Up the block from where I stood, I saw a trio of them, looking at me, talking quietly back and forth. I was maybe six or seven, and alone in my hometown of McDonald. I was playing on the other side of the block behind my house, on the sidewalk. Alone. And there were three of them. They were older, maybe eleven or even twelve, taller and bigger than me, even though I was portly, and of course they were white. I kept playing, hoping they would go away, but all the fun had gone out of setting up the best battle of G.I Joes the world had ever seen.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I had seen one. Clearly the leader of the group, lift a hand and point it at me. The others nodded their heads and started walking towards me. All thoughts of vanquishing Commander Cobra and Destro flew from my mind as I started gathering up my legions into the carrying case. It wasn’t the official G.I. Joe carrying case, it was a cheap plastic carrying case from my mom’s work, where they made plastic goods. She would have said, ‘Why spend money on something when we could get something just as good for free?’ She didn’t understand. Parents never did. I promised myself I would never do anything like that to my own children (time has proven that to be an absolute lie).
Then it happened. One of them yelled to me, “Hey Kid! Stop!” They had seen me getting ready to flee. I dropped the orange Stylette plastic container, grabbed the most important action figure, Snake Eyes, of course, and turned to run. There were three of them, I could never protect myself against three of them. Hell, I could barely handle one. I knew exactly what they wanted, I had heard about what they did to kids like me, alone and unprotected. Those three girls wanted to have sex with me, and I had to get away!
It was only a few feet from the sidewalk to the steps that would lead me to the imagined safety of the alley behind my backyard, where I could disappear like Batman, but those girls had the gangly, awkward legs of colts and carried them to me before I was halfway up. To be fair, I best resembled a Mr. Potato head, in that I was chunky, brown, and no legs or neck to speak of.
The leader of the pack reached the bottom of the stairs and said, “Hey, kid! Wait!” I turned on the steps, fell on my fat, yet totally flat ass, and yelled out, “NOOOO! I DON’T WANT TO!!!!” while covering my neck and my belly. I clearly had no idea what sex was, it was a mystery whispered in the halls of elementary school and in the backyards of friends. I just knew it involved something called “necking” and sticking things in each other’s belly buttons. I guessed fingers, but there were darker rumors passed around by the kids I wasn’t allowed to hang around with, which made them even more interesting.
The three girls looked confused and out of breath, and the lead girl looked at me and said, “Aren’t you Keykay’s kid?” Keykay was the name people called my dad. That or Henry. It was his Americanized name, because Western Pennsylvanian tongues had a hard time with Enrique.
“Yes,” I said warily. Clearly they had been following me, planning for days on sexing me. Diabolical. I scooted up one step. “Why?”
“We know him!” Said one of the other girls. “He’s rad, and so funny.”
“Yeah, and we thought you had to be his. You look just like him.” Said the lead girl, again. To be fair, my father, my brother, and myself were the entire Hispanic population in McDonald at the time. I couldn’t be anyone else’s. He was the custodian at the school, and was the drummer in the local rock band. He would have been the biggest rock star we had if it wasn’t for the fact that McDonald produced a few NFL coaches, Marty Shottenheimer and Marvin Lewis. That information still boggles my mind.
“We saw you by yourself and, (here it came, their evil plan. Oh, my poor bellybutton) we wanted to walk you home.”
Wait. What? They didn’t want to sex with me. Luckily, I was so shocked by this revelation I didn’t voice my surprise. “Oh. I thought you were going to… hurt me.”
The girls all laughed, but not in a mean way. It was kind of nice, actually. Like they thought I was cute. “No silly. Why would we want to hurt you? We just wanted to make sure you got home.”
The girls helped me pick up my G.I. Joes, one girl was wearing a corduroy overall minidress and I could see a lot of her legs as she knelt down to help me and I remember thinking for a second that I was stupid for being so scared of sexing them. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. Some part of me, somewhere just south of my navel, wondered what her bellybutton looked like. I shook my head in disgust. Girls were gross, and she was thin so it was probably an outie. Too weird for me.
They asked where I lived and I pointed up the stairs that led to my backyard. “Just up there.” I said.
They laughed that tinkling laugh again, then the oldest took my hand (that naval voice didn’t say anything, but just Whoo-ed like Nature Boy Ric Flair) and led me to my house, about fifty feet away, and saw me safely to my back porch. I watched them turn to go, chatting amongst themselves, and I felt a little sad, but mostly relieved I escaped a sexing.
The next day, I told one of my friends about the encounter, and he laughed so hard at me, nothing like those tinkling laughs of the girl. He made fun of me for being afraid of a couple of girls who wanted to have sex with me, that a real man would have had sex with all three, no matter how tired his fingers got (He didn’t know what sex was either). I stuck around for another twenty minutes and then went home, shame burning in my mind and on my brown cheeks.
I didn’t tell anyone about my near-sex experience until maybe twenty years later when that memory came up in my mind, unbidden and I just started laughing about it. I told my wife and she laughed too, that same sort of laugh those girls had all those years ago, light and tinkling. The laugh that said I was cute, because it was a cute story, and funny. But it was a story I felt shame about for so long I had forgotten it, because I didn’t understand what it meant to be a man. For so long it was having sex with three women, or as many women as I could. It was being manly and muscular, taking on bad guys or the corporate world. It was acting cool around the ladies. It was never, ever crying or showing emotion other than humor, anger, or steely determination. Maybe joy, occasionally. The rules for boys were explicit, and unwavering. Even more so for Black and Brown boys. We had to be cooler and tougher, because that’s how we were portrayed. It was all of this and many of the things I was told it was by my friends and by television, and even by G.I Joes.
But now I know what it means to me a man. It is being tough, and cool, but not always in a muscular way. It’s doing things you might not want to do for your family. It’s being strong, except when you can’t be, and then letting other people be strong for you, and to be okay with that. It’s being goofy and funny, playing dress up with your kids, painting your nails, and wrestling imaginary monsters out of closets. It’s being okay with who and what you are, and being willing to reinvent yourself for you or your family, because change is inevitable. And it is never, ever making another man feeling like they are less because they’re a man in another way than you, unless they’re hurting someone, then you need to call them out. That might be the toughest thing of all.
I wish I could have given that round little kid some of this knowledge. I mean, after all “Knowledge is Half the Battle!” It would have saved me so much heartache and pain growing up as an insecure Brown boy. It would have saved me from so many embarrassing exchanges with other males, and with women. This world wasn’t kind to young men, or women then. We were given un-realistic expectations and when we didn’t meet those, we weren’t given the mental or emotional equipment to deal with it. So many of us turned to rage and anger, some to abuse, and very few of us learned to express it.
It has gotten better. I have gotten better, because of what I went through, not in spite of it. I learned what it was to be a man, but not until much later. I learned with the help of my wife, my parents, my writing, and a lot of other good friends who were as weird and awkward as I was.
Maybe, just maybe, if I saw that little boy again, I wouldn’t tell him all of that. But instead to take more chances and worry less about embarrassing himself. And to, for God’s sake, stop listening to his friends about sex. But that yes, outies are definitely weird.