Bear with me, guys, as I’m trying very hard to get back into the practice of daily writing. The topics are going to seem a little all over the map for a while, but I hope there’s at least still something of interest in it for you all. I’m trying to figure out exactly where I want to head in the future, and for the moment, that’s going to mean doing two things repeatedly, whether I want to or not: Following my gut and just doing the damn thing.
I was in the kitchen a couple of weeks ago before work, wrapping the chicken caesar wrap I had made for lunch at the shop in aluminum foil, when I realized I was almost out of foil and needed to buy a new roll. A memory came flooding back to me then that made me laugh out loud. I’ve been thinking about that memory on and off since, and this little ditty is the result. Hope you enjoy.
Shortly after I started kindergarten, my family and I were sitting around the table in the dining room having dinner when the phone rang. My father got up and answered it. He looked, at first, confused, and then perturbed. “Well, we are in the middle of dinner right now, but I will have her call you back. Okay. Bye.”
My mother, being the only “her” in the household besides me, and the only adult in the household besides my father, naturally assumed the phone call was for her. When my father returned to the table, she asked who it was. “We need to talk. It wasn’t for you.” He then turned to me. “Who is Lee and why is he calling you?”
I sensed trouble, but wasn’t exactly sure what the cause of it was, so I proceeded with caution in my answering. Lee was my friend, and I couldn’t be sure why he was calling me, but probably to talk?
“You gave him our phone number?”
You know it’s trouble for sure when your parents start asking you questions you know they already know the answers to, but I took comfort in the fact that my mother seemed to be holding back laughter on the other side of the table.
“Yes? Was I not supposed to?”
“And Lee is a little boy.”
“Yes. He’s in my class.”
“And he’s your friend.”
“You don’t have little boy friends and you don’t need to be giving boys your phone number.”
I was crushed by this. I had been having a difficult time adjusting to attending school. I had taken like a fish to water to the studying parts, but I was struggling socially. I felt like I had been faced with an overwhelming number of strangers and, as I was painfully shy, I couldn’t figure out how to break in. Everyone else seemed to just find their people, and I didn’t know how to do that. But Lee had come right up to me and made everything feel easy.
Eventually, I think probably thanks to conversations with my mother that happened out of my earshot, my father relented, and I was allowed to stay friends with Lee. We even ended up carpooling to school, since it turned out he lived just a few blocks over. Lee eventually moved away, and I made other friends, though I wasn’t as close to any of them as I was to Lee, until second grade rolled around and I met Zach.
It was at the end of the school day, and I was walking down the hallway to go meet my mother out front, when I dropped my 64-pack of crayons and they spilled all across the hallway floor. I was bent down on one knee gathering them up, and suddenly there was Zach, with his red hair and freckles, helping me. He followed me out to the front, talking nonstop the whole way, and before I left, he asked me what class I was in. I told him, and every day after that, when the final bell rang, there was Zach, waiting outside my classroom door to walk me to the car.
Eventually we worked out that he also lived only a couple of blocks away, and after that, he would meet me at my house after school. We would ride bikes and play with the other neighborhood kids. He started coming with us on Saturday childhood outings. And, yes, eventually I did give him my phone number. We were allowed to play in my room but, bizarrely to me, only with the door open. He talked — a lot — and this was comforting for me, because I didn’t know how to talk that much. He, much like Lee, helped to draw me out of my shell.
One evening, after Zach had stayed for dinner and then eventually gone home, my father suddenly announced, “That boy is here too much.” I felt a familiar sinking in my stomach.
Luckily for my father, the situation soon resolved itself. One day, while we were playing in my room after school, with the door open, Zach pointed to the window and shouted, “Oh, my God! Look at that!” I turned my head to look and he kissed me. I don’t remember exactly how I reacted. I think I just asked him why he had done that, and he shrugged. What I know for sure is that I moved past it as if it were some kind of bizarre momentary insanity and tried to forget all about it. But a few days later, when I was walking him to the end of the block on his way home, he asked if he could kiss me again. I said no. I only saw him a few more times after that.
Even my mother started to worry when third grade rolled around, and I immediately took up with yet another boy, Ryan. Ryan, who constantly got in trouble for talking during class, who was thrilled to wind up with a row of C’s on his report card. Who once, misunderstanding the point of a class recycling project, came to school with an entire unopened roll of tin foil, beaming with pride about his contribution.
Ryan was the first boy who didn’t pick me. I picked him, and even the teachers seemed to be worried about this association. They spoke to my mother on parents’ days about how concerning it was that I, as a straight-A student who never got in trouble, seemed to be clinging so completely to a … questionable student, such as Ryan. And on top of everything else, of course, he was a boy. And I seemed to be making no effort to make any friends with the girls in the class. I wasn’t making any efforts to make friends with the other boys in the class, either, but that didn’t seem worth mentioning.
There was little my parents could do about Ryan, however, as he didn’t live in our neighborhood, so my time with him was limited to school hours and therefore outside of their jurisdiction. They were somewhat dismayed to find that the following year, in fourth grade, we were yet again placed in the same class. The teachers tried to do their part by not allowing us to sit together. But we still found our way to each other during lunchtime and recess and during any partner activities or group projects.
By this point, the situation had become serious. I had begun to fight back against my mother’s attempts to braid and curl my hair, wearing it instead in a simple ponytail. I was refusing to wear dresses, or anything pink or purple, opting instead for sportswear, which was more conducive to the soccer matches Ryan and I would play together during recess. My parents’ concern shifted from worry over the potential promiscuity of their elementary-aged daughter to something far worse. What if I wasn’t befriending all of these boys because I liked them like that? What if I was befriending them because I didn’t like boys like that at all?
I don’t remember this being articulated to me, exactly, but I picked up on it all the same. Even at that young age, I caught a whiff of hypocrisy in the way that they didn’t want me to attract boys’ attention, but wanted me in some way, it seemed, to want to be attractive to it. I would sit through lecture after lecture about not wanting to look “nice”, meanwhile my brother was off to school in more or less exactly the same clothes I wanted to wear with nary an eyelash batted.
I made straight As. I was placed in the advanced program at school. I never turned in an assignment late. I was never in trouble with my teachers. Wasn’t this enough? What could I possibly be doing to cause so much distress? I wasn’t allowing Ryan to “take me down with him”, as the teachers had expressed concern about. I couldn’t understand what all this fuss was about boys and girls and clothes and hair and phone numbers and open bedroom doors.
The irony of it all was that Ryan was the first boy that I had picked instead of letting him pick me. I still didn’t want to be kissed, not even by him, but I wanted to be near him all the time. I admired the way he could get scolded by the teacher — something that would have absolutely devastated me — and just shrug his shoulders and smile. How, when the whole class laughed at him for bringing in a brand new roll of tin foil for the recycling project, after the teacher explained to him that the point of recycling was to gather used materials, he simply turned to the room full of students, broke into a wide grin and took a bow, genuinely pleased to have entertained them, even at his own expense.
I liked that a boy like him should have wanted to spend all his time with other boys, but he figured I was just as good as any one of them, if not better. That he stood up for me when other boys didn’t want to play soccer with a girl, telling them that I was probably a better player than all of them combined, and they were probably just afraid I would beat them. That all the other girls in the class — both years — tried to get close to him, but I was the only one who succeeded.
I loved him in a way that was brand new to me. In a way that would have set my parents’ minds at ease on the one hand, and caused them to panic all over again on the other. There was no winning.
Ryan was important to me for other reasons, too. My third grade year, something had begun to go wrong at home. I couldn’t understand all of it, but I know that my mother came flying out of the back bedroom after a screaming fight with my father one Sunday afternoon and shouted at us kids to follow her out of the house. My father came shuffling after her, telling her to stop overreacting.
We walked around the block to a neighbor’s house with my father driving alongside us in the car, shouting at my mother to get in and stop embarrassing him and causing a scene. Tears were streaming down my mother’s face, and she was furious. Inside the neighbor’s house, we were sent to a bedroom in the back while our mother made phone calls in the kitchen.
Shortly thereafter, it was announced that my mother would be getting a job and attending night classes at a community college. That I, as the only other female in the house, would be taking over most of the household duties.
After the teacher spoke to my mother about Ryan, and after a few strange and vivid nightmares, I was deposited onto a counselor’s sofa for a few weeks in a row. Apparently, there was concern that the trouble at home was causing me to act out. I didn’t know how to explain that whatever was going on at home made my time with Ryan sweeter, and my time with Ryan was helping me to realize that I didn’t like being a girl in the way that my parents wanted me to — that the chores at home were helping me to realize that I didn’t want to be a girl in the way that my parents wanted me to — but that I would have chosen Ryan regardless. And the clothes, as well.
Ryan, it was explained to my mother, was troubled in part because he was the product of a single parent household. My parents were going to work it out. None of this felt right to me. There was nothing wrong with Ryan, and there was nothing wrong with me. Ryan knew that there was nothing wrong with me, and I knew that there was nothing wrong with him.
The next year, in the fifth grade, I would move up to intermediate school, and because Ryan and I didn’t live near enough to each other, we would end up being, finally, separated, as he graduated into a different school closer to his neighborhood. That year was profoundly lonely for me, not only because I had lost my best friend, but because the trouble at home had only gotten worse, and my girl body had begun to betray me in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined.
There was the training bra that was — humiliatingly — covered in tiny pink flowers. There was the last pool party of the summer that was ruined by the arrival of this truly ghastly, inhumane nightmare called a period, which I was taught at church was part of my punishment for Eve talking Adam into eating the apple. There was my mother telling me that, suddenly, the hair that grew naturally all over my legs was unsightly and unacceptable, and telling me that every week from then on, I’d have to spend up to an hour in the bathroom struggling to remove every speck of it.
There was the Saturday morning when my father walked out of the bedroom to find me in the hallway in my pajamas, walked back in and spoke to my mother in hushed tones, who then came out to tell me that I needed to get fully dressed from now on before I left my bedroom in the mornings.
I began to realize that the world was going to conspire to make me a girl in that way, whether I liked it or not. That there were, after all, some things that were very wrong with me, not because of any choices I had made, but just because I was born into this body. I needed to hide so much about myself to be fit for the outside world. I was dirty, unsightly, inappropriate by nature. And I didn’t have a say in any of this.
And then there were the contradictions. Liking boys too much was a problem, as was not liking them enough. Showing too much of my body was a problem, but drowning it in athletic clothing and sweats was an even bigger one. Not caring about how I looked told the world I was an undisciplined slob, but caring too much would mean I was shallow and vain.
It was like my body, which up until that point had been nothing more than a tool for experiencing and moving me through the world, had become the sum total of me. And everything about it was wrong. And there was no clear answer on how to fix it.
I missed Ryan profoundly, not only for who he had been to me, but also for how he had seen me. He hadn’t cared one way or the other that I was a girl, and he hadn’t stood for anyone else caring either. He hadn’t thought the ways that I was a girl were wrong, or that being a girl made me any different from the boys. He knew that I was a girl, existed in a girl’s body, but above and beyond that, he knew that I was me, the person who lived inside that body, and that the body was merely coincidental. And I realized, finally, how rare an experience that would be. I think, in some ways, I’ve been chasing it ever since.
Freelance writer and editor. American in Seoul. I write about Korean food. I blog about all food. Last year I wrote a monthly column about traveling to different places around the country to explore Korean ingredients and cuisine. This ignited my interest in local foods and cooking, which I blog about regularly now. I also blog restaurant and cafe recommendations, recipes and some background and history about Korean food.