Last night I was having dinner with my family, including my mom who had just gotten back from a three week trip visiting friends and family in San Diego. We were eating Tom Kha soup that Benny and I had made with ingredients from Fubon, the huge Asian food store nearby. I mentioned that I tried not to ladle any hot Thai peppers into anyone’s soup but to be careful just in case. It jogged a memory of a time when I was eating the same soup at a Thai restaurant and did, in fact, eat one of those peppers.
“That was the same night that we went to see The Vagina Monologues,” I reminded my mom. “And I was so high off that pepper that the whole night just blew my mind. In fact, that was maybe the first time that I really felt proud of being a woman.”
“I hadn’t made that connection, that that was the same night,” my mom said.
“What an amazing experience,” I said. “And I wrote it all down.”
My mom’s eyes widened. “Really!” She said. “You should look for it.”
After dinner I put on a head lamp and rummaged through the storage closet, going through my journals until I finally found it. As I read the entry aloud to my mom later that night I was struck by a few things- by how full and rich and complex my life was at that time, as a 19 year old who had returned home for the summer after a year at Chico State, and also how committed I was to getting the story down. This description is only a portion of the entire entry because so much had happened in the previous day and night and I knew at the time how important it was to just surrender to my journal for a couple hours and get everything on paper. As I was looking for this entry I found a journal labeled July 2000-August 2000. An entire notebook filled in four weeks.
Also what struck me is how, up until that night, I had been pretty ambivalent about my gender, often denying my female-ness and looking for ways to express myself as more masculine. I wasn’t necessarily anti-woman, I was just more pro-man. I felt that I hadn’t really heard a convincing case in favor of being a woman. I didn’t personally relate to many characteristics commonly viewed as female. My own identity lingered in an in-between space of not female and not male. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about labels and gender identity, I mostly just tried to pretend the whole argument was nonexistent. This was the first time I felt a power in my femininity.
June 2, 2001
I wore a pair of soft, loose, cotton pants and a light blue long sleeved shirt with gold trim. When Mom arrived I went out to the car- Karen and Deborah were with her. They looked flushed and dazzling, excited about the night and asking me dozens of questions about my new life. We drove downtown and found a parking spot, and then went to dinner at a fancy Thai restaurant, with high white walls and small bright lights hanging from wire thread. We ordered coconut soup, spinach with mushrooms, tofu and rice and other scrumptious things. Mary arrived, looking like Judy Garland, and another of my mom’s friends who I’d never met arrived grinning and strutting with her arms in the air. She had just got back from a long mountain hike and camping trip.
I felt wonderful and strange with these five incredible women, almost like I was hanging out with my big sister and her grown up friends. I was amazed by them, awed and adoring. Watching my mom from across the table, she seemed to be someone else, distant and wild and new, and I missed the feeling of being a daughter. I was left out of most of the conversations as they soared higher and louder with each other. I was mostly content to watch and listen.
When the soup came, my first bite was of a red hot pepper. Apparently you aren’t supposed to eat them- but not only had I eaten it, I’d chewed on it for a while before I swallowed it. It was surprisingly and extremely painful, my whole mouth burned and moaned and turned inside out, my eyes watered and my sinuses cleared. Anything else I put in my mouth made it burn even worse, and it burned for a long time. Afterwards though, everything tasted absolutely exquisite.
We walked to Spreckles theater, and on the way there Mary asked me questions about what I had been going through and I told her stories about the people I know, and Scott’s farm, and my amazing life in Chico. As I told her, I felt like I was back there and I was exuberant and so thankful for my life.
When we arrived at the theater, women were everywhere. They crowded the sidewalk, they spilled in and out of the doors, they loomed and gleamed in their high heels and skirts, their collective voices made rushing waves of sound through the night of filled streets and blaring music. The night grinned and breathed, it swayed and spun, crowds of life and joy and yearning, the streets of San Diego.
The excitement was addictive- I felt the anticipation and glamour, all around me were silk dresses, high priced drinks, make-upped faces, white pillars, intricate ceilings. I hadn’t expected anything like this, especially for something called “The Vagina Monologues!”
We were ushered into the theater with the rest of the crowd and took our seats. The room was medium sized but gave the illusion of wealthy expanse. Tall ceilings, several balconies, bronze statues of naked women posing near the roof, carvings and curlicues in white and gold.
The show was incredible, inspiring, authentic, beautiful. Three amazing actors, seated and telling stories, taking on the characters of an old woman, a young lesbian, a girl who had been genitally mutilated, a woman who gave other women pleasure for a living, a woman whose husband detested hair, a woman who learned to love her vagina, and other personas. I was completely entranced the entire time. I learned so much about my body and how other women view their bodies. I felt a kinship with females that I’d never known before. I burst out laughing at surprising times and found myself teary-eyed at stories I wouldn’t have thought would affect me. I was pulled to these women, to the stage. I felt at one with the audience, the rowdy, cheering, sobbing, laughing audience. I looked around at all the women and I saw us as sisters. I imagined all the vaginas in the theater and I loved every one of them. I felt like a mother, a nurturer- and became empowered with that feeling of nurturing.
But most of all, I felt a deep pride- a pride that soared in all of us. I saw us raise our heads higher, sit up straighter, smile wider and with an ancient knowledge. I saw the love we had in ourselves, of ourselves; a love and pride that gets squelched by so many things, and fed by so little. We were awakened, we were reminded, of how glorious we are, how beautiful and how strong.
When we left, we left beaming, reborn. Tears in our eyes, we walked differently. I wanted to throw my arms around everyone. I was electrified- grinning and tingling as I strutted down the street with Mom and Deb, running my eyes over rivers of people as we fought our way down busy sidewalks. I’d never seen downtown so exciting, so packed with life, so loud and wild and bright. I could almost see the money flowing from pockets into cash registers- dark eyes and painted lips, shiny shoes wherever I looked and new smells at every block- steam and smoke billowing from vents, hot night, sharp moon, the buildings loomed with flashing windows, endless. I felt hot and desirable, awake and open, swelled with confidence. I loved the city then, no desire for quiet rivers and heavy trees, crickets and bonfire smoke. I wanted alcohol, I wanted all night dance clubs, I wanted to flaunt my body, I wanted to spend all my money and collapse drunk on a velvet couch wearing a slinky dress. This is it, I knew, I felt, I sighed, and I went home, and I slept.
Illustration by Wanda Felsenhardt