mother and her small daughter open the trunk of the car to find the daughter's leotard has a red, wet stain on it.
DAUGHTER: And the ballet's tomorrow!
MOTHER: Honey, we'll get it out.
MOTHER, VOICE-OVER:... So I crossed my fingers and threw it in.
--TV advertisement for laundry detergent
"Don't do that" and "I love you"--who knows which words I use more with my daughter, Jenny? Whenever I come home from work she's in the midst of some wild action. She gathers all the neighborhood boys around her, and they rig bike-jumping ramps out of scrap wood and bricks in my driveway. She rushes up one ramp on her mountain bike, sails through the air like that motorcycle daredevil who they say has broken every bone in his body at least twice, and slams down onto another ramp six feet away. The boys do it too, but she is their leader. In between the two ramps they put things you wouldn't really want to put in there. One of the boys will volunteer his pet gerbil, say. Or if they can, get a small dog to sit in there. Jenny herself has these rodent-size friends that she makes out of dust, but they're very important to her and she won't endanger them, especially after what happened a while ago. Lacking an animal, they'll put a doll in, or they'll save up the jagged lids off cans of dog food.
Once at the end of a long day at the hospital I approached the house in my car just as Jenny came raging into the street on her bike after a jump, completely out of control. I got right out of my car and screamed at all of them, they could be crushed in an instant, didn't that mean anything to them, et cetera. I forbade Jenny to use her bike for a week, and I confiscated their ramp materials. That's why it was such a shock when they did it again last week. I bet I know what happened: Jenny cajoled all the boys to hunt down new materials and build a new ramp in my driveway. They did it for Jenny because she has a power over them. It makes me think of the rock-and-roll song by that foursome of ugly boys in black leather that Jenny watches on TV: "But she ain't no tomboy when she puts her tongue in my mouth."
As for the dust, I say, "Don't play with that. What's so great about dust?" She doesn't listen. I let her slide on the little things. I'm telling you, she's fierce. Never had a father, I'm sure that's it.
Recently, just before the bicycle incident, I had a nice loaf of white bread. When I got home from work she was sawing off all the crust with a big serrated knife. She's nine years old. "Look, Mom, I'm skinning it."
"This is what you do when I'm not around?"
There was a pot of oil over a high flame on the stove. She dropped in the naked white bread. "I'm boiling it in oil."
"Jenny. Jenny," I said. It's strange to say her name out loud because it's my name too. She pulled it out with tongs. "Grew a new skin," she said. "Let's try it on Saint Francis." He was one of her dust pals. She took him out of his cage and threw him right into the pot. Then she ran around the kitchen, beside herself. "He's screaming! He's screaming!" She ran up to the pot, and I think she would have thrust her hand in to save him if I hadn't caught her arm. There wasn't much left of him afterward.
Next day by the time I got home she had another pot of oil on and she had caught a mouse in a Hav-a-Hart trap. As I entered the kitchen she lifted the mouse out of the trap by its tail with her thumb and forefinger and dangled it over the pot of boiling oil.
I said, "You wouldn't dare." I shouldn't have said that.
You should see the way she dances. She's in a ballet/modern class. She leaps wildly and tumbles hard. She was up on pointe in a week. She throws her little body around as if it were a rag doll. She's really driven. She works herself to death, practically.
This year her class is putting on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I came home one day and she said, "I got the part of the Virgin!" I couldn't remember the ballet well. I thought I must have seen it once because I had the distinct impression there was no Virgin in there. But I was happy for Jenny. I made her favorite dinner that night, pasta puttanesca. It worries me the way she dances, as if she has nothing to lose.
And the things she thinks about worry me. After dinner that night--this is about a month ago--she asked me, "When am I gonna start to bleed?"
"Bleed. When am I gonna bleed?"
"Oh. I didn't know what the hell you were talking about. That's sort of inaccurate, to call your period bleeding."
"All right, so when am I gonna get my period?"
"What's the hurry?"
"Because then I'll be a woman."
"No you won't."
"Think of thirteen-year-olds you know. Are they women?" "Maybe."
"Listen. Womanhood is more than just physical. It's emotional too. It has to do with experience."
"But doesn't your body teach you something? When you have your first period, don't you automatically know something that you didn't know before?"
"Mo-o-om." Her face was all red. I think I was scaring her. What is it that I say that I keep scaring her?
"It's true," I said, "that womanhood cannot begin until you ovulate. But actual womanhood per se comes later. It's the consequence of your desires."
"What's the consequence of your desires?"
"It varies. Mostly weariness, I think."
"No, what's the consequence of your desires?"
"Oh." Now I understood. "You, sweetie."
"What was that one word you used a second ago? 'Obligate' or something?"
"Lisa and Tina just talked about bleeding. What's 'ovulate'?"
"You mean all you know about menstruation is what you heard from two other fourth-graders?"
"Oh boy." I do happen to be a registered nurse, and you'd think that would have given me some handle on how to tell my daughter about this. Not so. "'Menstruation,'" I said, "comes from the Latin 'mensis,' meaning month, because you menstruate once a month, more or less. 'Ovulate' is from the Latin 'ovum,' meaning egg. It's the production of the egg and its journey from the ovary through the fallopian tubes to the uterus."
I cleared the dishes and took the pad of paper and the pencil down from near the phone. Sitting at the kitchen table, I drew her one of those as-seen-from-the-front pictures of the vagina, the cervix, the uterus, the fallopian tubes, and the ovaries that looks like a ram's head with a gas mask on. I know this stuff like I know the back of my hand, but my heart was pounding. How do you explain this to your nine-year-old daughter? I just reached into my head and pulled out whatever was there.
"Okay, a girl is born with all these follicles, maybe two, three million follicles here," I said, pointing with my pencil. "Every month or so, some of the follicles grow eggs."
"Eggs? No way."
"Not like sunny-side up. Much smaller. No shell. The eggs are very delicate. The whole reproductive apparatus is like a glass statue."
"But I thought everything in there is all soft and mushy."
"So how can it be like a glass statue? Is it clear, like see-through?"
"How do you know? Maybe it is see-through."
"I promise you it's not."
"What about the glass statue?"
"Forget about the glass statue. I made a mistake."
"Maybe you're making a mistake now. How am I supposed to know which one is the mistake?"
"Jenny. The menstrual cycle is complicated. Why don't you let me get all the way through my explanation and then come at me with your usual questions and challenges to my authority?"
She answered by sighing like an actress and letting her head drop sideways onto the kitchen table just a little faster and harder than is comfortable for a mother to watch. Her face was looming above the diagram now, and she peered down at it with one eye.
At this point I was like one of those soldiers from rural Ohio or wherever who has been wounded in battle and, as he's drifting off to death, begins to recite long biblical passages in fluent Aramaic, only instead of the Bible it was the nursing-school textbook I was recalling verbatim. "As the follicles grow the egg, they also produce a hormone called estrogen. Estrogen causes the endometrium, which is the uterine lining--here--to grow and thicken. Then the follicle releases the egg into the fallopian tube, ruptures, and produces progesterone, which causes the endometrium to make food for an embryo. The embryo is like the teeny tiny baby that happens if a sperm swims through all that mucus and nails the egg."
"Is that where the blood comes from? The sperm nailing the egg?"
Have I somehow insidiously passed on to Jenny her penchant for the macabre? It's possible. The last thing I tried to explain to her that night was the sloughing off of the ovum in the vaginal secretions. She pounced. "What's that word, 'sluff'?"
"Every book I've ever seen on the female reproductive cycle uses that word. Can't you figure it out from the context?"
"Can't you just tell me what it means?"
I went to the dictionary on top of the piano in the den. She didn't follow me in there, so I had to lug the thing back into the kitchen. It just so happens that I was having my own monthly cramps at that time. I opened the dictionary feeling tired and annoyed, and in my haste I made a mistake. "'Slough. One. A marshy, muddy place or swamp. Two. A state of hopeless dejection.'"
The following night at dinner Jenny said, "So, Mom, Lisa and Tina and me came back early from recess and I took them into the coat closet and told them all that stuff about sluffing and endometrium and obligation. They didn't get it. I don't get it either. What daes any of it have to do with getting your period?"
"That's it. That's the period."
"What's the period?"
"Endometrium and obligation."
"But what does it mean?"
"Maybe you were right yesterday when you said your body will teach you something when you have your period. Before that I can say 'prostoglandin estrogen progesterone' until I'm blue in the face, but you'll still be in the dark."
"Come on, Mom, can't you just explain it to me?"
I wanted to cry when she said that to me. She had a furious frown on her small face. I figured I could either fight her about the language and watch her explode before my eyes, or I could try to help her on her quest. I saw she was in pain from not knowing. But is knowledge going to make her any less of a willful little beast? I don't think so.
"All right," I said. "There's an old folktale about a mom and a daughter. The daughter is sick. She's in bed. She's got a headache, cramps, maybe a nosebleed, I don't know what." Jenny's frown slackened a bit--that's a big relief for a mother. "Her mom is trying to take care of her," I said, "but she doesn't really know what's wrong. Finally the daughter says, 'There's something in the garden that will cure me.' The mom says, 'Is it the potato?' and the daughter says, 'Mom, you're so stupid. It's not the potato.' So the mom says, 'Is it the cucumber?' and the daughter says, 'Well, you're getting warm, but you're still fairly much of a foolish, insipid mother. It's not the cucumber.' And then the mom says, 'Uh, could it be, I don't know, say, the gardener?' 'Bingo!' End of story."
We sat in silence for a moment at the kitchen table. Jenny knitted her brow, put her chin in her hands, pursed her lips. Then she spoke: "When the mom said, 'cucumber,' why did the daughter say, 'You're getting warm'?"
Maybe I didn't emphasize enough how distressing this business of careening out into the street on the bicycle is. The second time it happened, a week and a half ago, I had to brake hard in order not to hit her. I even banged my head on the steering wheel. For a moment I sat in the car stunned while Jenny stood inches from the front fender straddling her bike. Then I got out of the car and slammed the door, and I was so furious I cried. "Get away!" I shouted at the two little ruffians on their bikes in my driveway. I'm sure they were relieved not to have to stick around and watch Jenny's mother crying.
I told Jenny to just go inside while I unloaded the trunk of the car. I had been to the supermarket, and I had been to the store to pick up Jenny's white Virgin costume for the dance. Instead of going in, Jenny followed the car into the driveway on her bicycle and stood next to the car door when I opened it and followed me around to the trunk. When I opened the trunk, the first thing we saw was Jenny's white leotard with a big, wet, dark red stain on it. The grape-juice bottle must have exploded when I braked for her. "God, it looks as if you've been bleeding," I said without thinking.
"Like having my period?"
That night I told her this behavior simply had to stop, and to make sure that it did, she would not be allowed to dance in the dance this year. When she heard that, she went to the kitchen wall and started to pull pots and pans and big serving spoons off their hooks and throw them across the room, shouting and screaming. I had to run over and restrain her before she threw something that would shatter and blind one of us. I came up behind her and grabbed her wrists. I felt her strong little muscles, I felt all her power moving against me. Finally, in order to calm her down I had to just hug her with all my might.
The dance was a week after the grape-juice explosion. Jenny behaved almost as if nothing had happened, only she was more subdued than her usual self, which is to say she was not herself at all. That made me feel terrible. I called up the head of her ballet school and made a deal with her. She and I would pretend that Jenny was out of the dance, but she'd have Jenny continue to rehearse the part of the Virgin as an understudy, "just in case." At the last minute, I'd tell Jenny I changed my mind. I can't remember if that was my original intention when I forbade her to dance. I really was upset about the collision--I mean the near-collision--but Jenny lives for dancing, and if a mother is intentionally hurtful to her daughter, then she is a bad mother.
I went to the store and bought some of that detergent with bleach that I'd seen advertised on TV. I did the presoak, washed it, soaked again, washed, and the stain was gone. Not that I loved the idea of her prancing around onstage in that particular costume anyway. It was so tight you could see everything when she had it on--her protruding pelvic bones, her ribs, everything.
When I broke the news to her that she was back in the dance, she did not appear surprised. She smiled calmly, like someone who knows something you don't know.
The parents in the audience gasped when, ten minutes into the dance, the fierce, pale Virgin leapt onto the stage from the wings. She had taken something--red lipstick? red nail polish?--and smeared it on the front of her leotard, mostly around the crotch and the breasts (she doesn't really have breasts yet--around the tender little buds of her nipples). I knew instantly that this was Jenny's own doing. This was vintage Jenny. And now it all came together, now I understood. I was terribly proud. What a costume!
After the ballet I went backstage. All the girls were squealing and hugging each other. The head of the ballet school, a dignified woman in her fifties, was wandering among the girls, patting this one and that one on the head. I saw her approach Jenny, look at her with an expression of puzzlement that I recognized from the inside out, and walk away. I saw Jenny watch her walk away: she looked after her wistfully, and then she looked down at the floor. I realized that not even Jenny could have done what she did that night without also feeling the shame.
I called out to my daughter. She looked up, ran to me, hugged my waist, and said, uncertainly, "I killed tonight, didn't I, Mom?"
"Yes, sweetheart," I said. "You killed."
Excerpted from Stories from the Tube by Nicholas Shakespeare. Copyright © 1999 by Matthew Sharpe. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.