Deep in my youth—and in college, in the ‘90s, during the Grunge era—I was an Oshkosk B’Gosh girl. This is because, when I was 9, I thought I was Tom Sawyer. I wasn’t Huck Finn because I had people I lived with who basically took care of me, but I was still an orphan in my imagination. And a boy. I also thought I was Oliver Twist. I spent a lot of time sneaking into the Forest Preserve down the street from my house and getting muddy in the creek, even though I was forbidden to play in the Forest Preserve because my parents believed that pedophile derelicts lived in the trees or under a bridge somewhere, like trolls. It was a middle- to upper-middle class North Shore suburb of Chicago, and there were no derelicts living in the woods. In hindsight, I attribute their fears to massive projection. Anyway.
Due to currently living between the busiest street in Santa Fe and a green-strip park along which there are loose Dobermans and Pit Bulls galore, I walk my little dog every day at what is essentially an outdoor crafts bazaar at the edge of my neighborhood, where vendors operate out of portable wooden shacks. One of these shacks, Crown Jewels, is painted bright pink with yellow trim and is filled with all kinds of sparkly, girly things like rings and necklaces and pictures of Frida Kahlo in shiny tin frames. When I come around the corner each day and see Crown Jewels, all I want to do is put on everything in the store and eat candy like it’s Wonka time. Crown Jewels triggers some deep, primal girl part of me that wants to be as pink as possible. It makes me remember times when I wished to be more feminine, the times I longed for dolls and Barbies, for lacy dresses and shiny Mary Janes.
I never had a Barbie doll, I never had a lacy dress, and I never had any Mary Janes. I never even had a Cabbage Patch Doll, and I was in third grade during the Christmas of 1982, when people went insane and started breaking into cars in mall parking lots to kidnap Cabbage Patch Dolls and hold them for ransom. (This really happened. You can look it up.) I had exactly two baby-dolls, each with disgusting, synthetic white hair, bought only because I begged and begged and begged. Two of my friends in the neighborhood didn’t want to play at my house because I had no dolls. My mom must have relented quite begrudgingly.
I did, however, have a Princess Leia doll and a Wonder Woman doll, because my mom wanted me to have statuesque brunettes who lived in fantasy worlds as role models.
My world was divided into two kinds of girls: Girly Girls and Tomboys. Sort of. I knew that this didn’t really reflect reality, but somehow, this is the way I divided people. I didn’t like Girly Girls, ostensibly because they didn’t like me. My mother didn’t like Girly Girls either, and she made that known to me on a number of occasions by telling me how stupid they were and how they dressed in short frilly dresses for the eyes of perverts and they were all going to wind up pregnant in high school and cutting hair for a living. (The worst fate she could imagine was being a beautician, for some reason.) Pink was a sore subject with her. She only bought me black ballet slippers for my ballet classes, which was a problem when I got old enough to perform in recitals. (She also didn’t believe in tutus—for reasons too torturous to explain here.) The first year, she was pissed because the teacher said I either had to get pink shoes, dye my black shoes pink, or sit out of the performance. My mom chose to dye the shoes, which turned them an alarming, but apparently acceptable, cooked-salmon color.
I had trouble making and keeping friends. I was scared of other kids because I thought they wouldn’t like me, and I had a habit of staring at people who interested me and then screaming in fright when they looked back. I was kind of an outcast at school. I didn’t like arguing with friends, and it seemed like girls bickered all the time. When I was in fourth grade, I had mostly guy friends. But in 1984 at Meadowbrook Elementary School, that wasn’t really a thing, so we got made fun of for hanging out together. For what seemed like a long, blissful time, it didn’t really matter who teased us. We were friends. In the cafeteria at lunch, boys sat on one side of the table and girls sat on the other, and it was sort of like the two groups were at war with each other. But even though I sat on the girls’ side, I sat across from my guy friends. At recess I played with Aaron and David, and sometimes Patrick and Ian played with us.
In the meantime, there were some sixth-grade guys who really hated me. A couple of them lived in my neighborhood, but I didn’t know the others. They’d been bothering me for a couple of years by following me around and calling me Boy-Girl; the ones who lived near me sometimes chased me through the streets of our neighborhood. In the third grade, I’d actually showed up at an appointed time to fight the meanest one. His name was Gery Denk. (That’s his real first and last name. I hope he Googles himself and reads this.) I showed up on his street at the appointed time and there was a whole group of kids waiting, like something out of the movies. He hit me and I went down. I think I might have hit my head on a pole. I remember being very embarrassed that I actually had no idea how to fight. Everyone was laughing, I think, and then someone’s mom came out and broke it up and then I was running, running, running. All I could hear was the sound of my footsteps. I ran the three streets home, flew into the house and up the stairs to my room. My mom called after me that Danielle had called on the phone, wanting to know if I was okay. She wondered what had happened and commanded me to come downstairs and call Danielle back. Danielle was one of the girls who’d been standing around, laughing, and when I found out she called, I suffered enough cognitive dissonance to start screaming in my room, just screaming and screaming, insisting that I wasn’t going to school the next day. My mom came barreling in, screaming back that oh yes, I was, and then she was shaking the crap out of me.
But in fourth grade, I had Aaron and David. When I played with them, I got to live in the world of boys. We swung on the swings, slid down the tornado slide onto an icy patch that flung us into a snow hill, and just walked around and talked. It went on for most of the school year. And then, about a month before school let out for the summer, Aaron and David broke up with me. Aaron did the talking.
“We’re getting teased too much. It’s not that we don’t like you, but we can’t take it anymore, so you can’t play with us at recess.” I remember he tried to point out that the school year was almost over, so there was a bright side.
They did it right after lunch, on our way to recess. We got outside and I didn’t know where to go. I wandered around the playground, tears rolling down my face, feeling like I was in a pinball game. Nowhere was safe. Whenever I stopped walking or sat down on a bench, Gery Denk and his friends were on me immediately.
“Boy-Girl, why you crying? Boy-Girl, why you crying?”
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I turned around and punched the closest one—who happened to be the only really big, fat kid in school. And I gave him a bloody nose.
The next thing I remember, I was standing in the hallway outside my classroom with my teacher. Maybe I was sent inside from recess? She was asking me if I was okay, if there was something wrong, if there was something wrong at home. What I remember most is the way I was trying so hard not to cry that my lower lip was involuntarily snaking up my face and trying to swallow my upper lip. I couldn’t control it; it was like a spasm. I shook my head no over and over.
The next day, Patrick and Ian told me that they heard that Aaron and David had dumped me. Patrick said “We’ll be your friends. You can hang out with us at recess.”
But I think I must have forgotten about that until much later. I think I was in some kind of depression. For the next week or so, I brought a harmonica to school and played it at recess, sitting on a bench. I didn’t really know how to play, so I was just squawking. I wore only my mom’s old plaid shirts from when she was skinny and a pair of jeans with the knees worn through. I was intensely angry. Other kids came up to me at recess and listened to me play, which was surprising. No one laughed. Not until the day two girls in my grade told me they thought I was a homeless white-trash prostitute.
I didn’t really know what that was, but that night, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was in my bed with all my clothes on and all the lights on.
My mom came in, demanding to know what was wrong. All I could tell her was that no one liked me. No one wanted to be my friend. And I didn’t know why.
“Because you go to school in these rags and you play the fucking harmonica!” she screamed. She yanked the blankets off me and grabbed the edges of the holes in my knees, ripping the denim down to my ankles. “You want people to like you, then quit acting so weird, and quit crying about it!”
A couple of days later, she took me to Mystique and bought me several new outfits—chinos, Polo shirts, topsiders. I felt stylish, but confused. My mom had always told me clothes didn’t matter and that I shouldn’t care what anyone thought. But the clothes certainly made a difference. Everyone made a fuss over me when I came to school wearing a new outfit, telling me how nice I looked. The popular girls in my class took me under their wing for the rest of the school year. None of them were particularly girly, aside from being blond; most of them were athletic in a way I deeply envied. They were nice to me; they even sided with me against a mean girl from another class who for some reason bought a padlock on a chain to school with her, hid it in her bag, and then took it out after school and hit me in the arm with it. True story: my mom became convinced that the other girls were to blame; that they didn’t like the bike-lock girl because she was Jewish, and I should really have been on her side. Anyway, the popular girls turned on me a couple of months later, in summer art class, because I talked about weird shit all the time—which is basically a direct quote about why they didn’t like me.
I think it was that summer, or maybe the one after that, that my brother and I got pool passes and started spending afternoons at the public pool. One day, I wound up in line to get in behind Gery Denk. I think I must have been 11 and he must have been 13, because I think he’d already been in junior high school for a year, so I hadn’t seen him for a long time.
I was a punk. I leaned up to his ear and said, “Hi, asshole.”
Then I went through the locker room, came out the other side, and got into the pool, and thought nothing of him. A couple of hours later, Gery Denk jumped on me in the pool, dragged me underwater by my hair and kicked me and scratched me while I struggled to get away from him. The lifeguard jumped in to break it up. I remember that it was dark and cloudy. When I crawled out of the water, choking and gasping, my father was just coming in through the gate. He’d left work to come get us because he didn’t want us stuck at the pool in the rain. I got out of the pool and he was right there, and he took us home.
I’m a feminist because how else was I going to turn out?