Published on December 18th, 2012 | by Wild Gender0
A Boy Like Me: Oppositional Defiance, Gender Identity, & Being a Kid
A short story by Jack Ori
THE OTHER BOYS were already starting a baseball game by the time I got to school. I was almost late cause I wanted to ride my new bike and Mom said it wasn’t safe and didn’t want to let me. Mom always thinks everything’s unsafe – she won’t let me climb trees either and she freaked out when I put my feet in the shallow side of the pool at Paul’s birthday party cause she said I’d fall in and drown. Anyway, I didn’t want to walk because all the boys ride bikes and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was four and saw the big boys coasting down the street without even moving their feet on the pedals. Besides, I was in the fifth grade, too big to walk to school with the little kids.
“You let Jeremy ride,” I said when Mom said no. Jeremy’s my older brother. He’s in his last year of middle school. Next year I’m gonna get to go to middle school, too, and maybe I’ll meet other boys like me and kids will stop picking on me and I can stop getting in trouble for fighting.
“That’s different,” Mom said, and I knew she meant, Jeremy’s a boy on the outside. Jeremy’s always allowed to do things that I can’t cause Mom thinks I’m weak.
I threw my bookbag down on the floor. “It’s not fair. I never get to do anything I want to and Jeremy gets to do everything.”
“I don’t have time for this today, Jasmine. Get up and finish getting ready for school.”
“I wanna ride my bike,” I pressed.
“Stop yelling. If you wake Daddy up, you’ll really be in trouble.”
I sat up and crossed my arms. “If I don’t get to ride my bike, I’m not going to school.”
“Like hell you’re not.” Mom turned her back on me. I knew she was doing the breathing exercises Dr. Johnson had told me to do too, when I get angry, ’cause her shoulders were going up and down. After a minute, she turned back and said calmly,
“Jasmine, if you don’t get up right now, you are going to lose a sticker.”
“I don’t care,” I said.
Mom stepped around me. I heard her feet thumping up the steps and I knew she was going to get Daddy. I still didn’t care. I was sick of not being able to do what my brother and all the other boys always got to do.
I crawled to the foot of the steps to see if I could hear what Daddy was saying. He was usually grumpy in the mornings, but sometimes he actually took my side. I heard Mom say, “I don’t care what they call it. She’s not disabled. She just doesn’t want to behave.”
Daddy said, “You can’t deal with her the same way as you do Jeremy. She won’t react properly. That’s why they call it Oppositional Defiant Disorder.”
I pulled my knees up to my chest. What was Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Whatever it was, it sounded bad. I knew something was wrong with me cause all of last year we’d gone to see Dr. Johnson instead of going to Sunday school, but I didn’t know it had a name. Dr. Johnson wasn’t a regular doctor. He was a psychologist and he said he was there to help us all get along better, but I knew we were really there because I threw a tantrum in the wallpaper store when Daddy wouldn’t let me get the wallpaper I wanted and it went on all afternoon til the store people told us we had to leave.
“Well, I’m not giving in to tantrums. Besides, she’s so clumsy. If she rode her bike, she’d more likely than not fall into the street.”
“I’ll handle her.” Daddy sounded more tired than mad now. I heard the bed creak and I knew he was getting up. I ran back into the kitchen and got my backpack so he wouldn’t know I’d been listening.
Daddy came downstairs. He had thrown his red checkered bathrobe on in a hurry; his belt dragged on the floor behind him. “Jasmine,” he said as I came back into the living room. “Oh, there you are.”
“Hi Daddy.” I looked at the floor. Sometimes if I pretended to be sorry after not behaving with Mom, Daddy went easier on me.
“Mom tells me you want to ride your bike to school.”
“Well, here’s the problem. Riding bikes is only for young ladies, not little girls.”
“But I’m not – ”
“Wait until I’m done. We talked about not interrupting, remember?”
“Yeah.” I tried hard to hold onto what I had been about to say. But I knew that by the time Daddy finished saying whatever he was going to say, I’d lose my courage. I wouldn’t tell him I wasn’t a girl. It was crazy anyway, me thinking I was a boy when I had a girl’s body. I hadn’t even told Dr. Johnson. I didn’t want him to tell me there was something wrong with me.
“So today is not a day for riding bikes to school,” Daddy said. “Because young ladies don’t have tantrums. But maybe tomorrow will be better. In the meantime, fix your braids and I’ll give you a ride to school so you won’t be late.”
“Okay,” I mumbled. I always lost the urge to fight when Daddy talked to me. Maybe he didn’t know I was a boy, but he knew I was a person, and he almost never ordered me around like Mom did. I wished I could tell him about me, but I just didn’t know how. I ran in the bathroom and pretended to be fixing my hair, but really I was just wasting time so that I would stop feeling like crying for once and for all. I didn’t want to look in the mirror cause I didn’t like seeing a girl’s face looking back at me. Especially with the stupid, long braids tied back with yellow hair ribbons Mom made me wear. One day I was gonna sneak down in the middle of the night and grab the scissors and cut those braids off.
I washed my face without looking at what I was doing and came back out of the bathroom.
I played with my bookbag the whole way to school. I had a Red Sox baseball cap stuffed inside, on top of all my books, that Grandma had given me when nobody was looking. I wanted to put it on and stuff my braids up in it, but I was too afraid to do it in front of Daddy. Instead, I stared out the window while he played with the radio. As we zoomed past house after house, I tried to imagine the people who lived there. I tried to imagine another boy like me who lived in a girl’s body. I couldn’t do it. A yellow sign by the dead end said, “Autistic child neighborhood” in big black letters. “What does autistic mean?” I asked Daddy.
Daddy’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “It’s a special kind of person,” he said. “Sometimes autistic people don’t talk and other times they do. But in any case they don’t relate to the world the same way we do.”
I’m autistic, then, I thought, but my tongue got too dry to say it. It was too close to what I really wanted to say.
When he pulled up to the curb, Daddy gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, “Have a good day. And Jasmine…”
“Please don’t fight with Mrs. Davison today. Act like the young lady you are, okay?”
I looked away as I got out of the car. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t hurt me. I pretended to be walking into the playground. As soon as Dad’s shiny gray car had pulled away, I ducked down behind the fence and took out my baseball cap. I pushed my braids onto the top of my head and put the cap on top of it, but they wouldn’t stay there. I could feel them falling as I ran into the playground. Whatever. I didn’t have time to mess with them.
My friend Paul was over in the baseball field with a bunch of other guys. I ran past the jungle gym to the field. I almost stopped, but I decided I didn’t want to be on the top of the world looking down today. I wanted to play baseball. Besides, there were some first grade girls hiding in the bottom, playing house or something, and I didn’t want to bother with them.
Paul and some other fifth grade boys were lined up against the fence, waiting their turn to bat. The sixth grade boys were in the field. Paul turned towards me as I came up. He frowned but didn’t say anything.
“Hey Paul,” I said, picking up the lighter bat from the ground. The heavy one was too heavy for me to hold. Maybe when I went through puberty I’d get muscles.
“Boys only,” somebody said from the field. “Tell your girlfriend to go away.”
I tightened my grip on the bat. It took all my energy to stop myself from swinging it at anybody. I glanced at Paul, but all he said was, “She’s not my girlfriend.”
The bell rang. That meant we had two minutes before we had to go line up at the door. I wanted a chance to bat so I pushed my way past all the other boys to get to the front of the line. “Hey!” a boy said. “We said no girls allowed.”
“That’s a girl?” Joey said. “I thought it was an it.”
“Shut up, Joey.” I looked at Paul again. He was watching himself kick up dust and wouldn’t look up at me.
“Make me,” Joey said.
I dropped the bat before it could get me in trouble. I could feel my braids tickling the back of my neck. I shoved them back up into the baseball cap and said, “Take it back, or else.”
“Or else what?” Joey came closer to me. “Go away, loser. Unless you want to fight me.”
I clenched my hands into fists, but I didn’t do anything just yet. If he threw the first punch, I couldn’t get in trouble.
Everything started happening too fast after that. I couldn’t remember later what happened when. Maybe Joey punched me, maybe he didn’t. All I know is, somehow I got shoved and I fell into a puddle of mud from where it had rained the night before. After I fell, Joey got on top of me and hit my back and pulled my braids.
“You have pigtails cause you’re a pig!” he said. I kicked him and he got off me.
The next thing I remember is one of the lunch mothers grabbing me and holding me back while another one held Joey back. I kept trying to pull away and get at Joey but she was holding me too tight. Mr. Jacobson ran towards us. “Jasmine,” he said, and his voice sounded sad like Daddy’s always does when I throw a tantrum. “Please don’t tell me you’re fighting again.”
“Joey started it!”
“Did not!” Joey said. “She was bullying us.”
“No I wasn’t. I – ”
“One at a time. It’s Joey’s turn.”
Joey started saying a lie about how I grabbed the bat and was going to hit them with it if they didn’t let me play. I pulled as hard as I could to get free of the lunch mother so I could get at him. She squeezed my wrists so tight it hurt, but I didn’t care.
“He’s lying!” I said as loud as I could to drown Joey out. “He called me names and then he hit me!”
Mr. Jacobson turned towards me, but before he could say anything, the lunch mother holding me said, “Well, you should have known better, Jasmine. Coming over here and bothering the boys. Why can’t you just play nice with the other girls instead?”
“CAUSE I’M NOT A GIRL!!!” I screamed. I could hear everyone laughing. Joey and the teachers and the lunch mothers. I couldn’t see behind me but I bet even Paul, who was supposed to be my best friend, was doubled over hysterically.
Mr. Jacobson knelt down so his eyes were across from mine. “Jasmine,” he said softly. “You’re old enough to know that’s not true.”
“Yes it is.” I began to sob.
“When you were younger, it didn’t matter that you liked doing boy things, because boys and girls all played together. But now that you’re in fifth grade, sometimes the boys are going to want to do their own thing. You’re too old to throw tantrums over it, Jasmine. You’re just going to have to accept it.” Mr. Jacobson chucked me under the chin. “You can find girls to play with who like to do the same things you like to do. But if the boys don’t want you to play, you have to leave them alone.”
“NO!” I screamed as loud as I could. I wanted to make him understand, but I couldn’t. There were no words for what I felt. All I could do was throw a tantrum.
“Come on,” Mr. Jacobson said. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and then you can go sit on the bench outside my office and calm down.”
“I’m never gonna calm down! Never!”
“Yes you will. Come on.” Mr. Jacobson nodded at the lunch mother and she let me go. Mr. Jacobson took my hand firmly and started walking me to the office. I wanted to fight him but there wasn’t enough fight left in me. All I could do was cry like the stupid girl I wasn’t.
There was a little bathroom next to Mr. Jacobson’s room in the big principal’s office. I could hear the assistant principal and the secretary and everyone whispering as Mr. Jacobson walked me past his door to the bathroom. They were saying,
“What has that Jasmine done now?” and stuff like that. Mr. Jacobson told me to go wash up. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in his office, but it was the first time he’d ever let me use his bathroom.
I turned on the sink and grabbed a bunch of paper towels. I made them as wet as I could and scrubbed my face without looking in the mirror. I could hear Mr. Jacobson on the phone, probably with Mom.
“No, no punishment. Not this time. I think her tomboyishness is the key to all of this. No, I know her diagnosis. But it’s not a death sentence, you know. Behavior modification does work and perhaps the school counselor can help her develop some strategies. Yes, of course. I just wanted to let you know.”
I put my whole head under the sink so that nobody would know that I was crying again.
Mr. Jacobson knocked on the bathroom door. I ignored him. I didn’t want him to come in. At the same time, I wished he’d come in anyway and see how bad I was hurting and somehow understand and help me.
I pulled my head out of the sink and made myself look in the mirror. Look, I thought. You have a girl’s face. They’re right and you’re wrong. You’re a girl. Stop acting crazy before they realize something’s really wrong with you and lock you up.
“Jasmine?” Mr. Jacobson said. “Are you coming along all right in there?”
“Yeah,” I said. I wiped my face one last time with a paper towel and turned off the sink.
The rest of that day was the worst day ever. Mr. Jacobson let me sit on the bench outside his office for a while, but then he said I had to get myself together and go back to class or else go home for the day. I didn’t want him to call Mom to pick me up, so I went to class. I could feel everybody’s eyes on me as I walked through the door. Joey whispered something to the boy next to him and I was sure they were talking about me. I ignored them as best as I could. I told myself I was a soldier going to war and walked stiffly up to Mrs. Davison’s desk to give her my late pass.
All day long, people were looking at me and whispering, and at lunch time nobody wanted to sit with me. The girls’ table was all huddled together; they glanced at me and then whispered to each other. As if I wanted to sit with them anyway. As I walked down the aisle looking for a seat, people said things like, “Freak!” There was a seat next to Paul, but he put his baseball glove on it when he saw me coming. I ended up sitting on the floor next to the table, wishing I was still little enough to crawl underneath it while I unwrapped my peanut butter sandwich.
After lunch was recess, but I didn’t feel like playing. I found a tree with a branch low enough that I could climb into it and sat there the whole period, watching the boys playing kickball and trying not to cry. The lunch mothers passed by a couple times, but luckily nobody said anything to me, cause there was no way I was gonna get out of that tree til I was ready.
After lunch, we went back to the classroom and did math and science and history, but I didn’t pay attention. I opened the history book to a different page and sat and read all afternoon without remembering what I’d just read. Mrs. Davidson told me in a weary voice to stay focused. I ignored her and she didn’t push it.
When school was finally over, I walked out to the bike rack and pretended I was unlocking an invisible bike. If only I’d been able to ride my bike to school today, everything would have been different. I walked off, pretending I was riding. When I got to the place where there were high bricks lining the lawns, I jumped onto the bricks and pretended I was a circus person walking on a balance beam.
Daddy’s car was in the driveway when I got home. This was bad. He was never home before 6 except on Thursdays, and today was Tuesday. I came slowly around the corner and up the path to the front door. Mom and Daddy were on the couch in the living room when I walked in. I looked from one to the other. They both looked mad. Daddy was staring at me and Mom had her lips pressed tightly together.
“Sit down, Jasmine,” Daddy said.
I sat down on the floor on the other side of the room, facing them.
“On the couch,” Mom said.
Mom started to say something but Daddy touched her shoulder and she stopped. Daddy said, “Mr. Jacobson called this morning. He said you were fighting again.”
“Joey started it.”
“You didn’t have to finish it. How many times do I have to tell you, Jasmine? Fighting is never the answer. If someone bothers you, walk away.”
“You don’t understand.” I could feel my voice rising even though I was telling it to sound calm. I hated myself for that. Everyone thought of me as that bad kid who fought and had tantrums all the time, and the truth was I didn’t want to fight. Ever. It just always seemed to happen cause I couldn’t stop getting mad.
“Don’t start!” Mom said. “Mr. Jacobson might handle you with kid gloves when you pull that crap, but I’m not going to. There was no reason for you to be bothering those boys. You know Joey’s a bully. Just stay away from him.”
“I was only trying to play with Paul!” I said. “It’s not my fault that Joey got in the way.”
Daddy put his hand on Mom’s shoulder again. She shrugged him off.
I am a boy, I thought, but there was no point to saying so and I knew it.
“So I think it’s time for you to make friends with some other girls,” Daddy said.
“I don’t want to be friends with girls.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the girls in your class?”
“Nothing.” Daddy wouldn’t stop looking at me and I knew I had to make something up or else he wouldn’t leave me alone. “They’re mean.”
“Come on, Jasmine,” Mom said. “They can’t all be mean. You just won’t give them a chance.”
I crossed my arms. “I’m not making friends with them.”
“The problem is,” Daddy said, “that besides Paul you don’t seem to have any friends. And now that you’re older, Paul’s going to want to play with boys. So you’re not going to be able to play with him all the time. I’m sorry, Jasmine, but like it or not, you are a girl. You’re going to have to accept that.”
“But I’m not.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed, but all she said was, “You’re going to outgrow wanting to play with the boys too, Jasmine. You’ll see.”
“I’m not a girl!” It sounded stupid and a voice in my head said I was lying. Mom and Daddy were seeing a girl when they looked at me, so how could I not be one? But at the same time, I was telling the truth.
“Stop that!” Mom said. “This has gone far enough! Jeremy is a boy. You’re a girl. You know that. And it’s time you started looking like one, too. This weekend we’re going shopping. You’re too old for Jeremy’s hand-me-downs.”
“No, we’re not!”
“Yes, we are. It’s time to get you some cute little dresses and some girl’s shirts.”
“I’m getting clothes in the boys’ section.”
“I’m not arguing with you,” Mom said. “You’re getting proper clothes and that’s final.”
Just then the front door squeaked open and Jeremy came in. It was hard to see him because it was already getting a little bit dark out and he looked like a shadow in the doorway. A shadow wearing a baseball cap and probably a baseball uniform. I couldn’t wait for him to grow out of those clothes so I could get a chance to wear them.
“Hey everybody,” Jeremy said. “What’s going on?”
“Didn’t you have practice today?” Mom asked.
“It was cancelled cause the field was nothing but mud. Stupid rain. They’re going to try again on Thursday.”
Daddy cleared his throat. “We’ll be with you in a minute, Jeremy. We’re finishing up talking to Jasmine about something.”
“Okay.” Jeremy headed for the steps. “I’m gonna do something in my room, then. Jaz, come up when you’re done. I wanna show you something.” He ran upstairs so fast the house shook with every step.
After a second, Daddy said, “So, where were we?”
“We were talking about getting Jasmine clothes,” Mom said quietly.
“Not happening,” I said.
Mom’s eyes narrowed. Daddy said, “I don’t see any point to discussing this anymore. Now this has been a very bad day, but I’m sure you can redeem yourself, Jasmine. Go do your homework so you can earn a sticker.”
I wanted to go upstairs and see what Jeremy was doing, but I wanted to stay here and somehow make them understand there was no way I was wearing girls’ clothes. Daddy raised his eyebrows at me. “Come on, Jasmine,” he said. “Don’t you want to do the right thing?”
I couldn’t explain that it didn’t have anything to do with what I wanted. Everyone thought I was bad on purpose. Even Daddy. I shuffled away towards the steps. I wanted to run up them the same way Jeremy did, but I just didn’t have the energy.
Jeremy’s door was cracked open when I finally shuffled up the steps, but he had put up his stop sign that said “Do not Enter” on the bottom so I knocked. “Come on in Jaz!” he said.
I pushed the door open a little further and came into the room. Jeremy was sitting on his bed, looking at his baseball card book. It was really just a photo album Daddy wasn’t using and had given him cause he was tired of telling Jeremy to pick up his stuff from the floor. He had some new cards spread out on his bed. There was a pile of dirty clothes on the floor behind him, but otherwise his room looked pretty clean.
“I got some extras today,” Jeremy said. “Want ‘em?”
“Who are they?”
“I got some Red Sox players,” Jeremy sang.
I grinned. I didn’t even care who the players were, if they were Red Sox and Jeremy was in a generous mood, I’d take them. He took three cards out of his pile and handed them to me.
“Thanks,” I said. I put the cards in my pocket. I’d look at them later when I got back to my room.
“Why’s Dad home early?” Jeremy asked.
Jeremy put a couple of cards into his book. “You got in a fight today again, didn’t you?”
“So what if I did?”
“Who was it? That stupid Joey?”
“Well, it’s a good thing for him I’m at Harbor Middle now. I’d kick him in the balls if I were there and I’d be like, that’s just a warning. Don’t mess with my sister again.”
My stomach tightened. “Bet Daddy wouldn’t get on you about it like it was your fault,” I said bitterly. I didn’t wanna fight against Jeremy when he was being nice to me but I hated him for not knowing I was a boy and for thinking I needed him to defend me.
“Yeah, he would. He doesn’t like fighting. But I wouldn’t care. I’d just take my punishment like a man and know I did the right thing.”
I bit my lip. Jeremy bent his head over his baseball card collection. He was organizing the loose cards into piles so he could put them away. “Jeremy?” I said.
Would you still act the same if you knew I was a boy too? “If you get too big for your baseball uniform can I have it?”
“Yeah, if the school doesn’t make me give it back.”
“Thanks.” I leaned against the doorway, wanting to say so much more and not knowing at all where to begin. Jeremy glanced up at me, and for a second I had this crazy thought like he saw into my brain and understood me. I blinked to get rid of it. “I got homework,” I said. “I guess I’d better go do it before Daddy comes up to check on me.”
“Sucks to be you,” Jeremy said. “I did mine during study hall.”
I went to my room and took out my homework things, but instead of working I sat at my desk staring into space and thinking. I wondered whether going to the store with Mom was an example of taking my punishment like a man and wished I could ask my brother. But I was afraid he’d laugh and say that I meant “like a woman” and that would hurt too much. So I just doodled while my thoughts went around in circles.
The rest of the week went fast. I stayed out of trouble, mainly cause instead of playing at recess at all I just spent my time in that tree, watching the other kids play and thinking about how strong I was gonna be on Saturday when I had to do my punishment. On Friday Mrs. Davison put on my weekly progress report that I was so quiet during class that she thought I might be getting sick. When I brought it to Mr. Jacobson to get his comment, he smiled and said, “I knew you could do it, Jasmine. Keep it up.” I couldn’t figure out why I felt numb on the inside when I should have been feeling happy that I was doing what everyone wanted me to do.
On Saturday morning, Mom told me that if I was good in the store, she’d take me out to lunch afterwards. I made myself smile like I was happy about what we were doing while in my head I told myself to take my punishment like a man and not show any bad emotion.
“Where are you all going?” Jeremy asked.
“Nowhere that’ll be interesting to you,” Mom said. “Jasmine and I are having a mother daughter day.”
I clenched my hands into fists under the table, but I took a deep breath to make myself stop. Jeremy spun a quarter on the table.
“I’m going over to Henry’s anyway. We’re gonna practice bike tricks.”
“Teach them to me after,” I said.
“Maybe.” Jeremy’s quarter clanged down onto the table. He flicked it with his fingers so it slid across into his other hand. “Depends on if you can ride without falling flat on your face.”
“Jeremy!” Mom said. “Don’t talk like that.”
“What?” Jeremy said. “She trips over her own feet walking to school.”
“I can too ride,” I said. “I’ll race you when I get home.”
Mom’s lips thinned but all she said was, “Hurry up and eat your breakfast, both of you.”
I glanced at Jeremy. He looked away from me but not before raising his eyebrows and I knew he’d seen exactly what I’d seen — Mom didn’t want me to ride my bike. It made me feel good even though I was annoyed.
When breakfast was over, Mom told me, “Change your shirt so we can go.”
“What’s wrong with this shirt?” I asked. I was wearing my favorite t-shirt. It was solid blue with no picture on it. It made me feel grown-up to wear it.
“You wore it yesterday.”
“Why does everything have to be a battle with you? Just change it. And comb your hair while you’re at it. You have such beautiful hair; why do you want it to be all tangled?”
I went upstairs but I didn’t change my shirt. Instead I played with my hair, trying to tie it up into a bun like the teachers at school sometimes wore. Maybe if I got enough of it up, I could put my Red Sox cap over it and nobody would know I had girl’s hair. Then maybe I’d look like a boy and everyone would stop trying to make me into a girl.
My hair kept falling down so I put it into a long ponytail and told myself I was a rock star. Boy rock stars always had long hair. I folded the ponytail up onto the top of my head and put the cap over it before it could fall down. When I went downstairs, Mom’s eyes narrowed but she didn’t say anything.
“Traitor,” Jeremy said.
“Am not. Red Sox are underdogs. Nana told me.”
“Yeah, but that’s cause they suck.”
“Let’s go,” Mom said. “Jeremy, text me when you get to Henry’s so I know you made it.”
“Yeah, cause it’s so dangerous to go three blocks.”
“Don’t you start. I have my hands full with your sister.”
“Your hands look empty to me.” Jeremy laughed and went out the door. “See ya!” he called over his shoulder. I heard him jump off the porch.
Mom rattled her car keys as she went outside. I followed her slowly, feeling like I was going to jail. I stared at my feet the whole way to the car, even when Mom told me to stand up straight.
The car ride wasn’t long, but it felt long cause Mom put on old music that made me feel sleepy, plus I didn’t know what was gonna happen once we got there. I wanted to get it over with, but at the same time I wished we would never get to the clothing store. It seemed like there were kids playing everywhere. A boy on a skateboard did some kind of flip as he went down the sidewalk. Forget a bike, I thought. I want to learn to ride one of those.
The clothing store was in a big shopping center where you couldn’t park right next to the stores. I could feel panic rising in my chest as Mom circled around and around, looking for a spot. Once when I was four I got tired of waiting to cross from the supermarket to the car and started to run. If Mom hadn’t been holding my hand very tight I would have got run over. Ever since then, I was scared of big parking lots.
“No spaces,” I said. “I guess we’ll have to go home.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “There’s plenty of parking in the back. We’ll just have to walk.”
After circling around for what seemed like forever, we did find a space far away from all the stores. Mom took my hand when we got out of the car and even though I was really too old to have to hold hands in the parking lot, I didn’t mind. We went into the clothing store. My heart started beating faster and my stomach hurt as soon as we walked in. I looked around for the sign that said “Boys.”
“This way, Jasmine,” Mom said, pulling me towards a section that said “Misses.” I scanned the clothes with my eyes. Maybe there’d be a pair of pants that wasn’t too bad, that I could pretend were boys’ pants. I didn’t see any. Dress after dress after dress hung from the racks of clothing, and if there were any pants it was really obvious they were girls’ pants because they were pink and purple. Even the blue jeans screamed “girl” at me.
“I’ll be over there,” I said weakly, starting to go in the other direction.
“No, you won’t. You’ll be right here looking for clothes to try on.”
“But I don’t like these clothes.”
“Stop being so picky. Look, isn’t this dress cute?” Mom held up an ugly yellow thing. It was shaped so girls who had breasts could fit into them and had a frilly white shirt underneath the dress part. I looked down at my chest, praying that it was still nice and flat like it was supposed to be. “No,” I said hoarsely, backing away from the dress.
“Well, I think it is.”
“You wear it then.” I looked around, trying to figure out how I could escape to the boys’ section. I felt sick, just thinking about having to try on dresses. I knew this was my punishment for fighting with Joey, but it was too much. I couldn’t do it.
“Don’t be rude,” Mom said.
“You’re not getting me in any dress.” My heart was beating really fast and my breath came heavy. I was more scared of the stupid dress than I was of crossing the parking lot by myself.
“Jasmine, don’t start.”
“You don’t start then. I told you, I’m getting my clothes in the boys section!”
“And I told you that you’re too old to pretend you’re a boy. Now go take this and try it on!”
I ripped the dress out of Mom’s hands and threw it on the floor. I wanted to stomp on it but I didn’t quite dare, so instead I just kicked it underneath the rack.
“Jasmine!” Mom said. “Stay under control!”
“I am under control.” I wasn’t and I knew it. I was busy telling myself sternly to cut it out right now but I couldn’t stop what I was doing. The best I could do was lie to Mom so she wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing I’d lost my temper again.
“People are staring. Aren’t you embarrassed to be acting like a little girl when you’re ten years old?”
“I AM NOT A GIRL!!!! Don’t call me that! Don’t call me that ever again!”
Mom stared at me, and I could see her shoulders going up and down. How come I could never remember to breathe deeply like that when I got mad?
“Pick up that dress,” Mom said quietly, “and go try it on.”
I could feel everyone staring at me. I looked around. All the grown-ups turned away and pretended not to be looking at me when they saw me look back. A man said to a little boy, “See, that’s what you look like when you throw tantrums” as they passed by. Nobody looked at all friendly. Nobody looked like they understood why I didn’t just try on the dress. Was it really possible that in that whole store full of people, there wasn’t one person who felt the way I did? Was I really the only boy in the whole world who lived inside a girl’s body?
I picked up the dress and stared at it, trying to tell myself that it wasn’t so bad. Mom smiled at me. I wanted to just go in the fitting room and try it on, so that Mom would be proud of me for being good and take me to lunch like she promised. But my feet wouldn’t move and just looking at the dress made my stomach feel tight. “I can’t,” I said. “I just can’t.”
Mom didn’t say anything. I knew she didn’t understand, but I didn’t really care. I just wanted her to say, “Okay. Put it back then. Let’s go home.” But I knew she wouldn’t do that. I put the dress back on the rack anyway. Maybe if Mom saw I wasn’t fighting with her, she’d still think I was being good enough to go to lunch. When I turned back towards her, she had her phone out and was texting. She was probably telling Daddy that I was being bad.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
“Jeremy.” Mom sounded flustered so I knew she was lying. “I wanted to make sure he got to Henry’s okay.”
“Oh. Can we go home now?”
“No. You need clothes.”
I crossed my arms and bit my lip, trying to stop myself from going back into a tantrum. I didn’t wanna go in circles forever and ever. I just wanted to go home. Besides, I was supposed to be taking my punishment like a man, not screaming and fighting like a little boy.
I saw a lady coming near us out of the corner of my eye. It was probably a sales lady saying we had to go home because I didn’t behave. That happened a lot in stores. Daddy once said I shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public cause I never behave, but Dr. Johnson said that wasn’t a fair punishment and that I had to learn how to control myself out in the world so he didn’t push it.
I hung my head just in case. Maybe if I looked sorry enough, the lady would be nice this time. And I really was sorry, too. I couldn’t help fighting but I always felt horrible afterwards.
“Emily?” the lady said.
I looked up again. The lady was very tall, with long dark hair that went down to the middle of her back. She was so much taller than me I couldn’t see what color her eyes were, and she had two necklaces on and shoes that made her look even taller.
“Yes?” Mom asked. Her voice was hard like it always gets when she doesn’t want to discuss something.
“I thought that was you. Oh my God, it’s been years. How are you?” The lady looked at me. “You have kids, I see.”
“Your little boy’s cute. How old is he?”
She knew! Oh my God she knew! I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Mom opened her mouth and I knew she was about to say something about me being a “girl” so I said quickly, “I just turned ten.”
The lady bent her head down so I could see her. Her eyes were bright blue, like someone mixed the paint we use in Art with the sky to make them. “You did!” she said. “I hope you had a happy birthday.”
I thought of the soft baseball Jeremy had got me instead of the Barbie dolls some stupid aunt who never came to visit sent in the mail. “I did.”
Mom was reaching for my hand and I knew she wanted to get away from this lady. I said to her, “Can we go to the boys’ section now?”
“Well, it was good to see you,” the lady said. “Who’d have thought Emily Turner would have settled down? You were such a firecracker in high school… never taking No for an answer and getting away with it because you were so pretty.”
“You were?” I said to Mom.
“I guess. Come on.” Mom took my hand and we walked off. Of course we didn’t go all the way to the boys’ section the way I wanted. We just went far enough away that the lady couldn’t see us anymore. I wanted so bad to ask Mom to tell me what the lady meant when she said Mom never took No for an answer. But somehow I was too afraid to say anything other than, “Who was that lady?”
“I have no idea,” Mom said. “What were you talking to her for? You know better than to talk to strangers.”
“But she knew you.”
“Yes, but that was from a long time ago. I don’t even remember her. I don’ t know what kind of person she is or was.”
“She wasn’t a bad person. I could tell.”
Mom sighed. “Well, at least you were good around her. Why couldn’t you have been like that all day?”
My shoulders felt tight all of a sudden and I could feel my good feelings going away like air out of a leaky balloon. “Cause,” I said. My heart beat really fast and I told myself I shouldn’t say what I was about to say, but I couldn’t listen to myself. “She wasn’t trying to make me into a girl. She saw I was a boy right away.”
“It made me feel light inside.” I started talking as fast as I could so Mom wouldn’t start arguing with me and get me back to wanting to fight. “I felt like I was flying up in the sky with 100 lighter-than-air balloons.”
Mom did something she’d never done before in my memory. She kneeled down so she was actually looking in my eyes and put her hands on my shoulders. “Jasmine. Honey. Listen to me. I know you wish you were a boy – ”
“No, Mom.” I didn’t know where my strength was coming from. I guess it was the tail end of how good I felt when that lady saw me. “I am a boy.”
Mom’s eyes widened. I felt like I could see right into her brain trying to understand. She dropped her hands from my shoulders and said softly, “I don’t…” She straightened up real quick and took out her phone from her purse.
“I wished I was a boy too when I was little,” she said, opening it. “I felt like Grandma gave Uncle Dan more attention and he wouldn’t play with me and I thought if only I was a boy everyone would love me. But then I grew out of it.” She started texting very quickly and I could see her hands shaking. She hit a button two or three times and said under her breath, “Come on!”
“Who are you talking to?” I didn’t really want to know but I had to ask. Something about the way Mom was being scared me. I didn’t know if she really got what I’d been trying to tell her my whole life or not, but something was different. Even fighting was better than this weird silence.
“Because.” Mom breathed heavily. “A lot of girls go through a tomboy phase, but you won’t let it go. Maybe he can get through to you.”
I bit my lip. What little strength I had left was fading fast. “Maybe he can get through to you,” I said under my breath.
“Don’t be rude,” Mom said.
I crossed my arms like I do when I’m about to start fighting, but on the inside I was telling myself, Don’t fight. Don’t fight. Don’t fight. That lady, whoever she was, had seen the real me. Maybe there were others like her somewhere.
“Anyway,” Mom said, “I think I’ve had enough of shopping for one day, haven’t you?”
Mom smiled at me. “Want to go to lunch?”
I scanned Mom’s face to make sure she didn’t look angry after all. I almost never got a reward when I went someplace with her, and usually there would be no way she would take me to lunch if I had even one outburst. “Really?” I said.
Mom nodded. “It’s nice for a mother to have a special day with her…child.”
I let myself smile just a little bit. “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know yet. We’ll figure it out.” Mom reached for my hand. “Let’s just get out of this store.”
I took Mom’s hand, not sure what was going on. But at least for now, I felt like my mom was walking with me.