The tent is set up. I’ve checked twice to make sure the kayak is secure. I’ve eaten soup and carrot sticks and an apple and rinsed the pot. For the first time since five this morning when I hefted a bag onto the handle of my wheelchair and my hand gripped the front door knob and hesitated, I stop plotting out what comes next and then next. I sit spread-legged in front of my tent and scratch though my hair, through the sweat on my scalp, and stretch the ends up off my neck. Then I take a foot in each hand, cross my legs underneath each other, and rock over my hips from side to side to flex my spine and pull feeling back into my backside.
The Okefenokee Swamp is loud at dusk. A pig frog grunts. It’s as if he’s sitting on the wooden platform beside me. From the thicket of willows a catbird sounds like the cry of a child’s cheap baby doll. A kingfisher chitters across the open water. In the distance, an alligator bellows for his mate, and around my head, a muscular orange dragonfly darts and dives in a hiss of wings as it hunts the first mosquitoes of the night. A train echoes along the edge of the swamp. Throughout this long day sudden sweats of anxiety have overridden the joys of sunlight and swamp and frogs the size of fingernails perched on water lily leaves.
I’ve made this trip before, but never alone. As I paddled the seven miles to the camping platform, I didn’t worry as I maneuvered past a green snake wrapped into an overhanging branch. There was no sudden stop or gasp when the nose and eyes and rugged back of an alligator rose up in front of me. Instead, my paddle froze mid-effort as I tried to remember if I’d forgotten to bring the hook that I might need if the water levels were too low which meant the platform would be too high above the boat and how was I going to grapple my way up onto it without the hook and who was I to think I could just lock my wheelchair up in the van, crawl to my gear-heavy boat, scrape down the concrete ramp into the water, and just do this?
The water levels weren’t too low, I hadn’t forgotten the hook, and now I’m fed and prepared for bed. This time between day and night is free of anything next to do. I hold on to my ankles and lean backwards and let my eyes soften into a wide and blurred field of view. What has been a ruffling breeze strengthens, and I lean forward again to look for clouds whose bottoms hang low and dark. The sky is clear. I do hear the kayak slap against the wooden supports. I scoot to the edge of the platform and lie flat out on my stomach to reach over the edge and yank on the bow line. It holds fast, but I tie yet another knot. When I sit up again my clothes are stuck skew whiff over my body. The evening is still humid. The moon is rising. The last of the sunlight sheens over the grasses and turns each patch of water into a pink pool.
The coming night air arrives in fits and starts of coolness. I undo the buttons on my shirt to feel more of it on my skin and keep going until my shirt is off and pinned under a thigh to keep it from blowing away. The bra is next. It is only now, with the wind wrapping around me, that I know I can take off all my clothes and could have hours ago ever since the campers from the night before passed me on their way out. As the full moon clears the horizon I’m sitting naked, cross-legged again, on the still sun-warmed wood. My inner lips are spread and pushed under me. They feel too large. I reach down to adjust, like a man, and my hand comes away bloody.
All day, as my hips tightened and then melted open, as my breasts hurt each time I bumped them, as the now explained waves of fear rose and fell, I didn’t think of periods. I was fifty. It had been three months. I was done with that. The knot of pain in that space between butt and back was because of the hours of paddling. With my kayak tucked into a rare patch of shade, I’d twisted a fist into my spine as I stretched forward to peer at the spiky, miniature wildness of sundews. I straightened to touch the long, translucent tubes of pitcher plants. These plants exist and thrive in what scientists call a “nutrient-poor” environment. Nothing around me looked poor or deprived although the patches of soil seemed as if they would scatter apart from the wake of my kayak. The water was clear. I had splashed it over the back of my neck and face and licked my lips—no algae, no minerals, no salt. Pitcher plant flowers grow on separate stalks higher than my head, and I reached to put a finger into the petals. The thick yellow of them had lit up my nail.
Now, in the moonlight, I stretch over my head again and the knot in my back releases and fullness spreads down into my thighs. I’ve thought this before and been wrong and yet, as the songbirds quiet and the first owl of the evening sounds, I’m certain that this is, at last, my last period. This particular constellation of sensation is visiting me for a final time. It’s been forty years.
I had my first period when I was ten as did my mother and as did her mother. So I’d been given the talk a few months before it happened. I was climbing the steep staircase of the split level with one arm stretched forward on the banister and the other using a crutch to lift my rear end and braced legs up to the next step. My seven year old sister was below me. Mommy,” she screamed, “Sandra’s bleeding.” My mother gave me a sanitary belt with toothed metal triangles that hung back and front. It tangled with the panties and ankle socks in my underwear drawer. It would be another year before bras were added to the mix. A cabinet was cleared out in the bathroom vanity and loaded with stacks of pads so wide and thick and long that it seemed like a magic trick to fit them up between my legs. I learned how to scrub blood stains. From the first I had cramps that made me whimper and gasp, and sometimes the metal triangle on the backside would smash between my skin and the high thigh band of a leg brace. But already, at ten years old, ever since my little kid hospitalizations, I knew that pain was something to be ignored. I knew how to get used to things. I adapted.
In my elementary school, if you started your period, your mother had to tell the staff and then you weren’t allowed to use the students’ bathroom during your “time.” Instead you walked down the long hall to the front office observed by group after group of whispering girls and confused boys. There you used the secretary’s bathroom. On the walk back, sixth grade girls snickered at the crippled, new-to-the-area fifth grader. I heard the words “faker” and “stupid” hissed behind me. More than once I delayed the walk of shame until I bled onto my dress and had to pretend I hadn’t for the rest of the day. Pretending wasn’t hard. Ignoring the girls wasn’t hard. Stares and whispers weren’t new. I could make the world go silent. I’d see mouths move, but not hear the words.
We moved again, and I went to a new school. By this time, I’d acquired the management skills needed. I knew to shorten the back tie to compensate for the pad’s tendency to jut forward, and I could wiggle a sideways drift back to center. I figured out that if I bent forward and twisted, the metal part would sometimes pop up out of my skin. Best of all, more girls had become part of the club and the special waste receptacles showed up in the student bathrooms. I was back to being as invisible as I could ever manage. Although I never saw anyone else lean into a wall, curve their body, and pant through the high arc of a cramp.
I embraced the stick-on pads. They were harder to control, but the bloody underwear was worth the pleasure of throwing away the frayed elastic belt with its evil triangles. We moved again and traveling was easier with stick-ons. At my mother’s childhood home in London I was introduced to the hush-hush menstrual routine. They had an outhouse. (My dead mother, in a shrill voice, is now instructing me to make it clear that it was not an outhouse. It had plumbing. It was built on to the side of the house. You just had to go outside to get to the door.) An outhouse would have been easier. Instead, in the privacy of a narrow hallway, my mother instructed me to wrap the used pad in toilet paper and slip it to her in the kitchen. She was appalled when I tried, in front of my grandfather, father, and sister, to discretely hand her something that was almost the size of a shoe box. I may have overdone the toilet paper. There must have been a code of conduct because the men pretended not to see anything. My sister did take a breath to speak, but my father gave her that look and she shut her mouth. My mother handed the now invisible menstrual pad with its mounds of toilet paper unraveling here and there to her mother who laughed. The men still didn’t look up from their soft-boiled egg cups. My grandmother opened the door of the iron stove sitting in the middle of everything and tossed the pad onto the waves of orange flame. She latched the door closed with a clang. Everyone ignored the sparks and burning blood smell. In that kitchen, reality was whatever my grandmother decided it was.
Tampons existed, but young girls were, of course, not allowed to use them. At my high school graduation, that’s when I decided to try one. There I was, already in my white gown, in a stall, for the last time ever, of the girl’s bathroom, and a friend was giving instructions from the other side of the door. I failed at the first attempt. She handed another paper-wrapped tube under the stall. It hurt, but that’s how I walked up on stage to get my diploma. I don’t have one of those looking back in retrospect from a place of maturity explanations for this. It just seemed like something I had to do. In college they came out with the bullet-shaped tampons that opened up inside you like a parasol. They excelled at being small and convenient, but they could get lost. One day a guy and I planned a sexual romp. Beforehand, in the bathroom, despite leaning against the wall to wedge my shoulder forward to lengthen my arm so that my hand could reach farther down and up, my fingers just couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery string. So I climbed into bed with the guy where he’d been waiting and presented the choice—leave or find it for me. Young men will do anything for sex. But that was the end of the bullets.
Which was fine because the bleeding was coming harder and for longer. I went from large to super to extra absorbent, and the companies kept making whatever it was the tampons were made out of better at wicking up liquids. If I timed the end of my period wrong, my insides would rip a little getting that too dry, mystery of corporate design out of me. Menstruating women started having sudden desperate illnesses. They labeled it Toxic Shock Syndrome and the way I was scratching up the sides of my vagina made me susceptible. It’s odd to read an article in the paper with a list of causes and dangers and nod yes and then yes and then say out loud, “this is exactly what I do.” It’s like being shouted at. I was stunned that I, who was by now a vegetarian and recycled before people recycled and was a member of the first organic food buying club in Atlanta and a lesbian who questioned all things male, that I was allowing these dangerous, dioxin-bleached, penis-shaped products of corporate greed anywhere near my delicate, most womanly tissues. I rushed to the local co-op and bought a set of cloth, reusable pads. A belt came full-circle back into my life, but this one had loops of soft cotton.
What with the bucket sitting by the toilet for the pre-soaking of used pads and watching blood swirl around the sink as I rinsed and squeezed and rinsed and squeezed, I was now more in touch with my bleeding. This was an aspiration of many of us lesbian feminists of the eighties. Women saved their blood and buried it in their gardens. We got on all fours and did the special stretches that were sure to harmonize our bodies into a cramp-less state. If that didn’t work we took dolomite, a mixture of calcium and magnesium. Some wore t-shirts that said “I am woman. I bleed for days and do not die.” Every twenty-six days for ten days I passed clots the size of blackberries and enough blood to fertilize acres. I tried Midol and Tylenol and drinking. The much touted, super drug Advil had just been released for over the counter use. I took higher than recommended doses of everything. Nothing helped. Pot made it worse. I wanted a t-shirt that said “I am woman. I bleed for days and want to die.”
In the nineties I decided to go back to tampons mostly because I had started kayaking and needed the convenience. But also, you didn’t hear about women dying of toxic shock anymore. They had to be safer now, I told myself. Besides, I was in my forties so the warnings about “long term use” were less applicable. In your forties, the media, your friends, doctors, the actual real reality of increasing risks for this and that cause fear. Ovarian cancer is scary. It has hardly any useful symptoms except for breakthrough bleeding. I started having that. Every month I had that. Even I, eventually, after a year, when for a short while I had decent insurance, decided it might be best to have things checked out. The gynecologist, who despite his designer suit looked like a fourteen year old boy, told me what the problem was and that it was completely fixable with a laparoscopy. It turned out he was completely wrong about everything he thought was going on, but he did find endometriosis all over. He burned it out of there. During the post-operative appointment, he said it was odd that I hadn’t been having pain from it, maybe for many, many years. I said, well, yes I’ve always had pretty severe pain with my periods. He said that it would have been nice to know that. Which I thought was a snippy comment, but probably came from his defensiveness about being wrong about everything.
Still the laparoscopy was a success. These winding down years have been a comparative joy. For the first time in my life, the phrase “mild discomfort” has a meaning beyond irony. Advil, it turns out, is good for something. The moon is overhead now. The mosquitoes are descending. I go into the tent, fold a bandana into a pad, put on underwear, and pull the waistband as high as it will go to hold everything in place. I’ve brought pain meds, but a shade of my eighties self says to wait. For a last time, during these hours filled with the chuffs and scurries of night animals, I’ll feel the tug and stretch inside me, the rise and fall of pain.
In the morning I make an emotional return to the present with a handful of pills and muttered goddamn about having to scrub blood one more time. Rooting around in the dry bag turns up another bandana and more underwear. The used bandana goes in the trash container, but after I breakdown my campsite and paddle away, there’s a pair of rinsed out beige cotton panties draped over the kayak’s bow to dry.
The morning sun and night dew have combined into a glisten that clings and drapes over surfaces. Everything looks labial to me. The rose pogonias shake their pink frilly lips. The water lily blooms unfurl. Flashy blue damselflies spin past in jeweled bracelets of mating circles, and I find another species of pitcher plant whose burgundy, decumbent leaves spread wide over the fragile soil and are veined through in a darker red. I spend a long time looking down at them, touching along them. When sandhill cranes trumpet nearby, I look up and around for the first time in awhile. The kayak is drifting into a large lake I’ve never seen before. I’m possibly lost. I’m possibly lost in a 43,800 acre swamp. Older friends have spoken in despair of the brain fog that comes with menopause. Has it arrived so quickly?
I retrace my path in a sprint until I find the exceedingly well-marked trail that I missed. I park myself directly under the sign and regroup by eating the remaining apple before I go on. Five hours later the clear water thickens with minerals and the detritus of living things, and the thin patches of earth rise into banks. I’m in a zone of transition, an ecotone, where pitcher plants mingle with nutrient-loving purple iris and white hat pins that sway on their stalks. Soon I’ll pass through to where lush walls of wax myrtle and fetterbush line the path and later palm trees and then cedars and oaks and pines will tower up from their rich soils. I pause and look back over the wet prairie. Ecotones aren’t just a mosaic of the habitats to either side. They harbor plants and animals unknown to either one. The butter cream blooms of swamp bays send a lemon sweetness over the water. To this world on the edge, the in-between, my body contributes the smells of sweat, apple, and the final overflow of a now soaked bandana.