On with the Tomboy This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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I’ve had this idea. Ever since I was a little boy. Except I never was a little boy. I get confused sometimes because my father always wanted me to be one.

And so I’d romp and wrestle with him. Roll in the dirt and skip the showers my mother learned to decree a necessity in order to get dessert. All just to know he loved me.

Not that I doubted he loved my sisters. They were girls. All four of them. He brought them presents, little dolls and chocolate kisses. I usually got a slap on the back and some licorice. I hated licorice. But I choked it down. All because I loved him.

Psychologists might claim this is unhealthy, but I think I have more room to speak on a level of expertise than their books give them. I grew up a boy and still I am a woman. I call this the laws of genderality. That would be my own private term to encompass gender and sexuality. Though Mrs. Arace, my high school anthropology teacher, hammered deep into my brain the grave difference between the two, I also saw that one depended heavily on the other. Which one is the dependent, and which one is being depended on?

You see, my father was a good man and my mother a good woman. They just never had any sons, and a man could go crazy in that girlish prison of American girl dolls and tea parties. I see myself a martyr, losing out on my girlhood days in order to ensure that my father remained sane enough to keep a steady job and pay the bills. Mission accomplished.

My father was massive. His chest and shoulders seemed immeasurable. I couldn’t take all of him in in one look. And so I’d have to view him in parts. For example, first I’d zone in on the funny way he used to part his hair until my mother, fed up with his faltering fashion sense, suggested he change his look. Or the way he curled his toes when he was about to make a cutting remark. My favorite part of him was his belly; rotund and gelatinous, it was his definitive weak spot whether we were wrestling, boxing, or just arguing.

My sisters used to bounce on it, the roughest he ever got with them. It was also a place of comfort, often a pillow while he read Cinderella or Rapunzel. I always liked the story of Rapunzel, but I never admitted it to him. Quietly I would press my ear up to the door to listen as his voice raised and his pace quickened in order to liven up the part when the witch discovers Rapunzel’s lover. I wished my hair was long and silky, but I never allowed my mother to braid it.

This is not to insinuate that my father held me back from a frivolous need to play with hair. That would be like suggesting God forced Adam and Eve to eat those apples. This was a decision all my own. I wouldn’t trade our games and gallivanting for anything, not even an elegant, swirling braid.

There was this one time – wow, did my father and I ever get those awful neighborhood boys good! They were pelting our lovable cocker spaniel, Buddy, with rocks and then depositing the rocks in our pool. My father, always adventurous, knew just how to handle the situation, even in times of livid anger as I saw on his face then and that to this day still makes my knees knock and the tears well up. He sent me out alone – the decoy – and my assignment was to distract the ringleader.

I thought about my older sister then, and how her girly magazines dictated the proper ways to drive a boy crazy and how she’d probably have batted her lashes and used her sexuality to lure him away. I, however, was only eight years old and never read those magazines anyway. So instead, I started throwing rocks at the biggest boy which caused him to chase me, but I was an expert. He was on my territory, and I led him into the shed where I armed myself with rope. I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to that poor boy that day, but I’m positive not many eight-year-old girls would have dreamed the torturous plot I unleashed on him in the confines of that tiny shack. I will tell you I learned it from the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Anyway, my father, realizing the army would collapse once its leader had fallen, lashed out with water balloons and took them all out, the whole lot of them. He was such a good shot, and he threw so hard at just the right angle, that he never failed to burst them no matter what. He was my hero.

Anthropologist W. H. Haviland defines gender as the elaborations and meanings cultures assign to the biological differentiation of the sexes. Elaborations and meanings. My father simply elaborated the more male aspects of my life, such as my inclination to go hiking in the woods over my sisters’ inherent desire to accompany my mother to the grocery store. There is nothing unhealthy about that. In fact, I believe such girls are so numerous that there is a label for the phenomenon: tomboy.

Someone once told me that the term tomboy originated from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Although I’d never read the book, I automatically thought that obviously Tom Sawyer must have some very feminine characteristics. If a boyish girl is a tomboy, then Tom Sawyer must be very in touch with his feminine side. It also got me started thinking about the original tomboy and why we weren’t named for her sake and not some fictitious misrepresentation of a boy found in Tom Sawyer. That’s when I also decided that somebody male had definitely coined the term.

But anyway, this isn’t about who decided to call a manly girl a tomboy. This is about my utter adoration for a respectable male. My father. I believe praise ought to be issued where praise is due, and this man sacrificed so much to keep his children happy. What an impossibility! After all, we ranged so in age, with eleven years between the oldest and the youngest.

I looked up the word praise once. The dictionary told me it was the exaltation of a hero. The exaltation of a hero? My then ten-year-old mind couldn’t grasp what this meant I had to do to demonstrate my appreciation. How could I express this to the man who’d devoted ten years of his life to my existence, and more important, to my happiness? I thumbed through the pages until I discovered the meaning of exaltation. Do you want to know what that maze-like, irritating source informed me? That exaltation was to glorify, to honor, or … to praise. I was back where I began.

I remember once, when fathers were plentiful, the wind in my hair, gritty sand beneath my nails, and love on my tongue as he whirled me on a rusty merry-go-round. This was one toy I didn’t have to fight my sisters for because they were too prim and proper to mount the happy vessel. There hung a rusted bell that rang of liberty with each swooping turn. Freedom from the expectations of this world, of what a girl is, what a boy is, and why I was lost somewhere in-between, it cried to me. Faster! Faster! He pushed and panted. I cackled and chanted. Faster! Faster! I rose and wrapped my legs securely around the posts, lifting my arms and swaying as the ride, raucous and jerky, led me in a desperate tango. I stared up at the treetops and painted them with my happiness.

Around the time I turned 12, my father’s appearance began to strike me as abnormal. The shirts that used to hug his belly snugly, the ones that made his cavernous belly button impossible to hide, now hung loosely, alarmingly resembling king-sized sheets flung carelessly over a clothesline. I hid my concern like any 12-year-old boy might by pretending everything was fine. I dragged him outside to build a snow fort with me. It was tradition, with the first snow of every year we would reap the benefits of a snowplow’s hard work and convert it into a hideaway.

What I didn’t realize was that I was draining him. He used to be as big as the ocean and I’d reduced him to a meager pool that was constantly being absorbed by the sunlight in my sisters’ eyes and by my constant splishing and splashing. The less water that remained, the less time he spent with me, and the less I felt his influence. I found myself spending my afternoons engaged by Zack and Screech from “Saved By the Bell.” Laughing merrily, I’d join my sisters in decorating Christmas cookies and running tinsel through my hair.

Then something remarkable happened. I came home from school one day and there on my pillow was a mound of Hershey kisses, each and every one for me, and a piece of paper on which he’d scrawled MGR. We always wrote everything in code to ensure my sisters’ spying eyes could not invade on our private escapades. I was 13. I ran for the merry-go-round in high anticipation.

That was the day the wind whispered the news. My father’s strength had waned; he wasn’t coming out to play. The bell was imposing in its silence as I inwardly begged for it to jangle noisily and create some distraction. I began to cry because our founding fathers had promised liberty but not life. Late autumn maples rained overhead. My beaten sneakers dangled in a puddle of dry leaves. I dismounted. Silly games. Silly fun. Silly fathers.

At my father’s funeral, I wore a long, cascading black skirt that swooshed about my ankles in a very foreign manner. I felt like I was betraying him as I awkwardly stood among my sisters, hiding my tears for more private times when he’d taught me it would be acceptable to shed them. As if from the grave, he was watching us and saying his good-byes, only he couldn’t recognize me, couldn’t discern me from the crowds because this wasn’t who I was.

So I paid a special tribute to him on my own. I found a way to give thanks to the man who made my ascension into womanhood a possibility. My father, always selfless, had seemingly given himself so that I could become a person. So that I could accept my true gender. So that I could blur the lines between boy and girl and with that knowledge evolve into an even greater woman.

When I was 14, I had my first kiss. He was nervous and his palms were sweaty. Mine were, too. Are girls supposed to admit that? I had no idea, but it helped to ease the moment. Right then I was him and he was me, and we were both so insecure. I found my immature, boyish humor helped in this case.

I went to the prom my junior year. My dress was blue and had an awful, itchy material that lined the inside. My skirt irritated me the whole night, but I had to grin and bear it. I was such a girl! My date showed up at the door, all dorky in his tuxedo. From his awkward movements I could tell he was uncomfortable. He was such a sport, and he forced a smile; it reminded me of how I felt at my father’s funeral. So out of place.

Another year brought me to graduation. It’s amazing how in that sea of faces – where everyone wears the same cap, same gown, same broad grins – gender and sex lose significance. We were collectively happy, male or female, boy or girl, woman or man. I felt so at home in that sanctuary from gender designation.

My mom bought me a cat as my graduation present. It was a beautiful, light-colored, long-haired Persian. The cat lay that night curled up on my stomach. It spoke its discontent when I tried to rub its belly (must’ve been a sensitive spot) and I was reminded of my father and how his voice used to rise when the witch discovered the lover in the tower. I called the cat Rapunzel.

This all brings me back to the laws of genderality and how, sooner or later, every person whose gender is culturally assigned by their biologically determined sex at birth learns to embrace that gender. Lies and lives and loves, they all make a person who he or she is. But who is she? Who is he? Are life and love about gender or are they about the experiences that lead up to the way gender is handled?

I dealt with my gender the best way I knew how, and my father was not an impediment to my bloom. He weeded out the troubled times so that my garden wouldn’t be marred with roses, and so when I finally blossomed into the woman I am today, I didn’t have to feel smothered by the beauty surrounding me, but rather felt more beautiful for having kept the world waiting, for having spent a greater portion than most as a weed. After all, who wants to disturb the late blooming flower; its beauty comes with time and time was what my father afforded me. Today I am a joyful girl.

And so I’ve had this idea, ever since I was a little boy, about how to offer praise. Regardless of the dictionary’s suggestions, praise isn’t about the smiles, isn’t about the presents, isn’t even about the gestures. Praise wasn’t the exaltation of a hero; praise was the unwavering admiration one person holds for another who has altered his or her life.

Has my life been altered by my father? In so many ways that counting would be trivial. And so I thank him for the silly games, the silly fun, my silly father. Praise fathers. Praise fathers long gone. Praise fathers for the moments that make us who we are and remind us of who they were and show us how, although the two are entirely separate concepts, like sex and gender, one still depends heavily on the other.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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