Another item for my list of conflicting dualities: Iranian-American. Shy wild-child. Girlie tomboy.
The following is a meld of a couple posts from a year ago and further example of how this blog is my writing gym. I’ve derived chapters for my book here, and posts I’ve submitted elsewhere for publishing.
“You’re so feminine, I bet you drink from teacups holding out your pinky!” Mocked my sixth-grade friends as we walked to the playground, after a squeal of delight escaped from me at a cluster of birds.
Apparently birds and being “feminine” were uncool.
How could they call me feminine when my sneezes scared passersby and I once gave myself a black eye by taking off a shirt too roughly? It was another item for my list of conflicting dualities: Iranian-American. Shy wild-child. Girlie tomboy.
As a child of New York City, athleticism and outdoorsmanship weren’t encouraged in me. I was the second to last to be picked in ball games, right before the body-brace kid. Though I knew sneezing, brushing my hair and undressing were no delicate affairs, no other kid saw me as I saw myself: tough and boyish.
I exerted more muscle strength than necessary. My jaw was defined because I chewed food with purpose. Writing with a pencil toned my arm. When I scratched, I sometimes bled. I slammed on the keyboard like a tribal drum. I liked thunder, combat boots and black.
Years later, when I hit a piñata and it broke after two misses and one deft strike, I called my inborn intensity the rock ‘n’ roll in me. At a wrap party on the stage of a black-box theatre, I had studied the guy raising and lowering the blue donkey in time to the blindfolded victim’s haphazard swinging. I realized he did it with an unconscious rhythmic pattern, so when it was my turn to put on the blindfold, I was ready. I swung the bat three times like the sword of a dragon-slayer — whack, whack, crunch! — with such force that I warmed with shame even as I felt elation.
Out poured the cheap candy from the blue donkey’s gut and I sheepishly walked off the stage toward my boyfriend.
“Tell the truth, did I seem psychotic?” I whispered.
“No,” he shook his head with a big smile. “You were like Sid Vicious!” My shame flushed away and I beamed. Smashing the piñata was my rock ‘n’ roll moment.
During rock ‘n’ roll moments, I parallel parked into tight spots with two smooth moves, or caught errant breakables midair before splintery ends. But previously, I had been an alienated teen who understood herself differently than who others told her she was.
At the age of thirteen, it was time to prove I was tough when faced with a dire situation: I didn’t know how to swim. The parental duo in my life somehow hadn’t deemed it a necessary skill even though we were around the sea and pools every summer since I was born. They were content to let me splash around all manners of water with kiddie floaties. I was embarrassed at myself. By the summer of my thirteenth year, no way was the girl who sucked at kickball going to embark on teenagehood without knowing how to swim either.
As I was about to throw myself into the deep end of a pool, I called out to the adult on standby:
“Come save me if I drown. I’m trusting you!” He nodded. He had been a family friend since I was a baby.
I threw myself in and sure enough, I resurfaced while doggy paddling. It was annoyingly simple. But the annoyance at missing out on all those years of swimming was overshadowed by my smugness for finally tackling the deep end without a dumb plastic doughnut.
“I kicked it in the balls!” I marched around the pool and chanted. I figured the family friend could handle hearing “balls” from me now that I was thirteen.
It was true that I was the sort of girl who sat with my hands tidily folded on my lap and words like “balls” didn’t come out of me naturally. But underneath whatever “delicate” mannerisms people believed me to have, I was built as sturdily as I suspected. It would’ve done me well to channel it into sports, but I wouldn’t learn this until I moved to California as an adult, and by then, I was used to thinking of myself as unsporty.
Early after my move to the West Coast, I got on some sort of a board in Malibu. A boogie board. The Pacific was choppy enough as it was, but on this day, the wind was violent. The sky and sea were ash and pewter. No one was in the water except a few guys from our mixed group, and me. I figured if they could do it, I could do it.
This reasoning had failed me before in Central Park in New York, where boys, including my younger brother, set up a ramp over a garbage can and skated over it for a jump. If my kid bother could do it, I could do it, I had reasoned. So I had waited my turn, skated up the ramp, flew in the air, and landed right on my tailbone. I was not a good skater. I looked up to find all the boys staring at me like I was either ridiculous or admirable. Jackass or badass.
Years later, during the ashy day in Malibu, I was thrown around by the ocean. Pounded, really. It wasn’t a success, whatever I was supposed to manage with that board. But it didn’t occur to me to give up, so I stayed in even after the guys started leaving the water. Wave after wave crumbled over me. Great walls of menace catapulted me below for as long as they pleased, force-feeding me briny wrath. I’d come up for maybe thirty seconds, and then another wave would crash over my head.
The last guy left the water when it began to rain. The sea was black. It swirled against my body with harsh bits of shell. I struggled to fight its force and make my way back to shore, only slightly improved from that doggy-paddling late-swimmer. Eventually I made it to safety by keeping mainly underwater to evade the savagery of the waves.
When I finally got out of the water, my bikini needed adjusting back to the places it was meant to cover before I was jostled around. I was a shivering mess of goose pimples, runny-nose and salt-entangled hair. My ribs were scratched and speckling blood. But my eyes were wide with excitement. My physical discomfort was something faint and obscure. Instead, I was hyper-aware of my stopless grin.
The boys were looking at me with the same “jackass or badass” look of awe. The girls were wrapped in sweaters and not looking at me.
I was born to do this stuff, I thought, forgetting as usual, that my enthusiasm exceeded my skill. But once I’d gotten a taste of adrenaline, I knew it was tastier than most things in life. I was a rocker with no band, a daredevil without agility, a warrior with no battle.
It felt good.
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