The Long Say

Bringing back the long-form essay before it’s too late.

A Period Piece

Sarah Smallwood

Being single is like wearing a bright orange Ascot hat. Some days, it’s fabulous; you throw your head back, donning your best sunglasses, rubbing it in everyone’s faces: you have one, and they don’t. Whether people go green with envy or treat it like a tumor that they politely avoid talking about, it fills you with a fierce pride. Some days, you roll your eyes toward the invisible brim and wonder if you should have just gone with the scarf.

Like I did, when my doctor asked why I was still taking birth control. Obviously, she’d given up on me.

The pro-con list was tellingly short: a lone “prevent pregnancy” in the pro column, stacked against shelling out for a co-pay every month and retaining an extra ten pounds—things I am disinclined to do while not in a relationship. If the deed needed doing, condoms were a reasonable $7 a box; in the meantime, I would be losing weight and saving money.

Heady with the spirit of economizing, I tossed my last eight sugar pills in the trash. If anything went terribly wrong—if I sprouted a penis, or spiraled into menopause—I could always go back on. In the meantime, I braced myself for biology’s revenge.

Nothing happened. Periods came and went without incident. Sure, they had a different timetable—what had once been a man with a stopwatch in an engineer’s hat was now more of a Deadhead in a minibus taking life as it came—but all the same stops were made. My weight deflated slightly. I had made the right decision.

Somewhere in January, I got cranky. Just a little at first; I blamed it on the snow, the cold floors, daylight savings. I became increasingly snappish with my housemates, and resented their cowering avoidance of me. I shrugged it off as stress, and tried detoxing it away with rashers of carrots, Irish oatmeal, and Greek yogurt. This rose to a fever pitch around St. Patrick’s Day, when I beat the inanimate shit out of my car with an ice scraper, cursing its bullshit adherence to gravity and the extraterrestrial fuckers who decided water should fall from the sky.

I blamed my increasing irritability on stress at work, lack of sleep. I bought a gym membership. Hours on the elliptical made me well-rested, but still there was a low hum in the back of my brain; I felt something coming, something inexplicable. I hoped it was Spring.

It wasn’t.

Late April found me irascible, restless, and turgid as a succulent. My presence was a high-pitched note my coworkers could feel in their fillings. My stare could kill. The dog shook when I came home; animals always know. I never cried. Lightning bolts do not cry.

When the sun finally came out, my raw energy was diffused back into the earth—walks, running, gardening, anything that kept me outside. The anger slowly receded, now tempered into something else, something vaguely familiar. It was an itch, a pang, something that would not speak its name into my consciousness.

It was a strange feeling, like my clothes didn’t fit right, or my body had shifted slightly to the right. I was hot, cold, covered in prickles. Allergies, I reasoned, taking a dose of Allegra and sleeping with the window closed. I blamed jitters on the antihistamines; I went on longer runs, happily, in the early muddy months. I cut back on coffee; I was sure my body would adjust. After all, hadn’t it adjusted fairly well to the drop in estrogen? Wasn’t I over all that business now?

My brain was a five-year-old running through the cereal aisle, trundling along and pointing happily. My body was his mother, standing next to the flaxseed with a smile on her face.

One night, as I was sitting in a café with two friends, a man in a tight green t-shirt sat down at his laptop. I remember very little about that night, except the expressions on my friends faces as I sat, shifting in my seat, my pupils so dilated that trained poodles could have jumped through them. I realized what that itch was. It was internal, and there was no balm for it—well, there was, but you couldn’t buy it in shops. I stared. I gripped the table edges.

I was no longer a woman. I was an adolescent male with sore boobs.

I ate bacon. I ate a frozen yogurt the size of my head. I put sugar in my coffee and put deodorant on twice a day. There was a three-a-day minimum of “that’s what she said” jokes.

I replaced my vibrator batteries. And then I replaced them again.

What I hadn’t fully considered was that I went on the Pill when I was seventeen, about five minutes after my first boyfriend and I had nodded our way through a conversation about Doing It. I had been on them, through both high times and dry times, ever since.

That was ten years ago. A decade of a little something extra, a little progesterone fix, which I had quit cold turkey. I mistook the ensuing quiet as acceptance. I assumed my body had gone to its room to meditate or balance its checkbook, when in reality it was spending its nights at the still, brewing up a batch of Liberty Gin. The six months it took my body to climb out of its estrogen trough was merely the aging shelf life of hormone moonshine.

And I knew what had to happen for it to stop, but I still was not prepared. I counted days and circled the last week on the calendar with the trite red Sharpie, and waited.

One night, I dreamt I was in labor. I was walking the mall with my sister and fainted—wondering, at the time, exactly how one can faint in a dream. The contractions were hard and fast, and I was glad I was asleep.

Whoosh. I sat straight up.

I headed for the bathroom and yelled for my sister—after all, she had been so great about the dream fainting, and from the way I was bent in half I was sure I would need medical attention. The conversation that followed included the phrases, “I’m sorry for this, but please come in here,” “Is that normal,” and “Do I need to go to the ER?”

I may have been overreacting, but this hadn’t happened since I was fourteen and skipped school in favor of a hot-water bottle and the gender-neutral “headache” fearing organs would fall out of me on my way to the bus. I tore open a fresh super-plus, silo-sized, “you can go swimming if you don’t mind reducing the water level by an inch” box, wondering if I needed a tourniquet instead—and if I did, where the hell would I tie it?

Upon hearing this, my doctor pats my knee and assures me everything is normal. I shoot her a “you weren’t there, man” glare. She tells me there was a bit of a lapse, but my body has regulated—in the gangsta rap sense, I assume, nodding—and is now fully “adjusted.” “Leveled out.” Although, she warns, from now on this may be the norm. I sigh and adjust my hat, happy that at least the withdrawal pains are over.

Until next month, when my uterus shivers in a corner, slapping its wrists and wondering what else it can sell.

Filed under: Essay

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