The cruelest words in the language are 'What if?'
Author's note: Before anyone asks, no this is not exactly autobiographical, though some elements are. This story is dedicated to the memories of Rebecca Anne Stewart, cherished by her friends. It was reading the many tributes to Becky that got me to thinking about regrets; mine at the time being that I did not get to know such a wonderful person. Wanda.
Can't Stop Thinking
by Wanda Cunningham
What if I had made different choices in my life? What if, at the age of four when I discovered that it mattered what sex a person was perceived to be--what if I had insisted then that I was a girl? What if I had made it stick?
I know my parents, they were good people who never hurt anyone intentionally. I wouldn't have been beaten, I wouldn't have been threatened. I might have been ordered to go along with the idea that I was a boy but if I had stuck to my guns, they would have eventually given in.
We moved several times when I was growing up, more than once a distance of thousands of miles; it would have been easy enough with my parents acquiescence to slip from one gender role to another. They both liked little girls, they would have been happy to have a daughter.
When my cousin painted my nails, I was four and she was eight; right then was the crux of the matter. My nails were bright pink and beautiful, I was so happy. My cousin had been surprised at my request and she had asked my mother if it were all right. Mom had been amused and said she didn't suppose it would do any harm.
I proudly showed my nails to my father when he came home. He got mildly angry about it. He didn't shout, he didn't even scold me but I could tell he didn't like it and didn't want me to do that again. He told my mom that he feared that if she let me do such things I would grow up to be a sissy. I asked what a sissy was, and Mom said a sissy is a boy who acts like a girl.
My dad left then, he didn't want to hear that. I think he felt inadequate to the task of straightening out my ideas of gender. He went over to my uncle's house where they sat on the fenders of their 1946 Fords and drank beer and smoked cigarettes and talked about wives and children and work.
That's why I think I could have had my own way if I had known that it would work. Dad couldn't and wouldn't use physical punishment on me and Mom would not do so for actions that had not harmed others or put myself in danger. They were both logical fatalists, also. What could not be changed must be endured.
If I had refused to conform, they would have endured.
I can't stop thinking about it.
I remember that while my dad was gone down the dusty country lane to his brother's house, I asked my mom what the difference between a boy and a girl was. She asked me if I had seen any of my cousins naked and I had--baby cousins, at least. One little girl cousin had lived with us for six months while her mother recovered from hepatitis. She was a baby and I had helped mom change diapers and give her baths, mostly by just handing things up as needed. But I had seen; little girls had no 'deal' as mom called it--they had a 'monkey' instead.
And because of that, little girls could have their nails painted pretty colors and little boys were not supposed to do that. Little girls could grow up to be mommies and little boys to be daddies. I didn't think I could ever grow up to be a daddy, but being a mommy, that would have been a good thing to be.
Daddies were strong and did work outside the house and fixed stuff and knew things about places and things I had never seen. Mommies were soft and kind and stayed with you when you felt sick and cooked and knew everthing about anything that could be found at home or in the yard or in the fields. Mostly, daddies didn't cry--though my daddy would if he thought I or my mom had been hurt. Mommies would cry with you, or hold you or make jokes so you wouldn't cry.
I told my mother that I would rather grow up to be a mommy and she said that I couldn't because I had been born a boy. She said that when she was little, she had wanted to do the more interesting and fun things that boys got to do like ride horses and go to the fields with the men. She would get into trouble, trying to do things like her brothers and boy cousins did instead of staying home with her sisters. Her father had told her, many times she said, that if she didn't stop acting like a boy that he would take her to the blacksmith and have her made into a boy. She told me that it was years before she figured out that blacksmiths could not really do that.
If they could do that, I would say, let's go get them to make me into a girl, I told her.
She laughed and said, don't let your daddy hear you say that, it would hurt his feelings.
Then she smiled and said, you were supposed to be a girl. All the old women said that I was carrying a girl when I was pregnant with you. Even the doctors said you would be a girl. We didn't even have a boy name picked out for you when you were born, she told me. And then she told me the girl's name they had picked for me and that is the name I use now and it is my legal name. It's the one I had before I was born.
Maybe I really am a girl, I suggested.
No, you're a boy, mom said.
I didn't cry, though it hurt so bad I thought that maybe I would die from it.
I didn't cry even when she cleaned the nail polish off my fingers. I can't ever have my nails painted again? I asked. Well, not when your daddy is going to come home and see it, I guess, she said. But my cousin would not do it again I found out later, she had gotten in trouble with her daddy and her brothers had laughed at her. My mom would not paint her nails and had no nail polish, nor even any makeup because she was a very strict churchgoer. She had one lipstick that she used only when we would go to the show which since it was already sinful it didn't matter if she wore lipstick.
I should have cried. I should have refused to eat until they let me be a girl. It would have worked, getting me to eat was a big problem when I was little and sick all the time. My parents could not stand to see me hungry and too sick to eat. They would drive into the next town over, a bigger place with stores that stayed open late--just to get me something they thought I would eat. Peanut butter, or ham that didn't have fat on it; once it was watermelon instead of the mushmelon everyone else ate. I didn't like mushmelon beause it smelled like peaches, and I didn't like peaches because they tasted like apricots and I didn't like apricots because they tasted and smelled like cat turds. I'm not sure how I thought I knew that and it's better not to think about it, even now.
I was a tiny tyrant, I could have had my way if I had been wise enough and strong enough.
My mother didn't fight fair either. Don't mention any of this to your daddy again, she said. It would just hurt his feelings. My father--who cried when my tummy ached--who took me up on the roof of construction sites and trusted me to sit still and not cause trouble or get into danger--I would do anything not to hurt my daddy's feelings. I would even eat beets, though only once.
But I can't stop thinking.
Note: TG under-13 nail-polish rated-G