Co-Winner Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize in Nonfiction
Published: April 22, 2010

I folded my arms across my chest and prayed that the sweat beneath my breasts wouldn’t seep through my tank top.  Our class was standing in the hallway in two straight lines, waiting to be led to gym class.  Sixth grade had just begun and the school was still summer-hot.

“Do you have pubic hair?” Desiree whispered.

All that summer, there was no question in my mind: I was being watched.  Always.  Closely.

The whole neighborhood observed as hair began to erupt from the follicles under my armpits, and my chest puffed into two sore points.  Damp old ladies stopped me as I walked onto the elevator to comment on my blossoming.  All around, the world was violent green, the heat rising up from gum-stamped pavement, the sweat on my body as poisonous as arsenic.  My mother circled me and sniffed like a police dog.

Soon the other hair began to grow, darker than anything else that had ever sprung from my body.  Miniature, ebony snakes.  I stole my mother’s razor, shore them from my skin and did away with the evidence.  Scouring the bathtub, I watched every last prickle of hair spin down the drain.

Just a few months ago my mom would shout, “Coming in!” when she needed to get into her bathroom while I was in the tub.  And I would sit there, curtain flung open, while she plucked a hair from her chin, clipped her toenails perched on the toilet seat.  I’d tell her something secret: being jealous that Annabel’s lips were always red; liking the way Timmy Burke’s ears stuck out through his thin, auburn hair.

“Don’t come in! Don’t come in!” I yelled now.

“I just need my Oil of Olay, honey,” she’d say.  “This is my bathroom.”

“I don’t come in when you’re using it,” I’d call, spreading a washcloth over my chest.

“Why are you so private all of a sudden?” she’d say.

Because everything was changing and it was disgusting and because my mother was a psychotherapist and she would ask me to “reflect on the meaning of the change.”  Because she would tell me the story of when she got her period – sitting on the hammock with her sister and then going inside to the bathroom (I could picture its pink and grey paisley towels, the ceramic toothbrush holder rooted to the wall) –  and seeing the stain there in her underpants and squealing for joy.  Squealing. For joy.

She was tiny as a girl; delicate, with freckled arms and two thick braids down her back. I imagined her never being sweaty or angry, lying down beneath the cool, cedar-scented quilt on her bed, hipbones poking up through the patchwork cover.  I pictured her small, white feet on the cold slate in the entry way, a shaft of silver sun coming in through the skylight, illuminating the dustless air.  There was also a part of me that knew this squealing for joy story was not quite true.

In addition to being a therapist, my mother was a person from New England—a fact in serious philosophical conflict with her profession.  As far as I could tell from my Bostonian grandparents, New Englanders were clean and ascetic; they wanted you to be well-read and unscented.  I couldn’t imagine that my mother had felt good about the red-brown spot that appeared on her underpants in the middle of a gnat-aired Massachusetts summer.

My grandfather was always asking for recited proof of things I knew: words in French or Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  My grandmother would come at me with a damp wash cloth after every meal.  “You’ve got a little something on your face,” she’d say, wiping hard.  My New York grandmother, I’d recall, just used a licked thumb.

When we’d go to new places or meet new people, a rigid propriety coalesced like ice in my mother’s throat and any sloppiness in my personal appearance became an act of “disrespect.”  A too-baggy t-shirt or chipped nail polish: crude.  Dirty sandals or a messy braid: vulgar. And what was puberty if not vulgar?  My body, once just a thing that could do more and more each year, was now oozing scents and hair and useless, fatty deposits.

“Don’t! Come! In!” I yelled that summer, though part of me imagined that my mother might walk through the door anyway; maybe even hoped it.  She’d make it make sense, in her way, make me still hers.

Looking at Desiree in that airless hallway, her nose flecked in sweat and a few small blackheads, I wondered if her mother was the type to watch or to avert her eyes.  Although she was very thin and her chest was still flat, I knew that Desiree hadn’t escaped the filth of puberty.  Her eyes darted around, scared.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I do have pubic hair.”

“Me too,” she’d said.

We laughed and then the line moved and we said something about something else.  And to me, that was friendship.  The ceding of privacy to someone other than your mother.