I’m continuing in Sweet Saturday Samples this week with more of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. This time the spotlight is on 13-year-old Ernestine in the Meatpacking District. Ernestine reaches a milestone at the mother of all inconvenient times.
Ernestine is fumbling around for some matches or a flashlight when she feels as though she’s wet herself. Hoping against hope it’s not what she dreads it is, and at this worst of all possible times, she dashes out to the fire escape and looks around for people standing on nearby fire escapes or down on the street. When the coast is clear, she pulls down her skirt and underwear. In the bright light of the full moon, she sees what looks like a colored stain and lets out an angry shout.
Girl comes running out onto the fire escape after her. “Ernestine, what in the world are you doing with the bottom half of your clothes down where everyone could see you? Even I ain’t so into the mystical and unexplained that I’d believe people go nuts with a full moon.”
“Look at this,” Ernestine whispers in mortification. “I’m having my first period. Damn, I wish I could just hang out on this fire escape all night and bleed onto it. At least then no one would know what I was doing.”
Girl puts her arm around her. “I know it stinks. Pull your clothes back up and we’ll go across the hall to Mrs. van Niftrik. She helped me when I got mine back in June.”
“Can’t I just spend all night sitting on the toilet?” Ernestine begs in mortification. “I don’t like the idea of anyone else knowing.”
“What if someone else needed to use it? They’d wonder what you was doing in there so long. And you know Boy would be embarrassed beyond belief if he was told you was in there all night ‘cause you were menstruating. I don’t envy him, the only guy in a household full of girls.”
“Then I can sit on onea the buckets we use for washing windshields in the warmer months, and just switch buckets if I fill one up all the way.”
“Even I think that’s gross. Come on, Mrs. van Niftrik was a girl once. She knows how to handle this. I keep the cloth sanitary napkins I made in a purple laundry bag in the bathroom closet. Yours are in a smaller blue laundry bag within the big laundry bag, ‘cause it ain’t healthy to share something as personal as that. We’ll just take ‘em over to Mrs. van Niftrik and let her do the rest.”
Ernestine feels herself blushing in the dark as Girl leads her over to the bathroom and pulls out the blue laundry bag, then takes her by the hand and slowly makes her way over to the van Niftriks’ apartment. The other four residents assume they’re just going to borrow a flashlight or something and don’t question why they’re leaving.
“We’re glad to see you, girls,” Mrs. van Niftrik smiles at them when she opens the door. “We were just wondering how you all were making out with the power outage. You can all come over and keep us company if you want. Mr. van Niftrik isn’t home yet. I assume he’s trapped in the subway with all those other poor people.”
“Ernestine needs your help the same way I needed your help in June,” Girl says. “She just started to menstruate.”
Ernestine hangs her head in shame.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, dear,” Mrs. van Niftrik tries to reassure her. “All normal girls have that happen at about your age. It’s a normal part of growing up, and it means everything is working just as it should. I know it’s inconvenient and that you don’t always feel your best during this time, but just think, this is your body’s way of preparing for having a baby when you’re a grownup.”
“But normal girls don’t have babies as teenagers anymore,” Ernestine protests as Mrs. van Niftrik ushers them inside. “Why couldn’t our bodies evolve to do that when we’re eighteen or twenty-one instead of twelve or thirteen? I don’t want all those years of menstruation when I’m not even old enough to get married or have a baby. My ten-greats-grandma probably got married and had her first kid at my age!”
“I’m not looking forward to my first one either,” Betsy admits. “That filmstrip we saw in sixth grade just made me even more confused and scared about what’s gonna happen, and so did that silly booklet. Why am I supposed to look forward to something so annoying and cherish it as some magical, special part of becoming a young lady? Those dumb booklets were written by people who think all girls in junior high are wearing their first makeup and going on dates. I’m not even allowed to wear makeup till I’m sixteen, and I can’t go on a date till I’m in high school.”
“Well, complaining about it won’t make it go away, will it?” Mrs. van Niftrik asks. “I’ll help fix Ernestine up, and then we’ll all have some roasted marshmallows and chocolate bars.”