I am an only child. However, I had the distinct pleasure of being raised with boy cousins. Many women I know who lived through this scenario talk about how they used to wish they had another girl to play with. They felt out of place with the boys in the family. I, on the other hand, was my youngest cousin’s detachable tail.
Jamie was about five years older than I was. When I look back at this at 30, I realize he was indeed a gracious boy for letting his annoying little girl cousin trail behind him. Wherever Jamie went, I followed. He didn’t baby me either. He knew I was determined to keep up with him and he made sure I figured things out myself.
When he sneaked out auntie’s car to take it offroad, you can bet I was riding shotgun. Pinching some rum from auntie’s bar? I was the one holding the juice box it was hidden in.
The River Incident
Of all my adventures with Jamie, the one that stands out most to me was the day we went exploring on the property behind the house. I’m sure the land belonged to someone and I’m not at all sure it was our family. So really, we were probably just trespassing. Trespassers or no, there was a river to cross and I couldn’t swim.
Jamie was a tall boy and hopped across with ease. He stood on the other side and coaxed me across, thinking I would hop on over like he did. But then, he realized that for the first time, I had real fear of this river. I begged him to come get me and carry me across, but he refused. He was adamant that I should at least try, and if need be, he would come in to get me.
Well, try I did. Sure enough, I landed flat on my behind into the water and screamed for bloody murder. I was certain I was being swept away and that Jamie would never reach me and I was going to drown. Turns out the water was about knee-deep and I was just fine. Jamie stood on the other side guffawing so hard, he couldn’t stand straight.
Finally, I stood up and got out of the water. Jamie was still laughing his head off. I was furious. He insisted that I return to auntie’s restaurant, where Mom worked, so I could change. But, I was sure going to show this boy that I did not need him to baby me now after he had left me to drown.
I stomped right on ahead of him until he caught up with me. When we finally made it back to the restaurant, Mom was furious. Unfortunately for my poor, dear mother — who was one of those girls raised with boys and just wanted another girl to play tea party with — this was a common occurrence.
She would send me off in pretty dresses, which I loved, and I would come home looking like a ragdoll from the dumpster with a proud smile on my face.
The Tree Incident
One day, Mom decided to take me way into the countryside to visit an old friend of hers. As is always the case, I grew bored at this adult gathering where people talked about adult things. So, I asked to go outside.
I had seen several trees in the yard that were perfect for climbing and I could not wait to make my way onto one of them in this pretty little skirt Mom had dressed me in. Off I went and found the perfect one with wonderfully spread branches.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the tree had big thorns, — or, as we would say in Jamaica, macka! I learned the hard way when halfway up the tree, I slipped and fell. Instead of falling backward out of the tree, I somehow slid down the side.
Recognizing the thorns, I put my hands up to cover my face, so the back of my forearms took the beating. They were ripped open by the thorns and bleeding. Like any wise Jamaican child, my concern was not the injury. My concern was that I was going to be in a lot of trouble for climbing that tree in the first place.
So, I hurried back to the house, straightened my skirt and sat quietly on the veranda — front porch, for the Americans. Mom eventually came out and was ready to go. Unbeknownst to me, my injuries had been betraying me the whole time, leaving a long trail of thick, red blood on the white tiles while I looked up innocently at the ceiling.
Mom was too distraught to punish me this time. She thought I was in pain, but I think the anticipation of a well-deserved whoop-ass had long ago diluted that. I did not get the ass-whooping, but I don’t think I was as fond of climbing trees after that incident.
Fast-Forward to 30s
When my teenage years rolled around, large breasts, wide hips, long legs, and a small waist killed my relationships with boys. My female best friend laughed about how my cleavage created an “angle of depression” with boys even when it was covered. I hated my body and wore a lot of boys’ clothes to hide it. I did my dress-ups in private away from masculine eyes.
I fared no differently in college. Big T-shirts and skinny jeans were so much my chosen uniform that a lot of people confessed to me in my final year that they thought I was gay. It wasn’t until my early-mid 20s that I reconnected with men. By then, they had matured, knew how to maintain eye contact and were finally fun for hiking, paddle boarding and the like.
When I moved to America, I had expected to carry that on here. But, a few months into marriage, I realized that the spirit of adventure had been a facade to win me over. And, here I was, trapped by a born-again couch potato who wanted me to feel grateful for going on “hikes” five minutes up the street.
Within the first year, it dawned on me that if I was to reclaim my adventurous life, I would have to take those adventures alone or with friends. I started off with friends, but all of last year, I spent 100% of my adventure time alone. I enjoyed every second of it, though, for the first time, even Dad joined Mom with the fretting.
Those solo travel adventures were not my first, but they were certainly the most dangerous I had taken alone. Since then, that preference for my own company and my own time has remained a consistent vein in my life. And recently, my grandfather has been along to witness it.
A few years ago, my mother reconnected with her father. After years of building a relationship over the phone, she decided to invite him to visit us. He is now getting to know me for the first time at 30 years old.
Last week, I took my bike out for a spin to test a phone mount a client had sent me. Halfway up the street, I realized the bike was making strange sounds and that the front tire was going flat. I brought it back to the house, opened the garage door and started looking for the bicycle pump.
I was maybe about a third of the way into re-inflating the tires when I heard Mom’s front door open. “That’s just how she is!” I could hear her saying. “That’s how we were raised.”
Out comes my grandfather with a strange look on his face, while Mom watched from the doorway. “You could have called me, you know?” he said. “I know about bikes too. I could help!”
I laughed. I had heard those words before, in one form or another, from almost every man I’ve ever known. “I didn’t assume you don’t,” I told him. “I’m just … used to doing stuff myself.”
He got down on the concrete beside me, took the pump and got to work. After a while, he started to shake his head. “It’s one thing about you,” he began, “you’re really like a man. You never ask for help. You just … do things.”
Phone Call From a Friend
A few days later, one of my friends called to catch up with me on life and my cross-country plans. I explained that the California magic carpet had been ripped out from right under me and why, but that I was still moving anyway.“When do you leave?” she asked me. I gave her the date.
“You have the exact date planned?” she shrieked. “How are you going across? Are you driving?”“Yup,” I answered. “Me and puss!” “By yourself? Aren’t you scared?” she asked me.
“I was, at first,” I admitted. “But, I also think it’s a little ironic that women always think we need a man to protect us when more than half the time, that’s who we need protection from.”
She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Honestly, you’re my Woman-Spiration. I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
So, am I a 30-year-old tomboy? In today’s gender-fluid world, that’s a heavy term to throw around. Masculinity in women is quickly attributed to butch-lesbian aspirations, of which I have none. I am not romantically interested in women and I don’t identify as a man. I think I’m just a feminist who has been forced throughout life to fill the gaps incompetent men leave behind and who still thinks boys shouldn’t get to have all the fun.
But, I do thank Jamie for standing on the other side of the river and letting me fall in. I thank all the trees that I fell out of. All the times I fell off of bikes and tore my ankles and knees open. The men who took me hiking and taught me to paddleboard and snorkel and shoot a gun and drive a stickshift — all before I ever set foot in America.
I wouldn’t be who I am today without them. All of them. And, though I may never get to say those words to their faces, if they ever see me strolling about in the world, I hope they know they helped me get there.