I’m standing at the ATM with my mom’s card locked into the machine. This is the last errand. I’m leaving tomorrow to camp by myself in Big Sur for a week. There’s a lot to do.
I need to love myself after a turbulent start to the year I vowed to love myself. One of the first ways I knew how to do that was to go outside. It wasn’t the way of my family, but it struck my city-kid heart and felt my own. There are mountains to climb, I used to imagine, and I did.
But that was a long time ago. I haven’t slept outside in so many years I can’t remember the last time. I think it was with an ex. Now I’m emerging from a couple months of almost total isolation to be with my mom, and to forest bathe in the redwoods.
It’s an easy car camping trip. I don’t need to go overboard. I need to go outside and be simple. I’m getting instant oatmeal cups and instant ramen cups and ground tarps and extra batteries and bug spray and gallons of water and beach towels, and some cute matching little plastic wine glasses because they’re on sale. I buy two, as if someone’s coming with me.
As for mom, well, she needs different things. She’s recovering from surgery and seven months of infections that almost killed her. She’s so much better. She’s moving around, and sometimes she’s moving furniture which makes me bonkers. For her, I’m buying protein shakes and full fat everything because she's trying to gain weight. I’m also buying white roses by the dozens because she is still herself.
The roses are in the hot car and the ATM is asking US debit or Visa debit and I press the wrong one and the machine won’t give the card back and I have to start over after ripping the card out. Thankfully, I don’t break it.
The sliding doors to the store open and close. Nothing passes my periphery, but suddenly a kid is snug to my left hip. She’s close enough to whisper, girl to girl. She is in pink cotton shorts and a pink tee with sparkle words across it. Of course, her brown hair is a mess of an all-day ponytail. She is looking up at me.
“Excuse me, but can I ask you a question?”
I respond, “Yeah, but can you wait a minute,” because six days in California doesn’t take the New York out of me.
In fairness, I’m in the middle of a financial transaction, and the money isn’t mine. I’m thinking, perfect, now my mom’s cash will be in my hands when she asks me to support her soccer team. But she doesn’t have a clipboard, she has a bedazzled phone, and I should absolutely support her soccer team.
“Sure,” she says. She doesn't move. I want her to step off, so I can finish getting this money until I realize she doesn’t understand ATM etiquette. She’s a kid. I’m an asshole.
I can’t help it. Errands took longer than I thought. The pharmacy line was slow. I have cramps. The ATM is being difficult. I can’t remember if I pressed US or Visa debit last time. I feel crazy that I’m leaving my mom alone tomorrow. I feel crazy that I’m attempting to be nice to myself. I feel crazy I don’t know how to do that already.
I sigh loudly, cancel everything on the screen and forcefully take the card when it won’t release. I turn to her. “Alright, what’s up?”
“Um, well, I was wondering if you could help me? My mom just had surgery, and she needs me to get pads for her, and I’m a little embarrassed.”
So, she’s an angel.
I am at once the girl standing before me; the frazzled thirty-seven year old caring for her mom as she learns to care for herself; and the oldest sister to five baby sisters who are ten to fourteen years younger.
I taught my sisters about periods and the importance of masturbation and trusting themselves and gender apartheid in Afghanistan. I told them bedtime stories and to clean up after themselves because I was not going to do it. I held them when they got bee stings and when they were scared to start high school.
Pride glows inside and around me when I look at them. They have big hearts and call their senators and make art and hustle for the lives they want to live. I am not their parent, but I watched them become who they are. I had a hand their making. The same goes for my brother, but our conversations were different, sort of.
The moment feels momentous. This girl asked for assistance, and she asked me. I feel a duty to her. Not only because I was mean, or because I am a sister, but because most of the time I’m talking, I’m talking girltalk. Gory, glittery girltalk.
I want to say to her, first of all, my love for you, kid, it’s unconditional. Second, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. The patriarchy is set up for us to feel shame about our bodies, unless we are sexualized or pregnant. Third, please know, you already have all the answers. Fourth, discharge is totally normal and can have different colors, textures and smells. Fifth, never be the last one to leave a party. Sixth, angel, if you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Actually, do you watch Drag Race?
But what I say to her is, “Ok. Let’s do it,” because I figure being cool and nonchalant is also a good approach.
At least, it’s what I can give. I’m trying to learn that. I don’t have to give everything I’ve got to every person I interact with every day of my life. No matter how cute the puckered sleeves on the person’s shirt are, I can save some for myself.
Then I say, “Do you have money?” She flashes a credit card and a smile.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
I would buy her the pads. I would buy her anything in the store. I want to take her home and raise her. I want to go to the pool and do dives off the board until the sun goes down. I want to go back to basics.
I need to get my shit together. This sweet child angel asked me, Lauren Patricia Besser, big sister extraordinaire, lifelong feminist activist, jubilant celebrator and fierce defender of all things womanhood, for help, with womanhood. I am failing her. I am failing myself. I am turning the saint away.
We are walking through cosmetics to the back. The sanitary, or female hygiene, or women’s health section will be by pharmacy, like our bodies are a medical condition, like our cycles are hemorrhoids, like there’s something to be embarrassed about. To the back with your filth!
Pads should be up front by the gifts and perfume. It could be a whole aisle. Nail polish, masks, candles, tea, pain relievers, pads, tampons, coloring books, heating pads, journals, stickers, Tums, chocolate, ice cream, Swedish Fish, pretzels, cream cheese, everything of dreams.
If women were valued that aisle would exist, so would equal pay and universal child care. Actually, the tampons would be free too. So would abortions and gender reassignment surgery. I should say that to her. I should tell her about that aisle.
She’s skipping to keep up, so I slow down. I stay in my body. Looking to her, we catch eyes. She’s not sure of me. I don’t blame her. I’ve been rude and I’m walking fast.
“You know,” I say warmly, “My mom just had surgery too, and I’ve been buying pads for her.”
She beams at me. I melt into a puddle like a wicked witch.
I hadn’t actually bought pads, I got groceries and cash and blue Gatorade and flowers. I didn’t mean to lie, it just came out. What is true is that we are both caring for our moms and we are finding ways to care for ourselves. We get done what needs to be done.
When we get to the aisle I walk straight up to the pads. I remember buying them when my period first started. I wanted every part of it to go quickly. Quick pick out the brand. Quick walk to the register. Quick pay the cashier. Please let it be a girl. Please let it be a paper bag.
Now, the two of us, we are going to linger here in this aisle. She can take her time eyeing everything because I’m going to to take mine.
I point to the orange Always pads and say, “these are what I like,” but do not say, and I am wearing one right now. I should. I should tell her I’m bleeding.
“My mom said to get these ones,” she points to a picture on her phone. They are green, but they are Always, so we are telepathically connected.
Inspecting the picture, our faces are close. I’m looking for the little droplet code of how heavy a flow the pad supports. I’m looking for the length of the pad. I’m looking at the pattern of indentations on the pad that direct the discarded blood to unfilled spaces.
It might be excessive, but I am not sending this angel to her ailing mother without exactly what she requested. Grabbing pads off the shelf, I pull them to us. We look back and forth comparing the photo and the packaging.
She is the one who stops the mission, saying, “I think these ones are fine.”
“Yeah they look pretty similar. Are you sure these are okay?” I want her to know that I support her decisions but also have time to keep looking, or be best friends.
“Yeah they're good.”
So we’re done? Did you also want to look at lipstick and slippers and DVDs because I can make a list of must-sees for you. We can get Cheez-its and just veg tonight. Do you want to? I mean would you want to have a sleepover? We could collage.
“What’s your name?” I say tenderly. We’re walking down the discounted Easter aisle. Why didn’t I asked sooner? What’s wrong with me? It’s almost over now.
“Anna.” She's beaming again.
“I’m Lauren.” We smile at each other, like yeah we were already friends, but now it’s official.
“How old are you?”
“Cool.” I say with a reassuring nod.
Eleven year old Lauren was the maid of honor at her mom’s wedding. She was the big sister to a one year old with five more siblings coming in the coming five years. New families were blossoming around her. Puberty was turning her blonde hair brown.
She was bold. She tested herself once to see if she could buy tampons by herself before she ever had her period, and she could. She ordered hot chocolates and raspberry scones at the coffee shop while she wrote the fifth grade newspaper’s horoscopes with a friend. They smoked first cigarettes in the alley after dark. Losing My Religion was on the radio.
When Claire and Elizabeth were eleven I forced them to go skinny dipping with me. When Rachel was eleven she sat on my college futon and wrote in her journal. When Elena was eleven she found the glass pipe I bought at a Phish show. When Jacqueline was eleven I was a Chicago dance club queen and only around for Sunday dinners, some Sundays.
They are in their twenties now. They have jobs and boyfriends and apartments and stories. I’ve changed their diapers and bought them Plan B. Now they are women. Am I a woman? Am I eleven? Are Anna and me having a slumber party tonight?
Nobody is behind the counter when we get there. This is the part I was most afraid of when I bought pads - the interaction, the acknowledgment that my privates were bleeding and oozing. Admitting that truth openly is overwhelming at first. This is why she needs me. We present a united front.
If the cashier was a woman it was like winning the lottery. If it was a man I dug deep. I reminded myself that half of the people in the world get periods. He knows that. He knows girls get periods. He sees I’m a girl. There’s nothing out of the ordinary going on here. I’m not gross for needing pads. I should say that to Anna.
A guy stocking in the candy aisle raises off a crate and moves to check us out. He’s big, equal parts tall and wide, probably in his early forties, or late twenties. His dark hair is slick with grease. So is his skin. He might as well have a mustache and a van.
He already saw me in the store without Anna. He knows something’s up. He’s being slow. He’s making comments that are not so hidden. He looks at me. He looks at Anna. He looks at the counter. He looks at Anna. He looks at me.
That’s something I should have remembered, when I bought pads or tampons, I bought other things too; some chips, some gum, maybe lotion, or a Snapple. That way it didn’t look like I was only a bloody mess. But here we are. The two of us girls and our package of pads. Plain and simple.
Stand tall, Anna. Shoulders back.
“You could have told me you were waiting here. You know, I don’t bite,” he says with the raise of a coy eyebrow.
Seriously dude? This is your choice right now?
My instinct is to pull Anna closer to me. To rest my hand on her outer shoulder, and pull her body slightly behind my hip. That’s what I would do with my sisters. But she’s not my sister, so I don’t think I’m allowed to touch her.
I’ve got him right in his eyes and try to keep them focused. He will not make her uncomfortable. He will not look at her again. Right at me, Big Boy. Let’s chat. He starts to ring her up. She has the credit card in her hand.
Am I teaching her how to use the credit card? Am I teaching her the ropes? She’s pretty young to have a credit card. Is this her first credit card? There’s always a first time. Ha Ha Ha.
I hate him. I hope men of this sort choke on the blood of their dying heroes, but that is not a spell.
He’s not the only reason, but he is exactly why she was embarrassed. He is exactly why she asked me for help. She didn’t even clock him. She just knew, at eleven years old, this experience was probable.
I want to tell her. You will endure it, my love. You will come up with ways to deal with the harassment. You already are. Some days there will be energy to stand up to it. Sometimes it will feel crushing. But, Anna, it does not have the power to crush you.
“Kids get technology better than we do,” I say to him as Anna inserts the card’s chip into the machine and punches in the code, “I think she’s got it.”
Finally it’s over. We can walk away from him, but the pads are sitting naked on the counter. We can’t go anywhere. We do not have a bag. We need a bag so Anna can walk out of the store and in public after that.
We are in California. Bags cost money.
We are in patriarchy. Womanhood costs shame.
We will not pay either price.
“Can I have a bag,” asks Saint Anna.
My God, she is fearless. She asks for what she needs when they tell us not to need. I am proud to stand beside her. I will follow her to battle like Joan of Arc. We do not fear the soldiers, our paths were made clear for us.
He chuckles, like a game show host and says, “Well... do you have twenty-five cents?”
“No.” Her eyes are wide. She looks up to me.
I don’t have it either. I don’t have any change or cash. I have the small bag with my mom’s prescriptions that won’t fit the pads. I have a fanny pack that won’t fit the pads, but I’d give it to her, if she likes it.
“Will you take my card, or hers again?” My voice is vicious. He should have asked if we wanted a bag. He was too busy making us uncomfortable. Now he’s doing it again. Did he do it on purpose? His heroes are falling and afraid.
I want Anna to feel safe, so I’m not yelling. I’m not making a scene. I’m looking around. We could wrap the pads in pages of the PennySaver. I could tell her about Miranda July.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” he says like we lost playing Plinko, “We have a five dollar minimum on all credit card transactions.”
This Bob Barker motherfucker!
Now, I’m casting spells. You will give us a fucking bag right now because it is the blessed fucking action to take. You will give us a fucking bag right now because you need all the fucking blessings you can make.
I don’t know if it’s the spell, or the vengeance in my eyes, but he says, “Okay, just this one time,” realizing the game show is over, and always was.
“Exactly. Thank you,” I say because I am polite.
She didn’t have to ask me for help. She could have done it alone, but asking is its own bravery. We start to walk. I look to her and roll my eyes. She’s blushing, but her chin is held high when she rolls her eyes back.
Welcome to womanhood, my beloved. I’ve got your back if you’ve got mine.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with to your mom, or wait here, just to make sure they are right?
“No. That’s ok. Thank you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to check?”
“I think I’m ok.”
“I can wait here if you want?”
“No it’s ok. Thank you.”
She’s walking away, but not into the parking lot.
“Where’s your mom?”
“I’m meeting her across the street, by Target. She’s parked over there.”
What? Anna, what is going on? What do you mean you will cross a six lane street to meet your mom parked by another store where you could have bought these pads? What is happening? You can tell me. My love for you is unconditional.
“Oh wow, okay.”
Who cares if the pads are for her? Who cares if there is a crosswalk? I let her cross the street? I trust her to take care? I let her go?
“Ok. Well, be careful.”
“I will! Thanks, Lauren,” she’s walking. She’s already far away.
“Bye Anna! See you later.” I’m watching her go.
“Bye!” She turns back and waves. She’s smiling. She’s not afraid.
I am crying before I get to my mom’s car in the parking lot that Anna has left. I’m useless and heavy. Why am I not running after her? Or holding her hand through the traffic? She asked me for help. I got the job done. She saved me.
Thank you Anna. Thank you for choosing me. Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for skipping beside me when I was mean. I’m sorry. I will never forget you again.
My mom’s parked car is low to the ground between two big shining pickups for guys with something to prove. The roses in the back are still plump. The California driving mix I made is playing. Joni Mitchell is telling me about coming home.
I’m undone. I want to go back to basics. I want to be nice to some part of me that needs it. Here she is. All messy hair and sparkles and valor. Here she is.
Tomorrow we drive down the coast.