Monday, May 26, 2008

Blood in New Orleans, 1979 (nothing to do with voodoo or vampires)

I wrote this story in 2002 for a local public radio contest and it, Big Shock!, did not win—I don't think the problem was that they didn't want to have to read a story about menstruation on the air, it was more that the radio station likes "Texas color," meaning that the winning story had all kinds of Texas kitsch like, "As he banged the ripped screen door on his way to get a piece of Mama's pecan pie, big ole Texas horseflies buzzed inside." Clearly my story was too sophisticated for that contest.

Stories had to follow a short word count, per contest rules—I mention this in case readers can tell I truncated my usual amount of detail. For example, I couldn't cram in a mention of telling my dad's cousin Vera Mae I was worried about my reproductive system and her saying not to worry, because she had a relative who never started her period at all...and by the way, that cousin was a dwarf. There's nothing like being compared to a dwarf to make a 16 year old feel physically normal.

Last week I went to New Orleans for a company meeting, but that's not really what propelled me to put the story online. Ever since I started this blog I knew I wanted to feature the Blood story - yes, it's embarrassing, but also wonderfully visual.

A few background notes...

I was a junior in high school but graduated in three years, so 1978-1979 was my college decision year. Despite that pressure, I saw this trip as more of a fun vacation than an opportunity to seriously check out a college, even though I was a finalist for a prestigious scholarship. I didn't intend any disrespect for Tulane but had no idea who I was as a person or student.

I had tentatively indicated I was interested in the subject of English, and after meeting the Dean I had an even quicker meeting with a Writing professor in the English department...he had a dirty brown tweedy type couch (since I was having a leaky period, I was developing new appreciation for dark, crummy furniture). That guy made short work of me...he knew he could be blunt since he was a tenured academic, he had a parrot in a cage in his office (I kid you not), and it was New Orleans...he said something like, "It doesn't sound to me like you're interested in coming here...why did you ask to meet with me?" As mortifying as that moment was, I can't remember more about it...such as what I said in response?...because the day was absolutely overshadowed by my menses.

It pains me to relate what I was wearing for my Tulane interviews—jeans and a homemade floral tunic shirt and platform loafers. I can't remember 70s fashion precepts too well but this doesn't sound quite appropriate, in retrospect. Pre-trip, I had discussed my clothes with Priscilla and we had bought me one new dress and was kind of a party dress though (I wore it out to dinner at the end of the trip), and certainly I couldn't have worn anything that light-colored (lavender/pink) and floaty (a very light cotton) on my Heavy Day! And the shoes that went with it were purple leather slides...need I say more?, not your standard walking-around-campus shoe.

Regardless of all that...I had a good time, especially after I had gotten the Tulane stuff out of the way. We stayed at a fabulous hotel (basically our own little house in the French Quarter with a courtyard), Harvey's friend Peter V. joined us, and one day we rented a limo and went outside of town to see some of the restored plantations.

Until recent years when his health has worsened, Harvey traveled extensively, and he would research restaurants, hotels and sights from ads and articles in glossy travel magazines. "On my flight from New York I was reading about a restaurant I'd like to try..." Total glamour, right? I have to say, Internet trip research pales in comparison.

Harvey took hundreds of photos and got inspired to do many portraits of me with the backdrop of New Orleans brick and shutters. It's a whole lotta Sarah, I the French Quarter I bought a shirt silk-screened with my photo image, and it displayed perfectly on my still-flat chest.


I didn’t start having my period until I was 17, which made the menstrual onset especially traumatic for me. My second period, almost as momentous as the first, arrived unfortuitously on the day of a big trip—my bachelor uncle H. was generously taking me to New Orleans to check out a college there. My flow was heavy enough that I went to my stepmother for counsel—but she, who had grown up on a farm and had already raised five daughters with normal bodies/normal cycles (and no anxiety problems), had little to say on the subject of my self-perceived torrential deluge and simply found me a box of slightly larger Kotex.

Other “firsts” on the morning of the trip included cramping, lightheadedness and cravings, all of which I decided to handle with a quick Sonic run for caffeine and sugar. Literally carried away by my hormonal urges, I left my packed bags inside our front door, instructed my stepmother to direct Uncle H. to the Sonic, and walked the three blocks to our town’s Main Street as rapidly as my well-padded crotch would allow. I was standing at the order window when a rushed Uncle H. drove up—he seemed a little less enchanted by me than usual but was somewhat mollified when he saw I had ordered him a Coke float too.

We barely made our plane but since Uncle H. had gotten us first-class tickets, the flight attendants remained fairly gracious. Given my continued deluge-inous flow, I was vastly relieved to see that the seats were upholstered in a dark floral fabric. I made more than one trip to the restroom and on each return to my seat, tried to surreptitiously check whether the colors of the flower petals in the cushion fabric had changed.

My large and antique-filled room at our hotel surpassed my “princess imprisoned in a small Texas town” fantasies, but my heart sank when I saw the canopy bed’s expensive-looking, pristinely white comforter and sheets. (This was years before the wide popularity of novelist Anne Rice, in whose world blood on antique linens would have been justified.) For a moment I almost longed for cheaper, grungier lodging, maybe someplace with a dirty rust-colored bedspread and dingy sheets that could have used a good bleach boil anyway.

Our second day in town, I was scheduled for a scholarship interview with the Dean at my target college (my SAT scores having been higher than my common sense at this age). As I walked out of the Dean’s office after a very shyly uncomfortable meeting, I was horrified to spy a dot of blood on the orange leather armchair I’d been cringing in. As tremendously embarrassing as the stain was, I didn’t think it would have much effect on the outcome of my visit—all my interviews that day turned out to be rather bizarre in content and shortness, since I had no clear idea why I wanted to go to college (other than to get out of our town and away from my family) and certainly no specific idea why I would want to go to this particular Louisiana school.

After the conclusion of a few more time-wasting meetings with department heads and professors, I finally had the privacy to make a much-needed visit to the ladies’ room. I was horror-struck that there were no containers in any of the stalls for sanitary waste, a real dilemma since there were several students at the sinks and I didn’t think I could bear to walk past them clutching a suspicious wad of paper in my hands—I finally just left my little package of joy sitting on the back of the toilet. As I was washing my hands at the sink, two cleaning ladies came in and par-for-the-course of my life that day, within a few seconds one of them started on the stall I had just vacated and went into a loud diatribe about “Would you look at the stuff them girls leave in here?!”

That night, I was still bleeding quite a lot so I had to apply my befuddled teen brain to the project of how not to leak through my dress for the evening—a homemade navy-and-white striped number that I had designed and sewn to match some majorly platform shoes I’d found on sale. The shoes were on a fashion borderline even for the 1970s—they had cork bottoms and multi-colored straps, and I couldn’t walk in them for more than a few hundred yards (we had to take a cab the few blocks to the historic restaurant Uncle H. had chosen).

I had known I needed to build a kind of dam and ended up fashioning a plastic diaper out of Saran Wrap that I found in our hotel room’s kitchenette. Unfortunately I didn’t have any tape (had to depend on the elasticity of my pantyhose for adhesion), and for the latter part of the evening the stoppage apparatus was positioned at a very odd angle between my legs. I considered that night a major testament to my ingenuity, since not only did my dress and the pastel upholstered chair at the restaurant avoid damage, but also none of the dam-building components ever fell off or slid down onto an observable portion of my legs.

Ultimately, I chose a college in New Mexico (where I had a bathroom accident of another sort on my first visit there, since I was too shy to excuse myself during a lengthy seminar, regardless of the 5 glasses of water I had had with my spicy dinner). Despite the fact that I have never since had a menstrual cycle of that early, unearthly magnitude, I’ve never regained trust in my female parts and regard their operations as, at best, baroque.

Mercifully, I don't believe Uncle H. ever had any idea of the disgusting events I had to manage through in New Orleans. (Unless he suspected something when, after a gourmet Cajun lunch, I made him take me to a rundown convenience store so I could buy Cokes and a large package of Chips Ahoy, hoping those would help my cramping and cravings.)


Natalia Corres said...


Glad to see this story. It is a reminder that even in this century there is so much hidden from view... such as the struggles of a teen with her boddily functions while she is also traveling, interviewing, and trying to determine how not to embarass herself or her Uncle. So much stress! And yet, unseen by those around her/you.

Thank you for writing this!

SarahBowie said...

Thank YOU! I wondered why I felt embarrassed putting this online when anyone watching primetime TV has to see explicit ads for Depends, birth control devices, and other stuff...yet so many topics are still considered off-limits for conversation and public writing. Maybe we would all be healthier if we disclosed more about our finances (airing of debt & credit concerns might be healthy, instead of privately spending and worrying) and shared questions about our bodies.

Amy said...

Sarah, I loved this story, even though it was so embarassing for you. If nothing else, you could submit this story to a feminist publisher who wouldfind it moving and strengthening as well. Love, Amy