by Emma Bernstein
Latent. /ˈlātnt/. Adjective. In biology: “(of a bud, resting stage, etc.) – lying dormant or hidden until circumstances are suitable for development or manifestation.” In medicine: “(of a disease) in which the usual symptoms are not yet manifest.” In speech: “(of a quality or state) existing but not yet developed or manifest; hidden or concealed.” In memory:
It had been three days, and I still hadn’t told anyone that I got my period.
Or else: years earlier, Nov. 4, 2008, listening to election results crackle over the radio from the back of my mom’s Ford Explorer. Barack Obama would declare victory before I fell asleep that night, a blur of confetti and popped champagne on the television, but what I remember most is pulling into the driveway as we heard the news: Prop 8 had passed in California, banning same-sex marriage state-wide. My mom cried that night in the front seat, knuckles gripping the steering wheel. I don’t know that she ever really wanted to get remarried, but she heard, then, what the people of California, what her people, had to say about her.
Throughout my childhood, I saw, up close, so much of what my mom felt – contagious joy, contagious sorrow, affection, bitterness, relentless hope, and bouts of rage so powerful they could shake a house from its foundations – but in all of those emotions, the good and the bad, she never seemed as hurt as she did that night, face slick with tears in the moon-white glow of our porch light.
But about my period: I was thirteen, drowning in the oversized t-shirt my friend lent me for the night. We lay side by side on the nylon carpet of her bedroom, snug in the sleeping bags her mom brought up from the garage. My cotton underwear was stuffed with half a roll of toilet paper, and as she and I traded theories about the next season of Doctor Who, I was preoccupied with a growing stickiness between my legs and the distinct possibility that I would bleed through to her loaned pajama shorts by morning.
Only a week earlier, I’d been terrified that my period would never come. I worried that all my girlhood friends would leave me behind, one by one, to plunge into a world of tampons, padded bras, and boyfriends – one I would never be able to gain access to. But when I pulled my underwear down in the bathroom to discover – as promised by the “changing bodies” movie we were all forced to watch the previous fall – a streak of red-brown blood, I was not relieved. I felt, instead, thrust against my will from childhood into an unsteady future, one whose rules I could not and did not want to fathom.
Since my mom lived that year mostly out of state, she was not there to hear the news, or to show me the place under the sink where she kept the pads or how to seal the sticky edges to the bottom of my underwear. Instead, I dug desperately through my dad’s medicine cabinet, searching, to no avail, for the stash of tampons I was sure my stepmom kept somewhere in that bathroom. Too embarrassed to say anything about the whole ordeal to her or my dad, I packed as much toilet paper as I could fit into the bottom of my underwear, buttoned my pants, and determined to go about my life as if nothing had changed.
And nothing had, really, except that a few days later I found myself unable to focus on a conversation in my oldest friend’s bedroom because I was too busy trying to feel, with my fingers, how precarious the situation was downstairs. My friend had gotten her period a few months before. I could have asked her for a pad, but I felt in too deep with my toilet paper strategy, like just admitting that I’d had my period since Friday would unravel not only the last three days’ worth of white lies and lies of omission, but a more fundamental lie that, although I could not put my finger on exactly what it was, would surely devastate me.
I was scared, too, that if I told anyone about my period, my new adulthood would render the affection that I had felt for my best friends since childhood suddenly inappropriate. I often lay awake in my friends’ beds late into the night, body mummy-stiff to ensure that I did not brush against them or, god forbid, try to spoon them in my sleep. At Bar Mitzvahs, I was careful not to dance too close to other girls, and when we all changed for soccer practice or for bed, I avoided even a passing glance at their training bras. I was now, according to every educational pamphlet I’d been given, a grown woman, and I worried that this meant that if I tried to express the love I felt for my friends or if I let myself relax around them, they would see some secret predatory or twisted thing in me, and I would lose them entirely.
I felt, in those years, like the changes to my body and to the bodies of my friends were signposts, pointing to the undeniable fact that everything we’d shared, the popcorn movie nights, the whispers of family strife passed under pillow forts, the practice kisses and games of truth or dare and long afternoons spent reenacting scenes from our favorite television shows, would all soon be left behind. A few of my friends were already dating boys, a development that had me seasick with a resentment I could not name. I decided that the tugging I felt in my gut must be what it felt like to also want a boyfriend, and so I set my mind to deciding on a boy to have a crush on. I was scientific in my process; I made pro/con lists of the boys in our grade, took into account the looks of their older brothers or their dads to get a sense of how they’d age into their features, ranked them by both popularity and attainability. I ran for a while through a rotating cast of passive crushes, boys who were nice to me once in study hall or kind of looked like a younger Chad Michael Murray. I moved from crush to crush, convinced that my non-investment in actually dating any of them was how everybody felt about boys until, to my surprise, one kissed me.
It was one week before I woke to the unpleasant surprise of my first period, and two days before my thirteenth birthday. I met him at the beach Bar Mitzvah party of twin boys I barely knew. He went to a different school and paid attention to me and, when I tripped and plunged headfirst into the waves in my little plaid party skirt, he pulled me out of the water like a fireman, with his arms around my shoulders and under my knees. Later, when I had changed into someone else’s t-shirt and baggy shorts, we walked hand in hand down the beach, away from our parents and the huddled tiki torches of the party. At some point he stopped and fell silent. His mouth curled into a smile as sharp as a switchblade, and he asked me:
“Spit or swallow?”
A late bloomer, I didn’t know what he was referring to. I took a wild guess and said, swallow. Without hesitation, he lunged his freckled face towards mine and drew my lips into his mouth. The whole thing was over in a few seconds. I wiped the slobber from my chin, thanked him, and walked alone back to the party to ask if we could go home. That night, I sat under the scalding water of my shower, trying to make myself rewrite the night so that I was happy he had kissed me, so that I had liked it, so that he hadn’t said something that, though I didn’t know what it meant, I was pretty sure was demeaning. Most of all, I tried to make myself believe that even if he’d been perfect, even if he hadn’t said the wrong thing, that he was the person I really wanted to be kissing.
It didn’t occur to me until much later to wonder if I was attracted to any of my friends, but the kernel of fear was there: when we lay side by side in bed or jokingly slow danced together after not being asked by any boys, I felt my heart seize with the thought that some small action or gesture would give away the game and they would think I was what we all said we wholeheartedly supported but didn’t want to be.
And I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. I had crushes on boys, even if they were calculated and passionless. I had kissed a boy, even if I didn’t like it, even if, afterwards, I wanted to spend all night washing his mouth off of me in the shower. I dressed like a girl’s girl, for the most part; I liked picking out high heels and party dresses so much my mom would joke with her girlfriends about how straight her daughter turned out to be.
It wasn’t until high school that I admitted that I found girls attractive; it wasn’t until college that I let myself love one. Sometimes I wonder what those early years could have been like if I wasn’t so afraid of myself, especially since many of those childhood friends have since come out as well. I think about how, if I had just asked my friend for a pad at her house, I could have avoided the embarrassment of the next morning, of waking up with my backside darkened with blood, of having to stand with her mom while she put the soiled shorts and sleeping bag in the wash, my voice wobbling as I said, over and over again, “I’m sorry.”
I think, too, about how much unnecessary pain I could have avoided, how many sexual experiences with boys I wouldn’t have had to regret, how many friendships I wouldn’t have ruined with careful distance, if I had just dug a little deeper and let the unsaid something bloom. But at least latent doesn’t mean never; it means until; it means dormant and not yet. I did, eventually, love a woman, had my heart broken, and loved another one. Years later, I would meet my childhood friends for coffee or to share a joint at the beach in our hometown. Caught in the surprise of our newfound adulthoods, which, as it turns out, took something more than body hair or menstruation to set into motion, we laughed together about all the secrets our younger selves had kept – the many truths we did not yet know we were allowed to speak.