My aunt didn’t understand how tampons worked.
She was worried one would take my cousin’s virginity.
When she and my mother were growing up
they used cotton rags and strips of linen
folded over their underwear.
These were left in a bucket overnight
and scrubbed the next morning–
the rose water puckered their skin,
peeled their fingers.
The morning I got my period,
my mother didn’t believe me.
She turned over and fell back asleep.
I used rolled-up toilet paper for weeks
until one day in the 6th grade
my blood left a quarter-sized stain,
a wetness on my fingers.
In the 1980s menstruation mystified
NASA engineers. They asked Sally Ride
if 100 tampons would be enough
for a week in space. During press conferences,
she fielded questions about how being weightless
in orbit would affect her reproductive organs
and if she wept every time
her uterine walls shed its inner linings.
Menstruation remained a mystery
to me for over half a decade.
I’d lock myself in the bathroom for hours
and read the paper instructions
that come with every box of tampons,
still unsure how and where to insert one.
My aunt’s fear was misplaced.
I lost my virginity to a real
flesh and bone boy before any bullet
of absorbent cotton or synthetic fibers
ever entered my body.
I was drunk and on my period.
It was on the floor of a stranger’s living room
and it was dark. No one saw the blood
on the carpet until the next morning.
One of my first times was in the woods
squatted against a tree. My friends
and I were on the way to meet some older boys
at the falls and I inserted
the plastic applicator with vigor.
In high school all the girls
spoke in whispers,
in code: shark week, crimson wave,
blood diamond, Aunt Flo.
I snuck tampons up my sleeve
or beneath my bra’s underwire
before walking past all the men
in my office.
The gynecologist tells me I have too much estrogen–
that’s why I bleed so much so frequently.
Often twice a month.
When I tell the 31-year-old
I’m sleeping with that I’m bleeding,
he tells me he doesn’t care.
I make him cover his face with a pillow
while I tug at the knot between my legs
until I feel it give way,
my body letting go: kite string,
lucky rabbit’s foot.
First published at Diode.
Susan Nguyen’s writing is often interested in the body: how geography, history, and trauma leave markers, both visible and invisible. Her current work also explores the challenges of living in the United States while claiming a multilingual and multicultural identity.