Fiction Finalist Margaret DeRosia

Jan 27, 2018 by

Fiction Finalist Margaret DeRosia

Tomboyfriends

 
Kathy Schmitzer told me I was going to die. I should have known better, but I was seven. I still believed my best friend wouldn’t lie. She knew everything. She’d told me so herself.

What knots one child to another? Usually, proximity. When I started second grade in 1976, Kathy and I sat next to each other in class. We talked, colored and discovered we were neighbors.

I grew up in a six-street suburban subdivision. It curled in on itself with streets named after national parks, vast Western landscapes completely foreign to the rust-belt Midwest. My town was busy shrinking in 1976. Automotive plants shuttering one by one. Re-routing to union-free Texas, Louisiana, Mexico. Massive concrete factories left behind, bound by barbed-wire in a community that devolved from 90,000 to 70,000 by 1990.

My mother, grandfather and I lived in a modest house in that subdivision, on a token stretch of low-income housing that we’d later learn, after eight years of backyard gardens, sat on toxic landfill. The families here were “non-traditional”: single moms working multiple jobs to afford housing near the few good public schools left.

Freight trains rattled through our backyard at all hours. Over time, I slept through the night and waved at conductors in the day. I lived on the proverbial right side of the tracks, albeit precariously. The wrong side was clear, close and easy to cross.

Kathy wasn’t on the wrong side either. That would’ve been too simple a story. Geography, like friendship, is always more complicated. Borders are where worlds converge as well as divide.

Her house sat next to my subdivision, on a dead-end road with more potholes than pavement. The city paved over streets like hers to make subdivisions like mine. Kathy’s family of two parents, three brothers, a sister and a wild dog named Snowball lived in a rambling nineteenth-century farmhouse. Its exterior was a shade past dilapidated gray and long past the charm of weather-worn white. It didn’t overlook anything but a vast, fallow field of goldenrod, clover and burst milkweed.

To see her, I’d sneak through a gap between houses three doors down. Then I’d wade down a narrow path that grew more defined in the months I walked it. Sneaking could serve as foreshadowing, but for seven year-olds, life flings itself at you – people, places, actions, rules – and you react. Children are chaos theory in action, a strange alchemy of becoming that could easily slide in other directions. Perhaps for children, nothing is truly inevitable.

*

Another girl my age, Terry, lived in one of the houses I’d sneak past. A few summers later, she’d replace Kathy as my best friend.

I have a snapshot of Terry and me in the faded July sun, arms slung around each other as we wear the exact same JC Penney gray-blue rompers dotted with daisies. We donned them all summer. The elastic cut into our child thighs and left a jagged red impression that chafed with sunburn. Our sole protection against the sun was to burn early, then douse with baby oil.

There are no photos of Kathy and me. No matching rompers. We never went to the mall, library, park or kids’ six-pin at Stardust Bowling. Kathy didn’t shop, read, play or bowl. Instead, she’d talk. I’d listen.

Our friendship flourished not in spite but because of our differences. She was prematurely tall, stout and loud. I was little, soft-bellied and cried on Good Friday. Kathy could hold her own in a fight, and bragged, believably, that she had. I can count on one hand the times I saw her mother, who worked second shift. They had the same gruff voice, her mother’s marred by cigarettes and sarcasm. I couldn’t fathom the venom they shared.

*

At seven, I longed to be girly, but settled for middle of the road. At school, popular girls were girls and girly. Long feathered hair. The glint of rhinestones in pierced ears. An exuberant love of puppies, ski sweaters and boys named Brad.

Not once did Kathy wear a dress. Her one concession to femininity was her white frilly blouses buttoned tight to her neck and stuffed into outgrown Kmart jeans. She looked like she was in drag.

Naturally, that year I begged for a puffy-sleeved Gunny Sax for my birthday and, miraculously, got it. That shirt was my mother’s concession to the part of me that pined for pretty but never was.

Pretty wasn’t only about being a girl. More spectral was class. Certain girls had money. Kathy and I didn’t. Popular girls wore it in their giggly references to shopping “for fun” – oxymoronic to us. For working-class families, shopping is an ordeal. It’s done under duress, twice a year tops. Parents know. It’s the class struggle in action.

Meanwhile, Kathy’s large-framed, beige glasses sat on her face like a shield and a dare. I squinted at the chalkboard with worsening eyes, but Kathy made me think I could wear glasses and survive.

*

Kathy wasn’t my only tomboyfriend. First there was Bobby at age six. Then Kathy. Next, Anji, Terry, another Kathy, Lori, and another Terry. Rust-belt tomboys, it seems, only get two syllables.

I was a fledgling femme to quasi-baby butches. Our bond was chaste but heartfelt. No patient-doctor play, just play. Instead, they drew me out of my dreamy, bookish head into more physical worlds. Crossing overgrown meadows. Getting stung by bees. Carving initials into old, gnarled trees. Stomping barefoot in puddles after a storm.

Only after coming out as a lesbian two decades later did I parse the pattern. When Anji, for example, confessed that her full name was Jeanette, we both laughed, fully aware of the absurdity. That name didn’t fit.

Terry and I shared rompers, but that was the extent of our resemblance. Her fine blonde hair was cropped close like a boy, while I sported a then-trendy Dorothy Hamill ‘do with daisy barrettes. In the snapshot, I’m beaming, but Terry has a reserved, masculine smile, one I’d see on later lovers’ lips. A smile of someone keeping a secret and savoring its strength.

Bobby and I rarely talked, despite me being relentlessly verbal. Instead, we acted out scenes from the TV show, Emergency, and splashed in a kiddie pool. When Bobby brought me to her vacation bible camp, we ran screaming through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As punishment, I was placed alone in a dark closet for half an hour – no symbolism there.

Kathy was my least durable tomboyfriend, but none matched her swagger. She wasn’t rough around the edges. She was rough. Smart enough to spot the traps but not enough to avoid them. All my other friendships ended with a move, autoworker fathers driving south and pretending the pay cut didn’t matter. Kathy ended us herself.

These tomboyfriends telegraphed the woman I’d become. A woman who loves female masculinity. That wasn’t a paradox, not when I saw it every day. I thrilled to my friends’ hatred of dresses and love of fights.

They never got a fight from me. I didn’t like boys. I didn’t see boys. But I really liked tomboys – a liking that would morph into love. They were my safe space.

I hope I was safe for them, too. With me, they gained a girl they could be close to without raising suspicion. I was open to what they offered. I didn’t reject it or them as wrong. Daisy rompers eased their mothers’ fears.

*

Kathy and I were in Mrs. Ferguson’s class at Plainfield Elementary. Our teacher wore chunky costume jewelry and 70’s floral polyester pantsuits, bright orange and lime green confections. She had a trim pageboy and dark, gentle eyes. To me, she was classy.

Kathy disagreed. It pained me to see her sneer at Mrs. Ferguson, so I never participated. I would cross a neighbour’s yard, but not my teacher.

My favorite assignment was Diary. We’d write out a part of the preceding day in one sentence on a sheet of construction paper and draw a picture. At the end of the year, we stitched these entries into a proper book with a three-hole punch and yarn.

I looked forward to determining each day’s highlight and artistic choices, but Kathy found it stupid. Now I see why. She had few options to choose from, which the assignment rammed home with casual, daily cruelty. In contrast, I had plenty. That alone must have made her wish me dead. Whatever Kathy couldn’t get, she’d destroy. Looking for a life raft, she settled for driving a wedge.

The day our friendship ended wasn’t in my diary. I wasn’t above embarrassing people, including myself. For example, when my mom accompanied her boss, a psychiatrist, to an evening conference at which he was speaking and she was dictating, I wrote: “Last night, my mom went to the Holiday Inn with her boss.” I drew a picture of them walking into the hotel, my mother smiling in a plaid miniskirt and pumps. Parent-teacher conferences after were awkward.

Kathy never made it in my diary at all. She wasn’t a secret, but I didn’t know how to explain her in one sentence. It liberated and frightened me. Her love of breaking things. How she’d rip daisies up by the roots. I felt “cool” with her, but we weren’t.

It happened one lazy November afternoon. Kathy and I were sitting cross-legged and drawing (spit-balling diary, probably). We’d been sharing a pack of markers for half an hour when Kathy looked at me in horror. “You’ve got marker on your fingers!” she whispered and pointed at the numerous splotches of red and blue. “That means you’re going to die.”

She just laughed when I rubbed my index finger in shock. “Don’t bother. It won’t come out. Once it’s on, it just kills you.” She sighed as if inconvenienced and finished me off with a nod at the bright Crayola box. “That’s why they’re called permanent markers.”

I didn’t know what “permanent” meant, but it was bad. Death-bad. I remember floating to my feet and asking if I could go to the bathroom. As I walked down the hall, I grew woozy, sure I was feeling the ink slip beneath my skin into my blood.

Once in the bathroom, I raced to scrub everything off, but of course, Kathy was right. Shades of pink and turquoise remained.

So this was it, I thought, daredevil diarist that I was. (Was?) I went into a stall and perched on the toilet to wait for the inevitable. After all, I didn’t want to bother Mrs. Ferguson by dying in her class – and thus become the ultimate loser.

I don’t remember what came next, but Mrs. Ferguson must have found me. I must have explained I was dying and cried. The school called my mom, who came to take me home.

What I do remember is after. My mom holding me on her lap. Rocking me in the same chair in which she nursed me as a baby. Her hand soothing the back of my head on her shoulder. Her breath near my ear, telling me I was safe and alive.

*

Forty years later, my mom told me something else about that day. Normally mild-mannered, apparently she shouted “You should be ashamed!” at some children as we left. It was the 1970s. Random adults could yell at random children.

Only it wasn’t random. My mom knew. It was Kathy. She didn’t care about the why. She only wanted to make clear that petite, kind and feminine do not a pushover make.

I never spoke to Kathy again nor the others. Who did my tomboyfriends become? Where did they, like me, scatter? What part of us did they keep? Kathy taught me to avoid bonds of “you and me against the world.” She knew before me they would fail, and fail because I was too invested in the world I was supposed to be against.
 
 

Margaret DeRosia, a Digital Writer and Editor at the Canadian Film Centre, is a former dancer, a recovering academic who taught film and gender, and a woman who probably loves movies and cats far too much.

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