For the longest time, I hated New York City. I told people it was because my first visit was with my family at the trying age of sixteen – one of those hot summers, you know, and the shops wouldn’t let you in to use the bathroom unless you were buying something. I’m from the South, where store attendants couldn’t care less if we bought a ware or just went in to pee. When people asked me why I didn’t enjoy New York, I would say emphatically, “The people there don’t let you pee in the store so everyone just pees outside!” So we – my mom, my dad, my sister, and myself – trudged along on the sidewalks which radiated heat through our shoes, the sun beat down, and no matter which side of the street we were on we couldn’t seem to walk in the cooler shadows of the buildings, and the acrid scent of baked urine permeated every step.
I was a late bloomer. I read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was in elementary school and wanted to know what menstruation was like. Years passed before I went through puberty. My older sister, knowing how terrible I felt about my non-existent breasts, bet me $50 that I would have some semblance of womanhood by the end of sixth grade. At twelve, I developed tiny buds of breast tissue that looked like points poking out of my t-shirts and she declared herself right. At fourteen, I finally got my period for the first time. And, oddly, at sixteen – much earlier than I expected, but it made sense at the time – I was in an amazing relationship with an amazing person and lost my virginity.
This trip to New York, and the added trek to Maine to visit family, was the first month post-virginity-loss. I was due to expect my period any day, so as I walked around Manhattan with my family, I was wearing a fat diaper of a sanitary napkin in case I started bleeding and couldn’t use a fucking public toilet and feeling miserable and bloated.
What I hadn’t learned at that age, though I’ve talked to other women since, is that a woman’s body freaks out a little after its first fuck. Periods don’t come exactly on time. I was never regular – at that point, I wasn’t on birth control pills, though I had had sex ed so we knew to take precautions – so I was guessing about my start date.
So I hated NYC because I was sweltering with a hot pillow between my legs, and every time I remembered that New York trip I recalled the uncertainty I felt: Am I late? We used a condom… Shit, am I pregnant? It can happen…
My family and I drove to Maine. One of the attractions, my dad told us, was a whale-watching boat. Would we like to go see the whales?
All of our cousins and aunts and uncles were going. My great-aunt and my grandmother were going to see the whales. My uncle brought along his camcorder to videotape the whales.
As soon as we stepped on, I knew it was a mistake. The wind was blowing, the waves were choppy. The boat left the dock and the people aboard wavered about lightly. “You’ll get used to it,” I was told. But the unsettled feeling in my stomach grew and grew, like a fist opening and closing.
The first dolphin sighting had all of us scrambling starboard. My uncle, at the bow, held his camcorder up and watched the waves through the viewfinder, hoping to capture the dolphins. Without warning, he vomited, throwing flecks of yellow downwind. It was almost funny: the flecks, like short little ribbons, floated across our collective vision and plastered onto a teenaged girl’s sweatshirt. When we all realized what it was, every head turned from right to left to find the vomiting culprit. Then our heads moved back from left to right to see how the girl would react.
It was as if Uncle’s sickness had opened a floodgate: the group rippled as people suddenly leaned over the edge of the railing and barfed into the waters below. Ship crew passed around waxed paper bags, which people used then held onto, as there was no trash bin. I ran to the stern and sat with my head between my legs, feeling the pillow of absorbent cotton against my crotch, which was damp with only perspiration and no blood, and I thought: I’m late, this is late, I’m feeling sick, oh FUCK I am pregnant.
The cold Maine water looked really inviting then. I wouldn’t throw myself in, but I did think about it for a split second. Ultimately, caution won and my sister ambled over to pat my back, as I’m sure I looked like the pinnacle of misery.
You know when you wrestle with queasiness, and you’re in that no-man’s-land between keeping your food down and chocking on bile? I was there, in that moment; sandwiched between my sister and mother, watching the waves. My stomach clenched and unclenched; my mouth filled with hot saliva that I kept swallowing. And all at once, I knew which side was going to win.
I jumped up and tried to run to the toilet a few feet away. Mom followed me, to hold back my hair, I thought. As soon as I began to heave, however, she had to sympathy-vomit. She pushed me out of the way and took over the toilet for herself. Panicking, tears in my eyes, bile rushing hot on the back of my tongue, I groped wildly for the doorway, and instead someone gave me a paper bag. I puked.
We didn’t see any whales. Most of us huddled on benches welded to the boat deck and waited to dock. We stayed in Maine a few more days, drove back to New York City, and flew home.
Four days later, two weeks late, I started bleeding.