Emily Carpenter is a freelance writer from Atlanta who wrangles three boys and is working on her first novel.
He swung up his backpack and wiggled into the seat beside her, smelling like sun and playground sweat and that blue cleaner they used at the school. She considered reminding him to snap his belt—then thought, let him be free a little longer. It wasn’t that far to the house, just through the neighborhood, and he’d been stuck in a desk most of the day.
He wedged his backpack beneath his feet and pushed himself halfway up the seat, traveling his fingers over her water bottle, the gear shift, an old lipstick. The crossing guard waved her on, and she pulled out of the lot. Once they were up the hill, she looked over. He was holding one of her tampons in the flat of his palm.
“What’s this?” he said. His face was flushed, but only from the hot day, not because he was embarrassed. The tampon might as well have been a snail’s shell or an old snakeskin, the way he’d laid it out on his hand.
She swallowed. Ten years old wasn’t too young to be told about this stuff, not really. Some girls his age had already started their periods.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s something girls use because they bleed once a month. It’s a bandage, sort of. For the inside.”
“I’m glad I’m not a girl.”
“Well, be nice to them because, believe me, it’s no fun.”
She should’ve come up with something better than that. Something that would make him respect the girls now, and later especially, when he was a man. But the right words, whatever they were, hovered just beyond her reach.
“It’s a beautiful thing too,” she said. “Special.”
“Where do they put it?”
They were at the stop sign, so she held up her hands, leaving a teardrop-shaped space between the webs of her thumbs. He studied it and wrinkled his nose.
“And it stretches out for a baby,” she added. His eyes widened and he shivered. She thought, you have no idea. They sat there at the stop sign.
“But where does the blood come from?” His voice was low now, maybe sensing he’d officially become an intruder.
She ran her hands around the steering wheel. “Do you really want to know? All of it?”
“Yes, I really do.”
She looked down. The wheel, a near perfect replica of the female reproductive system—uterus sprouting fallopian tubes that ended in ovaries—rested right beneath her hands. Somewhere in Detroit, a Chrysler designer had huddled in his cube, subconsciously yearning for his mother’s womb. He’d made this thing just for her. She wanted to laugh.
“Look at the wheel.” She pointed and explained all the parts as they wound through the streets.
“But you don’t want to have more babies, right?” he asked.
“So do you still have that bleeding thing?”
“I’m sorry,” he said and looked out the window. Then, “How do the babies get in there?”
“I thought Dad told you that.”
She tried to curb the edge in her voice. “Really? I thought he did.”
He was supposed to have. They’d talked about it, agreed he would, and now he hadn’t. This was the way things had been going. He would agree to something—they would agree—and then he just wouldn’t show. He would forfeit the game. There was never a fight, nothing like that, just a blank where he was supposed to have been. There had been more and more blanks lately. So many opportunities forfeited.
They were home now. She was idling in the driveway and thought maybe she should tell him it was enough, but he was watching her, his eyes so wide the lashes brushed the bottom of his brows.
“I want to know everything,” he said.
So she told him—all the appalling facts—and after each revelation, he yodeled a protest. She started to laugh after a while, because, weirdly, the way she was telling it, it was coming out sounding like a naked Three Stooges routine.
When she was done he said, “That’s horrible.”
“I know, I know. It’s just so weird. So hard to believe. Crazy-sounding.” He nodded, and she realized she’d laughed so hard, tears had wet her cheeks. She dabbed at them.
“I will NEVER do that.”
“It’s okay. You’re not supposed to yet, and you don’t ever have to do anything you don’t want to do. In fact, you can just plain forget about the whole thing.”
This, in fact, was true. No one actually needed sex, not like they needed air and water and food. A person wouldn’t die without it. She glanced at him. He was slumped in his seat, and she wondered what kind of mother laughed her way through a moment like this. Possibly not a good one. But at least she was here.
“Do you and Dad still do that?” he asked.
At once, the air that had been filled with laughter thickened. She hesitated.
“Yes,” she finally said. “We do.”
His head pitched forward, hit the dash, and he howled out a long, stretched-out no.
“I’m sorry,” she said. They both started to laugh again, but the air stayed heavy.
After a while she suggested they go in. He scrambled out and trudged up the steps, the backpack drooping from his shoulders. It pulled at the neck of his T-shirt, showing a crescent of white skin, the top of his back. He stood at the door waiting for her until she let them in. He would drop his pack then and go running through the house to find the dog.
She didn’t move. It was the sight of him at the door, waiting so patiently for her and holding that heavy backpack—it made something fierce rise up in her throat that she couldn’t push down.
It had happened so fast, and now it was over. At least she’d only lied once.
Photo credit: “Flying Bee On Lavender” by photophilde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.