Monday, August 09, 2010
When I was a Boy
Much of my childhood was spent trolling the streets, yards and forgotten meadows of our neighborhood with my all-boy posse. Being the only girl, I enjoyed a certain status, as if I had finagled my way past the velvet ropes into an exclusive night club. Instead of sipping champagne and dancing, we drank strawberry Quik, ate Oreos and rode bikes.
I’m not sure what prompted me to rebel against the “rules” of my gender. All I know is I enjoyed living without the limitations that came with pink cotton, white lace, and the very real fear that my underwear were showing when I climbed trees.
From what I gathered, being a girl meant staying on the sidelines, riding a bike with a basket and tassels, and being afraid of rain.
My older brother, Andy, --the lone male child out of five -- aided and abetted my quest to be a boy. He embraced my masculine traits and shunned the feminine ones. If I skinned my knee and cried, he would say, “Quit acting like a girl’.” When my bat connected with the tattered softball and sent it flying over the pitcher’s head, across the dirt road and into the neighbor’s lily of the valley patch, he’d yell “Atta boy, Betsy,” as I rounded first base.
I don’t blame my brother, really, for making lemonade with the lemon life had handed him. The day I was born, he cried upon learning that he had a new baby sister rather than--as he had been promised-- a long awaited brother. As the story goes, my father, perhaps weary of estrogen himself, or merely empathetic, cried right along with him.
I made up for my apparent shortcomings-- that's code for lack of a penis-- with fervor. I built up my already prominent muscles, by attaching a rope to a bucket, putting a cement block into the bucket, then pulling it up, one flight, to my back porch from the ground below.
I was always chosen early for games of British Bulldog because I could run fast and I wasn’t afraid to tackle. I also wasn’t afraid of the “snake pit” behind our house, where we gathered up handfuls of sleepy garter snakes to taunt our mothers and sisters with.
Like a domestic dog that tries to disguise its tame, coddled scent by rolling in scat, the unpleasant, musky smell of the snakes on my hands made me feel wild, dangerous, and, yes, masculine.
My summer uniform consisted of cutoff jeans, tube socks and Chuck Taylors. Like any swindler, I had an alias: “Boobless Bobby Brown.”
In my prime I could pee standing up, a trick I saved for special occasions. I stood beside my best friends Richie, Eric and David, in the back yard, giggling and straining to produce an arcing stream rather than a rushing waterfall. Either way, I belonged.
I have no memories of my parents disapproving of my behavior.(They never saw the standing pee trick.) I never really considered what they thought of my quirks until the day I shared my gender bending past with a friend who looked increasingly shocked until she finally said, “Was your mother ever... you know... worried about you?”
My mom already had three girls. She didn't really care how I chose to dress-- even when I was sent home from the local pool for swimming in cut-off shorts. She never forced me to wear dresses (well, except for that one time). She bought me a pair of chunky Buster Brown’s for boys, once when we went back- to -school shopping. I wore them on a trip to New York City and was elated when the door man at the Statler Hilton called me “young man” as he scolded me for pushing too many, okay all, of the buttons in the elevator.
My aversion to all things traditionally feminine succumbed to puberty. My indifference started to waver one summer at the seashore when I was 12 and became hopelessly smitten with a friend’s older brother. He had sand-colored curls and sea-blue eyes. The muscles in his tanned shoulders rippled like wind on water when he threw a Frisbee.
He invited me to come with him to spy on a pretty girl he had spotted up the beach. Crushed, I went with him. When the girl of his dreams came into view-- tanned, bikini clad and languid on a beach towel-- I saw everything I was not but could vaguely imagine being, one day. My body was betraying me.
Today, that little boy I once was, has gone underground. I have paid money to have my eyebrows shaped and my toenails painted. I own a push -up bra (still kind of boobless) and wear fitted shirts with low -cut necklines. I wore earrings under my crash helmet, while competing in the Olympics.
I occasionally wear shoes that you can’t run or climb trees in, and I’ve been known to tell my daughters I can't roll down the hill with them because it makes me dizzy and I don't feel like getting cut grass in my hair.
Yet the boy still lurks inside me. I saw him reflected in my brother’s tear-filled eyes when he-- now a justice of the peace-- presided over my wedding. (I'm still not sure whether the tears were caused by nostalgia or the sight of his little brother in a wedding dress.)
And the boy surfaced one day about eight years ago when, hugely pregnant with my first daughter, I waddled past the neighborhood small-engine repair garage, a place I had frequented as a child:
“Hey Bobby,” Grub, the mechanic, called out, chuckling.
I blushed. I had been caught, red handed, acting like a girl.
This post was inspired by the nonsense being written about a particular little girl who likes to wear boy's clothes. The title of this post was lifted from my favorite Dar Williams song, a song I still cannot hear without getting full body chills.
The image is Esther, age 4, a tough girl in a princess dress.