Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where the boys are

It isn’t that I grew up alone in a world of boys and men. It isn’t that I didn’t have a mother – I did; a lovely, warm, home-made-cookies-on-a-rainy-day kind of mother. It isn’t that I didn’t have girlfriends – I did; the best girlfriends in the world, willing to write stories and have sleepovers and share my childhood cynicisms with me. It isn’t that I necessarily favoured sports over dress-up, or Tonka trucks over dolls, or Transformers over My Little Pony.

But, I was an odd kid.

Though I did have my girlfriends, they were long-distance confidantes, having moved away when I was very small. For the most part, on my street and in my school, I made friends with the boys. There were endless games of street hockey, baseball, Capture the Flag and Night-time Hide and Seek. There were summer-long bike rides to pizza places and baseball diamonds and air-conditioned drugstores where we could escape the heat to buy banana popsicles and ride home with sticky fingers. There were toy guns aplenty, GI Joes hanging from wires in various staged set-ups throughout our house and front yard, and various hockey nets, baseball mitts, skateboards and tennis balls thrust hastily on the front yard. There was always mischief to be had, tall tales to be told of what antics which boys had gotten into that day; and always, always the riveting cry of “CAR!” breezing along from the street to the tree-lined suburban backyards, beckoning any child who hadn’t yet made the trek over to that day’s street game.

And maybe I remember it all a little too nostalgically; in reality I know that I watched more of those street games than participated. And I know that the boys and I didn't quite share the same set of priorities. For instance, when I played with GI Joes I threw their weapons aside and made Scarlett and Snake Eyes get married. While my two brothers were choosing sides in games, one would always be the good guy, one would always be the bad, and I always elected to be “normal!" I never wanted to sink anyone's battleship, I made all my Lego and Fisher Price Little People go to church and school, and I had all my stuffed animals sit around in a semi-circle for story-time.

Still, I picked camouflage over pink; let my dog chew Barbie’s feet off so she’d be shorter than the other girls, and when my stuffed animals were done having stories read to them I would take my doll’s crib, flip it over and turn it into a prison so they could experience a lesson in survival.

While my girlfriends became doe-eyed for New Kids on the Block, I worshipped Ernie Whitt and crushed on Pat Borders. When the girls in my class were braiding each other’s hair, I was either watching them, baffled, or more likely, over at my friend Mikey’s house playing Excitebike on Nintendo. On separate occasions when I was pretty young, I asked my mom if I could get a boy’s hair cut (she said no), if I could try peeing standing up (again, no) and if I could wear swimming trunks instead of a girl’s one-piece (still, no). And it isn’t ever that I wanted to be a boy – I thought penises were bizarre and unattractive attachments – it’s just that very simply, I wanted to be treated the same as one. And even as a little girl, it felt like an eternal struggle.

For a while it had been okay. I was singled out but I was generally still included. And then an age hit and everyone seemed to notice I was a girl, and an imaginary line was drawn and I suddenly – and very quickly – had to learn how to make friendship bracelets, apply eye-shadow and figure out what purpose jewelry served. I was kicked out of the boys club. One of my best friends asked me to be his girlfriend, and in an instant I didn’t know how to act, or who to be. Confused by our swift change of roles, I chose to abandon him altogether, and felt for a long time that losing that friendship was one of my biggest regrets – and one of my biggest resentments.

And the girlfriends came and went; we got our periods and taught each other what we thought sex was and all realized that we wanted the boys to like us – that way. But I always couldn’t help but notice the crowd of boys in the corner, talking and laughing and sharing a secret camaraderie; a top-secret dialect that I no longer spoke.

The initial awkwardness of pubescent transitions led way to an adolescence that allowed young men and women to be friends again, but was punctuated by hormonal outbursts and angst, angst, angst. I liked being friends with boys again, but when they turned the tables on me, got dreamy-eyed in my presence and stumbled over their speech, I didn’t know how to react, and so I took offence. I knew the way that boys conversed with other boys. I had an idea of the vile, dirty jokes, and the crude comments that were made. I knew enough to know that they didn’t act this way around us – at least not the girls they liked. They changed. Became unrecognizable. It was kind of like we just appeared to them one day. They didn’t know who we were or where we’d come from; we just arrived from another planet, beautiful and interesting, but foreign and frightening. And it isn’t to say that I myself never liked boys who left me tongue-tied and nervous; it’s just that I had always known where the boys were; they on the other hand seemed to have forgotten I had ever existed previous to that very moment, or that I’d ever walked among them.

Eventually I got over my grievances and appreciated that it might be okay to have a man get nervous in my presence. I learned the tricks of the dating trade. I learned how to flirt, how to tease, what to say and when to say it. I learned that it wasn’t all that difficult. You play the game, you play your part, and then you go home to your respective teams and dish out the particulars. At the end of the day, your girlfriends are your home base, and though it’s not such a bad thing to have them there, if you’re someone like me, you can’t help but wonder what the boys are up to.

Eventually, dating becomes less of a sport and more of a pain in the arse, and you might even find yourself zeroing in on one person who makes you nervous – a single person to pair up with and share adulthood cynicisms with. And though it’s a wonderful, beautiful breath of fresh air – an incredible and fun new way of looking at male-female relating, I’m still learning that it comes with its own sets of challenges. Namely, boys sometimes still want to be boys.

What I’ve learned: there are times when a guy just wants to be with his guy friends. They may not be heading off to drink brandy, smoke cigars and discuss politics in the old boy’s parlours anymore, but they still want to get away. And maybe, to some women, it seems natural – it’s an opportunity for these ladies to retreat to their old home base; to go have umbrella-laden martinis with their former roommates and college girlfriends – their favourite people they gave up when they got involved with a boy. To me, it’s still a lesson in relating. Because I still want to talk sports, but my girlfriends aren’t always the most willing when it comes to discussing Zach Greinke’s sick slider or how the Yankees’ overindulgent new stadium may end up being their own curse (ok, maybe I’m not interested in all sports, just baseball). I grew up with brothers and little boy friends. On some days, guys still feel like my homebase - it’s just hard sometimes to recognize that they don’t see me the same way.

Some days, I forget that anything’s changed and I think I can follow them on their bikes into the sunset, wherever they’re headed. But I also know that some days, it’s just a guy thing, and I’m not invited. And I’ll admit that at times, I’ve let it get the best of me – an old familiar feeling recurs, and I feel like the door of my childhood has been slammed in my face, asking me to grow up and recognize my societal role (whatever that is).

But then I exhale, realize it’s not the 1950s, and know that we all need different things to make us happy. And I also need to realize that often, the lure is stronger than the reality – because I've also learned that sometimes all guys really do when they’re alone is tell dirty jokes, size up the waitress’s attributes and feel comfortable enough to pass gas, which, let’s face it, I can do without. Besides, it occurs to me that while I can hold my own in a group full of men anytime, sometimes I need to be alone with other women, too – there is another comaraderie there that is unique, and wonderful, and one that I now can't live without - and maybe it's time I spent less time worrying about what I’m excluded from, and more time delighting in those things I choose to include.