BY DIANA WHITNEY
The conversations come when you’re least expecting them, driving home from soccer practice, or brushing teeth together after a rare mother-daughter dinner out, still a little giddy from the pineapple margarita.
The girls had stood side by side at the wishing well in the trattoria courtyard, Carmen in her red trapeze dress and Ava in the hand-me-down, rosebud pinafore she adores, its white cotton worn thin as an old sheet. I finished my cocktail and watched them cast their pennies into the fountain. Tim was up north for a week; we were a trio of rampant female energy.
What were they wishing for? Carmen probably wanted a puppy or a zip-line or the last day of school. But Ava wouldn’t tell me if I asked her. She’s begun to pride herself on her mysterious nature.
“I know lots of things you think I don’t know, Mommy,” she’ll say meaningfully, whenever her father and I attempt a coded adult conversation in the kitchen.
I take this to mean she’s heard us making love at night or listened to me on the phone, talking about my mother’s Alzheimer’s, but it might be something else entirely. Almost 10, she walks with a new poise, an awareness of her self and the boundaries of her body, the places where she makes contact with the world. She writes in a spiral notebook labeled Secret Thoughts Journal, which she leaves around the house carelessly, tempting me with its presence.
I squeezed the lime wedge into my mouth and licked the last salt from the rim. Joined the girls by the well and threw my own pennies into the pool. Often at such moments I think of Louise Glück, her brief poem from Meadowlands, when her marriage is ending and she’s in the garden fighting with her husband and he tricks her into wishing on a butterfly. Later he says that he thought she’d wish for their reconciliation, but she corrects him: “I wished for what I always wish for. / I wished for another poem.” That choice sounds harsh and absolute, yet it distills the essence of the artist’s life: wanting the next creative act more than the beloved, more than a healed relationship.
At the well, I made one of my usual vague wishes. For Adventure, with a capital A, and Magic, with a capital M—which are perhaps not so different from another poem but leave room for interpretation on the part of the universe.
I carried this residue of longing home in the car and upstairs into the bathroom. Wrangling Carmen to brush her teeth can still make me scream in frustration, but tonight she complied happily, maybe because we’d laughed so much at dinner and I’d let them get tiramisu. And Daddy was coming back tomorrow—Daddy, Daddy, the sheer joy of Daddy—wrestling and baseball and comfort.
“Jayden P’s dad still has some of his baby teeth,” said Carmen as she examined her molars in the mirror.
“No way,” I said.
“Yes way. And he’s 24!”
This fact was even more surprising than the baby teeth. I did some quick math in my head. “Jayden P’s dad is 24? That means he had Jayden when he was 16?”
“His mom’s 24 too,” said Carmen, proud to have gleaned this knowledge about her classmate during rug time.
“That explains a lot about Jayden P,” I remarked. A bright-eyed, wiggly kid always poking his neighbors when I taught yoga, he was the second-grader most often sent to the Principal’s office, the one who’d once disappeared into the woods behind the school at recess and been suspended for running away.
“Why?” asked Ava quickly, her eyes fixed on mine. “Why does it explain a lot?”
I sighed. What had I gotten myself into?
“Because teenagers aren’t ready to be parents—not when they’re 16,” I said finally.
“Then why can they have babies?” she persisted.
“Good question.” I took a breath and forged on. “Just because teenagers’ bodies are capable of making babies doesn’t mean they’re emotionally ready to take care of them. Think about Amber… (their current favorite babysitter, she of the super-skinny jeans and the hyper-fast texting, whose questionable judgment led her to watch Twilight with my children.) Do you think Amber’s mature enough to be a mother?”
Both girls laughed wildly at this idea. Then Carmen said: “Mommy, how do teenagers make babies?”
I looked at Ava, who grimaced back at me.
“Really, Carmen? You really don’t know? Or you just want to hear it all again?”
“Hear it again.”
Now it was Ava who sighed, turning her eyes up to the ceiling.
“You don’t have to stay honey,” I told her. “Feel free to go read in your room or something.”
But she stayed, watching me closely. And I fumbled my way through a long saga about ovaries and eggs and periods, with a brief cameo from semen and sperm. I must have confused some details about fallopian tubes, because Ava left to fetch The Period Book so we could refer to its helpful diagram of female reproductive organs. This led to Carmen examining the labeled drawing of the vagina and asking me where the pee came out.
“Do you want to see for yourself in the mirror?” I asked. We’d done this once before, in preschool, but it had been at least three years. High time for another look.
“Yes!” Carmen shouted with glee.
“You too, Aves?”
“Sure,” she shrugged.
So I got out the white plastic hand mirror and both girls lay down naked on the bed, knees splayed. Taking turns, they carefully angled the mirror and studied their vaginas as they appeared, fully visible, smooth rosy folds and seashell clefts contained in the glass oval. I referenced the book, trying to find the tiny urethral opening, but I couldn’t be sure where it was. Below the waist, the two blonde sisters looked almost like twins, their private parts replicated in new pinkness, neat and tucked. Ava had a few ethereal hairs on her labia, pale as cornsilk, which she’d showed me in a restaurant bathroom three months before. Strange that I have no memory of finding my first pubic hair, but I’ll always remember my daughter showing me hers.
“You guys look a lot alike. But women’s yonis come in all shapes and styles,” I told them. “Someday you’ll see."
“You show us yours, Mommy,” said Carmen, handing me the mirror.
Some ugly place in me resisted, embarrassed. An irrational response, since I profess to love my body and never hesitate to walk around naked. But I was afraid of being scrutinized and compared—a big dark forest next to their two small seashells. I worried about my dark-rose inner lips hanging down and the jagged line of my double c-section scar magnified in the glass, that tough skin still whitened despite the vitamin E oil and craniosacral therapy, the permanent mark of their emergency deliveries.
But I knew this was the moment I had to walk my talk, live my alleged feminism out loud, embody my past as the radical editor of Spare Rib, the college women’s newspaper that had published Betty Dodson’s pen-and-ink drawings of vaginas back in 1994. I remembered the conspiratorial delight of working late with my friends, laying out the centerfold spread we hoped would both shock and educate campus—particularly all the young men who didn’t seem to know where the clitoris was.
I took the mirror. I made a wish. Then I stepped out of my panties, lay down, and let them look.
Diana Whitney’s first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller and won the Rubery International Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Salon, The Washington Post, and many more. A yoga teacher by trade, she is the poetry columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and runs a yoga studio in Brattleboro, VT, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and thirteen chickens. www.diana-whitney.com