by Lisbeth Coiman
The day of her menarche the girl goes to her mother, who is sharping her kitchen knife on the edge of the metal sink, the housecats brushing their tails on Mother’s legs. She taps on Mother’s arm and says, “I’m bleeding down there.” Mother turns from her task and cats, grabs the girl by the hand and takes her to the bathroom. Mother gives the girl a sanitary napkin and instructs her to put the napkin inside her panties anytime there is blood down there. Mother doesn’t say how long it is going to last, or how frequently it is going to happen, or how badly it is going to hurt. “Wear this,” Mother says, and leaves.
In the bathroom, the girl struggles to fit the pad inside the panty. The long, flapping sleeves don’t hang properly from the edge of the garment. She washes her hands and steps out of the bathroom, walking with her legs spread apart. Her brothers laugh at her and mock her brand new walking style. In the kitchen, Mother says, “Ya se desarrolló esa muchacha” – “The girl developed.” Not that Mother is shy about sex. Sex is actually Mother’s favorite topic of conversation. The girl listens to Mother talking to her friends all the time. “I have my bulls out, corral your cows,” Mother refers to her sons aloud in the common areas of this working class neighborhood.
That evening the girl listens to Father and Mother speaking in the room next to hers. They decide that the girl will go to a private school, a “better school for girls” in the city. She will have to take a commuting bus every morning at 4:30 a.m. to be on time for school at 7:30 a.m. She will probably arrive early, but it will be worth the effort.
“Why so far?” she asks herself on the other side of the wall where she listens to her parents. Mother doesn’t want the girl to go to her neighborhood school, only a couple of miles away, because of all “those negros.” “They grope those girls and make them pregnant before the girls learn how to change their menstrual pads,” Mother says.
Father doesn’t have an opinion, never seems to have one of his own.
Away they send her.
For the girl, it would be a dream to sleep till six and go to school at seven, after a nice breakfast, and walk with all the kids from her neighborhood to school, skipping, or running, and talking nonsense, and singing, like everybody else. It would be wonderful to come back home at noon, sleep during siesta, do her homework, eat merienda –the afternoon snack–and watch cartoons with her siblings or play with the girl next-door, “esa negra,” as Mother says.
Instead, she wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to wash her sheets in the backyard, and take a shower from a barrel that collects rainwater, because she has the bad habit of wetting her bed. “Muchacha el carajo, anda a lavá’ tus sábana, cochina.” Dirty damned girl should wash her sheets before taking the 4:30 bus to the city.
The bus takes two hours to complete the commute and arrives in this part of the city where the central bus terminal is located. “El Nuevo Circo” is busy with life even at this early hour, with passengers arriving from all over the country. She walks past the circus arena, where she has come with her family to Disney Shows on Ice, or where Father comes to watch the bullfights and boxing matches. She exits the entertainment area through the cluttered pedestrian underpasses bursting with craft and textile vendors, mostly migrants from the Andes.
As any neighborhood of motels and transient population, this is a place for brothels and botiquines—cheap bars. The girl arrives in the early hours to meet the characters of this street between the corners of Wind and Death—the drunk leaving the brothel, the prostitute claiming her payment. The girl arrives every day to find this misery and lust, when the school is not yet open and the decency of the city not yet awakened. This pubescent town girl, alone here.
The noise of broken glass echoes against the row of colonial houses, typical of this side of town. They are mostly boarding houses for college kids, or migrant workers looking for better opportunities than those in the heartland. The houses have deep entrance halls called zaguanes, which are perfect hide outs for all sorts of creeps. The girl is scared. The street sweeper has not arrived to work yet.
A woman dressed unlike any woman she knows is eating a man’s pee-pee right behind a car. The girl squirms and hides in a zaguán. A man comes from behind her and asks, “You wanna see something?” Scared, she runs to the school and stands there almost hugging the closed door. The man laughs at a distance.
Later the prostitute passes by the school door and says a simple “Hola.”
“Hola,” the girl replies shyly.
“Why are you here so early? The school won’t open until 6:30 when the custodian arrives.”
“I know, but I live far away. The next bus would get here too late. So it’s either now or 8:30.”
“Oh, I see. Be careful then. Gotta go now. Bye.”
One day, it begins raining an hour before the custodian arrives to open the school door. The woman invites the girl inside the brothel, offering shelter from the rain. Past the zaguán there is a central garden, the solar, and on each side a row of small rooms, each with a bed and a bedside table. Only some beds are neatly done.
This house is busy with people so different from each other; certainly they are not a family. Every woman she encounters is dressed as if she is going to bed right away, but not in comfy pajamas like she and Mother usually do, but in underwear, or tiny clothes that don’t really cover anything. They wear heavy makeup and most of them are drunk. Everybody speaks in foul language. The girl is dressed in a turquoise jumper, a white t-shirt, mid leg white knee-high socks and black shoes. No makeup or jewelry – her school uniform in sharp contrast with the women’s skimpy lingerie.
A man enters the scene kissing and hugging everybody, grabbing women’s butts and breasts. He looks at the girl with sparkling eyes and asks her name.
The woman who invited the girl into the house replies before the girl has time to form a sentence: “Leave her alone, she goes to the school next door.” After a brief pause she offers, “It’s raining outside” as a form of explanation for the girl’s presence in the house. Just as quickly she directs her attention to a larger woman sitting with legs spread apart and in her red underwear, saying, “Tell me when it stops raining.”
The woman with the red panty says, “It already has.”
“Go to your school, and never come back here again, you hear me?” The woman tells the girl, and the girl leaves for good, saying “Gracias” on her way out, not knowing yet if her gratitude is for being sheltered from the rain or for being saved from the eyes of the predator.
Coiman is a blogger and a memoirist. Her work has been published online in YAY LA Magazine, Girl Body Pride, and Mental Health Talk. Her story “The Menarche” recently earned Honorable Mention in the HIp Mama / Unchaste Readers’ Writing Contest. She blogs regularly inwww.wattpad.com/Cayena, where she posts fiction and poetry, and in www.gingerbreadwoman.org, where she muses about living with a mental disorder. She is concerned with issues of identity, aculturation, dysfunctional families, and madness.