Really a Woman Now
by Rebecca Rush
I sat at dinner crying with my face on the table. We were at my favorite restaurant, Airstreams, which was overdecorated in a way that I loved. Sitting in a room with a rowboat on the ceiling, my dad told me that there was going to be a magician at my Bat Mitzvah.
I hated clowns, and as a child made him check the closet every night for them before I went to sleep. Just in case, I slept with my comforter over my head, leaving a small hole to mouth breathe from so a clown couldn’t steal my nose. I slept on the side of the bed closest to the door. If I had to go to the bathroom in the night I jumped into the middle of the room so a clown hiding under my bed couldn’t grab my ankle. I slept like this into my thirties.
While I cried, a clown-magician approached the table and started making balloon animals that nobody wanted.
I cried louder and he just stood there twisting a balloon into a dog.
“It’s not going to be like that,” said my dad. “I’m hiring a real magician. It’s for the adults.”
My parents were getting divorced, our cat was dying, we might lose our house, there was going to be a fucking clown at my Bat Mitzvah, and I hadn’t even gotten my period yet.
My parents started fighting more right after I turned eleven. My sister and I would stand at the edge of our wing, looking over the catwalk that separated the two story den from the main staircase and entrance of the house. Their suite was off the den, and we stood there every morning, listening.
“They’re going to get divorced,” she said.
“No they won’t,” I replied.
My mother threw my dad a huge 40th birthday party, and right after that he told her. Leaving her was his present to himself.
Then she served him dog food for dinner. We didn’t even have a dog. We had had a dog, but she went to a farm because my parents didn’t want to train her.
After that my father moved into the new addition, the media room above our three car garage, located at the top of the back staircase in our wing. It was the furthest he could be from my mother and still be in the house. Also, that’s where his sauna was.
My father was not there while my mother cried in my arms because she had bought a Wedding Barbie for my sister’s birthday, or because she had put on her best lingerie and climbed onto the pullout couch with him and he pushed her out of bed.
In school, we were separated by gender and taught about the changes coming for our body. If getting my period meant I was becoming a woman, then it was an important step to getting free from my parents.
I started checking my panties for blood every time I went to the bathroom. I did this for two years.
My father moved to the beach house, and then my grandmother’s condo, as it was winter and she was in Florida, and then into a condo of his own, overlooking the Connecticut River.
My mother started going through divorce lawyers like liters of vodka and buying boxed milk and clothing that was far too big for us to prepare for the poverty she was sure we were facing.
“You don’t divorce a woman, you divorce a family,” she said.
One afternoon that winter she pulled us out of school early, drove us to Vermont as a blizzard raged down, and hid her car in a barn near her sister’s house. We stayed there for several days. Years later she told me why.
“Your father hired a hit man to murder us,” she said. “But he called it off last minute and they said it was too late so he called to warn us, that’s why we went to Vermont that weekend.” I know she believes this because I felt her fear that whole drive. I prepared to confront him with this in front of the group during family sessions when I was in rehab. “That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed, and the conversation moved back to what was wrong with me.
I started studying to become a Bat Mitzvah. One day when a friend’s mom was driving the carpool I began a chant of “Hell no, we won’t go!” and then pretended the door was locked when we arrived at temple. We went anyway.
My mother rewarded us for bad behavior when we visited my father and his fiancé, whom my mother still calls “the whore.” Once my sister got so sick she threw up all over the walls of her bedroom at his condo and my mother was so happy that she took her on a huge shopping spree at Westfarms, leaving me in the car because I wanted to live with my dad.
We went to summer camp that summer, our trunks shipped ahead of us, not knowing if we would go until days before. In the end we went, so my dad could enjoy his new life and my mom could drink. When I came home that summer, I snooped around in his study and found a list of life priorities he had made. Entertainment, sex, money, career, it went on, and on. Family was last.
All year I studied for my Bat Mitzvah and checked my panties for blood and watched my life unravel.
I chose the theme of peace and love for the party. I chose turquoise and purple for the colors. When the invitations arrived in the wrong purple and the wrong turquoise, I kept my mouth shut. Weekends we spent with my dad I collected Freeman’s Botanicals from the drug store, and stood in the shower, thinking, maybe this shampoo would make my dad come back. My mom was sure he would come back, because one of his friends had an affair earlier that year and had since reunited with his wife.
Then her cat got sick. My mom took her to Tufts Medical Center in Boston and the sick cat and fighting with my dad in court took her through a whole spring. Eventually the cat was diagnosed with kidney failure and put in a body cast through which she was fed rancid smelling formula with a syringe into a hole in her side. Way later we found out that the only thing wrong with the cat was that she had eaten a two story balloon string left over from my sister’s birthday party when it poked out of her feeding hole. By then my mother had spent over ten thousand dollars on the cat while crying about how poor we were. My mom told people how I cried and said “I just want my cat to live until my Bat Mitzvah.”
I left for camp the summer before my Bat Mitzvah stressed over the magician clown and the fact that I still hadn’t gotten my period. My mother was not going to let me live with my father and wanted me to testify in court that she wasn’t an alcoholic. In order to live with my father I would have to go to court and say that she was. If I did that, however, my mother told me I wouldn’t have a mother anymore, that she would never talk to me again. I needed a mother. I was going to be getting my period soon. They got us our own lawyer, my sister and I, and we met her over pizza while she told us she was going to fight for what we wanted. We were too afraid to tell her anything. We started therapy, and couldn’t talk there, either.
At camp I dyed my hair with Sun In and Kool Aid and when I came home, weeks before the party, my mother made an appointment to have it professionally dyed blond so I wouldn’t be the clown at my own Bat Mitzvah. She took me to White Plains to buy the dresses I would need for the service in temple and the party at night. For the day she chose a cream suit with lace sleeves that I hated and she promised I would wear again, but I got to pick out my own dress for night, which was black with a twirly skirt and beading on the bodice. It had spaghetti straps, and my boobs were finally starting to come in, which I knew because every night I laid in bed and cupped the empty spaces and prayed that they would grow to fill my hands.
I had to concede to the cream suit because if I made one wrong move in a clothing store, my mother would walk out of the store after claiming the music was too loud, leaving me with my hands full of clothing and shame that I could not pay for them on my own. I dealt with this trauma by never using my own money on clothes for decades.
A concession to my theme was made in the form ordering a ten foot high turquoise and purple balloon sculpture in the shape of a peace sign.
And then the day came. My day. The day I became a woman in the eyes of Jewish law. I had turned thirteen less than two weeks earlier. My hair was a honey blond and that morning fashioned into an updo with curled tendrils. I flew through the service and sang my Haftorah portion. My parents came to the bima and refused to look at each other. I read my essay about my torah portion, concluding it with the sentence, “And sometimes, like the movie, Reality Bites.” Because reality did. And also what happened to Jacob in the torah.
At luncheon in the temple after, the rabbi did the blessing over the wine I poured dark purple Manishevitz down the front of my cream suit. Wear it again, I wouldn’t. In the afternoon, we went back to the salon so I could get my hair blown out for the party. While sitting in the chair my stomach started to hurt and my pants felt full and I realized that I had shit them. I rushed to the bathroom and discovered the shit was actually dark blood.
My mother could not shut up about it. “She’s really a woman now!” She told every person in the salon before a pad was procured for me. I got a pad, which felt like a diaper, and put my dress on and went to the country club.
The balloon peace sign was arriving, ten feet around and turquoise and purple, except it was a Mercedes Benz sign. The magician wore a suit and not a clown costume and, true to my father’s word, didn’t bother me at all. I danced with my friends and blew out the candles on my cake and felt celebrated.
I noticed that I hadn’t seen my mother in a while when she reappeared with her cat wrapped in a blanket, and went around telling everyone that all I wanted was for my cat to live until my Bat Mitzvah. While they stood there shocked, she added that I had just gotten my period.
“She’s really a woman now!”
About the Author
Rebecca Rush is a comedian and writer living in LA. Her work has been published in several outlets, including The Fix, The Temper, and Fodor’s Travel. She is a regular contributor to the WorkitHealth blog. She hosts a book themed podcast called Comic’s Book Club & a comedy show called The Vulnerability Show. Her comedy has been featured on Viceland & Funny or Die. When she's not writing, you can find her practicing yin & ashtanga yoga, performing stand up comedy, roast battling, or volunteering at the Hollywood Food Coalition.