The day we get the sex talk in fifth grade, I am out sick with the flu. I spend the morning home on the couch, watching The Jetsons while eating unnaturally large quantities of instant Jell-O.
After school, my best friend Patti arrives to deliver my homework and the big news. It happened in Ms. Jensen’s health class, she says. The students were divided into two groups — girls on one side of the room, boys on the other. Patti took notes.
“I also brought you a feminine info pack,” she says now. We are sitting on the couch together. I’ve muted The Jetsons in order to study a pamphlet on the menstrual cycle. An anatomical diagram of key lady parts has been included, and I frown at it.
“Looks like a hamster,” I say.
“You’re holding it wrong. It’s upside-down,” she says, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Either way, it looks strange, like a transit map for an underground metro system in a foreign country. It’s blank, as if we’re meant to make a coloring project out of it.
“Where’s the… you know,” I say, and Patti points to it. I take a pencil and confidently label the small intestine. “BABIES GO HERE,” I write.
Patti waves a maxi pad at me.
“Plus, all us girls got these,” she says.
The sample maxi pad has been folded up like a delicate secret, encased in a cheerful purple wrapper. I am immediately suspicious. My parents have already warned me about this, about the products, the perils of becoming a woman, about pads and periods and predators and perverts. As far as I can tell, being a woman is a pretty terrible deal, and so I’m in no great hurry to become one. Patti stares at me, expectant.
“Well?” she says. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I toss the pad onto the coffee table.
“I don’t know,” I say, breezily. “Only if I feel like it.”
Patti is allowed to stay over for dinner so we go up to my room and return to our ongoing Barbie game. In a recent and surprising development, Barbie’s evil sister Mildred has secretly murdered Gumby while on a luxury holiday cruise.
“Mildred must be punished,” says Patti, and I agree. I return downstairs, to retrieve the hermetically sealed maxi pad. In my room I open it, wrapping the evil Mildred up tight, stapling her inside.
“It’s a life jacket,” I explain.
We shove Evil Mildred off the boat in her sanitary napkin flotation device where she will presumably spend perpetuity adrift at sea, imprisoned in a special kind of menstrual hell of my design.
Nothing exciting ever happens in the fifth grade, and I’m initially disappointed to have missed the sex seminar. When I return to school, everyone seems different. Wiser. In the know.
“Of all the days to miss,” I complain to Patti.
As a best friend, Patti is kind and loyal: a steadfast Mormon to my Muslim, a kindred nerd-spirit. The girls around us might be awakening, experimenting with things, with red lipstick, French kissing, bras with underwire, but Patti and I remain almost stubbornly childish. For years, we stay happily ensconced together in Narnia, fueled by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and dreams of a big future. We are teased for being the way we are. Of course, we’re teased, but because we have each other, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
Patti wears thick glasses and bookish corduroys. She blushes easily and has translucent skin. She towers over me with hair so blonde, under the sun it looks white. When we stand together, it’s like we’re the punchline to a joke. My hair is jet black, and I am scrawny. Small. The brownest kid in my school district.
I’m also about two years younger than everyone else in my grade. And so, while I complain to Patti about missing out, the truth is I’m used to missing out. The truth is, I’m maybe even okay with missing out. More than okay.
Because I don’t need to know, don’t want to know. Because I can see there’s more to being a woman than transit maps and Wonderbras. I sense there’s more than I’ve been told, even if I don’t understand the full extent of it, don’t realize that 4 out of 5 victims of human trafficking are female, that 1 in 3 of all women in the world will experience some form of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, that 99% of all perpetrators of sexual violence against women will walk free. I don’t know any of this yet. I really have very little idea.
For now, I am free. Free to be with Patti, to be a girl, to pedal my red bike up and down the street, handlebar tassels streaming behind me, knee socks pulled up all the way, the breeze lifting my hair into a temporary halo. It won’t last. None of it will. It can’t. This is just the way it is.
Sometimes I imagine that little girl on her bike. I picture Patti in her reading glasses, the way they would magnify her eyes, making her look surprised. Patti, my best friend. Sweet, sweet little girl. I want to reassure her, to reassure both of them, all of them. I want to tell them to not be so afraid, to keep them safe a little while more.
To keep them safe for as long as I can.