Writing by Zadie McCracken // photograph by Paolo Barretta
The boys on the bus are saying something heinous. They are wrestling and cuddling, limbs hooked together and held there, and they are making jokes. They are making jokes about rape. They are making jokes about sex. They are making jokes about sunscreen and food. They are making jokes about how I don’t belong here.
Billy* says women can’t act. “Expect Emma Watson, maybe,” he adds. We’re all laughing with disbelief in our eyes. It is funny! It is so funny! We have learnt not to listen to this, because Billy is dumb. Billy is deadweight. Billy is a misogynist. We have known this for years. This is not a moment of breakdown or realisation or reevaluation. This is the way it is, every day. And if I’m honest with myself, it’s not the misogyny which bothers me. The misogyny is just something about him I hide behind so I can be mad about something else, which is the way he locks eyes with Max when the bit is over, grabbing his hand with a secret, boyish smile. This is the thing they have, and I don’t get it. Billy looks at me with a glint in his too-blue eyes behind glasses he broke playing football and I turn my face away towards the corner of the room where the girls sit. My softness has always been clear. I’m a doll in a paper dress. I’m the prettiest girl here tonight. Never the loudest. Never going to be anything more than what’s expected from me.
Ryan* cursed me. He used to rub my shoulders and laugh with me in class. He used to critique feminism and tell us there was no such thing as rape culture. In October he assaulted my ex-girlfriend and a recording of him objectifying all the girls we knew was shared openly via a USB stick. In October I grew sick with the sound of his drunk voice talking about my friends. He called me a bitch and talked about my tits, but I brushed it off. Things were so extreme. I loved him so much. I met him on the stairs and I told him I could forgive him, and I could’ve; I wasn’t bothered by insults, though I should’ve been. I was bothered by separation. I was bothered by the way he kept pulling us apart, over and over again, denying me my masculinity and pretending we were alien to each other. Isolation is worse than any other kind of violence. It is poisonous ambiguity, prickish and wrong. I wanted him to tell me he wouldn’t do it anymore, to promise we would no longer be lonely from each other. I wanted him to say my body was a prison but I would get out. I wanted him to suggest we run away together. I wanted him to hold my head in his hands and whisper: You are not a girl before you are a person.
Ryan was ruinous in his pursuit of gender. All the boys I grew up with were. They bullied and destroyed. They created spaces in which no one, and especially not them, could ever be truly seen. For ten years no one could touch them, so they withered without tenderness, becoming angry and unsoft. Our love for them was made a joke. Our love was dog shit you scrape off your shoe and pennies you use on a washing machine in a foreign country. Our love never extended beyond platitudes and broken vows. Our love was little.
But so were we. We were twelve when we met. We were always children in the time we knew each other, and so everything could be forgiven. I laughed it off and let them kill the boy in me, the kid who stood with hands on hips, yelling. I drowned him myself in the river behind our school. Kids are very resilient. I was an expert in killing myself and coming back from the dead, anew. It wasn’t a big deal then. It wasn’t until I grew up that I learnt resentment.
At a party two weeks from my eighteenth, I touched Eric’s* keychain and his jeans. I looked at him after I kissed someone else. I grabbed his hand. He was tall, attractive, sweet. He had tattoos and wore blue jeans. He was older than me. We were both drunk. He cried over his ex-girlfriend and I wiped tears off his cheek. I wanted him to fuck me so bad. I wanted any man to fuck me. I could be special, then, I could be attractive. I could gain the experience all my friends had. I could confirm my suckle-sweet femininity, my potential as a sex object. I could confirm, too, in some roundabout fiction, the boy in me. I could connect the man inside of me with the man inside of him. Prove I was capable of loving a boy, and therefore too of being a boy. I would be inducted into the cult; I would be cute and pretty and angry and genderless. I would supersede those transactions. A hero.
He didn’t fuck me. He fucked the prettier girl, with her quiet voice and her quiet tits and her girl-spark. I have no girl-spark. Shucks.
Femaleness has always cut me out of circles I should’ve belonged to. My duality of personhood, my weird resistance of the gender binary, my vagina, my hair, my tits, my hips, and my female friendships reduced me to a vague dot on the outline of masculinity. For years I was the butt of the joke, the ugly lesbian. I never understood boys. I never tried. Men were inaccessible. Women were the only ones who could love or save me, because I was one. The charade Billy began when I was twelve played on long after his departure from my life, like a haunted carnival that returns each year with new horrors, new forms of torture, that beats the strong kid with her hands on her hips time and time again. And even if they proved to be mediocre, even if female lovers and friends betrayed or disappointed or failed me, I went back to them. They were better than men. They were all I needed. Boys could fall to the sidelines. They could be plot holes, rather than protagonists. I was so scared of needing them. They had betrayed me so often.
Now, waves crash in Jan Juc and we run towards them with our clothes on. Parties are brutal and fun. Social life is fundamental and prehistoric. We speak in tongues, long conversations, distinctions and similarities. We are women, men, every bit people. Everything changes as you grow up – I’m growing up. I’m growing up. I’m growing up, I love you. Humanhood is essential. Gender is a byline. There is a softness, a playfulness. There is strength, too. Everything happens at the same time. There is matter to madness. There is what I am. I live by a different mantra now. This is not then.
*names have been changed[share]