Unraveling nearly two decades of identity confusion.
By Stephen Huiting
On Mystery and Paradox
Ancient in the coils of each mind, dusted with years, crinkled by change, there are mysteries that gleam shy in the shadows. There are tracks of every size: one from each new shoe, one from each worn sole. Winding, overlapping, questioning where they’ve been. Black shoes for the tights and red velvet dress… Brown boots for the child who couldn’t keep from red dirt (that’s the fabric-staining kind). Their prints mingle with all those old toddler memories, all the fossil tracks of Troodons, tire marks beneath toy cars. Outsiders saw merely what cameras could snag: the shoes themselves, and the dresses, and that sweet little girl from preschool. Only I have seen the tracks. Only I have felt the mysteries inside. Only I was aware that anything even existed to be solved.
Mama saw a boy and a girl. Daddy saw a son and a daughter. I saw an older brother who gave me tricycle rides, and a couple greenish irises in the mirror. If someone ever asked, as grown-ups adored doing, for the name of those eyes, I would have to admit it was “Sarah.” The grown-ups would smile. What a lovely name. You look very cute with your hair like that. Did your mom put those barrettes in for you? But on the inside it felt like my own words had stomped me. How could a three-year-old already ache at the sound of a name? What wisdom has even formed in such an undeveloped brain? I never said these mysteries were simple.
Poolside observers saw shyness in a one-piece. Nothing unusual, for indeed many young girls suffer similar discomfort; body insecurities are rampant in a culture that crafts dolls of inhuman proportions. When exposed to a bobbing crowd of strangers, such a girl’s thighs, shoulders, and stomach are likely to wither amidst caustic fear of judgment. But my shame was not at all about failure to be feminine. It was exactly the opposite: not a single swimmer could feel the pain behind those skin-tight flowers. None of them knew, nor ever would, that a sense of weakness filled the flat patch between my legs. The patch highlighted orangey pink by that close-clinging suit. To admit such a vulnerable secret not just to family, but to boys and women and men, was a criminal sentence that I didn’t think I deserved.
But all of those subtleties went unseen. A mystery far deeper, and far murkier than any public pool, was being pre-solved and dismissed. The girl was merely modest, just like her personality was merely more masculine than most. There’s even a word for that: a “tomboy”. From the outside, everything was Barbie-skin-smooth. And didn’t that baby girl just look so darling in her flowery suit…
What set the Pteranodon apart from the princesses? Envision a preschool Halloween, with five glittered gowns, four superheroes, and one dinosaur gathered up for a picture.
Why did the brother and sister always play with male characters? Any toy can be any thing, in the mind of youth, but isn’t it curious that this pair chose for their wildebeest and frogs (and yes, dinosaurs) to express the souls of boys.
Perhaps the older brother led by example. If the girl had been the older one, then they would have been a duo of dress-up and kittens. Mystery solved.
Perhaps the most unsettling to me, as I grew ever more complex, was the way my quirks were stripped of their magic by foregone conclusions. If it walks like a girl and it squawks like a girl, then we must contort its every discrepancy into girldom. These “explanations”- excuses for how I behaved- served to erode my individuality by chalking it up to This Influence or That Trend. I was not myself because I was myself. I was a blob of pink clay that slopped itself into the shape of whatever passed by. An older brother, a Steve Irwin clip. My malleability was the reason that I gravitated towards boys as my primary friends, that I adored ruddy red dirt, and too the wild amphibians who dwelt within. It was the reason I’d dressed like a prehistoric creature that one October (actually, make that plural: my first Halloween guise of choice was a tyrannosaur). It was the reason I wore loose T-shirts, plain shorts, and straight-legged pants. My core identity might as well have been a hand-me-down, in the eyes of our conclusion-crazed world. So by the time I’d reached middle school, only internal questions still lurked unanswered.
Questions such as the following: “Is that boy gay?” That one over by the teacher’s desk who has such a great sense of humor, and oh my gosh it’d be the most wonderfully touching thing if he wanted to ever be intimate with another boy….*cough* I am, of course, imagining all this as a seventh grade girl. It’s just, um, a secret of mine. A quirk.
And what a secret! An unknown in which to lose myself, to wade in like the pearly-cool waters of dream, and spend silent, solitary hours in their caress. Just imagining. What a dream that would be, to simply be. What an unending sorrow that fate’s coin toss gave me the “F”.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized these segments of middle school had been blurred in my memory, emptied of ho-hum recalls to make way for that tragic eternity where I’d privately mourned. A single month had been smudged, graphite-like, into a grayish swathe that lacked clear beginning or end. Months like this were scattered throughout my past, during which I had thought I was thriving. If a report card speaks in vowels only, then nothing in life is off! So I believed. And so, the puzzles of dinosaurs and gay crushes remained unearthed by my conscience for a few more years.
And good thing, because the overall mystery would have been much too simple (and undramatic) if I had figured it all out by junior high. No no, better to tangle things up even more with Bathroom-Stall-Horrors. That was the secret of secrets. No one alive could know that I, this human being, had any connection to the women’s world of “p” words. Never. Soiled pads, I mummified in toilet paper before throwing away. Soiled underwear (oops), I hid in the darker recesses of bathroom cupboards, too scared it would be seen in a trash can if discarded normally. I had no idea why it had to be this way, and it would be years before I connected all the dots. But my life could simply not contain the classic scene… Daughter goes to mother, asks timidly for menstrual advice, mother smiles, bonding time ensues. That was as forbidden as letting the lumps on my pectorals poke out through a T-shirt. For that, an extra-small elastic sports bra did the trick.
Meanwhile, my hair was long, I liked it that way, and I never thought twice about marking the old “F” bubble on questionnaires.
My clothing was a mosaic of self-chosen and mom-chosen garments. Neutral, comfortable, practical, wonderful. Versus frilled, temperamental, and don’t-you-sweat-in-that-blouse, it’ll ruin the fabric. My style was a mixture of confidence and sighs. But I obeyed the sweating rule, and gladly changed out of my “pretty shirts” upon arriving home from school. I would again be chided, for morphing back into a “slob.” But how freely that “plain” fabric flapped about my upper arms, as I bench-pressed 90 in the heat of our garage. (Yeah, that’s not much, but hey, I’d built my way up from scrawniness with no testosterone to help!). Perhaps my classmates in High School Weights thought I was a sorry soul, whose schedule had simply not fit with “Dance” or “Girls’ Basketball P.E.” Perhaps they thought I was some sort of joke. Flat on chest and straight at sides, I certainly wasn’t close to being a female feast for [heterosexual] male eyes. And indeed how misplaced I felt when Brendan wore that one tank-top from his local gym, reading “No girls, just curls”. Sorry to spoil your workout environment, Brendan.
If only I could reassure him that I, just like everyone else in the class, lacked a period. It stopped from all the exertion- oh beauty, oh joy! And maybe I’d add that my “dressy” days were really just submission to parent pressure. Don’t worry, World, there is no girl to despise! It’s okay, it’s just me, not a girl, really…
As for paradox: allow me to recount a brief anecdote. One mid-February day, in my third year of high school, I came upon an affectionate card and mighty fine box of chocolates on our dining room table. The card was for me. The chocolates were for me. A similar setup waited for my mom. But, for the first year in our lives, my brother had nothing to receive. Since forever there’d been treats for both kids, just like Easter granted us both with sweet brown rabbits. My mother was outraged, my brother was ambivalent- or so he pretended- and I was simply perplexed. But my dad explained his reasoning: his son was eighteen now, a grown man, and men don’t get other men Valentine’s cards. I scratched my head and wondered, if such a card conveyed romance, why he’d bothered to buy one for me. That’s pedophilia, right? But as eye-rolling as his logic was, it got even more ironic when I finally solved those ancient riddles of my identity. The man had omitted his older son because men don’t get cards for men. But he’d given an extravagant show of love to his younger son. The gay one.
I laughed and I laughed and I laughed, and nobody else in the household knew why. Finally, a mystery for all them to chew on.