“Periodic” is a monthly column by poet Franny Choi. Every month, she writes a short column on the first day of her period—a check-in that might cover issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. This series is an experiment in occasional writing and an exploration of what it means to write about menstruation with a queer imagination.
Thirty years old, and I’ve ruined another pair of underwear. In the café bathroom, I blot at my black jeans with toilet paper and tell myself I’m too old to keep staining all my clothes like this. It feels so middle school every time I fail to keep my insides inside, like I’m back in the 8th grade bathroom, wadding up a makeshift pad and tying a sweatshirt around my waist. Those were dark, leaky years. I was always spilling, always leaving stains wherever I went.
In those early years, my period seemed, like everything else I was feeling, larger than life. I remember trying to lie perfectly still on my back at night, as my mother had instructed, so that the blood would fall exactly in line with the bulky overnight pad underneath me. I would hold my body in prone submission this way, training myself not to flop onto my side, in hopes of directing the bloody animal in me into some kind of order. I’d wake up stiff, groggy—and still, more mornings than not, I climbed out of bed to find a little burgundy proof of escape. A little wildness despite all my good.
It was a bit like the way I’d hold my body on the nights my parents would start up in the living room of our apartment—still, alert, listening for signs of danger. Whenever my parents fought, my father would whisper in Korean, so we wouldn’t be able to hear him; my mother would yell, in English, so we would. And I’d lie in bed, or crouch in front of the door with my siblings, or sit silently, afterward, across from my mother as she thought and fumed. What else could I do? Nobody does childhood; it just happens to us.
I didn’t realize that something of my home life had been leaking through until my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Aiello, brought it up one day after school. She’d noticed that I was having trouble in class; all I’d noticed was that I’d begun, vaguely, to hate her. With her prodding, I started, slowly, to talk. I was surprised that Ms. Aiello had been able to tell that something was wrong, and even more surprised when she pulled a plastic baseball bat out of her car trunk and handed it to me.
“Next time you’re feeling angry at your dad,” she said, “go out back and hit a tree with this.” Anger. So it was anger I was feeling. It had spilled out of me, onto her, before I’d even realized what it was.
That year was also the year of my most public period stain to date. It happened at church; to be precise, it happened in front of my whole church. I’d become an altar girl earlier that year, mostly to have something to do during the long Korean mass, which I only half-understood. Plus, I liked the ritual of it—carrying the candles, ringing the bell. I liked the word “tabernacle” and the crunch of the wafer as the priest bit into it. I liked the solemnity of the rope when I knotted it around my waist. Mostly, though, what I did as an altar girl was sit; sit for what seemed like hours, as the prayers and recitations passed through me, unheeded.
One Sunday, as mass ended, I stood from my chair as usual to join the priest and the other altar children at the front of the pulpit. As the choir sang, we turned, as usual, away from the pews and bowed to the crucifix before proceeding out. What I didn’t know—until a church mom rushed back to the sacristy to tell me—was that something other than the Korean verses had passed through me, as well. And so, when I’d bowed, the congregation had been greeted with a perfect red circle in the seat of my robes—perfectly red; perfectly unambiguous.
It’s strange to realize, now, that I don’t remember feeling particularly embarrassed when the woman fussed about the stain. If this had happened at school, I would have crawled under a desk and pretended to be sick for a week. But maybe there was something about it having happened during mass that made me feel a different kind of shock—one that felt a little closer to thrill. Maybe it was the fact that we’d just spent twenty minutes talking about drinking Christ’s blood. And there may have been something, too, about the way the priest had lowered his head as he bit into the wafer, in that silent moment just before the choir started up—how it had suddenly felt voyeuristic, to intrude on this moment of intimacy between his teeth and God’s brittle flesh.
And when he’d lowered his head, it hadn’t been out of embarrassment, but something more like a performance of submission; like showing us all how to hold still in order to let something large and terrifying work its way through you. So maybe a part of me was, without exactly understanding why, slightly proud of my own brief performance, of the little red sun I’d made as I’d sat, daydreaming about boys and death. I’d been told confession was a sacrament; and maybe, it turned out, I sort of liked the way mine had riled up the church moms.
In any case, it seems I’m still stuck on the confessional, here, at thirty. Still can’t keep my insides inside, can’t not spill my own secrets, either on the page or onto my jeans. At least I started carrying a Tide pen with me and wearing black jeans more often. And maybe that’s all it means to be an adult: to find safer ways to leak, so that you can still walk around and have a day afterward. It’s still embarrassing when I leave stains, when my feelings leave me without permission. But the days I feel most able to survive the work of making these little red suns are the days I remember how it felt, in those years, to be touched by something large and terrifying—and to rise in the morning to marvel at the evidence of what was wild in me.