Image Credit: Edmund Dulac, “The Real Princess”
It was a day just like any other. Beautiful and ugly all at the same time. Pairs of frail lime-hued butterflies toggled together over weeds and Queen Anne’s Lace. Broken arms from dollar-store dolls littered the road side.
My family’s sewing shop was the same—a land of beauty mixed with overdue notices, hand-embroidery next to coffee grounds. At the storefront, there were two metal poles, painted white and chipping. In the front window, a life-sized Santa straddled a plastic train well into spring. His eyes bleached from sun, jolly red coat faded to pink.
Each time a customer arrived, the door chimed with a string of old bells. Walking down the store’s center aisle was like walking on a path through a forest made of fabrics. Purples, emeralds, spring grass green. Corduroys, denims, and heavy starchy twills.
A section of the store was devoted to babies, and you could see fabric printed with teddy bears, kittens, zoo animals, and Disney characters. Thick wool felt for tiny newborn hats. There were endless cotton canvas prints to make matching kitchen sets: carrots and cabbages in orange and green, white fabric with the words Bon Appetit scripted in red and black. There was emerald velvet carved into paisley designs and ruby-toned upholstery with wild birds on vines. Buttons in the shape of pink kitty-cats. Spools of thread, their portly bodies lined up in a perfect chromatic rainbow. Zippers and appliques. The fabric replicated nature better than the actual nature outside. The dirty, rugged nature spit on with car exhaust and factory dust.
Then, in a tiny portion of the store, were the ladies. A cluster of them. This was the portion of the store where my mother and grandmother held sewing classes. Under bright fluorescent lights, a large wooden slab balanced atop filing cabinets stuffed with patterns, and along the edge, a ruler had been taped. Three or four sewing machines sat plump and fecked with years of thread dust. And at nearly any time of day, you could hear strong sewing shears cut steadily in that beautiful echo of metal against wood that the girl—myself—had come to love.
Sewing was an exacting science. And when the ladies tilted their beautiful ornamented heads together, their faux tortoise shell hair combs and pearled barrettes, I knew it was to admire a particularly well-done stitch. Other times, they held the garment the way they would hold one of their children’s dead hamsters. Sadly, disdainfully, mourning the poor piece of fabric and wondering what had gone wrong. How exactly had the smooth evenness of the needle’s puncture in and out of the fabric gone awry? The tragedy of thread that pulled so tight it tore a tiny hole. And now what? It was one thing to fix a knotted stitch, another to fix a hole. Impossible. I watched as the ladies would soothe each other, running manicured hands down the garment just to feel the fabric again before, finally, throwing the entire item out. Sometimes the garment brought about tears. Sometimes it was an important garment, being sewn just in time for a banquet, to impress a husband’s boss, for a child’s christening, or such. Sometimes it was just a matter of never again, the fabric having been sold out. Whatever dreams of the perfect piece, that felt good as it lay upon the body, that swished just so, had to be let go. Into the wastebasket the garment would tumble. Impossible. No way to every truly mend a hole.
In this store, I was taught how to use a gauge ruler, thread a machine, press the pedal and fill an empty bobbin spindle, and when a machine’s springs became too loose, I was taught how to use a seam ripper to catch and cut each tiny loop of matted thread. My mother kept me occupied with craft projects. My grandmother paid me a penny for every pin I rescued from within the ridges of the old wood floor. And in the back room, there were always, always donuts.
It is hard to tell a story when I only remember pieces of it. I can tell you what I know, but not what I didn’t know. Which is the usual truth, yet feels more so here, in the memory of this shop.
How exactly was it that I arrived one morning, bleeding profusely at the age of 8 or 9? Did she lift me out of my bed that morning and bundle me into the backseat where I slept, tranq’ed from blood loss? Or did I stumble unknowingly down our house’s stairs into her car?
Somehow my mother brought me with her. I do not remember an alarm sounding for school. I do not remember getting out of bed. I do not remember her face hovering over me to find out what was going on. I do not remember waking at all. Slumped into some sort of mud-like reality.
Did she know I was bleeding before she brought me to work? At the very least, she must have known I wasn’t feeling well because she only brought me to work on school holidays and on days when I was sick.
I don’t remember. I don’t recall. What I do know is that I woke on the old couch in the back room of the store. That already, when I awoke, I had soaked through the layers of blankets she’d put on top of me. There must have been blood on the seat of her car. Blood already saturated between my legs, my flannel pajama pants. She must have noticed and seen, to have layered me so, with blankets above and below, to catch the blood that seeped.
I do not remember getting to the store or leaving the store each night, but I do remember the days. Bleeding, on this couch, until over a week had passed.
I slept beneath layers of abandoned afghans, winter coats unfamiliar customers once dropped off to be tailored and never picked up. In a sewing shop, leftovers are endless. They are stored in the back in large black Hefty bags for the possibility the owners will return.
Meanwhile, with nothing else on hand, I bled through wool pants meant for grown-ups still with the chalk mark on the hem. I bled, and I bled, and I bled. I bled through them all. And then I bled some more. Periodically my grandmother or mother would come back, and finding me drenched, would begin rummaging through more Hefty bags for new layers to dress me in to keep me warm. I would be urged to move, to walk slowly, painfully to the tiny utility bathroom with the single lightbulb hanging overhead, and to strip off the layers, which I did one by one. I remember an old jacket with leather-patched elbows. I remember a pair of snow pants. I remember a sensation akin to nausea but different, a disorienting sort of pain in my lower abdomen, a strange numbness in my groin except for the searing pain when I wiped. I remember being unable to find my body when I attempted, in the cramped poorly-lit bathroom, to clean myself. Not knowing where the blood started and stopped. Being unable to tell my vagina from my anus. Running out of toilet paper. Then asking for more. Running out again. I remember being confused: was I seeing shadows or did the water in the tiny sink flowing over my hands really just never run clear? The blood on my wrist from trying to clean myself. The blood staining the sleeves of whatever shirt I’d been layered in. The blood up to my elbows. And I remember returning to the couch and shivering as even more left-behind blankets and clothes were placed in layers over me.
I was the princess and the pea, only in reverse, needing the layers on top of me, chattering and chilled. Unlike the princess who could feel the tiny irritant of the pea, I felt nothing. Except cold. I needed layers upon layers to bring the feeling back. My couch became an iceberg.
Me, the girl in the backroom, body bleeding on the couch listening to the ladies in the front room scolding and laughing over culottes and pleats, shoulder pads and bent pins.
Most people think sexual predators are insane and that family members who know about the abuse must be equally insane. But as strange as it might sound, I do not think of sexual abuse in this way. To think that sexual predators and family members who know about the abuse are insane is to think the crime is obvious, easy to solve, easy solution—just be a good, sane person and all is well. When in reality, the world turns with a habit of denial, a cultivated denial, in which women so often are left to serve as sacrifice. In which women are taught to ignore their own sacrifice, to cause others to sacrifice, to ignore and be blind to it all. And I do believe that my mother and grandmother fall somewhere in this category—some strange mix of blindness, denial, their own inherited feminine shame, combined with an entrenched familial culture of abuse.
And then the sadomasochism. We were, if nothing else, a family of hard workers. Laborers. We could tolerate anything—poverty, cars that rusted through so you could see the road skimming beneath your feet, not enough money for food or heat, hand-me-downs, and 14-hour workdays.
So blood, too, was treated in this way. As work. Work for my body to do. This was my third-generation immigrant effort.
But all that being said, for some reason, most people think bystanders would be different. That if they walked into this store, down the aisle, and saw a girl pale in the cheeks and heard a flurry of statements about “bleeding for days” and “soaked mattress” and “unknown cause,” most people believe they would have done something differently. “If I was a bystander,” you might say to yourself. “If I was in that store. If I saw that bleeding girl, I would have …” Puffed with imaginary courage, imaginary ethics, or imaginary clarity.
And so, most people would argue that the ladies in this store were cruel, or cowardly. For doing nothing. But that is not how I felt. Part of me still feels like I did as a child—that they were majestic. Hair swept in up-do’s done at boutiques, wrists jangling with leisure-time gold bands, kitten heels intended for a life of simple outings and upper-middle class hobbies, such as sewing.
The ladies had been asking about me, how I was doing in the back room. I had heard snippets of conversation from my caccoon-couch as I passed in and out of sleep or consciousness or who knows what.
The ladies had inquired in lady-like ways: How was that girl doing? Kids, always getting sick. Maternal sighs and chuckles. I remember the questions stiffening. From the couch, I could imagine my mother’s feet shuffling as the ladies began asking more brazen, less lady-like questions: Has she seen a doctor? Perhaps if she is seriously sick, she should be taken home. It’s absolutely okay to cancel class. I do not know now if my imagination takes over or if it’s memory when deep inside my ears I hear a question bordering oh-so-delicately on ultimatum: So is she sick? Or is she not? What exactly is wrong?
Another day, another hem ripped out, another stitch. Again, the questions, So how is she doing back there? Do you want to check on her?
And I heard my grandmother and mother’s scattershot answers. They offered clipped versions of reality, as they tried to explain but not, what exactly was going on. In the beginning of the week, they said I was bleeding. I remember this from my couch, because it was what I thought myself. I was bleeding.
In the backroom, there was no “why” or “how,” but in the front with the ladies, my grandmother and mother offered a buffet of possible explanations. She must have fallen down on herself somehow quite hard. Didn’t she ride a horse recently? No, no. Do you think it could be from riding her bike? The bleeding is quite heavy. Well then, she must have started her period. In the news the other day, the reporters said girls nowadays are getting their periods earlier and earlier. Isn’t it strange? What world do we live in. Hormones apparently in our food that is changing our children!
But as the days wore on, other ideas were discussed. Stomach flu, it was announced one day. First in the back room to me, then later that night to the classroom of ladies. I heard it clearly. I heard how it was hard for them to tell if it was even blood, or if perhaps what I was having was intense red-colored diahrhea. Where is the red coming from? A voice I could not recognize. My grandmother and mother did their little dance of answers. Cherry Jell-O. It’s the only thing she’s been willing to eat, and we think it’s going straight through her. Poor dear. After not eating, after being unwilling to eat, Cherry Jell-O was the only thing I been willing to consider, and they had begun administering it to me on the second or third day. And so, now, it was proclaimed, that somehow it had just been cherry Jell-O all along.
The questions came and went, the way lady-like questions do. Buzzing bees moving along the clover, to another vine. Onto the discussion of husbands, Reagan, and politics. Onto the discussion of the poor quality of imported clothes, the newest styles, and the embarrassment of aging family member’s dentures during recent holidays, and what exactly is this new thing they’ve all seen in the grocery store, spaghetti squash?
Yes, I feel they are majestic. Gorgeous. Their voices laughing, gabbing happily. After several days or maybe a week or more, when the bleeding had slowed to a more manageable flow, my mother with her hand on my back walked me out from the backroom into the cauterizing light. I remember feeling I could not stand, legs suddenly skin but not bones, empty as rolls of tree bark.
But I did stand. Sick, queasy. I felt my body empty as a bag of air, yet heavy and unweilding like a bag of flour, my feet barely hitting the floor.
For all that I do not recall, for all that most-likely, probably happened to my body, it is this girl—this child—for whom I feel the most. Strutted out. I feel like crying for her.
Tell the ladies you are feeling better, my mother prompted. And I can say it was as if I did not remember words existed, my mind heavy as a lidded box. But I repeated her words over and over in my head until I could say them aloud.
We think she must have gotten her period, my mother said, as if a real decision had finally been made. Poor girl, to get it so young.
I remember the women looked at me. In my mind, they looked skeptically, like animals at the zoo stomping the borders of the cage. Trying to determine what they would attempt. Finally, one broke the silence.
How do you feel? She asked me directly. I was surprised by the question, and embarrassed. I didn’t know how to answer. To tell the truth meant to howl, to screech, to demand something different. I wanted to be warm again. I wanted to stop feeling as if, at any moment, I would tumble, my skull diving to the floor.
Your mommy told us you feel ill. I nodded. Yes. I felt ill. I may have said my stomach or touched my belly with my hand, or at least what had become my hand and the way it wandered map-less. Terrifying, the feeling of my hand in the air, would it manage to find my stomach?
Then suddenly the room emptied into relief. And that was that. When I get my period, I’m always sick, one woman said. I can tell you the cramps are awful. And another woman chimed in, I’m so sorry you’re going through this so young, but you’ll get used to it. And within moments, the women returned to their normal chatter.
This is what we call, nowadays, “rape culture.” The stories and spinning and roundabout way of mentally crow-baring the facts out to one side in order to push through with some sort of barely acceptable excuse. And then changing the topic to Aquanet, other brands of hair sprays, the recent increase in taxes, and the poor quality of local public schools.
I stood there in clean clothes. Although standing upright, I could feel the trickle flow to a heavier stream again and I felt anxious how long these clean clothes would stay clean. My mother led me back to my make-shift bed on the couch, to fall into a day-long sleep. Too tired to eat or sip water unless my grandmother woke me, prompted me. Walking into that room and then back exhausted me. I remember that.
Maybe I do understand my characters, but in an unexpected way. I believe people are cruel. I believe people can and regularly do act in ways that are heartless, then just go on about their days—pulling up their drooping socks, picking a copper penny found on the bent sidewalk, reapplying lipstick.
I know that I did not bleed again for approximate two and a half years, at which point, I began to bleed every twenty-eight days. And part of me, folded into a tiny bended creation like a passed note, still loves those women. I loved listening to their voices, watching as they slid emery boards over their delicately painted nails. I loved the way they laughed with each other over ripped threads and mistaken seams. They were truly happy. A trio of laughing beautiful women. And for a time, as a child, I wanted to be just like them.
Sherine Elise Gilmour graduated with an M.F.A. in Poetry from New York University. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming from Green Mountains Review, Many Mountains Moving, Oxford University Press, River Styx, So To Speak, SWWIM, Tinderbox, and other publications.