The final cessation
by Megan Rilkoff
Cailyn sat at the dining table, kitty corner to her husband Charlie so they could both look out the glass sliding door into their backyard. It was a gorgeous clear evening, one of the first sunny days in over a week. Cailyn picked at the carbonara pasta on her plate, her dark hair tied lazily into a bun on the top of her head. The pasta was bland, under seasoned, and Cailyn swallowed the sharp words she wanted to throw at her husband. She wore no make-up. Thick stray hairs popped up like blades of grass between her eyebrows. She would pluck them tonight, along with similar ones sprouting on her chin. Standing in front of the mirror wearing her purple slippers, she approached the job with great distaste, avoiding her own eyes.
“…and would you believe that Diane asked me for the stats for the monthly report again today? How many times do I have to send them to her, I mean…” Tiny bits of food flew off Charlie’s fork, landing on the floor.
Cailyn avoided his face, his mouth full of food. She nodded to her plate and caught a wine stain on the yellow lemon tablecloth. She’d get vinegar and baking powder later to work it out. For some reason that Rorschach blot stain put a tight knot in her chest. She couldn’t stop looking at it with an unbridled longing.
“So, after lunch,” Charlie started again, “Dirk comes in and asks me if I want to do happy hour after work. These millennials and their happy hours…” He shakes his head, half-smiling.
Cailyn eyed Charlie out of the corner of her eye. She had been thinking of him lately, what a stranger he was. When she married this man, over twenty years ago, she remembered feeling like she really knew him. That she knew what he was thinking or knew what he was going to say a moment before he said it aloud. She felt, then, that this showed some supreme connection between them; now it was just banal predictability. She had fallen in love with this man – feeling the pockets of his blue-button down, chewing with his mouth open, talking as if he was the most interesting man in the world. How did she ever harbor a touch of feeling for this man?
Oh, she hated him. She wanted to run upstairs, pack some clothes, jump in her car. Where would she go? To Paris, maybe, where she said she had always wanted to go. No, that would be the the worst place, walking the cobblestoned streets in her orthopedic shoes and her sagging bum, surrounded by French elegance and effortlessness. Maybe she’d rent a small studio near the water in California like Sheila Blake did after she and her husband separated. Sheila was looking so tan these days in her Facebook pictures. She had taken up roller-blading of all things! How good would it feel to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean during a hot flash. The sun sparkling on the water, her in a polka dot wrap-tie suit, the ocean water cooling her boiling skin.
She felt a secret thrill thinking this, sitting so close to Charlie, pondering a life without him. What would he think of that? She nodded along to whatever he just said, something about creating a living lab for students. “Oh, how interesting…” she said to keep him going, allowing more time with her own thoughts. Out the glass door was their small backyard patio, the slate gray tiles she carefully chose last year. Her hydrangea bushes were wilting again; they took so much care. She’d water them again after dinner, standing barefoot on the hot tiles. She felt a chill coming and pressed her sweater more tightly around her like a hug. She would water the flowers and pretend she was in a fancy Swedish hotel with heated floors in the middle of winter. She bought these bushes because she wanted ones that looked like Betsy Hargross’s across the street, full and blue and blooming like small perky breasts. It made her depressed to look at her own hydrangeas, weak and sagging, like so many heads nodding off to sleep.
Cailyn woke at 1:23 AM that night, soaked in her own sweat. This had been happening more and more frequently, her body set aflame in her sleep, as if burning from the inside. She glanced over at her husband, gently snoring and mouth breathing, releasing the smell of day-old bread. She sighed and crawled out of bed, unworried if she woke him or not, and padded downstairs to the dark kitchen. She flipped on a light and opened the refrigerator, closing her eyes for a full minute, relishing the cool blast of air. When the fridge began its light beeping, she closed it and moved to the couch, legs splayed open, arms resting on the top of the grey cushions, head thrown back like a baby bird waiting to be fed. “Ugh,” she sighed, a guttural noise like the unclogging of a drain.
Cailyn couldn’t help but notice that the women around her age were in one of two camps. Camp One, they tried desperately to turn back the hands of time: died the greys in their hair to previous shades of brown and black, waxed the hair between their eyebrows and above their upper lip, wore pantyhose to cover spider veins, slept in thick gel masks that touted a return to youth-like buoyancy of the skin. Or Camp Two, they fully owned this transition: cut their hair short, tight against the scalp, refused any artificial hair coloring or Botox, ditched make-up.
When she talked to her friend Liz from school (Camp One), ten years older, about menopause (why menopause, she often wondered), Liz simply said, “Oh yes, the hot flashes,” in a way that made Cailyn think she didn’t suffer at all. Maybe it was like having a baby, the memory of the true agony long behind her now, faded into a manageable pain. Then Liz whispered, “Once, in the middle of the night, I went downstairs and grabbed a kitchen knife. I was going to do it, I swear. Let me get you the name of my doctor, one sec.”
When she asked Abby (Camp Two), she was more sympathetic and practical: drink less coffee, put frozen peas in a plastic bag under your pillow at night, have tea over wine after dinner, and lube, lube, lube. Cailyn scribbled these pointers down on legal pad at the kitchen table (except the last tip).
Cailyn had read once about women in Biblical times, being forced to go to the ‘red tent’ – a place away from society to menstruate with other women. She loved this idea and thought about it often walking around her classroom, checking students’ work with a tampon string tickling her upper thighs, silently bearing an ache in her low abdomen and hiding her bloated stomach beneath a pair of Spanx. She would daydream: walking to the Red Tent in bare feet with her fellow woman warriors, proud and confident in their swollen bodies, howling under a full moon. It was celebratory, this tent, like an adult summer camp. They’d sing, tell stories, make fires, cook food, sleep in a tangle of bodies while they rid themselves of potential life, turning the dark earth into wine.
How she longed now to be part of this mystical Red Tent. Would she have still been invited now? An unbleeder? This thought made her want to cry, which she did often in those days. She cried while brushing her teeth, while driving (suddenly, then, wanting to ram the car in front of her again and again until its bumper came off), while talking to her daughter on the phone, Amber sighing on the other end in her New York City apartment, speaking low into the receiver, “It’s okay, Mom, cry it out.” She had even cried several times in the single bathroom at school, unable to contain the torrents of pressure building in her face. Charlie was concerned, looking at her with a naked fear in his green eyes. He asked what she needed, what he could do, like in the days she was pregnant when he would run off to the store for mint chocolate chip ice cream or sour cream and onion Pringles. He wanted something to do and this made her even more annoyed as she didn’t know what that would possibly be. Even Liz’s doctor had been no help, telling her this would pass in time and that she could try a hormone medication if she wanted. The message was clear. There was nothing to stop this. She would just have to manage.
Around this time, Cailyn started a crying log. In the month of May, she logged her crying spells each day. At the end of the month, she looked at the data. The range was one to six times throughout the month. The average was two times a day. She made a key. A tiny teardrop meant a small cry, a slow leaking from the eyes that she let pour down her face like rain down a window. She could still cut bell peppers for a stir fry, or write a lesson plan on finding the main idea, or fold the laundry the KonMari way. A big teardrop indicated full body-wracking sobs that would force her to leave the knife on the cutting board next to uneven strips of red peppers, close her laptop, or fall in a heap on top of the still-warm clothes from the dryer. Her body would shake as if something was being loosened inside her, as if she was alone in the world, a siren on a rock in the middle of the sea, knowing no ships would pass for many years. The first time this happened, Charlie came running up the stairs, calling her name, “Cailyn! What in the…?” She stopped eventually, and simply said into the pillow she was holding for dear life, “You wouldn’t understand.” And with that, like a sullen teenager, she became a bit more defiant, a bit more possessive of these tears, her hot flashes, her mood swings. They were hers. She would cherish them like she used to secretly cherish the cramps in her low abdomen each month; walking around with this secret knowledge that connected her to all bleeding people throughout time.
Charlie left her alone. More than that, he was avoiding her lately. Hearing her footsteps on the stairs in the morning, he would grab his sneakers and head out for a run in the park. Or last week, when she walked into the living room at 7:30 PM sharp for Jeopardy, he asked if she would like dessert, making an elaborate peach dish with homemade sauce in the kitchen that took the whole episode. He had hoped the kind gesture would quell his guilt at wanting to be away from her. In an odd life reversal, Cailyn reminded him of their daughter during her difficult high school years. The slammed the doors, the muffled crying into pillows, the silent dinners. Charlie and Cailyn would look at each other from the corners of their eyes in a quiet solidarity, careful not to let Amber see them or she would cry out, “What?!” in an accusatory way. Those little eye catches got him through. But who was there to catch his eye now in silent understanding? To say simply, “I know. I am here.” There was no one.
Once last year, Cailyn had thrown a wooden spoon covered in pesto sauce at his back (missing, thankfully, splashing the white wall in a bright primordial-looking ooze). Another time, she yelled out the front door at him on his way out for a run to “Close the goddamn door behind you next time!” getting a look from old Ray Collins next door as he walked his dog. And then there was the unspeakable time, she grabbed his poking cock in her hand and squeezed it tightly as he gently pressed against her one night. “No,” she said through bared teeth. He slept on the couch that night. They never spoke of it again.
It was June, only two weeks left in the school year. She hadn’t been keeping up with the crying log though if she had to guess, she was down to about one cry a day. On some level, she was amazed at the return of this pubescent stage, the tears, the changing hormones, the sudden mood swings. It was like she was thirteen again, near the age of her students. She felt an odd kinship to them, her sixth-graders, because of this. But as her students approached the transition into their adult bodies, she was morphing into something else. Still a woman, just not a bleeding one. Her ovaries slowly dying, emitting final bursts of hormones, like a Fourth of July firework finale, leaving nothing but plumes of smoke behind. This scared her, this unbecoming. It was as if her body was being abducted by alien forces, leaving behind a shell she didn’t know how to live in.
Cailyn – Mrs. Alden – was sitting in her classroom, eating lunch and gazing at the calendar on the board. She was daydreaming about sitting out in the back yard under her sun hat, sticking her feet in the small kiddie pool they had in the garage from when the kids were little. Bliss was maintaining a perfect temperature equilibrium.
There was a small knock on the door. She looked up, hands wrapped around her homemade BLT sandwich. It was Annabelle Reed. A tall twiggy girl with a shy smile she taught last year. Never raised her hand but always seemed to know the answer when called on. Cailyn tried to boost her confidence, writing encouraging notes on her papers. Saying she wanted to hear from her more in class. Annabelle walked across the classroom with her head down, hair hiding her pimpled face like a curtain. Cailyn wiped a bit of dripping tomato juice off her chin and sat up straighter in her chair. She’d been eating in her classroom for the last few weeks, instead of across the hall in Mr. Hayden’s room where she usually ate with the rest of the sixth-grade team. Behind her desk, there was a window she could leave open, letting in a cool breeze. And she could leave her sweater on the back of her rolling chair in case of a chill.
Cailyn carefully placed the sandwich down in its foil and folded her hands in front of her.
Annabelle wrapped her arms around her back, clasping her hands, staring at the blue stapler on Mrs. Alden’s desk.
“And what can I do for you, my dear?” Mrs. Alden asked, smiling.
Annabelle lifted her right foot to scratch the back of her left leg. Standing like this Mrs. Alden thought she looked like an ungraceful flamingo.
“Mrs. Alden, do you…” Annabelle’s faced flushed and Mrs. Alden felt her heart race unnecessarily “…do you have a pad?”
The child glanced up briefly at her then, and Cailyn felt a wave of relief, this was something she could help with. Oh, yes. And in the same moment, with the relief that flooded her warm body, she felt touched. It was the girl’s eyes, that quick glance, so recognizable: the great fear of the unknown, the quiet shame, the desperate hope that she was not alone in this. Cailyn felt the tears coming and couldn’t stop them. No, they couldn’t be stopped. She reached into her top drawer, letting the first tears hit her cheeks, not even bothering to wipe them away. It would be no use. She felt the roughness of the purple bag and pulled it out. An old make-up bag repurposed for this very reason. Cailyn had given several of her old students feminine products before; word must have gotten around. She was so terribly touched that this student of hers had felt comfortable - well maybe not comfortable as Annabelle still stood there, hand touching hand, foot touching leg, taking inventory of all the items on Mrs. Alden’s desk as Cailyn searched for the requested item – well, just that she trusted Mrs. Alden with this terribly personal ask. But why should it be so personal? Mrs. Alden thought, handing the pink square over to the girl who released her hands to take it in the palm of her hand. It was wrapped prettily with tiny flowers as if it was a treat. Yes, why should this be such a private suffering, Mrs. Alden thought, if half the people in this very school went through it every month? Half the people in the world?! She felt a fire growing in her stomach, but it was her own inner fire, soul fire, not her body’s doing, and it felt wonderful. It was absurd, this young girl, having to come whisper about this, to keep it a big secret. Mrs. Alden didn’t want that for her, for any of the girls. Why whisper? About your own body! The most natural thing in the world. How did people think they came into this world anyway! It was the men, that was it, the principal, and the assistant principal, and all the men and boys, like her husband, who couldn’t handle it. Who made them feel shame. They were to blame.
“Let me know if you need anything. You need not be ashamed. This is natural, this is normal. This is perfectly well and good. Come see me anytime,” Mrs. Alden said, holding the girl’s brown eyes for a moment. Annabelle nodded slightly, eyes wide, and then ran for the door, long hair flowing behind her.
Alone in her room, Cailyn zipped up the purple bag and opened the top drawer. She froze and closed the drawer again with a finality. Carrying the bag, she walked over to the back counter next to the sink and cleared some old papers there, creating a space. She unzipped the bag, revealing pads and tampons of various sizes and colors, lined up neatly like macaroons in a box. Tomorrow her students would be getting a talk. Not just the girls, like the school usually did, dividing the grade by gender one day a year. Everyone.
She walked back to her desk, shoulders set back, and lowered herself into the chair. She finished the rest of her sandwich, chewing slowly, enjoying the cool breeze from the window behind her.
Charlie was at a breaking point. Last night, Cailyn had grabbed his penis, gripped it hard, hard enough to hurt for a few seconds, and it shook him to the core. Who was this woman? He needed help; he couldn’t go on like this anymore.
Charlie called Kevin first, at his villa in Cuba. He ranted (leaving out the story of last night). Kevin listened.
“Sorry, mate, I can’t help with this one. Though you’re making me feel glad Sheila and I spit when we did.” He laughed, too loudly, and Charlie grimaced. Charlie secretly pitied Kevin; he couldn’t imagine leaving your wife, your family (though the kids were long grown), your house, your neighborhood, for something completely new. He felt sure his buddy would come home eventually, saying how lonely he was. But in this moment, he was jealous. So jealous, he couldn’t see straight. He ended the call early, saying he had to take the dog out. He sat in his desk chair, picturing Kevin smoking a Cuban cigar on his patio, thinking of what to grab for dinner, listening to the vibrant sounds of music down the street, feeling the cool ocean breeze.
He called Billy next (his wife was older than Cailyn). Billy said it wasn’t so bad for Amanda, or he didn’t notice. She would yell at him for the smallest things like moving the TV remote or the lawn growing too long, but that wasn’t anything new. She would blast the A/C in the cool house, which bugged him, but he learned not to question it, not to challenge her about anything. It’s a fight you can’t win, he said. “Whatever is going on with Cailyn, give it time. It will get better.” Charlie nodded but didn’t feel assured. It was not getting better. Almost a year now, he thought, with a sinking feeling. The truth was he was terrified; terrified of her, terrified for her.
Sighing, he turned to face his computer, the only option left. He opened Google Chrome and typed in menopause. 92 million search results. He clicked the first few pages. Yup, yup. All familiar. Hot flashes, chills, sleep problems, mood swings. Charlie felt a wave of relief rush over him. Weight gain (he would never say anything about that) and thinning hair. Some women had symptoms up to ten years. Ten! He felt a light sweat break out on his forehead.
One click led to another and soon he was going down the blue-lit rabbit hole, finding blogs called “Menopause Goddess” and “Firey Mamas.” From there, he found a sub-Reddit: Partners of Menopause.
UserSpiderMonkeyyy11: Avoid anti-depressants like the plague! Medical marijuana has helped me way more. Less mood swings and outbursts. I feel almost happy again. Good luck!
TheMaliciousMillenial: My mother is going crazy and I think I know why. I try to talk to her about it, but she doesn’t want to listen. She explodes at me and my brother all day about the smallest stuff, then blames us for it. We moved in here to help her but I think we are going to have to leave soon. I can’t take it anymore. Any advice for dealing with an irrational menopausal woman??!!
PapillonEdgar: My wife lost her sex drive – somewhere in 2005. Anyone know where I can find it? (laughing face).
OutbackAussieGal: My partner is perimenopausal (hot flashes, low libido). I want to be the best partner to her that I can. She didn’t do well with birth control (highly emotional) so we are avoiding HRT. Trying to ride this out the natural way. Sending lots of love to anyone going through this life change!!!
Middle_Age_Zombie: It’s a new normal. Adapt or die.
Now, that seemed a bit dramatic. Charlie sat there thinking for a few moments, face frozen under the computer screen’s pale light. A new normal. Adapt or die. He continued reading for another hour, scrolling and scrolling, counting himself blessed at even worse horror stories (one woman who overdosed on her medication and barely survived; her husband is sure she did it on purpose). These men and women talking about their spouses like complete strangers. He had known Cailyn since they were seniors in college for Christ’s sake. He knew the two moles on her left upper thigh, knew when she was annoyed by the way she scratched her nose, knew the way she slept on her side with the blanket between her knees.
He closed all the red alien-faced tabs, cleared the history, and shut down the computer. This is ridiculous. This is Cailyn; my wife. An image of her then, the one kept in the most cherished part of his heart, filled his mind. A trip to New Hampshire in the fall. Clean mountain air and evergreens that scraped the sky. A baby bump showing beneath her long flowing dress. Auburn hair to her shoulders, brown eyes sparkling at him, laughing at something he said. Her soft, soft skin. He put his face in his hands for a moment. Took a deep breath.
He took the stairs two at a time and found her out on the back patio, hair tied up in its usual bun. Looking out with a glass of wine. He felt his heart pound, that unfaithful organ, and felt a bit embarrassed. What was this? Fear? Apprehension? Goodness, it had gotten this far. He opened the sliding door, expecting a cutting look for interrupting her alone time. She had been asking for that more recently. Everyone just annoys the hell out of me, she had said. But she turned her head to look at him, a quick acknowledgment. No smile, but better than nothing. He lowered himself into the chair next to her. They watched the clouds pass by overhead, leaving them in moments of warm bliss followed by shadowy coolness. Slowly, slowly, he reached for her hand. He laid his gently on top of hers on the arm of the white wicker chair. Neither of them moved for some time. The song sparrows danced and dipped between the trees. A cardinal sat in a branch high above them, red and proud. A woodpecker somewhere beat its drumming tune every few seconds.
He cleared his throat. “It’s just…” He felt her attention on him and he cleared his throat. “It’s a new normal now,” he said on a sigh. He glanced over without moving his head, hand still gently resting on hers, to see her reaction. Her head was bowed as if smelling her wine glass, her hair falling about her face prettily. It took him a moment to realize she was crying, shoulders shaking gently, double chin pronounced, the soft fat there jiggling, hair parted in the back revealing her pale scalp. He stood and came up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. She sobbed harder, slipping down in the chair, resting her head on his upper arm, her hand reaching for his and gripping with interlocked fingers. She cried, a big teardrop cry, as the birds carried on their chirping conversations.
It wasn’t unlike when she lost her mother three years ago, Charlie thought. Nothing to do but hold her, stroke her hand on the couch, ask how she was feeling today, nodding sympathetically at whatever it was she said in return. This was grief, he realized, holding her quaking body in his arms, tightening his squeeze as she let her body soften even further, a complete sinking. He started to rock her slowly, her wailing becoming short hiccupping bursts. He kissed her forehead. She sat up a bit to wipe her tears, her face coated in a wet film. “Oh dear,” she said, laughing a bit. He smiled. He squeezed her shoulders with his hands.
Then. “Get your fucking hands off me,” she growled. Charlie froze, feeling like he was falling through ice: dark, cold, blind. She tilted her head back, looking up at him with a playful gleam in her eye. She laughed, a deep belly laugh that pinched out tears from the corners of her eyes. She laughed, her whole body jiggling and her molars staring their beady eyes at him. Her whole face upside down as if the world had flipped on its axis.
Megan Rilkoff is a writer and middle school teacher from New England. She earned her BA in Comparative Literature and French from the University of Southern California. When not adding to her Want To Read list, she loves hiking the coastline of Maine and finding new swimming holes. Her work has been published in From Whispers to Roars, The Closed Eye Open, Wild Roof Journal, and Passengers Journal.
— Bill Gaythwaite
"People have always looked up to Glen ― in school, in sports, on the job. He knows he is endowed with something called leadership quality. He has courted this reputation, built it carefully, like a log cabin, but occasionally the obligation overwhelms him, and he feels up to his neck with it. It’s rather tiring to always be so dependable. "