Kayla continued reading. I stared down at the text on mensuration like I was following along, but my eyes burned through the page. I couldn’t swallow.
I was the joke, and I hated myself for it.
The upside was that when, a few weeks later, I found blood in the toilet, I did not immediately think I was dying.
I stared at the red snaking through the water and thought about diffusion, which we’d just learned about in science class. Then I ripped off three squares of toilet paper, folded them into a neat rectangle, and headed back to class to learn about common denominators.
I avoided the bathroom for the rest of the school day. When I got home, I discovered that the toilet paper wad had slid out of place. So while it was spotless, my leaf-patterned underwear looked like someone had stepped on a ketchup packet.
I changed, buried the evidence at the bottom of my hamper, and started my homework.
By the next day, I’d had four more underwear casualties. At dinner, I pushed a sauce-coated meatball around my plate. The red looked too familiar. I lost my appetite.
“Chris, are you listening?” said Mom.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t apologize,” she said. “You need to be taken seriously.”
“Right. Sorry.” She glared at me. “Sorry.” I winced. “May I be excused?” She pushed her long, dark hair out of her face and waved her hand to dismiss me
I fled, but any thought of respite evaporated when I opened my bedroom door. On the bed was a pile of freshly laundered clothes—including all five pairs of formerly bloodstained undies—and a bulging plastic CVS bag.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I wanted to scream, to march downstairs and give Mom a piece of my mind for breaking into my room.
Instead I stared at the plastic intruder, imagining I could use my eyes to make it burst into flames. When that didn’t work, I balled my hands into fists until the pressure was too much and my curiosity overcame my dread.
I opened the bag. Inside was a twelve-pack of Lady Schick razors, seven training bras, a package of what looked like diapers, and The Body Book for Girls.
I looked over my shoulder. The only thing watching me was a stuffed grizzly bear named Amy who had survived every Goodwill purge to date, but I blushed purple anyway. I stuffed the contraband back into the bag, but it wasn’t good enough: I could still see the pink logos through the thin plastic.
I sprinted to the bathroom and threw the whole bag into the cupboard hidden behind the door. I spread-eagled my arms over the cupboard door like I could smother it out of existence. With the illicit products hidden away and two closed doors separating me from Mom, my breath returned to normal.
“Can you make me one of these?” I asked my brother Jack, pointing to the half-dozen hand-lettered “Keep Out” signs on his door.
“Why?” He didn’t turn away from his computer game. “They’re clearly not working for me.”
“Please?” I felt my voice hitch and cleared my throat to hide it. Jack looked over his shoulder at me, then swiveled his chair so his whole body faced me.
“Mom again?” I nodded. “Okay. First one’s free.”
I hung the sign on my door and admired it. Though the angry red lettering and skull and crossbones weren’t my aesthetic, it certainly got the message across.
I heard the front door open downstairs. Dad was finally home.
“It’s nearly eleven, Lawrence,” said Mom.
“I had a recital.”
“But it’s the third one this week.”
“You were the one who encouraged me to start getting my name out there again,” he said.
“I didn’t mean at the expense of family dinner.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Joanne.”
I curled my hands and squeezed until I could feel my fingernails digging into my palms. But before the pain consumed me, I felt our chocolate lab Bruno gently lick my hand. I stifled a startled guffaw, unclenched my fists, and scratched his velveteen ears.
“C’mon, boy.” I tiptoed into my room and made sure the door latched soundlessly behind us. I climbed into bed, helped Bruno get settled at my feet, and clutched my paperback of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire like it was a stuffed animal. I ran my fingers along the edge, so well worn it was soft as suede, and I felt completely safe.
But once I turned out the light, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was the blood oozing out of me and draining my life force. I could feel it seeping through my underwear onto my pajamas, my sheets, through to the mattress…
I knew there was only one solution to this particular problem.
I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in. I fished the body book from the back of the cupboard and held it like it was a bottle of nitroglycerin. I closed the toilet lid, sat on the brown terrycloth cover, and took a deep breath.
From this regal throne, I forced myself to digest the facts of this brave new world.
The deodorant was the most straightforward. The diapers, it turned out, were menstrual pads. It was easy enough to master the oddly clinical instructions, but they still felt like diapers even if they were meant for blood and not pee. The razors were my least favorite. Because according to the book, it wasn’t just your legs you had to deal with, but your armpits and even way down there.
Whose idea was that?
But it was clear that those were the rules. And I was nothing if not a rule-follower.
Thus began my ritual. Each night, I sealed myself in the bathroom temple. I consulted the sacred puberty text. I brought forth the taboo items from the Cupboard of Shame. I conducted the proper ceremonies to maintain my status as an acceptable female.
Because that’s really what it was all about: using any available product to pretend that none of this biological stuff was actually happening. It was exhausting to ensure that I never smelled of sweat, that no one would notice a pad wrapper in the trash, and that my legs and armpits were always hairless.
And heaven forbid someone saw me with my puberty tools! That would invariably conjure images of me using said tool, and I did not want anyone to even speculate about the existence of my body hair, thank you very much.
So I rationed my stockpile, especially the precious razors, using each one until they were so blunt I often removed skin along with hair. But I did what I had to do because shaving your legs wasn’t about being pretty: it was about being normal.
Don’t believe me? Even the legs in razor commercials never have hair on them.
I made that first batch of razors last for two years. In 7th grade, when I was down to my very last (very dull) razor, I came to breakfast with a particularly nasty gash on my shinbone.
“What happened?” asked Dad. I flared my nostrils and regretted wearing shorts: I should have suffered through the pain of putting pants over the cut. I glanced over at Mom: she was pouring herself coffee and had her back to me.
“I was moving Jack’s razor and dropped it,” I said. Dad nodded like this made sense. I held my breath, staring at Mom’s long black braid, waiting for her to spin around and deflate my absurd excuse with a single pinprick.
“I’m late,” she said. “See you later.”
That night there was a brand new pack of razors in my stockpile.
So with the reassurance that Mom would resupply me as needed—with the added bonus that we never had to talk about it—I was doing a great job pretending that puberty had never touched me.
But then at the end of seventh grade there was a good news/bad news kind of situation.
“Your father and I have decided to let you go to Wainwright Academy next year,” said Mom.
“I know,” she said. “Things changed.” Her right hand tensed, crinkling the papers she held. I recognized the top sheet as one of the Crazy Chris Cartoons that had haunted my locker since The Sunshine Incident. My teachers must have given it to them at the latest conference.
This was their way of saving me.
“Thank you,” I said to my feet.
On one condition,” said Dad. “You have to be careful.” I tensed, expecting a lecture about not letting bullies push you around. “Promise me you won’t let the teachers pressure you into singing arias before your voice is ready.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “Patience nurtures opera.”
“That’s my girl.”
So I packed up the remaining contents of the Cupboard of Shame into a new Box of Shame and headed off. But here’s where the bad news came in: it didn’t take long for me to realize that the Puberty Fairy (aka my mom) would no longer re-stock my stash.
Which meant, horror of horrors, I had to buy the stuff myself.
I approached the trip to the student store like I was casing the joint before a big heist. I walked up and down every aisle, noting where the razors and deodorant and pads were. But I didn’t stop. I didn’t even look at them. Instead, I went to the candy aisle and contemplated the packages of gum as if there was a great deal of nuance in the flavor profiles of wintergreen and spearmint. I settled on a 4-pack of peppermint gum and headed to the checkout.
But oh look: on the way to the cashier I passed the razors! I might as well effortlessly pick them up since it’s on my way, but do it as fast as possible so no one notices and, if they do, they think it’s super natural because this person has definitely bought razors before.
I put them on the counter hidden under the four-pack of gum and did not make eye contact with the cashier who happened to be a cute ninth-grader from my music theory class.
He picked up the gum. The razors sat exposed. He scanned the gum and then returned for the razors. Just before he picked them up, he looked at me. I pursed my lips, trying not to imagine him imaging me using the razors. Naked. With hairy legs. Or worse…
The beep of the scanner brought me back to reality.
“$13.79,” said the cute cashier.
I paid and left the store as fast as I could walk while still looking normal. When I got outside I couldn’t stop myself from skipping: it felt like I’d made it through customs with a fake passport while smuggling cocaine.
But I did make a mental note never to shop during Cute Cashier’s shift again.
With puberty (mostly) under my control, life at Wainwright became practically perfect.
“I’ve been hearing buzz in the teacher’s lounge,” said Mr. Evans at my weekly voice lesson. “You were such a stunner as Snoopy.”
“The rest of the cast made me look good.”
“No. You made the rest of the cast look good.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I do. They’re saying You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown is the best winter tour production we’ve ever had. I’m even hearing your name tossed around as a May Showcase Feature.”
“I thought they only picked high schoolers for that.”
“Historically. But what better way to get the alumni to write big checks then to show an eighth grade prodigy?”
I could feel heat rising from my face. “Prodigy seems like an overstatement.”
“Christina. If you are serious about being an opera singer, you need the swagger to go with it.”
“I can swagger.” Mr. Evans raised an eyebrow. “I can swagger about opera!”
“Then prove it. If I tell the Dean that you’ll sing Voi che sapete, I know he’ll agree to feature you in the May Showcase.”
Voi che sapete was Dad’s favorite aria. It was from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. In it, Cherubino—a young male character traditionally played by a female to highlight his youth—tries to woo the Countess, and almost explodes with his teenage feelings.
It would definitely show everyone I was a prodigy.
“I don’t know. My dad made me promise…”
“Look, Chris. Your dad is great. One of the best Mozart tenors I’ve ever heard, and his connections will be great for your career. But he’s out of touch. In his day, being a singer was more intellectual and less pizzazz. He had the luxury of patience. But do you think any of your classmates would pass up an opportunity like this?”
“I could hurt my voice.”
“Would I ask you to do this if I didn’t think your voice was ready?”
I imagined myself on stage in front of the Broadway luminaries and Met Opera darlings that were Wainwright’s alumni. I imagined Dad in the audience, somehow with a follow spot on him so that when I hit my high note I could see him swoon with delight. And I imagined him embracing me backstage, so endlessly impressed that he was struck dumb.
How could I say no to that?
For the whole of spring term I practiced three hours a day but otherwise went on vocal rest. Thanks to the cult of the performer at Wainwright, my teachers didn’t bat an eye when I refused to speak in class. I was never without a huge scarf, a thermos of hot water with lemon, and a bottomless bag of lozenges.
Unfortunately, vocal rest didn’t excuse me from monthly calls home.
“I need to talk to Dad.”
“He’s not home,” said Mom. “How are you holding up?” I found it unnerving that she could sound so close by when she was so far away.
“I’m fine.” I said. “Where is Dad?”
“Typical. Well, he’s not answering my emails. Is he coming to the Showcase or not?”
“I don’t know, honey,” she said.
“What’s the point of being married if you don’t know these things?” I sighed and steamrolled over the silence on the other end of the line. “Whatever. Silvio hasn’t missed a May Showcase since he graduated, so I’ll reserve two tickets for them. But tell Dad it would be really embarrassing for me if he doesn’t show up.”
“I could try to come,” she said. “My semester will be done by then, so I don’t have to teach and--“
“Don’t bother. I know you hate opera,” I said. “I have to go. Vocal rest. Tell Dad to email me?”
“I will. Good luck!”
I hung up without saying goodbye.
The day before the May Showcase, Dad did finally email me. But it wasn’t what I was hoping for:
Sorry I’ve been MIA. Bruno hasn’t been eating. We took him to the vet and she said it’s stomach cancer. He was in a lot of pain, so we put him to sleep. It’s for the best that you weren’t here. Tomorrow I’m dropping Jack off at his dorm at BU. Then I’m going to stay at Silvio’s house in Provincetown for a while. I won’t be here when you get back.
My eyes felt itchy. I was hyper-aware of the people around me in the computer lab. I laughed and hiccupped and it turned into a gag.
I ran. All I could think of was getting back to my dorm and disappearing inside Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. My teenage security blanket could make the rest of the world vanish—including everything Dad had just dumped on me.
“Chris,” called a familiar voice. I kept going, unwilling to look up or even slow down, lest my emotions catch up with me. “Christina!” A hand closed on my shoulder and forced me around.
It was Mom—but she was different.
Her long sheet of dark hair was cut in a close-cropped, masculine style. She wasn’t wearing her trademark feminine power outfit (black suit with floral blouse), but a dorky white polo tucked into high-waisted Cardinal-red Bermuda shorts.
And her pale, shapely calves were masked with a spider web of dark hair.
“You cut off all your hair,” I said staring at her legs.
“It’s nice to see you, too, honey.” She laughed but her eyes were bloodshot. “And thank you. I thought it was time for a change.”
“I don’t like it.”
She smiled a smile that tried so hard to be happy it was painful. “You look good. Taller.”
“Why are you here?”
“To see your concert.”
“I told you not to come,” I said. “Why are you really here?”
She took a deep breath. “This will be your last performance at Wainwright.”
I stared down at my dirty sneakers. “What?”
“We decided it’s best for you to do high school in Providence.”
I raised an eyebrow. “We?”
“Yes,” she said. “We.”
“But I don’t want to go with you.”
“Too bad. We leave first thing after the Showcase.”
“Why are you doing this? I’m finally happy.”
“I know he emailed you,” she said. “Please, Chris. I need you.”
I tried to look up, to see her face and appreciate her haircut and see if maybe it did suit her after all. But my eyes got stuck on her hairy legs and a wave of disgust overtook me.
“I have to go to my dress rehearsal,” I said. And then I was running so fast that everything was jostling and panting and there was no room for vulnerability.
Mine or anyone else’s.
“You look very handsome,” said the makeup artist.
“Thank you,” I heard myself say. It was T-minus 20 minutes to my first and last big concert at Wainwright. I was so on edge I thought I might fall asleep.
The makeup artist used her full body weight to stick one last pin into the white powdered wig on my head. It went so deep that it stabbed my scalp. I never thought that my head needed to breathe, but with the wig secured in place, my brain felt like it was suffocating.
She spun me to face the mirror and there was an 18th-century boy staring back. He looked worse than I felt.
“Knock ‘em dead.” She patted my shoulder to send me on my way.
The pantaloons were so stiff I could barely bend my knees and it took three tries and an impersonation of a limbo champion to make out of the makeup chair. Then I had to tackle the stairs like a toddler: gripping the railing for dear life, moving one foot up, bringing the other to meet it, and only then taking on the next step.
By the time I got backstage I was dizzy. This was it—my only chance to make an impression—so I had to make the most of it.
“One minute,” said the stage manager. I noticed a stray thread on my tights. I pulled it and the fabric unraveled revealing a stripe of stubble-coated flesh near my ankle.
“And go,” said the stage manager. But I was outside myself, staring at the formerly hidden leg hair now on display.
How could I have been so careless?
“Chris.” My accompanist, Heather, nudged me forward. I tore my eyes from my shame and, like I was operating a remote-controlled drone, I left the dark safety of the wings.
On stage, I squinted into the brilliant flood lamps and a half-forgotten memory resurfaced: a day at the beach where I took refuge from the bright sun by snuggling into my mother’s smooth legs. But then it became a nightmare when her swimsuit turned into crimson shorts and her legs sprouted a rash of stubble that cut me.
Heather elbowed me. It flipped a switch and I suddenly heard the audience’s applause. It was time to bow. I went halfway down and saw that the stage lights highlighted every follicle of exposed leg hair. I froze. The applause took on a Doppler effect. I had to move, so I curtsied. The audience laughed.
My face melted.
Sweat dripped into my eyes and re-centered me in the moment. I wiped my face, but that just added my hand sweat to my forehead sweat. Heather took her seat at the piano. My brain was at war with my body. Breathing felt unnatural. Standing seemed strange and I wasn’t sure what to do with my arms.
From another dimension came the familiar intro bars of Voi che sapete. Time unwound and bent. I heard and heard and heard.
Then I opened my mouth and the sound came pouring out.
For one glorious minute, I clicked back into place and got lost in the melty tones of Mozart. I could feel the music vibrating my spine and my soul. I held the high note. My voice vibrated with perfect amplitude.
Then the harmony disintegrated.
I held my note an extra beat as if I could move backwards and course-correct the dissonance, but Heather’s accompanying chord continued to compliment my singing like nails on a chalkboard. Time slowed to a crawl. I could feel the ugliness of the sound making my blood coagulate. It turned me into a feral creature, all confusion and rage.
Still clinging to the high note, I turned my back on the audience to glare at Heather. She stared back, her pupils so enormous she looked like an insect. From the panic in her eyes, I understood what had happened: I’d jumped to the last verse.
The music fell out of my ears and the lights started strobing. My singing stopped like someone had picked up the needle on a record. I stood with my back to the audience, my breath coming in gasps. I could tell Heather was still playing, hoping I would start singing again. But all I could hear was the din of my inner cheerleader-turned-critic screaming half-formed words.
Like a starved houseplant, I turned to face the stage lights. I stared straight at them and tears welled in my eyes. My insides expanded and I sneezed.
By now, Heather had stopped playing. It was silent, save for the reverberations of my sneeze echoing into the perfect acoustics.
“Wait,” I said.
And then I passed out.
The next morning we were in the car on our way back to Providence. During the 14-hour drive I only spoke when I needed food or the toilet. And when we pulled up to the rambling colonial where I’d lived my whole life, it looked just as I remembered it.
But inside, everything was different.
There was no clatter of claws on the wood as Bruno scrambled to greet me. There were gaps on the shelves where Dad’s Mahler biographies and Civil War tomes should be. And where the oil painting of the Venice canals had hung was a startlingly blank stretch of wall.
This was my first indication that Dad hadn’t simply gone on vacation.
Upstairs, the door to Jack’s room still had the myriad threatening signs. The sight of them made me feel safe. I knocked and the unlatched door swung open. His massive gaming computer was gone. So was his stereo. And all that remained of his impressive poster collection were The Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
“He already moved into his dorm.” Mom was at the other end of the hall. I didn’t look back because I couldn’t bear to see her legs again.
“I know,” I said. But I had forgotten.
My bedroom was exactly as I’d left it a year ago. I buried my face in my pillow but it smelled like dust. It made my eyes water. I rolled on my back and stared at the ceiling covered in glow-in-the-dark stars.
Dad had helped me put them up and insisted we make them in the shape of real constellations. When he closed the blinds and turned off the lights, it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen.
Now they just looked like a pale green rash across my ceiling.
I found Cassiopeia and swore that I would never let my legs get as disgusting as my mother’s.