By Jackie Domenus
I am 8 years old and shopping for clothes in the “Boys” section. Red is my favorite color. I hold up a plain red t-shirt and matching red swishy pants with a white stripe down each leg.
My mother doesn’t ask me if I think it’s too boyish.
I ask my mother, “Do you think it’s too boyish?”
“No,” she says, “I think it’s just fine.”
My dresser drawers are filled with athletic wear and the “girliest” outfit I own is a light blue tracksuit. My mom doesn’t buy me frilly Easter dresses anymore. I feel comfortable in my clothes and comfortable in my skin.
I am 18 years old, graduating high school and looking back at my elementary school pictures.
One in particular stands out. It shows a small girl with short, dirty blonde hair and chicklets for teeth. She sports a thick, plaid sweater—black and dark purple squares checkering the entirety of her frame. The pattern is something like that of a throw blanket hung over the top of the couch in a cozy mountain cabin. The button at the neckline is fastened and the shirt is swallowing her tiny body whole.
“Why the hell did you ever let me wear that?” I ask my mother. The girl in the picture looks like the daughter of a stoic lumberjack who grows a mean beard and lives in the woods, not of an elevator constructor who picks up extra shifts at Home Depot on weekends. This little girl spends her days stacking logs for the fire and eating beef jerky.
My mother laughs. “You wanted to! I wasn’t going to tell you what you could and couldn’t wear!”
I am mostly thankful for that, until I think about the awkward looks I get when I wear board shorts over my bikini bottoms at pool parties. I want to be comfortable in my clothes and in my skin, but everyone is always looking at me.
I am 10 years old and weighing the consequences of a fist fight.
Someone in my class starts a conversation about which boys in the fifth grade are cute. I offer up my judgments, my number one pick the boy whose Pokémon valentine I’ve kept in my password journal since the second grade, along with the one verse songs I’ve scribbled about him on ripped up notebook paper.
When the conversation dies, an albino girl named Mickaela approaches me and tells me none of the boys like me because they all think I’m just like them.
“That’s not true,” I say, my cheeks turning hot.
“Yes it is! They said so themselves.”
My blood begins to boil over. I blush from both embarrassment and anger, a deadly combination not quick to pass. I think, But I am pretty. I think, Why does it matter what I wear? I think, I’d like to punch her.
I begin to hate her. Her presence becomes a nuisance to me. I want to insult her, to make fun of her, my words like sharpened daggers hurled into her soft spots: her pale skin, her beady eyes, her short white hair. I want to expose her insecurities just as she has exposed mine. But I bite my tongue and shove my fists into my pockets and sit through peer mediation with our Enrichment Program teacher. I try to forget it ever happened, but I spend the rest of my school days consumed by whether or not boys like me.
I am 19 years old and boys like me. Some of them are men. Most days, I can’t be bothered with them. Some nights though, it feels good to have their eyes on me. Some nights, their hands.
The first time someone other than myself makes me feel something, I let myself go. For a moment, I cease to think of how he sees me. I forget about the awkwardness of my body—the points of my elbows, bony and sharp. The length of my limbs—long, not in any beneficial way, but rather in such a way that no one knows what to do with them, including me. The slouch of my shoulders, unappealing and boyish.
But the moment passes and I remember my insecurities, my doubts.
I am 9 years old and building a dollhouse.
I tag along with my father to side jobs, where he installs new kitchen cabinets and countertops. He jokes about not knowing how to spell any words and never having read a book all the way through, but his intelligence when it comes to building, fixing, and putting things together exceeds that of anyone I know.
As he lays with his arms above his head under kitchen sinks, I hand him the tools he calls for. I learn the names of them all. I drill screws into cabinet door hinges. I learn to put things together; I learn to do the things he does.
Our unfinished basement houses all of his tools and loose materials; anything from wrenches and table saws to planks of wood and paint cans. I’ve played with dollhouses my whole life, the FisherPrice kind that come with little plastic families and furniture. But one day, I decide I want to make my own. I spend hours in that basement, sawing wood and hammering nails into their surfaces to keep them together. Nevermind that I am a little girl; dad has taught me how to do these things. I mix the paint in the cans and spread two coats over the freshly sanded wood. The final product is a three floor home with an arched roof, which I furnish with little wooden beds and couches and new figurines from the craft store. I stand back and marvel at it proudly, mouth agape at what I have created.
I am 21 years old and passing through the toy section at Target.
A little girl stands with her fingers wrapped around the edges of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toy, a giant smile on her face. Her mother places a delicate hand on her back and subtly guides her toward the next aisle, the one filled with Barbies.
“Why don’t you put that down and pick out something from here instead?” she says.
Defeated, the little girl surrenders the toy to an empty space on the shelf, and distracts herself with long-legged dolls and their hot pink cars.
A few weeks later, I watch as social media explodes into arguments about Target’s latest proposal to de-gender the toy section of their stores.
They begin to remove signs that say “Boys” and “Girls” and plan to take down “gendered” wallpaper. The decision seems to be sparked by complaints about a specific aisle of their toy department that boasts “Building Sets” on one side and “Girls’ Building Sets” on the other.
I think about little girls like me, being taught that there are building sets, and then there are girls’ building sets, learning that girls can’t handle “regular” building sets simply because of their gender. Learning that they can’t enjoy or be good at something boys are good at without being stigmatized. I think about how they will become women and how this separation, this feeling of inferiority, will only become more familiar—when they walk down city streets and are whistled at like dogs or when they start their first full-time job and wonder why they earn less than their male counterparts who do the exact same work.
Reading through the articles about Target’s toy aisles, I recall one of my favorite Christmas gifts I ever received: a set of yellow and black construction vehicles equipped with working cranes and little figurines in hard hats. They came in a case with my name on the front, ordered special just for me. I am saddened to think it was a privilege to be allowed to play with “boy” toys, that it’s not the norm to let a child discover what they like and who they are without shoving gendered garbage down their throat until they are choking on their own identity.
I am 12 years old and deciding to become a professional skateboarder.
I customize an expensive board online: name brand deck, name brand wheels, name brand trucks; I’m the real deal. When it arrives in the mail, I ride it up and down my street every day after school. Kick, push, coast. With my headphones on and my first generation MP3 player in my pocket, Taking Back Sunday plays in my ears as the wind blows against my face. I’ve never felt cooler.
I get two different pairs of skate shoes and teach myself how to ollie. My Myspace bio reads something like “Yes I skateboard. No, not all girls who skateboard are lesbians.” Even as a tween I feel the need to justify my “boyish” hobbies. I have guy friends who skateboard and on Sundays, we meet at the Bagel Bin parking lot to take pictures of each other attempting to do tricks. Grind becomes my second favorite movie, mostly because of the soundtrack and Mike Vogel, but I act like it’s because of the skateboarding. Titanic is my first; it’s something about the feeling of sinking.
I am 20 years old and realizing most girls who skateboard are in fact queer—including me.
I am lounging on the couch in my best friend’s basement with her head in my lap. She is snuggled tight under a blanket as I run my fingers through her hair.
“It feels so good,” she says, and for once, I acknowledge the ocean inside me. I let myself think about what it might be like to kiss her. What it might be like to allow my impulses to take over for once in my life and to not have to worry about what someone else will think of me. When she lays her face close to mine in the dark, close enough to feel the soft breath of her exhale, the ocean rolls its waves against my insides.
I close my eyes and set my lips on hers, untying both of our boats from the dock until they are sailing.
I am 11 years old and my style and interests are influenced by the company I keep. Because my little sister is only five and too young to be my rock yet, I spend all of my time with my cousin, Chris. People mistake us for siblings, twins even. We’re the same age and we share the same attributes, just like my mom and her brother, Chris’ dad. Our grandparents call us Frick and Frack because we are practically inseparable. We do everything together; we have since we were born.
We’re just kids, but we think we’re wiffle ball world champions and pretend to be horror movie extraordinaires. I spend most of my summer days in his neighborhood riding bikes and hopping fences with all of the other boys.
“Who’s she?” his friends ask at first.
“My cousin,” he says with his eyes fixed on his handlebars. He doesn’t want them to think he’s uncool for bringing a girl around. “Now come on, let’s go!”
I follow his every move, chasing after the invisible cape on his back, even if he is a little embarrassed of me. Everything he likes, I want to like. I want to be just like him.
Chris and his friends wear basketball sneakers of all different brands and colors. That year, Shaquille O’Neal releases a children’s line of high top basketball shoes. They are primarily for boys, but I like them. I beg my mom to buy them for me until she finally gives in. They are ugly things—bulky and bright white. I only wear them once before I ruin them, caking them in mud following the boys around the woods, sloshing through murky puddles and hidden creeks.
Still, I am proud to have them, proud of the dirt. Proud to look like him.
I am 24 years old and giving the eulogy at Chris’ funeral.
He overdoses on heroin and my family has him cremated. I struggle to remember the last time I saw him, the last thing I said to him. I think of the way I took care of him in preschool and the way everyone laughed at home videos of me moving his arms to make him dance as if he were a puppet each time the teacher asked us to sing songs. I think of how I wish I had never stopped taking care of him or trying to guide him in the right direction. We buy red flowers, his favorite color, to place next to the small box of ash he has become. After the funeral, my aunt tells me to take the flowers home and I feel guilty.
For months I let the dead flowers sit on my kitchen table, though they begin to smell and harden, their petals like crisp pieces of paper, cracking at the touch. For months I scream the lyrics to rap songs and grab at my crotch like a man, like we used to do in my living room when The Eminem Show first came out. For months, I tug at my ponytail hanging halfway down my back and contemplate cutting my hair short to let go of all the excess weight, to look more like him. Or maybe, more like myself.
Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from New Jersey. She is currently working toward her MA in Writing from Rowan University where she also earned her BA in English. Her main focus as a writer is creative nonfiction, but she is also the creator and editor of a local poetry zine, Rlly Bad Poetry. Jackie teaches high school English and is always looking for somewhere new to travel.