Ken and I Were Dykes
by Elliot batTzedek
I was a tomboy. Easy to say, isn’t it? Easy to read. Cute, warm, spunky – all those condescending things said to me then and said about those like me now.
Which is just such belittling bullshit. I was not cute, I was not spunky. I was tough, I was struggling, I was honed, I was lonely. I was never girl enough to be any girl’s best friend, I was never included in girl things, but oh how I yearned for the girls to want me, and not just want but need me.
And need me they did. Someone had to fix the bike, rescue the kitten, deal with the bug, get the jack out of the drain, hold the frog, hold the door, hold the line in boys-vs-girls red rover. Someone had to hold the secrets about how much each she liked some boy, and I was safe, because everyone knew as simple fact that I would never try to take their precious boys from them. Simple fact—if the girls were to play their roles as girly, then they had to have someone playing the role of boy. But boys were icky. Boys were nasty. If you asked a boy to help he might, but then belittle you. Or he might not, and then belittle you anyway. But I – I was the perfect substitute. I could be called upon at any time to do anything, and be grateful for being asked, be eager to please, blush and be awkward at any “thanks,” and require nothing more than the pleasure of having been needed. I was like a fairy tale knight, appearing out of nowhere when the dragon loomed. Or, more accurately, I was their Ken doll dressed as a knight, pulled out from under the bed when the complicated soap opera required my presence, then dropped again when the plot went back to the main story—clothes and shoes and hair and make-up, cheerleading and “dates” which were only about the gossip and the getting ready.
Did Ken have his own desire? Did Ken have a cock? No, and no, but neither were necessary—he just needed to be not-a-girl and to not be anything like actual boys. Ken was a dyke, I was a dyke, I was Ken, Ken and I were dykes, protecting the girls’ heterosexuality from the dangerous flood of actual boys.
But don’t think that Ken or I wanted cocks. He was clearly frightened of G.I Joe, and I knew boys were thugs. Thugs who were my friends, my companions, my playmates, but would never let me be their peer. Not that I wanted to be their peer; I could never understand the logic of the violence that bound them. I could never understand smear-the-queer. I didn’t want to be a boy. I wanted to be the girl that girls liked in the ways they talked about liking boys. Not these actual boys, but pretend boys. And certainly not the actual me, not even in pretense.
What a tangled web that was! In a world of strictly enforced either/or, I lived stubbornly as a neither/nor. Girls were a total mystery to me, even though I was supposed to be one. And boys—well, at least I had someone to play with at a level I understood: bluster, determination, a driving need to make still things move and bring moving things to a halt, competition, hit them when they piss you off and then be friends again. What I didn’t have was their cockiness, their surety, their animal knowledge in its well-fitting skin.
And then I grew breasts and lost everything. Bras had appeared beneath the shirts of every other girl, but I had vowed publicly it would not happen to me. Such always is the fate of vows that hinge on biology, or that come in Act I of any drama—to be undone, exposed, pilloried. When my mother finally won that battle, and drug me through the humiliation of the fitting room as J.C. Penny’s, I tried to hide it under a baggy sweatshirt, but everyone noticed anyway, and came after me as only a pack on the scent of a wounded animal could do—the boys because they could, now that I’d become a girl, and the girls, for having dared the very resistance that called their cheerful acquiescence into question. It was only a AA cup training bra, but I knew, I knew, and my former companions who now reached to touch it knew, the point of that bra was not to train me, but to break me, and I broke.
Elliott batTzedek lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared recently in Poetica and Sinister Wisdom. Her essay "On Living with a Poem for 20 Years: Judy Grahn's 'A Woman is Talking to Death'" is forthcoming in Trivia. She works in a save-the-world nonprofit, and is in the MFA in poetry program at Drew University.