by: Jennifer Handy , February 6, 2024
by: Jennifer Handy , February 6, 2024
Once when I was just thirteen, before they put me in a mental institution, I tried a tampon. My period was new to me and messy, not the sort of thing you talked about, or so I gathered from the awkward silence and embarrassed turning away of my mother and adults and even other girls my age, who were simply imitating the reactions of their elders, though perhaps unconscious of it. So when the tampon got stuck inside me, I knew better than to tell anyone about it, much less to ask for help. And so I sat there for several hours, naked from the waist down on the bathroom floor, trying desperately to pull the damn thing out.
The problem was not the tampon, I finally determined. The problem was the loop, a yarn-sized piece of skin or flesh. I could see the loop distinctly in a small mirror not meant for such ungainly, bloody tasks. The blood was everywhere. Every fifteen minutes, I had to mop it up; best not to let a thing like that get too out of hand. I could not account for the loop, what it was or how it happened to be wrapped so tightly around the tampon string.
No one had warned me that such things could happen to a nice young girl like me. The fact that it was happening at all seemed proof enough that perhaps I was not such a nice young girl. Perhaps God knew the sins I had committed, sins sexual in nature, and perhaps this loop was punishment for them, a monstrous growth that represented something worse inside my soul.
As I sat there, I alternated between a calm detachment and fits of crying, making sure my cries were not too loud. It was lucky I had a private bathroom off my bedroom; otherwise, I would surely have been discovered. I began to wonder whether eventually it would all come down to the use of scissors. One snip and the tampon would be free, and I too would be free. Free from the awful tampon, which I had come to hate with a kind of fury. Free from sitting in a pool of menstrual blood. And free from the tyranny of the unknown loop of flesh my body had produced.
But what was it I would be cutting? Did it matter? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I knew was that this thing, this tampon, had to come out sometime. Before I cut the loop, I decided to give it one more try, which in hindsight was an excellent idea because it worked, though why the loop slackened at just that moment, I’ll never know.
Once my body released its bloody hostage, my mind too released this foul intruder, flushing it down, down, down somewhere into the sewers with the id and all those other demons. I swore off tampons once and for all that day. If I didn’t use them anymore, this would never happen again, and I wouldn’t have to think about it or solve a problem that struck the thirteen-year-old me as absurd. Surreal. But life isn’t like a tampon. You can’t just flush it down the toilet.
A few years later, around the time I turned sixteen, I was doing better. I had been released from the mental ward, and that time when I had the tampon problem seemed more like a hallucination than something that had really happened, the more so when one day my mother in the car told me she was so glad I had forgotten, that my memory had been washed clean of that unwholesome period of my life before I went into the institution. I was shocked to hear this. It’s not every day the soundness of your mind and memory is questioned, and when she produced as evidence of her claim an incident which I did not in fact remember , I did not question her. I doubted myself instead.
Already, I had been wondering if maybe the tampon incident was some freak occurrence, something unlikely to occur again, if it had ever occurred at all. And now I began to suspect that it must be one of those false memories I had been charged with having conjured up out of nothing, or, if something, only out of dreams, my overactive imagination working, like God, almost ex nihilo with only stardust, protons, and other subatomic particles that hardly counted as anything when compared with all the universe, with intricate neural networks, with philosophy and higher mammals.
So I decided to try again and bought a box of Tampax. When I inserted my second-ever tampon, I was more careful. I checked the string as it went in, watching it slide inside with the mirror, checking to ensure its retrievability. Once it was safely in, I pulled it out again part-way, so that I could see the spot where the cotton part began, and I felt relief wash over me: there was nothing caught there. Just the expected string. Satisfied by this, I proceeded with my day.
But six hours later, I was back on the bathroom floor, facing the same non-existent loop locked tightly around the swollen cotton. Having faced this once before, I was less hysterical this time, though I still knew very little about my body, and even less about other things, like the meaning of “hysteria” and its long history, dating back to the time of Hippocrates, who attributed its source to the wandering of the womb.
Again, the loop held fast its bloody prey as I struggled to remove it, the only difference this time around being my knowledge that it was possible to do so. It still took almost an hour, not to mention an immeasurable amount of patience to repress the urge to scream, and this time the righteous anger was directed not only at my treacherous body and the tampon, but at the Doubting Thomas inside my skull, that part so ready to disbelieve and disavow those things that I myself had bled and felt and seen.
Three more years passed by before I learned what had really happened. When I had sex in college, that first time there was no blood to speak of, or so little it went unnoticed. The second time was bloodless, but the third time, the blood gushed out like a geyser erupting suddenly and violently, spouting sacred fluids from inside Mother Earth as though she had been raped. The toilet was my refuge; I sat on it and bled. And when the bleeding refused to stop, I finally put on a pad, upon which I later found a yarn-like loop of flesh, so painfully familiar. When I went to the hospital, a doctor in the E.R. informed me that the blood was just my hymen, which was unusually large. I might bleed for a day or two, he said, and the next time I had sex. It was then I realised what had always been true. The tampon incident had been real, caused by this thing they call a hymen. I was a virgin after all.
No one ever told me.
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