Maybe I would always be that resistant five-year-old girl whose sophisticated grandmother forced her into an Easter dress, a shawl, hat, gloves, and those godforsaken tights. In church, those tights squeezed and itched my crotch to such a degree that I kept my legs spread and my hands down the front of them, pushing against their girl-molding material with all my might. Occasionally, I’d push hard enough to puncture them. Air would rush in, and I’d fall back asleep as Brother Roger drawled on or hollered about the sins of HBO or the playing of the devil’s music. Yes, yes, we know! I’d think as my Easter hat’s rim tipped over my eyes and that cowboy I dreamed of being fell into a fifteen-year sleep.
I learned early that most things I wanted or desired were not befitting a lady. I longed to go shirtless and bathless, to wear those dirtied yellow shorts every day of the summer, and to expose my tan, lean torso to the wide world. When I was seven, they gave me the news: “You mustn’t go around shirtless anymore,” they all said.
“And, No more running around with boy cousins though the woods,” my grandmother said.
She meant, no more attempting to pee standing up. No more You show me yours and I’ll show you mine as we made mud pies into thick chocolate pee putty. No more spitting wads of stolen tobacco into Grandpa’s spittoon. No more stealing cigarettes or seeing who’d puke first when we swallowed chewing tobacco on a dare. And, no more curse words followed by decisive spits on the ground.
“Damn! Boys were right. Girls can’t do anything.” Pretty sure that’s what I said when I spit on the ground like a girl, a strand of saliva marking the boundary line between the sexes.
For a while, I continued to push, to do boy things anyway. There were things I could do better than boys. Lots of things. I could outrun them. I could do 100 pull-ups. I could bust out the braces of showoffs and bruise the lips of bullies.
And, I could let my ever-feeling self be known in a way that boys couldn’t. No one balked if I cried, no one accused me of being too emotional when the dog died, and no one said I did such and such like a girl. I knew this wasn’t the boy’s fault either. I was onto the world’s fucked-up expectations. So, when people picked on such boys, I beat the shit out of them. There has to be some solidarity in this godforsaken world, my inner knowing articulated to my fierce girl fists.
Then my inner knowing got buried between what I knew and what I had to do to fit in. Under my flawless seventeen-year-old skin, under the scalp of that long shiny-haired prom queen, deep in the still-sculpted body of that lady I appeared to be slept that restless cowboy with the Marlboro jacket, the Appaloosa, the barely-tamed hound, and the longing for that lady back at the saloon.
Three years later, that cowboy would awaken, and I’d ride off into the sunset with my acceptance of myself in tow. It wouldn’t be my last ride, it would just be the first ride of one long haul.
All those years between seventeen and twenty would feel just like those tights, me and boys I knew reaching between my legs wondering what in the hell was keeping me from myself.
Laura Cyphers is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFAW program. She lives in Virginia and teaches and tutors writing when she can. When she can’t, she cleans, organizes, and does just about any odd job that will also afford her time to write.