It’s a traveller’s legend that no matter what, there will always be one crucial item you didn’t pack because you thought you wouldn’t need it.
I was on a writing tour with a small group in rural Japan. Our last stop was the tiny high mountain village of Kamikatzu in the Tokushima Prefecture and we were staying in a guest lodge overlooking lush green paddy fields surrounded by mountains. It was there I found out that sure enough, I’d packed for every eventuality except that one, the one I hadn’t foreseen.
On an evening brimming with aliveness, a full dazzling moon floated in paddy fields thick with stars. The air was luminous with the fragrance of night flowers and the warm darkness hummed, throbbing with primordial frogsong. That night it seemed as if the whole world were paying homage to the moon, including my own body because the following morning there it was; the unscheduled bright spot of blood heralding problems I’d been quite certain wouldn’t be mine.
My writer friend Deirdre and I were sharing a room. It was a large and airy light space furnished only with tatami mats, our two futons on the floor and a breath-taking view of the mountains. The futon and duvet, which had delighted me with their plush snowy whiteness, now struck me with horrible foreboding. Incredulous that this should be happening to me, I asked Deirdre if she had brought any tampons. She hadn’t.
Nor had Anne, the third woman in our group. My disbelief grew; this wasn’t natural. Not a single tampon between 3 women? It peeved me too, that neither seemed the slightest bit concerned about my plight, in fact they seemed to think it was rather funny. Thank the moon goddess they didn’t have the problem I imagined them thinking to themselves, smug and untroubled by their bodies.
Left to my own devices, I considered my options. The obvious thing to do was to tell Andy our group leader and writing teacher. He was fluent in Japanese and our life-line in a country where little English is spoken. He’d easily arrange what I needed in a matter of minutes. And why not? Our many conversations had revealed him to be a warm and sincere man and of course he’d be only too willing to help. But in my mind’s eye, I imagined myself asking him, saw him valiantly strive not to be that Klutzy Guy Who Can’t Handle A Menstruating Woman, saw him solicitous and kind, being everything I could possible need him to be. And I couldn’t stand the thought.
So while in this irrational state why not approach the Japanese wife of the guest house owner? But I baulked at the undignified sign language I’d have to use to make myself understood. In the end I decided to visit the two general stores both within easy walking distance of the lodge. At least one of them must have what I needed and I had made purchases there before without needing to exchange a single word.
In the first store I wandered up and down the aisles scanning the shelves for what I needed. Amongst the tinned soups and noodles, I discovered to my joy what looked like familiar packaging but joy quickly turned to dismay. For one thing, all the packages were covered in a light film of dust and it occurred to me that in this village of postmenopausal women, there was probably little call for this sort of thing. There appeared to be just the one brand. The packages were soft and bulky, and they were pads, not the tampons I was really after.
Secondly, labelled as they were in Japanese kanji, I had no idea what size or thickness they might be. I turned them over and over, feeling them, prodding at them, trying to decode their contents; and then noticed out of the corner of my eye the elderly shop assistant shuffling towards me, enquiry and possibly concern at how I was mauling the merchandise beaming out of his kind old face. He was asking if he could help me. “Are these extra-large sanitary pads and would you happen to stock tampons? “ I did not say. Instead I panicked and bowing and smiling, backed out and bolted in the direction of the other general store. There had to be an easier way.
The second shop was instantly more promising. I was encouraged to see a full set of three shelves devoted to personal hygiene with the usual soap, dental and hair care stuff. And best of all 5 different brands of sanitary pads. No sign of tampons though but still, I felt closer to my goal. I was greeted by the sales assistant, this time a spotty adolescent boy of oh…17 maybe?
I was starting to feel more than a little desperate.
“Look.” I said firmly. In English. “Is there a woman I can talk to here?” He gazed at me, rapt, as if frozen by my words and unable to move until he’d extracted their meaning. Finally he nodded.
“I will ask my mother,” he said in carefully articulated English. Heaven be praised for Japanese school English! At which he turned around and walked out leaving me alone. Well, I had to assume he was fetching her. I looked over the rest of the shop as I waited, marvelling at the Japanese capacity for trust, thinking I could scoop up whatever I wanted and walk out the store and there’d be no one to stop me.
Some moments later the boy’s mother arrived, bowing and smiling. Konnichiwa. But behind her smile I could see apprehension as she wondered what linguistic feats beyond her abilities she might be asked to perform. I was pretty much wondering the same thing about myself. The boy had vanished. I smiled, took a deep breath, and pointing to the sanitary pads said:
“Tampon. Tamp. On.”
Looking back I realise it wasn’t that the power of logic was defective in me so much as it had defected altogether. It had quite understandably fled, taking up residence in a much more receptive mind elsewhere.
With my thumb and forefinger I indicated the length of a tampon. Waving this imaginary tampon about, I now gestured – not too precisely I admit – in the direction of my lower abdomen and then as an afterthought and for greater clarity added a short upward thrusting motion. The woman tracked the movements of my hands with great attention nodding all the time with an expression of wide-eyed wonder. I began to feel hopeful. Then without pausing, the nodding abruptly turned into shaking and now her eyes narrowed as she regarded me with doubt and some suspicion. How could she not get it? I rubbed out the previous gesture in the air and tried miming again with more graphic emphasis. At the same time I said Ta. Am. Pon. enunciating each syllable with care.
There’s a curious belief held by tourists everywhere that when in a country where your mother tongue isn’t spoken, breaking down already unintelligible words into their basic syllables and pronouncing them slowly and loudly will have the magical effect of reversing their unintelligibility making them suddenly understood. I’m here to tell you this does not work. For the poor woman’s perplexity only deepened and it dawned on me that I should be worried – what with all the upward thrusting motions I was making – that she may begin to think I was asking for some kind of sex toy.
I gave up on the tampons.
“Ok, let’s look at these pads.” I said and taking a packet down indicated with my hands, “how big?”
Her face brightened immediately. This she understood.
“Oh big!” she said gesturing a length of some 20 cms. I stared hard at the package which was smallish and compact. Either these pads were folded into origami-like minuteness and there were just 3 in the box or we both understood the word “big” differently. “I need to know size,” I said pointing to my eyes and then at the box. “How big – please can I see?” This too, she understood. For without further ado, she eagerly began ripping open the box. And before I could stop her, she reached up and grabbing a different brand, began tearing that one open too, now accompanying her actions with a voluble running commentary. I couldn’t imagine what she might be saying with such forcefulness. Despite all my burbling protestations (which she seemed to interpret as me urging her on) within no time I had five open packages standing before me.
There was a stunned silence as we looked at each other across the boxes. Me in astonishment, she with triumph.
Then came another great flurry of activity as she excitedly displayed each different pad for my inspection. “Oh yes!” I could see her thinking to herself, eyes blazing in a passion of shopkeeper’s zeal “I will not to be confounded by a mad gaijin’s strange requests.” Indeed, I had to agree, this was Japanese service at its unstinting best. With great guilt mixed with profound gratitude, I chose two brands. They were both more or less the same, in bulk quantities it was true, but they would do the job and I took two because I felt terrible about leaving the 3 other opened packages – surely she couldn’t sell those now they’d been opened? Unless there was a trade in single servings of sanitary pads I could know nothing of.
I walked back to the lodge with my hard won bulky purchases. These were not the inconspicuous little boxes I had hoped for. Anyone could see I’d been shopping and I prayed I wouldn’t meet anyone inquisitive on my way to our room.
My prayer answered, I slipped unseen through the paper sliding doors back into the privacy of our room. Deirdre was sitting on her futon writing in her journal and looked at my large packages with interest. When I finally unfolded the super-sized super absorbent vast sanitary pad I had bought, she collapsed in a heap of helpless laughter. Well, we both did. I mean, it was the mother of all sanitary pads. The size of a healthy toddler’s nappy and of a sturdy robustness I could easily have given birth into.
I squashed the sudden unwelcome suspicion that perhaps these really were nappies I’d gone and bought. What on earth had possessed me, Deirdre wanted to know? But of course it was the futons I was thinking of. Feeling like John Wayne, I waddled down the stairs to lunch followed by Deirdre snorting with mirth behind me.
Later that day, a more subdued Deirdre sidled up to me and muttered out of the side of her mouth, “Guess what?” It wasn’t hard to figure out. That night, as we lay under our beautiful pristine duvets it was a shared discomfort that neither of us could quite close her legs.
The following morning when I went down to breakfast, I found Anne alone in the dining room gazing out of the window. She swivelled round and immediately launched herself at me.
“You!” she hissed, waving a finger in my face, “You are responsible for changing my whole cycle! What are you, some kind of Alpha Woman?” And then clutching my arm she whispered fiercely:
“Did you manage to find any tampons?”
“Well, no.” I said and her face fell. “Not exactly.” Little did she know what lay in store for her.
“Hey! What’s happening guys?” asked Andy as he sauntered in, catching the tail end of our conversation.
I wasn’t about to tell him.
“We are all indisposed.” I said with Victorian obliqueness and left the room together with Anne, leaving Andy scratching his head.
I didn’t think so. It was the moon, that goddess of shadows. She may be subtle, her tarnished silver light casting mystery on everything she touches, but she won’t hide you.
Instead she laughs as we drop our boxes into trolleys in the fluorescent glow of our supermarket nonchalance, thinking just because we’re well lit we’ve nailed our shame. Still pretending it’s not happening, not showing a thing.
And then she has us tell the truth, own it, makes us write it in our own blood.
Acknowledgements: Paintings used with kind permission by Jeanie Tomanek. See more of her magical and evocative work here: http://www.jeanietomanek.com/frameset_newwork.html