Clothes Make the Man-Child

NBP Guest Post

As a little kid, I was always partial to boys’ clothes. My parents were fairly fashion liberal from the start and let me off the hook from forcing me to wear the uberest of girlish clothes…for the most part. Upon ability to communicate (which, as you know, was rather delayed), I made it clear that pink was not my color. Before I had any say in it, though, I did wear dresses—even pink frilly ones with tights (barf). There are even photographs of me in dresses (gross). But my hatred of dresses literally reared its ugly head at a very early age. I couldn’t have been more than three when a “lovely velvet smocked dress” arrived as a gift from one of my mother’s friends. “Just try it,” my mom cajoled. I acquiesced enough to let her place the dreaded garment over my head. The contorted face that emerged from the neck hole disturbed her so much that the devil-made garment was immediately ripped off me. My face relaxed and the dress photos became a thing of the past. Soon after there was nary a ruffle nor a hint of pink in sight.

I was then allowed to dress in little shirts with stripes and collars and matching running shorts or T-shirts, button-downs, and even sweater vests (think, like, total ‘80s). When I played dress-up, I wore my father’s clothes. I required only a button-down shirt and a vest—maybe a baseball cap to top it off. I liked to play dress-up so much that eventually I received my own little red tie that I would don to feel dapper. It was pre-tied and went around my neck with an elastic band. I wore that tie as much as possible until the elastic wore out.

By the time I was in school my mom and I had arrived at a uniform that was acceptable to us both. No more girly surprises for me and no more wretched faces for my mom. My uniform consisted of a striped rugby shirt and matching sweatpants. I had multiple sets in a range of primary colors. When I had worn out or outgrown one set, we could just open to the corresponding pages in the latest Lands’ End catalogue (in the boys’ section no less!) and pick out my new colors and sizes. On any given day, I could be seen sporting green sweatpants with a green and black striped rugby shirt or perhaps blue sweatpants with a blue and red rugby shirt or perhaps even red sweatpants with a red and yellow top! Oh, I was so eclectic and fashion-forward!

In these clothes, I could pass for a real boy (Pinocchio, eat your heart out!). But looking like a real boy had its own problems. The image I presented to strangers was of a little boy, but my name was clearly that of a little girl. Strangers—waiters, teachers, shopkeepers—all thought I was a boy…until they heard my name. Then sometimes they’d ask for confirmation. Their eyes surely didn’t deceive them. I did. They judged this book by its cover, and were oh so right, but technically oh so wrong.

My hairstyle added to this confusion. In kindergarten and early elementary school, it was cut short. I paid very little attention to it. It was there on my head, but it didn’t look girly, and it existed easily without being combed or brushed. It was perfect!

Those awful mandatory school pictures where each kid is individually posed sitting at a desk reveal the evolution of my hair. It’s boy-short in the styling of Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory in kindergarten and then gets progressively longer, so that by second grade I have become Kenneth Parcell of 30 Rock. By third grade it is longer still, mostly in the back. I won’t make you read between the lines. I was unwittingly cultivating a mullet (eeek and oops!). All I knew was that longer hair meant girl and shorter meant boy. My unconscious solution, I guess, was to have both. The mullet marked the beginning of gender conformity. It was the perfect allegory for me: I needed to be part male to match how I felt on the inside, but part female to match my anatomy outside and my name. Unfortunately, as most of you know, mullets should never be the solution. Sigh, I was trying so hard to live on both sides of the fence.

Biology though dictated that I was on the girls’ team whether I liked it or not. If I were to be truly accepted, I would need to act…and look like…a girl person, and this was going to require a conscious and concerted effort. In the early years, I had tried to dress in a way that would help me disappear into the woodwork. But those rugby shirts and sweatpants made me look like a nerdy little boy. Unfortunately, I realize now that particular outfit highlighted the fact that I was the weird girl who looked like a boy. I clearly had not yet learned the subtle art of tailoring the appropriate suit. And now, I had to; the school outlawed sweatpants! How could they?!? Change was coming, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

(concluded January 17)

The Class of the Bar

          I was in a hole-in-the-wall, neighborhood bar. I had never been there before. I don’t often walk in its direction, but on this day, I was passing it, saw empty seats at the bar, and stopped in. It almost immediately put me in a bad mood. At the biergarten where I often go, I not surprisingly get beer. This place had liquor bottles behind the bartender, and after toying with the notion of wine, I said, “Give me some sort of Scotch.” The barkeep held up a bottle and said “Oban?” I replied, “It doesn’t have to be that good.” He then rattled off the names of three more single malts. Expensive Scotch is all they had. I took the Oban, but I was annoyed. I became more annoyed when I found that it cost $20. I silently vowed that this would be my only visit to the nameless-to-me place.

          I sipped my drink and took out my book. I both wanted to be out of there and to get my money’s worth. As my carefully-measured-to-make-sure-you-will-not-get-too-much-even-though-it-cost-two-sawbucks (does anyone say “sawbuck” anymore?) drink was nearing its end, a woman, gesturing at the stool on my right, asked “Is anyone sitting here?” I replied that it was open, and she and another woman sat down. I only glanced at them. The one nearer me was perhaps late 30s and the other a few years younger.

          I returned to my Scarlett Thomas novel. The two women talked to each other. I did not hear their conversation, but after a few minutes, the one nearer me, Kris, I soon found out, said, “That’s a nice jacket,” and gingerly rolled some of my sleeve’s fabric between her fingers. I thanked her, not knowing what to make of the compliment. The jacket is an old Harris tweed. I bought it fifteen years ago in a secondhand store. She went on to say that a tweed was always good. “You can wear it everywhere. You can wear it to a wedding.”

          We three started chatting. I asked what they did. The older one was the athletic director and soccer coach at a famous private school in Brooklyn, and the other was a PE teacher and lacrosse coach there. I joked, but I am not sure they realized that I was joking, that they must make a lot of money considering how much tuition their school charged. They quickly rejoined that they did not get paid much and not nearly what public school teachers get.

          I found out the older one was from Rhode Island, and she smilingly confirmed that everyone in the state not only knew each other but that almost everybody was her uncle. She told me that she went to Assumption College, and then added, “In Massachusetts.” The other one, Margaret or Maggie, said she was from Connecticut but was quick to add, “Northern Connecticut.” She had gone to Marquette University, and she had enjoyed Milwaukee.

          One of them asked about the tee shirt I had on under the Harris tweed. It had a circle on the chest with “73” on it. I said, “It’s the best number.” Margaret wanted to know why. I said that not only was 73 a prime number, its two digits are prime numbers, reversing the digits yields another prime number, and that 73 was the 21st prime number, and 21 was the product of 7 and 3. I said that I had learned this from Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who went on to give other noteworthy aspects of the number 73 that I no longer remembered. (I was surprised when I learned that 73 has its own Wikipedia page. Do all numbers?) Margaret said that she did not know what a prime number was; Kris rolled her eyes and said, “A Marquette education.” (I was surprised about the professed ignorance since I thought that prime numbers were a basic part of education and a simple concept. A few days later, however, I was still reading the mystery/romantic/math book PopCo that I had in the bar, and I found the narrator’s grandfather saying, “No one knows very much about how primes behave, that’s the problem. Problems to do with primes have puzzled the greatest mathematicians.” Ok. They aren’t that basic and simple.)

          Margaret said, “You must be smart.” I repeated that my 73 knowledge came from The Big Bang Theory. Kris said, “I figured 73 could not mean your age.” I replied, “It once was my age.” I was flattered that she said, “No way. I thought that you were 60 or something.” But my ego did not stay inflated long, for Kris soon labeled me “cute.” The inflection for this cute was not one announced about a boy band member or a young man or woman spotted in a bar or even for a puppy or baby. No, this inflected “cute” was the kind used in conjunction with describing your great grandpa.

(continued December 6)