The other day after a squirrel head butted me, I recounted the story of the first time I’d been bitten by one to my partner. I used to like to dress up like a soldier, or at least my idea of what a soldier looked like anyway: camouflage pants with brass snaps and matching cap, leather belt with a giant “Pete Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band” buckle, black tee shirt, and white Macgregor cleats with the big protective flap over the laces. I had a number of tiny jack knives I’d found here and there, mostly at the Goodwill store or in my dad’s clothes chest. I’d stick one in my sock and one in my front pants pocket. I also had a giant plastic Bowie knife that looked pretty real and I stuck that under my belt and went out for adventures.
The day I got bitten by a squirrel I was creeping around on the roof of my parent’s house (you could access the roof from the second story balcony) in full costume, practicing tactical maneuvers—drop and roll, stealth training, quick draw with the Bowie knife, army crawl the perimeter, etc.—and I saw this squirrel jogging along. I decided to track it. I crept along behind it, which pleased it none too much, and it scampered down the roof and jumped precariously onto the gutter that ran along the front of the house. It had nowhere to escape to and I felt like this was dangerous for a little squirrel. I felt compelled to help it out of the pickle I’d forced it into, so I sneaked up and reached out to…I honestly have no idea what I was planning to do, grab it by the scruff and set it down somewhere safer maybe? It leapt at me, bit my finger, and dashed away. I was shocked. And my feelings were hurt. It didn’t break the skin, but it wounded my warrior pride. I went inside after that and my sister Joan told me she’d seen me practicing my rolls through the window and she thought that was so funny until I reminded her that I’d seen her in the backyard pretending to be Diana from the TV show V, tapping secret codes into a white spot on the wall where the paint had peeled off the house and barking orders to her workers back on the mother ship. That shut her up.
Recalling that day got me thinking about how I used to want to be a boy. Well, that’s not exactly right. I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to be myself, and myself enjoyed a lot of things that other boys enjoyed. Playing house with barbies or skirts or makeup just did not interest me in the slightest. I preferred buck knives and fireworks and BB guns and pretending I could whittle. My daughter Maya used to call it “boylish,” which to her was the opposite of girlish.
I was boylish. I kept my hair short (except in the back) and never wore dresses after the age of seven. I preferred dirty jeans and ripped tee shirts and catching crayfish in creeks and wondering what kinds of mushrooms I could eat. I once dug a hole behind a bush at my parent’s house and pooped in it, because it made me feel like I was living off the land. I rarely brushed my hair without complaint, one exception being picture day because we got that free slicker comb. Oddly, though I preferred to dress like one, I lived in dread of people mistaking me for a boy. Many times, kind older ladies informed me that I was in the wrong bathroom and I would either have to leave or tell them that I was a girl. It was terribly embarrassing. I remember once at Redeemer Lutheran, where I went to kindergarten, a boy named Rodney told me I had to come into the boy’s bathroom, “just for a second, there’s something in here you HAVE to see!” It was a hard, fast sell and he practically pulled me inside the door. The principal was there fixing his hair in the mirror. I’d have thought that an adult who works with kids might have surmised what happened, but instead he called my mom and told her he thought I was having “identity issues” or something like that. My mom paid it little mind, but I disliked Rodney after that, even when we met again later on in high school at a different school. He’d hit a trigger.
I remember distinctly the day I knew that I wasn’t allowed to be boylish anymore. My sister and I had some great friends up the road, Krista and Jon, and we played with them pretty much every day until they moved away in fifth grade. One summer day Jon showed me a cool set of plastic weapons he’d gotten, bow and arrows, a sword, and various knives that were begging to stab something imaginary. I went down in the basement with him and we played some sort of game with them, until his mom came down and said I needed to play with Joan and Krista instead. I understood her meaning, even at a young age, and I reluctantly left the plastic weapons and went to find the girls. Later on that day we were riding bikes and it was hot and I pulled my shirt off. Jon told me that I was too old to not wear a shirt anymore. I had zero boobs but somehow I knew he was right. I shrugged and said I didn’t care, but after that I didn’t go shirtless outside again. To this day I am self conscious of being naked in public—hot springs, hot tubs, nudist colonies (just kidding, I’ve never been to one of those)—I haven’t really felt a hundred percent comfortable in my own skin since that day. (It also might partly be my muffin tops.)
During middle school I realized that I was gay. That was a real shocker. For a while I tried to tell myself that I really just wanted a close friend. But after a very little while it became apparent to me that that was NOT the case. I decided that I would just lie. I would never, ever tell anyone. I would get married and have kids and nobody would find out. I grew my hair out long, hiding behind a thick gold wall in hopes that nobody would guess my secret. I made up fake crushes. I stopped wearing outlandish outfits, retired my aqua bike pants, stopped wearing the jean jacket with a terry cloth painting of Donald Duck on the back, eyeball key chain dangling in front. That girl disappeared. I remember when Dan D called me a dyke in the hallway in Jr. High. I panicked. I couldn’t believe it! How had he known? I felt like I’d hidden it so well.
In high school I had some lovely friendships with some absolutely beautiful souls. But I didn’t tell them. I dated a boy who was one of the funniest and most adventurous people I’d ever met. But I lied to him to save myself, and I know that hurt him. I wore a sequined dress that I borrowed from a friend to prom, even though I thought I couldn’t dance and knew I wouldn’t try. The girl I’d borrowed the dress from was probably four inches shorter than me and when I arrived at the dance someone in the bathroom told me that she could see my underwear. I tied my jacket around my waist and got shit faced on wine coolers, wishing I was normal.
It wasn’t until I left for college in Lafayette, Louisiana that I finally dropped the rock. I randomly met a girl named Sheila while working at The Real Superstore. She was bi and she started dating this ridiculously cool diesel dyke named Crystal. We started going to gay bars and I taught myself to dance to Alanis Morissette, watching myself in a full length mirror, smoking cigarette after cigarette. I had my first baby relationship with a girl I wasn’t attracted to and didn’t even really like, but she was mildly interested in me and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t even remember her name.
I cut all that hair off in one sitting at a discount hair salon. I brought a picture of Meg Ryan with me. The cut didn’t look like the picture, but it had the desired effect. I felt free and sassy. I eventually moved back to Michigan and told everybody I was gay. They all pretty much knew already.
The settling into acceptance of who I am was long and tumultuous. It’s not like in the movies where you have a good cry and things just start to get better. I’d lied for so long about who I was, I couldn’t bring that girl back to life in a year or in ten years. I felt comfortable directing the way people thought about me by creating an avatar Sue. This avatar Sue was better, but she still wasn’t real. I still find remnants of her, even after decades of therapy and self help books.
Being boylish as an adult isn’t so bad as when you’re heading toward puberty. I know how to carry myself in bathrooms now, though I still wonder if women will double take in there, especially in the airport for some reason. I’ve begun wearing clothes with color and patterns again. I’m not as afraid of drawing attention to myself, because I have less to hide now. I know who I am, for the most part, and I like her most of the time. I have an awesome partner and friends who know me almost as well as I know myself. (The other day I went on a social distance walk with these friends, one of which told us recently that he “loves our guts six ways to Sunday” and the other was afraid to leave her cell phone in the car during the walk in case I fell off of something and got hurt and she needed to call for help.) Remembering that little mulleted, jack knife loving, crayfish catching pioneer child makes me appreciate my life all the more because now I can finally be myself again, unapologetically (except the no longer zero boobs shirt thing) and I know people still love me. Even after all those years of blocking her out, I remember that girl and I recognize parts of her still in me, written in my DNA. I imagine the settling in will continue until I die and I look forward to remembering more and more.