by Nic Leland
Sherry was sixteen. She was beautiful, and she was with me. What twelve-year-old boy wouldn’t have envied me that summer? I sat beside her at the kitchen table, watching her trace little hearts with red and purple markers in the margins of her notebook. She was supposed to be doing her homework for summer school and not daydreaming. Blondie started to sing “Call Me” on the radio, and Sherry knew all the words. She lifted the marker to her lips like it was a microphone. I swear she even looked into my eyes when she sang, “Color me your color, darling. I know who you are.” I just knew it was going to be my lucky night–I was wearing my best hockey jersey. Sure, she was in love with David Empy–everybody knew that–but that summer, she spent her evenings with me. David had been grounded for most of the summer, anyway.
For the last few months, my mom had been arranging play dates for me with girls my own age. She didn’t approve of the group of boys that I hung out with. I was always getting into fights, and forever wearing through the knees of my new jeans. Mom said that wasn’t how twelve-year-old girls were supposed to behave. It was time for me to grow out of it, she said.
My first play date was with Charlene. Mom gave me that you’d-better-get-in-the-car-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you look, and then drove me down the road to Charlene’s house.
But, Charlene just lived too close by. I could be dropped off after breakfast, sneak out and leave Charlene stringing up beaded necklaces on her living room floor, count myself into a quick game of ball hockey with the boys down the street, and still make it home in time for lunch. I’d step through the front door and my mom would look at the dirt on my face and sigh. I must have had that dumb happy look like a puppy that had been driven out to the woods and abandoned. I stood panting at the door as if my mom would be pleased with my cleverness for finding my way back home. She was not pleased.
When I was younger, I had all the time in the world. I was a tomboy, and I would grow out of it someday. That’s what everyone kept telling me. Every saleslady who tussled my hair and suggested to my mom that her son was due for a haircut, would look mortified when my mom told them that I was a girl. The salesladies would shift around awkwardly and defend themselves by saying they too were tomboys when they were young, and I shouldn’t worry because I would grow out of it soon just like they did. I would sneer. I wasn’t like them, was I?
Childhood had a space where I could fit. As long as I never grew up, I would probably be okay. I knew how everything worked. I had it all figured out. I didn’t have to wear skirts and flip through the pages of the latest Tiger Beat magazine with my sisters. I could hang out with the boys and play ball hockey. They accepted me too, as long as I ran as fast as they did, hit as hard as they did, and never cried like they did when I got hurt. Those were the rules. I kept up my end of it, and they hardly ever called me a girl with that taunting smirk that made me feel like I would rather have been punched in the stomach. I knew how it worked with my mom too. When we were out in public, I was her daughter. She would not stand for any saleslady referring to me as anything else. Even the mention of the word ‘tomboy’ would cause the corner of her lip to curl up a bit with disgust. But when we were alone, things were different. She would ask me to pull the boats up on shore when a storm was rolling in. I’d pull off my T-shirt just like my brothers would have done. I’d look to my mom to make sure it was okay. She’d give me a subtle nod, and then watch me as I slogged through the mud, tugging away at the boats. The comforting look on her face seemed to want to reassure me that I was her son and we were going to be okay. She wouldn’t ask me do to the chores that she reserved for my sisters, not when we were alone. But eventually, someone else would come along and my mom’s soft expression would toughen just a bit, and she would tell me to put my shirt back on.
But I was twelve now. Things were changing. Those salesladies who used to be tomboys all had red spike heels and big, bleached-out hair. They met their boyfriends in the parking lot after work and laughed like everything was working out just the way it should. All of it–every bleached-out bit of it–was starting to lean in on me that summer.
Next, my mom set up a play date with Connie. Connie lived more than ten miles away, and my mom refused to let me throw my bike into the back of the truck. I was stuck there.
Connie’s parents sent me downstairs to where she was waiting for me in her playroom. One foot inside that playroom, and I knew I had been exiled to some alien planet. There were dolls everywhere. The floor was littered with them. And as I was about to find out, all Connie ever wanted to do was play dolls or shopping. I never wanted to play either but I would go along with the games for as long as I could. Whenever it got to be too much for me and I refused to play dolls or store or dolls-at-the-store the way that she wanted me to, then she would throw herself onto the floor and cry and kick until I gave in.
One day we were playing clothes shopping. She told me to take off my shirt. I did. She looked at my bare chest, then poked me with her finger. Hard. “You’re developing,” she said, “but not as much as me.”
I could feel my cheeks burning with anger. Shame. I put my shirt back on as quickly as I could. I stomped over to the nearest pile of dolls and grabbed a handful of them. I had five dolls clenched in my fist, hanging by their hair, and I waved them at her.
“Why do you always play with dolls? Dolls are stupid. Dolls are for babies. You’re not developing. What do you know about anything? You’re just a stupid little brat!”
Connie’s eyes welled up. She looked at me pleading, like she wanted me to say that I was sorry and that she was really as grown-up as her older sister. I just glared back at her. I wasn’t going to give in this time. I wasn’t sorry.
Connie ran out of the playroom. That’s when I realized what I had done. Connie had left the basement in tears. Her parents would be upset, and I would get in trouble for making her cry. I ran after her, but she had already locked herself in her room. I could hear her sobbing loudly. I was sure the whole house could hear her. I knocked on her door, but she wouldn’t let me in. There was nothing that I could do but wait in the hall for somebody to come and see what I had done, but no one did. Connie kept crying, but nobody came to see what was going on. It was as if this was not at all out of the ordinary. Eventually Connie’s older sister Sherry walked by. She glanced toward Connie’s locked door and rolled her eyes. “Do you wanna come hang out with me in the rec room?” she asked.
After that day, I got so good at making Connie cry that she’d be running off to her room and I’d be sitting inches away from Sherry before my mom had pulled out of the driveway. I’d get to follow Sherry around until my mom came back to pick me up. Sherry told me about what music she liked and who was dating who in high school, and what party was going to happen next weekend and maybe David would be ungrounded by then. Sometimes we barely talked at all. Sometimes I just sat beside her and watched her out of the corner of my eye, making sure that she didn’t catch me looking at her. I had never met anyone quite like Sherry before–she was nothing like the girls who were my age.
I tried to tell myself that it was innocent enough. Mom had sent me off to learn about girls, and I was definitely learning a lot about girls from Sherry, but I knew perfectly well that this wasn’t what my mom had meant. And when Mom asked me about the play dates on the way home, I knew I couldn’t tell her about Connie’s tantrums or how Sherry smiled at me or how she smelled a bit like cinnamon only sweeter. I couldn’t tell her that just being near Sherry made my palms go all sweaty. So, I told my mom that I played dolls with Connie.
That night when Sherry and I were sitting in her kitchen, and I was watching her draw those little purple hearts in her notebook, I was daydreaming that it was my name she was writing inside of them. After belting out the last lines of “Call Me” Sherry turned toward me. She had caught me staring.
“Your hair is really long,” she said. She leaned in close. Her scrutiny made me feel self-conscious, but I was even more elated by her attention.
“Let me cut your hair.”
Before I knew what was happening, she had me by the hand and was leading me down the hall to the bathroom. She placed her hands on my shoulders and bent me over the edge of tub to wash my hair. She had never touched me before. It felt strange and tingly as she massaged fruit-scented bubbles through my hair. The shampoo was seeping into my eyes, and it stung, but I didn’t dare move fearing that she might stop. She held me back under the faucet and rinsed all the bubbles away. She stood me up, patted me dry, and then sent me back to the kitchen.
I sat there gangly and awkward, before she popped up in the doorway flourishing scissors and a comb. “Do you wanna to do this?” she asked with a mischievous glint in her eye. I nodded. I wasn’t going to say no to her, not for anything. I was in.
Sherry tilted my head this way and that. I could feel her body brushing against mine as she moved around me in circles. She ran her fingers through my hair and started cutting. Long pieces of hair were falling to the floor all around me. Just how short were we going? I started to feel dizzy. What was my mom going to say? Sherry noticed my knuckles turning white. She told me not to worry because she was very good at this.
When she was done, she stepped back to evaluate her work. She leaned in, snipped one more piece that she had missed. She traced her fingers along my jaw, and lifted my chin up a little. “You look like a boy,” she nodded. Only when she said it, she didn’t say it like she thought it was a bad thing. She grinned.
I went back down the hall to the bathroom to see for myself. I looked in the mirror. There was a freshly trimmed, twelve-year-old boy looking back at me.
In the car on my way home, my mom said nothing. She had a look of disappointment on her face when she first saw me, like we both had responsibilities and I wasn’t living up to mine, but she didn’t say a word. She followed the same familiar roads back home, taking one turn after another, but my mom was different. I had gone too far. I knew it. Those private moments when my mom would look upon me like I was her son were becoming rarer. Maybe now they were gone for good. Mom was more convinced than anybody that it was time for me to grow out of it, and it was her job to help me do it, like she was trying to make up for letting things go for too long.
Being a twelve-year-old boy is such a fleeting thing. My mom never took me back to Sherry’s house, and it was many years before I saw her again. Every day my hair grew out a little more. Every day I measured the width of my hips against the railing on the upstairs banister and winced. I could want to resist, or not. Did it matter?
Summer was coming to an end. My mom came home with new jeans and a lacy, blousy shirt-thing for me to try on for school. The jeans squeezed in too tight at my waist but left plenty of room at my hips. Damn it! They made my hips look even bigger. I came out to the living room to show my mom who was waiting anxiously. She looked me over and nodded like everything was just right. I tugged at the lacy collar and tried to emphasize my scowl. She noticed. “I’ll return it to the store,” she said with a compassionate frown. “No, it’s okay mom.” I said, squaring up my jaw, “I’ll wear it.”
Growing up was like slipping down the side of a mountain, only I was slipping down one side, and that developing girl-body was sliding down the other. With every year, every new inch around my hips, I was falling further and further away from myself.
By the time I was seventeen, I couldn’t recognize myself at all. I was not who I had intended to be. What had intent mattered anyway? Every day I got out of bed and did what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t bring myself to wear lipstick or short skirts. I couldn’t bear the tediousness of a steady boyfriend who expected me to shriek when I saw a bug. So, I took the things that I could do and pushed them to extremes, hoping to cover up everything else. I could wear skin-tight jeans. I could go to parties, get wicked drunk and sleep with whomever. Maybe everybody thought I was normal, but I knew that all the absences and extremes in my performance were contorting me into something monstrous.
I was on my way out the door one night when my mom stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
“Out. Movies probably.”
“Are you going to invite him in so I can meet him?”
“Maybe another time, Mom.” There was a Mark. Once.
I knew she was reaching out to me. It wasn’t the first time, but we weren’t close anymore. She wanted a connection into my life, but there was nothing left in my life that she could connect with. She just didn’t know it, and I couldn’t tell her about the things I was doing. How could she understand? I couldn’t. I knew she still hoped that I’d turn into that sort of girl who brought a nice boy home for Sunday dinner, but a flash of rage pulsed through my neck every time she asked about those nice boys.
I looked at my watch. Where was my ride?
My mom went to the window and looked out over the lake. That meant she didn’t know what else to say, but didn’t want to leave either. Seeing her retreat to the window, I wanted to say something to make it better for her. It wasn’t her fault.
She turned around expectantly, but I had nothing. I didn’t know what to say, so I said I probably wouldn’t be home too late.
Mom turned back to the window. “It looks like there might be a storm coming in. Could you pull the boats up on shore before you go?”
I sighed. My ride was there, finally. “I’ve really got to go, Mom. Can’t you have Brian do it?”
I left her standing there at the window. I felt even more monstrous.
A few hours later, I was at my favorite bar. I was drunk. I was really drunk. Everything was blurry, slipping in and out of focus. The young prince to whom I had shrugged and said, “Sure I’ll go home with you” was tugging at my arm saying “Come on already, let’s go!” That’s when I saw her behind the shooter bar. I stopped dead. I had been to this bar a hundred times and had never seen her working there before. It took a minute for me to piece it all together and remember who she was, but it was her. Sherry. As I stared at her the whole world fell silent. That steep mountain that I had been falling down for the last five years, that separated me from myself, just collapsed into nothing. I stood there, staring across the room, and it was myself that I saw staring back at me. I remembered how playfully Sherry ran her hands through my hair, when I was a twelve-year-old boy.