A childhood friend’s mother, dead from cancer since we were teenagers, smiles at me from the front door of an unfamiliar house. “It’s good to see you,” she says. “You’ve let go of all your protective camouflage from back then, especially that fake hair.” With the clarity that comes in dreams I understand she refers to things I did subconsciously as a child to protect myself from a wrath I often saw unleashed upon others. “Yeah, well…” I scuff my shoe on the gravel drive and flash her a wry smile. “Turns out there was a lot about my life back then that was fake.”
I was a child who hated dresses yet wore my tangled hair so long it reached the base of my back. I performed in ballet recitals yet despised the makeup they required be plastered on my face. I loved glitter and stuffed animals and motorcycles and wooden swords. I was a princess, but I was one who could rescue herself.
I did not call myself a tomboy, though. The word fit awkwardly in my mouth even then, much like choir dresses and pink tights fit awkwardly on my chubby form. It’s only in adulthood that I understand why I hesitated to claim the label: tomboy implied girl. To be a tomboy meant to be a girl who liked boy things, who was unlike ‘normal’ girls but who still, beneath the mud and the bruises, was a girl. And I was not a girl.
I was frozen pond water. Freshly mown grass. Coyotes howling in the night. I was wild blackberries and ripe apples and library books, wood smoke and Play-Doh and agates. I was thousands of memories and sensations squashed into the jelly bean-shaped body of a human child. They might have been consolidated under a given name and assigned gender but they never truly united into one concept. Yet what child worries about such things when they’re tromping through wetlands or howling at the moon?
I’ve since shed the last of the dresses and most of my hair, and with them all the labels I once accepted (albeit with resignation) as my default. Replacing them with nothing has left me freer than since I was that blissfully unaware child. Besides, I am still her, still mushrooms and noisy crows and pressed pennies; we just understand us better now.
You collected outcasts with hearts of broken glass, promising to fill their cracks with gold, but you made a grave mistake with me. My heart is not a fragile piece of blown glass – it is a chunk of volcanic glass, deep black obsidian, and when it breaks each shard is sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. I was never an outcast, you see. Outcasts yearn to be told their worth yet I inherently knew mine, for I had been born and tempered in the earth’s deep fires where no mere man may survive. I loved you, yes, and I believed in you, but I did not need you like the others and thus was the first to see through you when my rebellious edges drew your blood and then your anger. It’s no wonder you could never fix those broken hearts you hoarded; without one of your own, how could you know how the pieces fit together?
I could spend long nights wondering what I might have been like, had I never known you, but why? Nature, nurture, free will, fate, they all flatten to two dimensions with the passage of time. Maybe without you I would have grown up seeing the world through human eyes, and I would not have this hungry, restless thing caged inside me. But maybe without you I would have died in those woods, or reverted to something beyond feral, and I would not have even the harsh manners you imposed on me with tooth and claw. For better or worse, we are misfits together, lone wolves eeking out an existence on the fringes between the ones who reject us and the ones who hunt us.