Playing was different, then. We were let out of the door in the morning, yelled at to come home for lunch and dinner, and given stern warnings about boundaries----namely, neighbors' property. It was understood that if we pissed off somebody else's mom, we were subject to that mom's retribution. In between meals that were bolted down we did something called 'playing.' We stripped branches from a bush and made bows and arrows and played cowboys and Indians. We made castles out of cardboard boxes, played knights and monsters, and improvised wildly. Dragons lurked around every turn in the path. We explored the nearby creek, a wonderful thing that was only about a foot deep, but which twisted and turned beneath stooping willows, with little granite rocks to use as tiny islands. It was the most perfect place in the world. Adults, school, and siblings disappeared behind the willows and you could successfully pretend that there were dinosaurs and monsters till a car horn beeped.
One year they tore up the avenue to make it wider, and at night when the workers went home we'd climb on the bulldozers and mounds of dirt, and pull up the wooden stakes to use as spears. Come twilight, we'd abandon the site for dinner, and in the morning I imagine the workers were quite startled to find their surveyer's stakes gone or painted with Mom's nail polish and makeup so they'd be fitting weapons against the mammoths. We were smart enough to give the site a very wide berth in the morning. That was when the yelling started just like clockwork.
We were a group of girls with a few boys thrown in, and our rough allegiance lasted through the first few grades of school. We played ball and witches and all kinds of things. Then something happened.
We started to change. The boys stayed the same, but we didn't. We got taller, bumpier, and strange things happened----not to us, so much, really, in the scope of things, where kids gobbled candy and ice cream all summer, then under adult supervision at school went back to eating stuff that once grew in the earth.
Us girls were introduced to bras and an awful thing called a belt, which horrifying diaper-like objects in place. There were a lot of tears shed that summer and fall. When we went back to school, we were different, and the boys who had been our playmates for years, forever, suddenly changed around us, even while their faces remained the same. Those of us who had to wear bras found them snapped and yanked constantly, while teachers watched blandly and did nothing till we'd had enough and smacked back. We got our dresses pulled up and jerked at, and all by boys who had forever been our friends. We had changed physically; the emotional changes came as a result of what the boys did to us. I was eleven.
Nothing had changed for me except my height and other, bewildering things. I didn't want any of the latter; they made me different, and no one seemed to care what those boys did to us. Some of the girls were so horrified by it they succumbed, did what the boys wanted, tried to be good sports. I got angry.
No one had helpful advice. No one. "Oh, ignore it, it will go away." "Oh, he just likes you." If he likes me, why doesn't he treat me nicely? was the forbidden question, then and now. The answer was that to be nice to a girl was to be weak and unmanly, unless....unless......
What was not allowed was striking back. First strike, grab, or grope went to the boys. It was strange how often the teachers just never managed to see the constant harassment, but managed to turn their heads just in time to see some girl retaliating. My dad was a man who'd fought for three years in WWII, and he had come to see bullies for what they were. He taught me how to punch, hard, and hid his proud grin when I turned on one boy like death. The next day I was in Catholic school, where I lasted three weeks----the first time.
There were girls who realized that the system of harassment had its advantages. The minute we had tits the teachers started treating us like we were stupid and so did the boys. We could get away with that, even while we handed in straight A papers. I tried that for a while, and I found that the boys who liked me when I was pretending to be stupid were so utterly unlikeable that I made myself sick.
These teachers were those whom I had admired, who had been nice to me, praised my intelligence, treated me with consideration. Now they became blind. They never punished the boys, but I knew, knew that they were aware of what was going on. It was just that it was every boy and boys were more important. These teachers had been my heroes. Now I couldn't trust them. The boys were wrong, I knew they were wrong, and yet everyone else ignored it. I thought I was going crazy. Helpfully enough, so did everyone else----except for my Dad. As I grew into those awkward years, it was like I was meeting a whole new man.
Dad's morals were odd at times and a bit pragmatic, and there were times I hated him. (I was thirteen. Of course I hated him.) He'd been a smoker and a drinker, and once the cops came to the house to arrest him for drunk driving. He was gruff and loud, and yet couldn't read Shakespeare without complaining about the smoke in the room---Smoke from five years earlier, because that was as long as it'd been since he'd smoked, smoke that apparently lingered and turned his eyes red. Dad was the voice of sanity when it came to the harassment. "This? This, gin, is a right hook. Here you go."
I stopped taking the bus and started walking home because the harassment on the bus got so bad. In northern Minnesota, this was a serious commitment, because I lived a couple miles away from school.
What disturbed me was how dirty the teasing made me feel. The boys' actions were often sexual and forceful, aimed at humiliating us. I wondered how I could have been friends with them, wondered if that had been lurking there the whole time. For a while, I had no male friends, though I wanted them. The sexual nature of the harassment, perhaps, made me long for friendship all the more. All I know is that I hated them. I would not have forgiven them. To a lesser extent, I hated everyone who pretended it wasn't going on, and that included teachers I'd previously loved.
One boy was nice to me, but he was an outcast like me, too, so he had nothing to lose. Being nice to a girl, especially a bookish one like me, would cause a boy to lose face with the boys, and that would never do----at least not till later, when a girl might offer a boy some inducements to be nice, just not in public.
For a while we were friends, and it was just like it had been during the summer. All that other, complicated stuff that had no name and made me feel so dirty disappeared. Then he tried to touch me, and I realized that he was just more patient than the other boys, that he thought of me just the way they did. He was a lot less obvious, though.
As I grew up, the pattern repeated itself and I got wary. There were guys I dated and guys I knew as friends, and nothing was more upsetting than a friend or a hero who suddenly made a pass at me and revealed that they hadn't been a friend at all. What disturbed me was that I was so shy back then there was no way I was sending messages: I had no ability to flirt at all, and didn't date hardly at all as a result. These guys were projecting onto me things that only they saw. It was not flattering, and it happened over and over again.
One exception was this teacher from the local university who came to the my high school. He'd asked me to read one day and my teachers had labelled me the best reader in any class; when he tossed trick questions at me, I got all the answers right, but used words at about five grade levels higher than the one I was in. I'm not bragging; that's just what happens when you have low, easy to beat standards, and a huge reading habit. I was seventeen; he couldn't have been more than twenty five. We exchanged eye contact and he spoke to me as an adult, and for the first time I realized that it was possible to be friendly and sexy simultaneously. Or not; I was his student. His eyes smiled at my questions, and his respect gave me hope.
In ballet class, I found some refuge, mostly because of course some of the guys were gay. But there was no fear that the friendship would suddenly turn sexual, and it became a safe place for me. What's a safe space? A place wbere you have no fear of sexual assault. The guys in the ballet company were my friends, and they were outcasts besides. Being friends with a girl without getting some compensation from the girl would lose a guy face in the real world---at least with his buddies, who'd see it as a sign of weakness. With sex removed from the equation, guys and girls could actually be friends. The guys at my school were loathsome creatures to me, no matter how attractive they might have been in whatever other way; their behavior made them disgusting to me.
I moved out of my parents' house and moved to LA, and found myself working in a mostly gay bookstore. There, too, the guys were my friends, but it was only because there was no possibility of sex. I got sick of guys who tried to pretend to be my platonic friends, then make a grab as soon as they could. If they didn't pretend, they knew they'd get shot down instantly, so they pretended and tried to get you to trust them. Instead, I hated them. It was deceptive, and once rejected, it was pretty clear these guys hadn't valued you for anything but your piece of ass anyway. Once you turned them down---or fought them off---the contempt that they had concealed burst forth, and they would call you names that brought back memories of the school yard. The idea that a man might actually like you and it wouldn't be an act designed to get them sex seemed like an impossible dream.
Over and over I'd get to know some straight guy, and think we were friends, only to have him pull lounge-lizard type moves on me as if he had some playbook he was reading. The person in front of him just didn't matter.
I had straight friends, but I wondered what would happen if they suddenly lost weight, got some confidence, and got ambitious.
Worse yet were the heroes. There were one or two of them. After the young teacher, who'd remained in my mind something of a knight in shining armor, I was wary. I wanted male friends, but very few guys seemed to think of me or other women as anything but pussy. They'd talk a good game, though, very earnestly, but it was always the same: "Yeah, I respect you, you're so smart and well-read, can we fuck?" Sometimes it was just that subtle.
I made friends with a couple of guys, and after a while I relaxed, we got to be close freinds, and I got to admire them. Then they both hit on me, and I found myself trying to get away in slow motion. I had no interest in them sexually at all; I'd done no flirting, nothing, and it was very clear, that they, too, were biding their time. All the talk about brains and intelligence and so forth---it was just talk, designed to drop my guard. All they were really thinking about was flattering me right out of my clothes.
I wondered if I was sending off messages by wearing jeans and sweatshirts and tee shirts. What I missed, though, was being a human being instead of a potential source of sex. When I was around straight guys, there was always there. I wasn't human to them; I was a girl. A girl was something you manipulated out of sex and then boasted about how you'd 'scored' with your buddies. I caught a guy doing that with his friends, and I tore him a new one in front of his friends. It was an amazing moment for me. He apologized---privately---later, but he didn't apologize in front of his friends, and suddenly I felt powerful. Honesty was the way to defeat these guys, but it didnt' make them regard me as human. I'd basically neutered myself because by standing up for myself I'd de sexed myself. I went from meat to invisible in the space of a few days.
It was actually kind of a relief.
Bluntness kept the guys from playing games with me, even though for a while it carried with it the sensation of stepping over an irrevoceable line. Hanging me all the time was the threat of being called a bitch, of answering male questions about my behavior, of having to placate them. Why should I placate anybody? I wasn't getting anything from them while they demanded things of me and changed the rules constantly. I was supposed to understand all these contradictory, unspoken rules, and be pleasant about it while they complained that women expected them to be mind readers. Wehn a man criticized a woman for not obeying those unspoken, impossible rules she was supposed to quiver in fear and appease him. Being called a bitch would render her a pariah. In fact, for me, it freed me from obediance to them. They could call me a bitch and....then nothing. There was nothing else behind the curtain for them to use.
Then I joined the military. I expected there to be lots more harassment, which I would deflect alternatively acting either bitchy or stupid. Getting away with some things seemed fair compensation for having to deal with all that male crap. In the military, however, there was just one standard, and you had to meet it. At first it seemed unfair; the drills did have some fairly sexist ideas about women, but mostly, they were less sexist than we ourselves were. It was like we were afraid to find out what we were capable of, because if we were capable of more, then we'd been shortchanging ourselves for years. That was true. It was also true that meeting an equal standard in an unequal world did not offer us equal rewards. It did, however, give us an easily-articulated reason for our anger.
In the military, I kept waiting for the shoe to fall. The NCOs were encouraging, stern, funny, and they cared for us. I kept waiting for the come on, the moment when they revealed that they didn't see me as human, and which would destroy my opinion of them. It didn't happen---at basic, that is. It was the first time in my life I got treated as a human being, without the inevitable disappointment of realizing some guy just wanted me to drop my guard enough so he could grab or fondle.
It was just weird. Freed of harassment, I wondered if I was ugly. It felt like a loss, for a while. Then I realized what it really was: freedom. The freedom to develop the strength I needed to fight back. I could set my own terms and make sure they got obeyed. I could demand respect. The early years of harassment had effectively reduced my self confidence so much that I felt like I'd stopped existing for a while.
When finally a senior NCO at AIT made a pass at me, I reverted to the old tactic: act stupid and run. It had been ten years since someone had tried something so transparent, and while he had himself deluded, I did not. He was the exception, rather than the rule.
The funny thing was, in getting strong, it forced the men around me to be strong, too. Maybe they resented it, I don't know, but my bluntness took away any pretense of ignorance. One kid at the chow hall tried to say something snotty to me and I took him off at the knees. Guys laughed as well as girls, and slapped me on the back as if I was one of them. Later on, I heard another guy disciplining that kid. "I told you not to mess around with her, I told you, because she's hard core. Now you got a standing eight count, and you got no one to blame but yourself. You got a warning, how stupid are you?" In the m iliary, I was accepted for who I was, and I didn't have to change, as long as I didn't go all the way up the scale from harassed to harasser. In the rough and tumble of the military, if you gave as good as you got, you were just one of the guys. Not only were they not frightened or disgusted by it, they liked it. It was like going backward in time, to that summer when I was ten, to being free of other people's low and disgusting standards for me. It felt innocent. It felt like freedom.
I've gotten used to having men treat me as a human being first, second, and last, and not as a sex object. My heroes are only people who can do that. As my military career has progressed, I've found myself dealing with regressives, and it's those that I think of when I think of Kirby Puckett, a baseball player who was once my hero. He died on Monday.
Kirby had a dazzling smile and an utterly unselfconscious matter; he was cheerful and friendly and sunny. He led the Minnesota Twins to two World Series, and we looked forward to many more. Then, when he was thirty four, he woke up one morning and he couldn't see.
Kirby Puckett was black, and I wonder about how it is to be a public black person, if it's like being that girl who feels like she's on tenterhooks, trying to figure out if others really like you or are just pretending till they can take advantage of you. If you're a girl, you're subject to another set of rules, above and beyond what 'people' have to do, and I think if you're black, there's something of the same thing, too. Kirby Puckett, as a black man, probably had to deal with some of the same stuff I did as a girl. Then again, as a guy, there were always things he had that I could not do. We were the same age. What was he like as a boy? He was so sunny on the field and s uch a great guy while he was playing ball. When his career ended, the sun went out. Who wouldn't suddenly be grim and serious if your dream career ended abruptly at the age of thirty four?
He divorced his wife amidst domestic violence accusations, and was accused, tried, and acquitted of attempted sexual assault. Knowing what I know about atheletes and women, I can't apply a different standard to him than I do to other athletes. I think there was fire behind the smoke. In his private life, he had what are politely called 'problems' with women. He was, at one point, a hero of mine. The best I could do after it all was maintain a kind of cautious neutrality. And that's what it's like being a woman.
You brace yourself with your heroes, if they're men and you're women, because you're so afraid they're going to reveal that they, too, think that women are things or trophies, even while they treat other men like human beings. Women, actually, are a perk of fame and of heroism. Losing your heroes one by one is a deadening process, a process of losing hope and optomism. The worst thing is that having as a rock bottom standard the idea that a hero should not mistreat women is seen as unfair. It's like rich, powerful guys are supposed to be entitled to special passes to women, that women are supposed to be pacifiers for them somehow. When a guy acts like that---and in sports, they're so common as to be normal----he can't be a hero to me any longer.
My whole life, I've talked with guys and considered them my friends, putting a lot of work into it, only to see them later with other guys, all relaxed and joking, and realized: They will never have that kind of friendship with me. Ever. Because I'm a woman. You're either a potential girlfriend, or you're nothing. You can't even be a friend. Friends are other human beings. Why invest effort in a woman you'll never fuck?
I cling to my heroes because they're few and far between, and I've had to make some compromises on them, but there's just some compromises I won't make. I want my heroes. I want someone to look up to. I miss the idea of Kirby Puckett so much, the guy who reminded me of those innocent boys and those innocent days, but innocence is something girls give up early. For a while I felt it again, watching him play, but then came all the sordid details of his life after baseball, and that bright smile just disappeared. I kept following his life, hoping he'd redeem himself, but he died too young and too suddenly. He was getting married again, so maybe there was some changes. Maybe not. But I struggle to trust my heroes, and he's one of the reasons why, even while I feel this empty spot keenly.
When I watched him play, I was ten years old again, and there was nothing ugly in the world. When I watched him live, it was nothing but ugliness and ugliness directed at more than one woman. He died too young, that is beyond a doubt, but when he died he took some hopes and some innocence with him, and I'm not sure if he has to be forgiven for that or if we do, for expecting something that seems to be so impossible for so many.
I miss him. I miss the feeling of summer I had when I watched him play. He made me feel like a little girl when he played.
His death makes me feel like an old, old woman.