I am thirteen, wearing my brother’s long denim shirt with the pearly snaps over my gymnastics leotard, and my red elephant bell-bottom pants with the low waist and thick buckle. In this photograph, my surprised look has been fading for decades, the blonde hair wisps across my face, turning white. It was taken outside the middle school doors where we congregated before the bell rang. The photograph was blurry to begin with and over time has lost the edges of who I once was.
Seventh grade was a mess. I wanted to be popular but also invisible, fading into the gray-locker hallways. I was changing, my friends were changing. Our bodies were in revolt. I got my first period around my 13th birthday and though I knew I needed products—both from sex ed class the year before and because my friend’s father worked for Kimberly-Clark (we had seen the stacks of Kotex pads among the samples of Scott paper towels and Kleenex in the basement)—I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Shame crept into the vernacular of my inner dialogue: I didn’t have a mother to tell me what to do. So, for months, I stole the tampons that my sister kept in our closet on the floor.
My sister and I shared a bedroom. I sat at my desk, writing in my diary, listening to the radio, as she complained about whatever it was I was doing that annoyed her. At that time, my mere existence annoyed her, unlike just a year before when we would stay up talking in our bunk bed, which intersected the window that looked out onto a walnut tree in the side of the yard, and we spelled Mississippi, sing-songy, because it was fun: M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i.
She had a book about “becoming a young woman” that was written in the early 1960s. I was fascinated by the illustrated fallopian tubes with their monkey arms holding eggs, but I still didn’t understand how to handle all that blood during my period. Shame was a sweater wrapped around my waist to disguise my lack of preparation. Shame was hiding tampons in my knee socks and hearing the packaging crinkle each time I walked.
Shame = not talking to anyone about any of this. Not even my girlfriends.
In seventh grade, I dated boys for a few weeks and then found a reason to let go. Usually, it was because they wanted sex, a subject so far off the scales of shame that I couldn’t allow myself to go there. The longest lasted three months and was my first interracial dating experience. It would have lasted longer but he, B., was moving to another part of town. B. made me laugh, swooned over me, told me I had beautiful legs, called me on the phone every night—I twisted the telephone cord around my finger until it turned white and then I let it unwind. We walked everywhere together, holding hands. White girl, black boy. I mistakenly thought we were making a positive, fearless statement that others would appreciate in 1974.
And then my father sat me down to tell me I needed to be careful. People were talking. Or, at least, people were talking to him about me and B. My dad never said we should break up and he never said it was wrong that we held hands, but our town wasn’t ready and, in truth, it still isn’t in 2016. I remember wanting to throw up and it was around that time that the photograph began to fade, stuck in the corner of my dresser mirror, lit by the sun coming in the bedroom window.
I had heard the snickers behind my back from some classmates – the ones who didn’t know B., the ones who were raised as racists. The ones I see on Facebook today, spitting on Black Lives Matter and President Obama and raising that fucking Confederate flag.
One such woman I have known since 6th grade; she was stunningly beautiful at 13. I envied her height and proportioned body, her gleaming smile, her sculpted cheekbones. We shared a circle of friends but I avoided her out of instinct. Self-preservation. I imagined she was an enormous patch of quicksand. One step and I would be swallowed in shame. I would become like her—the woman whose comment I read on a friend’s post two weeks ago, in defense of Donald Trump: Just wait [sic] assholes. The one who called President Obama a “fucktard” and wished that his daughters would be shipped to the Middle East. That one.
By the end of seventh grade, I had gotten past the alien changes to my body, had stuck with B. and he with me until he moved, resisted becoming someone I didn’t respect. Shame has hovered throughout my life, triggered in predictable ways.
And though this photograph has faded, the core of me is still there. I’m still surprised.