I used to have a difficult period. In my teens it would come upon me unannounced at 38 days or 43 days, whenever my uterus decided to get busy. By my early twenties, things had pretty much settled down and my period had become just another small nuisance to be taken care of. Most important was making sure that I was prepared for it. Not being prepared for it on one occasion had led to my crowning moment of street attitude, followed shortly by my crowning moment of street humiliation.
I was walking south on Sixth Avenue from 42nd Street in New York, heading to 26th Street and Seventh to have dinner with a friend at his house. I had set my usual pace, a mile in fifteen minutes. At that speed I felt strong, safe, and intimidating, just the way I liked it. But as I walked I realized that my period had begun and that I had nothing on me to deal with it. Somewhere along the way I would have to stop at a drug store and buy some tampons and then get to my friend’s house as soon as possible and use his bathroom. Not the most gracious arrival but what the hell.
When I was at about 33nd and Sixth a man in his thirties wearing a leather jacket and holding a slice of pizza started weaving in and out around me. He would walk up to my side at an angle and when I moved a few steps to the left or right to avoid him he would fall behind and then come up at an angle to that side. This was the kind of low-level and common street harassment that I knew how to deal with: ignore the guy, walk as fast as you can, and leave him in the dust. And if that doesn’t work tell him to fuck off. Loudly.
I could tell that the man had been drinking but not to the point of slowing him down. The piece of pizza he was chewing as he continued to obstruct me was incongruous, as though he had needed a quick bite while not cutting into any of his scheduled harassment time. As this routine continued for two more blocks I became angry at the passersby who could see what was going on but had decided to stay out of it. Especially since it was clear that the man was just an asshole, not a real threat to anyone.
I had already told him a few times to fuck off, in fiercer and fiercer tones, but instead of taking my warnings seriously the man had become bolder, getting even closer to me as he came up to my side each time. We were now around 30th Street. I’ll be damned if I let this guy get away with this, I thought. And then, as he was coming up from behind me on my right, I did something that I had no idea I was going to do. I spun around and punched him in the face.
It was glorious. It was the first time I had ever punched anyone but I could not have landed a better shot. I could feel that my left fist had hit the just the right place, his upper right cheekbone, and hit it with force. I loved seeing the man stagger back, a bit of bloody-looking pizza flying out of his mouth and onto his jacket. “She punched me!” he cried in shocked outrage. People on the street were now fully engaged. Did you see that girl punch that guy? I felt invincible. My work here was done.
Or so I thought.
I started walking again at a fast pace but the man had made a quick recovery and raced in front of me, going even faster. That’s fine, I said to myself. As long as you stay out of my way. I was scanning the streets ahead on my side looking for a drug store and just as I saw a CVS my harasser turned and walked into it. What the? How could he have known that I was headed there? Or did he need something to help with the mighty blow I had dealt him?
I girded my leaking loins and decided to go into the store anyway. I just needed to get this over with and I might not have another opportunity before I got to my friend’s house nearby. The man was at the check-out counter in the front talking to the male clerk. I headed straight to the back to the Feminine Products aisle, grabbed a box of Tampax, and walked toward the counter. Pizza guy was still there, bending the clerk’s ear. I could just imagine the kind of thing he was saying. “Women, amirite?”
Of course, the jerk wouldn’t give me a break. He stood right next to me as my Tampax was rung up. I then walked out, head held high, into the street again. I did not look back. I am woman; hear me menstruate.
And then the yelling behind me began. ”That time of the month, huh? THAT TIME OF THE MONTH?!”
I turned and saw the man standing in the middle of the sidewalk about twenty feet behind me, legs spread wide as though to brace his sorry ass for his final assault. Once again, people on the street were fascinated. Hah! She has her period. Is she supposed to be pregnant instead?
My heroic effort to be cool and calm, in charge of the situation, had fallen to pieces. I was just some crazy woman hurrying away from a crazier man who seemed very upset that I had ovulated without notifying him. I could see the eyes light up on the people coming toward me from downtown. They wanted to get in on the situation. It looked like fun.
I started walking quickly again, turning right toward Seventh Avenue at the next corner, trying to put as much distance between me and the shouting man and our audience as fast as I could. I should have asked someone for help, I was thinking. I should have tried to hail a police car. But I’d dealt successfully with worse kinds of harassment for years now. I hated the idea that my power to intimidate, the power that kept me safe on the street, had failed me with this drunken idiot. Plus, asking for help would have slowed down the whole getting-to-a-drug store thing. Thanks very much, officer, but I gotta go buy some tampons now.
By the time I got to my friend’s place I was still very agitated and could not stop myself from recounting the story from beginning to end. But I joked about it, acting out the incident in exaggerated pantomime. “And then I punched him! And then he reeled back! And then he yelled ‘She punched me!’” I waved the CVS bag with the Tampax in it. Victory, of a sort, was mine.
After this incident I became much bolder in my approach to my period. If I could withstand dozens of strangers on the streets of Manhattan being able to create an approximate schedule of my periods for the next three years, what fear had I of random pizza guys? That’s when I started carrying tampons and a Swiss Army Knife with me at all times. Talk about PMS. The next guy wouldn’t be so lucky.
Liz Sheehan is a cultural anthropologist who lives in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing centers on memory, place, and history. Liz has taught at Johns Hopkins University, American University, and the University of Richmond. She can be contacted at email@example.com.