“A woman always waits to be fucked.” A line from Corrigedora, by Gayl Jones, springs out. As I’m writing this, I am eating a slab of Cadbury’s Wholenut in bed, my intermittently aching back propped up against some cushions – a bad idea, I’m told. I’m flipping through some old essays I wrote, and I have my period. Why is it, I think, that I’ve never come across a really good description of what it’s like to have your period in any of the literature I’ve read? Characters in fiction are never reading real books, Teju Cole lamented. Characters in fiction never have periods, would be my complaint. This past weekend I could hardly contain my breathless enthusiasm for life. Today I have plummeted to oceanic depths about which I can do nothing but skim the muddy bottom, observing the cold currents and the way the light refracts in the water.
In life it is used glibly to joke or insult: (“someone’s on the rag”) or brushed over with euphemisms: (“it’s that time of the month”). It has only recently been liberated from the old associations with impurity and hysteria: the rejected lining of the wandering womb making its anger felt. In fiction it is almost non-existent, but each month it determines a shift in the lives of girls and women, like the stroke of some special hour. Forcing us to seek solitude and quiet, it is unchangeable, yet characterised by unpredictability.
I remember when my best friend got her period for the first time, and her mom called everyone she knows to say that so-and-so “became a woman today.” I also remember there was some sort of ritual at her house, involving all the women in her family, lots of food, dancing, singing and clapping. At the time, aged about 12, I went bright red at the mere thought. I still do.
But when does one really become a woman? Certainly not at age 12.
Here are 7 ways to speed up the process:
1. Liberate yourself.
Escape the confines of school and take a year off to travel. Get out of the cloistered, segregated suburbs: the bright green oak trees each spring, the soporific cadences of lawn sprinklers and traffic. Flee to London without a plan. Or as my English teacher put it, “join the exodus”.
Once you have earned enough money pouring pints, go to Venice. Arrive at night, dump your backpack on the bed and leave the hostel immediately– walk along the cobblestone streets, all the way to Piazza San Marco. Wear the boots your mother wore in Italy when she was a student – flat riding-style ones in tan. Listen to how their heels clap against the cobblestones. Venice at night is hauntingly beautiful and timeless, almost a ghost town, with no noise except of footsteps and lapping water. Pockets of distant voices and laughter wait around corners. An Italian man with gelled hair and a curly little mouth will show you the way, and to your annoyance accompany you. All the lights will be up for Carnivale, and there will be boxes of flowers in the windowsills.
Piazza San Marco will be vast and empty. Every light illuminating the many pillars of its perimeter will be on, with no one else around to enjoy the surreal spectacle. The Italian guy will be wearing a bomber jacket with a Ferrari logo on it. He will keep badgering you about why you’re so closed and uncomfortable-looking, how you need to loosen up, using his cereal box psychoanalysis on you, insisting on being the cardboard cut-out of an Italian man who’s supposed to lure you, uptight English girl (as far as he’s concerned) from your shell with his “passione”. When he asks about your love life, you will know it is time to leave. When you try, he will grab your cheeks and try to kiss you. His fingers will dig into your flesh, causing you to bite the inside of your cheeks as you push him off. You will feel a slight bruise, and taste blood. “If somebody like you, why can’t he kiss you?” he will say, looking wounded.
2. But first, learn how to be a dear little girl.
Perhaps your family is Afrikaans, and with a newly globalised South Africa in mind, they place you in an English private school when you are five years old: St. Katherine’s, at the end of a jacaranda-lined street. In this case, the country is experiencing its first democratic elections after being on the brink of civil war since the start of the decade. Pay no attention to the small signs of chaos you notice around you: your black nanny not coming to look after you for a while, until she does. Glimpses of the TV or newspapers, where you can see lots of fire and screaming people. Posters with a picture of a black man wearing a suit. Do not be afraid, but feel sheltered by white suburbia and your nice new school, even though you can’t understand what your teacher and the children around you are saying. Do not say a word the entire year, that way you can’t say anything wrong. Instead, gaze out of the window while the rest are learning the alphabet. The doctor will prescribe Ritalin, and the teacher’s favourite expression on your school reports will be “dear little girl.” “Oh, she is such a dear little girl,” your parents still tease you, always joking that what she implied was “she is such a dumb, but dear little girl.” And who could blame her? Looking back at photographs from that time, your expression is decidedly docile, in a bovine kind of way.
Your family moves to Cape Town, and your formative years are spent in a tiny all-girls private school in the heart of Rondebosch. For six years you will wear a pink dress with a round white collar. Use pink Alice bands and pink scrunchies to keep your hair neat and tidy. Do not resist the panty checks – they only want to make sure your underwear is the obligatory pink or white. If you are particularly well-behaved, you may be awarded a ‘deportment’ badge.
3. Try out different hairstyles.
At the age of 13, you move to a co-ed school and begin to see yourself through the eyes of men. Your behaviour becomes coquettish; you become hyperconscious of your hair. Begin straightening it, and use different coloured clips. Leave scrunchies and Alice bands behind. Make sure some hair is left out to hide your face, and to give you an air of mystery. You need to present yourself as unattainable – you want to be a model of virginal beauty, but a sexy one. Your first boyfriend will try to put his hand down your underwear. Do not let him. In return he will break up with you, but at least your reputation will be intact.
4. Learn to flirt.
It is important to be above other girls. “Showing off to straight men remained a delight and necessity to women of my generation. Those of us who wrote, wrote for men and showed off to them. Our writing had a certain note. I’m not sure I can describe it, but I can hear it,” said Janet Malcolm in her interview with Katie Roiphe in The Paris Review. “The aggression is coupled with flirtation. That way you get the guys to say you write like God.”
Not much has changed. Your writing will also have a certain note and you, too, will aspire to be like the guys (and like God). That this should be something to be at all aspired to will be taken for granted by you and your friends. It is not enough to get good marks. The really clever boys scoff at this – girls always studying so hard, churning out their routine answers. You have to be clever and not care at all. Be witty, beat them at their own game. Your knowledge of music and popular culture has to astound them. Of course, it is their game, so it will be impossible to win. Anything you know more about will be irrelevant, out of fashion, or ‘cute’. You and your friends will be continuously sidelined in this way. A few years later, one of the boys will reveal to you that around this time, he repeatedly had a nightmare that wherever he went, you were there before him, waiting.
5. Date a musician.
At university, every boy you befriend will be some sort of musician, all of them lured by the prospect of outshining one another in front of a crowd. Make sure you root out the good ones and date them. Go for the one whose band gets together, goes on wild weekends in the Karoo and takes many hallucinogenic drugs. Upon his return, he may act as though these deeply spiritual experiences are beyond you. You, on the other hand, might struggle to take these trips seriously. It might occur to you that had these revelations been experienced while sober, they would be much more valuable. Ignore these concerns.
Music evenings will be arranged, when all of the band members and their girlfriends get together, make dinner, drink wine and sit around in a carpeted flat making music, the butts of your hand-rolled cigarettes filling spare coffee mugs to the brim. By ‘making music’ I mean the boys will play their instruments with closed eyes, humming and chanting, while each girl sits next to her allotted boy, sipping and listening demurely. You will awake to hazy mid-mornings of red wine rims and cigarette burns.
6. Know your place in the hierarchy.
It is 2014. You are hungover, having lost count of all the glasses of white wine you drank on an empty stomach last night.
You have lost your bearings and are in bed next to your boyfriend, head spinning, mouth dry, the sour taste of wine still teasing the back of your throat. With your back to him, you know there is something you have to tell him, but your jaw feels heavy. You could just as easily not, you think. It might feel easier not to. But then it comes out, like an exhalation: “I love you” – your voice always slightly raised when you say this. His breathing behind you is heavy. He is asleep, presumably, and does not reply. You are saying it to the empty room.
You wake up at 4 in the morning with a maddening headache. You make vague noises of complaint, and he gets up to fetch you some painkillers and a banana. “You can’t have this on an empty stomach,” he says. You eat only the banana, which makes you feel better. Sugar, you think, and potassium. Again you become aware of what needs to be said; you have been reminded in your dreams. You roll over and say it again. “I love you too,–”, your name always following when he says this.
Why did you have this compulsion to say it? You remember feeling a sense of urgency and anxiety, tugging at your gut.
“It has nothing to do with being attracted to girls,” your friend tells you. She is studying psychology. “Straight women stare at women because they want to determine their position in a hierarchy.” It might sound vaguely Darwinian and might not really make sense, but you can relate to staring longingly at other women – not out of desire but out of a sense of aspiration.
Ever since you met Tessa, you’ve liked her a lot. She is a bit older; she must be about 30. After her degree in London she worked in publishing and journalism, writing about art and literature and teaching at the university. She has your ideal freelance career, managing to seem effortlessly self-sufficient. She also happens to be a DJ.
When you meet her, she is immediately curious about you, her mouth always teasingly on the edge of a smile. “Rob’s always chatting about you,” she says about a mutual friend, swigging a Windhoek. She is not traditionally beautiful but she is striking – with shoulder-length black hair, a, pointy nose and big, round blue eyes. When she laughs she can sometimes look evil, which adds to her charm – that wicked expression that some people who are usually nice about most things get, that always comes as a refreshing surprise. She laughs a lot, especially at herself: she does not take anything too seriously, but there’s an ethical consistency to her worldview – she’s not flippant, but gets the balance just right. You find yourselves at the same party. As she stands chatting on the verandah, you watch (and figure out the hierarchy). Her long legs are wrapped in a pair of black skinny jeans, her feet in a pair of chunky vintage leather sandals.
7. Learn how to love.
In bed, still drunk, wide awake, you roll over to face the real object of your longing. He is lying on his stomach, his face turned away. He is wearing his green t-shirt. You can smell his unruly crest of light brown hair and the Moroccan argon oil he runs through it, a mixture of almonds and rosewater. He clumsily stretches out his hand and rubs your back, running his hand down your arm to hold your hand. His hands are slender, freckled, soft. You love this man more than you have ever grown to love anyone. Lately he has been saying that everything in his life feels tenuous, that he has the sense that he is alone in this life (not having a big family or safety net), that “the void can open up in a moment”. Does he feel this way about you, you wonder? What does this mean – that he has to create ‘netting’ material from things like routine and habit, meticulously keeping journals to record his existence, to keep him disciplined, because otherwise no one will? He seems so fiercely focused on his own development, you sometimes feel you gently have to nudge your way in. He seems to hold on to throwaway things you have said – that he is obviously someone who has been living alone for a long time, that he has become a caricature of himself, tending to his succulents before bed.
But you will love him in his aloneness, his consistency, his vulnerability, his delicate self-preservation. You will want so much to be net for him – a family, a partner. You will want him to know that he has you, completely. But you won’t know if you have the capacity – and you don’t want to make promises you can’t keep.
How much will you change? Will you become angrier, more aggressive, more demanding? More exhausted?
Gabriel came into the kitchen before he went to bed, and saw me sitting with a pile of test papers and my marking pencils. He might have meant to talk to me, to ask me to have coffee, or a drink, with him, but he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with test papers; he left me alone to get over it.(Alice Munro, “Material”)
You will wake up one morning feeling sad. “Feeling preemptively heartbroken about some disaster,” you will text him. You are still so young. It takes so long to become a woman.