Twelve-year-old Danny recounts her experience ‘becoming a woman’ and refers to the harsh realities that accompany pubescent youth.


By Giselle Pagunuran

Danny was twelve when it happened. She noticed when she pulled her skinny jeans down her skinny legs in a graffitied stall of her school bathroom. There was little surprise. She knew it would be coming soon, as it had for her mother when she was her age. She took out the small pink bag her mom had given her for just in case, opened up a pad, and took care of business. A minor inconvenience. Before leaving the bathroom, she checked herself in the mirror. She fluffed up her hair, tucked a strand of it behind her ear, and smiled at her reflection.

Danny got home before her mom that day. She always did on Thursdays, when her mom took the late shift and got stuck in rush hour traffic. It had been a year since her sister had left for college. That meant Danny had the house to herself. In her extra hour home alone, she ate Oreos on the couch and streamed John Hughes movies on her phone. If her mom saw her watching Sixteen Candles, she’d never hear the end of it. A lecture on the harmful stereotypes of gender or race or something. By the time her mom got home, Danny was at the kitchen table, filling out a worksheet with Chinese adjectives.

“I’m home,” her mom said, singing out the last syllable. She set her bags by the door, a briefcase and free tote from Planned Parenthood. “Daniela, how are you, my baby?” She cupped her face with her hands and planted a kiss on her forehead. “How was school? Is that Chinese? Oh, mi bebé, so smart.”

“School was good,” Danny said.

“Put your things away, Daniela. I’ll make dinner. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

Even before she heard her name called, the aroma of bay leaves and tomatoes simmering in chicken stock was already permeating Danny’s bedroom. Steam rose from the plates of arroz con gandules on the table. Her mother was in her house clothes now: faded pink pajama pants and a purple shirt with THE FUTURE IS FEMALE printed across the chest. Her curly black hair was tied up in a plump bun. They took their places on opposite sides of the small square dining room table.

“Do anything fun today?”

“Not really,” said Danny. “Maya asked if I could sleep over next week. Can I?”

“Probably, but let me check if I can drive you first. How is Maya, anyways? You see her at school?”

“I sit next to her in fourth period.” Danny scooped some chicken into her mouth. “We’re doing the personal health section of gym class.”

“Personal health?” She set down her glass of water and made a thoughtful face. “Oh, sex ed! When your sister was in that class, they made all the girls put a condom on a banana.” She chuckled as she cut a piece of chicken off the bone. “You know what, did they do that thing with the gum, too?”

“Actually, we–”

“Your sister told me they gave her a stick of gum, made her chew it up and spit it out, and then – Dios mío – they told all those girls that if they went and had sex, they would be just like that chewing gum. And of course, no one will want to marry a chewed-up piece of gum, right? Es ridículo, no? Basically telling those girls they’re garbage.” Danny’s mother was shaking her head and cutting her chicken with a little more gusto now.

A lone strand of curly hair had escaped from the bun on her head. Whenever Danny imagined her mother in her youth, she’d see her doing something like marching or chanting or burning bras. But most of all, she’d see the dark coils of her mother’s mane blowing wild in the wind. Like every part of her was determined to defy gravity. Danny wondered why she didn’t inherit it, that righteous spite. Why she didn’t see anything worth the effort of changing.

“When is Andrea coming home?” Danny asked. It was time to change the subject. She already knew her sister would be coming home tomorrow – she’d been counting down the days. Andrea had told her she visited home way more than her other college friends did. Danny still didn’t think it was enough.

“She’ll be here when you get back from school tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Danny said. She took another bite of her dinner. A few moments of silence, then she spoke again. “Can we go to the store later tonight? Before Andrea gets here? I have my period, and I think we’re almost out of pads.” Her mother let out a small gasp.

“You got your period?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Danny replied. Her mother’s silverware clinked to the table as she got up and held Danny’s face.

“My baby’s growing up!” she said. She hugged her, nuzzling her chin on the top of Danny’s head. “My little baby Daniela. You’re finally a woman!” She held her by the shoulders and admired her newly christened warrior. “Oh mija, you’re so beautiful. You’ll do so much, I know it.”

Danny squirmed out of her mother’s embrace, then retreated to her room. You’re finally a woman! What was that supposed to mean? Had something really changed?

You’ll do so much, I know it. Danny would show her. She would do nothing but stay the same. She went through her nightly routine of showering, brushing her teeth, and picking her clothes out for the next day. Nothing had to change. Danny was still Danny, and she liked her that way.

They watched a movie in fourth period. A low-budget animation about their changing bodies. During a scene with two cartoon ovaries arguing over whose turn it was to release the egg, Danny got up to go to the bathroom. Before rising from her desk, she remembered to grab the pink pouch in her backpack.

When she returned to her seat, Maya leaned over and whispered. “What’s that?” she asked, gesturing towards the pouch in Danny’s jacket pocket. When Maya spoke, Danny could see the colored bands in her braces, alternating pink and green.

“Pads and stuff,” Danny said. Her gaze was already back at the TV at the front of the classroom, but she could see Maya exploding quietly in her peripheral.

“You got your period?” Maya asked in a loud whisper. “You’re like, the first in our grade! You’re a straight up woman now. Are you totally PMS-ing? Do you have like, cramps and stuff?” Danny shrugged her shoulders, focused on the now dancing uterus on the screen.

“Not really,” she said. “I’m fine.” Maya shot a quick glance at Ms. Wil- liams at the front of the classroom. Danny shifted her eyes over, too. Ms. Williams was sitting behind her desk, which was cluttered with a mess of various school supplies. She looked heavy in her chair as her eyes were fluttering closed. Danny heard Maya speak again.

“Did your boobs come in yet?”

Danny whipped her head around. Maya was leaning towards her, buzzing in her chair. Like a fly over rotten fruit.

“What? No!” Danny said. Maya frowned at Danny’s chest, then slouched towards the TV screen. Danny pulled the sides of her jacket closer around her body and sat deeper in her chair. She could hear the flickering of the projector on the ceiling above her.

She felt hot all of a sudden. With her leg bouncing under her desk, Danny looked around. Each one of her classmates was either falling asleep or already snoring. She stood up slowly and headed towards the door. Before leaving the room, she passed by the teacher’s desk. The drone of the movie had lulled Ms. Williams into a deep and peaceful slumber. Danny lifted a roll of duct tape from the mass of clutter on the desk and stuffed it into her pocket.

With the duct tape buried in her jacket pocket, she hurried to the bath- room again, faster this time. She sped to the farthest stall and slid the lock closed. She tried to forget what Maya had whispered in the dim light of the classroom. Danny would not change. Why did she have to? There was nothing wrong with her.

She took out the tape, removed her jacket, and lifted her shirt up around her neck. She stuck the end of the roll on her flat chest. Then around and around, until the top half of her torso was fully encapsulated. When her lungs felt sufficiently tight, she brought the rest of it to her teeth and tore it off. Before leaving the bathroom, she checked herself in the mirror. The dull gray of the tape was invisible behind her floral-patterned shirt. She thought of Maya again. How she was practically foaming at the mouth, raving about the blood that made her a woman. Danny looked satisfied at her chest in the mirror. It was so tight, she thought maybe it could keep it all in.

At first, the tape tugged at her skin, but she noticed it less as the day went on. Riding on the school bus at the end of the day, she almost forgot about it completely, except it scratched her once under the armpit. Once she was dropped off at the bus stop, the gray cylinder wrapped around her felt like a part of her body. Strolling in the strange stillness of suburbia, all Danny thought about now was getting to see her sister at home.

When she opened the front door of her house, her sister jumped out from behind it, arms outstretched and hoping for a squeal.

“Andrea!” Her sister’s arms wrapped around her and shook her side to side. She felt her plastic chest rub against Andrea’s body. Danny waited for a reaction from her sister, but she didn’t seem to notice.

With one last squeeze, Andrea released Danny from her arms. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Slushies?” she asked. Danny smiled and nodded. “Leave your stuff here, D.”

She yelled towards the living room. “Me and Danny are going to Quickie’s!”

“Okay,” their mom answered. “Just don’t forget your pepper spray. And be back before dinner.”

They’d make the trip to the gas station down the road and buy 98-cent slushies every time Andrea came back from school. It became a ritual of sorts. Danny figured that as long as she was next to her sister, the long walk to Quickie’s was worth it. Andrea’s waist-long hair swished behind her with every step. She smelled like shampoo and perfume.

Since going to college, Andrea had acquired a new foreign scent. It was like spending a weekend at a friend’s house, then coming back and smelling like a stranger in your own home. Danny would listen with quiet rapture as her sister told her about the boys in her hall and the professors she hated. She was plugged into gossip about what Amy drunk-texted her ex and the email Marjorie accidentally sent to her T.A. Sure, Andrea had changed, but she kept no secrets.

Danny realized her sister was a woman, too. She thought this was the best version of her sister. Danny let her thoughts wander. If Andrea had changed, then who was the person she left behind?

The sun was almost gone when the girls got there, but the lights at Quickie’s were always on. Danny and Andrea made a beeline to the machine in the back and filled their cups with fluorescent red and blue liquid. They stuck a straw through the plastic lids and lined up at the register behind a woman in sweatpants and a man wearing a baseball cap. Andrea spoke first.

“So, Mom told me—”

Danny interrupted her with a long groan. “Of course she did.”

“I ran into Mrs. Stevenson when I was walking earlier,” Andrea said. “Apparently she knew too. Sounds like Mom even told the neighbors.”

Danny threw her arms up and groaned even louder. “Are you kidding me?”

Andrea snorted. Then she began to laugh. Danny’s frown curled up into a smirk.

“She was like that with me, too,” Andrea said. “It’s extra, pero, like… it’s Mom. She cares. A lot. And you know she lives for that female shit.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Danny said. “It’s just weird, you know? I thought she’d be cool about it.” She swirled her straw in the slush, mixing the colors into a muddy purple brown. “I mean, it’s not even a big deal. But she says I’m a woman now. It doesn’t feel right. It’s just so… grown-up.”

They moved up one spot in line.

“Listen Danny,” Andrea said. “You’re a woman when you feel like it. Look at me. I’m a grown-up, right? And it’s not just because I got blood coming out of my chocha.”

Andrea paid with two crumpled-up dollar bills from her back pocket. A bell chimed behind them as they pushed open the glass doors. They hadn’t gotten ten feet from the gas station before they heard a whistle behind them.

“Nice tits!” A group of boys were standing by a gas pump next to a polished blue Jeep. It was already dark, but Danny could just make out their faces. They looked like they must have been high schoolers. Danny stood behind Andrea in the shadow cast by the streetlight and lowered her head. High schoolers and middle schoolers took the same buses home, and she didn’t want to be recognized on the ride back tomorrow.

“Let me see those hot tamales!” One of them made a V-shape with his fingers and wagged his tongue. They kept leering at Andrea, then looking around and snickering. As if to confirm with each other that they were still being funny.

“Hey!” Andrea’s voice cut through the air. She stretched her arm out and flashed her middle finger. She gathered some spit in her mouth and launched it their way. She yelled again. “Eat a dick!”

They laughed and laughed. Everything Andrea did seemed to be a joke to them. She guided Danny away from the scene with a hand on her back. Danny heard her sister mutter under her breath: “Little bitches.”

Come dinner time, it was as if the event had never even happened for Andrea. Danny couldn’t say she was surprised. Her sister was bulletproof. But something was turning in the pit of her stomach, and she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. She tried to take a deep breath but didn’t get very far. The tape squeezed her lungs when they got too full. She poked her food with her fork. “Mom? Could you maybe stop telling people about, you know, my period? It’s kind of weird.” “I’m sorry, did it embarrass you? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know sweetie? Be proud of it. You’re a woman! Maybe you’ll have to tell your friends to start calling you Daniela now, right?”

Danny gritted her teeth. She knew it would be wise to stay quiet, but she decided to speak.

“Why? What’s so good about being a woman? I don’t get anything, do I? Why should I change? Is there something wrong with me now?”

Her mother was visibly shocked at Danny’s reply, but she tried to suppress it. “No, no, no mi bebé – of course not. All I mean is women are smart. Women are strong. That’s how you are.”

Danny scoffed. “Are you serious? Andrea’s a woman, right? She didn’t do anything when those boys at Quickie’s were talking about her boobs and shit!”

“Danny, what the fuck?” Andrea said. “I did say something! You were there!”

Danny remembered how they looked at Andrea. With their ravenous eyes. “Well, they didn’t stop!”

Their mother was caught between reprimanding her daughters for their language and pressing them for more details about the gas station.

“Mija, is this true?”

“Yeah,” Andrea said. “I mean, I already yelled at them. What am I sup- posed to do, beat them up? Not worth it.”

“They weren’t going to hurt you?” Their mother asked.

“Of course not, they were just a bunch of kids.”

Their mother sighed and shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I understand. You did the right thing.” She turned her head towards Danny. “There’s just garbage people out there, baby. But you have to fight it, Daniela. That’s what women do.”

In her room that night, Danny did her best to continue as usual. Show- er, brush teeth, pick out clothes. She hoped her routine would guide her back to how she was. Before getting into the shower, she caught her reflection in the mirror. A head and a neck atop a smooth gray rectangle. It looked just like it did in fourth period. She scratched at its edge. It barely budged.

Still bound in her silver cocoon, she stepped into the shower. She turned it on and felt the cold water turn warm. She turned the knob to the right and closed her eyes at it got hotter. Drops of water seeped into the sticky space between the tape and Danny’s body, loosening its grip. Her outer layer was slowly sloughing off of her chest.

It was a heavy thing, her second skin.

Danny watched the red-tinted streams running down the shower’s white floor. The scarlet water pooled and swirled before falling into the drain. She noticed her reflection in the shiny metal surface of the show- er’s handle. Its curves warped her image into a distorted creature with a body and a face. Danny looked into the eyes of the thing staring back at her.

And she felt her wet gray shell fall to her feet.

Giselle Pagunuran graduated from UNC in 2021 with a bachelor’s in advertising/public relations and communication studies. She is from Concord, North Carolina.