The first time my brother kicked another boy’s ass in defense of me was Halloween, 1988. That year, sporting my mom’s old powder blue, oversize plastic frames, the coke-bottle lenses knocked out so I wouldn’t go cross-eyed, I was dressed up as my very own mother. A tiny suit, a tiny briefcase, and tiny clickataclack heels for the Halloween parade. (Hey, remember when school was fun and you could wear your costume on Halloween? WTF happened to that!?). Apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson after the great homemade costume debacle of ’86, because here I was in ’88 failing once more to pick a crappy plastic She-Ra mask off the rack at K-Mart. I called myself Betty Business Woman (because we were fond of alliteration) and I was oh so proud of my getup. Other little girls (normal little girls) opted for Princesses and cats; I went as a single, working mom.
This was our first year at yet another new school, so the kids didn’t yet know me or my brother. So when the skinny little ginger brat in fifth grade snickered “check out Betty Business Bitch,” apparently also a fan of alliteration, he didn’t realize he was saying it three feet from Betty Business’s big brother. He figured that out a second later when his head hit the row of orange lockers and he found his feet leaving the ground.
“What did you just call my sister?” Whiskey snarled. Then he marched the kid over to me so he could apologize for taking my name in vain, or something. I remember the kid all sweaty and mumbly, wondering how his moment of cleverness could have gone so wrong, so quickly (been there, man).
I shrugged, pleased but confused. I’d been called worse by my brothers. I will admit I took a moment to consider how I could use this new-found power in my favor, possibly to take over the fourth grade. But Whiskey was a wildcard – I couldn’t count on him to stick around for a coup, especially not the way he was looking at ginger’s big sister.
It must be rough to be a brother, sworn to protect and defend your little sister, who somehow gets to be both a princess and a major pain in the ass. And, of course, the older I got, the trickier my honor became to defend. The first guy I ever made out with was treated, shortly thereafter, to a black eye by Smokey. Served him right for bragging to a girl’s brother – an act which shows a lack of brains as well as class. When he came to me with drugstore roses and words of apology I tried not to laugh. The same boys who’d convinced me to ride a red wagon down the steepest hill in Redwood City were suddenly my white knights? Over kissing with tongue. Death before dishonor, I guess.
Anyway, I never quite got the role of helpless princess down satisfactorily. I didn’t go crying to my brothers when boys were mean to me. I knew boys were jerks – I was half-raised by two of them. And I spent many a night hiding in shadows listening to my mom and her single friends. And watching television. I learned early that the best defense was a swift blow to a sensitive part and then running like hell. This works metaphorically as well. Actually, it works even BETTER metaphorically. Honestly, and don’t tell anyone I said so, but I think girls are a hell of a lot better prepared for the predictable villainy of boys than boys are for the careful maneuvers of a female. Guys are all blow to the head and a drag back to the cave but girls, oh the careful snares we leave and the pits we dig and the tripwires they never see coming! Even after we’re married! But it’s not cruelty – at least, I don’t think it’s meant to be. Maybe it’s the product of years of self-defense. We’re taught to protect ourselves and hide our assets and watch out for the bad boys and blah blah blah…but the truth is, we’re all on the hunt. It’s just a little trickier when you’re supposed to be the prey.
So, who teaches boys how to deal when it’s the other side playing catch and release? I never had the pleasure of throat punching a girl who broke my brother’s heart. I won’t say it never occurred to me, but I don’t suppose my brother would have thanked me had I tried.
And I’m glad no big sisters ever came after me for some of the shit I pulled. I did have an ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend write me a scathing letter about how I’d broken her poor boy’s heart. Several pages of angry (but very neat) cursive about my wicked heartlessness. He had been madly in love and I hadn’t and somehow that was entirely my fault. Girls exist to be loved – so how weird for me not to see that my life’s goal had been fulfilled! At 16! What kind of a female bails the second the guy finally whispers those three little words? Had I never seen a diamond commercial?
Did I mention that she had been his girlfriend while we were dating? I mean, you’d think you’d be safe dating a guy with a built-in backup plan. Nope. (I imagine you’re getting a sense for how difficult my honor was to defend, at this point). I had been trained to deal with a world of predatory boys who were only after “one thing.” Nobody told me how to deal with the boys I actually met, who turned out to be actual people. With, like, feelings. And independent story lines. It probably doesn’t help that boys all think their lives will go action movie at some point and girls are trapped in bad rom-coms. (Meanwhile I was raised on Mel Brooks.)
It’s just too bad that boys don’t get ice-cream and bubble baths, and shitty movies and endless sympathy hugs from sister-friends to get them through the rough break-ups they don’t see coming. Or do they? I’m honestly curious. I feel like, for girls, the heartbreak is such a normal, terrible thing. We’re princesses, so of course there are going to be dragons. But we have safety nets in place. There are accepted procedures – wine and chocolate and moping and it’s gross but it’s predictable. The only way out is through, right? What do boys do? Strippers and denial? Violent outbursts? Any way we can improve on those fine coping mechanisms? I have friends who have boys, so the information could come in handy. Especially if my girls are anything like me. Dating is a shitstorm and Pain is inevitable. I don’t need any future boys snapping because my girls don’t want to play a supporting role in their own life story.
So a few years back, when I was old enough to take care of myself on every level, a boy I was tracking stopped to ask my brother if he was cool with us getting serious. That’s some mad chauvinism couched in respect right there. My brother bought his friend a drink and wished him the very best of luck, but said that I could take care of myself.
Well, what he actually said was, “Good luck, man, but she’ll probably eat your soul.” I like to think he meant the other thing. Sometimes beer makes Whiskey too eloquent for his own safety.