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memoir: the red mark


There was a red mark on my skirt.

My friend had told me as soon as I’d risen from my seat and I had no idea what to do. It was my first year of high school. I’d only been there a few weeks and my first month had been fine, but this was a whole new situation. I was still new to this aspect of growing into a woman and with two older sisters you would think I was better prepared for it – that I would know what to do – but at that moment I was sure that never in the history of the world had this happened before to anyone else.

The bell had rung already and the class next to where we had been sitting was starting to line up. Older girls that looked at the newbies as if they were saplings, and me, who refused to get up from where I was sitting. But I had to get up eventually and so I did the only thing I could think of doing. I asked my friend to go and get my green jumper from my bag. I gave her the key to my locker, remembering my mother warning me to not give my key to anyone and damning that advice because I was desperate. When she finally came back I was all alone, and I took the jumper from her hands and wrapped it tightly around my waist. It looked odd. It felt odd. But it was the only thing I could think of doing.

When you walk through an empty school, it always seems like it’s haunted. It’s so eerily quiet and you feel like it’s forbidden. That was how I felt in that moment. My friend left for class and I made the short but longest walk towards the office building, and it truly felt as if I was the only woman that this could have ever happened to.

In the office hallway is a wall of past students, the graduating classes of the past fifty years the school had been open. There were girls all looking down at me and their eyes seemed to just be judging my reason for being in the office, as if to say that in fifty years I was the first to embarrass myself like this.

I averted my gaze as I stepped inside.

The office lady peered at me through the glass window with discerning eyes. It was at that point that it occurred to me that I had perhaps made a mistake. What was I meant to say to her? Could I perhaps lie and just go home? What would my father think, having to drive all the way in to pick me up from school? I wanted nothing else but to go home and crawl into a cranny somewhere and be left alone.

‘Shouldn’t you be in class?’

I hesitated. ‘I um… I…’

She narrowed her eyes at me, as office ladies do, and I knew that I had to say something, anything to get out of this situation. I was a high school student, dammit. I spoke so quietly that I did not even hear it myself, this explanation for why I wasn’t in class. I had this sudden vision in my head that she would call my teacher, or the principal, that she would hold my skirt up and show the red mark to the entire assembly.

‘What size are you?’

For a moment I only looked at her, and then I responded rather dumbly, ‘What?’

‘What skirt size are you?’ She asked again, this time rather annoyed. She stood up from her seat and peered over the counter, making her own assessment of my skirt size before slipping away from her office. Seeing an office lady move away from her desk seemed strange to me and it was stranger still to see her opening a closet and pulling out a few skirts for me to try on.

‘You can change in the bathroom. Do you need anything else?’

She said it so plainly that I could only nod dumbly at her and then shake my head. ‘I’m alright.’

I stared at the closet behind her. Within it there were at least eighty school skirts, ordered from the smallest to the largest. Some were faded and some were new, but all were there for the specific purpose of dealing with situations like this. My borrowed skirt was faded, its hem was ragged and there was a large clump of old chewing gum caught in one of the pockets. But it fit and it was clean. I stepped into the small bathroom and I wrapped my marked skirt into a roll. I returned to the office lady, unsure what I was meant to do now.

‘Don’t forget to bring that back,’ she said to me and she handed me a late slip and then she turned around as nothing had happened. I realised it had been nothing. I stepped out of the office and the pictures that hung on the walls weren’t looking at me as hard as I had imagined they had been. In fact, they seemed almost comforting.

The thing is that when you’re in an “embarrassing” situation, you tend to think of yourself as the only person it could have happened to. But it’s never just you. Countless other girls had come to the office before me and countless would go after. But it was never a topic for discussion. Even now, as grown women, we don’t talk about it, even though it’s something that we are all aware (and fearful) of. It’s why now we can’t help but check a friend’s crotch when they stand up and why we have long jumpers even in the middle of summer. Because we’ve all been at a stage where we’ve felt like the only girl it could have happened to. In reality, we’re all still stuck in an office with a red mark on our skirt.

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