“Good night, honey,” Mom said, tucking the blankets close around me. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, Mom,” I replied sleepily. “Have a good night at work.”
Mom worked as a bartender at the local pub. I knew it wasn’t a job she loved, but it was a necessity at the moment, since it paid well in tips and we needed the money. She would put me to bed before her shift started. It was important to her to go through our usual routine; read a book (though it had turned to me reading the books to her — for practice, she said, but I think she just liked it), brush my teeth, and braid my hair. I loved when she would brush my hair gently, as I yawned and breathed in a mouthful of her perfume. Dad tried his best, but he always pulled too hard and it looked messy afterwards.
It was that way for a few years, up until I was nine or so. It was the same year I started to realize that all those insipid family shows I watched were telling me that my family wasn’t normal. Other mothers stayed at home, or worked nine to five at nondescript office jobs. Other dads didn’t play in bands, or let their bassists sleep on their couches for months at a time. Other families had big houses for their happy middle-class families, and would have been shocked at us, the Three Musketeers, this merry trio living in a tin-roofed trailer.
Most of the time, it didn’t occur to me to be upset by this. I loved our family, and the way we all had fun together in that little trailer. I loved the way the kitchen was slightly downhill and the way the rain sounded like maracas on the roof. I didn’t think to be ashamed of the fact that all my clothes had belonged to my older cousin, or that we had a makeshift ping-pong table made from a card table with a board in the middle and copies of “The Pokey Little Puppy” for paddles. Around Grade 3, I became aware that this wasn’t quite the norm. I felt like Adam and Eve after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and wished I could go back.
That Halloween, I came in from trick-or-treating with a threadbare pillow case full of loot. My face was sticky from the rain on my vampire makeup and traces of caramel on my lips. Dad was leaning back on our couch, playing a beat-up electric guitar.
“Hi, angel,” he smiled through notes of Tom Petty, “I hope you’re going to share some of that.”
“I will, but there’s not much left. I ate some of it on the way. I kind of have a stomach-ache now.”
Dad wasn’t the fuss-over-you type. He expressed concern, but not in a worried way like Mom would. She was at work again, this time at a double shift.
“Go have a glass of water. I’ll help take care of some of this candy,” Dad said.
I would have had some water, if I had not been struck with an immediate urge to go to the bathroom. It was there that I was met with a sight that was not uncommon for Halloween — blood. Unfortunately, this blood was not fake, and it was in a place where I was not expecting it.
I wasn’t ignorant. I knew full well what it was, since my parents were always very open and honest, and never minded me looking through the more diagram-y parts of the encyclopedia. This was a beautiful moment in a young girl’s life, and I was blossoming like a flower into womanhood. I never got why monthly bleeding was supposed to be beautiful, and I certainly didn’t see any beauty right then, with my running pancake makeup in that tiny bathroom lit by a single bulb. My mother wasn’t around to offer any answers. For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing for a different family, one where a smiling matronly type (Meredith Baxter Birney, maybe) would pat my back and hand me a product-placed pad and tell me that this was very special, right before taking me out for ice cream sundaes. Instead, my mother was in some seedy bar, serving up Labatt’s Blue to drunks who wore their hair “business in the front, party in the back.”
My father, bless his heart, tried his best. Upon my dispassionate declaration that I had begun to menstruate, he paused mid-song and blinked at me, before stuttering out a congratulations and asking if I, you know, needed anything. I replied that no, the good manufacturers at Always pretty much had that in the bag, but that I was going to bed and I would be taking the remainder of my chocolate with me, thanks ever so much.
I was stirred awake a few hours later by Mom pushing my unbrushed hair away from my face and smiling at me. Her perfume was mingling with cigarette smoke, and that mother smell that she always had no matter what.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to wake you,” she whispered softly, “I just wanted to see how you were doing. Dad told me.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled sleepily, “Being grown-up isn’t much fun so far.”
“It gets better,” she lied, kissing me on the forehead and tucking me in again. She turned to leave, and paused on her way out the door. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here, baby. You know I would have if I could have.”
She didn’t stay at the bartending job forever. Things got better financially for us over time, and I learned to grudgingly accept the monthly reminder that if there is a God, he’s either a misogynist or a sadist or both. That tiny, poorly-lit bathroom is long gone now, but I still remember the stickiness of the makeup on my face and the muffled sounds of my dad’s guitar from the living room. I still remember how unfair it felt that my introduction to womanhood made me feel helpless and angry about circumstances that neither I nor my mother could control.
Every Halloween, I think that I’d like to meet up at that bar with Eve and my mom. I’d buy them apple martinis and we’d share the laugh of war buddies. We get it, the three of us.