My three sisters and I shared everything—toys, hair barrettes, school supplies, you name it. Once our mother even tried to get us to swap the same pair of retainers, but we quickly learned that not everything can be shared. Frugality has its limits, at least so far as good sense is concerned. Mama didn’t think those limits applied to undergarments. That’s why my sisters and I even shared the same panties.
Once Mama found 4-packs of white granny panties at the wholesaler by the paper mill, she loaded up and stuffed our top dresser drawer full. The dresser contained our shared wardrobe, which mainly consisted of our school uniforms and old rags we could wear while doing our neighbors’ chores. Only our coats hung up in the closet. The rest of the cramped space was jammed with household odds and ends. In our old row house in Church Hill, storage space was rare. Privacy was rare. Decent heating and cooling was rare. We didn’t have a dishwasher, a washer/dryer, or even a fridge that worked half right. So much of what would’ve made for decent middle class living in our home was rare.
Not that Katherine, Mary, Anne, and I ever knew the difference growing up. We thought nothing of our mother fretting over food stamps or our teacher sending us home with canned goods on the weekends. Everybody we knew got free lunch at school and at least half of them took the early bus to get free breakfast, too. It didn’t matter that most of the gruel they dumped onto our Styrofoam trays was unrecognizable. Food was food.
At the time, I figured underwear was underwear, too. Sanitation never entered my mind. Though we were too young for much vaginal discharge, I was no stranger to mucous, either. I just never thought about it. Heck, we could go days without showering if Mama was late paying the water bill. Sometimes I’d come back from weeding Miss Crackenbush’s garden caked in dirt and my only solace was the nearest damp dishtowel. This was so normal in our house that my sisters didn’t even tease me about it. Once or twice at school, a boy who always wore his father’s coffee-stained work shirts called me Pigpen, but that was the worst of it. Your classmates can’t accuse you of being smelly when most of them have an un- or underemployed single parent, too.
That doesn’t mean Mama sent us to school looking like survivors of a natural disaster, either. She always combed our hair and insisted that we brushed our teeth. Even when there was no toothpaste in the house, she chided us to rinse our mouths with water—but “only as much as needed. No sense in running up a high water bill.”
Mama didn’t label our underwear so my sisters and I could at least say our panties were our own. We went to the drawer each morning and pulled out whatever massive pair of underpants sat on top of the pile. The underpants ballooned around Anne’s teeny butt because she was the youngest, but they fit the rest of us sort of okay. Though we wouldn’t have won any style points, at least we weren’t drowning in cotton. It wasn’t like the first year we were all at the same charter school and wading around in the largest uniforms available.
“You’ll grow into them,” Mama sighed when Katherine and I dared open our mouths when we came home from the first day of school. Mary had begged me, the oldest to pipe up, but I said I wouldn’t complain unless Katherine chimed in. Meanwhile, the only thing Anne could whine about was missing Miss Crackenbush, who watched her while Mama was either working or looking for work.
By the time I was 12, I was still sharing underwear with my sisters. My mother hadn’t so much as explained menstruation to me, let alone sex. Our school system slated sexual health for the high school curriculum, years after I found the first drop of blood in the crotch of my panties. But before my first period, I discovered masturbation.
It was hot as ever one August night as I squirmed in my bottom bunk. I was naked and still boiling. My sisters were sound asleep, completely beat from racing around the gentrifying part of the neighborhood all day to walk dogs, feed cats, and change litter boxes day. Little Anne’s schedule was so ambitious that she tripped on a loose cobblestone and scraped her knee. She still hobbled over to the next house so she could give Muffy wet food and rightfully claim her cash at the end of the week.
I flipped my pillow to the cold side and rustled about like a bear scratching its back against a tree. After a couple of minutes of listening to the ancient ceiling fan whir, I decided to end my misery. I sprang up and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I returned to bed with a tray of ice cubes.
Lying flat on my back, I put one ice cube on my abdomen and watched it melt into ant-sized rivers. The water ran toward my crotch and puddled around my pubic bone. I added more ice cubes to my chest and belly and the rivers eventually converged and flooded over my pubic bone and dripped down to my vulva. The water tickled. That’s when I started to trace the remnants of the rivers down to my vagina. For the first time, I began exploring myself—tugging at my lips, pulling the single curly hair that sprouted about a month prior, just dancing my fingers around. When I found what I later learned was my clitoris, I rubbed and rubbed until, suddenly, I didn’t care about the heat. I wiped my sticky hand on my cast-off sheet and fell asleep almost immediately.
The next morning, after my sisters ran around to do chores for rich white people, I took a fourth of our panties and labeled them with my initials. The script was tiny and buried in the label text so my sisters never noticed, but I knew it was there. Those panties were mine.
Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-Scottish-American writer and artist who lives in Brooklyn. In addition to founding Quail Bell Magazine, she authored Ova (Dancing Girl Press, 2017) and two miniature books from the Poems-For-All series. Her work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Jimson Weed, So to Speak, and Barely South.