It was not the first, or even worst, time this had happened, and yet she never got over the initial shock of seeing her own blood. As usual, she experienced a moment of simultaneous girlhood fear that her insides were falling out and resigned acceptance of yet another Quentin Tarantino movie in her underwear. Already embarrassed by her inability to count out twenty-five days on a calendar, she hastily rummaged through the bathroom drawers with increasing dread. No tampons. No overnight pads. No regular pads. No light pads. Not even a single panty liner. She was a whole new level of out.
If she had listened to the female collective saying “stock up or you’ll be caught unprepared,” she would not have entered CVS at 9:25 pm with a thick square of toilet paper wedged in her pants as protection from a Grindhouse sequel. Though concerned about how long till she bleeds through the flimsy armor, she stood between two rows of feminine products debating whether she should stay with her usual pad or buy this new kind of pad, which was really the old kind in new packaging. The black box in a sea of pink lured her in despite being an extra twenty-five cents.
25¢: the price paid for forgetting, the cost of irresponsibility, the debt incurred by “does anybody have a quarter?” echoing someone’s lack.
How many times had she seen that amount posted on a bathroom dispenser? In that moment, twenty-five cents was asking too much. She would not spend even a penny more for the black boxed, individually wrapped sanitary napkins newly equipped with patented anti-leak technology. It was the phrase “anti-leak technology” with its suggestion that the flow of her blood was a battle to be won with superior methods of containment that triggered an inner warning system, and it finally occurred to her that the feminine product industry was well-marketed bullshit.
With a surge of premature enlightenment, she turned away from the power of advertising and back into the loving arms of brand loyalty. She stocked up on all supplies while blind with pride that she recognized the twenty-five cent admission to a rigged game. The possibility that her custom arsenal of tampons and pads for every occasion was also part of their game had not yet appeared on her thought horizon.
Walking towards the cashier, she imagined the other shoppers’ eyes on her haul. Brief and accidental eye contact gained skewed significance. The older lady’s smile did not say, “I remember being an irresponsible girl,” the cashier’s posture did not reveal his second-hand embarrassment scanning her goods, and the customer behind her did not even look away from their phone long enough to notice the non-existent stain on her pants. Still, the possibility kept her on edge. She had once described this phenomenon as an overwhelming certainty that everybody was judging one’s ability to keep menstruation secret, or Period Paranoia for short. Unfortunately, neither naming nor defining was strong enough to overcome her fear, and the fluttering need to get out, get home, get away from these gazes, distracted her from the increasing total.
$25.57: the summation of not buying fast enough, the amount needed to feel protected from shameful leakage, the cash she did not have to hand over.
Authorizing the purchase via credit card, she thought about how she had never noticed the cost of her menstrual cycle when supplies were obtained incrementally; a box of tampons here and a package of liners there never seemed like much. Bought all at once, the number of items and total cost left her unsettled. With the long receipt in hand, she made a mental note to remember coupons next time, as if a dollar off would make a difference.
In some ways, her chronic procrastination provided the necessary moments for her subsequent realizations. For example, the promise to take out the trash that she repeatedly neglected to fulfill led to a complete view of what happens after six days of used tampons and light to overnight pads. Even though her cycle officially ended earlier that morning, too many clothes had suffered from miscalculation, so she grabbed another pad. The previous one, more wrinkled than anything else, was tucked neatly inside the new wrapper, rolled, and sealed. Balancing the little package atop the already full trashcan, she marveled at the sheer amount of waste just one period created. She was usually unconcerned about contributing to landfills, but this bordered obscene, especially considering she would generate the same amount next month.
All that she used would have to be bought again. The convenience of disposability led to consuming more and more, bleeding through dollar bills and throwing them away. There was nothing sustainable about this situation. She swore to herself that she would research and switch to alternatives, but, once she left the restroom, such promises were often put off or forgotten. Fortunately, she also forgot to unfollow a coworker who was going green and making sure everyone knew by posting each environmentally inspired change.
She clicked the link to a website for reusable feminine products and pads with bright colors and whimsical patterns filled the screen. It was far from the sanitary napkins proving their sterility with bleached white material. Here were women embracing the cyclical nature of menstruation by washing stripes, polka dots, and animal print for the next bloody round. However, being the kind of person that she was, her eyes scanned the benefits and skipped over detailed information to hone in on the price.
$125.99: the upfront payment to prevent future purchases, the single charge to get out of a system that equates the body with trash, the membership fee for a whole new community.
Rather than freedom from the feminine product industry’s constant grab for more money, she thought about the extra laundry and whether it was worth dropping over a hundred dollars at once. She did not think about how that price covered seven pads, two carrying cases, a bottle of cleaning product, and a soaking bucket, most of which would last her at least five years. A cheaper kit featured a few pads and a menstrual cup, but she shied away from the image of emptying a cup of caught blood. A part of her could not believe the reviews that it was easy to wear, easy to clean, easy to store, and so much more economic. For her the concept was too strange and the price too high. If she had actually taken the time to compare costs, she would have called bullshit on disposable products.
Instead, she bookmarked the site for later.
For more years than should be said, she kept periods on one side and men on the other, certain that a joining of the two would end in tragedy. Of course they knew about it, close proximity to females being a fact of life, but they did not want to know any more than necessary. She remembered her older brother and his friends using “that time of the month” as an excuse and accusation when complaining about their girlfriends. She vaguely recalled watching a romantic comedy where leaving pads and tampons in the bathroom was cause for male panic and threatened the main relationship. Having only half paid attention to the movie, the scene stuck in her mind without context or knowledge that the character in question was an asshole.
As a result, she avoided the subject with her boyfriend, and took great pains to hide the evidence whenever she stayed at his apartment as if he was unaware of basic biology. Her strategy was to always wear tampons so it could be flushed down the toilet, leaving only wrapping and applicator to contend with. She would wipe the blood off the smooth plastic to put inside the wrapper, roll the whole thing up in toilet paper, and then bury it underneath other trash. This process never struck her as ridiculous, excessive, or unnecessary even though anyone could guess the contents of those “mysterious” rolls.
Considering the so-called secrecy she maintained, it came as a surprise when one day she opened the drawer containing her growing collection of things in his bathroom and found a pack of overnight pads with wings. She returned to the bedroom still trying to figure out how he knew what kind she used or why it was in the drawer to begin with. She was not yet used to his particular style of romantic declarations, but when he said, “I would be proud to buy you pads for the next twenty years,” blood and boyfriend came together in something resembling commitment.
It wasn’t until much later that she thought about his assumption she had at least another twenty years of bleeding. Statistically speaking, she had another twenty-five years. Another twenty-five years of buying a product to be used once before filling someone’s trashcan. Another twenty-five years of participating in what she suspected was a system of bullshit, and she just reeled in a new consumer with a single package of overnight pads.
$5.75: the sales tag on her fear of staining his sheets, the first charge on a relationship-long receipt, the down payment for cohabitation.
It should not have taken mere bills and quarters from her boyfriend’s pocket to prompt a second look at alternatives. Her needs alone should have been enough, but each time she gave over that small amount it seemed a little less surprising until years passed and she stopped counting the expense. He was not yet caught in the process.
She resolved to close that blood tab before it got too high.
Once again she stood in the feminine products aisle staring at a column of overnight pads. Everything she saw would be bought, used, thrown away, and bought again. The market was not going to disappear when this aisle seemed like the only solution to a monthly problem. When she had actually gotten around to learning her options and calculating the price difference, she had decided disposable products were traps, cloth pads were too much effort for her level of laziness, but menstrual cups fit the bill.
$22.51: the cost to take her wallet back from the companies profiting on her body.
She should not have waited until her period started before ordering the cup, but at least it would arrive soon. So while the overnight pads promised a sleep free from worrying about finding a stain in the morning, she did not have many mornings to worry about. Period Paranoia over ruined sheets could be pushed aside for a few nights.
She turned away from the sanitary napkins and strode off to the cleaning supplies aisle, just in case.