If you were to ask me to tell you about a defining moment in my life, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
I could lie, and say a defining moment was when I realized I was a girl; except it wasn’t a moment. It was an accumulation of facts I learned about myself over time, eventually pooling into one final truth: that I was not what what I had always thought I was. Besides, if I told you about that, then I would have to tell you about my mother and about Jones. If I tell you about Jones, then I have to tell you about my father, and about Andrew and the Firestarters. All of these little things are what make me who I am today, and if I leave even one of them out, this vision of me will be incomplete.
When I was in middle school, I discovered nail polish. The other girls in my class wore rainbows on their fingers, and I couldn’t discern how they got there. I couldn’t understand how a small bottle of chemicals could create such vibrant skies, or how those tiny details got into such a miniscule space. For awhile, I actually believed girls had special powers and simply willed their nails to look like that. I would sneak glances at my classmates during a lecture, and try to guess how they created each tiny masterpiece.
One day, I decided to try it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything spectacular, like Sarah who almost always sported intricate designs, or Jessica who wore perfect flowers. That was okay, though. It would be amazing just to see my nails in crimson red, or a bold orchid. Anything other than this terrible blandness. So I pulled out my old set of watercolor paints. Nothing special, just a cheap plastic tray with five colors. I was so excited, I ran across the house to fill my paint cup. 12-year-old me almost tripped leaving the house, arms full of paint and brushes. It was a rule we had -no paint in the house.
That day, I sat myself down and painted my nails for the first time. The color I chose was a bold orange, and I got more on my skin than my nails, but I was proud nonetheless.
That is, until Andrew came along. Andrew lived across the street, and he often visited us on scheduled playdates with his younger brother John. The interaction began innocently enough. Most of them did, until I became vocal about who I was.
“What’cha doin’, Tosh?” ‘Tosh’ was short for Toshio, the name my parents gave me.
I excitedly showed him my hands. Orange watercolor dripped down my fingers.
“I painted my nails! Don’t they look pretty?”
Andrew started laughing. His eyes were squinted shut. I pouted. Sure, they weren’t as elegantly painted as other nails I’d seen, but I didn’t think they were bad enough to warrant laughter. When Andrew was finally done laughing, he lifted his head and I could see the mockery in his eyes.
“Painting your nails is for girls! You’re not a girl, are you, Tosh?” I paused. Was being a girl a bad thing?
“You don’t have to answer that. Everyone already knows you play baseball like one!” This sentence was punctuated by more laughter.
Suddenly, my nails didn’t seem as cool anymore.
I had run inside crying as soon as Andrew was out of sight. I scrubbed the orange off of my hands as quickly as I could. My mother had asked me what was wrong. I had been about to say ‘nothing’, but she could read me as well as any book, be it written in japanese or english.
“Boys can’t wear nail polish,” I told her sadly.
She smiled at me in that good-natured way she had.
“Yes they can. Would you like to borrow some of mine?”
I told her no. I was lying.
Andrew brought the incident up at school whenever he saw me, making sure that I heard every snide comment shot my way. Other people began to whisper behind my back as well. People who sat at my table in class. People who I knew by name, but not by nature. People I didn’t know at all. Even the few friends I had made on the baseball team seemed to be in on a joke I couldn’t comprehend. I would keep my head down in class, pretending my dark hair hid the world from my eyes. The watercolor set went into a trash can.
Jones arrived in the middle of Springtime, popping up like a flower after weeks of torrential rain.
She was powerful. A force of nature that could not be controlled, or even deterred by mankind. The best way to describe her is to compare her to the ocean during a storm. Jones did what she wanted, when she wanted. No one could stop her.
She drew me in like a magnet. I had spoken to other girls before, mostly in fleeting conversation. Right away I could tell Jones was different. She was bold in a way I had never really witnessed before.
The first time we spoke, I owe to Andrew and the Firestarters. The Firestarters were a club at my middle school, but the name began to represent only Andrew and his friends. None of whom cared very much for me. I don’t remember the club’s purpose, or if it even had one. I had been walking home from school when I passed them playing a game of basketball outside Andrew’s house.
“Hey! It’s nail polish boy!” One of them shouted out. Andrew elbowed him in the ribs.
“Nah. Tosh is a girl. Remember? He’s no good at baseball, and only girls can’t play sports,” Andrew grinned wickedly. The Firestarters spread out, creating a threatening circle around me.
I was trapped.
Then, suddenly strong arms held mine behind my back. I couldn’t see who it was, but I twisted to get a glance anyway. That was when the first punch hit. It was so sudden, I didn’t even feel it at first. Then the ache in my jaw came.
“What’cha gonna do, Tosh? You gonna cry like a little girl?” The words were filled with venom, and they seemed to come from everywhere at once.
More punches came after that, blows to my gut, my face, anywhere they could think of. I was doubled over in pain that radiated across my whole body. Tears had long escaped my eyes. I tried to fight back a few times, kicking out whenever one of them got close enough. It never was enough though.
That voice was new. I dared to look up. I couldn’t see much, but I heard what sounded like a bike being thrown to the ground and some very angry footsteps coming our way.
“Let him go,” The newcomer growled out.
Laughter. My heart sank. Whoever this was, they were in trouble.
“What’re you gonna do about it? Everyone knows girls can’t fight!”
“Yeah, go home any play with your dolls or something!”
“Aww, look, she’s angry. Well isn’t that cu-” His voice was cut off by an angry yell and then a sound like a bag of flour being dropped.
“OW! No fair, she hit me!”
“Yeah, suck it up, crybaby! I bet she didn’t even get you that hard- OW! That hurt, you crazy little-OOF!”
Suddenly, there was nothing holding me back. I dropped onto my hands and knees, stunned for a moment, before scrambling to my feet. I looked over my shoulder, and there she stood. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes- this little girl with the shortest, messiest hair I’d ever seen and a gap in her teeth had picked a fight with five larger boys- and she was winning.
I had barely blinked and the Firestarters were already running away. The girl scoffed as she watched them, hands on her hips.
“Cowards,” She offered me a hand. I took it. “Are you okay?”
She grinned, showing off the gap in her teeth.
“The name’s Jones. You know, like Indiana,”
That was the day I met my best friend. Jones and I always rode our bikes to school together after that. As it turned out, Jones didn’t fit in well either. Girls wouldn’t hang out with her because they either didn’t like sports, or feared the way other people would react if they played. Jones didn’t even try with the boys- they always underestimated her no matter what the activity was, and when she bested them at it, they tended to get angry and storm off.
I eventually got up the courage to confide in her my fascination with cosmetics. Jones listened quietly throughout the whole thing. When I was finished, she gave me a look that made me think I had somehow ruined our friendship. Then she asked me a question.
“Can I show you a secret?” I nodded, wondering what kind of secret had to be shown instead of told.
Jones walked over to her dresser and very carefully opened the smallest drawer. She motioned me over and moved away from the drawer just enough to let me see inside. Two small eyeshadow palettes and a box that held exactly 5 nail polish bottles. Jones closed the drawer quickly, as though if it were open too long her secret would spill out into the world.
“I like to look pretty sometimes too,” She confessed.
That night I went home with crimson nails and sapphire eyelids. Jones rode with me to keep the Firestarters away, even though she had taught me a few moves from her self-defense class. My mother told me I looked beautiful. It sent a happy flutter through my chest, it was a new kind of happiness. One I hoped to feel again.
We spent our summers like this. Biking around the neighborhood, playing basketball in the park, trading makeup tips that we read in teen magazines. We even practiced new techniques on each other every so often. Mostly we just ended up with randomly colored streaks of pigment and nail polish all over our faces because we couldn’t stay serious long enough to get the job done.
A few weeks before high school began, my mother gifted me a beautiful sweater. It was more feminine in nature than anything I owned at the time. Painted in teals and soft grays, that sweater quickly became my new favorite shirt. The huge cowl neck reminded me of an infinity scarf, and I loved the way the wide sleeves draped over my arms. It was longer in the back than it was in the front, which meant that I would spend several minutes twirling around to watch it fly behind me only to fall to the ground, too dizzy to stand. It was cozy too, and if a happy place could be physical, that would be mine.
My mother was always unfalteringly supportive when I came home with some new makeup tip, or when I deigned to let my hair grow instead of visiting the barber shop at the start of school. I was and always will be grateful to her for that.
I didn’t understand at first why the number of activities we did together were slowly becoming few and far in between. I didn’t get why she stayed on the couch most days instead of going to work. I didn’t understand because I didn’t think on it too long. I didn’t want to. I finally got it though, when I was called down to the office during second period.
“Your mother is in the ER. A taxi is waiting outside to take you to her,”
I sat through the ride in a stupor. Stan, the driver, tried his best to cheer me up, but all I could do was worry. Suddenly, her inactivity in the past few weeks made sense.
“She’s been in here frequently for the past few weeks. We’ve been able to run some tests, and we’ve stabilized her for now, but-,”
Leukemia. My mom had cancer in her blood.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to catch it in its early stages. With the cancer so far along… we can treat it, but can’t guarantee more than a few months. I’m sorry,”
The news itself was bad, but the way the doctor gave it to me, with a practiced coldness made everything so much worse. It infuriated me that my mother didn’t think to go to the hospital when she felt sick, it infuriated me that the doctor couldn’t fix her, and it infuriated me that he didn’t even seem to care whether she lived or died. I sat on the hard wooden bench for a while, just staring at the plain hospital walls. Finally, I got up the courage to enter her room.
“Toshio!” Mother exclaimed when I entered. She sounded excited, but her voice was tired and I could see the way her eyes sunk back with exhaustion.
I smiled gently at her.
“How are you, mom?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Just a little tired, is all. How are you doing? Is everything alright at school?”
She never did like to let on how much she was hurting, or when too much pressure had been placed upon her shoulders. My mother’s voice was hushed throughout the entire conversation. We spoke in soft whispers, and neither one of us released our true feelings into the world. I would always regret the conversations I had, but never invested in. Words I often thought, but never said.
Too soon, much too soon, she was gone.
Months, the doctor had said. I only got weeks.
She was colored in drab grays at her funeral, and I couldn’t help but think how wrong it was that someone so colorful in life should be reduced to monochrome in death. It seemed like they were lowering her into the ground only seconds after the service had begun. I watched the coffin disappear under a layer of earth, and my mother was truly gone. I wore the sweater she had given me. This small piece of her, my favorite shirt. It secured me, held me fast to the ground that I often felt was spiraling out of reach far beneath my feet. It comforted me, like I was wearing a hug.
She had told me green eyeshadow looked best with my features. The makeup looked terrible with my gray and teal sweater, but I wore it anyway. I cried at the funeral like everyone else, but my tears felt fake. Empty, somehow.
I was told I had to go with my father after the service ended. I had never met him before. He was a tall man with a stern face and he eyed my fashion choices with obvious disdain.
“Well, this is to be expected,” He muttered, as if I wasn’t standing directly in front of him. “Maya obviously didn’t care to make sure you became a proper man. We’ll fix that in no time,”
I decided I didn’t like my father.
When my things were piled into his car, he made it a point to inspect each and every one. If an item was not ‘manly’ enough, he would toss it in the trash as though each purchase had not been my own personal decision. I protested each time, but my cries fell on deaf ears.
“That sweater is going down the garbage disposal as soon as we get home. There is no place for such inappropriate attire in my house,”
I wrapped my arms around my middle, but the warmth of the sweater did nothing to fix the chill in my bones.
“A young man should not be frolicking about in women’s clothes! Your mother clearly had no business being around children,” He continued, voice raising every few words.
“You are my son, and-”
“I’m not your son,” I spat venomously, “And they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes. I bought them, I’m wearing them, they’re mine,” He scoffed.
“This is exactly the kind of poisonous drivel she should have kept to herself, the b-”
“DON’T TALK ABOUT HER LIKE THAT!” I was livid now.
“I’LL TALK ABOUT HER HOW I DAMN WELL PLEASE, AND YOU’D BEST WATCH YOUR TONGUE BOY, BEFORE I WRING YOU OUT TO DRY!”
“I’M NOT A BOY!”
I had shocked him into silence, I think, because everything was quiet for several terrible moments. I had shocked myself as well. For years, those words had been uttered about me, but never by me. Everything came to fruition in that moment. I was not a boy. I mulled the sentence over in my head, becoming more giddy each time.
I was never a boy. I was just a girl who didn’t realize that the physical aspects of her body did not make up her whole self.
I thought back to Andrew, who had been correct, but needlessly cruel about it. I thought about my dear friend Jones who continued to challenge what it meant to be a girl. And, of course, I thought of my mother. My mother who never saw the harm in trying new things. My mother who loved me no matter what clothes I wore or whether or not I put makeup on my face. My mother, who had never chastised me for being.
I glared him down in the back of that car, and I vowed that I would never let him forget.
“My name is Maya, and I’m a girl,”
Into the Unknown
If you were to ask me to tell you about a defining moment in my life, I wouldn’t be able to do it.