Welcome to Time of the Month, a Mic essay series that looks at how people who get periods consciously — or subconsciously — mark the passage of time, not by days, but by when Aunt Flo arrives for a visit. Read the first entry in our series, about menstrual math, here; our third, about coping with how a mistimed period will ruin plans, here; and our fourth, about how many periods you can have with a guy before it’s time for The Talk, here.
He was wearing a cream-colored cotton sweater when he told me he never, ever wanted to speak to me again. We were standing just outside the dining hall, with other students walking all around us, and I was worried that, if I tilted my head up to look at his face and saw his mouth screwed into that hard sneer again, the tears I was fighting to hold back would come out of their own accord. So I stared at that dumb sweater he always wore, tracing the patterns of the stitches with my swelling eyes as he told me what a manipulative bitch I was, how I didn’t love him, how he never should’ve trusted me, how dumb he was to have taken me to bed.
And that’s when it occurred to me that I wasn’t due to get my period for two more weeks, and if (God forbid) anything had happened, I’d have no way to get in touch with him over summer break. It shouldn’t have mattered, in retrospect — I wasn’t that bad about taking my pills on time — but all my sex-ed classes warning me how easy it was to get pregnant echoed in my ears and I blurted out something about wanting to let him know that it was all clear down there and he blanched.
“What the fuck, Megan?” he shouted. People started to stare as his fists balled up at his sides, and he stomped off.
Two weeks later, I sat on my parents’ toilet, staring at the red-brown bloom in the crotch of my pink Hanes cotton panties, and felt this strange combination of relief and creeping sadness that there was nothing to tie me to him at all.
I didn’t want to be pregnant — I’ve never been particularly filled with the urge to bear a child with any given guy — and the likelihood was so small that my birth control had failed anyway, but the tampon I rooted around under the sink for that morning felt like the final nail in the coffin for something I hadn’t really wanted to die. I went back to my room, lay down and stared at the ceiling above my childhood bed, thinking about all the ways he wasn’t thinking about me in that tiny, decisive moment. There was no reason for us to ever speak again, not even the smallest, awfulest, most uncomfortable reason neither of us wanted to have in the first place.
Then, I cried.
I still don’t know what it is, exactly, about those days or weeks after a break-up but before a period that feel so un-final: It’s not something that weighs on me at all after casual sex, and I know full well that even the slightest bit of worry about an accidental pregnancy isn’t really in keeping with the actual odds of one, given that I’ve been using some method of birth control since I was 17. But it still feels like a final-final moment of a relationship, as pointed as leaving one long-term boyfriend’s apartment with a tote bag filled with tampons and my toothbrush, or that searing humiliation when I went to look at another’s Facebook page and discovered he’d unfriended me, even though he was still emailing me that he missed me.
One time, an on-again, off-again boyfriend timed the end to my period: We’d had an accident saying goodbye before I moved out of New York City, breaking a condom two days after I’d forgotten to take my pill, and I’d thrown up the first round of emergency contraception. I was visiting my parents, again, when my period started a week late; I have never been so happy to ruin a pair of good underwear. I went to run an errand, so my mom wouldn’t hear the conversation, and he picked up right away.
“That’s so good to hear,” he said, “because I slept with someone else last night and didn’t want anything else outstanding.”
What do you say to finding out that the man you loved had been waiting for your period to move on — but couldn’t wait that long? We exchanged stilted congratulations and hung up, and I cried on the steering wheel of my mom’s car in a bank parking lot while an old tampon I’d found in a bathroom drawer soaked up the seeping evidence that there was nothing to hold us together.
Every period wipes the slate clean. That’s it’s biological purpose, after all, to reset your womb, to slough off that which isn’t useful or wasn’t utilized, to prepare your uterus, yet anew, to deliver on your biological potential. This month’s lining, lovingly curated, is discarded every 28 days or so in favor of a new one, to prevent rotting.
Your menstrual cycle feels inexorable, though of course it’s not: It’ll stop at some point, no matter how you feel about it at the time. Each period is another month closer to your last one; each break-up is another shut door. The lack of a period is a sometimes-feared signifier that you’re quite possibly bound to somebody for longer than either of you intended or wanted. Its arrival, post-break-up, is the last bit of finality that you, too, are a bit of an empty vessel, waiting for the next moment of possibility to come.