“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.
In a rest stop parking lot somewhere outside of Erie, New York, I hauled open the back door of a U-Haul to look for a tampon among the boxes filled with all of my earthly belongings. Luckily, the tampons had been one of the last things I’d packed before Cameron and I locked the door to my old apartment and set out. We were driving to Northampton, Massachusetts, a city that Cameron calls “the white lesbian gift shop of America,” where we were planning to start something like a new life together. He’d flown out to Detroit a few days earlier to help me finish packing and drive my car for the eleven or so hours down I-90, in order to avoid the stress of trying to switch lanes with the two vehicles hitched together. So instead, we traveled along in a little caravan, listening to our separate podcasts and synchronizing our bathroom breaks along the way.
The U-Haul truck is, of course, something of a white lesbian gift shop item itself—punchline to that tired joke, mythic symbol of the “urge to merge” and whatnot. In researching for this essay, I was reminded that it even gets a mention in Stone Butch Blues. “Within a month, we rented a U-Haul trailer and moved into a new apartment together in Buffalo,” the protagonist Jess narrates in Leslie Feinberg’s canonical novel, which, like us, occupies that space where lesbian culture and transmasculinity meet.
Cameron and I stopped near Feinberg’s Buffalo, as well, to pee. In Rochester, we drank cocktails and ate vegan tacos at our friend’s bar before collapsing in a cheap-ish hotel. In Northampton, he got sweaty lugging box after box up the stairs while I moved furniture around, feeling a little obvious, sure, and also unspeakably happy.
By most scientific accounts, menstrual synchrony, or getting on the same period cycle, is a myth. The first major study on the topic, by Harvard doctor Martha McClintock in 1971, followed a group of 135 women living in a dorm and found evidence that the menstrual cycles of roommates and close friends became increasingly synced. But most studies conducted since then have countered those findings. The largest and most recent of these, a collaboration between an Oxford researcher and the period tracking app Clue, even found that menstrual cycles were more likely to diverge, rather than converge, among the 360 pairs of participants studied.
Anecdotally, of course, it’s a different story. Most people with periods talk about getting synced up with family members, housemates, partners, etc.—70% according to a 1999 study. In a much less scientific inquiry, I texted the group chat I have with six women and non-binary friends from undergrad and asked if they believed that period syncing happened.
“YES,” said one friend.
“100000000%,” responded another, “I don’t care what science says.”
“Science says it doesn’t? That’s some BS,” another friend chimed in.
Many of the articles I’ve read suggest that women want to believe that they sync cycles because it makes them feel closer to others, though it’s mostly a matter of chance when our periods do overlap. The most progressive outlets try to leave a little room for those feelings, asserting that it’s not bad to want to merge, even if—poor thing—it’s not true. One article even told readers to rest assured that being “out-of-sync” with someone else doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship.
I don’t know what to do with the disparity between scientific studies and the testimonies of people who menstruate. I want to believe women and trans people; and I want to believe in the actual possibility of synchrony, not just the existence of the desire to get synced. As a queer woman, I believe in all kinds of things that people might call magic; as the daughter of a scientist, I’m not very good at disavowing evidence.
Across the top of my paper, I write, “MYTHS: WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?” The rest of the page is: blank.
I can’t help but delight in all the other ways that queer couples merge, aside from just moving in together. It’s awful when Cameron and I accidentally pick out the same denim shirt to wear, sure; and also, I love it. I pick up more of his speaking patterns every day. I start a sentence and he laughs at the punchline before I get to it. “Where’s the machine?” he says, and I hand over his water bottle without missing a beat.
I admit that I’m into the romance of it all—driving the U-Haul across the country, wearing a baseball cap low over my eyes, slowing after the toll booth to wait for my partner to catch up to me, my beautiful partner, who, I know, is mostly very nervous about driving on the highway and yet has chosen to do it for two days straight, all so that my books can live in the same place as his books. Throughout our relationship, it’s seemed both exceedingly obvious that we are supposed to be together and varying degrees of impossible for us to end up here, whether because of life circumstance or just all the ordinary ways that the world makes it hard for Black trans men and Korean dykes to love each other. Unfortunately, the star-crossed-lovers thing ultimately makes it all the more romantic, so that it’s nearly unbearable, the way we’ve decided to embark on becoming another stroller-pushing, bookish, queer couple in this town, both of our names on the co-op membership and so on.
Before we left Detroit, I made Cameron take a photo of me in front of the truck with my new Fujifilm instant camera—romance upon romance, which I put up on the fridge when we got to Massachusetts. It’s more than possible that, in the process of pursuing love, we’ve fashioned ourselves into a horrible stereotype. A stereotype is sort of like a myth in that it’s the imagined idea of a thing, rather than the thing itself. And yet, there I am, caught in the photo’s frame—actual and washed out and smiling too hard under the truck’s orange announcement.
In the group chat, Fati says she and Angel immediately got synced on the first day of their writing retreat, and that they might even still be on the same cycle now, seven months later. Fati lives, most of the time, in LA; Angel, in New York. Others in our group chat live in Boston, in Chicago, in Mexico City. In fact, nearly all of my closest friends are plane rides away from their closest friends. Small wonder that we’re all into the idea of being on the same clock as our loved ones, even across time zones, even when there’s enough earth between us to shift whole hours apart.
In 1714, when British scientists were trying to figure out how to keep clocks synchronized on board their ships, one theory proposed using a pair of psychically linked dogs: one on land, one at sea. The theory went that you could wound a dog in London at noon each day, and the dog on board the ship would cry out, some kind of canine quantum entanglement. I’d like to think I’m entangled this way with the ones I love across our distances, synced up via pure empathic power rather than just our phones. I have a bad dream involving my younger sibling and call them, irrationally worried. In Detroit, I imagine I can feel Cameron’s Northampton anxiety, though it turns out it’s just my own anxiety, which, if anything, I simply transfer onto him by calling him.
I don’t believe in the satellite responsiveness of dogs, at least as solutions to problems of the British military. But I do believe that I love the people I love, and, in calling to tell them so, something of us starts to click along at the same rate. On FaceTime with Sam, I yawn. He, in Oakland, yawns back, though the window behind him is flooded with light.
When people ask Cameron and me how long we’ve been together, we say, “Somewhere between 3 and 5 years, depending on how you look at it.” However you look at it, it’s been long distance the whole way through, as we each went from city to city, following our separate trajectories of grad school and work in strange tangent to each other. Though the distance stayed long, it was time that gradually changed pace and got shorter, as we went from occasional overlaps at conferences, to a semi-regular text chain, to FaceTiming a few times a week. It’s as though the first year of our relationship took three and a half years; the next, only two; and so on.
The other major reason for our years apart—the most major reason besides all the professional ones—is that I was with a man for much of that time, a cis white man who I loved very much, even years after it started to feel not exactly right to be with him. In other words, as Cameron and I were moving closer together in time, I was also moving closer to myself.
Unfortunately, this is another lesbian gift shop staple: the long-suffering wife liberated into queerness, ugh. Cue the U-Haul, cue Northampton, Massachusetts, cue the tote bag full of tote bags we’ve hung up in the closet. I hate this version of the story for the way it flattens everything: all the weird contradictions of our long, winding, polyamorous path to each other; all the complex dynamics of being Black and Asian and trans and queer in a town that imagines itself to be a lesbian utopia, though its definition of that is persistently white and middle-class. Even in writing this essay, I called us lesbians over and over again until Cameron had to gently remind me what we stood to lose by relying on such shorthand. This, after all, is the real fear: that, in merging, we don’t just disappear into one other, but also disappear into the only version of us that the white queer imagination has the means to imagine. That myth will block out the mess of truth until eventually we become synchronous with the idea of us, collapsed into the same cycle as the stereotypical version of our lives.
There’s science behind U-Hauling, too, of course; theories to explain why queer women are said to cohabitate too early. You’re free to look them up, though I don’t care to recount them here. The studies about oxytocin levels in women, et cetera, feel just as as powerful tools for flattening as the mythologies they’re meant to explain.
So instead I’ll raise the point that the Clue study on menstrual synchrony was based on start date, and that going from a 10-day difference in start date to a 38-day difference may mean something more complicated than unilateral divergence, in the context of a 28-day cycle. I’ll mention that none of the studies were designed, say, to follow a small number of people who report always getting synced with others as they moved from one living situation to another. And I’ll emphasize that only a handful of studies have been done since the 1970s on the topic of menstrual synchrony, and that research related to women’s health has been overlooked for decades, not to mention the dearth of resources put toward studying queer and trans reproductive health issues. It’s far from a new point to say that the scientific conclusions we cite are products of a long history of mythologies about what is or isn’t important to understand—but it bears repeating, so I’ll repeat it.
Being not a scientist, I don’t actually have the intellectual means to critique these studies, only to imagine the possibility of better ones. I can imagine that someone else might eventually learn how to read the patterns better than I can, how to track the peculiar geometries of our bodies’ weird pushes and pulls toward and against other bodies. Those of us who have been asked to disappear into the simplified versions of our lives know the necessity of cultivating more robust imaginations, of continuing to write more complicated myths. We know what we stand to lose by assuming the straightforwardness of things.
Somewhere in the Berkshires, I called Cameron to let him know I was going to pull off at the next rest stop.
“Sorry,” I said, “I know we’re close, but I have to pee.”
Terrifying as it was, it would almost certainly have been simpler for me to just hitch the car to the truck and drive out to Northampton by myself, to deal with the panic attacks alone, my little burdens safely cordoned off from my love’s. I know that. Still, there’s that particular not-magic of pulling into the parking lot and emerging from our separate rooms to join each other in the same timeline again, however briefly. There’s the not-magic of realizing we’ve been listening to the same podcast after all. There’s the not-magic of losing him at the toll booths and panicking for the next mile, until I look up, and suddenly there he is in the rearview, not-magic and not-guaranteed, and still somehow, despite everything, having found me there on the road.