When my younger sister was six years old, her Sunday School teacher asked all the kids to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. My sister drew a bowl of soup.
“So do you want to be a cook?” her teacher asked, politely.
“No,” she responded. “I want to be a cocktail waitress.”
My sister hated most of the hand-me-downs that made up our wardrobe. They came from girls and boys alike, an endless sea of cousins and family friends we only vaguely remembered, but they were all equally hideous in her eyes. She wanted frilly, short, Easter-fluffy dresses. The few she had, she tore immediately, running wild through the woods behind our house. That was her at her core: she wanted to wear ridiculously over-the-top clothing, and play in the mud.
I never minded the hand-me-downs. It somehow never occurred to me that I looked like anything at all, no matter what I wore. Well into adolescence, I maintained an aggressively childlike ignorance of the fact that the world saw me and, in seeing me, judged me. I clad myself in a protective exoskeleton of not-thinking-about-it. And so I quite happily wore elastic-waist boys’ jeans, and polo shirts of indeterminate gender from the 80s, and all manner of other clothing, the type of clothing that exists despite the fact that no one ever seems to buy it – that simply shows up in giant garbage bags, sorted by size and season, from some other family, who themselves received it in much the same way some years earlier.
I knew, on some level, that I should want to be pretty; that it should bother me that I wasn’t. It didn’t, though, and I didn’t know why. I was what my friend’s parents had always called a tomboy, and were now beginning to call – in whispers, this time — a “late bloomer.” My parents, perhaps sensing something in me, had read me Leo the Late Bloomer endlessly, over the years of my childhood, and I’d taken the lesson to heart, but as I got older and older, I wondered: what if I not only never bloom – what if I don’t want to? As we plodded through middle school, the other girls worked their way through trends and makeup tutorials, shrugging into baby tees and flared jeans and casually flicking “the Rachel” out of their eyes. I saw them, but somehow couldn’t really believe that they – anyone – saw me. They were characters on a TV show, and I was the viewer, invisible in my Wranglers and over-dried rugby shirts. I was an untouchable.
The boots changed all of that.
They came like all the other clothing: in a black garbage bag filled with cast-offs from everyone in our family who was taller than me (which, sadly, was a greater quantity than “everyone in our family who was older than me”). I knew I would wear it all, as I always did. But there was a weight to this bag, as I pawed through it, a weight that suggested something besides just clothes. I removed layer after layer like an archaeologist, unearthing faded polo shirts, girls’ jeans that had been in style years earlier, various “of the moment” flash-fashion items like crushed-velvet blouses and faux-layered shirts. And then, at the bottom, there they were: a pair of oxblood-red Doc Marten boots.
Shoes were not usually part of the hand-me-down process in our family. We weren’t poverty-stricken; we wore hand-me-downs because my parents considered it good sense, but they bought our shoes new. These boots were still-new, virtually unworn. Whoever had owned them originally had for some reason not appreciated them, and whoever had gotten to the bag before me had made the same incomprehensible error in judgment. I couldn’t understand how they’d made it all the way to me, without someone else wearing the shape of their own arches into the insole.
I put them on. They fit. They fit in every way I had never known that other clothing didn’t. They fit in the way that frilly, muddy dresses fit my sister; the way that a black cocktail dress fit Audrey Hepburn; the way that pillbox hats fit Jackie Onassis. They were iconic – for me, at least. I wore them to school the next day, and I bloomed. I knew what I wanted to look like, now, and I knew where to start. I knew what I wanted womanhood to feel like, for me, or at least I started to know.
“Camp clothes” were different, somehow. At camp, everyone dressed like me. Nestled in the woods on a lake, surrounded only by other girls, everyone dressed in the faded t-shirts and unflattering denim shorts that made up the bulk of my actual wardrobe. Laundry was sent out twice a month, all your clothing washed together and dried on high: no accommodation for trendy blouses or delicate fabrics. Between the laundry and the fact that we all ended each day covered in mud, dirt, and sweat, no one cared about their clothes. For those few weeks of each year, I fit in. With my clothing finally invisible, I was seen.
We had our rock, hidden and overlooking the lake, where we couldn’t even hear anyone else’s voices. We’d first found it while scavenging around in the woods one afternoon and were terrified someone else would do the same, and so we guarded it with the fierce, tribal dedication of childhood, which still lingered somewhere in us even as we aged into adolescence. Every few days, we busied ourselves trying to mask the hint of a foot-path that led to it, ripping out ferns and using them to cover the path — a veritable fern massacre — and driving fallen branches upright into the dirt in the hope that they look like small trees. We re-hid the path every week or so, every summer, for several years.
We waded into the lake even though it was off-limits, a place we were forbidden to go without supervision. We waded in for any reason we could dredge up: to cool down, to save a caterpillar, to race leaves on the surface of the water. We waded in, really, because it was forbidden. Our clothes soaked through and it felt like an afterthought; we would rush back to the dining hall for dinner and sit, damp and secret, in our chairs while the counselors pretended not to know what was obvious.
We shared clothes, because when they were all faded and over-stretched and unimportant, there was no reason not to. We all dressed in the mornings from what seemed like a communal jumble of basic t-shirts and mismatched socks. Everyone’s clothing seemed as transient as my hand-me-downs, all simply passing from one body to the next on an as-needed basis. We felt more important than clothes, more important than how we looked in them, out there under the dark canopy of the woods where no one from the real world could see us.
I cried as my parents drove me home in August — I always did — and my mother asked me what I was saddest about leaving behind, what I’d miss most.
“Holding hands,” I said, surprising even myself. My parents politely pretended not to see what was becoming obvious.
No one held hands at school. At camp, girls walked arm-in-arm down dirt paths. Touch was a part of life in the woods, somehow, in a way it wasn’t anywhere else. We gently put band-aids on each other’s limbs; sprawled side-by-side on bunk beds while reading comic books; held hands while walking, just to feel our fingers lace comfortably together. But I knew that even if the same girls existed out in the real world, out in my real world, they wouldn’t hold hands there. I knew that as surely as I knew that they were all going home to fresh back-to-school wardrobes, eagerly-anticipated new jeans and blouses, clothes they would definitely consider more important than the life of a caterpillar. Those girls and I, we only really existed on the rock.
“Do you want new clothes for school?” my mother asked, helpfully, as I tried to explain all of this to her through my tears. My father, like Leo the Late Bloomer’s, remained silent, trying not to worry.
“No,” I responded, but I couldn’t figure out how to say what it was that I wanted, so I just cried even harder. She took me to The Gap anyway, later that week, and I dutifully picked out my first brand-new pair of brand-name jeans. I smiled as she paid for them, to show her how much I appreciated the gesture, but secretly I wondered what they would feel like with lake-water seeping up the hem, forbidden and heavy.
High school: “I like your boots,” she said as we filed into the classroom. It was the late 90s, and so they were a dark current of red stomping through a sea of black platform Steve Madden slip-ons. She had an eyebrow ring and an endless rotation of t-shirts from her various short-lived garage bands; she played the drums. She continued on past my chair and stood in the back at the timpanis, and all through the evening rehearsal I could feel her behind me, her eyes on my back across the vast expanse of the brass and woodwinds.
“I got my license,” she said, when rehearsal was over. “I mean, I can drive you home sometime if you want. I think I live around the corner from you. Your mom doesn’t have to come get you, is what I mean.”
I couldn’t speak, and I didn’t know why.
“I’m Alex,” I finally said.
“I know,” she said. Her calloused hands shook, just a tiny bit, and she jammed them casually into the pockets of her men’s cargo pants, then took them back out again.
“Here’s my phone number,” she said, passing a piece of paper to me. Our fingers touched.
“Okay,” I said, and took another step forwards, towards the woman I suddenly understood I was, and wanted to be.
Mid-Twenties: I can weld, I’ve got what can only be referred to as a “professional network,” and I have my own one-bedroom. My breasts are bigger, and more important, than all these accomplishments, and so many others. All the others, it seems. Even though I wear loose t-shirts and androgynous button-downs, I’m one of a tiny handful of women in the building on any given day at work, and it’s impossible to feel bigger than my clothing, than how my body looks in my clothing. I’m “sweetheart,” I’m “cute,” I’m “nice.” I’m angry, and tired. It’s business as usual.
One day, I read a list of upcoming tasks to a middle-aged co-worker, and he reaches out and tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear. I keep talking, without even pausing to let myself wonder, “What the fuck?” knowing somehow that if I pause, it’s a loss for me, a win for him, and though this makes no sense at all I know it’s true. Another day, a young co-worker who lobs witty banter back and forth with me joins me at coffee break, and announces, “You’re work-cute. You know what I mean. Nobody looks twice on the first day of the project, but after three weeks in a work site full of men, you start turning heads: you’re work-cute.” “You’re not,” I respond.
“You do a good job,” a co-worker I consider one of the friendlier ones says one day, “but no woman does any job as well as she makes babies. That’s something men can’t do. You’re young, you have time, but don’t get so wrapped up in all this career stuff that you forget that.” I smile, dumbly, as though he’s given me a compliment; I’m so unaccustomed to people admitting that I can do anything better than a man that it almost feels like one. But our amicable work banter is over, I know. I make sure of that.
“I have touch issues,” I announce, loudly, the first time anybody on a new project touches me in any way – a hand on the shoulder, a tap, a “helpful” assist on a ladder. “I hate being touched, so please don’t.” It’s the tactic that works most reliably, so it’s the tactic I use, that refuge of the weak: “It’s not you, it’s me.” I think of all the permutations of the word, and what they mean: touched; touching; untouchable. I think of all the things that have touched my heart in my life and wonder what it means, to go through my life fabricating “touch issues” just to avoid having to draw the line, in black and white, for men who refuse to draw it themselves.
It is not the woman I want to be. I know that, suddenly and unequivocally. I want to be the girl who existed on the rock. I want to be the girl who nervously dialed a phone number twice and hung up, but still took that crucial deep breath and dialed it that crucial third time. I want to be the girl who unearthed a pair of unloved combat boots, and saw herself for the first time. I want to be the woman that girl knew she would become.
I take lunch at my desk, and I find them online: my boots. New ones, of course; the old ones long gone now. But the same, still there, just waiting to be dug up, from the endless layers of the internet, from the dark bottom of a garbage bag, from the depths of a forbidden lake. Just like the woman who walked towards what she wanted rather than away from it.
“I like those boots,” the voice, kind and knowing, comes over my shoulder, a glance while passing by.
I turn and make eye contact. “So do I.”
We smile, genuinely, at each other. An oasis, a haven: we’ve found it, suddenly, without even trying, and both of us know it. I take a breath, and a step forward.
edited by rachel.