One day my father called me over to explain to me about the little seed, patting my head as if he were offering me his condolences. This much I understood: that the man sticks his arm into the woman – don’t ask me where – and with his fingers (which in my imagination were shaped like a pair of my grandfather Elías’s pliers) – plants a seed. The procedure struck me as humiliating and surgical, but immediately I came up with a solution:
‘I’m going to do it the other way around, I’m going to put a seed in a man.’
‘Because you can’t.’
‘Because I said so,’ and ‘Because you can’t,’ were two very popular answers at my house, but this botanical explanation was followed by yet another chapter in my sexual education. It was five o’clock one afternoon the year that I was seven. I was walking home with Paola, a classmate, and the call came like a dash of cold water: two seventh-grade boys, from across the street. Paola turned red. I asked her what the thing they had shouted meant; she lied that she didn’t know. I stopped for a glass of milk at my grandmother Any’s house and I burst out:
‘Gran, what does “we’re going to fuck you” mean?’
‘It means they want to touch you. It’s something boys do to you. It’s not nice.’
So at the age of seven I was sure of four things about sex: a) that it involved inserting a seed; b) that this was probably called fucking – I could put two and two together; c) that it was done with the hands or with pliers; and d) that it was a not-nice thing that boys did to you and that girls probably didn’t like.
Sluts. They were all sluts. The women who answered the soda man’s knock in their robes; blondes; old ladies who didn’t wear slips. If your hips swayed when you walked, you were a slut. If you came home after eleven at night, you were a slut. You were a slut if you came to school with painted nails, a slut if you were divorced, and a slut if your parents were divorced.
In Junín, in the province of Buenos Aires – the city where I lived until I was seventeen – life was complicated if you were born male. There were too many options. But if you were born female, it was easy. You only had one decision to make: you were a good girl or you were a slut. And if you were like me – brainy, middle class, child of respectable parents – it was taken for granted that you weren’t a slut, and that you were going to get married with your hymen intact, to your first boyfriend, if possible. Now I’m thirty-seven, I’ve lived in Buenos Aires since I was eighteen, I’ve been living with Diego for nine of those years, and I’ve been asked to write about what makes me a woman. What anchors me to the female side of things. I realize that a) I don’t want to write anything that fits the title ‘I Like Being a Woman’; and b) being a woman in Junín was an almost humiliating experience and yet impossible to avoid writing about here because that was where everything began. I was a paragon of virtue: eleven years old, moralistic, prudish. My parents wouldn’t let me wear high heels, short skirts or makeup. My mother bragged about me as if I avoided temptation of my own accord and not because I was forbidden to do anything.
‘She’s so grown-up,’ said her friends, and my mother replied:
‘Yes, she’s very mature for her age.’
Mature meant that I didn’t go against her orders and that therefore no one had kissed me or touched me and that even if I read the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and got madly turned on, it was all right because no one knew about it. Innocence was the important thing, and it didn’t matter much whether it was real or faked: what mattered was what was in plain sight. And what was in plain sight was me, perfectly chaste.
Sex presented more of a threat than the bogeyman. So it was best not to ask questions and to keep a safe distance. That’s how it was until I was nine or ten, when I demanded an explanation from an older friend.
‘Tell me everything, right now.’
‘No, it’s too embarrassing.’
Here was something interesting. I offered her my favourite board game in exchange for some clarifications, we shut ourselves in my room and she explained it all to me. It made an impression. Especially the part about the penis. I imagined that that screw-like thing that I had only seen on babies or my much younger brother, must turn nearly as hard as steel. The penis, transformed into a dangerous and hidden weapon. In a vacant lot near the school, the walls were full of drawings like airplanes with wings spread and big oblong suns with eyelashes (genitalia that now seem terrifying to me), but the airplanes and long-lashed suns bore no resemblance to anything I had in my panties or that I could imagine inside the crotches that I eyed discreetly. I had all kinds of questions, but I was terrified of sharing them with my friends, because in my town we were all virgins and pure till our wedding days: all of us. I was so convinced of this that I would have killed on the strength of it. I didn’t believe in God, but I believed in the Hymen.
My older friend, the one who explained the basics of sex to me, had four children. Five years after she got married, she quit school and her job to move to a town of two thousand where her husband had found work that suited him.
I don’t know what she was thinking when she killed herself. I know what I thought when I saw her in her coffin: that you had to be careful. That the perfect formula for happiness (children, husband, a little house with a garden) might not be the perfect formula after all.
But I was young, I was angry, my friend had died and the world owed me. In any case, I remained on the alert.
It’s Tuesday night.
Diego is washing lettuce. I chop onions, slice tomatoes, make a sauce. We open a bottle of wine. After we eat, he sets down his fork and knife and tells me that I’m a great cook. An awesome housewife. This time – after years together – I only pretend to be angry and he, who knows me well, pretends to be surprised by my frown. He knows that I like to cook and keep a tidy house, but he also knows that hell, for me, is housework as sole and obligatory occupation. We have separate checking accounts, a shared home, and equal responsibilities. Well, almost. Because while there’s no task that’s Diego’s exclusive responsibility. Taking the clothes off the line and putting them away is one of those ‘if-I-don’t-do-it-nobody-will’ chores. It simply doesn’t bother Diego to see the clothes hanging out there for months, and I’d rather our socks and underwear not spoil the view from the balcony. So once a week I turn into my mother, coming in from out back with a pile of sheets smelling like sunshine.
Occasionally I get fed up and agitate for equal rights. Then Diego says fondly, ‘Sure, honey, you’re right,’ folds a couple of T-shirts and the next week there I am again, corralling clothespins. When I get home late – if I’m lucky – the little red pool of a half-tomato will glow on the pale desert of the table. If it’s Diego who’s home late, there’ll be a full spread. I used to think that these things – tidiness, hot food, a pleasant living space – had to do with a certain female sensibility that, frankly, I have a hard time believing in: I have male friends who live alone and their houses are as nice as mine and they’re better cooks than me. I’d rather believe that these are the (visible) signs of my training to be a good match: neat, clean, orderly. Things I learned from my mother: perfuming the house with an orange peel, airing the blankets out in the sun. Things – I confess – that I like.
But my mother also tried to teach me other things that I liked less.
Sweetie, you already know about menstruation, don’t you?’
Yes, I already knew. So my mother reminded me of the things she thought were important: when it was that time of the month I shouldn’t bathe, lie in the sun or exercise – remember Patri, the girl around the corner, who went swimming in a river in Córdoba when she had her period and almost bled to death. And tampons were out of the question.
But the very day of my first period I took a two-hour shower and went to guitar class, on the alert for possible pains and life-threatening hemorrhages. Nothing happened. Gradually I raised the stakes. When it was that time of month I exercised more, ran more, jumped higher. My body rose proudly to the challenge. No spasms. No torrential gushing. I soon discovered that there was no reason virgins couldn’t use tampons.
After that, the extensive menstrual folklore (don’t take aspirin because you might bleed to death, eat beets because they increase blood production, don’t take pills for menstrual pain because they give you cancer) began to seem very foreign to me. I liked to menstruate. Though in our neighborhood it was considered an affliction to be borne with discretion (the mother of a friend didn’t wash her hands while she was menstruating: she wiped them on a damp cloth, just in case…) I began brazenly to bring up the subject around the house.
‘I got it,’ I would blurt out at lunchtime. ‘Ouch. My ovary hurts.’
My father was silently sympathetic, my mother begged for decorum and my little brother asked: ‘What did she say, what did she say?’ but no one dared to make me shut up. A menstruating woman was untouchable.
One day, the hymen – that troublesome piece of skin – stopped seeming important to me. I had read so much about sex – in the books I wasn’t supposed to read, in the magazines that it was assumed I didn’t read – that I could have given lessons in a whorehouse, virgin though I was. I knew that the loss of virginity was a rite of passage, a responsibility that men felt they should assume and that women feared. I decided that I wouldn’t let anyone take responsibility for having punctured the little patch. I won’t say how or when it happened, but there was no blood. There was no pain. He didn’t notice and it made no difference to me. It was just the way I wanted it to be.
For years my past as a small-town girl was an encumbrance, and I thought that a good way of smothering that prejudicial upbringing was to recklessly play all the games that the big city – and the world – had to offer. And so I woke up at strange times in apartments I didn’t always recognise, had brief love affairs, bad friends, fantastic friends, out-of-control friends. I did a lot, slept little, and one day I quit.
It didn’t take me long to realize that there were a few nice things left in my small-town basket. Today I still crochet scarves, and I’ve proudly preserved my wild side that tells me that if I’m going to eat it, I can kill it without remorse.
With Diego I learned other things. To need little, to be frugal, to travel in a way that I wish I could always live – slowly, intensely; a luxury animal. And to confirm that the things that matter – courage, serenity, elegance, daring – are the sole province of neither women nor men.
There was a storm on the mountain in a faraway country. It was pouring and the fog was made denser by woodsmoke. Diego and I were driving in a pickup truck along the border between Myanmar and Thailand. The road skirted the mountain edge, slick as soap. On a steep curve along the edge of a cliff the pickup spun out of control. Diego was able to brake just inches from the ravine, but we knew that when he stepped on the clutch the pickup could slide and the next day we would be front-page news, complete with weeping family members – or, if we were lucky, hospital fodder. But we didn’t speak.
‘Put your seatbelt on,’ one of us said.
Diego shifted into first, let out the clutch, the pickup shuddered like an alligator and began to creep, slide, creep, slide. When we got to level ground, neither he nor I said anything. We put on dry clothes and went on without more than a curse or two. We reached a city, found a hotel and went to sleep, filthy and without dinner. If he was afraid, I’ll never know. If I was afraid, he’ll never know. I like to remember that moment: the universe paused for a fierce instant and Diego and I driving down the mountain without speaking, wrapped in a respectful silence. Two knights keeping our cool. Pretending we were fine, even if we were terrified. It’s for moments like these that we love each other.
The piece was orginally published in Spanish in Latido in Argentina.
Photograph by LaChiquita