I don’t remember how old I was. Eight or nine possibly. Some details didn’t stick in this guilty memory. But I remember the restaurant. It was a cheap pizza chain. I remember the smell of heat-lamp pizza and wilted pink salad with ranch. I remember the pleasure of seeing greasy wadded up paper napkins on empty beige plates next to half-drunk red plastic cups. Empty plates meant full tummies. And of course I remember distinctly the stained industrial carpet under the tables and chairs where I crouched and hid in mortification.
Blue collar establishments like this were our regular dinner destinations when I was a kid. They had cheap food and arcade games, and the dirty looks from paying customers aimed at parents of loud and messy children were limited because everyone here had loud and messy children. It was a community of worn out parents at the end of a long week. But all I cared about was gorging myself on all-I-could eat pizza and then begging for quarters to feed into the stack of machines at the back: Gumballs? Bouncy balls? Tattoos? The possibilities were endless in this magical place.
I don’t remember who I was with. I assume my family was there, but I can’t quite recall. Maybe it was a congratulatory trip with my Girl Scout troop for earning another badge. Or maybe we were out with my cousins. I know there were lots of kids around, I can remember that much. We were fed and wild, running around like we owned the place while moms and dads enjoyed much needed grown-up talk.
I needed to go to the bathroom. Or we were playing around in the bathroom. I don’t remember. Sometimes kids just like to run in and out of places, you know? So whatever the reason, I was running headlong into the bathroom, pushing through the swinging door only to run into a body on the other side. A child’s body, like mine, but a little bigger. Stockier. Taller. I looked up at him and realized it was a him. And I was instantly sure he was in the wrong place.
And because I was eight or nine or however old, and because at that time and for a long time after I was in a constant state of desperation for approval from my friends, and because I had been running around and my adrenaline was pumping, I felt like I had courage. And then I made a mistake.
Someone was rushing in after me. I turned to her, a friend, a cousin, someone I can’t remember, and I said, “Don’t come in here! There’s a boy in here!” And I was laughing at the awkwardness of it, certain it was funny. Wasn’t it funny for a boy to be in the girls’ bathroom? Wasn’t that weird? Shouldn’t we laugh about it together?
She did laugh, this friend of mine, whoever she was, and she turned around and ran out. And I turned back to the boy, the child around my age or a little older. I don’t know why I turned back instead of rushing out with whoever I was with. Did I want him to laugh with me? To realize his silly error and feign embarrassment and then come play with us? Did I want to be friends for the night? Or did I feel badly for laughing at him? Did I want to make sure he didn’t dislike me for actually embarrassing him? I don’t know. I don’t remember.
I stood there in the doorway looking at him, and I saw anger and disgust staring back at me. I was instantly shamed. He was hurting and I knew I had caused it. And then he took a step towards me and said angrily, “I’m a girl!”
And I realized he was definitely a girl. And I was stupid. I was a stupid little kid who didn’t know the difference between boys and girls. This girl had short hair, and was dressed like a boy, but she was most definitely still a girl. I didn’t learn the word androgyny until many years later, but I’m sure this was my first experience with non-normative gender expression.
Oh the shame of an eight or nine year old or however old I was! Oh the humiliation, the mortification! I couldn’t stand and face her another second, so I turned around and dove under a booth far away from the restroom door and I knelt in embarrassment. And as the tears brimmed I watched from beneath the table as she walked out of the restroom, her head held high. She met her parents at the door where they were waiting for her, and they all exited gracefully, seeming to possess more knowledge of the ways of the world than I could even imagine.
I sat there a long while under that table. That carpet was filthy. And I felt filthy.
Guilty memories like these are the ones that stick with you the longest I think. I still wonder about that girl. How often was she told she was in the wrong place? How often did she have to defend her identity to ignorant children and adults alike? Where is she now? Is she still a girl? Does she like women (like I sometimes do)? Is she confident? Is her hair still short? I desperately wish I knew her. I want to tell her I’m sorry for giving her an identity she didn’t claim. I want to tell her I’ve learned more things now, that I’m not as stupid as I was.
And then I look around at the life I’ve made for myself and the beautiful wonderful company of the friends I keep. And I realize I do know her in a way. And when I speak to these friends and listen to their stories of injustices wrought on their personhood, I earnestly repent of my sin and beg forgiveness and seek to do better today and everyday than I did on that day as an eight or nine year old or however old I was. I don’t remember.
– Shelby Lucas Slowey