What They Call It
Growing up, my mother called it nuni. My father called it nunus, pronouncing it new-newshh. It was the shh sound that I never liked about that one, like my stream hitting the toilet bowl.
My grandmother never called it anything, not around me anyway. Even when I got my first period at her house, she just handed me an adult diaper to use as a pad and warned me about sitting in the grass. Take this seat, she pointed to a plastic straight-back chair on the porch she’d covered with a starched sheet. It’s important to be clean, especially now, she said. But I couldn’t sit comfortably anywhere for the two straight weeks that that period stabbed the pit of my stomach. Each time I shifted, the adult diaper brushing against my thighs whispered something I couldn’t understand.
In school, the older girls called it their vajay. As in, these pants cut into my vajay. When they were out of earshot, we’d call it a vajayjay, laughing as we spread our legs wide on the benches in the locker room, the AC tickling the wiry hairs that poked out of our panties. But on the foggy mirrors we’d only draw dicks, with bulbous hearts for balls.
For short, we’d call it a vag. Anything to keep from saying that clinical word even our health teacher couldn’t spit out without his cheeks blooming: va-gi-na.
The boys had their own names for it, too. Twat, cooter, and beaver were the most popular. They’d follow the last one with a snort. The boys with hair above their lips, the ones who blew smoke behind the gym into the still air, had other names for it. Snatch, slit, and gash confused me the most but I never asked about them. I wasn’t convinced the answer would keep my jaw from clenching when they used them, like when they crooned, Here Kitti, Kitti, how’s your kitty?
When my mother chose the name for me she had only visited America once and didn’t speak English. My father had lived in the States by then but didn’t know its meaning either. In Hungary, my name was nothing but a girl’s name. In America, I was what I had: a kitty, a pussy, a vagina.
I was at the mall with the girls every weekend, surreptitiously stuffing the accessories near the registers into my purse, but my mother didn’t trust me to shop for jeans on my own. Because they were expensive. No matter how many changing booths I walked into, the pants always hung loose around my crotch, like my lips weren’t fat enough or something. When my mom asked me what k-rot-ch is, I cupped myself like Michael Jackson. She shook her head, surprised she’d logged seven years in the States and still hadn’t heard all the words for it. You’d be surprised, I thought.
Pussy-means-kisses-in-Hungarian was my first email address. I blurted it out one night, when me and the girls were making fake emails with fake birthdays for our chat rooms, and after their laughter died down they said, that one’s gonna be yours. They didn’t spell it like they should’ve—puszi—and when I tried to correct them they said it would take the fun out of it if we spelled it the right way, which was true.
That was the first time it took on another meaning for me, this word that had been my grandmother’s sign-off at the end of our long-distance phone calls. And the marriage of the two words and their meanings didn’t feel wrong. Should I cringe now when I hear her use it, I wondered, and what if I didn’t? Would that make me weird?
At the lunch table, one of the girls said her boyfriend called it her cookie. Because it’s a warm and moist treat, she said, smiling to her eyelashes. So when you bleed he calls it your bloody cookie? I asked, trying to get a laugh out of everyone. Her smile shrank, and my arm stung from where she slapped it.
At the time I thought the grossest thing was to let a guy go down on you when you were bleeding. We knew some of the guys who did it for their girlfriends; we made gagging noises when they passed us in the halls, called them vampires.
It was selfish to not do anything for your boyfriend when you were on it; it wasn’t his fault you were a girl. Sex was fine if the guy didn’t mind it. Put a towel down or pull him into the shower with you. You couldn’t blame him if he wasn’t into it, but then you had to do something else for him. It was your job to. If you didn’t like it, then you could take your damn self to the movies.
The next grossest thing was to not be clean when your guy went down on you. They never seemed to care where they stuck their dicks, wrapped or not, but once their tongues got involved, it was a different story. My guy from back then explained that was because he’d rather put his dick than his tongue in a septic hose. The same guy who could never take another second down there, would come up complaining of his neck cramping, and even after positioning me at the edge of his bed with his knees on the floor, would stop to show me where his teeth wore away at his inner lip until I told him to forget it, just put it in.
Sometimes your guy would ask you to get in the shower, even if you’d just showered before you came over. That wasn’t proof. He had to watch you do it, and sometimes he’d ask why you didn’t put any soap inside. The dumb ones or the shy ones would when he asked. And then you’d walk with the girl to CVS after class and keep a look out while she dropped the box of Vagasil in her purse.
The more we hooked up the funnier the names got. We shared the newest ones we’d picked up while we walked our mile out on the field in the hottest months before the break. Snootch. Coochie. Snickers. The point wasn’t to be nasty, just creative. Hooha. Hush puppy. Cock holster. The nasty ones snuck in there somehow anyway. Hole. Cunt-box. Cha-cha. But so did the creative ones. The bald man in the boat. The Bermuda Triangle. The pink taco. The bearded clam. The vertical smile.
My mom didn’t give me a traditional sex-talk. Once, when the girls were over, she came into my bedroom and closed the door behind her. I know what you do when you say you go to the movies, she said. We sat on our hands, eyed the open window we’d broken the screen off of sneaking out of it one night. My mom sat on the edge of my bed, away from us but with us. You probably know, she said in her heavily accented English, it’s all about the ass for the guys. But I tell you if he is there, it’s okay when you reach down yourself. One of us giggled, but she continued, undeterred, It’s okay you rub yourself if he is in dog-style. The heat in my face spread to my temples, the corners of my ears, and dissipated only after she was gone.
I wouldn’t have dared do such a thing at the time. When he’d put it in I’d feel a tightening that never reached its apex and never released so much as subsided after he was done. I’d been climaxing since I was nine, but when he’d ask me after he was done if I came it was easier to say I never have than to say you’ve never made me. So I stopped masturbating for a while because it was too frustrating to think about why I never got that release with him. And I convinced myself that I’d never had an orgasm because it was easiest to think there was something wrong with me. Like my body was insufficient in some way.
Visiting my grandmother made my head spin. The names my uncles and cousins used for it after dinner, while my grandmother and aunts and I washed the dishes and the men thought we couldn’t hear them swapping stories on the patio, were none I’d ever heard my parents utter. I’d bust up laughing over the sink and, without batting an eye, my grandmother would close the door to the kitchen and say it’s cold in here, even if it was 35 degrees Celsius. We could still hear their muffled words for it, traded across the table between gulps of Soproni like playing cards, and their words made the English ones I knew sound less unique. Some were translatable. Bunda, barlang, kagyló, nyíltseb, mézesbödön, mandula, and bullterrier are fur, cave, seashell, open wound, honey pot, almond, and bullterrier, respectively. But there were the few I brought back for the girls I couldn’t even guess the roots of, like punci, pina, picsa. While my cousins and I stalked the lakeshore looking for somewhere to lay our beach towels, they’d nudge each other’s hairy arms and point. Man, look at that picsa, they’d say. Like look at that cunt, but softer.
When I came home in the fall, I asked my mother what the Hungarian word was for vagina.
Nuni, she said.
No, I said, what is vagina? What did it say in your school textbooks?
She diced the tomato in front of her. Female sex organ, she said finally.
Va-gi-na, my father yelled from the couch, only he said it with a hard g, like in wagon.
Seriously? I crossed my legs, leaned my chest onto the table so I could see him. You just stole the English word? I asked.
No, he held eye-contact with the TV, They stole it from us. It slipped out of his mouth right away. He didn’t even need to think about it.
It’s Latin, I believe, my mother said across the table in a loud whisper.
So that was one more thing Hungary and America had in common.
Around college, I began to miss the conversations about what people call it. When we could find the time to step away from our textbooks, we’d call one another in some distant city and talk instead about what others did to it, or didn’t. And when we’d visit home and get together over brunch, we’d talk about more of the same. We talked so much about it, in fact, that we started to forget whose story was whose, or else we were so close that if it happened to one of us it felt like it happened to us all. The guy who wanted to eat strawberries out of it, like it was a bowl to lick clean. The guy who asked about our majors when he slipped the speculum in, the sticky exam table under our bare ass no more comfortable than if he’d kept quiet. The guy who woke us up with his dancing fingers. The guy who reached around every time we passed him in the kitchen in our shorts. The guy who couldn’t hear our no through the sleeve of his jacket in our mouth.
Many of the guys we kept around were intimidated by the way we looked at each other or the women who passed us on the sidewalks. You have what they do, they’d say, you know their bodies in ways I never could. So at some point we stopped telling them we’ve done more than look. But nose-deep, her ribcage quivering in my palms, those guys are still on my mind if for no other reason than because my greatest fear is acting like one of them: the ones who used to walk around urging people to smell their fingers, those who’d point out where I missed a spot shaving and later say they never knew labias could be shaped like that.
There are the conversations, too, about what we want to do with it, and what we wouldn’t dare. Vajazzling, hood piercing, waxing. Some of us have given them a try, but others cringe at the thought.
What we fear most is the day we will be slit by a doctor, and those words that once made our stomachs turn—slit, slash, gash—will finally be accurate, even if for a moment. We decide unanimously, on one of those rare nights when we’re all in the same city on the same weekend, a wine glass already broken, our lips and teeth stained an uneven red, that we don’t want it; we’ll adopt instead, if we decide to have kids at all.
Our mothers tell us we will change our minds. They tell us it is the best test of our womanly strength. We assure them we can find other ways to test our strength. But we can’t be sure where the question that echoes in our head comes from, our mothers or deep inside ourselves: are we less a woman, less a mother, if we do not let our children rip us open?
I can’t recall who started the email chain, but one of us sent a video to the rest about yoni eggs designed for vaginal weightlifting. In the video, a sex expert teaches a group of women how to insert the egg (more like a jade testicle, really) and then takes the women through a set of kegel exercises. I watch the weight that hangs from the string attached to the egg inside them sway rhythmically while their noses crinkle, brows lower, and eyes squint half-shut with the effort. The video cuts to the sexpert alone in a room in front of the camera responding to a question that we don’t hear: I can’t believe how many women out there are walking around with numb vaginas, she says, sounding less like a doctor and more like one of us venting to the other about something. These eggs are meant to strengthen women’s vaginal muscles and pelvic floor, she continues, Because we can’t neglect our bodies and let our vaginas be numb.
All I think is, no shit we’re numb. At this point, I’d be suspicious of any woman who wasn’t.
I feel lots of things with a cock inside me, but strong is not one of them. Sexy, sure. Tired, often. Nervous, sometimes. But what I feel most is the weight of the thought that in that moment he is literally the closest person to me—inside of me, filling an otherwise empty space. So I give into the rocking, fearing that if we are still and quiet I might just vow right then that if I can find a way to do this, to have this closeness without any part of him entering any part of me, then I won’t ever put a cock inside me again.
The man I sleep with has a niece who is a toddler, brown like him, and on nights she is over he bathes her with the door open and I can hear him from the couch tell her to wash her nani. After he puts her to bed, he dips his head between my legs and I hold him there until I am done. Really done. He wipes his mouth and tells me my nani tastes tangy but sweet. I tell him I’ll get him next time, no longer thankful he’s patient, the guys who didn’t care to do what he’s just done a hazy memory from a former life, nearly out of reach. I drive home with my limbs feeling like they’re full of air, imagining that nani is a Hawaiian juice, one they bottle on the big island, because I know so little about Hawaii and even less about the man I sleep with.
At the march, our chants are subdued from the early morning and the heat, but, if my math is right, a group of women should still be linking hands across the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and knowing that gives me energy to trudge along with the crowd. The signs above our heads are varied and poignant. My Safety Is Not A Political Issue. Respect My Existence Or Accept My Resistance. Keep Your Tiny Paws Off My Drawers. I’d Call You A Cunt, But You Don’t Have Any Depth Or Warmth. Mine is smaller than most, just a sheet of printer paper stapled to one side of a box I ripped off a twelve pack. Like many others I’ve seen today, it reads, My Body, My Choice.
I’m wondering what the signs in Budapest read when I hear the woman in front of me, a friend from work I tagged along with, say that from now on we should simply call it power because if today is representative of anything it’s that the pussy has power. The pussy is powerful, she says again for emphasis.
But doesn’t that statement disclude trans folks, her friend says to her, a man I’ve just met who’s twice her height, And doesn’t Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say that bottom power is not true power because it relies on the sexual will of the man? he asks.
My work-friend shakes her bangs into her eyes. No man’s gonna tell me that my pussy doesn’t have power, she says, hearing but not listening. Any man who tells me that will see the power of this pussy, that’s for sure.
The tension in the air is suddenly stifling, so I fall back, letting people pass me. Each section of the crowd chants a different chant at various times. The family section I’ve picked up with is pretty quiet now. Only the squeaking wheels of their strollers and the gurgling, babbling, and periodical crying of their kids can be heard. Some of the kids hold their parents’ signs, but most stick close to their mothers’ sides, their hands gripped tightly.
The toddler to my right takes shaky steps forward. Her mother, a woman with a blond pixie cut poking out beneath her pussy hat, keeps the pace behind her, denim-clad arms swinging by her side, palms open, ready to catch her daughter after that inevitable misstep and stumble. The kid waves a cardboard sign above her head. I lean down to read it and see it’s just chicken scratch, a cluster of blue and pink squiggly lines like spaghetti. My first thought is to laugh, but before the laughter can bubble up from my belly to my throat I realize how appropriate the sign is. The girl has no words for what we’re doing today or why, but she’s here anyway. Thanks to her mother, she’s part of this long, hot march.
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