During our family vacation to Utah, we stopped by an ancient lava bed. The road meandered through a dense conifer forest. The parking area was surrounded by pine trees which reached up to a blue sky. A short walk down a trail and suddenly the forest was replaced by miles of shattered volcanic igneous rock, the uniformity of the grey stone broken only by the green and red lichen growing thereon. A sign had some interesting facts, which I read as sister ran back and forth along the edge of the enormous pile of rock.
Almost every day, Father would take me to school on the back of his motorcycle. I wore the same helmet I used when riding off road. The ride was enjoyable to me, as Father was an excellent motorcyclist, and rode through the hills at an exhilarating speed. One day, just a block from school, I saw a woman walking up the concrete paved hill. She was wearing an impossibly short skirt and dark sunglasses. I thought she looked so cool.
In the pediatrician’s office, there were two arcade cabinets, which were free to us kids. Asteroids was my favorite. I looked forward to playing it every time I was in the waiting room. One day, the office was running behind and so no one came out to call my name and interrupt my game. An hour and a half later, I still had not lost even one life, and the score was a number so large I didn’t know whether it even had a name or not. I knew then, that if left unperturbed, I could earn any score I wished on that game. It was only a matter of opportunity, of time.
After lunch, our teacher would read us a story. I’m not sure if her goal was to settle us after thirty minutes of unsupervised anarchy, or if we were supposed to be learning how to follow a multi-chapter story over the course of several weeks. At this point however, I was reading an entire young reader novel each evening after homework, dinner, and chores. The first two novels she read to us were utterly forgettable to me, and when she began reading us the classic “Where the Red Fern Grows” I expected it to be no different. So as to avoid spoiling the story for any of you who have never read the book, and were thereby subsequently robbed of your childhood, I will skip over the many emotions I felt over the following weeks, as the story slowly unfolded, a few pages at a time each day after lunch. As the teacher read the final pages of the story, tears welled up in my eyes, and soon it became clear to me that there was no point in trying to hide it. The tears ran down my cheeks and splashed on my desk, my body shuddered with emotion, and as she closed the book, I collapsed on my desk and sobbed uncontrollably. Around the class, I could hear other girls start to cry along with me. The teacher and classroom sat uncomfortably for what must have been thirty minutes before the teacher softly asked “Would anyone like to talk about how they feel about this story?” The silence was only broken as the girl sitting in the far corner resumed her heartbroken sobbing.
By now, R2 and I had made a regular event of watching Robotech together every afternoon. We had become so obsessed with the new cartoon that every other distraction was entirely forgotten. For the first time in our young memories, neither of us had asked for any of the new G.I. Joe or Transformers toys. When I discovered that the cartoon was also airing at 6am, I started getting up at 530am so I could be dressed enough to watch it from the living room television while I ate my breakfast. Then I found that the Mexican channel we picked up from across the border was also airing the show, so I watched that as well. It was during that time that one afternoon I was with Mother on a shopping trip into El Cajon to the Long’s Drug Store on Jamacha boulevard. As she did her shopping, I wandered off to the toy isle and looked over the tired old toy selections of models, plastic army men, and assorted water pistols. As I perused the isle with a bit of boredom, I saw with a burst of excitement a meaningful selection of Robotech action figures. They were of a size and build that was comparable to the G.I. Joe figures I was accustomed to collecting with R2. Of course, there were figures available for the main characters, the men who were pilots of giant transformable aircraft, but much to my surprise, there were figures for several of the female characters as well. I reached to the back of the shelf and scanned through the peg full of toys, looking for the blonde woman with the red motorcycle. She was nowhere to be found. I did see the flight commander who was the main character’s love interest, wearing the space suit she wore in only one episode I could recall. The yellow piping was not flattering, but I selected her anyway. Her and her pilot boyfriend. It seemed a safe choice, and indeed no one ever questioned it. At home, I opened the toys and posed them to sit next to each other on my bed frame. Their weapons quickly went missing, but I didn’t notice because by then Rick and Lisa were too busy holding hands on my window sill, looking out to the horizon, or at least the nearest pepper tree.
There was a girl from my school who lived down the street from me. Her parents were friends of Mother, and evidently we were both smart, so we were expected to be natural friends, and were therefor formally introduced. K1 was taller than me and had long black hair that I thought must require hours of brushing. We were sitting in her tiny bedroom which she shared with a cage full of finches. They must have been a family favorite, because I can not recall a room which didn’t contain at least one pair of the tiny birds. K1 sat next to me on her bed as she slowly flipped through a binder filled with her sticker collection. Some were simple rainbows or hearts, while others contained whole novels full of fantasy imagery. She had an entire chapter dedicated to My Little Pony, which I did my best to feign disinterest in. We casually chatted about which books we were reading at the moment, and how much better third grade was than second. We gossiped about the school secretary’s daughters, and which of the boys were mean and which were nice. The tall, dark skinned boy, we agreed was the nicest. Then K1 showed me her mating pair of finches and their nest of tiny speckled eggs. Out the kitchen window, I could see Uncle E’s truck parked at the top of the hill. As I walked home, back up that hill, I thought about those beautiful eggs, how relaxed I felt talking with my new friend, the warmth of her bedroom, and how overall it was much easier to communicate with girls than with boys. I decided then that I needed a sticker collection of my own. Smiling, I walked past the Taboo gate as well as a barking golden retriever, and returned home to the cramped bedroom I shared with my two younger siblings.
It was like any other San Diego mid-summer, mid-afternoon. Most people were inside with the blinds drawn and a few oscillating fans gently stirring the air in some desperate attempt to not die of heat stroke. Oblivious to the temperatures as usual, I bounded down the hill to visit R2. He waved me into his living room excitedly, saying “You’ve got to see this new cartoon!” I was of course interested in seeing what had my friend so worked up, so I followed dutifully. The large television sat ensconced in it’s wooden case along the western wall of the dimly lit room. Behind me were two large windows, beyond which I could see my home through the sumac situated at the top of the hill. On the screen, I could see a dark forest and characters hiding in trees. They argued with each other in strained whispers, as a giant alien beast searched for them below. The thing had claws like a crab, and a single eye in it’s bulbous torso, which looked ominously to and fro. I looked dubiously to R2 and said “I’m not allowed to watch shows like this.” but he assured me “It’s not a bad show, trust me.” and so I sat on the floor and watched. There were three men, a woman, a young girl, and another who blurred gender lines more than I had ever experienced before. Later, I learned that he was a cross dresser. The character who grabbed my attention however, was the woman. Her blond hair, blue eyes, and fiery disposition were an unexpected combination for an afternoon cartoon show, but when she proved to be the most skillful motorcyclist of the group, I felt an immediate connection to her. Despite her tough exterior and eyes that belied a hidden pain, the woman was expressive and thoughtful. She spoke a single phrase into my soul, which echoes still: Being good at boy things doesn’t make you a boy.