FIRSTS.

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FIRST PERIOD

I WAS IN MISSISSIPPI visiting my grandparents the first time I got my period. My cousins and I were jumping on the trampoline in the backyard when my cousin Harris looked over at me and asked, “Mary Minter, what’s that blood dripping down your legs?” I remember looking down at the blood, horrified. I went in the house to tell my grandmother and she brought me upstairs to her guest room, known as the “red room” because of its red wallpaper, and opened a drawer not used in years. She dug around all of the whole-piece Esther Williams-style bathing suits and bathing caps to pull out an old box of Stayfree maxi pads, the belted kind. The woman on the box was from the late 1960s; she had a Mary Tyler Moore-style haircut and was walking in a carefree sort of way down the beach with a man. My grandmother took one of the huge pads out from the box and handed it to me. There was a paper belt attached to it with rusty safety pins. It looked like a large diaper. I went to the bathroom to try it on and found that the pad was larger than the crotch of my underwear — it bulged out as if I had stuffed myself with a wad of paper towels — and the paper belt rose above the top of my shorts. I felt a surge of disappointment and frustration; this was not how I’d imagined it would be. I also felt ill — not physical nausea but more like spiritual nausea. The knowledge that I could now have children overwhelmed me. I still felt like a child myself.

That night my cousin Tutu and I babysat for the Phillips baby boy, Beau. Tutu was more excited about my period than I was, since she didn’t have hers yet, and she invited herself into the bathroom while I changed my pad. She wanted to see the blood. I quickly tried to change the pad without giving her much chance to look, but she managed anyway. “It’s so dark,” she observed. “Not like regular blood!” I could have killed her.

When we went to the pool at the club, I watched the other young women diving in the deep end in their bikinis. I envied their freedom as I sat at the side of the pool, feeling the weight of the maxi pad between my legs. I was sure everyone at the pool must know why I was sitting there. Why was it so much easier for them?

I returned to New Orleans at the end of the summer to find that my mother had told my father, even though I asked her not to. I knew this because he invited me to sit in the front seat of his car, something he had never allowed before. Instead of eagerly accepting the invitation, as I would have done in the past, I turned it down. I wanted to stay in the back with my younger sisters.

FIRST BRA

MY FIRST BRA CAME in a cardboard box from the young miss section of D.H. Holmes department store. All of the young miss bras were in boxes and each box had a photograph of a young woman wearing the bra. For each style there was a different model — girls like Marcia Brady with neatly combed hair pulled back in barrettes. The bras had names to match each model: the “Audrey” bra had a pink rosebud in the middle, “Betina” came with a criss-cross and “Bess” had blue piping. My favorite was the “Tabitha” bra, which had yellow calico straps and a daisy in the middle.

In the dressing room, my mother helped me try it on. I crossed my arms over my breasts, embarrassed, knowing that even though she had noticed them under my clothes, she had not yet seen them bare. I stood with my back to her as she held the bra in front of me, pulled it through my arms and clasped it in the back.

I felt uncomfortable immediately: the material was scratchy and the elastic band around the bottom pinched my skin. But I loved looking like a woman instead of a child. I felt more like my classmates, many of whom were wearing bras whether they needed to or not. I stared at myself in the mirror, imagining that I was Tabitha, popular and pretty.

“Are you sure it’s not too tight?” My mother tried to slip a finger under the strap.

“It’s perfect!” I replied, too preoccupied to say anything about the discomfort.

Once at home, I hurried to try it on again, alone in my bathroom. I had the idea to put scraps of tissue under the straps so they wouldn’t hurt. I loved the smoothness my breasts had now, how they no longer jiggled. I jumped up and down and watched them stay still. I looked at myself from the side, the front and far away. I smiled, frowned and pouted — studying variations of the new me.

In our bedroom, I modeled for my sisters. “Mary Minter has a bra!” they chanted, reaching their hands beneath the back strap to pop it.

But as the months progressed, the bra became almost unbearable. I had taken to taping larger and larger wads of tissue beneath the straps in order to make it to the end of the day, but I couldn’t do much about the itchiness of the material. Every day after school, even before I ate my snack, I’d run upstairs and take it off so I could breath at last. Then one day during recess one of the tissues fell out and Court DeLore, the captain of the soccer team, accused me of stuffing. I stopped using the tissue, which made things worse. I wondered how the other girls could withstand the pain. It never occurred to me I could have bought the wrong size or style.

FIRST GYNECOLOGIST

I WAS 17 WHEN I asked my mother if I could go to the gynecologist. She sent me to her Ob/Gyn, an old man near retirement who worked out of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Norman Rockwell prints lined the walls of the waiting room where expectant mothers sat with their children and paged through Family Circle magazine. I was the youngest person there, dressed in black and reading Camus, and the staff eyed me suspiciously from behind their counter.

When it was my turn, a nurse brought me to an examination room and gave me a paper gown to put on, explaining how I’d have to leave the back opened even though it made more sense to leave the front opened, and then she showed me how to put my feet in the stirrups for the doctor. When Dr. Demetrios opened the door, I felt like my grandfather had just walked in the room. He had white, balding hair and wore a white coat with his name sewn on a patch in script.

“And what brings you here, my dear?” His voice sounded just as sweet and gentle as his demeanor. He put his hands on my knees and started to move them apart.

“Just my first examination,” I answered timidly, trying to feel comfortable opening my thighs. He put his head underneath the cloth and peered between my legs.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I was really there to get birth control pills. I had wanted them ever since I saw the oval package in my friend Emily’s pocketbook, next to her box of Marlboro Lights. Like the cigarettes (which I also had), I saw the pills as an a step toward freedom, independence and adulthood.

But I wasn’t married like the doctor’s other patients. For God’s sake, I didn’t even have a boyfriend. I feared ruining his pleasant practice with such an outrageous request. I left Dr. Demetrios’s office that day without a prescription.

The only way to get birth control pills, I decided, was to go to one of the women’s clinics my friends went to. I wouldn’t need a parent’s permission there. So I drove out to Bank Street, in the part of New Orleans near the prison and Charity Hospital and Bud’s Broiler hamburger stand. The New Orleans Women’s Clinic was painted a mustard yellow and had bars on the windows. The waiting room was full of young women, alone like me. One woman was crying. I found out later that she had a tampon stuck inside her and they couldn’t get it out so she had to go to the emergency room.

This doctor reminded me of the mayor of New Orleans — abrupt and unable to make eye contact. He examined me quickly, then brought me to his office and wrote a prescription, no questions asked, for birth control pills. He gave me a free sample and explained how the dial of days worked. It reminded me of the Advent calendar I’d had as a child — for each day leading up to Christmas, I’d pop out a piece of chocolate.

Now time again came in a system, this time counted in pills. I measured things according to the pill calendar. Would I be asked out by the third Sunday of the pill calendar? Be kissed by the fourth? It never occurred to me to find it odd that I was taking the pills without actually having sex… as though I believed taking them would somehow bring me a boyfriend.

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minter krotzer is at work on a collection of “firsts.” her work has been published in before and after: stories from new york (ww norton), the saint ann’s review and the forthcoming night train. she lives in brooklyn with her husband, poet hal sirowitz.