napkin dispenser. I preened and felt part of the club.
Except I wasn't. Sixth grade ended and summer came. Men landed on the moon but still I continued to be flat-chested, hairless and cycle-free. Seventh grade started and...nothing. For some reason I still can't fathom, I kept the ruse going. By my 12th birthday that December, everyone assumed I was being honest when I complained about cramps and tried to get out of gym class because it was "that time of the month."
I threw a slumber party that year, with a make-your-own-sundae bar. We watched the movie Peyton Place on TV and played my new album, Long Lonesome Highway, by the adorable star of Then Came Bronson, Michael Parks. We brushed and braided each others' hair. Everything was going great, until Arlene came to me to say she had gotten "it" and needed a pad and belt.
I can still feel the horror that ran through me when I realized my lies - plural, not singular - were about to be exposed. I had no idea if my house even contained the needed supplies. We had an uncomfortable conversation about my possibly having run out and then I went to get my mother, who had no idea I was living a double life.
"Of course we have pads!" she told Arlene (luckily out of earshot of the rest of the party). She went into a closet and came back with what I realized with shame was my kit: everything I would need when I finally got "it." Just to twist the knife - and remove all doubt - she told Arlene, "We're just waiting for Laura to need them."
I will always love Arlene for not running back to my bedroom, triumphantly crowing, "Laura's a liar! An immature, lying little girl! No one should be friends with her!" Because that's certainly what I felt I deserved. But she was one of the rare noble ones and never said a word to anyone, including me.
Later that month, right after Christmas, "it" happened. I was barely 12, a perfectly average age, despite feeling like the tail end of the bell curve. Finally my complaints and need for nickels were legitimate. Finally I was a woman.
This time, my dad said nothing.