The Kid in the Undershirt Stays in the Picture
Hot flashes inspire Carolita Johnson to reclaim a garment from childhood—and contemplate how she’s beginning to feel released from the pressures of performing femininity and sexuality.
One day I was sitting at my desk when I felt an intense heat approaching me from behind, as if someone were creeping up to me with a red hot radiator. It felt like it was going to set my back on fire, and it was not funny! Who would be insane enough to play such a stupid prank? I turned around, but there was no one there. It was my first bona fide hot flash. Soon followed by “night sweats.” They’re exactly what they sound like: waking up in the dark, drenched in sweat.
I was very practical about it. I bought a twelve-pack of cheap men’s cotton rib undershirts, the A-shirt (tank) kind that Stanley Kowalski wore in the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. (Yes, they’re also known by the unfortunate name of “wife-beaters.” But I hate to use that word for them, just like I don’t like the name “Black-Eyed Susans,” for Rudbeckias, preferring “Brown-Eyed Susans,” or the more simply descriptive, “Yellow Daisy.” Isn’t there enough violence towards women in the world without fondly naming things after the many ways of abusing them?)
I proceeded to keep a pile of these undershirts on my bedside table every night. I also placed one of those blue lunchbox ice packs under my buckwheat pillow, an item purchased on the assurance that all the air circulating between the buckwheat grains kept one’s menopausal head from overheating. Every couple hours I’d wake up drenched in the aforementioned sweat, feeling like I was suffocating in my own heat. In the dark I’d peel off my wet undershirt, wipe my face, forehead, neck and décolleté with it, throw it on the floor, pull a dry one from the top of the pile, slip it over my head, then flip my pillow over to the cooler side and go back to my restless sleep until the next shift.
The undershirts came in handy in the daytime, too, when the hot flashes began to come every hour for two and a half minutes, just like clockwork. I timed them. When the prodromal feeling of panic before a hot flash began to overtake me like the inaudible warnings skittish rabbits and birds feel before an earthquake hits, I would begin unzipping, unbuttoning, and peeling off whatever top layers I was wearing as quickly as possible, as if to beat the oncoming flames.
Every couple hours I’d wake up drenched in the aforementioned sweat, feeling like I was suffocating in my own heat. In the dark I’d peel off my wet undershirt, wipe my face, forehead, neck and décolleté with it, throw it on the floor, pull a dry one from the top of the pile, slip it over my head, then flip my pillow over to the cooler side and go back to my restless sleep until the next shift.
A colleague standing next to me during one of these hot flashes once exclaimed, “I can feel the heat coming off your body from here!” Layering my clothing became an art. Zippers and snaps were my best friends. Turtlenecks, especially the expensive cashmere ones whose soft warmth I had once been grateful for, thinking they would elegantly protect me from the cold forever, were now the enemy. They went into storage, presumably until that moment in my old age when I’d be cold all the time again. Never in my life did I imagine I’d miss feeling cold.
After my husband died, there were times when I wondered if, besides the agonizing pain of dying of cancer, my menopause with its concomitant crankiness and exhaustion hadn’t contributed to his feeling that there was no point fighting it anymore. It didn’t help that I was also working two jobs, and had never gotten enough help from him to maintain our household. All that had already put a damper on our sex life. Maybe other people can still have sex while one of them is menopausal and the other knows he’s going to die in spite of taking the hormone suppressant drug, Lupron, which makes him effectively “menopausal,” himself. But we could barely cuddle in bed without our respective hot flashes causing us to overheat within seconds of each other. Should we have endured the fire and just held each other, letting it consume us? That might have been romantic. It’s a poetic thought, but not realistic. My god, we were just too tired for that crap, our deep fatigue robbing us of our sense of humor and romance. We pushed each other away and rolled over to our respective edges of the bed in anguish.
My hot flashes and night sweats gradually diminished in the years after his death. In their place, though, I still experience what I call warm flashes, or anxiety flashes. It’s weird. I don’t get as hot for those two and a half minutes at a time anymore, but I’m never quite cool enough overall. And now, I get waves of discomfort, which I assume are what would be called hot flashes if they were accompanied by that familiar heat, but they’re not. They’re just a feeling of alarm; they begin with a feeling of dread and alarm similar to the feeling before a hot flash, but then there’s no heat. Just malaise. If I were a baby, I’d probably cry, and an adult would wonder what set me off.
I have come to the conclusion that, just like a baby experiencing the startup of the body’s functions, the running through of tests, sort of like when a computer starts (remember in the old days you could actually see the computer talking to itself as it started up?), menopause leads to a similar calibration process, or in this case, recalibration process, and it’s just as annoying and bewildering as when one is a baby. You feel all these things happening to you, but you don’t understand or like them, and you’re helpless to explain it or do anything about it.
A colleague standing next to me during one of these hot flashes once exclaimed, “I can feel the heat coming off your body from here!” Layering my clothing became an art. Zippers and snaps were my best friends.
I used to joke that hot flashes go away as soon as you’ve spent enough money on things that don’t work. I still think that’s funny. And true. I mean, unless you’re rich enough and have the right kind of genetics and health insurance to take hormone replacement therapy and not be afraid it’ll kill you, it’s all useless. And anyway, the last thing I want is to rejuvenate my reproductive system to the point my period will come back. It’s been grand not having my period. It always seemed like by the time I was done with one period and enjoying myself wearing white pants and not having cramps or weird mood swings, along came PMS and the next bloody, bloody period. I never got to enjoy my freedom from fear of bloodstains and/or paranoia about my moods for long enough.
But now? I’m free! I haven’t had a period in seven years. I also haven’t desired a man in almost as long. Yes, I had one two-week fling three years ago, but even then, I was aware that the sex, as fun as it was, wasn’t enough fun to be worth my involuntary participation in the weird mind games men who don’t really love you play, and which I’d forgotten all about. Even during the act of sex itself, I was anticipating getting tired of it. I saw myself thinking, “Sex? Again? We had sex last time!” That’s me. I can eat the same thing every day, but sex every day or on a regular, frequent-ish basis becomes a bore.
So I don’t miss sex. And when I say I don’t miss sex, I don’t mean I don’t like it. I just mean I’ve truly forgotten it. So much so that when I watch old movies and a movie star bends over another movie star for a passionate kiss, I actually wonder how she can breathe. It often looks ridiculous, and I’d even go as far as to say it looks strange and oppressive. It’s definitely not attractive. Especially when it’s a woman who’s talking, or crying, and suddenly the man will just lean over and plant his mouth over hers like a toilet plunger, to the swelling strains of romantic music. “Yuck!” I’ll say.
I confided this to a friend who has also been single for a very extended period of time. “Oh my god, yes,” he said, “It looks so unsanitary. Like, did they even brush their teeth?” A discussion followed, regarding the possibilities of what actors could catch from each other with all that kissing. Did they run to gargle disinfectant after every screen kiss? I sure would! Once, when I was a younger, prettier woman, I was booked for a modeling shoot in Paris, during which I had to kiss a male model under all the bridges of Paris, and I have to say — and nothing against the model I had to kiss — it was disgusting. The only thing that makes kissing fun is desire. And desire is what I lack now.
Maybe other people can still have sex while one of them is menopausal and the other knows he’s going to die in spite of taking the hormone suppressant drug, Lupron, which makes him effectively “menopausal,” himself. But we could barely cuddle in bed without our respective hot flashes causing us to overheat within seconds of each other.
It’s a good thing I don’t have a husband anymore, I suppose. Because I like this feeling and don’t want to do anything about it. I don’t perceive it as something wrong that I need to fix, which is what all the ads targeting me as an older woman seem to tell me, as they stress the necessity of jump-starting my libido, and looking young and dewy while achieving mind-blowing orgasms forever — better and better ones in old age, even. I don’t know. I feel fine. Do I owe it to anyone, whether to the world or myself, to seek validation in someone’s desire for me? Have I earned too few orgasms to walk away from sex now?
The world seems to be telling me that I don’t deserve to be loved or in a relationship if I don’t fix this lack of sexual desire. It reminds me of how all my life my mother would tell me, “No one will love you if you don’t change your ways.” She meant if I didn’t conform to her (or everyone else’s) idea of femininity. I always replied that I’d rather do without love if I had to pretend to be someone else, and girded myself for permanent solitude. My hormones, of course, seemed to have other ideas, and I spent my 20s and 30s fitfully sleeping around in search of some elusive thing I never could identify or find. And then, when I was 37 and finally embracing a serene solitude, I was surprised to meet someone who loved me as I was. That was certainly worth the wait, and the disruption. He died seven years ago, and though I mourned him deeply for several years afterwards, I now feel like I’m finally back to being me, as if I’ve emerged from a long, delirious fever. Our life together seems like a dream.
I’m 58 now. But I walk down the street feeling like a kid again. Not physically — of course my bunions hurt and I can’t carry nearly as many books in my bag as I did when I was half my size, but spiritually, yes, I feel like a kid. And when I’m with friends who still, at our age, hanker after the attention of men who don’t “see” them now that they’re not young anymore (am I the only one who remembers that even when we were young, there was always something disqualifying any one of us?), it stirs that old feeling I had when I was a tween, of being left behind while all my friends obsessed and devoted all their energy and thoughts to being desirable. What was the matter with them, I used to wonder? If I feel too old for all that now, back then I felt too young for it. I had homework. I had plans to hatch about escaping my parents’ world. I needed to get out and live. I didn’t want to be distracted or dragged down by boys.
But now? I’m free! I haven’t had a period in seven years. I also haven’t desired a man in almost as long. Yes, I had one two-week fling three years ago, but even then, I was aware that the sex, as fun as it was, wasn’t enough fun to be worth my involuntary participation in the weird mind games men who don’t really love you play, and which I’d forgotten all about.
Or maybe, and this is what I’ve begun to wonder in my most recent years, I never really liked boys in the first place. These days I wonder if, left to pursue my nature, I might have liked girls instead, only the girls I knew when I was coming of age seemed just as problematic as the boys. Truth be told, I wasn’t attracted to anyone at all. I was simply left behind. The first person I had a crush on after my husband died was a woman, and so was the second. However, while those crushes were pleasant (and well-deserved), I was having too much fun feeling free to pursue them. Maybe that’s just the way I am. Am I the A in the LGBTQIA+2S acronym? Asexual? I once read about “demisexuals” and wondered if that was me. Do I need to choose? I don’t feel like choosing. I just want to be me. Right now, I’m free to be me. I don’t know how long that freedom will last, but I’m going to enjoy it while I can.
Last night I stood at my dresser, doing a triage of my undershirts, setting aside the ones that were a little too gray. Yes, I still wear my undershirts every day. I sleep in them, too. They’re so comfortable, why would I stop? I wore them as my uniform at the badly air-conditioned café I worked at for five years, too, with an apron to hide my nipples from voyeuristic patrons (or sometimes I wore a black bra under them, to notify everyone that yes, people, I am wearing a bra, settle down, they’re just nipples, everyone has ‘em.) I keep a few vintage undershirts from the first night-sweat years for working on messy projects. They’re nearly transparent now, stretched to a point they’ll never recover from, so that when I fold my laundry in a pile, the old ones are easy to spot because they flop over the edges of the newer ones like melting cheese fainting between the buns of a burger. Every night I gratefully peel one off the top of the pile, like tearing today’s paper number off one of those daily wall calendars. Another day, another undershirt.
My mother made me wear an undershirt until I rebelled as a tween and demanded a training bra, citing the fact that no one else in school was wearing them at my age. Wearing an undershirt was for kids, and at the time, I didn’t want to be a kid anymore. Now, wearing an undershirt makes me feel like a kid, but not in the way I hated when I was an actual kid. Instead of being an emblem of my obedience born of dependence upon my parents and my subjugation to their opinions and whims, wearing an undershirt now reminds me of the days when I was small and thin enough to slip between the wrought iron bars of fences to explore places I wasn’t supposed to be, adventure beckoning. Wearing them brings back the feeling of walking through the world with curiosity, suspecting possibilities.
Now, wearing an undershirt makes me feel like a kid, but not in the way I hated when I was an actual kid. Instead of being an emblem of my obedience born of dependence upon my parents and my subjugation to their opinions and whims, wearing an undershirt now reminds me of the days when I was small and thin enough to slip between the wrought iron bars of fences to explore places I wasn’t supposed to be, adventure beckoning.
It’s also the emblem of feeling like I’ve been given a do-over while possessing so much more knowledge than I had before. It’s the emblem of me having taken the time to learn the names of weeds and trees and the songs of birds, the emblem of my sisterhood with nature, and with other widows and caregivers, of other older women who men don’t look at anymore. Unlike many women who men don’t look at anymore, I really don’t mind. What a pleasure it is to now walk past a bunch of construction workers or shifty looking men loitering on stoops and not hear a peep out of them. Gross, superficial creeps no longer harass me, and oh, boy, is it lovely! I never trusted the enduring value of my looks and youth, anyway. As far as I can tell, invisibility has turned out to be a gift, a “superpower.”
Not that I think I’m unattractive or undesirable now. Well, maybe I am to some, but I look in the mirror sometimes and think, What a work of art I am, like any human being should. I think, Good job, God, if you actually exist. Well, except for the randomly placed chin hairs. Those can be a little jarring. I’m still on the fence about stuff like that. I’ll admit I’m still a little vain. As an artist, I like things to look visually pleasing and well-considered, and random chin hairs are the opposite of that to me. For now. But they do amuse me, and I am not thinking about my looks with the same degree of need, and let’s be honest, desperation to be beautiful, as I did when I still felt sexual desire. God forbid I should not be attractive seems to be how I lived my life for forty years. What a relief it is to have shed that burden. And to pull on an undershirt.
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Thank you for this piece. I am 61, I love my husband, but have had no interest in sex for at least 4 years. “What’s wrong with me?” I agonize. It’s such a taboo subject too, NOBODY, talks about it, so I feel like I’m the only one.
This essay resonates with me so much. Menopause pretty much killed whatever libido I had. But the focus on wanting and needing sex in our society made wonder if I was “broken”. As I’ve come to realize, I’m not and I’ve learned that pretty much everything human (and probably non-human as well) exists on a spectrum.
I now seek out the cold and am a bit sad that I shunned the cold when I was younger. I’m considering moving to Iceland. 😊