"Dad, can I ask you a question?" my son asks.
"What's a tampon?"
I'm speeding down the Taconic State Parkway like many insane sports dads, focused on getting my son to his 6th grade basketball tournament game on time. We have a tendency to leave late for everything. Even after I give my son a half hour departure warning... then a 20, 10, and 5 minute departure update warning, at go time, he's still on the couch, playing on his tablet, in bare feet and shorts. And, of course, I feel responsible, like it's my fault that I allowed him to be late.
After a flurry of shouts and rushing, we're in the car, leaving two minutes later than I wanted to leave. Two minutes. And now I'm staring at the GPS like a madman, seeing if I can bring that arrival time down to the ideal time as suggested by our coach.
Like I said, insane.
My son's recovered from the push to leave. He turns those emotional corners quickly. I'm still obsessed with the GPS arrival time. He's watching the world go past, outside his window when he asks the question above.
"You don't need to know about that right now," I say, as I try to figure out if I should take the Taconic to the Bronx River or continue onto the Sprain Brook.
I think I've answered his question adequately. But then my altruist parental mind takes over. He's asking the question, so he knows something about it. If he doesn't get the answer from me, he'll ask someone else. And that someone else might not offer as responsible an answer as I hope to.
"Why do you want to know?" I ask.
"When I was at summer camp, someone dared me to ask a girl what a period was."
I veer into the next lane, correct myself, and refocus.
"Did you ask the girl?"
"No!" he exclaims, like how dare I even question that. "But I think I know what a tampon is. Because when the kid asked me to ask about a girl's period, I knew what that was... it's like when a girl bleeds out of her... privates." He whispers the word 'privates' to me.
He doesn't ask if he's right, he just puts it out there. There's a confidence there that I admire.
"That's more or less what its purpose is," I say, feeling totally inadequate. "I mean, the purpose of a tampon is to absorb the blood that comes out. Like a huge bandaid."
'Huge' is the wrong word.
"Like a plug." Even a worse word choice. But it's been said and can't be unsaid.
"Oh," he says, getting his own image and I'm certain I'm failing miserably at this. "Dad, why does a girl bleed out of her privates?"
And now we're into it, the birds and the bees talk. Except he's less than a month away from twelve. Twelve! I thought this talk didn't happen until Fifteen or sixteen. Another example of how unprepared I really am as a parent. But here we are, and I'm about to explain how a girl's menstrual cycle works while driving 70 miles per hour down a New York State parkway.
"Each month a young woman's body prepares to make a baby. The body builds a... home inside the young woman, a place where the baby can be made and grow."
"And that happens every month?" he asks.
"So, why does it bleed?"
"Well, if a baby is not made, all the stuff that was made for the baby needs to get... tossed out. Or it goes bad if it's not used. So the body flushes it out. And that is what bleeds out."
"Does it hurt?" he asks. "It must hurt."
"It's very uncomfortable. They get cramps and it makes them very... moody."
"Oh." He goes quiet for a second. "Do they get a period if they're pregnant?"
"No," I say. "Once a girl gets pregnant..., Look, you're playing a good team today. This is the semi-finals. If you win, you'll be playing in the championships!"
"Don't change the subject, Dad. If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay. I can youtube it."
"Okay, so once a young woman gets pregnant, everything that her body made to make the baby gets used. So it's needed and the body keeps it. So nothing gets thrown out. You understand? The body keeps it all. And... the human body is an amazing thing. It's very complicated." I pause, check the GPS. "We're almost there. Can you tell me where to turn?"
"Up ahead, 0.6 miles, you're going to make a right."
"So, does a girl still bleed when she's pregnant?"
"Woman. A woman does not. Her body makes the baby. Then the baby comes out."
I do not dare get into all the details of the miracle of childbirth, and how many women and couples have suffered through miscarriages or one failed attempt after another to have a baby; I dare not mention the millions of young women who do get pregnant when they don't want to. I do not dare get into that with my 11 year old son. I keep the conversation as simple as possible. I am certain that I am failing in my explanation. I am worried as hell that I'm putting images in his head that he will obsess over. I am worried that he will be thinking about periods and pregnancy instead of remembering how to run the motion offense or know his position on defense. In about twenty minutes he's going to be standing on a basketball court and I envision him standing in the low-post, rebounds bouncing off his head as he scans the crowd for young women who might, at that very moment, be having their period. Because he would. He would wonder what that looks like and how to identify it.
"Dad, how do babies get made?"
"Oh, look! We're here!"
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.