Conjunctions:75 Dispatches from Solitude

The first time you learn the word hymen, you are nine and your mother is screaming it at you. You have just tried out for the school’s rhythmic gymnastics team. At school they are the queens, and you have always wanted to be one of them—these girls who flutter their colorful ribbon apparatuses behind them like bright moths, these girls with their perfect posture, butt cheeks raised by the tight, shiny spandex of the leotards they wear to class. At night in front of the mirror, you suck in your stomach and pull your Snoopy pajamas tight around your legs, pretending that you too wear gold and purple spandex. You practice standing en pointe. You work on doing the splits and every day you get your legs a couple of inches farther apart. The pelvic muscle under your skin twitches and wriggles as you stretch. You imagine yourself jumping through air, a regal streak. You do not make the team.

Instead, at tryouts, you strain your groin. Your mother, furious, says that gymnastics are only for little girls whose mothers do not care about their virtue. She says that the splits will tear your hymen. She says you must protect your hymen.

When you tell her that your neighbor and best friend Junie’s mother does not care, and that Junie, two years older but somehow smaller than you, had, in fact, made the team, she says, Well, we do not make moral examples of Junie and her tart mother, do we?

You ask your mother what “tart” means, and if it has something to do with the fact that Junie’s mother wears shiny dresses to Mass, walks down the church pews smelling like flowers and alcohol, and, also, that Junie does not seem to have a father. Your mother ignores you, but later you hear her yelling at your father about the slut next door. You wonder if “tart” and “slut” are the same thing. You don’t know if she means Junie or her mother.

You also don’t know what a hymen looks like but you are determined to find out. Many afternoons you squat in the kitchen, bent over in two, your head touching the floor as you angle your face as close as you can to the lips to try to see up, to find this hymen. Junie rolls her eyes when she catches you doing this; she calls you Inspector Vadget, a joke you do not get at the time. All this bending hurts your neck, and sometimes it smells like armpit down there. You can’t see very much. But you like to imagine your hymen as a pane of glass, refracting rainbows as light catches on its surface. You like the idea of a rainbow living in your vagina.

At times you resent Junie, who manages to be both petite and willowy. But most of the time you love her, because being friends with her means being friends with other people too, especially older girls. Junie knows a lot more than you do. For example, she tells everyone that one of the girls in her year, Elaine Deng, who sits with her legs wide open so you can see her dirty white cotton panties, has gonorrhea, though Junie pronounces it goo-no-rah, and for the rest of the school year, Elaine has to duck when boys throw paper airplanes at her nipples.

Your mother has told you that Junie comes from a “troubled home.” You do not fully understand what that means, but you do recall a time when you were young, before you wanted to do rhythmic gymnastics, before you learned the word hymen, that there used to be a lot more shouting coming from Junie’s house. You remember one stormy evening, pressing your nose to the window, the glass cool against your left nostril, watching Junie stare with big, open eyes as a thin man, who had the same eyes as Junie, was led away by a policeman. You also remember Junie’s mother grabbing her by the waist to carry her inside the house. Your mother came to the window to grab you as well. You remember that both you and Junie turned back, looked at each other wordlessly, and screamed.

The first time you bleed out of your vagina, it is premature. Christmas Day, the year you turn ten, a day unusually hot even for Malaysia. The women in the family, led by your grandmother, dash around the kitchen preparing lunch after Mass, pies and trifle and quiche, the one time each year when the household uses the oven. They dab their upper lips furtively as the heat from the oven melts off makeup. The men sip warm cognac in the living room, wiping droplets of sweat off their foreheads, but no one reaches for the ice cubes—it is a silent competition to see who is man enough to drink the most cognac in its intended, warm form.

Walls of the little bungalow sweat, the humidity smothering every bit of energy in the house to a halt. Every bit of energy, that is, except your own. Your feet are encased in a pair of very old metal roller skates, the kind that has a flat, cool base for the foot, a raised edge to hold the heel in, and leather straps that you are too lazy to wind around your ankle and tie in place. Clack-clack, the wheels go, as they roll over the gaps in the grout on the tiled floor. You press your heel against the metal back and the sharp edge scratches at your ankle; a blister will form there later. The breeze is cool as you whiz around the dining table, arms outstretched, imagining you are the lissome Thye Chee Kiat, the youngest, most beautiful of the rhythmic gymnasts from the gold medal–winning national team at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. You remember weeping when she scored the 9.5 that secured the medal.

Your mother reminds you that you are fat and stocky, unable to catch anything that requires the coordination of hand and eye. She tells you that the games were likely rigged, and that the world will always be rigged against you, a woman-to-be; that you will rarely get to choose what anyone thinks and says of you. You are not yet old enough to know that all Malaysians believe national triumphs to be grounded in corruption, nor are you grown enough to understand the futility of womanhood.

The breeze whistles through your hair and up your skirt as it billows behind you. You ignore your mother yelling at you to stop so the family can say grace. Your grandmother emerges from the kitchen with the turkey, browned, plump, and ready. Everyone wipes sweaty palms on their clothes and links hands around the table. You skate around the grown-ups in their best church outfits, crepe skirts and black pants and white shirts with sweaty patches sticking to backs.

You want to shut them out, these adults wobbling around with whiskey breath, who seem to do the same boring things every day over and over, eat, drink, work, sleep—nothing bigger, nothing better.

Bless us for this bounty, O Father, as we thank your son, born of a virgin . . . your grandmother intones.

You feel the skate pull away from under your right foot, clacking over the floor. Your body leans forward, its instinct to propel you into balance. But your body fails you, and you feel yourself falling right on top of the metal skate, the edge cutting through the folds of your most tender parts, cold first, then sharp, then wet.

At first you look around you, and everything is very tidy. It appears you have fallen into a graceful seat, white dress puffing about you, covering any indecency. You are relieved. But then, you feel the warmth pooling around the white tulle of your Christmas dress, and it turns a brilliant red. You see the flaring, horrified eyes of the grown-ups. An aunt seems to have forgotten how to blink. A cousin puts her fist in her mouth. Someone screams, Is she dead? An uncle carries you, dripping like a carcass, to the kitchen table. Your grandmother dabs a wad of paper towels hard against the red gush.

Your mother howls, Is my baby torn up inside?

You wonder what a torn-up hymen looks like. Is it like a bubble blown out of a bubble wand, oddly shaped but still catching the light at the right angle, a wonky rainbow? Or is it simply shattered to pieces, bits of glass floating in a cavernous hole?

The first time you actually bleed, you are eleven. Your mother hands you a maxi pad and says, For you it makes no difference.

When Junie got her first period, her mother mortified her by throwing a celebratory “You’re a woman now” party. Junie got to lie down in a comfortable bed with a hot-water bottle pressed to her womb, as other women in her family fluttered around feeding her all her favorite foods.

You do not tell Junie that instead, your mother feeds you various herbal concoctions designed to heal the hymen. She mutters as she mixes the herbs, all shades of brown, in a cavernous pot, next to the wok where she fries fish for dinner, her permed eighties hair coiled in tight ringlets around her scalp. As she boils the herbs, the tiny house smells like burnt forest, stale oil, and fish scales.

Some nights, your mother rolls you on your back, pushes aside your cotton panties, and peers into the vaginal realm with a magnifying glass, her right eye huge and bulbous like a fish.

I can’t see anything! your mother yells. Does it grow back?

The first time you hear a boy talk about sex, you are thirteen. It’s an older boy at school, sitting at the table behind you at recess, his mouth full of the fishy, oily snack keropok lekor. Junie won’t eat keropok lekor; she says it looks like a gray penis. The older boy is yelling so loudly he nearly chokes on his food. He says when he first stuck his dick into a girl, he thought that his dick had fallen off. There was blood everywhere, man! And she was crying!

You realize you don’t know how to explain that when the time comes, this won’t happen with you. You research fretfully how Victorian women brought vials of pigs’ blood into the bedchamber on the wedding night to throw on the sheets when the man was in the throes of pleasure, to provide proof of his conquest. You sneak-read back issues of Seventeen magazine that you hide inside your textbooks, looking for articles on how to fake a hymen, but the only articles you see are ones about how to fake an orgasm.

The first time you contemplate letting a boy put his hand up your skirt, you are fourteen. Every girl in school seems to be talking about the possibility. You start worrying that if a boy does this with you, he might be swallowed whole, that the vacuum of your vagina, limitless with no hymen boundary—sucking, angry, empty—will absorb his fingers, one by one, that it will engulf his hand beyond his elbow, till nothing is left but the roundest part of his as-yet-undeveloped bicep, the one he flexes so hard to prove it exists.

Junie, who by this point is letting a different boy put his fingers up her skirt every day except Sunday—Sunday being the day for prayer— says that sometimes boys don’t even know where the holes are. Sometimes they put their fingers in the wrong hole, and sometimes they miss the hole entirely and jab you so hard that their nubby fingernails feel like thumbtacks poking into your skin. And sometimes, she says, they do away with poking entirely and just slap your vagina around, and you’re supposed to say, ooh and ahh and their eyes will get big and glassy and they will be pleased.

You remember when you used to think your hymen was a bouncy bubble rainbow, when you didn’t feel secretly deformed, when your mother used to look at your body with hope, not with eyes blackened by shame and disgust. You know by now that no one can tell that you are hymenless just by looking at you, but you squeeze your legs tighter together anyway. Junie sees you, laughs, and says, Are you turned on? and you smile weakly because it is better to let her think that is the case. One of the girls asks how many fingers can go up there, and everyone stops as if to imagine a bloom of fingers opening in their vaginas.

The first time you get your heart broken, you are fifteen. One day, Danny Nathan catches you looking at his left dimple and middleparted nineties boy-band hair. His friends point at you and knock Danny about the shoulders, and he grins shyly. You find this charming, so you agree to walk around the mall with him for your first date. On your second date you sit stiffly, shoulder to shoulder, in a darkened movie theater and find it difficult to focus on the movie because all you want is to touch his thigh. On your third date he grabs your hand, and now his hand sweats on top of your hand as he asks you to be his girlfriend. You date Danny Nathan for two months. During this time, you hide in the school library to make out between shelves of Jane Austen and Sweet Valley High, but soon, Danny begins pushing you onto the floor and tries sliding your legs open with his knees. You ask Junie what to do and she says, Do it, and you are shocked by how blasé she is. You don’t know how to explain to her that even if the scars have long faded, every time you think about sex, you think you can feel the sharp edge of that old roller skate worming its way inside you, through you.

Instead, you have Junie teach you how to perform hand jobs on a banana. She tells you to focus on the tip, and that disgusts you because that’s where the pee comes out. For a while Danny seems grateful enough. But then at school the boys start calling you Prudella, a cross between Prude and Cruella. You ask Danny about this and he denies that he has anything to do with the name; he says it is uncreative. But then you catch Danny mouthing Prudella along with the others. He dumps you just before you dump him, and this seems like the gravest insult of all.

The first time you watch Cruel Intentions, it’s the day after your breakup with Danny. You are in Junie’s bedroom, and you feel guilty because you have told your mother that you are tutoring Junie. Of course this is not logical as Junie is older than you and even if she is a bad student, you do not share classes and are not able to tutor her, but your mother thinks it is a very Christian thing you are doing and applauds your charity.

As you watch the movie, you find you have to cross and uncross your legs because it tingles so badly down there when you watch Ryan Phillippe grope Sarah Michelle Gellar. It feels somewhere between wanting to pee but holding it in and wanting to scratch but letting the itch escalate until you can’t not scratch it anymore. You tell Junie and she rolls her sharp, eye-lined eyes at you and says, Don’t you dare dirty my bed. She explains that there is a button down there you can press to help with that. You tell her you don’t want to touch it at all, but she tells you, No, silly, the button isn’t inside, it’s outside, and you don’t have to worry—and suddenly you feel very Selma Blair to her Sarah Michelle Gellar. She goes on to tell you that it’s really about time you got it over with; that honestly, you’ve made it such a big freaking deal about sex that you are developing a reputation, the bad kind, the kind that will follow you through secondary school, and that the boys will stop trying to touch you, and that this will be the biggest tragedy of all. You do wonder about the balance between Junie’s mother’s “tart” reputation and whatever rep it is Junie says you have, but you don’t say anything; you just nod, mutely. She sighs and says, Do I have to teach you everything, and before you can protest, she says, Fine, I’ll show you, obviously I’m experienced, but it might help you to see how boys like it. You don’t want to embarrass yourself, after all.

You want to ask Junie how she is experienced and why she knows so much more than you. You remember three years ago, your mother pulling you by the hair to get you into the house when you saw that the man who was led away from Junie’s house by the policeman all those years ago had come back. He looked older, balder, thinner. Junie stood on her front step, frozen, saying over and over, “Dad.” Your mother called the cops that day, and you have never seen her shake so hard. She said words like “sex abuse” and “predator.” Junie’s mother came to your front door for the first time ever that evening, and from the kitchen where your mother told you to stay, you saw Junie’s mother mouth Thank you, and your mother nod stiffly, before shutting the door in Junie’s mother’s face. It felt rude, you recall, because when other ladies from church came by, your mother always ushered them inside and offered them tea.

The first time you plan for sex, it’s not for you. You steal a condom from the stash your older brother hides under the bathroom sink, you pick a day when your mom is out, you lay out new sheets on your bed, your favorite yellow sheets that are only pilled on the sides so the middle part is smooth and soft.

It’s Junie who brings Danny Nathan over after school, and your heart jumps to your stomach because you haven’t spoken to Danny since the Prudella incident. He is confused to see you there. He looks quizzically at Junie, then back at you, like, Why is she here?

Junie says, Lie down, Danny; no, stupid, take your pants off first; and he says, I thought you said you were going to lend me the textbook, and she says, Danny, are you gay, lie down. He says, No, of course I’m not gay and pulls off his school uniform trousers and lies flat on his back on the smooth yellow sheets, but his right leg twitches and he is still looking over at you, unsure. You hand him the condom, and see his erection straining through the Superman boxers he wears, the ones you remember from your library days, the ones he still thinks are cool. Junie’s pulling the shoelaces out of her shoes and she yanks Danny’s left arm over his head and shouts to you, Give me a hand! Danny starts yelling, Whoa, whoa, this isn’t what I signed up for, and tries to leave.

Junie seems possessed and she taunts, Are you gay, Danny, is your little thing not up to the challenge? You sit on Danny’s chest, his stubbly chin chafing against your knee, and Junie sits on his ankles so he can’t move, as you use Junie’s shoelaces to tie his left arm and then his right arm to the bed frame, tight.

You open your mouth to say, Junie, I think maybe this isn’t a good idea, but you say it so softly she doesn’t hear you, though Danny does, and looks at you in the most piteous way. His eyes remind you of Doodle, the old dog that your mother put down a year ago, minutes before the vet injected him.

Geez, Danny, Junie says. Your thingy’s all gone down; you’re not scared, are you? And Danny says, No, of course not, but you see him blink rapidly and tug at the shoelaces around his wrists. Junie pulls at Danny’s Superman boxers, her eyes ablaze, her eyeliner a little smudged on the bottom. But then she changes her mind and says to you, You do it, you make it hard again. You feel like something is wrong, very wrong, you feel your chest collapse and your breath catch and you worry you’re going to have an asthma attack even though you haven’t had one of those since you were a kid. But Junie’s staring at you, and Danny’s staring at you, and you know this is supposed to be a favor Junie’s doing for you, and there is no way to explain to Junie that it isn’t about the sex. That it is really about how all you ever wanted was to be a rhythmic gymnast, but then you became your mother’s heartbreak, and ever since she has looked at you like you are something broken and soiled, and for years you were consumed by dreams of your vagina as a fathomless pit, absorbing boys alive, humiliating you, a parasitic trap you can never get away from because there is no hymen, there is no barrier; there is nothing to stop the badness from coming to the surface.

So, you do it. You take his penis into your hand and muscle memory kicks in for both of you. You tug as hard as you can, the way you remember he likes it, and he groans as he remembers how much he does.

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Junie pulling off her skirt, and then her yellow flower panties that you notice match the bed. You see the dark shadow of her pubic hair under the white school-uniform shirt. Now watch carefully, she says to you and pushes your hand away from Danny’s penis, which is now sticking straight up. You resist the urge to smell your hand. She angles herself carefully on top of him, and as she lowers herself onto him he groans, low and sonorous in a way you’ve never heard him do, but you also hear him say, No, no, and he strains his left wrist against the shoelace so hard you know that it’ll leave a mark tomorrow. Junie smirks, See, she says to you. It’s honestly not that difficult. She bounces up and down a few times, and you say, Junie, please stop, I think we have to stop.

But then you hear Danny cry out and his face is filled with a fear you’ve never seen before. His nose is bleeding, a little trickle down to his chin; you don’t know if this is from stress or from getting kneed in the face by one of you. His leg, which was twitching before, is now shaking uncontrollably. You feel the yawning chasm of something break through you, want, or shame, you don’t know. Orgasm crests through his body, yet his eyes are dead, black, bottomless.

You look away, somewhere, anywhere else. The room is hot, stuffy, and smells like fetid soil; you feel sweat everywhere on you, under your armpits, on your upper lip, behind your knees. Your underwear is drenched, from arousal, from fear, you don’t know. You notice the sunlight refracting through the window, leaving shards of light, a broken rainbow on the white ceiling, your hymen, a specter, watching.


Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer whose work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Pidgeonholes. A fiction editor at TriQuarterly and an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, Chan is currently completing an MFA at The New School. “Firsts” is her first appearance in print.