by Michelle Huston
I have no memory of the first time I got my period. I can barely remember getting it this past week, although the gnawing feeling inside my uterus reminds me that it did indeed arrive on Wednesday. I do, however, remember when I first learned that a period was more than a punctuation mark.
On an ordinary day in 1993, I was ushered into the Middlebrook Elementary School gymnasium with the entire lot of fifth grade girls. We had been culled from our respective classrooms for what our teachers described as a special “girls’ only” video with the school nurse.
We filed into rows of metal folding chairs and sat with our short legs dangling over the freshly waxed wooden floorboards. Before us was a boxy wood paneled television strapped to a VCR rolling cart. The top-heavy electronic monstrosity looked ready to pop out of its restraints and careen down the center aisle until it fell over and smashed into pieces. I silently willed it to stay put so that we could watch what I hoped was an episode of Rainbow Brite.
A teacher announced that it was time to begin and asked us to pay attention to “this very important film.” She pushed a black VHS tape into the mouth of the VCR. It let out an elongated squeak as it swallowed the tape. The TV wobbled a bit. I held my breath in anticipation.
My hopes were quickly dashed as the grainy salt and pepper TV static gave way to a group of girls with leotards and leg warmers dancing across a stage. Instead of Rainbow Brite, I got Growing Up On Broadway, a cheesy 1980s-style educational video about menstruation. The film featured girls who had starred in the musical Annie until puberty took them off the market. I watched in utter confusion as the adult host sat with this array of teenaged Broadway has-beens and facilitated a conversation in which they waxed philosophically about their Aunt Flo.
I wondered if Aunt Flo was a character in Annie that I had forgotten about. Perhaps she was Miss Hannigan’s sister.
The girls spoke in euphemisms about changing bodies and the excitement of growing up. They shared their post-Broadway hopes and dreams with buoyant smiles plastered across their faces. “You can stay up later,” beamed an ex-Annie with her bright orange hair in a bowl cut. “There’s high school!” exclaimed a girl with feathered hair. “You can drive,” grinned another girl who looked old enough to have gotten her license ten years ago.
I looked down at my little legs and thought that maybe I would finally get taller so I could reach the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet where the junk food was.
The film ended and the school nurse strutted before us with a confident stride. She was a tall, slender woman with a birdlike nose protruding from her angular face. Shoots of sandy colored hair rose up from her roots and arched down toward her shoulders like a textured mane. She replaced the TV with a rolling chalkboard that had an illustration of a uterus taped to its front side. She tapped at the picture with a long wooden pointing stick as she explained the key functions of the ovaries (egg sacs), fallopian tubes (egg highways), and uterus (womb).
I was filled with wide-eyed horror as I learned that there were eggs inside of me. Was I about to become a reptile? I pulled my fingers across my arm, feeling for scales. According to the nurse, these cold-blooded eggs triggered an avalanche of blood that would come pouring out of me every month for what sounded like the rest of my life. Images of melting punctuation marks dotted my mind.
This couldn’t have been the Aunt Flo that the girls in the video so lovingly spoke of. How could this awful thing happen to me? I was a good girl who earned straight As in everything except for math and gym. Was this a punishment for not being able to run the mile or memorize multiplication tables?
The nurse’s shrill ca-caw punctuated my prepubescent confusion. She traced the uterus with her pointing stick. I cringed as it scraped across the board and pictured blood dripping out from the pointer’s trail. “Here’s a fun fact. As you can see,” she said, “the uterus looks like an upside down chair.”
The mood in the room lightened at the word “fun.” The girls around me nodded, “Oh yeaahhh,” and exclaimed, “It does!” I tilted my head from side to side trying to see the chair, to no avail. I was too embarrassed to ask someone to explain it to me.
A few years later, the prophecy of the video came to be. My first period started a long ellipsis that became an accepted routine. Somewhere along the chain, in my college years, I found myself hanging out with Aunt Flo and feeling ravenous for junk food. I ventured into the kitchen in search of the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos that I knew would be perched atop the highest shelf in the cabinets.
I pulled a chair up to the counter, stepped onto the sturdy wooden seat, and pulled my still-too-short body onto the counter, reaching for the Doritos that would satisfy my hunger. As I lowered myself down, the fruit bowl at the end of the counter caught my eyes. I zeroed in on a bright green pear that sat nestled atop a bunch of bananas. A cramp in my uterus awakened the memory of Growing Up On Broadway and suddenly, the sun was coming out just like Annie said it would.
I dropped the Doritos, picked up the pear, and turned it upside down. “Oh…my… God,” I exclaimed through spurts of my own laughter. The nurse didn’t say “upside down chair.” She said “upside down pear.” It had taken me eleven years to figure this out.
Although I have become a pro at managing my relationship with Aunt Flo, the upside down chair had quietly puzzled me for many years.
The mystery of my chair-shaped uterus had been unlocked by a bowl of fruit.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction