I was on a bender. So high on cotton candy and funnel cakes that I got a tiger tattoo on my arm. It was my aunt’s company picnic, where I joined all the other normal kids in running around with a half-chewed hot dog in my mouth. A little dirtbag maniac, giggling my head off until I tripped and landed in a heap at a woman’s feet.
I didn’t even know this lady, but when she asked how old I was, I proudly told her, “I’m nine.” She squeezed my shoulder like she was Danny Tanner teaching one of the girls a very valuable lesson and then told me to tell my mom to be patient. “You’ll grow out of it.”
This incorrigible suburban busybody, waiting for her son to get out of the moonbounce so he could grow up to resent her, went on to suggest that my very conscious decision to dress like a boy — multicolored jamz, British Knights high tops, and a filthy Georgetown baseball hat — was just a phase. That someday I’d get over it and become a real girl.
I was still young enough to fear adults. I hadn’t quite developed the “fuck you” reflex that now comes so naturally. I curled my lip at her and decided against telling my mom (who thought I was the coolest kid in the world) that I would “grow out of it.”
I knew this lady was wrong. And not just because she was a meddlesome idiot with a moderate to large FUPA. Because I was a Conochan. Because my mom would flex her muscles and shout, “No wimpy women in this house!” Because my dad coached my softball team and we played Tinkertoys on the weekends. Because I was as strong-headed then as I am now, and I wasn’t going to let this cud-chewing wench predict the future.
Oh, and also because I grew up as a little boy. No, not like that. There’s no Caster Semenya testosterone issue. I never had a vestigial penis or anything.
I just… well… let me start at the beginning.
Like any grade schooler siblings, my sister and I hated each other with a fire that burned like the chorus of a Johnny Cash song. We couldn’t fight our inborn similarities — our blonde hair and blue eyes, good posture, buck teeth, and excellence in spelling — but we sure could fight about everything else. So we did. Our relationship was either an exercise in sadism or forgiveness because even though we hated each other, we started each day with no memory of our previous offenses, and would attempt not only to coexist, but to play. As friends. Because proximity and boredom are very strong forces when you’re a kid.
Things escalated quickly, from annoying to teasing to threatening stuffed animals to wrestling holds. I wouldn’t ever tell on my sister, but I would yell just loud enough for my mom to bark down the stairs, “JILLIAN! Knock it off!” I also learned a neat trick, extending and adding syllables like “Owww-UHHHHHH” to ensure that the enforcer had heard my despair. I would smirk, but I forgot about the long game. When you’re the youngest, you never really win.
I never stood a chance. Jillian had me bested in every category: she was older, taller, bigger, and smarter. She knew every button and pushed them with no remorse.
When I was just a wee lass, Jillian would get the neighborhood kids to play a game called “Where’s Kelaine?” in which they would pretend they couldn’t see or hear me. It shared none of the fun, prizes, or geographical quizzery of the similarly-titled “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” because the answer was always “Guys, I’m right HERE!” followed by foot stomping, screaming, and ultimately in the obnoxious personality and neon wardrobe that I carry forward today.
Jillian tried to foil all my plans, and I hers. She was the Larry to my Magic. The Dr. Claw to my Inspector Gadget. The Kelsey Ellsbury to my unrequited crush on Jacoby Ellsbury.
Jillian. More rival than sister. I had to get away.
Meet The Softball Team.
My dad’s softball team played all summer long. Games every Sunday, followed by a smash up pool party with all the kids and wives and coolers full of domestic beer. For the parents, Sunday softball parties meant eating Sabrett hot dogs (obviously with Gulden’s mustard), yelling at the kids not to run in the pool area, and jam sessions led by Tony’s acoustic guitar and an enthusiastic sing-along to “I Like Beer!” (It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that my parents were genuinely, actually, truly fucking cool.) For us kids, it meant drinking Capri Suns, also eating Sabrett hot dogs, splashing WWF figurines (it was still WWF back then) into the deep end of the pool, getting splinters, climbing “the booby trap tree,” and singing “…it makes me a jolly good felloooooow!”
Fourteen mangy, suntanned kids spanning ten years and seven towns. The Santiagos, Caseys, DePotos, Fischers, McCullions, Gonnellos, and Conochans. Every Sunday, we’d dangle unsafely on jungle gyms, make “potions” in beer bottles, or fall off scooters and bleed everywhere. Life was fucking awesome.
There were so many of us that an interesting social hierarchy developed.
Members: Big Jeff.
Determined by being the oldest, loudest, and strongest.
Responsibilities: getting yelled at for not watching out for whoever got injured, teaching Kelaine how to fish, riding Kelaine on your pegs, buying and distributing gum to all The Kids.
Benefits: Big Jeff Always Goes First.
The Little Kids
Members: Shawn, Ryan, Lindsay, Steven.
The Little Kids were determined by asking, “Kelaine, how old are you?” and when I’d proudly declare, “Nine,” the eldest present male (usually Big Jeff) would announce “Ok, no one under nine allowed.” The Little Kids could be easily identified by their whining, tattletale-ing, and tear-stained faces. Which is exactly why they were banned in the first place. When banned from our reindeer games, the Little Kids safely played house or searched for butterflies. (Don’t worry, The Little Kids got their revenge by all growing up to be devastatingly good-looking.)
Members: Lauren, Melissa, Jillian.
Because of successful marketing and that idiot woman at my aunt’s company picnic, girls prefer indoor activities like French braiding their hair, reading The Babysitter’s Club, putting stickers in SLAM books, doing cart wheels, and pretending that Lindsay was their baby. If this sounds like an unfair characterization of what The Girls did, it’s because I’m mostly guessing here. I really don’t know what The Girls did because (a) I was trying to get as far away from my sister as possible and (b) because I was busy assimilating into a much better group. May I introduce you to…
Members: Mike, Doug, Danny, Mikey, Brian, and Kelaine.
A bunch of monkeys constantly climbing trees, yelling, and throwing shit. We played basketball and manhunt and “doggies.” We picked our noses and farted because it was funny. We splashed and got poison ivy and took our shirts off when we got hot.
Yes, even me.
One of the Boys
When I say I was one of the boys, I fucking mean it, dude. Again, not biologically. (I realize I’m not making this easier on myself. This is how rumors start. By the way, did you decide — because you are lazy, confused, or judgmental — that I’m a lesbian? Because that’s also how rumors start.) Stay with me.
On our annual multi-family vacation to Long Beach Island, my sister shared a room with my cousin Lauren. They were the girls. They brought their accessories in tidy Caboodles, met cute boys at Hartland Mini Golf, and caused car accidents because they were pretty (attention: this actually happened).
Brian, Danny, and I buried each other in sand and wasted $20 in quarters trying to beat Revolution X, a video game that somehow included machine guns and Aerosmith. They didn’t wag their penises and tell me “No Girls Allowed.” They loved me. We were best friends. So I slept in the boys’ room because I was just like them.
Sure, I had girl parts, but I didn’t really see that as relevant except in choosing an appropriate bathing suit. I sorted myself by where I truly belonged. I knew who I was. I was one of the boys.
I still am.
This isn’t some schtick I use to confuse men into thinking they should date me before I plug in my curling iron, complain about my hips, and sprinkle People Magazine all over their apartment. It’s not something I do to be cute or accessible. This is all I got.
I genuinely like sports. I love sweating. I’ve worn makeup exactly twice, and neither was by choice (face paint, however, I’ve worn numerous times — with panache!). I carry a fraying neon yellow duffle bag, and I blush with embarrassment when people refer to it as a purse. I don’t own shirts that could be called “blouses,” and when I wear heels, I look more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a torn Achilles tendon than a delicate flower.
In other words, I stink at this game.
I never bothered learning how to be a girl in the classical sense. I was too busy playing football, catching turtles, and attending awesomely sweaty birthday parties at Grand Slam USA. To give that up so I could learn how to accessorize, moisturize, and sympathize seemed pointless and socially bland. So I didn’t bother.
As I look back at my incident with that dumpy narwhal of a woman, I think I understand what she was trying to say. I think she saw my plucky androgyny and thought that puberty would change things. But she didn’t quite understand what I know so well.
Hating your sister is a phase. Wearing shorts every day is a phase. And resenting your boobs (when you had them) so much that you only wear sports bras until after grad school when you finally realize how a shirt is supposed to fit — is a very long, socially stunting phase.
Phases pass. But you can’t outgrow who you are.